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Women and the Gift: Beyond the Given and All-Giving

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Recent inquiries into the concept of the gift have been largely male-dominated and thus have ignored important aspects of the gift from a woman’s point of view. In the light of philosophical work by Mauss, Lévi-Strauss, Derrida, and Bataille, Women and the Gift reflects how women respond to the notion of the gift and relationships of giving. This collection evaluates and critiques previous work on the gift and also responds to how women view care, fidelity, generosity, trust, and independence in light of the gift.

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1. Pandora and the Ambiguous Works of Women: All-Taking or All-Giving?

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[Give is a good girl, but Take is bad. She is a giver of death.]

—HESIOD, WORKS AND DAYS

Women in ancient Greek myth and literature are often represented as gifts to be exchanged among men, as objects rather than subjects. When they do become active agents of exchange, these exchanges often have serious negative consequences for themselves and their male relations. Together, these attitudes are part of a larger pattern of undervaluing the contributions of women. Analyzing this material in light of cross-cultural evidence about gender, kinship, and exchange, I will show that anxiety about women’s role as exchange object and as exchanger is closely linked to ancient Greek ideas about marriage and the gendered division of labor. What is more, it is already encoded in the first appearance of woman as recounted in two seventh-century bce texts—the Theogony and the Works and Days—attributed to the Boeotian poet Hesiod. In the first of these, woman remains nameless; only in the second is she given the name Pandora.

 

2. Nietzsche, the Gift, and the Taken for Granted

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Without a doubt, a good number of Nietzsche’s writings are not only sexist, but misogynist. Unlike many philosophers who write about “man,” taking women either to be subsumed under this term or not, but in any case of no particular interest in themselves, Nietzsche has much to say about women. Unfortunately, much of this much that he has to say is either virulently nasty or simply silly. Fortunately, Nietzsche has other things to say as well. In addition to his rather grim and dim comments, he also makes statements about women that indict the society that limits and constrains them. For Nietzsche was sufficiently both a social philosopher and an analyst of the presence of power in interhuman relations to realize that women frequently act in a certain way because this is what men want, and what society and culture demand. He often states this fairly clearly.

On the one hand, then, we have Nietzsche’s sexist and misogynist comments and, on the other, his incisive critique of patriarchy. Beyond this, there are numerous writings on women that are simply ambiguous (not that many of his writings are unambiguous, but some are more obviously hermeneutically demanding). Nietzsche’s aphoristic style contributes to this, and Nietzsche himself worried that his writings would be misinterpreted, insisting that individual aphorisms not be isolated from broader thematic concerns. Just as philosophers gradually came to understand Nietzsche’s works not as eclectic collections of opinions and observations, but as intertwined explorations of philosophical ideas, so too his comments on women—even ones that seemed plainly derogatory—began to be considered in relation to his other critiques and concepts. For example, a comment on women’s superficiality was no longer simply examined as a prejudicial remark, or considered in terms of men’s interest in women’s appearance, but also investigated in relation to Nietzsche’s critique of notions of philosophical “depth” and his admiration for the ancient Greek interest in surface. In other words, Nietzsche’s statements on women came to be regarded as part of a constellation of concepts (to borrow a term from Adorno). Philosophers began to consider not only what Nietzsche wrote about women, but the concept of “woman” in Nietzsche and what was configured with this concept.

 

3. “Everything Comes Back to It”: Woman as the Gift in Derrida

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I mostly speak, and this has been true for a long time, of sexual differences, rather than of just one difference—dual and oppositional—which, along with phallocentrism, with what I also dub carnophallogocentrism, is in fact a structural feature of philosophical discourse that has been dominant in the tradition. Deconstruction goes by that route in the very first place. Everything comes back to it. Before any feminist politicization (and even though I have often associated myself with that, on certain conditions) it is important to recognize this powerful phallogocentric basis that conditions more or less the whole of our cultural inheritance.

—JACQUES DERRIDA, “CHOREOGRAPHIES”

I may have told this story another time, in another place, perhaps even in another way, but I want to tell it again here, in speaking of women and the gift.

I met Sarah Kofman when I was a graduate student, and encountered her perhaps twice after that. Then, one day many years ago, the tear sheets from one of her articles arrived in the mail with only a scribbled note, now illegible from the passage of time. I tried to determine why she should send this bit of writing to me, but found no obvious answer and filed it away. Sometime later I learned, quite indirectly, of her death. And sometime after that, I learned, again quite indirectly, that she died a suicide. With each new layer of understanding, that article, that gift, became something very different.

 

4. Melancholia, Forgiveness, and the Logic of The Gift

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There is a line in Marcel Mauss’s renowned essay The Gift that never fails to interrupt that simple repetitious rhythm of one mind engaged with another in the act of reading; I am talking here of the easy tick-tock movement of the head, from left to right and back again, like the pendulous bulb that gives to time its measure. The passage in question resists this motion, demands pause, and a measure of its own. Each time I finish reading the phrase, I invariably return to its beginning to read it over once again, and again, as if repetition in rupture will somehow make sense of itself.

The line reads as follows: “Now in our view one of the most important acts noted . . . and one which throws a strong light on sexual relationships, is the mapula, the sequence of payments by a husband to his wife as a kind of salary for sexual services” (Mauss 1967, 71). Mauss here is simply referring to Malinowski’s work on the Trobriands, and of the system of gift exchange that functions as the substratum of their economy. So, why does this straightforward sentence, a passing observation that is not returned to again in the book, jar the fluid, forward motion of my reading? It may be because this is one of very few references made by Mauss to an economy of the gift that includes women, who are typically the objects of gift-giving and not the recipients (though it is true that Mauss does not actually include in his reference the gifts received by the women for their “sexual favors”). It could also be because this is the only reference where Mauss discusses the active participation of women in the giving of gifts, that is, as donees, and not just as objects or recipients. Then there is Mauss’s ambiguous yet sweeping reference to the power of this information to “throw a strong light on sexual relationships” generally. But the phrase itself, which implicitly frames so much of the contemporary literature on gift-giving, rests precariously on a presupposition. In Mauss’s sentence, women are the objects of desire, since they give as their gift “sexual services.” Women are positioned in the sentence as the recipients of desire. The husband must give something other, something the wife needs— but does not “desire”—as a payment for his desires. Yet for Mauss’s statement to have meaning of any kind, one must accept that his observation is contingent upon the assumption that women are without desire(s), that they must gift their bodies to the desires of men, but they themselves do not desire.

 

5. Gift of Being, Gift of Self

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It’s not enough

deciding to open.

 

You must plunge your fingers

Into your navel, with your two hands

split open,

spill out the lizards and horned toads

the orchids and the sunflowers,

turn the maze inside out.

Shake it. . . .

—GLORIA ANZALDÚA, “LETTING GO”

From Mauss, to Lévi-Strauss, to Derrida, the gift is presented, presents itself; it is eluded or it eludes us. Not a nicely wrapped box to be opened so as to find a clear, obvious, beautiful content. Questions of meanings, intentions, obligations, come to mind. The gift, connected to sociality and obligation (Mauss 1990) or to purity and impossibility (Derrida 1992), does not only represent the possibility for what some consider a purer, more “authentic,” perhaps more noble economy than the market exchange engendered by modern capitalism; it can also point to excess and power (Bataille 1988)—but it can also be a gift of disclosure, of understanding, a gift of being (Heidegger 1972).

 

6. The Gift of Being, Gift of World(s): Irigaray on Heidegger

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We can receive anything from love, for that is a way of receiving it from ourselves; but not from any one who assumes to bestow.

—RALPH WALDO EMERSON

Recently in theoretical circles, the concept of the gift has been frequently thematized and taken up, especially in conversation with Marcel Mauss’s canonical text, The Gift, written in 1925. In this book, Mauss argues that the gift is a symbol of social and economic hierarchy, elaborating on the workings of power that underlie the gift and gift-giving. Alternatively, one can look to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s view that a true gift is unnecessary, excessive, and, if true, a gift only of the self. Emerson derides the idea that a gift is an exchange, saying that if this is so, then it is not a gift. I want to take up these two views of the gift to frame the thought of Luce Irigaray and Martin Heidegger. For both thinkers, the Maussian view of the economy of the gift is a metaphysical apparatus, and even tautological. Both would agree with the criticism that Mauss’s thought is western-centric, even if each applies the criticism within differing frameworks and for differing aims. If like Emerson one considers the gift to be an overflowing, one comes close to each of our thinkers’ visions—a framing for a way out of metaphysics. The very idea of the gift is for both thinkers a condition and an event, a propaedeutic and a futural saving. How the gift comes about is where the two diverge. Irigaray reveals and corrects Heidegger’s origin of the gift. She places his notion of the gift squarely within masculinist discourse, revealing it to be masquerading as a neutral, apolitical transcendental condition.1

 

7. Graceful Gifts: Hélène Cixous and the Radical Gifts of Other Love

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I shall have a great deal to say about the whole deceptive problematic of the gift.

—HÉLÈNE CIXOUS, “THE LAUGH OF THE MEDUSA”

Giving requires no courage, but to receive love so much strength, so much patience, and so much generosity must be extended.

—HÉLÈNE CIXOUS, THE BOOK OF PROMETHEA

If Anglo-American criticism were anything to go by, one could be forgiven for thinking that the summum bonum of Hélène Cixous’s thinking on the gift was reached somewhere around the mid-1970s with the publication of her polemical essay “Sorties.” Here she adopted what has arguably come to be identified as a Derridean formulation of the gift—though it owes considerably more to Marcel Mauss—in asserting that axiomatic principle that “really there is no ‘free’ gift”; that “you never give something for nothing” (“Sorties” 87). But following this assertion in “Sorties,” and in true Cixousian fashion, she had no sooner made this claim than she took off in a different direction toward what appeared then to be another question altogether. This change in direction concerned the contribution that sexual difference might make to reflections on spending, and thus to the problematics of economies of the gift. So while it is true for both Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida that there may indeed be no “free” gifts, for Cixous there are nonetheless notable differences in ways of thinking about economies of giving. For Cixous, these differences can be meaningfully traced along the lines of sexual difference.

 

8. John Milbank and the Feminine Gift

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John Milbank is well known in contemporary Christian thought for his critique and theological reworking of a wide range of recent literature on gift.1 This reworking appears in the context of a larger project of recovering a Christian ontology and a Christian account of worldly reality, to expose and confront what he believes to be the nihilism and violence of secular modernity and its supposedly neutral public discourses. Milbank famously argues that Christian theology cannot expect to argue its case within a context that operates according to modern assumptions. Instead, it can and should attempt to “out-narrate” secular modernity, by putting forward an alternative ontology, ethics, and politics centered on Christian faith and practice.2 The title “Radical Orthodoxy,” given by Milbank and others to the theological movement centered around his work (Milbank, Ward, and Pickstock 1998), expresses both the claim that this work presents a real alternative to secular and liberal-Christian philosophies, and the concern to be faithful to Christian tradition. Milbank’s work has always been interdisciplinary, engaging extensively with philosophical and social-scientific literature. Most often, this has been in order to uncover and criticize the alternative “theologies,” the alternative accounts of truth, goodness, and beauty, which they put forward; but Milbank has also sought, in these non-theological discourses, signs of openness to the Christian “ontology of peace” he presents.

 

9. De Beauvoir and the Myth of the Given

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Nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present—and it is we who gave and bestowed it. Only we have created the world that concerns man.

—NIETZSCHE, THE GAY SCIENCE

Man created woman—but what out of? Out of the rib of his God, of his ideal.

—NIETZSCHE, THE TWILIGHT OF THE IDOLS

In 1980, Feminist Studies published an article by Michèle Le Doeuff that invigorated debate about the originality of Simone de Beauvoir as a philosopher in her own right, beyond her reputation as a follower of Sartre. In “Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialism,” Le Doeuff claimed that Beauvoir’s approach effectively turns Sartrean existentialism on its head. Observing that it is not enough for Sartrean theory “to pass from a man’s to a woman’s hands to change from the phallocentic discourse it had hitherto been into the theoretical tool of a feminist investigation,” Le Doeuff maintains that Beauvoir “operates a series of transformations on the existential problematic,” the first and foremost being the transposition of existential worldview “from the status of a system . . . to that of a point of view orientated to a theoretical intent by being trained on a determinate and partial field of experience”—to wit, that of women (Le Doeuff 1980, 283). The effect of this transformation is revolutionary: whereas the existential ethic, according to Le Doeuff, “has the effect of expelling from the sphere of the person every possible determination, projecting them on to the exterior plane of the situation that is to be transcended,” Beauvoirean perspectivism allows that “exteriority” may act as an obstacle to transcendence, a constraint on subjectivity, a grounds for alienation (Le Doeuff 1980, 284). Whereas existentialism demands “an annihilation of every anthropological determinedness,” excluding in principle an existential anthropology, Beauvoir restores the anthropological problematic (Le Doeuff 1980, 284). Theorizing a relationship between “internal” states and “external” constraints, Beauvoir explores the questions that have dominated feminist philosophy ever since: questions about the meaning and significance of becoming a woman.

 

10. Women and the Gift: Speculations on the “Given” and the “All-Giving”

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Sexual relations between man and woman are an aspect of the total prestations1 of which marriage provides both an example and the occasion. . . . In the total prestations of which woman is only a part, there is one category whose fulfilment depends primarily on her good will, viz., personal services, whether they be sexual or domestic. The lack of reciprocity which seems to characterize these services in the Trobriand Islands, as in most human societies, is the mere counterpart of a universal fact, that the relationship of reciprocity which is the basis of marriage is not established between men and women, but between men by means of women, who are merely the occasion of this relationship.

—CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS, THE ELEMENTARY STRUCTURES OF KINSHIP

In the couple sexuality finds its actualization, its realization, an in-itself and a for-itself corresponding to the poles needed for the perfect incarnation of every man and woman’s humanity. The task is realized separately and together.

 

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