gift


wlettrine3.jpgELL, my supervisor has asked me to write an abstract of my thesis. Which makes me kinda breathless and not in a good way… but I thought I’d try writing some of it out here to see if anyone had any thoughts for lack of clarity, or similar, and because you know, I expect the world to be fascinated by my horribly dense work. Ah yes 😉 Actually, this isn’t going to be the final abstract, which apparently needs to be 300 words long. But it’s an attempt to lay out the argument of the thesis so that my supervisor can (ahem) find me examiners… Apologies for the weighty formal language—you can tell it means I’m anxious!

This thesis takes as its first provocation the centrality of the concept and the term ‘suffering’ in contemporary discourse, and most particularly in relation to technologies that are used to change the appearance or function of the body. Suffering has, in many ways, become a defining part of contemporary life. Political positions are regularly parsed in terms of their potential to reduce suffering, and it is used regularly to prompt ‘proper’ ethical engagement with difficulties faced by a particular group or individual. Liberalism deploys the term ‘harm’ to get at some sense of suffering that is to be avoided, whilst ‘exploitation’ is a favoured term of Marxists. When racism, sexism, homophobia or other kinds of exclusions are marked as problematic, it is often articulated through reference to the suffering caused. Indeed, one could be excused for thinking that injustice simply is equivalent to suffering, for this equation is regularly made, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, such that these two are intriguingly constructed together: suffering is taken to indicate an injustice, and injustice is to be avoided because it causes suffering. In the contemporary Western context, however, and there is a regime of power/knowledge deeply concerned with suffering, in ways that are, supposedly, not primarily about politics, or injustice, or even ethics (though this last is more swiftly brought into play in its defence). This regime is medicine.

The first chapter, then, unpicks the medical engagement with suffering. Medicine regularly takes its treatment of suffering as a justification of its existence and operation. Yet I argue that it also regularly naturalises suffering, equating it simply with pathology: if one is suffering, it is because there is something wrong with one’s body, a wrongness over which medicine claims expertise and control. I suggest that this naturalisation has numerous problematic effects. First, as Eric Cassell demonstrates, it means that clinical engagement with the suffering body tends to actually miss suffering altogether in reducing it to pathology, and thus never actually treats it. Second, the reduction to pathology means that medicine often cannot engage with the specificity of the suffering subject, and with the way that their suffering is unique. I argue that this uniqueness arises not from some essence, but rather from the unique situation of each subject. Third, the naturalisation of suffering precludes the space of denaturalisation, thereby concealing the role that suffering plays in the production and reproduction of normalisation. As such, it conceals the function of suffering in normalisation (by which I mean to include the depiction of ‘deviance’ as a source of suffering), and particularly its role in the construction of (normalised) embodied subjects in contemporary culture.

In the second chapter, then, I turn to Merleau-Ponty, whose phenomenological concerns have been taken up by feminists, critical race theorists and critical disability scholars. Their reconfiguration of Merleau-Ponty helps us get at the production of embodied subjects in and through their context, and more particularly, through their adoption and adaptation of the styles of being in the world with which they are surrounded. Merleau-Ponty argues that it is through syncretic sociability—the intercorporeal intertwining of the subject’s embodiment and the embodiment of others—that the subject is produced. Through the work of Gail Weiss and Linda Alcoff, I argue the particular styles of being in the world carry tacit body knowledges given to them by the discursive, institutional, capitalist and embodied world around them. These tacit adoptions (and adaptations) of existing styles of being, I argue, produce, through sedimentation, what Rosalyn Diprose calls ‘bodily tolerances.’ In effect, the habituation of particular styles of being in the world produces bodily tolerances which, if transgressed, may result in the subject experiencing suffering.

The third chapter argues that normalcy has become a, or perhaps the, dominant logic embodied in this way. In this way, the subject comes to experience their ‘normalcy’ as their ‘essence’ or inner ‘truth’, and the body’s recalcitrance in ‘matching,’ or more accurately projecting this truth can thus become a source of suffering. I examine this dynamic in some detail, particularly demonstrating the effect that the possibility of normalisation (through surgery or through pharmaceutical use, for example) has on the constitution of an intolerance to the ab/normal, both a subject’s own abnormalcy and the abnormalcy of those thereby marked as other. I focus on the way that a world constructed in and through normalcy, as critical disability studies especially demonstrates, tends to reiterate and confirm the experience of marked corporeal difference as a source of suffering. The naturalness of the body marked as normal is thereby protected from critique. In this respect, then, I turn to a more thorough-going and reflexive question: what role does the concept of the norm play in the construction of embodiment, according to Merleau-Ponty? I argue that even when his work has been taken up with a cautionary eye for the constitution of difference, the notion of ‘sedimentation’ as a core structure of embodiment (even as the ‘content’ that is sedimented is acknowledged to vary and thus produce difference) thereby naturalises a particular construction of embodiment (and time). As a result, the role that the norm plays in the concept of ‘sedimentation’ is not interrogated. I argue that embodiment in the contemporary context may, to a large degree, be produced through sedimentation, but that acknowledging the contextual specificity of this production is significant because it allows recognition of when and how this it is challenged (a point that will be raised again in more detail in chapter 5).

The fourth chapter explores the political significance of corporeal difference and the technologies related to their normalisation (or otherwise). It deploys Diprose’s concept of corporeal generosity, a critical appropriation of Derrida’s ‘gift,’ to demonstrate the asymmetries of ‘memorialisng’ and ‘forgetting’ of the gifts of others functions to reproduce privilege and disadvantage. It is through the generosity of various others that the embodied subject is formed, yet in the context of contemporary bodi I argue that in contemporary body projects, the body is constructed as a site of memorialising and forgetting. The embodied subject may be a produced as a palimpsest of gifts, yet only some of these are memorialised in their flesh. I argue that modifications of the body and embodiment gain their significance in this context, such that the normalisation of bodies marked as abnormal is a memorialising of the gifts of normal others—gifts which already work to inform the subject’s style of being in the world. Memorialising is thus always bound up with forgetting, such that the normalisation of the subject forgets, viscerally, the generosity of othered others. What becomes clear in such an analysis is the extent to which the embodiment of the individual subject is shaped and in turn shapes the political constitution of and engagement with corporeal generosity.

In the fifth chapter, I build on this analysis with a greater focus on what Derrida calls the impossibility of the gift, and the ethical (in contrast, though not necessarily opposition) to the political. The forgotten gift may be unrecognised, and thus not permitted to be part of the political domain, but it also escapes its ‘destruction,’ and more to the point, I argue that even in being forgotten, it still matters. Alcoff’s rearticulation of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of embodiment, which suggests that there is a tacit level at which the gift may be acknowledged, or more precisely, testified to without being subject to the cognitive processes required for recognition. Styles of being in the world which are shaped by the tacit acknowledgement that they do not occur without others, are thus open to a similarly tacit acknowledgement of the gift of others in a way that permits their alteration. Indeed, such bodies are not bound by the sedimentation of the personal history of their being in the world; rather the other’s gift affects troubles the sedimentation and offers a responsible comportment a way to respond to the other as other. In this way, we can see that the modification of ‘wrong’ bodies through particular technologies as a resolution to suffering is fundamentally bound up with the irresponsibility of dominant modes of comportment. The ethics of bodily change thus demonstrate two (always intertwined) forms: modifications seek to memorialise the subject’s self-presence, and thematise the corporeality of the other; alterations, on the other hand, are changes made to bodily being in responding to the other qua other. Thus it becomes clear that the ethics of a particular change lies not naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of change), or in the challenge to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of the already-existing), as so many ethical frameworks of body modification have supposed; but rather in responsibility. Further, the ethical, responsible style of being in the world with others, sketched here, has political import; this lies not least in that corporeal generosity allows for ethics to be given corporeally, such that it resonates and amplifies through the incarnatory context and challenges the normative, sedimentary and normalised comportments through which power maintains the sovereign, self-present individual.

Apologies for the tail end of that one; it’s 3 am and at this time yesterday, I was drunk. Any suggestions for examiners gratefully received (we’re trying to formulate a list at the moment). I’m also trying to work out a title for this little baby; apparently I need to officially rename it well before I submit, which means I’m running out of time (for everything, really). I’m thinking perhaps Suffering Difference with the usual colon and explanatory phrase/list of three keywords to follow. Any thoughts much appreciated. I’d run a competition to win an island holiday or something for the title I wind up using, but I’m so pov I can’t even make it (sob!) to TransSomatechnics. So my undying gratitude is about the most I can afford, but hey, it’s something, right? ;-P

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alettrine2.jpgND…. hiatus hereby ended! Well, fingers crossed. I’m about to hit a period of intensive writing. I can tell this because I really and truly have to. The whole annual review process is about to begin and [sigh] it always reminds me of just how far behind I am. I’ve decided that this is the perpetual condition of writing a PhD: you make plans, deadlines, knowing that they’re probably a little aspirational, but figuring it’s good to aim for something. And then the deadline passes, the chapter’s still not written, and then by the time it is the deadline for the next one is already passed and… so on, and so on, ad infinitum et nauseum et… I don’t know what ‘slow death by thesis’ is in Latin, but ad that too.

I’m conscious, too, that being outed has massively altered what I’m writing about, and in ways I dislike. So this is an attempt to get my thesis-y stuff up here again, hopefully without too many agonising caveats, addendums, apologia et… ugh! What is it about Latin infecting me today?

This post builds on others I’ve put up, and I’m sorry if this sends you on hyperlinked flight-lines throughout my blog; writing a thesis makes it incredibly difficult to contain… well, anything! So I’ve written a fair bit here about Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, particularly in relation to “The Child’s Relation with Others”, but also applying it to other things—race, for example. My work, actually, is primarily on technologies of bodily alteration, and concepts of normalcy. At this point, though, I want to introduce another element: that of the gift. The Australian philosopher Rosalyn Diprose and her book Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas has heavily influence my thinking here, although, as we’ll see, I have some concerns about it too.

In effect, what Diprose suggests is that the intertwining of self and other that Merleau-Ponty characterises as grounding subjectivity is in fact a process of corporeal generosity. The other gives me the ways of being which I adopt, adapt, recognise and misrecognise and embody. These gifts are never-ending; indeed, my being-in-the-world is perpetually in process, however much it might become sedimented through repetition. (I’m tempted to link to Fido the Yak here, in his semi-anxious musings on the impossibility of repetition and the resultant production of the absurd, but I fear I haven’t grasped it well enough to really engage it properly here. Nonetheless, the tango with the impossible sounds like a perfect way to spend an evening, and thus I can’t let the opportunity to point it all out to you pass by. I intend, Fido, to come back to these questions, if only because I can’t help but have misgivings about the dovetailing of Merleau-Ponty’s weighted term ‘sedimentation,’ and the difference-excising practice of recognising something as repetition. But to the gift.)

The generosity of these others is, importantly, not merely about giving me a pattern of behaviour to take on, but also a gift of difference. It is only in and through this gift of difference that I can come to recognise myself not only as a subject, but as a subject different from others. The corporeal generosity of others not only gives me ways of being-in-the-world (in echo of their comportments) but also gives me their difference, thus enabling my own, different ways of being-in-the-world. In this respect, Diprose argues, corporeal generosity is like differance (hm. If anyone knows how to acute ‘e’s in wordpress, please do let me know. I’ve been lazy up til now, but differance cries out for a touch of French figural difference!) It dwells between subject and other, providing their ‘spacing’: the space that both binds them together and separates them. Diprose’s version:

Contrary to Machan’s thesis, that only in a polity of sovereign property owners is generosity possible, Derrida’s analysis suggests that it is precisely this economy of contract and exchange between self-present individuals that makes generosity impossible. The gift is only possible if it goes unrecognised, if it is not commodified, if it is forgotten by the donor and the donee so that presence (the gift as (a) present and the presence of both the donor and donee) is deferred. (23-24)

This aporia of the gift would not matter much if it was not for the way Derrida, following Heidegger, ties the gift to the gift-event of Being: Being gives itself int he present on the condition that it is not (a) present (Derrida, 1990, 20, 27). In deference to this qualification read Derrida’s account of the gift as a version of his account of the constitution of self-identity and difference: like differance, generosity describes the operation that both constitutes identity and difference and resists the full presence of meaning, identity, and Being, so that the self is dispersed into the other. Derrida defines difference as

the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other. This spacing is the simultaneously active and passive… production fothe intervals without which the ‘full’ terms would not signify, would not function. (Derrida 1981, 27)

Self-identity, a manner of being, cannot be constituted without a production of an interval or a difference between the self and the other. No self-present identity, no relation to Being, is generated without this relation to the other [for reasons I’ll go into soon, I’d like to note that I would have put ‘otherness’ here rather than the other…]. (Corporeal Generosity, pp. 6-7)

So we can see here that Diprose is emphasising Levinas over Heidegger here, in testifying to the primacy (or, better, the pre-originari-ness, or anarchic-ness) of the ethical relation (the one with the other). Okay, but here comes the edge by which Diprose will articulate her critique of Derrida:

As one’s identity and social values are produced through a differentiation between the self and the otehr then the idenitty of the self is dispersed into the other. Differance, like giving-itself, describes an operation that both constitutes identity and difference and resists and disorganises the totalization or full presence of meaning, identity, or Being. It is the operation of differeance that insists on the gift: the ultimate dispersal of all identity within the event of its constitution. Giving is that which puts the circle of exchange in motion and that which exceeds and disrupts it (Derrida, 1992, 30). And this impossible structure of the gift is such that if self-present identity is claimed in being given to the other, a debt to the other is incurred. (Corp Gen, 7)

To mark my ‘debts’ here, I should point out to those who might recall it an exchange I had with FoucaultIsDead before he disappeared off the intertoobs (or into a new pseudonym, perhaps?). He suggested (if I recall correctly; I may not, so feel free, FiD, if you’re about, to correct me in comments/via the contact form), in response to my Private Law, that indebtedness is the key term by which our political and ethical investments occur. I responded that this wasn’t my understanding, and here I can finally say with sufficient context that the sense of indebtedness arises only in the recognition of the gift, and in the concommittant assertion of strict division between self and other. This is a hint towards a future post and the final discussion of my thesis, so I won’t go on about it now; I suspect that there are, actually ways of testifying to the gifts I have been given that don’t fall into the commodifying, individualising of traps of recognition. (Ms. Pepperell, this reminds me I really ought to address this with you! I have a sneaking suspicion that your distrust of Honneth and the rest of the recognition-obsessed crowd dovetails quite intriguingly with this point.)

Anyway, to return to Diprose’s critique of Derrida. The traditional conception of generosity is what she’s using Derrida to critique here, but it’s also what prompts her concerns with his theory:

Understanding generosity in terms of Derrida’s analysis of the impossibility of the gift helps locate the parsimony endorsed by other accounts such as Machan’s. Machan’s claim that individual sovereignty and property ownership come before gnerosity overlooks the possibility that in claiming freedom and property as one’s own, soemthing has already been taken from other. The generosity of the individual property owner who gives his or her acquisitions, which is the only generosity that Machan recognises, is built on the generosity of others that Machan would rather forget… (Corp Gen, 8)

Here we see the element of economic critique that threads through Diprose’s concerns. It is, of course, the observation that in order for a profit to be made, workers need to be paid less than their work is actually worth. Here we can see an echo of Brown’s pointing out of the tolerance embodied by many of those disadvantaged, who, willingly or not, give stability to the economy through the gift of their tolerance of their own exploitation. Diprose puts it this way, though:

In suggesting that generosity is infected with a selective forgetting, I have already added to Derrida’s analyses of the impossibility of the gift, at least by insisting on a different emphasis. By tying the gift to its radical forgetting and its operation to the deferral of self-present identity, Derrida’s account may help expose the individualism and parsimony of Machan’s and One Nation’s [that’s a ultra-racist, ultra-right-wing party that has managed to do some pretty nasty stuff to the political spectrum in Australia, for those who don’t know] positions, but it also invites interpretations of his work that are no more concerned with social justice than Machan or One Nation seem to be. Critiques of individualism and the metaphysics of presence can and have lead [sic] to (postmodern [I want to add, in the pejorative sense, here, given that I have issues some ungenerous definitions of postmodern]) claims, although not by Derrida, of the death of individual sovereignty in faor of the dispersal of identity and meaning. Emphasising the way that the gift does its work only by being forgotten and then throught he dispersal of presence overlooks how, in practice, the generosity and the gifts of some (property owner, men, wage earners, whites) tend to be recognised and remembered more often than the generosity and gifts of others (the landless, women, the unemployed, indigenous peoples, and immigrants).It is the systematic, asymmetrical forgetting of the gift, where only the generosity of the privileged is memorialized, that social inequities and injustice are based. In attending to the connection between generosity and social justie, which is the aim of all the analyses in this book, it is necessary to shift the emphasis away from, while keeping in mind the aporia of the gift to… address the question of the systematic but asymmetrical forgetting of the gift that allows the generosity of the forgotten and the parsimony of the memorialized to constitute hierarchical relations of domination within economies of contract and exchange. (Corp Gen, 8-9)

Okay, so here we have a sense of what memorialising and forgetting are: they are the economic, social and political engagements with the gift, the ways of making present that which cannot be made present without being utterly changed. This is the point that Levinasians the world over continually struggle with: how do the ethical and the political interact? If ethics always comes before politics, does this mean that ethics can only shape politics (as Levinas claims it should) whilst politics can never shape ethics? Obviously, Diprose takes Derrida’s (and others’, such as Bernasconi’s) position with regard this matter, and in a convincing way. There are particular ethical relations and gifts that are continually recognised, continually marked as generous, and thus function as a key part of the privilege attached to the donor (generosity becomes a mark of privilege, here.) On the other hand, there are gifts that are rarely, if ever, recognised as gifts. This might leave them being gifts, but it also means, for example, that the gifts traditionally been given by women in (say) the sustenance of the body politic through the maintenance of the home and thus the well-being of the worker, and in the (re)production of new workers of course (raised with good, generous work ethics) remains unrecognised, irrelevant. Although this ensures that these gifts remain gifts, challenging (however quietly) the self-presence of identity, it also means that these gifts can never figure in the economic or political sphere, and thus the privilege of being recognised as generous is denied women; after all, this generosity is merely who they are, naturally. (I’m actually (not quite) resisting the urge to poke Sinthome at this point, given his recent post on properties, by-products, individuals, naturalisation and (is this unfair?) essences). On the other hand, privilege attaches to recognised generosity: the philanthropist (to pick a banal and obvious example) who gives money to an institution has his/her generosity recognised, and the gift becomes a kind of commodity, offered (however much they may not seek return) in exchange for the increase in his/her privilege. Which of course enables the recognition of them as generous personages, and thus enables the recognition of whatever else they (or, significantly, other subjects identified as ‘the same as’ them) ‘give’. This is how the ethical and the political are intertwined: only some gifts are recognised, and this recognition in turn enables some subjects as generous contributors to the being of others… and thus are injustices produced and reproduced…

To come in this series: the forgetting required in order to memorialise, memorialising and forgetting in the flesh, body modification, my concerns about the consequences of Diprose’s position, responsible comportments and, hopefully, eventually, some consideration of the significance of why tolerance of others is irresponsible, where the tolerance of otherness is key… tantalising? Well, it is for me 😉 Maybe, one day, I’ll actually be able to make the point that I want to ‘finish’ my thesis on…. hey, I can dream!

SO the flu really knocked me around. Ugh. Aches and pain and shredding lung and headaches galore. I do not want to do that again! Fortunately, I had Harry Potter for company (at least for some of that time, til I finished it) and a sudden influx of new TV to check out, so as timing goes, it could have been worse. (Agreement with s0metim3s on the promises of new TV! Bated breath for more Katee (sigh) and Lena Hadley, alongside another incarnation of crazy-strong Summer Glau.) Also no dragging self out of bed to teach ungrateful students! Less fortunately, this was supposed to be chapter-5-solid-work time. So I guess the next week’s going to require that of me! Joy. Nothing quite so disheartening as deadlines set back.

I’ve also found out I’m teaching a writing course this semester, which makes me happy. It’s not really in my academic-y area, but I have indulged in the odd bit of book/novel/short-story-writing, so I’m kinda looking forward to thinking through that stuff again. Not to mention reading raw, crisp and flaccid student work.

Although I have been fuzzy-brained, I have also finished Given Time (thank you thank you, couldn’t have done it without you) and am looking forward to going over the pages again to try to get some of it up here. For today, I’m going to concentrate on continuing the first chapter. My stuff on the other three chapters are going to be less detailed, I think, and with more of my ‘own’ musings now that I’ve finished the book (I don’t feel like I’m going to unfairly pre-empt or pre-judge anymore). So with that, let’s get straight into it!

Let us suppose, then, an intention-to-give: Some ‘one’ wants or desire to give. Our common language or logic will cause us to hear the interlace of this already complex formula as incomplete. We would tend to complete it by saying “some ‘one’ (A) intends-to-give B to C, some ‘one’ intends to give or gives ‘something’ to ‘someone other.’… These three elements, identical to themselves or on the way to an identification with themselves, look like what is presupposed by every gift event. For the gift to be possible, for there to be a gift event, according to our common language and logic, it seems that this compound structure is indispensable. Notice that in order to say this, I must already suppose a certain precomprehension of what gift means. I suppose that I know and that you know what ‘to give,’ ‘gift,’ ‘donor,’ and ‘donee’ mean in our common language. As well as ‘to want,’ ‘to desire,’ ‘to intend.’ This is an unsigned but effective contract between us, indispensable to what is happening here, namely, that you accord, lend, or give some attention and some meaning to what I myself am doing by giving, for example, a lecture. (p.11)

Derrida is giving a lecture, by the way! What he seems to be suggesting here is that there is a kind of implicit contract in language or logic itself, one which binds us all to certain ways of understanding the gift. As an update to social contract theory, this does something interesting, I think, because it suggests that in order to be able to be recognised as giving, it must occur within a context which sees the gift (that is, gift occurs within the context of a contract only). Indeed, this is ‘faith or good faith.’ And of course, my attention wants to turn immediately to the question of which gifts are recognised/constituted as such, because it would seem to have a lot to do with, as Diprose points out, the pre-existing position of the donor (as constituted through this Derridean meaning-based social contract) Yet it is not so simple as this, either, because, Derrida being Derrida, these ‘agreements’ about meaning are never and can never be set in stone. That is, it’s not set in stone that only certain things can be understood as gifts, and certain people as donors (though there are of course tendencies and patterns in this regard).

This whole presupposition will remain indispensable at least for the credit that we accord each other, the faith or good faith that we lend each other, even if in a little while we were to argue and disagree about everything. It is by making this precomprehension (faith or credit) explicit that one can authorize oneself to state the following axiom: In order for there to be gift, gift event, some ‘one’ has to give something ‘thing’ to someone other, without which ‘giving’ would be meaningless. In other words, if giving indeed means what, in speaking of it among ourselves, we think it means, then it is necessary, in a certain situation, that someone ‘one’ give some ‘thing’ to some ‘one other,’ and so forth. This appears tautological, it goes without saying, and seems to imply the defined term in the definition, which is to say it defines nothing at all. Unless the discreet introduction of ‘one’ and of ‘thing’ and especially of ‘other’ (‘someone other’) does not portend some disturbance in the tautology of a gift that cannot be satisfied with giving or with giving (to) itself [se donner] without giving something (other) to someone (other).

For this is the impossible that seems to give itself to be thought here: these conditions of possibility of the gift (that some ‘one’ gives some ‘thing’ to some ‘one other’) designate simultaneously the conditions of the impossibility of the gift. And already we could translate this into other terms: these conditions of possibility define or produce the annulment, the annihilation, the destruction of the gift.

Once again, let us set out in fact from what is the simplest level and let us still entrust ourselves to this semantic precomprehension of the word ‘gift’ in our language or in a few familiar languages. For there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt. If the other gives me back or owes me or has to give me back what I give him or her, there will not have been a gift, whether this restitution is immediate or whether it is programmed by a complex calculation of long-term deferral or differance. (p.12)

Clearly here, Derrida is demonstrating how and why the only terms by which a gift is possible are also the terms which make it impossible. That is, a gift is only a gift if it does not require an exchange-otherwise, that’s all it is, an exchange-but the moment we know that there is a gift, there is return, of some kind. And as such,

We know that as good [as the gift can be], it can also be bad, poisonous (Gift, gift), and this from the moment the gift puts the other in debt, with the result that giving amounts to hurting, to doing harm. (p. 12)

I think almost everyone knows how these small obligations offer violence of various kinds. Often they’re understood as manipulations, as passive-aggressive, gifts given only seeking return. Yet this is not the entirety of the gift and of the effects of the gift, so I’d be intrigued by some kind of ethnography that attempts to demonstrate how and why some gifts become harmful, and others simply understood as good. Mmm. Okay, but not only this, but the restitution of the gift is also its annulment; it is what makes the gift as if it had never been.

Each time, according to the same circular ring that leads to ‘giving back’ [‘rendre’], there is payment and discharge of a debt. In this logic of the debt, the circulation of a good or of goods is not only the circulation of the ‘thing’ that we will have offered to each other, but even of the values or the symbols that are involved there [qui s’y engagent] and the intentions to give, whether they are conscious or unconscious… There is gift, if there is any, only in what interrupts the system [of exchange] as well as the symbol, in a partition without return and without division [repartition], without being-with-self of the gift-counter-gift. (p. 13)

Okay, so now Derrida makes his position on the gift as absolutely distinct from though nonetheless engaged in the logic of exchange completely explicit (and given that he’s often a wee bit ambiguous, I’ll cite it at length):

For there to be a gift, it is necessary [il faut] that the donee not give back, amortize, reimburse, acquit himself, enter into a contract, and that he never have contracted a debt. (This ‘it is necessary’ is already the mark of a duty, a debt owed, of the duty-not-to [le devoir de-ne-pas]: The donee owes it to himself even not to give back, he ought not owe [il a le devoir de ne pas devoir] and the donor ought not count on restitution.) It is thus necessary, at the limit, that he ought not recognise the gift as gift. If he recognises the it as gift, if the gift appears to him as such, if the present is present to him as present, this simple recognition suffices to annul the gift. Why? Because it gives back, in the place, let us say, of the thing itself, a symbolic equivalent. Here one cannot even say that the symbolic re-constitutes the exchange and annuls the gift in the debt. It does not re-constitute an exchange, which, because it no longer takes place as exchange of things or good, would be transfigured into a symbolic exchange. The symbolic opens and constitutes the order of exchange and of debt, the law or the order of circulation in which the gift gets annulled. It suffices therefore for the other to perceive the gift-not only to perceive it in the sense in which, as one says in French, ‘on percoit,’ one receives, for example, merchandise, payment, or compensation-but to perceive its nature of gift, the meaning or intention, the intentional meaning of the gift, in order for this simple recognition of the gift as gift, as such, to annul the gift as gift even before recognition becomes gratitude. The simple identification of the gift seems to destroy it. The simple identification of the passage of a gift as such, that is, of an identificable thing, among some other identificable ‘ones,’ would be nothing other than the process of the destruction of the gift. It is as if, between the event or the institution of the gift as such and its destruction, the difference were destined to be constantly annulled. At the limit, the gift as gift ought not appear as gift: either to the donee or the donor.It cannot be gift as gift except by not being present as gift. Neither to the ‘one’ nor to the ‘other’. If the other perceives or receives it, if he or she keeps it as gift, the gift is annulled. But the one who gives it must not see it or know it either; otherwise he begins, at the threshold, as soon as he intends to give, to pay himself with a symbolic recognition, to praise himself, to approve of himself, to gratify himself, to congratulate himself, to give back to himself symbolically the value of what he thinks he has given or what he is preparing to give. The temporalization of time (memory, present, anticipation; retention, protention, imminence of the future; ‘ecstatses,’ and so forth) always sets in motion the process of a destruction of the gift: through keeping, restitution, reproduction, the anticipatory expectation or apprehension that grasps or comprehends in advance.

In all these cases, the gift can certainly keep its phenomenality or, if one prefers, its appearance as gift. But its very appearance, the simple phenomenon of the gift annuls it as gift, transforming the apparition into a phantom and the operation into a simulacrum. It suffices that the other perceive and keep, not even the object of the gift, the object given, the thing, but the meaning or the quality, the gift property of the gift, its intentional meaning, for the gift to be annulled. We expressly say: It suffices that the gift keep its phenomenality. But keeping begins by taking. As soon as the other accepts, as soon as he or she takes, there is no more gift… As soon as she keeps for the gift the signification of the gift, she loses it, there is no more gift… If it presents itself, it no longer presents itself. (pp.13-15)

So any making present of the present nullifies the present; the very conditions for the possibility of the gift are the conditions of its impossibility. Very tricky Derridean logic, but we can see how it works all the time, really. Gift-giving can be filled with precisely these kinds of concerns: considerations of the gift received being balanced against the gift about to be given back, of the ‘meaning’ connected to the gift (is this red rose too heavy for this relationship?) in the schema of recognition we develop around the gift. My parents, for example, arranged a maximum amount of money to be spent on gifts for the kids with my extended relatives, not wanting to fail to fulfil their gift-giving requirements (the exchange). Interestingly, this also enables the gift-as-gift: that is, where a gift judged to be inferior might then disappear into debt because it is an inadequate exchange, this kind of arrangement ensures that, given the gift-giving is already constituted an exchange, it is at least annulled, rather than permitting debt to extend. These forms, though, are of course the simulacrum that Derrida points to; I would want to point out, though, that while gift-giving is often this kind of simulacra, nonetheless the simulacra has a different and not merely derivative meaning to both pure traced gift (neither present nor absent) and the economy of exchange, and that is the significance of the mark of generosity.

The other part that intrigues me about this passage is the formulation of intention-to-give; way back when I talked about ‘intention’ in relation to bodily tolerances, s0metim3s pointed out that intention is a key aspect of the contract; in Derrida’s logic, the intention to give, or acknowledgement of receipt both function to turn the gift into a contract of a kind, an exchange. I can’t help but wonder how much such an intention, though, is dependent upon the contract (that is, that the presumption that the intention pre-exists and shapes such a contract/gift-giving, might actually be inaccurate, and that intention (and intention subjectivity) is the present-made-present in the contracting of the gift-giving. In relation to intention, Derrida says this:

… [F]irst objection… concerns the at least implicit recourse that we have just had to the value sof subject, self, consciousness, even intentional meaning and phenomenon, a little as if we were limiting ourselves to a phenomenology of the gift even as we declared the gfit to be irreducible to its phenomenon or to its meaning and said precisely that it was destroyed by its own meaning and its own phenomenality. The objection would concern the way in which we are describing the intentionality of intention, reception, perception, keeping, recognition-in sum, everything by means of which one or the other, donee and donor, take part in the symbolic and thus annul the gift in the debt. One could object that this description is still given in terms of the self, of the subject that says I, ego, of intentional or intuitive perception-consicousness, or even of the conscious or unconscious ego… One may be tempted to oppose this description with another than would susbstitute for the economy of perception-consciousness an economy of the unconscious: Across the forgetting, the non-keeping, and the non-consciousness called up by the gift, the debt and the symbolic would reconstitute themselves for the subject of the Unconscious or the unconscious subject. As donee or donor, the Other would keep, bind himself, obligate himself, indebt himself according to the law and the order of the symbolic, according to the figure of circulation, even as the conditions of the gift-forgetfulness, non-appearance, non-phenomenality, non-perception, non-keeping-would have been fulfilled. (p. 15)

I wonder how much Derrida is thinking of Levinas’ location of the ethical relationship in the pre-originary anarchic space which constitutes us but which we cannot really remember (represent/thematise) without destruction. This is a more subtle position than the other that he is clearly considering: psychoanalysis. He seems to be suggesting that the psychoanalytic objection would attempt to enable pure gifting by removing the consciously intentional subject. But he specifically disavows such a position, unsurprisingly, because the distinction between pure gift and exchange-based gift cannot be maintained without violence to both, and disavowal of difference. Indeed, the ‘keeping’ Derrida has specifically claimed renders the gift impossible is problematic:

We had in mind also the keeping in the Unconscious, memory, the putting into reserve or temporalization as effect of repression. For there to be gift, not only must the donor o donee not perceive or receive the gift as such, have no consciousness of it, no memory, no recogition; he or she must also forget it right away [a l’instant] and moreover this forgetting must e so radical that it exceeds even the psychoanalytic categoriality of forgetting. This forgetting of the gift must even no longer be forgetting in the sense of repression. It must not give rise to any of the repressions (originary or secondary) that reconstitute debt and exchange by putting in reserve, by keeping or saving up what is forgotten, repressed, or censured. Repression does not destroy or annul anything; it keeps by displacing. Its operation is systemic or topological; it always consists of keeping by exchanging places. And, by keeping the meaning of the gift, repression annuls it in symbolic recognition. (p. 16)

This I find intriguing, mostly because I make much of Diprose’s consideration of ‘memorialising’ and ‘forgetting’ in my thesis, and the kind of forgetting that she implies functions politically in relation to gift-giving seems to occur repressively. This isn’t surprising, because it is an attempt to annul the symbolic recognition of the gift, precisely intentional and politicised.

So we are speaking here of an absolute forgetting-a forgetting that also absolves, that unbinds absolutely and infinitely more, therefore, than excuse, forgiveness, or acquittal…. The thought of this radical forgetting as thought of the gift should accord with a certain experience of trace. (p. 16-17)

Ah, yes, the absolute forgetting that still leaves a trace. Complete and utter sense, thank you so much for your clarity, Derrida! He… well, it’s not really clarifying, but elaborates:

And yet we say ‘forgetting’ and not nothing. Even thought it must leave nothing behind it, even thought it must efface everything, including the traces of repression, this forgetting, this forgetting of the gift cannot be a simple non-experience, a self-effacement that is carried off with what it effaces. For there to be a gift even (we say event and not act), something must come about or happen, in an instant, in an instant that no doubt does not belong to the economy of time, in a time without time, in such a way that the forgetting forgets, that it forgets itself, but also in such a way that this forgetting, without being something present, presentable, determinable, sensible or meaningful, is not nothing…. Far from giving us to think the possibility of the gift, on the contrary, it is on the basis of what takes shape in the name gift that one could hope thus to think forgetting. For there to be forgetting in this sense, there must be gift. The gift would also be the condition of forgetting. (p. 17)

So forgetting and the gift are necessary for each other, and impossible without each other. Noice. The trace of forgetting, then, lies in the gift, and the trace of the gift in the forgetting.

Now we hit Heidegger. It’s been so long since I read Being and Time, and I have to say that the first time around was pretty crappily taught! So if I miss the meaning of this section, I’m sorry about that!

The thought on whose path we are, the thought as path or as movement along a path is precisely what is related to that forgetting that Heidegger does not name as a psychological or psychoanalytic category but as the condition of Being and of the truth of Being. This truth of Being or of the meaning of Being was foreshadowed, for Heidegger, on the basis of a question of Being posed, beginning with the first part of Sein und Zeit, in the transcendental horizon of the question of time. The explication of time thus forms the horizon of the question of being as a question of presence. (p. 18)

Here Derrida connects time and being together through the word ‘present,’ as he foreshadowed. Heidegger’s understanding of forgetting as a condition of both Being and the truth (aletheia) of Being demonstrate that the question of the gift plays into these concerns about Western metaphysics.

Metaphysics would have interpreted Being (Sein) as being-present/present-being only on the basis of, precisely, a pre-interpretation of time, which pre-interpretation grants an absolute privilege to the now-present, to the temporal ecstasis named present. (p. 19)

… [I]t will not be a matter of subordinating the question of Being to the question of the Ereignis, a difficult word to translate (event or propriation that is inseparable from a movement of dis-propriation, Enteignen). This word, Ereignis, which commonly signifies event, signals toward a thinking of appropriation and de-propriation that cannot be unrelated to that of the gift. (p. 19)

From here Derrida spends some time on the German formulation ‘es Gibt,’ a vaguely equivalent to the French ‘il y a’ and the English ‘there is.’ ‘Es Gibt‘ translates as ‘it gives.’ What exactly ‘it’ is that does the giving is unclear, and remains so, even if we specify that it gives time. ‘It’ gives, but ‘it’ isn’t really anything, though it gives. Indeed, time doesn’t give temporality, for temporality (as we’ve seen with the intro) isn’t a thing. From his citing of Heidegger:

First, we shall think Being in order to think It itself into its own element. In this way, the manner must become clear how there is, It gives Being nad how there is, It gives time. In this giving, it becomes apparent how that giving is to be determined which, as a relation, first holds the two toward each other and bring them into being [und sie er-gibt; by producing them or obtaining them as a result of a donation, in some sort: the ese gives being and gives time by giving them one to the other insofar as it hold (halt) them together in relation one to the other. (p. 21)

So it is only in giving that there is an it that gives, let alone the given thing. But Derrida then asks what it might mean to think an element into its own element. That is, how does the idea of possession, or rather, propriation, wind up informing such an approach? How does one set up a distinction about what is ‘proper’ to the element under analysis? Or Derrida’s questions:

What would it mean to think the gift, Being, and time properly in that which is most proper to them or in that which is properly their own, that is, hat they can give and give over to the movements of propriation, expropriation, de-propriation or appropriation? Can one ask these questions without anticipating a thought, even a desire of the proper? A desire to accede to the property of the proper? Is this a circle? Is there any other definition of desire? (p. 22)

How does one decide what is given, and whether it is proper to give it, whether it is one’s property in the first place? Is the thing simply and easily understood as one’s own? Can it be given, made a possession that can be given away? Can it become part of another’s property? How? I can’t help, at this point, thinking about embodiment and, say, organ donation. The precise reason that we have organ donation is in order to avoid configuring the body as property, as an alienable possession. Yet in order to be able to give something, one must be able to constitute it both as one’s own, and as giveable, that is, as ex-propriable. And it must be able to be appropriated by another (even if with the accommodations of immunosuppressants. See Nancy’s L’intrus for some consideration of otherness and organ donation/acceptance. I wonder how one forgets that one’s kidney, heart or lung once was and must remain another’s, once was another and is now both another and ‘mine’? Mmm.

I don’t really understand Derrida’s discussion of ‘play’ here, so I’m going to skip that, and instead:

This detour was meant first of all to remind us that the forgetting we’re talking about, if it is constitutive of the gift, is no longer a category of the psyche. It cannot be unrelated to the forgetting of Being, in the sense in which Blanchot also says, more or less, that forgetting is another name of Being. As the condition for a gift to be given, this forgetting must be radical not only on the part of the donee but first of all, if one can say here first of all, on the part of the donor. It is also on the part of the donor ‘subject’ that the gift not only must not be repayed but must not be kept in memory, retained as symbol of sacrifice, as symbolic in general. For the symbol immediately engages one in restitution. To tell the truth, the gift must not even appear or signify, consciously or unconsciously, as gift for the donors, whether individuals or collective subjects. From the moment the gift would appear as gift, as such, as what it is, in its phenomenon, its sense and its essence, it would be engaged in a symbolic, sacrificial, or economic structure that would annul the gift in the ritual circle of the debt. The simple intention to give, insofar as it carries the intention meaning of the gift, suffices to make a return payment to oneself. the simple consciousness of the gift right away sends itself back to the gratifying image of goodness or generosity, of the giving-being who, knowing itself to be such, recognises itself in a circular, specular fashion, in a sort of auto-recognition, self-approval, and narcissistic gratitude. (p. 23)

The gratification of being good; that is the return enabled by the donor’s self-recognition. This does, however, pre-supposed self-presence, self-identity, identity, and so, as Derrida puts it:

And this is produced as soon as there is a subject, as soon as donor and donee are constitution as identical, identifiable subjects, capable of identifying themselves by keeping and naming themselves. It is even a matter, in this circle, of the movement of subjectivation, of the constitutive retention of the subject that identifies with itself. The becoming-subject then reckons with itself, it enters into the realm of the calculable as subject. That is why, if there is a gift, it cannot take plce between two subjects exchanging objects, things, or symbols. The question of the gift should therefore seek its place before any relation to the subject, before any conscious or unconscious relation to self of the subject-and that is indeed what happens with Heidegger when he goes back before the determinations of Being as substantial being, subject, or object. (pp. 23-24)

So the subject can’t give, and can’t receive gifts. Once there is subject and object, radically separable, one can only calculate, exchange, never give or receive. Nonetheless,

… the subject and the object are arrested effects of the gift, arrests of the gift. At the zero or infinite speed of the circle. (p. 24)

So here, I suppose, is the way that Derrida demonstrates the interrelation of the world of exchange (with its attendant subjects, objects, intentions, debt and calculation) with the world of the gift (without self-present subjects, without distinguishable objects, with traced forgetting and the very possibilities for all). More on this later; he heads into Mauss-ville, next, so that, my friends, will be our topic next time. Ah, dreams of the potlatch!

I REMEMBER the day I typed ‘privilege’ into etymonline like it was yesterday. I don’t know why I love etymologies so much, but I think it’s because they’re so very telling sometimes: the origins of the word seem so often to reveal a function of the word usually covered over by current definitions and usages; a kind of que(e)r(y)ing. Privilege, as it turns out, means ‘law applying to one person,’ or, more clearly, ‘individual law.’ This had me incredibly excited, because this is, in lots of ways, the way that privilege actually works. Or, better, how it feels: it’s pretty clear that privilege doesn’t simply apply to a single person—institutions, discourse, customs, interpersonal relations, language and even, I would argue, embodiment, all function together (though rarely fully coherently, as Foucault is at pains to demonstrate) to maintain the privilege of particular groups. But one of the strongest fantasies that mark privilege is the illusion that the subject is wholly self-sufficient. The law of the individual.

The claim of self-sufficient individuality is incredibly powerful, in a huge variety of ways. As Butler, following Foucault and Derrida, demonstrates that in claiming that the subject is ‘before the law,’ the law itself maintains a two-fold fantasy: that all subjects are equal before the law, and that the law is only the product of the people—and is certainly not that which produces the subjects it addresses (give Althusser a wave, kids!) By repeatedly (and repetitively, it has to be said!) claiming the primacy of the individual, the law (in the most general as well as specific senses) retains its unquestionable status, its authority. But it goes further than this, and here I’m going to be drawing on Rosalyn Diprose’s work in Corporeal Generosity a fair bit, though not explicitly.

This kind of radical individuality permits the denial of the fact that I only am because there are others (though this isn’t just a Levinasian point). The possibility of being able to say ‘I,’ of being (even capable of it) is premised on the peculiar culture we live in. (I think I remember Deleuze saying somewhere that we always assume that the ‘edge’ of ‘my’ ‘body’ marks my individuality, but that this is merely a function of the culture (he doesn’t say culture) in which we are currently living. It gave me that heady, fevered sensation I always get when reading Deleuze; a little like too much wasabi for the mind :-)). But more than this, ‘I’ doesn’t make sense except in a context. And this context, of course, is filled with others. As numerous scholars have pointed out (from the obscure texts of Lacan (I’m sorry, but that’s how I remember him!) to Levinas to Merleau-Ponty to Irigaray), it is only because others are different from me that I ever get a sense of myself, that I ever become a subject, that I ever say ‘I’. This isn’t just a cognitive belief, but something we embody; it informs all the ways that we are in the world (at least lots of the time, however shaky my ‘I’ might be).

In this way, it is the generous gift of difference that enables me to be. (See also the Merleau-Ponty post.) And this is not just a thing that happens at some point early in life, after which all is settled (take that, psychoanalysis!) Rather, it is perpetually in process, and must remain so. In addition, the distinction between me and other(s) is the basis upon which language can be and happen, that all meaning is built. It is the basis upon which community—which might appear and often functions as if it is all about sameness (commonness, unity)—can exist.

Privilege, then, this private law, this law of the individual, enables and indeed necessitates the denial of these gifts, the forgetting of them, as Diprose puts it. It is only in refusing to accept that I am who I am only because others are other, in denying this relation, that I can claim self-sufficient individuality, that site of privilege shaped by privilege. This, Diprose says, is theft. This theft, in the end, is privilege: the ability to claim that I am who I am alone, without others: that I am white all on my own (as if I didn’t need racialised others for ‘white’ to make sense), that I am male all on my own (as if I didn’t need women to be my mirror), that I am normal (as if this did not rely upon others being deemed abnormal), that I am able-bodied (as if this were not a claim made possible only because others are not), that I am unambiguously sexed (as if that didn’t depend on intersexed and trans people to mean anything at all), that I am straight all on my own (without the defining queerness)…

I am only because of others, a huge variety of generous others. *This,* in response to FiD’s question over at the lovely Thinking Girl’s blog on a Kevin aka Thin Black Duke of Slant Truth post, is why *I* am personally interested and yes, invested, in ‘battles’ that may not be my ‘own’. Privilege doesn’t just affect an individual; it squashes and reduces others and their difference into being nothing more than a mirror that reproduces that privilege (which in the end gives all of us fewer ways to be not to mention lots more paranoia and hurt). We see the nasty effects of that kind of thinking happening in Oz right now. So I know how white privilege squashes difference and causes sufferng; just like I know more how male privilege does the same; alongside the privilege of being unambiguously sexed, (temporarily) able-bodied, normal, middle-class, straight… the list goes on (and of course, I’m not even getting into the ‘intersections’ of these marks (though Ian Barnard’s piece ‘Queer Race’ troubles some traditions of intersectionality on this point. (Sorry, can’t seem to find ref! It might be from his book of that title, but I was almost sure it was a 1999 article…)). Some of these privileges are ones I hold, and I know that the continuation of that privilege and the attendant disadvantage to a whole mass of other people which is the condition of its possibility, is dependent upon (amongst lotsa other things) the privileged not being aware of their privilege; i.e., not being aware of difference. Forgetting the generosity of others, not least the difference that allows them to be. Assuming that they are, actually, simply self-sufficient individuals naturally accorded the benefits they bear which they don’t recognise as such, because they’re supposedly just the result of the natural way for individuals to be: if you’re white, you naturally get money and recognition and acceptance; if you’re straight, you naturally get the protection of the state for your relationships and kids. And so on. You get the idea.

So I try to be aware of the privilege I bear, as white, able-bodied, unambiguously sexed (most days ;-)) middle-class and vaugely normal, because I know that it regularly functions to reproduce hegemonic formations of subjectivity—both my own, those of others like me, and worst of all, those not. I try to remember that it is only because of the generosity of others that I can be, speak, write, shower, love, read, laugh, walk down the street, feel, touch, cry, blog. Others are, therefore I am… Therein lies my ‘personal reasons’ for wanting to be politically ‘involved’ in working against homogenisation—against racialisation, for example, and for the ‘rights’ (for want of a way way better, less liberal, term) of POC, amongst very very many others. I am only because others are generous. My denial of that fact is not just theft, not just ungenerous; that is privilege.

IKNOW this is a cop-out, but I’m posting this whilst completely eyes-drifting-shut sleepy. If I’m nonsensical, be gentle with me (but still tell me: there’s nothing like being adrift in the wrong way (whatever that might be) and no one telling you!) In the major part of the text of the chapter “The Time of the King,” which is actually quite short (thank god!), Derrida engages again with the letter from Madame de Maintenon, and then later with Heidegger. My Heidegger’s a bit rusty and wasn’t so fabulous to begin with, so some of that stuff was a bit foggy. Nonetheless, I like Derrida’s half-apologetic beginning:

Let us begin by the impossible. To join together, in a title, time and the gift may seem to be a laborious artifice. (p.6)

Teehee. Oh Derrida, you and laborious artifice? Never!!

What can time have to do with the gift? We mean: what would there be to see in that? What would they have to do with each other, or more literally, to see together, qu’est-ce qu’ils auraient a voir ensemble, one would say in French. Of course, they have nothing to see together and first of all because both of them have a singular relation to the visible. Time, in any case, gives nothing to see. It is at the very least the element of invisibility itself. It withdraws whatever could give itself to be seen. It itself withdraws itself from visibility. One can only be blind to time, to the essential disappearance of time even as, nevertheless, in a certain manner nothing appears that does not require and take time. Nothing sees the light of day, no phenomenon, that is not on the measure of day, in other words, of the revolution that is the rhythm of a sun’s course. And that orients this course from its endpoint: from the rising in the east to the setting in the west. The works and days, as we said a moment ago. We will let ourselves be carried away by this world revolution. At stake is a certain circle whose figure precipitates both time and the gift toward the possibility of their impossibility. (p.6)

Hopefully there will be some more detail offered about this circularity, but I think it’s an interesting evocation. As we shall see, the gift (for Derrida) is impossible within the circularity of an exchange economy, a position that challenges many characterisations of the gift (for example, Mauss and Titmuss (remember this?) claim that while one doesn’t get immediate return from a gift necessarily, the expectation of it acts as a kind of social glue). Seeing time as circular, of course, evokes Nietzsche’s eternal return/recurrence (depending on which translation, I think), and functions as a challenge to the teleological progress narrative Lyotard claims characterises the modern conception of time (oriented by the endpoint.) It will be interesting to see how revolution informs his analysis of the gift’s disruptive possibility in relation to the exchange economy…

What is economy? Among its irreducible predicates or semantic values, economy no doubt includes the values of law (nomos) and of home (oikos, home, property, family, the hearth, the fire indoors) [I like the image of the domestication of flame]. Nomos does not only signify the law in general, but also the law of distribution (nemein), the law of sharing or partition [partage], the law as partition (moira), the given or assigned part, participation. Another sort of tautology already implies the economic within the nomic as such. As soon as there is law, there is partition: as soon as there is nomy, there is economy. Besides the values of law and home, of distribution and partition, economy implies the idea of exchange, of circulation, of return. The figure of the circle is obviously at the center, if that can be said of a circle. It stands at the center of any problematic of oikonomia, as it does of any economic field: circular exchange, circulation of goods, products, monetary signs or merchandise, amortization of expenditures, revenues, substitution of use values and exchange values. This motif of circulation can leads one to think that the law of economy is the—circular—return to the point of departure, to the origin, also to the home. So one would have to follow the odyssean structure of the economic narrative… The being-next-to-self of the Idea in Absolute Knowledge would be odyssean in this sense, that of an economy and a nostalgia, a ‘homesickness,’ a provisional exile longing for reappropriation. (pp.6-7)

The binding together of home and law is, as I understand it, a big theme for Derrida. It informs his analysis of hospitality, the home and the hostage. The border between the home and the rest of the world is key to the economic, a partitioning that enables property and its circulation (and appropriation). I’ve just been reading some of Otherwise than Being, and I wonder how much this sense of ‘home’ and ‘dwelling’ as involving appropriation is hooking into that. I’d expect that this would not be coincidental, given that Derrida goes on to engage Heidegger (who Levinas critiques) on questions of dwelling.

Now the gift, if there is any, would no doubt be related to economy. One cannot treat the gift, this goes without saying, without treating this relation to economy, even to the money economy. But is not the gift, if there is any, also that which interrupts economy? That which, in suspending economic calculation, no longer gives rise to exchange? That which opens the circle so as to defy reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure, and so as to turn aside the return in view of the no-return. If there is gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure. If the figure of the circle is essential to economics, the gift must remain aneconomic. Not that it remains foreign to the circle, but it must keep a relation of foreignness to the circle, a relation without relation to familiar foreignness. It is in this sense that the gift is the impossible. Not impossible but the impossible. The very figure of the impossible. It announces itself, gives itself to be thought as the impossible. (p.7)

Much of this is obvious but no less interesting for that. The main point of this passage, I think, is about the various locations of the gift-ness: that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation, and the characterisation of the one who gives (who is not a giver but the giving) as not-yet-a-subject. This offers a sense of the ways in which the exchange economy functions to produce the subjects engaged in the exchange as (two distinct) subjects, whilst the gift troubles such distinction and thus (at least potentially) the terms by which the subject is. The relationship of ‘foreignness’ I also find intriguing: whilst the gift is not radically outside of, detached from the exchange economy, it is, nonetheless, endlessly other to it. (Given that foreigner in French is ‘etranger,’ we can see that the gift is that which remains strange to exchange economies; I’m tempted to hint towards Levinas here again, because he offers alterity as that always and endlessly other which troubles and yet grounds sensibility, subjectivity, language…)

Why desire the gift and why desire to interrupt the circulation of the circle? Why wish to get out of it [en sortir]? Why wish to get through it [s’en sortir]?

Does it arise from lack? (ooh, psychoanalysis… quick, let’s skip the other way! ;-)) Does it arise from revolutionary urges? Would revolution really seek the troubling of the revolution? I like these kinds of ambiguity.

He then turns to Heidegger, and the question of the circularity of time in Being and Time. Unfortunately, Derrida (and the translators, bah!) seem to fall for the whole ‘well, everyone’s got a Classical education which includes Latin and Greek,’ thing, so I’m not entirely sure about what he’s getting at when he refers to Heidegger talking about Aristotle (in spite of having learnt a bit of Latin from an intensely spinsterish woman at school—remind me to recount an amusing story about ladylikeness apparently residing in lavendar oil dotted onto handkerchiefs and our ultra-adolescent… response ☺). Anyway, the point seems to be that Hegel follows Aristotle through a fairly problematic (for Heidegger) way of thinking time (because it’s the ‘ordinary’ understanding of time, and Heidegger won’t have a bar of ordinary!). It’s problematic because it understands ‘now’ as a point, a bounded moment (boundary-ed), an ‘absolute this’. Heidegger, on the other hand, wants to affirm the circular as a way of understanding time.

One should not necessarily flee or condemn circularity as one would a bad repetition, a vicious circle, a regressive or sterile process. One must, in a certain way of course, inhabit the circle, turn around in it, live there a feast of thinking, and the gift, the gift of thinking, would be no stranger there. (p.9)

Given what’s gone before, I can’t help feeling like this recalls Deleuze and Guattari’s need to keep a wee bit of the organism aside for the morning (so as to not merely be a BwO). If that’s a bit oblique, let’s try this: if what I’ve said about subjectivity kinda works, then we can see that subjectivity can indeed be problematic: it requires an exchange economy, and enacts the fantasy of individualism in ways which squash and fail to recognise the gift (which as we’ve seen is both a requirement of the gift being a gift, and, in Diprose’s riposte, a politically problematic position for those already disadvantaged by the asymmetries covered over by the supposed symmetry of participants in an exchange). Yet one cannot merely become ‘the giving,’ in some absolute sense, cannot give up subjectivity, pick the gift over exchange, for the two (gift and exchange, giving and subjectivity) are interdependent. I think. The gift is not simply a stranger though it retains a ‘foreignness’. Alright, that’s about as much sense as I can attempt to extract. Onwards.

…wherever there is time, wherever time predominates or conditions experiences in general, wherever time as circle (a ‘vulgar’ concept, Heidegger [the snob] would therefore say) is predominant, the gift is impossible. A gift could be possible, there could be a gift only at the instant an effraction in the circle will have taken place, at the instant all circulation will have been interrupted and on the condition of this instant. What is more, this instant of effraction (of the temporal circle) must no longer be part of time. That is why we said ‘on the condition of this instant.’ This condition concerns time but does not belong to it, does not pertain to it without being, for all that, more logical than chronological. There would be a gift only at the instant when the paradoxical instant (in the sense in which Kierkegaard says of the paradoxical instant of decision that it is madness) tears time apart. In this sense one would never have the time of a gift. In any case, time, the ‘present’ of the gift, is no longer thinkable as a now, that is, as a present bound up in the temporal synthesis. (p.9)

It’s actually really interesting to be re-reading this alongside Otherwise than Being, because the ‘an-archic’ or ‘pre-originary’ would seem to be precisely this moment of the gift: the moment ‘before’ time, which conditions it, makes it possible, but also is its suspension, its interruption.

The relation of the gift to the ‘present’ in all the senses of this term, also to the presence of the present, will form one of the essential knots in the interlace of this discourse, in its Geflecht, in the knot of that Geflecht of which Heidegger says precisely that the circle is perhaps only a figure or a particular case, an inscribed possibility. That a gift is called a present, that to give’ may also be said ‘to make a present,’ ‘to give a present’ (in French as well as in English, for example), this will not be for us just a verbal clue, a linguistic chance or alea. (pp.9-10)

Ah, better and better: presence and the present, and the gift. The coming-together of a critique of presence (Derrida’s big thing) with the gift’s critique of exchange will be intriguing, methinks. It’s also intriguing (sorry, in a Levinas space at the mo’) because alterity can never be made present (can never be made esse-ence (brought into being)) without doing a violence to it; just as the gift can never be a present, the gift can never be part of time… (im)possible.

Unless the gift were the impossible but not the unnameable or the unthinkable, and unless in this gap between the impossible and the thinkable a dimension opens up where there is gift—and even where there is period, for example time, where it gives being and time (es gibt das Sein or es gibt die Zeit, to say it in a way that anticipates excessively what would be precisely a certain essential excess of the gift, indeed an excess of the gift over the essence itself.) (p.10)

I’m always drawn to the way that certain phrases transliterated (that is, translated word-for-word) introduce a whole other meaning. Es gibt is one of these: what does it mean that ‘there is’ is understood as ‘it gives’? What gives? Who? From where? The implication that the world, rather than just ‘being there’ as is implied in ‘there is,’ were rather the result of generosity seems to reconfigure the relationship between us and it. We are continually the recipients of the gift of the world, a position that might shift the sense of entitlement—or is it ‘dominion’—that seems to characterise how we behave with respect to the world.

Let us suppose that someone wants or desires to give to someone. In our logic and our language we say it thus: someone wants or desires, someone intends-to-give something to someone. Already the complexity of the formula appears formidable. It supposed a subject and a verb, a constituted subject, which can also be collective—for example, a group, a community, a nation, a clan, a tribe—in any case, a subject identical to itself and conscious of its identity; indeed seeking through the gesture of the gift to constitute its own unity and, precisely, to get its own identity recognised so that identity comes back to it, so that it can reappropriate its identity: as its property. (pp.10-11)

Ah, so the exchange is a complicated matter. The intention and desire to give means that in giving the subject becomes (and intends to become) a self-present, self-identical, fully constituted subject. This constitution of its own unity one can see continually. Kim Beazley’s claim that Australia is a ‘generous’ country (which you can see discussed here) and then the demonstration of that generosity through the restriction of the number of immigrants welcome to Australia both entail the production of a subject—Australia-as-a-nation—and the concern to maintain that subject—by refusing to give ‘too much’; that is, refusing to give so much that it might trouble the unity/continuity of the subject he’s just defined. To be explicit: what Beazley is saying is that to give ‘too much’—to allow too many immigrants—would fundamentally change the identity of Australia. He suggests that this would thus undermine Australia’s ability to give: we’d ‘run out’ of… what? space? jobs? money? And so One Nation’s logic is not so very far away from his. Of course, this is part of what Levinas’ theory aims to challenge, because one must give (cannot help but give?) of one’s own substance to the other. As Lingis says in the intro to OTB, “the authentic figure of ethical responsibility is the maternal,” (an image that is perhaps problematic, but nonetheless evocative), and “the hostage.” The giving of one’s own substance, then, already undermines the idea that one could give only as much as you hold in excess. It requires that you give yourself such that you are never self-identical, that the gift is always troubling and not unity-affirming.

JUMPING from the last post to here is a little… abrupt for me, so bear with me. I may not be able to manage a whole lot more than a series of quotes I marked with ma widdle pencil. But I’ll figure that’s better than nuttin. All from Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money by Jacques Derrida with Peggy Kamuf translating.

“The King takes all my time; I give the rest to Saint-Cyr, to whom I would like to give all.”

So saith the epigraph, which forms the lynchpin around which the whole discussion turns. It comes from Madame de Maintenon (I think he likes that ‘Maintenon’ is close to ‘maintenant’ = now; D mentions it sometime later), the mistress and morganatic wife to the Sun King Louis XIV. I had no idea what ‘morganatic’ means, and the footnote was only a little helpful on this matter. As it turns out, morganatic marriages were ones in which the lower class/rank member got nada out of the whole deal except (at least originally) the ‘morning gift’ the husband gave the wife the morning after they were married (and yes, it would seem that, unsurprisingly, the wife was almost always the lower class/rank member of the marriage). More about the question of gifts and asymmetries later.

First, Derrida begins to prise open the relation between time and the gift. He spends quite a bit of time playing on the double (triple, actually, probably) meaning of present (as gift, and as here, and as now). So he asks questions about “my time,” what could this mean?

“The king takes all my time,” she says, a time that belongs to her therefore. But how can a time belong? What is it to have time? If a time belongs, it is because the word time designates metonymically less time itself than the things with which one fills it, with which one fills the form of time, time as form. It is a matter, then, of the things one does in the meantime [cependant] or the things one has at one’s disposal during [pendant] this time. Therefore, as time doe snot belong to anyone as such, one can no more take it, itself, that give it. Time already beings to appear as that which undoes this distinction between taking and giving, therefore also between receiving and giving, perhaps between receptivity and activity, or even between the being-affected and the affecting of any affection. Apparently and ccordig to common logic or economics, one can only exchange, one can only take or give, by way of metonymy, what is in time. (p. 3)

Saint-Cyr, by the way, is a charity for down-and-out but well-bred girls. Then D spends quite a bit of time pointing out the sense of the remainder in Madame de Maintenon’s words: the king takes all her time, yet that which is left over is given to Saint-Cyr. And then, the play on ‘present’:

Her desire would be there where she would like, in the conditional, to give what she cannot give, the all, that rest of the rest of which she cannot make a present. Nobody takes it all from her, neither the King nor Saint-Cyr. This rest of the rest of time of which she cannot make a present, that is what Madame de Maintenant… desires, that is in truth what she would desire, not for herself but so as to be able to given it [pour le pouvoir donner]—for the power of giving [pour le pouvoir de donner], perhaps so as to give herself this power of giving. She lack no lacking time, she lacks not giving enough. She lacks this leftover time that is left to her and that she cannot given—that she doesn’t know what to do with. But this rest of the rest of time, of a time that morevoer is nothing and that belongs properly to no one, this rest of the rest of time, that is the whole of her desire. Desire and the desire to give would be the same thing, a sort of tautology. But maybe as ell the tautological designation of the impossible. Maybe the impossible. The impossible may be—if giving and taking are also the same—the same, the same thing, which would certainly not be a thing.(p. 4)

We begin to see, here, what he goes on to elaborate on throughout the chapter: the gift as entirely bound to the impossible. The impossibility of giving is the focus, because, as we shall see, any gift recognised as gift by donor or donee entails return (in some form) and thus is an exchange, not a gift; and this means that the present can never be present if it is, indeed, to be (a) present. In this complex way, the essence of the gift lies in its impossibility. And so we will look at Being, time (and Being and Time) , and presents, presence, gifts, given things and economies.

Just because I promised up above: Rosalyn Diprose’s critique of this Derridean take on the logic of the gift is that while recognition of the gift may be impossible, it does nonetheless occur, and has deeply political effects. She points out that the recognition of gifts occurs asymmetrically: the gifts of those already recognised as generous (the privileged, in a variety of ways) tend to be ‘memorialised’ while the gifts of those who are not privileged, and thus not generous, tend to be forgotten. More on this in a separate post later, but for now: what does it mean for Madame de Maintenon to recognise her own gift-giving as a gift? For Derrida it would mean it is no longer a gift; yet in some ways, the gift-giving of women to the relationships they are in is so often un(der)recognised that her claim to be giving, rather than the fantasy of her merely kind of naturally exuding all the things she does (which is what the naturalisation of women as nurturers permits) could then come to be read as a political act. But is this act then trapped back within the logic of exchange? Ah, tangled webs!

PS I liked my ‘j’ today: that’s why it so big! 🙂