Last week we scoped how sharing lies somewhere on a continuum between giving and exchanging, where what is being shared is singly, communally or even unowned. We concluded with Belk that sharing was closer to giving than exchanging.
So this week, we are going to spend some time thinking about the gift, and try to better establish how sharing is more live the gift. I have also indicated that whilst there is strangely little written about sharing, there is large and contentious anthropological discourse surrounding giving.
The most famous account of the gift is that of Marcel Mauss. Mauss was interested to find alternatives to the increasingly uniform acceptance of capitalism, both in contemporary society, and as a way of explaining other societies. The problem that guided Mauss’ essay was: why is there an obligation to repay a gift. There are many obligations involved in gifting: the obligation to give, the obligation to receive, and then the obligation to return the giving, but Mauss focuses only on the latter.
If somebody gives you something, as a gift, it is not meant to be reciprocated. This is what Derrida in an essay inspired by Mauss, calls the pure gift. This ideal proper gift happens when there is utterly no reciprocation, certainly no return gift, but also no thanks, or even recognition. To receive anything in return, betrays the giftness of the gift and turns it back into an exchange.
If somebody gives you something, as a gift, it is not meant to be reciprocated. This is what Derrida in an essay inspired by Mauss, calls the pure gift. This ideal proper gift happens when there is utterly no reciprocation, certainly no return gift, but also no thanks, or even recognition. To receive anything in return, betrays the giftness of the gift and turns it back into an exchange.This is only an ideal. But even Belk has a quite stringent set of conditions on what counts as a gift
Compare this to Theodore Adorno’s bemoaning the extent to which we no longer put any work into gift giving, something that Clive Dilnot follows up, implicating design in making a profitable industry out of faux gifts.
This is often called the violence of the gift. The dread with which we receive the news that someone has a gift for us. They give it to us and watch us open it (why is it hidden in the first place); the moment we glimpse it (but actually not too soon) we know that we must express in speech and action, surprise and yet delight at such an appropriate thing for us. And then in addition to thanking that person then and there we must now undertake to find some equally violently appropriate gift for some equally appropriate occasion, double guessing comparative worth, etc.
So why so many obligations? The gift in principle should exempt itself from any obligation, and the gift in contemporary capitalist society should be excused any obligation. And yet it does, in complicated ways. Birthdays, Holidays, Weddings.
Mauss, picking up the work of other anthropologists, was intrigued by societies, sometimes subsistence ones, in which members would give away all that they had or had cultivated. It was totally counter intuitive that they should give in this way in these circumstances. (Another aside; it is ironic that sharing occurs more in societies with scarcer resources than surpluses. One could imagine that sharing is something more prevalent in wealthier societies, because people can; they have more with which to share – or, they can share without it impacting their well-being. Whereas societies with scarcity have less sharing as people protect what they have. On the other hand, when there is scarcity, human decency should insist on sharing.)
What anthropologists found in such potlatch societies, is thatA)the giving away, which looked initially wasteful, lead to return givings awayB) that the givings away were a competitive status game
Economic anthropologists of the less substantivist and more rationalist bent, call b) generalized reciprocation. It is a giving, but with the expectation of some return, of a non-calculated amount, at a non-determined time, and perhaps in some other form Sahlins distinguishes generalized reciprocation (family), balanced (social), negative (unknown).
A) signals that what is important in giving is not the gift but the social bonds it draws on or draws out. As Eric Hyde says, gifts are erotic, in that they bind people. They are primarily social, if not, Mauss argues, the primary stuff of the social.This makes sense, particularly within societies of scarcity. When people depend on shared resources they need to build social ties, which they accomplish through systems and habits of gifting.
But we still need to explain how this happens. Mauss focused on a Maori notion: ‘hau.’ This is something like the identity of the giver embodied in the gift. The ‘hau’ wants to return from its place with the gift recipient to its original owner. Eric Hyde points out that this makes the gift restless, motivating its movement. Hau may seem exotic, but it is in fact still the weird sense we have when we feel like we can’t simply trash a gift we don’t like, or worse, regift it.
For Mauss, this pointed to a very important aspect of the gift; that it both and neither the property of the giver or the receiver; nor is it in ‘common.’ This meant that the gift pointed to something that is not communist or capitalist. Rather it pointed to something fundamentally shared about everyday socio-material life. Hyde, following Sahlins, identifies the way this is an economy of increasing value: the more it is shared, the more value it has. Which is the opposite of most capitalist things, who have a one time value that evaporates with the first exchange.
There is however, something quite anti-capitalistic about the gift in Mauss’ analysis. Though not definable the property of one person, it is nonetheless profoundly social, even to the extent of having something close to its own personality. This fetishistic quality, makes it the exact opposite of a commodity. In last week’s lecture, we discussed the way modern economics disembeds exchange relations from their social context. A classic example is the commodification of things. A commodity is something that has lost its uniqueness. When sugar becomes a commodity, it makes no difference about whether you are trading sugar from Florida, the Bahamas or Australia: sugar is sugar. It is just the sugary stuff devoid of any particularities, such as the trace of its origin, where it was made.
Or as Marx inisisted, erased of any traces of who has made it. When a capitalist hires a worker to labor at making something, it is part of the nature of that exchange that worker lose authorship of what they make; what is made circulates under the sign, the brand name, of the owner of the company, not the name of the person whose sweat and perhaps blood was spilled, upon the product, to make it. Transfer of ownership, from the worker to the capitalist, so that the latter can circulate it on the market, requires erasing any trace of the product’s making. The product appears always already made, with no evidence of its having been made, by someone somewhere. Marx called this alienating of the product of labor from the laborer reification, because the thing made ends up just being a thing, as if never made. This is also known as commodification. Whereas, gifting reinstates people into, or at least, inseparably with, things. If not the maker, then the gifter, and the receiver, becomes inseparable from what and how the things is.
It is important to see that if gifting can decommoditize a thing – if I pick up a thoroughly depersonalized ‘hello kitty’ rubber and give it to my daughter, it becomes a completely different, personalized thing – money is conversely the ultimate recommoditizer. If a friend’s daughter gives me $1 for one of a number of ‘hello kitty’ rubbers I have, there will be no personals involved. Think of the awkward conversations that happen when someone who borrowed something from you, decides after a while to tell you that they’d like to keep it forever more, and offers to give you some money for it.At the Rachel Botsman talk, the marketing manager of Airbnb talked about the structural difference between his business and couch surfing, even though both are about lending excess spatial capacity to travelling strangers. The former is paid whereas the latter is free. This makes Airbnb very strange in terms of commoditization: it is someone’s personal house; they are more often than not still there, greeting and eating with you. So the sociality of the commodity (though that phrase is an oxymoron) is unavoidable. And yet money is still pivotal.
All of this is particularly important with respect to design. To explain why, I would like to return to Hannah Arendt and her The Human Condition, discussed last week. Then, I emphasized the dichotomous version of her argument: the reversal of the valorization of public over the private, as the latter becomes the site of individual identity, and the former becomes the realm of only economically valuable work. Arendt’s book is in fact informed by a tripartite model:Action – the public realm of evanescent meaningLabor – the private realm of unending sustenanceBut also Work – the production of the near-permanent, that which improves the efficiency of labor, and gives respite from the unendingness of both action and labor.
Elaine Scarry picks up this durability of the product of work in her philosophy of making. For Scarry, things are made for very intimate reasons. One person feels the pain of another, and comes out with something that will alleviate that pain. But having produced that thing, it then endures, beyond perhaps the timeframe of the two, the maker and the recipient who prompted its making. In this sense, the thing becomes a gift to all who suffer such pain. The pain relieving it does, its work, is a shareable excess.
This suggests that it is the thing that has agency. But it is also the people who appreciate the thing. Just as Kant (and later Scarry) describes beauty as something that demands sharing – “you must see this” – so designs impress their to-be-shared value.
This raises one final anthropological aspect of sharing. Belk has a useful summary: Bird-David (2005) sketches a brief history of theoretical anthropological accounts for such sharing. She notes that in the 1960s it was wrongly believed that the meat was given away so it would not spoil. During the 1970s, Sahlins’ (1972) notions of generalized reciprocity held sway. In the 1980s it was argued that meat was seen as common property with everyone entitled to a share, or, alternatively, it was maintained that an egalitarian ideology regarded everyone as political equals, with sharing being used as a means to reduce material inequality. And the 1990s saw the emergence of a view that Bird-David (1990, 2005) characterizes as that of the giving environment. Here the environment is seen as giving to people just as parents give to children, and therefore it is natural to pass along this natural bounty by sharing with others, as Ingold (2000) summarizes, these people also share their lives and environments with nonhuman plants, animals, and features of the landscape. The entire distinction between subjects and objects blurs within this worldview (Woodburn 1998).In this last argument, sharing happens as an extension of what is already being shared, what has its being in being a gift. There are many philosophers who have talked about nature, or existence in general as a gift. In German, the phrase ‘there is’ is literally ‘it gives.’ Hannah Arendt calls this natality; that one is born anew but amidst a world already formed.
So in conclusionThe shared should have an identity, that makes it want to be more shared – a hau.It should be strongly, anonymously designed, giving it capacity for but also a tendency toward, being shared.And it should be articulate a relation to a general giftedness, and be giving.
The permanence of thingsmakes them gifts that can<br />be shared to people who<br />do not know the designer<br />
Things that enhance the beauty of living want to be shared<br />
What shares itself with people, is in turn shared amongst those people<br />
The shared should have an identity, that makes it want to be more shared<br />It should be strongly, anonymously designed, giving it a tendency toward being shared<br />And it should articulate with a relation to a general giftedness, and be giving<br />