Gift and Sacrifice
This course will introduce students to concepts of gift and sacrifice, two foundational structures of exchange that have ruled economic, social and religious life since the inception of culture. Both raise fundamental questions about the constitution of communities by means of the binding power of gratitude, or, more ominously, about sacrificial scapegoats. As Mark Osteen wrote, the study of the gift touches on some of the most fundamental concerns that define our humanity: "freedom and autonomy, calculation and spontaneity, gratitude and generosity, risk and power." The study of sacrifice in turn generates a series of unsettling questions: whether conceptions of the sacred are inextricably linked with violence; whether sacrificial rituals escalate rather than contain violence; whether recuperative economies that seek gain out of loss inevitably fuel sacrificial behavior; whether capital punishment is not in effect a contemporary version of ancient sacrificial rites; and whether communities can ever escape the predicament of uniting against a designated scapegoat and resorting to sacrificial ideologies. These and related questions will form the subject of this course which will focus on foundational texts in literature, anthropology, psychoanalysis and sociology and the representation of gift and sacrifice in the Bible, folklore, literature and film. Texts include Marcel Mauss, The Gift; Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo; René Girard, Violence and the Sacred; Aeschylus, Agamemnon; William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice and Shirley Jackson, The Lottery.