Katja’s reading response to Appadurai and Kopytoff

Posted: January 23, 2012 by tupakkat in Jan 25

In his essay “Introduction: commodities and the politics of value” (1986), Arjun Appadurai argues that exchange creates value, which is embodied in the exchanged commodities. In this constellation, politics create the link between exchange and value.  With Simmel, Appadurai holds that objects have no inherent value other than that given to them by humans but then proceeds in the opposite direction to examine how objects “circulate in different regimes of value in space and time” (Appadurai, 1986:4).  By conceding a social life to objects, Appadurai shifts the focus from forms and functions of exchange to the object itself. His very broad definition of a commodity breaks with the ethological distinction of commodities and gifts and leads to the conclusion that commodities are not exclusively situated in modern capitalist economies. While the process of commodity exchange is largely shaped by power elites through politics of fashion, sumptuary laws and taboos, as well as politics of authentication, knowledge and calculated diversion, commodities tend to constantly break through different cultures and top-down established regimes of value.

Appadurai’s concept of a “social life of things” therefore acknowledges the dynamic qualities of objects.

In order to explain how the creation of value is a politically mediated process, Appadurai lists as one example of “value enhancement through diversion” (p.28) the plunder of enemy valuables and the display of “primitive utilitarian objects”.  Does this view make any display of foreign cultures’ objects in Western homes morally questionable as it implies a power relation and/or the colonial gaze?

In his remarks about social control over and political redefinition of consumption, the author suggests that the demand for luxury goods was freed from political regulation in Europe after 1800. Is it possible that rather than being “freed” from political regulation, the communitisation of luxury consumption precisely conforms with the current political strategies?

In “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process” Igor Kopytoff examines how things can, during their social life span, move in and out of the commodity status. His essay begins with the deconstruction of the prevalent people-object dichotomy. Focussing mainly on slaves though, he gives the impression this conflation is an occurrence of the past. Only towards the end of the essay he touches briefly on the highly interesting and controversial issues of modern day commoditization of humans/body parts/emotional labour.

With saleability as an indicator of commodity status, Kopytoff solves the problem of value equivalence through the creation of different value spheres as practiced by the Tiv of West Africa. While he describes commoditization as a process of becoming, culture as a counterdrive ensures singularization of certain things. “Pricelessness”, however, can be meant literally as well as figuratively.

According to Kopytoff, the grade of commoditization is not a distinctive feature between complex and small-scale societies. Rather, complex societies hold innumerable systems of singularization and valuation with a strong yearning to the former. Like people in complex societies, things, too, have numerous conflicting and uncertain identities and, according to Kopytoff, are constructed the same way as people.

Considering Kopytoff’s remarks on the commoditization of labour, the question arises why we object certain kinds of trafficking in labour but not others, such as bringing workers over the border “illegally” as opposed to “legally” providing services such as maids and hotel workers whose working conditions are more than questionable.

Kopytoff refers to the difficulties of secularized societies in defending the human sphere against commoditization. Can “transcendental sanctions” be helpful in this venture?

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