Intro to Jacques Derrida’s Given Time

The following post is a transcript of my introductory talk on Jacques Derrida’s “Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money” (1992). Delivered at the first meeting of the Art & Theory Reading Group’s “Art as Gift” project on January 26th, 2017.

Art as Gift can be thought as an opportunity to read and hear what Jacques Derrida has to say about the gift, central to which is the need for us to engage in what Derrida calls an “effort of thinking,” one in which Derrida’s Given Time will be the main focus, our task, to read and interpret what is said there.

Why the Gift?
In his foreword to Given Time Derrida outlines the role that the gift concept played in the evolution of his thinking. It is clear from this that it is central to many of his writings; whether under its own name or through what he calls other “indissociable motifs,” which include: “speculation, destination…originary affirmation.”(x)* The idea of gift therefore appears to be foundational for many other concepts.

* Page number of quotation in Given Time

Beyond philosophy the main thinking on the gift that Derrida comments upon is that which has taken place within the field of anthropology, of particular note is Marcel Mauss’s 1925 essay The Gift. This studies the gift-giving rituals of archaic societies in Micronesia, Polynesia and the Pacific Northwest; focusing on their role in the development of tribal social and economic structures. Derrida describes Mauss’s discourse as:

“oriented by an ethics and a politics that tend to valorize the generosity of the giving-being. They oppose a liberal socialism to the inhuman coldness of economism.” (44)

Mauss’s work was instructive for many who followed him including Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose writings contributed to the development of structuralism. A methodology which was summed up by the philosopher Simon Blackburn as:

“the belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract culture.”

Structuralism was very influential and found its way into other fields of intellectual endeavour, including sociology, psychoanalysis and linguistics. It came under attack by a new wave of French thinkers from the 1960s onwards, including Jacques Derrida, which in part accounts for Given Time’s focus on Mauss’s The Gift.

Derrida doesn’t set out to disprove Mauss’s account of the gift, he says instead that the intention of his discourse is to clarify whether “an explicit formalisation of this question [i.e. of the gift] (is) possible?” (ix) Establishing the parameters within which the gift might be approached. Implicit in this is the limitation of Mauss’s anthropological account, which Derrida sees as being driven by the morality of: “a liberal anti-capitalism.” Leading him to look at other more fundamental, philosophical thinking on the gift, including that of Martin Heidegger. Derrida finds that Heidegger’s writings on the gift are intrinsic to his (Heidegger’s) fundamental theme of the Seinsfrage, the question of Being. Which leads Derrida to define Seinsfrage as “Being as question of presence.” (18)

In Heidegger’s analysis, things have both being and Being. They have a factual actuality, like things, but they also have Being, which is not in itself something physical. The presence of things as factual beings is so pervasive that we have a tendency to understand everything, including the gift, from within the paradigm of the concrete actuality of things.

Rather than seeing the gift as a type of physical entity, we must follow both Heidegger and Derrida down the path of Being if we are to better understand it. Derrida says:

“Being (Sein) – which is not, which does not exist as being present/present being – is signaled on the basis of the gift.” (19)

The gift is that through which the non-physical presence of Being is expressed. This relationship between Being and the gift is reflected in the structure of language. Whenever we say something “is” we are saying Being through the gift. In German this saying of Being is achieved explicitly through the gift. The German locution for “there is” is “es gibt,” for example es gibt Sein, (literally: “it gives Being”). Yet when translated into English (and French) the reference to the gift disappears. We translate es gibt Sein as “there is Being,” rather than “it gives Being,” the explicit reference to the gift disappears.

This is not something lacking in English and French, rather the English and French translations parallel the formal structure of language. For, as Derrida says, the “it gives” does “not form an utterance in the propositional structure of Greco-Latin grammar.” (20) Derrida goes on to quote Heidegger at length, (20-21) who says the “it gives” may not be in the idiom of the language but it is there in the matter of that which is expressed. When we say “there is” we are giving the presence of Being, but without its explicit expression.

Where does time fit into all this?
When we say “there is” we are giving the gift, the presence of Beings as a present, intrinsic to which is time – what is present is in the present. Where there is gift there is time, where there is Being there is time. Derrida deconstructs this bringing into being as a form of production achieved through a donation (i.e. a gift) of each (time and Being) to the other, which, like his title (Given Time) holds them in a relation, one to the other. (21)

“Giving … is to be determined … as a relation (which) holds the two toward each other and brings them into being.” (T&B, 5)**

** Martin Heidegger, “Time and Being” (1952).

What is produced in this event of donation, of giving, is presence, presencing as letting-presence.

“To let-presence means: to unconceal, to bring to openness. In unconcealing prevails a giving, the giving that gives presencing, that is Being, in letting-presence.” (ibid)

That which is no-thing, i.e. Being, is unconcealed, through the gift.

Hopefully this brief outline of how the concept of gift can be thought, equips us with a basic understanding. Helping us come to grip with the aporia that Given Time attempts to deal with: the gift to be a gift must not be seen as a gift. This leads Derrida to characterise the gift as the “impossible.” Something, which, like Being, is hidden and can only be brought into view with difficulty and then only fleetingly.

The interplay between what is hidden and attempts to make it concrete in practices such as philosophy are at the heart of Given Time, from the epigraph, which is like the whole of the text in miniature, onwards.

Derek Hampson

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