The Gift — Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde’s The Gift is one of these frustrating books whose last chapter is vastly better than any other and whose main point is somehow true even as the support for that point is weak, nonexistent, or wrong. He argues, reasonably enough, that contemporary Western capitalist societies tend to undervalue creativity in the arts, particularly when said creativity doesn’t sell. But in trying to make his point, he too pretends that a firewall exists between the creative, “gift” economies and the exchange/contract economies. At the end he decides the two can be reconciled, but that occurs after a series of irritating pronouncements with unsubtle jabs the exchange/contract economy. Nonetheless, The Gift made me think differently about the world by the time I finished with it, which few books do. I’ll swing back to that at the end, because The Gift also deserves plenty of criticism.

Although The Gift is a book, it feels like a long magazine article might have been the more appropriate form for it. Do we really need more than 50 pages about American Indian gift exchange cultures? And the chapters on Ezra Pound seems particularly worthless, and the one on Whitman interesting but overlong—a microcosm for The Gift as a whole. Some of its metaphors strain credulity and seem almost deliberately narrow, as when Hyde writes:

Gifts of peace have the same synthetic character. Gifts have always constituted peace overtures among tribal groups and they still signify the close of war in the modern world, as when the United States helped Japan to rebuild after the Second World War. A gift is often the first step toward normalized relations. (To take a negative example, the United States did not offer aid to Vietnam after the war. […])

The United States didn’t rebuilt Japan in hopes of joining hands and singing about world harmony—the goal was to build Japan as a bulwark against Communism in Asia. The “gifts” were probably closer to bribes. At the same time, the United States didn’t win in Vietnam, which might explain why no foreign aid money went to the country; if the North had been overrun and destroyed, then it might have been rebuilt with American dollars. Likewise, the United States’ proxy war in Afghanistan resulted in little subsequent aid, as discussed at the end of George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War.

I’m not sure this shows anything other than Hyde failed in this example, but he does in many others too. In a footnote, he says:

There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.

Time-saving devices can free up more time for creative labor: there are more writers and artists today than there were in, say, 1800, in part because most people aren’t engaged in backbreaking farming or 15-hour days in factories. Education levels have risen enormously, in part thanks largely to time-saving devices that give us more time to study and more wealth to devote to schools, libraries, and the like. Furthermore, labor expressed in exchange value does not automatically devalue creativity—establishing things like copyright, which allowed writers and others to derive an independent income from their work, if anything increased the worth of creative labor for people like writers. And creativity is not limited to what we think of as traditional arts—for example, computer programming is often enormously creative, and those who tend to be maximally creative also tend to be better compensated than those who aren’t. If Hyde were going to say that “When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, creativity can be devalued,” I would agree: the number of poets whose contribution can be measured monetarily is small. As Gabriel Zaid says in So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance, “[…] the conversation continues, unheeded by television, which will never report: ‘Yesterday, a student read Socrates’ Apology and felt free.’ ”

Such problems occur throughout the book, although they’re alleviated in the conclusion, where Hyde retreats on many of his more ridiculous assertions. He says:

[…] my own ideas underwent a bit of a re-formation. I began to understand that the permission to usure is also a permission to trade between two spheres [the commercial and gift economies]. The boundary can be permeable. Gift-increase (unreckoned, positive reciprocity) may be converted into market-increase (reckoned, negative reciprocity). And vice versa: the interest that a stranger pays on a loan may be brought into the center and converted into gifts. Put more generally, within certain limits what has been given us as a gift may be sold in the marketplace and what has been earned in the marketplace may be given as a gift.

Damn: if only that line of reasonable thinking had informed the entire book. It didn’t, which render sections of The Gift reminiscent of freshman-year manifestos written by tipsy students who just finished Marx. Despite those problems, some sections early fascinate, like the chapter on “The Gift Community,” where Hyde says:

Is is a rare society that can be sustained by bonds of affection alone; most, and particularly mass societies, must have as well those unions which are sanctioned and enforced by law that is detached from feeling. But just as the Roman saw the familia divided into res and personae, the modern world has seen the extension of law further and further into what was earlier the exclusive realm of the heart.

The more one tries to regulate the affairs of the heart, the less those affairs seem like they are of the heart. Dan Ariely and Tim Harford make similar observations, backed up by experiments, in Predictably Irrational and The Logic of Life, respectively. And institutions are fond of exploiting the gift economy by masquerading their exchange/commercial actions. For example, Division I American college sports piggyback on the gift economy: although to football, basketball and baseball players are essentially professionals, high-caliber universities pretend that tuition is a “gift” even as the same universities extract millions of dollars in television and merchandising revenue from such players. The idea that Division I players are amateurs has become increasingly absurd, much as the Olympics have been professionalized. In Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education, Murray Sperber even argues that the sports mentality harms students.

Yet I can’t help but imagine places where gift economies don’t apply at all, and they’re often not very pleasant. As I write this, I sit in a Tucson airpot bar. Airports have everything wrong with them: they are transitional, one-off spaces filled with strangers, the “restaurants” they offer consist of pre-made food with character slightly above a TV dinner, and for some reason we as a society have decided that Constitution rights and privacy don’t apply here. People I don’t know can stop me at will, and merely flying requires that I submit to security theater that is simultaneously ineffective and invasive. Everything is exorbitantly expensive but not of particularly high quality. Menus don’t have beer prices on them.

The airport, in short, is designed to extract money from a captive audience; this might be in part why I don’t care much for sports stadiums, Disneyland, and other areas where I feel vaguely captive. In Great American Cities (to use Jane Jacob’s phrase), something is always happening, there is always another place down the street, and you can decide to be as invested or anonymous in society as you like. In contrast, airpots feel like a trap: you can’t choose to avoid them, at least not without enormous costs in terms of time, money, and concentration. Maybe I wrote about college sports above because a few basketball games are playing around me, along with facile, noisy political news that’s more like a talk show than newspaper. If there were a bar in the Tucson airport without this ceaseless parade of visual noise, I would go to it. I’m trapped in an extreme form of the market economy, where no reciprocity exists and the gift is hidden and completely subservient to commerce. I might not have the gift, but regardless of whether I do, I’m frustrated here, where the food is more fuel more pleasure, as if choosing between burritos and pasta is like choosing between octane grades. Good chefs are artists, and maybe none could work in the security of an airport. I only wish that I had somewhere quiet and comfortable to sit. Neither kind of place exists in airports, unless you pay for it, and, again, I have no choice but to participate. At least with the most market, you have a choice.

In short, there are few better places to instill sympathy to the arguments of a book like The Gift, which, for all its problems in expression, nonetheless drives at a serious problem in market economies that seem unlikely to depart. They are not as serious as Hyde makes them out to be—I too would like it if more people read Saul Bellow and fewer watched Flavor of Love, a show I’ve never seen but have heard allusions to at least three times in the last week—and the market has a habit of self-correction, but that doesn’t mean they do not exist. And The Gift gives one a better way for analyzing the world and believing in creative acts that don’t necessary have immediate financial gain.

Despite my antipathy towards The Gift I occasionally find myself recommending it, albeit with caveats attached. It threads an argument that deserves to be more often heard in a non-sentimental or strident context: that not all worthy forms of creativity are financially remunerated adequately but that they are valuable nonetheless. The Gift is not brilliant, as the jacket copy claims, but art deserves all the defense it can muster, but over the long term, I suspect that art will be its own defense.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Last Night at the Lobster — Stewart O’Nan | The Story's Story

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