The Poisonousness of Gift as an Expressive Mode for Group Morality
It is interesting to note the menace implied in the etymological origin of “gift” (in German’s case, “Gift” as every single common noun is capitalized) in Germanic languages German, Dutch, Danish and Swedish and other linguistic relatives such as French and Greek, Old Norse etc. that shares affinities with them. In these languages that are linguistic cousins to modern English, the very spelling “gift” means “poison”, which is in turn influenced by Greek word “dosis” (resembles modern English “dose”), certain amount of medicine prescribed, literally “a giving”.
In Old Norse, the word “lyf”, which looks similar to the modern English word “leaf”, means medicinal herbs; while in Old French, the word “enerber” means “to kill with poisonous plants”. Therefore, the term “gift” etymologically contains the connotation of being poisonous, as a possibility though. It is reflected from and echoed by the archaic societies presents receivers’ attitude such as Maoris, and Andaman islanders’ morality that it is dangerous to receive a gift ( Mauss,64).
The reciprocal loop established by gifts giving is a means that initially for community building via rapport accumulation so that each individual within it may survive better with the support from communal total service. However, when the conception “gift” is put into social practice, its effects reflect a different ideology other than what it is supposed to be. There is power in intention, and when it gets strong in a collective way, as the term “Mitmensch” Marx employed suggests and in continuity, formulation of folk belief or even religion comes into shape. Marx argues that “Mitmensch” or communities members should associate with each other by placing labor as the crucial element to glue up a community other than “love”, as the atheist Feuerbach paradoxically yet religiously suggests.
However the “spirit” and sentimentality are the elements that demarcate things from “soulless” commodities which are merely meant to be traded. The “spirit” and sentimentality here refers to people’s engagement in psycho-genesis, as the young Hegelian Feuerbach terms it, human ability or power of abstraction that endows something with a name or label and then projects it and makes it ultimate. Marx’s critique towards Feuerbach’s conception of psycho-genesis explains the reason why does the process of psycho-genesis exist and people’s demand for it which also serves as an interpretation for the “spirit” and sentimentality discourse suggested in Mauss’s piece.
In Marx’s view, psycho-genesis exists because the proletariat or lower classes are being oppressed and squashed by bourgeoisie. Therefore, the goal for psycho-genesis to achieve from its lower class practitioners’ side is to decompose economic tyranny as its very cause. Therefore, psycho-genesis reflects realistic needs that Maoris’ , Andaman islanders’ and other residents from primitive societies who are economically deprived or exposed to the potential risks of being deprived materially that is distinctive from wistful purely religious projections. Various communities and societies revise their own religions to mesh with their extant social norm that facilitates the kind of social relations that can keep their communities and societies functioning although a part of its members’ interests have to be sacrificed. Thus, the illustrious and fictitious future which gives the oppressed some comforts in the context of present distress.
Marx suggests the effective solution is to get rid of the root of the oppression, the oppressors, so that lower classes do not have to envision something in the future as placebos. Religion is also employed by the upper class oppressors as opiate and painkiller to anaesthetize lower class and make them have faith in their brighter future. In this way Marx unmask human alienation in its secular form by furthering and criticizing atheist Feuerbach’s arguments in unmasking human alienation in its sacred form, i.e. religions, or the right religion(s) in any specific case, the religion that maximizes the upper class’s benefits. In archaic societies like Maori and Andaman Island, the community members also oppressed by the potential threat for not getting better gift in return, which could be a possible scenario. Therefore their externalizations of psycho-genesis is crystalized in human invention of the spirit contained in a sent gift. As Mauss suggests in his analysis on the gift chain and its corresponding dynamics of spirit or hau rooted in Maori folk culture, by distributing gifts, the donor establish communal authority and moral control over the recipient (Mauss, 12) . Servile gratefulness is forced on recipients
Mauss sorts out a dichotomy of gifts and commodities and extends this distinction into the social system closely related to their products, i.e. social or folk custom for gift circulation and business-oriented laws. However, in modern capitalist societies commodify almost every item in trade even those products that contains most “spirit” or a piece of the producer’s soul such as handicrafts and artistic works as if they are not distinctive from those items generated via mass production. European welfare states like France, Germany and Belgium are able to notice and address the incompatible fracture especially the lack of appreciation in the node of human labor, thus relevant laws and regulations have been formulated to compensate and alleviate working class’ sense of loss and antagonism towards the leisure class in capitalist sense.
Alms are also a special form of gifts that sent not meant for establishment or initiation for reprociprocal relations, because the unequal footing in terms of socioeconomic status of the receiver and giver has already determines that the receiver is not economically capable to return not even the same amount back, let alone to fulfil the general social expectation of “receivers should give back more”. The receivers have to experience imposed inferiority for the “free” material gain that actually consumes them in another more demanding way both psychologically and socially.
Therefore, this is the wrong kind of gift that usually do more disservice than realizing its true philanthropist purpose. Taking Canadian Inuits in Stevevon’s piece as an example, on the surface, the “free” welfare system installed by Canadian government seems to be a solicitous gesture . However, the severe suicide epidemic demonstrates that this administrative and health care systems established meant to generously provide “free” service actually cost the Inuits their lives and sanity. Coerced to accept all the unwanted “care”, their dignity has already been compromised ultimately to a threshold that traumatize their mental soundness and made themselves doubt about their own existence as human beings. In this sense, capitalism and commodonization are
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