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Thinking with Ngangas: Reflections on Embodiment and the Limits of “Objectively Necessary Appearances”

  • Stephan Palmié (a1)
Abstract

As Marcel Mauss (1967: 46) famously remarked, western societies draw a “marked distinction… between real and personal law, between things and persons.” Writing at the height of self-conscious early twentieth-century western modernism, Mauss was at pains to point out that it was “only our Western societies that quite recently turned man into an economic animal” (ibid.: 74), and that such a distinction was, historically speaking, a contingent elaboration. Commenting on Mauss' insights, James Carrier (1995: 30), thus, speaks of, “an increasing de-socialization of objects, their growing cultural separation from people and their social relationships” and the development of conceptions of “alienability and impersonality of objects and people in commodity relations” as characteristic of this moment. But Carrier is not entirely happy with the uses made of such insights by students of westerns societies. His intent, rather, is to qualify Mauss' famous distinction between forms of enacting object-relations as social relations shaped by sharply contrasting modes of gift or commodity exchange. Carrier, thus, expends much energy on expounding the extent to which “blocked exchanges” (Walzer 1983) “singularized goods” (Kopytoff 1986), conceptions of “market-inalienability” (Radin 1987) and “inalienable possessions” (Weiner 1992) are not random pre-capitalist survivals fortuitously lingering on within western cultures, but constitutive of forms of sociality indispensable to them. Of course, Carrier is largely concerned with dispelling the economistic fictions of forms of “occidentalist” discourse that systematically project a normative language of market functions and failures onto social practices which regularly produce, rather than merely accidentally throw up, what economists call “externalities” inhibiting optimal market allocations. Nevertheless, it is striking that both Mauss and most of his critics (Carrier being merely an example) take a principal, ontological distinction between people and things for granted. As a result, we are treated to sets of contrasting representations of how cultures (capitalist or other) construe such fundamental realities into different configurations of subjects and objects, so that the mystifications of one social formation or cultural order illuminate those of the other—to ultimately prove a Cartesian point.

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Comparative Studies in Society and History
  • ISSN: 0010-4175
  • EISSN: 1475-2999
  • URL: /core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history
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