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Donner le change

In hunting parlance, "donner le change" was originally used to refer to the substitution by which a chased animal, most often a deer, would escape by offering up another of its species in its place. Until the 18th century, the phrase remained quite common in hunting treatises and agricultural dictionaries. Yet, by the time of Flaubert – when the era of industrial slaughter and of mass extinction was well under way – it had become near archaic, a vestige of the great "chasses à courre." In present-day French, meanwhile, "donner le change" has come to mean simply to deceive or to mislead, to pass one thing for another. Usually attributed to humans, it is moreover often used pronominally (se donner le change: to convince oneself of an untruth). What is foreclosed in this shift from the literal to the figurative is not merely the notion of an animal subject but specifically the possibility for an animal to give, and further, to give another as itself. To retrace the cynegetic origins of the phrase, then, is to recall the scene of a gift (by the animal, of its likeness) more capacious and far more ambiguous than can be thought within our current economy of signification – but also our material economy – in which the animal disappears, or appears merely as (a) given. The capacity imputed to the deer by the hunting archive calls for a reassessing not only of what an animal is but also, no less vitally, of what counts as a gift