Ethics is a major concern today in the fieldwork research-based disciplines of cultural anthropology, folklore, and ethnomusicology. Each discipline’s professional society—the Society for Ethnomusicology, the American Folklore Society, and the American Anthropological Association—has, on its website, one page or several devoted to a statement of ethical principles by which its members abide (or ought to). The major feature of these ethics statements is a respect for the rights of our subjects—those people we work with and learn from. Beyond respecting their rights, many of us want to “give back” something to these people and their cultures, musical and otherwise, who have given so much to us. It’s helpful to think of this giving, and giving back, as gift exchanges.
I’ve written and spoken a good deal about gift exchanges, about art as a gift, and about the difficulties that arise when cultural policies treat such gifts as commodities. It’s time to consider this giving and giving back as part of a gift economy, one which lies alongside our economy of commodity-based exchanges. I want to think about this in the context, also, of Veit Erlmann’s response to my public lecture at the University of Texas at Austin last February, when he took exception to my thinking about gifts and gift economies, citing the work of Jacques Derrida on the meaning of gifts in defense of his position.
Marcel Mauss was the cultural anthropologist who opened the topic of gift exchanges, taking certain indigenous societies and various rituals of giving such as potlatch as examples. Mauss’s point, often forgotten, was not that in these societies gifts are freely given with no expectation of anything in return. Rather, as in the potlatch, receipt of a gift puts the recipient in a position of deep obligation to the donor: a gift comparable or greater must be returned. Karl Polanyi, in The Great Transformation, extended the topic to gift exchanges in pre-capitalist, pre-industrial (but not pre-market) Europe, in the medieval period. As in classic Marxian analysis, the important aspect of economic exchanges has to do with the kind of relationship that obtains between the people doing the exchange. In the commodity exchange, a legal contract binds the participants, but there is no personal relationship and no expectation of an exchange in return (unless the contract is violated). In the gift exchange, on the other hand, while there is no legal contract, there is a moral obligation that binds donor and receiver in a personal relationship that continues after the exchange. Derrida, characteristically eccentric, proclaimed that a gift was not truly a gift unless the donor remained anonymous to the recipient. Of course, with that kind of gift any relationship between donor and receiver is severed because the donor is unknown.
Derrida’s proclamation calls attention to one kind of gift, and to the idea that distinguishing gift from commodity exchanges is, after all, a Western idea. In my experience the central notion of a true gift is that it is unmerited, not that it is anonymous. The donor gives without the expectation of receiving anything in return. This is the gift of music, or the gift of any art: the composer, the musician, the artisan does not deserve the gift, does not expect it. They are prepared for it and are open to receiving it but do not demand it, do not require it, do not think it is owed to them. Once received, however, it carries with it a sense of obligation. As Lew Hyde writes, in his book The Gift, the relationship now requires that the gift be used, not squandered; that it be returned, usually in a larger form, or that it be passed along. Above all, a gift may not be sold or discarded.
Derrida's insistence on the anonymity of the donor in a true gift may apply to the gift of artistic creation, when the donor's presence is felt but not known, as when a musician feels that artistic creation is effortless, something that is being received as a gift while the artist is not actively forming it as the artist brings it into the world. As I wrote in the Introduction to my book, Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes, there are times when playing music that one feels as if the instrument is playing itself, or playing the musician, rather than the reverse. One's usual sense of agency is absent.
On the other hand, many artists have identified the donor of this kind of gift with God. This is why Derrida's analysis can take us only so far, for in this case the donor is known. And, of course, it would be hard to overestimate Protestant Christianity’s influence on the idea of the gift in Western culture: the idea that Jesus’ death was God’s gift to an undeserving humankind. God’s grace, in other words, stands as an important model of, and for, the gift in Western culture. The idea that the Creation was God’s gift, in the sense that God’s hand was manifest throughout in its orderly pattern, constructed the Western idea of Nature from medieval Europe well into the nineteenth century. God stood behind Nature’s economy, gradually receding as the centuries wore on; yet even Darwin saw God’s trace, if not grace, within the natural world.
Today it would be unusual to find a cultural anthropologist, folklorist or ethnomusicologist who would say that their desire to “give back” arises from Christian doctrine and ethics. Pressed for principles, they would defend it on the grounds of human dignity, inherent individual and cultural rights, updated principles of European and American cultural democracies rooted in Enlightenment philosophies. Alan Lomax’s phrase was “cultural equity.” Equity means fairness and impartiality; interestingly, like so many other terms that connote values, it also has meaning in economics, the world of commodity exchanges. One builds equity in a house; and a company’s total value of issued stock shares constitutes its equity, hence the phrase “equities” for stocks. Time and again the attempt to separate the world of the gift, and gift exchanges, from the world of commodities, and commodity exchanges, runs afoul of the way we habitually think of value. It is the same with “giving back,” as much of what the applied ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and public folklorists give back has commodity value—indeed, most of it. That will be the next topic.