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  • A Brief Reply to Kalindi Vora's "Others' OrgansSouth Asian Domestic Labor and the Kidney Trade"
  • Neil Larsen (bio)

Basing itself largely on an emergent body of ethnography concerning the contemporary traffic in human organs, and especially on the buying and selling of human kidneys in South Asia, Kalindi Vora's "Others' Organs: South Asian Domestic Labor and the Kidney Trade" can certainly lay claim to a considerable degree of ethical and political urgency. It quite rightly insists as well on the need to view this horrific new form of globalized commerce as inseparable, from the standpoint of the logic of capital, from the no less desperate circumstances leading to the export of "whole" South Asian laboring bodies themselves, here the Sri Lankan women who make up a large proportion of the domestic "care" workers in wealthy enclaves such as the Gulf State of Dubai. To the extent that it draws the attention of its readers to this real and sinister index of the South Asian economic "miracle" even now still being touted in the pages of mainstream media and among the diehard apologists for neoliberal economics and development policies, its appearance in the pages of Postmodern Culture is a welcome occurrence.

Less fortunately, however, "Others' Organs" regards these "vital commodities" insofar as they are products of what Vora also terms "affective and biological labor from the Global South" as, when viewed from a "cultural studies framework and building upon feminist and postcolonialist theories of value and production," arguments for "the need to rethink the terms of Marx's labor theory of value" (par. 3). The bulk of the essay attempts to make good on this theoretical claim. The results are disappointing, and purport to engage in a debate with or somehow emend the theoretical axioms laid out in the first chapter of volume I of Capital in which the latter, for this reader at any rate, have become virtually unrecognizable. At one point Vora does offer the following reasonably approximate gloss on what she refers to only as the "labor theory of value":

For Marx, value in its multiple forms can be quantified through labor time, or time spent expending the energy of the body and mind in producing an object, which under capitalist production becomes a commodity. He argues that at the level of the commodity, value can exist as both exchange value and use-value, but these are ultimately different moments in the life of value produced by labor.

(par. 6)

One wonders what "multiple" can be referring to here, but otherwise fair enough. Yet with what is virtually this one exception, the word "value" itself undergoes a bizarre and, it would seem, symptomatic process of continuous ambiguation or conceptual slippage throughout the pages of "Others' Organs." So, for example, Vora's opening anecdote concerning the tragic death of the Pakistanti/Afghani airborne stowaway Mohammed Ayaz, fallen from the undercarriage of a plane at Heathrow airport in 2001, becomes a "story [that] also forces us to think that … lives [such as Ayaz's], their labor, and their value may circulate outside the logic of capital" (par.3; my emphasis). "Outside"? For anyone the least bit attuned to the argument of Capital I, this is a sheer oxymoron: value, or valorization, is the logic of capital: "buying in order to sell," or, in Marx's celebrated formula, M-C-M', the conversion of money, or a quantum of value, via its conversion into its commodity form and sale, into more money (Marx 247-257). To be "outside" value in this sense—and Vora never specifies any other that connects in any way to the terms of Marx's theory of value—surely, is eo ipso to be outside the other, capital. "Value" that circulated outside the logic of M-C-M' would not be value any longer.

But "Others' Organs" proceeds as though some other, intermediate sort of "value," neither the socially necessary abstract labor that, per Marx, constitutes the "substance" of value and whose duration constitutes the latter's "magnitude" (Marx 125-130) nor the common sense cultural or ethical sense of the lexeme as, say, "norm" or subjectively-held judgment or belief were discoverable in...

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