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.”