Janine’s Reading Response (Feb.1, 2012)

Posted: February 1, 2012 by janinemarie91 in Uncategorized

Miller expresses an antithesis to the notion of functionality as the precursor to the production of objects. The idea he opposes stems from the popularized school of evolutionary thought wherein functionality drives gradual changes from one form to another. He points out as an example, various objects that, on surface value, seem to have an impractical function yet have managed to exist and persist in some societies.

The author gives an example of the symbolic significance of certain objects that can be considered as function. What the author says is that functionality can be interpreted in multiple contexts. Therefore, pragmatic functionality can be considered on the same level as cultural or symbolic functionality when looking at the history of how objects were developed to account for the wide range of the persistence of different things.

He furthermore asserts that instead of viewing social norms and behaviour in their function-dependent fashion congruent with evolutionary thought, we should consider our actions within the context of its framing. Evolutionary thought begets one to compare one culture and society in relative terms of adaptability.

The author presents arguments in a concise manner and supports his arguments fairly well. However, constantly looking at things in contrast to another undermines the value of an object in of itself because structuralism looks at things not in isolation but through its relations (p.51). Objects are given meaning through the process of comparison and contrast with another object- in a frame of reference to another. From an objectivist perspective, one of the process of gaining value, as discussed in the Appadurai’ reading, is through the process of exchange, which once again depends on its functionality and status in a given society, with reference to an exchanged object with an assumptive equal value. This is tied to Marxist ideals of market exchange which Miller touches on briefly. He then continues with Hegelian philosophy which is a good juxtapose to Marx who argues that advancement of societies is not rooted in sophistication of philosophy but in our capacity to create materials throughout the ages.


Thomas inspects how the process of valuation takes place during the course of exchange, gift-giving and whenever transactions occur between participating bodies. The author argues that capitalism drives the most inequality among the history of human societies. He draws examples from scholars, Gregory amongst them, and evaluates the differences of gift-giving and commoditization. In the comparison made, gifts are attributed subject-like properties while commodities are considered objects. By virtue of having opposing sets of differences, commodities and gifts are made distinct. The author places importance on consideration on culture-relative approaches as he looks at the different tribes and their modes of barter and gift-giving.

The category that Gregory established (p.15) can be problematic in the sense that we have established that commodities can be de-commoditized at any point through processes of subjectification, its removal from the market, emotional attachment and privatization. Therefore, commodities cross the boundary of Gregory’s category when it acquires gift-like qualities such as quality and dependence (p.15).  For example, a family heirloom, initially bought as a commodity, becomes a gift as it is passed on from generation to generation. So a strict category is not useful for us when looking at things that have malleable statuses. Furthermore, non-traditional commodities, such as personal relations and the physical body, are both considered generally inalienable but can take on commodity-like qualities such as quantitative value (money-wise). The author makes a strong point as he echoes a similar argument in that he wants to go beyond the gift-commodity dichotomy in order to make sense of valuation and various acts of gift-giving and exchange.


My question is how do we reconcile our place in a world where “material culture” is dominant? Are we still able to have an inalienable self that has a degree of control over things we created that have developed autonomy? 

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