The Title of the Gift

Post #12 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time

Following his critique of Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of Marcel Mauss’s The Gift, Jacques Derrida, in Given Time (pp. 78-81), goes on to detail a further structuralist response to Mauss’s account of gift and exchange rituals in archaic societies. That of Émile Benveniste, whose Gift and Exchange in Indo-European Vocabulary broadens Mauss’s claims of a functional relationship between the gift and exchange, to encompass Indo-European societies. Benveniste employs a structuralist approach, similar to Lévi-Strauss’s appeal to language’s “unconscious mental structure,” studying the vocabulary of ancient Indo-European societies in terms of their usages of the words that signify “to give” and “to take.”

Benveniste at first focuses on the root word which means “to give” (as in “donation”) across numerous archaic Indo-European languages. The certainty given by this constancy of meaning is interrupted by the discovery that the Hittite verb means not “to give” but “to take.” It is accepted that they are both the same verb, raising the possibility that the original meaning of might have been “to take” rather than “to give.” Which then leaves the question of how “to give” could have come from “to take.”

This, on the face of it, appears as an insoluble problem, an aporia, one that Benveniste proposes to resolve through an appeal to language, in terms of syntax (sentence construction) rather than semantics (sentence/word meaning). His answer to this problem is that means neither give nor take “but either one or the other depending on the construction.” Derrida gives the following analogy: ‘in English, “to take something from someone” means to take something that belongs to someone, whereas “to take something to someone” means to deliver, to give something to someone.’ (79) Thus means “to take hold,” one can take hold in order to give or to keep. This means that language has the capacity to choose which meaning of the word to accept at the expense of the other.

Derrida’s analysis
Derrida thinks that not all the problems are resolved by this “syntactic decidability,” as it can only function against a background of “semantic ambivalence.” One in which the meanings of “to give” and “to take” are never stable, they “proclaim themselves…as notions linked by their polarity and which were susceptible of the same expression.” (79) At its root both “to give” and “to take” are linked opposites, which can be employed to express the same meaning. Thus they have both equivalence and ambivalence.

This leads Derrida to say: “if giving is not simply the contrary or something other than taking, if the gift is not totally foreign to taking, if it is not even contrary to it, then we have to take on the gift.” (81)

“In other words, what we do not yet know is whether we should take its title for legal tender…all this comes down to, comes back to the title, to the question of the title as question of credit and to the title as question of counterfeit money.” (82)

Derek Hampson

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