Week 4: Edible gifts and questions of charity (julia)

After reading Douglas’s “No Free Gifts” and Mauss’s The Gift, there are two central topics that resonate with me. The first topic I would like to explore belongs to the relation between charity and the cultural object of “the gift”. The second matter that I will spend some time examining is the connection between food, potlatch, gift giving and consumption/consumerism. I apologize that my reflection will take on a fractured feel by focusing on two extremely diverse subjects!

The Gift and Charity

I was instantly enticed by Mary Douglas’s opening paragraph to her forward, “No Free Gifts”. Douglas begins her piece by stating, “Charity is meant to be a free gift, a voluntary, unrequited surrender of resources. Though we laud charity as a Christian virtue we know that it wounds”. Douglas continues, “Newcomers of the office quickly learnt that the recipient does not like the giver, however cheerful he be” (1990, vii). I was captivated by this connection between gifts and charity as I had not conceptualized charity as within the repertoire of “the gift”. However, once mentioned, this link immediately resonated. As David Hevey points out, generally the role of charity is considered to be located as that which binds “up the wounds of society” (1992, 21). Thus, it was provocative to read Douglas’s politicized account of charity as essentially wounding.  Given the wealth of critical disability texts (amongst those from other disciplines) dedicated to problematizing, reformulating and demystifying the troubling presumption of charity as the ultimate altruistic example of the free gift, I much appreciated the way that Douglas immediately located charity within Malinowski and Mauss’s critical examination of gifts.

Thus, I was surprised and slightly disappointed that this link between charity and gifts was abandoned after this first paragraph, only to be briefly mentioned by Mauss in his conclusion (1990, 65). I am especially curious about the cameo appearance of charity considering how it shores up so many salient elements embedded within the phenomenology of the gift (such as: social hierarchy, power structures, pity, material relations, morality, the commodification of feelings via sentimentality, the distanced relation between the giver/receiver and the principle fact that charity is about giving a gift that cannot be reciprocated). Furthermore, charity overtly relates to the body politic (Spencer) and capitalist commodity culture (to explicate the link between Marx and a critical charity critique, Hevey writes, “Charity clients are viewed by benevolent ad agencies as being, to adapt another of Marx phrases, the heart of a heartless nation, the opiate of the handicapped” (1992, 31-32). Hence, I am interested in examining whether there has ever been an anthropological investigation dedicated to examining charity. And if so, how would this correspond with Mauss’s ethnography of gift giving? Furthermore, how would an attention to charity, and its prime mobalizer: pity, enhance, extend and deepen Malinowski, Mauss and Douglas’s examination of “the gift”? Moreover, what are the similarities and differences between the cultural significations of the gift and charity? Does charity, like the gift, embody “human solidarity” (Douglas 1990, x)? And if so, is charity supposed to enhance the solidarity between or across recipients and donors? How is this human solidarity linked to human citizenship?


Edible Gifts

The Editorial Note for Mauss’s text features an explanation of the word/concept “potlatch”. In this note, potlatch is first defined as a “‘system for the exchange if gifts’,… ‘to feed, to consume’, ‘place of being satiated’” (1990, vi). What this quotation points out, is how potlatch is centrally defined in terms of – whether eluding to or actually referring to – gastronomic consumption. This important identification of gift giving with gastronomic consumption is foremost elucidated when Mauss states, “the gift is therefore at one and the same time what should be done, what should be received, and yet what is dangerous to take”. Mauss continues, “This is because the thing that is given itself forges a bilateral, irrevocable bond, above all when it consists of food” (1990, 59).

To demonstrate this notion of food as generating the most irrevocable bond, Mauss details the Brahmin’s intricate and elaborate symbolic relationship with edible and animal gifts. Sharing food or not sharing food determines how it will taste; food without knowledge turns into poison; and food itself can be “made into a god” (1990, 56). Alternately, Mauss describes how the cow symbolically holds the most significant status as a gift and provokes the experience of transference between owner/recipient with cow. In other words, the cow becomes the person and the person becomes the cow. To reinforce this identification of property with person is the practice that occurs in preparation for giving the cow away. This practice involves the owner observing and imitating their cow for three days, living in their cow’s environment, eating their cow’s urine, dung and barley, and through all this, become “one single soul” (1990, 58). Upon receiving the cow, the recipient proclaims, “Those which you are, those I am, become this day of your essence. By giving you away, I gave myself” (1990, 58). Through eating from the cow and living with the cow, the person ‘becomes’ the essence of the cow. This transference of “property” (in Mauss’s words) and person relates to Mauss’s ongoing analysis of the blending together of persons and things, and the notion that, according to his various objects of study, things come to have souls (I will expand upon this below).

Bakhtin claims that human encounters, “take place inside the open, biting, rending, chewing mouth”. The mouth is “one of the most ancient, and most important objects of human thought and imagery. Here man [sic] tastes the world, introduces it to his body, makes it part of himself” (1968, p.281). Hence, life is the eternal movement, the perpetual process, of consumption. And in turn, consumption contextualizes life.

I would like to take a moment here to consider whether Bakhtin’s conceptualization of gastronomic consumption is linked in some way with Marx’s notion of the culture of consumption. Perhaps the fact that ‘consumption’ is used to describe capitalist commodity culture is a reference to this intrinsic experience of taking objects inside ourselves, and as Mauss describes, sharing their souls and becoming them through eating them? Could the phenomenon of  “consumers” be a mimetic symbol of the powerfully significant experience of eating and the power that comes with eating as enabling one to merge, embody and personify the thing being consumed? Thus, maybe the transference of thing as subject/subject as thing that Mauss discusses directly derives from coming to consider certain things as ideologically edible objects? Accordingly, this appetite to “inhabit” them, to becoming them, can only be satiated through feeling like one has consumed them (I think here of hook’s “Eating The Other”).

These thoughts are still fresh in my mind and I am definitely still trying to make sense of them it would be interesting to explore how anthropologists have incorporated eating rituals within their analysis. In a broad sense, I am curious about examining the texts we have been reading from a sensory perspective. How have things like gastronomy, aesthetics, etiquette and consumption (all of which were mentioned by Mauss) articulated in various ethnographers accounts of cultural identity, social relations, knowledge and power? In specific relation to this weeks text, I ask: can Mauss’s queries be regifted through Bahtkin’s perception of the world as taking place within the open, biting, rending and chewing of the mouth?

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