Question of the Gift:
Essays Across Disciplines
Introduction. "Questions of the Gift." Mark Osteen,
Part I. Redefining Reciprocity
1. James Laidlaw, Anthropology, Cambridge U. "A Free Gift Makes
2. Yunxiang Yan, Anthropology, UCLA. "Unbalanced Reciprocity: Asymmetrical
Gift Giving and Social Hierarchy in Rural China."
3. Lee Anne Fennell, U of Texas Law School. "Unpacking the Gift:
Illiquid Goods and Empathetic Dialogue."
Part II. Kinship, Generosity and Gratitude: Ethical Foundations
4. Charles H. Hinnant, English, U of Missouri. "The Patriarchal
Narratives of Genesis and the Ethos of Gift Exchange."
5. Martha Woodruff, Philosophy, Middlebury College. "The Ethics
of Generosity and Friendship: Aristotle's Gift to Nietzsche?"
6. Eun Kyung Min, English, Seoul National U. "Adam Smith and the
Debt of Gratitude."
Part III. The Gift and Artistic Commerce
7. Jacqui Sadashige, Classics, U of Pennsylvania. "Catullus and
the Gift of Sentiment in Republican Rome."
8. Nicoletta Pireddu, Italian, Georgetown U. "Gabriele D'Annunzio:
The Art of Squandering and the Economy of Sacrifice."
9. Anthony Fothergill, English, Exeter U. "Conrad's Guilt-Edged
Securities: 'Karain: A Memory' via Simmel and Benjamin."
10. Stephen Collis, English, Simon Fraser U. "Formed by Homages:
H. D., Robert Duncan, and the Spirit of the Gift."
Part IV. Posing New Questions
11. Mark Osteen, English, Loyola College. "Gift or Commodity?"
12. Antonio Callari, Economics, Franklin and Marshall College. "The
Ghost of the Gift: The Unlikelihood of Economics."
13. Jack Amariglio, Economics, Merrimack College. "Give the Ghost
a Chance! A Comrade's Shadowy Addendum."
14. Andrew Cowell, French, U of Colorado. "The Pleasures and Pains
of the Gift."
Ever since the publication of Marcel Mauss's landmark 1925 anthropological
study-cum-historical romance Essai sur le don, scholars in a variety
of disciplines have been fascinated with gift exchange. Yet despite
Mauss's discovery that gifts are "total social phenomena"
governed by particular norms and obligations (76), they have often been
either explained away as disguised self-interest or sentimentalized
as a remnant of a golden age of pure generosity. The Question of the
Gift, an interdisciplinary collection of essays, poses new questions
and offers new paradigms that transcend these trite polarities.
According to Jacques T. Godbout, in the realm of the gift, "the
implicit and the unsaid reign supreme" (4-5); these essays expose
these implicit norms and unspoken principles. Such work is essential
because, as Alan Schrift observes, the question of the gift "addresses
fundamental issues of intersubjective interaction" (18). Explaining
its motives and meanings is therefore necessary to a fully ethical conception
of social life.
Because the issues involved in the gift cut across traditional academic
disciplines, it is particularly well suited for interdisciplinary inquiry
that can both highlight the weaknesses and synthesize the strengths
of economics, sociology, philosophy, literary criticism and theory.
By bringing together first-class scholars from disparate fields, this
collection offers a broad range of new research on a universal phenomenon
that will interest a wide audience and stimulate further interdisciplinary
work. Indeed, the collection is especially timely now that the recent
publication of Natalie Zemon Davis's study of gifts in early modern
France has rekindled scholarly interest in these questions.
II. History of the Field and Significance of the Current Book
Mauss's Essai sur le don [The Gift], the foundational text in gift studies,
has been immensely influential for French social theorists such as Claude
Lévi-Strauss (who reframed Mauss's three obligations--giving,
receiving, and reciprocating--as parts of a larger system) and Georges
Bataille, who declared dépense ("expenditure") to be
a major unacknowledged force in all human culture. Outside of France,
in the 1960s and '70s social scientists such as Marshall Sahlins and
Alvin Gouldner reinterpreted Mauss's analyses of the "spirit"
of the gift and questioned and expanded his treatment of reciprocity.
More recently, a number of scholars--including Chris Gregory, Annette
Weiner, Marilyn Strathern, James Carrier, and Maurice Godelier in anthropology,
Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques T. Godbout, Helmuth Berking, David Cheal and
Aafke E. Komter in sociology--have used the social and ethical complexities
of gift-giving to challenge the market rhetoric and exchange theory
that dominate the social sciences. Each of these works offers important
new research and introduces valuable concepts or theories: Gregory and
Weiner develop the idea of inalienability; Strathern and Komter stress
gender differences in gift practices; Godelier re-examines the significance
of the sacred; Bourdieu analyzes the many forms of capital involved
in gift practices; Godbout, Carrier, and Cheal celebrate the gift in
contemporary culture as an essentially moral economy residing alongside
The influence of Mauss's work has not been restricted to anthropology
and sociology: scholars from fields as diverse as history, economics,
law, philosophy, and literary theory have felt the effects of this seminal
work on the ethics of exchange. For example, Davis's recent book contests
Mauss's historical narrative, in which the gift has been largely supplanted
by market exchanges. Instead, she distinguishes three overlapping relational
modes that continue to operate in social exchanges, none of which ever
entirely disappears. Further, it may be argued that much post-structuralist
literary theory, particularly that of Jacques Derrida, has been engaged
in reconceiving Maussian insights. In Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money,
Derrida revitalized interest in the gift among literary scholars and
critics with his provocative claim that the gift is impossible since,
from the moment one even recognizes a transaction as a gift, it becomes
weighted with obligations and therefore no longer qualifies as a pure
present. Indeed, for Derrida, the gift is a figure for the impossible,
for whatever lies outside of symbolic systems.
Aside from Derrida, the most influential gift theorist for literary
studies has been Lewis Hyde, whose book, The Gift: Imagination and the
Erotic Life of Property, stimulated a raft of articles using gift theory
to explain literary texts. Although Hyde's application of anthropological
principles to artistic commerce sometimes imitates Mauss's idealizing
tendencies, his work paved the way for important recent books by literary
scholars such as Vincent Pecora, who traces Western concepts of the
gift back to Aristotle's distinction between the agora and the oikos,
and John Frow, who explores the interdependence of gifts and commodities.
Nevertheless, most literary criticism on the gift has been undertheorized,
often merely employing uncritically the principles or terms found in
Hyde, Derrida, or Bourdieu.
Further, despite this wealth of important work in different disciplines,
most scholarship on gift exchange and reciprocity has been aimed at
scholars within a single field. Anthropologists have not always recognized
work in economics or sociology; most economists dismiss the gift as
lying outside of their purview; philosophers and literary theorists
often restrict their ambit to linguistic or ethical questions without
considering the history of gift exchange, its cultural variations, or
its complex manifestations. Thus the two fine recent collections, edited
by Komter and Alan D. Schrift, focus primarily on social science and
philosophy, respectively. The Question of the Gift has, in contrast,
been prepared with the belief that the only way to gain a fuller understanding
of the gift is to expand, rather than narrow the focus, and to encourage
experts from disparate fields to engage in dialogue with each other.
The Question of the Gift thus continues the fruitful interdisciplinary
conversations among social scientists, philosophers, and literary/cultural
critics begun in The New Economic Criticism, an earlier volume that
I coedited. Moreover, The Question of the Gift will be the first collection
of new (only one essay has been published elsewhere) interdisciplinary
essays on the gift (Komter's and Schrift's consist mainly of reprints),
and the first to feature essays by social scientists alongside work
by scholars in the humanities. Each of these essays not only questions
the conventions of its field; each one brings together research from
the social sciences and humanities to forge truly new and exciting syntheses.
My introduction, "Questions of the Gift," outlines the history
of scholarship in anthropology, sociology, philosophy and ethics, literary
criticism, and economics, highlighting the most important movements
and principles and pinpointing the blind spots and unexamined assumptions
in each. In conclude by calling for new research to further refine the
principles of inalienability, to avoid economism (the pitfall Bourdieu's
theory, to provide more nuanced discussions of the relationships between
gifts and markets (such as discussed by Cheal and Godbout), and to rethink
the close kinships among literature, gifts and the sacred.
Part One of the collection reopens the question of reciprocity. James
Laidlaw uses the practices of Jain renouncers in India to question Mauss's
claim for the primacy of the obligation to reciprocate, and to suggest
that a truly non-reciprocal gift may be possible. Yunxiang Yan's fieldwork
in Chinese villages led to his important recent book The Flow of Gifts;
his contribution to this collection summarizes and extends that book's
significant findings about prestige and asymmetrical relationships.
Mauss represented gifts as essentially ambiguous, as combining generosity
and self-interest, but Lee A. Fennell emphasizes in her chapter how
the "illiquidity" of gifts (that is, their non-monetary value)
generates "empathetic dialogue" between parties exchanging.
These three essays offer new considerations of the nature and reach
of reciprocity, the primal concept in gift theory and one of its most
Mauss notes that gift practices are omnipresent in "archaic"
societies. Not surprisingly, then, we find that the ethical cornerstones
for modern Western gift practices were laid long ago. Hence, Part Two
presents three essays examining classical and Modern texts to reveal
the sources of contemporary gift ethics. Charles Hinnant analyzes how
gift exchanges in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis constitute a
hybrid set of relationships that partake of both gift and commodity
exchanges, and that reveal societies in transition from the clan to
the nation; Martha Woodruff argues that Aristotle's writings on friendship
provide a necessary supplement to Nietzsche's gift-giving virtue, which
speaks too little about receiving gifts as well as giving them. Both
theories, however, promote positive alternatives to economistic models
of the self. Finally, Eun Kyung Min finds in Adam Smith's Theory of
Moral Sentiments a definition of gratitude distinct from both economic
exchange and the consolations of justice, and one that has generated
modern conceptions of selfhood and social interaction . Each of these
essays contributes to the reconfiguration of our ethical frameworks
by reanalyzing texts that antedate Mauss and Derrida.
The fourth obligation Mauss recognizes--the gifts made to gods--has
been relatively neglected. Yet gift objects and gift-giving remain inextricably,
if often covertly, linked with the sacred. French sociologist and erotician
Georges Bataille emphasized the latter aspect in his influential writings
on the potlatch and sacrifice. Bataille associates "expenditure"--the
principle underlying gift giving--with poetry, but his attempt to connect
the realms of economy and culture foundered on his inability to distinguish
between their quite different forms of capital. The essays in Part Three,
then, seek to transcend Bataille's (and Derrida's) double-bind by tracing
the relationships between economic and artistic commerce, and by examining
their impact on ideals of personhood, property, and authorship. Jacqui
Sadashige scrutinizes legal prohibitions on gifts in republican Rome,
using the poetry of Catullus to outline shifting definitions of property
and subjectivity; Nicoletta Pireddu demonstrates how Italian modernist
Gabriele D'Annunzio rejects the logic of commodities for a principle
of collective ritual that seeks to resacralize economic behavior; Anthony
Fothergill juxtaposes a story by Joseph Conrad and the writings of Georg
Simmel to expose the performative aspects of gifts and to illuminate
how narratives themselves may participate in a gift economy; and Stephen
Collis adduces the literary and personal correspondence between the
poets H. D. and Robert Duncan to demonstrate how ambiguous and fraught
are the links between patronage and presents.
Lastly, the essays in Part Four all question the very theoretical questions
that have been posed in classic and contemporary gift theory. These
essays, critiquing both traditional positions and current views, offer
new pathways for future studies of the gift. Mark Osteen analyzes three
principles in gift theory--inalienability, spirituality and selfhood--to
conclude that an adequate definition of gift objects requires an account
of their transcendental qualities. In their dialogical essays, Antonio
Callari and Jack Amariglio elucidate the gaps in neoclassical economic
theories of value, which fail to allow for the constitutive power of
gift exchanges. Finally, Andrew Cowell relates how modern theories of
the gift have strayed from the realities of bodily presence and social
New work on gift exchange is needed to help explain how norms of reciprocity
sustain as well as test the fundamental building blocks of social life
such as families and friendships. More broadly, we need it to provide
new conceptions of social relations that reject the rationalist, individualistic
model upon which our society believes it is based. Finally, understanding
the gift may encourage us to rethink our notions of personhood--to define
selves as nexuses of social connectionsips rather than as allegedly
autonomous, self-interested actors.
Understanding the gift is more necessary now than ever. We live in a
culture consumed and deafened by the rhetoric of self-interest, by a
superficial "globalization" that mostly consists of spreading
this rhetoric without considering the lessons we might draw from the
ways that people in other cultures interact through objects. In our
own society, the questions of the gift impinge upon essential issues
in social life: What kinds of obligations do gifts engender, and what
role do gift practices play in creating communities? What are the relationships
between persons and objects: can objects function other than as commodities?
How are gift practices related to family dynamics? Does economism make
gifts less prevalent or more calculated? How does thinking of each other
as gift-givers and -receivers invite new ways of conceiving ourselves
and our choices. If we revise the stories we tell about social interaction,
might we also revise the interactions? How, in a secularized society,
do gift rituals express the desire for spiritual transcendence? Finally,
is a truly free gift possible or even desirable? The importance of these
difficult but essential questions explains why the gift will continue
to stimulate important work in both the social sciences and in the humanities.
The Question of the Gift thus offers illuminating interdisciplinary
perspectives on the gift that will provide exciting new ways of thinking
about human behavior, and that will prompt readers to think of themselves
and their interactions in healthier and more fully ethical ways. This
timely volume will therefore appeal to a broad audience consisting not
only of scholars in anthropology, sociology and economics, but also
of specialists in philosophy, law, and literature.
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---. "Selections from The Logic of Practice." Schrift, ed.
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