Deyan Deyanov


Bourdieu was hardly aware to what degree his theory of the practical logic of the gift and the performative logic of the acts of naming (which he, rather, only suggests) are fragments of the same problematic. Therefore, thinking with Bourdieu against Bourdieu, I will sketch the outlines of this problematic, propose a solution to some of the more interesting puzzles upon which we come in it, and put to doubt some of the dogmas that have permeated the thinking of the gift from Mauss through Levy-Strauss to Bourdieu.

As the methodological background of this theoretic discussion, I will take two generative principles:

a) Bourdieu’s principle of the three functions of official (but, in fact, of any legitimate) discourse: 1. the symbolic (or demiurgic) function through which agents acquire identities by being named; 2. the normative function that communicates to the agent what he must do with regard to the identity he has received; and 3. the evaluative function through which one assesses whether the agent has done what he was supposed to do with regard to what he is;

b) the principle of the three duties which, according to Mauss, can be found in every exchange of gifts: 1. the duty to give; 2. the duty to accept the gift; and 3. the duty to reward the gift. It is these two principles that delineate the problematic of the practical logic of the gift as the logic of molecular performatives.

I would like to stressing it once again: these are not (contrary to what Bourdieu’s critiques and even orthodox pupils believe) theoretical clichés but are generative principles. Thus e.g. derivations of the generative principle of the three functions of every legitimate discourse are, for instance, the things he says of distinctive identity: those whose identity is marked by distinction ‘can affirm their distinctiveness without putting effort […]: it is enough for them to be what they are to be what they must be’ (Bourdieu 1993: 17), or of those called to acquire an identity which is predestined to them but which they have not achieved yet: ‘”Become what you are”. This is the formula that underlies the performative magic of all acts of institution. The essence indicated by nomination, the investiture, is in the proper sense of the word a fatum (this is also and mostly valid for the sometimes silent, sometimes explicit injunctions that the members of the family group incessantly address to the small child)’ (Bourdieu 2005: 118).

In my paper, I will start from some details that, it seems to me, Bourdieu has missed in his theory of the gift (such as e.g. the problem of the preliminary return gift or the time intervals that can be found not – as is the mistaken idea of both Mauss and Bourdieu – between giving and return giving but between giving and accepting the gift, between accepting the gift and making a return gift, and even before the giving itself); I will pass through an opposition that has so far been floating in methodological mist: the opposition between, on the one hand, the exchange, contract etc. that are done under the form of the gift, and, on the other hand, this very form itself (in fact, even the critiques of economism like Bourdieu are inclined to deal primarily with what happens under that form and not to put ‘under the logical microscope’ this form itself); and finally I will come to putting under methodological doubt the dogma that there is an exchange of gifts, i.e. that there is the problem of the return gift outside the ‘aboriginal theories’. Wherever I find it up to my abilities, I will put the stress most of all on the properly logical problems of the theory of practical logic.

1. Problems before Bourdieu’s theory

Bourdieu’s theory of the gift (the gift as contrary to the ‘give-to-receive’ exchange) starts from a double differentiation from the theories of Mauss and Levy-Strauss. If Mauss thinks the exchange of gifts as an incessant sequence of generous actions,1 and Levy-Strauss – as a structure of reciprocity, transcendent in relation to the acts of exchange, Bourdieu puts the stress on the delaying of return gifts, on the time interval between the gift and the return gift and the functions of that interval (cf. Bourdieu 1997: 145). Very succinctly, the logic of Bourdieu is as follows: contrary to the formula ‘give to receive’, the return gift in the gift exchange serves ‘to allow the one who gives to experience his gift as a gift without return, and the one who returns to experience his return gift as rewardless and undetermined by the initial gift’ (Bourdieu 1997: ibid.); the structural truth established by Levy-Strauss is retained by Bourdieu here, but he is aware that it remains hidden to the agents involved in gift exchange, as it were, collectively suppressed, unadmitted, i.e. excluded from public affirmation (Bourdieu 1997: 145-6). Levy-Strauss, who does not have at his disposal the corrective of the ‘theory of the non-coincidence of theory and practice’ (Bourdieu 1993: 97-8) and thus ignores the practical logic of gift exchangers, ascribes to them the logic of this structural truth (cf. Bourdieu 1997: 1982-4). Despite its undeniable advantages, the theory of Bourdieu of the gift and its logic makes us face quite a few problems. I will sketch here only two of them: of time intervals and of the preliminary return gift.

When Bourdieu insists that – contrary to the exchange after the formula ‘give to receive’ – the return gift must be different and delayed, i.e. that there must be a time interval (and with that, the uncertainty that the gift will be returned) between the gift and the return gift – a time interval that would allow agents experience their gifts as rewardless (see Bourdieu 1997; 145), he fails to deduce the consequences of his discovery.2 What he is not aware of is that there are such time intervals also between the gift and its acceptance (cf. e.g. the strategies of hesitating whether the gift should be accepted or of delaying the acceptance), and even before the gift itself (don’t we hesitate whether to delay our gift since our counter-agent has disappointed us and therefore must be punished?).3 This can also be said thus: there are time intervals before each of the acts by which agents fulfill the three obligations formulated by Mauss (see Mauss 96-100; cf. also 61-62), i.e. before each of the three atomic performatives that compose the so-called gift exchange – the molecular performative that Mauss discovered (without being aware that it is a molecular performative). The fact that the fulfillment of these three obligations is always preceded by a time interval, tells us once more that, here as well, the practical logical necessity by which counter-agents, as we shall see, mutually reaffirm their identities, happens – and it happens not by necessity. Not by necessity because the return giving may also not take place.

I would like also – although very succinctly – to outline the critique to which I put, a few years ago, the unquestioned evidence underlying all theories of the gift – that the gift is prior to the return gift not only in essence but also in time; on the contrary, there are cases when, although essentially prior, the gift follows the return gift (cf. Deyanov 2002b: 21)4; such strategies of preliminary return giving are e.g. placating, paying due respect, or demonstrating loyalty.5 What is especially interesting here is: where, however, does the essential (as contrary to the temporal) precedence come from? Bourdieu is not aware that in its very essence, a gift is initial because in the eyes of the aborigine the giver has already been gifted by the transcendent giver (just like, in the theory of authorization, he is not aware that in the eyes of the aborigine authorization is always mediated by a transcendent authorizer). This critique to Borudieu is not at all unimportant to the logic of molecular performatives: asking forgiveness, apologizing, asking for mercy, maybe even the promise and the oath to serve loyally, are modal operators through which the strategies of preliminary return giving find their way. Therefore, in these molecular performatives in which the return gift precedes the gift, there is a structural reversal that affects the very logical form: it is one thing to show charismatic generosity in forgiving the guilt to an agent who is left wondering how to express his gratitude after that, and a wholly different thing to forgive after the agent has already asked for it (a difference also relevant to the different modal operators in the two molecular performatives, and also to their order).

2. The gift as a symbolic form

If so far I dealt with problems before Bourdieu’s theory, which could be viewed rather as Kuhnian puzzles, from this point on I will pay attention to what affects its depth and makes it no less problematic than that of his predecessors. I mean that in the theories of the gift – from Mauss through Levy-Strauss up to Bourdieu – the unchanged emphasis has been primarily on what is done under the form of the gift (cf. e.g. Mauss 2001: 48): economic exchange, legal contraction etc.; what the form itself of the gift consists in, remains theoretically obscure. Therefore I will bracket away whatever can be done under that form (not that it is not interesting but it is not of interest here) and will be interested in that form itself. My starting point is that Mauss pays too little attention to the fact that both the giver and the accepter (which means, the return giver) have already been named,6 and therefore an identity has already been bestowed to them: they are fathers-in-law, sons-in-law, nephews of the wife, rival chiftains etc., distributed into ranks, genders, and generations (see Mauss 2001: 52, 62); I want to add to this also that these identities are evidently relational (since the father-in-law is a father-in-law in relation to the son-in-law, and conversely). Named are also the events at which one gives – they have the identity of wedding, childbirth, circumcision, illness, funeral, etc. (cf. Mauss 2001: 57), as well as the gifts themselves. It springs from what was said that the functions of giving, of accepting the gift, and of return giving, according to their very form (and not to what goes on under that form) are functions in reaffirming the identity of the already named agents (or in refusing such a reaffirmation),7 and the reaffirmation of their relational identities is also the retaining of their community. Therefore, the form of the gift is a par excellence symbolic form.

Thus, addressing someone in giving, accepting a gift and return giving, as a father-in-law, son-in-law, wife’s nephew etc., even if even if the address is not expressed in an explicit performative, agents do things with words,8 and the things they do with these words are the mutual reaffirmation of their identities (thus when you hand the gift and say: ‘Let the little grandson be alive and in good health!’, by that you address the agent to whom you speak as a grandparent). And this performative magic obviously reproduces the three functions of every legitimating discourse, as Cicourel and Bourdieu have formulated them: the agent gives what he must give with regard to the identity he has been bestowed (and also with regard to the identity of the counter-agent), in order to reaffirm these identities, and if he does not do that, both he and his counter-agent lose their affirmative identities. However, he reproduces them with a conspicuous difference, as a derivation of the generative principle: the agent does what he must do not only with regard to his identity but also in order to reaffirm it – i.e. this doing is a symbolic action, a ritual (and this should not surprise us, since the form of the gift is a symbolic form). This – in my view, crucial – difference has even more important functions in the affirmation of identities. Therefore the logic of the gift must not fail to pay attention either to the performative logic of the acts of naming, or to these three functions, or – as we shall see – the problem of molecular performatives.

It is worth putting here ‘under a logical microscope’ this derivation of the generative principle in which the normative function of every legitimate discourse comes out to be a calling to perform a symbolic action, i.e. a derivation in which ‘with regard to his identity’ turns into ‘in order to reaffirm his identity’. This is why, in the play of Jean Anouilh, a little before being slayed by the barons of Henry II, Thomas Becket calls on the little monk: ‘Then let everything be in proper order. We will not lock the grille of the main altar. Come one, little one, let’s go to the altar. Our place is not here.’ (Anouilh 1996: 139). In fact here, to remain what he is, Becket must serve the vespers – in an open cathedral – although he is going to lose his life. A symbolic action is an action dictated by what Bourdieu calls the illusio – by what is worh to live and die for. Thus when Bourdieu says that ‘become what you are’ is ‘the formula that underlies the performative magic of all acts of institution’ and that ‘the essence indicated by nomination, the investiture, is in the proper sense of the word a fatum’ (Bourdieu 2005: 118), he means also what the agent must do to become what he is – and he means it not as a theoretic cliché that we should rediscover in every act of institution, but as a generative principle whose derivations are: to remain what you are; to stop being what you were; to become again what you stopped to be; etc. Behind all of these derivations, there is one properly logical problem of the theory of practical logic: the problem of broken, or fractal, identities of agents who are not self-identical – they are not yet what they are in their social essence; or are no longer; or have not yet returned to what they are in their social essence, etc.9 For the theoretician of practical logic it is crucial that, in the case of such fractal identities, the negation is what – rethinking Aristotle – Heidegger calls ‘negation as privation’.10

3. The exchange of gifts is an appearance

It is worth noting that the consequences of the theory that the form of the gift (as opposite to all that is done under the form of the gift – economic exchanges, legal contracts etc.) is the reaffirmation of the identities of the agent and the counter-agent, are no less crucial than the theory itself: first of all, as it seems, it would not be an overstatement to say that, properly speaking, there is no exchange of gifts. What I mean is the following. The obligatory character of two of the obligations according to Mauss – to give and to accept the gift – does not raise any doubt: giving is what the agent does to reaffirm the identity of his counter-agent (and by that, also his own, as well as the identity of the transcendent giver ion whose name the giving itself is done); by accepting the gift, the counter-agent reaffirms these identities. Whence, however, does the problem come with the third of these obligations, the return giving? What is its function in the reaffirmation of the identities of the counter-agents, and hence in the maintaining of their community?

The return of the gift, the paying back (as Mauss is inclined to call it), without which there would be no exchange – if we are interested only in the gift as such rather than in what economic exchanges and legal contracts happen under its form – is, rather, an appearance that is supported by the concretion of the aboriginal theory of the ‘hau’ with the dogmatic evidences of modern economism. I am inclined to suppose that in fact what we see is the overlapping of two cycles of giving of two counter-agents with relational communitary identities (named father and son, king and vassal, etc.) each of which has its own ‘rhythm and tempo’ dictated by periodically reproducible events (named birdhtay, wedding anniversary, and also e.g. Christmas, Easter etc.)11. It is not essential that agents and their counter-agents may not yet have been named and, therefore, have no way of reaffirming their identities: this means that they are being named, they are given a name12 by an agent authorized by the sacred tradition or bureaucratically appointed (e.g. a priest) during the event (e.g. wedding); and they accept the name they are given and by that they reaffirm their identity (e.g. bride and groom). No doubt, once having become (for instance) a father, the agent does what he must do to reaffirm his identity, and not to cease to be what he is; but even then he does not return the gift but follows the logic of his cycle of giving. Thus, this all does not affect the theory that I am proposing: instead of reaffirming identities there is affirming, instead of maintaining a community there is instituting, but once again: the gist remains the same – what appears as an exchange of gifts is in fact the overlapping of two cycles of giving, in which the givings in the cycle of the agent who is identified as the weak opposite, appear as return givings. And here both the identities of agents and the logical forms inherent in them are predetermined by this sacred tradition. What will happen if they are not?

What happens when you give money (and thus a new chance) to your brother who has just gone bankrupt? When you save your cousin as she is drowning? When you sit night and day at the sickbed of your father? when you soothe your classmate who was left by her boyfriend? when you pay attention to an old woman whom everybody has forgotten? Here, identities both are and are not pre-given and, although participating in the tradition, agents neither reaffirm their relational identities nor only affirm relational identities that are pre-given in the tradition. There is here a dim resemblance to charisma, although relations are private rather than public, and no body says ‘it is written but I say unto you’: a resemblance to what Weber generalizes in the formula ‘upon disaster and by inspiration’ – upon a disaster into which the counter-agent has fallen and by an inspiration that has come upon the agent. Here the agent, in order to remain what he was, becomes – maybe unexpectedly to himself – what he has never been, even as a possibility, but what becomes possibilitated in the act itself (he ‘cannot fail to give’): therefore, in reaffirming his identity – by the gift and by the counter-agent’s accepting it – he affirms an unpregiven identity; his identity comes out to be ecstatic, the gift indeed – as in Derrida – is an excess that puts the beginning of a new cycle. Here, to say it in an Austinian manner (but not quite), he does not do things with words but does words with things; he acquires the identity of the man who gave a new chance to his bankrupt brother, of the man who saved his drawning cousin, of the man who sat night and day near his father’s sickbed, etc. Actually he, as Hannah Arendt would say, reveals (but, in fact, affirms in an unpregiven manner) ‘his unique personal identity’, he reveals ‘his “who” as opposed to the “what”’ (Арендт 1997: 153). And ‘it is more than probable that this “who”, which comes so clearly and unmistakably before the others, remains hidden from the man himself as, in the Greek religion, the daimon who accompanies every man during his whole life, peeking from behind his shoulder so as to be visible only to those who the man meets’ (Arendt 1997: 154).

This demon who incites us to provoke again and again affirmation of identities – of ourselves and no less of our counteragents although accompanying us throughout our lifetimes, is reborn again and again, upon every disaster that provokes inspiration.

4. The performative logic of the acts of naming and the logic of the gift

So far, we had in mind agents to which an affirmative identity has already been ascribed, already named agents. From this point on, we will be interested in this ascription itself which always – even when it is under the form of bureaucratic appointing – has some performative magic of consecration about it, some king of weak charisma. And here is valid what Bourdieu says of formal rationality in general: ‘Those who, like Max Weber, formulate the magic or charismatic law of the collective vow or of the sacred ordeal as contrary to the rational law based on calculability and predictability, forget that the most strictly rationalized law is never anything else than an act of social magic that succeeds.’ (Bourdieu 1982: 20). It is far easier to see in traditional domination, when e.g. Henry II says: ‘I decided to restore the office of Chancellor of England, custodian of the seal with the three lions, and entrust it to my loyal subject and servant Thomas Becket’, and Thomas stands up, ‘perplexed and white’, and only mutters: ‘My Prince!’ (Anouilh 1996: 14). And it is wholly obvious in charismatic domination – in the heresiarch (the ‘legitimately self-proclaimed’) n his heretic discourse, e.g. in ‘the typical prophesy which alone is able to destroy the self-evident truths of the doxa, and the transgression of naming the unnameable’ (Bourdieu 1982: 152). In recognizing that in all acts of naming, even in bureaucratic appointment, there is some performative magic, one says, however, very little on their performative magic.

Although Bourdieu is not aware of that, it is obvious that the performative logic of the acts of naming may be conceived in the logic of the gift: I mean not only that (a) the name is given and by this the agent is ascribed identity, but also that (b) it must be accepted, i.e. the agent must identify himself with it, as well as (c) return the gift, doing what he must do with regard to what he is – and thus ascribe legitimacy to the one who gives the name; the act of naming has taken place only after the gift is accepted and returned, otherwise it is void (cf. Deyanov 2004).13 It can be supposed that the time intervals that are inserted between the atoms of this molecular performative (giving a name, accepting the name and returning the gift under the form of legitimating the namegiver as a namegiver) point out that here, as elsewhere in practical logic, the necessity happens (and it happens not by necessity). I mean that, although each of these three performances is logically necessary (cf. again the three obligations in Mauss), it can happen so that the agent obliged to give the name does not give it, or the named agent does not accept it, or does not do what he must do with regard to the identity so acquired.14

I suppose that the performative logic of the acts of naming might give a chance to resolve also the problem of the logical form of such performative acts like the promise, the forgiving (and also the accusation, the complaint etc.), as far as each of them involves the ascription of a future identity, the restoration of a past identity etc. Thus the performative by which one forgives an infidelity restores the identity to the agent who has not done what he was supposed to do with regard to who he was; and the performative by which one swears fidelity till death obliges the agent to do what he must do with regard to acquiring some identity (thus one says of agents that they want ‘to restore their good name’ or ‘to make themselves a name’). Thus – as Hannah Arendt says, without being aware that she deals with the performative logic of the acts of naming – forgiveness comes out to be a medicine against the irreversibility of the action; the promise, in its turn, comes out to be a medicine against the unpredictability of the process started by the action (cf. Arendt 1997: 197-207). Both the promise and the forgiveness have their conditions of possibility: thus, if we say to someone: ‘I forgive you’, without him acknowledging any guilt, he – like every Garfinkelian victim whose background expectations have been deranged – will either shrug in bewilderment and angrily ask us, ‘What do you mean?’, or will start asking himself what he is guilty of. The acknowledged guilt is a condition of possibility of showing forgiveness, and the apology, the asking for forgiveness etc. are, as I already said, preliminary return gifts which are not only a condition of possibility of forgiveness but even entail (if they are ‘in the truth’) – although with a weak necessity, i.e. a necessity weakened by incredibly many strategies of delaying, of reservations, of requirements of promises15 etc. – a forgiveness of the guilt (which is, in its turn, the condition of possibility of the return of restoration of the identity that had been taken away, a kind of negation of an ascribed negative identity16).


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* Published in English in: Sociological Problems, special issue, 2012.

1 Levy-Strauss insists that science must detach itself from the aboriginal experience and from the aboriginal theory of this experience, to state that exchange “in itself represents a primordial phenomenon and not the discrete operations into which social life decomposes”.’ (Bourdieu 2005: 183; cf. Levy-Strauss 2001: 32).

2 In fact, Mauss is aware of this time interval, although he does not raise it as a theoretical problem: gifts, he says, ‘cannot be returned immediately. It takes time to perform any return prestation’ (Mauss 2001: 93; cf. Makaveeva 2001: 21). What Bourdieu (and, by the way, Derrida) offers to us is precisely a theoretical problematisation of the data upon which Mauss has come.

3 This may sound surprising: how can there be an interval before the initial gift? But it is an obvious empirical fact that I can be at loss when to give and whether to give at all. How is that possible? As we shall see, the agent who gives is obliged to do it because he was already gifted by the so-called transcendent giver; thus the interval between the gift that the agent receives from the transcendent giver and the gift he gives to the counter-agent is precisely the interval before the initial gift.

4 Here to, Mauss, as Milena Makaveeva observes, has established as an empirical fact the preliminary return gift (e.g. ‘For this first gift the future, not yet engaged, partner can be courted and a kind of payment may be offered through an introductory series of gifts’ – Mauss 2001: 85; cf. Makaveeva 2001: 22-23) but he has not raised the problem theoretically.

5 It would not be an overstatement to say that in charismatic domination, the gift precedes the return gift in time, not only in essence, and in traditional domination it is always the other way around.

6 These passages are not theoretically loaded; maybe the most important one to me is the passage where Mauss says that the failure to fulfill the obligation of accepting ‘means that you have “lost the gravity” of your name’ (Mauss 2001: 98).

7 Except if what is being given is a name, and then the giving eo ipso will be bestowal (deprivation, restoration) of identity. For the time being, I will state very dogmatically that in this case we obviously have affirmation and not reaffirmation of identities. I will return later to this problem which is a problem of the practical logic of the gift.

8 See e.g. ‘in principle, every gift is accepted and even praised. You must praise aloud the food that has been cooked in our honour.’ (Mauss 2001: 99).

9 Actually, all problems that I have so far discussed under the headings of ‘negative’, ‘deviant’ and ‘double’ identities (cf. Deyanov 2004) belong into the analytic of fractal identities.

10 ‘When we negate something so as not to exclude it but in precisely retaining it, in the sense that it has something missing about itself, this negation is called privation’ (Heidegger 1987: 58; sf. also §7 of Sabeva 2008 where Sabeva outlines the connection between the brokenness of Dasein and negation as privation. For the theoretician of practical logic it is important to note that it is privation as negation what provokes performative utterances (see Deyanov 2008: 33 for greater detail).

11 In his ‘Introduction’, Levy-Strauss says on the occasion of the ‘novum organum of the social sciences of the 20th century’ that was expected of Mauss but never took a systematic form: exchange ‘is the common denominator of a large number of apparently heterogeneous social activities. But exchange is not something he can perceive at the level of the facts. Empirical observation finds not exchange, but only, as Mauss himself says, ‘three obligations: giving, accepting, returning’. So the whole theory calls for the existence of a structure, only fragments of which are delivered by experience – just its scattered members, or rather its elements. If exchange is necessary, but not given, it must be constructed.’ (Levy-Strauss 2001: 31). Here we could reply: the empirical data do suggest a structure but this structure is not the exchange of gifts but the reaffirmation of the identities of counger-agents in the overlapping of their cycles of giving.

12 For the time being, we will not be interested in the logical form of the act of naming itself, as it takes place according to the theory of the practical logic of the gift; but here there is equally no exchange of gifts but only an exchange under the form of gift. Neither will we be interested in the logical form of the chain reactions of acquiring identity that are provoked by that act – the agents become in-laws, grandparents etc. – nobody names them but they acquire a name.

13 Obviously, from this point on, the talk of ‘return giving’ is only a façon de parler.

14 I will not deal here with the double games which have as a condition of possibility the conditional identification of the agent with the ascribed identity, when he under the form of doing what he must do with regard to what he is, does what he must not do, ‘violates the rule in following the rule’ (Bourdieu 1993: 82).

15 This is obvious e.g. in the promises that the king requires from Thomas Becket in order to give him the kiss of peace, which may be viewed as mutual forgiveness (see Anouilh 1979: 102).

16 That is, a kind of resolving a somewhat unusual dialectical contradiction.