On What We’re Talking About Here (A Brief Introduction to Gift Theory)

May 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

Okay, I’m going to get quasi-academic here for a bit. Bear with me–it will make everything else here make a lot more sense. More than that, this is a theory that enriches your vision of the world. Dinner parties become weighty occasions, and weddings take on cosmic significance. A whole new vocabulary emerges for talking about art. I’m overselling it, of course, but I want to drive home the point: this may be academic, but it’s not the type of academic work that’s all about stuff only three people in the world care about. This is big stuff.

To refer to “gift exchange” or a “gift economy” is to assume, first of all, that gifts are more than private acts of altruism given freely with no ulterior motives. Gifts carry profound social significance, particularly in ancient or archaic cultures, but in our own day as well. Analysis of gift economies begins in the 20th century with Marcel Mauss, a major intellectual who has influenced anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and a host of other disciplines. Mauss reads the giving of a gift as an act which, although it depicts itself as wholly free, incurring no obligation, in fact requires a response from the recipient. If I give you a gift, you must reciprocate, if only with gratitude, or risk incurring serious offense. Unlike market exchange, however, gift-giving is not a zero-sum transaction: when we have exchanged gifts, we are not done with one another—there is an additional quality that is transacted, which Mauss calls (taking his terms from the Polynesian cultures he studied) the hau. In essence, this means that the exchange of gifts, unlike a commercial purchase or contract, builds relational ties: but these relational ties are qualitatively different than those of two detached and rational subjects in a market economy. In a gift economy, the distinction between persons and things is negligible at best, meaning that an exchange of gifts leaves two persons fundamentally linked: as Jonathan Parry stresses in his reading of Mauss, “The gift contains some part of the spiritual essence of the donor.” A gift exchange thus builds a spiritual and moral bond which involves not just goodwill but a portion of the giver’s very self.

Furthermore, this bond can only be maintained by continuing to keep the gift in circulation. In a gift economy, unlike a market economy, wealth (i.e., prestige) is built by giving away—saving, hoarding to oneself, is shameful. As Lewis Hyde puts it, “The only essential is this: the gift must always move.” Gifts are only efficacious, they only build spiritual bonds, in being given away. This doctrine establishes the principle of reciprocity, that every gift requires a response: for if the gift ceases to be given it ceases to be a gift, entering into the realm of capital, property which no longer carries soul. It becomes immobilized as capital, wealth which is subject to the legal (rather than moral) restrictions of a contract.

So these are the basic principles of the theory. One last issue I want to note, however, is the distinction between “pure” and reciprocal giving, which has been one of the major points of contention over gifts. The traditional anthropological narrative (no longer really accepted) said that whereas really ancient gifts were all explicitly reciprocal—because they were what the economy was founded on—with the introduction of Christianity ideas of gift-giving began moving toward an ideology of “pure” or disinterested giving, in which the giver was not supposed to expect or desire a return gift. As economies moved towards a commercial economy, the narrative goes, gifts were increasingly supposed to be given without expectation of reciprocity. I personally don’t really buy this history—though there is an element of truth to it—but that’s a topic for another time.

Of course, the extent to which a “pure” gift is even possible or desirable is very much debatable. After all, even if I give you a gift expecting no return, I still expect thanks. But that too is getting into a bigger topic, one I’ll have to take up at another point. For now, if you want to talk about the gift, bear these things in mind:

  • Reciprocity (I give to get)
  • The spirit of the gift (my gift carries part of myself)
  • The gift must always move (immobilized property is not a gift)
  • “Pure” or disinterested giving (giving without return)

References

Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. 2nd rev. ed. New York: Vintage, 2007.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: the Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. W. D. Halls. London: Routledge, 2002.

Parry, Jonathan. “The Gift, the Indian Gift and the ‘Indian Gift.’” Man 21.3 (1986): 453-73.

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§ One Response to On What We’re Talking About Here (A Brief Introduction to Gift Theory)

  • Mollie says:

    I liked this. There was a nun who told me years ago that when any gift is given, it is meant to “keep on moving”. That is, the giver should have no feelings of control over it anymore if it is, indeed, given with a free heart. She and I were talking about the ethics of re-gifting at the time, and maybe it was because she is a nun and dedicated to not getting attached to possessions in the first place, but she was really an advocate of re-gifting and “letting it continue to move”. That’s always stuck with me.

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