The paradox of the gift is that it cannot be recognised as such, while it is being received or enjoyed. The true gift is the one that is simply given and received, unappreciated as a 'gift'. This is why 'gift economies' do not really involve gifts at all, but semi-formalised norms of exchange, that can tip into monetary economies. As Nietzsche observed, there is nobody more selfish than the person who self-identifies as generous and altruistic. An all-loving Christian God would not have demanded love in return - which is why Christianity required ressentiment injected into it by the Church in order to sap it of its original vitality and joy. Gifts are best understood as things which get noticed as such only later. Derrida suggested that the fake banknote may be our exchange-obsessed society's last real gift.
A few things over the past month have got me thinking about intellectual gifts, and the ressentiment for them that currently seems to weave its way through modern government. Firstly, this two-part Radio 4 documentary on the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, which is just coming up for its 50th anniversary (commemorated by this project). Despite doing a PhD in a Cultural Studies centre, I've never known all that much about the history of this intellectual project, but have recently been trying to find out more.
What struck me listening to the documentary was the tacit generosity of the project, that spoke of another political age from our present one. Not only a generosity to the people whose lives it sought to study and understand, but also to the public and subsequent publics. Someone in the documentary, I can't remember who, spoke of cultural studies as something that had since trickled into our public sphere, beyond the bounds of the university, via the work of people like Suzanne Moore and (less plausibly) Charlie Brooker, in whom the original spirit of cultural studies is perceived to survive. Maybe there is a Burkean version of socialism, in which goods escape calculation by virtue of spilling over from one generation to the next.
This is not 'impact'; it's the gift of new critical and theoretical resources, which are then available to people, to make sense of their own lives and to criticise the terms on which they're lived. Nor is it about making social science 'jargon free', an ideal that seems to excite Popperians and English empiricists, while really concealing a ressentiment against the inventiveness of German and French intellectualism. Policy-makers like their social science 'jargon free', but the history of cultural studies and its non-academic celebrants suggests that the public, including its auto-didact working class members, is not as terrified of complexity and 'pretentiousness' as the managers and accountants.
Which brings me to a second piece that's been kicking around: this article by Simon Price, bemoaning the demise of the cultural critic. Price was one of several critics who lost their jobs at the Independent this year as a cost-cutting measure, but the article is not simply an expression of private grievance. The catalyst for it was a moronic argument by someone who should know better, Will Self. According to Self, in the digital age:
the role of the critic becomes not to help us to discriminate between 'better' and 'worse' or 'higher' and 'lower' monetised cultural forms, but only to tell us if our precious time will be wasted – and for this task the group amateur mind is indeed far more effective than the unitary perception of an individual critic
Doing facebook's bidding for it, Self appears to collapse critical judgement - the edifice on which Kant believed all of our hopes for Enlightenment were built - into a form of unreflective 'liking' and 'disliking', of the form that was invented by market researchers in the 1920s. Self's vision of our critical future is one in which 'good' rises to the top, through force of what Adam Arvidsson calls 'general sentiment', while the 'bad' is trodden under foot. Journalism on any topic other than business (where it is subsidised by company subscriptions) is now considered something people ordinarily do as a hobby, for free. In place of paid-for criticism, using money as currency, we have exchanges of sentiment, where units of recommendation and reputatin are the currency. The latter is no more gift-like, indeed by making it impossible for critics to pay their rent, it arguably collapses aesthetics further into the market.
What Price was unable to say in his understandably downbeat piece was that, very often, criticism not only contributes to the value of artistic production, it is a gift in and of itself. The famous quote he refers to, that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture", ignores the possibility that the dancing is often better than the architecture, more worthwhile, more gratifying. I say this because the journalism of Price and a small clan of music journalists (Taylor Parkes, Neil Kulkarni, Everett True, Simon Reynolds) in the mid-1990s was just as valuable to me as a somewhat confused teenger as all of my Manic Street Preachers and Smiths records put together.
No doubt partly as an inheritance from the Birmingham School (via punk and its fanzines) Melody Maker, as I've written before, was an absurd, brilliant, enfuriating, downright silly, furiously intellectual, frustrated and frustrating, commercially hopeless venture, that found beauty and genius in the least likely of places. Often it found them where they didn't actually exist, in the trousers of bands who clearly hung around Camden in the hope of impressing Melody Maker journalists. The politics may have been socialist, but the cultural values were never egalitarian. There were ruthless, sometimes sadistic critical batterings handed out to bands that seemed too average, and utterly excessive plaudits heaped upon those that were extraordinary. There was nothing democratic about it, nothing fair. There was no economy at work. If you want cultural criticism to reflect public opinion, then twitter followers and spotify listens will represent that for you.
But this was all also a gift, unappreciated at the time. It gave far more than it had to, with the critics leaking philosophical reference points all over the page, without fear of mockery. It was one thing for Morrissey to stand up and flaunt his bookishness; I never believed I would ever stand on a stage waving gladioli. It was quite another to discover, a la punk, that members of the audience could do the same thing. In that respect, the 'dancing' was a far greater inspiration than the 'architecture'. So, Simon Price, if you're reading this - and especially if you're not - thankyou.
And finally, this - Stefan Collini's brilliantly depressing overview of the emerging state of British higher education, published a couple of weeks ago. There is too much in there to analyse in detail. But the piece, together with my own experiences of the contemporary university, speak of a mysterious dysfunction, that courses through the veins of neoliberalism and financialisation. Collini's piece raises more questions than it answers. Why pursue reforms that won't actually achieve any obvious efficiency savings or improvements in education? If you want to think of this in narrowly economic terms, why destabilise one of Britain's last remaining worldclass export industries? Things are certainly wrong with higher education, and lets admit that they do include some of the bugbears of managerialism (lack of transparency and accountability, though rarely lack of effort); but it doesn't even seem that these reforms will fix them. They will, however, inject a financial logic of leverage and return on investment into the everyday lives of universities, constraining their freedoms even further and ripping off students and teachers alike. Within twenty or thirty years, it will be the public, lacking legacies such as the Birmingham School's, that will be most ripped off of all.
I don't know what psychoanalysts would call this, but I diagnose it as a form of gift-phobia. The greatest fear of the policy-maker or manager today is what is disparagingly called 'something-for-nothing', but is more traditionally known as a 'gift'. Unless this is recognised in Nietzschean terms, as a form of impulsive hatred or paranoia, neoliberalism can appear entirely baffling. Privatisations rarely save public money, and often benefit nobody but the bankers and consultants that oversee them (the most helpful analogy for privatisation I can think of is the stay-at-home parent who pays for a full-time nanny: they certainly don't save themselves money, or in the long-run responsibility, but they pass a problem over to someone else in the medium-term). Endless audit saps the life and - yes - the productivity out of public sector workers, including academics. The declared logic of neoliberalism simply does not stack up, unless this psychoanalytic ressentiment is understood.
Attacks on 'something-for-nothing' take many forms. One form, pushed by social media, is the emergence of a calculus of reputation. We increasingly 'share' things we find, not because we believe that the public deserves them, or they deserve a public, but because we want to be recognised as a sharer of interesting things. When something great happens to us, when a beautiful experience befalls us, we look around for a camera to record and 'share' and 'tag' it - almost as if the sheer gift of a wonderful performance or beautiful view is too much to receive, without inserting it into the broader calculus of the new 'social'. 'Gift economies' may indeed be more corrupting modes of exchange than 'money economies', where at least the non-identity between quantity and quality, exchange and use value, is written into the fabric of the market.
We can also witness this in the logic of workfare, which makes little sense as a labour market policy, but a lot of sense as a vent for ressentiment against leisure or the political and cultural possibilities of free time. I remember, under John Major, an outcry amongst musicians against very early forms of workfare in the UK, which, they argued, would make it impossible for anyone to form a band in the future. Those celebrated British exports, Jarvis Cocker and Noel Gallagher, declared that the traditional dole was a necessary condition of what they'd done. In its innocent optimism, this argument now seems to come from another age. David Cameron is happy to cite his love of the Smiths, but his government oversees policies that will generate only Mumford & Sons.
The problem with gifts is that it matters deeply how they're accounted for, or rather, that they're not accounted for. There are plenty of manifestations of neoliberalism which involve large investments in public goods, either for reasons of 'competitiveness' (investing in R&D and infrastructure) or reasons of 'equity' (investing in public services) or reasons of 'security' (military and surveillance). Neoliberalism has never offered much obstacle towards public expenditure. But it does possess a paranoid utilitarian sensibility, that the return on that expenditure be predicted and delineated in advance, even against all common sense.
Much of the time, the unintended 'efficiency' or 'productivity' of a public expenditure can indeed be witnessed in hindsight. But this is not unlike saying that the true gift can only be appreciated after the fact, that gratitude must come later. And perversely, a culture which is unable to relax, let go, let money flow just a little, will find that imagination and dedication are crippled, to the point where efficiency itself is impossible. Funding applications to British Research Councils now require academics to engage in a strange speculative leap, whereby they have to describe the entire project, its outcomes and 'impact' in advance. These pieces of science fiction serve little purpose of ensuring that money goes to the 'best' recipients, but a great purpose in reassuring the state that nothing unexpected will happen. Rendering universities predictable (even when those predictions are absurdly rationalist) is perhaps the most crippling political strategy of all.
I'm not sure what therapy would like for gift-phobia. Setting fire to a million pounds in cash? Confronting a situation where the world's leading money-men hold a gun to their own heads, as occurred in autumn 2008? Strangely, positive psychology senses something of this problem, by endlessly urging people to focus on giving, and not simply consuming or accumulating. But this prescription is offered as a 'top tip' for handling depression and anxiety. The politics is stripped out of it. It's difficult to imagine a public body, with sufficient authority, that it could give in an unaccounted way; this would, by definition, be an unaccountable act, maybe even a corrupt act. What seems clear is that the culture of neoliberal ressentiment is growing more extreme, and save for the occasional potlatch of a royal wedding or a banking bailout, the capacity to relax, breathe and let the future just happen, is being extinguished.