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  Written by
  Arjun Appadurai

  Imaging by
  Allen Carroll


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Positively medieval
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Elements of style

  > > Gift trapped

image: "Gift Trapped" headlineContinued... 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.

How 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.

In 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Consider 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?

As 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.

And 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.

Our 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.

In 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?

Every 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.

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