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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
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