The idea that gifts contain a piece of the giver is often invoked from the Maussian interpretation of the Maori ‘Hau’. But the idea seems to have already existed in the West. Emerson invokes it in his famous essay “Gifts” published in 1844:
“The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.” (2)
There seems to be, whether in a so-called “primitive” society or a contemporary or traditional “western” one, a common goal to establish or strengthen alliance and filiation through the real and symbolic bodies of others. But one could say that even an interpretation such a Godelier’s, which relies not on a notion of ‘spirit’ a la the ‘hau’, but on one of a type of inalienable right or ownership, or Sahlins’s ‘product of exchange’ type of interpretation all revolve around an abstraction of objects from the process of their territorialization (the establishment of novel relations) between their exchangers. What unites the ideas of ‘spirit’, property right, and yield/produce are a content/expression – given/giver relationship between object (agency) and territory.
To provide further nuance to a truism that is perhaps ancient I want to look at a recent study published on gifts and closeness. The objective of the study wasn’t to determine whether a gift promotes closeness, but rather whether it does so more effectively when the gift is recipient-centric or giver-centric. The literature surrounding “self-verification theory” might lead one to suggest that recipient-centric giving would act in a similar fashion as self-verifying information or disclosure on interpersonal intimacy. Just as the act of self-verifying disclosure to you brings you closer to me, the gift that I give to you that reflects you should, in theory at least, provide a self-gift that accompanies the one given and presented by the gift-giver.
The findings corroborate the intuition that receiver-centric gifts do promote closeness between giver and recipient, however with the big caveat that the given gift actually reflects the recipient in an accurate enough manner. This is important to note because of inherent biases we may have in assuming the correctness of our perception of both of ourselves and of others, and also because of positive projection biases that are common in certain conditions of social relations that often lead us to assume attributes or characteristics are of the Other or of a social relationship that may not in fact be sufficiently correct. So, assuming one does get the recipient/gift correspondence sufficiently right –lets call this ‘meeting a certain threshold of semiotic efficiency–, then it will be, probabilistically speaking, effective in the creation of a greater closeness.
Now keeping in mind the fact that self-perception is also prone to inaccuracy, findings elsewhere show that this is less common than inaccurate perceptions of others. And given the better access to self-knowledge, there is in theory a much higher chance of getting positive results with gifts that reflect the giver. This is proposed to be so not simply on the basis of the statistically greater probability of giver-centric gifts being effectively expressive of the giver with the recipient, but because of what the authors propose is related to the effects of “self-disclosure” on the relationship between giver and receiver of information. Specifically these effects are: 1) the increased intimacy created between disclosers, 2) the increased mutual liking amongst those that mutually disclose and 3) the inherently rewarding nature of self-disclosure neurologically (as measured by mesolimbic dopamine system response).
Significant disclosure-favorable relations were found for each effect: (1) People who engage in intimate disclosures tend to be liked more than people who disclose at lower levels, (2) people disclose more to those whom they initially like, and (3) people like others as a result of having disclosed to them.
As a side-note, this recalls the great studies Foucault conducted on the relationship between the Ancient Greek practice of parrhesia and human relationships in the spheres of community, the public and personal relationship (cf. Discourse & Truth lectures, U Berkeley 1983). Here, in schools such as the Epicureans, and to a slightly lesser social extent, certain Stoics, the ‘good life’ depends highly on a crucial engagement with practices of truth (truth as a combination of logos and bios) with others. Not at all suggesting that the particular methods or conditions of their parhessiac practice still pertain today, but as Foucault himself outlines, the problematic of the “analytics of truth” and the conditions of truth-telling are historical ancestors of our own continued struggle with the truth of Others and of the world.
Of particular interst in this aside is the type of connection Philodemus makes between practices of parrhesia and techne. The practice of disclosure is considered an art that takes into consideration constraints of method, moment, form of content, form of expression, all without which desired efficacy is not achieved. Likewise, in today’s contexts, the effects (and affects) involved with giving presupposes an art for which outcomes are never uniform, regardless of how ritualized our practices become in whichever cultural context we are operating in.
In the giving of a gift there is activity both of effect and affect. Material event and an affective event. When we say a piece of someone was given with a gift it is simply another way of saying that the giver is transformed affectively by the giving from the particular individual in a way that the disjunctive terroritorial lines are forever altered by the action (the legacy) of the action.
Aknin, L. B. & Human, L. J. (2015). "Give a piece of you: Gifts that reflect givers promote closeness". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 8-16.
Collins, N.L., & Miller, L.C. "Self-disclosure and liking: a meta-analytic review." Psychological Bulletin, 116, 457–475.
Vazire, Simine; Mehl, Matthias R. "Knowing me, knowing you: The accuracy and unique predictive validity of self-ratings and other-ratings of daily behavior." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 95(5), Nov 2008, 1202-1216.