In his provocative text, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, Jacques Derrida exposes what he takes to be an aporia in the concept of the gift. Firstly, he notes that exchange is indispensable to our prephilosophical concept of the gift. The concept of the gift entails that ‘“some ‘one’” (A) intends-to-give B to C, some “one” intends to give or gives “something” to “someone other”’ (Derrida 1992, 11). Secondly, however, he suggests that a defining feature constitutive of our concept of the gift is that it be aneconomic, i.e., that it breaks with the economic cycle of exchange: A gift is given freely or gratuitously, without calculation or considerations of reciprocity; ‘for there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift or debt’ (Ibid., 11). For Derrida, these two features of our prephilosophical concept of the gift stand in tension: Insofar as a gift is exchanged – that is, intended and received as such in an instance of gift-giving — it becomes entangled within an economy of exchange which annuls the gratuitousness of the gift. As Derrida has it, this is because the recipient of a gift always gives back – even if only with symbolic gestures, such as thanks. Similarly, the gift-giver is apt to ‘pay himself with a symbolic recognition, to praise himself, to approve of himself, to gratify himself, to congratulate himself, to give back to himself symbolically the value of what he thinks he has given or what he is preparing to give’ (Ibid., 13). So, on Derrida’s estimation you can have either the gratuitiousness of the gift, without the exchange, or the exchange without the gratuitousness of the gift, but not both, where this makes the ‘pure’ gift – that is, an instance of the gift that properly fulfils its concept — aporetic or impossible.
This putative aporia has animated much debate in the so-called ‘theological turn’ in French phenomenology, notably in the work of Jean-Luc Marion, but also in the work of Anglo-American commentators such as John Caputo, John Milbank and others. As Steinbock notes, Jean-Luc Marion, who has spent much of his career developing a phenomenological reduction to givenness, undertakes to overcome Derrida’s aporia by ‘leav[ing] the “natural attitude” (Derrida) and mov[ing] to a phenomenological perspective (Marion). Accordingly, bracketing the empirical transcendencies (or reality or being) of the givee, the giver, and the gift,’ where ‘in principle, [these] analyses should entail the phenomenological reduction of transcendence to my lived experience of the givee, the giver, and the gift to show the gift without reciprocity and exchange’ (Steinbock 2018, 109).
Evidently, in their discussions neither Derrida nor Marion are primarily concerned with the concrete practice of gift-giving: for Marion, the theme of the gift encompasses fundamental features of Christian faith, such as revelation. And, more generally, as Steinbock puts it, philosophically, Derrida’s and Marion’s work encompasses a ‘broad swath of the phenomenological tradition, which [Derrida, Marion and others] presuppose, and the pervasive concept of givenness,’ adding that ‘in particular, they retrieve Heidegger’s thoughts on the “Event,” the “It gives” or Ereignis, and Husserl’s phenomenological reduction to “givenness”’ (Ibid., x).
In It’s Not About the Gift, Steinbock canvasses the claim that these ‘discussions of the gift are really not about the gift, or should not be mistaken to be about the gift,’ arguing that ‘the gift is not the point because the gift only becomes the gift in the context of interpersonal loving’ (Ibid.). Prima facie, Steinbock’s intervention here promises to be refreshing and illuminating – not least because, arguably, the French debate surrounding the gift often runs together themes from theology, anthropology and phenomenology that are not obviously connected, so that it becomes difficult to parse what is actually at issue. Steinbock’s strategy in the book is to critically appraise some of the key arguments by major thinkers associated with the debate surrounding the gift, before providing what he considers to be the enabling condition for gift-giving – namely, interpersonal love – where this putatively overcomes Derrida’s aporia by reframing the concept of the gift, while also avoiding the difficulties Steinbock sees in the philosophies of Marion and others.
Steinbock begins in the first chapter in a resolutely phenomenological register by attempting to clarify the ‘belief-structure’ of surprise, where Steinbock appears to take surprise to be a central feature of gift-exchange that is often simply assumed and has, thus, not been subject to any kind of rigorous phenomenological analysis. Although Steinbock does not make the connection explicit, considering the belief-structure of surprise makes sense in relation to Derrida’s aporia: For Derrida, the pure gift ‘must interrupt all economy, all exchange. To be a gift, it must escape all motivation and all intention, all anticipation, all “present” and all fulfilment; to be “gift” in its pure essential sense as gift, it must be able to arise unprovoked, unbidden, unannounced, unreceived, unattended’ (Ibid.,105). Viewed in this way, the element of surprise may become all important, since, as Steinbock suggests, ‘it is commonly held that surprise is simply a rupture of what is expected’ (Ibid., 2).
In the first part of the chapter, Steinbock compares surprise with other related phenomena such as wonder, shock and startle, arguing that what distinguishes surprise is that it involves ‘an overall reconstitution or reconfiguration of sense where the event in question is concerned’ (Steinbock 5). More specifically, Steinbock characterises this reconstitution of sense in terms of coming to believe in and accept that which was previously unbelievable in an experience of being caught off guard. While shock and being startled both involve the experience of being caught off guard, neither of them, in Steinbock’s view, involve the kind of acceptance he wants to associate with surprise. A second feature Steinbock appeals to in distinguishing surprise is that it re-focuses attention on the reconstituted or reconfigured reality: surprise ‘throws me back on the experience…I can examine it further, I can become curious’ (Ibid., 11). Finally, Steinbock categorises surprise as an emotion, arguing that ‘It is an emotion in part because of the creative way in which we receive the situation in feeling through which we are moved’ (Ibid., 14).
In the second part of the chapter, Steinbock goes on to consider surprise in relation to what he calls ‘diremptive experience,’ namely, ‘an experience in which I am given to myself as in tension with a basic sense of myself as before another or others’ (Ibid., 16). That is to say, a diremptive experience is one that calls into question my sense of self. And, linking surprise understood as a kind of diremptive experience back to the notion of the gift, Steinbock suggests that surprise, by calling my sense of self into question, reveals to me that I am ‘not self-grounding’ (Ibid., 18), where this diremptive experience gives rise to a sense of humility and openness proper to the receiving of gifts.
There is much that is thought-provoking in this chapter – perhaps too much: While Steinbock makes some persuasive and insightful claims concerning the belief-structure of surprise and its relevance to our understanding of the gift, other claims made in the chapter would have benefitted from further discussion. In particular, the transition from the discussion of the belief-structure of surprise to considerations concerning diremptive experiences and humility seemed awfully quick: Steinbock switches the focus of the discussion from the belief-structure of surprise to the calling into question of the self in a way that is somewhat disorientating.
In the second chapter, Steinbock changes pace, moving from phenomenological investigations into the structure of the gift to considerations of the work of thinkers in the phenomenological tradition who have taken up the issue of the gift. Specifically, in this chapter, Steinbock deals with Heidegger. In the context of phenomenological debates concerning the gift, Steinbock’s consideration of Heidegger should come as no surprise: After all, the later Heidegger’s considerations of the es gibt (it gives) in works such as On Time and Being (1969) provide important context for understanding Derrida’s and Marion’s later discussions. What is perhaps more surprising, however, is Steinbock’s starting point in the chapter: Rather than focusing initially on texts such as On Time and Being, he begins with a discussion of Heidegger’s notion of ‘machination,’ including Heidegger’s anti-semitic claim that machination is an archetypally Jewish attribute. Here, Steinbock enters the fray of ongoing debates surrounding Heidegger’s links to Nazism, debates that have been renewed in light of the recent publication of Heidegger’s incriminating Black Notebooks. On this issue, Steinbock provides what seems to me to be a rather hedged justification for continuing to take Heidegger seriously, suggesting only that ‘we can…maintain that it is not only too easy, but both ingenuous and misleading for us to point the finger at Heidegger while supposing that we are somehow absolved from or not complicit in the general problem of evil’ (Ibid., 28). I would suggest that this attitude would fail to appease many critics!
Turning to the substantive content of the chapter, Steinbock highlights a fundamental problem that animated much of Heidegger’s later work. Namely, that today the world is technologically ‘enframed:’
Machination was expressed in the war as technological prowess, power and the will to calculate; it had further implications for reducing the earth to a resource under quantitative measure, bringing all beings under our dominion as controllable and at our disposition, as well as reducing human beings to the status of beings deprived of decisive resoluteness. (Ibid., 31)
In a word, Heidegger thought that advanced technological society was in many important respects greatly impoverished. But rather that claiming that this impoverishment arose principally as a result of socio-economic factors, Heidegger frames it in terms of a metaphysical problem; a problem to do with our understanding of Being. And his task, then, is to provide a way for us to overcome our problematic understanding of Being and to forge a new beginning.
It is in this context, Steinbock continues, that Heidegger’s concern with the gift comes to the fore. In Steinbock’s summary,
Heidegger notes that from the very beginning of Western thinking, Being and Time are thought, but not the “Es gibt” that gives the gifts of Being and Time. How is it that we have missed the Es gibt? It is because, according to Heidegger, the Es gibt, the It gives, withdraws in favour of the gifts that It gives. This retreat opens the space for the gifts to be thought misleadingly and exclusively as Being with regard to beings, conceptualizing Being as the ground of beings, as Time with regard to the present. (Ibid., 34-5)
That is to say, for Heidegger, what is central for his project of ‘overcoming the metaphysics of presence’ is a thinking that thinks the It gives that in the first instance grants being (and time) while withdrawing from it.
After reprising Heidegger’s philosophical position in this regard, Steinbock then makes some critical observations. In particular, Steinbock wants to challenge Heidegger’s claim that the It gives withdraws as it grants being by instead claiming that ‘giving accompanies its givenness in and as gifts’ (Ibid., 40). While I have to admit that Steinbock’s critical observations here are rather difficult to follow (admittedly, perhaps owing in the most part to the difficulty of parsing Heidegger’s later writing), his conclusion is clear enough:
What is called for when confronting the stranglehold of calculating managerial technologies or machination is not a novel paganism of thinking, but a rehabilitation, a reclamation of the emotional sphere of human persons, and in particular, the interpersonal emotions, which give us novel ways of freedom, critique, normativity, and specifically, a deeper sense of person. (Ibid., 46-7)
In essence, then, Steinbock appears to appreciate Heidegger’s worries concerning ‘machination’ and technological enframing, albeit in a qualified way. But instead of turning to a kind of pious thinking that attempts to think the It gives, Steinbock proposes that we focus on the kind of affective interpersonal relations – such as loving – that ‘machination’ tends to occlude.
In Chapter 3, Steinbock then turns to a figure who, amongst the figures considered in the book, is perhaps the least well known in Anglo-American philosophy: The Christian phenomenologist Michel Henry. This move, in a certain way, might seem to make sense: The previous chapter motivated a reframing of the gift from Heideggerian paganism to thinking of the gift within the context of love, where refocusing on Christian themes such as agape, as considered in Henry’s work I am the Truth, seems to be a logical step. Yet, for the bulk of this chapter Steinbock focuses on the issue of forgetfulness and the task of overcoming forgetfulness as it arises in Henry’s sprawling doctoral dissertation, The Essence of Manifestation, only touching on I am the Truth in the concluding part of the chapter.
Praise must be given to Steinbock here for rendering intelligible the formidably abstract and difficult work of Henry. Indeed, one of the best features of this chapter consists in its provision of a clarifying precis of some of the central themes of Henry’s work. This is not the place to attempt to reprise Henry’s philosophy or even Steinbock’s precis: It suffices to say that the central dynamic underlying Steinbock’s discussion of Henry begins with the claim that ‘As transcendence…I am simply given to myself, [I] receive the gift of myself to myself as a projection beyond myself’ (Ibid., 56). But, Steinbock continues, for the most part, through various mechanisms of forgetfulness, this structure of self-givenness is covered over and occluded.
In order to combat and overcome this forgetfulness, Henry promotes a form of ‘doing’ which Steinbock describes as ‘the work of mercy…as forgetfulness of the ego and bearing absolute Life as its presupposition; in doing, it is no longer me who acts, but God, or the Archi-Son of God, who acts in me’ (Ibid., 70). In a way, then, despite the phenomenological sophistication of Henry’s position, he in fact advocates a fairly well trodden path in Christian thinking; one which emphasizes a move from self-centredness and egoism, forgetful of one’s createdness, to an openness and humility in which the self relates to itself as the created being that, for Henry, it is. And Steinbock’s overall assessment of Henry’s work seems to be one that broadly appreciates the basic Christian dynamic motivating his phenomenological enterprise, while being critical of some of the details of Henry’s phenomenological procedure, concluding that Henry doesn’t really move us much beyond the Heideggerian conception of the It Gives.
In Chapter 4, Steinbock turns to the work of Jean-Luc Marion. As I mentioned above, Marion is perhaps the foremost phenomenologist working on issues surrounding the gift, and he has written many works that take the concept of the gift as a central theme. Steinbock’s way in to Marion’s work is through a critical appraisal of Marion’s conception of the poor phenomenon. The poor phenomenon comes in different valences – such as the common phenomenon; the humble phenomenon and the denigrated phenomenon – and, paradigmatically, it stands in contrast to the saturated phenomenon, namely, a phenomenon ‘marked by an excess of intuition (i.e., givenness) over the subjective intention of meaning-giving’ (Steinbock 86): The saturated phenomenon is associated with ‘revelation,’ whereas the poor phenomenon is delimited by representational intentionality. The question Steinbock poses in relation to Marion’s taxonomy of phenomena is whether the difference between the saturated phenomenon and the poor phenomenon is one of kind or one of degree: Can some poor phenomena open up a kind of ‘vertical’ experience that is typically associated with the revelatory character of saturated phenomena, or is such ‘verticality’ the preserve of saturated phenomena alone? Steinbock argues that for Marion the latter is the case, whereas Steinbock himself wants to propose the former.
In this connection, Steinbock recounts the following parable from St. Teresa: ‘When some of her novices were getting disturbed at being drawn away from contemplative prayer to undertake putative menial, mundane tasks, St. Teresa offers the following instruction: “Know that if it is in the kitchen, the Lord walks among the pots and pans helping you both interiorly and exteriorly”’ (Ibid., 94). Steinbock avers that ‘“pots and pans” are not simply what Marion calls saturated phenomena. Nor are they “poor” or “common” phenomena…[t]he pots and pans give themselves in “the epiphany of the everyday”…’ (Ibid., 94). In other words, in contrast to Marion’s conception of poor phenomena as phenomena whose givenness is mundane and restricted (at least in comparison with saturated phenomena), Steinbock proposes that some seemingly poor phenomena can in fact have a ‘vertical’ or revelatory dimension — equal to that of the saturated phenomena — when taken in the spirit of poverty, as is exemplified in St. Teresa’s parable. Thus, as Steinbock concludes, ‘if we are to speak of poverty at all, then it should be in the way the mystics use the term, namely, the poverty of spirit as an opening to the opening, or more personally, the vertical delimitation accomplished through loving’ (Ibid., 101).
Here, again, Steinbock’s critical appraisal aims in a direction that takes ‘loving’ to be central to the meaning of the gift rather than something about the character of the gift itself, where in this case he has in mind a kind of mystical poverty of spirit that can relate to seemingly mundane phenomena in such a way that reveals their character as gifts. Steinbock’s reversal of the meaning of the poor phenomena in this chapter is enlightening, and surely goes some way to motivating his ultimate claim in the book; namely, that the gift takes on its gift-character not thanks to any qualities inherent in the gift itself, but thanks to the context of loving in which the gift emerges.
Steinbock begins the final chapter by returning to Derrida, reprising Derrida’s deconstruction of the gift that I highlighted at the beginning of the review, while also considering Marion’s response to Derrida. Interestingly, in this discussion Steinbock notes that Marion in fact comes close to his own thesis concerning the relation between the gift and love, when, in God without Being, Marion places ‘emphasis on loving as agape or divine giving – which gives (itself) – in which God does not fall within the realm of Being, but comes to us in and as “gift”’ (Ibid., 108). However, Steinbock nonetheless marks a distinction between Marion’s approach to the gift and love and his own by insisting that, in contrast to Marion’s resolutely theological account, Steinbock’s conception of gift-giving has ‘an interpersonal significance from the very start’ (Ibid., 112). What seems to be at stake for Steinbock here is the relative concreteness of his account of gift-giving – as emerging in contexts of interpersonal relations – in relation to the admittedly rather abstract configurations provided by Heidegger, Henry and Marion.
In making his case, Steinbock turns to the work of Maimonides. In particular, Steinbock draws on Maimonides’s ‘unique laws of tzedakah (charity, gift-giving, but also “righteousness” and “justice”)’ (Ibid., 112). In addition to its focus on concrete interpersonal relations, what attracts Steinbock to Maimonides’s tzedakah is the fact that it admits of degrees of gift-giving, where this kind of subtlety is apparently absent from the work of the figures he has been considering up to now: For Derrida and others, focus has been on the pure gift, which places rather high success conditions on the appearance of the gift. Steinbock, by contrast, drawing on the work of Maimonides, suggests that the gift can appear across different contexts, some of which are less than ideal and yield something ‘less’ than a ‘pure’ gift, but which is nonetheless a gift.
Steinbock’s Maimonides-inspired taxonomy of gifts is as follows:
(1) those that conform to the economy of the gift, (2) those that are expressive of the bracketing of the gift, and (3) a style of gift-giving that goes beyond each of the former and is expressive of the dynamic of loving, issuing from what we could call the interpersonal nexus of beloveds. (Ibid., 114)
Importantly, for Steinbock, these ‘styles’ of gift-giving are united by their common ‘interpersonal connection’ which aims at the ‘liberation’ of the other – the givee – from ‘material and/or spiritual restrictions’ (Ibid.). More specifically, Steinbock canvasses Maimonides’s conception of the greatest kind of giving – the giving that issues from the ‘interpersonal nexus of beloveds’ – as a possible alternative to conceptions of the gift considered so far. On Steinbock’s Maimonides-inspired conception, the gift emerges within the context of a ‘partnership with others, supporting them by endowing them with a gift or loan or finding employment for this person to strengthen him until he needs no longer to be dependent upon others’ (Ibid., 122). What is essential to this conception of the gift is not its conceptual ‘purity’ – it is not focused on the gift itself – but rather the ‘interpersonal relation that is oriented towards the liberation of other persons’ (Ibid., 123).
In the book’s conclusion, Steinbock summarizes how he sees his reconfiguration of the gift as responding to Derrida’s aporia: for Steinbock, worries concerning narcissistic reappropriations of the gift are overcome as soon as one reconfigures the gift as something that emerges within the context of interpersonal loving. Love, for Steinbock, precludes narcissistic reappropriation and initiates a kind of interpersonal relation – a relation with ‘verticality,’ as Steinbock puts it — in which it is in no way aporetic to think of gift-giving, in the best sense of the term. In addition, by associating the love-relation with ‘verticality,’ Steinbock also canvasses his conception of gift-giving as a way of responding to the technologically enframed machination highlighted by Heidegger: It is through interpersonal loving, and, thus, gift-giving in the best sense of the world, that machination can be overcome.
Whilst there is something deeply attractive about Steinbock’s position on these issues, I have some critical comments. The first concerns whether his reconfiguration of the gift in terms of interpersonal loving does in fact overcome Derrida’s aporia. It seems to me that whether one takes Steinbock’s intervention to be successful in this regard depends on how pervasive one takes our narcissism to be. John Caputo has observed that, for Derrida
…there are many narcissisms, various degrees of narcissism, the best of which are hospitable and welcome the other. There is always a movement of narcissism in any gift and, indeed, “without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutely destroyed.” Even love, the affirmation of the other, would be impossible without the trace of narcissism. When I love the good of the other, this is the good I love. In the most hospitable, open-ended narcissism, the good I seek for myself is the good of the other. (Caputo 1997, 172)
It, thus, seems that from a Derridean perspective, Steinbock’s reconfiguration of the gift would not overcome the aporia of the gift, but merely reconstitute it at a different level: Steinbock, insofar as he takes Derrida’s aporia seriously, appears to maintain that it can be overcome by turning to the love-relation as an enabling condition of the gift. But Derrideans would likely object to this move by claiming that narcissism affects the love-relation too: Indeed, Derrideans would likely home in on Steinbock’s use of Maimonides’s tzedakah in support of their view: While, admittedly, Steinbock’s reading of Maimonides should be taken in the spirit of interpretive reconstruction, it nonetheless remains the case that the taxonomy of gift-giving provided in the tzedakah is decidedly economic. Even the ‘greatest kind of giving’ is spoken about in terms of business and loans, and seems quite alien to the kind of gratuitousness Derrida associates with the concept of the gift. Arguably, then, Steinbock’s reconfiguration of the gift might look – to Derrideans – to simply gloss over the problem of the gift’s gratuity, rather than overcome it.
Of course, Steinbock might respond to this, arguing that the whole animus behind the book consists in an attempt to reject the framing of debates concerning the gift provided by Derrida and others. Yet, on this point, I wonder whether Steinbock’s project is somewhat derailed by the attention he gives to the details of the debate spawned by Derrida concerning the gift throughout the book: As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there is something frustrating in the way that Derrida, Marion and others take up the issue of the gift, where, in their discussions, they often elide many different issues from the domains of theology, anthropology and phenomenology. I had hoped on the basis of its title that Steinbock’s work was finally going to call time on the tendentious aspects of this debate and clear the air a little. But in fact he seemed to sometimes get sucked in and bogged down by issues raised by Heidegger, Derrida and others that do not obviously have any bearing on his thesis, where I feel this diluted the polemical impact of the book as a whole.
Nonetheless, in It’s Not About the Gift, Steinbock achieves two things well: The first is that he provides an illuminating critical appraisal of the debate concerning the gift as it has emerged in the phenomenological tradition. Secondly, he provides an interesting and compelling alternative to the conception of the presented in that tradition, while drawing on resources from phenomenology. I take it that this intervention constitutes one part of a broader project that Steinbock is undertaking, and should be read alongside his works Moral Emotions, Phenomenology and Mysticism as well as his forthcoming work. And, despite the fact that the book under review leaves some issues unresolved, it seems to me that Steinbock’s overall project is going in an interesting and illuminating direction.
Caputo, J. 1997. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Derrida, J. 1992. Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. P. Kamuf. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Steinbock, A.J. 2018. It’s Not About the Gift: From Givenness to Loving. London and New York: Rowman and Littlefield.