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

Structuralism – a very short overview

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

Jacques Derrida’s Given Time can be read in part as a critique of structuralism, the central belief of which is that elements of human culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure, such as language. It works to uncover the structures that underlie all the things that humans do, think, perceive, and feel.

Structuralism is a methodology, i.e. a body of methods, rules and beliefs, that has been applied to a diverse range of fields, including anthropology, sociology, psychology, literary criticism, economics and architecture. The most prominent thinkers associated with structuralism include the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss; whose “discreet and respectful critique” of Marcel Mauss is in turn critiqued by Derrida in chapter 3 of Given Time.

As an intellectual movement, structuralism was initially presumed to be the heir apparent to existentialism. However, by the late 1960s, many of structuralism’s basic tenets came under attack from a new wave of predominantly French intellectuals, including Jacques Derrida.
Adapted from the Wikipedia entry for “Structuralism”

Derek Hampson

Hau: the Aura of the Gift

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

In his 1925 essay The Gift, Marcel Mauss addresses the nature of the gifts exchanged in rituals such as the potlatch. Asking “what force is there in the given thing that causes its recipient to pay it back?” (GT, 41) Mauss names this “force” hau, a Maori word which might be translated as “aura.”

Hau signals the hidden power of the gift to demand restitution, it is that which carries out the synthesis, essential to the gift, between two antithetical operations, giving/taking or giving/returning.

Derek Hampson

Hau: a structuralist critique

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1950), critiques Mauss’s notion of hau. This is the mysterious force in the gift, given in the property-exchange rituals of archaic societies, which demands its return at a later date. Hau is necessary for the gift, as it produces the synthesis between these two antithetical operations of giving and returning.

Instead of focusing on the thing that is given in the gift and its call for return, Lévi-Strauss, in line with the principles of linguistic structuralism, directs us outwards, towards the language in which these practices of gift-giving are expressed. In those societies studied, the antithesis between giving/returning does not exist, as these “antithetical operations are expressed by the same word.”

He goes on to quote from Marcel Mauss who notes, in The Gift, that “Papuan and Melanesian have one single term to designate buying and selling, lending and borrowing. “Operations that are opposites are expressed by the same word.” (GT, 75) Therefore, Lévi-Strauss claims, there is no need for hau, the “aura” of the gift, which he calls a “magical” notion.

Derek Hampson

Derrida’s critique of Lévi-Strauss

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

Lévi-Strauss’s Linguisticism
Jacques Derrida in Given Time (pp.76-79) claims that Lévi-Strauss’s critique of hau, in which he locates gift-giving rituals such as the potlatch within a structuralist logic of exchange and relation, effectively annuls the gift; gifts cannot be exchanged “tit for tat.” Derrida goes on to say that the question of the given-thing is not a false problem, as Lévi-Strauss would have it. One which will “dissolve in the transparent light of an Aufklärung (clearing up) of relational logic.” (76)

Derrida characterises Lévi-Strauss’s analysis as belonging “to the rationality of the principle of reason.” One which appeals to linguistic concepts such as “zero phoneme” and “floating signifiers,” in order to resolve the contradictions inherent in notions such as hau; i.e. the antithetical operations of giving and taking within one expression. In Lévi-Strauss’s reasoning hau is an empty symbol, which is there as “the conscious expression of a semantic function,” to which we bring supplementary symbolic content to complete it. Lévi-Strauss’s argument follows the reasoning of symbolic logic, a logic which “summarises the general laws of language.”

For Derrida this analysis has the effect of substituting exchange for gift in the constitution of the symbolic, in events such as the potlatch. Leading Derrida to the conclusion “there is no gift as concerns reason.” The gift allows reason and not the other way around.

Derrida then comments that Lévi-Strauss’s claim “that all social phenomena can be assimilated to language,” was important for the “hegemonic institution of French structuralism as a linguisticism in the 60s.”

Derek Hampson

 The Title of the Gift

This post is part of the Art as Gift project

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

The Fold of Language

Derrida, pre-University essay on Shakespeare, written in 1950.
Writing in red his tutor’s comments and 10 out of 20 mark. © Stanfornd University

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

The Relationship Between Language and the Gift (GT, 79-81)
Derrida says any definition of language is informed by a certain relationship to the gift being there in advance, it is a relationship that obliges us to think the gift. We also speak of language as a given, one received out of a “fundamental passivity.” Language “gives one to think” but it also:

Steals, spirits away from us, whispers to us, and withdraws the responsibility it seems to inaugurate, it carries off the property of our own thoughts even before we have appropriated them (80)

The scope of this double capacity of language extends beyond the spoken idiom, “to all textuality in general.”

All semantic ambivalence and the syntactico-semantic problem of giving-taking are not situated only within the words of language or the elements of a textual system. Language is also an example of it, as is any textual determination. In a riposte to structuralism Derrida goes on to say:

One must not … ask oneself, in something close to rapturous wonder, how is it possible that to give and/or to take are said this way or that way in a language, … one must remember first of all that language is … a phenomenon of gift-countergift, of giving-taking—and of exchange. All the difficulties of nomination or writing in the broad sense are also difficulties of self-naming, of self-writing. (81)

Everything said about giving-taking folds back on language and writing as giving-taking. Giving comes back, comes down to taking and taking to giving, folding over not only language or writing but the text generally “beyond its linguistic or logocentric closure, beyond its narrow or common meaning.” This “come back” redoubles endlessly not only the semantic ambivalence that Beneveniste speaks of, but also the “ambivalence of the gift as good and bad, as gift and poison (Gift-gift).” (ibid)

Derek Hampson