- The Gift, Il Dono: A Feminist Analysis
Analyses of the gift have a long and complex history, and precisely which texts are authoritative varies from discipline to discipline. However, in the last two decades there has been interdisciplinary interest in the phenomenon of the gift and gift-giving (see Berking; Komter; Osteen; Schrift; and Wyschogrod). As one of the commentators in The Gift, Il Dono notes (41), this revival can be traced to two primary sources. One of these is anthropological and sociological discussions of the gift. In this body of work, Marcel Mauss's The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies I (1990), is usually cited as the originary source. One feature of Mauss's work is the idea that gifts, which circulate in informal exchange economies, are distinct from commodities circulating in the modern marketplace. Although some of the commentators in Il Dono eschew Mauss's notion of a gift economy as contradictory, they do in fact take up aspects of this perspective. In this view, marketplace transactions operate according to an impersonal logic of equivalent exchange, whereas gift economies operate according to an entirely different logic. And as Genevieve [End Page 157] Vaughan herself states, the respective logics of these different economies affect the ways in which masculine and feminine subjectivities are structured (19).
Feminist scholars have long noted that while gifts in informal economies may appear to be freely given and are frequently construed as acts of altruism, generosity, or self-sacrifice, gift transactions can also be underpinned by forms of social constraint and personal self-interest. Gifts given in gift economies create personal ties between people and communities that linger long after gift transactions. Moreover, in many circumstances, gifts return, in some form or another, to their origin. Once set in train, the cycle of giving-receiving-and-reciprocating establishes social bonds and ensures their endurance and stability over time. In short, in gift-exchange economies, gift giving typically enhances (but can sever) social bonds between individuals and groups of individuals. By its very condition, a gift must be exchanged, and in the process, gift-exchange establishes relationships and entails reciprocation. As Mauss pointed out, there is no such thing as a free gift, and this is true of many of the feminine and traditional gift economies discussed in Il Dono.
The second source of contemporary interest in the gift is located mainly in continental philosophy (e.g., Derrida, Marion). Oversimplifying, the primary question of this body of thought is the "pure gift." That is, in its purest forms, the gift is disinterested and offered without regard to the quality of the recipient. This disinterestedness entails the absence of any expectation of remuneration. The pure gift does not exist in a chain of givingreceiving and-reciprocating and is not given with a view to establishing enduring social bonds, relationships, or prestige. Rather, such gifts are given only to be forgotten, paradoxically going unrecognized by both those who give the gift and those who receive it. As Vaughan clearly states in Il Dono, the mother-infant relation is often viewed as the paradigm for this form of gift-giving, as it is based on an unconditional ethic of generosity and care.
The twenty-seven essays that comprise Il Dono draw on both traditions of the gift. This is a strong suit of the text in my view, as is the variety of ways in which the essays in the collection operationalize the concept of the gift and gift-giving. To give some examples of the kinds of subjects explored by the authors of Il Dono, the essays cover topics as diverse as matriarchal society (Heide Gottner-Abendroth), bio-diversity and the environment (Ruana Kuokkanen; Bhanumathi Natarajan), education (Eila Estola), alternative forms of rationality, being, and care (Mechthild Hart; Mari Lahtinen; Paola Melchiori; Hildur Ve), restorative justice (Susan Lee Solar and Susan Bright), dying (Leslene Della Madre), language and identity (Susan Petrilli), community (Linda Christiansen Ruffman; Frieda Werden), social activism (Rokeya Begum; Norma Fernandez), and the Internet (Maria Suarez).
The contributions in the collection...