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  • On Rhetoric as Gift/Giving
  • Marilee Mifsud

In this essay, I explore the possibilities of rhetoric as gift. I begin with the Homeric gift economy and the rhetorical resources of this economy.1 My use of "economy" here is not reducible to a monetary exchange system, but rather a more general system of practices orchestrating cultural identity and relations. As Georges Bataille suggests, studying a general economy may hold the key to all the problems posed by every discipline (1991, 10). For Bataille everything from geophysics to political economy, by way of sociology, history, and biology, to psychology, philosophy, art, literature, and poetry has an essential connection with economy. So, too, rhetoric. Henry Johnstone once defined rhetoric as the art of getting attention (1990, 334). We cannot attend to everything at once, so something must call our attention, invite our focus, and this something is rhetoric. Rhetoric's desire to dispose its audience to invest in the object of attention connects rhetoric to economy. Rhetoric can be said to enact a disposition to invest, or a cathexis, a certain kind of savings. As such it is subject to economic movements and displacements, a dimension seen as well through Lyotard's figure of the dispositif (1993, x).

My use of "gift" here draws broadly from work in anthropology and philosophy on "the gift" starting with Marcel Mauss's groundbreaking anthropological work on archaic gift cultures. Mauss argues that as far back as we can go in the history of human civilizations, the major transfer of goods has been by cycles of gift-exchange. Each gift is part of a system of reciprocity in which the honor of the giver and recipient are engaged. That every gift must be met with a return gift, even if delayed, sets up a perpetual cycle of exchanges within and between cultures. In some cycles the return is equal to the gift, producing stable systems. However, in some cycles the return exceeds the gift. Such excess creates a competitive generosity, an escalating contest for honor. Mauss's work shows there are no free gifts: a gift economy creates for members permanent commitments that articulate the dominant institutions of law, politics, culture, and interpersonal relations. The theory of the gift is a theory of human solidarity. [End Page 89]

From Mauss, the gift has taken off as a subject not only of sociological and anthropological interest, but of philosophical. Alan Schrift makes the case that the theme of the gift is located at the center of current discussions of postmodernity, discussions ranging from deconstruction, to gender, to ethics. The gift is, as Schrift argues, "one of the primary focal points at which contemporary disciplinary and interdisciplinary discourses intersect" (1997, 3). As a sampling, and an insight into theories of the gift underwriting this essay, consider the encounters Bataille, Derrida, and Cixous have with the gift. Bataille encounters the distinction between restrictive and general economies, and theorizes general economy through an economic logic based on the unproductive expenditure of excess associated with gift cultures. Derrida encounters the impossibility of the gift, that is, once a gift is recognized as gift, it is no longer a gift but an obligation demanding reciprocity. Hélène Cixous encounters the difference between masculine and feminine economies in terms of the latter creating relations with others through gift-giving where the gift does not calculate its influence.

My exploration of the archaic Homeric gift economy takes me eventually to explore what such postmodern theories of the gift offer rhetoric, but not before moving through the classical Athenian polis economy. In the Western tradition, the polis is a familiar economy. For the most part, this familiarity arises because of the marketplace and state structure of the polis, so familiar still in modern capitalism. However, in particular regard to the study of rhetoric, this familiarity arises from the historical claim that the polis invented rhetoric as an idea and practice of serving its needs (e.g., arguing in the public assembly about the administration of the state, in the courtrooms to administer justice, and in the agora to proclaim and persuade the values of the culture). The polis has become so familiar as the...


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