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Gift trapped:
Gift 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)

Written by Arjun Appadurai

The gift--giving "season" in 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.


Even 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?

If 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?

One 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.

Catalogs 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.

The 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.

If 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.

So 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?

When 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 of anthropology.

In 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.

When 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 things.

How 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.

In 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Consider 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?

As 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.

And 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.

Our 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 and markets?

Every 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 us.

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