This post builds on the research article “Northwestern Tanzania on a Single Shilling: Sociality, Embodiment, Valuation,” which was published in the August 1997 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Interview With Brad Weiss
[The author chose to respond to the three questions asked together, rather than individually. The questions are reproduced below, followed by his answer.]
Joshua Walker: Your article joins semiotic and phenomenological analyses of money, arguing that in the case of the Haya, the single shilling coin lends itself to processes of concretizing sociocultural understandings of bodiliness. In this way, you take money not as an object of analysis per se, but as a particular, privileged example of unfolding processes of valuation and embodiment. It seems that the anthropology of money can be divided into two groups: some works take money as a unit of analysis in its own right, while others, such as your own, interpret it (as a sign, as a material object, etc.) as iconic of broader processes. Could you reflect on these different approaches, on how you came to be interested in writing about money?
JW: Arguably much of the anthropological literature on money has been preoccupied in different ways with emphasizing the notion that all money is to some extent (potentially) a special purpose currency. To what extent can anthropology contribute to a critique of classical theories of money which transcend the general and special purpose money dichotomy developed by Polanyi?
JW: How have the issues raised about money in this article influenced your work long-term?
Brad Weiss: This paper on the pesky single shilling coin is undoubtedly one of the most idiosyncratic pieces I've written. One of the reviewers (who turned out to be a good friend of mine, and an exceptional scholar of the commodity form in Africa and elsewhere, to boot), said reading the paper was like climbing a tree with lots of interesting branches, and when you got to the top you couldn't quite tell where the trunk was! I liked that observation, though I recognize it meant that it might be hard to persuade readers of the significance of the analysis.
Like most of the things that I've written, the paper had its origins in a kind of arresting scene from fieldwork that I describe near the beginning of the paper. I lived with a man who regularly brewed beer to sell it, and, in the course of testing the beer to see how it was "ripening," the gathered tasters were shocked by how thick and sticky it was, and almost instantly called for a shilling to be tossed into, or a young girl to be lifted over, the fermenting brew. What was also interesting is that my friend who brewed the beer wasn't a local, and was completely unfamiliar with this technique, so both of our confusion elicited a kind of ethno-theorizing about all sorts of things - the material properties of coinage, the "value" of young girls, proper methods of fermentation, and the compelling qualities of good beer.
In part, the "problem" of this event stimulated an ethnological inquiry along the lines of Levi-Straussian interest in "concrete science": A single-shilling coin and an "innocent" young girl can both remedy the brewing process; how do these "things" go together? My work in Buhaya, at this time, was already developing in ways that were interested in how objectified modes of value were engaged in peoples' lived experience - the way, for example, that land consolidation by wealthier community members who purchased land held through patrilineal inheritance, was understood to have deleterious effects on the foods people ate (including the beer that they drank). Or the way that the "hot" money people acquired by the sale of heritable wealth was quickly "eaten." Clearly these kinds of claims resonated with this particular understanding of how such "valuables" could be used to enhance beer that was going bad.
These kinds of questions lead me to consider, as you note, how connections between bodiliness and objectification could be explored. But, at the time, the ideas I was working with were not explicitly concerned with the money form as an object in itself- the efflorescence of anthropologies of finance were still on the horizon (or at least my horizons), and I really hadn't given any thought to Polanyi's work at all (I'm a bit ashamed to say) - and were more interested in the social effects of money on "local" social orders. The Parry and Bloch volume on the topic (1989) is a good example of this kind of work, and while I thought the arguments the contributors made about not conceptualizing money as a unified "thing" in itself were insightful (if not exactly innovative), I thought the broader conclusions the editors made about long and short-term cycles put too much emphasis on unchanging orders of social reproduction. What was more interesting to me was to conceptualize, not just "social relations" (as though these were abstractable institutional orders), but sociality as an experiential process through which persons encounter a world (and so both change and reproduce that world in the process).
My ideas on this front were shaped by a number of important works that were circulating at the time. One was Debbora Battaglia's beautiful essay in AE on "The Body in the Gift" (1992). This piece examines questions of memory and forgetting as concretized in form and practice, problems in commemoration that were very much au courant in the 1990s. Battaglia's work thinks seriously about the different potentialities, in particular, of embodiment and inscription, and tries to think of these less as antagonistic, or even alternative modes of cultural production, and emphasizes, instead, the ways that each are both "lived" and "objectified" in actual practice. Even though I don't cite the piece, I think her insights were critical to the way I was trying to grasp embodiment, not as a "presocial" or "precultural" condition, but as a matrix of possibilities that were realized as eminently social and cultural forms.
The other set of ideas - related to Battaglia's, in some ways - I was thinking about at the time had to do with Nancy Munn's work on kula (1986). Aside from the fact that Munn's entire framework of analysis was hugely influential in my work in Buhaya (and continues to be in many, many ways), her discussion of the particular qualities of kula shells and of the men of renown who exchange them on Gawa, makes some seminal points. Foremost among these, for me, is the way that kula shells both accrue value and produce value as they circulate, and so it is not just men who make the shells valuable, but the shells that give value to the men, as well. This process of reciprocal valuation, in Munn's work, draws attention, in particular, to the ways that value is embedded in the concrete qualities (like, speed, clarity, beauty, patina, etc.) exhibited by shells, but also attributed to trading partners. And the point, for me, of this discussion is that it demonstrates how quantitative distinctions (like rank, and increase, and size) are also forms of quality. At the end of the day I think this is the fundamental contribution of this paper, to show how "the money form" presents itself to us as an eradication of quality (in the way expounded on in Simmel's celebrated - or should I say notorious? - philosophy of money), but itself depends upon concrete qualities. Even processes like enumeration are embedded in qualitative social forms - a five shilling coin may be the equivalent of five single shilling coins, but it does not have the same properties as those coins, as such. And I thought this insight could be generalized to thinking about the production of of value within social experience - bodily, material, sensuous, reified, and otherwise - as a process that is oriented by concrete qualities. How well I make the case in this paper is up to the reader, but that's what I thought I was getting at.
Where did these ideas take me? Well, I wrote this piece as I was about to undertake my archival research on coffee in Northwest Tanzania, and its transformation from an indigenous "gift" to a "cash" crop (2003). One of the things that proved to be really interesting was looking at the ways that coffee circulated around Lake Victoria prior to the 20th century. While it was difficult to get very thick descriptions of this process, it was interesting to find that coffee, itself, often served as a kind of "special purpose" currency, that could be transacted between royals across the region, who all claimed to have a "monopoly" on the use of coffee (even as it was grown and consumed everywhere, and by everyone). I also found other forms of currency, like cowry bundles, that were composed in complex ways - a "single" bundle was actually assembled from hundreds of separate strands, although the strands themselves could not (Purportedly? Officially? I still would like to know) circulate independently. I think my work in this paper alerted me to ways of thinking about persons and things - a very Maussian concern, but no less compelling for that! - and the ways that properties of personhood were embedded in things and enacted in bodies, and bodily perception. In some ways, this dynamic is STILL the anthopologically rich vein that I'm mining, even as I've gone on to look at the global Hip Hop nation across urban Tanzania and pastured pigs in the American South.
Battaglia, Debbora. 1992. The Body in the Gift: Memory and Forgetting in Sabarl Mortuary Exchange. American Ethnologist 19(1):3-18.
Munn, Nancy D. 1986. The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Parry, Jonathan and Maurice Bloch (eds). 1996 . Money and the Morality of Exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Weiss, Brad. 2003. Sacred Trees, Bitter Harvests: Globalizing Coffee in Colonial Northwest Tanganyika. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Select Works by Brad Weiss
2011. Making Pigs Local: Discerning the Sensory Character of Place. Cultural Anthropology 26(3):438-461.
(ed). 2004. Producing African Futures: Ritual and Reproduction in a Neoliberal Age. Boston: Brill.
1992. Plastic Teeth Extraction: the iconography of Haya gastro-sexual affliction. American Ethnologist 19(3):538-552.