Moments of Valuation
March 3, 2015
By David Stark
The challenge: you have just three words to state the core premise of new work in the study of valuation. In “What’s Valuable?,” my concluding essay for The Worth of Goods: Valulation and Pricing in Markets (Aspers and Beckert, eds., Oxford University Press, 2011), I gave a try, starting with price, prize, praise. To that triplicate, I added a fourth, perform, and, in doing so, revealed that the first three were intended as verbs all along. To price, to prize, to praise, to perform. It wasn’t a bad effort, but it was a bit clumsy: prizing and praising are too similar. Yet at least I was on a good course, signaling that valuation can occur in multiple registers and not only in the market.
Moments of Valuation: Exploring Sites of Dissonance (also from Oxford University Press, 2015) offers another effort. The three word summary: value is performed. This collection (which I co-edited with Ariane Berthoin Antal and Michael Hutter) emphasizes that valuation takes place in situations. Valuation is spatially localized and temporally marked. It takes place in situ. And the papers provide detailed accounts of various sites and settings (or, more accurately, setups) in which valuation takes place. It takes place in discrete moments of time. And the papers provide rich accounts of the critical moments when evaluative attention is particularly acute: the attentive moment when a dinner guest first sips a glass of wine, the instant when a luxury perfume is sprayed into a special device allowing the customer a sense of its sillage (the scented trail left by a fragrance wearer), or the moment when the professional art appraiser is cross-examined in the courtroom witness box. As such, the book might just as well have been titled Sites of Valuation: Exploring Moments of Dissonance.
But, as with pricing and prizing, there is not really all that much new in the statement value is performed – for these ideas, if differently expressed, were already there in John Dewey’s marvelous essay, On Valuation (for a lively revisiting of those ideas see especially Fabian Muniesa’s new book, The Provoked Economy, Routledge 2014). It is for this reason that Michael Hutter and I introduce our edited book with a brief essay, “Pragmatist Perspectives on Valuation.” The entire chapter is available on my website HERE. The paragraphs below offer a little taste:
De gustibus non est disputandum. We begin, indisputably, with taste. Then we immediately make it disputatious because we challenge the dominant view in cultural sociology that taste is something one has. Taste, in that view, is primarily symbolic because it is used for social purposes to mark distinction (Bourdieu 1984). By contrast the authors in this volume treat taste not as a noun but as a verb. It is something one does. It is a social process, to be sure; but if symbolic, it is also emphatically material.
Valuation involves a tasting, a testing. The studies here reject the claim that things just “have” some value, that their taste is intrinsic to them, and that tests reveal this natural value. At the same time they also deny the claim that the taste of things is something merely “attributed” to them, and that tests then do nothing more than reveal this value. We reject the dichotomy between natural objects (for which there is nothing to do but exploit the properties of things) and socially constructed objects (for which it is enough to show their arbitrary character as the stakes in social games).
We consider that the things to be tested and tasted are not given but made, and they are transformed in the very process of testing. Furthermore, tasting them or becoming attached to them is not like choosing some gratuitous label to enter a social logic of identity and difference; rather, identities are made and transformed by them. The chapters in this volume treat people’s relationship with things as reciprocal interactions: making things and making us. As Antoine Hennion writes in his chapter: “So conceived, both operations (tasting and testing) are productive, open, and they remain tightly connected, referring less to an absolute divide between objectivity and subjectivity than to a continuous co-production of stabilization and transformation, both in the things and in our capacity to feel what they do.” (Hennion in this volume).
To the two verbs—to taste and to test—we now add another: to contest. The adage de gustibus non est disputandum is misleading, for in matters of taste there can be disputes. Taste, whether the noun is understood as the quality of a thing or as the quality of a person, can be put to tests. And these tests are themselves contested. As the chapters here detail, the trials of valuation frequently involve disputes among different measures of worth, orthogonal principles of evaluation, and contending tests of value.