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.

08 Apr

Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: commodities and the politics of value” (1986)

Appadurai examines the social life of things within systems of exchange. Exchange is the source of commodity value, not commodity forms and functions. For Appadurai, commodities refer to things that “at a certain phase in their careers and in a particular context, meet the requirements of commodity candidacy” (16).

Appadurai defines commodities as “things with a particular social potential, that they are distinguishable from ‘products,’ ‘objects,’ ‘goods,’ ‘artifacts,’ and other sorts of things – but only from certain respects and from a certain point of view” (6). A commodity can be “any thing intended for exchange” (9). Appadurai wants to get away from relating commodities to products and production. This allows him to consider things bartered for and things gifted as commodities. Defining commodities as things exchanged “means looking at the commodity potential of all things rather than searching fruitlessly for the magic distinction between commodities and other sorts of things. It also means breaking significantly with the production-dominated Marxian view of the commodity and focusing on its total trajectory from production through exchange/distribution, to consumption” (13).

Appadurai argues that the commodity situation “in the social life of any ‘thing’ be defined as the situation in which exchangeability (past, present, or future) for some other thing is its socially relevant feature” (13). The commodity situation can be broken into three features. 1) The commodity phase, which is the idea that commodities can move in and out of the commodity state. The movements can be fast and slow, reversible or terminal. Things may not always be commodities. 2) The commodity candidacy, which is a conceptual feature. It refers to the “standards and criteria (symbolic, classificatory, and moral) that define the exchangeability of things in any particular social and historical context” (14). Commodity candidacy can refer to a price set by humans or the conditions under which humans exchange things. 3) The commodity context, which refers to the “variety of social arenas, within or between cultural units, that help link the commodity candidacy of a thing to the commodity phase of its career” (15).

Commodities are exchanged via paths and diversions. Politics is seen in moments of exchange. Politics is relations, assumptions, and contests of power. Politics is “what create the links between exchange and value” (3). Politics examines the demand-side of the commodities rather than the production-side to describe their value. Within the paths of exchange, commodities are agents. Examining politics in the moment of exchange allows scholars to see and analyze the social life of things in terms of their “socially relevant features.”

Appadurai’s emphasis on exchange as the source of a commodity’s value overlooks certain aspects of the life of things. By focusing only on exchange, Appadurai dismisses the value in other moments in the life of a thing. The important moments are only the “socially relevant” moments when a commodity is exchanged between humans. This seems to dismiss the notion of the life of a thing. It is only important and an agent when it interacts with humans. But, the thing does exist and has a life even when it is not exchanged. Focusing too much on exchange obscure the life of a thing.

30 Mar

Arjun Appadurai, “The Thing Itself” (2006)

“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.