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
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.
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.