There is one week in the year when I receive the most attention from other people. With my birthday being just a few days apart from the New Year, and with the “about” section on my social media having the necessary “basic info”, I get posts, pm’s, phone calls and sometimes flowers and gifts, and I appreciate each of them. Messages from relatives, friends and colleagues line up with notes from people who might not recognise me on the street as well as lacunas – messages that were never typed, deliberately or forgetfully, or were typed but not sent due to the hectic manner of the everyday. I respond to all of them, and funny enough – I respond to the lacunas too.
These missing messages keep the equilibrium of the cycle of reciprocity. They are invisible yet demanding. They represent a collective body, which disintegrates into separate parts: a person who didn’t say “Happy Birthday” for the first time in the last ten years; a person who I just met, and they simply didn’t know; a person, a relationship with, that does not imply any sentiments, but I wish it would. This collective body produces neither action nor attention towards me, yet it still affects me. I interact with it as if it were exterior to me, but there is one thing – it is in fact just another image of myself. I imagine an idyllic and harmonious relationship with the other based on the assumption of our sameness. To be fair, in my mind I respond to the missing messages “as if I received them”, in a totalizing fashion that shapes the world according to my own image. But the other, which can be reduced to my ego, is not really Other, to follow French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.
This disturbance by the other is what actually keeps the equilibrium of reciprocity. How do I reply when the gift is unbearable? Lack of gifts is unbearable and exchanging with the phantom gift-giver feels like the most unfair thing to do. “Reciprocity is set in motion by inequality”, assumes Dutch philosopher Erik Hagoort, whose main focus is the ethics of encounter. According to the philosophy of encounter the world is produced by the objects entering into relations with each other but there is always a chance of them dissolving back to nothing, to the void, and you never know when this could possibly happen. Inequality comes into play when you realize that behind this void there is an ultimate other you could never fully comprehend (although I know the names of some of these others). In this sense the void is an invitation to build something upon it, so maybe I’ll start by sending them gifts next year.