Apple recently made a gift to all its iTunes subscribers of U2’s new album “Songs of Innocence.” (The iTunes banner reads “U2’s new album is exclusively on iTunes. And it’s a gift to you.”) This act has been widely commented on in media and on blogs, mainly in anger.
“U2 stuffed a locksmith card in your doorframe, which you’ve probably already tossed,” writes Sasha Frere-Jones for The New Yorker. “Seriously, WTF” is the TechCrunch headline for an article about the U2 album debacle. The common element of the reactions seemed to be that Apple’s “gift” needed to be freely offered and freely accepted, rather than pushed into user’s accounts without consent.
The feeling of “ickiness,” as one commentator put it, that Apple’s gift of music engendered is entirely valid. Apple’s actions bely a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of gift-giving as it has been understood in the past half century in anthropology and cultural criticism. What makes the angry users’ complaints valid is that a gift can in some circumstances be read as a form of violence.
There is a common assumption that we give gifts simply to be nice. Theorists have argued for decades, though, that gifts are part of a network or assemblage of cultural, economic, and political forces. “Being nice” is never the whole story with gifts. For example, contrast giving a gift with anonymously donating. The gift is given publicly, whereas the donation is private. A public gift always incurs some obligation on the part of the receiver; gifts are never free. If Apple had announced an anonymous donation of U2’s new album, that some music lover had donated enough money to cover the cost of 500 million copies of the album, I think the outrage at finding it in one’s music library would have been slightly diminished. The obviousness of Apple’s arrangement with the band and its extreme publicity when “giving the gift” only made the ethical problem of a breach of millions of private music collections more urgent.
And yet, rationally, no one should have complained. Apple was giving, not taking, and to have something extra in one’s possession can only be a positive, a boon. Rationally, something is always better than nothing. But people are not perfectly rational. It is possible to disdain a gift because of the manner in which it was given. And if you think about it, the way a gift is given can be central to its meaning.
Gifts can be destructive, and in some cases exertions of power. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In “The Gift of Freedom,” Kennan Ferguson argues that when the U.S. invaded in 2003, it was to give the gift of freedom to the Iraqi people. But for some reason (or, many reasons) the gratitude that was expected by the Bush administration was not forthcoming: “Americans are roundly reviled; Western journalists can no longer travel safely in much of the country; virtually no Iraqi political parties will admit to asking the Americans to stay. Each supposed demarcation toward the end of the uprising — the capture of the fugitive Hussein, the transfer of “sovereignty,” the holding of elections — has failed to end the violence or stabilize the country. And the Iraqi people overwhelmingly agree that the United States should leave Iraq as soon as possible.” (40) This was written in 2007. Now, in 2014, the U.S. is considering another foray into the country; the gift that keeps on giving. What’s the problem with a gift?
According to thinkers like Bataille and Derrida, a gift is always a kind of excessive gesture, one that doesn’t center on the thing being given but on the power relations between givers. As Ferguson sums it up, “At the heart of the gift, then, stands the act of giving, not the need or pleasure of receipt. In the annihilation of the thing, the subjugation of the other is all that remains.” (43) One can see immediately that in its apparently innocent attempt to extend the gift of freedom, the U.S. has imposed a great and terrible burden on Iraq. We can see the fruits of that burden even now, more than a decade later.
In the case of the Apple gift, what Tim Cook and the deal-makers who put this gift together fail to realize is that a gift which is imposed is no gift at all, but a rude imposition at best, a form of subjugation at worst. In Marcel Mauss’s famous book The Gift, he notes that for the Tlingit tribes (native American tribes from southeast Alaska), the potlatch, or gifting ceremony, was a “War Dance” in which the gift was given to a tribe who could not possibly reciprocate. This imbalance was justification for war.
There was no established framework of exchange that Apple’s gift fit into neatly, and hence no possibility of reciprocation. We all know, for example, that product discounts and coupons are not “gifts” from companies to customers. These are incentives, which fit neatly into an economy of supply, demand, profit, trade, and labor. If the U2 album had been available for purchase, but discounted to be free for any user, then it would not have been a gift, per se, but Apple could still have called it one. Really, we would all have known that it was a promotion, a coupon, and that someone was paying for the album, even if it wasn’t us. (This turns out to be true: U2 will be paid for its content, possibly up to $100 million.) Instead, we have been given a gift for which the only possible method of reciprocation is loving adoration or undying loyalty… and these are not things that can be conjured, but must be earned. It felt like a threat, then, to be given the U2 album. Like in the Tlingit potlatch, we were being put in the impossible position of possessing the excess of an entity ostensibly more powerful than ourselves, and we could only wait – in distress and discomfort – for the war that results from the imbalance.
Ferguson, Kennan. “The Gift of Freedom”. Social Text 91, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer 2007. Pg. 39-52.
Mauss, Marcel. The Gift; Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. London : Cohen & West, 1966. http://archive.org/details/giftformsfunctio00maus.