- Unthinking Teleologies:Markets, Theories, Histories
The call for papers for the 2004 Social Science History Association (SSHA) annual meeting began with an excerpt from the Talking Heads' 1988 song "(Nothing but) Flowers":
There was a shopping mall Now it's all covered with flowers You've got it, you've got it. . . . This was a discount store Now it's turned into a cornfield You got it, you got it Don't leave me stranded here I can't get used to this lifestyle
This excerpt emphasizes David Byrne's critique of the spatial and existential impact of commodification—the relentless conversion of all spaces and relations to market spaces and market relations. At the same time, it points to the unthinkability of "history going backward," of the undoing of commodification—perhaps implying a kind of moral, political, and cultural as well as economic teleology in the realm of market development. Note, as well, Byrne's deployment of the nature-market dichotomy that seems to be part [End Page 1] of the historical construct, suggesting that even as we rely increasingly on markets, we have bad feelings about their seemingly unnatural character and corrosive impact on human relations and the environment. Still, elsewhere in the song Byrne also suggests the extent to which we have internalized the appeal of commodities. In the dystopic future of the song, he laments the lost past—"I miss the honky tonks, / Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens"—and, from the perspective of this future world where commodification has unraveled, he "can't get used to this lifestyle." But of course, the historicity of this final line reminds us that through history we have gotten used to this lifestyle.
Naturally, Byrne is not the only one thinking about markets and histories. Markets are at the center of much research and analysis in the historical social sciences as well as in contemporary politics and culture more broadly. Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid teleological understandings of market influences in history. I have noticed this most compellingly in teaching a world history course that I developed with my colleague Ann Waltner. She is a social and cultural historian of Ming China; my work has been largely in the realm of the social, political, and cultural history of modern Europe. Still, as we developed the course, the lure of historical narratives based on the relentlessly growing interconnectedness of global regions through trade and market relations (however structured politically) has been almost irresistible.
The challenge is to think of markets and their histories other than teleologically. And that is very hard to do. Interestingly, many of the competing paradigms related to markets, despite coming from very different positions and approaches, can push us toward teleologies even when they are not implicit in the theory. Certainly in classical and neoliberal economic theories it is explicit: these theories operate on the assumption that markets grow as a result of natural human propensities. Marxist or neo-Marxist theory and historiography focus much attention on more coercive processes of commodification of the material goods, labor, and cultural capital required for human existence and social reproduction. Even if its vision ultimately resists aspects of commodification, in the short run—that is, much of modern human history—inevitable commodification is at the heart of the development of capitalism and of the contradictions between its repressive and emancipatory consequences.
From a different theoretical direction, feminist theory has broken down the ideological wall between the public and the private—which is to say, among other things, between the world of the market and the domestic [End Page 2] world supposedly exempt from market relations and sustained in contrast by the "labor of love." This critique corrects economic analysis that devalues women's economic activities often ignored when they are not market-based, but this critique can have the result of extending the realm of market relations and their potential teleologies even further, into the household. (From still another direction, some parallel claims were made by "new home economics" theories, associated especially with Gary S. Becker .)
In cultural studies, discussions of the market often focus on popular culture and the commodification of pleasures and...