What Is a Gift?

gift no hands

The following is an excerpt from Returning the Gift: Modernism and the Thought of Exchange, the excellent new book by literary scholar Rebecca Colesworthy, published in late 2018 by Oxford University Press.  In this passage, Colesworthy reflects on the status of the gift within early twentieth-century literature, philosophy, and social science following World War I.

What is a gift? Since the publication of Marcel Mauss’s classic 1925 Essai sur le don, few questions seem to have provoked as much certainty or as little consensus as this one. Across disciplines and fields, definitions abound. Some are grounded in culturally specific practices, from the Melanesian “Kula Ring” to American rituals of Christmas shopping. Others, however, are presented as a “general theory” that transcends historical and geographic boundaries. Depending on whom one consults, the gift may be an act of pure expenditure, a form of social contract, a cover for economic interest, a gesture of mutual recognition, or an expression of artistic creativity, among other things—if, of course, it is considered a “thing” at all. Or, indeed, if it even is. For some, the very existence of the gift is uncertain. Economists tell us that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, while philosophers wonder if the gift can ever escape oikonomia, the law (nomos) that underwrites the circular exchange of goods and dictates their eventual return home (oikos). The gift may be time or energy. It may be a spirit, a symbol, or a system of relation. What is for some an extension of the donor is for others a reflection of the recipient.

But whatever a gift is and however we define it, we tend to think that we know what it is. We assume that when you or I say “gift” we are talking about the same thing—that what we mean is a given.

This phenomenon is likely familiar to scholars in modernist studies, particularly in the wake of the emergence of the “new modernist studies,” with its prevailing ethos of expansion—including temporal expansion back into the nineteenth century and forward into the era after World War II, spatial expansion into geographic areas beyond Western Europe and the United States, vertical expansion into popular media and mass culture, and horizontal expansion into disciplines other than literature and the visual arts. Now ten years since its christening and another ten to twenty years since its putative birth, the new modernist studies is no longer quite so new. Nevertheless, the expansiveness for which the “new” of its title was always meant, however loosely, to stand still very much prevails, demanding that we, as scholars of modernism, repeatedly rewrite the terms of our engagement. We continue to presume a shared object of study, and yet this object is endlessly subject to reinvention as the criteria for what exactly constitutes modernism shifts not simply to accommodate new cultural artifacts and materials but also in order to bring new perspectives to bear on old—that is, already canonical and previously examined—ones. Far more than a mere symptom of the demands of the academic marketplace—though it is in part that—this problem of constant reinvention is one that we, as students and critics of modernism, have inherited from modernists themselves in their highly self-conscious and strategic efforts, as Jean-Michel Rabaté puts it, “to create their own audiences, to explain what they were doing, and to durably transform the taste of the common reader.” And, in this respect, it may be argued that the question of what characterizes modernism necessarily continues to be constitutive of its study.

returning the gift cover

The premise of this book is that these two questions—of what a gift is and of what modernism is—are deeply interrelated. Focusing on a series of works by Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Gertrude Stein, and H.D. from roughly 1925 to 1945, Returning the Gift: Modernism and the Thought of Exchange argues that the question of the gift—of what a gift is, what it means, what it does, what it could be, and even what it should be—was central to their aesthetic projects and, moreover, that focusing on their treatment of this question brings into fuller and finer relief the social dimensions of these projects. To be clear from the start: there is not one “gift” at stake in this study or in modernism more broadly. How Woolf, Rhys, Stein, and H.D. conceptualize the gift varies with their politics, personal backgrounds, and historical contexts and is inseparable from their particular formal styles and techniques. Yet it remains the case that, across their writing, figures and narratives of gift-giving—of hospitality, sympathy, charity, reciprocity, genius, and kinship—consistently serve as vehicles for representing modern social life and reimagining the possibilities for social engagement and relations under the conditions of the capitalist present. Foremost among the relations they imagine is that of their texts to their readers. In adopting rhetoric and motifs of gift-giving, these writers in effect allegorize their address to their audiences and plot the conditions of their writing’s reception. They all, in other words, cast their writing as a gift, although what this means—the nature of the gift each writer gives—is not a foregone conclusion but rather is dictated by their respective works.

Not only were Woolf, Rhys, Stein, and H.D. thinking about the gift and making it a centerpiece of their aesthetics but they also were doing so at a moment when, following the First World War, the gift was undergoing a theoretical revival across disciplines and in different national contexts. While Mauss is typically credited with ushering in this revival, he was hardly alone. In his intellectual history of the gift’s “return” as an object of systematic study in the early twentieth century, Harry Liebersohn suggests that the “crisis of World War I, with its breakdown of elementary civilities within and across state borders . . . provoked a quest for new forms of solidarity.” For Mauss, this quest led to the identification of an alternative form of reciprocity in so-called archaic societies, where “exchanges and contracts take place in the form of presents.” Far from being unique to archaic societies (his primary example of which is Polynesia), such exchanges also exist for Mauss in Western capitalist societies and appear to be returning in a new form, on a large scale, with the rise of the nascent welfare state.

We find a kindred quest for international solidarity in the economist John Maynard Keynes’s critique of the “Carthaginian Peace” of the Versailles Treaty. In his 1919 The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes argues that the “structure and civilization” of the countries rocked by the “European Civil War” are “essentially one.” Because both the victors and their German and Austrian foes are bound by “hidden psychic and economic bonds,” it is in the interest of the former to resist imposing harsh reparations on the latter. We will return to Keynes in our discussion of his fellow Bloomsberry, Virginia Woolf, in Chapter 2. There, while acknowledging the occasional conceptual parallels between, and shared material context of, Maussian sociology and Keynesian consumerism, I will nevertheless insist on the limitations of economic theory—even the theory of so generous an economist as Keynes—as a framework for interpreting the gift of Woolf’s writing and modernist writing about the gift more broadly.

For others, the concern with the gift to which World War I helped to give rise took a somewhat different form. We might recall, for example, Sigmund Freud’s parallel between the traumatic neuroses suffered by veterans and the child’s game of fort/da in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. For Freud, both phenomena manifest a compulsion to repeat that is “more primitive” than the pleasure principle, which, as a “principle of constancy,” is a fundamentally economic principle. If the status of the repetition compulsion, or death drive, as a gift is relatively implicit in Freud’s 1920 text, it becomes quite explicitly so in Georges Bataille’s anti-utilitarian notion of expenditure as an “illogical and irresistible impulse to reject material or moral goods.” While Bataille and his colleagues in the Collège de Sociologie were indebted to both Freud’s and Mauss’s work (and especially to Mauss’s uncle and mentor Émile Durkheim’s notion of the sacred), there remains an important tension between the Freudian quest for an aneconomic, instinctual beyond and the Maussian quest for solidarity. Particularly as it has been taken up in recent queer theory, the gift of the death drive and of negative affect in general serves not to solidify social bonds but rather to disrupt them. At the same time, the argument might be made that, in retaliating against and registering the shortcomings of traditional social norms, such affect—of which Rhys’s fiction has plenty—might serve as a call to rethink the foundations of the social.

We find an especially powerful call of this kind in a 1924 study of the gift from across the Atlantic—W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America. Published twenty years after his far more widely known The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois’s text offers a sweeping revaluation of, and homage to, the contributions of African Americans. In using the language of the gift to demand more just and democratic forms of recognition and inclusion, it exemplifies a third variety of postwar quest—a quest not for solidarity or unconscious motives but rather for more equitable social, political, and economic organization. Du Bois’s text paves the way for “real democracy” by countering the violent mistreatment of black lives as “great black wastes of hereditary idiots.” Black contributions—of labor, thought, culture, and military service, including service in the recent World War—are, for Du Bois, gifts, but they are not free gifts, or at least they ought not to be. For the fact is that their gifts have always had profound spiritual and economic importance even if their value has been “forgotten or slurred over” and their contributions uncompensated. Thus, of the black “gift of labor,” including the coerced labor of slaves, Du Bois observes that, “whether given willingly or not, it was given and America profited by the gift” in ways he then takes care to calculate.

While Keynes’s, Freud’s, and Du Bois’s works offer but three examples of postwar thinking about the gift, they begin to point to the polysemy of the language of the gift and its seemingly inexhaustible mutability as a concept, as well as its simultaneous development in different disciplinary and national contexts. The question of the gift was not just “in the air” during this period, but was at the heart of a wide range of disciplines, including sociology (Mauss, Bataille, and the Collège de Sociologie), economics (Keynes), psychoanalysis (Freud), anthropology (Bronislaw Malinowski), philosophy (Martin Heidegger), political theory (Carl Schmitt), and, as I will argue here, literature, particularly, but certainly not exclusively, modernist writing by women. These discourses took shape in relation to a number of historical phenomena—the devastation and disillusionment wrought by World War I, international debt and reparations, rising unemployment rates and eventually the Great Depression, as well as the spread of socialism, movements for workers’, women’s, and civil rights, the birth of the welfare state, and, finally, the descent into World War II. In this context, questions of gift-giving—of how much to give, to whom, and by what means—were not just some abstract theoretical bauble but centerpieces of public debates and practical efforts to institute social, political, and economic changes.

For as many starting points as thinking about the gift therefore has and as many directions as it may go, I begin, as so many have, with Mauss—not because what he had to say was radically new and unique. As we will see in Chapter 1, his intellectual debts were extensive and are well catalogued in his epic notes to the Essai sur le don. Rather, in his essay, typically translated into English as The Gift, Mauss has the distinction of crystallizing a problem: namely, that gifts and exchanges are supposed to be antithetical; indeed, their separation is built into and sustained by Western legal and economic systems. And yet, their separation simply does not hold up in everyday experience. From quotidian gestures of kindness and the feelings of indebtedness they inspire to national phenomena such as the growth of an “entire movement” in support of unemployment insurance in Britain—the social facts testify, on the contrary, to the practical and conceptual mixture of gifts and exchanges in the modern age. That we ultimately see traces of this mixture in the otherwise disparate works by Keynes, Freud, and Du Bois noted above further testifies to the significance and relevance of Mauss’s essay not simply as an ethnography of archaic societies but also, and more importantly for my purposes here, as an ethnography of modern market societies. Mauss’s The Gift, I argue, exemplifies a distinctively modernist oscillation between defiant critique of capitalist modernity and optimistic investment in its possibilities, unearthing the potential for alternative social forms within its morass of ideological and structural contradictions. In The Gift, this potential derives from modern capitalism’s paradoxical dependence on gift economies that it works tirelessly to discount and conceal.

For its part, the writing of Woolf, Rhys, Stein, and H.D. shares Mauss’s sense that modern life is in fact characterized by a mixture of categories that are supposed to be separate—gifts and exchanges, generosity and interest, freedom and obligation, persons and things—sometimes to their immense dismay. Stein in particular, I argue, reacts quite negatively to the mixture of gifts and exchanges promised by the welfare state in her critique of the Roosevelt administration’s treatment of money (the proper medium of political economy) as if it were a free gift (the proper medium of art) under the New Deal. Though it has only recently gained significant attention from critics, Stein’s conservatism will be highly recognizable to anyone even casually versed in right-wing anxieties about government over-generosity. In the U.S. context, for example, we might recall the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, reportedly blaming his loss to Barack Obama on the latter’s “gifts” to minorities (in the form of health care) and young people (in the form of student loan interest forgiveness). What Stein’s own anxiety about government gifts nevertheless belies is a certainty about the separation of gifts and exchanges breaking down in the present, albeit in ways she considered untoward and unsavory on both artistic and political grounds.

Rebecca Colesworthy is a literary scholar and acquisitions editor at SUNY Press. She has taught at Cornell University, New York University, University at Albany, SUNY, and Skidmore College, though Returning the Gift was largely written while she was working outside academia, in the non-profit sector. She is the co-editor with Peter Nicholls of How Abstract Is It? Thinking Capital Now (Routledge, 2016), has published articles and reviews on modernism, contemporary feminism, and psychoanalytic theory, and holds a PhD in English from Cornell. Follow her on Twitter at @RColesworthy

Excerpted from Returning the Gift: Modernism and the Thought of Exchange by Rebecca Colesworthy, published by Oxford University Press. © 2018 Rebecca Colesworthy.