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.
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.
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.
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.
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.