Paying Attention: Preliminary Thoughts on Rhetoric and Economics

May 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

I spent much of last week trying to write an abstract for a yet-to-be-written paper for the New Chaucer Society 2012 conference. I wouldn’t normally try to propose a paper I haven’t written yet–why write extra conference papers when I’m writing so many for my classes, is what I figure–but the conference is in Portland, where my awesome in-laws live, and I’m taking a Chaucer class in the fall anyway, so why the heck not.

Anyway, I’m proposing to a panel on fraud with a paper about Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, trying to work with some of the gift-exchange theory that I do. Gift exchange and rhetoric, it turns out, fit together naturally: gifts distinguish themselves from contract primarily through a kind of rhetoric, and furthermore rhetoric can be thought of as a kind of gift. Only one scholar, Marilee Mifsud, has made the latter connection, in a great article published in Philosophy & Rhetoric. Mifsud claims that “Rhetoric’s desire to dispose its audience to invest in the object of attention connects rhetoric to economy,” and goes on to argue that a kind of rhetoric may exist which instead of seeking the audience’s investment in the speaker alone, can create a kind of gracious excess (89). It’s a dense argument, and I won’t go through it all here–but the important point for now is the relationship between rhetoric and economy. We acknowledge this connection when we speak of paying attention, or when we ask a crowd to lend us their ears, or give us the floor. The exchange between a speaker and an audience is inescapably economic, because the attention we pay or give could be paid or given to any number of other objects.

So that’s the basic connection between rhetoric and economics, which has been absolutely revelatory for my studies. I’m interested in studying rhetoric, but until I discovered Mifsud’s argument I wasn’t sure how to connect rhetoric to my obsession with gifts, which has been used more in the study of literature and culture. So that’s been an important discovery for me.

Thinking about fraud has led this down a fascinating path as well, and here’s where I want to grope out into the realm of speculation and preliminary thoughts. If attention itself is a gift or payment to the rhetorician, fraudulent rhetoric does not necessarily involve lying or attempting to cheat the audience. The rhetorician can seek to defraud the audience simply by directing them to pay attention to the wrong object–even if the rhetoric itself contains nothing false. So you can be a cheat of a speaker even while speaking the truth and practicing a superficially honest rhetoric.

Not sure what the implications of this point are (maybe I’ll find out in writing that Chaucer paper), but I think it’s an original idea. I’m also interested in examples–I think there are some in Troilus and Criseyde, but I would love to hear about more. Can you think of examples of rhetoricians (in real life or fiction) who are fraudulent even while truthful, because they encourage their audience to “invest” their attention badly?


Trahernian Theology and Bare-Branch Decor

May 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child. . . . The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. –Thomas Traherne, Centuries 3.1, 3

Can you then be Righteous, unless you be just in rendering to Things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours; and you were made to prize them according to their value. –Thomas Traherne, Centuries 1.12

We have bare branches hanging on our walls. Not large ones—“sticks” might be the more accurate word, but it’s so unlovely—and not entirely bare, I guess, as they do have buds on them. Nonetheless, they are relatively stark things to have on your walls. My wife picks up various pieces of nature as we walk around our neighborhood, and some of them she hangs on our walls. Some people have taken this to be rather forlorn, having bare branches hanging on our walls. Others no doubt would interpret this behavior as exactly what you’d expect from an eccentric artist. The truth is, though, that my wife decorates with these unadorned chunks of wood simply because she thinks they are beautiful—which is to say, she realizes they are beautiful because she gives them the attention they deserve. When you really look at a bare branch, it’s a thing of wonderful complexity and beauty, subtle gradations of color and texture that defy my ability to describe. You have to look closely to see that, though.

I want to talk about this attitude toward nature—and such a little-noticed part of nature as bare branches—with reference to the work of a 17th-century poet and religious writer named Thomas Traherne. He is not a major figure in the history of English letters, but he nonetheless wrote what C.S. Lewis called one of the most beautiful books in the English language—a judgment with which I concur—Centuries (also known as Centuries of Meditations). I’m not going to try to summarize the book for you: it is a work of theology written in the language of a poet, which makes it difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to summarize. You should just go read it for yourself.

I will touch on one point of the book which I think I have understood. One of Traherne’s main topics, and the part of the book which has most stayed with me since I first read it in high school, is his concern with the beauty and value of Things in themselves, and the theological imperative that we pay attention to them. I began with two quotes from Traherne which point at that, the value he places upon a childlike view of the world, in which every pebble and bare branch is a marvelous creation of God to be prized as if it were made of gold. For Traherne, we were created to take joy in the created world and love it as it was made to be loved—which implies that we must pay close attention to even its most seemingly insignificant elements. Traherne thus directly opposes certain religious ideologies now current, which privilege the afterlife exclusively and which say that since God is just going to burn up this world anyway, to hell with it.* Today’s green movement has registered complaints with this view in terms of our politics and economics, but I think Traherne points to something even more fundamental than environmentalism: that the material world is not just worth preserving, it’s worth looking at.**

Essentially, Traherne is saying that we should love the world, and that the only way to do that adequately is by paying it close attention. Love cannot exist without attention—the idea you can’t love something if you aren’t attentive to it is a truth which has been acknowledged since Augustine. If you claim to love the world, then, you must begin by looking at it closely, even (or especially) the parts which seldom draw our casual attention.

As an artist who works directly with her hands and her eyes, my wife is a lot better at paying creation the attention it deserves than I am—my work as a writer and scholar pushes me in some badly idealist directions at times, encouraging me to act as if books and screens and ideas were more important than the physical world. As a student of the gift, though—and this is a claim I believe extends across various religions and philosophies—I must acknowledge that the beauty of the natural world is a gift which deserves my attention and love. I neglect my proper response to that gift all too often. So it’s good to live with someone who hangs bare branches on the walls.

Our Decor

One of the many branches on our walls

*Excuse the language, but that is literally the implication of this attitude. Note the idea in Harold Camping’s recent apocalyptic prophecies that the world will eventually be consumed by a fireball. If this isn’t exactly the fires of hell, it’s as close as to make no difference. Sadly, plenty of people who don’t think they can predict the onset of the apocalypse still believe it will involve God burning up this world, a belief more gnostic than biblical. End theological rant.

**Traherne’s is an extreme theology in some ways, and it has its problems like any other theology. But whether or not his perspective on this should be mitigated, at its core I think it’s more healthy than the otherworldly, idealist view which many religious people now hold.

On Leonard Cohen, Traveling Theatre, and the Mutual Hospitality of Performance

May 17, 2011 § 2 Comments

Leonard Cohen’s Live in London is a big, expansive album, especially for a live show: it’s a three-hour, two-disk marathon listen, full of Cohen’s cavernous bass booming out his love-and-death songs with the accompaniment of a six-piece band and three backup singers. As the concert draws to a close, Cohen—whose statements between songs are generally short, studied, and slightly cryptic—makes the usual little gesture of a touring artist outside his hometown, and thanks the crowd for their hospitality. It’s not a remark that would catch you off guard most of the time, but listening to this album it did me: until that point Cohen had seemed to be the host, fully in control of the proceedings, welcoming the audience into a world he had created. And certainly in a sense Leonard Cohen was the one offering hospitality in that concert hall that night. But of course, in another sense the people of London were “hosting” him—he was the guest from out of town, staying the night and moving on the next day. In thanking the crowd for their hospitality after he had hosted them in the concert hall for three hours, Cohen acknowledged that neither group had a monopoly on hospitality that night.

I was reminded by this of a time in my own history as a performer. My alma mater in Nebraska has a children’s theatre program which travels to schools and libraries throughout the state every year, putting on a play in a gym or multipurpose room. I got to be part of this program for two years, experiencing the pleasures and pains of touring, and although I loved most of it, one moment of each show always annoyed me. At the end of a show, we would do the usual bows, and would then remain onstage and take questions. Once the questions were done, we thanked the children for being a good audience, and applauded them—inevitably spurring them to applaud for us as well, leaving everyone clapping for everyone else. Cynical and over-analytical as I was and am, this irritated me: who are we all clapping for? what is the point of everyone clapping for everyone else? My classmates explained it to me as a way to cover an awkward moment as we turned away to clean up and strike the set—which was pretty much right—but I didn’t find that satisfactory on a symbolic level. I still wanted to know who we were all clapping for. (You may be getting the sense that I was kind of a punk as a college freshman, but I encourage you to ignore that feeling.)

It only sank in for me five years later while listening to the Leonard Cohen album that our mutual clapping was an expression of the mutual hospitality inherent in performance. We were in a space that belonged to the children and their teachers, invited there and hosted by them—and yet for the hour-and-a-half of our performance we created a world of our own, in which we controlled meaning and they were the guests. So it is in any performance, even if a musician holds a concert in her own living room: the concert can’t exist without the audience, and so they too have a share in its hosting.

In a sense, of course, no hospitality goes just one way. People have recognized from ancient times that hosting another brings a gift: see the story of Abraham’s hospitality toward the angels in Genesis, or the Greek story of the old couple—whose names I shamefully have forgotten—who hosted the gods and thus received the gift of a shared death. So we seldom if ever host someone without expecting to get something out of it.

But the situation is intensified in touring performance, which may may be why the experience can be so rewarding. You may get a gift out of having me over for dinner—I’ll supply conversation, maybe chocolate or flowers—but seldom will I come into your house in order to invite you into another world of meaning inside your own home. I may come into your home to practice gift-giving, but seldom hospitality. And yet this is how touring performance works, when it works well: the performer comes into a space possessed by the audience, in order to invite them into his own space. It’s a level of mutuality we seldom experience elsewhere. Perhaps this is what concert reviewers mean when they refer to a show as “intimate”: there’s a sense in which audience and performer enter one other’s private space. There’s a grace in such intimacy, as Leonard Cohen realizes, and as I didn’t as a smart-alecky nineteen-year-old. It’s why live performance remains powerful, even in the age of 3D movies. And it’s why touring can so often feel like coming home.

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)


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.

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.