Stephen Webb has an illuminating discussion of Derrida's views on giving in his book The Gifting God. Webb begins by saying that "deconstructionist has always been a critique of the event of the gift." Derrida's musings on the gift parallel his discussions of the history of metaphysics. According to Derrida, there is no access to a first principle or ideal reality "represented by a detour through history, language, and the world" that can be "restored to its original purity by an act of understanding." He sees philosophical systems reenacting "theological stories by narrating the plight of meaning as an innocent essence subjected to an unfortunate fall; language becomes the impure mediation of meaning, and the task of philosophy is to redeem the really real from the messy contingencies of space and time." We have no access to a pure "given" that is not already "altered by its reception and return." Just as there is no pure principle without supplementation standing at the end of some intellectual pathway, no way to get to unmediated pure and uninterpreted reality, so there is no way to get back to the first gift, and this seems to make the gift itself impossible. Derrida probes to see how giving can exist at all, yet notices that we are always giving; we are always doing what is impossible, always doing what we cannot theorize or measure by our categories of understanding.
Webb mainly focuses on Given Time, Derrida's most thorough discussion of giving. As he says, "Derrida's prose goes in circles by circling around his topic without ever quite entering into it," and in this the prose mimics the topic. Giving is a circle, the circle of the Three Muses in Seneca, for instance. But if giving is a circle, has anything been given at all. What is given must return, and that means it never was given away in the first place after all. Derrida wants to find a gift that exists outside the circle, a kind of gift that eludes the "economy of exchange," a spiral that circles but never returns where it started, a "nonidentical repetition or disjoined loop" (Webb's words). Derrida makes the stipulation that the gift is precisely what cannot be returned: "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 circulation of a long-term deferral or difference." When a gift obligates a counter-gift, including gratitude or even recognition of a gift, the gift falls back into the realm of exchange. Indeed, the mere fact of asking about the gift is a kind of recognition of the gift that removes its character as gift: "It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is the impossible. Not impossible but the impossible."
Derrida works a contradiction into his very definition of gift: "For there to be a gift, il faut that the donee not give back, amortize, reimburse, acquit himself, enter into a contract, and that he never have contracted a debt." Recognition itself destroys the gift: "Why? Because it gives back, in the place, let us say, of the thing itself, a symbolic equivalent." Again, "The link between morality and the arithmetic, economy, or calculation of pleasures imprints an equivocation on any praise of good intentions. In giving the reasons for giving, in saying the reason of the gift, it signs the end of the gift. The equivocal praise precipitates the gift towards its end and reveals it in its very apocalypse. The truth of the gift unveils only the non-truth of its end, the end of the gift." That is, the very appearance of a gift as gift, "the simple phenomenon of the gift, annuls it as gift, transforming the apparition into a phantom and the operations into a simulacrum." The contradiction can be stated this way: As soon as the gift is for the person receiving – as soon as it is recognized – it loses is character as gift. But if it is not recognized, then it is not a gift. Webb says, "The gift . . . cannot be a gift (or appear as a gift) in order for it to be (to really be) a gift, either to the donor or the donee." A real gift must be secret, unsigned, unnamed; but even then as soon as it is identified as a gift, it ceases to be one. Derrida's discussion is also haunted by a Levinasian worry: Derrida worries that if we make the effort to conceptualize the gift, we are reducing the other – the giver – to the Same, and thus introducing a kind of intellectual violence. The gift also cannot be anything specific. As soon as it is delimited as something or other, it loses its character as gift, because it then becomes calculable, measurable, and therefore collapses back into the system of exchange.
Derrida links up his discussion of gift with a treatment of time, and, as in all his other work, his discussion is motivated by a challenge to the metaphysics of presence (which here becomes a challenge to the metaphysics of presents). Gifts, he begins, are untimely, in the sense that they are "surprising and spontaneous." Such a gift breaks the circle of exchange, but this giving "is possible only at the instant of an effraction of the circle." But this moment is an elusive present, the elusive present that Augustine searched for and could not find. Webb says, "The gift, what is given in the present moment without thought of past or future, cannot give time." Or, as Derrida puts it, "If there is something that can in no case be given, it is time, since it is nothing and since in any case it does not properly belong to anyone; if certain persons or certain social classes have more time than others – and this is finally the most serious stake of political economy – it is certainly not time itself that they possess.
On the other hand, Derrida sometimes speaks as if the gift gives time: "The thing is not in time; it is or it has time, or rather it demands to have, to give, or to take time – and time as rhythm that does not befall a homogenous time but that structures it originally." Receiving a gift opens up a "rhythm of expectation and decision" (Webb), insofar as it obligates a return but a return that will not come immediately. This leads Derrida to wonder if the gift can be dealt with within a "poetics of narrative" rather than within a philosophical conceptuality. The gift begins a story "that continues through the middle of the reception and seeks an end, which is in turn another beginning."
Derrida intensifies the problematics of gifts by noting that his lecture is itself a kind of gift. That is, he questions gifts in the course of "giving" a discourse. As Derrida puts it, "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. This whole presupposition will remain indispensable at least for the credit that we accord each other, the faith or good faith that we loan each other, even if in a little while we were to argue and disagree about everything."
Derrida's whole discussion assumes that there is a radical difference between exchange and the excess of the gift, but when he tries to locate that difference, it eludes him. He admits that in trying to disentangle these two, he is departing from tradition: "Even though all the anthropologies, indeed the metaphysics of the gift have, quite rightly and justifiably, treated together, as a system, the gift and the debt, the gift and the cycle of restitution, the gift and the loan, the gift and the credit, the gift and the countergift, we are here departing, in a preemptory and distinct fashion, from this tradition. That is to say, from tradition itself." His lecture would cease to be gift if he did not do this; for then it would merely be a counter-exchange to the tradition itself. This means that Derrida must work from a structural ingratitude. Webb summarizes the point: "If the gift must be denied in order to be received, is it enough to unconsciously repress the memory of the gift? Indeed, could gratitude be the form of this repression, an unconscious ruse, a calculated noncalculation that feigns forgetting? Does gratitude say both 'thanks' and 'no thanks,' thus dismissing the debt that the gift intends to create? Derrida also rejects this solution: 'For there to be gift, not only must the donor or donee not perceive or receive the gift as such, have no consciousness of it, no memory, no recognition; he or she must also forget it right away and moreover this forgetting must be so radical that it exceeds even the psychoanalytic categorality of forgetting.'" Repression is not radical enough: "Derrida is after an absolute forgetting and the correlative giving that would make such a forgetting possible."
In an essay on Levinas, Derrida returns to the issue of gratitude, saying that even expressing his gratitude would negate the gift he's received: "Before any possible restitution, there would be need for my gesture to operate without debt, in absolute gratitude." He is in a double bind: As Webb says, "To return the gift is to violate the height of the transcendent face [a Levinas reference], yet not to show gratitude is to reject the gift altogether. . . . all commentary results in betrayal; all gifts must be denied if they are to be returned." Webb cites Simon Critchley, "Ingratitude does not arise like an accidental evil; it is a necessity or fatality within ethical Saying." Behind this is the austere Levinasian ethical demand. The Other, for Levinas, is transcendent, and infinite; if the Other is finite, it can be circumscribed and returned to the realm of the Same: "The being that presents himself in the face comes from a dimension of height, a dimension of transcendence whereby he can present himself as a stranger without opposing me as obstacle or enemy." This Other, the Other as asymmetrical gift, presents the possibility of ethics, an ethics "that is not determined by power or desire" (Webb).
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Tuesday, November 13, 2007 at 06:12 PM
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