December 18, 2008
The Season of Generosity
— Spencer Dew and Jeremy Biles
In a December 16th column in the New York Times, science writer John Tierney turned to the religious tradition of the potlatch, the Kwakiutl Indian practice of ceremonial giving, with the aim of addressing our own economic "hard times." "Now that we're being punished for our great credit binge, what are we supposed to do for the holidays?" he asks. Tribal hereditary chief Bill Cranmer shares his wisdom, which boils down to buying in bulk, disregarding the taboo on re-gifting, and monitoring spending so as to avoid debt. Cranmer's characterization of gift-giving as a way to "show people that you care for them and are thinking about them" makes for a nice, light-filled piece for the holiday season, with forays into interesting anthropological history, which leaves readers with a lesson for recession extracted by Tierney: in sum, "simplify and economize."
Tierney's piece holds that the Kwakiutl Indians (as the Kwakwaka'wakw Indians of the Pacific Northwest have usually been called in anthropological literature) "learned that exchanging presents is too important to be discontinued in any kind of economy," and marvels at the fact that the potlatch ceremonies continued even during the Great Depression, serving "a variety of functions: creating alliances, promoting altruism, redistributing wealth, vanquishing rivals and, not least, showing off." But he also notes a major difference between American holiday gift exchange and the potlatch as a cultural ideal when he points out one aspect of the potlatch that troubled Christian missionaries: the practice of destroying valuable objects - burning canoes or cutting up copper currency, offering up possessions as sacrifice in a conspicuous display that would garner prestige.
Tierney asks if this "destructive tradition could work elsewhere," acting as a kind of therapeutic mechanism in our age of decadence. He seems to think so, concluding his article with Cranmer's comments on how "we do it because we feel good...After you give away everything and are pretty broke, you're supposed to be happy." But what this sunny potlatch-as-self-help guide does not account for is the nature of desire within our capitalist economy. In short, supply creates its own demand. Shelves stocked with sale-price items generate stampedes of shoppers eager to possess and, at the holidays, to give - both out of love and obligation, among other motives. Tierney, though he does not discuss the notion of the commodity fetish, nonetheless ponders whether the immolation of possessions - the destruction of exchange value - might have another value, either as catharsis or reminder of the deeper human truths of the holiday season - i.e., community and love rather than a frenzy of "conspicuous consumption" (a term coined by anthropologist Thorstein Veblen in reference to tribal potlatch practices). But the potlatch offers a vision miles away from tramplings at Walmart.
For theorist of religion Georges Bataille, for instance, the ritual expresses a sacrificial principle that revokes the overvaluation of instrumental reason, calculation, accumulation, and conspicuous consumption that characterizes the capitalist mentality. According to Bataille's admittedly romantic imagination of the potlatch, the exuberant expenditure of this gifting ceremony provides precisely the sort of tonic Tierney seems to be searching for, a defiant rejection of capitalist logic. Rather than staying within budget via re-gifting and bulk buying, Bataille sees the lesson of the potlatch as that of sacrifice more broadly: giving in excess, without hope of return, without reserve. In Bataille's sense the potlatch is an orgy of irrecuperable loss; gift-giving is an echo of the superabundance that characterizes his view of the world, and offers a release from the excessive accumulations that define our lives.
For Bataille, then, spectacular consumption of this sort is necessary, but he identifies a religious (in the widest sense of the term) response: recognizing luxury and sacrificing excess. Tierney, who notes that burning barrels of petroleum won't solve our addiction to the stuff but will merely worsen pollution, would rightly ask hard questions about Bataille's romantic idea of the potlatch. Still, Bataille's excessive version of the potlatch is a bracing reminder of the act of sacrificial generosity, the crucifixion, that might ideally be at the heart of (but more often stands in counterpoint to) the whirl of the Christmas season. While Tierney's cautions for recession-hit shoppers have a practical use-value in this worldly, capitalist economy, Bataille's observations focus our attention on the holiday's basis in a gift beyond bounds - a miraculous sacrifice that undercuts the foundations of capitalism.
For Further Reading:
John Tierney's article "Tips from the Potlatch, Where Giving Knows No Slump" can be accessed here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/16/science/16tierney.html?_r=2
The locus classicus of anthropological discourse on the potlatch is Marcel Mauss's The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies.
For a superb critique of Bataille's theory of potlatch and his economic thought more generally, see Jean-Joseph Goux's essay "General Economics and Postmodern Capitalism," in Bataille: A Critical Reader, ed. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson.
For philosophical discussion of the relation between gift-giving and sacrifice, see The Enigma of Gift and Sacrifice, ed. Edith Wyschogrod, Jean-Joseph Goux, and Eric Boynton.
Spencer Dew is a PhD candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School and editor of the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum.
Jeremy Biles is an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, editor of the visual arts journal Prompt, and author of the book Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University Press, 2007).