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Exchange and Identity.  (‘Identity Exchange’ or ‘disjunctive reciprocity’).


(footnote 28 from ‘Ritual and Identity in Late-twentieth century American Drama’, in Journal of Dramatic Theory & Criticism XIX.2 (Spring, 2005).




The theoretical implications of the view of 'rituality' expressed here, with its central concept of 'identity exchange', would suggest one solution or alternative route to the debates surrounding 'the gift' and 'exchange'. If utopian thought has preferred a gift which is pure and selfless, then others have pointed out that any gift can always be re-appropriated into a network of exchange relations which appear to belie this purity. George Bataille, a major inheritor of the Durkheim/Mauss tradition in gift exchange and a major influence on current thinking on the subject (see especially Visions of Excess (Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P, 1985) and The Accursed Share: Vol. I (NY: Zone, 1988)), has, in his own original contribution to this debate, suggested an otherwise unreachable outside to everyday sublunary exchange relations (of things, people, signs) which inspires intense ritual experiences and which is the true end of sacrificial forms of gift exchange (potlatch, kula). Bataille's reading takes us beyond reciprocity, and also apparently beyond utility and function. The rhetoric of exteriority (here linked to a rhetoric of the sublime or, in temporal terms, of eternity) has been much discussed in deconstructive philosophy; the 'outside' is found to be a means of shoring up an otherwise foundationless structure on the 'inside', that is, the 'return' on 'the gift' is the possibility of exchange itself, of society _ on this reading, there is no exchange-free gift. We may, of course simply read Bataille's account as phenomenologically accurate in terms of the symbolic meaning of such events, but find that the social function of such exchange-free gifts is to cement community identity, to suture the individual into the community, (and when apposite, into a position in the hierarchy of that community, often, again when apposite, in relation to other communities). All of this presupposes a poverty stricken, not to say ideologically loaded, misrecognition of so-called 'gift exchange' in modern societies; the gift is neither the solution (utopians) nor the problem (free-marketeers), but in fact a range of differing relationships. Relationships that not only testify to the survival of gift-type relations in our administered capitalist world, their ubiquity, variety, and fundamental role in human life, but also their fusion with their supposed anti-theses, the commodity form and rational (structuring and exchange) relations. See for example: (i) gift exchanges between relatives and friends (the investment is in the relationships, and also in one's role, the self of the giver as confirmed by the gift; charity, donations, etc). (ii) Destructive sacrifices of the other (rather than of self) pogroms, bigotry, and other forms negative Othering (symbolic destruction) as community affirming; the purchase of commodities for identity purposes as opposed to investment as capital (fashion, conspicuous consumption _ 'symbolic capital' in a more democratic sense than that given by Bourdieu, who limits the term to that which can be turned into things/material reward at a later, deferred, stage). (iii) Finally and most tellingly, the passing up and down of goods and favours (from patronage, promotion, and 'tips' to cyclic present giving), such that 'larger' go downward and 'smaller' go upwards (the relative sizes marking place in hierarchy) in the tightly organised structures of modern organisations, universities included. At the very heart of modern rational-bureaucratic institutions is replicated the gift type of exchange of any and every 'closed', close-knit and supposedly 'primitive' social form (only the technology is primitive or 'simple'). For Weber and for Marx, proponents of the domination of instrumental reason and the commodity, there is in these examples some considerable irony.

In place then, of absolute (materialist) reciprocity and absolute (idealist) gift, I wish to suggest a 'disjunctive reciprocity' as recognising the interaction of both levels, of symbol and function, of the translation (in all senses of the word) that takes place between sign and matter, between idea or symbol and things (or bodies), where the destruction of one leads, not to an absence, loss or irrational, unprofitable waste, nor a metaphysical positing of a sublime realm (both evincing the same error). Rather the 'return', or result of the exchange relation appears on the other side of this (metaphysical) fundamental heterogeny: matter becomes identity; blood and burnt offerings (actual or symbolic) become self and beget community. This exchange, however, is an identity exchange, its field of operation is recognition, and we none of us function without it. Repetition offers its everyday form; rituality. Repetition plus intensity (with the sublime appeal to the rhetoric of eternity, the absolute 'outside') is its cyclic manifestation, the participation in which unfailingly leads to the question of identity as recognition _ identity as belonging. As in those great proclaimers of the ineffable relation to the 'otherside', mysticism and asceticism, the apparent disavowal of self leads in practice to a renewal of self.





                                                            Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk