Nastiness Diagnosis. Anthropology. Religion. Gender. Justice. A Personal Notepad For the General Public.
his text is in some ways rather obscure, permitting a variety of interpretations. It was also a vehicle for Mauss to assert himself against Durkheim’s sociological reductionism in pursuit not only of an integrated intellectual politics, but also of an opening up to the full complexity of human existence which he summarized in the rather mystical phrase “total social fact.”
Mauss actively embraced socialist party politics, maintaining an affiliation to the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO).
“I’m doing wonderfully. I just wasn’t made for the intellectual life and I am enjoying the life war is giving me” (Fournier 2006: 175). Of course, long before the end, he and everyone else became fed up with the reality of the war.
“Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de l’exchange dans les societes archaques,” published in the first volume of the new series of Ann?e Sociologique (1925), a medium-length tract with over 500 footnotes and a hundred references, but still offered as a preliminary report on ongoing inquiries. Along with his incipient interest in joking relationships, this essay was intended to “.. .counter the Durkheimian image of a society functioning as a ‘homogenous mass’ with the image of a more complex collectivity, groups and subgroups that overlap, intersect and fuse together” (Fournier 2006: 245).
The Gift is in a direct line of descent from Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society, published over three decades before. Following Durkheim’s emphasis on the non-contractual element of the contract in his critique of Spencer’s utilitarianism (Chapter 7 of the book), this essay is focused explicitly on that issue. Mauss summarily eliminates the two utilitarian ideologies that purport to account for the evolution of contracts: “natural economy,” Smith’s idea that individual barter was aboriginal; and the notion that primitive communities were altruistic, giving way eventually to our own regrettably selfish, but more efficient individualism. Against the contemporary move to replace markets with communist states, he insists that the complex interplay between individual freedom and social obligation is synonymous with the human condition and that markets and money are universal, if not in their current impersonal form. In this way he fleshes out his uncle’s social agenda, but also questions the accuracy of his model of mechanical solidarity for stateless societies.
Mauss’ guiding question is: “What is the principle of right and interest in backward or archaic societies that makes it obligatory to return a present one has received? What force is there in the thing given that makes the recipient give something back?” (1950a: 148, my translation). He rarely refers to this process of giving and making a return as “reciprocity.” His answer, broadly speaking, is that human
beings everywhere find the personal character of the gift compelling and are especially susceptible to its evocation of the most diffuse social and spiritual ties. Potlatches provide a clear instance of this principle in action. Mauss goes on to trace its appearance in sacrifice (do ut des), in early Roman law and in the Germanic wadium, even in the apparently negative instance of alms-giving, where the recipient is assumed to be incapable of making a return except in the form of spiritual deference. A lot of ink has subsequently been spilled on this part of the argument.
Mauss’ chief ethical conclusion is that the attempt to create a free market for private contracts is Utopian and just as unrealizable as its antithesis, a collective based solely on altruism. Human institutions everywhere are founded on the unity of individual and society, freedom and obligation, self-interest and concern for others. Modern capitalism rests on an unsustainable attachment to one of these poles and it will take a social revolution to restore a humane balance.
The regard to the economy, Mauss, who had earlier insisted that the kula valuables are money, if not of the sort we are familiar with, takes Malinowski to task for reproducing in his typology of trans actions the ideological opposition between commercial self-interest and the free gift. the economic movement from below that he advocated in his political journalism professional associations, cooperatives, mutual insurance?is a secular version of what can be found in the religions of archaic societies.
The “fictions” employed ingeniously by Marilyn Strathern (1988) in The Gender of the Gift?that “we” (the West or “Euroamerica”) are opposed to “them” (the Rest or “Melanesia”), and that the gift is the conceptual opposite of the commodity in some linked way?are now routinely reproduced in introductory anthropology courses everywhere. Mauss’ text is adduced in support of this notion, even though it is the very ideologyhis essay was intended to refute. But then who reads anything closely these days?
The French literature is, for obvious reasons, much more respectful of Mauss’ actual rather than his invented legacy (Godbout and Caill? 2000 ; Godelier 1999 ). There are honorable exceptions in the English speaking tradition, among whom I would include myself (Hart 2000: 191 -96). Jonathan Parry’s (1986) article also argues correctly that the purely altruistic gift was for Mauss the inverse of the market conceived of as a sphere of pure self interest, whereas the archaic gift was a mixture of the two; so that market ideol ogy leads us to think of Christmas presents as pure gifts, an idea that we then project onto our reading of Mauss’ text. But chief among the exceptions must be counted David Graeber (2001:151-228), who offers a full-length reanalysis of The Gift…
Marcel Mauss: In Pursuit of the Whole. “A Review Essay”
Author(s): Keith Hart