• The biography of objects

    by  • June 27, 2012 • Featured, Theory

    There is a large agreement that objects are ruling our relations with each other — which implies that social relations between individuals are partially transformed into a relation between things. As objects become part of human interaction and exchange, they often do so through commodification. The process of commodification is the transformation of goods into commodities, which occurs when things (products, activities, services etc.) become exchangeable goods on the market. Once commodified, an object will be ascribed an economic value (exchange value) and finally turns into a priced good.

    Now, the object is fully commodified and ready to be sold, bought, consumed and disposed. This is a classic example for a typical biography of a commodified object. But here, the question is: does any object become a commodity? And do all objects stay commodities for all time? The answer is: not necessarily.

    Some objects are far removed from the spheres of exchange and thus never become commodities. Of course, this is independent from an object being tangible or intangible. One only has to think of love, human labour, slaves and other intangible things, which had been commodified in the past — some of them, still being commodified today. Yet, there are objects which people keep away from the market and some of them never become actual commodities.

    Other objects, for example, are sometimes commodities and sometimes not. Imagine purchasing a dog on the market. The dog is an exchangeable good, ascribed with an exchange value and sold as a priced good. Once the dog enters the family, over time, it becomes part of the social fabric of the family and eventually ceases to be a commodity. A process of decommodification has begun. The dog has now its very own place and becomes singularised. Through a singularisation of the dog, it becomes less likely to be recommodified at a later stage again. Later, the dog may have puppies and some of them may be sold (becoming commodities) while one puppy may be kept by the owners. Chances are, that this puppy will never actually become a commodity and thus will be kept away from the spheres of exchange entirely.

    In terms of commodification, quite different trajectories of objects are conceivable. A biography of an object may be marked by a single or recurring commodification process, or by perpetually avoiding marketisation. Every object has its own biography which is partially determined by the spheres of exchange it falls into. Of course, none of these trajectories is predictable, but what they reveal is, that there is an enormous tension between processes of commodification and decommodification in today’s consumerist society.


    Philipp Babcicky is a PhD student at the Wegener Center for Climate and Global Change at the University of Graz, Austria.