To Give in the Name, or to Give without Names: Derrida, the Gift, and the Giving of Alms

By Borman, David A. | Philosophy Today, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

To Give in the Name, or to Give without Names: Derrida, the Gift, and the Giving of Alms


Borman, David A., Philosophy Today


For this is the impossible that gives itself to be thought here: These conditions of possibility of the gift . . . designate simultaneously the conditions of the impossibility of the gift . . . these conditions of possibility define or produce the annulment, the annihilation, the destruction of the gift.1

There would be some truth in noting that this is about all Derrida is willing to say about the gift in Given Time; he will spell out, of course, the numerous ways in which the statement may be verified, the several ways in which what we typically think of as a gift or as giving disintegrate in the moment of their production. If this were truly all, though, I would not bother myself with writing of this essay. Why then do I bother? Because, I would argue, the account Derrida gives tends towards a similar structural tension itself: the use to which he intends to put this concept runs up against his own explication of it. While Derrida is often the first to confess to such tensions, it is not a case here of an honest extension of his conclusions over their own performance; rather, what lies at the base of the conflict is, I will try to show, a misguided analysis of what is really going on in giving. I will start with the account offered in Given Time, followed by my own alternative, and then proceed to a sort of mediation which I think can be found in The Gift of Death.

Any consideration of the gift, says Derrida, cannot but take account of economy. In particular, the question appears to be one of explaining how it is that a gift might rupture the economic circle of exchange, reciprocity, and symmetry.2 If it is not immediately obvious why this should be the case-and it may not be, given the typical structure of gift-giving in our culture, which is indeed often one of exchange-one need bear in mind that there is a certain ideality to the notion of giving under discussion. Derrida enumerates a variety of uses towards which the word "give" may be put and speculates rightly that there is probably no one description that could encompass them all (nor even one which might encompass all the merely philosophical usages found in discourses on the gift). What is meant here by "giving" is a kind of pure gift, the act and spirit of giving itself which, it would seem, one would like to be able to separate from its consequences, or at least from the expectation of exchange. If the gift is to be possible, strictly speaking, "the gift as given thing or as act of donation, it must not be economical . . . it must not be exchanged . . . [or] return to the point of the departure."3 This figure of the circle, this return, however, is essential to economics, to the market and to the principle of money; if there is to be a gift, then, it must break with the circle: it must be ''uneconomic"4

The question remains how this break is to be accomplished: what are the conditions of the aneconomic break? In an economic model of exchange, when one receives but has not given in return, debt is incurred. That is to say, debt is a sign of economic structures. The need for repayment may not be immediately present; it may be deferred by intricate social processes or rituals. Nevertheless, if a debt has been contracted by the recipient, no matter how circuitously, there will have been, claims Derrida, no gift.5 If there is repayment even as simple as thanks-giving or expressions of gratitude, there will have been debt and no gift. "The one who gives it [the gift] must not see it or know it either; otherwise he begins, at the threshold, as soon as he intends to give, to pay himself with a symbolic recognition, to praise himself, to approve himself."6 And if the other accepts-which is to say, accepts what is thus present as intended gift-then the moment she takes, the gift is annihilated.7 To sum up this strange vision: for there to be a gift, there can be neither a giver aware of giving, nor a receiver aware of receiving, nor, in fact, even a gift that is present as such, which would necessarily reinstate at least one of the actors to whom it would be present. …

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