Diversion, or The Social Life of Things

ImageIt has been twenty-five years since Arjun Appadurai penned “Commodities and the politics of value” as the introductory essay to the edited collection The Social Life of Things.  In the text he offers the reader what appears to be a simple truism, that “commodities, like persons, have social lives.”  Adding a dialectical twist to what he identifies as the convergence between what Marx and Simmel have written about commodities, Appadurai argues “value is embodied in commodities that are exchanged.”  Exchange in his formulation “is the source of value”; importantly, the circulation of things “enlivens” them. It is the movement within exchange that captures most of his attention.

This is one step beyond Georg Simmel’s contention in The Philosophy of Money that the tension between the desire for a thing and the enjoyment of it can be overcome through an exchange that entails sacrifice.  For Appadurai, the exchange of things (the world of objects, the universe of people) is a special form of motion, a part of an ongoing process of transfer (that extends beyond the traditional economy and into barter and gift-giving as well).  He writes: “[A]ll efforts at defining commodities are doomed to sterility unless they illuminate commodities in motion.”

One such motion is the movement of things (such as postage stamps) in and out of the commodity state (Appadurai agrees with Kopytoff here). The swings of commoditization and de-commoditization (for Appadurai) lie “at the complex intersection of temporal, cultural and social factors.”

But what interests me most about his seminal essay concerns a form of the movement of things he calls “the diversion of commodities from their original nexus” or the “placement of objects and things in unlikely contexts.”  This type of shifting or movement – the diversion of commodities from their customary circuits (e.g. the Masai spear put on display in a bourgeois home) – may actually serve to intensify commoditization by enhancing value.  Vera Zolberg, in her work on African art (“African Legacies, American Realities” in Outsider Art: Contesting boundaries in contemporary culture), points to the “striking mutations” that African carved objects undergo when they become reclassified as Western art.  For Zolberg, the “career trajectory” of carved objects matters since the creators of the objects have rarely been asked about how they want them interpreted: over and over again the works have been appropriated and placed into “domicile” in museums and homes.

Appadurai asked us to consider how things “stray” from their original paths.  He focused on a type of movement often overlooked in the consideration of things.  In just a few spare pages he illuminated how power and politics form the backdrop for the tension between “the existing frameworks… and the tendencies of commodities to breach these frameworks.”  A quarter of a century ago he wrote that “politics can take many forms.”  Not the least of which is the politics of diversion.