The Politics of the Gift

Post #4 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time

Marcel Mauss’s Moral Conclusions
Marcel Mauss in The Gift proposes that the principle of the gift, because it is the foundation of the economies of archaic societies, must be both natural and universal and therefore it must underpin all our economic and social interactions.

Derrida’s analysis (pp. 63-66)
Derrida quotes at length from Mauss’s “Moral Conclusions,” in The Gift, in which Mauss calls for society to return to the customs of a gift economy; such as debt forgiveness, leading to: “more care for the individual, his life, his health, his education, his family and their future.” For Derrida these conclusions should not be read as an “epilogue external to the work,” they provide the theoretical organisation of Mauss’s discourse, a “good but moderate blend of reality and the ideal.” (64) In which both donor and donee are implicated in the gift: “one must be responsible for what one gives and what one receives.” (63)

Derrida characterises Mauss’s thinking on the gift as being driven by the “mediocrity of the mediating desire,” (64) i.e. compromise. The pure gift as an excess of generosity turns the good gift into the bad, Mauss searches for “the morality of the mediocratis,” the median, between the good and bad gift. In his “Moral Conclusions” Mauss says the gift directs the donor to give beyond the call of the gift, and yet, at the same time, be responsible for what is given. A society ordered on the gift economy must not make the donee reliant on others; he must become self-reliant “he must defend his interests, both personally and as a member of a group.” (64) Yet, for Derrida, this “happy medium” of donor circumspection and donee independence is as impossible as are the two extremes of the gift, the pure gift and the poisoned gift.

Derrida claims that Mauss’s call for a return to the principles of the gift economy is not a regression but a revolution, a “natural revolution,” as is the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. This return to “man’s nature,” which for Mauss is the eternal morality and the bedrock of the least advanced societies, is a return to a natural, and therefore universal society set in motion by the gift, leading to:

“The joy of public giving: the delight in generous expenditure on the arts; the pleasure in hospitality and in private and public festival.” (65)

Derrida glimpses the influence of Rousseau in this “non-Marxist socialism, a liberal anti-capitalism or anti-mercantilism…is the morality or the politics that organizes the structure, even the theoretical telos of this essay.” (66)

Derek Hampson

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