Originally a concept theorized by George Battaille, the potlatch was seen as a method to criticize the acquisition/showcase methods of modern capitalist economies. Because the potlatch could never be returned, it highlighted the foolishness of the modern economy and state. Through sacrifice and destruction, the act of giving overwhelms the possible response. Eventually, the social requirements of the potlatch necessitate that every society member give away everything they could ever have. Yet we should not move too far from the fundamental truth of the potlatch : it is in fact a game . Indigenous nations would choose to exchange gifts in the potlatch as a form of entertainment. But let us not understate the importance of games. This game was made illegal because it was so dangerous to colonial economies . The Potlatch was recognized as threatening the burgeoning trading economy that was central to westward expansion. The potlatch was the most dangerous idea that indigenous nations could forward against the white/capitalist drive . 5 The act of giving too much was the threat. This move disturbed 5 In my theorizing about this essay, I contemplated including a reference to Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia . In this novel, Callenbach’s protagonist enters a closed off zone of ecologically sustainable territories in the Pacific Northwest of the former-USA. One of the most hotly contested differences between the protagonist and the Ecotopians is a game. The Ecotopians use ritual physical combat to explore the visceral experience that is part of humans. Young men will gather and fight each other with spears. It seems as though there is a good comparison between my proposal of the potlatch and Callenbach’s war games. Both are visceral games that are intended to alter the state of the participants. In Ecotopia, the war game is the turning point of the book, where the protagonist, torn between two worlds appreciates the Ecotopian world and begins to consider living in Ecotopia. I would
the intense drive for acquisition. Why fight to trade beaver pelt, when at the next potlatch your neighbor might give you all her possessions? Potlatch was threatening because it made competition meaningless. Non-competitive social structure was only one threat from the Potlatch. Situationist biographer Jappe discovers an obscure quotation by Debord on the Potlatch (Debord himself was remarkably close-lipped about the meaning of Potlatch): “Debord refers explicitly to the Indian custom of Potlatch and announces that ‘the non- saleable goods that a free bulletin such as this is able to distribute are novel desires and problems; and only the further elaboration of these by others can constitute the corresponding return gift’” (148). What was exchanged in Debord’s vision was not necessarily goods but rather ideas.
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- Winter '16
- Jeff Hannan
- organic life, Georges Bataille, Bataille