Robyn Horner helpfully expounds on Derrida's deconstruction of the gift by considering whether the text can be construed as a gift.
In a section of Given Time, Derrida discusses a text by Baudelaire, noting that it is a given "not only because we are first of all in a receptive position with regard to it but because it has been given to us." But is it a gift? Horner has already explained that for Derrida the conditions of the "possibility and impossibility" of the gift are "that it can have no decidable origin, cannot exist as such, and can have no decidable destination." By these standards, the text doesn't seem to be a gift. But Derrida wants to say it is.
Doesn't a text have a decidable origin? Derrida says no. The author, he argues, dies in the delivery of the text, as the text embarks on its journey in the world. The author is not there to check and correct interpretations for the disseminating text.
Nor does the text have any decidable content. We don't receive simply what the author wrote, since we are always capable of finding things that Baudelaire did not intend, applying his texts to circumstances he never foresaw. The text always exceeds what the author intended, and this means that what Baudelaire gave is not the same as what the reader receives. Thus, "no exchange has taken place." The "gift" becomes something other than itself in being delivered to a recipient: "What is the content of the gift? It is the text. But what is the content of the text? Can it be specified? No, because all the contexts of the text could never be specified, and differance works in the text in such a way that one could never account for all its meanings." Thus, a text as gift bursts the boundaries of the text, and therefore has no content as a gift.
But, and here is one of the really intriguing turns of the argument, it is precisely in this excess, precisely in the "more-than-intendedness" of the text that the text is a gift at all. If the gift is not excess, then it returns to the circle of exchange and contract. This excess is a feature of the text itself, not a generous donation of the author. And this feature is what makes it gift. Yet, it is also the feature that dismantles it as gift, because it is this feature that makes it impossible to specific content in the gift.
Derrida puts these last two points this way: "The gift, if there is any, will always be without border. What does 'without' mean here? A gift that does not run over its borders, a gift that would let itself be contained in a determination and limited by the indivisibility of an identifiable trait would not be a gift. As soon as it delimits itself, a gift is prey to calculation,and measure. The gift, if there is any, should overrun the border, to be sure, towards the measureless and excessive; but it should also suspect its relation to the border and even its transgressive relation to the separable line or trait of a border."
Since it cannot be measured, it is not an object alongside other objects. It doesn't enter into the realm of economy. The text thus eludes presence, even though it appears to be present. The text-as-gift is known only by the "trace."
Derrida thus deletes the giver and the gift; he also deletes the recipient of the text, since the text leaves the author to go who knows where. Giving a text means giving it up, and giving it up means not having any specific recipient.
The text-as-gift exists only if it meets these criteria: The author must leave the text; the text must exceed itself; the text must have no specified recipients. Yet these conditions of the possibility of the text-as-gift are precisely the conditions of its impossibility: For without author there is no giver; a text without boundaries cannot be located and delimited as a gift; and the text as gift has no specified recipient.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Wednesday, November 14, 2007 at 01:53 PM
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