Paying it Forward, Paying it Back

I'm reading Marcel Mauss Gifts and the Obligation to Return Gifts for an 'Art and Design in Contemporary Society' essay (I love this class).  This is what wiki has to say on Mr Mauss, who wrote what is known to be his classic work on gift economy.  The essay I'm reading was written in 1954. I suspect the very idea of a gift economy was a bit foreign to an old French dude in the 50's.  The reading is dry dry dry omg dry, but I picked it because it's about gift economy. 

Burning Man is founded on a set of ten principals[i], one of which is Gifting “Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.” Another principle of Burning Man is Decommodification[ii] “In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.” And thus, in the spirit of Gifting the culture has utilizes a gift economy; rather than exchange money for goods and services we often barter our “gifts” for an exchange of agreed upon value. It is from the origin of the principle the gift is an offer to provide something with no expectation of exchange or reciprocity. This principal is an expected function of the culture while visiting Black Rock City Nevada, the temporary settlement that is home to the festival of Burning Man while the event occurs. Through the history of the event, many of the principles have spread from the local community of Black Rock City out into the communities its citizens originate from. My hometown has the second largest population of ‘Burners’ outside of San Francisco where the event originated. It is natural in a densely populated subculture in a relatively small city that I would be participating in communities of Burners and their principles of engagement long before I ever attended Burning Man. As of this account, I have lived about two thirds of my adult life if not more within the Burning Man community. Living in a world with a somewhat functioning gift economy has firmly codified its system of economy within my own principles and practices. My studies at fancy-pants Art school have reminded me that 'Burners' are an incredible and unique community of people that borders on a flavor of a radical sociopolitical movement, as much as it is an arts movement. 

In Marcel Mauss’ 1954 Gifts and the Obligation to Return Gifts in which he discusses the intricacies of rights and obligations surrounding the giving and receiving of gifts as a social obligation. The highlight I’m most interested in, is his discussion of a  spiritual exchange, which is transferred with a gift, and the myriad obligations of the recipient depending on the nature of the gift and who the recipient is. An interesting observation made within the essay notes that if something is re-gifted - each recipient is obliged to reciprocate the energetic offering to the originator of the gift because it is that persons energy, which was initially given with the gift. He quotes a colleague Mr. Elsdon Best and his research interview with Samoan lawyer, Tamati Ranairi.

“I shall tell you about hau. Hau is not the wind. Not at all. Suppose you have some particular object, taonga, and you give it to me; you give it to me without a price. We do not bargain over it. Now I give the thing to a third person who after a time decides to give me something in repayment for it (utu) , and he makes me a present of something (taonga). Now this taonga I received from him is the spirit (hau) of the taonga that came from you and which I passed onto him. The taonga which I receive on account of the taonga that came from you whether there were desirable or not. I must give them to you since they are the hau of the taonga which you game me. If I were to keep the second taonga for myself I might become ill or even die. Such is hau, the hau of personal property…”

The introduction of this idea is fascinating to me. I gift, you regift, he reciprocates to you, you must pass it back to me. Mauss goes on to talk about spiritual signatures that accompany objects; in essence the spirit signature attached to an object wants to return to its place of origin and this can only happen through exchange that passes the energy back to where it started. How can the modern gift economy of Burning Man support such an idea of the exchange of spirit; an obligation to help the energy return to its place of origin?

For the most part, in Burner culture, the gift economy has evolved into something closer to barter transactions that occur with a desire, satisfaction and fulfillment as part if the valuation of the exchange. We typically don't engage in transactions hesitantly or against our will and probably never with regret, or dissuade an unsolicited gift and certainly would (should) not negotiate an exchange. Many gifts are given as barter - a duty or obligation to pay for something and many Burners will prepare ‘gifts’ in advance of the event to exchange for treats or as token payments in exchange for an experience. While this practice has become expected and somewhat exploited to a point where some people demand gifts as payment for their presence, it falls outside of the nature of the principal. We jokingly refer to this as the thirteenth principle “Radical Self-Entitlement”. Holistically, the world of the larger Burning Man global culture is trying to shift that snarky idea of radical self-entitlement into a real principle of gratitude. Which is what I think Mauss is getting at in his essay on obligations of reciprocity; repayment of energy in gratitude. Could gracious manners and poise be an acceptable form of gratitude?

Perhaps the energetic exchange Mauss talks about can be instilled in our modern Western cultures by reintroducing a feeling of intention to the altruistic work we do, the objects we manufacture, the foods we make and the services we exchange with each other. We’ve been familiar with the idea of 'Paying It Forward' for centuries. Dyskolos, Benjamin Franklin and Ralf Waldo Emerson all expound on the virtues of repaying debt by gifting the sum owed to someone else in need, pushing our gratitude ahead of us as gifts to others. I think it is also incredibly valuable to pay it back, return the gratitude to the originator of the gifts we are grateful for energetically to demonstrate our appreciation to the originator of the exchange. Our obligation in the relationship of gift giving and receiving is to be gracious to those who support us through by our exchanges with each other and to be conscientious of how far reaching a gift can be.

If'n yer innerested in reading this thing I'm reading, pull up yer smarty pants!  Here is the Google Books link to Gifts and the Obligation to Return Gifts.

[i] Burning Man, May 12, 2011
[ii] Burning Man, May 12, 2011
[iii] Ralf Waldo Emerson, Compensation from Essays: First Series (1841)

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies,   Gifts and the Obligation to Return Gifts. University of Michigan, Cohen & West (1954)


Popular Posts