Marcel Mauss’ Essai sur le don (The Gift), first published in 1923, is a modest yet seminal little book that brought to the world’s attention a fundamental mode of human interaction. Mauss’ description of the delayed reciprocity of the gift adds an essential category to our anthropological understanding. Yet the reader soon realizes that Mauss’ description corresponds with no major alteration to the interactive structure of our own social lives. In this realm that lies between yet touches on both daily family life and the impersonal institutions of modern economic and political systems, our interactions with others are structured by the mode of exchange Mauss describes. Birthday gifts, invitations to dinner, minor favors all follow this pattern, which is both constrained and spontaneous, and above all must never appear to resemble a punctual market transaction. I give to you, you give to me, not too soon, not too late, not too much, not too little, and the rhythms that these exchanges establish will evolve slowly if at all over a lifetime.

At Adam Katz’ suggestion I recently read (in English translation) Quebec anthropologist Jacques T. Godbout’s The World of the Gift (L’esprit du don), originally published in 1992. This is the first work I have seen that makes extensive use of Mauss’ paradigm to analyze human activities on a broad scale in both the tribal and the modern world. Godbout indulges in a good deal of forgettable Rousseauean lamentation about modernity and its domination by impersonal market exchange—a complaint typical of the post-Cold War nineties when US hyperpower seemed to rule the world and the challenges posed by China on the one hand and Islamism on the other were scarcely visible. In our Fukuyama-end-of-history utopia, Godbout finds human relations hemmed in on one side by the market and on the other by the liberal political realm, which dispenses services and establishes rules where we once exchanged “gifts.” Nevertheless, Godbout’s generally thoughtful analyses of local and even family interactions in terms of gift exchange made me realize that I had never articulated a theoretical model that would situate the gift phenomenon within the paradigm of the originary hypothesis. This seems as good a time as any to attempt this task.

The hypothetical originary event is a scene of exchange. It is effective because signs can be exchanged without, like things, becoming exhausted. To designate the central object is to offer as a “gift” to the others as interlocutors the sign that confirms the sacred-interdicted quality of the central object and thereby reaffirms the value of their desire for it. This “virtuous circle” of collective appreciation is our more or less spontaneous reaction to all collective entertainments; we applaud to thank the performer, but our applause also confirms our collective taste and insists that we have not wasted our time in the theater. And in reference to the sparagmos in which the originary sacred object is divided up among the participants, its division into roughly equivalent portions may be considered as the prototype of all kinds of material exchange, establishing (as was never the case in the pecking-order hierarchies of animal groups) an overall sense of “equal division” in which individual portions can be compared to each other.

The defining characteristic of the gift, however, is that it takes place outside the ritual context; its function is to tie people together through the “profane” time of everyday life. The anticipated but delayed response to a gift or invitation illuminates the time in between. The failure of one party to reciprocate in timely fashion to a gift presents the danger of a potential rupture of relations. None of this is a mystery to us, for whatever the vast differences between modern and tribal societies, our gifting practices remain mutually comprehensible.

The gift raises a question of general interest to GA: how does one use the event-based model of the originary hypothesis to describe the genesis of an institution that specifically, one might even say, “deliberately,” exceeds the temporality of an event? Or to put this more sharply: what in the originary event can serve as the model of a connection established between events not identical but felt as reciprocal with each other? Once we put it this way, we cannot help noting the parallel between the symmetry of gift exchange, and that of, in the first place, the exchange of signs, and then of the appropriative acts of the sparagmos that the first exchange makes possible in procuring for each participant an “equal” portion. The only difference is that the latter exchange is not an immediate reaction; it relies on the memory of the first event in the minds of both parties to call forth the second. This deferral is not that of potential violence but of reciprocation.

But such a link exists within ritual itself. The deferred-reciprocal nature of symbolic exchange is made explicit in the vast majority of collective rituals that involve a rhythmic element. In these rites, alternation is thematized, as indeed it must have become in the originary event, where we assume that, once a general sign-consciousness was achieved, the disorderly emission of the sign at the start gave way to some sort of rhythmic repetition. And once reciprocation becomes a conscious effect, time has entered the picture. Rhythms are deferrals. They create a tension that is esthetically effective because they emphasize the dependency of the spectator (who need not be different from the performer, and in ritual most often is not) on the Subject who controls the rhythm, just as a plot is effective if it makes us await its narrative resolution. This intermediary model begins to make clear the relationship between the reciprocity of the originary event and that of the gift. Once the temporal mechanism of awaiting, of anticipated deferral, exists within the ritual context, the groundwork is laid for its extension beyond this context.

One archetypal pattern is that described by Durkheim of an alternation of “totem” feasts. However useful it may be to generalize from the practices of the Australian tribes he examines at second hand, it is easy enough to see that the system of feasts under the alternating auspices of the various clans within a larger tribal grouping follows Mauss’ model of a circulating gift. Such patterns are certainly not unfamiliar to us: I recall from my childhood the alternation of Seders and Thanksgiving dinners among the “cousins” who were the children of my grandmother and her siblings.

Understanding the deferral of conflict that is the ultimate motivation for reciprocal behavior can help explain a point that is not discussed by Mauss, nor by Godbout either: the emergence of hierarchy within the originally egalitarian human world as the abrogation of the reciprocity of the gift. The unreciprocated gift is not necessarily a sign of failure to meet the criteria of the social order, nor need it be an element of pure prestige as in the potlatch battles of the Pacific Northwest. As I described it in The End of Culture (1985), the big-man, who occupies an intermediary stage between the alternating clan leadership described by Durkheim and permanent chieftainship, acquires his status by producing enough to take over the (ritual) redistributive responsibilities of others in the community, even at the expense of his own consumption. This is no mere potlatch; it is a means of acquiring asymmetry and consequently, hierarchical superiority—along with the resentment that goes with it—even if the big-man at this stage is concerned only with the prestige attached to his ability to offer unreciprocated gifts. Indeed, the simplest way to define human hierarchy is by asymmetry in exchanges of goods and signs, the sources of which exchanges must be sought in the earlier, symmetrical forms of gift exchange. The synchronic emphasis in Mauss’ essay and in ethnography generally, reflecting among other factors the fact that models of historical development are difficult for ethnographers to verify, tends to downplay the dynamic elements of social exchange that generate new forms.

The originary source of the element of memory in gift exchange, the necessity that the reception of a gift maintain itself in the recipient’s (and also of course in the donor’s) mind as a disequilibrium to be rectified, is the memory of the sign that is the foundation of language. Just as the memory of the sign sustains it both within and between its ritual reenactments, so that of the gift reminds the recipient of the need to reciprocate. Recalling the memory of the originary sign, we must assume, already generates a disequilibrium; remembering the community-founding event acts as an encouragement to reenact the originary scene of language around a new central object-victim, just as our possession of language and culture generate in all humans a penchant for periodically reenacting the cultural scene in various ritual and esthetic forms—we all have “culture” in the narrow sense.

The obvious parallel in the originary context to the gift as a small-scale exchange that takes place outside of the collective ritual context is the “portability” of language itself. The linguistic sign, born in the collective context of the event, is repeatable outside the event. Its repetition creates the mini-event of the speech act, which is also a non-event, a “private” act normally without communal repercussions. Furthermore, like the gift, the “gift” of language is not a transaction but a one-sided act of exchange that can be repaid only by some other use of language. The child’s game of echoing words shows in caricature the inappropriateness of simply “replying in kind” in the non-ritual world of sign exchange, in contrast with the stylized, non-communicative repetitions of ritual language.

We may therefore conclude that the originary source of the gift and its deferred exchange is the sign itself as a deferred promise of its object. The originary use of the sign is not simply to designate the central object nor even to display one’s renouncement of it, but to do all this in anticipation of the ultimate sparagmos in which it will be divided. The existence of a sign that can be remembered as a promise of its object is the model for the gift that can be remembered as likewise a promise of reciprocation. The deferral of appetitive satisfaction in the originary event is not the equivalent of its denial. Language would not have survived as a mechanism for deferring conflict if collective satisfaction had not been the final outcome of the deferring gesture. Deferred gift exchange operates on the same model, which it extends over time, relying on the memory of signs that transcends its original collective context.

Let us recall that the simplest forms of language are the ostensive and the imperative; the declarative, which makes stories possible, is derived from these simpler modes of communication. A gift is so to speak an act of ostension. To utter an ostensive is to point to its referent. The giver of a gift can allow himself the luxury of doing this because he provides the referent along with the word. Given that the originary ostensive referent is the divinity itself, this understanding of the gift allows us to appreciate its sacred character. It is as though the portions of the originary feast are being exchanged in slow motion, the ostension of the gift accompanying the repetition of the originary sign. But the extension of time in gift exchange is concomitant with the extension of sacred significance beyond the original central object to other objects metonymically or metaphorically associated with it. In this manner, human culture expands into new territories. Because the signs of human representation are not bound by the rigidity of indexical association, their “symbolic” or “arbitrary” character allows them to find ever new applications.

This is, from an originary standpoint, the lesson of the gift. Mauss’ revelation is of critical importance because the gift is in effect the archetype of the expansion of the originary scene into the life-world. The possibility of pointing to something new and making it sacred, and consequently obliging one’s interlocutor to a similarly creative response (since the tendered gift, as in the originary feast, is meant for consumption, not return), is a model for all human progress. Sacralization of the offered object is not guaranteed by the ostensive gesture alone; the recipient may reject it internally, as when we are disappointed by a gift, or in extreme cases, externally, by openly rejecting it at the risk of rupture and conflict. Or the gift may be felt to be excessive and embarrass the recipient. The “correct” choice of a gift exists only as a possibility in a paradigm that includes these possibilities of failure. Cultural values, no matter how rigid, are never fixed, and unavoidably comport a learning process, a process of potential evolution.

Once more, we need only reflect on our own practices to see how this works. We may even witness in our own world the emergence of something like a big-man in the “boy who made good” who returns to his community of origin and gifts it with the products of his wealth. The ultimate value of GA lies in persuading us that the ostensibly great variety of human behaviors is in no way a barrier to mutual understanding. Just as all languages are mutually translatable, so all human actions have the same origin and are in principle mutually comprehensible. This should not surprise us, for anything that merits the name of a human action is one mediated by our mutual possession of linguistic signs.