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Mar 7, 2005 12:42 am

Commodities as History ...

In"The Fabric of Our Lives" for the Washington Post, Ira Berlin of the University of Maryland reviews Stephen Yafa's new book, Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map. In part, Berlin wrote:
As the nation-state fades into history's rearview mirror, muscled out of the express lane by corporations that can move money faster than governments can make policies, natural disasters that know no national boundaries, and religions that claim higher authority, historians look for new ways to understand the past. One that has lately drawn attention is the commodity. During the past decade, books on the potato, the cod and even salt have attracted big audiences by offering new ways to think about history. With Big Cotton, Steven Yafa adds another to the list, employing a playwright's sense of drama to show how cotton was woven into the American experience.
Berlin seems to have identified a recent fashion in history. There are Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and his Salt: A World History, Larry Zuckerman's The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World, Ian Gaitley's Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization, Sophie and Michael D. Coe's The True History of Chocolate, Virginia Scott Jenkins, Bananas: An American History, and Andrew Dalby, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices.

But if Berlin's opening sounded as enthusiastic as Yafa's title, Berlin's closing is skeptical. Like cotton, many other commodities"from sugar to tulips," he writes,

-- at one time or another -- inspired greed, irrationality and brilliant creativity. Like them, cotton has no volition. Contrary to Yafa's title, cotton did not create fortunes, wreck civilizations or put America on the map. Rather -- like the potato, the cod and salt -- cotton was indifferent to human desires, whether high or low. If homespun rubbed some raw, it inspired others. If percale soothed some, it irritated others. The motor of history cannot be found in cotton, no matter how dense the thread count.
That sounds right to me, because history is about human behavior over time and in all places. No human behavior, no history; at least as far as I can tell.

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Timothy James Burke - 3/8/2005

A very old version of the Consumption syllabus. It's undergone a number of changes since then, but the structure is broadly similar: I start with three narrative/historiographic 'modules' : consumption vs. productivist explanations of European expansion and the shift to modernity; consumption and 20th Century US society; consumption and 20th Century globalization. Then we shift into "commodity history" for a while. The last part of the class I've done different things with--some years we read some of the literature on advertising, marketing, shopping and spectacle, for example.

On Berlin's comments, in the strict sense, he's right. Writing about commodities as if they had agency or a human biography is in some sensse just a rhetorical hook, a stylistic choice that makes for a highly readable book. However, there's two ways in which I think it's a slightly more profound choice in theoretical terms.

First, some commodity biographies really are explicitly materialist, often of the non-Marxist sort, and are crafting an argument that the material nature of particular goods acts upon human societies in particular ways--both in terms of why people want to consume the good (say, the advantage of particular textiles over others after manufacture, or the addictive character of some consumables) and in terms of the social systems and structures necessary to produce the good. Sidney Mintz' Sweetness and Power is a great "canonical" example of a commodity history that makes both of these arguments in some fashion.

Secondly, a more fanciful thought that I've presented on a few occasions in a paper I wrote a few years back: commodity fetishism as Marx described it can be stripped somewhat of Marx's particular theoretical take on it and used in a more ordinary fashion, to describe the the accumulation of meaning in a commodity or other material object. That over time, particular goods or things are represented, nterpreted, used symbolically and so on by their human consumers, and that at some point, this activity accumulates in the thing itself, that it comes to be a kind of reservoir of meaning. At that point, you can't just arbitrarily strip away or ignore what the commodity means, and in some ways, the commodity itself becomes an active force in the human world as a result. Bring a Coke into a social setting, and the Coke brings its baggage with it: no actions by humans are required for the Coke to exert that presence except that they have to consume it. Obviously some goods are much more meaningful "actors" in this sense than others. Cotton's an odd one in this way: I don't think cotton per se exerts that kind of symbolic pressure now, though it once did, but the look of cotton on the human body and in the human world is still something that we have a whole suite of autonomic responses to.

David Lion Salmanson - 3/8/2005

Michael Pollans' Botany of Desire makes a pretty compelling case for plants shaping people to suit their (that is, the plant species) own ends.

Anybody know if the Cotton book deals with India?

My 11th grade Honors World History since 1300 are about to do commodity biography papers.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/7/2005


I'm inclined to agree. My classroom foray into History of Science has opened whole new vistas for me. It's also made me far more open to using either science or technology as vantage points for observing the wider world.

Many people in the History of Science have some hard science background, but my impression is that many of them are focused on the philosophical aspects of the field as opposed the subjects and approaches discussed here.

Charles V. Mutschler - 3/7/2005

Of course, one might just as easily ask the same question of social historians doing work in various areas of race, class, or gender focused studies of history. I suppose we all work in a field which interests us. I happen to do business and technology, and looking at products like copper or lumber, or even plain old dirty coal has its rewards. Can we learn more from any of these things? Probably. But, just for the sake of argument, it seems as if we could use a few more people doing hisotry of stuff. Or history of science, or doing environmental history with a solid (as in MS in a hard science) scientific background.

We now return you to your regular programming...
Charles V. Mutschler

Van L. Hayhow - 3/7/2005

History of Consumption? Sounds interesting. How do you run it? What kind of texts, etc.?

Ralph E. Luker - 3/7/2005

I was _waiting_ for you to speak up on this one! The literature does have a tendency to attribute volition to commodities. What do you say to Berlin's concluding remarks?

Timothy James Burke - 3/7/2005

I really enjoy this kind of work--what I've come to call "commodity biography". A huge chunk of my History of Consumption course is now devoted to this material, and the final paper in the course is a research paper where each student has to pick a commodity. I've gotten some amazing papers from students over the years, ones that make me realize there's still a lot of room for new books that take this approach. One of the appealing things about commodity biographies is that they have a sort of back-door materialism but with a lot if cultural and social texture as well.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/7/2005

No argument. But there comes a point in any new method or field when it's time to stop and say.... OK, we've studied this. Now, what questions do we really have and can I answer them by doing another study of this type?

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/7/2005

" the legacy of markets and global trade has produced such pronounced winners and losers and touched so much of the world that it is hard to actually sustain a clear thesis through the whole narrative."

True, and yet that could also be an advantage to this approach. It's very messiness a reminder a thesis always has a touch of the articifical to it, no matter how illuminating it may be.

More generally, using a product as a focus forces (or at least should force) the historian to consider the interaction between the human and his environment as something of crucial importance. That's a strong corrective for much trade history that leaves the world of the worker behind for what I think the French call "the game of the exchange."

Jonathan Dresner - 3/7/2005

I think you've really hit the nail on the head about these themed histories: they are all, really, telling the story of the global market system, and the way it interacts with individual lives, case studies in world systems. These stories are mixed -- triumphs and traumas -- because the legacy of markets and global trade has produced such pronounced winners and losers and touched so much of the world that it is hard to actually sustain a clear thesis through the whole narrative.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/7/2005

I would add Sidney Mintz' Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History. It rather predates the last decade, and may have been one of the first commodity books.