(un)common ground

a commonplace book

Unilateral Gift = Act of Power

The fundamental rule of symbolic obligation stipulates that the basis of any form of domination is the total absence of any counterpart, of any return. The unilateral gift is an act of power.

Jean Baudrillard, “The Violence of the Global” (”La Violence du Mondial”), 2005

Though I’m probably always going to be a little skeptical of Baudrillard’s universal claims, this line stood out to me as compelling.

On a basic human level, this power dynamic can occur in a lot of ways, it seems to me. By this logic, gift giving or donation are no longer simply generous or altruistic. Where altruism or generosity is a reflection upon intentionality or character, Baudrillard implies that the practice of the unilateral gift, as a symbolic act–what we may call a “gesture”–is not something vacuous or ineffective, and perhaps not even innocuous; it is literally an exercise of power. We probably recognize this on a common-sense level, that when the rich give gifts, for example, it can be more a reflection upon themselves than true generosity. But Baudrillard’s claim (though his context speaks more to cross-cultural/ideological obligation) sort of puts intentionality beside the point. As the study of power generally concludes, the dynamics thereof are in some ways inevitable as long as asymmetries exist.

But what are the implications of this argument upon such seemingly harmless acts as donating change to a charity? International relief campaigns? Blood drives?


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This entry was posted on August 31, 2015 by and tagged , , .
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