Hau: a structuralist critique

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1950), critiques Mauss’s notion of hau. This is the mysterious force in the gift, given in the property-exchange rituals of archaic societies, which demands its return at a later date. Hau is necessary for the gift, as it produces the synthesis between these two antithetical operations of giving and returning.

Instead of focusing on the thing that is given in the gift and its call for return, Lévi-Strauss, in line with the principles of linguistic structuralism, directs us outwards, towards the language in which these practices of gift-giving are expressed. In those societies studied, the antithesis between giving/returning does not exist, as these “antithetical operations are expressed by the same word.”

He goes on to quote from Marcel Mauss who notes, in The Gift, that “Papuan and Melanesian have one single term to designate buying and selling, lending and borrowing. “Operations that are opposites are expressed by the same word.” (GT, 75) Therefore, Lévi-Strauss claims, there is no need for hau, the “aura” of the gift, which he calls a “magical” notion.

Derek Hampson

Hau: the Aura of the Gift

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

In his 1925 essay The Gift, Marcel Mauss addresses the nature of the gifts exchanged in rituals such as the potlatch. Asking “what force is there in the given thing that causes its recipient to pay it back?” (GT, 41) Mauss names this “force” hau, a Maori word which might be translated as “aura.”

Hau signals the hidden power of the gift to demand restitution, it is that which carries out the synthesis, essential to the gift, between two antithetical operations, giving/taking or giving/returning.

Derek Hampson

Structuralism – a very short overview

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

Jacques Derrida’s Given Time can be read in part as a critique of structuralism, the central belief of which is that elements of human culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure, such as language. It works to uncover the structures that underlie all the things that humans do, think, perceive, and feel.

Structuralism is a methodology, i.e. a body of methods, rules and beliefs, that has been applied to a diverse range of fields, including anthropology, sociology, psychology, literary criticism, economics and architecture. The most prominent thinkers associated with structuralism include the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss; whose “discreet and respectful critique” of Marcel Mauss is in turn critiqued by Derrida in chapter 3 of Given Time.

As an intellectual movement, structuralism was initially presumed to be the heir apparent to existentialism. However, by the late 1960s, many of structuralism’s basic tenets came under attack from a new wave of predominantly French intellectuals, including Jacques Derrida.
Adapted from the Wikipedia entry for “Structuralism”

Derek Hampson

The Delay of the Gift

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

From Reception to Restitution

In his 1925 essay The Gift, Marcel Mauss seeks to explain the exchange economies of archaic societies in terms of gifts given and gifts returned. Mauss approaches this through a study of the potlatch, a property-giving ritual practised by indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada and the USA. He uses his account to challenge contemporary views of the potlatch’s underlying structure, which was thought as an economic cycle, of debts entered into and debts repaid, at a legally binding “due date.” Instead Mauss describes the potlatch as having a gift structure, one of “presents made” and “presents repaid,” characterising it as a process of “exchanging gifts.”

Rather than a contract between donor and donee, with an inherent due-date, the gift/countergift as theorised by Mauss is a force immanent to the thing: “a mysterious force, the thing itself demands gift and restitution.” Time is central to this, the gift cannot be reciprocated immediately, a length of time, a term, a delay must elapse before its return.

Derrida’s analysis (pp. 36-40)
Derrida points out the incongruity of Mauss’s description, gifts cannot be exchanged “tit for tat,” as this leads to their annulment. Yet the gift as given and its restitution by its return, the phenomenon of the exchanged gift, is undeniable. The gift and its exchange are joined, they are in synthesis. For Derrida this paradox constitutes the “madness of the gift,” one which informs his thinking on the subject.

He says that the syn of synthesis, which means “together,” has “an essential relation to time,” in terms of a “certain deferral/differing in time.” (38) In Derrida’s eyes the delay of the gift, its term, as a word and as the length of time of delayed return, creates a differance.* This acts as a “guardrail”** against the madness of the gift, which to be a gift must remain foreign to the circle of exchange, yet is pulled into it through its restitution, the antithesis of the gift.

Thus the temporalised thing, that which is in a neutral and homogenised time, is transformed as a gift, “temporized” – made subject to the time of delay. Derrida says this force of delay is inscribed in/upon the given-exchanged thing, in terms of “limit and time.” The thing of the gift has its essence in this demand of the “gift-counter-gift.” For Mauss the delay, the term between the reception of the gift and its restitution, forms the “original essential feature of the gift.” (39) Thus the time of delay appears as intrinsic to the gift.

*A key term for Derrida, plays on the French différer, which means both “to defer” and “to differ.”

**”Guardrail” is the translation of garde-fou, which, when translated literally, means “crazy guard.”

Derek Hampson

Marcel Duchamp: The Delay in Glass

Situationist Potlatch

An exchange of insults

POTLATCH WAS THE NAME of the information bulletin of the Lettrist International, 29 issues of which were produced between June 1954 and November 1957. An instrument of propaganda during the transitional period from the insufficient and failed attempts of post-war avant-gardists to the organization of the cultural revolution now systematically initiated by the situationists, Potlatch was without doubt the most radical expression of its time, that is to say the most advanced search for a new culture and a new life.

Potlatch took its name from the North American Indian word for a pre-commercial form of circulation of goods, founded on the reciprocity of sumptuous gifts. The non-salable goods which such a free bulletin could distribute were desires and unedited problems; and it was their profundity for others that constituted a gift in return. This explains why the exchange of experience in Potlatch was often supplied as an exchange of insults, the sort of insults that we owe to those whose idea of life is inferior to our own.

Guy Debord, 1959 – read full text here

This post is part of the Art as Gift project

Derek Hampson

The Potlatch a War of Property

A display of goods to be given away at a potlatch at Yalis (Alert Bay, British Columbia), ca. 1900.

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

The Potlatch
A gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, among whom it is traditionally the primary economic system. (Wikipedia)

Marcel Mauss’s description of the potlatch:
“madly extravagant …Everything is based upon the principles of antagonism and of rivalry. The political status of individuals in the brotherhoods and clans… are gained in a “war of property,” just as they are in a real war…Yet everything is conceived of as if it were a “struggle of wealth.”…In a certain number of cases, it is not even a question of giving and returning, but of destroying, so as not to want to even to appear to desire repayment. Whole boxes of olachen (candlefish) oil or whale oil are burnt, as are houses and thousands of blankets. The most valuable copper objects are broken and thrown into the water, in order to crush and to “flatten” one’s rival. In this way one not only promotes oneself, but also one’s family, up the social scale.” (The Gift, 37)

Derek Hampson

The Madness of the Gift

This post is part of the Art as Gift project.

Unreasoned absurdity
Derrida says that the aporia that Given Time deals with, i.e. the “impossibility” of the gift, which to be a gift must not be recognised as such, is by necessity ordered on madness. Because of this there is always the danger of any interpretation of the gift, including his own, becoming contaminated by the same disorder. This is something that Derrida discerns in Mauss’s account of the potlatch, the gift-giving ritual practised by certain tribal societies. Further signs of the madness of the gift are given by the “madly extravagant” potlatch itself, which can lead to unflinching destruction, one in which: “Whole boxes of olachen (candlefish) oil or whale oil are burnt, as are houses and thousands of blankets.” (46)

Derrida’s analysis (pp. 35-37)
On the face of it, the discourse on madness, which is the gift, appears as mad, it is unreasoned (alogos) and absurd (atopos). The rendering of a reasoned (logos) account of the gift is impossible as the gift cannot enter into the lawful, ordered balancing (nomos) required. Furthermore the gift, and by extension its discourse, has an atopic character, the gift to be a gift cannot have taken place (topos). (35) At this point Derrida associates another aspect of the gift, that of forgetting, an “affirmative condition of the gift,” with madness. Asking how can it be anything other than mad to desire to forget the giving of the gift, a giving which is the “origin of the good?” (36)

Returning to reason and order, the idea of madness can also be applied to the rational logos itself, which demands that the gift be annulled by equivalence (i.e. the giving back, the restitution, the exchange of the gift). This leads Derrida to ask: “Is madness the economic circulation annulling the gift in equivalence? Or is it the excess, the expenditure, or the destruction?” (37)

Derek Hampson