Hau: a structuralist critique

(This post is part of the Art as Gift Project)

Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss (1950), critiques Mauss’s notion of hau. This is the mysterious force in the gift, given in the property-exchange rituals of archaic societies, which demands its return at a later date. Hau is necessary for the gift, as it produces the synthesis between these two antithetical operations of giving and returning.

Instead of focusing on the thing that is given in the gift and its call for return, Lévi-Strauss, in line with the principles of linguistic structuralism, directs us outwards, towards the language in which these practices of gift-giving are expressed. In those societies studied, the antithesis between giving/returning does not exist, as these “antithetical operations are expressed by the same word.”

He goes on to quote from Marcel Mauss who notes, in The Gift, that “Papuan and Melanesian have one single term to designate buying and selling, lending and borrowing. “Operations that are opposites are expressed by the same word.” (GT, 75) Therefore, Lévi-Strauss claims, there is no need for hau, the “aura” of the gift, which he calls a “magical” notion.

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