The Gift Paradigm
There is a fundamental paradigm, with widespread and far reaching effects, which is not being noticed. It may seem strange, in the time of space travel, computers and genetic engineering, that anything really important could be ignored. However, we may remember the idea of the “elephant in the living room” talked about by Alcoholics Anonymous. People who are in denial of someone’s alcoholism do not mention it. In order to maintain the status quo, they turn their attention to other things.
I believe there is a large part of life that is being denied and ignored. Unlike alcoholism, it is the healthy normal way of being, but we are indeed turning our attention away from it in order to maintain a false reality, the patriarchal status quo. I call this unseen part of life ‘the gift paradigm.’ It is a way of constructing and interpreting reality that derives from mothering and is therefore woman-based (at least as long as women are the ones who are doing most of the mothering).
The gift paradigm emphasizes the importance of giving to satisfy needs. It is need- oriented rather than profit-oriented. Free giftgiving to needs–what in mothering we would call nurturing or caring work–is often not counted and may remain invisible in our society or seem uninformative because it is qualitatively rather than quantitatively based. However, giving to needs creates bonds between givers and receivers. Recognizing someone’s need, and acting to satisfy it, convinces the giver of the existence of the other, while receiving something from someone else that satisfies a need proves the existence of the other to the receiver.
Needs change and are modified by the ways they are satisfied, tastes develop, new needs arise. As they grow, children need to become independent, and mothers can also satisfy that need by refraining from satisfying some of the children’s other needs.
Opposed to giftgiving is exchange, which is giving in order to receive. Here calculation and measurement are necessary, and an equation must be established between the products. In exchange there is a logical movement which is ego-oriented rather than other-oriented. The giver uses the satisfaction of the other’s need as a means to the satisfaction of her own need. Ironically, what we call ‘economics’ is based on exchange, while giftgiving is relegated to the home–though the word ‘economics’ itself originally meant ‘care of the household.’ In capitalism, the exchange paradigm reigns unquestioned and is the mainstay of patriarchal reality.
Even many of those who wish to challenge capitalism envision only an economy without money–a barter economy–which is of course still based on exchange. I believe they misplace the dividing line between the paradigms, making money the responsible factor rather than exchange, so they cannot clearly see the alternative that giftgiving presents. Aiding the maintenance of the status quo and the exchange economy is a view of ‘human nature’ as egotistical and competitive qualities which are required and enhanced by capitalism. The qualities required and enhanced by mothering are other-orientation, kindness and creativity. Though they are necessary for bringing up young children, these qualities are made difficult, even self-sacrificial, by the scarcity for the many which is often the consequence of the exchange economy. They are considered not ‘human nature,’ not part of reality.
I believe that the gift paradigm is present everywhere in our lives, though we have become used to not seeing it. Exchange, with its requirement for measurement, is much more visible. However, even our greeting “How are you?” is a way of asking “What are your needs?” ‘Co-muni-cation’ is giving gifts (from the Latin munus–gift) together. It is how we form the ‘co-muni-ty.’
By satisfying the needs of the infants who are dependent upon them, mothers actually form the bodies of the people who are, and live together in, the community. They also care for and maintain the implements, houses and locations where the community interactions take place. We communicate with each other through our gifts of goods, through co-munication. Each gift carries with it something of the thought process and values of the giver and affirms the value of the receiver. In fact, goods and services that are given freely to satisfy needs give value to the receiver by implication.
 It would be interesting to look at anorexia as a refusal not only of food but of the value that would have been transmitted to the receiver through the reception of nurturing. Perhaps the anorexic takes on the exchange paradigm too profoundly or too soon.
[Editor’s Note: The following sequels are from For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange by Genevieve Vaughan. Footnotes may differ from the original text.]
(To be Continued)
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