giving in contemporary society is fraught with a peculiar difficulty.
In a world overflowing with objects, how can we give a gift that is
special, one that makes us--and our relationship with the gift's receiver--special,
too? (print version)
the United States now extends almost year round. In our world there
is an endless bestiary of goodies. To borrow from one of the great stories
of Borges, it is a library without a top floor. In the U.S., the world
of gifts is more or less co--determinous with the world of objects. On
the one hand, we can rejoice in the huge range of objects available
for creating the bonds and the relationships that we crave. On the other
hand, that very multiplicity creates a problem. Because we want gifts
to reflect who we are, we want them to be one of a kind, unusual. The
central challenge, especially in this traditional season of gift giving,
is how to find singularity in a world of non--singularity.
if you take the trouble to make a gift outside of the world of merchandise--say,
for example, you decide to give your friend a voucher stating "I will
be your friend for the next six months"--you encounter some difficulties.
First, it's a lot of work. Second, you don't know if the recipient will
be grateful or will instead feel disappointment: "You'll be my friend
for six months? Great gift." Or you may decide to give a gift that you
grew or made--buying six goats and making your own cheese in Michigan,
say. It's difficult, but you can do it. The problem is that other people
do it, too. What, in short, can you give that others haven't given?
What makes your gift special?
one challenge to contemporary gift--givers is the endless world of objects,
a second challenge is the equally vast world of catalogs, vast not just
in numbers but also in types. There are catalogs for every season, catalogs
for hobbies, lifestyle catalogs, catalogs of the hard to find, and the
glossily printed gift catalogs that pour through our doors at this time
of the year. Those catalogs are not coming to my door or your door alone.
How then do the catalogs convince the person who's going to buy the
gift that he or she is special?
way is through the promise of convenience: you can buy from your own
home. Thus, the activity of buying (which has traditionally required
interaction with a seller) has turned private. It's just you, yourself,
and the Sears catalog! It's not extreme to say that gift catalogs belong
to what could be called the pornography of late capitalism. In the privacy
of your own home, you can enjoy the pleasure of objects.
also go to great pains to convince you that the gifts they offer are
special, that they've scoured the galaxy for the cotton in a shirt or
blouse. As a side effect of the effort to achieve specialness, the more
glossy catalogs actually belong in the history of art in this century.
A photograph of a comb becomes no longer just a comb; the object has
been arranged in a milieu and photographed so that there's something
about it that is special. It becomes, in a sense, a found object. Whenever
you open a catalog, you're looking at a collection of found objects--not
things that have been dumped onto the pages, but each carefully designed
as part of a larger whole.
pleasures of the catalog are many. Not only do they create a sense of
control--a sense that they've ordered the world of things--but in a world
where many of us feel overwhelmed by merchandise, there's also pleasure
in throwing a catalog away. Throwing away a catalog can remind you that
you have sovereignty. You're not simply a cog in the unbelievable machinery
of moving products around. And given the number of catalogs most of
us receive, it's a pleasure that can be indulged several times a week.
we move out of the world of catalogs, we find the same need to find
unique gifts in a world where everyone else has the same object. To
attract potential buyers and givers, stores need to tell a story, to
arrange something in an appealing way, to persuade us that their things
are special. Even discount stores like Filene's Basement want to convince
you that you are a special person who's going to get this special thing
to give to another special person.
many occasions are now termed "special" and are potentially grist for
merchandising, that it's tough to get the message, the gesture, right
for each particular occasion. What do you know about the receiver? What
kind of connection are you trying to make? And what fuels Hallmark,
with its card for every imaginable "special" occasion, other than our
own inability to think through what we want to say to special people
at special times?
people in traditional societies gave other people gifts, they generally
gave things with which they were personally involved--things they grew,
things they made, things they owned, things with which they had intimate
contact. Today, it is fairly rare to see gifts and gift giving tied
up with personal effort and time, and yet it remains impossible to draw
a sharp line between the gifts themselves and those who do the giving
and the receiving. In a classic book on gift giving--The Gift: Forms
and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (1924)--the great
French scholar Marcel Mauss looked at the giving of gifts both in large,
ancient societies and small--scale societies throughout the world, examining
all sorts of literature as well as prescriptions for gift giving. The
result was a startlingly elegant analysis, a book that became a pillar
societies built around kinship and family, Mauss declared, gifts are
the glue that holds things together. Gifts link the givers with others,
whether it be another person, clan, or tribe. By allowing the givers
to show who they are--not just as individuals but also as groups--gifts
have to do with value, place, rank, and distinction. Thus, gifts can
be competitive, as in the case of the potlatch, the tribal form of gift
giving once common among the natives of America's northwest coast: If
I give 200 blankets, you top it by giving 300 blankets. Even now, the
potlatch is used as a metaphor whenever people give a gift as an outward,
public sign of their generosity.
you look at the objects used as gifts, you quickly realize that you
don't give just anything, you give something. For the bulk of human
society, the stuff of gifts is not highly optional. There's room for
play, yes, but there are many rules about who gives what to whom and
when. Rules go with ritual, and Mauss observed a kind of magic moving
from giver to gift. Something of the quality of the person flows into
the thing--so that the gift no longer has only the quality of just blankets,
or just fur, or just pieces of clothing or jewelry. Rather, it carries
something of the giver--some cultures would say gifts carry the spirit
of the giver. That's the power of a gift. Things become more than just
then does gift giving work in a capitalist, market--driven society like
our own? For on the face of it, the gift is the exact opposite of a
fundamental unit of the marketplace, the commodity. In abstract, general
form, the commodity is standard. Each is inherently identical to the
others. Available to anybody, it has nothing to do with who has given
it to whom, and its value is determined in no way by the context of
who did the buying and who did the receiving. The thing has its price.
contrast, the gift is highly personal. The gift is very special. The
gift even is magical. It contains both the quality of the giver and
of the receiver, and though it may have another life as a commodity,
the givers don't mind if it comes literally in thousands. What is crucial
is the identity between each gift and the particular relationship it
solidifies. Even when a gift--giving society has rules about what types
of gifts one must give--say, for example, the only allowable gifts are
blankets and coins--those "standard" objects quickly become my gift,
the thing you gave me, and so on. Again, we can recognize this in our
own world. It is a little more complicated, when the gift arrives in
the receiver's mail in a package mailed from Lands' End, to say, "It's
my gift," but we manage to make the leap.
closer one looks, however, the harder it becomes to sort things out:
That's a gift; that's a commodity. Gifts and commodities don't have
an apples--and--oranges relationship. Rather, a gift and a commodity are
often one and the same thing: if I catch it here, it's a gift. If I
catch it one week later, when someone's having a garage sale, it's on
the road to Commodity Land. It's hard to think of any substance in the
world that is singular--outside the commodity system--forever and ever.
the same way, a commodity can be many things, but it is not a singularity.
One thing cannot be a commodity, for once it is a commodity, something
is lost about its singularity. The minute you put a thing--be it a piece
of clothing or food, a tool, a person, anything--on the market, you have
to believe there could be others of its kind.
the great paintings that command incredible prices at Christie's or
Sotheby's. Of a single painting on the auction block, you might be tempted
to say that it commands such a huge price because it is uniquely singular,
the only thing of its kind. But if it is a real singularity, what makes
it marketable? Are you, for example, buying a Picasso? A piece of Picasso?
A piece of that set which is all of Picasso's paintings, but a piece
we can buy because it's on the market?
these questions imply, something that appears totally singular--one of
a kind--is also totally a commodity--one of a set. Picasso himself is
part of a set: the set of "great painters who are very expensive to
buy." The painting on the block is general in a hundred ways. Its singularity
has been eroded.
so gift giving in our society exemplifies a fundamental problem: how
to create human relations in a world where all things are potentially
in the market or on the market. We see the challenge most clearly when
we try to buy a gift for the person who has everything: what we mean
is that they can buy anything they want. In this context, the real gift
becomes the gift of love, the gift of organs, anything that can be imbued
with something of yourself.
biggest fear is that in their mass quality, the objects we give resemble
what has happened to us. We fear that we too have become market categories,
demographic tools--that every time we do something special, we are doing
what someone else out there is doing. In searching for that special
gift for that special person, we struggle with the deepest anxiety surrounding
gifts: What is special about me? Do I have any human relations, which,
while using the vast world of merchandise, let me escape, if fleetingly,
from the prison house of buying and selling, saving and spending, money
time we give a gift, we are making a small effort to use merchants and
merchandising against themselves. We are trying, and humans always will,
to bite the hand that feeds us so that we can feed the hand that holds