Posted by: Johan Normark | October 20, 2009

Commoditization and singularization

Back in 1997 I finally finished my overworked BA-thesis in archaeology. It discussed Late Formative trade and its importance in the rise of stratified social formations in the Central Maya Lowlands. I particularly focused on the political relations between Cerros in northern Belize and El Mirador in northern Guatemala. My theoretical framework was Bourdieu’s theory of practice. Central in this thesis were “commodities.” 

Late Formative temple mask at Cerros

Late Formative temple mask at Cerros

For Appadurai, “commodities are things with a particular type of social potential…they are distinguishable from “products”, “objects”, “goods”, “artefacts” and other sorts of things – but only in certain respects and from a certain point of view” (Appadurai 1986:6). Kopytoff defines a commodity as a thing with a value that can be exchanged for a counterpart which in the immediate context has an equivalent value. The counterpart is also a commodity at the exchange (Kopytoff 1986:68).

Commodities are often evidence of contacts from outside the local area and they have “life histories” and it might be important to see how the distribution of knowledge affects them at various points. For example, knowledge of producing primary commodities, such as basic food, is more standardized than the knowledge of producing luxuries (Appadurai 1986:41-42).

Individuals at different stages (producers, traders or consumers) create their own mythologies and practices related to the commodities. All commodities are most uniform at production.  When commodities come a long distance from its production (either institutional, spatial or temporal), knowledge becomes partial, contradictory and differentiated, something that lead to demand (Appadurai 1986:48-56).

Commodities are also items of economic value which exists only in the subjects’ mind, not in the commodities themselves. Value is both embodied in commodities and created by economic exchange (Appadurai 1986:3). For Marx, a commodity’s value was determined by the social relations of its production. The exchange system alienates the user from the production and thus endows it with fetish like power different from the items true value. Kopytoff on the other hand, argues that power attributed to a commodity after production is the result of singularization (see below) which is the opposite of commoditization (Kopytoff 1986:83).

There are only a few items in a social formation which becomes commodities. An item may in some context be regarded as a commodity but in another context as a non-commodity. An item can be seen as a commodity by one person but not for another person (Kopytoff 1986:64). Commoditization make items exchangeable for other items, and the opposite, it makes even more items more widely exchangeable.                       

Some part of the environment is usually set apart as sacred, it resists the commoditization of others. These objects have been singularized. Rulers often insist on their right to singularize objects (Kopytoff 1986:73). Singularization may lose its importance when other members of a social formation replicate the singularized objects and the objects lose their value through emulation. It has been argued that after a while, new status goods and symbols must have been made to replace the former ones as they lost the meaning the elite ascribed them (Hodder 1982:207-208). Exclusive status symbols were inalienable possessions which functioned as repositories of genealogies and events. Their unique and subjective identity made them singularized (Weiner 1992:33). Singularization could be extended to architecture as well, such as at Cerros above (LeCount 1999:240). The presence of specialized craftsmen is one indication of rulers’ need for singularized objects (Inomata 2000). The context of osteological remains may indicate how the Maya viewed the animals they utilized. Some animals may have been taboo or sacred due to singularization. Specific animals like the stingray, quetzal and jaguar were most likely sacred and only available for the elite.

After my BA and MA theses in archaeology (1996-1999), which had a strong materialist approach, I entered a period of idealist (cosmological) approaches as seen in my BA thesis in social anthropology (1999-2003). This also affected my early dissertation work, which can be seen in my Licentiate thesis from 2004. After this I entered my current neo-materialist phase and now I can see my earlier materialist approaches in a new light. I’ll have to rewrite a new article on the processes of commoditization and singularization. At least I have made a blog post.

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