People take their gift giving very seriously. Not just during the big holidays of the year, like Christmas/Kwanza/the Jewish Chanukah, but to celebrate other, more individual moments. Birthdays, anniversaries, baby showers, and congratulations-you’re-no-longer-married-to-that-asshole presents. We’re so excited to give gifts that we start thinking about them months in advance.
But why? Why are we so bothered to spend our salaries and stripping tips on gifts for other people? Wouldn’t it be better to just go ahead and treat ourselves to a nice Alexander Wang Rococo bag instead of getting you something?
A gift means free shit. Gift bags, gift certificates, gift cards. Free, free, free! When we give gifts we usually expect nothing in return, because a gift is supposed to be “a thing given willingly to someone without payment.” Also known as free. But the French sociologist Marcel Mauss says not so fast.
In his 1923 essay The Gift, Mauss is all, no gift is ever given out of want. The reason we give gifts is never “because I want to.” For Mauss, gift-giving is a bond of exchange, an economic system where the one who gives a gift assumes a type of power over the person getting the gift. Just when you think you’re getting some fabulous free swag from a loved one, Mauss is like, Actually, the person getting the gift (you!) now has to give something even more fabulous in return. These rites of gift exchange control the circulation of gifts, which are never given purely out of want. Even more importantly, Mauss belives that if you refuse a gift, it’s a declaration of war, “it is a refusal of friendship and intercourse.”
So basically when you’re rolling around dolling out gifts the holiday season, racking up all that credit card debt and still healing from getting your knees blown out when you got trampled at Best Buy on Black Friday, know that you are not giving something away purely out of want. You’re doing so just so that you can get a better gift in return. For Mauss, the exchange of gifts between individuals is mandatory and becomes an alternative form of capital because a gift is a contract offered with the expectation that it will be returned.
I never used to think about gifts in this way, because there’s a certain thrill to buying something for someone you care about and waiting with anticipation to see how they’ll respond. But I think it’s hard for anyone to admit that they’ve ever given a gift or done a favor and not expected something, anything, in return. If you think closely, there IS a certain expectation that If I give you something, you will give me something, too. If he pays for dinner tonight, you will give him an innocent little hand job in the car on the way back to your place. If she gives you a record from your favorite band, you will give her a record of her favorite band, and so on.
Are human relationships simply economic opportunities based in exchange value?