Gift Theory and the Settler State

marcelmauss_2French Anthropologist Marcel Mauss put gift theory into circulation long ago in 1923, but his ideas continue to make important contributions to contemporary studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Anthropology and, as I argue, Reconciliation Theory. Of special importance in Mauss’s work was his identification of “hau,” a “spiritual mechanism … which obliges us to make a return gift for a gift received” (5). According to Mauss, while the gift appears to be “generously offered,” “the accompanying behaviour is formal pretence and social deception, while the transaction itself is based on obligation and economic self-interest” (1). Mauss’s use of hau was taken from a text on the gift by the Maori sage Tamati Ranapiri of the Ngati-Raukawa tribe. Ranapiri’s explanation demonstrates the surplus value that is attached to the gift, which demands return to the original giver:

you give me something and I, in turn, give it to someone else, if he decides to return my gift with one of his own, I must give it to you, because the hau of the gift belongs there, with the original giver: it would not be right for me to keep such goods for myself, whether they be desirable or otherwise. I must hand them over to you, because they are a hau of the article you gave me. (qtd. in Sahlins 71).

Hau is thus a signification of the return value that a gift carries once it has been given: a value that must eventually return “to its birthplace” (Sahlins 104).

What is most intriguing about hau and gift theory is how it, like the Freudian unconscious, can only be viewed askance. As Pierre Bourdieu puts it, “gift exchange is one of the social games that cannot be played unless the players refuse to acknowledge the objective truth of the game” (198).

The Kula ring (Melanesia) is a classic example of Marcel Mauss' distinction between "gift" and commodity exchange.

The Kula ring (Melanesia) is a classic example of Marcel Mauss’ distinction between “gift” and commodity exchange.

As such, Mauss’s project is also an early study in fetishistic disavowal: people know that a gift is an economic transaction, but the parties involved are expected to act as if it is primarily beneficent: a gift that is openly received as an obligation is no longer a gift. This is not to say that the gift can be valueless: the successful gift is that which traffics in implicit exchange value and does not call for financial value to be directly observed.

As Jacques Derrida illustrates, however, the very act of giving always already implies an economic calculation that cannot be entirely stricken from the offering. For Derrida, the performance of giving always already implies return, but one that is never openly acknowledged by either giver or receiver:

the simple intention to give, insofar as it carries the intentional meaning of the gift, suffices to make a return payment to oneself. The simple consciousness of the gift right away sends itself back the gratifying image of goodness or generosity, of the giving-being who, knowing itself to be such, recognizes itself in a circular, specular fashion, in sort of auto-recognition, self-approval, and narcissistic gratitude. (Time 23)

The economy that Derrida draws attention to always exists just below the surface of explicit acknowledgment. While the primary economy of the gift is an active system of exchange between giver and receiver–in which the latter becomes the former–the secondary economy does not require any direct discourse between the two parties. Any return that the giver receives comes from the act alone. This second economy remains obscure because it never has to be openly acknowledged: the giver receives his or her return in the very act of giving itself. The recipient does not have to actively engage in the discourse. What is at risk in the more tacit economy that Derrida draws attention to is the recipient becoming secondary to the performance. The circular movement that Derrida identifies, which necessarily returns hau to its place of origin at the moment of giving, generates a system of exchange that can erase the recipient from the process entirely.

Importantly, the notion of the gift also has a firm basis in Indigenous culture. Mauss’s initial observations were based on the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia, but gift theory is not relegated to anthropological study, or the settler colonial gaze. Maggie Hodgson (Carrier) states, “[i]n my traditional ceremony of the Potlatch, when we wrong people, we have to gift them, along with all of our clan members who have to gift them as well. It is intended to teach about respect, and it also teaches that abuse not only hurts the person but also the collective” (375). gift 2According to Rauna Kuokkanen (Sami), who offers the most comprehensive analysis of French gift theory in relation to Indigneous communities, the gift “binds collectives together” (1) and therefore, “it could be suggested that in indigenous societies, the gift is one of the most important organizing principles around which values and perceptions of the world are attached” (1). As opposed to Mauss and the French critics that took up gift theory after him–who maintain that the gift is an act of repressed violence–Kuokkanen is more concerned with “circular reciprocity,” in which “responsibility is commonly regarded as an integral part of being human and inseparable with one’s identity” (10).

Kuokkanen’s analysis is congruent with analysis of the gift that speaks more to issues of apology, forgiveness and reconciliation. Contemporary scholars have identified Mauss’s theory of peaceful coexistence as his greatest contribution to critical theory, asserting that “the gift ceremony promise[s] the avoidance of the implicit alternative of violence and social disruption,” allowing for “peaceful coexistence” (Cowell 281). According to Mauss, “gifts … have the potential for buying peace” (14) because they bind giver and receiver into a reciprocal relationship, which necessitates a deeper understanding of the other in the need to divine his or her che vuoi (what do you want?). Indeed, as anyone who has resorted to buying flowers or chocolates in order to facilitate an apology knows, the gift is firmly established in the tradition of peacemaking and, if used properly, it can be an invaluable tool for achieving reconciliation. To quote Bourdieu, gifts “set the seal on alliances or reconciliations” (191) and initiate new processes of intersubjective relations. As Mauss himself put it, “the purpose the gift serves “[is] a moral one. The object of the exchange [is] to produce a friendly feeling between the two persons concerned” (18).

While analysis such as this certainly seems to speak to the issue of reconciliation, there is undoubtedly a conceptual leap between identifying the gift as a reconciliatory implement and asserting reparation qua gift. After all, redress is most often identified as (re)payment or assistance for a wrong, whereas the gift is something given “at the price of nothing” (OED). Particularly when combined with politics, it is difficult to argue that the state gives without any expectation of return. As Derrida puts it, “the link between morality and arithmetic, economy or calculation of pleasures imprints an equivocation on any praise of good intention” (Time 148). In other words, despite any good intentions that a government might have, the fact that redress is intimately connected to state economics opens it up to suspicions.

Speaking directly to this point as interpreted within Canadian redress, Bruce Granville Miller argues that, “it is hard to give gifts successfully, especially in those situations in which the problem between groups has been a wrongful, crude play of power. It is easy for the compensation to appear, yet again, as a manifestation of domination” (6, my emphasis). Miller’s argument gestures to the ways in which “compensation” can actually be a detriment to reconciliation. According to him, redress is often too abstracted from the lived experience of the recipients, which only serves to alienate victims further. The focus for both the giver and the receiver thus needs to be on the act of giving, as opposed to the gift. What needs further study is the ethics of giving: how does one give in a way that communicates a compassionate understanding of a fragile relationship, or how does one give giving?

The act of proper giving is thus intimately caught up in the larger discourse of settler colonial apology, forgiveness and reconciliation. When Derrida is driven to ask, can we “forgive whoever does not know how to give?” (31), he is suggesting that forgiving is necessarily implicated in giving. However, it is difficult to move away from a conception of redress that is not founded in the notion of compensation without voiding reparation of all of its financial value. As the above example from Lazare helps to illustrate, all too often reparation is either financial or moral; one cancels out the other. The argument has been equally well-considered on either side of the debate. For instance, Michael Ignatieff is one of the primary advocates for a culture of reconciliation that is mediated through reward.

Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff

According to Ignatieff, “people don’t need lectures on tolerance. They need institutions that guarantee the security bargain between ethnic groups that will allow tolerant behaviour to be rewarded” (331). By suggesting that people should expect a “reward” for “tolerant behaviour,” Ignatieff ignores “unprofitable” debates on hospitality and friendship and his readers are instead asked to direct their attention towards the financial gain of “getting along.” His argument privileges the economic over the social–eliding lived experience in the process–and takes for granted the fact that morality and compassion must be mediated through reward.

To be clear, Ignatieff is evoking a type of materialist argument here. In much the same way as I am arguing in this post (and others), he is suggesting that impassioned speeches about “loving thy neighbour” rely too heavily on naïve idealism, which elides the need for basic infrastructure and economic stability for communities ravaged by historical violence. In general, it is in this direction that materialist reconciliation should be headed. However, critics should be wary of the way in which Ignatieff neglects to indicate who offers the reward. In suggesting that victims are to be compensated for displaying forgiveness and tolerance, but failing to point out that it is governments that supply this compensation, he ignores the relationships that are generated through the act of giving. The idealist ethic here, of course, is the inherent idea that reward solves contradictions rather than opening up new problems and questions. Indeed, the chief imperative is not to promote conversation (Ignatieff suggests that that debate is superfluous) but simply to protect the freedom of its citizens and remove things that might obstruct exchange in the free market. Ignatieff’s argument is based on Adam Smith’s notion of free-market economics, which finds its validity in the idea that the market is ultimately a benevolent social instrument. In this model, the market has the answer to society’s ills; it need only be given its lead.

Because it is based in a notion of redress as a gift but does not develop reciprocity beyond a vague notion of tolerance, Ignatieff’s argument risks putting the recipient in a position of lasting obligation in which he or she will continually have to “be good” in order to fulfill his or her debt. Indeed, until he or she has returned the hau, the recipient is “‘obliged,’ expected to show his gratitude towards his benefactor or at least to show regard for him, go easy on him, pull his punches, lest he be accused of ingratitude” (Bourdieu 199). If the terms of return are not adequately outlined beyond tolerance, the balance owed on redress will always lay just beyond the means of the recipient. In this situation, one can never be “good” enough to live outside of the edicts prescribed by one’s creditors; one must continually subscribe to, or at least be tolerant of, a set of laws that are not one’s own in order to repay the benevolence of the social contract.

It is in the sense of determining reciprocity and exposing the return that redress demands that gift theory allows for deeper insight into the interpersonal relationships caught up in reparation. In order to avoid the ideological trap that accompanies redress, one must be willing to identify it not as a “reward,” but as something that must be reciprocated, paid back and even paid back with interest. As Mauss so famously puts it, “in the distinctive sphere of our social life we can never remain at rest. We must always return more than we receive; the return is always bigger and more costly” (63). What Ignatieff’s model suggests, however, is that compensation represents a peaceful end to the conversation. By this, I do not mean that in reparation a victim can no longer maintain the visceral link he or she rightfully has to the past, but rather that the dialogue between perpetrator and victim has come to a close: the giver of the pure gift wants nothing in return from the recipient.

With this qualified distrust in mind, what I am suggesting in this post is that researchers turn away from theory that conceptualizes reparations as a “reward” from the State. This way of thinking is too closely aligned with closure. Rather, I argue that reconciliation theory utilize the logic of giving, as developed by such diverse thinkers as Miki, Mauss, Derrida, Kuokkanen and Bourdieu, as a means to further interrogate the processes behind reparation movements by more clearly outlining the stakes of redress for both victim and perpetrator.

One comment

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