the rotten face

― for Tal Kubo    

    People partake of communities in virtue of elective favors. Politeness is the key to the community spirit. Politeness is more demanding than morality. Morality is more demanding than law. Thus law enjoins its subject from pushing a naked woman off a bridge, whereas morality encourages him to pull her out of the water, and politeness requires him to avoid leering whilst she strives to dry her pubic hair.
    Men imbued with community spirits go out of their way to be law-abiding with the authorities, moral with civilians, and polite with deserving parties belonging to the communities of their choice. When their neighbors seek information, they try to formulate an authoritative answer. When their neighbors seek material assistance, they try to provide it within their means. When their neighbors overstep the bounds of civility, they try to avoid boorishness and banality in guiding them back.
    The communal attitude finds its definitive expression in the practices of exchange. Its setting has been ably described by Émile Durkheim, who formulated his sociological theory in terms of collective representations, représentations collectives, whereby human societies are viewed as irreducible, sui generis entities. Collective representations are social structures that exist outside of individual consciences. They operate coercively, like a language, a currency, a code of professional practices, or various phenomena of group emotions. Taken in their entirety, collective representations constitute the conscience of their society. In his Essay on the Gift Durkheim’s nephew, Marcel Mauss, applied his methodology to the study of “total” social phenomena, les phénomènes sociaux « totaux ». His exemplary collective representation was of potlatch, the institution of total prestations of agonistic type, prestations totales de type agonistique. (Marcel Mauss, Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques (1923-1924), in Sociologie et anthropologie (SA), Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1950, pp. 147, 153.)
    Potlatch is a gift ceremony formerly practiced by the tribes of the American Northwest. It existed beyond the regime of utilitarian economic exchange. It was spontaneous and non-negotiable. Its competitive reciprocity approached an essentially destructive nature. A potlatch began in promiscuous gift-giving by the host of the event. It required a display of luxury and excess. It invited une-upmanship through reciprocation by its recipients.

    Nulle part le prestige individuel d’un chef et le prestige de son clan ne sont plus liés à la dépense, et à l’exactitude à rendre usurairement les dons acceptés, de façon à transformer en obligés ceux qui vous ont obligés. La consommation et la destruction y sont réellement sans bornes. Dans certains potlatch on doit dépenser tout ce que l’on a et ne rien garder. C’est à qui sera le plus riche et aussi le plus follement dépensier. Le principe de l’antagonisme et de la rivalité fonde tout. Le statut politique des individus, dans les confréries et les clans, les rangs de toutes sortes s’obtiennent par la « guerre de propriété » comme par la guerre, ou par la chance, ou par l’héritage, par l’alliance et le mariage. Mais tout est conçu comme si c’était une « lutte de richesse ». Le mariage des enfants, les sièges dans les confréries ne s’obtiennent qu’au cours de potlatch échangés et rendus. On les perd au potlatch comme on les perd à la guerre, au jeu, à la course, à la lutte. Dans un certain nombre de cas, il ne s’agit même pas de donner et de rendre, mais de détruire, afin de ne pas vouloir même avoir l’air de désirer qu’on vous rende. On brûle des boîtes entières d’huile d’olachen (candle-fisch, poisson-chandelle) ou d’huile de baleine, on brûle les maisons et des milliers de couvertures ; on brise les cuivres les plus chers, on les jette à l’eau, pour écraser, pour « aplatir » son rival. Non seulement on se fait ainsi progresser soi-même, mais encore on fait progresser sa famille sur l’échelle sociale. Voilà donc un système de droit et d’économie où se dépensent et se transfèrent constamment des richesses considérables. On peut, si on veut, appeler ces transferts du nom d’échange ou même de commerce, de vente mais ce commerce est noble, plein d’étiquette et de générosité et, en tout cas, quand il est fait dans un autre esprit, en vue de gain immédiat, il est l’objet d’un mépris bien accentué.

SA, pp. 200-202
    Nowhere the individual prestige of a chief and the prestige of his clan are related any more to the expenditure, and to the exactitude in returning usuriously the gifts accepted, in order to transform those who had obliged you into the obliged. Consumption and destruction are there really without bounds. In some potlatches one must spend all that one has and be left with nothing. It is won by the richest and also the most madly extravagant. Everything is based upon the principles of antagonism and rivalry. The political status of individuals in fraternities and clans, in ranks of all kinds, is gained in a “war of property” as through war, or through chance, or through inheritance, through alliance and marriage. The marriage of children, the seats in fraternities are obtained only during potlatch exchanged and returned. They are lost through potlatch as one loses them in war, in play, in a race, in a fight. In a certain number of cases, it is not even a question of giving and returning, but of destroying, in order not to want, nor to even seem to want any return. One burns whole boxes of oil of olachen (candle-fisch [sic.], fish-candle) or of oil of whale, one burns houses and thousands of blankets; one breaks the most expensive coppers, one throws them in water, in order to crush, “to flatten” his rival. Not only one thus advances one’s own standing, but moreover one advances his family on the social ladder. Here is therefore a system of right and economy where considerable riches are constantly spent and transferred. One can, if one wants, apply to these transfers the name of exchange or even of trade, of sale but this trade is noble, full of etiquette and of generosity and, in any event, when it is made in another spirit, in the expectation of immediate profit, it is the object of a forcefully stressed contempt.

―translated by MZ


Marcel Mauss
    The givers of the potlatch were urged by their community to show a disdain for economic wealth. They did so to the point of destroying gifts so that they could not be returned. In extreme cases, entire villages were left destitute by the ravages of potlatch. Through this destruction of wealth, the individual gained status, the recognition of superiority by his contemporaries. Within his analysis, Mauss draws an analogy between shame and the loss of face for the Chinese, and similar degradations suffered by the American Indians of the northwest Pacific coast:

    L’obligation de donner est l’essence du potlatch. Un chef doit donner des potlatch, pour lui-même, pour son fils, son gendre ou sa fille, pour ses morts. Il ne conserve son autorité sur sa tribu et sur son village, voire sur sa famille, il ne maintient son rang entre chefs ― nationalement et internationalement ― que s’il prouve qu’il est hanté et favorisé des esprits et de la fortune, qu’il est possédé par elle et qu’il la possède ; et il ne peut prouver cette fortune qu’en la dépensant, en la distribuant, en humiliant les autres, en les mettant « à l’ombre de son nom. » Le noble kwakiutl et haïda a exactement la même notion de la « face » que le lettré ou l’officier chinois. On dit de l’un des grands chefs mythiques qui ne donnait pas de potlatch qu’il avait la « face pourrie ». Même l’expression est ici plus exacte qu’en Chine. Car, au nord-ouest américain, perdre le prestige, c’est bien perdre l’âme : c’est vraiment la « face », c’est le masque de danse, le droit d’incarner un esprit, de porter un blason, un totem, c’est vraiment la persona, qui sont ainsi mis en jeu, qu’on perd au potlatch, au jeu des dons comme on peut les perdre à la guerre ou par une faute rituelle. Dans toutes ces sociétés, on se presse à donner. Il n’est pas un instant dépassant l’ordinaire, même hors lés solennités et rassemblements d’hiver où on ne soit obligé d’inviter ses amis, de leur partager les aubaines de chasse ou de cueillette qui viennent des dieux et des totems ; où on ne soit obligé de leur redistribuer tout ce qui vous vient d’un potlatch dont on a été bénéficiaire ; où on ne soit obligé de reconnaître par des dons n’importe quel service, ceux des chefs, ceux des vassaux, ceux des parents ; le tout sous peine, au moins pour les nobles, de violer l’étiquette et de perdre leur rang.

SA, pp. 205-208
    The obligation to give is the essence of the potlatch. A chief must give potlatch, for himself, for his son, for his son-in-law or his daughter, for his dead. He does not preserve his authority over his tribe and over its village, even on his family, he does not maintain his rank among the chiefs ― both within his nation and outside of it ― unless he proves that he is frequented and favored by the spirits and fortune, that he is possessed by her and that he possesses her; and he can prove this fortune only by spending it, by distributing it, by humiliating the others, by putting them “in the shadow of his name”. The noble Kwakiutl and Haïda have exactly the same notion of the “face” as the Chinese mandarin or officer. They say of one of the great mythical chiefs who did not give potlatch that he had the “rotten face”. Even the expression is more precise here than in China. Because, in the American Northwest, to lose prestige, it is the same as to lose the soul: it is really the “face”, it is the dance mask, the right to incarnate a spirit, to carry a blazon, a totem, it is really the persona that is thus brought into play, that one loses in the potlatch, in the play of the gifts, just as one can lose them in war or through a ritual fault. In all these societies, one hastens to give. It is not a moment out of the ordinary, even outside of the solemnities and gatherings of winter when one is not obliged to invite his friends, to share with them the windfalls of hunting or gathering that come from the gods and the totems; where one is not obliged to redistribute to them all that comes to him from a potlatch from which he benefited; where one is not obliged to recognize by gifts all services, those of the chiefs, those of the vassals, those of the parents; the whole on the pain, at least for the nobles, of violating the etiquette and losing their rank.

―translated by MZ

    For Mauss, the social bond that maintains the “face” is a prestation, a mutual obligation without which the individual disappears. That is the only alternative to the marketplace that bohemian spirits find unpalatably venal. For nearly three decades, Michael has sought to uphold the prestation model as a sustainable guide for action in the bourgeois society that he chose to inhabit. Suffice it to say that gift-giving has not worked out the way he had hoped. Doubtless, part of the reason was the awkwardness of his gifts. But a deeper reason relates to the nature of the exchange commemorated by Mauss. The form in which it is reflected in our society does not lend itself to reciprocity or celebration. If Michael perseveres in hewing to his idea of prestation, he does so in contravention of the most fundamental precepts of social economy. He is no longer concerned with doing it for his neighbor’s sake. He is doing it for his own face.
    Michael considers the alternative. A man out for a walk comes upon a small child drowning in a pond. He might be an excellent swimmer able to snatch the victim from a certain doom ever so easily. Or he might be frail and uncertain of his own ability to stay afloat through the course of this attempt. Or he might be in a hurry, unable to spare the time. Perhaps he is hurrying to get to a crucial job interview. Perhaps his pausing to save a stranger’s life would be regarded by his prospective employer as a dereliction of duties.
    That is why moralists extol supererogation, referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the ideal neighbor expending his kindness over and above the demands of strict duty. Our moral universe would be an arid place, were the categorical obligation the only alternative to the absolute proscription. But the plausibility of this account of elective virtues, varies inversely with the abilities of their subjects. An excellent swimmer taking a leisurely stroll would be hard pressed to justify his failure to respond to the plight of the drowning child.
    What kind of neighbor is God to man? What is God’s excuse for exempting Himself from prestation by ignoring human prayers for help? Over many millennia of worship, men have hastened to give proof of their faith in God through torrents of anathemata. His response has belied omnipotence by falling short of its promise. And in so far as that is the case, God has the rotten face.

Michael R. Nejman
Incan mummy, National Museum of Anthropology and Archeology in Lima, Peru

If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.

—Woody Allen, Love and Death

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