Joseph F. Lawless | Libidinal Economies, Risk Economies: Hélène Cixous, the Poetics of the Gift, and the Queer Potential of Skin-to-Skin Connections

By Joseph F. Lawless

I will be speaking about the gift, about what it has meant and what it might mean to be situated within the gift event, about the discourse of gift-giving manifest within the work of Nietzsche and of Hélène Cixous, and about the queer potentiality their dialogue gifts to the gift. More specifically, my purpose will be to trouble what has been deemed so troubling about the gift—what Derrida characterizes as the “conditions of possibility of the gift (that some ‘one’ gives some ‘thing’ to some ‘one other’) [that] designate simultaneously the conditions of the impossibility of the gift . . . [that] produce the annulment, the annihilation, the destruction of the gift.”[i] Derrida’s treatment of the gift in Given Time endeavors to reconcile the paradox of gift-giving; that is, the annulment of the gift by the imperative restitution the very act of gift-gifting produces. The gift event is inscribed within the logic of the circle, a figure without a discernible point of origin or point of conclusion and thus a figure caught within the very circularity that constitutes it. In short, the gift fails because of its inscription within this circle, for in the very act of giving a logic of indebtedness is precipitated that relentlessly demands its discharge to comport with the persistent (and what one might call agonizing) coercion of self-perpetuating exchangist economies.[ii]

Cixous seeks to retheorize the gift against the imperializing weight of masculine libidinal economies, whose Law dictates a signification of the “gift” as the “gift-that-takes.”[iii] She is thus interested in “the why and how of the gift, in the values that the gesture of giving affirms, causes to circulate,”[iv] a kind of feminine libidinal economy of gift-giving that privileges the ability of the subject to “not to return to herself, [to] never settle down, [to pour] out, [to go] everywhere”[v] to the Other. This kind of giving is one that does not yearn for the violent appropriation of the Other to ensure the narcissistic consolidation of the self; instead, Cixous charts an alternative affective economy in which the act of giving necessarily effracts the figural circle to which the gift has been bound through an elegant displacement of subjective atomism. As Verena Conley beautifully notes in her text on Cixous, it is the “question of the gift in relation to affective economies that has been a constant throughout Cixous’ writings . . . [all meditating] on ways of loving.”[vi] To love the Other without keeping the Other, without taking the Other, and ultimately without extinguishing the difference of the Other to reproduce the fictive totality of the self—it is through commitment to a decentering of the self that Cixous locates within the gift the potential of compassion and love, an exchange between self and Other in space and time.

I would like to further dwell in those moments when Cixous considers the radical possibility of the gift as generative of a counter-gesture able to disrupt the calcification of certain economies of spending, retention, and appropriation. My hope will be to work through Cixous’ writing on the gift, which I will place in dialogue with Nietzsche’s own notions of gift-giving, debt, and justice, to consider whether it is possible to cultivate an epistemology of gift-giving that resists the metonymic substitution of the gift with that which is always already oriented toward failure. To do so, I will take up what I consider one of the knottier aspects of the gift event that, even in Cixous’ radical rethinking, threatens its realizability—the problematic of time. The intelligibility of the gift event is often bound to a temporalization of time, by which I mean the bracketing off of past and future as sequentialized, discursively differentiable derivatives of the present. The act of gift-giving is always filtered through a temporal demarcation, one which might be stated as “Subject A has given/is giving/will give X to Subject B.” Because the gift is understood to inevitably flow through and thus fail because of that temporal demarcation, it will be at this juncture, the juncture of the gift and of time, where I will situate my intervention.

What I will endeavor to suggest is a way to reclaim and further the radical potential of the gift through a queering of the scene of the gift. If the gift’s impossibility is linked to the effects of temporalization, to queer of the gift event might obviate temporalization’s structuring role; it might consider, aligned with Cixous’ provocations, a kind of giving of the self temporally synchronous with a receiving of the Other such that the intersubjective scene of the gift refuses to be and cannot be organized by temporal sequentialism. I will suggest that we can imagine such a scene as one of sexual intersubjectivity, where the power of skin-to-skin connection—the giving of skin and the receiving of skin from the Other—creates the possibility of a gift event no longer beholden to temporal sequence, indebtedness, or narcissistic consolidation. Instead, what such a scene may offer is the reciprocal gift, given and received, of a simultaneous creation of and tethering to social and sexual worlds for subjects otherwise disqualified from spaces where they may articulate their desire and be desired.




Suggested Bibliography


  • Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, 1 Signs 875, 888 (Keith Cohen & Paula Cohen trans., 1976).
  • Hélène Cixous & Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, Chapter 2 (Betsy Wing trans., 1986).
  • Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, in The Hélène Cixous Reader 197–205 (Susan Sellers ed., 1994).
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality 9–66 (Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen trans., 1998).
  • Verena Andermatt Conley, Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine (1991).
  • Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, Chapter 1 (Peggy Kamuf trans., 1992).
  • Marlon M. Bailey, Black Gay (Raw) Sex, in No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies 239–61 (E. Patrick Johnson ed., 2016).

[i] Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money 12 (Peggy Kamuf trans., 1992) (emphasis added).

[ii] Id. at 13–14 (“It suffices therefore for the other to perceive the gift . . . to perceive its nature of gift, the meaning or intention, the intentional meaning of the gift, in order for this simple recognition of the gift as gift, as such, to annul the gift as gift even before recognition becomes gratitude.”).

[iii] Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, 1 Signs 875, 888 (Keith Cohen & Paula Cohen trans., 1976).

[iv] Hélène Cixous & Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman 87 (Betsy Wing trans., 1986).

[v] Id.

[vi] Verena Andermatt Conley, Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine 127 (1991).