Sunday, 23 January 2011

Being & Tim's Holiday: Day 5

Being & Tim at 'PhilosophyLand' with Marcel Mouse!
Rather than being a real mouse, Marcel Mauss was an anthropologist whose most famous text was

The Gift, in which he analysed the sociological construction of gift-giving, especially in relation to non-capitalist societies. Just a cursory glance through the wikipedia entry shows how interesting a text it is:

Mauss argued that gifts are never "free". Rather, human history is full of examples that gifts give rise to reciprocal exchange. The famous question that drove his inquiry into the anthropology of the gift was: "What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?" (1990:3). The answer is simple: the gift is a "total prestation", imbued with "spiritual mechanisms", engaging the honour of both giver and receiver... Such transactions transcend the divisions between the spiritual and the material in a way that according to Mauss is almost "magical". The giver does not merely give an object but also part of himself, for the object is indissolubly tied to the giver: "the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them" (1990:31). Because of this bond between giver and gift, the act of giving creates a social bond with an obligation to reciprocate on part of the recipient. 

As I have never read the text I don't want to comment on the ins-and-outs of Mauss's theory: but even the short quotations in the above wikipedia entry show its parallels to Marx's early writings, particularly this quotation from Comments on James Mill. Marx has just outlined the way that commodity exchange under capitalism alienates us from each other: when I buy something what is important to me is the object I am purchasing, not the human act of labour that stands behind the object in question. Under this form of exchange human beings are valuable only as instruments that create objects; as an alternative to this Marx puts forward this idea: 

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man's essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man's essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature

Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature. 

In this wonderful quotation, Marx seems to be envisaging a type of exchange where the act of individual labour (what he views as our 'species-being') is what gives the object value, where the work on the object itself is a form of dialogue (or dialectic) in which our relationship is continually redefined and our humanity made visible in ever different creations. Compare this to what Mauss says in The Gift "the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them" (1990:31).

Marx seems to move away from this view by the time he gets to Capital, but I think it's a compelling place to start thinking about what economy means, and how we might be able to intervene within capitalism. Derrida and Adorno both return to this idea of the gift, Derrida in Given Time (see context here ) and Adorno in Minima Moralia, Section 21. But they're both weirdoes....haha xx


  1. Hey, I just came across your blog, courtesy of the people at Alba Londres. I will definitely check it out again!

  2. Thanks very much :-) Yeah I think there are a few Being & Tim's in the new Alba journal, I'm looking forward to seeing it!