In his work on Geschenk Nach Form Und Inhalt, written i 1914, Wilhelm Gaul laid out many of the parameters for future discussion of the gift. Harry Liebersohn (The Return of the Gift) quotes this impressive passage: “What is striking at once about the ‘modern’ gift is the much freer relationship between giver and receiver . . . which is based on the much freer relationship between individuals and a complete control over one’s property. In both respects the subordinating force of normative as well as the economic expectations of older eras is foreign to modern times” (Liebersohn, 56).
Unlike later theorists who hankered for a return to the gift economy, Gaul viewed the change as largely a gain. In Liebersohn’s words, it is “part of the emancipation of the individual from the personal domination that went along with traditional gift giving and the creation of a private sphere personalized as never before. The gifts for events like engagement and marriage were not a shriveled remainder of the public gifts of old; rather they embodied the emergence of a sphere of personal autonomy. Gaul wrote in a spiritual of a historically informed liberalism that appreciated the traditional importance of the gift, even as it affirmed the changing definition of the gift in modern societies” (56-57).
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Friday, June 29, 2012 at 8:16 am
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