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  Written by
  Arjun Appadurai

  Imaging by
  Allen Carroll

  Text-only
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  FEATURES
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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?

image: "Gift Trapped" headlineThe 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.

image: Two different catalogsEven 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?

image: Random catalogIf 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.

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  DECEMBER 1999

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