No exchanges allowed

Holidays are now over and most of us have been confronted in the last couple of weeks with the question: “Do you already have all the presents?”

The last few weeks have been characterised, for many people, by hunting for material goods. To make somebody a present means today: to go for shopping. And this did not appear overnight. Philosopher Theodor W. Adorno was thinking about it in the ‘50es.

Even those who are less emotional during Christmas time are confronted with the task of giving presents to others. People feel forced to do it and see no other option as to go through it, in case they don’t want to stand out in the crowd. Christmas is a repeatedly tough test for atheists as well. Even they are giving presents to friends, parents and children — it’s mostly a “Gift from the heart”. Behind that social pressure and expectations exists a level of meaning, that nowadays gets too little attention.

If you take a look into an english dictionary, you will find the entry for “making somebody a present”– to give. The term gets to the root of the matter — it’s all about “giving”.

Adorno made an important contribution with his work in one of the most important philosophy collections of the 20th century. He presented in 1951 “minima moralia: Reflections from damaged life”. Those reflections are neither a systematic elaboration on a specific topic, nor do they contain a thesis. Adorno pursues philosophy in a very poetic sense: fragmentary, stylistically brilliant and lasting irritatingly. The book is carried by an emotional melancholie leading the reader to the idea that the right life does no longer exist.

Fragment no. 21 has always fascinated me, especially during the advent season. The first sentence is saying:

“Human beings are forgetting how to give gifts”.

That sentence alerts anyone who likes to give. Adorno alludes the breach of the exchange-principle, because giving is originally a thing of the past.

Nowadays gift-giving creates an unpleasant feeling: we are used to give something in case if we get something in return. What we seem to lack, as humans, is gift-giving without expectation of reward, be it power or the settling of a debt. The connection between “giving” and “receiving” has become a dominating factor in everyday life, that frightens us when we are supposed to accept something without purpose.

The sentence came to my mind when I recently got a pretty portable radio with headphones as a giveaway. A useless thing, but maybe great for a kid. I tried to give it away on the street, the kids did not want to accept it, because they thought they had to do something for me and then be obliged to me. Finally, I put the radio on an old sweets vending machine in front of the kindergarden. When I came back, it was gone. To get rid of it, I had to transform it into an unrelated finding.

When Adorno wrote his text in 1950s, it would not have happened probably. But he probably suspected that this market-like relations are something that inscribes into our deep psychic pattern. The proof of this change is the decline of gift-giving, which is reflected in the “embarrassing invention of gift articles “ and the widespread possibility of exchange.

He noticed that the obligation became more important than who is actually getting those presents. The person who is receiving the present becomes inessential. The gift item highlights the depersonalization of gift-giving. Such thoughts might be completely incomprehensible for those ones who rush in the morning of Christmas Eve to the perfume store to buy for their loved ones an expensive present in the last moment.

Adorno was not a pragmatic man, he was a truly old european philosopher, and he pursued what is visible in everyday life. Adorno defines the improper usage of giving in a profound way:

“Real gift-giving had its happiness in imagining the happiness of the receiver. It meant choosing, spending time, going out of one’s way, thinking of the other as a subject: the opposite of forgetfulness. Hardly anyone is still capable of this. In the best of cases, they give what they themselves would have wished for, only a few shades of nuance worse. The decline of gift-giving is mirrored in the embarrassing invention of gift articles, which are based on the fact that one no longer knows what one should give, because one no longer really wants to. These goods are as relationless as their purchasers.”

This is indeed a provocative definition, because it points out our intrinsic problem. Not financial restrictions make it difficult to give, Adorno’s suggestion is completely money-independent, but rather lack of time.

The fast accelerated world has no time. And the time that exists is also linked to the exchange-principle. Today, we need to question even social relationships, whether they could potentially provide professional benefits, whether they are contributing to professional networking. The recipients of gifts have been (again) deliberately chosen, but only as functional instrument in their own network of relationships. The principle of function has prevailed — you have to give presents to your parents, to your partner, to business partners.

Also, the gift procurement is often nothing more than another annoying point on a full to-do list. The pessimism of some philosophers is thoroughly shaken up. Nothing has to remain as it is. Is there a way out?

In a small scale maybe — and after all, it says in Adorno’s reflections:

No improvement is too small or trivial to be worthwhile”.

A chance to bring back the culture of gift-giving, is only possible by breaking the rules and thinking outside the box. Maybe we could, and should, somehow, ignore Adorno’s pessimism and invent a second category like surprise gift, in addition to the “have to gifts”.

We have to overcome own and other’s discomfort. This should not be expensive, but rather symbolic. Flowers, a book, a record, a delicious chocolate or a pack of green tea? With that you should head out and give it to those who never expect it.

In that regard, ideas and courage are required: ringing at neighbors door, whom you do not know; offering the saleswoman in the supermarket or a workmate who is far apart a tea coupon.

What would attract someone is only the “imagination of the happiness of the recipient“ — and that’s quite a lot, right?! And even the time resource is manageable.

One of the most demanding gifts I ever made was a notebook bound in red linen, which I filled in handwriting for weeks with poems, short stories, excerpts from theoretical writings and so on. Not my own writings, but self-chosen. Imagining the happiness of the recipient while writing made me happy and the memory of it became a gift to myself.

Spontaneous and joyful gift-giving is possible. Just do it, but do it because you want and not because you “have to”.

What are you giving for Christmas this year?



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Ramona Ziemann

Ramona Ziemann


A Product Designer committed to make the world easier to use.