About Systems of Exchange

On the Mimetic Nature (and Perils) of Gift-Giving

“The Census at Bethlehem” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Look closely and see if you can spot someone important. Who is mimetic and who is anti-mimetic in this scene? In many classic paintings of the nativity, you’ll find people looking at all the wrong things. It’s worth asking why the shepherds were different…

I’m writing this week’s edition of the Anti-Mimetic Newsletter near the end of a challenging 2020, a few days before Christmas. I hope this holiday season—whichever you celebrate—will be a time for you and your loved ones to have a respite from some of the anxiety in the world.

As for me, I’ll miss being with extended family, the trumpets blowing at Midnight Mass, and our tradition of going to a matinee movie at the theater on Christmas Day. This holiday is already proving itself to be a time of grace for me, though. A small, quiet Christmas is a reflection of the first Christmas. And Claire and I are planning a Feast of the Seven Fishes for two (rather than twenty)—which means more fishes for me.

I’m also mindful that many people are lonely and sad around this time of the year. I have counted myself among them in years past. This week’s message is partly for them.

(There are plenty of saccharine Christmas messages out there. I do not intend to write one of those. If you’d like to be edified, I recommend this always-excellent newsletter by Thomas J. Bevan that may inspire a renewed appreciation for Dickens this year as it did for me.)

My aim here is to call attention to a lesser-known and somewhat dark force that is operative at Christmas—and nearly anytime gifts are exchanged by human beings. I want to call attention to the mimetic nature of gift-giving.

If we are at least aware of what’s going on from a mimetic standpoint, we might be able to manage the anxiety of the season a bit better. We might be able to make our Christmas a bit more, well…Anti-Mimetic.

There are positive models to imitate on Christmas. The kind of mimesis bound up in much of our gift-giving rituals—at least the consumerist and power-demonstrating kind—is not one of them.

Now, let’s look at something worth looking at.

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Gift-Giving Is Extraordinarily Complex

In several languages, the word for “gift” is the same word used to mean “poison.” Isn’t that odd?

The origin of gift-giving, according to the social scientist René Girard, is the mitigation of conflict. And because gift-giving was born out of conflict and is closely related to it, it often leads to conflict (as we’ll see shortly).

If we think seriously about gift-giving, we see that it happens on a razor’s edge—the thin line between love and hate, or at least the thin line between generosity and self-importance.

Many of us experience some hard-to-articulate anxiety during the holiday season. I hope to shed some light on why: we are expected to take part in an elaborate ritual with very strict rules—a ritual which has, for thousands of years and across many different cultures, served an important social function of containing violence. (That’s why there are so many unwritten rules.)

For instance: almost every major corporation in the world has a prohibition against employees receiving gifts of a certain type from people they work with. Why? Because it sets up an incentive structure that might encourage them to make bad decisions—or worse, it might lead to out-of-control rivalries and corruption. Gifts immediately create social bonds that require mimetic responses.

A gift-giver instantly becomes a model to the one receiving the gift; there is a strong inclination to imitate that model and give something back—if not a gift in return, then perhaps something else (like respect, or loyalty, or some other obligation).

Because humans are highly mimetic creatures—because it is part of our nature to imitate others—gifts play very hard on our mimetic organ. If we’re not careful, they can lead to misery.

Do we “Exchange” gifts or “Reciprocate” them? The difference matters.

Modern systems of exchange are not just market processes entered into by an imaginary homo economicus who cares only about maximizing his marginal utility (as economics textbooks usually describe him). This view of economics is shot through with the Romantic Lie that people are autonomous, perfectly rational individuals, uninfluenced by the desires of others. The very nature of exchange is a highly complex stage in the evolutionary process and it is a social invention of the highest order.

Animals do not have anything even remotely resembling human forms of exchange. They seek satisfaction in their immediate surroundings. They do what is instinctual. They do not, for instance, enter into social and legal contracts that promise the delivery of goods at some future date like my Bitcoin futures.

Any system of exchange is a highly ritualized form of behavior that is unique to humans.


The British-Hungarian polymath Michael Polanyi once described three basic models of human interaction: re-distribution (in which goods are collected by some entity and re-distributed based on custom, law, or formula); reciprocity (reciprocal obligations are traded based on social norms); and exchange (transactions where goods or services are exchanged for other goods or services, with each person “valuing” the goods traded based on some subjective interpretation of value).  

[Note: you can learn more about these three models of interaction and how they functioned in ancient Rome in Peter Temin’s fascinating new study, The Roman Market Economy.]

People get tripped up and even scandalized about the way the economy works when they believe it is supposed to be a system of reciprocity (or at least that every transaction should be roughly reciprocal, an “equal” exchange of value). “It’s not fair!” is a natural reaction if you view the economy through this lens.

But that’s not the way the modern economy works. It’s a system of exchange in which each side to a transaction freely enters into it with a subjective interpretation of value. If the market is functioning properly (that is, with the rule of law and other things in place), each side comes away from the transaction with something of more value, not equal value, than they had before. That’s the alchemy of markets. It is not a reciprocal system; it is an exchange of value in which each side tries to maximize the value of the transaction.


We are lucky that we live in a system or exchange rather than a system of reciprocity given how difficult it is—impossible, really—to play the reciprocity game well. More often than not, systems of reciprocity exacerbate mimetic tensions and lead to conflict, depression, disputes, even violence. There is great mimesis in markets of exchange—but systems of reciprocity are even more mimetic. They practically run on mimesis.

Christmas is not a system of reciprocity in the pure sense, but it’s much closer to a system of reciprocity than the normal market system of exchange is in which people buy cars, clothes, and computers. The gift-giving rituals surrounding Christmas—which are filled with unwritten social norms, taboos, and rules—give us some insight into how difficult (and how mimetic) gift-giving truly is.

Let’s use the mimetic theory of Girard to explore this problem in a bit more depth.

The Girardian Origins of Gift-Giving

According to René Girard’s anthropological investigations, people in ancient societies tended to give away things that would cause violence if they remained in the family or the community.

People gave away children (whether through marriage or adoption), “problem” animals, and artifacts that were seen to be curses or bad omens. Anything that had the potential to cause infighting or tension was turned into a “gift.”

Beautiful women were often given away. In C.S. Lewis’s best work, ‘Till We Have Faces, the beautiful sibling Psyche is given away as a gift to the unseen “God of the mountain” because of the jealousy she stirs up. While this is a fictional story (a re-writing of the Cupid and Psyche myth from The Golden Ass of Apuleius), the theme is ancient. When there is something of immense beauty or value in a tight-knit community, it leads to conflict. Better to get rid of it.

This was the origin of gift-giving.

Some communities, like the Native Americans in the pacific northwest (the Kwakiutl, in particular), turned gift-giving into a way of asserting their power. Competing tribes would get together at potlucks, ritual gatherings at which the Chiefs would give away or destroy their most prized possessions in front of their enemies.

The winner was the Chief who gave away or destroyed the most of his own valuables and received the least from the other.

The only purpose of this ritual (which became institutionalized) was boosting the prestige of the competing Chiefs. They were engaged in a strange mimetic rivalry of renunciation. (But not that strange: I know two people who are currently in a fierce mimetic rivalry to renounce smartphone technology; each of them, every six months or so, buys a cheaper and older flip-phone in order to outdo his rival.)

Massive amounts of wealth, including food and clothes needed for survival, were squandered in these potluck shows of power. The potlucks were so destructive that they were eventually ruled illegal by the Canadian authorities in the provinces in which they were still being practiced in the twentieth century. Some continue underground even today.

This should serve as a warning to us, though: there is and has always been a competitive aspect to gift-giving.

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Cruel Intentions

Last year, I came into contact with a successful entrepreneur who was well-known for lavishing gifts on others—but he always did so in exchange for a certain amount of loyalty and respect. Everybody I spoke to who was the recipient of one of his gifts viewed it as a curse.

I invited him to an event at which he offended almost everyone that he interacted with. He demanded the utmost respect from all but gave it to nobody else. The more I observed his interactions, the more I realized that almost everything he did, including gift-giving, was a way of power brokering.

Shortly after this event, I received a request for my home address so that he could send me a rather large gift card redeemable at one fancy hotel in Washington, D.C. (where I live) owned by one very well-known and polarizing politician.

Aside from the political message inherent in the gift card, I had already decided that I was not going to accept a gift from him no matter what it was. I declined.

What do you think happened?

He reacted quickly and fiercely. All of the niceties he had shown just a day earlier were gone. In a single instant, I had given him the worst offense imaginable—simply by declining a gift card.

Let me be clear: I declined as a matter of principle and not because I wanted to study the social effect so that I had a better story to tell in my book. With that said, the interaction was a case study in what happens when a person commits a gift-giving taboo.

When you skirt expectations related to gift-giving, it throws people into crisis mode. That’s because you will have basically broken a sacred rite.


Here’s René Girard, in a passage from The One By Whom Scandal Comes, explaining the mimetic nature of gift-giving rituals. I am going to quote Girard at length here because I find it to be one of the more penetrating analyses in all of his works. All emphases are mine.

Another sign of the times is the scrupulousness, even nervousness, that our society exhibits in the observance of certain rites…

One of the most characteristic of all is gift-giving. Like all rites, of course, it aims at strengthening social ties while helping to promote commerce. It is often said that this rite is manipulated by big business in the interest of increasing consumption. This is true, of course, but it is not the whole truth. The proof that gift-giving is a true rite is that it is governed by strict rules. Observing them requires extraordinary adroitness, because ultimately, in seeking to reconcile the imperative of reciprocity and equality with the no less essential imperative of difference, they contract one another.

The structure of gift-giving as [Marcel] Mauss described it—giving-receiving-giving back—is still found in its contemporary manifestations. If one of the two gifts is more expensive than the other, the disfavored recipient does not dare to show his disappointment, but he is embittered just the same. Nor is the more favored recipient pleased, for he cannot help but wonder whether the superiority of the gift he received is indirectly a criticism of the gift he gave.

If the difference between the gifts reflects a sizeable inequality in the wealth of the two parties to the transaction, the result will be even worse. Far from being satisfied, the more favored recipient will be filled with resentment. He will have the impression that his wealthier counterpart wishes to humiliate him.

Prudence requires a no less strict equivalence in the giving of gifts than in the bartering of goods. Each party must imitate the other as closely as possible, while at the same time giving an impression of spontaneity. Each must convince the other that, in selecting the gift he gives him, he has obeyed an irresistible impulse, a sudden inspiration uncontaminated by the petty-minded calculations of ordinary people.

Imagine you were to make me a gift of a magnificent pen. How will you react if, immediately afterwards, I solemnly present you with a beautifully wrapped box, done up with ribbons and containing exactly the same pen—same manufacturer, same model, same color? You will be horribly offended.

Let us now suppose that I present you with this same pen, only not right away and not the same color. My gift remains unacceptable.

Suppose, then, I compensate for this insufficient difference by giving you a pen made by a difference manufacturer, with a different nib, a very special type of ink, and so on. That ought to be enough to put matters right, it would appear, but just when my gift seems to be sufficiently different from yours, a new peril arises, namely, that you may suspect that the extraordinary pen I have given you is a subtle criticism of the more ordinary pen that you gave me.

                                                                       

Girard is pointing out the highly mimetic nature of gift-giving in which rivalry is accentuated by difference—both too much sameness AND too much difference present dangers. The trick is to get the reciprocation just right.

There is an acceptable range of similarity in which a gift must be given. If the rite falls outside of that acceptable range, people become angry, insecure, or worse.

Conclusion

How then, should we live?

Well, I am not advocating opting out of the system of reciprocity and offending or alienating people close to you.

I do believe that an anti-mimetic approach is called for in the case of people who use gift-giving as a way of asserting or gaining power. They are banking on the mimetic reactions of others to reciprocate their gift in a way that benefits them. In these cases, it’s worth breaking out of the trap—even if it rattles some cages. Corruption runs on more than just fear; it also runs on mimesis. If people stop imitating the corrupt behavior, the whole system falls apart.  

In the course of our daily lives, though, simply being aware of the temptations inherent in gift-giving is a step in the right direction. It’s good to examine our motives.

We can learn to give without any expectation of return—a genuine act of charity. Reciprocity is a good and noble thing in many cases, a sign of mutual respect and appreciation. But we should ensure that the act of gift-giving is not hijacked by unhealthy mimesis (unhealthy mimesis is always what we’re referring to here, in this newsletter, when we talk about being ‘anti-mimetic’). Every good thing, including the act of giving a gift, can become perverted and abused.

We said above that “Gifts immediately create social bonds that require mimetic responses.” But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. One way to be Anti-Mimetic is to give gifts in such a way that the recipient doesn’t feel obligated to reciprocate in a way that would be difficult or cause added anxiety or stress. It takes a truly generous soul and a deft touch to help people understand that a gift is just that: a gift.

Another key is to find a model of gift-giving worthy of imitating. Early in the Christmas season, I received a beautiful card and letter from a family that I am close to. This card was sent to everyone in their close circle of friends and their family. It stated, very simply and beautifully, how people who might normally want to buy them gifts could support them (through what has been a very challenging year for them) in the best possible way. Their request extended beyond the material support—beyond physical gift-giving—and included spiritual gifts which are, in my experience, less likely to be abused.

I wonder: Could having open and honest communication with friends and family spare us some of the anxiety associated with the gift-giving “rite” that Girard describes?

In the case of the family I just described, it certainly did. Those of us who were on the receiving end of their card/letter have been talking about how relieved we felt to know where things stand and how we could help. It may be something we decide to imitate in future years…


I will offer one additional suggestion, taken from the man whose birthday is celebrated on December 25th. A powerful way to develop an anti-mimetic approach to gift-giving is to give gifts to people who have no possibility of re-paying your generosity—people who may not even know that you are the gift-giver. It has been said that the true measure of a man or woman is the way they treat people who can’t do anything for them.

"When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

Merry Christmas to you and yours, and a very happy New Year.

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