Response to Barbara Sebek's
"Good Turns and the Art of Merchandising:
Conceptualizing Exchange in Early Modern England"

Scott Cutler Shershow


     1. The question of the gift, and the possibility that a so-called "gift economy" might represent a genuine historical or theoretical alternative to market capitalism, has haunted the human sciences throughout the twentieth century. Barbara Sebek's essay makes a significant intervention in this complex interdisciplinary debate which, as her essay also documents, has incited intense new interest in the last few decades. Sebek surveys a range of contemporary attempts to theorize the gift, and suggests, through readings of several texts from the early-modern period, that a kind of residual gift economy coexists with the values and practices of nascent capitalism. Sebek's approach distinguishes itself from many other approaches to the idea of the gift -- and in particular, from other critics "who have drawn on anthropological theory of the gift to discuss Renaissance literature" (¶25) -- by its stated refusal to use "the categories of gift and commodity exchange evaluatively" (¶25). The gift and the commodity are here seen, not as a simple opposition, but rather as "mutually constitutive symbolic economies that often overlap or blur together" (¶4). Further, Sebek explicitly renounces the kind of cultural nostalgia or theoretical reductiveness that has marked some recent work on the subject, and that, by relying on what she describes as "a simple and straightforward opposition between generosity and acquisitiveness, charity and greed" (¶9), obscures the way in which gift-giving was entwined with class hierarchies and power relations, and thus merely replicates the ideological strategies and symbolic oppositions of early-modern discourse itself.

     2. Perhaps, then, it is the very rigor of these methodological intentions that make me want to reconsider some of the premises and potential consequences of Sebek's topic, which is one I've also addressed elsewhere. The basic questions that always must be confronted with regard to the possibility of a gift economy are, it seems to me, the "what" and the "why" of it. Was there really anything that can be called, in the categorical sense, a gift economy in the early-modern period? And if there was such an economy, was it a tangible survival of some earlier economic system that was indeed fundamentally different than market exchange, or was it simply a kind of ethos, an ideological or symbolic strategy used to privilege some economic practices over others? If the answers to these questions provided in Sebek's essay remain open to some doubt, this is because, I would suggest, a certain ambiguity is written into the whole debate which the essay begins by surveying. The very idea of a gift economy, as Sebek's account makes clear, emerges full-blown out of the anthropological discourse of the Other, a discourse which, of course, has been subjected to exhaustive critique in a wide range of post-colonial and post-structuralist theory. The possibility that some cultures organized their economic life around systems of "gifts made and reciprocated" rather than commodities bought and sold originates in the fieldwork of anthropologists such as Malinowksi in the Trobriand Islands, and colonial observers of the so-called "potlatches" of northwest American Indians, observations which were then synthesized in Marcel Mauss's monumental study The Gift. Yet none of these observers, including Mauss himself, were ever able to decide once and for all whether the practices they observed really constitute a distinctly different economy, a system truly based in generosity and self-sacrifice; instead, they always leave open the possibility that members of archaic cultures simply exchanged gifts in the rational expectation of receiving ever-larger gifts later, making the gift economy merely a kind of rudimentary capitalism under a different form. In a recent book reading colonial texts from Northwest Canada, for example, Christopher Bracken documents how, even in the texts of a single observer, "the Euro-Canadian understanding of the 'Potlatch' revolves from exchange to the gift and back to exchange again." (Bracken 580). And Mauss himself always concedes, of the gift-giving practices of archaic cultures, that "if one so wishes, one may term these transfers acts of exchange or even of trade and sale" (Mauss 37). On a much broader theoretical level as well, Derrida has subjected the idea of the gift to an exhaustive analysis which finally demonstrates that a gift in the strict sense is impossible, because gifts constantly reinscribe themselves within a cycle of exchange and return -- sometimes in the form of a literal reciprocation, and sometimes in the subjective form of gratitude or enhanced esteem for the giver. Thus, as Derrida suggests, one must finally recognize that "the gift is annulled . . . as soon as it appears as gift or as soon as it signifies itself as gift;" so that Mauss's essay finally "speaks of everything but the gift: it deals with economy, exchange, contract, it speaks of raising the stakes, sacrifice, gift and counter-gift" (Derrida 24).

    3. Therefore, when Sebek asserts specifically that "many practices in the early modern period . . . arguably constitute gift exchange in the strict sense" (¶10), how is one to understand the "strict" sense of such a problematic term? Mauss assumes, in any case, that the gift economy is an exclusively archaic phenomenon, and that it was the Greeks and Romans who "after a veritable, great, and admirable revolution, went beyond . . . this economy of the gift" (Mauss 54). So, here again, there are at least two doubts that arise about any attempt to speak of a "gift economy" in early-modern England. First, was there ever such a thing as a gift economy in the first place? And second, is there any meaningful continuity between English practices and those of, say, the Trobriand islanders? Almost all of the work on the gift, including Sebek's essay, seems to require an affirmative answer to both questions. Yet this, I suggest, is a potentially contradictory combination. To answer the first question in the affirmative, and to assume that somewhere, long ago or far away, there truly was an economy radically different from capitalism, has often been an position allied with Marxism, in that the proof of some radical Other to bourgeois economism would presumably demolish the simplistic assumptions of capitalist apologists who portray capitalism as somehow rooted in biology and "human" nature. Yet to also answer the second question in the affirmative, is, in effect, to assume a basic cultural or economic identity between archaic cultures and early-modern England. Doesn't such an identity reinstate precisely this assumption of a universal human nature that the whole idea of a gift economy might otherwise seem to question?

    4. In this regard, Sebek, even as she asserts her intention to avoid "positing a simple linear movement from gift to commodity" (¶4), seems nevertheless broadly to assume that the gift was a "past" form which is deployed in a particular historical present as a means of opposing or negotiating a newer commodity form. Sebek deploys Raymond Williams' distinction between "dominant" and "residual" cultural forms, terms which usefully invite attention to the mechanisms of cultural nostalgia that complicate simplistic narratives of transition, but which also retain a basic linearity of past and present. Thus, Sebek argues that "commodity exchange . . . eventually emerges as dominant," and that the texts at issue were "written at a time of struggle and contest between these mutually defining modes" (¶7). The situation clearly seems to be one in which, to re-cite Sebek's citation of Jean-Christophe Agnew, a newer system based on commodity exchange is emerging "out of ancient gift and tributary practices" (¶22).

    5. True enough, this is not Sebek's main point -- which is, rather, that the gift is a kind of symbol or idea which was deployed in the process of negotiating the birth of capitalism. She argues that, in the early-modern period, "gift-giving practices became a highly charged arena of cultural work, and the distinction between gifts and commodities became an important ideological question" (¶2). This focus on the gift as a merely ideological construction, one which was used, moreover, to construct a fantasy of aristocratic social life as somehow "above" mere money-grubbing economism, seems to me the right one. Such an argument seems particularly useful insofar as it further contributes to the insight that capitalism always constructs some division between the so-called "real" world of money and business and some other allegedly non-economistic realm of art or beauty or spirituality. But just as seeing the archaic gift economy as a paradise lost always risks a certain arcadian nostalgia, so the focus on the gift as a symbolic economy always risks falling back into the kind of ethical or moral binaries that, as I cited above, Sebek otherwise rightly renounces. In this case, Sebek puts her argument under the horizon of Chris Gregory's attempt to formalize Mauss's ethnographic and linguistic arguments into a functional model for both gift and commodity economies. In brief, Gregory finally concludes that "the exchange of gifts creates 'personal relations between people,' while commodity exchange creates 'objective relations between things' (¶5). In making this argument, Gregory in effect puts Mauss and Marx together, moving from Marx's critique of the atomistic individuality required by capitalism back to some alleged ethnographic Other of that system, in which economic relations somehow bound people together instead of breaking them apart. But this formulation seems to fall prey to precisely the arcadianism that Marx rigorously avoided. Its cool scientific language finally fails to take us very far from Mauss' own vision of social practices which, on the one hand, served as the acknowledged equivalent of trade and exchange but, on the other hand, were nevertheless "noble," "replete with etiquette," and engaged in by people who "were less sad, less serious, less miserly, and less personal that we are" (81). Indeed, Mauss himself ends his pioneering analysis of the gift economy by calling for a kind of economic and social paternalism, in which "the rich" would "come back to considering themselves . . . as the financial guardians of their fellow citizens," but in which the individual must also "be forced to rely upon himself rather than upon others" (Mauss 68-9) -- a combination that today can only remind us of contemporary political debates about "welfare reform" and the right-wing effort to transfer government social services to private charities. As Derrida usefully summarizes, "Mauss's discourse is oriented by an ethics and a politics that tend to valorize the generosity of the giving-being. They oppose a liberal socialism to the inhuman coldness of economism, of those two economisms that would be capitalist mercantilism and Marxist communism" (Derrida 44).

    6. Given that the very idea of a gift economy was born out of what Vincent Pecora has shown convincingly was a pervasive and long-lived cultural nostalgia for the noble oikos, there is a particular risk, it seems to me, in conflating these ethnographic visions of archaic and non-western cultures with an early-modern aristocratic ethos. On the one hand, we can hardly forget how many contemporary right-wing voices would claim, in a kind of ironically inverted repetition of something very like Gregory's argument, that it is precisely capitalism, business and "the market" that foster the social virtues of trust, generosity, compassion, and the like. "If the institutions of democracy and capitalism are to work properly," writes Francis Fukuyama, positioning his contemporary cultural critique in relation to the kind of early-modern practices that are at issue here,

they must coexist with certain premodern cultural habits that ensure their proper functioning. Law, contract and economic rationality provide a necessary but not sufficient basis for both the stability and prosperity of postindustrial societies; they must as well be leavened with reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community, and trust, which are based in habit rather than rational calculation. (Fukuyama 11)

On the other hand, and perhaps more urgently, I believe we need to remember that Marx finally tried to think a future in which we would have organized society so that there would be no need for charity or compassion, and in which mere generosity would be irrelevant.

    7. To put it as simply as possible, I am suggesting that Sebek might go a few steps farther in the same direction she is already pursuing, holding fast to her basic insights about the mere relationality of the commodity and the gift, and therefore freeing the argument entirely from the horizon of anthropology. After all, even the passages she cites from Golding's Seneca make clear that his vision of "benefits" is, in Derrida's sense, still utterly involved in cycles of exchange; for these alleged "gifts" still receive a return in "thankfulness" and in "mens' consciences." "Unto the other [one who gives a benefit] I must pay more" (¶12). Thus, to argue for "a close alignment between Seneca's opposition and Gregory's definitions of the distinctions between gift and commodity exchange" (¶10) is necessarily also to conflate the arcadian vision of a more generous economy with the self-justifying practices of early-modern aristocrats, and thus implicitly to arrive at something like Mauss's paternalism.

    8. So can one still hold to the idea of the gift as embodying, in some sense, not only a useful category for historical and cultural analysis but also a genuine theoretical alternative to neo-classical economics and capitalist economism? I believe (as I have argued elsewhere) that the concept of the gift needs to be followed through the work of Georges Bataille, who also begins with a fascination with Mauss's observations, but who then goes on to contrast a much broader "general economy" (which is about not merely giving, but absolute Loss) to a "restricted economy" (which is grounded, like capitalism itself, in investment and return). Bataille himself, as Pecora and others have shown, was hardly immune from the kind of ethnographic sentimentality of which I have spoken here. Indeed, along with many other thinkers of his generation, he too often sank back into what Jean-Luc Nancy calls a "Rousseauism," and thus "represented archaic societies . . . as bygone and fascinating forms of a successful intimacy of being-in-common" (Nancy 17). But whatever traces of arcadian nostalgia or ethnographic sentimentality remain in Bataille's text, his theoretical model (at least as pursued to its limits in subsequent thinkers such as Derrida and Nancy), necessarily breaks with anthropology. For anthropology confronts a pattern of behavior by discrete agents (a "culture) with a generalizing discourse that abstracts that culture's "underlying patterns" and hence its "truth." From such a perspective, the so-called "gift economy" can be revealed as merely a system of economic exchange, or celebrated as a fundamentally different economic system. Either way, whether grasped as radical Otherness or reclaimed in its alleged continuity with the anthropological observer's own economic assumptions, the set of practices in question can be known and identified as a gift economy only in its distinctive particularity. By contrast, for Bataille, the economy of giving and loss is understood as general because it denotes the economic condition of the universe grasped in its greatest possible generality; and the economy of scarcity is understood as restricted, similarly, because it constitutes the economic condition of singular beings, who are "nothing but eternally needy individuals" (Bataille, The Accursed Share 1: 23). In other words, anthropology can grasp the gift economy at all only by positing it as restricted, particular, individual. For Bataille, conversely, the general economy in either the material or theoretical senses cannot in principle be understood as manifest by some particular instance of culture or history, but only from the "general" point of view -- as the community (or the "economy") of all.



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Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Trans. Allan Stoekl et. al. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1985.

-----. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy. Trans. Robert Hurley. 3 vols. New York: Zone Books, 1991.

Bracken, Christopher. The Potlatch Papers: A Colonial Case History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Derrida, Jacques. Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Fukuyama, Francis. Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. W. D. Halls. New York: Norton, 1990.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Inoperative Community. Trans. Peter Connor, et. al. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Pecora, Vincent P. Households of the Soul. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Shershow, Scott Cutler. "Of Sinking: Marxism and the 'General' Economy." Forthcoming, Critical Inquiry.



Form copyright © 2001 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2001 Scott Cutler Shershow.