Zoë Goodman: What’s the point of the “Mauss haus”? The Gift and anthropology today

On 30 April 2016, a group of anthropological heavyweights congregated at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London), under the aegis of a workshop entitled “The gift that keeps on giving.” The workshop, organized to launch Jane Guyer’s expanded edition of Marcel Mauss’s The Gift (2016), brought into being the third English translation of this much-cited text. As the latest offering from open-access publishing house HAU Books, the event also marked the start of a partnership between HAU and the SOAS Centre for Ethnographic Theory (CET).

Guyer’s journey with The Gift began with a realization of the striking difference in size between the first English translation (Mauss trans. Cunnison 1954) and the original publication in L’Année sociologique (Mauss 1925). What had been left out of the significantly thinner translation? The original, Guyer discovered, published to mark the relaunching of L’Année after the hiatus of World War I, started with a memorial to deceased colleagues and students (many of whom died in battle) and ended with an extensive review section (addressing the works of Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Boas, among others), much of it written by Mauss. Guyer’s decision to produce a new translation arose from a conviction that this contextualization—particularly the memorial and select reviews from Mauss—is critical for understanding The Gift itself.

  the gift

Mauss, Guyer argues, was writing out of an urgent need to find inspiration from other parts of the world, that Europeans might learn “to confront one another without massacring each other” (2016: 197). The new translation thus importantly changes the emphasis within the text. What was a round-the-world-ticket collection of notable instances of exchange—the accuracy and veracity of which have already been endlessly debated—emerges as a passionate political treatise written at a poignant moment in European history.

Guyer also returns Mauss’s expansive footnotes to the bottom of each page and seeks to add nuance to his language—highlighting, for example, the different words used for gift (don, cadeaux,  présents, and prestations). At the workshop, Guyer concluded her presentation with the hope that this latest translation will stimulate new engagements with The Gift, as the world attempts to understand exchange amid the rise of robots, genomics, and shifting economic realities.

How did the workshop panelists respond to this call to reciprocal arms? The first panel—which brought together Marilyn Strathern, Marshall Sahlins, David Graeber, and Giovanni da Col—was a two-hour celebration of Mauss and his legacy. Strathern, happy with Guyer’s retention of Mauss’s term “archaic societies,” postulated that, “the gift that makes us think never outlives its gift.” Strathern’s reading of the new translation left her convinced of the relevance of the past for contemporary anthropological thinking. What do we do with 150 years of ethnography?

Sahlins was similarly moved; The Gift should compel anthropologists to be diligent custodians of this rich historical archive, lest it be lost for some future renaissance. Sahlins also focused on the imprecision of Mauss’s text, notably the ideas of “total prestation” and “sharing” (neither as total nor as un-reciprocal as Mauss implied).

Graeber applauded Mauss for launching “a thousand intellectual projects” (including his own work on debt) but continued the theme of imprecision, arguing that the greatest failure of the Essai was the conflation of many different types of non-commodity transaction under the umbrella of “the gift.” Da Col concluded the first round of interventions by noting that his own academic endeavors—relating to hospitality and open-access publishing—continued to benefit from rereadings of The Gift; a happy coincidence!

Blinking in the daylight during the break, I found myself wondering how four intellectuals known for provocation and innovation had combined to produce such a straightforward and laudatory panel. That a number of my colleagues did not return for round two suggested I was not alone in feeling uninspired.

Jane Guyer comparing the original publication with the first English translation at "The gift that keeps on giving" workshop (SOAS, 30 April 2016)

Jane Guyer comparing the original publication with the first English translation at “The gift that keeps on giving” workshop (SOAS, 30 April 2016)

The second panel, however, helped rectify this sentiment. Jacob Copeman, Kostas Retsikas, Maurice Bloch, Johnny Parry, and Keith Hart offered a stimulating mix of ethnography, critique, and defense. Copeman and Retsikas provided novel reformulations of Mauss, based on their respective fieldwork encounters. Copeman proposed that it was time to “press the refresh icon on gift theory.” His research among blood-donating devotees in north India highlights the gift’s ability to critique, by exposing that which is not given; the gift of blood draws attention to the failures of the social order it seeks to repair.

Retsikas lamented Mauss’s rosy portrayal of social life and reciprocity. He asked us instead to imagine what the gift might look like from the point of view of amoral solicitation rather than moral donation. This productive inversion was given life though ethnography. Retsikas narrated how when a laptop disappeared during his fieldwork in Indonesia, the event was cast as the rightful entitlement of an anonymous person, one of the many deprived of their God-given zakat (charity) from the laptop’s mean-spirited owner. In contrast to Mauss’s characterization of the receiver as inferior and dependent on the donor, Retsikas positioned the solicitor as skillful and manipulative agent.

Bloch attempted to put an end to the merry foray into “refreshing” Mauss. Drawing repeatedly on Lévi-Strauss’s ([1950] 1987) famous critique, he lambasted The Gift for attempting to explain a human universal (the obligation to reciprocate) via an obscure Maori text. Bloch claimed that the text only achieved prominence in British anthropology because it resonated with the antirationalist and mystical approach favored by Evans-Pritchard (part of his long project of distancing from Radcliffe-Brownian scientism).

Parry, the next to intervene, reiterated the need to “resist its canonization,” not only because Mauss “got the fundamentals fundamentally wrong” in the Brahmin context—upon which Parry’s (1986) well-known dissection is based—but because the text fails to consider what happens when gift and market exchange meet, let alone how one might influence the other.

Finally, Hart sought to “rescue The Gift from these scurrilous attacks,” most memorably in his succinct response to Bloch: “The point … is not so we can learn about the fucking Maori.” For Hart, Mauss’s contribution was to demolish the dichotomy between altruism and self-interest, gifts, and markets. Mauss, in Hart’s reading, employed ethnography to expose the hidden forms of exchange (i.e., the social context that makes contractual relations possible)—forms that are difficult to see in capitalist societies. But, as Hart himself conceded, this conclusion can only be reached by reading Mauss’s entire corpus: The Gift provides no analysis of capitalist markets and can only be understood á la Hart if read in tandem with Mauss’s extensive financial and political journalism (or Hart’s 2007 piece in Comparative Studies in Society and History, where he provides a similar argument). That these lesser-known works are only available in French suggests that there is still more translation work to be done.

Hart defending Mauss

Keith Hart defending Mauss at “The gift that keeps on giving” workshop (SOAS, 30 April 2016)

So, should anthropologists continue reading, teaching, and engaging with The Gift? As one might expect from a workshop run by and for anthropologists, the answer was a resounding “maybe.”

I came away sharing Parry’s concern with the lack of class and serious sociological attention to power in Mauss. Yet I left feeling there was still more scope for self-reflexivity—inspired by The Gift—in relation to the construction of anthropology as a professional community.

Overheard in the corridors after the event was the explanation that these panelists, however white and (predominately) male, were nevertheless among those who had contributed most to anthropological work on exchange and the economy, “the dons of le don,” if you will. I would be the last to deny the import of the scholarship of the assembled speakers. However, from my perspective, the workshop’s composition reflected the HAUsian view of the “Mauss haus” and a rather restricted definition of what contemporary engagements in this field of anthropology look like.

Elizabeth Povinelli’s (2011) work on the forms of social exchange that refuse to succumb—indeed, are produced—in contexts of (extra)ordinary neoliberal neglect immediately comes to mind as one person who might have brought “dark anthropology” (Ortner, forthcoming) into conversation with Mauss. What, moreover, is affect if not exchange? Sara Ahmed’s (2004) notion of the “failure of return” could, I submit, enliven gift economies with the economics of emotion.

As Marxist-feminist critiques pointed out some time ago (see, e.g., Josephides 1985), the types of gifts Mauss had in mind were made possible through the invisible labor of countless others, particularly women and other social inferiors. This perspective was notably absent from the workshop, but I wonder how it might be extended.

What if a critical Maussian analysis was brought to bear on the over representation of men in academia’s upper echelons? What might the life histories of the panelists—men and women alike—reveal about the “gift” of female labor upon which their careers have, I suspect, depended? That capitalism continues to so fundamentally depend on the largely unrecognized and unremunerated role of women in providing childcare is undisputed—but what if we were to conceptualize the gendered organization of work in general and academia in particular as a product of the often unreciprocated giving expected of women? I see women’s laborious prestations in the making of intellectuals as one potential avenue for exposing the mutually constitutive nature of contractual and noncontractual forms of exchange, as well as the structures of giving that perpetuate male dominance of anthropology and academia more broadly.

Does The Gift keep on giving? Its continued traction, in my view, will require thinking about Mauss in tandem with the patterns of discrimination that beset academia and wider society.

Zoë Goodman is a PhD student in anthropology at SOAS. Her research is about Mombasa, Kenya, where she looks at the city through the experiences of Gujarati- and Kutchi-speaking Shia Muslims.

Ahmed, Sara. 2004. The cultural politics of emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Hart, Keith. 2007. Marcel Mauss: In pursuit of the whole. Comparative Studies in Society and History 49(2): 437–485.

Josephides, Lisette. 1985. The production of inequality: Gender and exchange among the Kewa. London: Tavistock.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1950) 1987. Introduction to the work of Marcel Mauss. Trans. Felicity Baker. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.

Mauss, Marcel. 1925. Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques. Année sociologique, new series, I: 30–186.

Mauss, Marcel. 1954. The gift: Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. Trans. Ian Cunnison. London: Cohen & West Ltd.

Mauss, Marcel. 2016. The gift: Expanded edition. Trans. Jane I. Guyer. Chicago: HAU Books.

Ortner, Sherry. Forthcoming. Theory in anthropology since the eighties.

Parry, Jonathan. 1986. The gift, the Indian gift and the “Indian gift.” Man 21(3): 453–473.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2011. Economies of abandonment: Social belonging and endurance in late liberalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Cite as: Goodman, Zoë. 2016. “What’s the point of the ‘Mauss haus’?The Gift and anthropology today.” FocaalBlog, 16 June. www.focaalblog.com/2016/06/16/zoe-goodman-whats-the-point-of-the-mauss-haus-the-gift-and-anthropology-today.