Commodifying Bodies

Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Loïc Wacquant (eds.)
Sage Publications, 2003

Reviewed by Margot Weiss, Ph.D. Candidate in Cultural
Anthropology at Duke University

Commodifying Bodies is a slim collection of nine essays, originally published as volume seven of the journal Body & Society (2001). Most of the contributors are medical anthropologists; two are sociologists. Offered as a corrective to academic work that treats the body as (only) a text, trope, or metaphor, the contributors to this volume treat the body as a material and symbolic object. Taking up Arjun Appadurai’s (1986: 3) statement that “commodities, like persons, have social lives,” the contributors to this collection ask: what happens when the commodities in question are persons, bodies, or body parts? Scheper-Hughes defines body commodification as “encompassing all capitalized economic relations between humans in which human bodies are the token of economic exchanges” (p. 2). Although the body has a prior history of commodification (in, for example, marriage arrangements), contemporary global capitalism and new biotechnologies have increased desire for, availability of, and access to bodies and body parts across space and place.

The chapters chart the direct capitalization of body parts and the more general commodification of subjectivities themselves as the body increasingly becomes an object alienated from the self, its whole or parts available for exchange on the (often global) market. The essays cover two broad themes: 1) marketing, merchandising, and exchange of body parts (e.g. Cohen’s and Scheper-Hughes’s essays on transnational organ transplantation, Lock’s chapter on the global Human Genome Diversity Project, and Tober’s analysis of California sperm banks), and 2) alienation, objectification, or thingification of the body/subject (e.g. Weiss’s chapter on the “Yemenite Children Affair” in Israel, Brandes’s analysis of the accidental cremation of a Guatemalan worker in the U.S., Klinenberg’s chapter on heat wave deaths in Chicago, Epele’s piece on San Francisco sex workers, and Wacquant’s essay on Chicago boxers). Several authors link these two domains; for example, Epele documents both subjective alienation and bodily fragmentation experienced by drug-addicted street prostitutes. Both Cohen and Scheper-Hughes, in their chapters on the kidney transplantation trade, describe the symbolic de-humanization of organ donors (vis-à-vis organ recipients) at the moment the donor’s kidneys enter the transnational market.

The text offers an ethnographic exploration of the political economy of the body under contemporary global capitalism. I found its ethnographic focus particularly useful in exploring what can be rather abstract characterizations of this global form: flexible, transnational, cannibalistic/vampiric, symbolic, and mobile. For example, Cohen’s analysis of kidney transplantation in India understands global transplantation as a “flexible biopolitics of suppression” where the suppression of difference between tissues, bodies, and peoples leads to the growth of ever-larger flexible donor populations. In the face of these forms of sacrificial global capitalisms, agency becomes the ability to harvest oneself, to attempt to control the grounds, terms, or stakes of one’s own bodily commodification (see also Lock’s discussion of indigenous activism around human DNA collection, Wacquant’s analysis of the narratives of self-alienation and exploitation told by boxers in Chicago, and Epele’s account of prostitutes’ use of their bodies as objects of exchange). These essays provided concrete, embodied, and embedded accounts of the global refiguring of the body, a key contribution in this theoretical literature.

I also particularly liked the essays that focused on the ways some borders are shifting under global capitalism, while remaining attentive to the uneven distribution of capital, value, and agency across other borders. As clean boundaries between life and death, between bios (political/human life) and zoe (bare life), between human and machine, and between self and other blur, these chapters consider the ways inequalities are re-inscribed in new ways, resulting in sacrifices and suffering for some more than others. Scheper-Hughes’s chapter argues that a rapid, political, and critical ethnography is needed to combat the disparities of the global trade in organs, prompt public discussion on the ethics of these new relations between selves and parts, and provide accounts of the other (sacrificial) bodies in these equations. She, together with Cohen and Lock, advocate an ethical – and ethnographic – critique of these new border crossings. Of particular interest is the ways biomedical, biotechnological, and popular cultural discourses mask relations of inequality through the language of “gift,” constructing (disadvantaged) donors as body parts and (more powerful) patients as bodily subjects (cf. Tober’s analysis, which challenges the dichotomy between gift and commodity by interrogating the supposedly altruistic motivations of the “donation” – sometimes paid – of sperm). Klinenberg’s chapter on the 1995 heat wave death toll, Weiss’s contribution on the disappearance of Yemenite children who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s, and Brandes’s essay on Axel Flores’s accidental cremation each focus on the social alienation, de-humanization, and fragmentation to which poor, powerless, unwanted, or abject bodies are subjected. These contributions illuminate the space between biological and social life, providing crucial insight into the ways some deceased bodies are re-figured as abstractions, their literal and symbolic meanings torn from the social fabric in disturbing ways.

Finally, the book provided a re-reading of many of cultural anthropology’s key tropes in important new contexts. Topics such as gift vs. sacrifice, the fetish, difference vs. similarity, exchange, rights and representation, and agency are illuminated, interrogated, and challenged by these authors. For example, both Lock and Weiss, in very different contexts, touch on the use of biotechnology and medicine as neocolonialist tools of regulation and control. The invisibility of the poor, aged, urban people who died during the heat wave (Klinenberg) is usefully compared to the hyper-visibility of the exotic others so desirable to scientists collecting human DNA samples and cell lines (Lock). Cohen’s analysis of the suppression of difference in organ matching – a post-national refiguring of difference vs. sameness – is particularly interesting when compared with Tober’s analysis of the market value of difference among sperm (e.g. ethnic sperm).

Overall, the book is provocative, compelling and theoretically sophisticated, yet clear. Like most anthologies based on journal issues, the pieces are a bit uneven, but as a whole, the volume provides clear, ethnographic, and ethical accounts, an important endeavor given the disconcerting modes of increased bodily commodification described in the text. The authors link new social, scientific, and cultural developments with earlier discourses on traffic in bodies, focus attention on crucial ethnographic dimensions of these exchange relations, and provide a critical lens into the commodity form itself. Although offered as a break from more discursive readings of the body, I see these contributions as an ethnographic examination of the transnational, global, and social transfiguring of materiality and the body itself. It would be excellent for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on global millennial capitalism, commodification or materialism, the body, and science or biotechnology in anthropology and women’s studies. It would also be useful in courses on the politics and ethics of contemporary anthropological research. The collection’s U.S. and transnational focus, somewhat unusual for the themes addressed, also make the book useful for U.S. area studies and as a compliment to recent work on transnational exchanges elsewhere.

Appadurai, Arjun (ed.). 1986. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Margot Weiss is a Ph.D. Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, currently writing her dissertation, Techniques of Pleasure, Scenes of Play: BDSM in the San Francisco Bay Area. She teaches and writes on the intersections of consumption, sexuality, and spatial politics, and the performance of gender, race, class, and sexuality in the contemporary U.S.

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