Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Gift of Thanks: Begun 2009.05.22

Margaret Visser
ISBN: 978-0-00-200788-7

Began May 9, 2009.

Stumbled into this book in the New Westminster Public Library's shelf of new acquisitions. I almost did not pick it up, because I have too many books
already on the go — as usual — and there is too much going on in my work and home lives. But her book
Much Depends on Dinner is one of the great examinations of contemporary society, and I have been remiss in reading her other books. It is looking great.

Did you know that saying 'Thank you' too often is taken as being insincere in some countries?
... until recently ... [social] researchers' underlying assumptions were that nothing exists but force, necessity, chance, and battles for advantage. It followed, of course, that genuine altruism could not exist. There is nothing, the wisdom went, to suggest human beings are in any respect superior to animals. We are a living species like any other, in no way better than, and merely different in certain respects from, say, birds or lizards.
However, many scientists seem at last to be awakening from a long, cold dream, a censored consciousness that insisted, among other things, that freedom was a mere hallucination. It is beginning to be acceptable again to notice that a gulf separates human cultures from those of other species, that a richness and even a uniqueness exists that should not be underestimated and remains to be accounted for. Merlin Donald points out how utterly different it is to remember having seen something, as apes do, and actively seek to retrieve a memory, as human beings do. Even in childhood, human beings go on not only to remember but to reflect on many events and to imagine others. They learn. They rehearse and deliberately refine their skills and responses. And this is to say nothing of speaking, reading, writing, calculating, inventing, theorizing — and rethinking inadequate theories....
Though it is indisputable that we gradually evolved through chance mutation and natural selection, Donald reminds us that when we began reading and writing a mere five thousand years ago, there can have been no genetic change involved: there simply was not enough time. What had involved instead — and with astounding and gathering speed — was culture. Now, the great difference between natural selection and culture is that where genetic variation is random, culture is systematic, and shot through with intentionality (33-34).

I loved that Visser has managed to bring into the discussion a strong questioning of the validity of our accepted understandings of the history of the origins of economic activity. Society, perhaps even culture, existed long before economic activity did&mdashat least as we currently understand the idea 'economy.'
And I also am happy to see a strong swipe at the too easy acceptability of social darwinism. And that is what I am going to cite, now:
It was Marcel Mauss, the nephew of Emile Durkheim (one of the founders of sociology), who was responsible for formulating the question of Giving Back in such a manner that it became for most of the past century a problem for endless academic reflection and discussion. A new relevance has been discovered recently in his book, Essai sur le don (1925), retranslated into English as The Gift (1992), because Mauss seems to oppose aspects of Social Darwinism. For the notion walks again, "philosophically creaking but technically shining," as Mary Douglas puts it, that "the survival of the fittest" applies to human social life just as much as it does to the evolution of the species. Douglas feels that Mauss can help us make a counterattack upon the intellectual suppositions of Social Darwinism.
Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) lived at a moment of imminent change in Western social history, and he did not like what he saw coming. He was an anti-Utilitarian, who especially hated cold-hearted calculation of profit alone, and the privileging of individualism over social interaction. (His name is honoured today by the acronym of a French institute called M.A.U.S.S., Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales.) As modern people often do when they want to solve their own social problems, he turned for help to what was known&mdashor thought to be known&mdashabout ancient societies and pre-modern societies. He felt that if only we could forget all our philosophizing and analyzing and categorizing, putting all things "back into the melting pot once more," we might achieve a state of wholeness and be happier for it.
Before Exchange [trade-for-profit and financial markets], says Mauss, was the Gift, and not vice versa. This was his first revolutionary proposition, which he derived from the anthropological fieldwork of others. Pre-modern peoples did not live by barter, as had previously been believed, but by gifts and counter-gifts. What in our culture would be commercial exchange was effected by these people through bringing gifts to others, who always gave gifts in return. Give and Return were not, as we imagine or wish them to be in our own culture, free and voluntary acts. Three obligations always obtained: Give, Receive, Reciprocate.
For a gift economy human beings later substituted exchange on the basis of contracts, which stipulated in advance what the price of a commodity would be. The invention of the externally valued, impersonal abstraction that is money made such contracts possible. [I would rephrase this to say that it was the desire to exchange the contracts themselves that would have motivated the formation of impersonal money.] And the contract was underwritten by law: if you did not pay for your commodities, you would be punished by an external agency in accordance with clear, impersonal laws. A gift economy, on the other hand, had no written contracts, no written laws. The gift system existed for a very long time before there was any writing. And it has nothing to do with money: it was flourishing well before money was invented. But always, in these systems, people who had received gifts gave gifts in return. What made them do so, if there were no laws to enforce reciprocity? [This reminds me of Jung's observation about our being barbaric and needing laws from without to enforce 'proper' social behaviour! Was money and contract law/language a devolution? Well, this could open an interesting philosophical argument, which I am going to skip for now, but which I will undoubtedly think about.]
Having shown that gift economies preceded contract systems, Mauss went on to universalize the rules he found in these 'societies of the Gift.' There is, he claims, not only in these societies but also in our own, no such thing as a free gift. There are, rather, three unspoken but mysteriously binding obligations: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. And the most puzzling of these is the obligation to give back. For his astonishing explanation of the power that invariably underwrites this last obligation, Mauss relied upon a single Maori informant named Tamati Ranapiri, who was asked by the anthropologist Elsdon Best in 1909 to clarify for him the meaning of the Maori term hau. "I will speak to you about the hau," began Ranapiri, and proceeded to explain that it was "the spirit of the gift." It was that which caused utu, or reciprocity. If utu did not take place, then serious harm, even death, might come to the refractory person who had received a gift. The spirit of the object itself would take revenge.
People in societies like that of the Maori, said Mauss, did not distinguish, as we do, between givers and gifts. Things given away carried with them something of the self of the giver, and this piece of the giver's self demanded to be returned. Gifts always remained the possession, in some sense, of the giver....
Best's informant Ranapiri never claimed that the Maori hau actually uttered words, but the idea of anxious gifts complaining is found in other anthropological texts adduced by Mauss, where gifts have names, personalities, souls, histories, and desires. Copper objects given away in the American Northwest potlatches were said to 'groan' and 'grumble,' demanding to leave their present owners when they felt it was right to do so (71-73).
Sometimes Visser's writing nears poetry, a feature of writing I love when done well. I have emphasized her at her poetical best:

An essential characteristic of a good deal of gift-giving is its ritual dimension. We accompany the gift with quasi-ritual words spoken, gestures and manner, facial expressions. We communicate messages through the medium of gifts, and just as people speaking need not be aware of the grammar they are using, we follow the abstract rules of gift-giving even though we seldom analyze what they are. Language is explanatory as an object cannot be, but a present remains present as a sentence spoken cannot (114 my emphasis).
Wasn't that both interesting and beautifully written?


  1. I enjoyed this book very much, and it really opened my eyes to what was 'behind' everyday expressions like "Thank you" or "Thanks". We use those words without even thinking about it, but according to the author, they are essential to the fabric of society. This was a very intellectual, yet approachable, look across time and cultures at the origins of the sentiment of gratitude, of appreciation, and of memory; and how important all those are in interpersonal and intersocietal relationships. I have to say I particularly liked the discussions about the sympolism and purpose of wrapping a gift, and how in Japan, people will say "I am sorry" where we would say "Thank you" - it really gives you a look inside your cultural norms.

    xoxo Levi@Cadieux et Langevin

    1. Thank you, Levi, for the comment. At some point I will post about the way that the use of 'thank you' is an unconscious affirmation that supports a separation between people and between one's Self and a connection with the energy of Life.