Archive for the ‘Jan 25’ Category

African Textiles

Posted: January 26, 2012 by lilzak in Jan 25

Geraldine Chambers
January 25, 2012

The materiality of African textile is as varied as the continent of Africa and its diaspora. I would like to look at the textiles and how it is used within diaspora on the continent and beyond its borders from the nineteenth century to the present. There is a large array of textile including Raffia, (which is not technically a textile), Mud Cloth, Wax Print, Kente and Indigo and others. I want to explore their meanings from the past and their meanings today in Africa and the diaspora. Also what they were used for and how they are used and presented in contemporary art today.
The mode of production also varies due to changes in economies of the countries where the textiles are produced. Some artist use traditional weaving techniques while others use embroidery or tie dye methods. Artist such as photographers use textiles to address issues of identity and cross-cultural discourses. There is also the use of different materials such as synthetic dyes (i.e. acrylic), natural dyes (i.e. plant). Also I want to look at the textile industries and how they produce textiles especially in South and West Africa and Africa’ relationship other countries such as China in textile production.
The designs are often based on traditional styles but contemporary artists use them differently to show changes in the cultures they inhabit be it Africa, Europe or the Caribbean. Today’s’ artist want to acknowledge their African heritage but there is a desire to move forward and produce work as artists. They want to their works to reflect the world they live in and how the cross-cultural influences speak to their works.
African textiles have also taken on different meanings in diasporic environs such as Surinam and the Caribbean where issues of identity and authenticity are constant reminders of a place no longer familiar. I want to compare old and new meanings and old and new uses for these textiles.

Amanda’s review

Posted: January 24, 2012 by macdo142 in Jan 25

Throughout Appadurai’s article entitled “Commodities and the Culture of Value” he looks primarily at the social life of commodities and the cultural value placed on them. In his article he stresses the importance of the different cultural standards certain objects hold within certain communities that would make them more or less desirable. How often the object can be obtained and how easily it is acquired in a given community also adds to the commodity of the object. The social life of an object begins to fully emerge when the value becomes apparent to the consumer and the merchant. The economic and monetary amount that the buyer is willing to place on the object, corresponding with the amount the seller is willing to negotiate with determines how important the life of this object is in relation to the society that it is selling in. Appadurai expresses the idea that certain goods show the status of a society and of an individual who holds said goods in there possession. The lives of certain objects can therefore outline the lives of the holders as being economically wealthy, or economically poor. It is through this social process that these objects hold more meanings than just a regular exchange, their value as a commodity is used to express a status and a social hierarchy within the community at large.
In Igor Koptoff “The Cultural Biography of Things” article, he opens up the discussion of a commodity by defining people as a commodity and the exchanges that occur through the labour in which they produce and for whom it is being produced for. He, like Appadurai, also notes that within different communities the value of a commodity is interpreted differently.  This value he concludes can be as simple as the name and the function of the same object and how practical the object is within the society.  If the object is entirely foreign than the worth of it can he of a higher value. A prime example would be the use of the fork within the Disney movie The Little Mermaid.  Within one society the fork is an overproduced object that holds little value but huge function within their community and culture, yet for the mermaid world she places it as an object of value because of its alien like appearance and ambiguous functionality. Hence the culture that she lives in has not imposed any sort of meaning to this object or the desire to own such a foreign object just yet, should she have decided to sell it would have meant a profitable exchange because of the lack of knowledge and the fascination with its alien appearance.
The value of a commodity can and does change as time passes, something can become “antique” and the value of it rises. The craftsmanship of an object can be come unique and authentic to that era or maker making it more or less valuable than the same object of another maker. All of these factors are taken into consideration when determining the lives on an object. The objects life is only as long or as short as its economic life because of this. When the object is no longer desirable or can no longer be considered collectable, unique or authentic than its life; through commodity and desirability is cut short. Appadurai places importance on the social context in which the object is being bought and sold, historically has the objects popularity peeked or has it recently become a want or need for the community?  Has this increased popularity of an object over-killed the initial commodity of it through the mass productions and robbed the object of its longevity?
Within North American society our perception and value of high end commodities is tainted by the everyday use of such objects. For example within North America, at the library people leave equipment worth thousands of dollars unattended. Should we move the same equipment to a different location, lets say in south America and said objects lives with the initial owner would be very quickly interrupted. Does the un-commonality of an object make it less of a commodity despite the financial and economic value of it within a society that is particularly wealthy?

Summary of two claims on:

a) The Political Valuation of Objects – Appadurai

b) The Processual Commoditization of Objects – Kopytoff

a) Appadurai’s claim for the Political Valuation of Objects

Appadurai is concerned with the political and economic production of object value. Appadurai argues that the value of objects are a result of exchange, not the other way around. According to Appadurai, these constructed values are created through varied forms of politics, which are typically framed by elites. Grounded in Marx’s definition of the commodity as an object intended to be exchanged and historical processes of commoditization, Appadurai asserts that politics produces value by defining what is desirable and reasonable: what object is worth forgoing opportunity cost and economic sacrifice. This political analysis can be applied to the Nazi’s processes of valorization and de-valorization of  “degenerate” Jewish art stolen and sold to fund the repressive regime, as articulated by Müller et al. in the reading on Nazi theft of Jewish art during the Holocaust.

b) Kopytoff’s claim of Processual Commoditization of objects

Kopytoff focuses on the cultural process of commoditization of objects. The author scrutinises the delineation between what objects can appropriately be characterised as a commodity and what objects cannot, and how the constitution of this dichotomy operates within a moral economy. Using many illustrative examples such as slavery and maternal surrogacy, Kopytoff’s asserts that the process of commoditization of objects is not unlike the process of commoditization of human beings. In doing so, Kopytoff blurs the dichotomy between objects and people, and further highlights the dynamic relationship that exists between humans and objects, much like the Schamberger et al. reading on the Australian Journeys exhibit.

Analysis with Embedded Questions:

Challenging commodities from the perspective of human rights and “moral economy”

As Kopytoff points out, the notion of “rights to things” is a product of the economic system. (Kopytoff, 64) Upon the ratification of the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there has been an increase in the use of the language of inalienable human rights in describing certain resource-based objects that constitute basic human needs. A controversy exists when certain objects that have been defined as human rights undergo a process of commoditization. Although water has been ratified by the UN General Assembly as a human right, powerful multi-national corporations have used rigorous branding and marketing to create a bottled water industry that is worth over $15 billion dollars in North America alone.  (The Globe and Mail, April 23, 2010) The shift from water as a public resource to a commoditized resource has occurred and put profits in the hands of companies at a time when one in six people on earth do not have access to safe drinking water.  (UN Water, 2012)

Prominent anthropologist Margaret Mead studied culture by a given society’s conceptualisation of a “successful social career” or perspective on the ideally-lived life. (Kopytoff, 66) This method provokes Kopytoff’s mirrored analysis which builds on Mead’s methodology. He asserts that the biography of an object should also be conceptualised by the object’s ideal “career” and life.

The following questions stem from a fusion of these two biographic methodologies.


What is the relationship between the ideal life of an object and the ideal life of a person?

More specifically, what is the balance between the supposed economic benefits of commoditization of objects and the fulfilment of human rights?

Is the commoditization of certain objects immoral? Why?

This reach of this analysis does not stop with the human right to basic human needs like water. The examples proposed by Kopytoff include commoditization of human beings through the commoditization of ova, sperm, and maternal surrogacy.

Kopytoff asks the question “What are the best ways of ensuring an adequate supply?” (Kopytoff, 86) in the case of the scarcity of blood donations. The same scarcity exists in the case of human organs. The film and novel “Never Let Me Go” is about a generation of human clones raised simply to harvest human organs.

Although the idea of  going as far as implementing human cloning businesses in order to meet the growing demand for human organs might seem too far-fetched, Appadurai’s defines demand as a politically and economically construed concept. As such, demand for privatised bottled-water or demand for human organs must be contextualised from the powers and political ideologies that shape the desire for a commoditized object.

If object values are derived from political constructions produced by the capitalist exchange system as scrutinised by Appadurai,  it is up to civil society and responsible governance to use their own consolidated power to reframe the elite politics that typify the exchange of objects. In doing so comes the development of what Kopytoff calls “moral economy”: where it is appropriate for certain objects to be commodities and some not. (Kopytoff, 64)

Just as objects can live through the process of commoditization, they can also live the process of de-commoditization. Look at the recent ban of the sale and distribution of bottled-water at the University of Toronto prompted by student civil society. We are witnessing a de-commoditization process. By Appadurai’s account, a culmination of  economic exchange of plastic bottles of water on campus could change the way students and faculty value such objects.

The Value of Commodities

Posted: January 23, 2012 by aresjoseph in Jan 25

Igor Koptoff’s examines two perspectives about commodities. He uses the economist perspective to define commodities as things that are exchanged for money. In the cultural perspective, “the production of commodities is also a cultural and cognitive process” (Koptoff 64). Commodities are subject to different cultural markers that define them. They have cultural inscribed values that differ from commoditization perspective. In Western Societies, he states that objects are universally seen as commodities while people represent singularization. Koptoff  states that historically people have been marked with economic value as commodities. He uses slavery as an example. Moreover, the social life of a commodity or its value changes in the exchange sphere; from place to place and person to person.

In “Commodities and the Politics of Value,” Appadurai states that; “economic exchange creates values” (1986:3). Appadurai focuses on the economic value of an object. He states that politics connect values and exchange. That would mean that people with access to political power can define the status or value of an object in an exchange system. Appadurai states that an object’s value can change based on social interaction (exchange sphere). Therefore, the social life of an object is not fluid or clearly defined. He calls commodities a “socialized thing” (6). He subdivides his essay into different parts. One section focuses on the “the spirit of commodities,” the next on diversions and paths,  desire and demand, lastly he discusses the relationship between knowledge and commodities (Appadurai 6). His conclusion, is that the status of an object, or the value of a commodity can change over time.

Koptoff and Appadurai essay focuses on similar points; that commodities have social lives and gain status in the exchange sphere. Their research shows that an object’s value is not static. Koptoff provides examples of different types social and cultural commodities and objects that are valued by individuals, while Appadurai essay explores the social construction and organization of value in more depth. The authors did not distinguish value between authetic and non-authetic objects. They also did not mention the way Affect influences a commodity’s status or value. However, Georg Simmel in Appadurai’s essay mention that a person’s desire and enjoyment over a commodity or object  influences its value in the economic system of exchange. If the value of an object never changes over time, does that mean that it has a limited social life? Does an object’s value change over time if it goes through different exchange spheres, and returns to its original owner or home?


Commodities as Objects

Posted: January 23, 2012 by nelsonbakshidts403 in Jan 25

In Koptoff’s article, he talks about how objects as a commodity changes from region to region and changes over time. Commodities are developed so that they may be exchanged based on use value for individuals; however, commodities are developed so that they can be exchanged only for money. Koptoff explains that there happens to be a difference in Western society’s view of commodities in comparison to the East and Africa. Koptoff states though that trade between societies are a key aspect in diasporic individuals. The trade of commodities creates an anthropological history of not only an object but also of a culture. Individuals in what Koptoff describes to be part of “small scale” and “complex commercialized” societies are vastly different in which history has allowed to happen without intervention. Complex society individuals have multiple identities in which they are at times conflicting to one another which leads them to no clear loyalty to anything while in comparison to “small scale” society individuals has a single identity in which their connected to a single story.

In Appadurai’s article, he talks about the social life in which commodities are interacted within life. Appardurai argues that the relationship between commodities and value is actually a relationship between commodity and power. Those that have the power within society are capable to regulate the regulations and the process in which commodities move and are able to be purchased. However as society and the greater population that do not possess power attempt to loosen the regulations so that it creates a power shift. The social hierarchy that is in place creates a different value system for each section of the hierarchy. Those that are at the lower level of the hierarchy will view certain commodities as unnecessary and unattainable creating a sense of high-end and valuable, while those in the higher arc of the hierarchy will view it is as an exclusive commodity to them.

What Koptoff’s article was able to do well is that he gave plenty of examples in which readers have a basic knowledge of or would have heard in their local news, such an example of this would be Ontario surrogate mother policy that is in place. He also talked about how prominent issues that have creates lots of controversy when brought up, such as the pro-life vs. pro-choice argument that rises up people’s personal morals. Appadurai’s article though, brings in the historical aspect to the society and how the powerful are able to control the laws and regulations in states to create an increase in demand in commodities and at the same time create exclusiveness. Appaduari creates a positive correlation on how the demand from historical European conquest and the increase in advertisement has led to the current market place and the structure that is in place from it. However though both of these authors have positive aspects to their articles, there are negative aspects to both of them. Koptoff’s article paints a more favourable picture in which commodities are a beneficial attachment to western society and that those in “small scale” societies are worst off but rather they are able to make life without the need for excess. While in Appadurai’s article, it lacks coherent structure in and logical structure and tends to go off in several directions at the same time and is unable to connect back to the original point that he was trying to make.

So from Koptoff’s article, how does the creation of commodities in exchange only for money created an in balance in society where money becomes a ruler of everything? In Appadurai’s article how the powerful and elite influence over the rules and regulation does created a distorted view for necessities and the want for the unattainable?

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?