May 102018

Today is the 5th birthday of this blog. Time certainly does seem to fly by. Each year it seems I am in a different country. 1st was Argentina, 2nd was China, 3rd was Italy, and 4th I was leaving Italy for Myanmar. This year I am in Nepal, although I actually live in Cambodia. It’s amusing to me to look back at each birthday. Last year I posted an omnibus album and promised more of the same this year. Well . . . I am going to cheat a little and post only a few birthdays because I want to focus on Marcel Mauss this year. He is certainly an important figure in the history of social and cultural anthropology, and I am an anthropologist, after all.

Karl Barth was born on this date in 1886. He was a Swiss Reformed theologian whose influence expanded well beyond the academic realm to mainstream culture, leading him to be featured on the cover of Time on April 20, 1962. Barth’s work had a profound impact on twentieth century theology and figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer – who supported the Confessing Church – Thomas F. Torrance, Reinhold Niebuhr, Jacques Ellul, Stanley Hauerwas, Hans Küng, Jürgen Moltmann, and novelists such as John Updike and Miklós Szentkuthy. Barth’s unease with the dominant theology which characterized Europe led him to become a leader in the Confessing Church in Germany, which actively opposed Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. In particular, Barth and other members of the movement vigorously attempted to prevent the Nazis from taking over the existing church and establishing a state church controlled by the regime. This culminated in Barth’s authorship of the Barmen Declaration, which fiercely criticized Christians who supported the Nazis.

Ariel Durant was born on this date in 1898. She was a Russian-born US researcher and writer, and the coauthor of The Story of Civilization with her husband Will Durant. She met her future husband when she was a student at Ferrer Modern School in New York City. He was then a teacher at the school, but resigned his post to marry Ariel, who was 15 at the time of the wedding, on October 31, 1913. The wedding took place at New York’s City Hall, to which she roller-skated from her family’s home in Harlem. The couple had one daughter, Ethel Benvenuta, and adopted a son, Louis. The Durants were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1968 for Rousseau and Revolution, the tenth volume of The Story of Civilization. In 1977 they were presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Gerald Ford, and Ariel was named “Woman of the Year” by the city of Los Angeles. The Durants died within two weeks of each other in 1981 and are buried at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. Ariel told Ethel’s daughter, Monica Mehill, that it was their differences that made them grow.

Marcel Mauss was born on this date in 1872. First, let’s talk about the pronunciation of his name. He was from Lorraine which, with Alsace, is culturally torn between France and Germany, as well as politically for the better part of two centuries. In 1871 it was ceded by France to Germany after the Franco-German War. It was then returned to to France in 1919 after World War I. It became part of Germany again in 1940 during World War II, and was given back to France in 1945 after the war. Many residents of Lorraine have family names of German origin, but prefer to pronounce them in a French manner to show their allegiance to France, not Germany. So Mauss should be pronounced /mohs/ (like “most” without the /t/) and not like “mouse.” Mauss straddled the contemporary border between sociology and anthropology, as did his uncle Émile Durkheim, who has been considerably more influential in the general development of the social sciences. Mauss is more often cited in anthropology than in sociology these days, particularly with respect to his analyses of topics such as magic, sacrifice, and gift exchange in different cultures around the world. Mauss had a significant influence upon Claude Lévi-Strauss (also pronounced in the French manner), the founder of structural anthropology.

Mauss was born in Épinal, Vosges, to a Jewish family, and studied philosophy at Bordeaux, where Durkheim was teaching at the time. He passed the agrégation in 1893. He was also first cousin of the much younger Claudette (née Raphael) Bloch, a marine biologist and mother of Maurice Bloch, who became a noted anthropologist. Instead of taking the usual route of teaching at a lycée following college, Mauss moved to Paris and took up the study of comparative religion and Sanskrit. His first publication in 1896 marked the beginning of a prolific career that produced several landmarks in the sociological literature. In 1901 Mauss took a chair in the ‘history of religion and uncivilized peoples’ at the École pratique des hautes études (EPHE), one of the grandes écoles in Paris. It was at this time that he began drawing more on ethnography, and his work began to develop characteristics now associated with formal anthropology. In 1931 Mauss took the chair of Sociology at the Collège de France. He actively fought against anti-Semitism and racial politics both before and after World War II. He died in 1950.

In his classic work The Gift, Mauss argued that gifts are never truly free. Rather, human history is full of examples of gifts bringing about reciprocal exchange. The famous question that drove his inquiry into the anthropology of the gift was: “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?” The answer is that a gift is a “total prestation” imbued with “spiritual mechanisms” engaging the honor of both giver and receiver (the term “total prestation” or “total social fact” (fait social total) was coined by his student Maurice Leenhardt after Durkheim’s “social fact”). Such transactions transcend the divisions between the spiritual and the material in a way that, according to Mauss, is almost “magical”. The giver does not merely give an object but also part of himself, for the object is indissolubly tied to the giver: “the objects are never completely separated from the people who exchange them”. Because of this bond between giver and gift, the act of giving creates a social bond with an obligation to reciprocate on the part of the recipient. Not to reciprocate means to lose honor and status, but the spiritual implications can be even worse: in Polynesia, failure to reciprocate means to lose mana, one’s spiritual source of authority and wealth. Mauss distinguished between three obligations: giving, the necessary initial step for the creation and maintenance of social relationships; receiving, because to refuse to receive is to reject the social bond; and reciprocating in order to demonstrate one’s own liberality, honor, and wealth.

An important notion in Mauss’ conceptualisation of gift exchange is “inalienability”. In a commodity economy (such as ours), there is a strong distinction between objects and persons through the notion of private property. Objects are sold, meaning that the ownership rights are fully transferred to the new owner. The object has thereby become “alienated” from its original owner. In a gift economy, however, the objects that are given are inalienable from the givers; they are loaned rather than sold and ceded. It is the fact that the identity of the giver is invariably bound up with the object given that causes the gift to have a power which compels the recipient to reciprocate. Because gifts are inalienable they must be returned; the act of giving creates a gift-debt that has to be repaid. Because of this, the notion of an expected return of the gift creates a relationship over time between two individuals. In other words, through gift-giving, a social bond evolves that is assumed to continue through space and time until the future moment of exchange. Gift exchange therefore leads to a mutual interdependence between giver and receiver. According to Mauss, the “free” gift that is not returned is a contradiction because it cannot create social ties. Following the Durkheimian quest for understanding social cohesion through the concept of solidarity, Mauss’s argument is that solidarity is achieved through the social bonds created by gift exchange. Mauss emphasizes that exchanging gifts resulted from the will of attaching other people “to put people under obligations,” because “in theory such gifts are voluntary, but in fact they are given and repaid under obligation”.

While Mauss is best known for several of his own works – most notably The Gift – much of his best work was done in collaboration with members of the Année Sociologique, including Durkheim (Primitive Classification), Henri Hubert (Outline of a General Theory of Magic and Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice), Paul Fauconnet (Sociology) and others.

Lorraine is home to a wealth of great dishes, including quiche Lorraine, which I have made mention of before. There are also renowned cheeses, such as, Carré de l’Est, Brouère, Munster-géromé, and Tourrée de l’Aubier. Lorraine was one of the first regions of Europe to start cooking with potatoes in the 17th century and there are several characteristic dishes using potatoes. The Mirabelle plum is the emblematic fruit of the region used in pies, desserts, and liqueurs. A treat for the would-be forager is dandelion salad with hot bacon dressing, which is immensely popular in the region. Some cooks in Lorraine add halved boiled eggs to this salad. If you want to do this, boil the eggs right before serving, and peel them and add them, whilst they are warm. First a note about dandelion greens. Chances are that if you have a big lawn you also have dandelions. They are delicious but there are a few cautions. Don’t use dandelion greens from a lawn that has been sprayed or treated with fertilizer or pesticides. Choose only the youngest of leaves. Old, large leaves are tough and bitter. Remove all stems before washing the leaves in several changes of water, and patting them dry. You can refrigerate them before making the salad. The essence of this dish is that it combines hot and cold ingredients.

Dandelion Salad with Warm Vinaigrette


1 lb tender, young dandelion greens
5 bacon slices
3 boiled eggs, warm
1 ½ tbsp finely chopped shallot
1 ½ tbsp cider vinegar
salt and pepper

Place the dandelion greens in a large serving bowl.

Cook bacon in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat until crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon, reserving the fat in the skillet. Finely chop the bacon.

Whisk together the shallot, vinegar, and salt, and pepper to taste in a small bowl. Pour the mix into the hot bacon fat and whisk vigorously to form a warm emulsion. Toss the greens with enough of the warm dressing to coat. Added halved, warm boiled eggs (if using), sprinkle with the bacon, and serve immediately.

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