Your Gift is Not

“The Gift” (as presented by the anthropologist Marcel Mauss) is counterfeit. Derrida credits Claude Levi-Strauss with putting the Thing itself (Derrida’s terminology) of the “gift” into question. The given of the gift, as anthropology matured, was to be called into question inevitably perhaps in absence of a transcendent semantic core which would bind enthographic cases together, the Other’s along with our own. But in lieu of the logic of the Thing, which would have a power of embedding instrinsic virtue in gift-giving itself, and a call for counter-gift (Mauss’s objective), Levi-Strauss substitutes a logic of relation and exchange, which causes all difficulty and ambiguity to vanish along with the very value of the gift. In his search for the objective Levi-Strauss does away with the value of (and that experienced by) the subjective.

How does Levi-Strauss realize this? There are two antithetical operations in Mauss’s conceptualization, that of giving and taking in the same operation, but through which only the giving is recognized and praised. The antithesis for Mauss is resolved via the “hau” (the spirit of the gift or the thing’s given), but Levi-Strauss would say such an object of synthesis is not necessary because the antithesis does not exist. When I give it is because I anticipate taking. The idea of the archaic “gift” is a phantasm of the ethnographer, a theoretical projection. There is an underlying “reality” in the practice of gift-giving that one must come to see. Relying on native perspective is insufficient because it doesn’t recognize what is unconscious or repressed.

But to reduce the question of the Thing of the gift to exchange is to annul the very possibility of the “gift”. Levi-Strauss thus is to first to deny its possibility (anticipating Derrida, although the latter comes to his conclusions in very different ways and with different motivations). Levi-Strauss takes his lead from Mauss himself, who in his essay on Magic writes: “The unity of the whole is ever more real than each of the parts”. The structuralists would take such a statement and try to carry it to its logical consequences. For according to reason, there is no gift, only exchange. This is why the “gift” is mad (lacking reason).

Derrida returns to the question of the relationship between the gift and language. For him, the structural principal of all semantic ambivalence and syntactico-semantic problems arising between giving and taking are both situated in language and language is itself a phenomena of gift/counter-gift and of exchange. Everything said in language and written about giving/taking a priori fall back on language and writing as giving/taking. Thus despite Derrida’s conceptualization of the gift as something impossible, there is nevertheless an ethics in response to semiological refrains of giving/taking involved in his essay on the Thing of the gift. Derrida could say this is an ethics of exchange and not of the gift, despite popular conceptualizations to the contrary.

Mauss’s “The Gift” is an essay on taking, insofar as giving must be equivalent to taking. To Derrida there is an element of falsification or counterfeiting involved in his essay.

On the Real and the Counterfeit

Mauss’s “Note of Principle Concerning the use of the Notion of Money” is interesting because it concerns the arbitrary limit placed on the use of the word “money”. What is it? Must it be titrated by the State? Who determines what is money and what is non-money? In a similar regard, what is “counterfeit” money and how does one identify it?

As Derrida states “Everything turns around [the] value of title and the title of value” (p.83). It is thus of importance for him to call the gift by its name (by its impossibility) so that we are not fooled into perpetuating the circular bind of exchangism. To counterfeit money means to pass off fiction as true. Thus to truly give one must know how to distinguish it from taking.

Can one think the gift without giving? Does one give when one gives only tokens or simulacra? If we accept wholesale a Levi-Straussian universality of exchange as Derrida does, we must accept that contrary to Mauss and his desire to “win paradise economically”, there can never be a reason for giving, because if there were it would be calculated and thus in a since reduced to calculated for exchange. As an identifiable and posed “subject”, the one who writes (or tries to give) never gives anything without calculating consciously or unconsciously its re-appropriation or its exchange with surplus value.

This leads to Derrida to the key of his thesis: insofar as the subject is defined as a subject of calculation (capital), the death of the donor agency for him becomes the only thinkable basis of the gift. However, the dead cannot give. Thus only a “life” which exceeds the economy of death and which lets itself be exceeded, can give. The definition of this “life” is what Derrida will struggle with for the remainder of the essays of “Counterfeit Money”, sometimes directly as event, as the unforseeable, as the aleatory, the irrupture, the unmotivated, the disinterested, the dice-throw, othertimes indirectly by virtue of what it is not (counterfeit money).

The problem of counterfeit money however is that it can become true capital. Derrida states that “Everything depends on the act of faith and credit” when it comes to Capital. But what is this “everything”? It seems to be the very value and circulation of money that operates on the basis of a certain faith and credit. It is only this basis that the counterfeit can enter into circulation. By instilling faith and the other extending credit. Does the same hold when we go from money (counterfeit or real) to the gift? If the counterfeit can enter into circulation and be productive of value (a la Capital) is there not as well a value to the counterfeit (phenomenological) gift? If we extend credit to Mauss it is possible that his counterfeit money of “The Gift” can engender the interest of a “true wealth”, correct? Derrida does not explore these questions. But it is good to have them in mind, because another philosophical tradition (Deleuzian) would remind us that there are powers of the false that dissolves the relevance of the concept Derrida holds onto of “exchange”. Derrida’s ethics precludes such an exploration in favor of the messianism – a principle of that towards which one should in his perspective, strive– of the impossible gift.

The Nature of the Gift or the Gift of Nature (Closing with An Aside)

Derrida wants to close by resting a moment over the relation of the gift with Nature, because the latter plays such a large role with both Mauss and Levi-Strauss. Nature has an essential relation to the gift. On the one hand there is nature as the great generous donor to which everything returns and on the other there is nature as natural necessity –in opposition to art, law, freedom, society, history, mind etc. The latter conception Derrida dismisses outright. It is the former that Derrida sees addressed by Baudelaire’s story “Counterfeit Money”. Its essential question is “How is one to behave with regards to an originary productivity, chance and necessity of a donating Nature?” There’s a question of what’s true and what’s counterfeit with regards to Nature. The fine balance of negotiation between law and nature thus becomes of central importance. Laws transform the gift into distributive forms of justice, but is this not based on practices and ideas that nature itself imposes a kind of distributive justice upon mankind that we must negotiate with. Like sacrifice or “pains” that humans must make in order to receive from Nature? As Mauss recounts an ethnographic explanation “Generosity is an obligation because Nemesis [both distributive justice and the enforcing power of vengeance] avenges the poor and the gods for the superabundance of happiness and wealth among certain people”. The Gift obeys a regulating, distributive, compensatory principle that is naturally transmitted by very complex psycho-symbolic [refrains].

I use the word “refrain” here because its more psychologically precise. It presupposes a form of primitive coding that throughout history has maintained a strong territorial resonance over many parts of the planet as a reckoning of debt/credit or psychologically as guilt/pride. As Derrida points out it plays a strong role in the thought of Aristotle: an ethics of justice as balance. But should such an ethics be obeyed? Derrida sides with George Bataille (and Nietzsche) in suggesting that one shouldn’t. The reason of course (again) is its following of the logic of exchange. Aristotelian chematistics is distinguished from economy precisely to invoke an ideal limit between the limit and the limitless. A theoretization of moderation born from the fear of a wide open oikos. For as soon as there are monetary signs, the oikos is opened and it can never dominate its limit. Such is “Nature”, he would say.

Nature has given us a gift in the present or on credit of a present: the capital of the faculty of understanding. This puts us in debt with true money (a natural and non-monetary money) which is absolutely originary and authentic, he says. Our fault (or the “evil of stupidity”), as one might say, is to have shown that we are not worthy of the gift that Nature gave us. Derrida seems to be suggesting that the limits of our comprehension of the gift is upon us and not Nature, and we are wrong to impose a chrematistics as though via nature of that which is essential excessive and limitless. Are we worthy of its gift (our capacity of understanding) or not? But Nature doesn’t exist, so what does debt matter? We always return to questions with Derrida. Can we think giving without giving (debt) and being in debt? Put another way, can one give without giving a counterfeit gift? Can we end a narrative with a question?

And at any rate, if we conclude “no” to these questions, what lays elided, excluded from this presentation, in the exploration of the counterfeiture of the gift? Precisely, the powers of counterfeiture and the powers of the fake (phenomenological) gift. That to me seems the more interesting a question than one that focuses us on aporias and impossibilities. Derrida seems to want us to say, yes, the gift is not a gift, but one should strive to distinguish your giving from a taking. There is perhaps a book to be written by a future Derridaean exploring the powers of counterfeiture not explored by Derrida himself.