Marcel Mauss' The Gift: the 3,493,654th take on the book
I was reading Bourdieu’s Anthropologie Politique to introduce the students to his theory of practice via a reflection on his take on the gift and the way he distinguished himself from Mauss and Levi-Strauss. As it turned out the first lecture of Anthropologie Politique (the text is a transcript of his 1993 lectures on the topic) has a sustained critique of Derrida’s take on the gift. I actually came to realise that both Derrida and Bourdieu miss an important dimension of the gift that I highlight in Is Racism an Environmental Threat? So here we go. According to my calculations this has to be the 3,493,654th take on the Gift. and I am sure there will be many more to come for as long as somebody finds White Male Western Anthropologists interesting despite their sins. I’ll concentrate on Derrida.
Derrida critiques Mauss by basically saying that the gift is impossible. It’s a version of what he calls unconditional hospitality. He basically says that for the gift to be a gift it has to be radically non-calculative and non-obliging: The person giving the gift has to do so without noticing that s/he has given one so that she doesn’t experience that she is owed something in return. The person receiving has to not notice that s/he has received one so that s/he doesn’t experience a sense of owing anybody anything. Bourdieu disagrees with Derrida about many things but he basically agrees that the gift is what he calls ‘an intrusion’.
The problem is that both Bourdieu and Derrida start with an ideal of autonomous sovereign people. Derrida basically is saying that if you come out of the train station and see a beggar and want to give him a gift the key problem is how to give this beggar in a way to ensure that you both quickly forget that the encounter has taken place, without feeling that you are owed something for giving and without making the beggar feel that they owe you something for receiving.
But the idea that feeling like you morally owe somebody something, that you have an obligation towards them, is a bad thing is so Modern Western Individualist as an ethics. For what is wrong with obligating and feeling obligated? From another perspective to carry each other’s obligations is to celebrate our relationality. To accept your gift and feel the obligation to return it is to accept the fact that I am related to you. The carrying of the burden of the gift’s obligation is a celebration of the relation. That is Mauss’ starting point. Derrida (and Bourdieu in a different way) begin by seeing in the beggar another autonomous sovereign individual whose autonomy and sovereignty needs to be protected and respected. It’s like how to give the beggar a gift but leave him and oneself alone. Mauss does the opposite. The moment you see the beggar you are faced with your unavoidable relation to this beggar. You are faced precisely with the fact that you are not alone. The starting point is not autonomous sovereign individuals but always already inevitably related individuals. To give and run away from the beggar is to be radically blind to what ties us together. It is to avoid wanting to have a relation with them. There is nothing ethical about that. This is why for Mauss the gift, not only is, but has to be acknowledged. The gift is the acknowledgment of a relationality that precedes the gift and is affirmed and recognised by it. To accept being indebted to others is to agree to carry the burden (but also the joy) of having a relation with them. Of course, giving and receiving can become a relation of power with the givers and receivers always being the same and lead to a distorted sociality, but it is a sociality nonetheless.
This is why Derrida’s unconditional hospitality, while offering a potent critique of Kantian hospitality: I don’t want to ‘offer hospitality’ for I would subject the other to my law, is at the same time anti or at least a-social. The opposite of a bad relation should not be ‘no relation’, a relation is by definition a strength and a burden that both sides of the relation need to carry and negotiate.