Rationality of the Culture of Goods

M. Sahlins, University of Chicago
[ to cite ]:
M. Sahlins (1992) ,"Rationality of the Culture of Goods", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 78-80.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 78-80


M. Sahlins, University of Chicago

My paper is about the relationship between the two kinds of "rationality" involved in modern market economies: the pecuniary calculus of gain, or economic rationality proper, and the logics of meaningful properties by virtue of which goods become use values in the society. No doubt this is all too familiar. Even though the 500th anniversary of Columbus' feat is near, I do not pretend to bring you the startling anthropological news of the discovery of America. But would like to do a bit of archaeology on our disenchanted consciousness of rationality with a view toward suggesting that its supposed dominance over the symbolic dimensions of material life is a cultural prejudice.

Indeed the peculiar Western species called Homo economicus goes back to Original Sin. By pleasing himself instead of regarding God, man was condemned to the unhappy existence of a "self-pleaser" -- in a world of "thorns and thistles." The punishment, as Augustine said, was the crime. Man (Adam) put love of himself before the love of Him alone who could suffice, disobeyed god to satisfy his own desires, and thus became the slave of insatiable bodily needs: a limited and ignorant creature exiled in an intractable natural world to labor, to suffer, and then to die. This life, concluded Augustine, is a "hell on earth." No wonder that babies are born into it crying and shrieking.

Still, God was merciful: He gave us Economics. By Adam Smith's time, human misery had been transformed into the positive science of how to make the best of our eternal insufficiencies, the most possible "satisfaction" from means that are always less than our wants. It was the same Christian cosmology, only bourgeoisfied, which is to say, a more encouraging prospectus of the investment of opportunities that are afforded by human suffering. And even though the neo-classical economists would go on to translate our primordial inadequacies--what Hume had called "the unnatural conjunction of infirmity and necessity"--into elegant mathematics of scarcity, the genesis was not forgotten. "We have been turned out of Paradise," said Lionel Robbins, in a famous determination of the object of Economic Science: "We have neither eternal life nor unlimited means of gratification. Everywhere we turn, if we choose one thing we must relinquish others which, in different circumstances, we would wish not to have relinquished." So Robbins is clear! The Economic Man that inhabits page one of our Economics 101 textbook, this character is Adam.

Robbins skips over a lot of things that happened between the Fall and its Economics, especially the Renaissance change of heart about the blessings of poverty and the contemptibility of this world. No time for that here either. Jump to the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Everything happened as if the developing empirical science together with the emerging market economy, the twin demiurges of the Western rational cosmos, would complete man's banishment to a godless natural world. Whatever the pan-glosses the intellectuals were putting on it, the full consequences of the tragedy in Eden were becoming apparent to the European progeny of Adam. Even the headier Enlightenment schemes of human progress, insofar as they translated a faith in divine redemption and dogmas of social evolution--the "rationalist corruption of Christian eschatology," as Paul Ricoeur describes it --even these progressive schemes were grounded in a base human nature: a libidinous creature easily driven by continuous wants to viciousness and competitive strife. And at the same time that the philosophes were thus revealing the full scope of human imperfections (while talking of the perfectibility of the species), the economy was producing unparalleled "satisfactions" by capitalizing on "one thousand shocks the flesh is heir to."

In this regard, the Invisible Hand of the market place might well have been the wrathful hand of God, as it would create the wrath of the nation out of the sense of privation it visited on the person. If the collective wealth is best secured by each one maximizing his own, it follows that each much be in that recurrent state of insufficiency that is the beginning of economic wisdom--the aforementioned scarcity of material means relative to the possible ends of personal gratification. This was the great industrial revelation: that in the world's richest societies, the subjective experience of need increases in proportion to the objective output of wealth. Or rather, in greater proportion, since needs are presumed to be endlessly expandable: the unnatural conjunction is between infirmity and infinity. Suffice it to say that individual wants, by encompassing an international division of labor, became permanent and inexhaustible. Felt moreover as physiological pangs, like hunger and thirst, such need seemed to emanate from natural dispositions of the body, springing from human nature itself. The bourgeois economy made a fetish of human needs in the sense that needs, which are always social and objective in character, which are always then historical formations, had to be assumed as subjective experiences of bodily affliction. The corollary of Weber's iron cage of pure desire has been an exquisite sensitivity to pleasure and pain, duly installed as the hegemonic motives of people's actions. Sensitivity especially to pain, which is anyhow the condition of the possibility of pleasure and much more lasting -- as every Chicago Cub fan knows.

The development of bourgeois society thus liberated egoistic man from the prison house of Christian morality and allowed desire to parade shamelessly by the light of day. This was no fundamental revolution in the Western concept of human nature, only a moral reversal between the earthly and heavenly sides of man's double being, and exchange of the values of flesh and spirit. Self-love acquired a positive moral status. The original evil and source of vast sadness in Augustine, it became the "necessary evil" of philosophes such as Holbach, or else simply "natural" as in Hobbes, to end in Adam Smith & Co. as the pursuit of happiness and the best thing, since the greatest total good came out of each one's total self-concern. What was slavery to Augustine, every person's endless and hopeless attention to his own desires, is now perceived as the essence of freedom, the sacred right of every individual to do just that.

The argument I would make is that the development of capitalism, by making individual need appear as the cause of collective institutions, motivated a folk consciousness of society that passed too easily for the science of thereof.

Every cultural order fashions representations of itself: modes of appearance that are taken as ultimate realities since they make up the people's awareness of their social existence. Yet this subjective experience of culture is not the same thing as the systematic relations and meanings that historically produced it. Following Karl Polanyi, the decisive institutional moments of modern Western history can be described as the commoditization of land and labor. Brought into the marketplace, land and labor then entered in pecuniary relations with the other goods of existence. But since, as Polanyi reminds us, "labor is only another name for man, and land for nature," this is also to say that all human existence became subject to the dispositions of the supply-demand-price mechanism.

Subjectively, then, a vision that began in the Renaissance (Pico, Manetti) was coming true: we could make ourselves whatever we chose, inasmuch as the whole universe had been commodified. Unfortunately, however, no one has been able to afford it. So the actual effect was to make the recurrent sense of scarcity or lack the necessary condition of life -- whether in the perspective of capital, labor or consumption -- the process of accumulation is the reproduction of an initial scarcity, an eternal return to a deficiency of means relative to ends, setting off another cycle of judicious economizing. As for livelihood (so-called), accumulation is a labor of Sisyphus, ever falling back to zero by the act of consumption. Or worse. Even with respect to its apparent satisfactions, livelihood is a tragedy that, beginning in scarcity ends in deprivation, since every acquisition is also a denial of something different that could have been had instead. The commodity (as Marx taught) has a double nature. On one hand, it appears as an abstract exchange-value or price, which is not a property of the object as such but an external mark attached by the market, so making it more or less accessible to us. On the other hand, the commodity is a use-value in virtue of its empirico-meaningful qualities, the content that makes it suitable to our "needs" as historical and social beings -- the way that a filet mignon, being suitable for a celebratory occasion, is not just chopped liver. Now in certain respects, this dualism of value is irreducible, however we try to synthesize it in terms of "satisfaction." For in choosing between different goods, presumably in the interest of maximum satisfaction, one in fact forgoes specific gratifications that in quality (or use-value) are incommensurable with those achieved. The idea that economic activity is the rational maximization of satisfactions is a cultural cum academic mystification. It depends on the supposition that things unlike in their objective attributes and human virtues, their different meanings to us as use-values, are indeed comparable as quantities, which is actually and only true in their capacities as exchange values. Thus the economist is able to subtract oranges from apples and convince us that the remainder is all for the best. But what remains to haunt us in choosing, for example, between taking kids to see their grandparents in California or saving the money to send them to college is that either kinship suffers or else education.

This is where a certain social science comes in: as an academic reflection on the common experience that by satisfying our individual need we create society. Since all use-values are transacted through exchange-values, in people's existential awareness, cultural forms of any description are produced and reproduced according to the calculus of their personal desires. These needs to which scarce resources are rationally allocated, they are nothing less than the system of society perceived as ends of the individual. Society seems to be another trick of the Invisible Hand, a kind of ledger-domain. And in the event, the whole cultural organization of the economy remains invisible, or at least implicit, being explicitly perceived as the pecuniary rationality by which its arbitrary symbolic values are realized. All the idiocies of modern life -- from Walkmans, and Reeboks, mink coats and five-million-dollar-a-year left-handed pitchers, to MacDonalds, Madonnas and other weapons of mass destruction -- this whole curious scheme can appear to the participants as the transparent effects of a universal practical wisdom. Hence the great rationality-paradox of a social science derived from the same native consciousness: that though the society seems to be constituted by rational choice, it is not thus intelligible. Though the total cultural order is generated by acts of practical-material reason, the effects are anything but utilitarian.

For the practical rationality of the things American people need would be difficult to imagine, however prudently they go about getting them. Is the relative cost of filet migon really a reflect of its superior nutritional values? Are mink coats really warmer? The current sexist dogma, is this the most effective way to organize a division of labor? The streams of five passenger cars on the way to O'Hare airport each occupied by one or two people, is this a rational system of energy use? To say that people are optimizing other ends than material utility does not resolve the problem but merely describes it, as the statement is either a simple tautology or it invokes principles of value different in kind from the means-ends relations of practical action itself. To allege there is no disputing people's tastes is merely a formula for ignorance, for then there can be no social or historical understanding of them. Nor will it do to put the onus on the production side, as if capital creates demand arbitrarily. Somebody or something has to educate the educators. Even the producers who may be perpetuating people's tastes have to be informed by the order of cultural values, that is, by what sells -- or else they will discover the system of society by their loss. Producers surely expand and manipulate the cultural code, but to do so they have to work out its logical implications. Everything will then happen as if the market economy were a perverse form of Hegel's cunning of reason: a cunning of custom, rather which by harnessing an absolute mode of rationality to a relative logic of signs ushers in a truly golden (i.e., profitable) age of symbolic freedom.

I am not speaking of the "irrational factors" in demand or production, a phrase which recuperates within a traditional paradigm of optimization what is inexplicable by it and thus defends the territory of the economy as the kingdom of the rational. I am speaking rather of another kind of logic, more encompassing than the instrumental and just as systematic, by which the calculus of satisfactions is mobilized and organized. Always the instrumental logic is set in cosmic order of cultural values. Practical rationality is subject to a calculus of meaning whose operations are such as metaphor, identity, analogic proportion, synecdoche, deixis, inversion or negation, and whose effect is to symbolically conjugate a set of material goods with a world of social persons. So it is not only objects which are hard or soft but also persons, even as it is not only persons who are masculine or feminine but also objects. Yet masculinity and femininity cannot be discovered in the physical properties of things such as steaks and tomatoes. It is their integration in the cosmos of symbolic values, the function of their properties as signifiers, that makes goods maculine or feminine, sexy, dressy, not right to eat for breakfast, Californian, upscale, youthful or appropriate on Sundays but not on weekdays. (I am reminded of my teacher Leslie White, of his favorite illustration of the symbolic: no ape, he used to say, could tell the difference between holy water and distilled water.) Pardon me for being so simple. But it sometimes seems necessary to recall that we are one of the others: exiled to a world without immanent spirit, perhaps, yet living a life of things as enchanted as the practitioners of any totemism.

"Every commodity carries with it a practical philosophy and a doctrine of life," observes an historian of the old Asian silk route. Indeed to clothe oneself in silk is to participate in its social significance, a whole doctrine of life, which includes the differentiation of women as "soft as silk" by contrast to the courser manliness of wool. And yet this analogic of the elementary units of apparel -- the "clothemes" of texture, color, line, pattern and the like -- are the beginning only of a vast grammar of clothing whose systematic dimensions are yet to be adequately explored and described. Notice the fascinating structures on the higher levels of clothing "statements": if men are to woman as wool is to silk and trousers are to skirts, still women may legitimately wear woollen pants, although "real men" will not be caught dead wearing silk dresses. But then "unisex clothing" is generally male clothing. And all such examples of the grammar of goods correspond to the markedness structure of the pronouns of our language, which likewise encompasses the feminine in the masculine and defines the former as a differentiated and opposed subgroup of the latter. A fact that at last allows me to return to the beginning of the paper, to justify it as archaeology, since in the Western mythology woman was indeed made from a part of Adam (Man). What I am trying to suggest, then, is that what we usually think of as a practical praxis, not only in the production of clothing, but food, shelter and everything else, that all this is only the objectifcation in concrete terms of a total historical and cultural "doctrine of life."

It may not be "you are what you eat" -- or if so, it is because of an a priori logic that connects what you eat with what you are. (A friend of mine doing ethnographic work in New Guinea with a people who had formerly practiced cannibalism asked one if he ate his enemies in order to become like them, to assimilate their powers. "You eat chicken, don't you?" The anthropologist nodded in assent "well, does that make you like chickens?") In any event, the studies of Mary Douglas and her colleagues have demonstrated an enormous set of relationships between main social distinctions in modern societies -- distinctions of gender, religion, ethnicity, region and status -- and patterns of food consumption.

The variations concern not merely types and properties of different foods, modes of preparation and the structures of meals, but also daily, weekly and seasonal consumption routines, culinary modes of celebration and ritualization, and much more. There is clearly a complex, heteroglossically expressed code connecting meaningful social and cultural distinctions with objects of properties of food and its preparation. Observations of Bourdieu and others have begun to explore the code, this cast cultural system of diet. But so much remains to be done, perhaps because it is not always appreciated that the task will have to go far beyond the ethnography of eating, into the history and constitution of the cultural order in general. If the outside of the animals is to the "innards" as culture or civilization is to nature, in the way that names of our meats suggest, we will have to open up the whole question of the culture-nature distinction and its connection to concepts of bodies as well as categories of persons. If meat is to vegetables (or steak is to tomatoes) as the masculine to the feminine, we will have to take notice of the historical fact that "meat" was once the generic term for "food," and the livestock, as opposed to the "deadstock" of fixed farm equipment, was the principle of increase in the domestic economy -- whence the well known connection of cattle with stock in the form of capital. And if meat is so mixed up with gender and wealth, let us not forget that we use the concept of inheritance -- which in our society is predominately patrilineal -- to refer equally to the transmission of biological and social identities (genes and names) as well as to the transmission of property. There is a peculiar relation of cultural domains involved in the meanings of food -- and more, there is a whole cultural cosmology.