The cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange is that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection. I go into a hardware store, pay the man for a hacksaw blade, and walk out. I may never see him again. The disconnectedness is, in fact, a virtue of the commodity mode. We don’t want to be bothered, and if the clerk always wants to chat about the family, I’ll shop elsewhere. I just want a hacksaw blade. But a gift makes a connection. There are many examples, the candy or cigarette offered to a stranger who shares a seat on the plane, the few words that indicate goodwill between passengers on the late-night bus. These tokens establish the simplest bonds of social life, but the model they offer may be extended to the most complicated of unions — marriage, parenthood, mentorship. If a value is placed on these (often essentially unequal) exchanges, they degenerate into something else.
Yet one of the more difficult things to comprehend is that the gift economies — like those that sustain open-source software — coexist so naturally with the market. it is precisely this doubleness in art practices that we must identify, ratify, and enshrine in our lives as participants in culture, either as “producers” or “consumers”. Art that matters to us — which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience — is received as a gift is received. Even if we’ve paid a fee at the door of a museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us that has nothing to do with the price. The daily commerce of our lives proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift conveys an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration.
— Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence
The essay in question, however, is a collage text. The original — or I should say, once removed — authors of the above collaged quote are cited as Lewis Hyde (The Gift) and David Bollier (Silent Theft). (Lawrence Lessig is also sourced elsewhere throughout the work, among many others.) Lethem’s essay (and the rest of the collection) is recommended, but now Hyde is high on my to-read list as well.