Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) (pp. 166 - 179)


Chapter 4
La Pensee Bourgeoise:
Western Society as Culture

The field of political economy, constructed exclusively on the two values of exchange and use, falls to pieces and must be entirely reanalyzed in the form of a GENERALIZED POLITICAL ECONOMY, which will imply the production of symbolic exchange value [valeur d'echange/signe] as the same thing and in the same movement as the production of material goods and of economic exchange. The analysis of the production of symbols and culture is not thus posed as external, ulterior, or "superstructural" in relation to material production; it is posed as a revolution of political economy itself, generalized by the theoretical and practical intervention of symbolic exchange value.

Baudrillard 1972, p. 130
translation, M.S.

Historical materialism is truly a self-awareness of bourgeois society -- yet an awareness, it would seem, within the terms of that society. In treating production as a natural-pragmatic process of need satisfaction, it risks an alliance with bourgeois economics in the work of raising the alienation of persons and things to a higher cognitive power. The two would join in, concealing the meaningful system in the praxis by the practical explanation of the system. If that concealment is allowed, or smuggled in as premise, everything would happen in a Marxist anthropology as it does in the orthodox economics, as if the analyst were duped by the same commodity fetishism that fascinates the participants in the process. Conceiving the creation and movement of goods solely from their pecuniary quantities (exchange-value), one ignores the cultural code of concrete properties governing "utility" and so remains unable to account for what is in fact produced. The explanation is satisfied to recreate the self-deception of the society to which it is addressed, where the logical system of objects and social relations proceeds along an unconscious plane, manifested only through market decisions based on price, leaving the impression that, (start of p.167) production is merely the precipitate of an enlightened rationality. The structure of the economy appears as the objectivized consequence of practical behavior, rather than a social organization of things, by the institutional means of the market, but according to a cultural design of persons and goods.

Utilitarianism, however, is the way the Western economy, indeed the entire society, is experienced: the way it is lived by the participating subject, thought by the economist. From all vantages, the process seems one of material maximization: the famous allocation of scarce means among alternative ends to obtain the greatest possible satisfaction -- or, as Veblen put it, getting something for nothing at the cost of,whom it may concern. On the productive side, material advantage takes the form of added pecuniary value. For the consumer, it is more vaguely understood as the return in "utility" to monetary disbursements; but even here the appeal of the product consists in its purported functional superiority to all available alternatives (cf. Baudrillard 1968). The latest model automobile or refrigerator, style of clothing, or brand of toothpaste is by some novel feature or other more convenient, better adapted to "modern living," more comfortable, more [healthful, sexier, longer-lasting, or better-tasting than any competing product.) In the native conception, the economy is an arena of pragmatic action. And society is the formal outcome. The main relations of class and politica as well as the conceptions men entertain of nature and of themselves, are generated by this rational pursuit of material happiness. As it were, cultural order is sedimented out of the interplay of men and groups severally acting on the objective logic of their material situations:

Till jarring interests of themselves create The according music of a well-mixed state.... Thus God and Nature linked the general frame, And bade Self-love and Social be the same.
[Alexander Pope, Essay on Man]

Such is the mode of appearance of our bourgeois society, and its common average social science wisdom. On the other hand, it is also common (start of p.168) anthropological knowledge that the "rational" and "objective" scheme any given human group is never the only one possible. Even in very similiar material conditions, cultural orders and finalities may be quite dissimilar For the material conditions, if always indispensable, are potential "objective" and "necessary" in many different ways according to the cultural selection by which they become effective "forces." Of course one sense nature is forever supreme. No society can live on miraclesm, thinking to exist by playing her false. None can fail to provide for the biological continuity of the population in determining it culturally -- can neglect to provide shelter in producing houses, or nourishment in distinquishing the edible from the inedible. Yet men do not merely "survive." They survive in a definite way. They reproduce themselves as certain kind of men and women, social classes and groups, not as biological organisms or aggregates of organisms ("populations"). True that in so producing a cultural existence, society must remain within the limits of physical-natural necessity. But this has been considered axiomatic at least since Boas, and not even the most biological of cultural ecologies can claim any more:"limits of viability" are the mode of the practical intervention of nature in culture (cf. Rapapport 1967). Within these limits, any group has the possibility of great range of "rational" economic intentions, not even to mention the options of production strategy that can be conceived from thc diversity of existing techniques, the example of neighboring societies, or the negation of either.

Practical reason is an indeterminate explanation of cultural form; to do any better, it would have to assume what it purports to explain: the cultural form. But allow me a justifiable "nervousness." Insofar as this applies to historical materialism, it is Marx who here criticizes Marx, if through the medium of a later anthropology. The point of these objections had already been anticipated in Marx's understanding of production as devoted not simply to the. reproduction of the producers, but also to the social relations under which it is carried out. The principle is, moreover, interior to Marx's work in an even more general form. I repeat a seminal passage of The German Ideology: "This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of physical existence of individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part" (Marx and Engels 1965, p. 32). Thus it was Marx who taught that men never produce absolutely, that is, as biological beings in a universe of physical necessity. Men produce objects for given social subjects, in the course of reproducing subjects by social objects. (start of p.169) Not even capitalism, despite its ostensible organization by and for pragmatic advantage, can escape this cultural constitution of an apparently objective praxis. For as Marx also taught, all production, even where it is governed by the commodity-form, by exchange-value, remains the production of use-values. Without consumption, the object does not complete itself as a product: a house left unoccupied is no house. Yet use-value cannot be specifically understood on the natural level of "needs" and "wants," -- precisely because men do not merely produce "housing" or "shelter": they produce dwellings of definite sorts, as a peasant's hut, or a nobleman's castle. This determination of use-values, of a particular type of house as a particular type of home, represents a continuous process of social life in which men reciprocally define objects in terms of themselves and themselves in terms of objects.

Production, therefore, is something more and other than a practical logic of material effectiveness. It is a cultural intention. The material process of physical existence is organized as a meaningful process of social being -- which is for men, since they are always culturally defined in determinate ways, the only mode of their existence. If it was Saussure who foresaw the development of a general semiology devoted to "the role played by signs in social life," it was Marx who provided the mise-en-scene. Situating society in history, and production in society, Marx framed the problematic of an anthropological science yet unborn. For the question he proposed to it contains its own answer, inasmuch as the question is the definition of symbol itself: How can we account for an existence of persons and things that cannot be recognized in the physical nature of either?

We have seen that Marx nevertheless reserved the symbolic quality to the object in its commodity-form (fetishism). Assuming that use-values transparently serve human needs, that is, by virtue of their evident properties, he gave away the meaningful relations between men and objects essential to the comprehension of production in any historical form. He left the question without an answer: "About the system of needs and the system of laboursóat what point is this to be dealt with?" In order to frame an answer, to give a cultural account of production, it iscritical to note that the social meaning of an object that makes it useful to a certain category of persons is no more apparent from its physical properties than is the value it may be assigned in exchange. Use-value is not less symbolic or less arbitrary than commodity-value. For "utility" is not a quality of the object but a sign)ficance of the objective qualities. The reason Americans deem dogs inedible and cattle "food" is no more perceptible to the senses than is the price of meat. Likewise, what stamps trous (start of page 170) ers as masculine and skirts as feminine has no necessary connection with their physical properties or the relations arising therefrom. It is by their correlations in a symbolic system that pants are produced for men and skirts for women, rather than by the nature of the object per se of its capacity to satisfy a material needójust as it is by the cultural values of men and women that the former normally undertake'this production and the latter do not. No object, no thing, has being or movement in human society except by the significance men can give it. (note)

Production is a functional moment of a cultural structure. This understood, the rationality of the market and of bourgeois society is put in another light. The famous logic of maximization is only the manifest appearance of another Reason, for the most part unnoticed and of an entirely different kind. We too have our forebears. It is not as if we had no culture: no symbolic code of objectsóin relation to which the mechanism of supply-demand-price, ostensibly in command, is in reality the servant. Consider, for example, just what Americans do produce in satisfying basic "needs" for food and clothing.


Food Preference and Tabu in American Domestic Animals

The aim of these remarks on American uses of common domestic animals' will be modest: merely to suggest the presence of a cultural reason in our (start of page 171) food habits, some of the meaningful connections in the categorical distinctions of edibility among horses, dogs, pigs, and cattle. Yet the point is not only of consuming interest; the productive relation of American society to its own and the world environment is organized by specific valuations of edibility and inedibility, themselves qualitative and in no way just)fiable by biological, ecological, or economic advantage. The functional consequences extend from agricultural "adaptation" to international trade and world political relations. The exploitation of the American environment, t he mode of relation to the landscape, depends on the model of a meal that includes a central meat element with the peripheral support of carbohydrates and vegetablesówhile the centrality of the meat, which is also a notion of its "strength," evokes the masculine pole of a sexual code of | food which must go back to the Indo-European identification of cattle or L increasable wealth with virility. 4 The indispensabilitty of meat as "strength," and of steak as the epitome of virile meats, remains a basic condition of American diet (note the training table of athletic teams, in football especially). Hence also a corresponding structure of agricultural production of feed grains, and in turn a specific articulation to world I marketsóall of which would change overnight if we ate dogs. By comparison with this meaningful calculus of food preferences, supply, demend, and price offer the interest of institutional means of a system that does not include production costs in its own principles of hierarchy. The "opportunity costs" of our economic rationality are a secondary formation, an expression of relationships already given by another kind of thought, figured a posterior) within the constraints of a logic of meaningful, order. The tabu on horses and dogs thus renders unthinkable the consumption of a set of animals whose production is practically feasible and which are nutritionally not to be despised. Surely it must be practicable to raise some horses and dogs for food in combination with pigs and cattle. There is even an enormous industry for raising horses as food for dogs. But then, America is the land of the sacred dog. A traditional Plains Indian or a Hawaiian (not to mention a Hindu), might be staggered to see how we permit dogs to flourish under the strictest interdictions on their consumption. They roam the streets of major (start of page 172) American cities at will, taking their masters about on leashes and depositing their excrements at pleasure on curbs and sidewalks. A whole system of sanitation procedures had to be employed to get rid of the messówhich in the native thought, and despite the respect owed the dogs themselves, is considered "pollution." (Nevertheless, a pedestrian excursion on the streets of New York makes the hazards of a midwestern cow pasture sccm like an idyllic walk in the country.) Within the houses and apartment! dogs climb upon chairs designed for humans, sleep in people's beds, and sit at table after their own fashion awaiting their share of the family meal. All this in the calm assurance that they themselves will never be sacrificed to necessity or deity, nor eaten even in the case of accidental death. As fc horses, Americans have some reason to suspect they are edible. It i rumored that Frenchmen eat them. But the mention of it is usually enough to evoke the totemic sentiment that the French are to Americans as "frogs' are to people. In a crisis, the contradictions of the system reveal themselves. During the meteoric inflation of food prices in the spring of 1973, American l capitalism did not fall apartóquite the contrary; but the cleavages in the food system did surface. Responsible government officials suggested that the people might be well-advised to buy the cheaper cuts of meat such a kidneys, heart, or entrailsóafter all, they are just as nutritious as ham burger. To Americans, this particular suggestion made Marie Antoinett seem like a model of compassion (see fig. 10). The reason for the disgust seems to go to the same logic as greeted certain unsavory attempts to substitute horsemeat for beef during the same period. The following item is reprinted in its entirety from the Honolulu Advertiser of 15 April 1973:

PROTEST BY HORSE LOVERS
WESTBROOK, Conn. (UPI) -- About 25 persons on horseback and on foot paraded outside Carlson's Mart yesterday to protest the store' selling horsemeat as a cheap substitute for beef. "I think the slaughter of horses for human consumption in this country is disgraceful," said protest organizer Richard Gallagher. "We are not at a stage yet in the United States where we are forced t kill horses for meat."
"Horses are to be loved and ridden," Gallagher said. "In other words, horses are shown affection, where cattle that are raised for for beef. . . they've never had someone pet them or brush them, or anything like that. To buy someone's horse up and slaughter it, that, I jus t don't see it." (start of page 173) The market began selling horsemeat as "equine round," "horsemeat porterhouse" and "horseburger" -- on Tuesday, and owner Kenneth Carlson said about 20,000 pounds were sold in the first week.
Most butchers who sell horsemeat have purchased "real old, useless horses" which would otherwise be sold "for dogfood and stuff like . that," Gallagher said. But "now they're picking up the young horses. ' We can't buy these horses now, because the killers are outbidding us."

The principal reason postulated in the American meat system is the relation of the species to human society. "Horses are shown affection, where cattle that are raised for beef. . . they've never had someone pet them or brush them, or anything like that.'' Let us take up in more detail (start of page 174)the domesticated series cattle-pigs-horses-dogs. All of these are in measure integrated in American society, but clearly in different statuses which correspond to degrees of edibility. The series is divisible, first, into the two classes of edible (cattle-pigs) and inedible (horses-dogs), but the. again, within each class, into higher and less preferable categories of food (beef vs. pork) and more and less rigorous categories of tabu (dogs vs horses). The entire set appears to be differentiated by participation as subject or object in the company of men. Moreover, the same logic attends the differentiations of the edible animal into "meat" and the intern' "organs" or "innards." To adopt the conventional incantations of strut turalism, "everything happens as if" the food system is inflected throughout by a principle of metonymy, such that taken as a whole it composes. sustained metaphor on cannibalism.

Dogs and horses participate in American society in the capacity subjects. They have proper personal names, and indeed we are in the habit of conversing with them as we do not talk to pigs and cattle Dogs and horses are thus deemed inedible, for, as the Red Queen said, "It isn't etiquette to cut anybody you've been introduced to." But as domestic cohabitants, dogs are closer to men than are horses, and their consumption is more unthinkable: they are "one of the family." Traditionally horses: stand in a more menial, working relationship to people; if dogs are as kinsmen, horses are as servants and nonkin. Hence the consumption of horses is at least conceivable, if not general, whereas the notion of eating (start of page 175) dogs understandably evokes some of the revulsion of the incest tabu. On the other hand, the edible animals such as pigs and cattle generally have the status of objects to human subjects, living their own lives apart, neither the direct complement nor the working instrument of human activities. Usually, then, they are anonymous, or if they do have names, as some milk cows do, these are mainly terms of referehce in the conversations of men. Yet as barnyard animals and scavengers of human food, pigs are contiguous with human society, more so than cattle (cf. Leach 1964, pp. 50-51). Correspondingly, cut for cut, pork is a less prestigious meat than beef. Beef is the viand of higher social standing and greater social occasion. A roast of pork does not have the solemnity of prime rib of beef, nor does any part of the pig match the standing of steak.

Edibility is inversely related to humanity. The same holds in the preferences and common designations applied to edible portions of the animal. Americans frame a categorical distinction between the "inner" and "outer" parts which represents to them the same principle of relation to umanity, metaphorically extended. The organic nature of the flesh (musple and fat) is at once disguised and its preferability indicated by the general term "meat," and again by particular conventions such as "roast," "steak," "chops," or "chuck"; whereas the internal organs are frankly known as such (or as "innards"), and more specifically as "heart," "tongue," "kidney," and so onóexcept as they are euphemistically transformed by the process of preparation into such products as ''sweetbreads.'' The internal and external parts, in other words, are re| spectively assimilated to and distinguished from parts of the human body -- on the same model as we conceive our "innermost selves" as our (start of page 176) "true selves" and the two categories are accordingly ranked as more or less fit for human consumption. The distinction between "inner" and "outer" thus duplicates within the animal the differentiation drawn between edible and tabu species, the whole making up a single logic on two planes with the consistent implication of a prohibition on cannibalism.

It is this symbolic logic which organizes demand. The social value of steak or roast, as compared with tripe or tongue, is what underlies the difference in economic value. From the nutritional point of view, such a notion of "better" and "inferior" cuts would be difficult to defend. Moreover, steak remains the most expensive meat even though its absolute supply is much greater than that of tongue; there is much more steak to the cow than there is tongue. But more, the symbolic scheme of edibility joint with that organizing the relations of production to precipitate, through income distribution and demand, an entire totemic order, uniting in a parallel series of differences the status of persons and what they eat. The poorer people buy the cheaper cuts, cheaper because they are socially inferior meats. But poverty is in the first place ethnically and racially l encoded. Blacks and whites enter differentially into the American labor market, their participation ordered by an invidious distinction of relative "civilization." Black is in American society as the savage among us, objective nature in culture itself. Yet then, by virtue of the ensuing distribution of income, the "inferiority" of blacks is realized also as a culinary defilement. "Soul food" may be made a virtue. But only as the negation of a general logic in which cultural degradation is confirmed by dietary preferences akin to cannibalism, even as this metaphorical attribute of the food is confirmed by the status of those who prefer it.

I would not invoke "the so-called totemism" merely in casual analogy to the pensee sauvage. True that Levi-Strauss writes as if totemism had retreated in our society to a few marginal resorts or occasional practices (1963a; 1966). And fair enough in the sense that the "totemic operator," articulating differences in the cultural series to differences in natural species, is no longer a main architecture of the cultural system. But I one must wonder whether it has not been replaced by species and varieties of manufactured objects, which like totemic categories have the power of making even the demarcation of their individual owners a procedure of social class)fication. (My colleague Milton Singer suggests that what Freud said of national differentiation might well be generalized to capitalism, that it is narcissism in respect of minor differences.) And yet more fundamen (start of page 177) tal, do not the totemic and product-operators share a common basis in the cultural code of natural features, the sign)ficance assigned to contrasts in shape, line, color and other object properties presented by nature? The "development" that is effected by the pensee bourgeoise may consist mainly in the capacity to duplicate and combine such variations at will, and within society itself. But in that event, capitalist production stands as an exponential expansion of the same kind of thought, with exchange and consumption as means of its communication. For, as Baudrillard writes in this connection, consumption itself is an exchange (of meanings), a discourse -- to which practical virtues, "utilities" are attached only post facto:

As it is true of the communication of speech, so it is likewise true of goods and products: consumption is exchange. A consumer is never isolated, any more than a speaker. It is in this sense that we must have a total revolution in the analysis of consumption. In the same way as -- there is no language simply because of an individual need to speak but first of all language -- not as an absolute, autonomous system but as a contemporary structure of the exchange of meaning, to which is articulated the individual interaction of speechóin the same sense neither is there consumption because of an objective need to consume, a final intention of the subject toward the object. There is a social production, in a system of exchange of differentiated materials, of a code of meanings and constituted values. The functionality of goods comes afterward, adjusting itself to, rationalizing and at the same time repressing these fundamental structural mechanisms.
[Baudrillard 1972, pp. 76-77]

The modern totemism is not contradicted by a market rationality. On the contrary, it is promoted precisely to the extent that exchange-value and consumption depend on decisions of "utility." For such decisions turn upon the social significance of concrete contrasts among products. It is by (start of page 178) their meaningful differences from other goods that objects are rendered exchangeable: they thus become use-values to certain persons, who arecorrespondingly differentiated from other subjects. At the same time, as a modular construction of concrete elements combined by human invention, manufactured goods uniquely lend themselves to this type of discourse. Fashioning the product, man does not merely alienate his labor, congealed thus in objective form, but by the physical modifications he effects he sediments a thought. The object stands as a human concept outside itself, as man speaking to man through the medium of things. And the systematic variation in objective features is capable of serving, even better than differences between natural species, as the medium of a vast and dynamic scheme of thought: because in manufactured objects many differences can be varied at once, and by a godlike manipulation -- and the greater technical control, the more precise and diversified this manipulation - and because each difference thus developed by human intervention with a view toward "utility" must have a sign)ficance and not just those featun existing within nature for their own reasons, which lend themselves cultural notice. The bourgeois totemism , in other words, is potentially more elaborate than any "wild" (sauvage) variety, not that it has been liberated from a natural-material basis, but precisely because nature has been domesticated. "Animals produce only themselves," as Marx taught "while men reproduce the whole of nature."

Yet if it is not mere existence which men produce but a "definite mode of life on their part, " it follows that this reproduction of the whole of nature constitutes an objectification of the whole of culture. By the systematic arrangement of meaningful differences assigned the concrete, the cultural order is realized also as an order of goods. The goods stand as an object code for the signification and valuation of persons and occasions, functions and situations. Operating on a specific logic of correspondence between material and social contrasts, production is thus the reproduction of the culture in a system of objects.