What Do We Owe Each Other?  For a Critique of Reciprocity

What Do We Owe Each Other?  
For a Critique of Reciprocity
Joshua Ramey

Saturday October 23, from noon-3  EDT (See time zone converter if you’re in a different location to make sure you get the time right.)

A version of reciprocity, a notion of uncoerced exchange between freely contracting parties, was supposed to be both the image and reality of capitalist political economy, at least for its classical defenders such as Adam Smith.  Marx and the critics of capitalism (along with, I presume, most of our experience) argue that the initial and ongoing violent enclosures of the commons, the endless predations of the rentier classes, and the alienation of labor from the value of its product combine to make reciprocity in exchange under capitalist conditions an illusion.  Despite the aggregate increase in global wealth, social hierarchies, with the rarest of exceptions, never change, maintaining a situation of obscenely violent wealth inequality, while the demands of “growth” in production turn the earth into a blazing inferno of death.

But is reciprocity what we really wanted, even if capitalism failed to deliver it?

In this seminar, rather than criticize the capitalist failure to embody an ideal of reciprocity, I interrogate the ideal itself.  Ancient models of reciprocity–both religious and moral–involving gift, combat, or sacrifice may be as problematic as the modern one modeled on contractual or monetized exchange.  It may be that most of the so-called “exchanges” involved in social life are not really exchanges at all, since they involve deep asymmetries (the parties involved are radically unequal in various ways) and are often irreversible (one side cannot, or even should not, be expected to give back to the other).  Much of what is involved for the creation and maintenance of life itself—nourishment, care, and refuge—is very difficult to model as an exchange.  Biologists struggle to use economic metaphors to conceive of life as an exchange, and often do so by reducing exchanges of “energy” to “information” based on the operations of computers, which are not living things. 

Reciprocity is problematic, and may not be an ideal.  I argue in fact that it is an indelibly masculinist, heroic, and in the last instance racist ideal, and should be placed in suspense, even if we do not know what ideal should replace it.  Not only does being able to receive often unfairly entail being able to give, but being known as a giver also entails that all gifts can be identified, or at least noticed.  But where is life’s reciprocity with itself?   Is breathing an exchange?   Do our children really owe us anything?   And even if life itself is an exchange of gifts or energy, what might we owe the stars?   Something fabulous?

This seminar is meant to introduce participants to themes in Joshua Ramey’s ongoing seminar,  For the Remains:  Undoing Reciprocity.  A short course (6-week) version of this seminar will be offered in January-February 2022.  For more information visit www.patreon.com/joshuaramey.  

Facilitator: Joshua Ramey is a writer, educator, and shamanic practitioner based in Philadelphia.  He is the author of The Hermetic Deleuze:  Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal and Politics of Divination:  Neoliberal Endgame and the Religion of Contingency.  Since earning his Doctorate in Philosophy from Villanova University in 2006, he has held positions at Grinnell College, Haverford College, and Rowan University.  He is currently devoting his time and energy to writing in and teaching for counter-institutional initiatives like Incite Seminars.  Support his work at www.patreon.com/joshuaramey.  Learn more about his shamanic work at www.becoming-fluid.com.

Readings, forthcoming

Seminar Cost:

  • $30 – Member Ticket for Incite Seminars Patreon Supporters at any level
  • $45 – Non-Member (True Cost) Ticket
  • $90 – Generous Supporter Ticket
  • $15 – Student/Contingent Scholar/Activist Ticket
  • Solidarity pay-what-you-can tickets are also available for those who cannot afford any of the above tiers. Please email us.


Please register by buying a ticket at our Eventbrite page. We are committed to making all our offerings accessible to those who are eager to learn, regardless of financial means. If you have any questions or concerns, please email inciteseminarsphila@gmail.com.

%d bloggers like this: