“The Cultural Biography of Things” examines commodities and commoditization as a cultural and cognitive process. Kopytoff argues that to understand the values of commodities historians must examine the biography of things, not just production and moments of exchange.
Kopytoff begins his essay be examining the commoditization of one of the most complex things: a slave. Slaves are persons, but treated as things and commodities. After a slave is exchanged it loses its commodity status as it tries to build a life as a person. Even so, a slave is always a potential commodity because it has a potential exchange value that can be realized by resale. The life of a slave exhibits a process of commoditization, decommoditization, which Kopytoff terms “singularization,” and recommoditization. Kopytoff argues that this process is not particular to slaves as persons/things, but describes commodities in general. Thus, Kopytoff calls for historians to examine the cultural biography of things to understand their processes of commoditization and singularization.
Biographies take many forms and approaches. Historians can begin asking similar questions of things as they ask of people. Where does it come from and who made it? What has been its career? What is an ideal career for this sort of thing? What are the periods of its life? What are its cultural markers for those periods? How does the thing’s use change with age? What happens when it is considered useless? This approach to things is necessary since “Biographies of things can make salient what might otherwise remain obscure” (67). For example, the biography of a thing can tell us how it is used or perceived in a particular culture, not just how it is exchanged. This process should be used for examining commodities.
Kopytoff defines a commodity as “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” (68). Thus, the counterpart is also a commodity. In this exchange, “exchange can be direct or it can be achieved indirectly by way of money, one of whose functions is a means of exchange” (69). Kopytoff does not consider gifts as commodities because they are not discrete transactions. Gifts assume the opening of some other transaction, or call for a reciprocal gift. Gifts may be commodities, but when exchanged as gifts they are not commodities for Kopytoff because the transaction is not terminal.
Goods, however, are never commodities or non-commodities. Things becomes commodities through a process, or commoditization. According to Kopytoff, “Commoditization, then, is best looked upon as a process of becoming rather than an all-or-none state of being. Its expansion takes places in two ways: (a) with respect to each thing, by making it exchangeable for more and more other things, and (b) with respect to the system as a whole, by making more and more different thing more widely exchangeable” (73).
Moreover, goods are never commoditized in a single sphere of exchange as Marx supposed. Goods are exchanged in “several spheres of exchange values, which operate more or less independently of one another” (70). Commodities may be exchanged in “separate universes of exchange values, [or]…commodity spheres” (71). Spheres of exchange carry their own value systems. Thus, a commodity can circulate in more than one exchange sphere. It can be valuable as a commodity or a thing in multiple spheres.
Commodities may experience singularization in the commoditization process. Singularization makes a commodity sacred, or special. Kopytoff notes, “And if, as Durkheim saw it, societies need to set apart a certain portion of their environment, marking it as ‘sacred,’ singularization is one means to this end” (75). Singularization, however, does not guarantee sacralization. It may only pull items out of an exchange sphere.
Singularization does not apply to things that societies publicly preclude from being commoditized, like public parks and public monuments. Singularization can be extended “to things that are normally commodities—in effect, commodities are singularized by being pulled out of their usual commodity sphere” (74). For example, items revered by one society that are commodities for another. Singularization also occurs “through restricted commoditization, in which some things are confined to a very narrow sphere of exchange” (74). For example, things that may be traded but are held in another sphere, like a prestige sphere, which tries to limit exchange. These examples show that “in any society, the individual is often caught between the cultural structure of commoditization and how his own personal attempts to bring a value order to the universe of things” (76).
Singularization happens differently in different societies. In complex societies, singularization usually occurs via private singularization. For example, an individual singularizes commodities by making them heirlooms and refusing to part with them via exchange. Kopytoff suggests that heirlooms may be recognized as commodities and singularizations at the same time: “What to me is an heirloom is, of course, a commodity to the jeweler, and the fact that I am not divorced from the jeweler’s culture is apparent in my willingness to price my priceless heirloom” (80). In this examples, two different value systems are at work: that of the marketplace and that of the “closed sphere of personally singularized things” (80). The personal sphere of exchange is independent of the marketplace sphere. The personal sphere is usually based on values that come from aesthetics, morality, religion, or professional concerns. When a thing simultaneously participates “in cognitively distinct yet intermeshed exchange spheres, one is constantly confronted with seeming paradoxes of value” (82). How can an object have a price and be priceless? This paradox is perpetuated as a thing goes in and out of commoditization and singularization. Kopytoff notes, “Singularity, in brief, is confirmed not by the object’s structural position in an exchange system, but by intermittent forays into the commodity sphere, quickly followed by reentries into the closed sphere of singular art. But the two worlds cannot be kept separate for very long” (83). Kopytoff argues that “The only time when the commodity status of a thing is beyond question is the moment of actual exchange” (83).
This essays (like the others in The Social Life of Things) seeks to expand the definition of commodities beyond Marx’s definition of goods intended for exchange in contemporary capitalist economies.
Kopytoff argues that singularization is important to a commodity’s exchange value. In other words, singularization, not just abstract labor, construct exchange value. Kopytoff suggests that Marx missed this in commodity fetishism. “For Marx, the worth of commodities is determined by the social relations of their production; but the existence of the exchange system makes the production process remote and misperceived, and it ‘masks’ the commodity’s true worth. This allows the commodity to be socially endowed with a fetishlike ‘power’ that is unrelated to its true worth” (83). Kopytoff argues that power does not only come from the hidden and abstracted labor of a thing. For Kopytoff, “some of that power is attributed to commodities after they are produced, and this by way of an autonomous cognitive and cultural process of singularization” (83). For Kopytoff, historians cannot begin to understand the constructed value of a commodity until they recognize that singularization affects value, not just abstracted labor. To examine this construction of power requires that historians study the cultural biography of things. This allows historians to examine the process of commoditization and singularization, as well as the distinct spheres of exchange in which things circulate. Biographies of things allows historians to examine the numerous and conflicting identities of things that create their exchange value.
Kopytoff’s essay is an important contribution to the study of things and commodities. 1) He suggests that commodities “must not be only produced materially things, but also culturally marked as being a certain kind of thing.” 2) Not all produced things are commodities because “only some of them are considered appropriate for marking as commodities” (64). 3) A thing may be a commodity at one time and at another time not a commodity. 4) A thing may be a commodity for one person and at the same time a non-commodity for another. 5) Although Kopytoff does not suggest this, his work implies that things have lives. By tracing the biography of a thing historians can recognize its agency.