(Book Review) The Gift in the Heart of Language: the Maternal Source of Meaning by Genevieve Vaughan (Mimesis International 2015) by Kaarina Kailo

Reproduced from: (Book Review) Genevieve Vaughan’s The Gift in the Heart of Language: the Maternal Source of Meaning by Kaarina Kailo – Return to Mago E*Magazine (magoism.net)

APRIL 12, 2016

(Book Review)

Genevieve Vaughan’s The Gift in the Heart of Language: the Maternal Source of Meaning

by Kaarina Kailo

(Book Review) The Gift in the Heart of Language: the Maternal Source of Meaning by Genevieve Vaughan (Mimesis International 2015)

Genevieve Vaughan has published her third book regarding the reality and transformative potential of the gift economy, a logic and matrix of practices that imply the liberation of all genders. The new theory provides solutions to the most urgent need in neoliberal capitalist societies: to overturn the civilizational crises that capitalism and patriarchy have caused with the distortion and appropriation of the Gift. The Gift in the Heart of Language provides sobering and mind-altering perspectives on the gift economy in all of its manifestations. The Gift has mostly been discussed in sociology and anthropology, and in relation to Indigenous people. Vaughan’s contribution is to have made its presence visible in many other fields, where it is taken for granted but where it, in fact, represents the pillar holding societies together. Where French feminism has invented bisexual or feminine writing, Vaughan shows that language, itself, is maternal at its root, not part of the Symbolic, or a symptom of the Law of the Father (Lacan). She shows that the Gift is a more typical matrix of values and worldview among women, but not exclusively so. References to societies still engaged in ecosocially sustainable gift practices serve to explode the taken-for-granted views claiming that patriarchy and exchange have been universal and without alternative.

Vaughan argues that the liberation of the gift as a matrix of economic and communal values requires an end to exchange, the capitalistic market and patriarchy. This is necessary in order to (re)create an egalitarian society that will function according to the values that have been appropriated and redirected to serve exchange, ego-oriented homo economicus and capitalistic accumulation. Gifting within the model of competition, domination, and patriarchal power-over is a contradiction in terms (it goes against its prevailing logic at least among the “masters”) and it can never bring about a peaceful society. On the other hand, capitalism would not thrive without the free gifts that it appropriates and exploits. The neoliberal market economy is, according to Vaughan, composed of private property owners or would-be owners and exchangers in the midst of a sea of gifts we do not recognize as such.

Vaughan’s theoretical contribution consists of tackling the blind spots not only of gender studies but of all patriarchal scientific fields from linguistics, Marxist theory, and child development studies to semiotics and economics at large. Vaughan exposes all the fields that have built their methods and research processes subconsciously or intentionally on the biased model of exchange and masculated perspectives represented as “neutral” and “natural”.

Thanks to feminism, the LGBT movement, and the men’s movement, many people are already questioning the prevailing gender stereotypes. This new book deserves to be required reading in educational circles, foremost in gender studies, as Vaughan’s theories move beyond the second and third waves of feminism to create a wave of its own — beyond performative gender, the misnomer called “essentialism”, and the disastrous impact of postmodern and neoliberal feminism. Vaughan is right to stress that we will not solve the crises of this era unless we recognize the important economic aspects of mothering as a gendered dimension of epistemology rather than reducing it ideologically to “biological essence” or “nature.” Neither eliminating Capitalism while maintaining Patriarchy, nor eliminating Patriarchy while maintaining Capitalism will change the situation. Indeed, we need to realize that language is based on a gift schema. One main aim of the book is to help those men and women to be able to respect their own maternal origins and throw off the parasite of the exchange economy. Vaughan reveals the numerous ways in which humans receive gifts from their environmental niche. We are in receivership of endless perceptual gifts. Our eyes are continually exploring our environment even if we don’t realize it, finding the gifts, the “affordances”. We breathe in gifts of air and breathe out carbon dioxide, which is a gift from plants. Our hearts pump oxygenated blood out to nurture our cells, and back to be replenished.

The virtual abundance that there is now online is like the virtual abundance in language, and it is conducive to gift giving and to the positive human relations carried by the gift economy. Egalitarian projects like free software, Wikipedia, Peer-to-Peer production, free cycling, Time Banking, the movement against copyrights, the promotion of free information, and even hybrids with the market as in the shareable economy and crowd sourcing, demonstrate the viability of the gift economy.

Vaughan claims that through mind-colonization we have distorted our concepts of who we are and what we should do by superimposing an alienated economy of exchange on a human communicative economy of the gift. Recognizing this is the first step in making the change towards an economy based on free material and linguistic communication and the elaboration of the altercentric mother-child relation.

We will find the way to a positive material economy of abundance and a culture of peace, Vaughan claims, if we conceive altercentric mothering/being-mothered as gift giving and receiving, if we recognize the positive maternal gift character of indigenous matriarchal gift economies, of the ancient virtual invention of language itself, and of social incarnations of linguistic giving in symbolic gift exchange. We need to also recognize the maternal and linguistic aspects of the modern Internet wiki economy, of volunteering, of social experiments in gifting communities, and of ecological initiatives like permaculture, we will find the way to a positive material economy of abundance and a culture of peace.

More specifically, Vaughan theorizes, providing convincing evidence from recent infant psychology (Braten, Meltzoff, Trevarthen, and others) that children are born prosocial and they elicit interaction with motherers (whether female or male, mother, father, sibling or aunt). This challenges the widely-spread previous claim regarding infants that Freud, Piaget, and Skinner believed to be passive and solipsistic.

By repeating mothering at another level, language maintains the altercentric giving/receiving capacity for children who later engage in the many variations on mothering that make up social life. By re-enacting the maternal model in language, people’s unilateral gift capacity is maintained after childhood, ready to be used in their own practice of mothering. Thus, language would have a selective advantage in that more of the children of speaking mothers would survive, grow up, and have children who would survive. Language functions as a kind of refrigerator, storing the altercentric nurturing capacity in the child as s:he becomes an adult, keeping it fresh for later use. Thus, contrary to the commonplace ideas of the maternal instinct and the ‘language instinct’ (Pinker 1995), verbal giving as a social transposition of mothering would function to offset the lack of maternal instinct, especially after the initial hormonal drives of the birth mother are terminated. Vaughan replaces he and she by s:he to draw attention, on the level of the word-gift itself, to the nurturing logic of maternal nipples, reflected now in her gender-inclusive pronoun.

The book is important for gender studies, which have also thrown the baby out with the bathwater when discussing the social construction of gender. Widely accepted postmodern theories denigrating motherhood (overreacting to the patriarchal idealization / denigration of the Mother) have caused a shift towards individualizing the “female problem”, thereby leaving a systemic view behind. In a “gender neutral” world, the collective understanding of women is vanishing, and the political activism against structural injustice and violence is rendered impossible. There is no equivalent development aiming to abolish “men”. By favoring an individualistic and overly neutral view of “humans”, in the name of avoiding the feared concept of “motherhood” or “womanhood”, feminism is losing its transformative power. This approach contributes to the patriarchal project of replacing the mother (cloning, reproductive technology for example) with robots and a generalized male gender.

Vaughan’s theory of giving has radical consequences for social change and the demise of the nefarious logic of exchange. Change, after all, must begin in human values, not only in politics. Giving is not moral or ethical, but simply the normal propensity of humans to create bonds and ensure collective survival. This contrasts with the neoliberal claims that competition and self-interest are the desirable motivating forces behind economy and even collective well-being. Likewise, receiving is freed of any false projections of shame, dependency, or debt as receiving is simply the required natural correspondent of giving as human capacity. Relationships of giving have maternal nurturance as their root, but they are repeated on all levels from language to communication and ecosocially sustainable economics. Quid pro quo exchange, in contrast, denies the mother while abusing women’s and other groups’ gifts to make profit and benefit the ego.

Vaughan’s contribution is remarkable also in taking on the sociological and anthropological studies on the Gift from Mauss to Derrida, Bataille and Bourdieu, revealing the extent to which they fail to see and consider the obvious: maternal giving. Vaughan’s book deserves to be required reading also in this field, as it masterfully exposes the lacunae and masculated biases of the “mauss traps”.

The importance of the fact that mothers give unilaterally is that it is not charity, but a precondition for the infant’s survival. Giving here is not tied with being good, but with being human, recognizing that humans cannot survive without giving.

Vaughan discusses the particular capacity of the gifts in language to be expanded and generalized, functioning also when we use it for nurturing each other individually and collectively and when we care for Mother Nature. Vaughan sees money as a drastically altered rematerialized word-gift, which is used to mediate relations of distrust and not-giving. Money broadcasts a figure of one over many, which has merged with “one over many” patriarchal standards. This creates the patriarchal capitalist economy, which is motivated by the false masculated drives of competition, accumulation, domination, and the need to be the standard, the one at the top.

Both gift giving and language bridge the gap between the human community and its environmental niche while maintaining and elaborating the border between them. In exchange, where the principle is mutual exclusion, nothing new can develop. Instead in a community where relations are created through gift giving in life and in language, gifts, givers, and receivers can multiply exponentially qualitatively, co-creating, and making relevant all the aspects of the environment and the culture. Doing this will allow us to respect, love, and protect the creatures and the elements that, together, create life on the planet.

Vaughan’s book is a must also for social change activists. After the highly sophisticated theoretical part, it includes concrete suggestions for gift work, including consciousness raising, raising boys and girls with the maternal model, communities of motherers, Gift Economy and Matriarchal studies, and alternative communities with the gift as the final goal and many other things…

Among the most important of Vaughan’s insights are that the gift paradigm allows us to see mothering as economic, and communication as turn-taking unilateral gift giving. Furthermore, by positing the mother/child dyad as involving two creative, active parties, she changes our perspective on where language comes into being. Language is a satisfaction of cognitive and communicatory needs. Vaughan replaces Rene Descartes’ famous motto, “I think, therefore I am” with “I had a mother, therefore I am.” I would add to this: “We live on Mother Earth, therefore we are.”

Exchange paradigm  Gift paradigm
Mothering is aneconomic Mothering is economic
Mothering is not an economic ‘base’ Mothering is an economic ‘base’ and has a superstructure
Market creates abundance Market creates scarcity
Communication is exchange Communication is turn-taking unilateral gift giving
Gift exchange Turn-taking gifting, not exchange
Active giver-passive receiver Active giver-active receiver
Solipsistic infants Socially interactive altercentric infants (new infant research)
Equal exchange debt and obligation produce positive human relations Giving / receiving produces positive human relations
Perception is a sui generis activity Perception is a (maternal) selection and reception of perceptual gifts
Language is self-expression Language is satisfaction of communicative and cognitive needs1
Language is based on inherited Universal Grammar Language is based on the image schema of the gift and its extensions
Language is rule-governed Language enacts gift schema constructions
Communication is exchange Communication is turn taking unilateral gift-giving
Language is based on questions and answers Language is based on mind reading
Syntax as rule following Syntax as gifts to gifts
Subjectivity is agency Subjectivity is gift agency as modelled on material giving and language gift construction, but identity also includes creative receptivity.
Supply and effective demand Gifts and needs
Problem is capitalism, the stock market, the knowledge economy Problem is exchange itself and the elimination of the model of gift giving
Social contract Shared structures of implications
Narrow idea of need satisfaction as utilitarian… An expanded idea of needs including psychological, cognitive, communicative, spiritual needs etc.
To use value and exchange value Add gift value
Epistemology based on categorization Epistemology based on gifting
Language as exchange Language as gift giving… exchange as altered language
Money as a convention or a symbol of value Money as an embodied word / exemplar
The market as a normal and unavoidable fact of life The market as a piece of extended mind, the exosomatic conceptualization process of the alienated human community
We can create a better market We can only solve our problems beyond the market
Feminists should succeed in the market Feminists should dismantle the market and start over on the basis of gift giving / mothering


  1. Words do not signify independently but by satisfying and eliciting interpersonal communicative and cognitive needs. Thus, they are gifts and create positive human relations. We have not understood this so our analysis is off and our understanding of alternatives is inaccurate and limited.

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