The Gift in the Heart of Language: the Maternal Source of Meaning by Genevieve Vaughan (Mimesis International 2015)
Reviewed by Kaarina Kailo
Vaughan’s comprehensive re-interpretation of patriarchal science as itself expressing the exchange paradigm is of profound and timely relevance to gender studies. Her theoretical contribution consists in tackling the blind spots not only of gender studies but all patriarchal scientific fields from linguistics, Marxist theory, child development studies to semiotics and economics at large. Vaughan exposes all the fields which have built their methods and research processes subconsciously on the biased model of exchange and masculated perspectives represented as “neutral” and “natural”. The Rome-based American philosopher points out that thanks to feminism, the LGBT and the men’s movement, many are already questioning the prevailing gender stereotypes. Vaughan’s theories move beyond the second and third waves of feminism to create a wave of its own—beyond performative gender, the misnomer called “essentialism” and the disastrous impact of postmodern and neoliberal feminism. Vaughan is right to stress that we will not solve the crises of this era (increasing encroachment of neoliberal predatory patriarchy, capitalism and the financial powers on what remains of democracy and welfare societies) unless we recognize the important economic aspects of mothering. Beyond any biological or cultural essentialism, she refers to the gendered dimension of epistemology rather than reducing it ideologically to “biological nature.” Neither eliminating Capitalism while maintaining Patriarchy, nor eliminating Patriarchy while maintaining Capitalism will change the situation, Vaughan points out.
Vaughan argues that the liberation of the gift model requires an end to the market and to patriarchy. This is necessary in order to create an egalitarian society that will function according to the human values based on the maternal logic that have for long been appropriated and redirected to serve exchange, ego-oriented homo economicus and capitalistic accumulation. Gifting within the model of competition, domination and patriarchal power- over is a contradiction in terms and it can never bring about a peaceful society.
One main aim of the book is to help women and men respect their own maternal origins and throw off the parasite of the exchange economy. Vaughan reveals the numerous ways in which humans receive gifts from their environmental niche. We are in receivership of endless perceptual gifts. Our eyes are continually exploring our environment even if we don’t realize it, finding the gifts, the “affordances”. We breathe in gifts of air and breathe out carbon dioxide which is a gift for plants. Our hearts pump oxygenated blood out to nurture our cells, and back to be replenished.
The market economy is according to Vaughan composed of private property owners or would-be owners and exchangers in the midst of a sea of gifts we do not recognize as such. We do not recognize them until we find ways of turning the gifts into commodities, as our corporations have done recently with water, seeds, genes and language itself, which has been commodified even before we knew it was a gift made of gifts.
The virtual abundance that there is now online is like the virtual abundance in language and is conducive to gift giving and to the positive human relations carried by the gift economy. Vaughan claims that we have distorted our concepts of who we are and what we should do by superimposing an alienated economy of exchange on a human communicative economy of the gift. Recognizing this is the first step in making the change towards an economy based on free material and linguistic communication and the elaboration of the altercentric mother-child relation.
If we conceive altercentric mothering-being-mothered as gift giving and receiving, if we recognize the very positive maternal gift character of indigenous matriarchal gift economies, of the ancient virtual invention of language itself and of social incarnations of linguistic giving in symbolic gift exchange, and most recently in the maternal and linguistic aspects of the modern internet wiki economy, of volunteering, of social experiments in gifting communities, of ecological initiatives like permaculture, we will find the way to a positive material economy of abundance and a culture of peace.
More specifically, Vaughan theorizes, providing convincing evidence from recent infant psychology (Braten, Meltzoff, Trevarthen and others), that children are born prosocial and they elicit interaction with motherer (whether female or male, mother, father, sibling or aunt). This challenges the widely-spread previous claim regarding infants believed by Freud and Piaget and Skinner to be passive and solipsistic.
Language, by repeating mothering at another level, maintains the altercentric giving/receiving capacity for children who later engage in the many variations on mothering that make up social life. By re-enacting the maternal model in language, people’s unilateral gift capacity is maintained after childhood, ready to be used in their own practice of mothering. Thus language would have a selective advantage in that more of the children of speaking mothers would survive, grow up and have children who would survive. Language functions as a kind of refrigerator, storing the altercentric nurturing capacity in the child as s:he becomes an adult, keeping it fresh for later use. Thus contrary to the commonplace ideas of the maternal instinct and the ‘language instinct’ (Pinker 1995), verbal giving as a social transposition of mothering, would function to offset the lack of maternal instinct, especially after the initial hormonal drives of the birth mother are terminated. Vaughan replaces he and she by s:he to draw attention, on the level of the word-gift itself, to the nurturing logic of maternal nipples, reflected now in the gender-inclusive pronoun.
Vaughan’s theory of giving has radical positive consequences for social change and the demise of the nefarious logic of exchange. Giving is not moral or ethical, but simply the normal propensity of humans to create bonds and ensure collective survival. Receiving likewise is freed of any false projections of shame, dependency or debt as receiving is simply the required natural correspondent of giving as human capacity. Relationships of giving have maternal nurturance as their root but are repeated on all levels from language to communication and ecosocially sustainable economics. Quid pro quo exchange, in contrast, denies the mother while abusing women’s and other groups’ gifts to make profit and benefit the ego.
Vaughan’s contribution is remarkable also in taking on the sociological and anthropological studies on the Gift from Mauss to Derrida, Bataille and Bourdieu, revealing the extent to which they fail to see and consider the obvious: maternal giving. Vaughan’s book deserves to be required reading also in this field as it masterfully exposes the lacunae and masculated biases of the “mauss traps”. Vaughan’s book merits to be placed in the lineage of the queen bees of women’s studies from Helene Cixous (also a theorist of the Gift), Luce Irigaray, Nel Noddings, Judith Butler and Monique Wittig to name just a few theorists who have radically altered our conceptions of gender and power. Her courageous, far-reaching acts of Gift giving to bring about social change make her theories all the more convincing. She walks her talk and rolemodels gift circulation through the foundations and networks she has founded in North America and Europe.
She does not for all that idealize charity but the importance of the fact that mothers give unilaterally as a precondition for the infant’s survival. Giving here is not tied with being good but with being human, recognizing that humans cannot survive without giving. Her radical message to the men’s and women’s movement is this: the norm of the human must change, men and women need to adopt the maternal logic as their common humanity, or else the very planet will be destroyed.
Vaughan discusses the particular capacity of the gifts in language to be expanded and generalized, functioning also when we use it for nurturing each other individually and collectively and when we care for Mother Nature. Even though our society is going mad, we maintain our capacity for altercentrism intact through language. On the other hand Vaughan sees money as a drastically altered rematerialized word-gift, which is used to mediate relations of distrust and not-giving. Money broadcasts a figure of one over many which has merged with one over many patriarchal standards. This creates the patriarchal capitalist economy, which is motivated by the false masculated drives of competition, accumulation, domination and the need to be the standard, the one at the top.
Vaughan’s book is a gift also for social change activists. After the highly sophisticated theoretical part, it includes concrete suggestions for gift work. Among the most important of Vaughan’s insights are that the gift paradigm allows us to see mothering as economic, and communication as turntaking unilateral gift giving. Furthermore, by positing the mother¨child dyad as involving two creative, active parties, she changes our perspective on where language comes into being. Language is a satisfaction of cognitive and communicatory needs and serves as the metaform on which all relations are based to be functional and life-promoting. Anyone who buys into the neoliberal view of the human as an autonomous, atomistic, competitive and individualistic creature alienated from Nature and the realm of mothers would do well to consider Vaughan’s sobering, rational and mind-lifting alternative, homo donans.
Dr. Kaarina Kailo is a municipal councillor in Finland is a former professor/associate professor of Women's Studies (Oulu University, Simone de Beauvoir Institute in Montreal). She has published extensively on the gift economy and gift imaginary and a wide range of other gender studies topics (www.kaarinakailo.info). Her main research covers postcolonial perspectives on the Sami, Finno-Ugric deities and folklore, the bear ceremonial, gendered violence and healing, the gender impact of globalization and the Finnish welfare state.