07 February 2002

Caputo's two talks yesterday were quite good. He's always able to take complicated ideas and texts (even Derrida!) and present them in an accessible and engaging fashion.

His lecture, "The Gift" actually spent most of the time focussing on the phenomenology of giving, attempting to get the audience to talk through how giving works, aiming his remarks at the undergraduates for the most part. In many ways, though he didn't say so explicitly, his remarks were reflecting some of the thinking of Levinas, Marion, and Milbank. The question is what precisely we mean by a "gift".

One might try to define a gift as the giving of something to another unconditionally, with no expection of return or reward. The giver (let's call him A) gives up something (we'll call X) and the receiver (let's call him B) receives something. A loses and B gains. But, of course, that's just not true. Consider a case where the gift X is very generous, B loses something too, because B suddenly has a debt of gratitude and feels that he must, at some point, do something comparable for A. If this happens A will gain as well. But in the meantime, A still gains because A may find joy in the giving of X and in imagining the pleasure X will bring to B. And if A continues to give but no recipient shows any gratitude, then chances are A will feel that his generosity has been abused.

Thus there is really no such thing as an entirely disinterested, unconditional gift, with no expectation of return. This is the case even if the giver and/or the receiver are anonymous. This is even the case in self-sacrifice to the point of death, even by a person who doesn't believe in an afterlife or a final resurrection. If A gives his life for the sake of B, A may still do so with a sense of satisfaction or even joy in that last final moment before death.

But none of this is to say that giving is some kind of contractual arrangement. Far from it. Giving involves exceeding expectations, not specifying proper returns, a kind of abundant surplus of reciprocity. That is part of the logic and phenomenology of giving. That was Caputo's main point.

He went on to apply this in several ways. First, it is an example of "deconstruction." The notion of "gift" deconstructs itself by creating an exchange that fails to fit the paradigm of what we ordinarily think of as a "gift".

Second, this can be applied to the study of literature and interpretation. The author gives a text which the audience receives. Now, is this giving governed by a strict contractual logic, in which the recipient must only give back to the author in her reading precisely what the author intended to be received? In that case, a text is not really a gift. Instead, there must be a surplus of meaning, something new that the recipient finds in her receiving of the text that exceeds authorial intention.

Third, Caputo turned to the ethics of forgiveness. If forgiveness involves the giving of a gift, then it cannot demand that the recipient of forgiveness meet a particular set of requirements in order to be forgiven. Rather the forgiveness must be offered, perhaps hoping that a response will come and with the expectation of enjoyment in the reconciliation that will happen should the forgiveness be received. But these cannot be demanded where forgiveness is genuine.

Finally, Caputo gestured towards some theological applications of this analysis for our theology of atonement and the like. Unfortunately, I had to leave at this point in order to go teach a class, so I'm not sure where he went with it.

For an interesting and deeper treatment of this whole line of thinking, see Milbank's The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice that appeared a few years ago in First Things.

Later, perhaps, I will say something about Caputo's seminar on Augustine, Heidegger, and Derrida.