(Essay 2) Gift Giving and the Goddess, A philosophy for Social Change by Genevieve Vaughan

Genevieve Vaughan, Advocate

Meet Mago Contributor, Genevieve Vaughan.

Abstract reasoning has been influenced by exchange. It is not a sui generis activity but only a complication of giftgiving and language, which has left aside or cancelled the other oriented content in order to contend with cause and effect, quantification, self reflecting consciousness and supposedly value-free (not value- giving) ‘activity’. By abstracting from giftgiving we prepare ourselves for exchange. We eliminate meaningful human relations and bonding based on giving, and separate reason from the emotions which respond to needs. Our emotional responses create the map that tells us where and what gifts to give. Basing reason as we do on the equations and categories of exchange while discrediting emotions, we find our lives are no longer ‘meaningful’. That is because meaning – in life as in language – is formed by gift giving communication. We also forget that the truth is other oriented, that it satisfies the other’s need to know, while lying is constructed according to the model of exchange, satisfying only the speakers’ own need. Our lack of honesty is also a lack of altruism and gift giving is defeated once more.

Many aspects of our lives are informed by the paradigm of exchange without our realizing it. For example, justice is constructed upon the exchange model. We quantify wrong doing and impose a payment. The feeling of guilt is a kind of personal readiness to pay. We need kindness instead, for-giveness and a concentration on the needs of all the parties involved. Profit, in Marx’s sense of surplus value, is an unpaid portion of the workers’ labor, which may be considered as a leveraged gift. The system of exchange depends upon this gift for its motivation and on the many free gifts that are given to it by women’s (and some men’s) nurturing work, the sometimes laborious activity of shopping, of child care and elder care, the ‘reproduction’ of the work force. Slavery of one kind or another throughout history has provided the forced unpaid ‘extra’ that was necessary for the growth of ‘just’ and equal exchange. Presently the cheap labor and natural resources of third world countries provide a flow of gifts to the market economies of the North.

By taking off the eyeglasses of exchange we can see Mother Earth not as the adversary or as raw material for our profit making activities but as the great gift giver. Each of the four elements has a different gift quality. Fire can be given to others without losing it, water nurtures life freely making up most of our body mass, earth gives us ground, space, and innumerable gifts of plant and animals, while air flows from a high pressure to a low pressure area, from where there is more to where there is less. (That’s the answer that is blowin’ in the wind). Our hearts pump blood out to satisfy the needs of our cells and then the blood returns to be re oxygenated. Every ecological niche meets the needs of the animals and plants that are adapted to it. Light from stars leaps over endless space to become a gift when our eyes are there to receive it. Mother Earth herself has taken the light of the sun and used it to create life in innumerable interactive (intergiving) patterns. In fact giftgiving is Her Way, not exchange. So how did exchange happen? How did we get so far from the Way of the Mother? I believe the answer goes something like this. By naming boys and girls with different gender terms we have alienated our boy children. We have taught them they have to be something different from their giftgiving mothers, even though it is difficult to construct an identity apart from the giftgiving by which our bodies and minds are formed. Cognitive psychologists have indicated that we construct our categories using prototypes (2). I believe that when a boy discovers he is not part of the category of his giftgiving mother he seizes upon the father as the prototype for the category ‘human’ and he uses that prototype for his own development of a non nurturing, non female, identity, which then appears to be the human identity. There is a one-to-many relation between a prototype and things related to it, so there is logically only one prototype per category. Boys are in the situation of having to compete with the father and with other males to be the one prototype for ‘human’, an almost impossible and contradictory task. The competition to get to the top and remain there becomes dominance and power-over. Hierarchies are constructed to provide many levels of categories so that at least some different people get to have the prototype position. In response to this misconceived, artificial agenda, females are seen to be those who cannot be prototypes for the human concept and who do not compete for dominance. In fact they continue to be socialized to be mothers and to follow a different, more human, giftgiving agenda. The fact that both men and women can participate in the work force and do child care shows that these are socially imposed roles and value systems. They are not biologically pre determined. In fact many people have both value systems operating internally, with all the conflict and confusion that ‘engenders’.

Anthropologists talk about a cross cultural ‘manhood script’ and describe many more or less atrocious puberty rites which ensure the distance of the boy from the mother and the nurturing way. The stoicism and autonomy males are required to embrace encourage them to be impervious to their own and other’s needs. Attention to needs is of course necessary for the giftgiving way to function. Competition and domination are part of the script and take place in opposition to giftgiving, cooperation, inclusiveness and the celebration of differences. One place which does not have this ‘manhood script’ is the island of Tahiti. The language of Tahiti does not contain gender terms (3). To me this seems to bear out my idea that the script is basically written by language itself, causing a problem of miscategorization. Some other hunter gatherer societies, such as the African !Kung live in harmony with nature. They recognize nature as nurturing them, giving them gifts in a ‘cosmic economy of sharing’ (4). There the mothering prototype is recognized or projected into nature, even if the language does have gender terms and misogyny. If language is based on gift giving, and if it was language that made humanity evolve, we can say that it was, at least in part, giftgiving that made humanity evolve. We are actually giftgivers and receivers, like nature, but we have misinterpreted the gift of our biological differences and the corresponding gifts of our gender terms to mean that we have different basic life scripts. These scripts alienate the members of half of humanity from the giftgiving norm and make the other half subservient to them. One long term peaceful solution to the problem would be to eliminate gender terms as in Tahiti. Another is the restoration of the mothering prototype. Because we are all children who had to have had mothers or caregivers who nurtured us we can understand nature as providing for us in a giftgiving way. We can develop an epistemology in which our response to our experience, knowledge, can be seen as a kind of gratitude. We have blinded ourselves to this aspect of our human nature by giving our gifts to the market, to the exchange paradigm and to the values of the ‘manhood script’. The exchange paradigm competes mercilessly with the gift paradigm. Many of the great atrocities of history from the slaughter of the witches to the genocide of the indigenous peoples have been motivated by the need of the exchange paradigm to eliminate the giftgiving or mothering model as the prototype for human life on earth. However at this point the exchange economy is destroying the planet and penalizing huge numbers of humans through poverty, disease, violence and war. We must become wise enough to shift paradigms towards the mothering way.

We are at a critical time. Like a psychotic, society ‘acts out’, representing its psychosis externally at another level in its institutions, in its hierarchies and its wars, in individual and collective acts of competitive violence to achieve the dominant position. As I write these words my country and yours are acting out their manhood script to destroy the male prototype of another society by dumping millions of tons of phallic bombs and missiles upon ‘his’ territory and ‘his’ people, to get rid of him. In the longer term, first world businesses maraud third world countries in the name of ‘free trade’. Scarcity is created where abundance should be, causing starvation and disease for many while the few at the top accumulate the capital that allows them to leverage power over the many. In this scenario giftgiving appears unrealistic, an impossible dream. However, psychoses can be healed. The half of humanity which has not been given the manhood script can begin to validate the giftgiving values it already has and promote them both personally and politically. The half of humanity that does have that script can begin to question it instead of embracing it or acting it out.

We can all look at the problems of society as needs that are waiting to be satisfied. Solutions to our society’s problems, to its psychotic displays, its cruel and murderous behavior patterns, are the greatest gifts that anyone can give. They are gifts to the children of the future, and to Mother Earth herself who does not want to see her precious creations destroyed. They also provide the healing gift of self respect as we act in accordance with a human race in harmony with the giftgiving universe. I believe that well thought out social and political activism is one way to begin to give these gifts. Another is the creation of alternative models. Another is communication at a ‘meta’ level about the sick society and the gift economy. At the same time we have to avoid the obstacles that have impeded the shifting of the paradigm until now. For example charity, while it involves giftgiving, is only functional on an individual basis and does not address the systemic status quo. We need to concentrate on changing the psychotic institutions not only on saving their individual victims. By changing the institutions and shifting the paradigm we can spare everyone. I believe that the popularity of both Princess Diana and Mother Teresa is due to our longing for a female giftgiving prototype. Both of these women were caught within patriarchal institutions however, and were not so much addressing changing the system itself as they were involved in practicing individual charity. I believe systemic change is the key because it is the system that is causing the problems. Concentrating on individual charity usually makes us forget the need for systemic change and does not challenge the status quo.

Another paradox involves the prototype position itself. If the social prototype is as I believe, a projection of an instrument of our concept forming process, concentrating on its dominance and singularity creates an exclusionary mentality as happens with monotheism. The singular dominant prototype of the giftgiver is a contradiction in terms. The giftgiver always includes the other. Moreover, as Patricia Mognahan says, goddess spirituality is never monotheistic. On the other hand Chrisitianity can be seen as proposing a giftgiving male prototype (perhaps the idea of the Trinity attempts to get beyond the paradox by re introducing plurality into the prototype, uniting the many in the One). Monotheism and patriarchal hierarchies conceal the giftgiving that women have been doing daily throughout history. The validation of sacrifice makes us not see that the context of scarcity in which sacrifice is necessary, is created by the exchange system.

Those of us who honor the ancient ways and love Mother Earth, approaching her with wonder, can participate in the varieties of life beyond monotheism, loving the whole in her parts. When we create a society in which giftgiving has become the human norm, our spirituality will be liberated and we will recognize the goddess in each other and the earth. Though some of us may feel that we are already experiencing this phenomenon, we have to remember the dire situation society is in and try to turn our giftgiving towards the big picture. Protesting against patriarchy is a spiritual necessity. We must mother society, mother the future, mother our Mother the Earth and our human mothers as well as our children. As we call upon the ancient goddesses of our own and other cultures we empower ourselves with their gifts and we are also respecting the need of the people of the past not to have lived in vain, to have a progeny that survives on this magical planet, which must not be destroyed. When we look at our planet from space we see that here we are living in comparative Eden. The sun shines on other planets and on the moon yet they are desolate. The earth has created all this abundance of life, using the energy of the sun. She is the creative receiver-and-giver. We must honor her processes. When we have restored the giftgiving way we will all be able co muni cate with the spirits of nature who have no gender script. Presently our exchange system must be toxic to them so they keep away from us. Our psychic abilities cannot develop because the contents of our minds have been made manipulative by our economics. Perhaps if we create a gift based society we will be able to form a community with the spirits of the dead as well, a practical heaven on earth.

Avalon Magazine 1999


2. Lev Vigotsky,1962, Thought and Language . Cambridge. The M.I.T. Press. George Lakoff, 1987,Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

3. David G. Gilmore, 1990. Manhood in the Making. New Haven & London, Yale University Press.

4. Nurit Bird-David,1992 ‘Beyond “The Original Affluent Society” in ‘Limited Wants, Unlimited Means’ ed. John Gowdy, Island Press, Washington, D.C.1998.

©2003- 2014 The Gift Economy. All Rights Reserved.

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I think the body of your written work is an extraordinary gift, making connections that no one else has made before in quite the same way. I appreciate it enormously for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it opens up so many new pathways to explore.