“The Thing Itself” examines the relationship and problem between the profusion and abstraction of things. In the Social Life of Things (1986), Appadurai and other scholars investigated the “idea that persons and things are not radically distinct categories, and that the transactions that surround things are invested with the properties of social relations” (15). Appadurai continues thinking about people and things in this essay. He argues that scholars must also recognize “the thing itself” not just the social relations of things and persons.
Things can move in and out of categories, from commodities to singularities and back. Things are always in motion in terms of their object status, but they are also moving in terms of their position, materiality, and permanence. “These underlying materials are ever volatile, which is why museums always insist that “we do not touch” them. What is at risk is not just aura or authenticity but the fragility of objecthood itself” (15). This illusion of permanence comes through not just in the material composition of the thing. It comes through when we can see the production of the thing, or the traces of its maker and production. These traces require further action through restoration and conservation. These actions are a “testimony to the fact that the very objecthood of art objects requires action in order to resist the historical processes that turn one kind of thing into another kind of thing” (16). Art objects are constantly in motion. They require action to maintain them and these actions often change their status. Appadurai argues that “all art is a momentary assemblage of mobile persons and things and that art objects, assemblages, events, and performances vary only in the intensity of their interest in denying or celebrating the social trajectory to which all things are subject” (16).
Appadurai turns to the profusion of things in India to explain why the thing itself is important. India is filled with things and people. “In regard to both…what is sought and desired is the warmth of profusion and the enchantment of multiplicity” (17). Profusion means that things are wanted in and of themselves for their thingness, and, so, things are multiplied. Profusion does not recognize a sharp line between people and things. This characteristic exemplifies the arguments of Mauss and Marx about things. For Mauss, things never lose the magic of their makers, owners, or handlers. For Marx, people and things both share in the mystery of the commodity form and are defined by the value of labor. Profusion does not define art objects against everyday objects. This profusion of things calls Appadurai to examine abstraction.
The profusion of things, especially in capitalist societies like the United States, often leads to the abstraction of materiality. Abstraction entails that things are not enjoyed for their sheer materiality. Things are always means to other ends. Abstraction also recognizes that things are convertible and no thing is truly priceless. Things don’t have values in and of themselves. Abstraction also means that there is a deep tension between the singularity and the commodity. This tension was addressed in The Social Life of Things. This tension can also be seen in the gift economy and the commodity economy in the United States. People buy commodities and give them as gifts, but people recognize the commodity as “my” gift. They give a history to the commodity. So, “a gift and a commodity are often one and the same thing” (20). But, no thing is singular forever and ever, and no commodity can be a singularity. This exemplifies a problem: “how to create human relations in a world where all things are potentially in the market or on the market” as commodities (20).
A possible space for redemption of this problem, especially for India, which is an emerging capitalist society, is the “idea of the thing itself.” According to Appadurai, “the idea of the thing itself is a way to capture the stubbornness of the materiality of things, which is also connected to their profusion, their resistance to strict measures of equivalence, and to strict distinctions between the maker and the made, the gift and the commodity, the world of art and the objects of everyday life.” The idea of the thing calls for historians, artists, and critics to focus more on the thing, its physical, material nature, in order to understand its social relations. By focusing on the thing itself, “abstraction may remain the servant of materiality.” Appadurai thinks the idea of the thing itself may help “India’s artists and critics find pathways through the global market without losing entirely the magic of the materiality and the unruliness of the world of things.” The thing itself seems to shift the weight of analysis to the material nature of things in order to observe their social relations and social life. The thing cannot have a social life without the recognition that the thing is a thing itself.