Adriana and I went on a long walk Sunday in search of two trails previously unknown to me, written about by Gary Kamiya in his masterful “Cool Gray City of Love” (highly recommended!). The photos accompanying this otherwise unrelated essay are my favorites from our walk. The essay below is something I wrote in response to my colleagues from the Giftival (previous post) who asked me to elaborate.
The gift is apparently a concept that carries a lot of weight. People use it in all kinds of contexts and it can hold many different meanings, and even refer to quite different things. To contemplate the notion of a “gift economy” first requires some clarity about what is being discussed.
Some people take the notion of a gift and connect it to the feelings they’ve had at receiving a gift, usually some kind of gratitude and/or surprise. It doesn’t take too long before this perception morphs further and some people begin to relive moments where they were given something that they unconsciously took for granted, and later realized they SHOULD have felt grateful for it. For those who are religiously inclined, the concept of gift quickly becomes a pivot for giving thanks to God for life itself, or to Gaia/Earth, or if more secularly minded, to give thanks to other people in one’s life for the “gifts” of food, water, even air.
I think framing the idea of a “gift economy” in these highly subjective and personal ways, often fundamentally spiritual, makes it almost impossible to face up to the enormous challenge of posing the logic of the gift AGAINST the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is an amazingly adaptive and complex system of social organization based on class, private property, and exchange knit together in a productive regime that is meant to grow in perpetuity. To pose the gift as an alternative to this runs into immediate problems, since it tends to reinforce the starting point of private property that can be “given” by one to another. (As I type this, in the background on the television is a commercial for Christmas shopping centered on a character they’ve dubbed “The Gifter”—a woman who engages in a frenzy of shopping to give dozens of gifts during the holiday season). Moreover, the notion of the gift also tends to direct our attention to the goods and services being given (and received), rather than the social relationships that are both necessary prerequisites and logical outcomes of a culture of free sharing. More »