From Afar: Migration as Text and the Hermeneutics of the Gift

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This article belongs to the Figli di Annibale stream.

Migration is a phenomenon that can erode what we think we know about the boundaries and stabilities of our common world. In this context, the gift paradigm shows promise for guiding the delicate craft of re-assembling the bonds of the social, once they have come into question. This – if I have managed to convey it clearly enough – was the central question of the meeting of April 27 and 28, 2016, with the title ‘Da Lontano. Dono, istituzioni, ospitalità‘ (From Afar: Gift, Institutions, Hospitality). The event was organised by the multi-disciplinary research group ‘A piene mani: dono e beni comuni‘ (lit. With Hands Full: Gift and the Commons) – and held in the historic premises of the Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici (Italian Institute for Philosophical Studies) in Naples.

Otherness and undoing

The meeting featured – over the course of two days – a wide variety of disciplinary contributions: from philosophers, political scientists, literary theorists, psychologists, linguists, jurists and anthropologists – not to mention experiential testimonies from social workers and psychotherapists. One important thread that emerged across a number of those voices had to do with migration as an instance of undoing. By this, I mean that migration confronts a collective with the needs of others it does not know.


And yet, at the same time, the gifting it instigates broadens the boundaries of existing, socially-sanctioned instances of solidarity and therefore generates new occasions to establish the possibility of a common dwelling. In this sense, Francesco Fistetti’s opening keynote observed precisely how it is in the crumbling of alliances – formalised in institutional structures and conventional behaviour – that

the gift finds purpose as a kind of ‘staminal tissue’ of sociality, weaving and accommodating together presences that would otherwise fit awkwardly in a pre-existing horizon of socially-formalised meanings.

Marcel Hénaff’s talk exemplified this first problem flagged by Fistetti: the sense of disorientation that accompanies the undoing of institutionalised lineages of gifting behaviour. Here, his chosen example was actually that of intergenerational gifting (where the grandparents’ giving of life, care and culture is returned by their children to the grandchildren), and he elucidated how this scheme preserves reciprocity – albeit indirectly – by ritualising a set of correspondences (think of the attribution of grandparents’ names to the grandchildren, or of the two generations spending time together in a traditional household) between the giver and recipient: these correspondences fold time on itself and make it possible to keep the sense of a familial lineage tight in the hold of the gift. As these ritual correspondences weaken through the nuclearisation of family units, however, the traditional gifting behavior that holds this intergenerational world together loses traction and a sense of its own purpose. What Hénaff’s talk gives away, then, is

the difficulty that changing circumstances can pose for traditional institutions of solidarity – including those transactions where the vitality of the gift has stabilised into a fixed typology of giver and recipient. When that typology becomes less stable, then the whole gifting behaviour that was identified with it becomes in turn more precarious.

Yet, the fact that institutionalised gifting hesitates in the face of a shifting social world ought not to signify an inherent limit of the gift – but merely point to the challenge of keeping traditional bonds alive, even as their customary reference points shift in the evolution of collective forms of life.
Which introduces the second point made by Fistetti – that the gift also carries an inherent potential for adaptation, such that it can act as connective tissue to found new commonplaces for re-weaving life together. In a most authentic sense, the concluding panel of social workers, on day two, offered a heartfelt and sincere personal testimony to this potential. There, Massimo Corrado voiced the unsettling question – ‘How does one really listen to another?’ – and of how that question challenges one to walk backwards along one’s life-story to catch a glimpse of roads not taken, and by these means to appreciate the relatedness of all individual differences inside a common tapestry of human stories: you are what I could have also been, and vice versa. The curiosity required for this, to really ‘meet’ another, is one that sits uneasily with received professional identities as therapists or social workers – as was observed by Luigi de Matteis – which can be a hindrance for following another in the folds of their ethical dilemmas. In this sense, the potential of the gift mentioned in Fistetti’s opening keynote – by which it is capable to enlarge or to re-ground a circle of concern within which con-viviality, as life together, can grow – seems connected to a waiting poise, i.e. an orientation towards what the other might introduce in the conversation of humanity, so as to attend to it fully: an attitude we might want to call empathy (Elena Pulcini).

The gift gives itself

To understand better the generative potential of the gift, it is useful to invert the priority of certain conceptual operations.

To say that the gift is a transaction between a giver and a recipient affords priority to identities that – in fact – only come into being after the gift has been given. Indeed, a recipient and a giver only come into being within the total social phenomenon that is the gift.

In this sense, anthropologist Adriano Favole made a persuasive case – referring to the work of John Price and Marshall Sahlins – for relinquishing talk of ‘generalised reciprocity’: it leaves one stuck with prioritising the identities that gifting creates, separately from the process by which they are brought into being (and in turn raises questions about how a gift can ever be given to ‘just anyone’, i.e. to one not previously accounted for in one’s social world). Favole suggested that to take the gift insted as a global, all-encompassing event – within which identities are taken up and relation is instituted as a possibility between previous strangers – can be done more easily through a different choice of words. Not ‘gift’ (as though to presuppose a ‘gifting to’ and a ‘receiving from’), but ‘condivisione‘, a word that does not have an adequate English translation. In con-divisione (literally with-sharing), like in a festival, we all add to the common feast, and we all equally take from the common feast.

The feast, in other words, becomes the event within which we are able to find references to relate to one another: it creates its own participants, as opposed to the feast being built up from many point-to-point transactions from one person to another.

Once we get this point, it then becomes easier to understand a number of additional metaphors suggested by the other speakers, and which I felt had a common centre of gravity in suggesting to shift the focus from an after-the-fact conceptualisation of the gift – where it is identified by its terminals – to a before-the-fact understanding of the gift as an integral process of gifting.
For instance, Marco Castagna – through an original reference to James Joyce’s work Finnegan’s Wake – advanced a similar point. Namely, Castagna argued against a referential theory of meaning (whereby signs point straight to identified properties of reality) in favour of a heuristic one (where signs are, really, grips on raw material they cannot not give finished form to). In this sense, the reading of a text ought to be understood less as a quest for completion, and more as an invitation to re-readings, by which increasingly nuanced layers of meaning can make the world speak more richly. The text, in other words, gifts an excess of semiotic material for signposting the world – and it is in that excess potential that the gift’s character as generative event lies. Rather than using language as a metaphor for the gift, Genevieve Vaughan’s talk traced the very origins of language back to non-linguistic gifting behaviour associated with maternal care: here, what would be gifted is less a comprehensive, closed systems of signs and significations, but rather ‘valence tags’ that afford poise and orientation in the ongoing and unfinished exploration of a common conversation between mother/carer and child. Poliphony and abundance are equally the heuristic equipment deployed in literature produced – in Italian – by migrants, where the work of the author’s first-person engagement in two-way translation yields a surplus of grips to enable ‘native’ readers get in touch with the specific quality of experience that is being presented to them (Valentina Anaclerio). To continue with the ‘linguistic’ metaphors for the gift, Antonio Pamiés Bertràn observed how the gift (or ‘dative’) paradigm is, in fact, merely the doorway to a richer set of possibilities for meaning-making. Here, the triangulation of the gift between a donor and recipient primarily affords a poise for making sense of ever more distant and complex situations. Therefore, the gift – in linguistics – is tantamount to an initial association that enables a continual production of meaningful forms. In sum, one could say that

the gift only gives itself in the giving, as a gesture that opens desiringly towards another, yet that fails comprehensively to yield that other.

The gift lives not in what it moves between two poles, or in whom it moves from, or to, but primarily in its moving, which folds otherness towards ourselves – in the fragile vicinity conjured by the emerging structure of the event. I use the term ‘fragile’ because, once the gift is understood as a crossing-in-progress towards another, it vividly confronts the enduring distance of that other, revealing an inherent ethical dilemma. In Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ formulation, this means that as the gift gestures to enact new inclusions, it cannot help but tread on the tension between desire (for the other) and guilt (for lack of closure).
This helps make sense of Ugo Olivieri’s suggestion, by way of summary, that migration – as an unfinished event, or text – beckons us to a common flesh. And the gift, as possible hermeneutics of the social, can help fold together that common flesh, venturing to address previous strangers with a proposal of new alliances and mutual solidarities.