U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Boundlessness, Commodification, and Nature’s Metropolis

Before beginning this week’s post, I owe an apology for being a tardy or absent respondent to comments on previous posts, especially last week’s—I just realized today that I’ve left two comments hanging. I promise to do better this week!

Now, at the end of last week’s post, I began a discussion of Jeffrey Sklansky’s equation of commodification with quantification. Sklansky argued that one of the reasons why commodification has become such an important frame for new histories of capitalism is because—unlike proletarianization—it seems to have no necessary boundaries.

This boundlessness is quite different from the implicit premises of a narrative focused on proletarianization. Labor history and business history—as they were written up through, say, the 1990s—thrived on drawing distinctions, on identifying stages of development and differentia specifica. The most important distinction, perhaps, was between the human and the nonhuman: proletarianization is, after all, a human process.

Commodification, on the other hand, tends to overwhelm distinctions, starting with the human-nonhuman: while only humans can be proletarianized,[1] everything can be “priced”—placed in a relationship with other things that can be expressed in terms of a number. Even more, while the process of proletarianization seems never to engulf the whole of a person (see my argument in this post), commodification assimilates both individual humans and their internal qualities to a system of commensurable valuations: your cheerfulness as well as your blood pressure, your knowledge of Latin as well as your attention can all be denominated in dollars, no different from a television or a ticket to a concert.

In this way, the story of commodification flattens distinctions between humans and the (rest of the) natural world, demolishing proletarianization’s marked anthropocentrism. Putting a price on human lives or health or knowledge or creativity and putting a price on a chair or a car is one single continuous process; as much as labor could be abstracted as just one more input or one more production cost, the story of making humans into proletarians was always distinct from—if parallel to—the story of extracting value from the natural world.

There are various ways to account for this shift in historical narration away from proletarianization’s anthropocentrism. Certainly, the influence of environmentalism has something to do with it. While very much leftist critique descending from Marx is (still) only fitfully cognizant of ecological critiques of capitalism, some of the ontological premises of an ecological worldview have seeped into culture so generally that an older stark separation of the human and the nonhuman is no longer tenable.

Another possible explanation comes from the small explosion since the 1990s of works in the subfield of what Lorraine Daston has dubbed “historical epistemology,” which as Sklansky defines it is the study of “the invention of new kinds of fact such as employment figures and credit ratings along with the modern metrics and matrices that produced them” (Sklansky, “Elusive Sovereign,” 242). Offspring of the history of science, studies in this vein emphasize the ways that quantification and abstraction have profoundly reshaped the image of “the human,” creating what Dan Bouk has called the “statistical individual.” Incarnated in numbers, this creature can float freely as part of a universe of endlessly adaptable equations: where the human worker needs to occupy a certain place in the production process, the statistical individual can be plugged in far more flexibly at many points in a firm’s calculations and predictions.

Perhaps the most common explanation for this new approach to capitalism is the most vulgarly materialist: as the mode of production has changed, historians’ attention has shifted, following the transit of power from industry to finance. As Sklansky wrote, “The epochal transfer of profits from industry to banking over the past thirty years and the succession of escalating financial crises have focused scholarly attention on how money is made, literally and figuratively” (Sklansky “Elusive Sovereign,” 238). When the world feels like it is being controlled by bankers rather than by industrialists, historians learn to ask more questions about the history of banking the origins of securitization, the roots of financialization.

I have stressed throughout this series that I am rather skeptical of this kind of explanation—that historians tend to reorient their studies according to macroeconomic or macropolitical shifts. It is far more common for a historian, I believe, to look at a newspaper and say, “that reminds me of my dissertation!” than for one to say, “this article gives me a great idea for my next book!”

In other words, my working assumption for what an explanation of this shift in the historical study of capitalism needs to include—or to put things more boldly, for what an explanation of why there is a “new history of capitalism” needs to include—is a close examination of the intellectual currents active within the sites of instruction and practice. What is being taught, and which ideas are “hot?” Answering those questions, I think, will be more fruitful than trying to match academic trends like the rise of the new history of capitalism to particular secular changes in the global or US economy.

Or at least, that’s where I’ve been trying to head over the past few weeks: toward an examination of some of the underlying—and perhaps not always obvious—intellectual influences on the new history of capitalism and the way those influences account for its particular emphases and fixations. In the rest of this post, I want to try out an idea which—in miniature—points toward a bigger influence that I’ll be exploring next week: the contribution of the linguistic turn to the development of the new history of capitalism.

The other week on Twitter, Eli Cook pointed out one possible source of inspiration for a generation of historians, one reason why folks who entered graduate school from at least the mid-90s through the present might have had commodities on their minds. That source is a single chapter in a single monograph: the grain chapter of William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis (1991), Chapter 3.

The key argument of that chapter was that the grain trade had transitioned over the course of the nineteenth century from a system of water and warehouses to one built on railroads and elevators, and that the shift from one to the other entailed a new kind of abstraction which severed “the link between grain as physical object and grain as salable commodity” (109). The pleasure of Cronon’s chapter is in the fine technical detail of how these two systems functioned, but the chapter more subtly also drew the reader’s attention to the chicanery of the middlemen and speculators who took full advantage of this new abstractness.

Nature’s Metropolis wasn’t the first time a historian had paid attention to these kind of figures, and to some extent Chapter 3 was a kind of gloss on Marx’s chapter on the “general formula for capital” (Chapter 4 in Capital Vol. 1). But it wasn’t the chapter’s novelty that made it so inspiring. Instead, its power came from the way Cronon turned explanation into demystification, circumscribing an almost ostentatiously dry subject with a nimbus of magic.

Part of the influence of Nature’s Metropolis comes from the elegant clarity of its organization of evidence and the lambent intelligence of its prose—no doubt it would prompt emulation under any conditions. But the historian readers of Nature’s Metropolis would also have encountered it from within an academic setting shaped profoundly by the linguistic turn, and I would hazard that its great impact on a generation or two of graduate students has something to do with the way its ideas, its method, and even its tone interact with the ideas, method, and tone of scholarship directly inspired by post-structuralism.

In other words, Eli was totally right in locating Nature’s Metropolis as the fountainhead of the new history of capitalism, but what this insight reveals is the possibility that the field took shape largely in a subliminal dialogue with the kind of cultural history that embraced the linguistic turn unambiguously.

Here’s what I mean. If they were discontented with the total surrender to the play of symbols that post-structural mavens evangelized, graduate students[2] could discover in Cronon’s book something that had the same kind of piercing thrill of demystification as deconstruction but that conspicuously lacked the terminological fustian of capital-T Theory. Moreover, where the linguistic turn pushed toward a wholesale denial of materialism and smashed binaries with the violent zeal of an iconoclast, Cronon’s story of sacks and elevators steadfastly took the irreducibility of the material world as primary and affirmed the importance of at least some binaries as a way to structure a narrative.

On the other hand, Cronon’s sophisticated understanding of what a commodity was thoroughly matched the tenor of the linguistic turn: it would take more room than I want to give it here, but his description of the historical process by which “grain as salable commodity” unmoored itself from “grain as physical object” resembled nothing so much as the deconstructionist’s analysis of the “slippage” that occurs when signifiers detach from their signifieds and flurry about. Cronon’s conceptualization of the commodity was immediately—even intuitively—legible from within the linguistic turn: the commodity was a signifier. Or to put it another way, Cronon was one of the first historians to reconfigure the plot of capitalism as a story of commodification, but he did so (perhaps unconsciously) using a readymade structure cribbed from post-structuralism.

As I hope I can show next week, the effects of this half-conscious absorption of certain ideas and rhetorical moves from the linguistic turn can be seen in the way the new history of capitalism has developed. To close for this week, though, I think we can already see how Cronon’s treatment of commodities opens itself to an unbounded flexibility that could accommodate any kind of thing, quality, or experience within its logic. For Cronon, the commodity-signifier was a flickering node in an endless procession of deferred realizations of value—the physical grain might ultimately be milled, sold, baked, and eaten, but the contracts and options that rode for a moment on top of one or another grain-filled railroad car would be turned over and over, no longer bounded by the sale and consumption of a physical product. In his ability to seize this dynamism in full flight, Cronon did more than just explain how the grain trade worked in the nineteenth-century Midwest. His analysis of the grain trade became a kind of explanation of poststructuralism itself—reading Cronon, all those theories of structure, sign, and play finally made sense.

Notes

 

[1] And possibly robots. Certainly a great deal of science fiction considers the possibility that, were semi-intelligent or intelligent robots to be created, they would either be essentially enslaved or, at the very least, compelled to work in order to sustain their existence.

[2] I’m focusing on graduate students simply because they typically constitute the vast majority of practitioners who are actively debating meta-level questions like these and who are in a position to abruptly change their models of what good history looks like based on an encounter with a new book or essay. Certainly, Nature’s Metropolis had an impact on older scholars as well; I just assume those scholars had already to some extent staked out a position regarding such issues as the linguistic turn.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Very nice, Andrew! I’ve read Cronon’s NM about 6-7 times, but never linked its methodology (in that exemplary chapter, at least) to the linguistic turn as melded with Marx. In my own work, I too made “the great books idea” a kind of signifier of commodification, but most definitely did it unconsciously (as of 2012-13, anyway—more explicit in my post-book reflections). – TL

  2. Thank you for the informative post. I defer to your knowledge of the “inspiration for a generation of historians.” However, I’m confused by your linkage of Cronon and poststructuralism. I recognize that I may be misreading Cronon and your post. (If so, I apologize.)

    You write that Cronon describes how shifts in the grain trade “severed the ‘link between grain as physical object and grain as salable commodity,'” “‘grain as salable commodity’ unmoored itself from ‘grain as physical object,'” and contracts and options were “no longer bounded by the sale and consumption of a physical product.”

    But doesn’t Cronon instead describe an “uneasy truce” between grain as crop and grain as commodity? If so, don’t verbs like “sever” and “unmoor” seem far too extreme? After all, most of Cronon’s chapter, IIRC, explain how bad actors could take advantage of the gap between the reality of physical grain and the imperfect attempts to categorize and price grain as a commodity. For instance, he writes, “A cornered market was a painful and expensive reminder that elevator receipts and paper contracts were ultimately backed by real grain.” Corrupt elevator operators could adulterate grain until it just met the standards for a grade, thus capturing the “hidden value of intragrade variation.” Generally, Cronon notes that the “greatest problems always occurred on the boundaries where… market fictions intersected with the real world.”

    In other words, for Cronon, there remains “real grain” in a “real world,” even if it is obscured.

    This may seem like a minor point, but I’m not sure that it is. If we want to study finance, it is true that there is a second world in which grain, as well as other crops and crude oil, can exist as a commodity derivative that may appear to us as an often volatile price. However, this second world still presumably exists because of algorithms that, however imperfectly, incorporate information about not only trading strategies but also a very real world of ecosystems and biophysical shocks–bad weather, what farmers may decide to grow (or not grow), etc.

    Thanks again.

    • Hi William,
      Thanks for your questions. I think you may be putting too much emphasis on a couple of words here, though, and overlooking the larger argument. It may be the case that “unmoor” and “sever” are “far too extreme” but to me, the key word is actually “slippage.” My point was to stress the way that grain-as-commodity and grain-as-physical-object could operate independently. That does not mean that they always operated independently, or that at certain times the physical object couldn’t impose limitations. But that is also–as most poststructuralists acknowledge–also true of how language works. Signs can operate independently of their referents (or, to be more precise, signifiers can float freely from the things their signifieds), but that doesn’t mean that they have a permanent independence.

      • Thanks for your response. Similarly, then, would you say that one could get “a kind of explanation of poststructuralism itself” from, say, the film The Big Short?

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.