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Exchange Relations: On the Impossibility of Gift Giving

A lump of coal would prove more useful than most gifts given these days.

Christmas makes me tired. Come mid-December, like some small furry animal I’m ready to dig myself a burrow and huddle inside until spring. It’s not that I’m rushing around, getting and spending with wild abandon, throughout the months of November and December. I’m actually quite a Grinch, refusing to visit any public place except the library until the New Year is at least a week old. No, my fatigue comes mostly  from watching others consume mindlessly, maxing out their credit cards and making their too-big-to-fail banks rue the day they were prohibited from charging excessive fees for debit overdrafts.

I do, however, have relatives and at least one friend. So though I try to do all my holiday shopping online, I inevitably end up in one big box store or another in search of that last minute stocking stuffer or tube of wrapping paper. Last Thursday, for example, I found myself in Target. I pushed my tomato-red cart through clumps of chattering shoppers, desperately searching for a gift bag and a pack of ballpoint pens. I was surprised at how many people looked genuinely happy to be spending their Thursday evening mortgaging their futures for the hottest new carcinogenic doo-dad  fresh from the Cosco shipping container. Porcine women in sweats and flip-flops padded hand-in-hand with men sporting crew cuts and Nascar t-shirts. Children with button eyes, the light of human intelligence Ritalined from them, caromed off display cases and screeched in delight. Overhead glared the sickly light of fluorescent lamps, and Christmas-themed Muzak blared from secret speakers.

The scene gave me a headache, certainly, but when  I got in line to pay, nausea followed. I suppose Target is feeling the pinch of the recession, for it appeared that they eschewed extra help this year. Lines six or seven shoppers deep clogged checkout lanes. Somewhere a baby wailed. Each customer had at least one cart, if not two, brimming with junk, which made the line move even slower. A supervisor, as pale, lumpy, and myopic as a grub, undulated between cashiers, providing words of inspiration and admonition, perhaps in hope of getting them to process the customers faster.

I couldn’t help but think of all the dreary work Christmas occasioned. Work for the already overworked big-box proles, and work for the beleaguered, financially tapped, yet strangely oblivious American consumer. This realization made me want to retch.

Late-stage capitalism and the surplus it engenders has made it impossible to give gifts.

Like most work in a service-oriented society, the work occasioned by the holidays isn’t really socially necessary, though not because most of us — including  the working poor — have an excess of consumer items in our lives. No, the work of buying presents is an exercise in futility, because late-stage capitalism and the surplus it engenders has made it impossible to give gifts.

You work to buy the perfect gift, but you don’t get the satisfaction of knowing your work made another human being happy. Unless you are given direction as to what to buy, which make the work of gift giving  infinitely easier, more likely than not the receiver of the gift is not going to like it. The very surplus of goods we enjoy has allowed each one of us to develop needs so idiosyncratic that only certain brands, and the stories they tell, can satisfy any lack we might happen to feel. We are as finicky as house cats, turning up our noses as everything that doesn’t fit the idea we have of ourselves, an idea made as superficially complex and arcane as a volley of text messages.

Curse of the gift: holidays aggravate the consumerist malaise.

The development of brands, and the concomitant brand extensions, are predicated on surplus, and that surplus of consumer items grants us the means of fashioning an identity through clever fictions. When there’s no discernible difference between one type of shoe and another, when they both aid you in walking, then the producer of those shoes must graft onto them a story that differentiates them from all the other shoes out there. So Nike is for people who want to “live fast” (whatever that means) while New Balance is intended for the more down-to-earth, contemplative consumer of shoes. Converse is for hipsters, and Doc Martens are for Gen Xers who can’t stop thinking about being Gen X. A shoe is still a shoe, but now consumers buy the narratives those shoes tell rather than the shoe itself. In doing so they make a statement about who they are and what they want to signify to other people.

All this makes buying gifts next to impossible. Consumerism nowadays is therapy. The marketer of the brand seeks to attract their customer base by sniffing out insecurities, by exploiting the need to belong to a group or a movement, no matter how fictitious, and convincing consumers this need can be satisfied by buying a particular product. People buy cars based on how they make them feel, not how the car performs as a machine intended to transport human beings. Baby Boomers buy Volkswagen Beetles to feel young again, and Gen Yers buy BMWs to feel powerful. No one buys a car to get herself from Point A to Point B.

The consumer item is a way to assuage feelings of inadequacy, and the brand narrative momentarily palliates whatever existential angst the consumer might feel. The consumer product simultaneously incites a powerful sense of purpose and grants the consumer the illusion of achieving that purpose. It allows each of us to walk about in a daze of narcissism, caught up in the narrative of ourselves, a narrative created and sustained by our consumer choices.

Most people don’t need anything; but they want plenty.

Most people don’t need anything; but they want plenty. But you’d have to be a psychologist or marketer to figure out what consumer item would best temporarily assuage your mother or best friend’s vague sense of purposelessness and ennui. More often than not, you’ll fail, and the work you’ve put into finding the perfect gift (and the gift itself) will become a part of that unnecessary surplus that clutters up life. We’ve realize ourselves so fully through consumer items, and have thereby become so alienated from one another, that we can no longer engage in even the smallest acts of kindness. Branding has allowed the individual to cultivate a world so insular and solipsistic that only by remaining in intimate dialogue with the product can the consumer hold together the semblance of an identity.

Of course there are a few folks who are content with the simple things in life, but they are few and far between.

Perhaps they, like me, yearn for the good old days (if they ever really existed) when you could give someone a bag of oranges or a book and he would smile with delight and say, somehow, that was just what he wanted. You weren’t a cheapskate or an inconsiderate lout, because the holiday was more about the holiday; the gifts were incidental. Everyone needed and wanted similar things; lives and psyches weren’t yet carefully constructed around junk heaps of brand affiliations. A sweater was a sweater, and chocolate was chocolate. One might argue over the color or flavor, but not the story behind the brand and it how it made you more you.

So I’ve pulled out the white flag and have relegated my gift giving to bottles of wine, because I assume that all the holiday hubbub has driven even the best of us to drink.

Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.

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4 Responses to “Exchange Relations: On the Impossibility of Gift Giving”

  1. So who wrote this? Anton or Ylajali? I am assuming Anton, but apparently Ylajali would love to hear my thoughts on the article.

    Posted by Jordan Smith | December 23, 2010, 6:28 pm
  2. My sentiments exactly!

    That’s why I haven’t watched TV or listened to the radio in many years (out of my own free will), or paid much attention to anything in the mainstream media, and for that matter hardly ever even venture out anymore. As far as I can tell, I’ve opted out of pretty much all things popular, and I think this post hits the proverbial nail on the head as to the reason why. This is the one silver lining to being poor – I have been unable to participate in this nihilistic exercise in futility for quite a few years now. It has also made me acutely aware of what I really need and what I can live perfectly well without, which was a lot less/more than I ever would have thought. I far prefer a fun gathering of friends for dinner and a nice bag of sweet, juicy oranges from the tree out back to take home.

    Posted by Brenda K | December 23, 2010, 7:57 pm
  3. Did you see the wine bottles marketed at Target under the label “Mommy Juice” right by the check stands? So fitting and so grand!

    Posted by Frank | December 24, 2010, 12:29 am
  4. I share the same feelings of fatigue.
    Since I’m not from USA an interesting thing came to my attention. The gift guides! A minute of objective reasoning would tell any sane person when know so little about needs of person that you have to utilize a gift guide, or even if you do understand his needs, but still have to use a gift guide, your gift giving is just mindless consumerism.

    Posted by zz | January 3, 2011, 8:36 am

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Anton Steinpilz

Rob Horning

Ylajali Hansen