One cannot look for noon at two o’clock… to do so would be mad. Moving on from the Time of the King, Derrida’s preoccupation comes to reflecting on the narrative of Baudelaire’s “Counterfeit Money”. Time has been from the beginning an essential key to his analysis of the “Gift” and of economic reasoning. The reason is that the gift obeys terms, a limit-date for falling due. This temporal element syntheses the gift giving into a gift-exchange (a giving met with a reward for giving).
The gift, it is said, has a “force of virtue” by which it calls, in a sense, its return. No gift received is received comfortably until it is returned, or by other means forgotten about. That debt must be wiped off the slate of the soul in order for one to feel comfortable. It is thus that Derrida repeats Mauss in stating that the “term” is inscribed in the thing given itself.
Gift/counter-gift circulation is a “virtue of the thing itself”. It calls for its return via differance, the time which synthesizes the gift into an exchange. What the gift gives, is thus in part time (the “term”). I’d be more specific in calling it a quality of bound time, insofar as we are gifted time regardless, but the time of the gift is the time one binds oneself to an other. And a gift is only a gift insofar as it gives time, thus distinguishing itself from other forms of pure and simple “exchange”.
The gift of time is also a demand of time though, as there must be a waiting without forgetting, for the gift to be a gift, and for the return to be accepted as well as gift, in this temporally deferred exchange.
But what is the importance of this dissection? It makes sense to go back to Mauss to explain what his original intentions were: Mauss’s project sought to 1) recognize in the gift that which sets the circle of economic exchange going; 2) to describe the symbolicity that runs throughout cold economic reason (religious, cultural, ideological, discursive, aesthetic, poetic etc) inseparable from the process of gifting and which organizes it from within the total social fact; 3) to understand the relative homogeneity in the practices of human cultures; and 4) to succeed in making credit and the “term” into a demand, the demand to give. Mauss sees giving as a way out of our modern-day predicament, yes, but only because things must come full circle. Gifts must be repaid, and new gifts made. The economic for him produces too often homeostases, prolonged dangerous social imbalances, and social injustices.
For Mauss the gift is the true producer of value, the value of values. But what type of value is this that makes possible the value of economic reason? And who receives it in the act of gift-giving? On the one hand you have a limited, relative and non-transferrable value that Bourdieu would classify as symbolic that is conferred to the gift giver. On the other hand there is a value imbued in the object given that is either destroyed or consumed in the act of gift-giving (as use-value), but which would become the object of comparison in an act of full out exchange (as exchange-value). These two poles of symbolic value and use/exchange value seem to at surface be different, but they are created in the same act. And the former is definitely the one most ignored (outside of anthropological and sociological circles) in our economistic present which privileges exchange.
But continuing Mauss’s train of thought, it is important to think the economic rationality of credit on the basis of the gift and not vice versa. Contemporary economic thinking, similarly to that of his day interprets the gift on the basis of economic rationality of exchange, and that, Mauss would say, is incorrect. The gift precedes exchange and is the original form in which matters of credit and debt are formed between parties.
Derrida stops at a question: What is the relationship between writing and the “gift”? Earlier he makes a comment but doesn’t finish his thought, that “the given of the gift arrives only in narrative”. What are we writing to ourselves when we impute a value to the given of the gift? Whatever we receive is received once with the narrative of the gift-giver, and concomitantly with our own inner narratives about how the gift fits into our own story. The gift is already a gift of a writing, a memory, a poem or narrative. Writing is tied to the very act of the gift, he would say.
It is at the level of writing that Derrida says that Mauss’s endeavor exposes its madness. In a long passage cited (P.37 of The Gift, P.47 of Given Time), Mauss comes to question the very meaning of gift, exposing its association with “exchange”, “trade” and even “sale”. The gift carries with it a class of facade of ‘nobility, etiquette and generosity’, without which your endeavours are marked with scorn. It is mad because it is bound or obgligated, yet voluntary. There is at once always the closed circle one finds in exchangist rationality as well as frantic expenditure (gifting), capitalization and forgetful expenditure. It is this madness Derrida posits, that makes the gift lack a clear semantic center. Does the gift fall under the regime of to have orto be for example? Does the same order govern locutions in which someone gives something and those in which the given of the donation is not an object in any colloquial sense of the word (e.g a symbol, an affect, or a new way of being)? Derrida states that the general equivalent, the transcendental of the gift must state what the Thing given is. And here he states something quite important, but which I’m not sure other commentators of his work have paid sufficient attention to: “The Thing given is the difficult problematic of the partial object“. And he goes on to say that “This problematic is what we are talking about here directly or indirectly”. By linking the question of semantics to partial objects Derrida seeks to add an additional layer of complexity to the topic. Does not the direct “object” of the act of “giving” alter radically themeaning of the act each time? What Derrida does not ask though, which he should is “Does not the direct “object” of the act of “giving” not produce something different each time? The question of meaning can only reveal but so much here. Mauss’s anthropological subjects as well as us today live simultaneously in a world of meaning and a world of material relations.
There are 4 types of question that are driving Derrida:
- Questions concerning the conditions for the functioning of an expression or speech act that invokes “giving” or the “gift”;
- Questions concerning whether a general equivalent exists;
- The question of whether or not it possible to isolate a concept of the essence of the gift that transcends idiomatic difference; and
- The question of the transcendental that would have us divide on the one hand a) the gift that gives something determinant; and b) on the other hand the gift that gives not the given but the conditions of a present given in general (giving the conditions for giving).
All of these questions, he says concern the madness of the gift, which as he says, all fall back on the madness of the dissemination of meaning of the “gift”. This is a madness that Mauss was all too aware of but could not find a clear resolution to, according to Derrida. Thus Mauss ends where he should have begun, by dissolving the very unity of meaning which he sought to erect using his anthropological cases.
What is the source of this madness one inquires? Derrida suggests that it comes from the schizopathogenetic power of a double bind: “The Gift” is from the outset an example of that which it claims to be speaking. It is an example of an anthropologists’ indebtedness and a seeking to repay, inscribing within its narrative an il faut, an obligation to in turn be repaid by it reader at a larger scale.. to repay Mauss, to repay Nature…
It’s interesting, this il faut, this moral command, a primitive territorial machine that inscribed debt in the form of a generosity. Derrida calls it a “law” but it is a way of social coding. Mauss seeks a return to such coding, il faut opt for the gift, for generosity, noble expenditure, a morality of the gift. “The Gift” and the insights and learnings therein are a gift from Nature which Mauss feels compelled to again gift out to the world. One must now take and learn the gift of Nature. For Nature gives and one must show oneself worthy of this gift. By giving as nature instructs one will give it back its due and show oneself to be worthy, marking the right equivalency. This equivalency is the giving-returning of the giving-taking. A symbolics of restitution. This is all a part of the madness, Derrida implies.
The madness of economic reasoning, then, if the gift is the basis of economy, is its irrational origins, which it continually suppresses in favor of a flat exchangist circularity. The madness of Derrida’s economic reasoning is the concept that defies experience, as well as the desire to break through his conception of economic circularity.
I said in my previous post that “Derrida is on the side of Mauss in favoring a return to a gift, with his intention or desire. It is their conceptions of the gift, and the grounds on which the gift stands, that will determine where they differ.” This holds insofar as Derrida’s “gift” is a non-livable one, it is by definition non-phenomenological, it only has relevance as an ideal towards which one could strive without ever being able achieve. The very striving for it cancels itself out as a lived experience. Of what use is it then as a concept? As an abstract curiosity? Like an abstract number one can calculate but which has not found its actualizable moment in the long-view history of the universe? I will return to this question in my final reflections on “Counterfeit Money”.