On the sorry state of gift giving

In modern culture, the ethos of gift giving has come to resemble the genre of the apologia. The defendant–guarded, vigilant–is made to choose between pre-emption, exculpation, and exoneration. These are her weapons.

“But I wasn’t sure what to get you.”

A reminder of how tenuous our acquaintance, how limited our imaginations.

“I know, I know, I was so busy shopping for everyone this year that…”

A reminder of how exceptional our vanity, how miserly our spirit besides.

“I thought I would surprise you, but clearly…”

A reminder of human folly.

“No, I like it. Really I do. Thank you, darling.”

A reminder of the problem of dirty hands: petty truth-telling or painful lying, false gratitude or unwanted candor.

“Gift cards and cash are always welcome, say experts.”

A reminder of the vast extent of our agnosticism, of our obese belief in freedom of choice.

“I know you like science, so I got you a newt.”

A reminder of how fallacious our reasoning, how undiscriminating our judgments.

“Well, if you don’t like it, you can always take it back. I’ve left the receipt in the box.”

A reminder of how great our fickleness: of our failure to commit to one other, of our daily infidelities.

Let’s review: Children ask for what they shouldn’t, then receive what is needless, trivial, or harmful. Adults indulge in useless rituals and overzealous brinkmanship to assuage their doubts, curry favors, or honor long-lost pasts. This, in turn, leads to complaints that are summarily lodged followed by apologies summarily offered and reparations speedily effected. The result, naturally, is a signed treaty the point and purpose of which is to guarantee all parties a moratorium on ambient hostility for one more year.

In the sorry state, everyone feels bad. How did we become a nation of sorry gift givers, how help create a culture in which we give disposable things in a halfhearted spirit to people we barely know on the assumption that whatever we give can always be returned? Hold, sit, and dwell here for a moment… It’s as if we’d never felt love.

We live apart in countless ways.

A Coda on the Blessed State of Good Thinking

When we err, reality urges us to make amends. Will we attune ourselves to the call? And when we get things right, reality praises us for doing it justice. Will we hear its praise? Both exemplify the giving spirit of good thinking. Both bespeak the blessed state of just generosity.

Have a blessed New Year!

Further Reading

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, “21. Articles May Not Be Exchanged.”

Andrew Taggart, “The Starting Point of Philosophical Self-Reflection.” See, in particular, “what’s missing?”

Friday meditation: On gift giving, potlatches, and the modern world

The Gift Exchange

I think it was last week when I had a conversation with John Mitchinson of Unbound books. I write “I think it was last week” because I’m starting to run all my conversations together, and my days have started to lose their hard edges. Near the end of my conversation with John, I very likely said something about philosophical conversation as gift giving, and then he very likely asked me whether I’d read Lewis Hyde’s book about gifts.

I had not, but it is now in my hands thanks to the New York Public Library. (Or, to be honest, beside my computer because my hands are now roaming about the keyboard.) In The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, originally published in 1979 but still very fresh and alive today, still quite the cadeau, Hyde says that he is proffering a theory of gifts, that this theory of gift exchange is distinct from the logic of market society, and that the creative process follows the logic of gift making and gift giving.

I’m only through the first 70 pages but because I have a Ph.D. I feel qualified to comment on the whole thing and to draw all relevant conclusions. I’m joking. So far, I can say, though, that the book is stunning. Instead of offering a long commentary, I’ll quote a few passages, hum a tune, and then leave you with a few questions to meditate on.

“When we barter we make deals, and if someone defaults we go after him, but the gift must be a gift. It is as if you give a part of your substance to your gift partner and then wait in silence until he gives you a part of his. You put yourself in his hands.” (19)

“When I give to someone from whom I do not receive (and yet I do receive elsewhere),  it is as if the gift goes around a corner before it comes back. I have to give blindly. And I feel a sort of blind gratitude as well.” (20)

“I described the motion of the gift earlier in this chapter by saying that gifts are always used, consumed, or eaten. Now that we have the figure of the circle we can understand what seems at first to be a paradox of a gift exchange: when the gift is used, it is not used up. [Unlike the commodity which is used up; unlike capital which is stored up.–AT] Quite the opposite, in fact: the gift that is not used will be lost, while the one that is passed along remains abundant. In the Scottish tale the girls who hoard their bread are fed only while they eat. The meal finishes in hunger though they took the larger piece. The girl who shares her bread is satisfied. What is given away feeds again and again, while what is kept feeds only once and leaves us hungry.” (26)

Wow! The magic of the gift–the gift of the gift–is abundance. The tragedy of the commodity is scarcity and tight-fisted possession. (Capital accumulation as crabbed spirit?)

The Potlatch

Hyde notes that the potlatch was a ceremony in which one tribe invites and gives extravagantly to a neighboring tribe. The potlatch is a ceremony of abundance, a feast in which convivial spirits give and partake freely. It is meant to bring about and maintain goodwill. Indeed, even insults are repaid not with enmity but with amity, with gifts and gifts galore!

Meditation #1: In the modern world, what role could a potlatch play? Can Dionysus return?

A Gift Scenario

The gift is an object but in some larger sense it is an activity. If John gives a gift to Karen, then Karen is indebted to John. And what then are Karen’s options?

  1. She can reject the gift. But, supposing that John offered the gift in the right spirit, what does this say about Karen? How is Karen’s spirit? (Toothy, I’d say.)
  2. She can hold onto the gift. The trouble is that holding onto something tends to “reify” it, turning a process into a product, an activity into an object, a thing-that-is-passed-along into a possession that is mine and mine alone. (The spoiled kid who needs to get kicked in the teeth.)
  3. She can give something to John “in return.” The hard part, in this case, is that this concept of the return must be wretched free from the concepts of bartering and exchange. The barter and the exchange both conceptualize the relationship between the initial item and the later item in terms of an equivalence. A = B. Yet A = B spells the death of the gift.
  4. She can circulate the gift. That is, she can give another gift to someone else, or she can pass on the gift that she has been given. The paradox is that the gift thereby supplies, satisfies, and multiplies

Meditation #2: How can you give a gift well? And how can you receive a gift well? If there are only two of you, then what can you give “in return” without making “the return” into an equivalence? If there are more than two, then how do you pass the gift on in the right spirit? To pass on is to let go but to let go in fullness.

Meditation #3: Can work be made holy? To work well is to give freely?

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “An Invitation to the Reader to Join Me in a Philosophical Conversation.”

An invitation to the reader to join me in a philosophical conversation

A Cordial Invitation

I’d like to invite you to have a philosophical conversation with me. If you’re living outside of New York City, then the conversation would take place over Skype. If you’re in the City, then we’d take a stroll through Central Park.

The economy we’d be engaged in would be a gift economy. I’d be opening up a space in which a philosophical conversation could unfold (that would be my gift), and for your part you’d be offering me or another a gift. That gift could simply be a head nod, a thank you, an object you made, a donation, whatever. And, as I say, it could be offered to me or to someone else.

If you’d like to have a conversation with me, you can get in touch with me either by filling out the contact form on my Contact page or by posting a comment below.

A Reasonable Justification

Giving and receiving, Alasdair MacIntyre claims in his book Dependent Rational Animals, is always already asymmetrical. It follows that gifting is not bartering inasmuch as no precise equivalence can be drawn between the original gift and subsequent gifts. The claim, for instance, that I could fully repay my parents for their raising me well is a conceptual mistake and this for two reasons. First, there is no common measure by which to assess how I could repay them for years of excellent child rearing. Second, there is no notion of fullness, i.e., no notion of finally paying everything back. The point MacIntyre is driving at is that we’re always enmeshed in a web of dependencies and debts. In my case, then, in virtue of having been given much, I owe much to my parents and, by extension, to others.  This would account for my current offering.

A Just Expectation

There is a story that the Buddhist Joseph Epstein tells in Benedict’s Dharma that helps me to clarify where my Aristotelianism departs from Buddhism (a promissory note: a larger argument against the egoism/altruism dichotomy in the future). Epstein writes,

When I was living and practicing in India, I went to the local bazaar to buy some fruits and vegetables. A little beggar boy came up to me and stretched out his hand. Without much hesitation, I gave him one of the oranges that I had just bought. What happened next proved very illuminating to me. The boy just walked away–no nod of thanks, no smile, no acknowledgement whatsoever. It was only then that I realized I had had an expectation in that simple act of giving. I wanted “something” in return, even if it was just a nod. Purifying our motives, so that we can give simply out of love and kindness, without any expectation at all, is part of bringing the virtue of generosity to perfection.

I don’t think so. By my lights, just generosity is structured according to gifts given in order to fulfill basic needs and forms of gratitude by which we honor the gifts we’ve received, we recognize gift-givers as gift-givers, and we “discharge” some of our debts over the years. Epstein’s anecdote is best interpreted as a story not about pure and impure motives but about the perils, the human and humane costs, of extreme economic deprivation.