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Nastiness Diagnosis. Anthropology. Religion. Gender. Justice. A Personal Notepad For the General Public.

Mauss has been misunderstood

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 [1992]; Godelier  1999 [1996]). 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


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This entry was posted on January 9, 2014 by in 雜Variety.
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