Derridean Gift

Food for Thought

The postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that a genuine gift is an impossible idea because as soon as you call it a “gift,” you immediately receive in return a sense of satisfaction. This impossibility is not based on how he defines the word, but how we generally define it. When we give gifts, we are not supposed to expect anything in return, but, hypocritically, we do always expect something, which is revealed by the fact that we call them “gifts.” For something to be a true gift, you must not be aware that you have given it.

The Russian pastry pictured above is an example of this Derridean gift. My kid’s friend gave it to me, saying it’s from her mother. She said her mother is not aware that she is giving it to me, but it’s perfect for me because I like ethnic food. Her mother’s decision to buy it retroactively became an act of kindness. Since she is Japanese, not Russian, I’m not sure what prompted her to buy it, but she follows me on Instagram and knows that I like foreign foods. The idea that she was thinking of me fits this “gift” narrative without her receiving the egotistical satisfaction of making a kind gesture. It’s a perfect gift because nobody is expecting anything in return.

Japanese people love gifts. In some regions, you, as a recipient of a gift, are expected to turn it down. That’s the etiquette. But, but the giver is supposed to push it back to you. You are supposed to reject it again. I’m actually not sure how many times you are supposed to go back and forth in this manner. Different regions might have different minimums.

Even as a kid, I thought this was absurd. I couldn’t do it with a straight face. As I’m handing over my gift (or non-gift), I would have to say something like, “You owe me a big box of panettone next time you come to visit me, OK?” In other words, I would need to render it a non-gift by revealing my expectation, and at the same time, save my host the hassle of figuring out what to get for me.

But, now I see that there is another way: Give a gift through a mediator where she can never tell me what she actually did with it. It’s sort of like Schrödinger’s cat; it’s simultaneously a gift and non-gift.