The Law of Alms

Post #30 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time

The demand of the beggar is the demand of the gods (137-142)

“Generosity is an obligation because Nemesis avenges the poor and the gods for the superabundance of happiness and wealth of certain people.” (Mauss, 18)

The beggar signifies the absolute demand of the other, which is the unquenchable thirst for the gift, for alms. The giving of alms to the beggar is within a sacrificial structure. Sacrifice is different to a pure gift – it is giving is in the form of destruction, hoping for a benefit. Mauss calls the sacrifice “the present made to the gods.” Alms are a calculated sacrifice.

The poor, marginal people excluded from the process and circulation of wealth, come to represent the gods or the dead. The look of the beggar or of the poor is one of incrimination, accusation, a demand from the other. You must pay, i.e. give to stop the spirit from coming back to haunt you. The giving of alms is in order to “get in good graces and make peace with it.”

The persecution of the beggar
Counterfeit Money is marked by misfortune from the moment of the first encounter. The condition of the poor man is on account of misfortune, he is destitute, speechless. The absolute demand of the other that the beggar gives, is communicated through his eyes. His look accuses and frightens the two friends, who are persecuted by the law, by justice, in the face of which they are in turn destitute. The poor man has nothing to give, he can only demand restitution in the disquieting mute eloquence of his look, which communicates humility and reproach. Baudelaire likens this look of the beggar to that of a beaten dog. Elsewhere he invokes the image of the dog and the poor to define his “urban muse,” “his poet’s inspiration as painter of modern capital and of the modern capital.” (143) Saying the poet shares the same fate of exclusion as the dog and the poor.

The trial of Counterfeit Money
The demand of the poor man embodies the figure of the law. The two friends are indebted and guilty as soon as the beggar silently looks at them. “They are on trial, they appear before the donee’s court as before the law.” (144) They treat with gratitude whoever accepts their payment in order to acquit themselves of their debt.

The story is a trial, a process [procession, walk]. The two friends walk for the length of the story, which also contains the time of a judicial procedure: incrimination [the meeting with the beggar], law [the giving of the gift] judgment [“I will never forgive him”]. In meeting the beggar they are before the law.

Derek Hampson

Previous Post: Two Types of Luck

Two types of luck

Post #29 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time

Tukhhē and Automaton (133)
When speaking of fortune Derrida calls upon the Aristotelian concept of tukhē over the linked concept of automaton. The former is a chance, read into the event in terms of its outcome, of its end, which Derrida calls “finalized chance.” Whereas automaton has within it the idea that unforeseen things happen but without any intentionality.

The event of the gift as told in Counterfeit Money is prepared for in advance of its end, the friend prepares his change so that the counterfeit coin is at hand for when the right opportunity offers itself, as he knows it will.

Derek Hampson

Next Post: The Law of Alms

Previous Post: On Nature and Production

On Nature and Production

Post #28 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time

Derrida (128) discusses the unity of fortune and nature, “fortune is nature” (126), expressed as the luck of the draw and what gives generously at birth, to the nascent being. Saying the alliance between these two dominates the narrator’s discourse in Counterfeit Money.

The primary concept of nature that Derrida calls upon is phusis. Saying that nature can be either the great, generous and genial donor, which everything, law, art etc, comes back to. On the other hand nature can be the “order of natural necessities,” laws of nature in opposition to law, art etc. Here nature’s relationship to the gift is as what is given.

Similarly the concept of production can be opposed to the natural and to the gift. What is produced is not given and producing seems to exclude donation. Yet, Derrida asks, is not the “pheuin of phusis” i.e. what nature gives, the “donation of what gives birth, the originary productivity…that brings to light and flowering.” “Is it not what gives form and, by bringing things into the phenomenality of the light, unveils or develops the truth of that which it gives.”

Here we have a donating production in which fortune and necessity [the event and the machine?] are allied. It is worth noting that production translates the Greek poesis which means both to make but also has a relation to bringing forth of the beautiful, the poetic.

Derek Hampson

The Fortunes of Counterfeit Money

Post #27 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time

A scene conditioned by fate and social advantage (125-127)
The discourse of Counterfeit Money as a whole is marked by the aleatory, by chance, by fortune (tukhē). According to the narrator of the story the unforgivable action of his friend, in giving the counterfeit coin to the beggar, could only be excusable if his friend’s action was driven by a desire to create an unforeseeable event out of a single stroke of luck in the life of the beggar. (125)

In his analysis Derrida plays with the word “fortune,” the root of which is fors: “chance, luck, fate.” The seeming random gift of the counterfeit coin to the beggar is only possible because of the two friends’ fortunate encounter with the beggar. Derrida calls this poor man, who the friends come across by chance, the “fortune of the story.” Nothing would have happened, no gift, no unforgiveness without the “good fortune that puts the beggar in the path of the friends.” In addition the friends have the fortune to be in possession of a fortune, which means they have at their disposal the change from a purchase.

Derrida claims that the scene of Counterfeit Money is presided over by fate, there before the chance encounter and the gift of the counterfeit coin to the poor man. In addition to the fortunate conditions within which the story of Counterfeit Money operates there is a further condition that needs to be taken into account. That is the social condition of the two “idlers,” who have the fortune, whether by fate or by luck, to be blessed with a fortune that enables them to consider donating some of the surplus of their resources to the beggar.

Baudelaire does not comment on the origins of the social and economic condition of the two friends, making their condition appear as natural “as if nature had decided this belonging to social class.” This leads Derrida to say “fortune is nature,” it gives freely to those who have the “grace” to receive, it gives them a gift that gives them the wherewithal to give.

The narrator expresses a further gift of nature to him, the faculty of “looking for noon at two o’clock,” Derrida calls this looking for what does not naturally occur in its place a “counter-natural gift.” It is a gift that is labouriously exercised, yet this work of labour does not lead to insight. Instead the narrator’s idea, that the reason for his friend’s gift of a counterfeit coin to the poor man was driven by a desire to create an event in his life, comes to him unexpectedly, in an unforeseeable manner, “there suddenly came the idea…” This insight is given to him freely and fortuitously “as if by a chance encounter.”

Derek Hampson

The Luck of the Gift

Post #26 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time

The Unconditionality of the Gift and the Event (123)

The event…the unique, the one-off, happening now and never to be repeated.

Both the gift and the event must be unforeseeable and must be structured by the aleatory the “chancy,” apprehended in a “perception that is absolutely surprised by the encounter with what it perceives.” A gift or an event that was foreseeable would not be “lived” as either a gift or an event.

The condition common to both the gift and the event is a certain “unconditionality.” The event as gift and the gift as event must be irruptive, unmotivated, disinterested. They must tear the fabric, interrupt the continuum of the narrative that they call for. The effect of the gift and event must be in the instant, bringing into relation luck and the freedom of the throw of the dice. The gift and the event obey nothing, except perhaps principles of disorder.

Yet effects of pure chance will never constitute a gift if its meaning includes the desire to give a gift. Derrida asks “what would a gift be if I gave without wanting to give?” This is the paradox of the gift, which is explored from the beginning of Given Time. There is no gift without the intention of giving, the gift can only have a meaning that is intentional in both senses of the word. Intention as wanting to give and intentionality as being directed towards the gift and the act of giving. Yet this intentional meaning also threatens the gift with being taken for and kept as a gift, annulling it as a gift. This expresses the enigma of the gift event, which must encompass both chance and intentional freedom, “these two conditions must – miraculously, graciously – agree with each other.”

Derek Hampson

The Narrative Structure of Counterfeit Money 2

Post #25 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time

What happens in the story happens to the narration (122)
Derrida says that the effect of Counterfeit Money is that of an event that has taken place. This event is not the content of the story, that which the narrative is generally thought to report. What happens happens to the narration, to the elements of the narration itself. Derrida characterises the standard understanding of the narrative discourse in terms of its spatiality and temporality, saying we generally think that the events that it reports “have taken place outside of it and before it.” This is not the case in Counterfeit Money, where what happens happens to the narrator and to the narration, it provokes the narration and the narrator, who says of his friend “I will never forgive him.”

In Counterfeit Money the components of the narration are that without which the event would not take place. It is as if the narrative condition were the cause of the recounted thing, as if the narrative produced the event it is supposed to report. There has to be the condition of narrative for the events to take place. The narrative is the cause and the condition of the thing, that is, the event of gift and forgiveness and the possibility of the impossibility of gift and unforgiveness.

The possibility of narration is the condition of the story, where a story is history, what has happened, narrative condition emerges from the desire to know, which leads to the recounting of events, the story. The time of the narrative, the given time, is that the desire for narrative is in advance of the event. Its spatiality what Derrida calls its spacing, is in the distance that the friends take from each other in their steps on leaving the tobacconist’s. Each step is in the time of the event, proceeding “from given moment to given moment.” The step of the friends “scans the time of the story.”

Derek Hampson

The Narrative Structure of Counterfeit Money 1

Post #24 of the Art as Gift project’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s Given Time

The economic cycle of confession and unforgiveness (121)
There is a structure of narrative relation between the friend and the narrator in Counterfeit Money. This is expressed in what the friend recounts to the narrator, “it was the counterfeit coin,” boasting and confessing, what in truth happened. This telling of the truth by the friend produces an effect on the narrator, creating an event on the side of the narrator, the narrator is provoked by his friend’s confession.

Derrida characterises this act of confession as the heart of the economic circle of the narrative, of the friend giving the counterfeit coin, then confessing his actions “without repentance and without mercy.” In doing this he gives himself to view, he gives himself over to judgment. The narrator takes no account of this gift and does not respond to it with forgiveness.

Derrida now asks “if the friend sought to provoke the narrator, what did he want to push him to do? And how?” Speculating that the relation of the narrative is there in what it withholds from seeing.

Derek Hampson