Arjun Appadurai, “The Thing Itself,” Public Culture 18.1 (2006): 15-21.
Appadurai uses the phrase “the thing itself” to describe “the stubbornness of the materiality of things, which is also connected to their profusion, their resistance to strict measures of equivalence, and to strict distinctions between the maker and the made, the gift and the commodity, the work of art and the objects of everyday life. . . . chaotic materiality… that resists the global tendency to make all things instruments of representation, and thus of abstraction and commodification” (21).
Things have a social life. What things do, how things interact, where things are, how things work, how we can engage things, and how things can engage us, are, according to Appadurai, “invested with the properties of social relations” (15). A thing is a thing because it has the social properties of a thing. When we encounter a thing today, we’re encountering a snapshot of a much longer “social trajectory”: today’s gift of a postcard is tomorrow’s garbage, tomorrow’s garbage is the next day’s found art, found art becomes worthless junk when no one wants it anymore. We spend millions of dollars to “preserve” the aggregation of paint on a canvas because it is a Rembrandt and we want it to remain an art object for a few more years. As social relations change, things move from singularity to commodity and back again. The “priceless” work of art becomes a commodity at a Sotheby’s auction. Insofar as they are subject to changing social relations, Appadurai notes, people and things are not so different.
Appadurai’s essay grapples with the materiality of things to understand contemporary Indian art. He contends that Indian social life has lately experienced “a profusion of things” (16). Things and bodies blend together in Indian society in “a panorama of piles, stacks, bunches, bundles, baskets, bags among which people appear, as laborers, as shopkeepers, as vendors, as housewives, and as pedestrians” (17). Minimalism does not play much of a role in this context—the profusion of things feeds Indian art. People in India delight in the “promiscuous presence of things” (21). More still, people are hard to distinguish from the things around them, the things they make and give and live among. Fittingly, he suggests, in India it is not easy to differentiate art objects from objects of everyday use. There are just too many things. Materiality reigns.
Appadurai provides a useful lens for thinking about the excessive qualities of materiality. Things resist our attempts to master them. In this essay, materiality is stubborn, chaotic, resistant, and analytically slippery. As a student of materiality in American religion, Appadurai’s discussion of commoditization and gifts in the United States offers food for thought. Market logic has so penetrated American life that Americans enjoy nothing for its “sheer materiality.” Everything is a means to some other end (usually, the end of increasing wealth: your home is your retirement). Everything is convertible to exchange value, nothing is truly priceless. Singularity and commodity are in constant tension in America, where the same object that is my gift today becomes fodder for a garage sale tomorrow.
As I read this section, I couldn’t help but think about mass-produced objects of Christian affection. Here, I am not talking about Jesus t-shirts (necessarily), but more about the beloved objects that acquire their singular status through constant use. Evangelicals take great pride in a tattered, highlighted, coffee-damaged leather-bound Bible. Though certainly a commodity (Rupert Murdoch owns Zondervan, after all), evangelicals usually receive their most prized Bibles as gifts upon baptism. As Bibles have become evermore targeted at niche groups (children, moms, dads, teen boys, teen girls, college students, alcoholics, grandmothers, and Jewish converts), people have started to receive new Bibles at other significant moments like marriage or graduation. But every one of these mass-produced objects is the Word of God to evangelicals. Evangelical Bibles are commodities, but also singularities—every reproduction that finds its way to a believer has descended from Heaven and bears God’s special directions for that person. Such practices highlight the fact that everything is for sale in America, but some objects in American religious life resist the kind of easy commoditization that Appadurai sees in home investment or the obsession with wealth and cost seen on The Price is Right. A good evangelical Bible has to be heavy enough to look like a Bible, small enough to be portable, tough enough to withstand decades of marginalia, and needs to bear an inscription from the person who gave it to you. Once they become so worn that certain sections of scripture are missing, they get replaced with a new Bible—but the old remains on the shelf, its raw material presence bearing witness to the owner’s life of faith.