If there is a gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure.
Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (emphasis in original)
The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?
Giving of gifts is one of those taken-for-granteds that most of us never think about the implications or consequences of gifting. What if, however, giving of gifts were an expression of ethical behavior? What if gifting were a selfless act of response-ability? Ethical response-ability requires one to become available, to announce one’s presence, one’s availability to be of service to the other. Furthermore, it requires one to become available without any expectation of reciprocation on the part of the other. Ethical response-ability is a one-way street, it is the giving of the self for the welfare of the other after announcing availability and waiting for the cry of the other. Ethical response-ability is initiated by the self but only so far as to announce availability. There it stops, waiting in proximate space for the cry of the other to interrupt the proximate space, tearing the fabric of complacency by requiring a response. Then and only then must the proximate self act for the welfare of the other. Ethical response-ability is not in the business of offering assistance when or where it is not wanted. It only responds it does not initiate.
When I give a gift, when I am the giver, what are my expectations? Do I give the gift freely without expectations of reciprocation or does my gift signal the fact that I expect something in return? If I am giving in order to get, if, in other words, I have clear expectations of reciprocation, then it is difficult to classify my gift as a gift; it is more akin to a bribe, inducement or incentive. When a gift is given in order to secure cooperation on the other end, clearly the gift initiates a circle of giving and receiving that can only be classified as self-serving. While one may call this gifting, because it requires action by the other in order to complete the circle, it may better be classified as a quasi-contract spilling out into the realm of economics rather than ethics. Think about how many times you have looked at a holiday list of giving and decided not to send a gift to someone because they didn’t send you a gift last year or the year before. This kind of gifting, I’ll send you a gift if you’ll send me one of equal or greater value, fails the test of ethical behavior. Think about how many times you have given a gift to someone with the thought, “If I give this gift I’ll surely get back far more in return?”
If, on the other hand, my expectations are such that I have none, that I have given a gift without any expectation of reciprocation, then my gift may fall into the category of ethical response-ability. It is rare that one can give a gift without any expectations. If I give a donation to my local symphony orchestra they will give me a set of gifts in return. This gift, while altruistic, comes with reciprocation built into the contract. Even if I give this gift anonymously, so that my name is not listed in the program giving the impression that I want nothing in return, not even recognition, the gift came with baggage that can only be classed as reciprocation and is, therefore, not a gift but a contract; I’ll give you this and you’ll give me that in return.
Random acts of kindness, acts that require no reciprocation, such as holding the door open for a stranger, come close to the true sense of a gift but often fail when there is an inner (or outer) set of doors and the stranger then holds the door open for you. No, the only true gift is the one that announces “Here I AM!” and then waits for the cry of the other so that one can act response-ably for the benefit of the other. The very idea of giving a gift is impossible except when one selflessly makes oneself available to be of service to another in need.