(G02)
From detachment to appropriation: performing commodification
Location Bowland North Seminar Room 10
Date and Start Time 28 Jul, 2018 at 09:30
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Veit Braun (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich) email
  • Saskia Brill (Rachel Carson Center) email

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Chair Alexander Dobeson (Uppsala University)

Short abstract

Commodifying is more than just slapping price tags on things. It entails myriad ways of shaping, measuring, containing, releasing and reattaching objects, not to mention countless transformations of those who commodify. Understanding commodification as enriching, this panel asks how it is performed.

Long abstract

Commodification is more than just slapping price tags on things. All too often, it has been synonymised with the intrusion of capitalism into the paradise of values, reducing all of them to the single common denominator of money. While commodification is regarded as the degeneration of the social, commodities are denounced as watered-down emulations of "real" things, the ones that money cannot buy. But what if commodification was not about impoverishment but enrichment? What if commodities were not things emptied of old values but laden to the brim with new ones?

Commodification entails a myriad of techniques for shaping, measuring, containing, releasing and reattaching things - not to mention the countless transformations of those who do the commodifying. This panel gathers perspectives on how commodification is performed and what shape a thing will have to take to become a commodity. Contributions might address (but are not limited to) the following questions:

- How do commodities (and not just calculative minds and devices) make markets?

- What do the calculability and materiality of commodities look like?

- What is done to commodities to make things and people (or things and things) meet?

- How do ongoing commodification and decommodification go hand in hand?

- What kind of subjects are produced by commodified objects - and vice versa?

- What are the others of commodities - assets, necessities, luxuries, services, gifts, to name just a few - and what do they teach us about commodification?

More at https://www.academia.edu/35031678/_Open_Panel_Proposal_From_Detachment_to_Appropriation_Performing_Commodification

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Assets, commodities, and their boundaries

Author: Kean Birch (York University) email
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Short abstract

What is an asset? What is a commodity? How is an asset or commodity defined? What does this mean for asset or commodity valuation? These are contested questions in the development of techno-economic practices, knowledges, and governance (e.g. valuation, accounting, corporate governance, etc.).

Long abstract

What is an asset? What is a commodity? How is an asset or commodity defined? What does this mean for asset or commodity valuation? All such questions are subject to contestation in the development of techno-economic practices, knowledges, and governance (e.g. valuation, accounting, corporate governance, etc.). In contemporary, technoscientific capitalism, there is an increasing tendency towards 'rentiership' over 'entrepreneurship' as an accumulation strategy - here, rentiership is defined as the capture of profits from the ownership and control of assets as the result of their natural or artificial scarcity, productivity, and quality. A key issue this tendency raises is the position of commodities in technoscientific capitalism - are they obsolete? If not, how are they made relevant? This paper will look at the emergence and role of the asset form and asset boundary in technoscientific capitalism resulting from changing techno-economic knowledges (e.g. Systems of National Account) and techno-economic property regimes (e.g. global investment treaties) as a way to interrogate the continuing analysis of commodities.

Producing commodities and gifts in the trade of used clothing: production-oriented and item-oriented models in English charity shops

Author: Emma Greeson (University of California, San Diego) email
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Short abstract

This paper shows how commodities and gifts are produced alongside each other in the same spaces, using ethnographic data from English charity shops. Donated items are processed via two contrasting models. A production-oriented approach produces commodities; an item-oriented approach produces gifts.

Long abstract

Goods move in and out of commodity and gift status throughout their careers (Appadurai 1986) or even along one value chain (Tsing 2013). This paper shows how commodities and gifts are produced alongside each other in the same spaces. Ethnographic data from thirteen months of fieldwork in a mid-sized city in England illustrate how donated items are processed in charity shops. Drawing on work on the qualification of goods (Callon 2002) and material flows through spaces of valuation (Gregson 2010), this paper identifies infrastructures, labor processes, and narratives which prepare items for sale. Two contrasting organizational models exist: production-oriented and item-oriented. In the production-oriented model, the most important aim of charity retail is to support the charity's cause via generation of income. For the item-oriented model, the most important aim is to ensure that the individual things passing through the shops do not go to waste. Though these two orientations are not mutually exclusive (and ideally, both aims will be fulfilled), tensions do arise between them as the objects being exchanged are created differently. Whereas the production-oriented model is achieved through high levels of disposal and ridding, as well as the use of "production plans" and other rationalizing tools, the item-oriented project is more focused on repair, salvaging, and matching items with new owners. The tension between the two organizational models is also a tension between commodity and gift relations of exchange, and therefore a struggle for the right to define—and enact—the good and moral mode of allocation.

Temporary decommodification? Sorting things out in the capitalist value chain of soy in Argentina

Author: Pierre Delvenne (University of Liège) email
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Short abstract

Based on a rich empirical description of the capitalist value chain of soy in Argentina, I put a neglected technological device at the center of the analysis: "silo bolsas" allowing farmers to conserve their harvest. I show a blurring of the categories of commodity and asset in value creation.

Long abstract

STS theorists usually characterize bioeconomic processes as commodity-based, stressing that the value of "bio"-products is derived from the production and commercialization of biological commodities. By contrast, others have emphasized the importance of attending to asset-based processes in any understanding of the bioeconomy. Based on fieldwork carried out between 2010 and 2016, this paper analyzes the "bioeconomy" of genetically modified soy in Argentina, the world's third leading producer and exporter of GM crops. GM soy production is a central source of extraction of economic value, which has provided the economic oxygen to the country since it declared a partial default on its national debt in 2001. In the last decade, however, multiple conflicts arose between the government and farmers about the level of tax incomes from soy exports. In addition, to face the sharp drop of the price of soy on international markets, farmers increasingly use the (cheap) technology of "silo bolsas" to conserve their harvest and wait for better times to sell it to export. Rather than a narrow focus on technologies associated with GM soy production, I adopt a broader perspective that also includes the strategic use of "silo bolsas" during the commercialization phase. I show that for a limited period of time, soybeans in "silo bolsas" become assets, resources having/gaining value as property. I argue that not only do commodities and assets nestle beside each other, but they also incorporate each other's characteristics, change into each other, or confuse different actors about their commodity-versus-asset identities.

Distinct, uniform, stable: breeding the perfect good

Author: Veit Braun (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich) email
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Short abstract

When does a good become a commodity? An answer can be found in European plant variety legislation: setting the criteria for plant varieties, it forces breeders to make seed compatible with markets and industrial agriculture - but also allows farmers to circumvent markets and IP rights.

Long abstract

When does a good become a commodity? An answer can be found in plant variety legislation: setting the criteria for seeds, it forces breeders to breed standardised plants that are compatible with mass markets and industrial agriculture. Demanding that plant varieties be "distinct, uniform, and stable" in order to receive property protection and admission to the market, plant variety legislation only allows for plants that are immutable across space and time, that can be compared to each other in trials and which, once quantified, allow buyers to make an informed decision.

Seeds bred under the regime of plant variety protection and admission can be easily evaluated, compared, produced, and appropriated. In this function, modern plant varieties are an essential element in the division of labour between breeding and growing crops. The requirements of distinctness, uniformity and stability thus give a good approximation of what is expected of a commodity. Enhanced by surveys, certificates and latent liabilities, their nature allows for smooth transactions without much need for negotiation or second thought.

Simultaneously, however, farmers are given more than breeders intend to with commodified seed. The same qualities that allow for a smooth working of the market also allow for its circumvention by resowing seed instead of consuming it. That both farmers and plants do not adhere to the roles provisioned for them by plant variety legislation points to the limits of commodification of life.

De-cod-ing valuation experiments: the co-modification of seafood and consumers in experimental settings

Authors: Béatrice Cointe (University of Oslo) email
Kristin Asdal (University of Oslo) email
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Short abstract

We investigate the practices and techniques that are used to perform and test encounters between goods and consumers in experimental settings by disciplines like experimental economics, consumer studies or sensory studies. To do so we analyse studies characterising farmed cod as a market good.

Long abstract

How are the qualities and values of commodities mapped and assessed? What kinds of expertise participate in commodity- and market-making, and how? When studying such questions, one encounters whole fields of research devoted to the characterisation of goods and consumers, from sensory studies to behavioural and experimental economics to consumer studies. We seek to explore the practices and settings that these "sciences of co-modification" rely on - the term "co-modification" here means to emphasise that the making of markets transforms both goods and consumers, involving both matter and values. To do so, we study the example of Norwegian farmed cod. A decade ago, Norway invested in cod farming, and studies evaluated the market potential of this new seafood product. Starting from a semiotic analysis of a set of scientific articles describing the results of these studies and from interviews with the researchers involved, we investigate the practices and techniques that are used to enact cod-commodities and cod consumers in laboratory or experimental settings. We are interested in how they organise encounters between products and consumers, examine how the two relate, and, in that process, co-modifies them. This opens up questions about how economics and market research may perform various market phenomena.

From commercial commodity to matchless game fish: recommodifying Atlantic salmon in Eastern Canada

Author: Charlie Mather (Memorial University) email
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Short abstract

This paper is about the recommodification of Atlantic salmon from commercial species to matchless game fish. This shift was achieved, I argue, through strategies of economization and commensuration. The paper points to the work involved in the recommodification of objects and things.

Long abstract

This paper is about the commodification of Atlantic salmon in Eastern Canada. But it is not about how salmon were first commodified as a commercial fish that was caught, processed and exported to other parts of North America and Europe. Instead, I focus on the process through which salmon was recommodified from commercial species to a game fish valued for its role in supporting a recreational angling industry and a growing tourist sector. The recommodification of salmon was not a simple or straightforward process and involved work and effort by an increasingly powerful and elite angling community that spanned several decades. The efforts by the angling community focused on two key processes that are central to STS thinking: economization and commensuration. The commercial sector for Atlantic salmon was shown to be economically inefficient, wasteful and exploitative of a species that was increasingly under threat of extinction. In contrast, the salmon game fish was promoted as a form of commodification that was significantly more valuable, efficient and promised to be more sustainable for the Atlantic salmon. Drawing on reports, government documents and archival sources, I show how these arguments become increasingly more convincing to Canadian government fishery officials who eventually impose a moratorium on commercial harvesting and announce Atlantic salmon as 'matchless game fish'. The paper points to the work and the strategies involved in the recommodification of objects and things through processes of economization and commensuration.

Between places and markets. How prices for carbon emissions emerge

Author: Saskia Brill (Rachel Carson Center) email
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Short abstract

By looking at Canada's Great Bear Rainforest, I follow carbon offsets in its process of reattachemet to places, peoples and histories, and discuss how this process reevalutes land and therefore offset pricing. The paper shows how attachment gradually withdraws the good from laws of global markets.

Long abstract

The invention of emission rights or carbon offsets is often said to be the commodification of the last real global common - the use of the atmosphere; and the sellout of yet another part of nature. Along with it comes a critique of capitalistic practices that seem to even out polluting practices and to flatten environmental specifics. On a political level, it appears to be the only globally acceptable way to face climate change these days. However, offsets were designed to be a universal good for a global market that can be traded for any form of carbon emission (or equivalent) anywhere in the world. Looking at the phenomenon through the lens of carbon saving projects in British Columbia and elsewhere, we can see how carbon saving projects require new ways of commodifying land and therefore closely tie emission rights to specific places, its ecosystems, histories, social contexts and environmental values. In my paper, I want to look at the place based processes that produce emission rights and moreover, how their prices evolve due to their way of being attached to these places. I specifically want to shed light on the processes in which the value of this good is created, morally and monetarily, between abstract global markets and very local contexts of production and consumption. I argue that the more a carbon certificate is attached to a place, the less this certificate can be traded anonymously on global markets and the less it is commensurable with market prices.

The political economy of transnational ova flows: Ukrainian ova market and its global connections

Author: Polina Vlasenko (Indiana University, Bloomington) email
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Short abstract

The present paper is the first to fill in the gap in the existing STS literature by analyzing the processes of the generation and appropriation of the economic value of ova produced in Ukraine for the exchange on the global reproductive market.

Long abstract

Although a global market for human ova is rapidly developing, offering online purchase of human oocytes with delivery to five continents, it remains largely unexplored and under-regulated. Drawing from and contributing to vibrant conversations in medical anthropology and STS about the politics, economies and technologies of life, my research ethnographically explores the creation of biovalue through the commodification and generation of surplus of reproductive labor power and products (ova) in Ukraine. To provide much needed specificity to the operations of this reproductive bioeconomy, I developed a multi-sited approach to mapping the global ova commodity chains that originate at ova supply side in Ukraine and deliver the final product to differently localized "consumption" markets. This presentation goes beyond discrete socio-spatial boundaries by following the transnational routes of donor ova harvested in Ukraine and reproductive travel of the Ukrainian ova donors who participate in the international ova donation arrangements. As a result, this paper investigates what contributes to the transformation of the economic value of reproductive substances and labor at different sections of the global commodity chains of ova provision. Moreover, it questions the polarizing nature of binary oppositions within existing literature on commercial vs. altruistic exchange of human body parts by looking at how donor ova move in and out of their statuses as commodities vs. gifts. This article builds upon 6 months of participant observation at the private fertility unit/an ova bank and interviews with 49 medical professionals and coordinators and 65 ova donors and surrogate mothers in Ukraine.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.