Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Efficacy of the Economy

Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Efficacy of the Economy

Article excerpt


This article engages with Jane Guyer's assessment (in Marginal Gains, 2004) of contemporary forms of capitalism from outside the bounds of two opposing logics: the universalization of capitalist arrangements versus the specificity of local forms of economic arrangement. Guyer's rejection of a priori definitions of economic categories leads to fertile analysis of measures and mediations as polysemic modes of valuation. The author asks: what is the theory that would account for or accommodate this polysemy? Corollary questions of epistemology arise regarding distinctions between local conventions and formal procedures and about the criteria that establish such distinctions. Conceding that we attest to the efficacy of economic concepts through practice, the author questions whether these concepts are institutionalized through "experience." Such concepts (e.g., equivalence) are not merely "economic" in nature; their genealogies disclose the extent to which their efficacy derives from their placement in many domains of life, as artifacts of a general epistemology.

In her most recent book, Marginal Gains (2004), Jane Guyer achieves a delicate and masterly balancing act, bringing the reader through highly complex arguments by means of clear, straightforward language and detailed illustrations. This book is particularly fertile because it brings together several arguments and numerous periods of intensive field research conducted by the author in various places on the African continent. For those of us who have been avid followers of Guyer's various research projects, this book is particularly satisfying insofar as it is a fine representation of the body of research and scholarship that she has developed, in original ways, over the past years.

Steeped in, and with constant reference to, her fieldwork, Marginal Gains is in dialogue with contemporary social theory. Most particularly, this book offers many insights into manners of apprehending contemporary forms of capitalism from outside the constricting bounds of two opposing logics: the universalization of capitalist relations and arrangements versus the specificity of local forms of economic arrangement. The latter narrative, so dear to cultural andiropologists, is frequently reduced either to the story of resistance to capitalism or else to representations of the particularities of historical and cultural difference. This quest to demonstrate difference is often symptomatic of assumptions about the universalizing logics of capitalism: despite its unrelenting efficacies, capitalism generally fails to universalize human relations and economic arrangements. This observation compels us to reflect upon the tendency to assume, quite uncritically, that there is, on the one hand, Capitalism and then, on the other hand, its alternative forms. In many significant ways, Guyer's book documents this failure of capitalist arrangements to become universal forms of economic life.

The merits of Guyer's extremely thorough ethnographies and historical research lie in her documentation and accounting of various and variable forms of economic rationality and modes of valuation; the chapters in Marginal Gains entitled "Calculation" (chapter 3) and "Balances" (chapter 8) are noteworthy in this regard. I searched desperately for this kind of invaluable research while working on similar subjects with respect to the Chad Basin and am thus acutely aware of the scant work done in this vein, despite the myriad books already published on the cultural logics of exchange. The centrality of conceptual discussions on the topics of value and modalities for qualifying objects and relations in their various economic statuses is constandy situated with respect to the effects of colonial interventions and the Atlantic trade, an approach that contributes to scholarship on the geographical and historical notion of "Atlantic Africa."

Guyer's point of departure is to posit that there is no essential or archetypical commodity transaction. …

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