(This post is part of the Art as Gift Project)
Jacques Derrida in Given Time (pp.76-79) claims that Lévi-Strauss’s critique of hau, in which he locates gift-giving rituals such as the potlatch within a structuralist logic of exchange and relation, effectively annuls the gift; gifts cannot be exchanged “tit for tat.” Derrida goes on to say that the question of the given-thing is not a false problem, as Lévi-Strauss would have it. One which will “dissolve in the transparent light of an Aufklärung (clearing up) of relational logic.” (76)
Derrida characterises Lévi-Strauss’s analysis as belonging “to the rationality of the principle of reason.” One which appeals to linguistic concepts such as “zero phoneme” and “floating signifiers,” in order to resolve the contradictions inherent in notions such as hau; i.e. the antithetical operations of giving and taking within one expression. In Lévi-Strauss’s reasoning hau is an empty symbol, which is there as “the conscious expression of a semantic function,” to which we bring supplementary symbolic content to complete it. Lévi-Strauss’s argument follows the reasoning of symbolic logic, a logic which “summarises the general laws of language.”
For Derrida this analysis has the effect of substituting exchange for gift in the constitution of the symbolic, in events such as the potlatch. Leading Derrida to the conclusion “there is no gift as concerns reason.” The gift allows reason and not the other way around.
Derrida then comments that Lévi-Strauss’s claim “that all social phenomena can be assimilated to language,” was important for the “hegemonic institution of French structuralism as a linguisticism in the 60s.” He also calls it an “elliptically rationalist gesture.”