Gifts by stealth and silent trades

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Giovanni da Col. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.3.001


Gifts by stealth and silent trades

Giovanni DA COL, SOAS, University of London


Each year, from December 13 to January 6, my little daughter has three cosmoeconomic encounters: Santa Lucia, Santa Claus (Babbo Natale), and Befana. The first two figures incarnate that mysterious human phenomena that P. J. Hamilton Grierson (cited by Mauss in his Essai) famously promoted as “silent trade,” the exchange of goods between two parties who will never meet face to face, never communicate directly, never discuss the nature of their trade (cf. Grierson 1903; Woodburn 1988). Santa Lucia will expect her sweets-carrying donkey to be fed with yellow polenta flour and a glass of milk (hay, too, at times) left on the balcony; Santa Claus will enjoy some cookies near the Christmas tree (American children might add milk and carrots for his reindeers, while British children may lay out some mince pie and sherry). Befana is an old woman/witch who rides a broom and enters houses to fill thick woollen stockings, which children leave hanging above the fireplace, with either candies (if they have been good during the previous year) or coal (if they have been naughty). All of these clandestine happenings represent not just silent trade but gift by stealth, too, a kind of reverse burglary where the donor forces himself into a recipient’s house to leave a gift (cf. Graeber 2011: 109). In its radical form, like with Befana, the purpose of the gift by stealth is that no counter-gift is expected and, sometimes, the donor can be neither identified nor thanked.

The question of the “pure” or “free” gift has been fairly debated in anthropology, especially since Jonathan Parry’s (1986) seminal article, which made clear that the whole ideology of pureness is our invention. James Carrier (1990) aptly clarified the matter further: ideologies of the pure gift accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism. The dilemma does not affect the gift per se, rather the ideology [ii]of gratuity: in most societies, a gift is never really free although we did develop a theory of how it should be free. Thus, it is not preposterous to say that the association of open-access with the free-gift is a gimmick, too: a theory of gratuity that HAU has used quite effectively since its foundation. There are few doubts that the whole discourse of gratuity affecting academic publishing may be an ideological side effect of the increased corporatization of academia and the obscene profit of commercial publishers, rather than a reality unto itself.

This issue, HAU’s 12th, marks the fourth year since HAU’s launch on December 7, 2011. It has been a wild ride during this time. HAU’s editorial team underwent a steep learning curve on the idioms of reciprocity and charity and graced themselves with Pitt-Rivers’ intimations that gratuity implies not being accountable to coherent reasoning. Indeed, we have been called impracticable a few times. Yet, in perfect Christmas spirit, I like to think that HAU began as a gift by stealth and is slowly moving toward a situation of silent trade where our partners and readers (especially our glorious HAU-N.E.T. members) virtually pick up the journal at the crossroads and replace it with a donation.

2015 has been a great year for HAU. We launched HAU Books, in collaboration with the University of Chicago Press, and recently established the Centre for Ethnographic Theory at the University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies [SOAS]). We are about to touch 15,000 likes on Facebook, once again confirming HAU as the most popular anthropology journal on social media. We have been featured in the New York Times, New York Review of Books, Bookforum, and many other venues. We published the first anthropological engagement of the intellectual of the year, Thomas Piketty, among a spectacular range of distinguished scholars and rising stars. And last but not least, we have been the victims of the greatest digital joke of all, being the only open access journal uploaded into the most famous pirate pdf repository for the humanities: yes, HAU made it into AAAAARG!

For Christmas this year, we are giving you the winner of HAU’s first Special Issue competition, an issue guest edited by Iza Kavedžija and Harry Walker. In contrast with the flourishing post-humanistic disciplinary trends of the last decade, HAU decided to support an exquisitely human concern: happiness. This year’s special isssue features an ethnographic scrutiny of one the simplest and most mysterious human “emotion,” bringing it out of the realm of personal psychology and private emotions and into the domain of anthropological investigation. The contributors show how happiness works—as a motivating idea, an organizing ethos, a cultural value, and societal benchmark. In so doing, the contributors show not only what anthropology can bring to studies of “happiness,” so fashionable in the social sciences these days, but also what happiness can bring to the pursuit of anthropology by pushing it from critique to creation—from cataloguing social ills to laying bare the complex ways we create values and imaginatively pursue them.

As part of our partnership with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Rochester (and with gracious permission by Duke University Press and Ken Wissoker), we are also honored to host a transcript and video of Jessica Cattelino’s 2015 Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture, “The cultural politics of water in the Everglades and beyond.” Here, Cattelino focuses on the political, cultural, and ecosystemic features of water (especially in the US state of Florida) to unsettle the the distinctive processes that link “nature” and “indigeneity” in settler colonial societies (like [iii]the US). We also include a critical Book Symposium on Juan Obarrio’s The spirit of the laws in Mozambique, with contributions by an eminent group of Africanists, including AbdouMaliq Simone, Ato Quayson, Harri Englund, and Morten Nielsen. Finally, we include two marvelous reprints: Maurice Bloch’s Rappaport Lecture, “Durkheimian anthropology and religion: Going in and out each other bodies” (a classic that contributed to the spark of interest in recent anthropological engagements with the concept of “opacity” of other minds), and, second, Malinowski’s jocular introduction to Julius Lips’ The savage hits back, wherein he argues that anthropology is the most suited “science of the sense of humour.”

E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1940: 21) writes that, “In Nuer eyes the happiest state is that in which a family possesses several lactating cows, for then the children are well-nourished and there is a surplus that can be devoted to cheese-making and to assisting kinsmen and entertaining guests.” We dedicate HAU’s surplus to you: readers, authors, members of the editorial board, donors, and supporters who have sat with us in convivial spirit for a fourth year.

Season’s greetings to you all.


Carrier, James G. 1990. “Gifts in a world of commodities: The ideology of the perfect gift in American society.” Social Analysis 29: 19–37.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The first 5,000 years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing.

Grierson, P. J. Hamilton. 1903. The silent trade: A contribution to the early history of human intercourse. Edinburgh: W. Green & Sons.

Parry, Jonathan. 1986. “The gift, the Indian gift, and the ‘Indian gift’.” Man (n.s.) 21: 453–73.

Woodburn, James. 1988. “Hunter gatherer’s silent trade with outsiders and the history of anthropology.” Paper prepared for the Fifth International conference on Hunting and Gathering societies, Darwin, Australia.