Faith[Works] and me
This week's portion: pulling the strings

What if we give it away?

Last week's Sunday Times magazine featured a profile of Lewis Hyde written by Daniel B. Smith, called What is Art For? Lewis Hyde is a colleague of Ethan's at the Berkman Center. He's a poet (I especially like his This error is the sign of love) and he's written a few books, among them The Gift, which came out in 1983 and has never been out of print. That book "tries to reconcile the value of doing creative work with the exigencies of a market economy." Hyde was inspired to write The Gift by the experience of reading the anthropologist Marcel Mauss:

Mauss was a scholar of the old polymathic sort -- a sociologist, a linguist, a historian of religion, a Sanskrit expert, a philosopher. His essay on gift exchange drew on the work of the seminal turn-of-the-century ethnographers Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski to explore aboriginal societies in which the person of consequence -- the man or woman who is deemed worthy of adulation, respect and emulation -- is not the one who accumulates the most goods but the one who disperses them. Gift economies, as Mauss defines them, are marked by circulation and connectivity: goods have value only insofar as they are treated as gifts, and gifts can remain gifts only if they are continually given away. This results in a kind of engine of community cohesion, in which objects create social, psychological, emotional and spiritual bonds as they pass from hand to hand.

The blogosphere is a gift economy: we share our words and ideas freely, and "repay" one another with hat tips and links and comments back and forth between our online spaces. (This is hardly a new idea; smart people have been writing about the high-tech/online gift economy at least since 1998.) So is media fandom (I'm thinking both about story exchanges and overt gifts of vids or podfic recordings, and in a broader sense about the whole phenomenon of creating fanworks in a community context). So is the online poetry/literary world, from prompt communities like ReadWritePoem and Totally Optional Prompts to collaborative 'zines like Qarrtsiluni. In all of these worlds, we create and strengthen community by sharing our creativity.

In a gift economy, circulation and connectivity matter. When I share my poems and blog posts, I connect with y'all who read them. When you link to a post, or email someone a poem, that brings me joy -- which in turn helps to fuel my intention to write and share more work. The connections we create, through reading and conversation, can offer both creative and spiritual sustenance. And the engine keeps itself going, as long as we keep sharing ourselves and sharing our art.

"Art" might seem like a highbrow term, but I think it can be apt, sometimes. Not all bloggers (or fans or poets) aim to create something which will endure -- and those who do aim in that direction may not succeed all the time -- but I think that sometimes what we create here is art. And sometimes it's not; sometimes it's banal and ephemeral. Regardless, we're working with the assumption that our material can and should be shared, and that changes the tenor of the conversation around what we create.

For me there's value not only in what we create, but in how we share it, and in the presumption that sharing our creativity enriches us. Poetry, idea, story: these aren't limited-quantity items. On the contrary: the more of them we make and share, the more of them we can make and share -- and the more integrated we become into the communities that arise around that sharing. For Hyde, the sharing may be precisely what makes our creativity art:

Unlike a commodity, whose value begins to decline the moment it changes hands, an artwork gains in value from the act of being circulated -- published, shown, written about, passed from generation to generation -- from being, at its core, an offering.

Friday night I spoke at Bay Path college to a very small audience. Including the friend who drove down with me, and the organizer, and her husband, and me, we barely made a minyan! But it was a great experience. The people who were there listened intently, seemed genuinely moved, and asked fantastic questions about religion and creativity. At the end, one person came up to me and told me that God had been speaking through me. As you might imagine, that made my night.

The pleasure of sharing my work aloud is akin to the pleasure of writing a good blog post and getting comments from friends -- and from people who aren't friends yet but might be someday. The potential of a blog post or poem unshared is purely latent. Once I put it out into the world, either online or in person, the possibility of connection opens up.

Who knows: maybe the Torah poem I'm going to write next week will be exactly what you need to read. Or it will find its way into somebody's high holiday sermon next year. Or someone will google for a random search string and find it and be delighted. And maybe someone else will write a blog post or a poem in response, or mash up my poem with her own work, and put the results online so someone else can connect with them. Which in turn will help energize me to keep writing and creating.

Being who I am, I'm interested in the spiritual implications of this free culture stuff. In my religious community we talk a fair amount about the flow of shefa, divine beneficence or abundance, from on high. It seems to me that closing one's hands on what God gives one is the surest way to stop the flow. The way to keep abundance coming is to keep passing the goodness along. The best time to write a poem is when you've just written a poem. Maybe creativity is something we come most fully to inhabit when we give it away.

(If you're interested in Hyde's work, you might check out his cultural commons project description. I also recommend taking a look at the Oxherding series material, which offers a window into a really lovely collaboration between poet and visual artist centering around Sung dynasty Buddhist texts.)

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