Thanks to Brian Foley’s sharp eyes, here is a terrific NY Times profile on Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift, the contemporary artist’s Bible and parking meter guide to plying our (or “their,” if you hate artists and you just came to this blog looking for our we’re-a-real-literature-blog practice of Boobs Friday) “trade” in an era of commodified everything, when you have to explain how poetry is supposed to make you the skrilla. We don’t even have patrons anymore! So how–ask the barrel-chested Rotary Club wardens of the world–is poetry supposed to seat us cleanly on the respectable cultural (read: cash exchanging) train of gravy? Hyde is the original and saintly articulator of the “gift economy” theory, which answers that question by pointing out how commodity trading economies throughout histories have cordoned off space for an alternate system of exchanges based on gifting, giving things to people as gifts and accepting gifts in return, where you have 1 to 1 value (“oh, that is your gift, here is my gift”) and not weighted currency (“two of your sheep for eight of my fingernails”). This system builds its own communities based on–think Christmas afternoon–a kind of buzzy empathy.
Though I’ve never read Hyde, I’ve heard enough about this “gift economy” idea second and thirdhand to understand the basic principles, and I’ve always been kind of skeptical. Not because I’m into making bank off my litter-a-churr, but because I’m a little uncomfortable with the whole idea of “gifts,” the latent obligations of them (“dear grandma, thank you for the lizard balls”) and their harrowing ideological weight (“’tis tradition, young man, this gift giving!”). “Gifting” seems to formalize in some unnatural and self-congratulatory (self meaning group self here) way a process that should feel, I don’t know, more humble and altruistic or something. If we want to trade poetry, why can’t we just trade poetry? Maybe it’s just that the whole “gift economy” idea seems to be apologizing to the capitalists (“oh, here it is in a way you can understand, you know Christmas, right? you know about the ‘gift’ of talent?”), and that leaves a shitty aftertaste.
But! Like I said, I’ve never actually read the silly book. And this profile makes Hyde’s philosophy seem really appealing. All the ideas about how we’re communally developed, for instance, and how whatever genius might arise is not unique but accumulated: that sounds good. So maybe I will read the book now. And I’ll like gifts more.
What thinketh the commentariat?