Godbout & Caillé on the anthropology of the gift

Jacques T. Godbout & Alain Caillé: The world of the gift; (1998)

In a way, this book is simply an attempt to take Marcel Mauss’s The Gift seriously. One might well ask why such an important book has had a few real successors, despite its impressive reputation. /…/ And his work is taken up only by those whose aim is to establish a general theory of anthropology, for example Claude Lévi-Strauss, Georges Bataille, Karl Polanyi, and Marshall Sahlins. It would be easy, of course, to demonstrate that each of these authors, in his own way, has contradicted many of the ideas in The Gift. /…/ Mauss himself was often hesistant and uncertain. He was all too timid


taking up Marcel Mauss’s project where he left off: at the door to modernity. In doing this we will adopt the convenient and popular distinction between the sphere of the market, the sphere of the state, and the domestic or private sphere, that of interpersonal relations, friendship, family, and so on. For our purposes Hirschman’s (1970) well-known conceptual distinction between exit, voice, and loyalty is a perfect match with our three spheres. While the defining principle for the mercantile sphere is the possibility and ease of withdraing from a social bond (exit) when one agent is not content, the political sphere is governed by discussion and debate (voice), and loyalty is the founding principle for the domestic sphere.
This last sphere is generally considered the natural site for the gift in modern society, and we will devote a chapter to it. After having discussed the gift on its home ground, we will ask ourselves what happoens to it in other domains in modern society. Even if these domains are driven by principles other than the gift, the gift is still present in many guises, to the point that some authors have claimed that it is defined by its coexistence with the state and the market.


Here, the distinction between primary and secondary social relationships, first made by the Chicago school of sociologists, is as partitent as ever. /…/ the primary bond is desired for its own sake, while the secondary link is seen as a means to an end. Louis Wirth, a sociologist, felt that urbanization was made possible by the transition from primary to secondary ties.


Sahlins (1976) has established a typology for the gift based on the hypothesis that the more the gift circulates in a primary network (between intimates), the less rigorous is the equivalence between gift and reciprocation and the longer the reciprocation stretches out in time.


Lévi-Strauss reproaches Mauss /…/ for having allowed himself to be misled by a Maori jurist and accepting without question an animist explanation for the gift, /…/ Moreover, he adds, Mauss was mistaken in making a distinction between three obligations – to give, to receive, to reciprocate – when actually there is only one: to exchange. We know that in The Elementary Structures of Kinship Lévi-Strauss explained that exchange was first the exchange of women and the other side of the universal prohibition of incest. This prohibition, which forbids one to take a woman ‘among one’s own’, obliges one to look elsewhere and, in so doing, to forge alliances with strangers who are then transformed, more or less precariously, into relatives. /…/
What is disturbing, howeer, in the structuralist reading is the way it relies on the concept of exchange to provide support for its abstract, almost esoteric, inclinations. If the prohibition of incest is universal, Lévi-Strauss explains, it’s because it is situated where Nature and Culture intersect and because, by subjecting societies to the law, it transforms them into properly cultural entities. Individuals, in other words, become human only in submitting themselves to the law. We know how Jacques Lacan (1977) will build on this theme to reinterpret Freud’s Oedipus theory, at the risk of hypostatizing Law and being a bit quick to identify the law that prohibits incest with the law of economic exchange.


Finally, let us consider the work of René Girard and his disciples. While Girard would certainly have rejected any association with an approach inspired by structuralism, considering him here is not completely illegitimate, since his theory of mimetic desire is closer to that of Lacan, and therefore to that of Hegel, particulary as reinterpreted by Alexander Kojève, than he is willing to admit. /…/
Girard’s point is that desire is not the desire for the other and for recognition, as with Hegel, but desire according to the other. The human subject desires only those objects which are desire by someone he consiers prestigious, whom Girard calls the ‘mediator’. This makes for a dialectic not of master and slave but of master and disciple, which leads to a confusion of the desires and identities of the master and the disciple. If we are to believe Girard, for all human societies up to the advent of Christianity the resolution of conflicting desires was achieved through the collective putting-to-death of a scapegoat, a chosen victim charged with all the evils to which the communities were subject. Myths and religions would have been based on human sacrifice.
What has this to do with the gift? A talented young American anthropologist, Mark Anspach, has reread the material assembled by Mauss and his successors from the viewpoint of Girard. According to him, the gift for Girard represents an attenuation, a sort of introjection of the sacrificial logic. /…/ As the reader might suspect, our thesis, unlike that of these Girdardian readings, is that one should think of revenge, sorcery, and sacrifice as sub-categories for the logic of the gift. /…/
The Girardian theory seems unable to explain what makes objects precious in primitive society. It is not enough to say that they are desired because everyone desires them.
While for utilitarians the hidden but ubiquitous motive is self-interest (which is all we have to understand in order to have understood everything), with Girard, violence is primary. /…/ there is no desire for positive consequences, no warmth, no need for love. That side of life has no place in this system. In that sense Girard is modern, and we can even ask ourselves if he is not utilitarian. He overlooks all situations where elements opposed to the logic of violence might appear and favour only those secondary elements that support his cynical hypothesis.


The gift is not a aystem of static equilibrium, nor is it even homeostatic, where there is a fixed equilibrium around a variable towards which the system gravitates, and about which it hovers, like a thermostat or the price in a market model. The gift is a complex system: there is no simple connection, no hierarchy. To understand certain phenomena, physicists and mathematicians have developed new concepts over the last decades: fractal objects, strange attractors, an so on. /…/ Analogically, we may consider the market a simple attractor, which accounts for the circulation of a certain number of objects and commodities. The gift can then be seen as a strange attractor, which accounts for turbulence in the market and in the bureaucratic apparatur, as well as in exchanges between human beings when we try to understand them in terms of the mercantile model. For centuries, the Western world has insisted on analysing exchanges in terms of a simple attractor alone and has been intent on explaining society with the aid of only two deviced: the market and the state. But these are not adequate to the task. There is turbulence. /…/ It is time for the social sciences to acknowledge the presence of this strange attractor called the gift.

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