Inalienable gifts?

David Cheal ( The Gift Economy ) offers a deft critique of Mauss’s and C.A. Gregory’s theories of gift. The central rebuttal is to point to the fairly obvious fact that giving continues to occupy a large place in modern societies. Gift-giving is big business, as that pile of Christmas catalogs already accumulating in your mailbox demonstrates. Mauss and others miss this because they work from a stance of “anthropological elementarism,” which assumes that the only relevant forms of giving are those of tribal societies (e.g., Mauss’s “obligation to give, obligation to receive, obligation to reciprocate”) and which thus classifies modern giving as a marginal “residue” of traditionalism. The fact that giving is very important in modern societies, but different in form from tribal societies, gets obscured. He also, quite rightly, questions the public/private divide that is often brought into play in discussions of modern giving.

But then Cheal runs into some difficulties of his own.

He denies Gregory’s claim that gifts are inalienable: “gifts are in fact alienable” because “for a gift transaction to take place it is necessary for the donor to have the exclusive right to freely dispose of some object” (10-11). He points to studies of Hutterite communities in which gifts took on more prominence as personal property rights became more widespread. Communal property is not conducive to giving, since the recipient already possesses whatever the benefactor might bestow.

Fair enough. But there’s alienable and there’s alienable, and at this point we need a finer discrimination. With my students, I’ve offered the example of the useless soup tureen you get for a wedding gift from your grandmother. While it is yours in every legal sense, you will be reluctant to get rid of it, destroy it, or abuse it, more reluctant certainly than if you had purchased the tureen yourself. Your grandmother doesn’t have “ownership” rights over the gift given, but she does have some implicit authority over its use and disposal. Gifts need to be used in ways that honor the giver, and that is not true of other forms of property: I don’t think twice about honoring the checkout girl or Sam Walton with my purchase.

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