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.


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