A big thanks to Bree Kessler—author, traveler, professor & friend of Nau—for this well-written and insightful piece on the hidden meaning behind a few of today’s most ubiquitous words.
If you live in New York City (and definitely if you live in Brooklyn) it’s nearly impossible to visit a weekend market without seeing the following words: local, organic, artisanal. If you’re lucky, you will usually see these words used together (as in the photo above taken at the Brooklyn Flea Smorgasburg). If you’re like me, after you finish nervously laughing at the sign but still purchase the must try item, you wonder: what does it mean for something to be “local” or “organic” or “artisanal”?
I have to be honest, I don’t really know what those words mean and I don’t know if anyone does because these terms are “reified.” The theory behind “reification” (the noun, “to reify” is the verb) originates in Marxist theory. The idea is that things (from food to clothes to body parts) are given meanings that do not inherently exist in them. For instance, when I call some chickpeas “local” I expect that everyone knows what I am inferring: that the chickpeas came from nearby — that they didn’t travel too far. There was also a time when I thought it meant that they were solely grown on a family farm, handpicked by the farmers sons and daughters. But for someone else, “local” may have a different definition such as grown within a 500 mile radius or maybe grown within 25 miles and it doesn’t really matter if the harvest was gathered by low-wage workers or not. Chickpeas are reified in this case because we are assigning a meaning to them that wasn’t there initially. Making the chickpeas “local” gives them a value that was not originally there before they arrived to Brooklyn Flea Smorgasburg and practically speaking, it may raise their price too.
There is nothing wrong with reification. In fact, Marx himself argued that it was an essential part to creating a market economy: some things are given more value than other things and therefore some items costs more than others. Local chickpeas are worth more than non-local chickpeas for those willing to pay a premium. The issue with being a consumer in a reified world is figuring out exactly what these terms mean because they don’t mean the same thing to everyone. We all know that we prefer our clothing to be made from sustainable materials, but do we know how something becomes a sustainable material or what it means for clothing to be sustainable? Reification allows us to not think how things become products — to reify allows us to say something is “organic” or “local” or “sustainable” without truly considering how and where that product transitioned from from fabric to shirt to arrival at your house. A fun project (much like the one seen here.) I like to see is a slideshow that reveals where you think your shirt (or you chickpeas) come from. If you make one please post them below.
Bree Kessler is a freelance writer currently living in Northern Alaksa. She is the author of the Moon Handbook: Big Island of Hawaii and currently completing her PhD in Environmental Psychology from City University of New York — Graduate Center.