Marcel Mauss: A Biography 
by Marcel Fournier, translated by Jane Marie Todd.
Princeton, 442 pp., £22.95, January 2006, 0 691 11777 2
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Hegel thought it a mark of the modern age that philosophy had taken over from art and religion as the custodian of truth. The World Spirit had come to self-consciousness in his own head, rendering any less rational form of knowledge outmoded. Yet religion has retained its capacity to spark riots and launch civil wars, while art has survived as a refined version of religion for the intelligentsia: most aesthetic concepts are displaced theology. Besides, philosophy proved too abstract to stand in for the passionate certitudes of faith or the sensuous immediacy of the work of art. Some more tangible alternative to religion was demanded; and as the 19th century drew on, this role was filled by the human sciences, a reflection of the human species’s endless, narcissistic fascination with itself.

Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, called for a break with both theological and metaphysical modes of inquiry. Philosophy, not least the Hegelian brand, was lumped in the latter category. In this way, the discipline which reigned supreme for Hegel was consigned by his successor to the dustheap of history, along with the art and religion which he himself had offloaded there. Human knowledge was to be based on empirical evidence and scientific certainty, not on crucified gods, nebulous notions of the Zeitgeist or fantasies of social revolution.

Even the grimly positivist Comte, however, found it hard to dispense with the supernatural altogether. His ideal society is riddled with pseudo-ecclesial institutions, all the way from a secularised form of baptism to a priestly caste of scientific guardians. The realm of mythical, symbolic and affective life, rudely expelled from social science, must be smuggled in by the back door if the non-scientifically-minded masses are to be sold the new scientific truths. If it was proving difficult to substitute humanity for religion, it was partly because since Feuerbach, the concept of humanity itself had been secretly theological. George Eliot was a devout believer in what was then known as the Religion of Humanity. God had been dethroned by an equally exotic, infinitely capacious creature known as Man. Since Christianity has rather a lot to say about God becoming Man, this smacked more of a replay than a refutation. It was not until the advent of Nietzsche, who realised that we had murdered God but cravenly refused to acknowledge it, that this bungled substitution would be laid bare.

Even then, theology refused a decent burial. When the human sciences hit their stride at the end of the 19th century with the work of Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, James Frazer, Henri Lévy-Bruhl and others, this rigorously rationalist mode of investigation, as in some uncanny return of the repressed, found itself reverting again and again to religious subjects. As Durkheim was beginning work on his magisterial Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Mauss was grappling with his thesis on prayer, which followed up his seminal ‘Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice’. It is, of course, understandable that ethnologists and anthropologists should lavish such attention on a question which bulks so large in the premodern cultures they investigate. Yet for both Durkheim and Mauss there were political considerations at stake too. So-called primitive societies displayed a solidarity which modern civilisation had forsaken to its peril. And this was obvious above all in ‘primitive’ religious practices. If this solidarity could be reinvented in rational form, shorn of its taboos and superstitions, we would have something very like a just social order. From Samoa to social democracy was a shorter distance than it seemed. Religion, nowadays a bugbear of the left, could be seen around the turn of the 20th century as a precious resource for it.

The human sciences, then, sported a political agenda from the outset. Such beliefs, to be sure, were not supposed to interfere with the collecting of data. In good positivist fashion, Mauss sought to put value-preferences on ice in order to attend to the bare facts. It’s true that there is more to positivism than a cult of bare fact, pace the less savvy kind of postmodernist who detects something sinisterly positivist about statements such as ‘Keswick is in the Lake District.’ Those who nowadays drape words like ‘fact’ in scare quotes would no doubt be surprised to learn that positivism saw itself often enough as a radical phenomenon. Yet though pioneers of the human sciences like Mauss were wary of distorting the facts with values, they could still move from the descriptive to the prescriptive, plucking a whole programme of social reform, right down to proposals for state pensions, from what they saw as the human solidarity of premodern cultures. For these archaic avant-gardists, as for some Modernist artists, the surest guide to the future was the past.

Since solidarity is both an observable social phenomenon and (for Mauss and Durkheim) a prized political goal, it seemed to provide a link between fact and value, or science and politics. But you can move from the one to the other only if you assume that human solidarity is inherently positive: an assumption which is clearly false. What about vigilantes or Nazi rallies? Many forms of solidarity are achieved at someone else’s expense. It is as much a benighted as an enlightened value. Most sociology, for example, has played down social conflict in its quest for the mechanisms of social cohesion. Indeed, it would scarcely be extravagant to argue that this was why it was invented in the first place. But it was also invented to counter a selfish individualism that risked tearing the social fabric apart. It reminded the practitioners of this creed of the unwelcome fact of social bonds and obligations. This is why the right traditionally has a distaste for the word ‘society’, not to speak of ‘sociology’.

Much the same shift from fact to value is apparent when, for example, social science discredits revolutionary doctrines by showing social laws to be rigorously evolutionary. Mauss was certainly a strong adherent of this view. Bolshevism and Jacobinism are scientific errors, not just political blunders. It is this which lies behind the old charge that sociology was thought up to refute Marxism. Yet if society is evolving towards greater co-operation, as some left-positivist thinkers supposed, what is the point of struggling for a socialism which history will deliver in its own good time? Why, in Mauss’s phrase, accelerate evolution? Perhaps because co-operation is a prize to be seized in the present. But you can’t deduce its desirability simply from a study of the so-called evolutionary facts. There are plenty of evolutionary facts we would be better off without. The human sciences, then, sought to displace religion; but in doing so they risked reinventing it, and not only in anthropology’s fascination with the numinous. Sociology, Durkheim wrote, would counter the crudities of historical materialism by making ‘religion rather than economics the matrix of social facts’. Both sociologists and theologians grant religion priority; it is just that the latter believe in it while the former do not. Sociology rejects eternal verities, yet what else is involved in the positivist conception of science? Transcendence is discredited, yet the idea of the social or cultural ends up standing in for it. If the bottom line was once divinity, it is now sociality, which envelops every phenomenon as pervasively as the Almighty used to do. Society is the new ground of being. As with postmodernism, culture is the foundation impossible to dig beneath. You can’t ask where it comes from, any more than you could ask that question about the Holy Spirit. The clergy are ousted by an intellectual clerisy. Ethnology, sociology and anthropology inherit theology’s traditional role as queen of the sciences, and aim at no less ambitious a totality. And just as religion is at once descriptive and prescriptive – an account of the nature of the cosmos which tells you, among other things, that lying is sinful – so Mauss was both scholar and political activist.

Marcel Fournier’s abridged version of his biography of Mauss, translated into lucid English by Jane Marie Todd, is a masterpiece of erudition, though scarcely scintillating. The book runs headlong into the problem of all life-histories of intellectuals: the fact that there is no reason to suppose that people are interesting just because their ideas are. We would not read a Life of Freud or Jane Austen were it not for their writing; but such biographies, aware that the writing itself has been much analysed elsewhere, too often shove it nervously to one side. The result is a narrative that is significant only because its subject is famous, like a beer can discarded by Mick Jagger.

Fournier’s book is an intellectual biography rather than just the biography of an intellectual, and has plenty of value to say about Mauss’s ideas. The problem with the man, however, is that he seems not to have had much of a private life. Marcel Mauss: A Biography is thus a somewhat dry record of a preternaturally uneventful existence, one rich in journals, seminars, funding problems and the odd tussle with colleagues, but dispiritingly thin in human interest. Apart from a period at the front in the First World War, and some alarming experiences as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Paris, it is a don’s life. His wife almost gassed herself, but didn’t quite. It is instructive to learn that the great man, while speaking of the characteristics of different races, once raised his trouser leg ‘without a second thought’, showed off his calf and exclaimed: ‘So you see, I’m one of the hairiest men in the world!’ But though ‘without a second thought’ is meant to suggest that he was a gay old dog, quirkily endearing and lovably eccentric, this is not the impression of the so-called father of French ethnography that the book as a whole conveys. In fact, it conveys remarkably little impression of him at all.

There are always, however, the bare facts to fall back on. Mauss was born in the Vosges in 1872, the son of a sales representative and the grandson of a rabbi. He was the nephew of Emile Durkheim, and the two families lived cheek by jowl. As though to afford some amusement to future students of the human sciences, the families even collaborated at one point in a Mauss-Durkheim handmade embroidery company. The Durkheims were a devoutly religious family who could count eight generations of rabbis in their ranks, and Emile’s father was the chief rabbi of Vosges and Haute-Marne. Mauss learned Hebrew as a child and was bar-mitzvahed. The French social sciences, in effect, were the product of the provincial Jewish petite bourgeoisie. Like psychoanalysis, they were largely the invention of social outsiders, men who could conceptualise society as a whole precisely because they only ambiguously belonged to it. The subject thus had a discreditable aura from the outset. There is something distasteful to the Michael Oakeshotts and Norman Tebbits of this world in claiming that one’s own culture can be as dispassionately dissected as someone else’s. It is also bad news for the champions of colonialism that other people’s cultures appear to be in just as good a working order as their own, at the very moment when they need to justify their repression of them by claims of moral and cognitive superiority. With admirable enlightenment, Mauss refused to speak of ‘primitive’ cultures, regarding them all as equally civilised.

It was as a student at the University of Bordeaux that Mauss first encountered a strongly positivist brand of sociology and a rationalist vein of philosophy. Unlike his uncle Emile, who was always deeply sceptical of socialism, he became a student militant and a lifelong leftwinger. In contrast to the general run of intellectuals, he was a chronic joiner. He signed up in turn for the French Workers’ Party, a collectivist student group, and the Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party. Despite the latter title, he was a firmly anti-revolutionary sort of leftist, more Fabian than Leninist. He also robustly supported Emile Zola during the Dreyfus Affair and became a reporter for the leftist newspaper L’Humanité.

His deepest political passion, however, was for the co-operative movement, which fits well enough with his corporatist concerns as an anthropologist. He wrote a regular column on the movement for L’Humanité, and became involved in organising co-operatives and educating their members. Despite his suspicion of revolutionary Marxism, he saw an intimate link between theory and political practice; indeed, in his modest way he was a living incarnation of their much-vaunted unity. Both he and Durkheim believed that every serious work in their field should bear on public policy.

Much of Mauss’s work appeared in L’Année sociologique, the celebrated journal which Durkheim had launched in 1898. The review covered a formidable amount of ground, from criminal sociology to economics, religious ritual to aesthetics. Mauss and Durkheim were of that classical school of intellectuals in which one was expected to know everything, and the extraordinary versatility of Mauss’s work harks back to Goethe rather than forward to Giddens. His knowledge stretched from classical antiquity to psychology and political economy, the sacred texts of India to Celtic law and Scandinavian mythology. As a professor at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and later at the Collège de France, he published on Germanic migration and the habits of the human body, death and the expression of feelings, violence, totemism, Bolshevism, the nation, magic, seasonal variations of Eskimo societies, modern politics, art and mythology and a good deal more. As a student at the Ecole Pratique, he delved into Sanskrit, Hebrew and Indo-European comparative linguistics. What has survived most memorably of him, however, are two anthropological masterpieces: his ‘Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice’, co-authored with Henri Hubert, and ‘The Gift’.

Forster once remarked that it is more blessed to receive than to give, an opinion which, if Mauss is to be credited, would be distinctly unpopular in the Trobriand Islands. Forster’s comment acknowledges that receiving a gift places one in a rather unsettling position of obligation: a power-relation concealed by our own sentimental notions of charity, but obvious enough, so it seems, to the Maori or Melanesians. For them, a coercive system of giving is not an oxymoron, as it would be for us. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch in modern societies, so there is no such thing as a free gift for premodern ones. Giving, so Mauss argues, belongs in such cultures to a strictly governed system of reciprocal obligations. It is a mechanism of solidarity, not an outburst of spontaneous sentiment. Gifts are part of a perpetual cycle of exchange.

It is not difficult to discern here some of the seeds of later French structuralism. What matters are not so much the individual gifts, but the underlying system of rules that governs their circulation. The sociologist Mike Gaine has argued that two traditions of modern French thought descend from Mauss’s work. One passes into the high structuralism of Lévi-Strauss and Maurice Godelier, while the other inspires such dissident writers as Bataille and Baudrillard. If the former thinkers are disciples of Mauss the rationalist, concerned with equilibrium and reciprocity, Bataille seizes on the anti-utilitarian aspects of his essay on the gift, not least on his idea of ‘pure and irrational expenditure’.

Generalising Gaine’s point, one might claim that modern French thought is marked by two more or less antithetical lineages. On the one hand, there is a heritage of high rationalism stemming from Descartes, intent on digging out the first principles or deep structure of reality, of which Durkheim, Mauss, Bachelard and Althusser are among the modern inheritors. Samuel Beckett seems to have discovered that writing in French made it easier for him to parody this obsessively taxonomising style of thought. On the other hand, there is a current of anti-rationalism which runs from the Symbolists and Georges Sorel to Bataille, the Existentialist acte gratuit, deconstruction and Michel Foucault. Both types of thought are radical and conservative at the same time. Rationalism pleases the respectable suburbs in its passion for order and symmetry, but offends them in its inhuman criticism. System, Roland Barthes remarked, is the enemy of Man. Anti-rationalism is alarming, not least when it takes to the streets of the Latin Quarter; but in the end it is disruption and subversion that it cherishes, not systematic thought and social revolution.

Structuralism, however, might be seen as combining elements of both traditions. As a form of rationalism, it reduces the world to a system of mental operations; but since this system is really about its own workings, with nothing so vulgar as an end or referent in sight, it has a resemblance to Mallarmé’s autonomous poetic language, Foucault’s episteme or Derrida’s self-referential sign. Once the latter tradition vanquishes the former, post-structuralism takes over. In Derrida’s hands, the idea of the gift would become a way of disrupting orderly exchange with the purely gratuitous.

Something similar can be said of the idea of sacrifice. For the rationalistic Mauss, it is really another form of exchange, as divine wrath is bought off with a burnt offering. For the anti-rationalist Bataille and his acolytes, by contrast, it represents a kind of reckless self-expenditure, a creation by means of loss, and thus an anarchic subversion of social order. Neither approach, one might claim, is finally adequate. What both overlook is the revolutionary notion of sacrifice as the process by which the reviled thing comes to power. To sacrifice, etymologically speaking, means to make sacred; and the word ‘sacred’ in Latin means both ‘holy’ and ‘cursed’. What incarnates this ambiguity in the ritual of sacrifice is the sacrificial scapegoat itself: the monstrous, mutilated thing onto which the community projects its own crimes, casting it out in an act of disavowal.

There is, however, another way of dealing with the broken, inhuman scapegoat, and that is to eat it. In doing so, the community identifies itself with this polluted, misshapen victim, and in acknowledging this thing of darkness as its own, presses its deathly negativity into the service of abundant life. By welcoming the banished scapegoat or pharmakos into their midst, the people release a mighty power of social transformation.

That which was rejected becomes the cornerstone, and poison is turned into gift, two words which are also etymologically twinned. In Sophocles’ drama Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus himself is the monstrous, polluted pharmakos who is nevertheless welcomed into the city and becomes its divine guardian. ‘I come to offer you a gift, my tortured body, a sorry sight,’ Oedipus cries, ‘but there is value in it more than beauty.’ In these beautiful words, Mauss’s two major themes, of gift and sacrifice, are intimately interwoven. It is a pity that so eminent a scholar does not himself seem to have discerned the full meaning of their secret affiliation.

For all his international celebrity, Mauss, who died in 1950, remained in some ways a man of the people. One likes to think that he would have enjoyed the story of the American anthropologist researching folksong in the west of Ireland in the 1950s, who was puzzled to find so many fine examples of the art in one particular small village. When he asked an old woman why she thought this might be so, she replied: ‘I’m thinking, sir, it may have something to do with the postwar influx of American anthropologists.’

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