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  Written by
  Arjun Appadurai

  Imaging by
  Allen Carroll

  Text-only
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  FEATURES
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Coming of age
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Positively medieval
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Elements of style

  > > Gift trapped


image: "Gift Trapped" headlineContinued... 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.

image: Two different catalogsThe 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?

image: Random catalogWhen 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.

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  DECEMBER 1999

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