(Essay 2) The Feminine Principle of Communication by Genevieve Vaughan

Genevieve Vaughan

What is the connection of all this with language?

In the first place, I would like to say something that goes back to the connection between economics and language. This is that basically, communication is a non-sign process. This doesn’t mean I believe it works on ESP, but rather that it is basically material communication, the giving and receiving of things that satisfy needs, that creates relations between us and to things. It creates bodies and minds that are related to each other as similar with respect to many different types of things. (I consume “X” and you consume “X”-while “X” does not consume us-we are similar with regard to “X”, which is different from us but similar to other “X’s”, which may be consumed in other moments by us or by others like us).

Language as gift-giving (also unrecognized as such) is an elaboration of the basic principle of need satisfaction of one person by another, just as the economic categories above were. This is because language, like giving and receiving, creates the subjectivity of the interactors not only with respect to what they do, but to why they do it and who they do it with. Language, like exchange (that is a complication or doubling of giving), can function to sustain and emphasize the subjectivity of the speaker, satisfying only his/her needs by means of the satisfaction of the needs of the other, giving him/her dominance. But it would not work at all without giving in order to satisfy needs, and creating relations by this more simple procedure.

Gift-giving creates relations of similarity and difference providing evidence of them through capacity for use of what is given. When the same thing is given to the giver, this proves that she is able to use what she produces, and is therefore like the previous receiver. Although giving things and satisfying needs creates relations, there are many things with regard to which one would like to create relations but which cannot be transferred from hand to hand. This difficulty is overcome by substituting other things that can be given. And here we come to language because these substitute gifts are words.

Words have the advantage over things in that, being made of sound, their consumption or use does not destroy them and they can be given away again and again. The needs they satisfy are communicative needs. The relations they establish are useful to the formation of the community and of the individual as well as of the world or ‘reality’ as something which is shared and with regard to which relations are shared.

Another way to avoid the difficulty of giving things directly is to give them only perceptively, to sight. This is enough to establish a relation between people as viewers of the same thing. However, I do not think it would work if the logical movement of giving and receiving things were not already established. This giving to perception can be identified as ostension-pointing things out. In both cases you give what is not already given at the moment-what there is not already a relation to-and in both cases the ‘gifts’ seem free.

Words are giving to us by others in general. They are social products which arise in the language when the things they stand for begin to be important enough for a need to arise for a means of communication at a certain level of specificity (and generality). Things that are important enough to be communicated about-substituted by word-are products of collective work or elaboration, unrecognized as such. The things themselves seem to be important apart from society, but even the importance is a social product. The dialectic of the attribution of importance (or value) here is similar to that of the woman’s attribution of value to others while denying that of her own work. We do not recognize the value or importance of the things we communicate about as a social product, but it is. Words function to satisfy the need for a means to a relation to something, a need that the speaker sees the hearer as having insofar as she is not yet in this relation at the moment. The speaker may need for her own relation to something to be a common relation between herself and the other, but the need for a common relation is also a need for the other’s need. New needs develop on the premise of what is already given, and new things to give sometimes become useful only after other things have been given. The speaker gives the listener words which prepare her to receive (or understand) other words which she has given or will give. Through individual combinations of word gift substitutes, we create new nonverbal things that we give or show, such as ideas, plans, points of view. The message is a present. Part of the present is the way it is organized. It is conveyed by an individual gift-a phrase or discourse using the social gifts of words.

I hope this very brief glimpse of communication and language as gift-giving suffices to let us come back to my statement in the beginning. By liberating the gift-giving side of our economy, which is the province of women, making it into a model for the definition of the species- material communication can be established between those who have the means and those who are now exploited and excluded by exchange and its dominant subjects. This will allow both others and ourselves to re-evolve as human beings.

By recognizing the gift-giving side of our economy and of language and seeing their similarities we find their common logic. It is a logic simpler than that of exchange and forms relations between human beings. Such relations also create the identity of the persons involved in the socialization process. Exchange instead isolates the individual and promotes ego dominance. In an advanced capitalist society where exchange permeates every activity, and even words-or at least phrases-are bought and sold in advertising, we can see how things that were originally gifts have been absorbed into exchange. Women’s gift-giving is not valued or it is valued in an ambiguous way-and the only sure measure of human importance is how much people are worth competing on the open labor market. Even the tendency to pay women less than men for comparable labor can be seen as an attempt to make us give some of our labor as a free gift. This perhaps can be taken as evidence of how important the gift economy is both materially and psychologically. Everyone needs someone to attribute (give) value or importance to them and this is done when we labor for them free.

What is suggested here is that we stop following the model of exchange, and in its place, put gift-giving-of which exchange is really only a corruption albeit a pervasive one. The principle of the gift, of other-oriented need-satisfaction is viable and life giving. It is the principle by which the five billion people on earth can form a peaceful community living in abundance.

(See Part 1 here)

(Meet Mago Contributor) Genevieve Vaughan


1. I do not have a biological bias according to which behavior is directly determined by biology but think that these practices are social roles, or more precisely, roles assigned by cultures according to their interpretations of the meaning-also a social factor-of our biologies. It is important to avoid the biological bias since it breeds fatalism, ‘Men are that way by their nature, they’ll never change.’ The explanation as social interpretation instead seems to be borne out by the fact that some men do follow a more nurturing way (choosing the women’s mode) while some women follow a competitive ego-oriented way more adapted to the world men make for themselves. In other words, since each gender can take on the behaviors of the other it would seem evident that neither is biologically pre-destined by nature to behave in a particular way. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.↩

2. Ontogenesis is the development of each individual from conception to maturity as contrasted to phylogenesis, the development of a species. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.↩

3. Do ut des is a Latin expression meaning “I give so that you will give.’ Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.↩


Hyde, Lewis. l983. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage Books.

Goux, Jean-Joseph. l973. Freud,Marx: Economie et symbolique. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Rossi-Landi, Ferruccio.

l968. Il Linguaggio come lavoro e come mercato. Milano. Bompiani.

l975. Linguistcs and Economics. The Hague. Mouton.

Vaughan, Genevieve. l980. “Communication and Exchange”. Semiotica. 20-l/2.

l981. “Saussure and Vigotsky via Marx”. Ars Semiotica IV: I.


Meet Mago Contributor Genevieve Vaughan