Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Gift in the Heart of Language: the Maternal Source of Meaning by Genevieve Vaughan (Mimesis International 2015)

Reviewed by Kaarina Kailo

Genevieve Vaughan has published her third book regarding the transformative potential of the gift economy, a logic and matrix of practices that imply the liberation of both men and women. The new theory provides solutions to the most urgent need in neoliberal capitalist societies: to overturn the civilizational crises that capitalism and patriarchy have caused with the distortion and appropriation of the Gift. The Gift in the Heart of Language provides sobering and mind-altering care-rational perspectives on the gift economy in all of its manifestations.

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 ( 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.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Living my Life, by Emma Goldman

"Living my Life by Emma Goldman (1869-1940) is a work begging for a review by someone knowledgeable in the history of the workers' uprisings of the late 19th and early 20th century and the anarchist and socialist movements in the United States," writes Jo Ellen Hirsch. Hirsch is not such an historian, but she is an avid reader, and she has made her comments available to this blog:

Although I was not familiar with the many persons and events Goldman described, I was struck by her feminist perspective. Here are some of my observations - based on the first volume of this two volume work.

1) EG was Russian - and Russian culture just wasn't as sexually uptight as that of the US (my favorite Russian ruler being Catherine the Great)
2) She had a uterine ailment which she was told would keep her from getting pregnant so she chose not to have it fixed
3) She really was torn as she got a little older between domestic life and her career
4) Having gone abroad to train as a nurse and working as a midwife she had a good grasp of what too many childbirths can do and advocated for birth control (and would have liked to advocate for abortion)
5) She resented the way women were treated in the anarchist movement in the US

Regarding the history of the period, it's easier to understand EG's anarchism knowing how much she was inspired by indignation over the Haymarket affair (7 anarchists were sentenced to death over a bombing that none of them had been responsible for - the 3 that weren't actually killed were subsequently pardoned). Also the government went to rather ridiculous lengths in preventing anarchists from meeting and speaking. She remarked how much more free speech there was under various monarchies.

"Red Emma" was demonized and persecuted, at one point even denied lawful entry back into the United States. It is refreshing to hear her story in her own voice.

Living My Life (in two volumes) was reissued in 2011 by Penguin Classics.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Descent of Religion: Its evolution from nurturing to bullying...and back!

Cultural Motherhood: Nurturing Human Maturation as a Way of Life

A talk presented by Frieda Werden, at Women's Worlds, Ottawa, July 7, 2011, on a panel titled Shifting the Paradigm to a Maternal Gift Economy

Liz Carr-Harris, was a woman I knew slightly. She spent a lot of time homesteading in the wilderness in northern BC, and she spent most of her time up there reading. She had a master’s degree in experimental psychology, but her strongest interests became archaeology and evolutionary science. Around 2002 she started writing a book based on all she had read and absorbed, and that book just came out. It’s called The Descent of Religion: Its evolution from nurturing to bullying...and back!

Unfortunately, Liz died a few months ago and never got to see her book in print. My partner volunteered me to Liz’s partner, as a proofreader for the book, so I had to read every word. I thought it would be a chore, but it was gripping!

She writes a story that started hundreds of millions of years ago with unicellular life - some of which evolved into something more complicated. And the more complicated a life form got, the more problems it had to try to solve. And the more it solved problems, the more complicated the organism got and then the more new problems it needed to solve, in order to survive, and to reproduce and to continue.

One of the first really major complications was the division into two sexes; and the next wrinkle on that was an unequal division of labour between the sexes. By the time some life forms developed gestation in a maternal womb , the females were starting to need some help just to eat and be safe during a vulnerable time, so social grouping became really important.

Well, having so much family around to coordinate meant there had to be some communication between members of the group, and furthermore some ways of keeping behaviours on the useful side. And the more learning these organisms needed to continue to live, the more brain development they needed.

Well, once the brains reached a certain size, it became impossible for a female to give birth to a fully-developed organism; and thus, infancy and childhood started to be a solution, and to also cause their own problems.

I won’t spoil the story by telling you how patriarchy came to be invented and take over the gifts from highly developed matrifocal and child-oriented societies. But I will tell you that Liz-Carr-Harris was convinced, based on humans’ whole evolutionary experience, that patriarchy is an aberration that’s against our nature, and so it really cannot last. I found that very refreshing!

But, back to the problem of the increasingly slow maturation of the life form that we now call homo sapiens - or, the new preferred term, homo donans. [smile] We don’t just pop out of the womb like kittens, ready in a few months to begin assuming adult roles. We have really big brains that require a lot of software development - and I mean, really soft - maybe we should call it “squishy ware.”

What do we do with all that squishy ware? We learn. And as we learn, we create structures and understandings, we lay down pathways for future activities and future thoughts. As the great playwright Carolyn Gage says in one of her Lesbian Tent Revival sermons, when our human synapses get activated, then “What fires together, wires together.” We have experiences, both physical and virtual, and we learn.

Anyone who has ever spent time with an infant learns pretty quickly that learning is the most powerful human drive.

There’s a fabulous short novel by the American author Tillie Olsen, it’s called Yonnondio: From the Thirties. It’s a record of life under crushing poverty - but on the last page, the baby stands up at the table and triumphantly demonstrates its learning: “I can do!”

This isn’t memorized learning. It’s learning about how to interact with the environment, how to use oneself, how to understand action and reaction, and how to make things happen. There are so many places you can go with a will to learn like that.

My mother is a music teacher. She is 85 years old, and still teaching music, because she loves the process of teaching people how to use themselves - their voices, their breath, their fingers, their energy and their minds - in a process that both allows them to be expressive and embeds them in a culture of cooperation, precision, persistence, listening, pleasure-giving, and respect. She doesn’t think it’s any less rewarding to teach an elderly woman with Parkinson’s how to sing without quavering than to teach musical theatre techniques to a budding young star. What she loves most is not their perfection, but their growth. It makes her very happy to see the successful experience of music carry over into other parts of their lives.

I visited my mother for a long time at the end of May. She is newly widowed, but she does have many friendships and many projects in the community, mostly around music. She still marvels that she never succeeded in interesting me in studying music; but what I did learn from her is the recognition, and some of the skill, of doing cultural mothering.

Cultural Mothering is done in all kinds of settings. I get to do it at the campus and community radio station where I show people how to use radio to explore their communities and the world, and how to deal lovingly with others and share their enthusiasms with others. My partner and other women do it as frontline workers at the rape relief and women’s shelter. They listen intelligently and compassionately; they offer knowledge about options and often material help; sometimes they say, “All right; but let this be the worst day of your life; I know you will find the strength in yourself not to be crushed by this, and to move on.”

Often cultural mothering is something done just in passing. You throw a toonie in a busker’s violin case and you make the OK sign with your fingers and smile. You share valuable informative links with your friends on Facebook . [pause for laughter]. You strike up a respectful conversation with someone on a bus whom other people are ignoring or looking askance at, and get them to enjoying experiencing themselves again as an interesting and knowledgeable person, while the people around change their idea of what they see.

You do this stuff all the time; you wouldn’t be here at this session if you didn’t, I think.

This is the daily stuff of the gift economy: consciously and unconsciously, we are teaching each other. And, making use of what we’ve been taught - by learning, growing, and maturing. We apply ourselves to the good of our community and environment, through Cultural Motherhood.

Is this enough?

It is possible to teach, or let us say to inculcate, ideas and experiences that are harmful. The pride and joy of a young soldier learning to kill people can be badly misplaced. The pseudo-learning of a lot of mass entertainment will do little or nothing for the survival of community. Bad attitudes of the uncomfortable, selfish and unfulfilled do proliferate and reproduce themselves.

But Cultural Mothering is offering genuine gifts. As Genevieve Vaughan says, it’s only a gift if the receiver can use it. When you get a gift that you can receive with your body, your spirit, and your way of life, that is a gift that will keep on giving. Cultural Mothering is constructive love. It’s in our DNA. It’s what we evolved for. It’s the basis of our survival and our joy. What we’re up against is not as strong as that!

This book is available only through or

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

"Women Were In It From the Beginning"
Guest review by Jo Freeman (full review with additional links at

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC
by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young and Dorothy M. Zellner,
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010, 616 pp.

Of all the Sixties civil rights organizations, the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee was the one which most inspired young people all over the country. SNCC – pronounced snick – grew out of the sit-ins that started in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, and rapidly spread throughout the South to protest race discrimination.

Women were in it from the beginning. Ella Baker, an experienced activist in her fifties, had had a heavy taste of male chauvinism in her three years with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When she invited the student protestors to come together at her alma mater, Shaw University, in April, to co-ordinate their actions, she did not want them to follow the same path.

During the next few years SNCC expanded from protesting segregation to organizing communities. Staff went farm to farm and door to door persuading some of the most oppressed people in the U.S. that the time had come to throw off their shackles. For this they were beaten, jailed, and sometimes killed. The risks they took created a camaraderie which has remained to this day.

In this book 52 women who worked in SNCC in the 1960s tell their stories. They come from many walks of life: black and white, North and South, farm and city. They organized in the field and worked in the office. They demonstrated in the streets and went to jail. Some came and went, some stayed for years. Their stories flesh out a civil rights history which has emphasized the heroics of men.

Those who contributed to this book chose what to write about. The editors organized their recollections into ten sections, each with a preface. Geography and chronology roughly structure the book, but only roughly.

While the common theme is that all the authors are women, this is not a book about women. We don’t learn much about women as a group and only a little about them compared to men – not even the ratio of males to females, or the gender dimensions of work. There is no discussion of "the role of women in SNCC" or any attempt at feminist analysis. It is, as the subtitle says, accounts by women in SNCC.
Nonetheless, there are enough paragraphs on women to fill about six of the 616 pages.

Women were a major presence in the local communities in which SNCC worked. One of them, Victoria Gray Adams of Hattiesburg,* Mississippi, wrote that "Women were out front as a survival tactic. Men could not function in high-visibility, high-profile roles where we come from, because they would be plucked off.... The white folks didn’t see the women as that much of a threat.... They didn’t know the power of women, especially black women."

Annie Pearl Avery of Birmingham,** Alabama, writes: "In the South, black women were more able to exercise their rightful privileges than black men. On SNCC projects there was sexism toward women, because this was a way of life for all women. Sometimes I felt limited because we weren’t allowed to drive the cars.... The male chauvinism was there, but I don’t think it was intentional. It wasn’t as dominant in SNCC as it was in SCLC, which Miss Baker told us about."
Historians see SNCC as a seedbed of the women’s liberation movement, but the women in this book remember SNCC as a nurturing family which taught them skills and gave them a breadth of experience that they had not found elsewhere. "[W]orking with SNCC was an empowering and egalitarian experience." No one has memories of being demeaned and only a few of being restricted in any way because of their sex. One wishes they could compare their experiences to those of SNCC men to see if there was any difference.

For example, Dottie Zellner writes that when she first met Jim Forman, executive director of SNCC, he asked her "Can you type?" Not in this book is the question Forman first asked of Julian Bond, which was "What can you do?" (I heard Bond tell that story at Forman’s memorial service). At the time, the different assumptions about male and female capabilities captured in these different questions was so embedded in the culture that no one questioned them, and, years later, apparently they still don’t. Instead Dottie recounts that Forman’s "greatest gift was the ability to immediately match each person’s skills to the organization’s needs."

Forman put Bond in charge of SNCC communications. After Dottie (not yet married to Zellner) earned her stripes as a typist, Forman realized that she could also write and let her assist Bond. Indeed Forman assigned several women to the communications office, with the result that this book has excellent descriptions of how SNCC got the word out to the press about what the movement was doing.

The belief that the women’s liberation movement was rooted in SNCC dates from a paper on "Women in the movement" presented at a SNCC conference in the fall of 1964. One of 30 to 40 papers submitted for discussion, it was authored anonymously. Two of the authors – Mary King and Casey Hayden – later became known when they published a somewhat different version. Two more – Elaine DeLott Baker and Emmie Schrader Adams – acknowledge their authorship in this book. According to the editors, the women who submitted this paper were all white, though we don’t know how many there were.

The paper began with a list of "gender inequalities ... all concerning black women," derived from observation and informal discussions among women after several "demonstrated in the office, protesting the expectation that women would always perform certain secretarial tasks." Hayden and Adams insist that the paper really wasn’t about women in SNCC but about the larger culture. "The openness of SNCC, ... the invitation to critique the organization ... provided the arena."

The abundance of first-person stories make this a very valuable book from which future historians of the civil rights movement will learn much. But someone still needs to explain what was it about SNCC that fostered a feminist perspective.
* The current Mayor of Hattiesburg is Johnny Dupree, an African-American who was also the Democratic Party nominee for Governor of Mississippi in 2011. He received 39 percent of the vote. A prior poll showed that there was a 3 percent gender gap, with women favoring Dupree. Blacks favored Dupree by a ratio of four to one.
** Birmingham has only had black mayors since 1979. All were male except for Carole
Smitherman who was Acting Mayor for two months in 2009.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Larry's Party, by Carol Shields

Larry's Party, by Carol Shields (Random House first Canadian edition, 1997, 339 pp.)

Carol Shields (1935-2003) is a prominent member of the canon of Canadian writers. Although she is originally from the US and once won a Pulitzer prize (for The Stone Diaries), I had never heard of her until I moved to Canada. After finding out about her, I happened to read something of hers that I didn't care for, and so a second book of hers, The Box Garden, languished on my dresser unread for several years until I finally got around to giving it a try. I thought it was fairly original and nicely written, so I looked for something else by Shields in the public library, and the only thing they had on the shelf that day was Larry's Party.

A good book is always better, I'd say, if you expect nothing much of it in advance, so I don't want to overpraise it. Not much that is exciting happens, really, in Larry's Party. It covers twenty years of a man's life, from his twenties to his forties, 1977 to 1997; and during that time Larry learns a pretty interesting profession, marries twice, has one child, gets sick and recovers, lives in two countries, and slowly goes through a process of maturing.

What makes the book especially exciting to me, really, is its apparently unique structure. It's not chronological internally, and yet its overall motion is a chronology. At one point, Larry has a body scan for medical reasons, and the way the scan slices the body into segments seems to be related to the way Shields slices Larry into different views that can be put together to make a whole picture of the man.

Each chapter is focused on a specific aspect of Larry, and similar events are repeated in different chapters, through the lens of this different focus. The fifteen chapters include Larry's Love, 1978; Larry's folks, 1980; Larry's Work, 1981; Larry's Words, 1983; Larry's Penis, 1986; Larry's Search for the Wonderful and Good, 1992; Larry's Threads, 1993-4; Larry's Living Tissues, 1996.... By the end of the book, we know Larry quite intimately, as a person, similarly complex to ourselves.

There's a story about Shaw, that he was asked how he wrote such interesting women characters. He is said to have replied: "I imagine that a woman is a person like myself, and that is how the trick is done." In Larry's Party, Shields has reversed that gaze. In the last scene, the women in Larry's life have quite a discussion about gender and the role of men, which at this point we can consider from inside the persona of a pretty decent man, who is able to hear it without discomfort.

In my experience it is fairly rare for a novel to have an original structure that is both very evident and very functional. The great exemplar that comes to mind is Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Larry's Party is nothing so monumental, but it stands out as being constructed with mastery of the craft. The research Shields did into garden mazes is also very gratifying.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ms. Magazine Library!/media/set/?set=a.10150312289568540.360163.15914543539&type=1

Ms. Magazine is re-organizing its library. The pictures show quite a few covers of books a lot of us must have read.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


Cow by Susan Hawthorne (Spinifex 2011), 166 pages, trade paperback

Susan sent me a copy of Cow and I find it fascinating but difficult to explain. There are all these different cows with different names of goddesses and mythical and historical figures, references I vaguely recognize in many cases, but they also have viewpoints and voices that are credible as those of cows in some ways, and as tale-tellers in others. There are a few marginal notes, which are great, but if there were as many marginal notes as I really needed, they would be longer than the poems. That said, the stories and scenes in the poems seemed to just whisk me along through the book even though I didn't know how I got there exactly or where we were going. It has an airy quality, like being out in a meadow or riding on a magic carpet or something. I recommend the trip.

Here's a review Susan linked to from her FaceBook page, written by someone who has gotten a bit more handle on the structure than I: