Tales of Physics and Cosmographies of Capitalism

From the Series: Generating Capitalism

Photo by Steve Buissinne.

Landing at Charles De Gaulle Airport in mid-February, my fellow passengers from Minneapolis and I were greeted with an automated announcement in Mandarin Chinese: “Welcome to Paris! Happy New Year!” The Chinese New Year was to arrive within five days of Valentine’s Day. Here in the hub of romance, the impending Feast of Saint Valentine gave way to another festivity. As I walked past the luxury gift shops in the departure section a few days later, I noticed displays of red lanterns, gold dragons, lavish money trees, and the zodiac symbol for the year of the . . . What was it exactly—a ram? a goat? a sheep?

No one knew for sure which specific animal to reference, but many took notice of the confusion. CNN, NPR, the Washington Post, and the New York Times all ran discussions without reaching—and, perhaps more strikingly, without aiming to reach—any consensus. Opinions from China likewise reveled in the controversy, as Chinese virtual communication platforms were flooded with archaeological artifacts, ancient paintings, and popular cartoons and toys of the animal(s) under the sign of “yang” (羊): rams, ewes, goats, sheep, and even llamas. Some clever person suggested “the year of the horned ruminant animal,” only for another question to arise: how would one differentiate this from the year of the ox, the buffalo, or the cattle?

The year of “niu” (牛)—this other horned ruminant animal on the zodiac—most recently came in 2009 on the Gregorian solar calendar. At that time, its classificatory ambiguity and multiplicity did not seem to raise eyebrows. Newly far-reaching concerns with properly translating the Chinese zodiac are emblematic of a broader shift in the nature and extent of China’s global relevance. Now, after decades of anticipating, debating, and manufacturing the rise of China in terms of “global capitalism,” China has arrived—but not just in the form of cheap and efficient labor or increasing spectacles of wealth, capital, and mass consumption. There is more at play in the seemingly innocuous controversy over the gender, kinship, and taxonomy of yang than what can be explained as cultural expressions of economic interest or logic, alternative orders of nature, or other ontologies on their own.

China’s “arrival” is not merely its proliferation of recognizable, legible examples of capitalist practice or market contributions; nor is the rest of the world simply trying to execute the cultural translations necessary to economically incorporate (or be economically incorporated into) China’s capitalist processes or the Chinese capitalist project. Such interpretations reify rationalist models of economic encounter in which interests are presumed to be exclusively market-based, and culture is something to be accounted for in order to most efficiently and effectively pursue these interests. I argue that, on the contrary, apparent confusions over the Chinese zodiac represent one aspect of a broader festival of “working misunderstanding” (Sahlins 1994, 421), and part of a series of historical and material-semiotic unfoldings that beg cosmological and cosmographicconsideration.

To be clear, there is nothing grand in nature or scale about my invocation of the “cosmo-” here. If anything, I intend exactly the opposite. My use of the term “cosmology” is as much inspired by debates over the Chineses zodiac as by Marshall Sahlins’s (1994, 415) essay “Cosmologies of Capitalism,” in which he reminds us of an era where, in the place of universalized and universalizing exchange value, certain “Chinese prestige values” held all of world commerce hostage. Although Sahlins does not specify exactly what he means by “prestige value,” much of his discussion of the China trade is focused on the Qing Dynasty emperors’ cosmological practice aimed at transforming the undifferentiated and disorderly—be they barbarians, monsters, or other wonders—into all-encompassing harmony and balance. Simply put, “trade fits into the tribute system” (420). The calendrical system, which tracks celestial (including zodiac) movements while timing important cosmic/earthly events, is instrumental in enacting the emperor’s “world-constituting virtue” (429). When the emissary of George III offered the Qing emperor technological and scientific wonders as birthday presents in the hope of opening up trade, the business was already finished because “the ceremonies were the business” (421).

A heavily influential critique of world system theory and its Marxist utilist underpinnings, “Cosmologies of Capitalism” has been taken into two particularly fruitful directions: as an argument for indigenous agency in enfolding and rearranging world capitalism within local experiences and ontologies, and as a demystification of the ways in which “need” is fetishized in Western capitalism. But there is also a deeper analytical lesson here; namely, an emergent critique of rationality that undergirds the “Western sense of human nature” (Sahlins 1994, 439) and culminates in the “planetary physics” (414) of world capitalism. Tracing a barely secularized genealogy of rationality (beginning with Saint Augustine and continuing through Hobbes, Locke, Adam Smith, and the Enlightenment philosophes), Sahlins gestures toward a history of rationalization as applied to the social and social analytics—analytics that constitute worlds and lives.

Taking Sahlins’s cosmological argument further, I suggest that it requires more than ontological inversions or the resurrection of the ancients to dislodge the hold of rationality on social analysis. Cosmographic considerations must be taken into account here. The concept of cosmography is not new to anthropologists. Franz Boas (1940, 642) defines it as a science that “considers every phenomenon as worthy of being studied for its own sake.” For Boas, two impulses lie at the origin of every science: aesthetic and affective (643). The quest for law, order, and rationality arises out of the aesthetic impulse, which Boas suggests (slyly, I think) must have risen out of an earlier desire to find law and regularity in a confusing world. Quoting Goethe (a true champion of the Enlightenment!), Boas also imagines a cosmography that follows the affective impulse and finds a single phenomenon, action, or event worthy of attention not because it is explainable but because it is true. Importantly, in spite of his conceptual and methodological reach, the legacy of this physicist-turned-anthropologist hardly resembles planetary physics. Instead of aspiring to a unifying theory of everything, Boas’s cosmographic orientations have alternatively helped us keep specific phenomena alive in and as cultural analyses.

I imagine what a cosmography of capitalism might look like then—one that is committed to phenomena, actions, and events rather than overarching rationalizations that reorder and defuse all difference, disorder, and confusion by treating them as mere translations and accountings. This, of course, requires rethinking critically what a phenomenon is in the first place. Drawing on the work and life of Niels Bohr, Karen Barad (2007, 141)—herself trained in theoretical physics—argues for a feminist redefinition of a phenomenon not as a “thing” out there but rather “dynamic topological reconfigurings/entanglements/relationalities/(re)articulations of the world.” It is a perpetual becoming that is decidedly material-semiotic. Cosmographies of capitalism based in this understanding of phenomena would not only tolerate relationalities, entanglements, and unfoldings, but would be ideally suited to fully appreciate and even thrive in their generativity.

At the heart of the festival of zodiac controversy in the heady world of capitalism are not goats or sheep, but phenomena all the way down, up, and sideways. This same zodiac is, after all, part of the lunisolar calendrical system that the Qing emperors used to constitute the world, albeit only after the system had been reformed with the help of a group of Jesuits who were themselves caught up in post-Tychonic cosmic controversies.


Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Boas, Franz. 1940. “The Study of Geography.” In Race, Language and Culture, 639–47. New York: The Free Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1994 (1988). “Cosmologies of Capitalism: The Trans-Pacific Sector of ‘The World System.’” In Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory, edited by Nicholas B. Dirks, Geoff Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner, 412–56. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.