The Delay of the Gift

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

From Reception to Restitution

In his 1925 essay The Gift, Marcel Mauss seeks to explain the exchange economies of archaic societies in terms of gifts given and gifts returned. Mauss approaches this through a study of the potlatch, a property-giving ritual practised by indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada and the USA. He uses his account to challenge contemporary views of the potlatch’s underlying structure, which was thought as an economic cycle, of debts entered into and debts repaid, at a legally binding “due date.” Instead Mauss describes the potlatch as having a gift structure, one of “presents made” and “presents repaid,” characterising it as a process of “exchanging gifts.”

Rather than a contract between donor and donee, with an inherent due-date, the gift/countergift as theorised by Mauss is a force immanent to the thing: “a mysterious force, the thing itself demands gift and restitution.” Time is central to this, the gift cannot be reciprocated immediately, a length of time, a term, a delay must elapse before its return.

Derrida’s analysis (pp. 36-40)
Derrida points out the incongruity of Mauss’s description, gifts cannot be exchanged “tit for tat,” as this leads to their annulment. Yet the gift as given and its restitution by its return, the phenomenon of the exchanged gift, is undeniable. The gift and its exchange are joined, they are in synthesis. For Derrida this paradox constitutes the “madness of the gift,” one which informs his thinking on the subject.

He says that the syn of synthesis, which means “together,” has “an essential relation to time,” in terms of a “certain deferral/differing in time.” (38) In Derrida’s eyes the delay of the gift, its term, as a word and as the length of time of delayed return, creates a differance.* This acts as a “guardrail”** against the madness of the gift, which to be a gift must remain foreign to the circle of exchange, yet is pulled into it through its restitution, the antithesis of the gift.

Thus the temporalised thing, that which is in a neutral and homogenised time, is transformed as a gift, “temporized” – made subject to the time of delay. Derrida says this force of delay is inscribed in/upon the given-exchanged thing, in terms of “limit and time.” The thing of the gift has its essence in this demand of the “gift-counter-gift.” For Mauss the delay, the term between the reception of the gift and its restitution, forms the “original essential feature of the gift.” (39) Thus the time of delay appears as intrinsic to the gift.

*A key term for Derrida, plays on the French différer, which means both “to defer” and “to differ.”

**”Guardrail” is the translation of garde-fou, which, when translated literally, means “crazy guard.”

Derek Hampson

Marcel Duchamp: The Delay in Glass

The Potlatch a War of Property

potlatch
potlach2
A display of goods to be given away at a potlatch at Yalis (Alert Bay, British Columbia), ca. 1900.

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

The Potlatch
A gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, among whom it is traditionally the primary economic system. (Wikipedia)

Marcel Mauss’s description of the potlatch:
“madly extravagant …Everything is based upon the principles of antagonism and of rivalry. The political status of individuals in the brotherhoods and clans… are gained in a “war of property,” just as they are in a real war…Yet everything is conceived of as if it were a “struggle of wealth.”…In a certain number of cases, it is not even a question of giving and returning, but of destroying, so as not to want to even to appear to desire repayment. Whole boxes of olachen (candlefish) oil or whale oil are burnt, as are houses and thousands of blankets. The most valuable copper objects are broken and thrown into the water, in order to crush and to “flatten” one’s rival. In this way one not only promotes oneself, but also one’s family, up the social scale.” (The Gift, 37)

Derek Hampson

The Madness of the Gift

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

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

The Politics of the Gift

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

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