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Society and Nature

February 27, 2010

One can insist on a certain primacy of the social without denying the work of biology. Sahlins puts it well:

Of course in one sense nature if forever supreme. No society can live on miracles, thinking to exist by player her false. None can fail to provide for the biological continuity of the population in determining it culturally—can neglect to provide shelter in producing houses, or nourishment in distinguishing the edible from the inedible. Yet me do not merely “survive.” They survive in a definite way. They reproduce themselves as certain kinds of men and women, social classes and groups, not as biological organisms …. True that in so producing a cultural existence, society must remain within the limits of physical-natural necessity. … [But within these limits], any group has the possibility of great range of “rational” economic intentions, not even to mention the options of production strategy that can be conceived from the diversity of existing techniques, the example of neighboring societies, or the negation of either.

… [U]se-value cannot be specifically understood on the natural level of “needs” and “wants”—precisely because men do not merely produce “housing” or “shelter”: they produce dwellings of definite sorts, as a peasant’s hut, or a nobleman’s castle. This determination of use-values, of a particular type of house as a particular type of home, represents a continuous process of social life in which men reciprocally define objects in terms of themselves and themselves in terms of objects.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2010 6:56 pm

    I’ve been enjoying your notes on Sahlins a lot; regarding the connection between biology, material reality, and culture in Sahlins’ work, it’s important to note that he was a student in the line of Leslie White and Julian Steward, and therefore his later Marxism comes freighted with a (in my mind much more sophisticated) notion of what is at stake in economy: energy. This is the same line of investigation that gave rise to the “Man the hunter” conversation and its subsequent elaborations and critiques, including those most famously of Richard B. Lee, and the anthropological critique of complex hierarchical civilization.

    Please keep up the notes! Thanks,

    Erik Davis.

  2. fuzzytheory permalink
    February 27, 2010 10:34 pm

    How old is this book? Is he really using gender exclusive language? That dates it for me.

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    February 27, 2010 11:59 pm

    fuzzytheory: I think 1979 …

    Erik: those are names I’m not familiar with, but I’ll definitely have to look them up. Thanks for the comment!

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