On What We’re Doing Here

May 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

We live amidst the triumph of the commercial economy. I know it may not have always seemed that way over the past few years—what with the recession and all—but it’s true. More people are making more money off commerce than ever before; and more importantly, commercial economies are all we know. Yes, there are still plenty of people and places that either choose not to or don’t have the option to engage in commerce. But the late modern age it’s the air we breathe, and though it’s made us rich, it’s had some other less-pleasant consequences too. We seldom realize, however, that fundamentally different types of economies—besides the much-feared socialism, which isn’t that fundamentally different—can exist. One such economy is the gift economy, a system of exchange in which goods circulate on the basis of giving rather than purchase. Anthropologists debate whether a true gift economy ever existed or ever could exist, but the idea of the thing has turned out to be remarkably useful.

My purpose here, I suppose I should say immediately, is not to provide an economic critique of capitalism, commerce, or the market. Even if I was interested in undertaking such a project, I’m not in the least qualified. However, I’m confident that all but the most hard-bitten libertarian capitalist (Ron Swanson?) would acknowledge that there are numerous realms of life in which commercial exchange is not just inappropriate, but unethical: we marry (or date) rather than hiring a prostitute; we give property to our descendants by will, not by sale; when we have friends over for dinner, we don’t expect them to pay for the food; and we (generally) think Van Gogh a better artist than Thomas Kinkade, though Kinkade is certainly the more successful capitalist–at least during his lifetime. So though our economic lives remain dominated by commerce, gifts still hold great power over us.

It’s been my growing conviction, however, that the market economy is coming to dominate our imagination in certain areas which should be governed by a gift economy. Education, for example, is for many students substantially a gift—and yet recent developments in the US and UK look like attempts to subject education to the most pragmatic forces of the market. For another realm in which commercial interests overwhelm gratuity, see this cheerless article on the decline of Hollywood by Mark Harris: “Hollywood has become an institution that is more interested in launching the next rubberized action figure [i.e., commerce] than in making the next interesting [gratuitous] movie.” We need gratuity in certain realms, an understanding of our actions that goes beyond commerce. We need the gift.

I live my life surrounded by gift realms—as we all do, to the extent that we’re involved with other people. But as someone whose daily concerns have to do with education, literature, religion, and the arts, the gift floats perhaps more closely to my mind. All those areas have been called “the humanities” (I include the arts here) are for me more simply described as the realms of the gift, realms which are about gratuity and excess rather than contract. My project here, then, is to resist the totalizing influence of the market, to promote understanding of gifts and graciousness once more in their proper realms.

I’ll be writing about where I find gifts in all kinds of places—I’m a grad student in English, so there will be plenty of literature, but I’ll almost certainly do some writing about pop culture, education, and other arts. There will be some theorizing, but it will stay brief and Internet-friendly. (I do not promise not to write about Derrida, but I do promise not to do it often.) Not everything on here will talk explicitly about gifts—though a lot of it will because I’m obsessed—but it will all talk about subjects which entail giftedness. I’m watching for signs of gratuity, abundance, overkill, the unnecessary and useless. I’m interested in ideas and things that do more than they have to, that go over the top, providing what the theologically-minded among us might call grace. If that kind of excess appeals to you, then I’d love to have your comments.


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