Marcel Mauss, The Gift

Marcel Mauss, The Gift. (1925)

Do ut des. I have to admit, Mauss’s classic study of the gift managed to surprise me, even on a re-read. Mauss upends assumptions about the gift as a category of exchange. Typically, we assume that we give gifts freely as individuals. More than that, we assume that the structure of our practice of gift giving—from one individual to another—typifies all systems of exchange. Not so, says Mauss. According to him, gifts are given, received, and reciprocated obligatorily. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and gift giving is both “constrained and self-interested” (3). More still, Mauss calls the gift a “total social phenomenon.” By this, he means that “all kinds of institutions are given expression at one and the same time [in gifts]—religious, juridical, and moral… economic ones” (3). Even a society’s aesthetics, such as dance or music, can find expression in gifts (see 79). Gifts bind individuals to societies. According to Mauss’s (troubling) understanding of social evolution, the “total social phenomenon” of gifts marks a midway point between “total services” (which bind societies to societies, clans to clans) and the purely individual contracts of a market economy (46).

Reading The Gift on the heels of Webb Keane’s Christian Moderns unintentionally drew my attention to the prevalence of religion—something vaguely like Keane’s kind of materialized religion—in this text. I’ll stop being coy: to my great surprise, the presence of things seems to trouble Mauss. Discussing Maori gifts, he notes that “the legal tie, a tie occurring through things, is one between souls, because the thing itself possesses a soul, is of the soul” (12). Religious notions of the soul connect people. The thing has its own soul, just like individuals, which binds the giver spiritually to the recipient. At this stage, he does not discuss the implications of things having souls, such as their agency or status in the community, but takes the souls for granted in order to illustrate his larger point about the “total” structure of gift exchange. Religion and exchange hang together.

When Mauss discusses the potlatch, things develop a mind of their own. In a potlatch, he observes, a “power” is thought to be present that forces the reciprocal circulation of gifts. Favorably comparing this to Roman religion, he seems surprised that North American native peoples should have “raised themselves to a level where they have personified an abstraction” (43). Despite this snide dismissal, Mauss again confronts things with presence on the very next page. There, we learn that emblazoned copper objects hold special value for the Haida and Kwakiutl—or rather that such copper objects live and move among the people. These objects have a “power of attraction” over other copper objects, and each possesses “its own name, its own individuality, its own value—in the full sense of the word—magical, economic, permanent, and perpetual” (45). Far from inert, these copper objects are thought to survive even the violent destruction to which they are sometimes subjected. “Possessing” such an object really entails something more like being in the company of a supernatural being and having it as a useful member of one’s family. Again, Mauss dismisses this understanding of things as a “survival” of a bygone phase of social evolution. But he has to explain these copper agents somehow, for their presence implies that his own society’s hard distinction between people and things is notnecessarily the natural order of the universe. Latour this isn’t, but Mauss does open the possibility that more than just the inert “property” of individuals can be exchanged in the world.

Review by A.T. Coates