by Nhi T. Lieu
In Capital, Volume One, Marx was highly critical of commodification, a process that occurs under capitalism whereby things are assigned an exchange value in the marketplace. He observed that when the use-value of commodities are given economic or exchange values, these commodities subsequently modify social relationships. Building upon these ideas, Marxist scholars such as Arjun Appadurai (1986), Stuart Hall (1992), and Donald Lowe (1995) have complicated the studies of commodification to argue that the social values of commodities are highly contested and firmly immersed in their cultural, social, and political contexts. In her thought-provoking article “Eating the Other,” bell hooks (1992) contends that racial and ethnic expressions of difference by minoritized groups can be co-opted, sold, and consumed in the dominant marketplace. In this essay, I explore the various ways in which capitalism makes commodification practices manifest through culture, ethnicity, and the racialized body. I suggest that histories of colonialism and Orientalism shape various forms of commodification as it pertains to Asians and Asian Americans. Following complex human migratory paths, the social lives of objects, bodies, cultural forms, and practices are animated by transnational market exchanges. Commodification thus occurs as a dynamic process in the service of capitalist expansion. It functions to transform racial and ethnic difference by repackaging, exoticizing, and making cultural forms and practices more palatable formainstream consumption.