Week 4: Mixings and Minglings (kelly)

NB: sorry for the italics, my computer is acting funny

In short this represents an intermingling. Souls are mixed with things; things with souls. Lives are mingled together, and this is how, among persons and things so intermingled, each emerges from their own sphere and mixes together. This is precisely what contract and exchange are.

Marcel Mauss, The Gift, 20.

In The Gift, Mauss presents an ethnography of various economies of exchange that are predicated on the gift; most well-known is the Native American ‘potlatch’. This book draws out these various structures or ‘institutions’ of exchange across many different cultures and remarkable in both its scope and detail. Despite the breadth and depth of Mauss’ work, I want to narrow my focus this week to this idea of “mingling” and/or “mixing”.

More that providing the institutional (juridical, economic, etc.) structure of a society, sites of exchange are mixing sites, where “feeling”, “persons” and “things” (20) commingle. Comparing Mauss’ work to Malinowski’s, although both are positivists, the way I think Mauss’ work differs from Malinowski’s analysis of the kula, is that, while Mauss is committed to studying “total social facts” (Mauss 80), something in his work exceeds this positivist, totalizing aim. Malinowki is much more concerned with “construct[ing] the big picture of the big institution” (Malinowski, 159) and as such, fails to grasp exchange as a dense, symbolic site of multiple mixings.

Mauss is more acutely aware of the mixings that necessarily occur at these sites of exchange. Moreover, it is beginning to become clear how one chooses an anthropological site. These various sites of gift exchange are dense with meaning both literal and symbolic; or as Mauss argues both “material and idealist” (as with the Brahmin example (57). One of the most important mixings is between “souls” and “things” (20). Things are not inert, lifeless objects in Mauss’ story but have “force” (43). This is in stark contrast to the anthropological “thing” in the museum that is only ever encountered through display. This “thing” has been rendered soul-less.

In the section, “The force of things”, Mauss writes: “One can push the analysis further and demonstrate during the potlatch, a power is present that forces gifts to be passed around, to be given, to be returned” (43). In this passage, the emergence of ‘social forces’ as guiding both the behaviour of people and things becomes evident. However, if we take into account Mauss’ previous claim about the mingling of souls and things, I believe that there is something else happening: “Each one of these precious things possesses, moreover, productive power itself” (44; emphasis added). This is the first time in our reading for this class that we have encountered the idea of “productive” power, specifically the productive power of things, and when considering the current import of ideas of object agency, an analysis of the productive power of things seems particularly salient. And, moreover, it is reminiscent of our discussions last week on Marx and the social hieroglyphic: both Marx and Mauss are tracing the ways in which things are imbued with power through various systems of exchange.

Exchange (or gifting) is not only a utilitarian, cold-hearted, system of gains and losses developed by the burgeoning calculating man-machine or homo oeconomicus but something that is rich in meaning and as such, is also a symbolic exchange; where things are lively.

This week, I would like to address what role things play in Mauss’ work, also the role of “feeling”, which Mauss also throws into the mix. I also want speak to the idea of “pure expenditure”, which comes up in the section on potlatch; this idea has been famously taken up in Bataille. If we understand an economy to mean, as Bataille argues, “the production and use of wealth” (1991, 20), what happens when that system is designed as toward excessive expenditure?

Bataille, Georges (1991) The Accursed Share vol. 1. Trans. Robert Huxley. New York: Zone Books.

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