Unreal Nature

September 12, 2014

The Slipping Away

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… What it means is simply a question of what you’re willing to let it do.

This first is a Johns quote from a 1963 interview found in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, edited by Kirk Varnedoe and compiled by Christel Hollevoet (1996):

… The moment one says something, it is something — at a certain point, though, it becomes something else, as object, as idea. In which moment is it an object? If one burns a book, in which moment is it something else than a book?

The next is from a 1964 Artnews interview with Gene R. Swenson:

Jasper Johns: … I am concerned with a thing’s not being what it was, with its becoming something other than what it is, with any moment in which one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment, with at any moment seeing or saying or letting it go at that.

[ ... ]

JJ: … Where would you focus to determine subject matter?

Gene R. Swenson: What a thing is. In your Device painting it would be the ruler.

Device, 1962

JJ: Why do you pick ruler rather than wood or varnish or any other element? What it is — subject matter, then, is simply determined by what you’re willing to say it is. What it means is simply a question of what you’re willing to let it do.

There is a great deal of intention in painting; it’s rather inevitable. But when a work is let out by the artist and said to be complete, the intention loosens. Then it’s subject to all kinds of use and misuse and pun. Occasionally someone will see the work in a way that even changes its significance for the person who made it; the work is no longer “intention,” but the thing being seen and someone responding to it. They will see it in a way that makes you think that is a possible way of seeing it. Then you, the artist, can enjoy it — that’s possible — or you can lament it. If you like, you can try to express the intention more clearly in another work. But what is interesting is anyone having the experience he has.

Device, 1962 (detail)




September 11, 2014

The Point of that Embodiment

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… The film’s structure enacts, rather than relates, the philosophical point.

This is from Philosophy and the Moving Image: Refractions of Reality by John Mullarkey (2009):

… [Mark Rowlands'] interest in science fiction, literary and cinematic, stems from its engagement with abstract ideas rather than any attraction to its artistic merits or demerits: science fiction simply provides ‘a vast store of information relevant to the study of philosophy.’

… The question of whether or not there might be better or worse visualizations is not broached [in his book, The Philosopher at the End of the Universe], for Rowlands is only interested in extracting the problem or argument from each film. And here is where the tension lies in his approach. Given that he spends little to no time on the cinematic qualities of the films under discussion, nor much time on their plots even when reduced to text, it is obvious that each movie acts as a pretext for a philosophical analysis in abstraction from its filmic ‘embodiment.’ Hence, the point of that embodiment is soon lost since the content of each film is, to all intents and purposes, reduced to a chapter heading. The films selected generally act as a structuring influence for discussions that could have taken place just as well in a non-cinematic context.

[ ... ]

… As Litch [in her book, Philosophy through Film] turns to the film [Hilary and Jackie] when introducing arguments for ‘cognitive relativism,’ she sets out what is unusual about it:

Hilary and Jackie differs from most of the other films presented in this book, in that its philosophical import is not to be found in its story or in bits of dialogue, but in the structure of the film. In the film’s various retellings the viewer is made aware of the markedly different interpretations each of the characters puts on the ‘same’ set of events.

The film’s structure enacts, rather than relates, the philosophical point. In fact, Litch admits that philosophical arguments often treat relativism too abstractly, whereas film makes concrete and comprehensible what a ‘different perspective’ might actually mean. This concession to the power of film form, however, only highlights Litch’s avoidance of aesthetics in every other film she tackles. That she does find philosophical content in their stories and ‘bits of dialogue’ does not obviate the fact that their structure, or cinematography, or mise-en-scène, or acting performances, may have contained more than was apparent at first glance. They too may have been philosophical.

[ ... ]

… So, what can they do? To be specific, what more would the proper incorporation of film aesthetics bring to these studies? In fact, we’ve already encountered some possibilities. For instance, some engagement with character identification, which we saw lacking in Rowland’s treatment of The Sixth Day, would be one area where a broader knowledge of the filmic would serve philosophical ends. In particular, the difference between optical ‘alignment’ and affective ‘allegiance’ would be of great use, given that we are not necessarily allied with the characters that we are aligned with optically. When Mary Litch analyses Total Recall, for example, she simply takes it for granted that ‘the viewer is in exactly the same position as the character.’ Though the film uses ‘restricted narrative’ — putting us in a similar (though not identical) epistemic position as the hero of the film, Doug Quaid — this is not the same as being in the same affective situation as him, for our attitude as viewer is a product of numerous forces other than just knowledge. Yet, it is the affects produced in the audience that give films their ‘force,’ according to Litch, so surely some more reflection is warranted on how they are produced aesthetically.

… To get us started, therefore, here is a short list of some of the aesthetical properties that give film its full force: the elements of mise-en-scène (setting, lighting, costume and make-up, figure and camera movement, acting performance, props, and color, as well as the broader elements of camera framing and composition, angle, distance, and focus); editing (cuts, dissolves and fades, establishing shots and close-up shots, ‘continuity’ versus ‘dynamic’ editing, ‘montage sequences,’ elliptical editing, and expanded editing); and narrative (narration versus narrative, restricted and unrestricted narration, cause and effect plotting, linear and non-linear chronology, reflexivity, multiple narratives, and unreliable narration). And this is still not to mention the importance of sound, music, acting or the difference between realist and anti-realist film aesthetics in general. Beyond aesthetics simpliciter, there are many other non-textual issues in film apt for philosophical reflection, including whether the psychological experience of seeing a film can be restricted to the film object at all, for example; or whether the means of distribution and consumption (that is, exhibition and viewing) are not also implicated in the ‘meaning’ of any film.

My previous post from Mullarkey’s book is here.




September 10, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… Pleasure thus becomes a serious matter in the context of innovative change.

This is from the Preface to Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society by Victor Turner (1974):

… Without liminality, program might indeed determine performance. But, given liminality, prestigious programs can be undermined and multiple alternative programs may be generated. The result of confrontations between monolithic, power-supported programs and their many subversive alternatives is a sociocultural “field” in which many options are provided, not only between programmatic gestalten but also between the parts of different programs. As my colleague Harold Rosenberg, the art critic, has often argued, the culture of any society at any moment is more like the debris, of “fall-out,” of past ideological systems, than it is itself a system, a coherent whole. Coherent wholes may exist (but these tend to be lodged in individual heads, sometimes in those of obsessionals or paranoiacs), but human social groups tend to find their openness to the future in the variety of their metaphors for what may be the good life and in the contest of their paradigms. If there is order, it is seldom preordained (though transiently bayonets may underpin some political schema); it is achieved — the result of conflicting or concurring wills and intelligences, each relying on some convincing paradigm.

… I would suggest that what have been regarded as the “serious” genres of symbolic action — ritual, myth, tragedy, and comedy (at their “birth”) — are deeply implicated in the cyclical repetitive views of social process, while those genres which have flourished since the Industrial Revolution (the modern arts and sciences), though less serious in the eyes of the commonality (pure research, entertainment, interests of the elite), have had greater potential for changing the ways men relate to one another and the content of their relationships. Their influence has been more insidious. Because they are outside the arenas of direct industrial production, because they constitute the “liminoid” analogues of liminal processes and phenomena in tribal and early agrarian societies, their very outsiderhood disengages them from direct functional action on the minds and behavior of a society’s members. To be either their agents or their audience is an optional activity — the absence of obligation or constraint from external norms imparts to them a pleasurable quality which enables them all the more readily to be absorbed by individual consciousnesses. Pleasure thus becomes a serious matter in the context of innovative change.

… I would plead with my colleagues to acquire the humanistic skills that would enable them to live more comfortably in those territories where the masters of human thought and art have long been dwelling.




September 9, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… But he did develop, and always in a determined direction …

This is from ‘Review of an Exhibition of Pierre Bonnard, and an Obituary of Arnold Friedman‘ (1947) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

The Bignou Gallery’s announcement of Pierre Bonnard’s first one-man show in this country may have struck some of us as presumptuous in its bland statement that Bonnard is the greatest living French painter. One’s first impulse is to bring up Matisse, whom many — and I among them — consider perhaps the greatest living painter in the world. The fact is, however, that the Bignou announcement merely echoes an opinion that has spread wider and wider in France during the last fifteen or twenty years and that represents a kind of hostile criticism of Matisse, cubism, and cubism’s aftermath — that is, of everything the School of Paris has done since fauvism. This opinion rejects what it holds to be the shock and flash effects of Picasso and Matisse and prefers the “solidity” of French “tradition.”

Pierre Bonnard, The Dining Room in the Country, 1913 [image from WikiArt]

[ ... ]

… The abstractness of the cubists and Matisse’s flatness are the symptoms of a new vision of art, whereas Bonnard’s is an extension of the same vision by which Monet painted his lilypads.

But the intimacy and calmness of Bonnard’s art, its concentration on gentle pleasures, and the fact that it smells permanently of the fashion of 1900-14, expressing as it does the desire of the French middle classes to make history stop and stand still at 1912, and leave them undisturbed in the enjoyment of the modest but refined amenities that the Third Republic had permitted them to accumulate — all this should not mislead us into thinking that he lacks ambition as a painter. Bonnard has not been content to have his art called French and to let it rest at that. He can paint “French” easily enough and turn out any number of sure-fire successes; and from time to time he does, indeed, paint little landscapes and still lifes that Manet or the early Corot or even Courbet or Boudin would have been glad to call his own: pictures, precious enough in themselves, that depart from the standard traditional qualities of French painting only by their directness and by the fast, loose, modern execution which achieves their paradoxical delicacy.

Pierre Bonnard, The Red Checkered Tablecloth [image from WikiArt]

[line break added to make this easier to read online] But these are in the nature of relaxations, and Bonnard also seeks to realize a more monumental art through his instinct for large-scale decoration. What he seems to want is a big flat picture with the massiveness and weight of Tintoretto or Veronese. Here he must gamble; there are no certain successes in this unexplored territory, and he makes many mistakes and paints many failures. But the audacity with which he cuts out his canvases and the no less audacious monotony with which he designs them are an effort to express something profound and entirely new and contemporary, and when success comes, the result is an important masterpiece and a further advance on the part of the total tradition of Western painting.

Pierre Bonnard, The Terrace at Vernon, 1939 [image from WikiArt]


[ ... ]

Arnold Friedman, Highway Scene, 1935-40

… [Arnold] Friedman’s death last week at the age of seventy-four closed the career of one of the best painters this country has ever produced — one who in a place where people were less illiterate in terms of painting for its own sake would have received far more recognition and understanding than he did. Only illiterates could ever have called a painter so completely in possession of his means as Friedman a “primitive.” Forced to earn his living as a post-office clerk and to paint in his spare time until his retirement in 1933, Friedman took a long time to develop. But he did develop, and always in a determined direction, a direction that took him toward an abstract expressionism more radical than Bonnard’s. In the last years of his life he painted a series of landscapes that for color and texture are without equal in our time. But they lack shock effect, they are too solid and complete to be “brilliant,” and therefore his art may have to wait a long time before it receives its just recognition in this country.

Arnold Friedman, The Basin, 1938




September 8, 2014

Background for Theory (or Not)

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

This is from Defining Moments in Art: Over a Century of the Artists, Exhibitions, People, Artworks, and Events that Rocked the World, general editor Mike Evans. The book features items sequentially, starting in 1863 and ending in 2008. I am selecting items from back-to-front (starting in 2007) because I enjoy going from recent to distant more than the reverse:

Key Artist Julian Schnabel, first solo exhibition in Houston, Texas; Date 1975; Why It’s Key High-profile representative of the postmodernist “new spirit” in painting in the 1980s.

In their combination of “low” culture materials and high-art allusions, Schnabel’s large-scaled paintings exemplified the re-emergence in the 1980s of gestural, expressive painting and representation.

Julian Schnabel, The Patients and the Doctors, 1978

Key Artist Fairfield Porter, death of a key figurative painter and writer; Date 1975; Why It’s Key His work as a figurative painter during the heyday of abstraction, and as a fair-minded critic with artist’s insight, influenced other painters.

… impatient with art as the background for theory, his postwar paintings dealt with everyday interiors, portraits and landscape in light but rich colors. Like his writing, they stayed close to specific subject matter yet were in accord with the more advanced work of de Kooning, Johns, and Lichtenstein, and the music of John Cage.

Fairfield Porter, Portrait of a Girl, 1964-65

Key Artwork Tree Bones by Carl Andre; Date 1974; Why It’s Key A leader of the Minimalism movement, Carl Andre upset the traditional understanding of sculpture.

… The fragmentation of the material illustrates Andre’s understanding of sculpture as a modular structure where different parts create the exhibited whole. Moreover, the work lies on the floor, thus upsetting the common understanding of sculpture as a vertical entity. … [O]ne can capture the whole sculpture in the gaze and physically walk through it, an idea that echoes Andre’s theory of sculpture as a place.

Carl Andre, Tree Bones, 1974

Key Artist Chuck Close first exhibition at MoMA; Date 1973 [well before his spinal injury of 1988]; Why It’s Key Close is a technically groundbreaking Photorealist painter.

… [the] painter’s meticulously detailed, large-scaled Photorealist portraits of other artists wearing slightly awkward expressions and snap-shot-style casual clothing had propelled him into every significant art institution.

Chuck Close, Big Self Portrait, 1968




September 7, 2014

Broken Into

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… it is the break itself that makes the heart.

Continuing through ‘Shattered Love’ in A Finite Thinking by Jean-Luc Nancy (2003):

… It presents this to it: he, this subject, was touched, broken into, in his subjectivity, and he is from then on, for the time of love, opened by this slice, broken or fractured, even if only slightly. He is, which is to say that the break or the wound is not an accident, and neither is it a property that the subject could relate to himself. For the break is a break in his self-possession as subject; it is, essentially, an interruption of the process of relating oneself to oneself outside of oneself. From then on, I is constituted broken. As soon as there is love, the slightest act of love, the slightest spark, there is this ontological fissure that cuts across and that disconnects the elements of the subject-proper — the fibers of its heart.

… Love does not stop, as long as love lasts, coming from the outside. It does not remain outside; it is this outside itself, the other, each time singular, a blade thrust in me, and that I do not rejoin, because it disjoins me (it does not wound, properly speaking; it is something else, foreign to a certain dramatics of love).

… (Actually, the heart is not broken, in the sense that it does not exist before the break. But it is the break itself that makes the heart. The heart is not an organ, and neither is it a faculty. It is: that I is broken and traversed by the other where its presence is most intimate and its life most open. The beating of the heart — rhythm of the partition of being, syncope of the sharing of singularity — cuts across presence, life, consciousness. That is why thinking — which is nothing other than the weighing or testing of the limits, the ends, of presence, of life, of consciousness — thinking itself is love.)

To be continued …

My previous post from this essay is here.




September 6, 2014

Subtract, Not Add

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… Interpretation, I feel, should sharpen and define; subtract, not add.

This is from the essay ‘Plots and Errors: Hamlet and King Lear‘ found in The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham (1976):

We read some works, even literary ones, coldly for what they are, as we read a menu or a casual novel. But not works of prestige. These we approach differently, under one of two kinds of context. Some we read possessively; they are the favorites of a group, whether socially broad or narrow. They are Works of Fashion. We come to them, either initially or in time, with a prepared attitude and verify that attitude in rehearsing the text. There is, for example, within the academic community that consistent and repetitive attitude toward the more popular works of Chaucer which may be called the Chuckle School of Criticism, or “Good old Chaucer.”

… But with such texts as Hamlet and King Lear, though antecedent glosses do in part direct our experience, as it is only human they should, there is something else involved. These are texts of a special sort in our society. They are not simply works of prestige: they are Scripture. They are much more than works; they are iron magnets for innumerable filings. [ ... ] We write our own poems in the form of literary criticism, and what we divine are our own forms.

Consequently, for many years we have tended to regard the greater Shakespearean tragedies as primarily concerned with the psychological or spiritual nature and development of the main character, to regard character, routinely said to be indistinguishable from action, as the guiding principle of order that directs the construction of the plays. In this way we get rid of the action.

… Toward the end of Henry James’ Ambassadors … the principal character remarks: “I don’t think there is anything I have done in such a calculated way as you describe. Everything has come as a sort of indistinguishable part of everything else.” This is not the sort of thing that Davos or Mosca, Iago or Edmund, or indeed Claudius or Laertes could with any accuracy say.

For what is missing in the modern accounts of Shakespearean tragedy is precisely the plot of the play, the series of intrigues and mistakes by which the situation as initially expounded comes to the catastrophe.

… Mark Twain threatened to shoot anyone attempting to find a plot in his narrative of Huckleberry Finn. André Gide resolved in his Journal of “The Counterfeiters” “to avoid the artificiality of a ‘plot’.” And E.M. Forster commenting on that novel, apparently with approval, described Gide’s attitude in these terms: “As for plot — to pot with plot, break it up, boil it down. Let there be those ‘formidable erosions of contour’ of which Nietzsche speaks. All that is prearranged is false.” Sherwood Anderson: “The plot notion did seem to me to poison all story-telling. What was wanted, I thought, was form, not plot.” [ ... ] Edwin Muir said: “It was Thackeray who first made a clear break with the plot both as a literary and a popular convention” so that in Vanity Fair “All the plot that remains is the series of incidents which widen and diversify the picture, and set the characters in different relations … what we ask [of the incidents] is that they should arise as naturally as possible, that the plot should not appear to be a plot.” And again: “There is no external framework, no merely mechanical plot; all is character, and all is at the same time action.”

… I suggest a return from the concerns of modern fiction and modern life to the commonplaces of Shakespeare’s own tradition, commonplaces that fit his work with a remarkably unsubtle obviousness. If this method of interpretation seems not to enrich our experience of the works but rather to limit and simplify that experience, I can only confess that this is my intention. Interpretation, I feel, should sharpen and define; subtract, not add. One does not make progress in this field; the trick is to go back, to recover.

… We shall find that Shakespeare constructs the plots of Hamlet and King Lear consciously and deliberately according to the rubrics of this tradition [of the Roman comedy as taught in the academies of his time]. The basic texts are the classics of ancient rhetoric and Donatus on Terence, and the general context is elementary school learning, rehearsed and repeated with the single-mindedness of a Freudian interpreter. We could assume that Shakespeare knew this tradition, knew it by heart, even without the work of the many scholars who in recent years have firmly established the fact, for it was the tradition of prestige in his time.




September 5, 2014

That You Do What You Mean to Do

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… The thing is, it is very difficult to know oneself whether one is doing that or not, whether you mean what you do …

This first is from two Artforum articles about Marcel Duchamp (1968, 1969) found in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, edited by Kirk Varnedoe and compiled by Christel Hollevoet (1996):

… In the 1920s Duchamp gave up, quit painting. He allowed, perhaps encouraged, the attendant mythology. One thought of his decision, his willing this stopping. Yet on one occasion, he said it was not like that. He spoke of breaking a leg. “You don’t mean to do it,” he said.


Marcel never gave you the confidence to be sure of any statements you might make about him. He never made the claims that you might make for him.

The following is from a 1963 Billy Klüver interview of Johns:

… The earlier paintings refer to specific designs or lines or whatever, which had to be dealt with, and the liveliness of the painting tends to be what I called earlier, corrections, very complex set of corrections, in relationship to these lines. Whereas the more recent works don’t have that involvement. There isn’t the constant attempt to do something over and over and over in the more recent works. Like drawing a straight line — you draw a straight line and it’s crooked and you draw another straight line on top of it and it’s crooked a different way and then you draw another one and eventually you have a very rich thing on your hands which is not a straight line.

If you can do that then it seems to me you are doing more than most people. The thing is, it is very difficult to know oneself whether one is doing that or not, whether you mean what you do; and there is the other problem of the way you do it and whether sometimes you do more than you mean or you do less than you mean. It’s very good if you can establish a language where it’s clear that that is what you are doing — that you do what you mean to do.




September 4, 2014

What We Are Made to Think is not our Thought Alone

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… Film doesn’t reflect (illustrate, illuminate or represent) our philosophy — it refracts it, it distorts it with its own thinking.

This is from Philosophy and the Moving Image: Refractions of Reality by John Mullarkey (2009):

… The argument of our study is that, given the transcendent, all-encompassing nature of most philosophies of film — ones which tell us ‘what film is’ — even those who seemingly allow film its own mind and thought cannot avoid reducing it to illustrations of extant philosophy. If film thinks, it is not in its own way but in philosophy’s way. [ ... ] What begins as an attempt at seeing film as (its own) model of philosophy and thought find itself closer than anticipated to the explicit use of films to teach and illustrate philosophy.

… there is always what one might call the ‘transcendental choice of film’ at work in film-philosophy: by this I mean those (inadvertently) illustrative approaches that use particular films to establish a theoretical paradigm of what film is and how it works. Yet, such approaches already make their selections of particular films or film elements (of plot over sound, or framing over genre, and so on) in the light of the theory of film in question, and are therefore circular.

… For our part, it is the messiness of film, its resistance to singular theory, that makes it theoretically interesting. Moreover, by making ourselves aware of how the multilayered, contextual and processual nature of film resists any one reductive thought, we might even see how film itself can genuinely think rather than merely illustrate thought. To demonstrate this view, we must firstly show that film is indeed a relational process, one that enfolds within its moments a multiplicity of properties that cannot be set into any preformed philosophical hierarchy (of artist over audience, of author’s intention over material medium, of audience reception over genre convention, and so on). Understood through a theory of cinematic process, film encompasses aspects from every paradigm of film philosophy rather than being reducible to any one (as its illustration). In place of philosophical illustration by film, then, there is the becoming philosophical of film itself, that which resists any singular, reductive theorization of its processual being: the élan cinématique. This is a double-sided argument, however. On the one side, film can make us think by refusing to allow us to enforce our thoughts (of what it is) on it. On the other side, this recalcitrance to our thought may well be its form of thought too, so that what we are made to think is not our thought alone, but something co-engendered between us and film.

… Film doesn’t reflect (illustrate, illuminate or represent) our philosophy — it refracts it, it distorts it with its own thinking.

… If film is to think, if film is to philosophize, then we must get away from any definition of film, as well as any definition of thinking and philosophy. Calling film multiple or processual or relational is not a definition: these terms are place-holders marking an openness to every definition, in part. ‘Process’ here signifies a quasi-concept at best: it marks the lack of an essence to film rather [than] a positive definition of one. This is what the non-philosophy of Françoise Laruelle calls a ‘democracy of thought’ — what allows every theory to be partially right in as much as each is only partial, but absolutely wrong in as much as each tries to be absolute or transcendent.

My previous post from Mullarkey’s book is here.




September 3, 2014

Subtle Compensations

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… that which is seen, the gift, is a symbol of what is unseen, the concepts and emotions of the giver.

This is from Symbols: Public and Private by Raymond Firth (1973):

… A market sale is a two-way transaction, a gift is one-way. A market sale is for business, impersonal, hoping for profit, competitive, contractual; a gift is friendly, personal, not seeking profit, contributory, free. In both spheres one seeks to hand over what is judged appropriate by the other party. But in the market the giver reckons the acceptable by its reciprocation; in the gift he reckons it by the recipient’s satisfaction. In the market sphere behavior is seen as sensible and careful with resources, while gifts are apt to be thought emotionally dictated and wasteful. In the social sphere outside the market, the market behavior is often regarded as greedy, sordid; while gift-making is held to be generous and is highly praised. These are the conventional stereotypes.

Yet as anthropologists and sociologists have realized since the work of Thurnwald, Malinowski and Mauss about fifty years ago, the opposition between these two spheres of transaction is by no means so clear-cut.

… Malinowski was fond of asserting that ‘reciprocity is the basis of social organization.’ Stimulated by such findings, Mauss raised discussion of the gift to a more abstract plane by formulating three neat rules of obligation: the obligation to give; the obligation to receive; and the obligation to repay.

… Gifts are often judged not primarily as a contribution to resources, but as an index to the attitude of the giver. In this sense that which is seen, the gift, is a symbol of what is unseen, the concepts and emotions of the giver. But it may not be a reflection of a simple state: the giver may feel he is acting under pressure and react later accordingly; he may be using the gift as a ‘sprat to catch a mackerel,’ to benefit by a larger counter-gift; he may be focusing on the social rather than on the material aspects of the transfer and looking to intangible benefits; he may be concerned with his own reputation and only marginally with the recipient; he may envisage his gift primarily as a statement of a moral position. The donor may even see the gift as just an expression of himself in a general benefactor role.

… Sociologically, a striking aspect of gifts of material objects is that they are very rarely just handed over. They are usually given with some formality. Broadly speaking, the degree of formality in gift is commensurate with the degree of publicity, that is with the degree to which the gift is of general social interest.

… Theoretically, the donor decides what to give — his act is free. But in practice most gifts are fairly rigorously circumscribed, by type and amount according to occasion. For this, recognized conventions operate in every society, with associated symbolism at various levels.

… But a token gift may by symbolic not of commitment but of a wish to avoid commitment. … So the modern colloquial word ‘tokenism’ has developed to indicate behavior which assumes the form of, but falls short of, true commitment.

… In so far as a gift in material terms is a one-way transfer, it creates an asymmetrical relationship socially. In general, among those of broadly equal status, the very act of giving is a symbolic enhancement of the status of the donor.

… The hardest of all ways of reciprocating a gift may be for a person to yield up elements of his status, his pride, his personal dignity. The true symbolic concession of the self, the acceptance of another’s will or view, can be the most refractory.

… Each society defines differently what acts should conventionally be followed by a ‘return.’ In the West we have isolated par excellence the economic, commercial field of buying and selling, and applied it to most transfers of goods and services. From this range of transactions is normally excluded, and termed gift, those which operate especially in the domestic field, in kinship and friendship relations and in religious behavior. Yet in such relations there is much half-concealed reciprocity, with subtle compensations.

… whether the concept of giving and getting be set in a frame of altruism and gratitude, or in a frame of obligation and reciprocity, the procedures in many aspects are symbolic instruments used for maintenance or alteration of social relationships, in the interests of both self and society.

My most recent previous post from Firth’s book is here.




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