(Essay 1) Gift Giving and the Goddess, A philosophy for Social Change by Genevieve Vaughan

Meet Mago Contributor, Genevieve Vaughan.

Mago AcademyThe society in which we are living, let’s call it ‘capitalist patriarchy’ for lack of a better term, creates a perspective, a pair of eyeglasses given to us in childhood, through which we learn to look at and interpret the world. These glasses create a selective vision, foregrounding some kinds of things and backgrounding others. Some kinds of things become invisible altogether. It is the privilege and the responsibility of all those who believe in the Godess(es), in magic, and in the immanence of a better world, to take those glasses off and re focus. There is another point of view that we already engage in even without knowing it because we are trained to discount it or to interpret its messages as something else. That is the point of view of the gift paradigm.

In the early sixties I married an Italian philosophy professor and moved to Italy from Texas. Because he had studied the philosophy of language at Oxford my husband was asked to collaborate with a group of Italian professors who were starting a journal based on applying Marx’s analysis of the commodity and money to language. I went with him to the meetings. I was in my early twenties at the time and was completely bowled over by the ideas the group was discussing. I had one of those moments of enlightenment in which it seems you can understand everything. I also thought: If this means so much to me, a fairly normal girl from Texas, other people would probably have a similar reaction. Well, the years passed. The journal did not happen after all though my husband did write books dealing with the subject during the several years we were married. His approach was to look at language as exchange. Somehow that did not totally convince me. It did not accord with my original vision. Besides I was deep in mothering our three daughters and I felt that exchange was a very minimal part of that experience. In fact exchange is giving-in-order-to-receive. You have to satisfy little childrens’ needs unilaterally. They cannot exchange with you. As they get older you can of course engage in manipulation but that usually ends up hurting both the children and yourself. I knew that language was older than exchange, certainly older than exchange for money. Children also learned language before they learned exchange. I had read some anthropologists like Malinowsky and Mauss who wrote about symbolic gift exchanges and competitive potlatch. I began to develop a theory about language, exchange, and money. It appeared to me that communication was about satisfying communicative needs, needs to relate to each other as human beings regarding our experience of the world. I did an analysis of money as an ‘incarnated word’ which satisfies the communicative need everyone has in capitalism to relate to each other, bridging the gap caused by mutually exclusive private property. I joined the feminist movement in Italy and in the international consciousness raising group I was part of, which was made up mostly of women connected to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (which happened to be located near my house), we talked a lot about women’s free labor in the home. I began to see that women’s labor is gift labor and that it is the basis of co-muni-cation (‘muni’ means ‘gifts’ in Latin), the giving of free gifts together, which forms the co-muni-ty. In fact by nurturing our children we form both the bodies and the minds of the people who make up the community. This material non-sign communication involving giving and receiving without a pay back, is what makes us human generation after generation.

Giving has a transitive logic of its own. If A gives to B and B gives to C then A gives to C. Besides, when you satisfy someone’s need you give value to them, since the implication is that if they were not important to you, you would not be satisfying the need. The giver has to focus on the need of the other, so the transaction is other-oriented. Her satisfaction lies in the fulfillment and well being of the other person. The receiver must actively use what is given to her or the gift is wasted. Her position is creative, not passive, as has sometimes been imagined. She can later take turns, becoming a giver too, giving something to someone else, but she does not have to give back to the original giver an equivalent of what she has been given. The motivation of the giving is the satisfaction of the need not the ‘pay back’. Needs evolve and change. After basic needs are filled new more complex needs develop. Children who first live on milk later need other kinds of food; they learn to walk and need their mothers to allow them to be independent, and mothers satisfy that need also. Giftgiving and receiving create bonds between giver and receiver. The receiver knows someone else is ‘out there’ because someone has satisfied her need. The giver knows the receiver is ‘out there’ because she has seen the need, fashioned or procured something to satisfy it, and knows that she has influenced the well being of the other person. The bonds are formed without an expectation of reciprocity. It is not the incursion of a debt that forms the bond, rather the direct satisfaction of the others’ need. This bond-making capacity which is at the basis of co-muni-ty has often been seen as instinctual. As women have recently insisted however, nurturing requires a great deal of conscious effort on the part of the care giver.

Opposed to gift giving is the Way of exchange, where the needs of the other are satisfied only in order to procure the satisfaction of one’s own needs. Exchange involves an ego oriented logic and requires calculation, quantification and measurement to ascertain that what is received is equal to what is given. Exchange is adversarial and competitive because each person is trying to get as much as possible from the transaction. Our capitalist economy is based on exchange. The logic of exchange encroachingly influences all our relationships where gift giving used to be. Money is used to define the value of people, economists talk of a ‘marriage market’, the ‘free market of ideas’, ‘human capital’. Fast food restaurants take over nurturing and advertising ‘educates’ our needs – while we pay for this ‘education’ as part of the price of the product. Needs exist for the market only where they are addressed through ‘effective demand’, the demand of those people who have the money to pay for the products. Other needs simply do not ‘exist’.

The exchange economy requires scarcity in order to function appropriately. If gift giving were the mode of distribution exchange would become unnecessary. People would not exchange if their needs were already being satisfied by giftgiving. We can see the creation of scarcity for example, when overly abundant products, say peaches, are plowed under in an attempt to keep the price of the remaining peaches high. Abundance also makes hierarchy lose its leverage. No one would have to obey or nurture and reward the ‘one at the top’ if she could get her needs met elsewhere. Scarcity is being artificially created through arms spending ($18 billion is spent every week on armaments worldwide while that would feed all the hungry on earth for a year) and other non nurturing and wasteful expenditures in order to create and maintain an environment in which exchange and hierarchy appear to be necessary for survival. There is also a kind of ‘scarcity of meaning’; getting to the top appears to be the way to achieve meaning in our lives. Not succeeding in this pursuit to be dominant seems to make our lives meaningless.

I think that if we are to understand what is going on, the basic distinction that must be made is the distinction between giftgiving on the one hand and exchange on the other. The perspective of exchange is so powerful and pervasive that it obscures and cancels gift giving. We do not even use words that recognize the giftgiving way. For example archaeologists talk about ‘food sharing’ practices as important for the beginnings of pre history, and a recent book (1) mentions ‘grooming’ as a possible basis for the development of language. Food sharing can be seen as gift giving and grooming is a service all mothers perform. By not recognizing giftgiving as an important independent human way of behaving with its own logic, the continuity between mothering and other types of activity are lost. Anthropologists who study giftgiving in so called ‘primitive’ cultures talk about ‘gift exchange’, Their concentration on debt and forced reciprocity as the basis of human bonds denies the bond making capacity of direct giving and receiving.

Over the years I developed a theory of language as gift giving in contrast to my ex husband’s theory of language as exchange. While we give to one another and create community, there are many material things we cannot give, like mountains or the sun, and many immaterial things, like justice or partnership that cannot be transferred, or just handed over to another. Words are the socially invented commonly-held sound-gifts we can give to each other in the place of other material and immaterial gifts, creating our bonds as part of the group verbally when we cannot do so materially. We satisfy each other’s communicative needs to be put into a common relation to the world. The specification of this relation at any moment constitutes the transmission (giving and receiving) of information. We are related to each other in community as verbal givers and receivers regarding specific parts and aspects of the world (even in cases when, as happens in capitalist exchange, we are no longer giving to each other on a material basis). Syntax itself can be seen as a transposition of giving from the plane of interpersonal behavior to the plane of the relation among words. Subject, predicate and object can be seen as giver, gift or service, and receiver. A theory of language of this sort restores mothering or nurturing to its place as the main factor in our becoming human not only as a species but individually, life by life.

To be continued in part 2.

Avalon Magazine 1999

Footnote 1. Dunbar, Robin1996/1998. Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Cambridge Mass. Harvard University Press.

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

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Judy E Foster
Judy E Foster

I could not agree more with all you say here,and enjoyed reading it so much. I, too, was married in the 60’s and had three daughters, and gave up work to raise them as best as I could. When they went to University so did I, and as a result began the years of research which resulted in the publishing of my book “Invisible Women of Prehistory”.


The author refers to mothering as the basis of gifting. She’s talking about human mothering, but I would venture to suggest that the gifts we so generously and continuously receive from our Earth Mother are the true foundation of this behaviour.