The Gift and Care

Reuniting a Political Family ?

This paper proposes to systematize the overlaps between gift theory and theories of care by placing the various types of care within the paradigm of the gift. We start from the viewpoint that like the gift relationship, the caring relationship is a total social relationship and forms the original matrix of human interaction. The paper argues that both gift and care relations are marginalized in our predominantly utilitarian and individualistic modern thought system. The model that distinguishes between visible, celebrated, even glorified masculine gifts and discreet, invisible, even hidden feminine gifts, which we now refer to as “care,” can also apply to these negated gifts, which are devalued because they are the gifts of women but also because they remind us of our original frailty and dependence.
This paper is a slightly extended version of a paper with the same title published in Marie Garrau and Alice Le Goff (eds.) Politiser le care ? Perspectives sociologiques et philosophiques (Latresne, France : Le Bord de l’Eau, 2012). The Revue du Mauss thanks the co-editors for permission to publish it here.

Recently, links between the gift and its recognition have been identified and discussed (Caillé 2007 ; Chanial 2011). Yet the links between gift and care have received little scrutiny until now (RDM 2008). Perhaps the anthropological and anti-utilitarian inspiration of gift theory and the philosophical and feminist sources on care theory have concealed their common family resemblance. As Fabienne Brugère recently suggested, citing Marcel Mauss and the work of MAUSS, “the interest in caring for all kinds of vulnerability is part of a trend in the social and human sciences to move away from the idea of homo economicus and the perspective of rational action motivated by self-interest” (2011, 49).

Is this a common trend, or rather, is there some family resemblance to be recognized here ? This is what I argue in this paper, though without drawing a veil over a number of family quarrels. I then celebrate their union, or at least inquire whether “care” can be subsumed under “gift” and vice-versa.

A Family Resemblance

The first family resemblance is immediately obvious. Care and gift theories are fellow waifs. One deals with women’s affairs the other with primitive notions, or, alternatively, both are idealized realms of good intentions where disinterest, altruism, even sacrifice reign supreme. Perhaps they are both victims of the same lack of recognition, or even the same disparagement ? Or perhaps, care theories and gift theories are tarred with the same brush as human practices and types of relationship that are marginalized, rendered invisible, seen as inferior, and relegated to the private sphere (Tronto 1993) or dismissed as elementary forms of social life (Caillé 2000) ?

The Shadow Army of Caregivers

The “shadow army of caregivers,” indeed of all givers, these “unjustly forgotten actors of the capitalist world” (Brugère 2011, 25) seem to be forced to camp outside of the city gates, banished as they are from the realm of legitimate topics by both moral and political philosophy as well as the social sciences. As Tronto suggests,

Care work is devalued ; care is also devalued conceptually through a connection with privacy, with emotion, and with the needy. Since our society treats public accomplishment, rationality, and autonomy as worthy qualities, care is devalued insofar as it embodies their opposites. (1993, 117)

Furthermore, as Tronto shows, if the gift of self – or care-giving – is thus denied and treated as inferior, is this not, paradoxically, a measure of its importance and of the power of those who dispense it ? Is it not “the enormous real power of care that makes its containment necessary” (1993, 122) ? This is because, like the gift, care is clearly one of the “powers of the weak,” since caregivers provide “essential support for life.” However, this debt to caregivers is very difficult to acknowledge. [1] The truly dominant, as opposed to the “powerful weak,” are so privileged that they do not even notice their dependency on caregivers. As Tronto continues to argue, “to treat care as shabby and unimportant helps to maintain the positions of the powerful vis-à-vis those who care for them” (1993). This is a good example of the master-slave dialectic.

Society from a Care Perspective, Society from a Gift Perspective

Perhaps it is like Saint-Simon’s famous “What if . . . ?” parable, [2] the second part of which could be updated as follows : What would happen if, on the same day, we lost all the men and women who, in their companies, offices, in both the public and private sphere, form those networks of cooperation, these bonds of concern, of giving or mutual aid ? What would the world be like without its social workers, its medical personnel, its educators, or more generally, its caregivers ? (Tronto 1993) ? Similarly, what would the world be like without gifts, with no givers at all ? [3] From this point of view, acknowledging the (unrecognized) contribution of care and gift-giving seems to be part of the same struggle, for at least two reasons.

Firstly, the issue for these theories is to preserve the phenomenal integrity of their marginalized practices and relations and to shed light on an area of the social world currently left in shadow. In short, the aim is quite simply to recall that there are gifts, that there is giving, that there is care, that there is caring, even though clearly, not everything is a gift and not everything is care. In both cases, there is the need to give these concepts sufficient validity and analytical power if the aim is to describe certain practices and relationships.

However, the common goal of these theories is even more ambitious. Moreover, it is both positive and normative. In fact, to render visible what has been reduced to invisibility is also, by the same token, to reverse the indignity visited on these practices and relations. In this sense, care theories and gift theories invite us to view the social world differently. This different view, which is suggested by the imaginative exercise suggested above, has nothing naive or idealistic about it. Rather, it points to yet another family resemblance since the concepts of care and gift are both inextricably descriptive and evaluative. As Patricia Paperman emphasizes, care is not so much a theory as a perspective, which aims to redraw the map of the social world so that all roads converge on caring activities. Adopting a care perspective is thus to “orient description by asking a question that, despite its apparent banality, destabilizes or problematizes what is taken to be a factual description of the social world : who does what, and how ?” As Paperman argues, “Once we have asked this question, we can describe, evaluate, and criticize the political and social organization of these activities” (2009, 103).

Similarly, a gift perspective means describing, evaluating, and criticizing the social world from a particular point of view. It enables us to see what the gift reveals while asking who gives what, to whom, and how ? In both cases, the gift and the care are not only objects these theories track tirelessly through the empirical reality of the social world (Chanial 2008) but also keys for understanding the world by framing it in a particular way in order to isolate the inherent critique of human practices and relations themselves.

Gifts and Care among the Kanaks, or How to Build the “Communal House”

Our suggestion that we look at the social world and human relationships from a shared perspective on the gift and of care is informed by a deeper rationale. To give gifts and care their due is not merely enabling a different voice to be heard in the choir of the social (and academic) world. It also involves recognizing the fundamental anthropological depth of these practices and forms of human relationships. Everyone knows that for Mauss, the gift is more than a gift : it is the bedrock of human sociability, “[a] fleeting moment when a society and its members take emotional stock of themselves . . . ” (Mauss 1967, 77–8). It is an epiphany over how the social takes form and a human world is woven through exchange. However, and at the same time, it is also the means whereby actors become aware of themselves through the very process of reciprocal recognition the gift initiates. In this sense, it forms a matrix of both socialization and individuation.

For contemporary care theories, this matrix is formed from the perspective of “an anthropology of vulnerability” (Brugère 2011 ; Garrau and Le Goff, 2010) All the activities that hold our communal world together, which take care of it by “taking care of others,” to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase, by constantly weaving and reweaving these sensitive and invisible links, which are symbols of our mutual interdependence and shared vulnerability, return us to something original and primal. Here, we should recall the definition of care suggested by Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher :

A generic activity that includes everything we do to maintain, perpetuate, and repair our world by linking different elements (our body, ourselves, out environment) into a complex network in support of life.” (Tronto and Fisher 1990, 40).

This definition echoes an important passage in Mauss’s Essay on the Gift, citing Maurice Leenhardt’s anthropological work, in which he recalls the terms the Kanak people use to describe one of the defining moments of New Caledonian society, namely the great ritual feast of “pilu-pilu.” Our feasts are the movement of the needle that sews together the parts of our thatch roofs, making a single roof of them, one single utterance.” (Mauss 1966, 19)

Like the coming and going of the needle, the coming and going of the gift in the form of goods exchanged, or “words strung together,” [4] draws together the thatch roof of the “common house,” this well-sewn house beneath which all the families, clans, the living and the dead, men, women, and children, the gods and the spirits, will be able to shelter and live together. Like Tronto’s “common world,” the Kanaks’ “common house” assumes these “movements of the needle,” this permanent work of attachment and enlacing, of relatedness whereby bonds of confidence, alliance, and concern are forged.

Care, the Gift, and the Ambivalence of Bodily Exposure

Let us go further. If both care and gift have this primal quality, is this not because we can see in them an original mode of being, the condition of human life itself ?

Judith Butler, influenced by the philosopher Adriana Cavarero, herself a thinker in the Arendt mold, describes this common condition as one of precariousness of the self, of the other, and of life itself. Are we not first of all necessarily exposed in our vulnerability, which our bodies “from the start, by virtue of being a bodily being, already given over, beyond ourselves . . . ” (Butler 2004, 22), rendered naked, in Agamben’s (2011) sense ? This common vulnerability, conferred by the co-presence of bodies and the irreducibility of their mutual exposure, is present at the very beginning of life itself think of the fragility of the new-born baby and is prolonged when life is threatened by sickness or draws to its close through old age.

This “condition of a primary vulnerability” [5]  attests to another and equally irreducible fact, namely our common dependency. This shared vulnerability delivers us to others, indeed places us at the mercy of others, to the point where, according to Butler, we are all simultaneously constituted and dispossessed by our relationships (2004, 24). In this sense, this subjugation shapes us in the same way as it undoes us. It shapes us in that according to the relational conception of the self I propose, the self is not an entity or a substance but a set of relationships and ways of relating in which primary caregivers play an essential role. [6] However, it also undoes us by exposing us to the threat of violence as a result of this very same exposure. Hence the fundamental ambivalence of bodily contact :

The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency : the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others but also to touch and to violence. The body can be the agency and instrument of all these as well. (2004, 21)

Consequently, the other’s vulnerability may arouse concern, care, and protection, or equally, aggression, predation, and the desire to kill. Any confrontation with “otherness” contains this ambivalence, the indetermination of any encounter, always potentially open to the acceptance or rejection of the other, to recognition or defiance. [7]

Care Seen as a Gift

Many other family resemblances could be pointed out. The relational emphasis common to these theories cannot be dissociated from their sensitivity to the context and to the body. The importance they give to feelings and emotions suggests a similar distrust of the kind of exaggerated and self-sacrificing altruism so often though wrongly ascribed to them. The intermeshing of the descriptive and the normative leads both theories to privilege the actors’ viewpoints that is, the meaning they ascribe to their actions rather than some lofty third-party overview, and to stress what they accomplish through these.

But does the indissociably descriptive and normative language of both gift and care mean that one can be easily translated into the other ? Answering this question involves raising another, broader, question : how do we characterize care as a kind of human relationship ? In terms of the typology of human relations as gift I have developed elsewhere (Chanial 2011, part III), it would be tempting to assign care to what I term the “register of concern.” Defined and limited in this way, it would encompass all those relationships in which one partner is unable to either give or repay and hence is obliged to receive. To give so that the other may receive might be its categorical imperative. This would distinguish it fundamentally from the gift, in which generosity is mingled with reciprocity, with an obligation to return the gift or at least to make a gift in due course. Moreover, when defined in terms of satisfying needs, it cannot be as gratuitous as grace. If it were to be identified as an attitude, a feeling, or a moral position or even as intimacy, [8] it would resist any kind of institutionalization or formalization, particularly on the model of statutory or institutional roles, just as it would elude any logic of the market or any quest for equivalence according to the model of exchange. Finally, it would maintain a clear distance from any relationship of domination or exploitation, or vengeance and predation. In short, it would remain untainted by any form of power or violence.

Clearly, identifying care with concern does not do justice to the many forms of relationship involved in caring for another nor indeed to the tensions and ambivalences that form part of it. As I have tried to show, while the gift is one form among others of human relationship, it may be used as a valuable tool to grasp the possible changes, slippages, and transformations between these different ways of relating. [9] Hence, rather than assigning care to a single register in giving it some content, it seems more fruitful, as Patricia Paperman (2009) suggests, to see its very ambivalence as a value comparable to that of the gift itself. [10] I shall therefore try to read care by using the gift as a lens.

Care, Gift, and Concern

If we retain the definition of care adopted by the main theorists as a form of relationship oriented toward the needs of another, as a relationship of caring, helping, taking responsibility for another who is above all vulnerable, can we take “good care” to be an asymmetrical manifestation of agape, [11] in short, a kind of relationship with no element of compulsion or expectation or hope of reciprocity ? Clearly things are rather more complicated.

As Alice Le Goff reminds us, we are indebted to Tronto (1993) for stressing “the need to expand the concept of care by ceasing to see it in terms of a disposition toward concern and viewing it from the viewpoint of care practices” (2009, 360). More specifically, this involves seeing care less as an emotion (such as generosity or empathy) but rather as “a practice taken as a whole.” As a general form of activity or relationship, care describes a four-stage process : caring about, which implies recognizing both a need and the necessity of doing something about it and also presupposes an ethical capacity for attention ; that of taking care of, which relates to the (moral) responsibility to respond to the need identified ; that of care-giving, which covers the practice of care itself, which is necessarily a particular competence ; and finally, care-receiving, which Tronto sees as covering the reaction of the person receiving care, thus ending the cycle.

This last phase presupposes that the caregiver has another essential moral quality, which Tronto terms “receptivity” or “responsiveness.” By integrating care receiving into the very definition of care, Tronto aptly signals the specific quality of a relationship that, while not entailing reciprocity of mutual services, calls for a degree of symmetry, at least as a safeguard against any paternalistic asymmetry. In fact, it presupposes a capacity to “perceive the needs of others without projecting onto them our own situation but in being more attentive to how others express their own perception of their situation” (Le Goff 2009, 362).

However, Tronto wants us to go further still. If the quality of care receiving, which is an essential part of the giver’s responsiveness, is what makes for happiness, then care is most certainly a collective undertaking. It defines a couple, a pair, or, as with partners in conversation, the reply gives sense to or makes sense of the question and cements the relationship. This is why ultimately, we never know which one is giving : the giver or the receiver ? Caregivers or helpers, be they care workers, social workers, or community activists, often admit that they gain much from the men and women who, by virtue of their dependency or distress, are too rapidly assigned to the status of mere receiver. This is why care is not reducible to a unilateral concern, even in relationships characterized by some form of asymmetry.

Thus, not only are the boundaries between gift and care porous in terms of the reciprocity criterion, but, to go further, can we define “good care” as care that becomes more like a gift (or even philia) the further it distances itself from pity or charity ? Paul Ricœur, seeking an appropriate ethical underpinning for concern, emphasizes that “a disparity not compensated for would undermine the exchange between giver and receiver” (1990, 221). He shows how it is specifically through the mutual exchange of self-esteem that concern properly understood “compensates for the initial disparity [. . .] through the compensatory return of recognition” (222). Thus, through this gift of mutual recognition, concern can equalize the agent and the patient, the giver and the receiver. Moreover, Ricœur urges us to recognize the extent to which “giving emanates from the suffering other, not by virtue of their power to act and live but rather from their weakness itself” (223). Ricœur thus shows that a self reminded of the inherent vulnerability of the human condition may receive more from the other’s weakness than what he or she gives. [12]

It is this quality of reciprocity that enables us to think of care as a form of gift, not only because the caregiver’s gift may be “returned” by reminding us of our common condition of vulnerability but also, and even more so, because “good care” involves a refusal of any unilateral service, any pity or charity. This is not so much giving in order that the other may receive but rather giving so that the other may give. This is the meaning of the story of the meeting between Catholic priest Abbé Pierre’s and a former prisoner who had killed his father and was suicidal, with whom he went on to set up the non-profit for the homeless Emmaüs in 1949. [13] We should also think of care relations within a hospital setting, which, described as a gift relationship, enables us to show that, even though this is a deeply one-sided relationship, it still includes a degree of reciprocity, albeit a discreet and invisible one because while a patient receives a great deal of care, he or she is still able to give it. [14] However, this is not merely the gift of trust or gratitude. Rather, we can legitimately refer to the work the sick person engages in as care. [15] This is obvious in dialysis units or rehabilitation services or, though somewhat differently, in the field of psychiatry. Yet these are simple acts, such as washing oneself, combing one’s hair, getting up, nourishing oneself, providing useful diagnostic information, coughing or breathing when asked, and so on, all of which are necessary for medical treatment. Think also of mourning or of coming to terms with one’s death through the rules for “a good death” dying patients are expected to follow, such as controlling their emotions, maintaining self-control, and so on.

Sublimation and Routinization

While like the gift, care may thus become more symmetrical and mutual, it may also be sublimated into grace. Such moments of grace are common in the experience of caring, moments where it is a case of giving for giving’s sake without aiming to immediately satisfy a duly identified need. This dimension, of play, pleasure, even desire, [16] is clearly part of care-giving. What is a state of grace if not a fleeting moment when human interaction escapes from the weight of routine, function, and usefulness, an unsought and unexpected moment when social rules and constraints are temporarily suspended, where (institutional) time stops briefly for a spontaneous action, an instance of grace, a freely-bestowed gift, or a beautiful gesture, a delicate attention, a fleeting complicity revealed in a word, a smile, a laugh, a bodily touch. Accepting that a touch of grace lies at the heart of care means recognizing this necessarily non-utilitarian, non-qualifiable, unpredictable, unexpected, unsought, immeasurable aspect of what is given as an extra. Being inestimable in both senses of the term, this “support for life” (in Tronto’s words) ceaselessly weaves and reweaves, as if for their own sake, the sensitive and invisible links that symbolize our common interdependence and our shared vulnerability. [17]

Again, like the gift though conversely, care may become routinized as well as sublimated into grace. The emphasis on avoiding sentimentality in caring is a recognition that care work is not just an intimate dyadic relationship that takes place in an institutional void. [18] Care work presupposes organizational constraints and specific competences. Because it makes legitimate claims to professionalism, it requires a degree of affective distancing. In institutional forms of care, such as nursing or social work, for example, each person must first and foremost abide by the rules prescribed by their role, status, and profession. Everyone plays the social game according to their place and in their turn according to the rules. Everyone conforms to the rights and duties prescribed by the institutional framework. [19]

Although formalizing care leads to more impersonal and anonymous relationships, it does provide caregivers with some kind of support and practical framework for their jobs in the form of instruments, procedures, and shared methods they can use in carrying out and adjusting the care work they do (Gayet 2010). In this respect, the gift aspect inherent in care requires some institutional mediation to ensure its effectiveness and the maintenance of an appropriate distance between caregivers and beneficiaries. However some ambiguity remains as the process is crisscrossed with multiple tensions. In particular, there is an unavoidable tension between, on the one hand, caring for the other seen as a personal and always individual concern with no market or balance-sheet equivalence, a concern that can in fact be overweening if there is too strong an identification with the vulnerable person [20] and their needs are too imperative, and on the other hand, the concern for the activity itself as a technical, professional, institutional activity involving procedures and protocols, which runs the opposite risk of depersonalizing the relationship and setting it within a rationalized and formalized work process. Hence the dilemmas inherent in institutional care, the tension between closeness and distance, involvement and indifference, and autonomy and dependence.

The Dark Side of Care from a Gift Perspective

From a gift perspective, care is not limited to concern or grace, institutional role play, or even exchange. This shift in viewpoint enables us to explore its dark side : power relations, domination, even violence.

As in the poisoned gift, the lack of symmetry between gift giver and gift receiver may tip into a relationship of domination. When this occurs, the more dominant partner will be the one who gives the most, [21] with the other being belittled and reduced to the status of mere receiver. Domination can thus be reformulated in gift terms as giving so that the other cannot return the gift. If the gift can confer power to the extent that the other is indebted, can the same not be said of care ? And can this also not be a means of domination ? From this point of view, it is legitimate to analyze certain social care mechanisms as the poisoned gift of the State that crushes the beneficiary under the weight of the debt incurred and imposes the minutest forms of social control. We might also reformulate the critique of paternalism (or maternalism) developed by some care theorists. The example of Jacques X’s double organ transplant discussed by Dominique Bourgeon (2008) points in this direction. Is a father’s desire to give his son the gift of life again by offering him first his kidney then his liver a concerned and caring relationship, or is it tainted by an unconscious temptation to mark his domination and to crush his offspring by sheer generosity ? [22]

Another slippage may occur when giving is replaced by taking. As with the gift of dependence or even Marx’s working class, [23] its original manifestation is a relation of exploitation consisting of taking what was given. In fact, theories of care analyze domination from exactly this angle. Although I prefer to use the term “exploitation,” I do this in the sense that care in this form of relationship is seen as their due by its beneficiaries, who by virtue of their privileges are in a position to deny the gifts they are given and thereby their dependence on caregivers. Thus, refusing to acknowledge what is given to them and this is one of the meanings of the dirty work associated with care is tantamount to denying this gift of care in order to appear as the true and only giver.

Another instance of this slippage from giving to taking leads from the gift viewpoint to total war, fought without rules, or more generally to all forms of uncontrolled violence, including relations of predation. These can be understood not as inversions of the gift but as its opposite. [24] The primacy of taking is a generalized right to repayment of a debt assumed by each individual or group, that is, the right to take the possessions or the lives of others. As Alain Caillé notes, “there is a trend toward abandoning sociality, or at least sociability” (2005, 170), which tends toward the hubris of pure violence, or taking for the sake of taking. We could analyze some of the ways in which care tips into violence in the same terms. This lies at the heart of Butler’s argument discussed above. That is, the exposure of bodies, their vulnerability, might lead to violence or murder just as easily as it might lead to solicitude. We might think also of the issue of mistreatment, particularly in hospitals (Molinier, 1993) or of violence toward children [25] and women.

Finally, this form of violence, which is devoid of any logic of reciprocity, is the opposite of those relations of vengeance, which are concerned with taking what was taken. Whether an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, ceremonial wars, or the vendetta cycle, all of these forms of violence may be understood as negative forms of gift (Caillé 2005, 169–70) or as negative reciprocity (Anspach 2002 ; Verdier 1980). Here, reciprocity demands answering evil with evil in order to restore an equivalence or equilibrium of evil that enables the debt inflicted to be acquitted. This register of vengeance is not unknown in the ambivalence of caring relations. We need only refer to the famous story of the Papin sisters, two young domestic servants who butchered, bled, and cooked their employers like rabbits, or conversely, the recent work of Catherine Alès (2006, chap. VI and X), which shows how the system of vengeance practiced by the Yanomamian indigenous people of the Amazon Basinis not reducible to pure and simple predation but can be understood in terms of Mauss’s model of the gift system as the most demanding and elaborated system of care, that is, as marks of love and concern.

Conclusion : (Re)-politicizing Care through the Gift

What conclusions can we draw at this point ? Once more, we can emphasize a striking family resemblance : care, like the gift, is clearly a total social relationship. As a result, as I suggested, it forms a matrix for human relationships. In short, care is more than caring, just as the gift, the bedrock of human sociability according to Mauss, is more than giving. How then can we articulate this double helix that structures all human sociability ? From the perspective developed here, we can see this articulation as a complex hierarchy. In fact, it is tempting to hypothesize that care is the hidden, even the dominated side of this double matrix. Clearly, as I argued, gift and care are equally relegated from our modern societies, dominated as they are by utilitarianism and the cult of individual autonomy. Perhaps this relegation is even stronger in the case of caring activities and relationships ?

In fact, this has long been shown in the anthropological literature. In traditional societies, there are, to a degree at least, two kinds of gift : one visible, celebrated, even glorified, the other discreet, invisible, even ignored, in other words, male gifts and female gifts. In fact, while women are excluded from the majority of ceremonial public gift-giving events, which are dominated by men (husbands, brothers, tribal chiefs, and warlords) and which delineate ranks and hierarchy, they give, and constantly so. They give life as well as daily care to children, the sick, their nearest and dearest. They give their bodies too. Yet these gifts are not fully recognized as such, and unlike the first kind, they do not express the value of those who are so prodigal with them.

It is legitimate to suggest therefore that what we in the modern world refer to as “care,” is none other than these denied and devalued gifts. [26] As I argued, following Tronto, if these gifts, that is, care gifts, are denied in this way, it is precisely because of their inestimable importance in supporting life. In Tronto’s words, they demonstrate the “power of the weak.” Moreover, this hierarchy is part of another, complex hierarchy, which is also suggested in the anthropological literature. Not only do male gifts presuppose female gifts (while denying them), but while male gifts dominate at those higher social levels considered most important, namely the public sphere, politics, war, and rituals, at lower levels in the hierarchy, that is, those concerned mainly with the intimate and private sphere to which women are confined, it is now female gifts that dominate. In this sense, hierarchies which Louis Dumont (1970/1976) saw as embodiment of the contrary principle enable us to understand both the frequent incorporation of the value accorded to the female into the superior value of the male but also the inversions this produces.

This perspective has a number of normative consequences. It enables us to point to another family resemblance between the ethics and politics of care and the ethics and politics of the gift. In both cases there is the issue of reformulating democratic reciprocity in terms of the need to recognize all contributions to the creation and sustenance of our common world, including female gifts but also, as was shown by theorists of care in the modern world, the gifts of all those women and men who, because of class or ethnicity, are victims of a similar social relegation and denial of recognition. [27]

This radical imperative of recognition, which is critical of the very basis of what Tronto calls “the irresponsibility of the privileged,” must go hand in hand with a new concept of politics. This is what Alain Caillé suggests after re-reading Rousseau in the light of Mauss, when he defines politics as “the collective acceptance of being together collectively through which all give themselves (or refuse themselves) to all without giving themselves to anyone in particular” (2009, 133). In this context, democracy refers primarily to the process of bringing about a sense of “Us,” within which we can delineate and define, always polemically, the rules for allocating the roles of giver and receiver. The question : who gives to whom, and how ? then becomes primarily a political issue, which presupposes valuing all those visible and invisible practices through which spaces for mutual giving are created, those moments when society is constituted by weaving human relationships into a reciprocal and egalitarian network.

In a democracy, reciprocity demands not only that we acknowledge all of the gifts that are offered (and received), the “different voices,” as Gilligan (2008) calls them, in the democratic conversation, but also that we organize a sharing of care work that will allow all men and women to become free recipients of the gift. In fact, not only do we need to value the immeasurable contribution care makes, but we must also share out the burden of care differently so that, crucially, those women and men who are assigned to care work may also escape from it (Raïd 2009) and that they may be better able to receive the gift.


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// Article publié le 25 juin 2014 Pour citer cet article : Philippe Chanial, « The Gift and Care, Reuniting a Political Family ? », Revue du MAUSS permanente, 25 juin 2014 [en ligne].

[1Tronto emphasizes this as follows : “One aspect of object-relations psychology is the rage that infants feel at being powerless over their caregivers. Since the need to be cared for persists over one’s life, it is perhaps not surprising that those who are most often caregivers are perceived as “other” and treated with disdain” (1993, 43–4).

[2Let us suppose, Saint-Simon wrote in 1819, that France had the misfortune to lose suddenly, on the same day, His Highness, the King’s brother (the future Charles X), His Grace the Duke of Angoulême, and at the same time all the great officers of the Crown, ministers, members of the Council of State, marshals, archbishops, bishops, vicars and canons, its ten thousand richest property owners, etc. “This accident,” Saint-Simon suggested mischievously, “would certainly afflict the French since they are good-hearted, but no harm would come to the Nation from it. On the other hand, if it lost, on the same way, its fifty greatest doctors, chemists, etc., but also its best farmers, blacksmiths, and workmen in different trades, in short, its principal producers, it would become without soul at the very instant it lost them.” I leave it to the reader to update the first part of this parable.

[3Evidently, no administration would be able to function without paying at least minimal attention to public service ; no company would prosper without disinterested attachment to its business and workforce (Alter 2009) ; no association would survive if its members and officials were only there to serve themselves ; no family life, love affair, or friendship would be viable if people engaged in them only for the material, sexual, or affective benefits it give them (Chanial 2011, Part III).

[4These poetic opening words recall the origin of the clans, their common history, and their past agreements (Leenhardt 1947/1971, 215–6).

[5“In reply to the ‘original position‘ described by Rawls, the specific kind of realism that characterizes the care perspective tends to place the ‘original condition‘ of vulnerability to use Noddings’ term at the fulcrum of moral and political thought” (Laugier 2009, 16).

[6This relational conception of the self is close to that of two anthropologists, one classical, Leenhardt (1947/1971), the other modern, Marilyn Strathern (1988).

[7There are a number of similar accounts in the anthropological literature. Marcel Hénaff (2009b) records one recorded in the valleys at the foot of Mount Hagen in New Guinea by Andrew Strathern in his book The Rope of Moka : “… One of his informants, then an old man, recalled how in his youth he had seen the arrival of the first Australian administrator in his village. According to local legend, some of the dead turned into pale cannibal ghosts. Hence the fear of the villagers at the sight of this strange being with the white skin who was coming toward them. How could they know if he was human or not ? It was decided to apply the test for humanity. “When they saw Taylor’s pale skin, they thought he might be one of the pale-skinned cannibals who figure in Hagen folktales, ‘but then he gave us shell valuables in return for pigs, and we decided he was human‘” (Strathern 1971, xii).

[8Tronto stresses on numerous occasions the danger for feminism of a kind of “theoretical romanticism” that would make maternal relationships the only model for any ethics of solicitude. This is more generally what is at stake in assigning to women a (natural) disposition to solicitude.

[9These include, how the gift is transformed into grace or is routinized into mere performance of a role, how concern slides into domination, vengeance into predation, exchange into exploitation, or conversely, how vengeance is ruled by the logic of gift or exchange.

[10The perspective adopted here is close to that suggested by Pattaroni, for whom care “should take its place within the larger array of the ways in which we behave toward others [. . .] and considered to be at the intersection of varying modes of relating” (Pattaroni 2005, 180).

[11Tronto summarizes the dominant approach to seeing care in terms of solicitude : “For some, care is inevitably a dyadic relationship uniting a more powerful caregiver and a less powerful beneficiary. Although researchers have defined care in many ways, most see it as a ‘labor of love,’ a private or intimate activity we carry out in a particular emotional state” (1993, 36).

[12Ricœur goes on to say that “the supreme test of solicitude is that power inequality can be compensated for by a real reciprocity of exchange that, even at a death bed, can be found in the shared murmur of voices or the feeble grasp of hands that touch” (1990, ).

[13Following a suicide attempt, this man visited Abbé Pierre to ask for his help. Abbé Pierre records his reply in his memoir : “Without thinking or calculating, I did something that was the opposite of charity. Rather than saying to him, ‘you are unhappy, I will give you a home, work, and money,’ I told him, ‘I have nothing but debts, but since you want to die and you have no encumbrances, could you help me to help others ? In short, in order to give truly, you must not give. Or at least, give nothing but recognition. Do the opposite of charity, that is, give freely without thinking or calculating so that the other may give freely as well.’”

[14It is even possible to give too much to the point of self-abandonment. This is the risk we run when giving ourselves over completely to the caretaker, entrusting our body and our life while expecting the vital gift of care in return. In a recent paper, Isabelle Marin (2008) writes of a chemotherapy patient who greeted a new nurse with “Ah, good ! I have a present for you.” Intrigued, the nurse asked : “What present ? Well, my cancer, of course !” replied the patient. A poisoned gift, certainly ! This was the gift of this suffering body, already extensively biopsied, sampled, and injected, yet requesting, sometimes desperately, to give something in return : “I have to give something.” Thus the borderline between gift and sacrifice, between the bright side and the dark side of care, is often blurred.

[15In this connection, see the work of Anselm Strauss.

[16This include the play of desire ; see Molinier (2009b).

[17However, as André Sauge emphasizes, although there is also a lack of symmetry, grace as properly understood as kharisopens the way by its very gratuitousness to a degree of reciprocity, or “a system of paradoxical equivalence, that is, a system in which the response to a gracious act is also a gracious act, or at least something other than a simple reply” (2010, 182).

[18Fabienne Brugère underlines this clearly, following Tronto, recalling that if care is both the expression of “a disposition (and hence love, empathy, attachment) and an activity (performing an action in response to a need) . . . in those jobs with an element of solicitude, that is, the caring professions, there may well be nothing beyond the activity itself” (2009, 85).

[19We should stress here that these rules, norms, procedures, and statutes apply as much to the agent as to the patient. What they formalize is primarily the relationship itself, for example that between doctor and patient or between social worker and client. In this sense, institutional care rests on the logic of reciprocity rather than that of concern, gift, or grace. There is reciprocity between rights and duties, for instance, in that giving entails a return. This is the meaning of Pattaroni’s (2005) analysis of the development of the “care contract” in social work, which is based on a systematic logic of giving, where the quid pro quo is help in exchange for certain undertakings. In these cases, care slides into the register of exchange, the model of the modern workfare system that is systematically replacing the solicitude of welfare. We also need to analyze critiques of the marketization of care in terms of this exchange model, particularly in the light of the globalized marketing of care, such as those of Joan Tronto and Virginia Held (2006). See also Fabienne Brugère’s study of the neoliberal use of “taking care of” (2011).

[20This can extend to physically experiencing nausea and headaches, as nurses in neurology units sometimes do, or seeing the failure of a treatment resulting in death as a personal failure, as if one were not able to give enough. We might think also of the dismay experienced by nursing staff at the beginning of the AIDS/HIV epidemic.

[21See Julien Rémy’s (2008) work on young people from immigrant backgrounds and the issue of post-colonialism. Following Clastrié, he suggests defining domination as “the dominant imposing a debt that the dominated can never pay off.” This leads to the former playing the role of permanent creditor and the latter that of permanent debtor. Tronto also stresses that “colonialism was a discourse of care. The colonizers did not believe that they were exploiting the colonized peoples, but that they were taking on ‘the white man’s burden,’ bringing them civilization and Christianity” (2009, 39–40).

[22As Bourgeon tells it, the first paternal donation led the son to “repay” his father by inviting him to share his own newlywed’s home, in short, by binding himself to his parents at the very moment when he became independent. The second led to the son’s body rejecting the transplant, thereby endangering his life. A poisoned gift indeed !

[23Seen from the perspective of gift theory, Marx’s critique of capitalist work relations mobilizes the registers of both domination and exploitation. The capitalist is one who claims to give generously (a job, a salary, a meal, a roof). To see these as gifts, he or she has to deny everything the proletariat gives (its labor, its ingenuity, its effort, its body, its time, even its life) in order to continue taking the famous surplus value so as to never run into debt. This is why Mauss (1954, 65–6), Dzimira (2007, 162–6), and Chanial (2009) agued, specifically in justification of social security and worker pensions, that employers and more generally society are not relieved of their responsibilities simply by paying a salary. These gifts and through them the non-contractual element of the employment contract should be recognized and honored. Beyond the Marxist critique and the figure of the proletariat, care theorists today emphasize that there remains a refusal to recognize the services of caregivers along a triple fault-line : of class, certainly, but also of gender and of race. Think of the common sight of nurses of Caribbean origin in hospitals (Molinier 1993).

[24Alain Caillé (2005) suggests that “take-refuse-retain” is replacing “give-receive-return.” On the converse of the gift, see also Marcel Hénaff’s illuminating remarks on the sadistic libidinous economy, which praises both predation as theft, kidnapping, and rape and the unreturned gift, which consists of wasteful and unproductive exchange as masturbation, sodomy, etc. (1978, chap. VIII).

[25For an analysis of the double feminine and maternal figure of Mary and Medea from a care perspective, see Caverero (2010).

[26Furthermore, this hierarchy is present at the heart of care itself, as Tronto shows, in the division between prestigious instances and spaces, those involving responsibility without concrete work (such as the doctor making a diagnosis in his office), and those moments and places of less social value, those of dirty work, including women’s household chores or the intimate care of patients, which are more concerned with things and persons.

[27As Tronto underlines, “groups that have been traditionally excluded from centers of power in our culture often exhibit a commitment to ideals of connection and mutual support, that is, to care” (1994, 29).

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