False Gifts

Matildaoamaru015A gift economy does not preclude a market economy: the two do not cancel each other out, but can often exist concurrently. A gift economy maintains a principle of reciprocity, but without the equivalence, overt exchange, or transactionality of a market economy.

However, the gift has at its heart an irresolvable internal contradiction: in that a gift must be given freely, but by its nature demands reciprocity, return, acknowledgement, whether this is gratitude, simple energy transfer, or a returning gift of equal or greater worth.

In anthropological gift-exchange studies, not only worth, but time, are key factors in understanding the gift. The gift must not be returned immediately—to give the gift back or release it immediately is to negate it. The gift is not a gift if always only in motion, but also always relies on fluctuating possession.

Gift theory is not a seamless model with the discussion of art, but it is contiguous to art in the expanded field. In contrast with market or barter exchange, the gift can not be used for profit: this model is most productive in the discussion of art in terms of energy or aura transfer, rather than commodities, wealth, or goods. The productive capacity of the gift is always passed on, creating a community wherein members are bound by a collective reciprocal energy, which is both drawn from and added to by its participants. The gift cannot exist without the recipient(s). Creative practice relies on implicit, rather than explicit, exchange—the production of art relies on content, and the production of criticism relies on art, and so on ad infinitum. The gift in motion is transformative.

Hyde discusses the ‘false gift’ using the example of Alcoholics Anonymous members: “In AA they speak of people who are ‘two-steppers’—that is, people who take Step One (accepting they are an alcoholic) and then jump directly to Step Twelve (helping others) without the in-between steps where the labor lies. They try to pass along something they themselves have not yet received.” The gift is not able to be transformative if it has only been partially received. Hyde: “We cannot really become bound to those who give us false gifts.” A false gift is one that is both absorbed too fast and passed too fast. The gift requires time as the only evidence of its transaction after the call and response have cancelled each other out.

In critique, one must not only consider the material-language modes of framing, but the circumstances of transmission—often small, quick, simplified, and easily consumed. These are unavoidable conditions of reading. If the gift passes too quickly, its field of enquiry cannot be comprehended in any depth at all, tokenising work and reducing it to synecdochical gesture, one aspect mistaken for an entirety. The gift requires labour, and without it cannot enact transformation. Time, or the lull in between reception and relinquishment, is the mode of transformation. The supposed ‘efficiency’ of communications encourages superficial saturation. Incomplete data is surface-only and thus hollow, lighter, faster, and therefore afforded more reception, as it does not appear to require intense commitment. The object must stretch itself beyond recognition in order to cover increased terrain, and therefore disperse its energy too finely to retain its power. To read without committing to a text is to engage in communication without relation: reciprocity is not a part of this ‘exchange’. The gift lacks substance, and so has not been received, so it cannot be passed on.


[1] Derrida, Jacques: Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993).
[2] Hyde, Lewis (1997). The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.