Friday, December 5, 2008

The Gift (Part 3)

I'm continuing to read Lewis Hyde's The Gift.

As I said at the beginning of this series, my original intent was to 'live blog' my reading but I found that too difficult. There were just so many concepts that Hyde was throwing out there in the first part of his book. And in order for any blog post to make sense I needed to discuss the concepts in detail, which was daunting. In fact, I almost stopped the experiment after a few chapters because I felt that I would spend all my time simply summarizing his book and not having any real reaction to it. But then I got to Chapter 5: The Gift Community.

One of the issues I had as I was reading his early chapters was trying to imagine a modern society living as a gift exchange society. It seemed to me that gift societies needed to be small because the members needed to know what the other members needed. Otherwise the gift wouldn't come around full circle but would just keep going. It was hard to imagine a gift society in a modern country with big cities. And if gift societies only could exist in aboriginal societies or very small towns then the concepts Hyde was discussing seemed to be of limited use.

Although I haven't addressed these passages before, in Part I Hyde would occasionally veer off into negative commentary on capitalism. Mostly these comments bored me. I'm not one of those people who is looking for a revolution. There are things about capitalism that I don't like but as far as I'm concerned it is here to stay and I'm too practical to think for too long about ways of life that just aren't sustainable in this day and age. Since this book was about creativity and the artist in the modern world, I felt that the modern age needed to be taken into account by Hyde. Turning the United States, or even portions of the United States, into a gift exchange community isn't going to happen. I wondered if Hyde was going to admit that. And if he didn't admit that I wondered if I was going to be able to take his ultimate conclusions seriously.

But he did briefly address the issue in Chapter 5 and then delved more into it in Chapter 7. As an example of one of the issues with a gift exchange community, he described a situation that occurred in a kinship network in South Chicago, a poor community in which family and friends bonded together to supply each other's needs. These bonds were useful, as the families were very poor, and the people shared what they had in time and material through gifts to each other.

Then one family came into an inheritance of $1,500. They wanted to use the money as a down-payment on a house, but they found the inheritance completely depleted within six weeks as people within the kinship community approached them with needs (or simply had obvious needs). The family's inheritance, which Hyde classified as "capital," turned into gifts and was not used as capital. I wondered why he classified it as "capital" since an inheritance seems to me to be a form of gift and, if it is a gift, then it should have been given away to conform to the rules of gift exchange. But that led back to a question that I had throughout the first four chapters - when is something capital? And if there never is capital, does that mean that a community can never become anything other than a community that lives at the basic sustenance level and no higher. And do we really want to have no hope of ever living at more than a sustenance level?

I decided, however, that sustenance level was a matter of degree and definition. It seemed to me that a gift exchange community would work best when the community sees itself as, and is, relatively well off by the standards of the day. The natives of the northwest who lived on salmon would be poor by our standards but by their standards they were living just fine. The people of South Chicago were poor by our standards and by their own standards and there is no doubt that they would have preferred, as a group, to have a higher standard of living. Certainly the couple who inherited the money probably felt good that they helped their kin, but they were still stuck in the same cycle of poverty. And Hyde admits this is a problem. He says: The rewards of community lose some of their luster when it is not a matter of choice.

Hyde delved further into the problem later when he discussed the history of the laws of usury. Some ancient societies banned usury (the charging of interest) altogether but other societies banned it only among members of the community. If you were loaning something to someone outside the community it was all right to ask for something in return. Hyde ties this to the problem of commmunity size and community homogeneity. If you live in a society in which you know everyone and you know everyone has the same value system that you do, then the gift circle works. You can expect that if you give gifts to others you will eventually receive gifts when you need them. But when you are dealing with someone outside the circle - from a different geographic area or of a different value system (i.e. religion) you don't know if the person will keep the gift in motion.

In other words, and Hyde never actually says this in so many words, the gifts that go around the community are capital to the community. Gifting them outside the community doesn't work because then the community loses something it needs (and Hyde pointed out early in the book that some communities have rules about who can receive gifts). What Hyde does say is that when a person from outside the community asks to use something that is necessary in the community you might agree but also tell him to leave his goat as collateral in case he disappears and doesn't continue the gift circle.

As communities became bigger and as market commerce meant that communities were interacting with people different than themselves on many levels on a regular basis, the charging of interest on the use of property became more common and we eventually evolved into the modern society of capital and interest and commodities that we have today.

I was relieved to see that Hyde wasn't completely indifferent to the complexities of modern life and was cognizant of the reasons why some of the market systems developed the way they did. But Hyde wrote this book because he was convinced that gift economies are relevant in the modern age and especially in the arts. The principal example he used in Part 1 of a successful gift community in modern times was not a geographic community but a community of the mind - a community of ideas populated by scientists.

Hyde's description of the scientific community draws on the studies of sociologist Warren Hagstrom who points out that "manuscripts that are submitted to scientific periodicals are often called 'contributions,' and they are, in fact, gifts." Apparently scientists are not usually paid for their contributions to scientific periodicals. This did not surprise me; most legal articles are not paid for either.

At least, not directly, and not by the publication.

And here is where I felt that Hyde was a little less than honest, as I will explain below.

Hagstrom points out that scientific authors who write textbooks are paid and are held in lower esteem by other scientists.
Scientists who give their ideas to the community receive recognition and status in return ... But their is little recognition to be earned from writing a textbook for money. As one of the scientists in Hagstrom's study puts it, if someone "has written nothing at all but texts, they will have null value or even a negative value." Because such work brings no group reward, it makes sense that it would earn a different sort of remuneration, cash.
Texts are also despised because the textbook writer is appropriating community property for his own benefit.

Hyde points out that in gift exchange communities, status and prestige and esteem take the place of cash. Thus the scientists in their community of ideas share their ideas and the scientists with the best ideas or with the most useful ideas or with the most ideas gain status and prestige and are held in high esteem. Hyde says:
I am not saying science is a community that treats ideas as contributions; I am saying that it becomes one to the degree that ideas move as gifts.
Once ideas are walled off with patents and are not shared, that part of the scientific community falls apart and ceases to be a community.

I see a certain truth in this. In many endeavors it is the sharing of ideas that creates the community. I think this is how many of the smaller communities that we belong to in life evolve: mother's groups; reading groups; blogs. The free exchange of ideas creates a bond. Certainly those who contribute more gain a certain status. Those within the group who start out quiet may eventually be mentored into contributing more and, out of gratitude, mentor a newer member of the group. If a group member tried to convert the material into a book for profit without the consent of the group - he would be held in disdain (look at the grief that political bloggers get when they try to earn a profit from blogging.) All of this makes sense to me.

But nowhere in this description of the scientific community and their 'gifts' to Science Journals, does Hyde discuss the fact that these people ARE for the most part paid for these contributions. Sure, maybe there is the rare instance of a janitor who works all day and then comes home and works math equations at night or dreams of physics problems and eventually submits his work to a journal and is published. THAT person has made a true gift.

But the vast majority of these 'contributors' are paid for their work by universities who reap the benefit of the publication in increased enrollment and grant money. The payment, of course, is not for the written work, thereby assuring that the 'purity' of this little society of scientists continues. They are paid to be teachers, even those with little or no teaching skill. But we all know that they must publish or perish.

I found it really difficult to believe that Hyde would not discuss this fact. After all, he is a poet who is on the faculty of universities. He gets paid to have a lot of free time to ... write poetry that will get published. Who cares if the publication doesn't pay for his work? He's already been paid by the university.

It also occurred to me that the problems inherent in this mode of payment have multiplied since Hyde wrote this book in the early 1980's. These publishing scientists employed by universities are subsidized in part by the tuition paid by students (and grant money from corporations and the government, but the grant money tends to be a little more direct about what it is being used for whereas students are told that they are paying to be taught). The cost of college tuitions has increased exponentially over the last 20 years. More importantly, most students have to borrow funds to pay the tuition. So young people who can't afford it are going out and borrowing funds to pay to universities so that the university can pay a "teacher", who may or may not even be good at teaching, to teach some classes AND to do research that can be turned into writing that can be 'contributed' to a scientific journal.

As someone who had to spend years paying back student loans for tuition that increased over 10% each year when the cost of living was going up by less than 3% - I think Hyde owes at least a mention to the thousands of teenagers and twenty-somethings (and in many cases their parents) who are allowing these adult scientists to live with the illusion that they aren't being paid for their work and that they are making a 'gift' of it.