Mind Boggling Trinketization [again]

REDUX: Since several people have asked, here is one of the posts that explain the name of this blog. Its from a year and a half ago. [comments imported too]


Very occasionally (why? [indeed, see above - ed]) I feel the need to restate why it is that I use the word trinketization to refer both to the dessication of all life to mere commodities, and as a word for a critique of the poverty of theorizing that remains at the level of fascination with those commodities. Remembering that Marx in Capital only starts with commodities to tell us they are the fetished and occulted manifestation of social life – the ‘erscheinungsform’ in which wealth appears on the stage of the market etc… there is a need to cotextualise and theorise beyond this mere appearance. Hence 3 volumes of Kapital, and a further 3 vols of Theories of Surplus Labour, and then a subsequent effort of theory via Lenin, Lukacs, Adorno, even Debord (thanks Jeff and Tom)….

So, this trinket thing has been my double refrain for a long time now – a critique of those who stop at commodity (who have only read the first chapter) and who eschew any attempt to comprehend, and change/destroy/kill, capitalism. Grinning at the shiny trinkets ain’t enough – even a theory of trinkets will not be enough, and certainly my collecting them for display is only a first step… So, maybe I should start to gather it all together a bit more. Some early formulations:

In the draft intro to a special section on music and politics in the journal Postcolonial Studies, summarizing a joint article written with Virinder Kalra, we described it as:

“Focusing on, Madonna, an overworked cultural icon, who’s recent Eastern turn has attracted wide attention, this chapter compares and contrasts her trinketization to the diasporic music offerings of a more local flavour. By highlighting the theoretical dead end that all identity posturing postulates, the paper argues for a critique based not on spurious ascribed/described/pronounced subjectivities but rather on a not so fashionable materialist analysis”

This was eventually relegated/rendered in print as:

“a discussion of musical appropriations of Asian culture as ‘vogue’, offering a critique of trinketizing exoticisms and questioning the politics of identity in the context of racial conflict and imperial power structures” (Postcolonial Studies, Vol 1 No 3, 1998:355)

And this sort of line was developed a little, in a critical assessment of dearest comrade Crispin Mills of Kula Shaker fame, in a piece in the book Travel Worlds:

“It should at least be clear that the concern with ‘authenticity’ that leads to a critique of (Kula Shaker style) trinketizing exotic versions of South Asian musics is not one which insists upon the purity of traditional forms or the relativistic egalitarianism of an anthropology blind to material inequality. The danger is always that the worries about appropriation and commercialization are contradictory insofar as authenticity critique may sometimes slide into less savoury valourizations of cultural boundedness, nationalisms and conservatism. Instead, the critique of inauthentic and aestheticized versions of South Asian cultural production should be geared towards clearing a space for hearing the ‘secret omnipresence’ of resistance to which Theodore Adorno refers”.

A still less generous use of the term crops up in an early draft of a piece that eventually made it into our book on Diaspora and Hybridity, but in this case reaching back to my long-term interest in a critique of budget travellers:

“‘Going native’ persists in taking the most mundane forms especially where otherwise intelligent gap-year university students return from their travels adorned with the flotsam and jetsam of the trinket markets of the world”.

Ideally though, there will be better formulations than these. Here from a draft of my chapter in the book Celebrating Transgression:

“The trouble with fieldwork as taught in the credentializing system of the new teaching factory is that it relies primarily upon the assemblage of anecdote-trinkets. Theoretical gestation and contemplation – slow moving – is not well suited to the imperatives of pass rates and research assessment calculation. Trinketization of culture here assigns the politics of interpretation to a place of fast and loose generalities – ritualized reflexive moves that surprise no one”.

The main working out of trinketization as double play was done however in what became the book Bad Marxism. The first version of this published in the journal Critique of Anthropology, in an article called ‘Clifford’s Ethnographica’. Catty it was. Ah well. Still, the phenomenal success of Clifford’s book ‘Routes‘ meant that I figured lucky Jim could handle a few snipes when, as I showed, he got Marx wrong (exchange does not determine production, production determines exchange) and went on about that ‘mind-boggling’ bird of paradise headdress and office tie ensemble worn by James Bosu, as seen on the cover (and cropped, the larger version inside showing James with a stubbie of beer too. If Clifford had gone to visit PNG, instead of a quick sprint through a museum in London – the Museum of Man- his ‘boggle’ might have been less offensive). Anyway:

“The problem is that even if Clifford was not limited to descriptive trinketization in his collecting practice, it is very difficult to imagine how he might want to respond to the complexity of the world. Reading his varied statements on culture, trade, power and so on it becomes possible to wonder what would be needed to provoke an attempt to intervene? What set of circumstances would be necessary to provoke even a preliminary essay on what is to be done? Meekly anguished fascination at the phantasmagoric vista before him seems all we will ever be offered” (Critique of Anthropology Vol 18, No 4, 1988:364 – also appeared in Bad Marxism 2004).

There is more of this to come. To be filed under terminological morass.

Responses to “Mind Boggling Trinketization”

  1. Renegade Eye Says:
    April 28, 2007 at 6:11 am eDuring the sixties, the radicals used the word coopt all the time. It meant as turning Afro-American militants wearing their hair Afro style, into a way for capitalists to introduce new lines of hair grooming products. Is that similar to what you’re saying?

  2. John Hutnyk Says:
    April 29, 2007 at 8:38 am eYep. I guess examples like that might be considered under the category of subsumption (real or formal?), though perhaps its more symptomatic than systemic as old Beardo had intended it. Certainly there can be discussion of how Capital today manages to turn everything and anything into product – a kind of hybridizing commerce, adapting and adapted to selling all differences all the time, everywhere (battering down all Chinese walls). Perhaps also relevant is Adorno note that every product strives to convince us of its uniqueness, which is always the same. Hair products for every imaginable style – the artist Sonia Boyce would be relevant here too, once forcing the Manchester anthropology department to handle bits of her collection of off-cuts from various black hairstyles. A dry and wry provocation.

  3. Suyi Says:
    September 30, 2007 at 5:20 pm eHmm… I thought you used the idea of ‘trinketization’ even earlier (albeit if a slightly different way). From McKenvie Wark’s review of The Rumour of Calcutta:

    “Here Hutnyk practices another kind of tourism, an intellectual one, “trinket collecting” in high theory. His sources are the writings of Georg Lukacs and Martin Heidegger, who were concerned with the effects of commerce and contraptions on our ways of seeing and thinking. What Hutnyk takes from them is a thorough kind of materialism. Every perception that we have is the product of an act of labour, an effort shaped by particular tools”.

  4. John Hutnyk Says:
    September 30, 2007 at 7:37 pm eyep, trying to be consistent, though that rumour book was more than ten years ago now.

    Lukacs though, I am reading more carefully these days. – j

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