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The Row Boat
"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
Meanings of Gifts11/26/2007 01:51:42
The gift-buying season is here, with halls decked with purchasable goods. Black Friday (known to some as Buy Nothing Day) has come and gone. Whether it is a consumerist nightmare or our patriotic duty to the national economy, we shop anyway, however we choose to explain it. So let me take a moment to reflect some on gifts, a subject that I have struggled with since childhood, when I could neither sleep the night before Christmas nor find it in myself to get something nice for my parents.
(Sadly I haven't read what seem to be the major discussions on gifts by Mauss, Derrida, Bataille, and others. I'll venture forward anyway with rudimentary economics and theological instincts.)
I know of two competing interpretations of what the gift represents. One, I'll call the substantial, second, the functional (the terms are borrowed, with twisted meanings, from Peter Berger's appendix to The Sacred Canopy).
The first, the substantial, is the meaning at face value, which may finally be worth retaining: a gift is something freely given, with no expectation of return, no formal reciprocity. Sure, it can serve purposes, such as to strengthen a relationship or show appreciation for something, but it is fundamentally gratuitous. In the usual monotheisms, this is what God does. The world is a gift, time is a gift, human life is a gift. God does not need us, yet we are given, and grace is given.
The second, the functional, seeks out the meaning beneath, insisting that their function is what gifts most genuinely represent at their core. What seems like a gratuitous offering is actually meant to serve certain purposes, and the giver expects to be paid back appropriately. I invite you over to my house one night with the assumption that later on you will do the same. Or, alternatively, I am calculating some payback in a different currency, such as loyalty in business, or the chance to meet your beautiful daughter. Theologically, this might be read as approaching "process" thought: God and creation (us, especially) are in a dialectical exchange. God gives to us because somehow we give back to God.
Pierre Bourdieu's Logic of Practice (1980) offers a map of the relation between these two models, arguing that they act simultaneously. He stringently analyses the functional logic of gift situations, how they enact exchanges in various economies. Gifts, he observes, obey strict rules. In order to work, they need to be appropriately chosen for the culture and occasion, even to the point of their approximate price. Just think of how a total cheapo birthday present might be received coming from an affluent adult. We don't say these things outright, as we would in front of a cash register, but a transaction is occurring nevertheless.
The most important feature of Bourdieu's analysis is the fact of misrecognition. The gift exchange only works, he argues, if the participants plausibly act as if the functional gift were substantially valid. That is, I might not accept a gift from you if you make clear to me that it cost exactly the same as what I gave you last year. Bringing up the topic of functional exchange ruins the perceived gratuity of the act.
Why is the gift necessary at all, if it is really just veiled exchange? It is a way of classifying relationships, distinguishing the exchange we do with family and friends and colleagues from that we do with clients and strangers. The currency under exchange plays by different rules.
What still seems missing, though, is the certain subjective power of good gifting that I have discovered over the years. In times of stress and self-absorption, working on gifts for others can be a tremendous cure. It is a special kind of pleasure, even a rescue from oneself. As Bourdieu insists, though, the substantive misrecognition must be maintained. The pleasure seems to come from exactly the feeling of being generous, spontaneous, and inventive.
Of course, in this season, gift giving is not always healing and pleasure. Often the opposite. Waiting in mall traffic and working through long lists, the logistics overshadow the spontaneity. Instead, perhaps the better way is to push, even more that misrecognition, and change the circumstances if you have to. Find ways to give fewer gifts that one can focus on more, maintaining their gratuity. It is possible, I am sure, to transform this season of commercial excess into a better giving, a relief from all the mere exchange we engage in throughout the year.
re: triumph of the therapeutic - 12/01/2007 10:54:49