Elmer's English 304 Magazine
First Nations Studies
Linguistic and Commodity Exchanges
by Elmer G. Wiens
According to Claude Lévi-Strauss, a society's system of linguistic exchange is the basis for all of its arrangements for exchanging items, such as goods and services. Linguistic exchange can be verbal or written, while goods can be exchanged by way of barter, or purchased and sold for money. In conversation, the participants' presence permits valuation of the words offered and accepted, as the verbal interaction proceeds. Similarly when items are bartered, the participants' presence permits them to measure the quality and the quantity of commodities prior to, and during trade, to ensure quid pro quo. However, with a recorded communication, participants deliver or receive the message by way of an intermediary, such as paper. While during barter exchange participants sell and buy commodities simultaneously, with monetary exchange participants sell or buy commodities in exchange for money. To ensure quid pro quo in the transaction between a buyer and seller with monetary exchange, commodities are transacted at agreed prices expressed in terms of money as a unit of account. An intermediary in linguistic and commodity exchanges necessitates an extra step in an exchange transaction.
While oral communication and barter permit direct valuation of words heard or items acquired by participants, the intermediary contrivances of written communication and monetary exchange engender a deferral of satisfaction. The receiver of a written message must read and process the words to understand it, while the recipient of money must in turn purchase items to obtain satisfaction through their use or consumption. Moreover, the sender of a written message cannot directly ascertain and value its effect on the receiver.
Exchange limited to barter trade restricts the efficiency of a community's technology of exchange, and thereby its members' consumption opportunities. Linguistic exchange limited to speech confines the community's scope of communications. Barter requires a coincidence of wants among participants at a specific time and place, much like a willing speaker requires interested listeners. However, written communications can be stored and read at a later time, much like money obtained in trade can be stored and used later to purchase items for consumption. Since participants must be present for oral and barter exchanges, an exchange cannot be separated to take effect at different instances of time and at different locations.
A primitive technology inhibits the volume of exchange. With the technology of barter, only small quantities of a limited number of items become available for trade through hunting, gathering, growing, or handiwork. Individuals develop skills to produce items for own use, because opportunities may not arise to exchange produced items for more desirable items. Moreover, individuals must rely on their own skills at barter exchange to effect transactions with others. The technology of aboriginal storytelling has traditionally been one of word of mouth. With speech, the memories of the storytellers and their audiences regulate the evolution of myths and their themes. Opportunities to communicate a community's culture and heritage invested in myths typically present themselves infrequently, such as traditional ceremonies.
In aboriginal communities, storytellers are repositories for their tribe's traditions and cosmology as embodied in myths, songs, and dance. Gregory Cajete in Native Science describes these tribal specialists, shaman, as having expertise over and above the knowledge of other tribal members (2, 116). The shamen's proficiency and rights of ownership to their specialized knowledge, determine their survival, status, and power in their communities. Barter exchange does not preclude the emergence of an "intermediary agent for the exchange of goods" (Lévi-Strauss 1421), who negotiates the terms of exchange between groups, or effects exchanges over time. With barter exchange, specialist intermediaries—traders—might store trade items to facilitate exchange over time. However, the value of stored commodities depends on the conditions of barter in the future, on the demand for the stored commodities. Consequently, the traders' wealth invested in their accumulated commodites is uncertain, as is the traders' survival. To survive, traders require special skills in evaluating, preserving and storing, and bargaining commodites. Otherwise, individuals are better off bartering their commodites with others, rather than bartering with the traders.
In native oral societies, the shaman played a comprehensive role as "mediators for the transfer of knowledge" (Cajete 156), incorporating the skills and knowledge of a pharmacist, doctor, priest, teacher, and psychologist (209). In modern societies dominated by the intermediary of writing, division of labour separates these roles, permitting specialization, splitting the functions of a shaman in the community. Correspondingly, money permits division of labour within the technology of exchange. Facilitated by the intermediary of money, traders emerge in a community, effecting exchanges on behalf of the community, and retaining profits as money, not necessarily as inventories of commodities. The risk to the trader of holding money depends on the stability of the demand for money by the community.
With monetary exchanges, traders can express their buying and selling prices of commodities in terms of money as a unit of account. Individuals deal with traders who offer them the most advantageous terms of trade. Writing permits traders to disseminate the prices at which they buy and sell goods in exchange for money. Reading permits individuals to search for the best terms of trade among traders. Reading and writing permit traders to compete for the business of the members of the community. Competition among traders ensures that only the efficient traders survive, resulting in the division of labour in the technology of exchange of goods and services. Monetary exchange permits consumption opportunites by members of the community not realizable through barter trade (Wiens "Division of Labour" 13), because a technology of exchange with division of labour is more efficient than a barter technology of exchange.
Writers like Greg Sarris attempt to keep alive the knowledge and traditions of shaman like Mabel McKay. Can the meaning of the words and the cultural content of the poems and stories of the oral tradition be preserved? Who will accept and benefit from these poems and stories as written accounts? Sarris relates how Kashaya tribe children reject the "Indian" stories (173), and how the Kashaya tribe can not decide on who can be shaman (177). Meanwhile, Jeanette Armstrong, an Okanagan activist and writer, forcefully condemns the colonization and disempowerment of Native American peoples by European "value systems which promote domination and aggression" (244) against native cultures. She advocates "discourse and dialogue" (245) emanating from native writers, changing people's perceptions of early and modern native societies and empowering all people in "a world where domination is not possible because all cultures are valued" (244). She advocates that natives use the tools of modern society to promote a new understanding of native history and culture, and improve the opportunities of natives today. Why should the well-being of natives today be constrained by the colonial myths of the past?
The kinship societies of the "extended family and clan" (Cajete 96), organized cooperatively by way of barter and sharing of commodities and labour, permitted members of early aboriginal communities a subsistence living. Modern capitalist societies, organized competitively by way of profit maximizing traders and producers, permit high standards of living for wage labourers who participate in its division of labour. However, native communities not completely assimilated into the capitalist economy still combine a subsistence life style, based on fishing, hunting and trapping, along with wage income and transfer payments (Dinero 137, 152). The subsistence portion of their livelihood supports individual specialization determined cooperatively according to abilities, with the goal of meeting everyone's needs in a psychologically secure, self-sufficient community (136).
Intermediaries in exchange, such as writing / reading and money, are powerful institutions for a society to use in organizing the interactions among its members. Not only can these intermediaries facilitate exchanges, but also they can improve the technologies of exchange, permitting division of labour within the systems of exchange, and in the production of knowledge and commodities. Human beings, unlike other animals, are capable of self-interested bargaining and cooperation with others. Both writing and money can be "described as a product of such cooperative actions of a group of individuals" (Nagatani 149), the product of "man's self interest with his ability to perceive the benefits from social interaction" (150). Moreover, with writing / reading, the members of a community can use a unit of account, expressed in terms of money, to disseminate prices, reconcile transactions, value assets, and measure wealth.
The intermediary of a unit of account in exchange relies on the intermediary of writing / reading. Steven Horowitz in "Monetary Exchange as an Extra-Linguistic Social Communication" takes a different tack, comparing the "similarities between money and language" (193). Weaving Carl Menger's theory of the origin of a special commodity as a medium of exchange with Hans-Georg Gadamer's theory of the "use and development of language" (203), Horowitz views language and money as traditions that "emerge during social evolution" (208). Following monetary theorists in the tradition of Menger, Howowitz attempts to obtain insight into the role of language and money by imagining a world where they do not exist. These theories of the origin of language and money are myths, like the pre-scientific myths of cosmology. By focusing on money as a commodity that emerged as medium of exchange through individual, self-interest interactions of economic agents over time, they miss the symbiotic relationship between money as a unit of account and writing. Moreover, they miss the insight that money as a unit of account, and writing / reading are not subordinate to money as a medium of exchange and store of value, and language expressed orally.
There is a structural difference between barter and monetary commodity exchanges, and between oral and written linguistic exchanges. While barter and oral exchanges may take place simultaneously with monetary and written exchanges in a community, it is money and writing that permit the structural differences in the technology of exchange. With money and writing / reading, the superior technologies of commodity and linguistic exchange based on division of labour become feasible. Moreover, the advantages of monetary over barter exchanges provide a powerful motivation for the use of writing in the linguistic exchanges within the technology of commodity exchange.
Works Cited and Consulted
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