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.

1 comment:

  1. It's really a great and helpful piece of info. I'm happy that you simply shared this useful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.
    Return Gifts | Silver Plated Gift Items Online


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.