of The Gift Economy

Forgiving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange
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Articles and Essays by Genevieve Vaughan

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paola melchiori
From Forced Gifts to Free Gifts

My contribution to this volume should not be considered a “paper” per se, but rather an ongoing dialogue with the living-thinking members of the Feminist Gift Economy Network and the ones whom we carry with us. I strongly believe in the power of presence, in its capacity to set in motion a different process of thinking and discovering. I am choosing this incompleteness, this particular kind of thinking that becomes alive when we meet as a group in order to make visible a feminist methodology of thinking and producing knowledge that has been my experience of our various conferences and network meetings to discuss the gift economy. As an incomplete dialogue it thus needs and responds to the others also collected in this volume.

Gifts and Paradigms

I see the gift as an epistemological tool, a paradigm in its most classic meaning: a concept which makes other ideas as acceptable, diverse ways of thinking as legiti- mate, thus opening a mental space to think differently, creating new imagination. When we say that a new paradigm has emerged, we mean that the basic thinking that allows us to “see” something has changed, providing us with the possibility to ask different questions, and to imagine different answers.

It is no accident that Genevieve Vaughan (1997) developed the gift paradigm within her feminist thinking. Feminism is already a fundamental change para- digm, able to shift our whole thinking. By making visible the lives and thoughts of women, their resistance to dominant paradigms, their knowledge-production processes, feminism makes visible other aspects of the entire social fabric of soci- ety, creating different links between phenomena and legitimizing different ideas of how knowledge is created. In this sense, the gift paradigm is one of the best examples of feminist knowledge: it changes our way of seeing the same things, it makes us see differently, and it lies at the junction of different disciplinary fields (economics, politics, psychology, and anthropology, at the least), making it impossible to choose one over the other. I see the gift paradigm as something that is able to “enlarge” the worldview we have developed through feminism, going more deeply and expansively from a theory of subjectivity toward a theory of economics and social bonds, obliging us to keep together the approaches that have been fragmented by patriarchal knowledge.

The first thing that the gift paradigm makes visible is women’s invisible unwaged work. More importantly, it overthrows a basic assumption embedded in economic thinking, namely that of homo economicus, looking for a different, non-utilitarian paradigm, based on the anthropological structure of the human being. According to this perspective we do not live in a world of scarcity. Vaughan (1997) challenges the premise of current economic thought, and claims instead that we live in a world of abundance. Moreover, by showing that the market, in reality has a parasitic relation- ship to the gift economy, the gift paradigm goes further, asking all of us to imagine not only a different economy but also a different idea of what economy is.

I do not think it is by chance that evidence of the gift “being at work” rises to the forefront during extreme social experiences. In revolutionary times, in times of deep crises, when the normal rules of living and of economies are suspended, we can see the gift paradigm, the gift economy, at work, together with other invisible aspects of the human society and of human beings. Normally, this paradigm is not only invisible, but also considered meaningless. However, when the boat is sinking, when the system is collapsing, only a gift economy can keep the social fabric together, emerging behind and inside the barter and the other informal economies that come to light during times of crisis.

There are many examples of this and we might choose to interpret them in different ways. During these times of crisis, real scarcity makes visible what can be considered the real abundance, which is lost when the market economy “works well.” Other possibilities come along, new ways of imagining relationships and the economy. In this sense, the situation of Argentina, where the economic system collapsed in 2001 as a result of an expropriation process which combined forced privatizations, export of capital, and massive corruption, was paradoxical and ex- emplar at the same time. The crisis was terrible, people were starving, but another economy was being discovered and used, awakening an enormous energy among people, developing what I would call a “healthy crisis” of the social imaginary. Other ways to survive, other social fabrics, became visible and imaginable.

We should ask ourselves what, hidden in the other economies, arises in times of extreme conditions, of catastrophes. What, hidden often within a barter economy, makes barter not a “primitive form” of the market but the anticipation of another scenario, where survival is linked to the capacity to preserve the social bond, as African societies keep telling us. What kind of strength is awakened by the capacity to share beyond promises of restitution? What kind of energy is awakened in the human being when s/he “gives” outside hopes or calculations of restitution? The key word here is: “passion for the social link.” Jacques T. Godbout (1993) defines it as follows: “‘giving’ without any guarantee of restitution with the goal to create, nurture or re-create a social bond among people” (30, my translation). This social act works contagiously, putting into motion a whole series of other social acts. According to Jacques Derrida (1995), the gift is the only event that lies at the foundations of real democracy, “a democracy to come” that “opens community and democracy to a future that cannot be appropriated” (361, my translation).

The gift paradigm is not new. Marcel Mauss (1923-24), Jacques T. Godbout (1993), Alain Caille (1998), Georges Bataille (1997), Emmanuel Levinas (1961) and other anthropologists or philosophers have conceptualized the gift as the basis of the social bond and the economy. However, it is not without meaning that today this “other economy” is reawakening in the midst of political thinking. All these theories, from Mauss to Godbout, to, most recently, Derrida (1995), indicate the need to rethink the foundation and the complexity of the social fabric, the need for a vision that will allow us to get out from under an utilitarian anthropology, and away from a fragmented view of the human being. This means, also, rethinking a theory of the human subject.

This theory continues to be, and cannot be, nowadays, gender neutral. Yet, the research by male theorists stubbornly continues to be gender neutral. From Derrida (1995), to Godbout (1993), to L╚vinas (1961), an idealized feminine is very present, as the “name” by which they try to imagine the absoluteness and purity of the gift: philia, the love for the affinity, agape, the spirit of absolute pure love. The more the feminine appears as a concept, the more women disappear. Even the more sociological analyses, like those by Serge Latouche (1991) for example, which provided inspiring visions of the only movement still active in the international scene, the anti-globalization movement, completely overlook the role of women in this respect. Amazingly, women are almost entirely absent from both the theoretical articulations and the descriptions of various exemplary experiences, even in situations where the presence of women is overwhelming. Sometimes there is a nod to the fact that, yes, strangely enough, in all the social struggles of the present times women are the majority, or the main leaders. And “another economy” is at work. This phenomenon, however, is not questioned nor further analyzed.

As a result of this general gender neutrality of male theorists, it is not surprising that their theories of the gift are literally “tortured” by the issue of reciprocity. Is the gift a free gift? How can the gift be a gift if not absolutely pure, or free? Are you waiting to receive something in return, or not? Mauss (1990 [1923-24]) has argued that the gift is in reality the worst compulsive social obligation. In Derrida (1995) the issue of the “purity” of the gift, without expecting anything in return, takes him very close to the Christian concept of pure self-sacrifice.

However, when they look for possible roots of human generosity, trying to solve the issue of reciprocity and pure other-oriented love, the only paradigm that comes to their mind, from Aristotle to Todorov to Freud, is the example of maternal love. Tzvetan Todorov (1992) has long worked on the roots of generosity in extreme situations such as in concentration camps. In his book, Di fronte all’estremo, he studied both the Nazi concentration camps and the gulags, interviewing people and trying to understand the root of self-sacrifice. Why is it that some people are able to share their last piece of bread, and some others are only able to hide it? Apart the self-sacrificing-for-the-glory-hero-model, Todorov concludes that the only other model he could refer to is the model of the mother, particularly the “thinking” of a mother. To provide an example he quotes, interestingly, not a real mother but a potential mother, a sixteen-year-old girl, Fania Fenelon. From a bar- rack in Auschwitz, while she looks at other prisoners during the night, she writes: “I look at them, and a deep tenderness is awakened in me, a protective tenderness which goes back to the depth of centuries. From where can it come to me, to me, the youngest among all of them?” (Todorov 1992: 196, my translation).

Recalling the example of maternal love and the importance of women as the subjects of this particular behaviour, which is at the basis of the gift economy, Vaughan (1997) highlights how in symbolic exchange, as in language, the relation- ship is not only economic or social, not utilitarian and based on exchange and expectance of reciprocity. It is based on the satisfaction of giving. The return is in the experience of giving. The energy awakened is the affirmation of the importance of the bonds with the others. It is impossible in this model to understand the issue of reciprocity as it has traditionally been conceptualized. In this perspective we overcome symmetry and reciprocity, because the obligation becomes desire, recognition of the importance of a relationship. This is the political meaning of the semiotic aspect of the gift. The gift implied in the linguistic exchange is the paradigm of the human relationship, the kind of act that lies at the foundation of the social bond, that bond which gives humans meaning, and pleasure. It also leads to a rethinking of the economic bond. Perhaps we might also have to reconsider that “oceanic sentiment” that Sigmund Freud (1978 [1930]) talks about, as the only emotion able to overcome, together with maternal love, the experience of ambivalence and the drive for pure survival. We need to be more careful in our studies of all those social areas where the connection between human needs and the public worlds, which have been built around these needs, hiding them, are still visible, as the mass experience.

Rethinking Motherhood

The mother as the anthropological basis for gift giving is at the core of Vaughan’s (1997) theory. However, this paradigm of a human relationship should be carefully re-questioned and re-elaborated, because at the present time we are witnessing fundamentalisms and churches attacking women’s advancement using precisely the values accorded to motherhood. It becomes therefore important to trace the difference between a forced and “natural gift” and a free gift. From abortion to assisted procreation, to women’s role in society and family, we are facing what I call a forced gift economy to keep women in, or put them back into, their patri- archally-assigned place, socially, economically, culturally. We are at risk of having our values stolen, our rights taken away. It is easy to recognize that that one of the reasons for the recent Republican electoral victory in the U.S. was the capacity of the fundamentalist Right to advocate so-called traditional values, and to convince people to give away their rights in name of those values.

In 2004, the Roman Catholic Church issued a “Letter to Bishops on the Col- laboration Between Men and Women,” a very long and important document which talks directly to feminists, and which seems to take into consideration some feminist claims and finally gives them a death blow. Then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope, wrote this letter. Its significance should not be underestimated. In all religions today, including the Islamic religion, there are specific “schools” whose goal is to get women to conform to their patriarchally-defined roles. Ratzinger talks about this moment, this “difficult moment of history”—and he is not referring to current wars, global violence and poverty, and a certain model of masculinity that thrives on war and threats. He says, in this letter, that the real threat of these times is that women are abandoning their traditional role of being mothers and nurtur- ing human beings, to “live by and for themselves.” He adds: “...She [the woman] is abandoning her intuition, the deep intuition that the best of her life is the fact that all her activities are oriented to the awakening of the other, to the love of the other, to the growth of the other, the perfection of the other.” This letter is a very refined document where women are strongly recognized, however within a fixed role of complementarity to men, prescribed not perhaps “by nature,” or biology, but by God. In this order it is important to avoid competition between the sexes to achieve a “spousal” order made up by the complementarities between the sexes.

The document is so intriguing that even some strong feminists have been “lured” by it. This is because it recognizes and idealizes women’s values and contribution to society to such an extent that it is difficult even for feminists to trace the limits between the feminist re-discovery and re-affirmation of the value of motherhood and the manipulation of the Catholic church. I don’t know if we can all see the difficulty and danger this thinking poses.

We have to be able to articulate the difference of how gift giving, and mothering, which is the basis of the gift economy, is different from the patriarchal image of a mother and a woman, an image used today by all fundamentalists’ attacks against women’s only recently won freedom. It is important today not to be caught in the “forced gift economy,” which has been the life of women, the only base of their importance and recognition, and still is, in the greater parts of the world. We have to be able to show that these gifts should be free gifts. In order for this to happen, we have to see that the gift paradigm is embraced by free women who can speak and live also for themselves. “The world needs the love of a free woman” not that of a good woman, says the poet Nan Peacocke.

Motherhood is a very good example of the difficult work done and to be done by feminists. It lies on the very edge of a fine line between the gift paradigm’s power for liberation and orthodox religion’s oppressive glorification of enforced female self-sacrifice (and enforced “mothering”). Men have recognized the gift, the maternal gift from women. What they cannot accept, as Cardinal Ratzinger tells us clearly, is women’s free gift, their freedom to choose to give this gift, which is women’s subjectivity and autonomy, women’s representation as more than just mothers. There is a patriarchal mythology of motherhood where this ideology of maternal giving hides the slavery of women, the control of their bodies, sexuality, and lives. The motherhood that comes from that gift carries all sorts of frustrations, hidden returns and dark sides, which are the denial of the idea of the free gift we are talking about. There is a terrible market of suppression and returns, built on the negation of women’s freedom but also on a false image of maternal power. We should also remember that in all religions and in all continents men are still wildly conflicting politically on the control of women’s bodies (as is witnessed in abortion and assisted procreation debates), and we should also remember the “internationality” of violence against women, also a form control over women’s bodies, from Sweden to Afghanistan.

The distinction between these two opposing and complex positions is difficult to see clearly because so much is involved in each. As emotions, dependency, and social bonds have been attributed historically to women, motherhood is still the place where women find and experience at the same time their power(s) and their slavery. Motherhood is still the most complex and unexplored human experience: the experience of the long dependence of one human being on another human being (neotenia), and the fact that this dependency is on the female sex, remains substantially unexplored. Only if we explore beyond any idealization of this human experience from both sides, from the mothers and from infants of both sexes, as feminism has started to do, can we constitute a different subjectivity, a real one, “carved in” between patriarchal idealization of motherhood and women’s difficult struggle to define themselves liberated from the trap of idealization and devaluation.

The complexity of the definition of the work of caring is a good example of the difficulty of carving out a new image able to rescue the denial of the value of motherhood and, at the same time, not fall into the trap of a new idealization. The enormous amount of work embedded into caring is linked to the more frag- ile moments of the human condition, childhood, old age, and death, that have been hidden by men, in the undergrounds of history. Women, as caregivers, are reminders of this part of life. For those who want to externalize this evidence they become, alternatively, persecutors, angels or witches, whether they come out of the shadows as caregivers or as reminders of dangers of that need to be avoided. This immense work, in Italy, my country, today for example, when women are trying to get away from a self-sacrificing model, is being marketed and confined to other and new invisible women, the migrants. Here the market and the gift come together again. Here the market economy profits on the misery and impo- tence of the human condition, its material, often terrible, needs and on migrant women’s poverty. It is obvious, especially today, that women’s gift giving has to be cultivated and enforced by patriarchy, in order for patriarchy to continue to pillage, to plunder, for years to come, as it has always done. As long as they are successful in this, men will continue to hold onto their privileges, and continue to be cared for without any recognition of the caregiver. The most miserable parts of the human condition, where human beings are reminded of their fragility, of the futility of the monuments they have erected, must remain invisible in order for people not to truly see who they are. The idealization of women goes together with that. It keeps women where they are and takes them out of the shadow in a non-dangerous way. It is very hard for women to free themselves from this patriarchally defined role. There is a terrible internal conflict, profoundly felt, which makes it very difficult for a woman to conceive or define herself outside of the maternal framework. These are areas of painful research for women because motherhood is the only relative area of privilege and recognition they are allowed, in exchange for their total service. However, anti-market by definition, it is within this position that women bury the maximum of their feminine “spontaneous” culture of resistance, a culture rooted in their forced position but also prefiguring something new. Inside this position, with its closer relationship to life and death, lies also the possibility of a different notion of personal and social bonds.

We need to be very clear about the distinction between women’s defensive use of motherhood and the possible invention it embeds: we need a feminist gift paradigm. The gift we are talking about is the gift that comes from a real motherhood, “rethought” and reinvented by feminists. It unmasks that “other motherhood” invented by men for their own interests. This motherhood is really “other-oriented” because it is done freely. It comes from a free subjectivity finally identified. It is not internally or externally enforced and requires compensation. This marks the difference between a culture of motherhood, which is just a cul- ture of resistance, and a creative politically active culture of motherhood based on new feminine subjectivities.

This was made possible paradoxically when feminists “re-carved” the imaginary of motherhood, freeing it from the patriarchal dream of an eternal, but powerful, dangerous mother. Since then motherhood has been filled with the real experiences of real women, in all their ambiguity. With feminism, motherhood has perhaps been too quickly reclaimed. But it has also been exposed to the light, re-signified as a subject of autonomous desire rather than a subject of predetermined destiny. Throughout this voyage it has been necessary to travel through ambiguities, and pains. It is always like that when one leaves a condition that is oppressive but well-known, and secure in its aspects. New lives require losing identities, securities, known bonds. Rethinking motherhood means jumping away from the privileges of a bad “sacredness,” made of illusory grandiosity and imaginary power. It implies engaging with history and its limits, with other women, and this is difficult for women too.

Only this painful process allows re-signification, builds other meanings, giv- ing limited reality to dreams. It is important, in this perspective, to de-idealize motherhood as well as the gift, so that its importance in human relationships, its value, can avoid being pillaged again.

Perhaps the difficulties and splendours of the relationships that we have in the women’s movement, so painfully shaped, allude also to new interpersonal and social paradigms. There is a lot of mothering there and here, and there is also very dark mothering at some moments, full of control and bad powers, because mothering in itself is not necessarily “good.” But there is also a lot of caring and love and “good” mothering; many gifts, and many gift economies.

I think we can look at the practices we have developed in these years from this point of view and the different values that have emerged as different paradigms for beginnings of a real history of women, by women, for women.

I would like to finish with a poem by Nan Peacocke, a Caribbean writer and poet, and friend.

The world needs the love of a free woman

The world needs the love of a free woman
Not the love of a good woman
There’s already too much
Of that good woman’s love
Waiting in the bantustans
While her husband’s soul is mined
Deep in South Africa.

Enough of the love of a good woman
Far in the dark city
At a high small window
Lying on a bed
Crying in her sleep
So she won’t disturb the others.

The world needs the love of a freewoman
But early in the suburban gleam
Assisting the suds and cleansers at their chores
Is one whose dreams are?
Dried and stacked on immaculate shelves
Her mask now fixed
For the trick, the hoax
The stench of life’s betrayal.

Poor bitch
Gnawing at the bars of your penalty
Your children know the love that
Cuts the heart of the holder
It’s wild dishevelled madness.

The world has seen and seen the one
Who keeps these things in her heart
She kneels beholding
The bleeding feet of her boy
Blessed Art Thou Among Women
And never a nuisance.

The world needs the love of a free woman
Who forgives god
But doesn’t ask him for an explanation
Of her brother’s murder
Her daughter’s rape
Her mother’s unrepresented life.

She speaks loud
Naming lies
She moves
Clearing the piercing forest
Of guns and crosses held aloft
She works
Planting hopes
And fetching from the horizon
The thoughts of free women
Rising in millions
From this shantytown.

—Nan Peacocke, Barbados, 1986

For more than 25 years, Paola Melchiori has created, nationally and internationally, free spaces of critical thinking, teaching and learning, based on the model of the Free University in Berlin. She is the founder and president of The International Feminist University Network, an international think-tank for women’s critical thinking and education. The university is committed to developing and making visible new paradigms of knowledge based on women’s ways of knowing and learning and to make them avail- able and meaningful for new generations of women leaders. She has written extensively on feminist theory, knowledge creation, and on interdisciplinary and relational learn- ing and education. She is currently focusing on how to “pass on” experiences, memory, history, to young women and men, through written and visual texts.


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Derrida, Jacques. 1995. Politiche dell’amicizia. Milano: Cortina.

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Godbout, Jacques T. 1993. Lo spirito del dono. Torino:Bollati Boringhieri

Latouche, Serge. 1993. Il pianeta dei naufraghi. Torino:Bollati Boringhieri

L╚vinas, Emmanuel. 1961. Totalit╦ et infini. La Haye : Nijhoff

Mauss, Marcel, 1990 [1923-24]. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. London, Routledge.

Todorov,Tzvetan. 1992. Di fronte all’estremo. Milano: Garzanti.

Vaughan, Genevieve. 1997. For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange. Austin, TX: Plainview/Anomaly Press.

Ratzinger, Joseph. 2004. Lettera sulla complementarietř dell’uomo e della donna. Rome.

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