Derrida on Gift

Derrida on Gift April 18, 2006

Our discussion of Mauss brought us to the verge of talking about postmodernism and the gift. We will do this primarily by examining Derrida, but to understand Derrida we need to spend some time with Levinas, one of the chief influences on Derrida’s thought. After examining some of the key themes of Levinas’s work, we’ll move into a consideration of Derrida’s discussions of hospitality, the impossibility of the gift, time, and sacrifice.

John Milbank (FT, March 1999) orients the discussion by pointing to some fo the common themes of Levinas, Derrida, and other recent thinkers. Regarding giving: “Recent ethical thinkers have certain characteristic answers to these questions. The only real gift, they claim, is one that expects no counter–gift in return. Unless a gift is in this fashion sacrificial—the giving up of something—it is argued, a gift reduces to a hidden contractual agreement, governed by a principle of self–interest; and actions out of self–interest, as Kant pointed out, are not pure gifts.”

Regarding death, “they hold that death, far from being complicit with evil as religious traditions have often taken it to be, is the very circumstance that makes it possible to act ethically at all. This claim further breaks down into two complementary parts: 1) We are radically and ultimately vulnerable only because we might die—an immortal would be in the most crucial aspects invulnerable. Hence it is the fact of death alone that lends serious gravity to the ethical demand which vulnerability imposes upon us. 2) At the limit, the ethical agent might die for the vulnerable other person. This readiness to die alone guarantees the ultimate disinterest of his ethical gesture, since it would seem that a good one is prepared to die for cannot be the secret vehicle of one’s own power or (presently enjoyed) glory. In this sense, readiness to die precludes the will to power.”

Death is thus the foundation of the self and of ethics: “in the trend of ethical thinking we are investigating, it is characteristically assumed that what makes us aware of the self in the first place is just this double intrusion of death: the cry of the vulnerable other eliciting our preparedness to negate our own life. Combine this understanding of self with a common epistemological belief, and we bring God into the picture. The epistemological belief is that when something appears to us, when it is present to our consciousness, we can see only what we understand and are able to grasp; we reduce the ‘other’ to the sphere of our awareness. If this is the case, then for the vulnerability of another to place an ethical demand on us greater than ourselves, the other must be greater than ourselves. Thus, the demand of the other with a small ‘o’ passes mistily over into the claim of the other with a big ‘O,’ the demand of transcendence, of deity.”

Ultimately, this conception of ethics and the self is founded on a particular ontology: “Finally, in the fourth place there is the question of ontology, of just what kind of world it is in which gift without return and the death of the other linked to my own death gives rise to subjectivity and ensures that as subjective beings we are first and foremost ethical creatures—even before we are erotic creatures or curious creatures. Recent thought has it that ours is a world in which death, the passing away of life beyond being into nothingness, is an ultimate horizon. It is suggested that only within this horizon does ethics acquire an ultimate seriousness. For if we are all terminally fragile, then our temporary lives assume an ultimate value, since we can offer our own lives for the sake of others. A death without return ensures that the choice of the good exceeds any self–interest, and that the good lies, as Levinas says, ‘beyond being [including our own].’ With God reduced to a shadow of the human other, and no longer seen as the source of compensating heavenly rewards, the ultimate religious and ethical imperative of pure sacrifice is therefore fulfilled within a secular and symbolically drained sphere, harboring no illusions. Common to all these thinkers (with the exception of Marion) is an attempt to make nothingness or the continuous disappearance of life into the void the precondition for morality, rather than an obstacle in its path. Death in its unmitigated reality permits the ethical, while the notion of resurrection contaminates it with self–interest.”

To grasp Levinas’s position, and Derrida’s relation to his thought, we need to first understand what Levinas means by “alterity,” “totality” and “the Same.” Hans Boersma describes Levinas’ project as follows: “The Western philosophical tradition, says Levinas, has had a penchant for ontological categories. The preoccupation with questions of being (ontology) has led to a tendency to understand, to grasp, and to master the exterior world. Western culture is built on attempts to analyze, scrutinize, dissect, explore, and utilize. As a result Western philosophy has encouraged a tendency toward violence. The imposition of rational categories on the exterior world has undermined all that is different or other than one’s self. The alterity (otherness) of everything in the outside world gets suppressed. Our attempts to remake the world in our own image imply an inability to accept the other as other. The philosophical tradition is focused on sameness and totality: in a totalizing fashion, we have shaped everything that we see into our own image. Sameness (le Meme) rather than alterity, totality rather than infinity, being rather than ethics lies as the basis of our modern society: ‘The ontological event accomplished by philosophy consists in suppressing or transmuting the alterity of all that is Other, in universalizing the immanence of the Same (le Meme) or of Freedom in effacing the boundaries, and in expelling the violence of Being (Etre).’”

Philosophy, obsessed with Being and the Same, is Procrustean in intention and operation.
Because of its obsession with sameness, its effort to encompass everything under a single total category (being) or incorporate it into a single all-encompassing theory, Western philosophy has been complicit with violence. It leaves, in Boersma’s phrase, “no room for the inbreaking of the other” and thus has “suppressed hospitality toward the stranger.” Levinas wants to overturn this ontological bias by making ethics (understood in terms of relation to the Other) the “first philosophy” in place of ontology. For Levinas, the starting point of philosophy is “the face of the other who is knocking on the door. The alterity of the other places me immediately under the obligation of hospitality. I am no longer allowed to look through the peephole before opening the door: [T]he other facing me makes me responsible for him/her, and this responsibility has no limits’” (Boersma). Obligation to the other is prior to any judgment or calculation or knowledge about the identity of the other: “The relation between the Other and me which dawns forth in his expression, issues in neither number nor in concept. The Other remains infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world that is common to us, whose virtualities are inscribed in our nature and developed by our existence.”

His Totality and Infinity (1969) is a critique of Heidegger, Husserl, and through them of the entire Western philosophical tradition that is obsessed with “begin” or “totality” or “the Same”: “Western philosophy has most often been an ontolo
gy: a reduction of the Other to the Same by interposition of a middle and neutral terms that ensures the comprehension of being” (pp. 33-34). Done in this mode, philosophy is nothing more than an “egology,” whose joy is to use up the other to fulfill its own needs and desires: The “transmutation of the other into the same” is “the essence of enjoyment.” But this other, which can be reduced to my ego, is not really Other.

He emphasizes the importance of ethics, which he describes as a “calling into question of the same”: “A calling into question of the Same—which cannot occur within the egoistic spontaneity of the Same—is brought about by the Other. We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics. The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity as ethics. Metaphysics, transcendence, the welcoming of the Other by the Same, of the Other by Me, is concretely produced as the calling into question of the Same by the Other, that is, as the ethics that accomplishes the critical essence of knowledge” (p. 33).

Yet, this relation with the Other that imposes an obligation on me, is bound up with an ethic of self-sacrifice and an ontologization of death. This paradigm of living toward death, and the demand of self-sacrifice without hope of restoration, is at the heart of Levinas’ ethics. In an essay “Time and the Other,” Levinas presents death as the ultimate revelation of “the Other.” Death is the limit of the subject’s mastery. As death approaches, we are no longer able to be able; death is “the impossibility of having a project.” And this means that death shows “we are in relation with something that is absolutely other, something bearing alterity not as a provisional determination we can assimilate through enjoyment, but as something whose very existence is made of alterity. My solitude is thus not confirmed by death but broken by it.” Death is often seen as the one thing that is our own, the one possession that we can say is solely ours. Levinas says the opposite: Death is that reality “whose very existence is made of alterity,” and thus confronts us with the relation to an absolute Other. Death is the paradigmatic Other.

From this, Levinas reasons to other characteristics of “existence with the other.” First, the reality of death means “existence is pluralist.” This is not to say that there are many existing things, but that existing itself is plural, multiple, rather than single: “A purality insinuates itself into the very existing of the existent, which until this point was jealousy assumed by the subject alone and manifest through suffering.” By death, “the existing of the existent is alienated.” The other does not possess the existing of the subject as the subject himself does; the other’s “hold over my existing is mysterious.” It is an “unknowable” other, not merely an “unknown.” The other is thus neither “another myself” that shares a common existence nor is the relationship with the other “an idyllic and harmonious relationship of communion.” It is a relationship with a mystery that admits of no communion, for the other’s being “is wholly constituted by its exteriority, or rather its alterity.” Second, this relates to time: “The future is what is in no way grasped. The exteriority of the future is totally different from spatial exteriority precisely through the fact that the future is absolutely surprising.” “The future is what is not grasp, what befalls us and lays hold of us,” and thus “the other is the future. The very relationship with the other is the relationship with the future.”

Much of Levinas’s thought is concentrated in the use he makes of the image of “the face.” The “face-to-face” that is prior to any theory is the priority of ethics to ontology, ethics as first philosophy. The face, apart from any particular features of expression, stands for the primordial personal encounter with the Other, prior to all theory. This encounter with the face is also an encounter with “vulnerability itself,” an “extreme exposure” that aims at the subject, as it were, at point blank range. As Bruce Ellis Benson points out, however, even if we grant the possibility that the transcendent face presents itself to us without context, unmediated, it’s hardly possible that it will remain such. Plus, “it is difficult to know what it would be like to treat an other simply as other. If I think there are particular ways in which it is appropriate to respond to God, then I must have some idea of God. Similarly, if I treat another as a human being, then I have an idea of what human beings are and how they should be treated. Even the more neutral category ‘neighbor’ carries with it some idea of how responsibility is carried out.”

The face is the face of mortality, and as such “summons me, calls for me, begs for me, as if the invisible death that must be faced by the Other, pure otherness, separated, in some way, from any whole, were my business.” The death of another, his vulnerability to death, confronts me, and calls me into question, because I might respond to his death with indifference. Because “I have to answer for this death of he other,” and by this process “The Other becomes my neighbour precisely through the way the face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question.” As Boersma says, the Other confronts me as the face at the door, to which I must open before I assess the consequences. This hint of unlimited hospitality leads us to Derrida.

According to James KA Smith, Derrida’s entire project can be understood in Levinasian terms: Derrida is all about introducing the other. Hellenistic philosophy must be introduced to Hebraic prophecy; philosophy to its other, literature. Deconstruction, he suggests, is “vigilance for the other,” and is a “calling, a vocation, which undertakes an intense investigation of texts, structures and institutions in order to enable them to respond to the call of the other.”

Specifically, Derrida’s notion of justice and his ethics is shaped by his insistence on alterity. Levinas’s entire work, he argues, is about hospitality, and for Derrida “justice is hospitality” (Smith). Derrida goes further, and suggests that metaphysics itself is hospitality, unlimited openness to the Other. For Derrida, this hospitality that is ethics, justice, and metaphysics is “infinite or it is not at all.” Infinite welcome means unconditional welcome. Derrida gives a particular biblical spin to this notion. He asks whether the responsibility to welcome the stranger, which he takes as the sum of the Torah, depends on the specific revelation at Sinai, or whether there is “recognition of the Torah by peoples or the nations for whom the name, the place, the event Sinai would mean nothing”? He follows Levinas in saying that there is a demand for hospitality that is prior to all revelation: “Levinas orients his interpretation toward the equivalence of three concepts – fraternity, humanity, hospitality – that determine an experience of the Torah and of the messianic times even before or outside of the Sinai, and even for the one who makes no claim ‘to the title of bearer or messenger of the Torah.’” This universal and unconditional demand for hospitality becomes what Derrida calls a “structural or a prior messianicity,” and this obli
gation is an election of the whole human race to welcome every other.

Translating this ethic of infinite obligation to hospitality (all are responsible for all for everything) into a practical politics is a trick, to say the least. Ethics is an absolute response to the singular Other, but politics has to formulate laws and policies for a community, and thus, Smith argues, “there is a sense in which laws are doomed to be essentially unethical and inhospitable.” Yet, though law “deforms the I and the other” (Levinas), politics and law must be deduced from ethics. Law must be “haunted by” (Smith’s phrase) ethics as hospitality, and this provides a stance from which laws may critique systems, well, pretty much indefinitely.

Thus, for Derrida, gifting in the form of hospitality is the essence of ethics and the essence of metaphysics, yet in the nature of things, hospitality is an impossible demand to fulfill. When Derrida turns more directly to discussing gift, the same dynamics are at work.

Derrida begins his treatment of gift-giving (in Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money) with a distinction between gift and economy: “One cannot treat the gift, this goes without saying, without treating this relation to economy, even to the money economy. But is not the gift, if there is any, also that which interrupts economy? That which, in suspending economic calculation, no longer gives rise to exchange? That which opens the circle so as to defy reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure, and so as to turn aside the return in view of the no-return? If there is gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure. If the figure of the circle is essential to economics, the gift must remain aneconomic. Not that it remains foreign to the circle, but it must keep a relation of foreignness to the circle, a relation without relation of familiar foreignness. It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is impossible. Not impossible but the impossible. The very figure of the impossible.”

There are several critical movements here. Derrida begins with the contrast between the gift and the circle, simply taking this contrast as an unargued given – “this goes without saying.” As Milbank points out, this is completely a concession to the modern and capitalist “reduction of exchange to contract.” He observes that “exchanges are not necessarily economic, and not necessarily of a legally formalized kind, acknowledging only contractual encounters. Nevertheless, exchange has been reduced to the economic and legally formalized in our capitalist society.” This is an overstatement, but the point remains that Derrida has universalized what is a contingent development in Western history. Milbank suggests that what distinguishes gift and economic exchange is not the “absolute freedom and non-binding character of the gift” but instead “the surprisingness and unpredictability of gift and counter-gift, or their character in space as asymmetrical reciprocity, and their character in time as non-identical repetition.”

Why the impossible? Derrida argues that the conditions of possibility for the gift (ie, that someone gives something to some other) are “simultaneously the conditions of the impossibility of the gift.” The very structure and possibility of the gift “define or produce the annulment, the annihilation, the destruction of the gift.” A gift cannot “be what it was except on the condition of not being what it was.”

Why? A gift requires that there by no “reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt. 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 calculation of a long-term deferral or differance. This is all too obvious if the other, the donee, gives me back immediately the same thing.” For there to be a gift at all requires that “the donee not give back, amortize, reimburse, acquit himself, enter into a contract, and that he never have contracted a debt.” Thus “It is . . . necessary, at the limit, that he not recognize the gift as gift. If he recognizes it as gift, if the gift appears to him as such, if the present is present to him as present, this simply recognition suffices to annul the gift.” This is because “it gives back, in the place, let us say, of the thing itself, a symbolic equivalent.” Recognition precedes gratitude, but for a recipient it is enough to perceive the “intentional meaning of the gift, in order for this simple recognition of the gift as gift, as such, to annul the gift as gift even before recognition becomes gratitude.” Thus, “At the limit, the gift as gift ought not appear as gift, either to the donee or the donor. It cannot be gift as gift except but not being present as gift.”

Not only the recipient, but the giver must not recognize gift as gift: “the one who gives it must not see or know it either; otherwise he begins, at the threshold, as soon as he intends to give, to pay himself with a symbolic recognition, to praise himself, to approve of himself, to gratify himself, to congratulate himself, to give back to himself symbolically the value of what he thinks he has given or what he is preparing to give.” In short, the gift loses its gift character as soon as it is recognized as such by the giver or the recipient; but without this recognition, the gift is not a gift either, because there is no intention of giving on the giver’s part nor a recognition of reception on the receiver’s part. In short, “the simple intention to give, insofar as it carries the intentional meaning of the gift, suffices to make a return payment to oneself.”

For a true gift to be given, there must be an absolute forgetfulness on the part of both the giver and recipient. When Derrida says that the gift cannot be kept without ceasing to be a gift, he also means “the keeping in the Unconscious, memory, the putting into reserve or temporalization as effect of repression. For there to be a gift, not only must the donor or donee not perceive the gift as such, have no consciousness of it, no memory, no recognition; he or she must also forget it right away [a l’instant] and moreover this forgetting must be so radical that it exceeds even the psychoanalytic categorality of forgetting . . . . we are speaking here of an absolute forgetting – a forgetting that also absolves, that unbinds absolutely and infinitely more, therefore, than excuse, forgiveness, or acquittal.” Yet, this forgetfulness is not nothing, a mere “non-experience”: “For there to be a gift event . . . something must come about or happen, in an instant, in an instant that no doubt does not belong to the economy of time, in a time without time, but also in such a way that this forgetting, without being something present, presentable, determinable, sensible or meaningful, is not nothing.”

Try a thought experiment to clarify the point: Sleepwalking Harry hands flowers to comatose Alice. Has a gift been given? There is an exchange, but both parties are unconscious of the exchange. We’d hardly think that there is a gift here, since we think of the intention to give as a constituent element of giving. So, the condition for the possibility of a gift is that Harry wake up and Alice come out of her coma; but as soon as they do that, they both recognize
that a gift is being given, and this destroys the giftedness of the gift. So the conditions of the possibility of the gift are also the conditions of its destruction. The gift is impossible, the impossible.

Gifts can only be given to those who are wholly other. If there is some pre-existing bond – familial, political, economic, even friendliness – then the gift does not arise spontaneously as a gift, and is no gift at all.

This structure of the gift is also, Derrida argues, the structure of being and of time. Being “gives itself to be thought on the condition of being nothing (no present-being, no being-present),” while time “even in what is called its ‘vulgar’ determination, from Aristotle to Heidegger, is always defined in the paradoxia or rather the aporia of what is without being, of what is never present or what is only scarcely and dimly.”

Derrida also considers the gift in relation to time, working from the punning connection of present-gift and present-time. One the one hand, time destroys the gift “through keeping, restitution, reproduction, the anticipatory expectation or apprehension that grasps or comprehends in advance.” On the other hand, time is the only true gift. The only gift that truly qualifies as gift, Derrida says, is the gift of nothing, and this means fundamentally the gift of time: The only present is the present moment, the nothing, the no-space, the not-duration that does not exist as the future makes its way into the past. David Hart again: “The ontological import of this line of reflection is that in the end the only gift is the radical nongift of time, the present moment, that is nothing at all but the nihilating passage of time from future to past, the dissolution of being in its manifestation of temporality: the gift is the es gibt of being, or the empty yielding of the chora, the effect of nothing, the pure giving of nothing (the present) to no one, whose delay is endlessly deferred toward that difference – that reciprocation of the gift – that can never be given, never owned, never desired. The gift is no gift: the present that is not (a) present.”

Derrida himself speaks in terms of the gift and the event, and insists that the event that is gift, the gift that is event, must be unancticipated, unexpected, unconditioned, unforeseen to be gift; the gift event must be “irruptive, unmotivated – for example, disinterested. They are decisive and they must therefore tear the fabric, interrupt the continuum of a narrative that nevertheless they call for, they must perturb the order of causalities: in an instant.” Gift and even “obey nothing, except perhaps principles of disorder, that is, principles without principles.”

Having problematized the gift, he also problematizes the other side of the exchange – gratitude – and for some of the same reasons. In an essay on Levinas, he discusses his debt to Levinas and considers the appropriate forms of thanks that might be offered. Derrida insists that the only way to give Levinas his proper due is to give him “faulty” thanks. Drawing on Levinas’s concept of the “Saying” v. the “Said” (Saying = the face-to-face encounter with the Other that cannot be captured by language of ontology – cannot be Said), Derrida argues that “it is only . . . if there remains ingratitude on his part, that the ethical Saying can be maintained. Without ingratitude, if the giving of thanks were ‘faultless,’ it would simply celebrate the Said of Levains’s text, affronting Levinas’s idea that the ethical relation is ‘beyond’ knowledge by claiming, in fact, to know and like Levinas’s work. Thus, Derrida works to ‘give wrongly’ his thanks to Levinas so as to avoid betraying the ethical structure of Levinas’s work” – to keep the Other from collapsing into the Same (this a summary from an article by Miriam Bankovsky).

Derrida’s thanks is faulty in three ways. First, it “misdirects” thanks because it does not offer thanks directly to Levinas. This is necessarily the case since “the event [of gift] that obligates the response is no longer present at the moment in which thanks is given.” He explains this in terms of a statement of Levinas concerning the obligation to respond to the Other: “He will have obligated” (il aura oblige), a future perfect that cannot be captured or located in time. Second, Derrida’s thanks is not pure thanks, but only a partial and hence ungrateful thanks. That is to say, Derrida does not simply repeat Levinas but criticizes and seeks to improve on him. He must do this if he is going to be thoroughly Levinasian, if he is going to open the Levinasian text to its “Other.” But this means that his thanks cannot be undiluted, pure thanks.

Finally, Derrida says that in “returning ‘thanks,’ he, in effect, returns property to Levinas and no longer gives a ‘gift’ of thanks.” By committing a fault in thanks, Derrida wants to ensure that he does not simply return “the Same” to Levinas. But Levinas has already written in a way that disrupts the Same by the Other in an encounter of Saying. And this means that precisely by avoiding returning “the Same” to Levinas, Derrida is copying Levinas’s method. Derrida sees a trap here: “Beyond any possible restitution, there would be need for my gesture to operate without debt, in absolute ingratitude. The trap is that I then pay homage, the only possible homage, to his work, to what his work says of the Work.”

Derrida undermines gratitude in several other respects as well. Thanks might be given by praising the work of Levinas in a way that assumes a full context and a “dominant interpretation” of Levinas’s work, but that is impossible because of “the indeterminacy of ‘context’ in a given temporal moment.” A dominant interpretation immanentizes the eschaton, encloses interpretation in a final context. Derrida’s sense of failure in giving thanks does not lead to resignation but is an “incentive to undertake ethical Work” (Bankovsky). The face-to-face encounter is what drives all ethical work in art, culture, and politics. And that means that the impossibility of gratitude drives ethics as much as the impossibility of gift.

Without attempting to fully engage Derrida’s position here, let me cite a couple of criticisms from David Hart. He points out that the whole argument is guided by “the altogether doctrinaire premise that goes unexamined in such reflections,” namely, “that purity of intention is what assures the gratuity of the gift, and that purity is assured by complete disinherit, defying recognition and reciprocation alike.” He wonders if Derrida has “uncritically succumbed to a Kantian . . . rigorism that requires an absolute distinction of duty from desire,” but suggests that if Kant is not lurking nearby it is difficulty to explain why “the thought of the gift [must] be confined to so narrow a moral definition of gratuity or selflessness, purged of desire.”

Perhaps more fundamentally, Hart discerns in Derrida’s stress on the intention of gift a notion of “the priority of a subjectivity that possesses a moral identity prior to the complex exchanges of moral practices, of gift and gratitude.” Finally, he wonders whether a selflessness devoid of desire is so far from hate: “Would there not be something demonic in a love without enchantment, without a desire for the other, a longing to dwell with and be recognized by the other?”

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