Genevieve Vaughan | Gift in the Heart of Language Review
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Kaarina Kailo

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

Genevieve Vaughan has published her third book regarding the revolutionary reality and 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, mind-altering and care-rational perspectives on the gift economy in all of its manifestations. 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 maternal values that have for long been appropriated and redirected to serve the market, 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.

Vaughan’s 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”.

Vaughan points out that thanks to feminism, the LGBT movement and the men’s movement, many people are already questioning the prevailing gender stereotypes. This new book deserves to be required reading in educational circles, foremost in gender studies, as her 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 unless we recognize the important economic aspects of mothering as a gendered dimension of epistemology rather than reducing it ideologically to “biological essence” or “nature.” Neither eliminating Capitalism while maintaining Patriarchy, nor eliminating Patriarchy while maintaining Capitalism will change the situation, Vaughan points out. Indeed, we need to realize that language is based on a gift schema. One main aim of the book is to help those women and men who earn their livings by using/manipulating/buying and selling language to be able to 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. Egalitarian projects like free software, Wikipedia, Peer-to-Peer networking, free cycling, Time Banking, the movement against copyrights, the promotion of free information and even hybrids with the market as in the shareable economy and crowd sourcing, demonstrate the viability of the gift economy.

There is a mistaken idea among the powerful that “the masses” need to be controlled, that otherwise they could not live peacefully together in abundance. This idea is used to justify the systemic creation of scarcity, the seizure of the gifts and the surveillance of the many by the few who dominate and control them. Instead it is the birthright of everyone to live in abundance in a nurturing gift economy in an atmosphere of trust.

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”.

The importance of the fact that mothers give unilaterally is that it is not charity, but 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.

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 dominant patriarchal capitalist economy, which is motivated by the false masculated drives of competition, accumulation and the need to be the standard, the one at the top.

Both gift giving and language bridge the gap between the human community and its environmental niche while maintaining and elaborating the border between them. In exchange, where the principle is mutual exclusion, nothing new can develop. Instead in a community where relations are created through gift giving in life and in language, gifts, givers and receivers can multiply exponentially qualitatively, co creating and making relevant all the aspects of the environment and the culture. Doing this will allow us to respect, love and protect the creatures and the elements that together create life on the planet. It is on this basis that we can give a better world forward to the human and other species of the future.

Vaughan’s book is a must also for social change activists. After the highly sophisticated theoretical part, it includes concrete suggestions for gift work, including consciousness raising, raising boys and girls with the maternal model, communities of motherers, Gift Economy and Matriarchal studies, alternative communities with the gift as final goal and many other things…

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….

Exchange paradigm Gift paradigm
1. Mothering is aneconomic 1. Mothering is economic
2. Mothering is not an economic ‘base’ 2. Mothering is an economic ‘base’ and has a superstructure
3. Market creates abundance 3. Market creates scarcity
4. Communication is exchange 4. Communication is turntaking unilateral gift giving
5. Gift exchange 5. Turntaking gifting, not exchange
6. Active giver-passive receiver 6. Active giver-active receiver
7. Solipsistic infants 7. Socially interactive alter centric infants (new infant research)
8. Equal exchange debt and obligation produce positive human relations 8. Giving/receiving produces positive human relations
9. Perception is a sui generis activity 9. Perception is a (maternal) selection and reception of perceptual gifts
10. Language is self-expression 10. Language is satisfaction of communicative and cognitive needs (1)
11. Language is based on inherited Universal Grammar 11. Language is based on the image schema of the gift and its extensions
12. Language is rule governed 12. Language enacts gift schema constructions
13. Communication is exchange 13. Communication is turn taking unilateral gift giving
14. Language is based on questions and answers 14. Language is based on mind reading
15. Syntax as rule following 15. Syntax as gifts to gifts
16. Subjectivity is agency 16. Subjectivity is gift agency as modelled on material giving and language gift construction, but identity also includes creative receptivity.
17. Supply and effective demand 17. Gifts and needs
18. Problem is capitalism, the stock market, the knowledge economy 18. Problem is exchange itself and the elimination of the model of gift giving
19. Social contract 19. Shared structures of implications
20. Narrow idea of need satisfaction as utilitarian… 20. An expanded idea of needs including psychological, cognitive, communicative, spiritual needs etc.
21. To use value and exchange value 21. Add gift value
22. Epistemology based on categorization 22. Epistemology based on gifting
23. Language as exchange 23. Language as gift giving… exchange as altered language
24. Money as a convention or a symbol of value 24. Money as an embodied word/exemplar
25. The market as a normal and unavoidable fact of life 25. The market as a piece of extended mind, the exosomatic conceptualization process of the alienated human community
26. We can create a better market 26. We can only solve our problems beyond the market
27. Feminists should succeed in the market 27. Feminists should dismantle the market and start over on the basis of gift giving/mothering