An absolutely lovely essay on Marcel Mauss and the stages of anthropological reception of his essay on the gift can be found on Keith Hart’s page, called The Memory Bank. It’s important for a host of reasons, most importantly that it attempts to provide a corrective to both the economizing and romanticizing takes on that essay which have dominated its reception, and that it does this by tying its concerns into Mauss’ own concerns for political action and a humane economics.
Here’s a good quote:
The “fictions” employed ingeniously by Marilyn Strathern 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’s text is adduced in support of this notion, even though it is the very ideology his 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’s actual rather than his invented legacy (Godbout and Caillé 2000, Godelier 1999). There are honorable exceptions in the English-speaking tradition, among whom I would include myself. Jonathan Parry’s 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 ideology leads us to think of Christmas presents as pure gifts, an idea that we then project onto our reading of Mauss’s text. But chief among the exceptions must be counted David Graeber who offers a full-length reanalysis of The Gift, complete with detailed attribution of Mauss’s socialist views and acknowledgment of the continuation of his intellectual politics by the MAUSS group, among others. It will be interesting to see if this long chapter makes any difference to the wholesale adoption of bourgeois ideology by Anglophone anthropologists who affect disaffection from it, while imagining that Mauss was as opposed to the market as they claim to be, at least in their classrooms.
Of course, I’ve written on the gift in previous posts, and it serves as my core concern in chapter three of my dissertation. I have been guided in my own approach to the gift by Graeber’s approach (in his excellent Toward an anthropological theory of value), but insofar as I have tendencies towards one pole or the other, it must be admitted that I tend towards the romantic anti-economizing pole. I’m comfortable with that: I do not believe that there are such things are ‘pure gift economies’ in which personal interest is not instituted or motivational, but neither do I believe that our own capitalist society is one in which all altruism has been squashed. Rather, both are tendencies which are instituted to lesser and greater degrees in various socio-historical moments and places. But if you want to see an essay of mine (again, the kernel of chapter three of my dissertation, currently being written) which puts these two tendencies in a tension that could be justifiably criticized as somewhat romantic, you can click here.
Other posts on this page dealing with the gift are here:
Pretas (again) and Deathpower
The Gift: Mauss, Bataille, Hyde, and Derrida
Gift economies and alternating hierarchies (machines of change)
Reading (includes review of Graeber’s book)
Here’s a link to a short (but sweet) article by David Graeber on Mauss, the gift, and M.A.U.S.S. (which is not a secret society from Inspector Gadget, but a group of radical economists in France). Give It Away.