Thursday, July 12, 2012

Repay the Debt

Bird: Sounds to me like you're lookin' a gift horse in the mouse.
Dancy: Looking a gift horse in the mouth, bird. Not Mouse.
Maisie: You don't say.
All boils down to whether or not she's grateful, whether or not she's willin' to repay the debt.
Dancy: Debt? Christian folk, they don't do good and then expect--
- Alabaster: Wolves #3
by Caitlin R. Kiernan and Steve Lieber

Ever read something or watch something and then everything in the world seems to be related to that? It definitely happened to me while I was writing my thesis. I began to view the whole world through this lens of Wednesday Theology. People thought I was weird. I probably was. They told me not everything was related to comic books. I told them they were wrong. It made sense to me.

So when Dancy in Alabaster: Wolves starts talking about how Christians should view the concept of the debt, the portion in John D. Caputo's book What Would Jesus Deconstruct? on the deconstruction of "the gift" immediately jumped to my mind. It's the same concept. A gift should be free and without payment. There should be no debt to pay. But realistically, the economies of the gift always require some sort of restitution.

Caputo briefly summarizes Jacques Derrida's work on the gift by explaining that it is impossible to give a gift without expecting or receiving something in return, whether it be a physical gift, gratitude from the recipient, or merely our own smug satisfaction or ego boost from doing a good deed.
Notice what has happened: as soon as the gift is given, the gift begins to annul itself. How so? We started with A trying to give a gift to B, but no sooner has this taken place than B is encumbered with a sense of debt that B sets about trying to discharge. Along with receiving a gift, B received a debt. We speak of "owing a debt of gratitude" to someone, and that is a fair enough description. Instead of merely being given something, B has gone into debt. In contrast, A, who ought to be experiencing a lack now that A is bereft of what A has given away, has added to his reputation for generosity. By giving x to B, A has come out ahead and B has come out behind. That is the very opposite of what A set out to do, and B immediately sets about to restore the equilibrium. The gift is supposed to be an act of "giving," but it has quickly turned into an economy, a matter of "debts" and "repayment," of balance of payments. The idea behind a gift ideally ought to be to give a gift without return, to make an expenditure without the expectation of reciprocation, in a kind of "mad" generosity. But the result is a thinly disguised economy of exchange that cooly calculates the value of the gift and is very much governed by the principle of sufficient reason. What started out as the madness of the gift, a one-way giving without return, has turned into a circle of exchange. (793*)
 Okay, that was a lot to read, but what Caputo is saying is the act of giving a gift, a true, ideal gift, should be completely free and without strings attached or entanglements. He describes this as a type of "madness" because why would anyone ever do such a thing? But realistically, they cannot do such an ideal, mad thing. For the gift immediately turns, usually unconsciously, into an economy of give and take, debt and repayment.

Often, though, this is a very conscious economy. The whole Christmas shopping season, the biggest, most profitable time of the year for retailers, is based on the very realized economy of holiday gift giving. If someone gives you a Christmas gift, you expect to be in their debt and preemptively acquire a gift to offer that person to nullify that debt as soon as possible. Is it gift giving or gift exchanging? If a gift is supposed to be free and mad, then very little, if any, actual gifts are given on Christmas. Instead we're merely paying of debts to each other with wrapping paper and bows.

And we want that debt to be paid. If you gave someone a gift and received nothing in return, would you be okay with that? I mean nothing. Not just a lack of a physical gift in response. But what if they did not say "thank you" or even acknowledged the gift at all? You may not want anything back, but surely the recipient could be decent enough to acknowledge the act, the gift, and be grateful for it. This would fall into the "debt of gratitude" idea Caputo mentioned earlier. The economy of gift and debt is inescapable. So what's the point of the gift if it's so impossible?
The conclusion is not that the gift is impossible but that the gift is the impossible (it belongs to the vocative order), which is why we love it so and why we are mad about the gift with the madness of love itself, which dreams of the impossible. The aporia, the impossible, is never the end of action in deconstruction but the start, the condition of possibility of genuine action, one with teeth in it. (811)
The idea here is not to be dismayed by the economies of the gift and cease giving any gifts completely. The key is to be aware of these economies and take them into consideration. Maybe it will affect what you give or how you give it if there is an understanding of the possible indebtedness of the recipient. But still give. Always give, even if you realize the gift is impossible. Especially if you realize the gift is impossible.
The gift, if there is such a thing, is the event, the impossible, the undeconstructible. The gift is what we love and desire with a desire beyond desire, in which we hope with a hope against hope. The gift is given with love, even if we are not loved in return. (833)
 So strive to give gifts without expecting anything in return or creating an inescapable sense of debt. Don't do good, don't give a gift, merely to receive something in return. As Dancy begins to say in the excerpt at the top of the page, that's not what "Christian folk" do. Because Christians are supposed to be "mad" and will love, hope, and give when it makes absolutely no sense to do so.

I will leave you with one final quote from Caputo on the gift:
There is, there ought to be, something that we do in life that is not for a return but just because what we are doing is life itself, something a little mad. That is the gift. (845)

*Kindle book location.

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