A Gentle Deconstruction

Mary Douglas

  • The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia by Marilyn Strathern
    California, 422 pp, $40.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 520 06423 2

‘What has been happening in anthropology since Margaret Mead died?’ This book would have helped me to answer that casual question. A study of Melanesian culture, it does refer to Mead’s field reports from New Guinea and to her interest in adolescent and sexual behaviour: it also surveys the whole record of anthropological reporting in the region. The state of the art that it reveals is rather disconcerting, but the manner of revealing it is highly original.

Note that the book is written for a Post-Modern anthropology. That means it is addressed to a generation engrossed with problems of authenticity and authority, and profoundly sceptical of claims to objectivity. What is left to write about is personal experience, and the central rhetorical issue is how to establish authenticity. Post-Modern anthropology manages to seem sincere by disdaining to hide the plumbing. It conveys the Pompidou effect (or the Camden Town Sainsbury effect) by showing that inside is as valid as outside. Indeed, showing how the thing works is the main achievement that it values. In ethnography the front-stage space, in which foreign culture used to be recorded, has been vacated because of its inauthenticity. The front is now occupied by the former back-stage anthropology of fieldworkers’ self-questioning commentary, and their letters and diaries. An interesting comment on the current vein by Clifford Geertz[*] demonstrates why writing whose first aim is to explore consciousness is unsuited for sending messages.

Marilyn Strathern actually has got something she wishes to communicate, but she also wishes to write a Post-Modern book. This presents a severe problem. Post-Modernism is against domination, claimed authority and distinction. Once it has shown how a statement is made (and invalidated it by exposure of its origins), it has undermined the means of saying anything at all. To establish enough authority to declare her views Strathern has to develop a peculiar strategy, which will involve putting the back-stage problems up front. Her object is to interpret Melanesian ideas central to their understanding of themselves: these are ideas of person, gender and agency. For this, she re-examines the rich ethnography of Melanesia that has accumulated since World War Two in the light of three debates among anthropologists. Drawing analogies between the three dialogues, she allows each one to invalidate one of the others. It is like the puzzle of the missionaries and the cannibals who must ferry them across the river and who will devour any missionary left alone with them. What she calls ‘a gentle deconstruction’ of existing readings on Melanesian culture is a devastating criticism, yet she manages not to have authored any criticisms herself. Extraordinarily difficult, a tour de force. I am left dazzled by the cunning of the design.

The first of the three dialogues is dominated by the fiercest cannibal of them all. It is about how to deal with the universalist fallacy: the idea that nature is one and the same for us, living in advanced industrial economies, and for the others, the subjects of anthropological research. For instance, an earlier generation thought it plausible to interpret Melanesian boys’ initiation ceremonies by their own idea of what it feels like to become a man, as if there were a shared natural basis of experience to guarantee a universal concept of manhood. The present generation finds it objectionable to assume that any concept familiar to ourselves should be present in every culture. Supposing naively that other peoples use the idea of ‘society’ in the same way as we do is regarded as a piece of monstrous ethnocentrism. This is fair enough, so long as there is some acknowledged way of meeting the criticism. If there is no way of justifying the use of any of our terms, the cannibal wins and all our discourse is plunged into total relativism. Marilyn Strathern’s strategy is to place this relativising discourse athwart both of the others, a trap that can catch them out in almost any word they utter, as we shall see.

The second discourse is between feminist scholars and feminist anthropologists. The feminist scholars have a practical objective, to improve the situation of women. Their commitment against domination extends to their style: since they wish all views to be heard without any one suppressing any others, it is a sustained polyphonic chorus. By contrast, the feminist anthropologists speak within anthropology, where judgment and priorities are applied: there they are just one more new strand of thought, offering another view of old matters. In that context, inevitably, their work contributes to the construing of an on-going discourse, and so is more focused. Both feminist discourses are concerned with the exploitation of women. Both use the relativising attack on universalised ideas of nature to dislodge preconceived ideas about women’s nature. Both debate passionately the issue of whether Melanesian men do or do not exploit Melanesian women.

Already the delegitimating effect of cross-referencing between the discourses is apparent. There is nothing in it to prevent the pragmatic feminists from simply declaring that by their criteria the Melanesian women are exploited by the Melanesian men. But the feminist anthropologists are vulnerable to the relativist attack. They use it themselves when denying that there is a common, basic experience of feminine gender round the world. What can they reply if asked whether it is a monstrously ethnocentric, politically-inspired conceit to apply the idea of exploitation to other cultures than our own? The relativising criticism of the first dialogue stops the feminist anthropologists in their tracks. Much patient unravelling will have to be done for them even to have an argument about domination.

The third dialogue is the debate within the market economy about the status of the gift economy, or about other kinds of economic relations that take place beyond market confines. Here the dialogues all link up. Feminist scholarship has, for example, been very interested in the unpaid work of housewives in industrial societies as an obvious case of exploitation. Marilyn Strathern convincingly argues that Melanesia can only be interpreted in terms of the gift economy. She uses this term to focus the solutions she will give to problems uncovered by the contraposition of the three discourses. In the gift economy the concept of work does not apply, and so the argument about the unpaid work of Western housewives would be invalid, if the gift economy governs the relations between husband and wife. This relates to current discussions about the fairness of the marriage contract. The claim is that the gift economy belongs to a fundamentally different way of conceiving relationships, one in which exploitation, if it has a meaning, has a very different meaning from exploitation in a market economy. The words ‘person’, ‘gender’, ‘agency’, ‘cause’, ‘society’, all have to be completely reworked to avoid the universalist fallacy against which we have been warned in dialogue one.

This is the teasingly intricate structure of the first part of the book. The three dialogues are of course all variants of the same large discourse heard in advanced industrial nations about their own internal problems of authority and justice. The argument of the whole book is canopied by a debate between rather dumb capitalist defences of the existing order, and, on the other hand, the critic, the opposition, the conscience of the West, anthropology no less. What is referred, to as Western thought turns out not to be Western thought, but a set of uncritical assumptions which distort anthropologists’ approaches to the interpretative task, and which the author’s strategies are designed to rebuke. If these assumptions do indeed form the intellectual mainstay of contemporary anthropology, no wonder the author needs so much scaffolding for her argument.

The central theme is that in the industrialised West labour is an instituted category: that is, the concept of labour is an abstraction that has an institutional reference. The concept of alienated labour depends on a concept of proprietorship, also deeply rooted in law and other institutions, as well as in the political philosophy of private property. Commodity and price are other concepts that have precise meaning in the same Western institutional context. It makes sense in a commodity economy (sense meaning that it can be sensibly debated) to talk of a person being exploited if someone else enjoys the fruits of their labour. On the model of stealing, alienated labour depends on the concept of property. In a gift economy none of these abstractions has a point of reference. Neither the institutional framework nor the philosophy is there to support those meanings. How then can we talk of Papuan women being exploited by Papuan men, even though it is clear that the men use the women’s productive capacities for ceremonial exchanges in which they, the men, get all the credit? Her frank and disturbing answer is: we can’t.

I feel as bad about blowing her cover as if I were the reviewer of a crime play giving away the dénouement. What Marilyn Strathern is teaching is much more violently counter-cultural than openly using theory or writing in old-fashioned Modern style. After all the deference she has shown to the mood of Post-Modern tolerance, she ends by ruthlessly using the first discourse to pull the rug out from under the feet of the other two. To the Marxists and the feminists she says: No, these women are not being exploited. Her grounds for saying this are the Papuans’ own metaphysical interpretations of what they are doing. The second part of the book is devoted to presenting their theories of cause, agency and personhood.

Inescapably, at this point she is plunged into the meaning of gender for Papuans. Since it is their central organising idea, it is absurd to talk about gender as if it were about the relations between men and women. Every event is structured so as to engage donors (male) and recipients (female): a person has to be mobilised as a same-sex actor for taking any action, but sometimes the mobilisation is in the male and sometimes in the female mode, strictly according to the context of the event. For example, when the older men are interacting with the boys being initiated, all the men are single-sex males and all the initiates female. It is like our dissociation of biological age from seniority. According to local theory, a person is composed of multiple gendered parts, or multiple gendered persons, which are interacting with one another as donors and recipients in maintaining the flow of elements through the body. In an encounter defined as one with the opposite sex, the variously gendered elements of the person fall into alignment to make a single-sex being, so that the appropriate enactment between donor and recipient can be performed. The same for mixed groups of persons: overseas traders are males in relation to their hosts. It seems quite a workable idea.

In Melanesia, gender is not about men and women, but about the structuring of social events and relations. Men and women both work in producing the food for ceremonial exchanges, but the latter are organised entirely by the men. It is perfectly true that engaging in gift exchange gives the individual men scope for gaining prestige, and that they do this by using the products of women’s work, and thereby gain symbolic capital for themselves: but it is not true that the women who contribute so much at the level of production do not also get prestige from their association with the successful event. The relations between persons in the gift economy are not assimilable to a contract of work. In a commodity economy persons are treated as commodities, and with commodity thinking there is no way of understanding relations within a gift economy. Commodity thinking is the trap which we fall into unless we take special precautions. It is the trap that deforms our perception of intellectual problems. In the author’s hands the reproach of commodity thinking is a debating strategy which could provide her with an escape route from the relativising attack which she herself uses so dexterously, but which could easily entrap her too. By isolating commodity thinking as a distinct genre she has shifted the argument upwards to a new semantic level.

My main criticism of this remarkable attempt to come to terms with fundamental problems of interpretation is that something called ‘the West’ is presented throughout the book as a solid block, as if there were one, timeless, Western thought. Not very cerebral, nor very contemporary, this Western thought sounds like some outdoor hustings where capitalists and workers debate about property rights, exploitation, surplus value, control over the means of production, and about individuals as owners of their time and work. But it is many-stranded, and possibly could be used in her argument in another way.

The gift economy depends upon perception of a pattern of relations in which each person’s place has unique value for the whole. It is divided into different, incommensurable, mutually balancing and reinforcing levels. Much of what she says about the gift economy sounds like an incipient version of the hierarchical structures celebrated in Augustine and in Medieval political philosophy. Freed of commoditised thinking and of the anthropological straitjacket, she could find affinity and support for her radical re-analysis of the anthropological literature in alternative strands within the Western tradition. Marilyn Strathern sometimes adopts the usage of the commoditised thinking that she is battling against. The term ‘hierarchy’ she only uses pejoratively for stratified, impersonal domination. As she rightly says, the language gets in the way: with such a denuded concept of hierarchy it is easy to miss the sympathy between Melanesian political thought and our own old idea. The same applies to contemporary thinkers. If only she had not felt obliged by the state of the art to spend so much ingenuity on creating the Pompidou effect, she might have gone more directly into the philosophical foundations of Papuan thought and related it to current Western speculations on closely related themes.

For example, there is a chorus of learned voices to back her criticism of ‘representation’ as the model of cognitive processes. In her discussion of Papuan ideas of cause and effect, she is almost reaching for an Aristotelian idea of essences, and might find her discussion matched in the philosophy of science. What she says about standardising of gifts and performances echoes what Nelson Goodman says about copies, authentication and entrenchment. The concept of the individual is central to her contrast between Papuan and Western thought, but the latter countenances two usages: one which refers to a unique, unanalysable unity, and another which recognises composite individuals, such as individual species in biology. So she does not have to labour so hard the differences between Papuan and Western concepts of individuals. Philosophers’ current discussions of personhood and convention would also enrich her project, to say nothing of the philosophical criticism of relativism.

She is obviously impressed with the relativising criticism. But it is not clear that she knows how to escape it. She might try claiming that she has not imposed Western categories but only translated Papuan words: that won’t work, because it would imply an extensive overlap between the gift economy and the commodity economy, which she wants to deny. She might try to defend her views of Papuan culture with the claim that she has given every word a new meaning, elicited from its instituted uses. But that won’t work, for ‘institution’ is a thoroughly Western concept, so is ‘individual’ – and ‘meaning’, for that matter. If good will is lacking, her argument would hang all too precariously in the air.

What about the good will? The feminist anthropologists may not be inclined to forgive the ruses. The feminist scholars have no need to accept her conclusions about Papuan women not being exploited by the men, for they are entitled to define exploitation as they see it, in relation to their practical intentions. But the feminist anthropologists are more vulnerable, if they accept the relativising thesis at face value. Will they have the nerve to use it when they want to and reject it when it doesn’t suit? Or would that put them outside of the anthropological discourse? Will they object to being used to trip the Marxist anthropologists? Will the Marxists feel guyed? Everyone looks a fool under this gentle deconstruction.

By striving with this straw man, Western thought, the author is doing less than the best she could do for her theme. I don’t at all mean that if she had access to relevant work her task of describing Papuan principles of action would be easier. Rather the contrary: she would be tempted to take it to a deeper level. For this exercise she would need to realise that as a Westerner herself she has options in her own culture. She doesn’t have to be a relativist, and certainly she does not have to subscribe even indirectly to an impossible quest for foundations of knowledge. Rules of discourse that render discourse impossible are absurd: she doesn’t have to take them seriously. But evidently she does, judging by the elaborate defensive outworks.

The simple solution for justifying the second part of the book would be to recognise the value of theory and to accept its relation to action. Action creates problems, theory chooses among problems, and chosen problems justify definitions. The feminist scholars are free of the relativist strictures just because they have a problem and they define their concepts as the problem requires. The other scholars could do the same. But problems, like theories and definitions, are highly suspect to Post-Modernism. Their absence exposes scholars who attempt to do without. Marilyn Strathern tries to deflect the relativist criticism by disavowing theorising. She apparently agrees that theory is a regrettable form of dominance, and implicitly wishes that theoretical analysis could be done without distinguishing, classifying and hierarchising. Half-defeated in advance, she says she does not offer analyses but ‘narratives’. Instead of hypotheses she has ‘fictions’, ‘metaphors’. Instead of argument, ‘plot’.

Again, this may be another sign of her ultra-sophistication, for when she feels free to plunge into part two she chooses problems and theorises about them uncompromisingly. But the result is that the full job of deconstruction is left undone. Perhaps it is of its nature impossible. But at least it will be interesting to follow up her ideas about the different ways in which exploitation can be articulated in different thought systems, and to work out the implications for ‘false consciousness’.

Many anthropologists in Melanesia and elsewhere would like to get a go-ahead signal to do the old-fashioned kind of comparative regional studies based upon a hypothesis generated from Western experience and Western categories. Some are doing it already, with a theory to test, and a specific task of collecting and organising the evidence. It is a difficult genre: the worker has to be sustained by the idea that the synthesis will be of value somewhere, if only to the self-understanding of the West. But Marilyn Strathern scoffs lightly at any suggestion that when we have uncovered the principles of another civilisation we could use them for solving our own problems. I venture to disagree. Historians and political philosophers would find her plot relevant to their work. Thanks to her story, intellectual debate with anthropology has a chance of reaching a new depth. At the very least, we could all make use of an alternative fiction to counterpoise the hack political narratives that lie to hand.

[*] Works and Lives, Stanford University Press, 1988.