The Time of a Gift

By Margaroni, Maria | Philosophy Today, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Time of a Gift


Margaroni, Maria, Philosophy Today


..one would never have the time of a gift.^sup 1^

The basic premises of Jacques Derrida's understanding of the gift can be dated back to his discussion of Hegel in Glas where the philosopher distinguishes between "the irruptive event of the gift" and "what is currently designated under this word."2 In contrast to the latter, the "pure gift" (as Derrida calls it, [243]) does not give itself to a thinking of Being, presence, economy and the proper. This is why it needs to be conceptualised "before every determinable being," indeed, "before everything"-"if one could count here with time" Derrida is careful to add (242, my emphasis). It is in the opening that this conditional clause constitutes in Glas that Derrida's most sustained (to date) treatment of the gift situates itself. As the tithe suggests, Given Time seeks to reformulate the problematic of the gift as a problematic of time: "wherever there is time," Derrida writes in the first chapter of the book, "the gift is impossible" (9). As he explains,

the temporalization of time (memory, present, anticipation; retention, protention, imminence of the future; 'ecstases,' and so forth) always sets in motion the process of a destruction of the gift: through keeping, restitution, reproduction, the anticipatory expectation or apprehension that grasps or comprehends in advance. (14)

It is because exposure to temporality renders the gift vulnerable to what Derrida calls "the payment principle" that, in his view, "one would never have the time of a gift" (GT, 9, my emphasis).3 "If there is any," the gift takes place in the rest [i.e., the remainder] of time (7). It literally erupts when time has a restand is thus "secretly linked," as Derrida puts it, to a certain death (4), namely, the death of the Sun King, for it is a circular model of time that, according to the philosopher, has circum-scribed the Western understanding of the gift.

As I shall demonstrate, in his desire to keep the gift in "a relation of foreignness to the circle" (7), Derrida comes to "situate" it in "a no-time-lapse" "at the zero or infinite speed of the circle" (GT, 24).4 In doing so, the theorist of differance performs what I consider a strategic "forgetting" of the differantial spacing entailed in the movement of giving, the spatio-temporal ecart that defers the return of the gift, ensuring that on its return the given will be altered. It is this strategic "forgetting" that constitutes the aporia that has nourished my thinking in this essay. Indeed, it is the very concept of aporia that will help me unfold my agenda here.5

At stake, then, is first of all an impasse, the impasse of thought in the face of the impossible. In my reading of Given Time, it is this impasse that carries Derrida through his analysis of the gift as precisely a secret that denies passage. In my view, the temporal mode of this impasse is the instant, which, I shall argue, is the time of a gift in Derrida.

At stake also is a certain poverty, what Emmanuel Levinas calls "the indigence of wealth."6 To my mind, it is this poverty that constitutes the "tragedy" of the instant in the duration-without-duration of which Derrida's gift remainsin full possession of its solitude.

At stake, finally, is a thavmazein7 as the effect of the "logical and chronological" contradiction in which, according to Derrida, the madness of the gift consists (GT, 34). My contention is that this contradiction needs to be understood in the figure of paradox, a paradox that "mustbe endured," as Derrida emphasizes, "in the instant itself (GD, 66). Thavmazein, however,can be the effect of what erupts as a marvel. It is, indeed, the concept of marvel as we encounter it in the work of Levinas that will help us save Derrida's gift from the poverty of "the paradoxical instant . . . that . . . is [its] madness" (GT, 9). As we shall see, the marvel in question here is timeitself conceived as a certain differance, namely, as postponement and futurition. …

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