28 December 2009

On gifts

I know I am a difficult person to buy presents for, generally because there is rarely anything I want. Last year I managed to persuade family members to buy a goat or some other livestock on my behalf, for somewhere in the developing world, but they did not take to the idea again.

Money and tokens are last resorts. They send a message not only that "I give up on thinking what to get for you" but also "you are worth precisely £10, or whatever." At least with an actual object, the message of the financial value is mitigated by the thought, the empathic act of thinking what someone would enjoy receiving.

I rarely get this right, myself. For once I did this year, giving one grown-up son a mini-food-processor. He lives alone buthe is an enthusiastic cook. The next day he turned up extolling its virtues and accompanied by small bowls of dips and relishes all based on chopped raw brussels sprouts combined with a variety of oils, herbs, spices and other vegetables in a variety of exotic and very tasty combinations; he had spent the entire previous evening experimenting.

I received some presents yesterday, including two books from the "Humour" section of the bookshop, which it is unlikely that I shall ever read--the usual curmudgeonly rants about present-day life and culture which can be fun for a few pages if one's own prejudices coincide with those of the author, but which quickly pall. Giving books needs to take into account that they require the investment of time in reading them.

In the bookshop today I looked at the section they had come from, and I realised that practically all of that section, and the cookery books, and the celebrity memoirs at the very least, was taken up by books which are produced in order to be given, rather than read. And walking home I passed a new shop, which advertised its wares as "cards and gifts". Of course anything can be a gift (something else I received yesterday was two cans of kippers--but I do like kippers), but the suitability for "gifting" (and probably re-gifting and re-re-gifting for ever) has taken over from the intrinsic value of the object. Indeed in the case of many objects such as books, it is important that they not be used, and indeed that any packaging not be opened if they are to remain suitable gifts.

This is not new, of course. Bronislaw Malinowski documented the Kula Ring exchange among the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific in "Argonauts of the Western Pacific" (1922) (see also here) in which the continual exchange of the same goods serves to structure and maintain social relations between the inhabitants of scattered islands.

Come to think of it, for many of us this pattern may make more sense that to concentrate on the utility of gifts...  It's one of those issues where process is more important than content.

See also Mauss M (1954) The Gift; forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies London; Routledge and Kegan Paul (preview available here)

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