Edited by James G. Carrier
Chapter 13: Consumption
Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld For centuries, consumption offered one of the most palpable realms for the West to distinguish itself from the Rest.1 In 1503, Queen Isabella of Spain decreed that only those American Indians found to consume human flesh could be legally enslaved, motivating colonisers to reject as many natives as possible as cannibals and widen the division between Old world and New. In the late 1800s, indignant missionaries condemned the Kwakiutl potlatch on Vancouver Island where thousands of blankets were burned and canoes destroyed in the course of exuberant feasts. Such practices ‘retarded civilizing influences and encouraged idleness among the less worthy Indians’, in the words of the first Indian superintendent in 1873 (quoted in Bracken 1997: 35). Later Indian agents would urge jail in order to reform those disposing of goods in this way. Towards the end of the twentieth century, images of Amazonian Indians with painted bodies and video recorders grabbed attention, not because they showed that modernity had arrived in the jungle, but because the strange mix of hi-tech goods and traditional adornment affirmed that primitives still could not get ‘progress’ quite right (Conklin 1997). As a basic professional habit, anthropologists have long sought to recast such exoticism as coherent cultural practice. For economically-minded anthropologists, spectacular cases of consumption motivate a more specific theoretical agenda. They have been pivotal in efforts to develop socially-centred economic theory. As anthropologists have explained both the unfamiliar (rainforest VCRs, flaming blankets, porridges of human bone meal) and familiar (Christmas shopping, Barbie...
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