Return to SCE Homepage
Return to Session Program
Return to MMLA Page

Printer-Friendly Version

Global Exchanges
2002 MMLA Panels
Minneapolis, MN
10 November


Mark Osteen
Loyola College

Gift or Commodity?

Do not cite without permission of the author.

One of the primary challenges for gift theory has been to distinguish gift exchanges from market exchanges, and thereby to discriminate between gifts and commodities. Usually the distinction is presented historically: with the rise of bourgeois individualism and industrial (and then post-industrial) economies, the realms of gift and commodity have become ever more estranged. This is the position of, among others, Lewis Hyde, who further argues that market exchanges also alienate those who practice them; in contrast, he writes, gift exchange constitutes an "erotic commerce" that expresses and creates social bonds (155).1 This Jekyll-and-Hyde dichotomy subtends a number of other dualities in social theory: the domestic vs. the public spheres; female vs. male domains; "society" vs. "economy" (Carrier 192); Georges Bataille’s general vs. restricted economies; the oikos vs. the agora (the home vs. the marketplace); alienable vs. inalienable objects. As Arjun Appadurai notes (11), the tendency to view the two realms as "fundamentally opposed" remains a marked feature of anthropological discourse.2

These descriptions are not, of course, neutral; rather, in both Left and Right theory, in Mauss as well as in Marx, the commodity is treated as the sign of a fall from grace, a demonic phenomenon emerging horns intact from capitalism's drive toward total commodification. In Marxist discourse, commodification is always linked to alienation and fetishism--the reverse modalities of a utopian or prelapsarian economy of barter, gift, and pure use-value that was allegedly, as Jonathan Parry and Maurice Bloch describe it, "non-exploitative, innocent and even transparent" (9). But whereas Mauss describes systems of "total prestation" that blend barter, commerce, and gift exchange, thereby mixing altruism and self-interest, analyses of contemporary society invariably emphasize the gulf between gift and commodity circulation. Yet this tendency may stem not from the diagnosis of a universal social reality, but rather from the fact that "our ideology of the gift has been constructed in antithesis to market exchange" (Parry and Bloch 9; emphasis theirs): we lament the condition that our own discourse has helped to generate.

My aim in this paper is to examine several theoretical treatments of the gift/commodity distinction, to question and complicate their polarization, and finally to outline and critique the major limitations in most of these accounts. To my mind, there are three: first, an inability or refusal to acknowledge that objects exchanged may be fully understood only in the context of objects withheld from exchange; second, a stubborn adherence to the ethos of individualism and its attenuated notion of human subjectivity; and third, an elision of the spiritual or sacred dimension--the immaterial but indispensable aura--of the gift. I hope to suggest that making sense of the gift vs. commodity distinction does not merely involve, as Appadurai suggests, taking account of the "calculative dimension" of gifts (13), but requires that we question our very conceptions of identity and sociality.

Before focusing on the gift, I wish briefly to challenge the reflexive notion that commodification and commodities are inevitably impure or disabling. In fact, commodification can, in some instances, be enabling and productive. For example, in Time and Commodity Culture, John Frow suggests that the sale of Australian aboriginal art permits money to flow toward the impoverished artisans while also keeping a version of their culture alive, albeit in kitschified form (136-8). Jonathan Parry cites the case of gifts--dana--given to Brahmin priests in Banaras, India, which are generally regarded as dirty, loaded with the sins of the donors, and hence unwelcome and morally opprobrious. In contrast, the chicanery of merchants--and the commodites involved in these transactions–can be treated neutrally (see Parry, "Moral Perils").3 We might also point to a curious relationship between aesthetic objects and their market value. In the case of, say, literary manuscripts, commodity-value encourages preservation, which often, in turn, enhances the manuscripts' aesthetic value by encouraging continued scholarly access, if not attention. In short, commodification is not necessarily at odds with "culture." Moreover, as Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff have shown, commodity status is not permanent for most objects; rather, the term may accurately name only one phase of an object's “career” (Appadurai 16). A commodity is not a thing but a process or, better, a system of relations. I want to show a little later how the status of objects may change, and discuss the ways that commodities may be decommodified. But for now it seems clear enough that total non-commodification and complete commodification are extreme conditions that seldom exist in fact (see Kopytoff 75, 87).

Yet social theorists at both ends of the political spectrum continue to use these polarities as explanatory tools, and some even act as though these ideals have real-world instances. For example, in the perfectly decommoditized world described by Kopytoff, every single item would be "singular, unique and unexchangeable" for money (69). There would be no sale, but only a wide range of gift exchanges, none of which would be competitive or even self-interested (whether there would therefore be a self, in the sense we know it, is a separate question). In his Maussian study of the gift/commodity distinction, James Carrier delineates a similar "ideology" of the perfect gift. Ideally, Carrier claims, the perfect present is timeless, and its material expression irrelevant: hence, we have "the gift that keeps on giving,” and "it's the thought that counts" (149). Second, the perfect gift is free, unconstrained, and unconstraining: no return is expected (157). Finally, the parties involved are as free and unconstrained as their presents, so that perfect gift givers are just like Homo economicus, only nicer (Carrier 158-9). Russell Belk's description of the perfect gift, while overlapping with Carrier’s to some degree, ultimately paints a far different picture. For him, the perfect gift involves sacrifice and altruism (the giver must give of him- or herself), so that, far from being unconstrained, its aim is to imbricate the donor in social relations. Second, the gift must not be an object needed for mere sustenance and must be appropriate for the recipient (food gifts should be fancy fruit or candy, not bags of potatoes): in contrast to Carrier's outline, the material qualities matter immensely. Finally, the perfect gift must surprise and delight the recipient (presumably because of its appropriateness and luxuriousness; see Belk 61-68). As I'll suggest, Carrier's vision presupposes an autonomous self, whereas Belk's adheres to the principles of spontaneity and superfluity that I outline in the introduction to this volume.

Although James Laidlaw's essay in The Question of the Gift describes an instance that approaches Carrier's description of the perfect, unconstraining gift, it still seems more an abstract ideal than a concrete social practice, at least in Western societies. Nevertheless, few theorists have been content to leave the perfect gift undisturbed. Moreover, both Belk and Carrier admit that a discrepancy exists between the level of articulated cultural values and the level of everyday behavior, so that although we imagine that we give freely, in fact we understand that giving and receiving incur obligations, and we may also exaggerate the sacrifice and pleasure involved (Carrier 157; Belk 69).4 Less sympathetic theorists--especially neoclassical economists--readily re-explain the gift in their own terms. David Cheal lists three ways that such theorists reappropriate gift exchanges into the discourse of the marketplace: by capitalist transformation (in which gifts are viewed as vestigial holdovers from an earlier era); by emotional sequestration (gift exchanges are said to occur only within the realm of the family or household, and thus do not challenge the separation of spheres); and by economic rationalization (wherein gift giving is simply reanalyzed as self-interest; 4-8).

As Margaret Radin observes, the chronic use of "market rhetoric" renders invisible anything outside of the market. Thus the only explanation neoclassical economists can muster for why some things are withheld from market exchange is market failure (Radin 7, 22). Further, neoclassicals such as Gary Becker and legal theorists such as Richard Posner employ market rhetoric to paint a caricatured picture of human relations in which every person engages in constant cost-benefit analyses of such matters as bearing children and perpetrating rape. For these theorists even babies and body parts are fungible items, and in their schemata, all values are commensurable, objectively measurable, and alienable (see Radin 6-8, 92-94).5 Obviously there is no place in such theories for gifts, which are represented as commodities in sheep's clothing; gift exchange, likewise, is just an alias for self-interest. But this conceptual scheme is powerful because it can translate virtually any human interaction into its own terms; indeed, as Radin points out, it is impossible to refute its arguments while staying within its frame. One must ask, however, whether market rhetoric provides a complete or even accurate picture of social life, and whether the obsessive recurrence to it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which formerly sacred or non-fungible things--babies, kidneys--become commodities precisely because they are habitually treated as such by economistic ideologies.

Although theorists such as Cheal, Carrier, and Jacques T. Godbout also recognize that the perfect gift is largely a mystification, they retain a belief in the possibility of extravagance and altruism; for them, even though gifts create obligations, they are not to be extorted, expected or perhaps even fully explained. Cheal, for example, argues that the special nature of gift exchanges derives from their condition as "redundant transactions." They are redundant because they do not conform to conventions, always going beyond the merely expected; they are balanced exchanges that bring no net advantage to their recipients; the objects received are those that the recipients could have provided themselves; and they are ritualized and multiple (12-13). But Cheal's theory presents some serious difficulties. First, if gifts are redundant and exceed convention, then they must be designed to produce not balance but imbalance. That is, "going beyond" expectations will prompt the recipient to do the same, and then again, thereby perpetuating a permanent, spiraling imbalance in which each tries to outdo the other (this phenomenon, I should add, is by no means a bad thing; Godbout describes this alternating disequilibrium as the essence of the gift economy: 33, 93). Perhaps more importantly, Cheal's description, like Carrier's, presumes that gifts are given by those same maximizers of utility so ubiquitous in neoclassical economics. For in order for there to be extravagance, there must first be at least an implicit calculation of the merely adequate. Although Cheal (like Marshall Sahlins) suggests that the closer to perfect balance a transaction lies, the less likely it is to be friendly, nonetheless his definition of "redundancy" provides little resistance to "economic rationalizations" that propose that givers give in order to get more back.

Is there really a free gift, then? And if so, do we even want to make one? Perhaps we should distinguish between the first and subsequent gifts, as does Georg Simmel, who argues that only the original gift is truly "free," because in making a return we are always "obliged ethically" and operate under a "coercion" ("Faithfulness" 392). But what prompts the first gift? Is it also made with some expectation of reward? According to Jacques Derrida, the instant an action is even conceived of as a donation it becomes freighted with expectation, if only of that warm feeling we get when a loved one opens our Christmas package. Thus, as Rodolphe Gasché argues, there is no such thing as an originary gift; if the principle of reciprocity obtains, every gift is already a response, "a counter-prestation" (111): every gift always repays or responds to some imagined or remembered emotional or material obligation. If even the recognition or remembrance of the gift as such obliterates it, then, as Derrida claims, the gift must be defined as whatever escapes the measure of discourse and memory; it is therefore unnameable and perhaps even unthinkable (16). Yet we cannot dispense with our belief in it. Hence, Derrida argues, the gift is paradoxical: "there is no gift without bond, without bind, without obligation or ligature," but there is also no gift that does not try to "untie itself from obligation, from debt, contract, exchange" (27). The only way out of this bind for Derrida is to reclaim for the gift economy "chance . . . the involuntary, even unconsciousness or disorder" (123). As I suggest in the introduction to this collection, Derrida's paradox is founded upon a set of misrepresentations. In any case, how can one make an involuntary gift? A gift without volition is an accident, not a present. The deeper problem for Derrida is that the same intention that makes the gift possible also makes it impossible.6 If we restrict ourselves to the rational and the material, to the presumption of reason and choice, to the identification of reason with calculation, there seems to be no way out: like Derrida we are hemmed in by the very dichotomy between generosity and calculation that we aim to deconstruct (see the introduction to this volume for further discussion of these ethical dilemmas). For him, our only hope is to make intention and chance somehow, "miraculously, graciously" agree (123).

Anthropologists provide a sounder solution: we seek a means of keeping while giving. According to Annette Weiner, the essential problem in gift economies is precisely how to "keep-while-giving" (5), because what motivates reciprocity is in fact its reverse: "the desire to keep something back from the pressures of give and take" (43). In her enlightening discussion of gift exchange in Melanesia, Weiner adapts C. A. Gregory's concept of inalienable possessions--objects that speak to and for an individual's or group's social identity (Weiner 43). The notion of inalienability is the key term in Gregory's distinction between the two economies: commodity exchanges involve alienable objects exchanged between reciprocally independent transactors that thereby establish quantitative relationships between the objects transacted; in contrast, gift exchanges involve inalienable objects exchanged by reciprocally dependent people that establish qualitative relationships between the transactors" ("Kula" 104; emphasis mine).7 Whereas commodities are alienable possessions, gifts are inalienable possessions; or, to use Carrier's terms, gifts are possessions while commodities are merely property (28). Commodity transactions are thus determined not by whether money is involved, but by the relative alienation of the transactors from the objects and from each other. According to Gregory, inalienable possessions are the perfect converse of Marx's fetishized commodities, so that "things and people assume the social form of objects in a commodity economy while they assume the social form of persons in a gift economy" (Gifts 41). In a gift economy, objects are personified; in a market economy, persons are objectified.8

What makes a possession inalienable? According to Weiner, the quality is its "exclusive and cumulative identity with a particular series of owners through time" (33). There are two forms of inalienability. In the first, a possession may be given from one person to another, but will retain the "aura" or imprint of the original owner. Although the object moves from hand to hand, it is never really given away. (One notes in passing how the idea of inalienability violates the ideal of the "perfect gift," which is alleged to be "free and unconstraining"--alienable, not inalienable.) These possessions generate value because they are simultaneously kept when (and because) they are given. In the second form of inalienability, certain objects essential to the identity of a family, clan, tribe, or community are withheld entirely from exchange; they never pass from the original owners, or do so only under extreme duress. In this case, the distinction between gifts and commodities may be reconceived as the distinction between objects that are freely circulated and those whose circulation is restricted (Frow 127), because these second types of inalienable possessions may be circulated only within the family or community whose essence depends upon them.

Inalienability of the second kind is essential to grasp because it moors the floating, fluctuating values of both gift objects and commodities. As Godelier argues,

there are two opposing forces which must always be combined: exchanging and keeping, exchanging for keeping, keeping for transmitting. In every society, alongside those things which circulate . . . there must be fixed points . . . which anchor the social relations and the collective and individual identities: it is these which allow the practice of exchange and which set it limits. (161)

An inalienable possession acts "as a stabilizing force against change because its presence authenticates cosmological origins, kinship and political histories" (Weiner 9; cf. Godelier 33). These origins may be either authentic or inauthentic, because such possessions may allow their owners to fabricate histories of association with the object in order to manufacture prestige. In our society, heirlooms constitute such inalienable possessions. Thus the quilts sewn by one's grandmother are never used to warm her descendants' chilled feet, but hang on the walls as art works or symbols of memory, kinship, and continuity. Although the quilts have commodity value, which probably accrues as they age, to consider them as such would be in poor taste, or even a kind of obscenity: to sell one would be to sell grandma herself. But because such objects must outlast their owners, "transferability is essential to their preservation" (Weiner 37); they are therefore at once symbols of stability and symbols of change. In so-called "primitive" cultures, such inalienable possessions form the very ground of value because they remain associated with the ancestors (real or imaginary) who founded the society through exchanges with the gods. Paradoxically, then, the very things that are "uncoupled from the exchange sphere" are "the very instrument of these exchanges" (Godelier 29): circulation may proceed only if some things remain uncirculated or restricted. Likewise, alienability exists only if certain objects are inalienable. Thus inalienable possessions prove, writes Weiner, that the basis of exchange is not reciprocity, but the "principle of difference" (Weiner 40)--not balance but power and prestige.

Hence we arrive at the first premise I sketched at the outset: that the distinction between gifts and commodities may be understood only by acknowledging that certain objects are neither, and never pass, at least symbolically, from their original owners. In this vein Godelier concludes that

there can be no human society without two domains: the domain of exchanges . . . from gift to potlatch, from sacrifice to sale, purchase or trade; and the domain in which individuals and groups carefully keep for themselves, then transmit to their descendants or fellow-believers, things, narratives, names, forms of thinking. (200)9

Such sacra, Appadurai observes, cannot be "permitted to occupy the commodity state . . . for very long" (23) without losing their power. And they cannot be given as gifts outside of the group without threatening the very social identities that underpin their inalienability.

Nevertheless, by itself this concept doesn't solve the problem of distinguishing gifts from commodities within the realm of exchange. The difficulty lies in what Nicholas Thomas calls the entanglement of gift and commodity economies. As Godelier suggests, "gift objects and valuables are caught . . . between two principles: between the inalienability of sacred objects and the alienability of commercial objects" (94). I will return to the first of these terms below. But it seems obvious that commodities can be--temporarily or permanently--rendered inalienable. Through what Carrier calls the "work of appropriation" (110) and Koptyoff terms "singularization" (73), previously alienable objects become imbued with personhood--whether or not they are actually given as gifts.10 Thus people who give gifts employ a variety of strategies--packaging, removing the price tag, and so on--designed to camouflage the commodity status of the objects given. In every household, Carrier further shows, members appropriate the commodities that reside within it (116). Indeed, the act of shopping itself may appropriate or singularize objects to the degree that the purchaser labors to buy them (121-2). A favorite chair, for example, although ultimately purchased at the department store down the street, may have require a good deal of planning, saving, and comparison; it becomes further appropriated when it comes to bear both the physical and emotional imprint of its habitual occupants. Conversely, an inalienable possession may become alienable once again: when the springs poke through, the old chair is unceremoniously deposited on the curb for pickup by the Salvation Army.

Let me adduce two literary examples to illustrate further the changing biography of objects. The first is from Louise Erdrich's story, "The Red Convertible," from Love Medicine. In it two Native American brothers, Henry and Lyman Lamartine, purchase a red Oldsmobile convertible, partly with the money that Lyman gains from an insurance settlement--a market exchange. When the brothers first spot the car sporting its For Sale sign, it doesn't just sit, but seems rather to "repose"; here it seems to epitomize Marxian commodity fetishism (Erdrich 144). The brothers use it for adventures, including a trip to Alaska, after which it comes to symbolize freedom and their fraternal bond: now it is no longer just property, but a joint possession. When Henry is drafted to serve in Vietnam, he gives the car to Lyman (147), who nonetheless still refers to it as Henry's. It has now become a gift--an inalienable possession--bearing the personhood of both brothers: for Lyman, it symbolizes Henry; for Henry, it represents his attachment to his brother. After a traumatized and distant Henry returns from the war, Lyman attempts to draw him out by beating the car with a hammer to induce his brother to fix it; his gesture is a way of offering the car back to his brother. Henry fixes the car and thereby seems to heal himself. In the story's final scene, the brothers go drinking in the car, and Henry attempts to give the keys back to Lyman, who at first refuses--probably sensing that in relinquishing the car Henry is also giving up on life--but finally accepts. Henry then abruptly commits suicide by jumping into the river. To complete the cycle of reciprocity, Lyman runs the convertible into the river. This object, then, is given back and forth, but only between the brothers. At first a gleaming commodity, the car becomes "singularized" and appropriated into the brothers' individual and fraternal identities--a sign of the "kinship" relations described by Weiner. The car exemplifies the condition that Radin calls "market-inalienability": it may be exchanged as a gift, but has been permanently removed from the realm of the fungible (Radin 19-21). The convertible, then, is just that: a commodity that has, in being passed back and forth, been converted into a person. Its demise is the final sign of its inalienability: when one of the brothers dies, it must die as well.

My second example comes from Don DeLillo's novel Underworld. One strand of this epic of Cold War America traces the biography of the baseball hit into the bleachers by Bobby Thomson on October 3, 1951 to beat the Dodgers and win the National League pennant for the New York Giants. The next day the ball passes from the hands of Cotter Martin, an African-American teenager who sneaks into the game and snatches it from the grasping hands of a white businessman; to those of his father, who pilfers it and then sells it for $32.45 to a white advertising executive named Charles Wainwright. Wainwright eventually bestows it upon his uncaring son, Chuckie; later it becomes the property of Judson Rauch, videotaped as he is murdered while driving his Dodge; then it is sold to mordant sage and memorabilist Marvin Lundy, who astutely recognizes how the ball betokens baseball's "deep eros of memory," and remarks on an unseen force within it that invites each owner to "surrender . . . to longing" (171). Lundy eventually sells it to former Dodgers fan Nick Shay, now a fiftyish waste analyst haunted by his father's disappearance and a killing he committed as an adolescent. Through the years the ball's market value appreciates a thousandfold--Nick buys it for $34,500--but its deeper value accrues through its association with those "origins, kinship and political histories" that Weiner delineates (81). That is, although the ball is sporadically treated as a commodity, for each owner it also functions as an inalienable possession speaking the language of desire: the yearning for father/son atonement, for vital community, for political innocence, and, in Nick Shay's mind, for the "mystery of loss" itself (97). The Thomson baseball is one of those ambiguous objects which, as they become more singular and worthy of being collected, become at the same time economically more valuable, and hence acquire a commodity price that conflicts with their inalienability. Emitting a "radiant amaze" (176), it exudes a paradoxical aura in which its inalienability expresses nothing so much as each of its owners' profound alienation from mainstream culture.

The car and the ball bear out Frow's conclusion that inalienability may apply to different objects at different times, and that the relationship between gift and commodity is always a "hybrid" condition (Frow 124). Both of these fictional objects instance what Radin dubs "incomplete commodification": a condition in which commodification (or alienability) and non-commodification (inalienability) characterize an object at different times--though probably never at the same time for the same person. Some gifts, too, seem to cross the line into commodity relations. Such is the case with those "instrumental gifts" recorded by Yan, in which parties give gifts with the recognized intention of currying favor with high-ranking officials. These gifts occupy a gray area very near to bribes; yet personalized social relations are often established or solidified by such gifts, thus personalizing further commodity exchanges between the same parties (Yan 218-19).

But is there really no such thing as the perfect commodity? What about money? After all, its peculiar role is to act as a supercommodity, a universal equivalent by means of which all other values are made commensurable and abstract. For this reason Simmel suggests that a gift of money is never an "adequate mediator of personal relationships," because money "distances and estranges the gift from the giver much more definitely" than any other kind (Philosophy 376, 333). Likewise, for many of Cheal's Canadian informants, money was perceived as an "inferior gift," because giving cash requires little time or thought and therefore depersonalizes what should be personal (131). Money gifts also seem to violate Belk's requirement of sacrifice (although they exemplify Carrier's "free and unconstrained" ideal gift). As Viviana A. Zelizer notes, money gifts seem deaf to the call to display "intimate knowledge of the recipient and the relationship," and remind us of the many impersonal situations in which cash is exchanged (90-91).

Can money ever be singularized or appropriately be given as a gift? The answer is yes, as Zelizer demonstrates in detail (Anthony Fothergill also provides a compelling literary example in Chapter Nine of the present volume). People convert money into a proper gift by various strategies of personalization that generate what Lee Anne Fennell, in her contribution to this volume, calls "illiquidity": by gift wrapping; by using special kinds of cash (crisp new bills, shiny new coins, large denominations); by earmarking ("this is to go toward your new stove"); or by inventing new currencies (not counterfeits, but false bills such as gift certificates, which were devised for precisely this purpose; see Zelizer 107-8). Fennell, Fothergill and Zelizer show that, by itself, monetization does not deplete the social meaning of gifts, because people designate an array of different forms of money to "discriminate among a surprising range of meaningful social relations" (Zelizer 114, 115).11

Let us take another brief excursion into literature to see dramatized some of the complex ways that money informs gift relationships. The text is Zora Neale Hurston's 1933 story "The Gilded Six-Bits," which traces the healing of Joe and Missie May's marriage through a symbolic coin. When Joe returns home from work on Saturdays, he habitually tosses silver dollars against the door; he and his wife then engage in erotic games in which she digs through his pockets for the gifts he has brought her. These simple tokens--chewing gum, soap, handkerchiefs--represent the authenticity of their love. Both become fascinated with a city man named Otis Slemmons, whose urbanity and wealth are symbolized by his gold stick-pin and watch-charm. Arriving home from work early one evening, Joe catches Slemmons and Missie May in the middle of a sexual liaison; after kicking Slemmons out, Joe appropriates his gold watch-charm. Rather than discarding it, however, the wounded husband hangs onto the gold piece for months, placing it between himself and his wife at meals. His meaning is painfully obvious: this golden charm represents his anger, the debt that his wife owes him that he will not let her repay. Slemmons is still here in the form of his gold token, which has also become linked with Joe's damaged pride. The gold piece has become inalienable, but its inalienability is a sign not of a gift but of a grudge, an emblem of the rift in their relationship.

One day Joe leaves the gold charm under the pillow, where Missie May finds it. Upon examination, she discovers that it is not a solid gold charm but a gold-painted half dollar (the stick-pin is, likewise, nothing more than a gilded quarter). Slemmons's inauthenticity (and perhaps the exploitative and inauthentic capitalist world he represents) is thus epitomized by the fake gold piece, a counterfeit coin that pretends to be more valuable than it really is. Now revealed as a sham, the gold token simultaneously stands for Slemmons's inauthenticity and Joe's failure to let go of his anger; likewise, his refusal to spend the money concretely represents his refusal to "spend" sexually with his remorseful wife. But Joe finally begins to loosen his grip on the coin, and eventually the relationship is healed when he and his wife have sexual relations again, and Missie May bears a son. At the end of the story Joe takes the gilded half dollar and spends it for exactly fifty cents worth of candy kisses for his wife. The story concludes as it began, with Joe tossing money against the door to signal Missie May that gifts are to be found in his pockets--right next to his now restored manhood.

The significance of the story for our purposes is threefold. First, it dramatizes how inalienability, in which objects are associated with persons, may signify not trust but an absence of trust, hostility rather than kinship. Second, the fact that the inalienable possession is a gilded coin implies that money too can become singularized, removed from the commodity realm and imbued with all of the signifiers of personhood--here Slemmons's dishonesty and Joe's probity. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the story emphasizes that the money must be spent before the relationship can be fully healed; that is, the money’s alienability must be restored so that it can be expended on gifts. Alienability here is a requirement, rather than an impediment, for a functioning gift relationship. Joe gives up his jealousy of Slemmons (represented by the gilded watch charm), in effect spending Slemmons to recapture his wife. The nature of gift here is antithetical to hoarding; as Hyde notes, the gift must move, must be passed along (Hyde 9, 21). Yet its circulation also depends upon the market economy that enables Joe to earn money at the fertilizer (!) plant and spend it in the store in Orlando. In short, as Frow notes, the notion of inalienability cuts across the gift/commodity distinction (130). Far from being entirely separate, the two realms are mutually dependent: even money, at first blush the most fully commoditized of all objects, may, at least temporarily, become an inalienable possession.

This example reinforces Appadurai’s conclusion that commodity status is but one "phase in the life of some things," and that those things are the rope in a "perennial and universal tug-of-war between the tendency of all economies to expand the jurisdiction of commodities and of all cultures to restrict it" (17). The real distinction, then, is not between different types of objects but between different orders of social relations. This tentative conclusion brings us to a question that I have so far kept at bay. I have suggested that objects are inalienable when associated with persons. Well, then, what is a person? The competing versions of the gift economy and its relationship to the market economy seem to be founded on different definitions of personhood, itself a concept that has changed philosophically and legally throughout history and that bears different meanings in different societies. A person is a living exemplum of his or her society: different societies produce different kinds of persons and different conceptions of personhood, and these persons and conceptions in turn produce those different societies. According to Marilyn Strathern, our society is founded upon "Western proprietism," in which the unitary self has the power "freely to alienate its possessions or to acquire possessions which become a separable component of its identity" (159); in contrast, in gift-based societies "persons simply do not have alienable items, that is, property at their disposal; they can only dispose of items by enchaining themselves in relations with others" (Strathern 161). Similarly, as we saw, all of the exchanges depicted in "The Gilded Six-Bits" reinforce or establish such erotic or social bonds. Frow thus concludes that a person is "neither a real core of selfhood nor a transcendental principle that inherently resists being alienated in the market, because it is always the product of the social relations formed by the distinction between alienable and inalienable possessions"; hence, the person is at once "the opposite of the commodity form and its condition of existence" (152).

But this statement begs the question of whether our definition of personhood is adequate--whether it limits or enriches human existence. This question, and its implicit answer, lies behind virtually all serious studies of the gift, including that of Mauss, who believed that we should emulate the "primitive" societies about which he wrote, where gift exchanges constituted a total social fact, and where persons and things were positively identified. So what, if anything, is wrong with our Western definition of personhood? Radin describes the commodified personhood assumed by neoclassical economics (and to a lesser degree, by liberal political theory) as a "thin" theory of self, because nothing in it "is intrinsic to personhood but the bare undifferentiated free will"; everything else is alienable (62). Its association with market rhetoric, she argues, fosters an "inferior conception of human flourishing" because it fails to account for significant ways in which human beings interact with other humans and with objects--kinships and friendships being only the most obvious. A thicker theory of the self would recognize that "much of the person's material and social context [lies] inside the self, inseparable from the person" (Radin 62). Although this theory lends itself to the establishment of fixed hierarchies, it at least recognizes the degree to which individuals both make and are made by their social relations. Still, even in our society no person is entirely commodified: just as the same object may be at different times a gift or a commodity, so an individual's "personhood" is constantly redefined through shifting social and kinship relations.

We have thus arrived at the second assumption to which I pointed at the beginning of this essay: that many proponents of the "free gift" are just as wedded to the idea of the autonomous individual self as are the neoclassical economists they seek to refute. As Parry notes, both rely on the same faith in freedom and rational choice, the same belief that "those who make free and unconstrained contracts in the market also make free and unconstrained gifts outside it" ("The Gift" 466). As a result, the "ideology of the pure gift may thus itself promote and entrench the ideological elaboration of a domain in which self-interest rules supreme" (469). We have met the enemy and he is us: the perfect altruist is nothing more than the obverse face of Homo economicus. With these ideas in mind, I offer a tentative, second conclusion: we will achieve no deeper understanding of gift exchanges and their relationships to economic and social behavior until we discard or at least modify the notion of persons as free, unconstrained transactors, which always leads to the Derridean double-bind that I outlined earlier. For gifts are not only made by subjects but also make subjects; and all transactions are imbricated in the complex skein of made and withheld exchanges through which our fluctuating, convertible social identities are fashioned.

The definition of personhood in gift-based societies is, according to Godelier, far more expansive than our own. Indeed, for societies such as that of the Baruya of Papua New Guinea, there are no things as we conceive of them, only persons, sometimes in the guise of human beings, sometimes in the guise of objects (Godelier 105). For them the precious items that circulate in gift exchanges are "substitutes twice over: substitutes for sacred objects and substitutes for human beings" (Godelier 72). This statement leads to my third thesis. When Mauss wrote about Maori gift exchanges, one of his key concepts was that of the hau, or spirit of the gift (Mauss 8-9). I do not wish to add my interpretation of that phenomenon to those of Hyde, Sahlins, and many others.12 I wish instead to highlight an underlying presence to which this concept points, one elided by almost all contemporary writers on the gift: its association with the sacred.13 Most writers on the gift are aware of the three obligations that Mauss delineated--to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. But there is a fourth obligation that has been ignored: the obligation to give to the gods (see Mauss 14). This obligation is just as essential as the other three, because without a connection to persons beyond the human, inalienable objects could not exist. Why? Because what creates inalienability is objects' inextricable connection to a group identity, and this identity ineluctably derives from the tales devised and handed down regarding origins--that is, from myth and religion. Inalienable objects always retain some vestige of the sacred, which Godelier therefore defines as a "certain type of relationship that humans entertain with the origin of things" (Godelier 171; emphasis his). Inalienable objects create wealth and status by permitting clans and communities to batten upon a stable past, thereby enabling them to recall the original gifts that issue from those sacred beings who are the source of all power. In concealing the human origins of social relations, sacred narratives give back a society's laws and mores in idealized, authoritative form (Godelier 173-4). Inalienability, then, is a function of narrative, which endows possessions with temporal continuity and which generates both prestige, through affiliation with gods, and humility, by reminding us of our inferiority to them. Inalienable possessions cannot exist as such without the stories that accompany them: in the case of heirlooms, the objects embody family or communal continuity; in the case of gifts, the story grows longer as the object is passed along, but always retains at least a vestige, a memento, of its original owner--its author, as it were. But finally, all gifts are but shadows of the original gift from the gods--the gift of our very existence. Thus, to secularize the spirit of the gift (as many social theorists do reflexively) or represent it merely as a series of objects or reciprocal exchanges is merely to recapitulate the history of commodification and desacralization, in which commodification profanes humans and their labor, and which results in the "mystical," fetishistic reconceptualizing of objects and persons that Karl Marx so powerfully analyzed.

What makes an object sacred? An object may be considered sacred if it is unique; if it is inextricably connected with some spiritual practice or moral quality; or if it is a direct gift or relic of divinity. Perhaps examining the relationship between humanity and divinity will help to explain the dilemma of the gift's "impossibility." Certainly in Christian doctrine, as St. James writes, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights" (1:17). Yes, such a gift involves obligations, but both we and God know that these obligations can never be fully repaid, no matter how grateful we are or how many sacrifices we perform or prayers we utter. According to many Christian denominations, these gifts are not objects at all, but charisma, those "gifts of the spirit" cited by Paul in I Corinthians 13 and celebrated (some would say fetishized) in Pentecostal churches. For them language--or rather glossolalia, the gift of tongues, the language that is not language--constitutes the greatest gift. Therefore only the most extravagant spiritual practices--worship that "goes beyond" the norm--can begin to repay God's grace.

I would like now to make one final foray into a literary text that provides an exemplary instance of the movement from a market to a gift economy and that also dramatizes one possible pathway for a logic of resacralization. The text is Don DeLillo's 1982 novel The Names. Its protagonist, James Axton, a "risk analyst" working in Athens for a multinational insurance corporation, prides himself on avoiding commitments: he refuses to visit the Acropolis, for example, because of the "obligations attached to such a visit" (3). Axton strives to be the perfect maximizer of utility, and carefully maintains his freedom from accountability. Like his fellow Americans, he is in Greece to "do business" (6), which largely involves exploiting the native economies and manipulating their political systems for profit. Axton's "business" is shielding the investments of insurance companies by assessing the political stability of countries where they insure executives. His job is a glorified form of actuarial accounting whereby he protects "the parent" company by selling portions of policies to syndicates, thereby spreading the risk (48). As the term "parent" indicates, in Axton’s business familial relations have been replaced by economic ones. He and his associates also objectify the people they study, pinning them to the wall with Orientalist stock phrases. This "subdue and codify" (80) mentality is also displayed in their refusal to learn the languages of the countries they study: they "do business" only in English. Like persons and investments, for Axton's crowd words are just tools to be written down and manipulated for gain.

Axton's isolation ends when he becomes obsessed with a cult that matches its prospective victims' initials with those of a place and then hammers these human letters to death. At first Axton and his friend, archaeologist Owen Brademas, believe that the cultists seek to restore the sacred by reversing the history of linguistic and economic representation--that is, by returning to a simpler relationship between persons and objects--in which bodies become words and money and acquire enhanced value through violent death. The cultists seem to be practicing the kind of excess described by Bataille, in which rituals rid the social body of the "accursed share"--the abject, or waste--and thereby resacralize the world through holy expenditure. If so, their murders would function as a kind of anti-sacrifice, a gift to the God that doesn't exist: since for the cultists God is dead, only meaningless violence can truly affirm the void. Ultimately, however, Axton and Brademas discern that the cult's murders are merely a form of "austere calculation," another kind of accounting (171) in which they give nothing but instead mechanically follow "the premise" they have established (302). They take no risks. Far from consecrating their victims through violence, they only turn them into blank counters--literal currency--and then obliterate them. Rather than reaffirming the sacred connection between persons and things, they turn persons into alienable objects. Axton's own sense of self is similarly obliterated when he learns that the CIA, unbeknownst to him, has been using his information; curiously, the Names cult has been re-enacting his own violent calculations. Stunned by an attempt on his life by unknown terrorists, Axton finally visits the Acropolis, which he discovers to be not a relic but "an open cry" (330). What we bring to the temple, he declares, "our offering" to the gods, "is language" (331)--not literal but oral. Axton thus moves from alienation to attachment, from accounting to gift, from writing to conversation, from alienation to a recognition of the inalienability of humans and our works.

The final catalyst for his conversion, however, is an excerpt that he reads from his son Tap's novel, based on Brademas's childhood memory of tongue-speaking in a Pentecostal church. Written in exhilaratingly mangled prose, the excerpt finds the protagonist Orville in the "middle of a crowd, tongue tied!" (335): though he is unable to speak, he strives to bond with the other worshipers "tied" together by tongues. Glossolalia--that immaterial "gift of the spirit"--has people "realing" (i.e., both "reeling" and becoming real) in a "daise" (at once swooning and blooming like a daisy: 335), in what Hyde might call the "transcendent commerce" of "recreation, conversion or renaissance" that is gift exchange (Hyde 93). Freeing speakers from the boundaries of selfhood, the gift of tongues comes as a graceful provision, an endlessly circulating stream that issues from the Holy Spirit and returns not as object but as oblation. Pouring from heaven like rain, this liquid, lingual speech counteracts the rockbound doubt and rational calculation of the hammer and accountant. The act of tongue-speaking epitomizes the uncertainty and risk identified by Bourdieu (191) and Godbout (7, 97) as the essence of the gift, since one cannot plan or will it to occur.14 Moreover, this act both creates and embraces a communal or situated self defined by group connections--the antithesis of the cost-calculating reasoners who populate so many economists’ accounts of the world. God and humans are united in a cycle of gift and countergift that is possible only because there is no calculation, thought, or memory. Language is resacralized, and humans become sacred instruments--gifts within a larger commerce. Here glossolalia seems to satisfy Derrida's paradoxical requirement of a gift without presence, at once binding and unbinding, in which the parties receive and reciprocate without intention. Axton (and perhaps DeLillo) suggests that glossolalia enables humans to be "tongue tied" within a web of obligating but unhobbling gift exchanges. The Names thus portrays gifts as issuing from a primal urge to engender and embody the sacred, as a ligature that binds individuals into a larger whole.

Yet the novel offers no way out of the paradox of its own creation: it praises the gift of speech in the chiseled prose of a book. We might speculate that novels require a form of gift exchange in which the reader is asked to contribute or respond to the author's present; but such homologies are fraught with problems, as I point out in Part Four of my introduction to this volume. Further, the novel does not really destroy the duality between gifts and commodities; it restores it. For Orville fails to receive, let alone reciprocate, the gift of tongues. Lamenting his strange "laps of ability" (338), he flees from the church into the "nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world" (339). Most of us, I would reckon, are in Orville's predicament, resigned to unreciprocated gifts and incomplete returns, deaf to divine grace and alienated in most of our transactions. This is likewise the condition of materialist gift theory: without some recourse to a transcendental signifier, sacred source or communal force, it can offer only a withered vision of human relationships to Other(s), one fettered rather than freed by paradoxes. Still, perhaps ordinary, "fallen" gift exchanges retain a trace, a remnant, a penumbra, of the unfallen condition of that pure present, of that direct communion with the Other within and without.

What makes possessions inalienable, I conclude, must be neither time nor the drive for power but an immaterial aura of connection to other humans and to something greater than any individual human. This proposition is the missing link between the three assumptions outlined at the beginning of the paper. Thus inalienable things are withheld from exchange in the same way that a secret is withheld: they are given only in privileged circumstances, and given only to Others who are part of ourselves--brothers, mothers, gods. In being withheld they are more truly given, and more firmly establish the filial, familial and communal connections that engender a fuller sense of personhood. Unless it recovers some respect for these immaterial qualities--the spirituality and sociality--of subjects and objects, the discourse of the gift will leave us no richer; rather, we will remain the neoclassicals' poor, forked beings crying alone in the storm, frantically calculating self-interest and exchanging commodities that do nothing more than confirm our alienation.

Works Cited

Appadarai, Arjun. "Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value." The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. 3-63.

Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Zone, 1988.

Belk, Russell W. "The Perfect Gift." Gift-Giving: A Research Anthology. Ed. Cele Otnes and Richard F. Beltramini. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1996. 59- 84.

Bourdieu, Pierre. "Selections from The Logic of Practice.” Trans. Richard Nice. The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity. Ed. Alan D. Schrift. New York: Routledge, 1997. 190-230.

Carrier, James G. Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism since 1700. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Cheal, David. The Gift Economy. New York and London: Routledge, 1988.

DeLillo, Don. The Names. New York: Knopf, 1982. ---. Underworld. New York: Scribner, 1997.

Derrida, Jacques. Given Time I: Counterfeit Money. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.

Frow, John. Time and Commodity Culture. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1997.

Gasché, Rodolphe. "Heliocentric Exchange." Trans. Morris Parslow. The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity. Ed. Alan D. Schrift. New York: Routledge, 1997. 100- 117.

Godbout, Jacques T., with Alain Caillé. The World of the Gift. Trans. Donald Winkler. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1998.

Godelier, Maurice. The Enigma of the Gift. Trans. Nora Scott. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

Gregory, C. [Chris] A. Gifts and Commodities. London and New York: Academic, 1982.

---. "Kula Gift Exchange and Capitalist Commodity Exchange: A Comparison." The Kula: New Perspectives on Massim Exchange. Ed. Jerry W. Leach and Edmund Leach. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. 103-17.

Hurston, Zora Neale. "The Gilded Six-Bits." The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1995. 620-28.

Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Random, 1983.

Kopytoff, Igor. "The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process." The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. 64-91.

Laidlaw, James. “A Free Gift Makes No Friends.” The Question of the Gift: Essays Across Disciplines. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 45-66.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. 1925. Trans. W. D. Halls. Foreword by Mary Douglas. London: Routledge, 1990.

Osteen, Mark. American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo’s Dialogue with Culture. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2000.

Parry, Jonathan. "The Gift, the Indian Gift, and the 'Indian Gift.'" Man (N.S.) 21 (1986): 453-73.

---. "On the Moral Perils of Exchange." Parry and Bloch. 64-93.

Parry, Jonathan, and Maurice Bloch. "Introduction: Money and the Morality of Exchange." Parry and Bloch. 1-32.

---, eds. Money and the Morality of Exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Pecora, Vincent P. Households of the Soul. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.

Radin, Margaret Jane. Contested Commodities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996.

Sahlins, Marshall B. Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine, 1972.

Schwartz, Barry. "The Social Psychology of the Gift." The Gift: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Ed. Aafke E. Komter. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 1996. 69-80.

Simmel, Georg. "Faithfulness and Gratitude." The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Ed. and Trans. Kurt H. Wolff. New York: Free Press, 1950.

---. The Philosophy of Money. 1907. Ed. David Frisby. Trans. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Strathern, Marilyn. The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Thomas, Nicholas. Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.

Weiner, Annette B. Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.

Yan, Yunxiang. The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1996.

Zelizer, Viviana A. The Social Meaning of Money. New York: Basic Books, 1994.


Return to Top of Page

Return to SCE Homepage
Return to Session Program
Return to MMLA Page