Monday, November 29, 2010

What's a commodity?

My in-laws enjoy telling younger New Yorkers like me how things were back in the 70s and 80s in New York City. The city then, according to them and other New Yorkers who lived through the time, was extremely "gritty": drugs, homelessness, litter, and graffiti were rampant in Manhattan. Times Square in particular was what would be described as a "seedy" neighborhood: porn shops and peep shows peppered what is today a shrine to corporate America. What happened to all those shops selling explicit sex? Laws initiated under Mayor Kochs, continued under Mayor Dinkins, and passed under Mayor Guiliani in 1995 "prohibited sex-oriented theaters, bookstores, massage parlors and dance clubs from operating within 500 feet of homes, houses of worship, schools or one another" ( According to some critics, the law succeeded only in dispersing such shops to the outer boroughs or away from main tourist thoroughfares in Manhattan rather than eliminating them altogether.

Of course, sex shops still exist throughout the city, if in reduced or spatially-dispersed numbers. And sex shops continue to occupy a rather ambiguous place in American consumerism. They raise the question of what constitutes a commodity in American culture; is sex a commodity or not? The answer to that question is extremely complicated. Igor Kopytoff (1986) says that every society precludes some things from being commoditized. In the West, Kopytoff suggests that the predisposition to separate people from things forms the basis for precluding people from being commodities. Or, as his numerous examples (from slavery to abortion to reproduction to sports players to organs) show, at least the basis for communal unease with people and their related attributes (excepting their labor) as commodities.

Where does the collective ambiguity about sex as commodity reveal tensions between morality and the market? Why do people's sex-related attributes have a special status in this debate, i.e., why do they occupy the gray area between Kopytoff's singular thing and commodity? Is their place here an historical accident? Or is this space one to be probed for insight into the ways the West has alternately merged and overlooked morality and the market? Kopytoff suggests that the most interesting empirical cases to be studied from an economic anthropological perspective are those that occupy a middle ground between what he calls small-scale uncommercialized societies and large-scale commercialized and monetized societies. Likewise, I think that some of the most interesting cases are those that explore where public rules about what can be considered a commodity are loosened or break down. Is Kopytoff's answer that every economy has a "built-in force that drives the exchange system toward the greatest degree of commoditization" (1986: 87) mediated by individual and collective classifications satisfactory?

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