ELEVEN KEYS | toward a mechanics of giving

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KEY NO. 1 – Gifts are awesome things that we’ve horribly misunderstood and distorted.  In the process of our modern Western socialization we’ve been taught a million different modes of exchange: purchase, trade, barter, reciprocity.  Gifts have been unfortunately lumped in with this category, despite not actually being a form of exchange at all.  We’ve been taught to experience gifts as things which must be responded to, which must be reciprocated.  This is why we write thank you notes every birthday, this is why we have gift swaps, this is the real meaning of Christmas.  But the gift, done properly, escapes the category of reciprocity entirely.  In fact, to give, you can’t expect to receive even a shrugged “thanks” in return.  This is key number one.  The moment the thanks comes out of the recipient’s mouth, the gift is ruined, turned into an exchange.  This means the recipient is an active participant in the act of the gift, because they have to actively keep their mouth shut to maintain the gift’s status as such.  The giver has to give with the knowledge that they will receive absolutely nothing in return.  Reciprocity is not giving.  Exchange is not giving.  Christmas is certainly not giving.  The closest thing to a Christmas gift is a mailed Harry & David fruitcake.

[A necessary aside here: Reciprocity is pretty great, and it definitely should be the main mode of exchange-based interactions if we want to continue to have society and friends and marriages and kids.  But we’re not talking about reciprocity – we’re talking about giving.  Which is different, and important if we want to have love and empathy as parts of our societies and friendships and marriages.]

KEY NO. 2 – Proceeds logically from key no. 1: a gift is wasteful.  If productivity is the goal, then giving is a pretty bad idea, because the only possible response to a true gift is to receive.  Nothing else.  When you give, you’re essentially throwing whatever it is away from yourself, out of yourself, tossing it out to someone else in such a way that the gift becomes a loss for you, it loses all use for the giver.  To get something in return would mean the gift still has use value for the giver: it is a tool for receiving “thanks.”  This is no gift.  To give you have to lose.

KEY NO. 3 – That makes it incredibly hard to give.  It’s really fucking hard to put something out while expecting nothing in return.  We’re not talking about karma, or paying it forward, or “what-goes-around-comes-around,” or even the innocuous “it’ll-all-come-out-in-the-wash.”  We’re talking about putting something out into the world, or directly into the hands of another, with absolutely no expectation of anything whatsoever in return.  This is not how we’re taught to do things: you put in time, work, money, effort, energy, and you’d better damn well get something out of it.  But that’s not giving.  Further, if you receive even satisfaction from the act of giving and if part of your reason for giving is this satisfaction, your gift is null, because you gave with the anticipation of feeling good about it.  As if that weren’t enough, giving is doubly/triply/quadruply hard because, as the giver, you have no control over the response of the recipient, who can very easily fuck your gift right up by reciprocating.

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KEY NO. 4 – The receiver can do nothing but receive, which makes receiving just about as difficult as giving.  Politesse dictates that we write those thank-you notes, that we make sure to give presents to everyone from whom we expect to receive presents, including our in-laws and half-brothers and friends’ moms – that we respond period.  There’s nothing inherently bad about these habits – I’m all for them – but they’re not giving.  They are exchange, and feeling good about yourself because of an exchange is like feeling good about yourself because you tied your shoelaces properly.  If you wish to give back after receiving, you can, but it has to be somehow entirely separate from the original gift.  If the two are connected, they’re both void.  The receiver’s only recourse is to willingly and actively accept the gift.  [Key no. 4.5 – A refusal of the gift, or even an unwilling acceptance, or really anything less than an affirmative choice to receive destroys the gift.]

The gift is sort of like what we sometimes do with charity, when a giver gives blindly and the receiver can’t do anything but receive because they don’t know toward whom to express their gratitude or reciprocity.  But even after acts of charity, it’s common to see named and enumerated donations chiseled into the wall, and to receive cards back from those to whom you were “charitable” towards (the form-note I received from some random student at my alma mater who was indirectly supported by my twenty bucks comes to mind).  The act of blind charity is considered “above and beyond,” which is pretty stupid and which definitely ruins the gift.  If you want to be named when you donate, then you’re giving with your own status and satisfaction and credit in mind.  You’re fucking up.

KEY NO. 5 – The nature of a gifted thing never precludes it from being given.  Anything can be given. Objects, time, love, promises, money, life, sex, friends, hatred, poison, vomit, even disease.  “Don’t screw Brad,” we say.  “He gave me chlamydia.”  [This is also revealing of key no. 5.5 – that the gift does not have to be wanted by the recipient.  It’s still a gift regardless of the recipient’s interest in receiving it, so long as the recipient does willfully receive it.  The unwillful recipient says, “’I got chlamydia from Brad.”  It was not a gift.  Either way, Brad says, “You’re welcome.”]  One of the infinite things that can be given, and that is not given often enough, because it’s really incredibly hard to give, is the self.

KEY NO. 6 – To give of oneself is utterly terrifying, and it’s equally terrifying to receive another’s self.  If you find your own self confusing, hard to deal with, fucked up, complicated, disturbing, and scary, imagine someone else’s.  That said, your weird, fucked up self is probably your most prized possession, and so to waste some of it by giving it is counterintuitive and terrifying.  This is why the gift of the self is the most enormous generosity.  As such, it’s also one of the hardest things to receive because your ingrained instinct to reciprocate gets all twisted and screwed by the sense that there’s no way you could possibly ever give enough back to match what you’ve just received.  Which is where we come back to key no. 4 – receiving someone’s self as a gift requires that you don’t give anything back at all.  So don’t.

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KEY NO. 7 – It is not only possible but relatively easy to try to give away too much.  Once you jump the hurdle of giving of yourself, you can find yourself doing it too much, to the point that you have very little of yourself left for yourself.  Key no. 7 is to not try and give everything away.  On top of the need to retain something of yourself, the chances that your intended recipients will freak the fuck out are extremely high.  It’s pretty easy to be overwhelmed and alienated by so much giving.  Plus there’s the likelihood that someone giving their entire selves away is doing so because of key no. 2, the wastefulness of it, the sense of ridding.  The over-giver of the self is trying to get rid of their self, which is absolutely the wrong reason to give.  It’s aggressive, it’s dangerous, and it’s essentially suicidal.  As a corollary: the phrase “he gave his life” is overused and misplaced, and the glory ascribed to the giver of life can sometimes be a bit sick.  To die “for a cause” accidentally is not a gift because it lacks intention and because it’s impossible – an accidental death can’t be for anything.  To die for a cause on purpose is only a gift if the cause – the recipient – willfully accepts the death as a gift.  To die for no cause, to kill oneself, is not a gift at all.

KEY NO. 8 – With true giving, one can never give too much, because in the end there’s not enough to give.  Hence why suicide is not a gift – if you’re actually giving, you’re replenished in the act.  Giving’s end is not found in your own end, because giving can’t end.

KEY NO. 9 – Giving is an outpouring.  To give is to spew, to grow, to expand, to overflow.  This contributes to the difficulty of receiving.  Where in me do I have room for your excess?  The ease of reciprocity comes from the ability to make room by giving back.  To be engaged in giving and receiving, the giver has to give what they can, and the receiver has to accept what they can, whether or not they can actually take it in.  Take on more than you feel able.

KEY NO. 10 – “Give in,” “give out,” “give way,” “give up” – there’s a reason we have these phrases.  There’s a gift in relenting.  Key no. 10 is the gift of easing up, dropping it, letting go.  An action which seems passive but is entirely not.  It is Ariadnean and badass.

KEY NO. 11 – Gilles Deleuze writes of the giving natures of Dionysus and Ariadne.  Dionysian giving is an endless outward flow the proceeds almost violently.   It is the very process of causation.   It is destructive and glorious and wasteful and constantly climactic.  This is giving, this is pure affirmation, this is yes.

Ariadne gives of herself.  She gives her approval – her giving is almost a stepping aside, almost a giving way.   She affirms Dionyus’s overflow – she affirms his affirmation.  In doing so, she admits there is no room in her for what he gives, but she says yes to it regardless.   She takes on more than is possible.  This is receiving, and it is also a gift.  The yes’s yes.

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Deleuze, Gilles. “The Mystery of Ariadne according to Nietzsche,” in “Essays Critical and Clinical 1993.”  Translated by Daniel W. Smith.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.



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