Mifsud, Marilee. “On Rhetoric as Gift/Giving.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 40.1 (2007): 89-107. Print.


The article discusses rhetoric as an invitation to an audience to invest its attention in an object and hence can be seen as part of an overarching general economy. Gift-giving is a reciprocity engaged in by the giver and recipient, as rhetoric is part of a debate. The Athenian polis as a state center presents the situation of exchange where rhetoric takes place, and in fact the polis may be said to have invented rhetoric as a means to serve its needs in such arenas as public debates, administration of justice, and the marketplace of the agora.

Keywords: ancient rhetoric, economy, parataxis, hypotaxis, gift economy, rhetoric-becoming, commodity, competitive generosity, generative rhetoric, deleuze, johnstone, lyotard, cixous


  • Mifsud situates rhetoric as gift-giving in the Homeric gift economy – or the Homeric-era system of exchange that created cultural identity and relations among individuals/societies (89).  Because we can’t devote all of our attention all of the time to everything we must invite focus to particular relations – these relations of focus are what Mifsud calls “rhetoric.”  Because rhetoric attempts to persuade toward a particular state of being – and in the act of persuading displaces other states of being – Mifsud likens rhetoric to Lyotard’s figure of the dispositif (89).
  • M. uses Marcel Mauss’s anthropological work on archaic gift cultures as a starting point for her argument.  Mauss’s work drew attention to the ways that human beings are always engaged in systems of gift-exchange – systems wherein reciprocity between giver and receiver are always present.  This reciprocity ensures cycles of exchange within and between cultures and creates the necessity of permanent commitments between individuals.  These commitments grow into the dominant systems of law, politics, culture, and interpersonal relations (89).
  • M. looks to the Homeric gift economy as an ancient iteration of the Athenian polis and the  contemporary economy – the market.  She does this to demonstrate that the normalization of the polis economy in the current era masks the fact that “gifts not markets, and people not entities regulate cultural economy, including rhetoric” (90).
  • Incommensurability: from Feyerabend, “a means by which to articulate cultural alterity” (90).
  • M. claims she isn’t doing traditional historiography; rather, she is interested in doing historical work toward Deleuzian becoming – or discovering new orientations, directions, entries, and exits.
  • M. claims that the Homeric gift economy is situated in the oikos – the home.  When individuals exchange gifts at the home a system of “competitive generosity” develops as the core component of the Homeric gift economy.  Competitive generosity is the honor-generating process of gift giving one-upsmanship (for the right reasons!) (92).  This ritual becomes the basis for the network of obligations that bind people to people and cultures to cultures.
  • M. claims that there is no real separation between the public and the private in the Homeric age (93).  This means that there is no real boundary between things and persons – to give is to give a part of oneself.  A gift is “invested with life” and the soul of the giver (93).  This results in a situation where the giving of gifts is much the same as the creation of relations between individuals and cultures – the private portrays the public and vice-versa.  The gift becomes a “matrix of relations” that bear traces of relations among individuals – gifts aren’t about being gifts but about creating “cultural intimacy and cultural memory” (94-5).
  • M. claims that the polis economy transforms the Homeric gift economy by portraying gifts as commodities  – things-in-themselves that don’t also bear the cultural relations that Homeric gifts utilized as a basis for the constitution of societies (96).  M. sees this playing out in various ways – through ostracization [1. Banishment that typically occurred because of a vast accrual of wealth without reciprocal generous competitiveness] and antidosis [2. To avoid “liturgies” or duties to the state, rich Athenians could exchange their financial duties with someone who was richer who would then pay the liturgy.] (97-8).  Both of these processes encouraged the rich to be suspicious of each other instead of being suspicious of the state . . . pretty smart!  The difference here between the Homeric and polis economies is this: in the Homeric economy hospitality oriented actions, in the polis economy suspicion oriented actions and transfigured exchange to meet the needs of the nation-state (98).
  • M. notes that when rhetoric is considered in the polis economy assent becomes a commodity – we pursue to attain agreement.  When this happens we undermine cultural intimacy, cultural memory, and different forms of respect.  We turn cultural intimacy into a commodity fetish and cultural memory into mere procedure (100).
  • While she posits that the Homeric economy was one of “competitive generosity,” M. claims that the polis economy was premised on “generous competitiveness” (100).  Said differently, when the goal is to persuade the audience through manipulation then the listener becomes a commodity – something to be attained.  This is the current state of some pejorative rhetorics and is the basis of the coercive nature of the polis economy (101).
  • M. isn’t arguing for a return to the Homeric economy; rather, she wants to use it as a way to create an experience of alterity in order to imagine/generate new theoretical directions for rhetoric (101).
  • M. turns to Derrida and Cixous to demonstrate how writing can be used as a way to imagine the gift process without reciprocity – gift giving as a release and generative activity (102).  Rhetoric isn’t an investment in securing assent; rather, according to both these thinkers, rhetoric becomes an expression of excess toward new possibilities.

Key Quotes:

My approach is, in Deleuzian terms, a becoming, that belongs to geography, not history. Becomings are orientations,directions, entries and exits” (1987, 2). Deleuze writes of a woman-becoming that is not the same as women, their past, and their future, but that is essential for women to enter to get out of their past and their future, their history (2). Likewise, there is a philosophy-becoming that has nothing to do with the history of philosophy and that happens through those whom the history of philosophy does not manage to classify (2). And, I add, there is, too, a rhetoric-becoming that has nothing to do with the history of rhetoric, and that happens through those whom the history of rhetoric does not manage to classify. Such is Homer to me in rhetoric. Yet, as we shall see, Homer is not a savior. Rather, exploring Homeric gift economy and rhetoric offers an experience of alterity.

A certain kind of intimacy and memory are at work in general economy—an intimacy where elements on which action is brought to bear are not completely isolated from the rest of the world, but are brought into contact with it—and a memory is forged of general relations, not merely of operations, at play in any cultural activity. The gift is not a series of technical operations, nor an exchange of entities and objects as inanimate things. Nor is the gift a private ritual separate from the public. The gift is an economy of intimacy and memory, where exchange wrought from hospitality structures cultural identity and relations.

Yet the polis economy and its rhetoric can be encountered otherwise when juxtaposed with the gift economy and its rhetoric. When rhetoric is put in the situation of the polis economy, in light of the gift, we can suppose a rhetoric operating in an ethic of abstraction, approaching its situation with a fundamental distance between self and other. In this distance, the other’s assent becomes regarded as a commodity to secure, and rhetorical techne the tools for the task. We can suppose technical attention to operations in the successful design of persuasion transfiguring persons into things or objects, and in so doing undermining cultural intimacy and cultural memory, turning the former into fetishism and the later into proceduralism.

The archaic Homeric gift economy is not our savoir. However, exploring this archaic economy in contradistinction to the classical polis economy creates an experience of alterity. This experience becomes generative of new theoretical directions for rhetoric, so as to get out of the historical trappings of both the gift and polis economies. In recognizing the radical otherness that the polis is to the gift, and vice versa, we can resist trading a generative relation of difference for a deadly regime of domination. If we resist such a trade, we will be given two incommensurable economies in the study of rhetoric, neither of which should be the only economy, nor even should both be considered the only two. Instead, we can work with the generative relation of difference between (and within) the two to create something new.

Rhetoric as giving enacts a rhetorical hospitality, a sumptuous expenditure of surplus meaning, whether produced by host or guest, speaker or listener. Such hospitality requires an aggregative consciousness of multiplicity. This consciousness harkens to Homeric culture, where a paratactic style and the absence of a “self” have led characters to be called schizophrenic for the many voices in their heads constituting multiple orientations to their experiences and the world around them. This schizophrenia allows for meaning to be decentralized, or, in Deleuzian terms, deterritorialized. It gives rise to an encounter, a becoming, and it operates, as we see in Homeric rhetoric and as Deleuze notes, in and through “and.”

Key Sources:

Bataille, Georges. 1991. The Accursed Share. Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books.

Cixous, Hélène. 1986. “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays.” In The Newly Born Woman, ed. Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clement, trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Claire Parnet. 1987. Dialogues. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Columbia UP.

Johnstone, Henry.  1980. “Pankoinon as a Rhetorical Figure in Greek Tragedy.” Glotta 58(1-2):49–62.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1963. Libidinal Economy. Trans. Ian Hamilton Grant. Bloomington: Indiana UP.

Mauss, Marcel. 2000. [1950]. The Gift: The Form and Reason of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. W. D. Hall. New York: W. W. Norton.

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