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The social life of a “free” gift

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ABSTRACT

In this article, I continue the anthropological interest in gifting. I trace the story of a historical failed gift of a South Indian woven mat to Queen Elizabeth II, which, in later accounts was transformed into a successful gift. Identifying this mythical successful gift as a “free gift” (following Jacques Derrida) reveals the power of descriptions in making relations. I argue that the transformation of an unsuccessful gift into a mythical free gift is a product of magnification and supplementation, with concomitant effects on forms of sociality and personhood. I also explore the relationship between gifts and commodities through a focus on what might be termed “inalienable” commodities.

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