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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2002) 162-163
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Natalie Zemon Davis, The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 232 pp.
Are modern markets institutions of vulgar calculation that have been sweeping away a subtle heritage of gift exchange based on trust and mutual esteem? Marcel Mauss famously argued that in what he called "archaic societies" gifts are "in theory voluntary, in reality given and returned obligatorily," and that gift exchange constitutes the major mechanism by which goods circulate in such societies. Vulgar calculation in period costume, you might think. But though obligatory and highly formal, gifts are very different from modern market transactions (so Mauss claimed). The nature of obligation incurred on receipt of a gift owes a great deal to relative status, and to other social and emotional links between donor and recipient. In gift exchange, things have "sentimental as well as venal value." Since gifts entail strong reciprocal obligations, it is not obvious how being sentimental made them any less venal. But it seems to be part of the strategy of reciprocity in the societies that Mauss described that its venality should be kept opaque.
Natalie Davis shows in her delightful new book that multiple conceptions of gift-giving have coexisted for centuries, their complex rules of reciprocity cloaked by more high-minded ideals of "gratuitous and non-calculating values." Individuals might be no less self-interested than in market economies, but in the [End Page 162] language with which they speak of their transactions, interests are more tacit than are obligations and ties. Seen in this light, the novelty of modern markets lies not in the motivation of their participants, not in their venality per se, but in the lack of subtlety with which venality is communicated. Selling a good is like giving it to someone and simultaneously reminding the recipient of the debt, a debt that (it is implied) sensitive individuals ought to have been aware of without a reminder and might resent having brought so vulgarly to their attention. Like many delicate and refined arts, gifts afford an advantage to those with the aristocratic privileges that make their mastery easier to acquire. As Davis's study makes clear, the rich and privileged could sometimes give away a great deal, but they rarely gave away real control over important resources. She writes: "Gifts opened channels of communication across boundaries of status and literacy. They gave expression to the highly strained but genuine reciprocity between unequals in the social and economic order." Davis hardly needs to add that the giving of gifts did nothing to change that order.
Paul Seabright, formerly reader in economics at Cambridge University and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, is now professor of economics at the University of Toulouse, research fellow of the Center for Economic Policy Research, London, and managing editor of the journal Economic Policy. He is coauthor of Integration and the Regions of Europe and Competition Policy and the Transformation of Central Europe.