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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.