Skip to content

🎁 The Gift

One of the tragedies of modern life occurs when people go into aboriginal communities where there is a lively gift exchange and say, 'You know, logically, you could turn this into a commercial economy. If you just sold these things to one another, it would have the same effect." This destroys the community.

Perhaps we can reverse the above by building tools which allow us to present the commercial economy with the same dictum: "You know, logically, you could turn this into a gift economy. If you program reciprocal loops and recursive incentives, it would have the same effect," thereby discovering again what was old community in new form...

How does this fit into KERNEL?

There are many types of transactional exchange humans can enter into, and nearly all of them are required in a fully functional and healthy society. This talk has been selected because Lewis Hyde provides a balanced perspective on the place and importance of gift exchange within an economy, emphasizing the kinds of work and contexts in which it is most appropriate.

It should help you understand that this is not an idealistic module: it is again a question of trade-offs. The argument is not that we should abandon any kind of economic activity other than gift-giving; simply that gifts are the opposite extreme from purely commercial transactions and that we need to think carefully about where on the spectrum of possibility between our work best fits.

Brief

I had been introduced to the anthropology of gift exchange as a kind of economy and it struck me almost immediately that this was a language which could be used to talk about the situation of creative artists.

Hyde talks about his own biography and the notion that poetry, in particular, might have a different economy and the series of questions this led him to:

  • Why don't creative artists earn a living the way lawyers, doctors and computer scientists do?
  • Why do many artists feel a barrier between their work and the commercial world?
  • The anthropology suggests that there is an ethic, and therefore a set of obligations, which come with a gift. So, if you are a gifted person and are born with talents that are clearly not just created by your own efforts, but have been endowed upon you, are there obligations that come with that, and things that you're supposed to do with your gift?
  • Do communities have obligations to people who have been gifted in one way or another?

Connection, Circulation, Spirit

Hyde set out to read the anthropology, and many fairy tales and folk stories, about gift exchange. He came to three conclusions about gift-giving which differentiate it from market exchange.

  1. Gift giving creates a connection between giver and receiver. Gifts induce gratitude, and a consequent obligation towards relationship. This is the cardinal difference between gift and market exchange: part of the great virtue of the marketplace is that there is no enduring connection. Lewis gives as an example his travel to this presentation: his very mobility is enabled as a result of the lack of relationships he needs to form. Gift exchange does not allow us to participate in this disconnected fashion. "This is a useful way to begin to think about the commerce of the creative spirit."

  2. Gift exchange traditionally has much wider circulations than just that passed between two individuals, especially when gifts are given anonymously. Hyde quotes an Indian story of two women who decide to dispense with their alms-giving duties by only giving gifts to each other and who are consequently reincarnated as two wells with poisonous water. Another example is Thomas Hutchinson's phrase "Indian givers", which arose from Puritans encountering Native Americans who had a different sense of what property is. For these people, when you gave someone something, it wasn't theirs to keep: they had to pass it on. This perplexed the Puritans and so the phrase has come to mean someone who is insincere about gift-giving, but it clearly means the opposite: someone who understands the actual ethic of gift-giving, which is that gifts flow through you, they are not yours to own. You are their custodian. In fact, one functional definition of community is "a place where gift exchange can operate".

  3. When property circulates as a gift, it increases in value, or it bestows liveliness. "There is some sense of increase, or of something gaining life as it circulates." Hyde talks about the fairy tale trope of being given seemingly worthless objects while traveling through the Land of Fairie, only to wake up the next morning and see that they are gold. "What seemed worthless in one community and state, turns out to be valuable in another community and state." The folktales tell of two responses: there are those who try to go back and get more, or figure out the price and cash in; and there are those who give the gift on. For the person who begins to count, to reckon the value of the gift; it turns back into ashes. For the other person, life becomes more lively. "There's a kind of trans-substantiation, or morality, implied in how you treat a gift." Like Graeber, Hyde tells a Maori story in which the bounty of the forest from which you gather food is assumed to be a gift from nature and you must give part of it back to the forest, which is called "feeding the spirit of the gift. If you feed the spirit, all will stay lively and in motion".

Poetic Gifts to Posterity

There are poets whose lives matter to me; the fact that there are poets who have given their life to poetry matters to me; the fact that their work had entered my life was important and I felt gratitude towards these people for giving their lives to the work. Gratitude is a sign that, at some level, a gift has been given and received.

Many poets talk in this way about their practice. Eugenio Montale wrote in an essay about Dante:

True poetry is always in the nature of a gift, in that it presupposes the dignity of its recipient.

Czeslaw Milosz wrote an essay about the different kinds of love described in Greek, in particular one type which is not often remembered: storge. This word denotes a tender care or affection uniting parents and children, and perhaps some teachers and their pupils. Milosz writes

It is also not impossible that storge may be applied to the relationship between a poet and a generation of readers to come. Beneath the ambition to perfect one's art, without hope of being rewarded by contemporaries, lurks a magnanimity of gift-offering to posterity.

The idea that your work is not confined to the present moment and that you're working for some kind of larger, human world is wonderfully motivating. Lewis mentions a story about Bob Dylan from "Common As Air", his book about about creative cultural commons which we all co-own. When Dylan was 18, he was introduced by a friend to Woody Guthrie, who he quickly learnt to imitate perfectly. Dylan says:

"Listening to Guthrie made me feel more like myself than ever before." This is a perplexing statement, because what is the self such that a young person would feel like himself in presence of somebody else's art? It's as if that self is already present, but isn't brought to the surface until the art of some previous generation precipitates it [...] There is a feeling that there is a common Self, that the hyper-individualism we live with today is not a full enough story to explain how an artist becomes an artist and comes to practice with his or her gifts.

Anonymous and Lively

Hyde continues this theme with a story about Pablo Neruda, who - as a boy - was gifted a unique toy sheep anonymously, through a hole in the fence. He responded with his most precious possession: a pine cone. Years later, he would write these haunting words:

To feel the affection that comes from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and our solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses: that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being and unites all living things.

This exchange brought home to me, for the first time, a precious idea: that all humanity is somehow together. It won't surprise you, then, that I have attempted to give something resiny, earth-like and fragrant - something like a pine cone - in exchange for human brotherhood [...]

This small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained deep inside me, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.

This points to a particular category of gift-exchange: the anonymous one. Often we know who has given us a gift, so we have a directed sense of gratitude. This widens the field within which gifts operate, because if there is no obligation for reciprocity, how do you best respond?

💡 Gifts from beyond your sphere of influence can be given back beyond your sphere of influence.

In almost all traditional gift-giving practices - as seen with the Maori practice of 'feeding the spirit of the gift' - the ultimate sphere of gift-giving is the bounty of nature herself, with regards to whom we all stand as recipients. In order to maintain and increase the value of the gifts we receive, we must treat them as gifts and give them on so that they remain lively. This is directly applicable to creative artists. May Sarton wrote:

There is only one real deprivation, and that is not to be able to give one's gift to whom one loves the most. The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up.

Hyde also quotes the famous book Black Elk Speaks, which begins with dedication that illustrates how whatever wisdom Black Elk has is not his, and that - if you find it in his book - it is there to be given back to his ancestors.

What is good in this book is given back to the six grandfathers.

This dedicated way of living contains a description of people who are "living the spirit of the gift", not trying to capitalize upon it, or bring it into the ego and claim it for their own. However, it is important to note that both are options and there is a negative side to gift-giving which can uphold oppressive structures and solidify - for instance - patriarchal power.

Tricky Trades

Hyde recalls The Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the original trickster, in which the key moment occurs when Hermes - having stolen Apollo's cattle, and being admonished by his mother - makes the point that if Zeus won't give him his due as an Olympian, he will steal it. All gift exchange communities are somewhat insular and, if you're left out of this, your only practical option is to steal what you need. The key question remains: how does the outsider find a way in?

There is another ancient Greek term which can help us here: the hermion, or gift of Hermes. It is the lucky find, the accident, the thing you stumble upon. It is the crossroads moment where two paths come together and, if you have the wit, you can make a work of art out of the accidental find. This is why cultivating serendipitous, synchronous spaces is so important: they allow more and more outsiders to join the community of circulating gift exchange without resorting to theft.

What Can We Do With All This?

Just to become conscious of gift exchange is useful. To know that there is a spirit of the gift. To know there is a distinction between the 'connecting world' and the world that differentiates between people, and that we can choose to honour this spirit or not. To know we might have the kind of artistic practice which can initiate transformations in the soul; that can give us a taste of mystery and wilderness; that can help us bear our suffering; that can put us in touch with a kind of fertility which is not exhausted by using it up and that offers us a sense of an inhabitable world in which we have solidarity with what we take to be the source of our gifts.

To be conscious of this makes a difference.

I will go a step further than Hyde: to ask what can be done with a gift and the knowledge of how it operates is to apply an alienating and utilitarian framework to something indigenous and illegible. It reminds me of Muriel Rukeyser:

But there is one kind of knowledge — infinitely precious, time-resistant more than monuments, here to be passed between the generations in any way it may be: never to be used. And that is poetry.

or Steve Biko:

A visitor to someone’s house is always met with the question ‘What can I do for you?’. This attitude to see people not as themselves but as agents for some particular function is foreign to us. We are not a suspicious race. We believe in the inherent goodness of man. We enjoy man for himself. We regard our living together not as an unfortunate mishap warranting endless competition among us but as a deliberate act of God to make us a community of brothers and sisters jointly involved in the quest for composite answers to the varied problems of life.

Gift-giving extends deeply into both history and the human psyche. If you enjoyed this talk, you can find perhaps the ultimate exposition on this particular issue in The Diamond Sutra:

And again, O Subhûti, a Bodhisattva should in such wise give his gift for the benefit of all beings. And why? Because, O Subhûti, the idea of a being is no-idea. And those who are thus spoken of by the Tathâgata as all beings are indeed no-beings.