Exchanging Tables

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Marx and Engels contexualize identity through production, stating that what constitutes an individual “coincides with their production, both what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their productions” (2007 [1846], 116). We have read versions of this notion of identity as the what’s and how’s of production before. Most predominantly, this notion was enacted in Tylor’s piece (2003 [1873]), in which human races were defined through their tools. And in this weeks readings, this concept was articulated in Malinowski’s ethnography (2000[1922]) in which Kula identity and society was explored through their customs of material exchange.

Marx, Marx and Engels and Malinowski’s texts brought to the fore not only the ways in which production generates identity, but also how identity is produced through exchange. Marx cites Aristotle’s notion of exchange as accomplished through an equality and commensurability which is, in actuality, impossible due to the fact that “such an equalization can only be something foreign to their real nature” and thus merely “a makeshift for practical purposes” (Marx, 1867, 21). When reviewing the course material, it seems like each of the anthropologist’s texts are structured through the principles of exchange. For instance, Durkheim and Malinowski compare the role of the anthropologist to the role of the physicist, thus making interchangeable their methodological modes of inquiry, consequently equalizing the value between anthropology and science. Spencer and Morgan derided “ethnic” cultures by perceiving them as less than, as of unequal value, as not exchangeable with, western white culture. While in “The Essentials of the Kula” Malinowsky expresses his “liberal” attitude by believing the Kula’s to have exchangeable customs to his own, stating “it is really the same mental attitude which makes us value our heirlooms, and makes the natives in New Guinea value their vaygu’a” (2000[1922]163). All of this interests me especially because exchange seems to function similarly to analogy in the sense that, as Aristotle notes, it brings formerly disperse phenomenon together to create salient connections (this is debunked by Marx and I would like to talk more about that in class discussion). I would like to further discuss what the role that production, identity and exchange plays within anthropologies of science in our class discussion.

Another topic I would like to explore first here, and later in our class discussion is the relationship between order, commodity and commodity fetishism.

Marx and Engels argue that in all of human history, “the first fact to be established is the physical organization of…individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature” (2007 [1846], 115). In this statement, human existence and the compulsion toward human organization are inextricably bound together. It is a fact, according to Marx and Engel, that human social life begins with order. Or rather, fact itself is fashioned through the instigation of organization. And it is through the fact of organization that humans learn to relate to the world around them.

In Capital, Volume 1, Marx explains that it is obvious that “man, by his industry, changes form of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him” (1867, 32). Marx goes on to explain how the form of wood is reworked by creating a table out of it. Becoming a table has changed this wood into something transcendent: a commodity. As Marx states, “it not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than ‘table turning’ ever was” (32).

I take this table to be yet another surface where, in Marx’s Capital, the iron – for an instance, or perhaps forever – encounters the linen. And like Foucault’s operating table, it is also a table as in a tabula “that enables thought to operate upon the entities of our world, to put them into order, to divide them into classes, to group them according to similarities and their differences” (1994 [1966], xvii). To Marx, the table, as a commodity, roots up from the ground and branches out from its head, synapsing transcendence.

Marx defines a commodity as  “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (1867, 2). Layton describes Marx notion of commodity fetishism as occurring when “people believe that commodities are worth something in themselves” and thus fail to recognize that “it is the labour put into making them which really has value” (1867, 11). Thus, I ask: is humanity to order as wood is to table?

Foucault’s The Order of Things, demonstrates the intense, sustained labour that has been exerted into manufacturing and maintaining systems of order. Thus, instead of perceiving order as intrinsic to human life, Foucault contextualizes order as a backbreaking accomplishment that nevertheless has grounded human history. Is the table, as this fantastical figure that orders things, the core commodity of human history? Is order the ultimate fettishized commodity?

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