Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ramble Ramble Ramble

I have a lot of things on my mind. This should make it easier for me to update this blog, but really it just complicates things... I can't decide which topic to start with, whether or not I should pile everything into one entry or split them up into groups, etc. etc. etc.

So, instead of writing about my own thoughts, I'll write about somebody elses. Lewis Hyde's, to be exact:

As I said in my last entry, I'm currently reading The Gift. I've conquered nearly half of it in the past week, but I seem to be hitting a rough patch. I enjoy reading non-fiction, but it requires a lot more concentration, which is something 1) I don't often have too much of to begin with and 2) is difficult to harness when I'm at work (which is where I end up doing most of my reading). But so far, this book has given me a remarkably eye-opening perspective on the history of gift-giving and its evolution into commodity exchange (and the importance of art - in all its forms - as a form of gift giving in modern society). It's also made me view the way I live my life in my community/society in different ways, as well.

My favorite chapter so far, The Bond, focuses on the connection that is created between two (or more) people through gift exchange. Hyde begins the chapter by stating that "It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection." This idea seems pretty basic, and it is. Hyde uses several examples (such as walking into a hardware store to buy *you guessed it* hardware from a salesperson, or a child giving a kidney to her mother when she is in need) to highlight the degree of experienced emotional attachment through commodity or gift exchange.

What I love most about this chapter is Hyde's discussion of commodities in regards to the United States (the "free world," as he calls it). The following is a series of chunks from a few paragraphs about this topic:

Because of the bonding power of gifts and the detached nature of commodity exchange, gifts have become associated with community and with being obliged to others, while commodities are associated with alienation and freedom. The bonds established by a gift can maintain old identity and limit our freedom of motion. [...] It seems no misnomer that we have called those nations known for their commodities "the free world." The phrase doesn't seem to refer to political freedoms; it indicates that the dominant form of exchange in these lands does not bind the individual in any way - to his family, to his community, or to the state. [...] The excitement of commodities is the excitement of possibility, of floating away from the particular to taste the range of available life. [...] All youth wants, once, to be alienated from the bonds of nurture, to be the prodigal son. Sometimes we go to the market to taste estrangement, if only to fantasize what our next attachment might be. It's a free country, you can do what you want: get married, get divorced, settle down, leave town, ski, farm, talk on the radio, buy the radio; the problem is to find someone to do it with. In this old lover's quarrel between liberty and community, Westerneres are those who defend freedom and long for attachment.

This selection spans about three pages of the book, and it's one of my favorites. I think it offers a lot of interesting insight into the individualistic perspective that we aquire as Americans and with that, I think, why so many people in this country are bursting with patriotism. By being patriotic, we are able to create that attachment that we all want to have along with the ability to be free. But, because we are a capitalist nation we deal in commodities (which is accompanied by the need for a power structure, reciprocity, payments, etc). Therefore, this patriotic family is a superficial one, yes? I guess that's how it's always felt to me. And yet there are times, such as 9/11, when members of our nation do rally together to give to one another and work together for the sake of others and create that attachment.

It would be times like this, then, that I think Hyde might say that Americans break free of society and become a true community. In earlier sections of the book he explains the difference between society and community, stating that a society is structured through commodity exchange, whereas communities are founded upon gift giving. Gift giving creates a bond between one or more people, and so when gifts are constantly circulated throughout the community, they keep every member tied to the others in some way or another.

Hyde also speaks about anarchy in reference to gift-exchange communities, which I found interesting as well. I took an American Politics class this past semester, and did a bit of reading about anarchy in my textbook. The authors of the book gave a bleak description of a life without government: buildings burning, cars being stolen, children attacking old women for loose change, parents stealing TV's from their neighbors houses, etc. But in Hyde's book, his discussion of anarchy refers to any tribe or community that was either in existence before traditional forms of government appeared or any group existing now outside the Western world that still utilizes gift-exchange. His accounts of many of these types of groups are peaceful and eye-opening. One anthropologist, Lorna Marshall, spent many years in the 1950's with Bushmen in South Africa. When she left, she gave each of the women in the band a supply of shells to make themselves their own necklaces. A year later when she returned, she found that the shells had been spread amongst everyone in the band - no one in the band had more than one or two shells each. Obviously, this is a completely different society than the one that I live in. About this "phenomenon," Hyde says, "If we take the synthetic power of gifts, which establish and maintain the bonds of affection between friends, lovers, comrades, and if we add to these a circulation wider than a binary give-and-take, we shall soon derive society, or at least those societies - family, guild, fraternity, sorority, band, community - that cohere through faithfulness and gratitude."

To put it simply, I think that's pretty sweet. Anarchy without mayhem. These kind of things do happen in the United States when, as I mentioned above, there is some sort of disaster which demands unification in order to persevere. But they are rare. One of the unique aspects of 9/11's aftermath was the true coming-together of so many strangers in order to help others. It was an historic day which led to Americans banding together across the nation to help those in need without (I would hope) any expectation of synthetic or capitalistic gain in return. On that day, and for years afterward, American citizens worked together for the sake of comradery, faith, community, and gratitude.

I will return, then, to my American Politics textbook reference. After reading about Lorna Marshall's experience with the Bushmen, I was immediately reminded of my textbook's violent depiction of anarchy, and was slightly disgusted to realize that at the time I found it perfectly plausible and logical to assume that anarchy would create such a chaotic scene. Because my mind (and the minds of almost every other Westerner) has been trained to think about capital and power from early on, I could not function without government the way that these tribes do (Or, if I could, it would take a very, very long time to convert). Our lives in the "free world" have been under the shadow of government ruling and large corporations for so long that it seems impossible to imagine existing without it.

The question is, then: Is this individual identity that I have had the freedom and liberty to create really my own? What else could I truly learn about myself if I was only worried about fitting in with a community instead of with society? Is my individual identity "better" than the collective identity created through connections to my family (who are the true gift-givers in my life with whom I exchange constantly but still feel the need to escape from)? And why, then, do we value commodity exchange over gift giving when giving back (such as with 9/11) creates a real connection at a "spiritual" level? We connect, but then we let go; we go back to working for ourselves to get ahead, only to be bombarded by others who are doing the same. We all think of people such as the Bushmen as being very primitive or inferior to us. But, in regards to how to run a community, it seems like they really do know a thing or two (or more).

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