Monday, 19 March 2012

Michaux in Ecuador

Just a few lines here about Henri Michaux, a writer who really seems a genius - but, oh, what a quaint and peculiar genius! Some years ago I read his A Barbarian in Asia, and there was a sentence in there - "It would disgust me to own a house" - which serves as the perfect point of entry into the travelogue Ecuador, a thin and fragmentary book based on a journey made in 1927, to which I'd like to turn here.

There is so much I like in this work! His exasperation at Europe, his longing to talk to animals, to love something else than friends and women. And not least, his dread of cities, of vaults:
A mind of a certain size can only feel exasperation towards a city. Nothing can drive it more fully to despair. The walls first of all, and even then all the rest is only so many horrid images of selfishness, mistrust, stupidity, and narrow-mindedness.
    No need to memorize the Napoleonic code. Just look at a city and you have it.
    Each time I come back from the country, just as I am starting to congratulate myself on my calmness, there breaks out a furor, a rage…
    And I come upon my mark, homo sapiens, the acquisitive wolf.
    Cities, architectures, how I loathe you!
    Great surfaces of vaults, vaults cemented into the earth, vaults set out in compartments, forming vaults to eat in, vaults for sex, vaults on the watch, ready to open fire. How sad, sad… (p.60)
Openness.... and claustrophobia. A theme, it seems to me, that is central to Michaux, or at least to the Michaux that speaks throughout these pages.

And money, there's another theme:

Money, money, one of these days I will say something about you. There is not in this century one poet who will not attribute his actions to the pressure of money. As far back as you want, my life has been in this straitjacket. (p. 63)
No, he doesn’t want to accept any gifts, not of things too heavy to carry. He wants to escape. Wish you success, Henri. I hope you still live there somewhere, outside the vaults.


Michaux, Henri (2001) Ecuador: A Travel Journal, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Mauss and the gift

I feel I need to make some notes here on Marcel Mauss' classic work The Gift, in preparation of another entry in which I want to discuss gift economies in a book by Karatani Kôjin. I will start, simply, with what I see as the basic idea - the idea of the gift as a way of creating and maintaining social bonds and hierarchies - before moving on to indicating some points of interest and some of the differences between Mauss and other theorists of the gift-economy.

Like most antropologists, Mauss criticizes the utilitarian or rational-choice assumption of "economic man" in primitive societies. Looking at Melanesia, Polynesia and the American North-West (as well as the ancient Roman, Germanic, and Hindu legal systems), he argues that nowhere was there any so-called primitive barter between rational individuals. Instead, what he discovers are whole economies and systems of circulation of wealth built up around the gift in which actors are collectivities.

That, however, is not to say that gift-economies are altruistic or that gifts are devoid of considerations of utility. Gifts are useful, not because of their material or economic value, but because of the social bonds they create. The effect of an exchange of gifts is a strengthening of the social bond, of solidarity, in contrast to the modern capitalist market in which buyer and seller remain strangers to each others.

Trobriand island
What governs these cycles of gift-giving is not economic gain, but honor and prestige. They are pervaded by self-interest and (often) by antagonism. There are no free gifts and returning the gift is always obligatory. For those who fail to repay it, the effect can be destructive, even slavery. Mauss thus rejects the idealization of the idea of the gift as a purely altruistic act – a notion that is still present in Malinowski’s The Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Whereas Malinowski concludes that no really "pure" gifts existed among the Trobrianders except the gifts husbands gave their wives, Mauss sees even this as an exchange governed by reciprocity – as a return gift for sex (Mauss 1990:3; cf. Malinowsky 1932:179f).

Here's the first point of interest: the ambivalent concept of the market in Mauss’ book. The market is the arena of the gift-economy and just as fiercely antagonistic as the modern capitalist market. But at the same time, Mauss seems to suggest that this "market" - in so far as it is indeed the area of all the gift exchanges which he describes - extends into families or small-scale communities. Here he seems to repeat one of the mistakes (in my view) of the economists and "rational choice" theorists who insist on subsuming all kinds of human behavior under the market. As Karatani points out (I will discuss this in a later entry), Mauss appears to be confusing the primitive “communism” characteristic of families or bands of hunters and gatherers where everthing is simply shared, with the gift exchanges based on reciprocity that only emerge in the contact between communities. This is an important disctinction that corresponds to the distinction between what Sahlins calls "pooling" and "reciprocity" or what Graeber calls "communism" and "exchange" (Sahlins 2004:188, Graeber 2011:94-108). In other words, one could argue that Mauss goes too far in in stressing reciprocity as the basis of all gift-giving. Malinowski may, after all, have been at least a little bit right in arguing that some forms of "pure" gift in which things are shared or given without regard for reciprocity do exist. For the sake of accuracy, however, we should note that Malinowsky rejects the notion of "primitive communism" outside the affectionate circle of the family - that notion, he claims, that is as illusionary as the notion of a "primitive economic man (Malinowsky 1932:97, 174; against that one might mention counter-examples that indicate pooling among people like the Iroquois, but that's a separate discussion).

A second point of interest concerns the mixture of different kinds of exchange within the markets of the gift-economy. There is a tendency among many today to envision gift-economies as a particularly primitive form of economy that precedes the creation of barter or modern economic market exchange. As Mauss points out, however, the gift-economies don’t precede barter. They coexist with it. The Trobrianders carefully distinguish the ritualized gift exchange called the kula from mere economic exchange of goods, the ginwali, which can be marked by hard bargaining (Mauss 1990:22; also see Malinowsky 1932:95). In addition, “all the kula provide the occasion for ginwali” (Mauss 1990:27). This at first sight curious mixture of types of exchange is also stressed by Malinowsky, who distinguishes several forms of exchange ranging from "pure gifts" to "pure barter" and who also stresses that much barter takes place as a form of secondary trade on kula expeditions (Malinowsky 1932:83, 100, 176-190). Karatani provides a reasonable explanation, namely that barter - being an impersonal and inherently unfriendly kind of exchange - can only take place on the basis of some pre-existing social bond or mutual feeling of trust and good will, which need to be created and reproduced through the gift.

A third question concerns the religious origin of economic value. I am thinking here, in particular, of the discussion of tonga, oloa and hau among the Maori, which Mauss uses to explain the power of the gift (Mauss 1990:9-13). To the Maori, Mauss claims, the gift always contains something of the giver. This something is hau, which is the spirit of the thing and which follows anyone possessing the thing. Furthermore, it wants to return to its birthplace, until the receivers gives back from their own property. This theory of hau is the object of an extended criticism by Marshall Sahlins in Stone-age Economics, where Sahlins argues that it is not hau but the need to avoid war that explains the power of the gift. I won't enter into this debate here, but Sahlins' criticism doesn't strike me as invalidating the idea of a religious connection to the gift. Neither, of course, does it invalidate the more fundamental idea that a gift will always contain some trace of the giver. After all, the gift's function is to strengthen a social bond.

Here I also recall Benjamin's remarks on the "aura". Auratic objects, Benjamin writes, are objects that retain the gaze that has rested on them, and this is manifested in what we perceive as their ability to look at us in return (Benjamin 1997:148). Speaking of the potlatch, Mauss describes copper objects used in the exchange - precious objects, each with its own name and individuality. An object of this kind was "covered with blankets to keep it warm", yet “demanding to be given away, to be destroyed” (Mauss 1990:45). Not only is there an interesting paradox here, which says a lot about the nature of gift giving. Exactly things that are treasured are things that are suited to be given away. In fact, the more they are an object of affection, the greater the gift. Like Benjamin and Simmel, Mauss draws up the contours of a theory of how “aura” is replaced by indifferent exchangeability, but unlike them he asks how exchange is possible in a society in which the aura still colors the way things appear to inhabitants. The exchange of objects that still retain their aura – that is the gift.

There's an idea of suggestive beauty here, which certainly is part of the moral fervor which quietly underpins the book. The "primitive" societies it discusses are far from closed. They are the very opposite of parochial: everthing circulates.
All these institutions express one fact alone, one social system, one precise state of mind: everything - food, women, children, property, talismans, land, labour services, priestly functions, and ranks - is there for passing on, and for balancing accounts. Everything passes to and fro... (Mauss 1990:14)
According to Mauss the gift economy corresponds to a fundamental human need and still subsists in submerged forms in the midst of our modern societies (ibid 70f).
Therefore let us adopt as the principle of our life what has always been a principle of action and will always be so: to emerge from self, to give, freely and obligatorily. We run no risk of disappointment. A fine Maori proverb runs: […] ‘Give as much as you take, all shall be very well.’ (Mauss 1990:71)
Speaking of the gifts exchanged in the kula, he writes: “it is only given you on condition that you make use of it for another or pass it on to a third person” (Mauss 1990:24). I agree. Yes, how liberating!


Benjamin, Walter (1997) Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, London: Verso.

Graeber, David (2011) Debt: The First 5000 Years, New York: Melville House.

Malinowsky, Bronislaw (1932) Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagos of Melanesian New Guinea, London: Georg Routledge & Sons.

Mauss, Marcel (1990) The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, New York, London: W. W. Norton.

Sahlins, Marshall (2004) Stone Age Economics, London: Routledge.

Monday, 5 March 2012

A voyage to Hegel

I feel like a tourist, looking at quaint old ruins and being struck by the surrealism of the past. Yet, trotting about, careful not to stumble, I think: "This was once the capital of the empire from which Marx and Nietzsche sprung... and all those great thought-friends of mine in the Frankfurt School". 

Yes, I've been reading the Phenomenology (in the recent Swedish translation by Brian Manning and Sven-Olov Wallenstein). So many marvels. No matter how many times I read it, I'm struck with the beauty of famous passages like:
Frivolity as well as the boredom that open up in the establishment and the indeterminate apprehension of something unknown are harbingers of a forthcoming change. This gradual crumbling which did not alter the general physiognomy of the whole is interrupted by the break of day that, like lightning, all at once reveals the edifice of the new world. (§11; this translation is from W. Kaufman's Hegel: Texts and Commentary, University of Notre Dame Press 1977:20)
Like a tourist, I stop in front of the well-known theoretical landmarks. Here's one: the criticism of the semblance of immediacy – just one single little thought, but without it, there would have been no Lukács, no Adorno and no (worthwhile) ”criticism of ideology”.

I am predictably charmed by the parable of the master and the slave. So much like an unhappy love story. But one persistent doubt lingers: why would the master ever really want to be recognized by the slave? I remember that Charles Tilly in a text quotes Stinchcombe's "agreeably cynical" treatment of legitimacy, in which the assent of the governed plays a miniscule role: “The person over whom power is exercised is not usually as important as other power-holders” (Tilly 1985:171). I agree. Throughout history, masters have usually worried about recognition by peers or by important figures in their own ingroup, while caring little for the opinions of social inferiors or defeated opponents.
There's a tension at the core of the work, which I believe is the source of its magnetism. Hegel was the first to see philosophy both as a system and as the organic totality of its self-contradictory history. The latter is likened to the development of a plant in which the flower refutes the bud, only to be refuted in turn by the fruit, but in which the parts nevertheless forms an organic whole.
This tension is reproduced as the tension between the ideas of the phenomenology and the logic, or between the movement towards absolute knowledge and a philosophy that already presupposes its achievement. Can the phenomenology be written at all without presupposing the standpoint of the logic? Conversely, if history, the process of becoming, cannot be separated from the final truth, can the latter exist at all as a separate branch of knowledge?

This tension is both productive and inescapable, since it produces Hegel's central insight: that the true is history, the entire history of Spirit’s becoming, including all of its diverse shapes (”The true is the whole”).

Using this insight, Hegel historicizes earlier philosophies, showing them to be but moments or roadstations on the way of the Spirit's development. What distinguishes him from a mere historian of ideas is the fact that he, in a last movement, declares this history itself to be the true philosophy.

The final sublation that produces absolute knowledge is therefore not yet another stage following after the previous historical process, but this very history itself, including all its negations and contradictions. To realize this is also the key to solving the riddle of alienation. Alienation is not just a negative loss of self, but also something positive, a part of Spirit's self-constitution. Spirit not only alienates itself, but also recognizes itself as the agent of its own alienation, thus sublating and redeeming it. Conquering alienation is not a return into the putative immediacy of the self. To put it tersely, it consists in recognizing that truth is history, and history is me. Since truth consists of history in its entirety, it must include the negative moments too, including alienation. ”Absolute knowledge” consists in recognizing oneself in this history.

This is in line with the Zizekian interpretation of Hegel, which stresses that "the 'synthesis' is exactly the same as the anti-thesis; the only difference lies in a certain change of perspective, in a certain turn through which what was a moment ago experienced as an obstacle, as an impediment, proves itself to be a positive condition" (Zizek 176). The ”synthesis” is not attained by discarding the ”antithesis”, but by realizing that negativity as such has a positive function, as a ”determinate” moment in the progress of Spirit.

One might object that to affirm history – including the alienation brought about by state, capital or religion – can mean two very different things. Firstly, it might mean affirming it as something to be overcome and relegated to the past, a mere stepping stone to a wholly different or even Utopian society – this is the interpretation favored in most strands of Marxism, in which communism is pictured as a stage following capitalism and wholly different from it. But secondly, it may mean letting the things persist precisely as they are and instead merely change the "perspective", as Zizek puts it, so that one becomes able to recognize oneself in capital, state, religion and other alienated structures. Which interpretation is correct? My hunch is that Hegel would lean towards the latter, Zizekian interpretation, but with an important proviso: namely that even if capital, state and religion are allowed to continue to exist as they are, the very insight that they are created by us humans (i.e. Spirit) suffices to transform them beyond recognition. A capitalism  or a state with such ”self-knowledge” would no longer be able to exist as a separate, "natural" (Naturwüchsig) or autonomous realm above people. It would have to "come to its senses" and this very self-awareness would by necessity transform or modify it. 

Hegel's insistence that alienation too must ultimately be affirmed is the background of his famous portrayal of the subject as "the tremendous power of the negative” (p75, §32). The subject is the power to break out of what is given. To Hegel, this is essentially the power of thought, of the mind. That, to be sure, is a form of idealism. Surely, one might object that shocks, disasters and setbacks – all the things that hit us from outside the purview of consciousness and which Adorno and Jameson call ”history” – also liberate us from givenness, and usually with an even more ruthless and "tremendous" power than thought. Hegel pays no attention to such ruptures, probably because they often appear so meaningless, so purely destructive. To him, the negative always remains contained within what can retrospectively be appropriated in thought by Spirit. The negative is affirmed, but only to the extent that Spirit is able to discover itself in the negative (p76, §32). Hence, the negative is never really the rupture or catastrophe itself, but the voice which Spirit lends this rupture or catastrophe. Herein resides, I believe, the basic difference between Hegel's dialectics and Adorno's "negative dialectics".

This containment of the negative to the realm of thought has curious consequences. In the same passage as where Hegel describes the subject as the ”power of the negative”, he also likens it to death, but it is clear that this is death in thought alone - the death of a previous shape of Spirit, not physical death. Yet history, of course, consists also of real people who die real deaths. Such people only figure peripherically in Hegel’s account and only to the extent that their deaths can be redeemed and made meaningful (as in the discussion on the family, divine law and the bosom of the earth, §445-462). In the trajectory drawn by Hegel, nothing really dies in vain, since whatever is essential is gathered up in history and lives on in Spirit, as part of its truth. At this point, the reader may be forgiven for raising the objection: won't a single person who’s died in vain refute this philosophy?    

I fully agree with Adorno: Hegel is almost right, but in the end he opts for identity. This is notable above all in his insistence that Spirit, as its final stage of development, culminates in ”science” (e.g. pp 540f, §797-798), and in his relentless attacks on Romantic Schwärmerei. The end must be the concept, from which there is no legitimate exit. But isn’t this delimitation against the concept’s exterior also non-dialectical?   

In connection with this, one might ask: what is necessity to Hegel? To begin with, it is a necessity of thought (of the concept), so it’s not a matter of natural laws. But even as a necessity of thought, one can imagine two quite different types. Firstly, necessity might mean that history is predetermined (in the manner of a logical calculation). This notion of necessity tends to become important in certain forms of Marxism, especially those that rely on a deterministic or mechanistic view of history as leading inexorably towards a future communist society. But secondly it might mean something looser, something like a retrospective insight – by an imagined Spirit looking back on its own history, saying: ”In order to be the one I am today, all this was necessary”. This could be called a more ”voluntaristic” interpretation of necessity, since it tends to portray the Spirit’s final achievement – its recognition of itself in the entirety of history – as an active choice of affirming this history as its fate. Such an act of retrospective appropriation of the past might recall cetain strands of existentialism (e.g. the Heideggarian ”authentic” self).

Reactions against Hegelian necessity likewise tends to take two forms. On the one hand, there are those, like Popper, who concentrate their fire on the idea of history progressing through logical necessity, as in historical determinism. On the other, there are those who feel that today's condition is one of confusion. There are no owls flowing, or there are too many. History is not over and we are still stuck in doubt. Spirit looks back on its past, saying: "Truth is, perhaps, history. But history is not me". What is so claustrophobic in Hegel is that he thinks his job is done.      

That the latter camp is where I feel most at home goes without saying. Dialectics still remains in such a state - a dialectics of awakening, as Benjamin put it, and a negative dialectics too.

There is a fine anecdote according to which Hegel planned a revision of the Phenomenology in 1831, but broke off his corrections midway through the preface, noting: ”Eigenthümliche frühere Arbeit, nicht Umarbeiten” - peculiar early work, not to be reworked! Perhaps Hegel himself was unable to recognize himself wholly in his past? Was this decision to let the "peculiar" text remain as it was a recognition of the role it had played in the development of his own thought? Or was it, instead, more like the decision to preserve a ruin whose meaning can no longer be fully recalled?

Farewell, then, autobiography of the Spirit! Ruins, yes. Perhaps a little like these in the old painting by Herman Posthumus from 1536.


Hegel, G. W. F. (2008[1807]) Andens fenomenologi (tr. of Die Phänomenologie des Geistes by B. M. Delaney & S.-O. Wallenstein), Stockholm: Thales.

Tilly, Charles (1985) “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”, pp 169-191, in P. B. Evans & D. Rueschmeyer & T. Skocpol (eds) Bringing the State Back In, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zizek, Slavoj (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso.

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