Impersonal Gift

In her contribution to Negotiating the Gift: Pre-Modern Figurations of Exchange (Veroffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts fur Geschichte) , Beate Wagner-Hasel offers this penetrating critique of Marcel Mauss’s The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies :

“Mauss indirectly completed in theoretical terms the very process of depersonalizing and reifying human relations which he himself had criticized. According to Mauss, the things themselves, to which humans were inseparably bound, originally regulated interaction. Mauss thus mystified the social context at a point in history . . . when traditional forces of integration in Europe had lost their power and when invocations of magic . . . were emerging as an essential element of future politics.”

In the ellipses, Wagner-Hasel mentions the Nazi, and in an attached footnote she notes Mauss’s dismay at the claim made by some that he and Durkheim had prepared the ground for Fascism. He did not expect, he said, “large, modern societies which have more or less left the Middle Ages behind could be hypnotised as the Australians are by their dances” (162).

Wagner-Hasel claims that Mauss’s contributions to the theory of gift were “his interpretation of the git as a collective contract and his grounding of the obligation to reciprocate in magic.” As a result, he “extracted from the concrete social practices a purely formal residue which, purified of content, was then condensed into a general theory of the gift, a theory which could be understood as valid beyond time and space and which could be interpreted as a counter-model for modern practices” (163).

That last comment leads to this reflection: Perhaps of all Mauss’s heirs, the structuralists really do have the best claim on him.

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