Stuart Hall Library reading group discussion post. Thursday 10th March
Kopytoff, Igor ‘The cultural biography of things: commodification as process’ in Arjun Appadurai (ed.) The social life of things: commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge UP, 1986 (reprint 2003), pp. 64-91Thanks to everyone that attended this month’s reading group discussion. For those unable to attend a recording of the discussion is now available via the library website here. You can also listen to recordings of all our previous reading group discussions and download a copy of suggested reading materials.
Key questions and points for discussion
- What did you think of the text – any initial thoughts?
- Koytoff defines commodity as ‘an item with use value that also has exchange value’ p.64 – do you agree?
- According to Kopytoff, commodities are subject to value judgements and are also subject to historical cultural shifts in value. They are also subject to classification and taxonomic practices. (p.64;70)
- Commodities and people are viewed as being at either end of a continuum, but individiuals have and continue to be ‘commoditized’/commodified under the term slavery.
- P.65 Kopytoff’s description of enslavement asserts that the processes of commoditization of an individual are short and occur at the early stages of enslavement: individuals ‘acquire a new social identity’.
- Questionable as to whether a slave has a social identity, as commodification leads to dehumanisation, etc. Perhaps a further question to ask is what differentiates a ‘free’ human being from a commodity.
- P.66 ‘In doing the biography of a thing, one would ask […]: what, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its status[…]? Where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far[…]?
- P.69 Is ‘saleability’, as Kopytoff state, ‘the defining factor of a commodity in the West’?
- P.69. Kopytoff notes differences in other societies where commodification and exchange may be based on ‘gift giving’ or ‘relations of reciprocity’
- P.68 Kopytoff states that commodities area a ‘universal cultural phenomenon’, that ‘exchange’ is a ‘universal feature of human social life[…]’
- P.73 ‘Commoditization as becoming’, an ongoing process of ‘expansion’ and ‘diversification’, plus the availability of more items for exchange, for example Apple’s multiple versions of similar products.
- Is it possible for art making/practice/the artists to avoid commodification and systems of exchange?
- P.90. Kopytoff characterises the identity and status of things as ‘uncertain’ and shifting. Does this mean that our ‘value’/status/rights as human beings shift?
Our next reading group will take place Thursday April 14th. We will be reading Malik, Suhail. ‘We gonna pop a cap(ital) in your (cl)ass: Karl Marx’s Capital volume III’ in Nav HAq and Tirdad Zolghadr (eds.) Lapdogs of the bourgeoisie: class hegemony in contemporary art. Sternberg Press, 2007. pp.53-68.
A copy of the text can be found in the Stuart Hall Library. To find out more about the reading group or to reserve a place please email the library firstname.lastname@example.org