09 Apr

Alfred Gell, Art and Agency (1998)

Art and Agency presents an anthropological theory of art. Gell defines an anthropological theory of art as “social relations in the vicinity of objects mediating social agency” (7).


Gell argues that an anthropological theory of art must focus on the social contexts of art. A social approach is needed in order to examine “the social context of art production, circulation, and reception, rather than the evaluation of particular works of art” (3). Production and circulation are sustained by other social processes like exchange, politics, religion, and kinship. An anthropological theory of art should not elucidate western vs. non-western aesthetic systems. This is a cultural approach to art. Moreover, it assumes that a culture has a universal parameter on which art is produced. To understand art, Gell argues historians must examine the social relationships “between participants in social systems of various kinds” (4).  The need for social relationship in art becomes clear when one tries to define art.

Gell rejects the normative definition of art as “whatever is treated as art by members of the institutionally recognized art world” (5). He also rejects the term “art objects” to describe art works because it assumes that “objects are sign-vehicles, conveying ‘meaning,’ or they are objects made in order to provoke a culturally endorsed aesthetic response” (5). The phrases art and art object do not allow objects to act in social relationships. Gell recognizes that objects have agency, intention, causation, and that they are effective and transformative. Thus, Gell seeks to understand the active and mediatory role of objects.  He suggests that there is no difference between bodies and artefacts. Gell defines these objects, which are equivalent to persons, as “social agents” (7). Gell argues that to understand social agents, historians must examine the biographical elements, or their life-stages of social agents.

Gell calls a social agent (or art, art object, work of art, etc.) an index. An index is “seen as an outcome, and/or the instrument of, social agency” (16). Gell argues that agency is attributable to persons and indexes. Agency is the attribution of intention to a person or thing. Gell defines things, or indexes as primary and secondary agents. Primary agents are “intentional beings who are categorically distinguished from ‘mere’ things or artefacts” (20). Secondary agents are “artefacts, dolls, cars, works of art, etc. through which primary agents distribute their agency in the causal milieu, and thus render their agency effective” (20). Primary and secondary agents work by distributed personhood.

The idea of distributed personhood allows historians to see the distribution of primary agents’ agency through secondary agents. For example, “as agents, they [soldiers] were not just where their bodies were, but in many different places (and times) simultaneously [as mines]. Those mines were components of their identities as human person, just as much as their fingerprints or the litanies of hate and fear which inspired their action” (21). Calling things secondary agents, according to Gell, does not mean they are not agents. It means they are not primary agents “who initiate happenings through acts of will for which they are morally responsible” (20). Secondary agents are “objective embodiments of the power or capacity to will their use” (21). This “objectification in artefact-form is how social agency manifests and realizes itself, via the proliferation of fragments of ‘primary’ intentional agents in their ‘secondary’ artefactual form” (21).

Agents work in a network of social relations. Agents must have a patient. The patient is the “object which is causally affected by the agent’s action” (22). Primary or secondary agents can act as the patient while the other acts as the agent. Manufactured objects are indexes of their makers, or their artists. Sometimes the artist and the index’s origin are forgotten or concealed. The recipients of indexes are “in a social relationship with the index, either as “patients”…or as ‘agents’ in that, but for them, this index would not have come into existence (they have caused it)” (24). An index must always have some specific reception or recipient. This network of social relationships also includes the prototype. The prototype of an index identifies “the entity which the index represents visually (as an icon, depictions, etc.) or non-visually” (26).


Gell argues that secondary objects have agency in a social network made of humans and other objects. This agency can be witnessed through a biographical examination of objects in relationships. Despite these claim, Gell does not allows secondary agents to have agency. They are always bound to humans or patients. They can only have agency through a primary agent’s agency, or distributed personhood.  Moreover, secondary agents are not morally responsible for anything. Gell tries to give objects agency, but takes it back when he makes them rely on humans. Objects are mediators of social agency, not actual agent themselves.

09 Apr

Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things” (1986)

“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.

17 Mar

Annabel Wharton, “Relics, Protestants, Things,” (2014)

Annabel J. Wharton calls attention to Protestants’ “own particular materialities” by investigating their possession of Holy Land things in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Wharton argues that Protestants’ “long-felt anxieties about Others’ sacra contaminate their own embrace of a new set of things.”[1] Protestants who travelled to the Holy Land repossessed relics, or sacra, as powerful things. Protestants recognized that these things had agency, whereby they acted, on other things and people, without consciousness. These things’ gave their possessors ideological and financial advantage. Protestants commodified these things. According to Wharton, “Commoditization is a particularly modern, Protestant reaction to powerfully affective things.”[2] The need to collect and sell things from the Holy Land assured Protestants’ control over the disruptive sacra. Wharton argues that “the need to assert authority over the things in which the Holy Land manifested itself—things that acted like sacra—may imply a Protestant ambivalence about potentially powerfully things more generally.”[3] Protestants did not disavow the power of sacra altogether. Rather, they harnessed that power and put it to use in different ways.

Protestant Things and “Thing Theory”

Wharton turns to Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory” to understand “obstreperous Protestant things.”[4] Thing theory has been “broadly and productively understood as a demand that attention be turned away from the human subject to the non-human object.”[5] Despite this common understanding, Wharton challenges Brown’s attention to and centralization of things. Wharton recognizes that “Brown’s things are not attended to because of their intrinsic interest but because of their annoyance.”[6]  Wharton also recognizes that Brown’s things are “oddly immaterial.”[7] Brown’s things are examples from literary texts and artworks; things that Brown himself does not consider things. Moreover, Brown’s “thing is controlled by textualizing it with theory.”[8] Thing theory reproduces Protestants’ anxiety about things. Thing theory restrains things like Protestants restrain things. Wharton calls for scholars to recognize the ways that thing theory carries Protestant anxieties. The examination of nineteenth-century Protestant things allows a reassessment of thing theory. It also allows scholars to identify the affective power and agency that Protestants recognized in things, particularly Others’ sacra.

[1] Annabel Jane Wharton, “Relics, Protestants, Things,” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief 10, no. 4 (December 1, 2014): 414.

[2] Ibid., 420.

[3] Ibid., 425.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 426.

[8] Ibid.