“It’s the Thought that Counts”

September 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

My title comes from the phrase we typically use when we receive a gift that we don’t really want: you may not care for fruitcake, but you appreciate it when your grandmother gives you one. You are responding to the fact that you received a gift, rather than the gift itself. Form, not content, takes primary importance here.

Some would extrapolate from this situation to say that form is all that matters in gift exchange. Without addressing this particular situation, Derrida makes essentially that claim in his thesis that time is the only true gift we can give–time in the abstract, after all, is pure form without content. A gift accompanied by even the thought of having given degenerates to a contract for Derrida, because any thought of the gift expects a response. The less we think about our gift, the more ethical our giving action. All you need is form, because the giver’s intention is the sole determinant of the ethical value of the gift.

I disagree, though, with Derrida’s emphasis on the giver’s intention; and moreover I don’t think this interpretation squares with my experience as a gift recipient. Intention is one component of moral action, but surely not the only one. If our intentions are good but the results of our action bad, we may feel ourselves to have acted morally–but we still wish we would have (could have) chosen differently. Similarly, though we must guard our intentions as givers carefully, I do not think it inevitable that by thinking carefully about what to give a person we will compromise our motives. As a recipient, I feel more loved when I get a gift which has been carefully selected to please me than when I have to say “It’s the thought that counts.” If the purpose of giving is to enrich a relationship–which I take to be the primary function of most individual gift exchange–form may remain primary, but content matters too.

(The question then becomes what Derrida thinks the purpose of giving to be. It looks pretty solipsistic to me, not centered on a relationship at all, but I’m not going to pursue that here.)

There are various way this argument could play out, and I’ll probably write more about form/content in the future, as it seems to be preoccupying me these days (Anyone with a better grasp of philosophy than this poor literary scholar, feel free to chime in.) But let me note one last thing. I first began contemplating “It’s the thought that counts” during the Lord’s Supper (as we call it in my tradition)–which is, in fact, the ultimate example of content mattering over form. It’s impossible to underestimate how that will have influenced my thinking, and my disagreement with Derrida.



Two Paragraphs from Marilynne Robinson

August 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Marilynne Robinson’s prose moves me like that of perhaps no other, even outside the context of its narrative–which is to say, I can pick up Gilead or Housekeeping (Home doesn’t have this power for me, though it’s great in its own way), and read selected passages almost as prose poems, for the sheer beauty of the language. Within their narratives, of course, these passages acquire even greater force. But I think they can stand alone. Which is why I’m going to suggest you read these, perhaps my two favorite paragraphs of Robinson, even if you don’t know her work. First, from Gilead:

I love the praire! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy,” but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.

To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded. I can’t help imagining that you will leave sooner or later, and it’s fine if you have done that, or you mean to do it. The whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love–I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence. (246-47)

I’m willing to concede that a decent measure of my love for that passage comes from my identification with its theological and geographical placement. I love small towns, the Midwest, and humble, hopeful theology, and the passage caters to all those tastes. But anyone would have to admit that the last line, at least, has an incredible haunting beauty all its own. Now my favorite passage from Housekeeping. The image is of a woods covered with frost:

Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water–peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our sense know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries. (152-53)

I could analyze the various things that are going on here metaphorically and philosophically–it’s a dense paragraph–but I’m not sure I can stand to do it that violence. I mean, just read it. If someday long in the future all that remained of Robinson’s work was a few fragments like these, as we have fragments of Sappho or Aeschalus, I believe they would draw study and praise as poems of great beauty.

There is such beauty in the world. Thanks to Marilynne Robinson for contributing.

The Protestant Derrida

August 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

A little theoretical and historical meandering, not entirely original, based on the gift theory reading I’ve been doing lately–because I haven’t talked about gifts on this blog in while:

I’m generally suspicious of simple historical narratives of changes within gift exchange practices. Like any good postmodern, I’ve learned from the tendency of our forebears to insist on simple, linear models of history: much of the historical scholarship from the early twentieth century operates on a simple model of social evolution, in which each generation gets progressively smarter until we reach the enlightened NOW. (Those arch-conservatives C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, by the way, fully anticipated the postmodern critique of this model.) Since the origins of gift exchange theory lay within that generation, for some time the common model of gift practices through history saw gifts as receding in importance to give way to commerce and the market. Marcel Mauss himself, the father of gift exchange theory, saw things this way, though he didn’t like it and may have been trying to spark a revival of gift economies. Fortunately, he’s been proven wrong in thinking that gift exchange had lost its force in the modern world: David Cheal, for one, has shown that significant gift economies still exist in the industrialized West.

All of this makes me wary of making claims about historical change and comparing periods of culture. I think that discomfort is warranted, for the reasons I’ve outlined above. But though we need to be careful about how we think about cultural change, if we cease trying to talk about it at all we fall into the equally dangerous position that all period of history are essentially alike–which is to say, that they are like ours. So I want to cautiously make this claim: the Reformation changed something fundamental about the way Westerners think about gifts. That change continues to dwell with us, and in fact I will argue that the extreme position Jacques Derrida takes about gifts is unthinkable without the Reformation.

Natalie Zemon Davis has written a great book about gifts in the sixteenth century–a period by which, at one time, scholars would have thought that gift practices had lost much of their public significance. I’m relying on Zemon Davis for my knowledge of Protestant theories of the gift, though Sarah Beckwith also touches on this in her book about the Reformation and Shakespeare.

Essentially, I believe that it was the Reformation which first introduced the spectre of the “pure gift”–a gift which asks no reciprocity, made in absolute, spendthrift squander, with no element of exchange–to Western culture. Certainly, since the very nature of gifts is to conceal their desire for a return, the idea of a pure gift can never have been totally absent from people’s minds. But I would argue that the pure gift only began having major ethical significance in the Reformation–indeed, the Reformation may have been the only thing persuading us that such a gift was possible. See Zemon Davis on Calvin’s thought about divine grace:

The gift flow thus [in Calvin] is downward from the Lord and outward from us. . . . In contrast with the [classical/medieval image of the] Three Graces or Mauss’s image of the spirit of the gift carrying with it an element that wants to circle back finally to the donor, we have here a spirit of the gift that wants to move through time, through history, never reversing its direction. (118)

Calvin’s insistence on irresistible grace–the I in TULIP–introduced the idea of non-reciprocal giving to Western thought by conceiving of God, the paradigm for all giving, as a giver who expects no return, and indeed, could not receive it if we tried. In turn, we are to give without expecting a return, from God or from the humans we give to. To that end, Calvin insisted on reducing “interested” giving, giving from those from whom we might expect a return. Zemon Davis again:

The new Calvinist ethos tried to push against particularistic forms of gift reciprocity–where the possibility of immediate obligation was great–to encourage instead more general forms moving through the whole community.

Calvin’s gratuitous vision had only partial impact on the practices of everyday life in Geneva–what vision ever does sweep the field?–and the repeated prohibition of ‘brigues’ in the seventeenth century indicates that gifts and banquets had revived in politics. Still, we may wonder whether the cutting back on certain forms of patronage and on informal neighborhood gifting did not leave the field open, on the one hand, for the intensification of obligation within the internal realm of the immediate family and, on the other, for the expansion of the less ambiguous and more detached networks of legal contract. (120-21)

The Protestant Reformation, then, was responsible for intensifying (if not creating) an ethical distrust of reciprocity in giving. And from that Protestant ethical absolutism we move briskly through Kantian deontology and thence to Derrida, for whom any reciprocal gift inevitably devolves into contract. The only true gift is the “pure” gift, then–but the pure gift is impossible, for even if we know we are giving we receive gratification from knowing ourselves to be generous, and thus receive a return on our investment. (All this is primarily from Given Time–it’s more comprehensible to summarize than to quote, given Derrida’s eccentric style, but I’ll give you citations if you want them.)

Derrida’s insistence on the pure gift as the only possible ethical gift–unilateral, disinterested, and without reciprocity–is only possible in the wake of the Reformation’s transformation of the ethics of the gift. Before the Reformation, it was recognized that all gifts, even God’s, demand a response: Catholic theology saw our acts of charity as our repayment to God. The Three Graces dance in a circle. This isn’t an ethical problem–it’s just the way things work.

Derrida is surely right that there can be no pure gift. But he’s just as surely wrong to assume that the ethical giver is necessarily striving to give the pure gift. Reciprocity is only an ethical problem within the realm of Reformed and post-Reformed thought. If I’m right about that, we’ve got a lot of thinking to do about whether Derrida’s theories can be applied to pre-Reformation thought: and, more importantly, about how we think about the ethics of the gift in our own post-Reformed times.

Duke Professor Doubts Doubt, Suspects Suspicion

July 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s been radio silence here for the last few weeks largely because I’ve been writing a review of Sarah Beckwith’s new book–which has been fun, since it’s a great book, but draining, because it’s not an easy book to read. So you might think me to be tired of the book and out of things to say about it. You would be right on the first count, but on the second you have committed the classic blunder of underestimating the pompous verbosity of the scholar.

Cleverly hidden within Beckwith’s book on Shakespeare and ordinary language philosophy are all the elements of an argument for a hermeneutics of charity over against the suspicious spirit which has prevailed throughout postmodernity. Beckwith’s argument begins in history, though, analyzing the abolition of the sacrament of penance and its effects on language. Protestant theology, she argues, created an inner/outer split in the self which, along with the doctrine of God’s absolute and unilateral grace, operates as “an intrinsic denigration of expressive culture and of the human voice” (33). After the Reformation, according to Beckwith, human language and its ability to promote true community became suspect, because the Reformation opened the possibility that the surface of that language might not express precisely what it seems to.

So far, so good. Beckwith’s targets remain those comfortable punching bags of progressive discourse, Calvin and Luther. But occasionally we get the hint that her target may be bigger. Consider these lines:

When the body stops being granted the capacity to express the mind and the soul, in Shakespeare’s understanding, we don’t so much protect that “inner” space (even if that’s what we think we’re doing): instead we lose touch with it all together. Part of the crisis and difficulty in this understanding is that we lose sense of ourselves and our communities together, in one and the same movement of self-exile from shared words and shared expressions. Once we see those words and expressions not as showing but as hiding us, we lose touch with our only means of self-knowledge and contact with others. . . . It is my belief that much contemporary criticism inhabits this very split, and so the therepeutic and diagnostic power of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy is unavailable to it. (9)

Beckwith provides no citations for the criticism she has in mind here, nor does she flesh this argument out. But it’s hard for me not to read this as a poke at the orthodoxies of the school of suspicion. When we assume that we cannot access the truth of what another person (or text) is saying through the straightforward acceptance of their words, we lose all sense of community and ethical relation. True forgiveness becomes impossible, because relations to other minds are impossible. Though Beckwith levels this critique at the Reformers through Shakespeare, the final sentence in the quote above shows her to be engaged in a critique of postmodern skeptical hermeneutics as well. And this is made clear by her theoretical leanings, as well: ordinary language philosophy, she says, “assumes a radical, fundamental harmony of word and world,” radically diverging from other philosophies after the linguistic turn, which assume an absolute and uncrossable distance (7). In the name of ethics and human community, then, Beckwith insists that we must place give language some charity:

Our word is our bond: to speak at all is to commit ourselves in our words. That is why linguistic competence is essentially an ethical matter. (125)

Forgiveness, the source of ethics, is then essentially a matter of interpreting another’s actions (words) charitably. This is the lesson Beckwith believes Shakespeare has to teach us. If we insist on interpreting his words suspiciously, though, we miss out on the good he can do us.

In case you’re not convinced that Beckwith’s one sentence about contemporary criticism means she’s advocating a hermeneutics of charity, I’ll briefly turn your attention to two more pieces of evidence. First, at the end of her meditation on forgiveness in Pericles she cites the father of charitable hermeneutics, Augustine himself, and his idea of “speech as donation” (126). Shakespeare, she argues, conceives of the language of forgiveness as a gift–an object to be received with gratitude rather than suspicion.

My final piece of evidence rests simply in Beckwith’s description of her method. I beg your indulgence as I offer one last quote:

[The book is] an attempt to enact a critical practice that engages with the ethical and aesthetic as much as the historical and political dimensions that have been the preoccupation and the doxa of recent criticism. As such, its vision of language is one dedicated to the common and the shared as prior to any failure in sharing. (11-12)

In short, Beckwith’s scholarship is dedicated to belief before doubt–a practice which would have been incomprehensible to literary critics twenty or thirty years ago. That these words can be written by a professor at Duke, of all places, is evidence how far the suspicious climate of literary studies has changed.

Throwing Poetry on the Highroad

June 21, 2011 § 4 Comments

The concluding lines to an Anglo-Norman French poem, “An Outlaw’s Song of Trailbaston,” from the early fourteenth century:

This rhyme was made in the wood, beneath a laurel tree;
There sing the blackbird and nightingale, and there hovers the hawk;
It was written on parchment to be better remembered,
And thrown on the highroad so that people should find it.

The whole poem can be found in this volume. The piece as a whole is pretty interesting–it’s a bitter complaint about and satire of laws of outlawry mixed with some pastoral reflections on the forest–but these last lines struck me the most with their poignancy and, of course, the figure of the poem as a gift. It’s a message-in-the-bottle type of gift, a present to anyone who might happen by it. There’s no reciprocity expected in it–no expected return for the poet’s efforts–and as such it’s the type of gift that Derrida might be almost be able to get behind: a “pure” gift, given without a desire for a gift in return, without even the knowledge of who would receive it.

Of course, Derrida would inevitably follow this up by saying that since the giver receives some form of gratification from knowing that he is giving the poem, it turns out not to be a “pure” gift after all. And moreover, the gesture of throwing the parchment on the road is clearly rhetorical here: the posture of casually, almost thoughtlessly, tossing the political complaint out on the road serves the poet’s stance as an innocent and almost unwitting victim of the law. Rhetorical though it may be, it’s an interesting image of a work of art as gift–and not just gift but squander, excess, something cast out on the road to be trampled (wasted) or–perhaps–received and given again. That image may be purely rhetorical and polemical, or it may have something to do with the poem’s rustic, idyllic setting. But either way there’s a nice little tinge of melancholy to it, given the tenuous state of the poem’s manuscript: like so many works from the medieval era, it survives in only one manuscript.

Take My Ideas . . . Please

June 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

I just got around to adding a Creative Commons license to this site (see the sidebar), though I’ve been intending to do so for some time—for a site about gifts, it seems like the natural thing to do. If you’re not up on how the Creative Commons works, I encourage you to go check out their website: I delayed researching it for a long time on the assumption that it would be full of legalese and hard reading, only to discover that it’s actually really simple and readable. So you’ve got no excuse now. One of the big cultural problems that the Internet has brought to the surface is the utter bloody-mindedness* of our copyright law, and in the absence of some contemporary form of medieval copy protection, the Creative Commons represents the best option that I know of.

As a gift-exchange theory geek, to embrace copyright would involve some serious cognitive dissonance. All my research suggests that those things which we value most operate best when they’re not bounded by a contract: ideas, creativity, and art are killed by clinging to them too tightly, refusing to share freely in fear that someone else will profit off your work. Copyright relies on law and legal rights; the Creative Commons relies upon generosity and building goodwill. As such, it substitutes a gift economy for a market economy in precisely the realms that benefit most from gift exchange. The Creative Commons institutes a sort of great international potlatch, a spectacle of excessive, spendthrift giving.

This analysis isn’t original to me—Lewis Hyde, who wrote one of the most influential books out there on the gift, also wrote Common as Air, which contains a critique of the idea of intellectual property. My brother also tells me that Seth Godin has argued that we’re moving toward a gift economy, though I haven’t had time to read much of his yet. Also, the digital humanist Mark Sample makes this case in a great blog post about the future of digital scholarship. The conviction shared by Creative Commons advocates is that by sharing our ideas and works freely, we can reap greater benefits than we do by copyrighting and restricting their use.

There’s a certain idealism in this approach to intellectual “property.” I don’t want to promote a utopian view of a copyright-less future. It is inevitable that those who choose to use Creative Commons licensing (or to give away their art and ideas in whatever form) will sometimes be exploited and will not accomplish all the ideals we hope for. And gifts, as Derrida and others have reminded us, are not always positive: the limitless universe of free content available via the Internet has real intellectual and spiritual dangers, not least the danger of its simple volume, which can encourage superficial and inattentive sampling rather than deep engagement. Still, I think the risks are worth it. I can’t control what use you make of the gift of these words—whether you exploit the gift for your own gain or allow it to become poison in your reception—and nor would I want to. But I feel the obligation to give nonetheless: the obligation to receive worthily (whatever you think that means) is yours.

*If you need proof of that bloody-mindedness, I encourage you to read up on the travesty of the Google Books Settlement, for starters.

Celebrity, Iconicity, and Drama: Some Preliminary Reactions

June 6, 2011 § 4 Comments

If you are interested in how religion (particularly the American Protestant churches) and the arts are rediscovering one another today, I highly encourage you to read Carole Baker’s fantastic post on celebrity and iconicity over at The Other Journal. (Supplemented by Matthew Milliner’s reflection on iconicity at his excellent blog.) It’s a bit of a dense read because of Baker’s multiple definitions and comparisons, but worth it for the challenge to those of us who love the arts and want to see our churches reconnect to them. Essentially, Baker argues that our current models of how art works are based on a celebrity model which is in fact diametrically opposed to a rich, theologically healthy Christian practice of the arts. Christians need, then, not just to “engage” or embrace the arts, but actually to articulate an alternative tradition of how to be an artist. For Baker, icons provide such a tradition.

Two things about this argument jump out at me, the first having to do with Baker’s methodology and the structure of her argument, the second being how closely it tracks with my work on medieval drama. The first item is kind of a minor point of theological observation, so if you’re not into that type of stuff skip the next paragraph and go straight to the good stuff.

The first thing I noticed is the formal similarity of Baker’s argument to some of those made about social theory, education, and other topics by theologians connected with the Radical Orthodoxy movement. Essentially, the “alternate tradition” move is the sine qua non of these thinkers: the Radical Orthodox theologian identifies problematic or anti-Christian assumptions within the mainstream (“secular” or “Enlightenment” or “modern”) narrative of how the given subject works, then argues that a thoroughly Christian alternate tradition provides a wholly coherent and competing metanarrative. Baker makes exactly this move; she is thus unique, as far my limited understanding goes, in bringing the perspective of Radical Orthodoxy to bear on art in a rigorous way. (Her employment and study at Duke Divinity School only strengthens my hunch here, as several of Duke’s most prominent faculty are connected to Radical Orthodoxy.) I bet there will be more applications of Radical Orthodox-style thought to art coming, however.

Secondly, Baker’s argument (and Milliner’s discussion of it) touched off some bells with regard to a couple of things I think about a lot: the place of theater in the church-and-the-arts discussion, and how medieval drama works into all this. In a past life I was pretty heavily involved in various ways with drama ministry, but as I’ve grown away from it I’ve come to be bothered by it in more than aesthetic reasons. (And trust me, there were reasons to be concerned.) A major part of the problem we have, it seems to me, in introducing any sort of performing art into the church is precisely this issue of the celebrity model that Baker identifies. Too often in my experience “liturgical drama” or “drama ministry” or “worship videos” seem to embrace the separation of image and likeness critiqued by Baker: Christian identity is constructed by these forms as being a kind of spectator rather than a participant, embracing the ideology of the artist as self-expressive, autonomous individual. There’s an issue of rhetorical economy here too (see my previous post on rhetoric): celebrity works on a market rhetoric, in which those making an exchange remain autonomous individuals and desire is invested only in transient goods.

In contrast, medieval cycle drama has no element of the celebrity model: the authors of the texts are anonymous, the community participates in the production (even audience members have a participatory role, I would argue), and Christian identity is thus constructed in a wholly different economy of performance. The rhetoric here is one of gift rather than market, in which the exchange builds up mutuality and desire is invested in the continuing good of the growing-Christlike community. Medieval religious drama is the alternate tradition for drama that icons provide for visual arts or hymns for music. But how to rehabilitate that tradition when the Reformation killed it nearly 500 years ago? Alas, I’m not sure it can be done.

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    Gifts Outright is an series of fragmentary thoughts about gifts, presents, generosity, abundance, grace, overkill, and excess. The title is a riff on Robert Frost; the tagline is from Czeslaw Milosz.
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