Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Cultural Theories of Gift Exchange

PD Dr. Iris Därmann, Dr. Kirsten Mahlke


Marcel Mauss’ and Émil Durkheim’s theory of civilisation suggests a definition of ‘the cultural’ based on gift or, more exactly, on transfer. Cultural plurality and diversity stem from the transfer of civilizational facts’ (faits de civilisation). The gift can be seen as a paradigm for each particular cultural phenomenon and enables us to think of the openness, permeability, fragility, diversification and difference of every existing culture: Only that, which can be given, taken, returned, transferred, translated and given away is cultural and not natural. This definition not only includes a culture of natural things, but also inhibits us to think of the cultural as of the transfer of something already existing, which could be unaffected by the process, event or act of giving. Cultural phenomena are what they are and can be only as transitorial phenomena, that is, they only exist in series, versions and interruptions of their transfers, receipts and returns and are thus exposed to a continuous dynamics of deviance, change, appropriation, interpretation and use.

Mauss and Durkheim have doubtlessly found a new approach to the problem of culture: the gift exchange is a decisive agent within the constant process of cultural changes in the context of their modes of application, use, and interpretation.

This access shall be our systematical key for readings of gift theories by Malinowski, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, Bataille, Heidegger, Freud, Lacan, Starobinski, Levinas, Derrida, Annette Weiner.

There is not only the challenge of a dense history of reception and  - as a cultural theoretical auto-application -   of gift exchanges of gift theory, but also a conceptual differenciation between explicit gifts and implicit gift exchange, between gift and exchange, restricted and general economy, transfer, transmission and circulation in the realm of intersubjectivity, generativity, intra- , and interculturality.