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.

09 Apr

Patrick Geary, “Sacred commodities: the circulation of medieval relics” (1986)

“Sacred commodities” examines relics as commodities in the Middle Ages.


Like other goods in the Middle Ages, relics were circulated via sale, barter, gift, and theft. Goods and relics were not usually bought with money. Relics during this time were “bodies or portions of bodies” (174). People recognized that relics “were the saints, continuing to live among men. They were immediate sources of supernatural power for good or ill, and close contact with them or possession of them was a means of participating in that power” (176).

The value attached to relics “required the communal acceptance of three interrelated beliefs. First, the community had to believe that individuals associated with relics were special friends of God, or saints, during their lives and in death. Second, the community had to believe that the remains of a saint were prized and should be treated in a special way. Third, the community had to believe that relics were the remains of particular saints. Relics were highly desirable and communities competed for relics of particular saints.

Relics went through a process of confirmation. This process usually included a community procession, installation, or test of relics and then the performance of miracles by the relics. If relics worked—that is, “acted as channels for supernatural intervention”—then people considered them genuine (178). Once communities recognized the efficaciousness of relics “their continuing significance and value depended on their continued performance of miracles and on their relative value compared with other relics and other sources of power” (178). Relics were circulated and exchanged as gifts, and by theft and sale. The normal means of circulation was by gift. The circulation of relics “was part of a careful program of centralized control over the sacred” (185). This control over the sacred gave communities and individuals power and authority.

Once relics were circulated their vale and power had to be reconstructed for the new community in a similar process as described above. Included in this reconstruction of value were myths of the relics’ production and circulation. According to Geary, “acquiring the relic gave it value because it was worth acquiring, and this acquisition (often in the face of grave natural and supernatural dangers) was itself evidence that relics were genuine. Circulation thus created the commodity being circulated, although to survive as a commodity it had to continue to meet the high expectations raised by the mode of its creation” (187).  Geary suggests some characteristics important to commodity exchange in medieval society. 1) Relics were demanded and demand was historically situated. 2) Historians should examine the biographies of things because relics transformed from persons to commodities to persons and back to commodities. 3) People recognized conflicts over commodities’ value and did not always agree on the value of relics. Geary ends the essay by posing some questions for further study about commodities, relics, and exchange in medieval societies.


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. Geary argues that historians can understand relics as commodities since we already think of slaves as commodities. Relics belong to the same category that treats persons as things and vice versa. Thus, commodities are not just produced goods exchanged in the modern marketplace. Commodities can by any thing or person that is circulated or exchanged in history. Geary’s essay is important because it considers relics as commodities. It also important because it suggests that historians must examine the biographies of things to understand their value. Value is gained not only in particular moments of exchange when a thing is a commodity, but also when the thing is a person (like a relic in a church). Value is constructed throughout the life of an exchanged thing.

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.

04 Apr

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion—How Things Matter” (2012)

“Material Religion—How Things Matter” offers an introduction to Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. It introduce readers to the study of religion and things.

Over the past twenty years, historians have been concerned with ideas and beliefs in religion. These are important, but they often dismiss the other aspects of religions. Belief ignores the things that people use in religion. Belief assumes that religion is rational, internal, and about thinking, not feelings, things, and places. The scholarly emphasis on belief can be traced to Max Weber’s dismissive attitude toward religious material culture. Weber emphasized belief as central to Protestantism. He suggested that the further religion progressed, the less it relied on things or material objects. E.B. Taylor also emphasized the belief of religion when he defined religion as animism (the animation of things), which could be explored for its larger meaning. The de-emphasis of materiality can also be traced to Protestants during the Reformation who destroyed Catholic images.

Meyer and Houtman argue that “frontier zones,” where religious cultures meet, are a good place to start examining things. This is especially true of idols and iconoclash. The latter term was coined by Bruno Latour to describe how images gain power through being opposed as idols. The relations between religious cultures can also help scholars understand what W.J.T. Mitchell meant by “bad objecthood.” The terms totem, idol, and fetish are not just different types of things. Their names mark them as bad things; things that carry certain attitudes that influence their use.

The turn to material things has become popular in social sciences and humanities. Scholars have traced ideas about matter and materiality to schools of philosophy. The have examined how things are signs that construct social meaning. Scholars look to nineteenth-century materialism to examine how religions have opposed materiality. In 2000, David Chidester called for a “new materialism.” Others have called this approach material culture and materiality. This approach does not use matter to criticize religion, but rather it uses matter to criticize the study of religion. New materialism and material culture ask how and why things matter to religions and religious peoples. Scholars examine the materiality of religion by studying icons, totems, images, fetishes, idols, inconoclash, bodies, words, commodities, and things.

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.

30 Mar

Martin Heidegger, “The Thing” (1950)

Martin Heidegger was a twentieth-century German philosopher. He joined the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party in 1933 and served as Rector of Freiburg University until 1934. Heidegger remained a member of the Nazi Party until 1945. Heidegger was banned from teaching after WWII because of his involvement with the Nazi Party, but resumed teaching at Freiburg University in 1950. Heidegger gave the lecture “The Thing” in 1950 as part of the Breman lecture series in Munich to the Brevarian Academy of Fine Arts. Heidegger’s work has become central to Western philosophy, but it is also controversial because of his membership in the Nazi party.


Heidegger examines nearness by observing things, particularly a jug. Things are self-supporting. Objects are representations and stand “before, over against, opposite us” (168). Thingness is not constituted in processes of making or physical appearance. Thingness cannot be observed from voids or extracted from scientific thought that assumes annihilation. Thingness resides in a void’s holding and the outpouring of a gift. The sky and earth dwell in gifts poured out to mortals and immortals. Gathering constitutes things’ thingness by bringing humans nearer and uniting them to the sky, earth, other mortals and divinities.


Heidegger’s work is known for its emphasis on phenomenology, or the study of experience and consciousness. Heidegger departed from Husserl’s notion of phenomenology, which recognized that a person could experience pure phenomena without any presuppositions.  “The Thing” examines how a person can experience and know a thing. Humans do not recognize thingness in the making or producing of a thing. They experience a jug when they experience its pouring a gift. They experience a thing when it pours a gift because they experience the surrounding phenomena too–the sky, earth, other mortals, and divinities. Humans can’t experience unmediated things. They experience things in relation to other phenomena. This decentralizes the physical thing itself. The experiences doesn’t come from experiencing the physical thing, but from what is between the observer and the thing, what is presenced. The physical object matters less than what the first-person experiences through mediation.

23 Mar

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I” (1985)

Pietz historicizes the word fetish and theorizes how it works as a category of material analysis. Pietz argues that the problem-idea of the fetish “arose within and remains specific to a particular type of cross-cultural experience first engaging European consciousness in ongoing situations on the West African coast after the fifteenth century.”[1] Pietz allows the fetish to function as a category on its own rather than a corrupt genus that obscures and dismisses the social and religious practices of non-Western societies. The fetish can help scholars recognize a historical moment about exchange between Europeans and West Africans as well as how Westerners are attached to objects in particularly religious ways.

The characteristics of the fetish include: 1) irreducible materiality, or the recognition that the object embodies truth; 2) a fixed power to repeat an original event and order; 3) social value of things; and 4) personal connection with the object so that personhood is inseparable from the object. The fetish is a “factitious universal” and was never used by a religious group to name its objects or relationship with objects. The term was used by Europeans to describe West Africans’ relationship with material objects. Thus, it emerged from cross-cultural interaction. The fetish names something personal and its truth is experienced as a movement from inside the self to outside the self into a material object in space. The fetish subjects the body to material objects.

Fetish versus Idol

A fetish is not the same thing as an idol. As idol is conceived as a free-standing statue. It emphasizes the worship of a false god or spirit by someone in a religious tradition different than the pronouncer. A fetish is usually worn on the body and is used to achieve tangible effects, like healing, on the user or for the user. The fetish acts on the body and shares a phenomenology relationship with the wearer. Idols do not necessarily participate in a phenomenology relationship.

The Fetish in Marxism and Structuralism

Marxism and structuralism have not fully developed the notion of the fetish because they recognize the displacement of objective social relations. According to Pietz, Marx recognized that “Material objects turned into commodities conceal exploitative social relations, displacing value-consciousness from the true productive market prices and labor.”[2] Marxism and structuralism stress the institutional structuring, or objective structuring, of constructed value consciousness. Marxist fetish theory explains this consciousness as “false consciousness based on illusion (hence alterable only by institutional transformation, not mere subjective ‘consciousness raising’).” Structuralism “either dismisses the fetish as a significant problem or else views it as nothing but a nonverbal signifier, sometimes ‘animated,’ with pure status of sign-vehicle for a process of signification.”[3] By stressing the social objectivity of the fetish, these theorists dismiss the fetish’s relationship to the individual person (like psychological and psychoanalytic theories ignore the social dimensions). Thus, the fetish comes to stand at the point where “the objective institutional systems are ‘personified’ by individuals, in two ways: 1) material entities (the market, natural species) are understood “to constitute the order of personal relations (social production, culture) which establishes “a determinate consciousness of the ‘natural value’ of social objects; and 2) personal activity is understood to be directed by “the impersonal logic of such abstract relations, as guided by the institutionalized systems of material signifiers of values arranged according to this logic.”[4] Fetishes, in these systems, are conceived of as negative material objects that have no personal relationships to individuals and objects of illusions (Marxism), and as immaterial, impersonal signifiers that only have relationships to other signifiers, or words (Structuralism). Thus, Pietz stresses an individual’s relationship with a fetish, and a fetish’s irreducible materiality, historical emergence, socially constructed social value, and fixed power.

[1] William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 9 (April 1, 1985): 16.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 9–10.