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Infrastructuralism

Author(s): By MarshallSahlins
Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Spring 2010), pp. 371-385
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Infrastructuralism
Marshall Sahlins
Claude Levi-Strauss
In Memoriam

I have to make a double apology: first for framing my homage to Claude


Levi-Strauss in autobiographical terms; and then for compounding the
impropriety by repeating a reminiscence of his seminar that I have recently
put in print. I come dangerously close to the old quip about the professor
who said, thats enough talking about me. Lets talk about you. How did
you like my last book? My excuse is the extraordinary value Levi-Strausss
work has had for me, and in particular the productive value of the tension
between structuralism and the various species of materialism and economism prevailing in the late 1960s, when I had the privilege of being associated with the Laboratoire.
Recall the seminal passage in La Pensee sauvage where Levi-Strauss distinguishes the conceptual schemes ethnologists study, for all that such
schemes define and govern practices, from Marxs concept of praxis
which, he agrees with Sartre, constitutes the fundamental totality of the
sciences of man. (It seems that in the 60s most Parisian intellectuals felt
obliged to define their own conceptual practice in relation to Marxism;
even if you were not a Marxist, you were only peu marxiste, hardly a
Marxist.) The notion of a mediation between praxis and practices to
which Levi-Strauss then refers is likewise reminiscent of Sartres mediations of the material universals by the particularities of biography and
history, if in Levi-Strausss case the mediator is the conceptual scheme by
the operation of which matter and form, neither with any independent
A version of this essay with footnotes appears at criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu
Critical Inquiry 36 (Spring 2010)
2010 by The University of Chicago. 00093-1896/10/3603-0010$10.00. All rights reserved.

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existence, are realized as structures, that is as entities which are both empirical and intelligible. Yet this conceptual mediator is immediately recuperated in Marxian categories, that is, as superstructure, to which realm
Levi-Strauss would modestly confine his own structuralist theory. In the
event, the infrastructure becomes exogenous to ethnology: the subject
matter, rather, of history and the other human sciences that inform it:
It is to this theory of superstructures, scarcely touched on by Marx
that I hope to make a contribution. The development of the study of
infrastructures is a task which must be left to historywith the aid of
demography, technology, historical geography and ethnography. It is
not principally the ethnologists concern, for ethnology is first of all
psychology.
There was already an analogous tensiona similar implication that the
practical relations of production were thoroughly ordered by conceptual
schemesin the way I introduced a paper on Pacific exchange systems at
Levi-Strausss famous weekly seminarI think it was the Spring of 1969. I
am not a structuralist, I said. I am not talking about the exchange of
women or words. I am talking about the infrastructure: about the exchange of vital goods and the specializations of production this entails. Of
course, the tension was that structuralism already supposed some correspondence between the exchange of women, words and goods. The revelation (if not the resolution) of the apparent contradiction turned out to be
the denouement of the seminar.
But you are a structuralist, Levi-Strauss commented when I had finished. These exchanges across a chain of local groups you describe for
Australian Aborigines are quite like marital echange generalise, he said,
and the reciprocity between communities on the east coast of New
Guinea parallels echange restraint. (I should say that I am reporting
speech here in the classical manner of Thucydides: I cannot vouch for the
exact words; but in any case, the occasion demanded the matter should
have been said that way.)
My response to this apparent high complimentthat I was indeed a
structuralistwas not as gracious: But I thought you said structuralism is
M A R S H A L L S A H L I N S is the Charles F. Gray Distinguished Service Professor
Emeritus of anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is a fellow of the
American Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,
and the British Academy. His latest works include Apologies to Thucydides:
Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa (2004) and The Western Illusion
of Human Nature (2008).

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Critical Inquiry / Spring 2010

a science of the superstructures, I said, and it is clear I was talking about


real practical issues of the infrastructure.
True, Levi-Strauss replied. But the problem is that I learned my
anthropology at the feet of Boas, Lowie, and Kroeber, and the anthropology they were doing was something like an archaeology of the living: talking to older people about the ways of life in times past on the Great Plains
or the Northwest Coast. The anthropologists in those days were not interested in the peoples actual existence, the wretched conditions of the Indian reservations. But now we should attend to things like that. We have to
extend structuralism to the infrastructures.
Well, I said, I thought it was a matter of principle that structuralism
was a science of the superstructures. So I have to ask you, what exactly is
structuralism?
Enfin, he said, le structuralisme: cest la bonne anthropologie.
Of course, I then had to agree I was a structuralist.
Indeed, I would say an infrastructuralist, as I was finally freed to resolve the
long-standing opposition between praxis and culture by encompassing the
former in the latter. As Levi-Strauss suggested, Marx had already given us that
liberty: in the famous passage of Capital, for example, where he remarked that
the worst of architects was better than the best of bees, since the architect erects
the building in his imagination before he does so in reality. For me, the issue
came down to the symbolic dimensions of the hand axe, in which the culturalist perspectives of Levi-Strauss and Leslie White, for all their differences,
interestingly converged, as I shall discuss in a moment.
But to set the scene, the so-American versions of historical materialism abroad in the 1960s were bent on making the cultural order a
reflex of real-practical activity, itself understood as a direct function of
economic advantage. Cost/benefit analysis was the key to the cultural
materialism of Marvin Harris, for example. Or again, the going anthropological ecology aimed to reduce cultural forms to speciesspecific behaviors, supposedly no different in kind than the habits of
beavers or tigers and likewise explicable by the principle of selective
advantage. These paradigms only exacerbated the contradictions of
infrastructure and superstructure, material practice and symbolic order, I already knew from the teachings of Leslie White in the 1950s.
On the one hand, White was a radical technological determinist. He
promoted a conception of cultural order that his students privately called
the cultural layer cake, with technology at the base of the entire culture
and underlying the social system, since society consisted of the relations
necessary for wielding a given technology, the whole being topped off by
an ideology that at once reflected the prevailing social relations and the

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ways people were technologically articulated with the worldwith transcendental religion as it were the icing on the cake. White thought that
once men were able to reach the heavens in rocket ships, they would see for
themselves that there was no God. He was mistaken.
Yet, on the other hand, White argued tirelessly that culture was a
symbolic phenomenon, in that regard a distinctive human capacity and
the means by which both persons and the objects of their existence were
constituted. White was alone among American anthropologists of the
interwar period to cite Saussure on the nature of human symboling.
No ape could appreciate the difference between holy water and distilled water, he used to say (and I have been too fond of repeating); nor
could a chimpanzee appreciate the difference between Sunday and
Tuesday or honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. So if White was also
fond of citing Marx to the effect that the hand axe creates one kind of
society and the steam mill another, he insisted nevertheless that the
hand axe was an idea. Not only were the axes of a given society
fashioned according to a traditional standard; this also implied that
axes were differentially possessed, distributed, and used among men
and women or adults and youth in ways relevant to the order of that
society. An axe becomes a thing of property, but this is no property of
the thing. All of which is to say that axes function according to their
positional values in the local conceptual schemes by the operation of
which matter and form, neither with any independent existence, are
realized as structures.
Indeed, Levi-Strauss had developed just such an argument about
stone axes in his inaugural lecture at the Colle`ge de France. A certain
type of stone axe can be a sign, he said, insofar as it stands in a differential relation to the implements other societies use for the same purpose. From which followed a general statement of infrastructuralism to
the effect that social anthropology, in admitting the symbolic nature
of its object, neither excludes materiality nor assigns it a unique ontological status as distinct from spiritual things. Social anthropology
does not separate material and spiritual culture, Levi-Strauss observed. If men communicate by means of symbols and signs, then, for
anthropology, which is a conversation of man with man, everything is
symbol and sign, when it acts as an intermediary between two
subjects.
Here was a clear injunction to expand structuralism to the infrastructure. Rather than a discontinuity, temporal as well as ontological, wherein
culture appears as the symbolic afterthought of a material practice that has
its own rationality, what is entailed in infrastructuralism is the realization

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Critical Inquiry / Spring 2010

of encompassing conceptual schemes in the particular material function of


provisioning the society. Economy, one might even say, is the objectification of cosmology.

Alterity and Value


Economy is the objectification of cosmology. My space being limited, I will try to make the point rather literally by some notices of the
cosmic values of alterity, at once in regard to foreign subjects as well as
exotic goods, insofar as both function as agents of the order and prosperity of local communities of kith and kin. Whether as the subjective
powers of objects such as imported valuables, or the objective powers
of subjects such as enemy heads, the community sustains itself by the
incorporation of transcendent life-giving values. Often entailed is a
ranked mode of cultural production in which the acquisition of foreign
valuables by men is the prestigious complement, or indeed the necessary condition, of the human-reproductive powers of women. If the
heads taken by the young warriors of the Toradja of Sulawesi are involved in their initiation, hence in the enhancement of their virility, the
enemy trophies they acquireas is widely true in Southeast Asian hinterlandsare enshrined as enduring sources of human and agricultural fertility. (This would hardly be the only instance of a coup detat
in the gender politics of reproduction.) As for the goods acquired in
such border-crossing exploits, J. H. Walker writes of the famous bejalai
or journeys of young Iban men to the coastal centers of Sarawak and
beyond:
Many of the goods acquired through bejalai were themselves
sources of potency. Antique jars, for example, were credited with
supernatural powers and healing virtues, and would thereby contribute to the potency of the community into which they were
taken. Moreover, the successful accumulation of prestige goods
and other wealth would indicate in itself an increase in spiritual
powers, status and strength.
Just so, in the tribal societies (so-called) from Yunnan in southwest
China or the Kachin Hills of Burma to Biak Island off the New Guinea
coast, local authority was achieved through the acquisition and transmission of a variety of objectsfrom bronze drums and gongs through steel
swords and water buffalo to golden earrings, silver bracelets, and Ming
ceramicswhose foreign provenance was essential to their social efficacy
and material worth.

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Janet Hoskins cites a song of the Kodi of Sumba, referring to ancestral


heirlooms in the terms of foreign fruits:
Brought across the wide seas, carried over the wide oceans
To fall at our feet and be grasped by our hands:
The stalk of the foreign banana now sits at our ancestral hearth,
The sweet gourd from overseas is offered to our forefathers.
The cosmogonic traditions of the Tanimbar Archipelago in eastern Indonesia dwell on the same theme. After an initial reproductive unity of
heaven and earth was shattered by a culture hero of foreign origins, humans were left in a kind of Hobbesian condition, wandering the land in
small groups, clashing with one another, while the men (and certain
women dressed as men) searched for access to the otherworldly powers
that would allow them to create a fixed existence. In her excellent ethnography of Tanimbar, Susan McKinnon relates how they found the objective
means:
Named heirloom valuables, acquired by the ancestors through actions
that transcended the social order, became signs of the powers that lie
before, beyond, outside and even against society, but also signs of the
powers that underlie society and constitute the very basis of its possibility. It was by forays into the heavens, the underworld, and lands
beyond the horizon that these men appropriated objects of otherworldly power that would enable them to recompose their own
world, the land within the horizon.
Consider that the named heirloom, carrying the history of its ordering
effects, is rather more than a sign of external powers but something of a
subject and agent able to exercise such powers. One is reminded of the
so-called borrowing cultures of the Sepik area of New Guinea: the peoples who explicitly constitute their polity and prosperity through the appropriation of foreign, culture-making goods, rituals, incantations, and
ancestors. But then again, the mission civilisatrice mediated by the incorporation of external agents of transcendent potency evokes a worldwide
phenomenon of the same general description: the youthful stranger-king
of extraordinary capacities who imposes himself on the autochthonous
owners of the country, only to be domesticated by them to their own
benefit in cultural order, wealth, and fertility.
J. P. de Josselin de Jong made just this structural segue when he likened
the initiation rites of Torajda headhunters of Sulawesi to the exploits of the
Minangkabau hero from Sumatra who founded the Negri Sembilan kingdom of Malaya. In a charter tradition of headhunting, the village of the

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Critical Inquiry / Spring 2010

young Toradja warrior is dead during his absence, but revives upon his
triumphal return with an enemy head and the magical daughter of his
victim, whom he marries after the head-feast. In other words, the Toradja
hero returns from his border-transcending exploits with a foreign subject
(the head) and enhanced reproductive virtue (the wife) in order to give life
to (revive) the whole society. Allowance made for the inversions of classic
stranger-king narratives (the local hero who captures foreign power as
opposed to the foreign prince whose power is captured locally) here is a
modality of the same relationships.
The world around, the rulers of a remarkable number of premodern
societies have been foreign to the people and places they rule. By their
dynastic origins and their inherited nature, as rehearsed in ongoing traditions and enacted in royal rituals, they are strangers. Speaking broadly of
West and Central Africa, Luc de Heuseh writes: Everything happens as if
the structure of a lineage-based society is not capable of engendering dialectical development on the political plane without the intervention of a
new political structure. The sovereignty, the magical source of power, always comes from elsewhere, from a claimed original place, exterior to
society. Well-known examples include Alur, Bunyoro, Benin, Shilluk,
Nupe, Mossi, Kongo, Luba, Ruwanda, and so on not to mention the many
lesser kingdoms and chiefdoms whose ruling lineages traced their origins
to such greater ones. The major American empires of the Aztecs and Inca
were likewise governed by immigrant royal houses, as were many Mayan
cities such as classic-period Tikal, whose inscriptions famously tell of the
dynasty that began with the arrival of strangers. Sovereignties of foreign
origin in Southeast Asia and the Pacific include the Cambodian kingdoms
of Brahmin ancestry, the Siamese dynasty of Ayutthya founded by a Chinese merchant-prince, the Balinese kingdom of Klungkung by a Javanese
prince, the Hawaiian ruling chiefs whose ancestors arrived from the legendary Kahiki, Micronesian rulers from the equally legendary and celestial
island of Kachaw, and Malay sultans descended from Arabian sayyids or
Alexander the Great.
Like many legendary dynastic founders among the Indo-European ancients, Alexander himself was a stranger-king in Macedonia, allegedly descended from the royal stock of Argos even as Aeneas was from Troy; the
eponymous Lacedaemon was a Zeus-descended stranger who married the
daughter of the autochthonous ruler, Sparta, and succeeded him; or again
Romulus, fratricidal warrior prince of Alba, founded Rome by subsuming
the indigenous Sabines through conquest and marriage; and the peripatetic Heracles was the ancestor of the Gauls even as their Irish royal cousins
married the indigenous goddesses of their kingdoms. Once, while cam-

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paigning in Asia, Alexander had occasion to remind his Macedonian


troops that his father Phillip had literally civilized them, transforming
them from a weak bunch of nomads dressed in animal skins into properly
clad, well-ordered city dwellers of the Macedonian plain. Just so, when
Alexander effectively became stranger-king and Hellenizer of Egypt and
Western Asia, he established well-ordered cities from Alexandria to Kandahar. Certain of Alexanders miraculous descendants, who became sultans in Sumatra and Malaya, turned the rice fields to gold and silver when
they first appeared in the ancient rajadom of Srivijaya. As it is said in the
Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu) that relate this Alexandrian origin of
Islamic rulersAlexander being identified with the Koranic hero Dzul
Karnainas it is said in the Annals, where there is sovereignty, there is
gold.
The stranger-king is a rainmaker, both in the sense that he detains
powers for fertilizing the bearing earth of the original people, and that he is
the source of the societys riches in the form of its most precious objects.
Whether he guards these valuables as palladia or distributes them as royal
largesse, they are, like the king himself, foreign presences that bring culture
and order as well as wealth to the native people. The hero of an important
stranger-king narrative from western Fiji has the same name as Fijis greatest valuable, the tabua or sperm whale tooth. According to the tradition, by
suppressing incest and instituting proper marriage, here between the
daughters of the original people and himself, Tabua enacts the same constitutive social functions that whale teeth perform in Fijian social practice.
Given the doubly abstract nature of the king as stranger and ruler in traditions of this sort, he is something of an objectified subject, whereas the
palladia of the realm function again as subjectified objects. This must be
what led Robert von Heine-Geldern to argue that the royal regalia were
the true rulers of the Bugis and Makassar realms of Sulawesi; the sultans
were but their agents. Of course, providing foreign valuables and fertilizing the land are analogous royal functions, inasmuch as both supply a necessary complement of external moveable means for realizing
the fixed, earthly powers of reproduction that are the heritage of the
native owners. Then again, the characteristic union of the immigrant
hero with the daughter of the native ruler, giving rise to a dynasty that
synthesizes their complementary virtues, is another evident analogyand
a transparent representation of the constitution of the society as a cosmic
totality in which alterity is a condition of prosperity.
It follows that the material values at issue here are cosmic utilities. My
argument on economic value rests on the general determination of the
foreign as a metaphysical realm inhabited by beings and forces with tran-

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Critical Inquiry / Spring 2010

scendent powers of life and death. It comes down to a simple-minded and


positivist sense of human finitude: the thesis, rather like Malinowskis, that
people must in reality depend for their existence on conditions not of their
own making hence and whence the spirits. The going anthropological
alternatives suppose rather that divinity is a misrecognition of humanity.
For Durkheim, god is the misplaced apprehension of the coercive force of
society, a force people surely experience but know not wherefrom it comes.
For a certain Marxist anthropology, god is the alienated projection of peoples own powers of production and reproduction: an unhappy consciousness that transfers human self-fashioning to the deity. While these theories
may persuasively address the diverse morphologies of divinity, they do not
tell us why society is set in a cosmos of beings invested with powers of
vitality and mortality beyond any that humans themselves know or control. Neither sense of false consciousness takes sufficient account of the
generic predicament of the human condition: this dependence on sui generis forces of life and death that are no more subject to human intentionality than they are created by human science. If people really were in
control of their own existence, they would not die. Or fall ill. Nor do they
govern the natural reproductive processes of their food supplies or themselves. They cannot control the weather on which their prosperity depends. And most notably in the present connection, neither do they
control other peoples of their ken: peoples whose cultural existence may be
enviable or scandalous to them, but in any case, by their very differences
from themselves, strangers who thus offer proof of a transcendent capacity
for life. As symptoms of life powers, even the dangers of outside presences
may factor into desires for them.
But who exactly is a stranger and where does the outside begin? Structuralism owes something on this score to British structural functionalism,
since segmentary relativity operating in virtually any society, as Edward
Evans-Pritchard impliedwould make strangers of certain fellow villagers and thus conflate the categories of the cosmological with internal
conceptions of authority or even intimate relations of affinity. More than
metaphor, then, this conflation of structural registers is the stipulation of a
segmentary sociology. When a child is born in Tanimbar, the question of
its sex is phrased as stranger or house masterthe latter referring to a
daughter destined to reproduce another house. Moreover, a pregnant
woman, reports McKinnon, is often likened to a boat that makes a longdistance journey and returns to land laden with valuables. For the wifetakers must compensate the womans natal house for the reproductive
powers they acquired by return gifts of foreign heirloom valuables, particularly those obtained as bride-price for the outmarried womans own

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daughter. My argument is that marriage is the archetypal form of lifefrom-without, the actual experiential synthesis of intimacy and alterity
that prospers the consanguineous group through the incorporation of external reproductive powers. In this regard, marriage or stranger-kinship
epitomizes stranger-kingship, as conversely the dynasty of the strangerking is typically founded by an alliance of cosmic dimensions with a princess of the autochthonous people. Recall Edmund Leachs famous
distinction between the we-group of consanguines, defined as relations of
common substance, and relations of alliance that are viewed as metaphysical influence. Or Mary Helmss observation, based on a broad ethnographic survey: Certain categories of people, especially affines (in-laws)
are associated with the cosmographically-charged outside world, and
therefore convey distinctive supernaturally informed qualities associated
with the wider cosmos. Affines are personifications of cosmic powers,
even as foreign goods objectify them, hence their frequent synthesis in
charged exchanges that produce persons of social value.
Perhaps trade is as old as the incest taboo, inasmuch as they have the
same finality. Perhaps the incest taboo itself, whatever its advantageous
effects in expanding the network of kin, likewise originated in the quest for
powers of life at large beyond the communities of the familiar.
With regard to trade, one further sequitur, not so speculative: in the
great range of human societies, scarcity is largely a function of exchangevalue rather than the other way around. At least for the most valuable
things, their externality is a necessary condition of their desirability of
which their scarcity is then a consequence. Indeed the local production of
such valuables is typically inconceivable, even were the means available.
This is as true of trade as it is of (so-called) totemism, where in classic
forms (for example, Australian Aboriginal clans) the interdependence of
groups is based on an arbitrary division of labor, each totemic community
specializing in the ritual increase of a species that only the others may
consume. Likewise it is a truism of Melanesian ethnography that different
communities and/or ethnic groups are involved in regional exchange networks of increase rituals and life-giving valuablessometimes even significant foodstuffsthat have no necessary relation to resource
opportunities or technical capacities. It is a trade in powers, the vital powers of alterity. Just so, Philippe Descola writes of Amazonian hunting dogs
that the Achuar insist on importing from afar, though they are not particularly distinguished from their own animals:
So this circulation of dogs cannot be justified objectively by the quality of hounds from distant places. Its cause lies in something common

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Critical Inquiry / Spring 2010

to all the Jivaro groups: the fantastical value set on certain material or
immaterial thingsshamanic powers for example upon which a
foreign origin is supposed to confer strength and qualities far superior
to those of identical things that are obtainable locally. This willing
dependence upon the external world is bound to encourage bartering,
since the things one posses oneself are necessarily less estimable than
others that are invested with all kinds of merits because they have
moved from one place to another.
That seeming oxymoron that scarcity is a function of value, given the
life-enhancing virtues of the foreign, has an implication as well for pecuniary, market exchange insofar as the latter is no less subject to the cultural
construction of desireswhich is to say the basic and true realm of value.

The Infrastructuralism of Capitalism


I am hardly the first to attempt to recuperate the infrastructure for
cultural schemes. Saussures explanation of the value of signs by the value
of francs was already an open invitation to turn the semiotic argument
aroundwhich Lucien Sebag, Jean Baudrillard, Pierre Clastres, and Maurice Godelier, in their various ways, have already succeeded in accomplishing. Likewise for the gestures I once made to the pensee bourgeoisie. Here
I would conclude by returning to that discussion, adding some further
observations on the cultural constitution of capitalist market values.
The problem is, in order to understand the market economy the way
economists do, we have to give up everything we know about the cultural
formation of value. For all its pretensions as an empirical science, academic economics is essentially a Platonic discipline, based on an ideal
individual subject (Homo economicus) whose ideally rational behavior is
taken as the intellectual object of the discipline. As Karl Polanyi indicated
decades ago, by this allegedly legitimate abstraction, the whole social and
cultural order providing the substantive terms of material life is reduced to
a specific form of subjective activity, itself stripped of any meaningful social content: the rational allocation of scarce means against alternate ends
to acquire the greatest possible returns. On page one of virtually any introductory textbook, the economy of a society is collapsed by definition
into peoples economizing, which is not only an ideal form of utilitarian
practice but also the specific ideal of the marketplace, not the practice of
people when they come home to their families. By defining the economy as
economizing, however, the economists banish the cultural schemes of persons and things that order use-values, demand and production to the unexamined limbo of what they call exogenous or even irrational factors.

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In conventional pecuniary terms, two-thirds of the current American


economy consists of consumer spending. So if there is no disputing peoples tastes, then there will be no science of them either.
What effectively organizing material life has no economic science. The
cultural system of values is a given. The division of labor by sex, for example, or the social organization of the labor force, the prestige value of filet
mignon, the supposed natural virtues of bottled water from the primitive Fiji Islands: these determining conditions of material activity function in economic analysis as unexamined presuppositions of the actors. Or
else, if they rise to the economists consciousness, they are, as they say,
exogenous factors. The unexamined life may not be worth living, according to Socrates, but it is business as usual in economics. To adapt
Louis Dumonts phrasing, the whole kingdom of means and ends, persons
and goods, constituted by society and history has been usurped by the
individual actors, so that the cultural order may be perceived as a consequence of their doings and the economy as a function of their authority.
Of course that is the way it seems to the bourgeois subject. The meaningful schemes of objects and persons are at best semiconscious, and comprehended only as an unreflected habitus. Certain relations between the
anatomy of edible animals and the occasions for eating them, for example,
are understood by North American consumers by the simple formula that
filet mignon is to hamburger as fine dining is to an ordinary lunch. We are
generally unaware that underlying our apparently rational choiceswe do
not buy hamburger for honored dinner guestsis a whole code of cultural
values that has little or nothing to do with nutritional utility, but much
more to do with such distinctions as muscle vs. organs, outer flesh vs.
inner, carved vs. ground, prepared dishes vs. sandwiches, lunch vs. dinner,
and so on. Neither will utility account for the peculiar way that shoppers in
American supermarkets make choices between different meats, poultry, or
fish according to the necessity of having something different than last
nights dinner, where difference is determined from a complex typology
of main dishes and methods of food preparation (frying, roasting, boiling, and so on). (When I was doing fieldwork in Fiji, people remarked on
how bizarre European dietary habits were that not only required different
foods every day, but different foods three times a day.) Or consider the
meaningful differences in Western clothing. All the monetary rationality
that we may put into buying clothing will not explain the characteristics of
dress that mark the distinctions between men and women, holidays and
ordinary days, businessmen and policemen, adults and children, people of
different regions and ethnic affiliationsthink of all the ways that clothes
signify.

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Critical Inquiry / Spring 2010

Perhaps we have been too quick to celebrate the disenchantment of the


world ushered in by the retreat of religion and the growth of naturalism
since the seventeenth century. Rather, what actually happened was the
enchantment of Western society by the world, by the imagined cultural
values of the material rather than the spiritual. We live in a world enchanted by symbolically constituted, culturally relative utilities such as
gold, oil, diamonds, Pinot Noir grapes, Mercedes cars, heirloom tomatoes,
silk clothing, hamburgers from McDonalds, and purses from Gucci. Here
is a large construction of nature by particular cultural values whose symbolic qualities, however, are understood as purely material qualities,
whose social sources are attributed rather to individual desires, and whose
arbitrary satisfactions are mystified as universally rational choices.
Perhaps the famous distinction drawn by Karl Polanyi between the
autonomous, self-regulating market economy and the so-called embedded economies of societies without markets was too radical because the
market itself is culturally embedded. In embedded economies as Polanyi
defined them, the disposition of goods and labor is ordered by preexisting
social relations among the parties concerned. The traditional economic
terms of Fiji islanders, for example, were not what our economic science
would recognize as such. Their economic terms were chiefs (the recipients of tributes and dispensers of largesse), sisters son (a privileged
relative with divine rights to the goods of his maternal uncles people), be
of good heart, my kinsman (a near-imperative solicitation of material
aid), border allies (contracted and rewarded by gifts), war god (subject
to lavish offerings), and the like. These were the relations of production,
distribution, possession, and consumption by means of which nature was
appropriated and the society provisioned.
By contrast, Polanyi argued, the capitalist market economy, working
autonomously through the supply-demand-price mechanism, is thereby
separated out from other relations and institutions distinct thus from
religion, government, kinship, and other such exogenous sectors of the
society. But what about the meaningful differences between steak and
hamburger or mens clothes and womens? The supply-demand-price system is itself embedded in a larger cultural scheme and driven by the values
thereof. Operating through supply and demand, the market is an effective
way of realizing the symbolic values of this cultural totality in material
terms. But from an anthropological point of view, it has been all too effective in mystifying these meaningful terms as pecuniary values.
I end by invoking another reading of Levi-Strauss which may at first
seem off-topic but, I submit, is epistemologically critical for revealing
this symbolic system of values, otherwise unconscious, orchestrating the

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Marshall Sahlins / Infrastructuralism

pecuniary order of the market. Recall Levi-Strausss seemingly mystical


dictum, myths think themselves in men unbeknownst to them. There is
more than one suggestion in the masters work that since anthropologists
are of the same intellectual nature as the peoples they study, they are given
possibilities of knowing the cultures of others that are in important respects more powerful than the way natural scientists know physical objects. The more I know about the physical composition of, say, the table on
which I am working, the less it is like anything in human experience
beginning with the fact that nothing simply physical can specify that it is a
table. Unlike the way tables will always appear to us, science tells there
are spaces between the molecules, and beyond that, at the level of quantum
mechanics, our knowledge defies all common sense. But if natural science
starts off with the experientially familiar and ends in the humanly remote,
anthropology, as Levi-Strauss so often demonstrated, works the other way
around. One might begin with something distant or even obnoxious to us,
say cannibalism in the Fiji Islands, and yet come to the conclusion that it is
logical in that cultural contextwhich is to say, it has come into accord
with our own thinking.
In 1929 the anthropologist A. M. Hocart recounted the formal speech of
a Fijian chief presenting a reward to the master carpenter who had built his
great sailing canoea sacred canoe of the kind traditionally used in war
and inter-island festivals. The chief apologized that he could not offer the
carpenter a cooked man or a raw woman in compensation, for Christianity, he said, spoils our feasts. The cooked man would be an enemy
cannibal victim, the raw woman a virgin daughter offered as wife. The
anthropological question immediately posed is why the virgin woman
would be equivalent in value to the cannibal victim? The brief answer is
that they have the same finality, which is the beneficial reproduction of
society: the woman directly by bearing children, the cannibal victim as a
sacrifice whose consumption in conjunction with the god procures divine
benefits for the society, including human and agricultural fertility. One
could also now understand why in some parts of Fiji a fine war club is a
required betrothal gift, in effect compensating the family for the future loss
of their daughter by the future gain of an enemy victim. Or why the great
compliment of a Fijian man as a strong arm applies equally to feats in
growing crops, siring children, and slaying enemies. Or again why alliances
with warrior groups border peoples and sea warriorsare accompanied
by royal gifts of chiefly daughters, thus making the allies privileged sisters
sons of the chiefdom. So if Fijian cannibalism is thereby beginning to seem
logical, consider that logic is something that goes on within us. Pardoning the pun, a custom that began as strange and remote has been assimi-

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Critical Inquiry / Spring 2010

lated and internalizedthat is, as our own good sense. Since cultures are
symbolically constituted, and since we too are symbolizing beings, we have
the privilege of knowing others by reproducing the very ways they are
organized in the operations of our own mind. Or, as Levi-Strauss said,
anthropology is a conversation of man with man.
What has this got to do with the unconscious values of our material
lives? The point is that once we enter into a system of values involving the
meaningful relations between canoes, war clubs, chiefly women, crops,
warriors, enemy victims, and indeed much more, we can hardly remain
unconscious of the values by which we are related to our own objects of
existence. We must suspect that something more than pecuniary goes on
in the infrastructure. Epistemologically, anthropology is a two-edged
sword. We too have a culture of which our economics is one expression.

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385