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Pragmatism and the Gift: Toward a Charismology of Dynamic Gifts in American Literature and Religion


This dissertation proposes a charismological reading of dynamic gifts in American culture, developing a critical yet constructive theory of gifts that can then be applied to a broad range of American writers and texts. By drawing on the work of literary pragmatists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James, who intentionally situate themselves in intermediary positions between religion and secularism, I offer a more nuanced approach to the so-called "religious turn" in critical theory and literary studies. The aim of this project is to contribute to recent debates about theories of the gift and, in so doing, contributes to the fields of American literature and religion, both of which are all too often divided by narratives of secularization or an aggressive religious return. Following Jeffrey Stout's example in Democracy and Tradition and his definition of democratic piety as the proper acknowledgement of the sources of our existence and progress through life, this charismological approach to gift-theories is an attempt to engage the dynamic spiritual and secular sources that are inextricably part of American culture. As Heidegger did with the question of being, rather than focus on particular gifts as objects of circulation in culture, I am interested in a more fundamental flow of dynamic power that comes from inspirational gifts that are difficult to analyze as mere objects of exchange. By shifting the interpretive framework away from what Derrida called an "economy of exchange," which cannot but result in the annulment of the gift through debt and obligation, this approach offers an alternative, non-economic framework that interprets what I call "dynamic gifts" as sources of power, agency, and inspiration.

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