What Makes a Good Gift in a Gift Economy[i]? Thinking about Selfhood and Responsibility in Love in the Chthulucene / Cthulucene
In my last book of poetry, The Semiconducting Dictionary (Our Strindberg), I wrote a poem in which I imagined being an August Strindberg imagining being the artist J.W. Turner, writing his will. The poem was loosely based on Turner's actual will but it was an exploration of what one person sees in another and, more specifically, what one artist, knowing themselves in all of their failings, sees in another artist who they admire. Although the point of view in that poem is nested (Caple as Strindberg as Turner), my favourite lines of that poem are in first person: "I did not paint the sea I painted / What the sea painted in me"
I wondered if it was that feeling of the chaos inside made visible that I felt looking at Turner's paintings that might have drawn the notoriously ill-tempered, perpetually embattled Strindberg to the seemingly generous (but secretive) Turner. In that book I performed a kind of feminist occupation of the playwright (who I imagined as a woman living as a man and his famous misogyny as part of the disguise or else self-loathing) that became loving but was always attuned to using a character, one that was, in many ways, performing a life and the experiences of a historical person, but who was clearly layers of me thinking about that life and the gendered political themes of the age. I was both Strindberg and his cruel director. It was me who pinned Strindberg to Chekhov, Marx, Darwin, and a train. It was me who never gave him a heroic moment, a cure for his ailments, or even a bathroom break. I may have come to love a Strindberg, but my love benefitted neither the character nor a lifeform once named August Strindberg.
When I wrote my last novel, In Calamity's Wake, I did something similar (but perhaps feeling closer identification) with Calamity Jane and numerous historical contemporaries. In that book I explored voice and I tried to restore voice to many but I also explored the damage that celebrity and cultural use of a figure do to any chance of locating or fixing a stable understanding of personhood or selfhood behind a name. Of course, I wanted to acknowledge that a name can have expansive social meanings the name-haver has no control over, can become symbolic in ways the embodied does not choose. As in Our Strindberg the character of Calamity Jane is shown to be a vehicle for the fantasies and concerns of many. I also wanted to restore a sense, however ephemeral, of a living breathing woman obscured within the twisty puzzle of mythmaking -- a puzzle that did not provide the literal woman food, shelter, money, or protection. I wanted to see her life valued, beside countless unnamed others like her (the working poor), and understood as precious simply for having been.
With my new book of poetry, Love in the Chthulucene / Cthulucene[ii], I ruminate publically on the way I hide myself in every character, in every poem. What I show is never the real world (the sea) or people as they are but it is a world made in me by sharing place and time with others (what the sea painted in me). I wondered about my ethics in animating long dead figures who have no chance to protest my politics (though I still love those characters). I decided to deliberately and consciously explore the productive nature of lively literary friendships and/or influences and to offer my explorations as gifts that could be directly accepted or refused. I also decided to speak more directly and more often as myself. At first, I began this with wholly positive intentions. That book would have been my love letter to CanLit. I held the concept of community in inestimable esteem without considering that "communities" also do terrible things.
Many of the poems in the book are still loving and fun and meant to affirm the receiver in the way that gifts can say,
all of what happens in life I want you to know that I see you, I believe in you.
I am invested in believing that fun poems matter and teasing poems matters.
Happiness is a profound emotion worthy of exploration. because things in my life and various communities complicated
themselves, and that is what happens (the writing of every book is a part of one's life), the resulting content of
the book was affected by the conditions under which it was produced in ways
that I think are more visible because there is no historical draping, no hiding
in costume to say what has happened. These conditions included both personal
joys and tragedies as well as global news in which I heard echoes from the
lives of other women across time, specifically in relationship to the #MeToo
movement, but also to people living, loving, and dying together in complex
relationships. The result was a book of poems I wrote as gifts that externalize
the effects of other people and their work on me and my work as well as
processing my experiences (especially) as a woman prior to and during the
writing of the book.
Several thinkers deeply influenced key parts of my thinking around the ethics of this project: Donna Haraway's concept of "tentacular thinking" about finding "kin" in the world, in animals, and the environment, as well as with each other, to live and die together profoundly (she says "potently") in an age that is not all about humanity.[iii] Haraway follows after Hortense Spillers, who talked about "kinship" and survival for Black women as early as 1985. Sarah Ahmed's thinking about feminist living, and Margaret Christakos's term "influency"
were important to me as well. Christakos coined the term "Influency, "
for her reading series where writers reflect at length on each others' work. All
of these thinkers helped me to imagine how reading and writing together might
be part of a fluent exchange outside of capitalist economies, part of a way of
acknowledging that we make each other and that we must figure out how we will "be"
Anthropologists, philosophers, and literary theorists have considered the gift and gifting at length (Marcel Mauss, for example). For me, thinking about gift processes and how they might differ from citation illustrated the many ways that citation and gifting are both part of complex social relationships that rely on fuller contexts. Citation and gifting are not identical processes with identical obligations. Neither can ever be neutral processes. Both are entangled in histories. Both also reflect privilege and have social outcomes. Reading and writing are themselves privileges as well as social outcomes, with social implications, and consequences. Citation carries with it responsibilities to tracing origins in ways that are both necessary for respectful discourse and dangerously patrilineal (as well as white) in design given the ways that origins have historically been traced in Western Eurocentric culture. In academia, we cite as if we need not ask, and sometimes poor use can be made of another's voice. Worse, a failure to cite, particularly ideas that originate outside of recognized genres of publishing, amounts to erasure[iv]. But if citation carries certain perils and limits, so too does gifting. The good gift in a gift economy relies on complex listening and consent, ongoing relationship, and a willingness to accept that what was a good gift in concept may not be a good gift in fact.
Much more important to the good gift than the intentions of the giver, is what actually does happen, or could happen as a result of the gift, as well as the context and mode of gift giving. For example, a private gift is a very different thing from a public dedication with permission. To ask permission of a much more famous person or a stranger for a dedication, might ask for or pressure endorsement for my own book (whereas citation carries no obligation of acknowledgment). To ask permission for public dedication of a very close friend for a poem that is about #MeToo or grief or cancer or orgasm may have other emotional pressures attached. The receiver may be made vulnerable by such a gift. And there are good reasons why accurate citation or elision are better practices for some works in terms of authorial freedoms. For example, if one chooses to write about current events using the names of public figures, or to write back to writers one disagrees with, then the freedom to be critical in print or to participate in public discourse without asking permission to disagree is important as well. Agreement has little value where disagreement is not allowed. Or, perhaps one wishes to speak frankly of one's own experiences and not violate the rights of others by naming them. One may choose elision over citation at times for practical reasons, for example if one does not want to be sued over a poem.
In the case of most of the poems in Love in the Chthulucene / Cthulucene I gifted poems to people as they were written, and then, in advance of publication, I asked for permission for public dedication. In some cases, across the process, I wrote poems that people said they did not want and those poems were deleted from my hard drive – they will never exist in any form because that is not a good gift. A giver must consider the impact and implications of their gift and people must be able to refuse for any reason or none. This is particularly true when thinking about privilege in a world where historically some "gifts" have had devastating consequences.
An unanticipated part of the process was that I had to consider that I did not think as well in new forms about my ethics and I had to adapt. When I first began drawing or making prints of people, such as the ones that appear in the book, I did not always ask for permission or think about the ethics of reproducing a face because I thought it was only for myself, a way to cope with deep depression and loneliness by conjuring beloveds on paper when I did not feel capable of bringing myself to their persons. Not being a visual artist, I did not give the thought to drawing that I would give to writing about a living person. Later, when I saw a connection between the poems and pictures I asked permission for dedication, showing each person the context in which their likeness would appear in the project. Now I ask permission before drawing anyone and understand better the responsibility of the visual artist to consider what constitutes acceptable use of their own vision (as a literal sense as well as a metaphor).
In a very few cases, (for example Leonard Cohen and Taliesin) I knew from the beginning that I would be unable to obtain permission for my work without a time machine and it should be considered that those poems exist without permission (for now). I'm not
is OK but it is the choice I made. In some cases, I was no longer in contact
with people whose work I reflected on, things change rapidly in charged times,
but at the time of the poems' creation I had
notified those people and obtained their approval. For the sake of history, I chose
not to erase those people or poems – I kept those poems in. I felt it best to
still say how it was / who it was I considered. My intentions may be received,
as I hope, as respectful, but they may not be. My choices come with the
consequence of potential criticism, and criticism, even harsh criticism, is the
right of all readers.
I tried with Love in the Chthulucene / Cthulucene to think critically about how we make each other, how to be together ethically, as writers and as people and on the planet. This will be an ongoing practice. There were many influences I was unable to adequately capture. I didn't come up with a plan for the world's future. I used reading and writing to learn about selfhood, to learn how to speak as myself and to recognize my privilege, and to explore new forms and ideas and push back and participate, and all of those are lively processes that change. I am not a model reader or even a particularly good person (I know myself in such excruciating detail). But I did and do experience thinking on and with others' work as a gift for which I am grateful in my marrow. In the light of that gift, I go on. I go forward thinking about myself as one of some, and considering my enmeshed obligations as a friend, a person, a writer, a professor to make and keep space for others past present and future.
Natalee Caple is the author of nine books of poetry and fiction. Her latest book of poetry, Love in the Chthulucene/Cthulhucene (from which these poems come) will be out with Wolsak and Wynn in Spring 2019, and her chapbook Love/Wildness appeared earlier this month with above/ground press. Natalee is an associate professor at Brock University.
[i] Gifts and Gift economies have been widely studied and theorized in anthropology, philosophy, literary criticism and elsewhere. This essay is a personal essay about my own recent experience and thinking on that experience and does not claim to have discovered anything for the first time.
[ii] Haraway explicitly distances her concept of the Chthulucene from the literary monster Cthulu. It seems very likely she would not approve of my own letter reversal that lets the monster back in. I say this to note that it is me who let the monster in and could not leave off thinking about an age of monsters and/or monsters as expressions of human and/or authorial guilt, even as I knew that is not what Haraway wanted or meant when she coined the term Chthulucene.
[iii] I feel ambivalent about my privilege when attempting to think outside of humanity, or even outside of oneself, in that, though I do believe it is necessary thinking for our planetary survival, I also think that it is not a privilege that all people are in an equal position to consider.
[iv] It's worth noting that I have performed such an erasure as I mention here by skipping to my personal essay instead of setting up my use of "The Gift" or "gift economies" within the scaffolding of broad citation.
Ahmed, Sarah. Living a Feminist Life.
Haraway, Donna. Staying With the Trouble