My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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guilt & indebtedness: Nietzsche and Mauss

Trying to make sense of second section of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, i can’t help but position it next to Mauss’ The Gift. [Note: gift does not just mean physical object, or a gift to God, but the general notion of gifting, or offering something of oneself to another.]

Mauss’ theory of reciprocity is devoid of morals. He focuses entirely on how people give, receive and reciprocate. Morality come into play from two directions: 1) from where does the original gift come from? 2) what if the gift remains unreciprocated?

Mauss seems to imply that the gift is pure. Even it it were pure, it is bound up in expectation and that inherently places guilt on the receiver’s end. Thus, one inherently knows that by gifting, one is engaging in a power struggle. Thus, the gift is no longer pure; it is part of the struggle for power and indebtedness. Another possibility is that the gift comes straight from a feeling of guilt and thus the gift is an attempt to make an offering, to settle a score. In either case, the process of gifting immediately constructs a power differential between two people.

In arguing about indebtedness, Nietzsche notes that the indebted internalizes the guilt imposed by the debt. The ongoing debt instills a guilt within the creditor as well. The brilliance of Christianity is that both are relieved of this internalized guilt by being permanently indebted to God first and foremost.

Returning to the gift, what happens when the gift is not reciprocated? Mauss argues that it simply means an end to the relationship, but he never deals with guilt. Does the receiver feel guilt in not reciprocating? In what conditions?

[On a personal note, i know that i feel guilt when i receive a gift that i cannot reciprocate, even if i didn’t ask for the gift in the first place. Is that internalized guilt logical or, drawing from Nietzsche, a product of Christian culture? How can/should i frame the giver?]

What other theories exist on the process of gifting and reciprocation? How do they all get pieced together?

[Warning dear blog readers… i’m taking a rhetoric class this semester and trying to make sense of various theories, often for the first time.]

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7 comments to guilt & indebtedness: Nietzsche and Mauss

  • What other theories exist on the process of gifting and reciprocation? How do they all get pieced together?

    Read what has been written about the Burningman “gift economy.” My own personal spin on the matter is the free exchange of gifts on the playa leads to credit card debt back home (but thats just the rational part of me talking).

    There’s Burningman documentary called “Gifting It” about this particular flavor of gift giving. The film website had this list of related links that may prove useful.

  • jeremy hunsinger

    bataille…. he builds on mauss and nietzsche….

  • Mel

    It’s been a while since I read The Geneology of Morals but I wonder if you might consider gift giving in terms of ‘bad faith’? The way I see it, giving a gift motivated by the desire to *receive* a gift is an act of bad faith (since the real reason for giving a gift is to benefit the receiver). While there is no question that receiving a gift can arouse guilt in those who do not wish to receive it should not constitute a rupture in a social contract/relationship unless it is clear that the gift was given in bad faith.

  • Randy

    Excuse my lack of philosophical references and my straight from the hip shot at this. A gift may not be a physical item as danah pointed out in her initial thought. In a relationship between two entities, be it man, spirit, or animal there has to be an exchange of something in order to sustain the existence of that relationship. In some cases there is a symbiotic relation, and in some it is parasitic.

    My question to you is did I bring my girl friend flowers last week (they were ‘just because I saw them at the store and they looked nice’ flowers by the way) because I want her to reciprocate with love, or am I reciprocating her love with flowers? Where did the cycle start?

    My reality is that I bring home flowers for no conscious reason at all. However, I know that she always sees them and tells me that she appreciates the flowers, me, and the thought. I do it because making her happy makes me happy and to me that is the best gift I can get in return.

  • Derrida’s Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money
    http://www.press.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/hfs.cgi/00/7924.ctl

    From the UChicagoP blurb:

    “Is giving possible? Is it possible to give without immediately entering into a circle of exchange that turns the gift into a debt to be returned? This question leads Jacques Derrida to make out an irresolvable paradox at what seems the most fundamental level of the gift’s meaning: for the gift to be received as a gift, it must not appear as such, since its mere appearance as gift puts it in the cycle of repayment and debt.”

    Wish I could recommend it one way or the other (perhaps others can), but my copy is still on a “to read” shelf…

    cgb

  • I also like this Sufi based idea that the receiver is actually the giver. When you accept a gift from me, you’re giving me the opportunity to give. More based on love than guilt…

  • Lucas

    Givers who give because it makes them feel good are burdened by givers who give expecting something in return. This is because they need to signal their intention so as not to mistake their giving with the kind that burdens the receiver with guilt. Knowing the receiver will be burdened takes away from the joy of the feel-good giver. More-so because the feel-good giver is easily mistaken for the altruistic giver, who is a more virulent strain of the guilt giver. The altruistic giver gives out of a feeling of moral right, and while not intending to instill guilt, does so even more effectively because morally righteous people expect others to be morally righteous as well. The best signaling devices for feel-good givers is to give the gift and then spit in the face of the receiver. This is in fact on an unconcious level why many people enjoy being belittled by those they believe hold good intentions.