The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the global Hierarfchy of Value / Edition 1

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The Body Impolitic is a critical study of tradition, not merely as an ornament of local and national heritage, but also as a millstone around the necks of those who are condemned to produce it.

Michael Herzfeld takes us inside a rich variety of small-town Cretan artisans' workshops to show how apprentices are systematically thwarted into learning by stealth and guile. This harsh training reinforces a stereotype of artisans as rude and uncultured. Moreover, the same stereotypes that marginalize artisans locally also operate to marginalize Cretans within the Greek nation and Greece itself within the international community. What Herzfeld identifies as "the global hierarchy of value" thus frames the nation's ancient monuments and traditional handicrafts as evidence of incurable "backwardness."

Herzfeld's sensitive observations offer an intimately grounded way of understanding the effects of globalization and of one of its most visible offshoots, the heritage industry, on the lives of ordinary people in many parts of the world today.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226329147
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2003
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,309,019
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Herzfeld is a professor of anthropology at Harvard University. He is the author, most recently, of Portrait of a Greek Imagination: An Ethnographic Biography of Andreas Nenedakis, published by the University of Chicago Press, and Anthropology: Theoretical Practice in Society and Culture.

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Read an Excerpt

The Body Impolitic
Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value
By Michael Herzfeld
The University Of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-32914-7

Chapter One
The Pedestal and the Tethering Post

Globalizing Locality

Artisans and artifice, craft and craftiness: in many cultures of European origin, people associate the idea of manual artistry with cunning and subterfuge, and this association has left powerful marks on many a language. Odysseus the "crafty" (polytechnos) was also, at least by etymological implication, "a man of many arts." In English, an artful dodger is a crafty fellow; craftiness itself ideally takes the form of cheating the law at its own game. In Italian, the highly formalized language of fine arts is parodied in a popular phrase, l'arte d'arrangiarsi, that is similarly redolent of resistance to formal authority and means "the art of fixing things for oneself." The ingenuity of the artisan is never solely aesthetic; it always contains a component of indirection and guile. Because artisans are artificers, they often stand accused of artifice-indeed, of artificiality. But is artifice not precisely what they are engaged to produce? Their collective reputation is a victim of their own necessary ingenuity.

Yet that ingenuity is the key to their professional and economic survival; today artisans need all the ingenuity they can muster. Once they were deeply respected, the work of their hands a guarantee of worth that was often prized by the rich and powerful, but today artisans face remorseless competition from factory production and its globalization. Where formerly the work of craftsmen's hands acquired value through its transportation over long distances, today the traveling is mostly done by tourists, who, ironically, may discount the work of today's artisans in favor of damaged artifacts hallowed by the wear and tear of distance through time. Worse, the artisans are threatened with categorical "deskilling" in a world that apparently no longer appreciates what it once praised in them. How they deal with the attendant corrosion of their lives is a story that tells us much about the world in which all of us live today-a world in which craftiness has never been the sole prerogative of those whose labor is craft but in which the control and centralization of mass technology have amplified to unprecedented levels the political weakness of those whose competence is specifically local.

In the sullen boredom and limply hanging hands of a carpenter's assistant or in the still, hunched back of an apprentice goldsmith, who knows what resentment and insubordination are smoldering, making him ready to grasp a moment's advantage to challenge the master's authority or surreptitiously siphon off his jealously hoarded knowledge? Who can discern in the jovial face of the artisan, as he deferentially cajoles his customers, the brutal harshness his apprentices and perhaps even his wife may quite consciously attribute to his suspicious fear of modernity and his narrow vision of his own place in the world? And how might we, observers of these tensions, discern in them any sense of engagement with those contemporary forces that seem to suffuse the entire globe with an increasingly homogeneous set of cultural, moral, aesthetic, and political values? What can such close attention to embodiment tell us about the ways in which those larger realities are actually experienced? How might the insight thus generated affect our ability to understand the complexities of globalization itself?

This is a search for the global in the heart of the local-for the hidden presence of a logic that has seeped in everywhere but is everywhere disguised as difference, heritage, local tradition. Some kinds of globalization are hard to miss. We can see them in the logos that sprout predictably in every city in the world, the familiar products that we can buy anywhere from Saskatchewan to Singapore, the assumption that people will know how to use those familiar objects and services no matter where they live. But what of those other varieties of globalization-the ones we cannot see but that we can indirectly sense and often implicitly assume? Why do people from vastly different cultures appear to share some surprisingly similar values, at least in deciding what is a fitting way of disporting themselves on the international stage? It used to be that anthropologists had to work hard to combat the idea of a universal set of values. Today, however, at the very moment at which anthropologists have more or less successfully made the case for ethical diversity and relativism, some attitudes appear to have become universal after all. Notions such as efficiency, fair play, civility, civil society, human rights, transparency, cooperation, and tolerance serve as global yardsticks for particular patterns of interaction. Startlingly, even "diversity" can become a homogeneous product. So, too, can tradition and heritage: the particular is itself universalized.

The increasingly homogeneous language of culture and ethics constitutes a global hierarchy of value. This hierarchy, which clearly succeeds to the values promulgated worldwide by the erstwhile colonial powers of Europe, is everywhere present but nowhere clearly definable. Its very vagueness constitutes one source of its authority, since, while it often appears as a demand for transparency and accountability, it is itself protected by that besetting vagueness from any demand that it account for itself. Whether as the most arrogant Eurocentrism of the kind that automatically assumes pride of place for Western "high culture" (itself an opaque concept despite a superficial gloss of obviousness) or as a less direct but ostensibly more liberal assumption that some ways of doing things are simply more decent or more useful than others, it represents the most comprehensive and globally ramified form of common sense-the ultimate expression of cultural authority.

This global hierarchy of value therefore entails a strongly reified-although, again, usually implicit and diffuse-notion of culture. That reification betrays a European and colonialist origin, in that it springs from the massive preoccupation with the definition of spaces and concepts that characterized the emergence of the modern nation-state in the heyday and aftermath of colonialism. Even those essentialist discourses that are deployed against it (such as the "Asian values" touted by Singapore's leaders) cannot escape the logic of culture-as-possession that both reinforces the concrete quality of the identity thus promoted and concomitantly favors the commodification of ethics and aesthetics. Despite these rhetorical claims to permanence and absoluteness, however, it is a hierarchy of shifting signifiers and indices, since upheavals in the distribution of power worldwide, as well as cultural changes within the major centers, may cause revaluation and redefinition at any time. More constant than any particular set of its expressions is the comfortably vague sense-the common sense-that, at any given moment, people know what it is, that they know what the good, the beautiful, and the appropriate are. As in any system of ethics or aesthetics, its constancy lies above all in the assumption of a consensus that papers over differences and changes and declares them irrelevant to the main business at hand.

Against this homogeneity-producing semiotic legerdemain, however, we must set the persistence of local differences at the level of everyday practice and interpretation. The language of universal morality can be manipulated to conceal, as well as to deprecate, such localisms. In its outward appearance, the rhetoric of the global hierarchy of value is perhaps a more subtle kind of globalization than that of company logos and fast food. It is, after all, not obviously associated with special interests. It is not always immediately visible to us because, having invaded local universes of common sense ("local worlds"), it creates the sense of universal commonality. This is a common sense that is no less cultural than the local versions it appears to supplant but that, for reasons of scale and power, is better equipped to hide that contingency and so to make itself completely invisible. Ever potentially subject to contestation but also imbued with a daunting air of irrevocability, the global hierarchy of value has emerged from processes of world domination that colonialism began and that international commerce and the international arrangement of power bid fair to complete.

One aspect of these processes is the way in which certain places, ideas, and cultural groups appear as marginal to the grand design. These are the places and cultures that do not fit the design to perfection; the more they protest its domination, the more they seem to confirm their own marginality. They are the characteristic preoccupation of anthropology, a discipline that has long seemed to be fascinated by highly localized cultural phenomena. Does this mean that, in today's globalized world, anthropology itself is marginal and unimportant? On the contrary, it is by dint of this comparatively microscopic focus, I suggest, that anthropology-with its intimate knowledge of alternative conceptual universes and local worlds-offers one of the few remaining critical vantage points from which to challenge the generalizing claims of the global hierarchy of value. It is in such places that we can see how marginality itself is actively produced, and reproduced, in the lives and bodies of those who must bear its stigma.

The key questions concern what forces are determining what will be marginal and what will be considered significant. Who is responsible for that hierarchy; who are its agents? How do these agents subject the physical existence and moral worlds of ordinary people to a logic that renders them subordinate? In order to explore these issues, I shall examine some very marginal spaces. These are the bodies and lives of a socially weak class of people-artisans and their apprentices-in a politically and economically marginal town on an island (Crete) of Greece, which many regard as one of the most marginal countries in Europe. The apprentices often come from poor hinterland villages, from among school truants, and from orphanages. They thus represent extremes of marginality in several different respects. Artisanal apprenticeship here does nevertheless resemble comparable institutional arrangements in other parts of the world. To the extent that the local cultural specificities that I shall describe constitute an extreme case, they highlight important aspects of global inequality that employers and workers in other parts of the world are better positioned to conceal or moderate. They also alert us to the ways in which local culture both plays into, and yet no less frequently subverts, the increasingly potent ideology that posits a global system or hierarchy of value.

Greek artisans and their apprentices are marginal; but, paradoxically, they are nonetheless upheld by the state as exemplars of national virtue and tradition. Craft production in Greece is very much part of a nationalized and commodified folklore, associated with the emergence of national consciousness and glorified as the repository of ancient skills and qualities. In this respect they are a microcosm of the whole country as it faces the consequences of being saddled with an ancient heritage; craftspeople know, however, that their engagement with tradition is a double-edged sword. It exalts them, to be sure; but it also serves to marginalize them from some of the most desirable fruits of modernity.

Who, in fact, "they" are and what makes them artisans are not easy questions, especially since many crafts deemed traditional in the international art and tourism trades are produced in the home and are locally viewed as the very antithesis of professional labor. Should women who extend the weaving of their trousseau items to the commercial sector be so classified? In Greece, at least, they are almost invariably not included in the class of "technicians" (tekhnites), who constitute the closest category to that denoted by the English term "artisans." Women who produce leather goods for pay in small workshops do qualify for inclusion; but then what of the young women who work as assistants to hairdressers? When in the course of fieldwork I asked friends about "apprentices," I was often told both about these girls and about the boys who were once similarly employed as apprentices to barbers, so that the implication appeared to be that any trade in which apprentices learned manual skills (as opposed to accounting or over-the-counter trading) should be deemed artisanal.

From this brief summary, it is clear that the category of artisan is situationally defined and that it is also partially-but again inchoately-gendered. Most of the apprentices we shall be considering in this book are boys. One reason for this may be a still-lingering sense that women who perform manual labor for wages are placing their reputations at risk by spending too much time exposed to the public gaze. A further reason is that the historical burden of male solidarity in the craft guilds that existed in Greece during the Ottoman period has left a legacy of male exclusiveness, which the departure of Islamic norms did little to temper; even in many parts of Western Europe, where men were incorporated into some guilds by ritualistic but nonetheless often unpleasant forms of hazing, "it would have been an odd family that would have been willing to see a daughter enter so male-oriented a life."

Yet another explanation is that women often discover that for them greater power does not easily accrue from competing in the normatively male arena of craft workshops, but that they can acquire that power through the achievement of higher educational credentials. Some young men affect to disdain that option on the grounds that too great a privileging of the mind over the body demeans their manhood (and perhaps also because this turns their admissions of having failed the requisite examinations into triumphant boasts). But educational achievement is also, and in consequence of that moral exaltation of body over mind, fraught with ambiguity for women almost as much as for men: while power in the wider national context is certainly seen to grow from the acquisition of literacy and theoretical knowledge, this evaluation gets reversed in the local context, where theory must give way to the authority of embodied experience. To the extent that men who become highly educated can play in larger arenas, they sacrifice some degree of moral-if not political-authority in the local sphere. By sacrificing the purity of their local allegiance, in other words, they gain access to economic and social resources that those who are unambiguously artisans cannot usually hope to attain.

Greece and the Genesis of Pure Tradition

All this is a reflection of larger dynamics of power, in which the country as a whole is subject to multiple pressures. The Greeks' marginal status in the "Western civilization" of which they are supposed founders, and yet in important respects also the victims, rudely batters their everyday lives at every turn: internationally embarrassed by successive government scandals and acutely aware of their dependency on the European Union, of which Greece is a member state enjoying nominally full equality with the others, they find themselves derided for an obsession with whether or not they are "really European" that is itself the product of a "crypto-colonial" set of aesthetic and ethical norms.


Excerpted from The Body Impolitic by Michael Herzfeld Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Note on Transliteration
1. The Pedestal and the Tethering Post
2. Schooling the Body
3. Hostility and Cooperation
4. Engendered States
5. Boredom and Stealth
6. Associative States
7. Artisans in the State and the Nation
8. Embodying Value

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