My Interest in Things

Thanks Kerim!

Like Kerim wrote in the post introducing me, my ongoing dissertation is on the trade in second-hand clothing. I am trying to tease out the relations that surround the trade as it moves from the United Kingdom to Nigeria through Benin, and I am trying to deal with the pieces of clothing as what they are wherever they are. This in effect means dealing with what are at some point described as gifts (at least that is how the ‘donors’ of second-hand clothes describe what they drop in clothes banks) at other points as commodities, fundraising tool, a source of livelihood etc. Of course, Appadurai’s Social Life of Things, and Kopytoff’s cultural Biography of Things lend themselves as a framework for approaching things of this nature. The Social Life of Things was a groundbreaking work. Read what James Ferguson wrote about it in a review article:

But following the last decade’s preoccupation in anthropology with production […] on the one hand, and consumption [...] on the other, Appadurai’s approach to commodities as “objects in motion” has the feel of a new departure, even while appearing at the same time as a kind of homecoming.

In short, what it did was to put culture back in the analyses of things. Ferguson writes further:

The key claim here is not that things are “social” but that they have lives; the suggestion is that the social dimension of things can be narratively approached through the conventions not only of traditional historical exposition, but through that venerable anthropological device, “life history”.

That was really groundbreaking in so many ways, and thinking about it as I am writing this, I don’t see any reason why that should not be enough for studying the trade in second-hand clothing. Save for the fact that, as a friend noted, writing a doctoral dissertation is as if one were producing an affirmation of ones existence – an affirmation that needs to be underscored by the discovery of something original. In this case, I suppose that it is not as much a desire to discover something original as it is a desire to do as much theoretical exploration as possible (although I know that I would not live up to this expection). There, of course, have to be some more recent anthropological theorising on commodities in particular and things in general so why settle for a framework from 1986?

The product of that question is what I will be blogging about during my period as a Savage Minds guest blogger. I am currently digging into the literature on commodities and things, since I see commodities as a form of things (see Keith Hart’s explication of Marx’s conceptualisation of commodities as resulting from a historical dialectic). I will be sharing and discussing some of the stuffs I read. It is an ongoing process so I welcome suggestions on where to look and what to look at.

15 thoughts on “My Interest in Things

  1. Fascinating subject, Loomnie. Reminds me of a talk that I heard Marshall Sahlins give at Academia Sinica in Taiwan a few years back. Sahlins was describing a trade triangle linking China, Hawaii and Native Americans living in the Pacific Northwest of North America. The most memorable cultural difference was between the Pacific Northwest, where the Native Americans wanted blankets of uniform size and quality to use in potlatches and Hawaii, where the local aristocrats wanted the latest thing in Euro-American fashion and, like fashion addicts everywhere, insisted that each item be unique. Both sets of goods were textiles. Both were used as status symbols. The cultural details of usage were, however, radically different: countable commodity versus unique statements.

    Recalling Sahlins’ talk, I wonder how details of usage vary in Britain, Benin and Nigeria and whether these signal the presence of different meanings attached to the garments in question depending on where they arrive at different points in their journeys.

  2. Thanks, John. That is definitely something to think about. But off the top of my head I would say that it is possible to look at the different ways meanings are attached to the items of clothing at each point of their journey. I would also add that taste and affordability are probably the most important things, at least in urban West Africa.

    Do you have any idea whether Sahlins ever published the talk?


  3. Unfortunately, I don’t know if Sahlins every published that talk. But allow me to push on a bit: You say “taste” and “affordability.” Both terms point to broad ranges of possible meanings. Can you be a bit more specific about what you have in mind?

  4. I think one could deal with taste and affordability, in the UK, by considering why so much used garments are generated in the first instance. Over the past couple of decades, there have been huge increases in the consumption of clothing because it has become increasingly more affordable. I could expatiate on that but I think you get the drift. And in Lagos, some ‘grades’ of used clothing are more affordable than new garments because, well, they are used, and they don’t have as many years left in them as new garments.

    My comment on taste was in reference to your comment on textile as status symbol in the Pacific Northwest. Many people buy used clothing because they want to wear some kinds of garment but cannot spare the amount that a new one would cost.

    I guess the question would be about how to deal with these concepts analytically, or whether to deal with them at all.

  5. Sahlins, Marshall
    1989 Cosmologies of Capitalism: The Trans-Pacific Sector of ‘the World System’. Proceedings of the British Academy 741-51.

    It also appears in the volume Culture/Power/History ed. Ortner, Eley, and Dirks from Princeton.

  6. Chris Pinney has an interesting chapter entitled “Things Happen: or, from which moment does that object come?” in the edited volume Materiality that may be helpful. He critiques the Social Life of Things approach to Things, suggesting that it actually is hardly concerned with things themselves and is more interested in anthropomorphising them and narrating them through their circulation through human lives. He draws on Science Studies to make this critique. Annemarie Mol, John Law, and Michel Callon – working the Paris STS tradition offer more thing-oriented ways of thinking about things: see Mol’s The Body Multiple, Law’s Aircraft Stories, or any of Callon’s many articles. Also, the syllabus and course webpage for a class called Thing Theory taught at Columbia by Severin Fowles has a useful set of readings of newer ways of framing thinking about things:

  7. bq. I think one could deal with taste and affordability, in the UK, by considering why so much used garments are generated in the first instance.

    The idea of relating the cheapening of new clothes now largely produced in third-world places to the creation of a larger supply of used clothing for re-export to other third-word places is an interesting one.I am interested, however, in which of the multiple possible life histories of garments we are talking about.

    In Japan, where I live, there is a lively aftermarket in used kimonos. Some are exported to Europe or North America, where they are framed and displayed as works of art. Others are disassembled, and the elegant fabrics of which they are made re-used in modern garments. Some are shredded into strips and rewoven into rugs or wall hangings by textile artists.

    In your case, are we starting with haute couture, prêt-a-porter, casual, e.g., the Gap, or down market? Is gender relevant? Could it be that re-exported garments are primarily men’s or women’s clothing? What about types of garments? Outerwear or underwear? Business suits or sportswear? Then, adopting either a Benin middleman’s or Nigerian consumer perspective, do clothes of different types appeal to different markets? (I fantasize haute couture recycled on carnivalesque occasions while sweat suits become hand-me-down everyday wear.) I wonder if brands or fads are relevant in this market? In sum, I am looking for ethnographic detail.

  8. Your description captures it quite well. Yes, we are starting with different kinds of garment from Europe and North America. It could be haute couture or casual. In short, any kind of garment that is no longer wanted by the owner. They include clothing for men, women and children; outerwear, underwear, business suits, sportswear etc. Some winter jackets even find their way to tropical West Africa.

    What you describe about the Japanese kimono sounds like what Lucy Norris has written about the Indian sari. (See from instance Lucy Norris (2005) Creative Entrepreneur: the Recycling of Second Hand Indian Clothing, in the volume edited by Alexander Palmer and Hazel Clark).

    In the case of Africa you can check Karen Tranberg Hansen’s very rich book on second hand clothing in Zambia (Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia, published by The University of Chicago Press in 2000). I will write a post with some ethnography soon.

  9. On the gift-commodity dichotomy in second-hand trade, there is another book which might be useful for you: “Second-hand cultures”, by Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe, edited by Berg in 2003.

    The same authors have published several articles on this subject, such as:
    Crewe, Louise y Gregson, Nicky (1998), “Tales of the unexpected: exploring car boot sales as marginal spaces of contemporary consumption”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 23(1):39-53.

    Which parallels another one by an anthropologist:
    Herrmann, Gretchen M. (1997), “Gift or Commodity: What Changes Hands in the U.S. Garage Sale?”, American Ethnologist 24(4):910-930.

  10. Irene, thanks for the recommendations. I have read Hermann’s paper, and I will check out the Crewe and Gregson article.

  11. hi
    a scottish friend i met while i was in malawi is ‘recycling’ kaunjika (second hand clothes) from blantyre city markets and remaking them into ‘fashionable’ items. interesting, perhaps, in terms of thinking about the regimes of value that the clothes pass through and into as they are fused with other pieces/touch hands/enter new markets… (the whole ‘ethical fashion’ movement that she is a part of… interesting, as well)


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