Book II: The Gift

The second book of Being Given is devoted to question of the Gift. In light of the fact that Marion wants to avoid falling into metaphysics, the model will be centered on his idea of the gift and not on a metaphysical model. Here the question becomes, “Can we use existing categories in order to analyze givenness?” The first step in Marion’s analysis of the gift is to address the Derridian critique of the gift. According to Derrida, the gift is impossible because it is self-nullifying, i.e., it deconstructs itself. The reason for this self-deconstruction is that when a gift is given, a reciprocity is necessitated—the one receiving the gift feels indebted. In Derrida’s view, as soon as something is recognized as gift, it can no longer be a gift—it falls into the “economic trap.” In addressing this Derridian critique, Marion says that Derrida has not understood the gift deeply enough because there is a kind of gift (i.e., the reduced gift) that can escape Derrida’s analysis. In short, book II is devoted to a reduction of the gift—a triple bracketing of giver, givee, and gift.

As he interacts in book II with the metaphor of the “circle,” Marion observes that we have the gift and what is not suited to the gift is its circular returning—i.e., the gift is no longer a gift when it returns to the giver (p. 79). Consequently, Marion asks, “What would it look like to give a gift in a non-circular fashion, linear fashion?” The circle means that whatever appears in my field of existence is reduced to my horizon and limits me in that field of existence. I.e., instead of accepting the gift simply as a surprise or joy in itself, I absorb the gift into something that I can digest, that I am expecting. So the circle stands for the inability to allow a challenging. Marion wants move beyond this and to break through this supposedly impenetrable horizon constituted solely by the subject.

We recall that in God Without Being(GWB), Marion distinguishes between an approach to God which lets God be God and an idolatrous approach. The former he explains in terms of the icon and the latter the idol. An idol is a representation of the divine that tries to communicate something about God; however, the representation is idolatrous. With the idol, I do not allow God to challenge, re-construct or even destroy my representation, but instead, I circumscribe God in my own categories. Here we might say that the idol is more or less synonymous with the circle of the gift. In contrast, we have the icon, which is the idea of something coming forth on its own initiative. In other words, I allow myself to be seen by God in the light of God. In contemplating the icon, the subject is subjected to God’s gaze and the attempted circumspecting gaze of the subject is shattered. As we have noted in a previous post, Marion in Being Given (BG) wants to give an account in phenomenological, not theological terms. So in Book II of BG, Marion formulates a phenomenological equivalent to what he did in GWB. In regard to the triple bracketing of the gift, giver and givee, not only does the gift become thinkable, but when I reduce the giver or the givee (e.g. in anonymity), then will I understand properly what the gift is about. An example that Marion employs is giving to charity. In this case, we as givers can give in secret, and we don’t really know who the recipient is—this makes the gift more properly a gift. In giving to the charity, I give anonymously to an anonymous givee.

Summing up, in Marion’s formulation, we have the giver, the gift, the givee, and the initiative now comes from the gift. Likewise, the givability of the gift opens one up to the ability of giving. For example, a person’s vocation—a person’s gift in a sense flows freely and naturally into giving (as Marion says, it “decides” the giver to give it, p. 108). With this understanding, we move away from a modern to a more pre-modern understanding of subjectivity, yet without totally abandoning the modern subject. The gift properly understood is not something that I decide to accept; rather, it intrudes upon me. Thus, Marion has an answer to the Derridian critique. That is, the gift has broken free of the “economic circle” when understood in terms of giveability and acceptability—in terms of givenness.