The Madness of the Gift

Post #5 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time.

Unreasoned absurdity
Derrida says that the aporia that Given Time deals with, i.e. the “impossibility” of the gift, which to be a gift must not be recognised as such, is by necessity ordered on madness. Because of this there is always the danger of any interpretation of the gift, including his own, becoming contaminated by the same disorder. This is something that Derrida discerns in Mauss’s account of the potlatch, the gift-giving ritual practised by certain tribal societies. Further signs of the madness of the gift are given by the “madly extravagant” potlatch itself, which can lead to unflinching destruction, one in which: “Whole boxes of olachen (candlefish) oil or whale oil are burnt, as are houses and thousands of blankets.” (46)

Derrida’s analysis (pp. 35-37)
On the face of it, the discourse on madness, which is the gift, appears as mad, it is unreasoned (alogos) and absurd (atopos). The rendering of a reasoned (logos) account of the gift is impossible as the gift cannot enter into the lawful, ordered balancing (nomos) required. Furthermore the gift, and by extension its discourse, has an atopic character, the gift to be a gift cannot have taken place (topos). (35) At this point Derrida associates another aspect of the gift, that of forgetting, an “affirmative condition of the gift,” with madness. Asking how can it be anything other than mad to desire to forget the giving of the gift, a giving which is the “origin of the good?” (36)

Returning to reason and order, the idea of madness can also be applied to the rational logos itself, which demands that the gift be annulled by equivalence (i.e. the giving back, the restitution, the exchange of the gift). This leads Derrida to ask: “Is madness the economic circulation annulling the gift in equivalence? Or is it the excess, the expenditure, or the destruction?” (37)

Derek Hampson

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