The rhetoric of commodities

by Carl Dyke

Does the commodity speak? Generally nowadays, thanks in large part to Marx, Durkheim and Mauss, we would take for granted that it does. But how it speaks, in what language; and how to speak about it vary quite a bit depending on whether you’re in Marx’s discourse community or Durkheim’s. Here’s a fun example, from a widely-cited article I’m currently reading (pdf) (and stopped reading to write this): Igor Kopytoff, “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process,” in Arjun Appadurai, ed., The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective (1986).

I’m going to quote Kopytoff at some length. For what it’s worth, I think what he’s up to is very interesting, and in a way, quite good. That way is the Durkheimy, or perhaps more generally the ‘liberal’ way. If you’re familiar with Marx, see if anything pops out at you. I’ll quote some relevant Marx further along. Here’s Kopytoff:

I assume commodities to be a universal cultural phenomenon. Their existence is a concomitant of the existence of transactions that involve the exchange of things (objects and services), exchange being a universal feature of human social life and, according to some theorists, at the very core of it (see, for example, Homans 1961; Ekeh 1974; and Kapferer 1976). Where societies differ is in the ways commoditization as a special expression of exchange is structured and related to the social system, in the factors that encourage or contain it, in the long-term tendencies for it to expand or stabilize, and in the cultural and ideological premises that suffuse its workings.

What, then, makes a thing a commodity? A commodity is a thing that has use value and that can be exchanged in a discrete transaction for a counterpart, the very fact of exchange indicating that the counterpart has, in the immediate context, an equivalent value. The counterpart is by the same token also a commodity at the time of exchange. The exchange can be direct or it can be achieved indirectly by way of money, one of whose functions is as a means of exchange. Hence, anything that can be bought for money is at that point a commodity, whatever the fate that is reserved for it after the transaction has been made (it may, thereafter, be decommoditized). Hence, in the West, as a matter of cultural shorthand, we usually take saleability to be the unmistakable indicator of commodity status, while non-saleability imparts to a thing a special aura of apartness from the mundane and the common. In fact, of course, saleability for money is not a necessary feature of commodity status, given the existence of commodity exchange in non-monetary economies (68-9).

There’s a lot to notice here, but the first thing I want to call attention to is the “of course” in the last sentence. Given how Kopytoff has defined his terms, he is of course right, albeit circularly and perhaps trivially. But I think it’s pretty clear that no one who has read Marx could possibly use the phrase ‘of course’ in this sentence in this way, since the whole weight of Marx’s critique of capitalism and several hundred pages of close analysis in Capital rest on showing that the commodity is a contingent historical formation specific to capitalism and not, of course, a ‘universal cultural phenomenon’. He may be wrong, but he’s not wrong ‘of course’. By the way, I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem that Kopytoff is oblivious to Marx – although for those of us who aren’t, the discussion here is surreal, especially in the context of a confident general definition of terms for a universal economic anthropology. The usual move in this kind of discussion is to jauntily refute profound misunderstandings of Marx, so ignoring him completely is actually refreshing. [Update: I take it back – those jaunty refutations occur on pp. 70, 83, and 84. I’m not sure whether to be happy or sad that Kopytoff plays to type after all.]

To foreshadow later discussion, I also think Kopytoff is actually up to something overlapping with Marx, but in a quite different critical environment that prompts a different strategy. But let us first proceed to the demonstration of the contrast, quoting Marx:

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical niceties…. A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour…. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities….

Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him. The characters that stamp products as commodities, and whose establishment is a necessary preliminary to the circulation of commodities, have already acquired the stability of natural, self-understood forms of social life, before man seeks to decipher, not in their historical character, for in his eyes they are immutable, but their meaning. Consequently it was the analysis of the prices of commodities that alone led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and it was the common expression of all commodities in money that alone led to the establishment of their characters as values. It is, however, just this ultimate money-form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of the private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers…. The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities. The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production (Capital, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”).

At the most basic level of contrast, we could just say that these fellas have defined the term ‘commodity’ differently. Whereas for Kopitoff it’s any thing in its moment of exchange between people, for Marx it’s the specific kind of thing produced for exchange in the market. M-C-M’, baby. But does that specific kind of thing need its own word? Kopytoff seems to think so, because he says that’s what we mean by commodity in “the West” as a matter of “cultural shorthand.” He wants to transcend this cultural localism, and he’s going to do that by embedding this narrower concept of ‘commodity’ in the larger one. What we’d then call the specific Western version, he hasn’t said yet in the part I’ve read.

This would seem to accomplish a purpose at least parallel to Marx of demystifying the commodity, specifically by bringing it into essential relationship with “other forms of production,” as Marx says; albeit at the risk of treating as ‘natural, self-understood, and immutable’ the universality of the commodity form, and therefore ‘concealing, instead of disclosing’ its social character – chasing its eternal meaning, not its historical contingency. But he seems to intercept this danger by his treatment of the market form of the commodity as a mere Western cultural shorthand.

Let’s go back to Marx. Why does he think ‘commodity’ needs to refer specifically to this ‘Western cultural shorthand’? Well for one thing, he doesn’t think it’s just a cultural shorthand, nor would he think that treating it as such is adequately demystifying. As a matter of historical fact, he tells us, ‘the commodity’ as a thing characterized by its relation to exchange is not at all a cultural universal, but a specific artifact of a specific mode of production, the capitalist one. Of course people have been exchanging things in various ways, including money sale in markets, throughout human history. Those forms of exchange correspond to modes of production, which are generally mixed but tend to be dominated from place to place and time to time by one characteristic mode. So the Vikings had artisans, but their dominant mode of production was plunder, their dominant form of exchange gift-giving. (I’m being silly here. I know nothing about Vikings.) Medieval cities had merchants and markets, some of them global, but the dominant mode of production was agrarian communalism, the dominant mode of exchange extractive rents and dues. (I’m not being silly here. I refer to a vast and occasionally intelligent literature with which I have some familiarity.)

What makes the modern West distinctive, for Marx, is that it’s taken the very particular kind of transaction called markets, visible and generally benign throughout most of human history as a localized form (Marx is not refuted by finding money and markets here and there), and transformed it into the universally dominant and profoundly problematic mode of production. “The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image” (The Communist Manifesto).

So, to get to the heart of the matter, what Kopytoff and Marx both want to do is to get the West’s version of economy and economic discourse demystified, and properly situated as a distinctive but not dispositive localism. The difference is that Marx thinks this distinctive localism is, in fact, historically dispositive, in the concrete historical sense that its specific way of defining and enacting things and the exchange of things has an expansive logic that forces itself upon all others – tending to reduce everything, as he said, to the “cash nexus.” The production of things for sale so carefully contained and often actively stigmatized in other historical societies has been made, historically, the dominant form of global economy and human relationship in the capitalist world order.

In this frame, what we call this particular form of production and exchange is not a trivial matter of local prejudice. Nor, Marx would say, can it just be defined or abstracted away, a form of magical thinking he lampoons in the showy but failed criticisms of Proudhon, the utopian socialists, the Young Hegelians, Bakhunin and the anarchists, and so on. In this frame, eurocentrism is not a form of accidental cultural gaucherie to be corrected with more inclusive language, as Kopytoff appears to think, but the ideological correlate of material domination. And this then has been the Marxian critique of well-meaning culturist universalisms like Durkheim’s and Kopytoff – that the standpoint of critique is imaginary, the means of resistance a hocus-pocus of incantations and good intentions. Not so much that they’re wrong as powerless, and distractingly powerless.

Is this a fair takedown of Kopytoff? Sure, if transformative social revolution is the agenda. If it’s not, then Kopytoff’s piece does some satisfying decentering of the economic discourses of capitalist eurocentrism, pitched nicely to trouble the more narrow universalist assumptions of lots of textbooks in economics and international relations. Like those textbooks, Kopytoff reads the categories of bourgeois economy back into history; but he does so in an essentially decommoditized form that gives the cultural imperialism no traction, a move he then builds on by calling attention to the historical processes whereby particular things are dynamically commoditized and decommoditized from place to place and time to time. A strategy Marx would appreciate, I think. And therefore in this contrast with Marx, who haunts him silently, Kopytoff also shows something fun and ironic about how discourse communities work to narrow and precondition the construction of knowledge; but also how leverage may be enabled by precisely that constraint.


6 Comments to “The rhetoric of commodities”

  1. Carl, you are, I believe, misreading Kopytoff when you suggest that he is oblivious to Marx. Consider the following, which begins on the same page as the bit you quoted.

    The perfect commodity would be one that is exchangeable with anything and everything else, as the perfectly commoditized world would be one in which everything is exchangeable or for sale. By the same token, the perfectly decommoditized world would be one in which everything is singular, unique and unexchangeable.

    From my own perspective, informed by the usage of “commodity markets” and “commodification” in business, both Kopytoff and Marx point to the fact that (1) some things are exchanged in a manner that precludes consideration of the social relations involved in their production and exchange and, thus, (2) the exchange of these “commodities” does not create new social relations or reinforce or threaten old ones. For Marx, this leads to the observation that commodities are fetishized, treated as if they had power and value in themselves, ignoring the relations of production. For Kopytoff this leads to the observation that the same things (slaves in his first example) can be commoditized, become increasingly singular through use and be treated as commodities again, at some later point in their biographies.

    Kopytoff notes, moreover, that

    The two situations are ideal polar types, and no real economic system could conform to either. In no system is everything so singular as to preclude even the hint of exchange. And in no system, except in some extravagant Marxian image of an utterly commoditized capitalism, is everything a commodity and exchangeable for everything else within a unitary sphere of exchange.

    This brings me to consideration of a series of terms, each of which is sometimes set in polar opposition to “commodity”: “gift,” “brand,” and “art.” First, it is quite clear, that the same things can be gifts, brands, or art depending on the social context in which they appear. A gift creates or maintains and may sometimes threaten a social relationship (threaten if the gift is seen as insulting). A brand marks the owner as belonging to a category, occupying a status, differentiated from those who chose other brands. A work of art is, ideally, utterly singular and marks both creator and owner as unique in their relation to it.

    But this is, of course, only a rough sketch. What do we make of the artist’s “gift,” the genius embodied in the work, or the patron’s gift of a work of art to a museum, in the expectation that this gift removes it from the realm of exchange and assigns it a permanently sacred status? How does the particularity of the relationship created or sustained by a gift compare to the uniqueness claimed by creating or maintaining the work of art, and how do both relate to the more generic, status symbol effect of brands?

  2. John, you’re defending what doesn’t need to be defended. I said I liked what Kopytoff was up to, and did not otherwise address in detail the good points you raise here. I updated shortly after posting, and after reading on, to gesture at the references to Marx you cite. I find them consistent with a Wikipedia-level understanding of old Karl, and therefore Kopytoff ends up reinventing a lot of what he would have found if he’d actually read carefully. But so it goes with lots of people educated in the mid-century. What he ends up with is pretty good.

    Kopytoff’s point about the failure of the capitalist commodity form to totalize, as threatened in the Manifesto, is well taken but also taken by Marx when he’s not doing political rhetoric, and by the better following Marxists. The point is never actually that one mode and relation of production completely obliterates the others, but that the others occur within a matrix in which they are structurally subordinated and/or marginalized. I won’t even defend that point too hard, since I’m usually the guy agreeing with Sahlins and Douglas/Isherwood on the relative autonomy of identification and signification dynamics. But note that those symbolic dimensions can proceed merrily along as the plumage of a fundamentally commoditized economy – as instruments of the proliferation of capital. Every relation and identity that can be recruited into buying things is to the good for the profit-takers. Whether to be upset about that is, of course, a different question.

    I see that Kopytoff claims a research expertise on the slavery question, yet there all I can say is that although his analysis is correct, and illuminating of the diversity of actual practices of slavery in the same way as Genovese’s Gramsci-inspired Roll, Jordan, Roll, he’s simply missed the point that the really vicious chattel slavery characteristic of emergent capitalism was made possible in large part by the transformation of exchange into the capitalist commodity variant. It’s only in that context that it became possible to think of human beings as merely things to be bought and sold, rather than bundles of personal and social qualities undergoing a series of status transformations. I’m speaking very schematically here, of course. Anyhoo, it’s this decisive transformation of exchange that Kopytoff badly misses in his dismissal of commodity fetishism as a quaint local European prejudice. But since he wants to treat each local instance of exchange as analytically distinct, not much is lost in his case by failing to grasp the specific (albeit massive) distinction Marx was getting at.

    In any case, my specific objection, and nothing you say addresses it, seems to me self-evidently true, which is that no one with more than a cursory familiarity with Marx could possibly say that ‘of course’ commodity exchange is universal. Of course it’s not, says Marx, right in chapter 1, although capitalism is ideologically well-served by thinking its characteristic mode of exchange is as natural as the birds and the bees. It’s a question of using economic categories or critiquing them. If Kopytoff had simply said ‘exchange’, he’d have made a solidly uncontroversial point. But he didn’t, and so from one discourse community he wandered right into the firing range of another, and I found that interesting.

  3. Carl, in the first place, doesn’t Kopytoff’s “of course” refer to “saleability for money is not a necessary feature of commodity status”? It extends the argument that, while, in the West, we commonly think of commodities as things bought and sold for money, there are, in fact, commodities which are not bought and sold for money but simply exchanged for items of equivalent value, e.g., in barter trade.

    If true, this is, I will agree, a challenge to Marx’s conception of commodities as specific to capitalism It is not, however, a challenge that arises from a misreading of Marx. It is a classic anthropological “Have you considered?” pointing to ethnographic data to challenge conventional ideas.

    Personally,I would like to extend Kopytoff’s argument by observing that there are plenty of things sold for money in the West that are not considered commodities. Works of art are a classic example and also a model to which most luxury brands aspire. Both BMWs and 100 dollar a bottle wines are bought and sold for money. Neither is a commodity, at least in the everyday sense in which grain or pork bellies are. Both in production and consumption, they aspire to create social relationships that transcend the quid pro quo of commodity exchange.

    This discussion has, however, brought me to a question on which I would like to tap your wisdom and that of others who may be reading this exchange.

    Consider a situation in which a misreading of a classic text occurs—but the misreading leads to the development of insights that the classic text itself has missed. Which is more important, the misreading or the insights? One thinks, on the one hand, of Allen Bloom’s thesis that all great literature is rooted in misreadings of its predecessors, and, on the other hand, of the observation that physicists do not spend much time worrying about whether their students have read Newton.

  4. I lately read the Appadurai volume, and though no anthropologist found it interesting. I found Kopytoff’s piece especially interesting after Appadurai’s own introduction, and the two together gave me one of those moments where I wished that papers in volumes which present the results of seminars, as did this one, would just occasionally incorporate some nod to what the other participants had said. That’s perhaps not fair, as Appadurai presumably wrote the introductory chapter (by far the longest, and in my world the most cited) with all others in hand, but it seems to me that he decenters Marx, albeit affectionately, by surrounding him with alternative models, including Kopytoff’s, and then tries to suggest a definition and operation of the commodity that gets around this by placing the camera, as it were, on the thing being exchanged (hence, ‘the social life of things’). This strikes me as being interesting and he makes it work but I’m not sure if it does all the work he suggested it could. What does seem to me true is that he couldn’t get where he gets without Kopytoff to build on. There are, too, other papers in the volume that deal with commodities that are art or vice versa, specifically Brian Spooner, “Weavers and Dealers: the authenticity of an oriental carpet”, pp. 195-235. I’m not sure that I personally gave the book back to the library with an enlarged sense of the multifacets of the exchange economy, but it seems overall to be a good part of building such a sense and Kopytoff’s chapter one of the steps up.

    Just a quick attempt to suggest that Carl’s last two postings need to be merged. We’re in the realm of “use value vs. exchange value” — necessarily, and necessarily “once again.” The pivot point is labor and its commodification — and, to foreshadow how this ends up, the commodification of self. I.e., what is our worth?.
    First, commodities and their totalization and structural hegemony. The point of reminding ourselves of their historical specificity is that “commodity” can be totalized only within a specific system of production. Elsewhere it exists as a dimension among other dimensions for locating something in a heterogenous social space — as something that gets exchanged, among other things. The other common way of saying this is to say that commodity can become totalized only when the only measure of value is price. An interesting case of this showed up the other day when Carl and I were talking about a book I’d just started reading: Bill Alder’s MAIGRET, SIMENON, AND FRANCE: SOCIAL DIMENSIONS OF THE NOVELS AND STORIES. It’s a book firmly in the post-Eagleton, Marxian tradition. Alder makes the point that one of the interesting things about “who dun it, crime, detective” fiction is that it was produced AS commodity, even when the content was rich (and Simenon was a bright and perceptive guy). Every book written has the potential to be a commodity, and if an author is trying to make a living by writing, has to be a commodity. So with Simenon, Christie, Conan Doyle, et. al. In contrast, while Simenon was writing the Maigrets, Gramsci was scribbling in his prison notebooks. (Carl points out that Gramsci could well be thought of as one of the first bloggers.) The notebooks weren’t written AS commodities — but lots of copies have been sold. Gramsci’s labors were not driven by price; Simenon’s were.
    For another, parallel, microcosmic probe we can try academic labor: teaching and research. I’ve played out my academic career during the transition of academic labor from genuine use value, genuinely recognized as such, to exchange value, mandatorily recognized as such. Of course the transition process was already in its early stages when I started, and isn’t quite finished yet, In fact, one of the most important things I share with Carl is the stubborn insistence that the completion of the transition will have to take place over our dead bodies. Nonetheless, except in the obvious cases of privileged branding (vide Mccreery’s comment), structural hegemony of exchange value has occurred. It should go without saying that the misrecognition of the terms of worth lives on in the egos of academe. I’ll get heat for saying so, but one of the tragedies of the entry and “acceptance” of women in the academy is that it took place under the conditions of the transition we’re talking about.
    So to Carl’s other post. Most, if not all, white males are useless. The ones that I teach have already recognized that fact by the time they get to my classroom. Their (potential) labors, and, indeed, their (potential) selves have no other worth than (potential) price. [In the last few years, the recognition of the fact has had particular impact on the “pre-law” hordes.] But price is totally dependent on demand. Who in hell needs another white male, and, especially. his labor?
    Carl and I are supremely fortunate. We’ve managed to get entrenched. We can make our classrooms loci of use value. We can turn our backs on the ego market of disciplinary publication, in his case by blogging, and in my case by the production of hopelessly unpublishable manuscripts, and maintain something of the old sense of scholarship — at some cost. Such opportunities to be a useful self are available sporadically in social circumstances far to messy and unwieldy to actually totalize anything, but they get fewer and fewer. As Terry once said to his brother, “I coulda had class, Charlie. I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody.” To which the future replies, “No, Terry, you can only be anybody, or nobody.” — Unless you make a really big noise, and pay the price.

  6. Happy New Year! There is much in what Dyke the Elder says with which I wholeheartedly agree. That said, I see the “obvious cases of privileged branding” in, I suspect, much the same light as Dyke the Younger sees Kopytoff’s “of course.” What these two rhetorical gestures share is a willed ignoring of stuff that deserves closer attention. We can agree on the structural hegemony of exchange value and, thus, the existence of a world in which everything is for sale and price is the universal index of value. That does not change the fact that while all commodities are for sale, not all things for sale are commodities and that the latter, things for sale that are not commodities, account for large and growing proportions of economic activity. Us folks on the left are outraged by the 2 billion dollars or so spent on the last presidential elections in the U.S.A. But, in that same year, Coca-Cola’s advertising budget is reported to have been 11 billion dollars. (For additional examples, see

    The critical factor here is the web of social relations in which exchange either is or is not embedded. The consumer who buys, for example, a box of cereal at a supermarket forms no social relationship with the people who produced and transported the cereal and put it on the supermarket shelves. Having paid for the cereal, the consumer is under no obligation to come back to the supermarket to buy another box. The price is paid, the exchange clears, no social relationship is created.

    What, however, of the consumer who buys a car? Why was it that, having bought a Plymouth at a Plymouth-Dodge dealer in Grafton, VA, my father went back time after time, for maintenance, repairs, and to buy new cars? To the dealer who sold him the car, dad wasn’t just someone who bought a product for which, eventually, the loan would clear. He was part of a clientele with whom good relations were worth cultivating to, as we say in the trade, maximize lifetime value.

    Professional services all share this characteristic. The key to a comfortable livelihood is building a clientele with whom the service provider cultivates on-going relationships. The key to becoming wealthy is cultivating relationships with those who have plenty of money to spend.

    What, then, of advertising and other consulting businesses. Here again building and maintaining relationships are the keys to success. And building those relationships involves a lot more than repetition of quid-pro-quo-we’re-quits transactions. In an article titled “Malinowski, Magic and Advertising: On Choosing Metaphors,” I wrote, having noted Annette Weiner’s critique of Malinowski’s theory of magic that,

    “In fairness to Malinowski, we should note that what Weiner attacks is a view of magic formulated in Malinowski’s (1931) article ‘Culture,’ which appeared in the Encyclopedia of Social Science, in which we find a picture of primitive desperation in the face of an uncontrollable natural world. In Coral Gardens and Their Magic, we find instead a world in which economic surplus is expended on nonutilitarian goals. Here we find that Trobrianders work hard to make their gardens beautiful. They put in far more effort than is necessary for the growth of what they plant. Their conscientiousness says Malinowski, is especially evident in magic, where every detail is treated carefully.

    “To someone who works in advertising, where the way an ad is finished may be more than half the battle in winning client and consumer approval, this all sounds very familiar. To achieve aesthetic effects, those who create advertising often work far harder than would seem necessary if the goal were simply to communicate a proposition. Camera angles and lighting in photos, touch and tone in illustrations, the size and placement of type in layouts, the choice of words in copy, and music in the case of television—all are checked and checked again. Why do people in advertising put in all that extra effort?

    “First, of course, the bottom line: Like Trobriand gardeners, they are putting food on their tables, and clients who spend great sums of money don’t like slipshod work. Besides cash in hand, there are other rewards: dancing and feasting, pleasant overseas expeditions, renown, and the satisfaction of vanity—all are listed by Malinowski as goals the Trobriander seeks and all are among the perks of successful agency careers. There is also the intrinsic cratmanlike pleasure of doing a good job (that feeling of accomplishment my Japanese colleagues call shokuningataki). And we mustn’t forget sheer love of the game.

    “There is, writes Malinowski, ‘a desire in every one of us to escape from routine and certainty.’ We may (as so much of anthropological theory suggests) value order in our lives, but even the most skeptical may rebel against blind casality and prefer the gifts of chance good fortune. If, as Malinowski notes, ‘love, gambling and magic have a good deal in common,’ so does business in a market economy and, most especially advertising.” (John Sherry, ed., 1995, Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook, pp. 317-318.

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