In Memory of Jose Esteban Munoz
“It is through pressing concepts and notions to their extremes and examining their high-energy behavior for contradictions or simplifications that we avoid getting lost in a miasma of localized abstractions of indeterminate depth or arbitrariness, unable to effectively navigate or orient ourselves. A willingness to bite bullets, to fearlessly and seriously swim to the boundaries of the possible, is vital not just in changing the world but having any agency in our own lives.”- Tom Allen
—Foreword: Utopia’s Trinkets—
This wasn’t supposed to be about utopia. The loose utopianism of objects is something perhaps beyond my understanding, and fighting for a more perfect world through the giving and receiving of toys sounds silly at best. Examining the political work of these object movements, as we have done throughout the semester, yields proof that they exist differently, on an outside plane from the standard world of exchange, materiality, and object creation. In viewing these objects, their movements and their desires politically through this outside world, I had, it’s true, come to see something resembling hope. But never an ideal, nowhere a staging of perfection. It’s a game of indulgence rather than a game of work.
But then, we lost a great and beautiful utopian, and all of a sudden I can’t seem to get away from it.
And if he taught me anything, it is to accept and love utopia’s ubiquity. Those of us who see it, it seems, stage utopia even accidentally, in the bizarre little moments within undercommons and over, somewhere in the surreally mundane marking of time, of place, of presence that always comes with the giving of a gift. Searching for a place to exist that is always outside, always just out of reach, and always within becoming is habit and muscle memory, and the object’s desire to move becomes inextricably intertwined with the utopian’s constant moving towards. In these objects and ideals, it becomes clear that utopia desires movement as much, or more, than any object, and our work becomes that of hanging on for the ride, being aware and shaping the feeling of movement itself. In a way, it’s simple physics: If I am in that constant movement, so too is everything that comes with me.
This wasn’t supposed to be about utopia.
But then, when is anything not?
—Objects: The Great Trinket Exchange—
The Great Trinket Exchange, as it came to be called, began with a turtle in 2005. The small plastic turtle, later found to be a part of Hasbro’s “Littlest Pet Shop” toy collection and christened Eduardo, was found by a high school friend and given as a gift to another.[i] That friend later acquired a ceramic snail, which was given to me.[ii] As a response, I immediately gave a paper crane to someone else. The random giving of gifts, which we called “The Great Trinket Exchange”, became codified among these friends and has spread and changed over the past eight years. During the initial exchanging, we settled on two rules for the game: Trinkets cannot be purchased in the traditional fashion (though they can be bartered, begged, “borrowed”, or by any other means acquired within the giver’s values and abilities), and exchange cannot be reciprocal – that is, the recipient of one’s next trinket cannot be their most recent giver. These rules encourage the exchange to divorce itself from capitalism and the politics of purchasing gifts, and force the giving to expand perpetually outward and include as many people as possible. Gifts are typically small (though I once received a three-foot tall stuffed Emperor penguin which constituted a significant outlier) and given unceremoniously, and the ideal trinket is useless, quirky and of little monetary value. At this point, there are 20 people actively involved that I know of (though I am also aware that there are others involved I do not personally know) and the exchange spans at least six states. The focus of the exchange is on movement and relationship rather than the objects themselves. Objects of the Great Trinket Exchange come to fetishistically represent the relationship between the givers and the larger community to which these objects connect them.
In terms of performance, the trinkets enact a physicalization of relationships and exhibit the tendency of the fetish toward movement. However, the objects (and more precisely, their method of exchange) also have a significant political performativity. In particular, the Great Trinket Exchange is a small enactment of gift economy. The focus on giving as exchange, given freely and with the intention of creating relationships through giving which further an abstraction from relationships that are subsumed by capital. By consistently enacting a movement away from capital’s mode of creating value, the Trinket Exchange prioritizes movement and stages a form of utopia by rehearsing an interaction which is completely removed from capital and value, and which perpetuates itself based solely on the desire and pleasure of the gift.
—Performance: Trinkets that Move—
If we are to focus on the movement and liveness of objects, we must begin (as it seems we always do) with Marx. The circulation of objects being the primary purpose of the great trinket exchange, it is important to examine trinket-movement as a manifestation of commodity-movement in general. For Marx, the desire of objects to circulate is a primary metonymic figure for capital itself, and capital exists to facilitate the movement of objects. The movement constitutes a material change: “The circulation of capital is the change of forms by means of which value passes through different phases.”[iii] Circulation is, as in utopia, a mode of perpetual becoming. In the Great Trinket Exchange, as with most fetish objects, circulation constitutes the mode of becoming fetishized, of becoming a metonym. Fetishistic circulation also constitutes a change in value. This is the backbone of the basic M-C-M formula – circulation transforms value by relating objects to capital. In the capitalistic sense, the transformation is the exchange between objects and capital, but in the gift economy, it is the conversion of an object from ordinary thing to ‘gift’. By becoming a gift, the object enters circulation not as a simple value (in the capital sense of the word) but as a sentimental and metonymic fetish, with a direct relationship to the change in status.
Thus the work of gift-making fundamentally alters the structure of Marx’s circulation time. In the gift’s model, as in that of capital, it still holds true that “the circulation time of capital enters in as a moment of value creation – of productive labor time itself.”[iv] But in capital, circulation time “appears as the time of devaluation”, where in gift-giving it appears as the time of transformation, of revaluation. In circulation time, the act of transposing into a new form is almost a detriment to capital, and its desire is to create credit and move towards “circulation without circulation time” in the interest of efficiency and profit.[v] The object, though, and especially the gifted object, relishes the time of circulation for its ability to transform, to create, to move. If capital wants the object to abstract, to streamline toward the pure form of value in capital as quickly as possible, the object fetishized through gifting wants to resist this as much as possible. If, as Marx says, the commodity speaks through its value, the gift speaks through its circulation, from which it constitutes its value.[vi] The Great Trinket Exchange, as with any gift economy, removes the exchange-value of the material from the equation, prioritizing the value of the performative act of exchange. To speak through circulation itself is to speak outside capital, and the fetish of the gifted trinket occupies space outside capital’s creation of value through exchange.
The fetish of the object, of course, is still very much tied to its materiality, its form as a physical object. Peter Pels demonstrates fetish as a spiriting of matter, fundamentally grounded in matter and its ability to communicate. For Pels, “fetishism says things can communicate their own messages. The fetish’s materiality is not transcended by any voice foreign to it: To the fetishist, the thing’s materiality itself is supposed to speak and act; its spirit is of matter.”[vii] The Great Trinket Exchange, and gift economies in general, complicate and enhance Pels’ spirit of matter by enlivening not only matter, but circulation. The focus of the gift is on circulation, and the gift undergoes a formal change when it transforms from a commodity to a gift. In the case of the Trinket Exchange, the transformation comes in its acquisition, when the giver-to-be decides to divert the life of the object toward existing as a gift. As previously discussed, this diversion also converts the spirit of matter to a space outside capital exchange: Rather than possessing exchange-value, the trinket now possesses what I’ll call ‘gift-value’, obtained through the object’s acquiring of history rather than capital value. The spirit of the matter is still retained, but it has incorporated into its possessing of liveness the history of the diversion as much as the history of its creation through labor. In the most cinematic and performative of senses, the moment of the trinket’s acquisition and redesignation, not as ‘commodity’ but as ‘trinket’ is a moment of real change in the object’s personal narrative. Now that it is a trinket, it must take on the spirit of gifted matter, which prioritizes history and uses its materiality as a metonymic placeholder for its personal biography. Along with this new identity, it acquires a new material personality as fetish. Now, the object’s motion is pointed, deliberate and prized, moving with the kind of distinction that Pels affords the rarity as a function of its biographical being-set-apart.[viii] From this vantage point, outside labor and within biography, the gift and the trinket can exist in a state of motion, and focus on their representation of relationships and movement as the primary method of their speech.
The gifted object, like the larger category of the fetish object, tends toward movement. After the acquisition which transforms the object into a gift, it still remains to be given, and therefore to operate within the cycle of movement. Mauss discusses the gift’s movement ethnographically, demonstrating the circle of movement between islands and between communities as gifts are given and re-given, potlatches held and held again.[ix] In the Trinket Exchange, the movement is again circular and constant: the giving of a gift marks another point in the perpetual motion machine, both for the object that is given and for the larger trinket exchange, as the new giftee now has the affirmation from the community that they should expand the circle and continue the process of gifting. The moment of being gifted is the moment where “souls are mixed with things; things with souls.”[x] For the current, gifted object, the movement in the Great Trinket Exchange is complete, and it is then kept as a marker of the historical moment of exchange and a metonym for the transformation and biography it holds. At this point, it becomes encoded as a fetish in the collection of the recipient, and its biographical knowledge enters into conversation with the other trinkets as representatives of their acquisition and, more immediately, of the giver. The trinkets move and transform once again into a museum-like space, and the movement becomes less physical and more of narrative, where the objects’ desire to converse with one another becomes clear. The conversation is one of history, and for the owner, one of relationship, for the commonality between these objects is their status as representatives of a relationship with members of the Exchange.
In this way, the object performs, compounded on its previous performances of movement, as a metonym of a relationship. Once received, the object then picks up a labor of its own, which is the labor of the Trinket Exchange in general. Overall, the Exchange labor is one of reproduction: Specifically, the act of exchange is a reproduction of a relationship. The act of giving in general is performed and ritualized in the Schechnerian sense of the word, where norms and standards for giving are pre-determined. If giving is always a twice-behaved behavior, then the relationship of the giver to the recipient must be similarly understood. By giving a gift, then, we are reaffirming a relationship between giver and recipient, made metonymic through the object of the gift. Graeber delineates this relationship in Iroquois beads, Mauss through potlatch (though a bit indirectly).[xi] In the Great Trinket Exchange, this is through the trinket, and especially through the recruitment action of expanding the circle of exchange. The labor of reproduction is frequently overlooked by capital; It is, as Leopoldina Fortunati explains it, “abstract human labor [that] omits the exchange-value of the product – labor power – and not the use-value.”[xii] Reproduction through the gift in the Great Trinket Exchange completes the process of transforming the object and divorcing it completely from exchange-value. Once given without any sort of exchange, purely for the purpose of reaffirming the relationship and re-presenting the connection between individuals manifest in the Exchange as a whole, the gift can divest itself of its entire existence as value, and enter into conversation with the other trinkets purely as a representative of a relationship. At this point, the cycle begins again, with another object diverted from value and transformed into gift.
Perhaps this is the problem with Mary Douglas’ assertion that there can be “No Free Gifts.” In a way, she is correct – we have done the absolute worst thing possible for the continuation of capital, and taken an object out of exchange-value entirely. If the goal of gift exchange were, as Douglas claims, “to obligate persons in a contest of honour” and therefore to create a social system in which gift exchange were the primary goal, then a system like the one proposed by the Great Trinket Exchange fails tremendously.[xiii] No one is upholding honor, no one keeping careful track of value, indeed we’ve completely given up on value (unless we were to make a vague argument for a hierarchy of value based on relationships between giftees, but popularity contests rarely win academic debates). Perhaps we have made one mistake, then: the fact that the name includes the word Exchange is misleading. For this is not an exchange, not truly. In an exchange, there is obligation. From this mistake of terms comes not only Douglas’ argument, but a prevailing interpretation of Mauss’ writing itself. In fact, gift economies are not exchange, because there is no direct relationship between giving and receiving: The gift is given, and the giver neither expects nor receives an object in return. In the Great Trinket Exchange, there is an express rule against it. In a potlatch, the host receives a boost of status, but certainly nothing concrete and, more to the point, nothing that can be measured or counted in relationship to the action of giving. We have removed the trinket from exchange-value entirely; therefore its conversation is no longer one of exchange.
The Great Trinket Exchange has a semblance of obligation which sustains the life of the gift economy. ‘Exchangers’ (and we are now using that term loosely) are obliged to keep objects in general in motion through continued participation in the game. The participant avows their relationship to the Trinket Exchange, and more importantly to the other participants in the exchange, by expanding the circle of giving. If they value the trinkets they have received, they understand it as important to continue giving trinkets in order to continue participating in the economy. Trinket Exchanger Alex Schwarz says of her participation that “having the trinkets makes me keep doing it. I see them and I think, ‘I want other people in my life to have these types of things, more people need to have goofy reminders of how connected they are.’”[xiv] The act of giving an entry into the trinket exchange is an affirmation of two different (about to become similar) relationships: that with the current member of the exchange, and the acknowledgement that one values the new initiate in relation to the other members. The Great Trinket Exchange is great for its expansiveness, and the obligation allows the expansion to continue without placing obligation on typical exchange (and therefore risking the integrity of abstracting away from value). For the objects, as well, there is obligation to remove more objects from value. Exchanger Cortney Green describes it in almost liberatory terms: “Before you got me into this, I had never stolen anything before. But I realized that I could look at it politically, and I wanted them [the trinkets] to be able to have a better existence than being bought and sold and stuck in capitalism. To me, it’s like adopting a pet, like rescuing them.”[xv] The object focus of the Trinket Exchange is dependent on giving, discovering, and giving again, moving things outside of a realm of exchange and into a realm of relationship where circulation is a movement of spirit, not of simple value.
—Politics: Trinkets that Resist—
In becoming outside value, the Great Trinket Exchange takes on a distinctly political motivation. Gift economies in general have a relationship to anarchist mutualism, and the Great Trinket Exchange is no exception. Through the Great Trinket Exchange, members use the structure of a gift economy as a means of achieving exchange outside capital – by breaking down the relationship between the object and value, Exchangers create a space where they can interact with objects without determination by capital, and therefore rehearse ideals they utilize in everyday life. Most of the members of the exchange (to my knowledge, at least) are political and, in some way or another, radicalized in their beliefs. The Exchange is not an anarchist collective, though, instead containing Socialists, Marxists, Mutualists, Libertarians, Capitalists, Democrats, Tea Partiers and almost every conceivable combination of political views and ideologies. In this examination, though, it appears as an anarchist project because it utilizes anarchist principles of organizing, giving, and determining relationships. Because the gift economy reflects generosity above all else, the gift must reflect the political desire for generosity as an end, not as a means, and anarchist principles utilize this most effectively.
The Great Trinket Exchange’s gift economy is politicized, from the very beginning, simply because it assumes the primacy of generosity rather than consumption as a format for exchange. As such, the gift economy must directly confront obligation as the point where obligation either forces exchange (and therefore greed) and collapses into capitalism or abstracts from obligation’s expectation of exchange and converts the form of exchange into an indirect process. Mauss, on the one hand, describes gift economies from an anthropological perspective as, in a way, stopping before they reach the point of directly confronting obligation in a manner that could manifest as capitalism. The societies using this are at a point where “this principle of the exchange-gift must have been that of societies that have gone beyond the phase of ‘total services’… but have not yet reached that of purely individual contract, of the market where money circulates, of sale proper and, above all of the notion of price reckoned in coinage weighed and stamped with value.”[xvi] This is, essentially, the conclusion wrought by Douglas’ reading, that an economy of giving without expectation to receive simply has not reached the point of creating price or value. Here, obligation is inevitable and can only manifest itself in a single way, as the exchange form that later becomes Marx’s exchange-value.
David Graeber, however, extends the argument made by Mauss into a larger social context, one which ultimately informs the Great Trinket Exchange and creates a space where obligation can be considered and actively re-moved from the gift economy. Graeber reads Mauss’ final conclusions as exaltation not of an object’s value, but of its humanity, of its fetishistic collection in history. Rather than stopping before we’ve reached value, the gift economy “can vary enormously in how they do this [create value]; and particularly, in how personal identities become entangled in things… At either extreme, identification does not facilitate reciprocity. It makes reciprocity impossible.”[xvii] A gift is distinct from any other type of value creation because it is enveloped in identity, and is therefore fetishized as a container of an individual identity, history, or relationship. Therefore, the gift does not require monetary value, and reciprocity is impossible because one would have to either give back the identity or somehow instantly match the gift of identity (which would, in polite company at least, be strange at best and laughable at worst). The Great Trinket Exchange, by ignoring reciprocity, is not on any path to obligation, but rather furthers the classic gift economy’s sense of actively making reciprocity both not required and not possible. The desire of the gift economy is the desire to give. Politically, it is the desire to exist within relationships without being confronted by capital’s monetizing and commodifying of the relationship – this is why contemporary Christmas is a victory for the capitalists rather than the mutualists. When giving is competitive or obligatory, it is not a gift economy, because it must rely on hierarchy. As Graeber says, a gift only has to be repaid “when ‘communistic’ relations are so identified with inequality that not doing so would place the recipient in the position of inferior.”[xviii] The Great Trinket Exchange, by forcing the instinct to reciprocate into a horizontal need to expand the gift economy, removes the potential for inequality through obligation, therefore politicizing the game through yet another transformation, placing it yet further outside capital and value.
Further, the method of gifts’ acquisition directly resists capital, and operates outside traditional theories of value in its very being. First, a trinket is not an object of need, and the Trinket Exchange by definition creates relationships, not provisions or requirements. This distinguishes the Great Trinket Exchange from other contemporary gift economies. Frequently, gift economies are set up as a relationship to need. This is the Burning Man theory of the contemporary gift economy; you are in need of food, shelter, drugs, etc., and you can seek to have them given to you on the basis that the community provides for the needs of its own. In the Trinket Exchange, there is no such need. After all, one hardly needs more silly little objects cluttering one’s home, and a Trinket Exchanger is unlikely to set up a give-away shop specifically for collected trifles. By designating the object of the gift as a ‘trinket’, one immediately implies a judgement of value. In Pels’ terms, the trinket is a variation on the ‘fancy’, where a sense of wonder is diminished, devalued, and set aside when it becomes clear to power that wonder is dangerous.[xix] By exchanging objects of fancy, the Great Trinket Exchange reasserts itself politically by not only revaluing the danger of wonder, but actively trading it. In a way, the act of giving away an object of wonder designated by capital and power to be ‘fancy’ (and therefore detrimental to ‘serious’ acquisition or exchange) is a subversive act of refusal. Choosing to exalt the trinket is choosing to ignore the rules implied by value. If the good itself exists without value, in the ‘trifling’ sense of the word ‘trinket’ itself, then its exchange must exist completely outside a capital system. Compiled with this are the practicalities of acquisition in the Trinket Exchange: If one cannot purchase a trinket, one will instead create or discover one (thereby removing a potential object of labor from capital circulation) or steal one (therefore removing an already-accounted-for object of labor from capital circulation). Either way, in a small sense, capital loses the potential to acquire the value potential of an object. By distinguishing it as ‘valueless’ in the sense of being a trinket, the giver-to-be actually takes something from capital itself, replacing the void in the object’s identity with a relationship. Where once an object’s history is one of capital’s value, now its history is one of a relationship’s value. This is especially relevant when one removes an object from capital’s value in order to recruit a new member of the Great Trinket Exchange, effectively removing not only an object but an entire relationship that could otherwise be controlled by capital. Not only is the sense of obligation relationship-based, but the act of exchanging itself performs a metonymic staging of the complete removal of capitalistic obligation. An object which is valueless is given as a reflection of the presence of relationship, with the mutual understanding that the ‘real’ value (the act of giving from the spirit of the gift) will continue to move and expand the circle of exchange. One does not give in order to receive, one gives in order to perpetuate giving.
The Great Trinket Exchange finds its utopia in the ideals that it perpetuates. As a system of pure giving, the focus is not on the receipt of the object, but on pleasure derived from the relationships represented and contained within the object. The Exchange is an embodiment of what Graeber calls “a theory of pleasure… I think one might go so far as to say that in all the most sophisticated formulations, pleasure ends up involving… the degree to which that effacement partakes of a direct experience of that most elusive aspect of reality, of pure creative potential.”[xx] Because the act of giving within the Great Trinket Exchange, in the sense of discovering objects and re-making them as objects outside of value, is creative, it is immensely pleasurable to share the creation with others. Further, by creating a relationship within an object, the trinket comes to represent a form of pleasure that is only achievable through this act of creation when given within the context of the Exchange. The act of giving is a fundamentally anarchist project because it breaks down capital’s control and recreates something outside it, where the act of giving is the sole sustenance of the community. Anarchists gain pleasure from the creative magic of world-making and world breaking, and even more so from the act of sharing the world we have created with others. Manifest in the objects of the gift economy is the utopia of the anarchist world: “Our ideal, as we have said, is that of the fraternal equity for which all yearn, but almost always as a dream; with us it takes form and becomes a concrete reality. It pleases us not to live if the enjoyments of life are to be for us alone; we protest against our good fortune if we may not share it with others.”[xxi] The act of pleasure is the act of sharing, and the project of utopia benefits from the expansive, circular and relational mode of the gift economy. In essence, the project of giving is the project of utopia, a staging and restaging of relationships as the only value placed on a society.
The Great Trinket Exchange is ultimately a miniature utopia (and again, when is anything not?). The goal of the exchange is to create space that prioritizes the humanity of the object, the object’s desire to circulate and create human stories and human reality, over all other properties. By becoming a fetish, the object escapes the necessity of holding value and instead holds utopia in all of its potentiality. Because the object is valueless, it can no longer sell its soul, but must instead exist as a property of pure pleasure, a representative of the hope to be found in relationships and the possibilities of existing outside. The trinket contains within it all of “the ‘should be’ of utopia, its indeterminacy and its deployment of hope, stand[ing] against capitalism’s ever expanding and exhausting force field of how things ‘are and will be.’ Utopian performativity suggests another modality of doing and being that is in process, unfinished.”[xxii] In giving and receiving we have created an act of pure pleasure, with no purpose other than to provide happiness, and to provide hope. In trinkets as in utopia, happiness is, as Agamben knew all too well, “always at stake”, but the process can stay unfinished. Instead we have only to give pleasure and history as an object in the knowledge that we are rehearsing a project, examining tenuously the possibility of utopia not as an universalizing place, but as a very small, trifling ‘here and now’ which we have briefly transported to that beautiful ‘then and there’ just over the horizon.
In closing, I would like to end with the best part of Mauss, the reminder that all of this is still human, still vital, and still moving with all the energy of the fetish, and with the knowledge that utopia is, and always will be, everywhere: “We must not desire the citizen to be either too good or too individualist or too insensitive nor too realist. He must have a keen sense of awareness of himself, but also of others and of social reality (in moral matters is there even any other kind of reality?)… This morality is eternal; it is common to the most advanced societies, to those of the immediate future, and to the lowest imaginable forms of society. We touch upon fundamentals… we are speaking of men and of groups of men because it is they, it is society, it is the feelings of men, in their minds and in flesh and blood that at all times spring into action and that have acted everywhere.”[xxiii]
[iii] Marx, Karl. Grundrisse, ( ), 626.
[iv] Marx, Grundrisse, 538.
[v] Ibid., 659.
[vi] Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 ( ) 176.
[vii] Pels, Peter. “The Spirit of Matter: on Fetish, Rarity, Fact and Fancy,” In Border Fetishisms. Material Objects in Unstable Spaces. (New York/London: Routledge, 1990), 94.
[viii] Pels, “The Spirit of Matter”, 110-112.
[ix] Mauss, The Gift ( ), 21-26.
[x] Ibid. 20.
[xi] See Graeber, “Wampum and Social Creativity Among the Iroquois”: in Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of our Own Dreams. ( )
[xii] Fortunati, Leopoldina, The Arcane of Reproduction, ( ), 106.
[xiii] Douglas, Mary. “Introduction: No Free Gifts”, in Mauss, The Gift, xiv.
[xiv] Unofficial interview, conducted 11/23 via facebook.
[xv] Unofficial interview, conducted 11/23 via facebook.
[xvi] Mauss, The Gift, 46.
[xvii] Graeber, Anthropological Theory of Value, 211.
[xviii] Ibid., 221.
[xix] Pels, “The Spirit of Matter”, 111.
[xx] Graeber, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, 261.
[xxi] Reclus, Elisèe,
[xxii] Muñoz, Josè Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, ( ), 99.
[xxiii] Mauss, The Gift, 70.
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