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Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Gift: The Art of Giving and Taking

Last Thursday evening's salon took on the seemingly benign topic of “The Gift.” Warm and fuzzy feelings were few and far between, however, as we set off on this particular foray into the realm of give-and-take. Instead, we found ourselves on prickly ground as we navigated the highly gendered history of gift exchange, and struggled to come to terms with our own positioning as gift-givers and gift-takers.

The conversational forms around which the evening's exploration was organized were “the quote” and “the cliche”: gift-related examples of the former serving as 'thinking prompts' in the various group exercises dotted throughout the evening; spontaneous eruptions of the latter - “Never look a gift-horse in the mouth!” - leading us to question from whence these “metaphorical flat tires” had sprung, and to query the 'common-sense' assumptions they promoted and perpetuated.

A quick survey of the group established early on that most of us – though happily, not all – felt more comfortable giving a gift than getting one. That said, the terminology associated with being on the receiving end of the transaction did have an impact on how we experienced this discomfort...Taking and Getting – both derived from active etymological roots – causing greater unease amongst many of us than the more graciously passive business of Reception. If, as we were fast discovering, there is a whole etymological minefield underlying the 'art' of giving and taking, we were also learning that the personal politics involved in everyday gift exchange in Montreal 2012 have their roots in those dynamics of competition and rivalry, of losing face and saving face, that have characterized gift exchange since time immemorial.

For starters, the very word exchange signals trouble at mill – deriving, as it does, from the Latin, cambire, which means 'to barter,' which in turn traces its etymological roots to the Old French word, barater, which means 'to cheat.' Yes, that's right: before we even got to French social philosopher Marcel Mauss's seminal 1925 text, The Gift, and his discussion of the crucial link between gift exchange and the establishment of kinship lines and social systems, we knew that we were in for a corruptible ride in an uneven playing field.

And that was only the beginning. For how about the word gift itself?...A word which, whether you were an Old Norse seafarer or a High German scribe or an Olde English knight had but one universal meaning – “payment for a wife.” True, the gift's etymological equivalent – the word,
'dowry,' from the Latin dos (gift) – did morph at some point along the way from a gift made by a man to his future bride's parents, to the money or property or goods promised alongside the woman to her future husband at marriage. The principle, however, remained the same...Women, as feminist theorist Gayle Rubin (1975) has argued, were part of the "perishable wealth"
which, along with other produce such as yams or pigs, were "trafficked" back and forth between men, and ultimately converted into "imperishable prestige."

As might be expected, this knowledge that historically-speaking we women had been the bounty, not the barterers, did influence our subsequent working of Marcel Mauss's assertion that "gift exchange allows people to oppose each other without slaughter and to give without sacrificing themselves to others" (our emphasis). It also informed our reading of Mauss's interpretation of society as "arising from the exchange between subjects" – asking ourselves just where our subjecthood lay in a society where we were also the object of the exchange. Paying special attention, as Mauss had, to the mechanics of giving and taking inherent in the North American Native Potlatch ceremonies, we wondered (as Mauss hadn't!) whether women fared better in a gift exchange economy based on giving away more than you got back, or in a market economy with a tit-for-tat mentality. Reflecting, finally, on Mauss's main argument that "there are no free gifts" – that gift-giving, though ostensibly a voluntary act, in fact creates an endless cycle of obligation and hence, obligatory ties, between individuals and groups – we pondered the shift women in Capitalist societies seem to have made from being the primary currency of exchange to the primary purchasers of gifts.

It was a shift that took us away from Mauss's traditional kinship systems with their emphasis on the “preservation and enhancement of face,” towards more familiar forms of 'facing-off' in an arena of exchange: to existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre's public park, for example, where the “gift” of the grass's lush greenness is “stolen” when Hell arrives in the guise of Other People; to cultural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss's restaurant in the South of France, where two diners who are strangers and seated opposite each other use the “gift” of a glass of wine to “substitute a social relationship for a spatial juxtaposition.” If, in each of these cases, the “gift” in question is still inextricably tied to some form of reciprocal arrangement between Self and Other, the kind of gift that the latter part of our exploration revolved around relied not only on a dissolving of that distinction between 'I' and 'You,' but equally, on a relinquishing - a giving up, if you like - of one's own subjectivity. From the gift as a strategic unit of exchange, we were moving on to the gift as the felicitous by-product of an unexpected encounter.

Not surprisingly, much of this re-thinking around the gift comes from feminist and post-structuralist camps. On this particular evening, it was French writer and fierce proponent of l'ecriture feminine, Helene Cixous, who had pride of place at our salon bonfire.
Contrasting Cixous's concept of the feminine 'Realm of the Gift' to that of the masculine 'Realm of the Proper', we saw how the former's “libidinal economy of spontaneous generosity” created an opening to difference, to the Other, and not least, to “a giving without thought of return.” Such an opening, we could see, was just not afforded within a value system organized around the Proper (as in “one's own”) with its emphasis on acquisition of personal property and its striving towards self-aggrandizement. Yes, Cixous's “cosmic” 'Realm of the Gift' with its offer of a “deconstructive space of pleasure and orgasmic interchange with the other” was a far cry from what we had encountered by way of the gift up until that point – evoking in some of us a somewhat startled "huh?"; in at least one of us the desire to just "get some of that cosmic interchange for myself!”

Over tea and culinary gifts from our members – Kathy's gingersnaps and Bernice's chocolate toffees – we discussed the phenomenon of, and etiquette around, re-gifting. Then we brought the evening to a close by penning, individually, a quote that wrapped up – in words rather than paper and ribbons – our respective feelings about “the gift.” The results were profound and inspiring, and felt like small exquisite gifts offered up to ourselves and to each other. We want to thank all of you who participated in this challenging and stimulating salon evening, and we look forward to seeing our members again on May 10th when we come together for the last time in this Spring 2012 salon series, step up on those soapboxes, and pay tribute to the female rebel.