Accepted Papers:

Never look a gift horse in the mouth? The trouble with nonhuman animals in human ceremonial exchanges  

Author:

Samantha Hurn (University of Exeter)

Paper Short Abstract:

Gift-giving in human societies is well-documented. However, gifting live animals brings additional dimensions to exchanges. This paper considers how donors and recipients of 'animal gifts' think about themselves and each other through the perceived and actual characteristics of the animals involved.

Paper long abstract:

The primacy of gift-giving in human societies past and present is well-documented, with countless examples of nonhuman animals given and received as gifts. However, little attention has been paid to the additional dimensions which the gifting of live ('inedible') animals brings to conventional ceremonial exchanges. When accepting an 'animal gift', the recipient not only becomes indebted to the donor, he/she also becomes liable for the animal's upkeep and engaged in a further reciprocal relationship with a nonhuman individual. Unlike inanimate gifts, animals have minds/personalities of their own which can impact on the relationship between giver and receiver. Therefore animals could be regarded as potentially dangerous gifts, unless the giver is confident 'their' animal will behave as desired. With diplomatic exchanges, the importance of animals displaying certain characteristics cannot be overemphasised, as these 'gifts' become ambassadors for, or symbolic representations of, their former owners. Consequently, one might argue the relationship takes on a form of intersubjectivity. However, can humans and nonhuman animals be involved in intersubjective relationships, if intersubjectivity is based on mutual/shared understanding, in addition to interaction/exchange? Or rather do 'animal gifts' represent convenient symbols for humans to manipulate? In considering the nature of the 'animal gift', this paper will problematise intersubjectivity, engaging in a tentative discussion concerning the nature of this frequently used (and misused) term, and reflecting on the ways in which donors and recipients of 'animal gifts' think about themselves and each other through the perceived and actual characteristics of the nonhuman animals involved.

panel P15
Humans and other animals