On The Social Life of Things

In The Social Life of Things (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), Arjun Appadurai argues for a “methodological fetishism” of commodities in analyzing the societies in which they circulate:

…we have to follow the things themselves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories. It is only through the analysis of these trajectories that we can interpret the human transactions and calculations that enliven things. Thus, even though from a theoretical point of view human actors encode things with significance, from a methodological point of view it is the things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context. (5)

Drawing on Simmel, he declares that “Economic exchange creates value,” and he proposes that “the commodity situation in the social life of any ‘thing’ be defined as the situation in which its exchangeability (past, present, future) for some other thing is its socially relevant factor” (3, 13). Appaduri’s definition of the commodity situation is based on an understanding of the commodity not as a thing-in-itself but as a certain social relationship with the thing. By virtue of its social and cultural context, the thing moves into and out of its commodity status. (Appadurai also speaks of the “commodity phase” in the life of the thing (13).) Some things, Appadurai suggests, spend more time than not as commodities, others tend toward the opposite pole, but the potential of any thing to become a commodity is only one aspect of its social existence.

What the definition does not make clear, and what is complicated further by several of Appadurai’s later examples and analogies, is whether the reverse is true. If a thing is not always a commodity, is a commodity always a thing? Appadurai would seem to say no. He takes a lot from Mauss, and while he discusses “nonmonetized, preindustrial economies” he remains strictly (“methodologically”) on the trail of the things themselves. However, as he moves toward comparing these cultures to our own, Appadurai slips consistently into a discussion of information exchange over and above object exchange. In his explanation of the methods by which elite regimes of value tend perpetuate their own status in their attitudes toward things, Appadurai compares the exclusivity and sumptuary laws of early societies, laws designed to designate certain objects and classes of objects as fit only for kings or ruling classes, to modern systems of fashion which, absent any exclusivity in actual commodity ownership, create complex and ever-changing sign systems out of “democratically” available commodities. In his discussion of “tournaments of value,” which he defines as “complex periodic events that are removed in some culturally well-defined way from the routines of economic life”, Appadurai compares the set of ritual practices associated with the kula with those of the Chicago Grain Futures Exchange (21). He illuminates in both of these examples striking similarities in the sorts of cultural practices regarding value that seemingly very different types of societies share. Just as in the kula, in which cultural elites vie for power and prestige through the exchange of a very particular set of things, so too do the traders on the futures exchange attempt to corner the market in particular commodities. In his effort to demonstrate similarities, however, Appadurai seems to lose track of the very things that his methodology has set out to follow.

‘Follow the things’ tracks very nicely for each of his premodern examples. In sumptuary law, it is the right to things that is restricted, and the value of a thing—its political power (“broadly construed”)– is largely based upon its presence. When there are only a few things to be had, and the king has them all, then the king sets himself apart from the masses by the having itself, the presence of the thing. Likewise, in the kula, the “tournament of value” takes place in relation to the exchange of things, of shells and bracelets, the quantity and quality of which determine—by social designation—the status of the respective exchangers.

The thing, on the other hand, is notably absent from both modern-day examples. (I mean the thing in its most material sense. A physical object against which we might stub our physical toe.) In modern Western fashion practices, ownership or possession of a material thing has been replaced (in large part) by possession of information regarding the appropriate meaning of the thing, or which among the many things would prove most socially advantageous as a sign, I.e., that taste, explored by Bourdieu, which might convey the appropriate social information. Likewise, in the exchange of commodities futures, it is not the thing which is traded, but rather the possible future possession of a thing based on sets of data (and the more precise the data the better). In both cases, the place of the thing is taken by information about the thing, and yet, according to Appadurai, the commodity persists.

Does Appadurai suggest that, by virtue of their being commodities, the grain future and the fashion sense are thereby thingified? If so, it would seem that he gains a useful definition of commodity at the expense of a meaningful definition of thing. What is a thing that is a nonmaterial thing? And what use is there in talking about things if the category might include such nonmaterial entities as financial algorithms and high-cultural aesthetic?

At times, Appadurai seems to acknowledge the distinction. In his initial comparison of sumptuary law with fashion, he states:

In such restricted systems of commodity flow, where valuables play the role of coupons or licenses designed to protect status systems, we see the functional equivalent but the technical inversion of ‘fashion’ in more complex societies. Where in the one case status systems are protected and reproduced by restricting equivalences and exchange in a stable universe of commodities, in a fashion system what is restricted and controlled is taste in an ever-changing universe of commodities, with the illusion of complete interchangeability and unrestricted access. (25)

And later in the essay:

Modern consumers are the victims of the velocity of fashion as surely as primitive consumers are the victims of the stability of sumptuary law. (32)

But he does not seem to notice, or he has no interest in, the very real difference that this “technical inversion” has with regard to the things at play in each example. What Appadurai’s slip suggests to me is the all too easy assumption that words are things too. That a culture somehow does not change when it moves from an economy of goods to an economy of discourse. Of course, the goods have not disappeared. Indeed, it seems all too likely that their proliferation may lie near the heart of the very historical rift that Appadurai attempts to bridge.

But a “Cultural biography of things,” as Kopytoff suggests, does seem a promising methodology. What is missing from Appadurai’s analysis, and largely also from Kopytoff’s, is any extended consideration of that biography outside of the context of exchange. We shop a lot, that is certain, but a huge number of the things we buy we buy spend a rather brief period as a commodity before being consigned to…something else. Look around the room and categorize the things you see according to their length of life. How many of them are, by Appadurai’s definition, currently in a “commodity phase”? How many of them are, at this very moment, acting socially as fashions or stock futures? What are the rest of them doing?

It seems that Appadurai has missed an opportunity, or perhaps simply mistitled his book. He seems to be interested in the social construction of value through exchange of commodities, and not really things at all. Things are another matter altogether; in his analysis of modern capitalist societies, they operate as a rather misleading metaphor. We mustn’t assume (indeed, we must argue against the notion) that things have a social life only or even primarily at their moments of highest commodity potential. The best hidden, least understood, and perhaps most interesting aspects of the social life of things are those many days and hours that they spend outside the realm of commoditization. What do they do while they are out of the spotlight? The things on my shelves are the things that have been interesting me lately, and all the things in my cabinets (and my cabinets themselves). Most of these things spent a rather brief time as commodities before entering indefinite non-commodityhood in my office and living room and kitchen. What do we call these things, and how do we discuss their continuing social lives?

And this sort of thing does matter.

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About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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