Money almost always arises first from objects that are used primarily as adornment of the person. Beads, shells, feathers, dog or whale teeth, gold, and silver are all well-known cases in point. All are useless for any purpose other than making people look more interesting, and hence, more beautiful.
As Rospabé so cogently demonstrated, it is the peculiar quality of such social currencies that they are never quite equivalent to people. If anything, they are a constant reminder that human beings can never be equivalent to anything—even, ultimately, to one another. This is the profound truth of the blood-feud. No one can ever really forgive the man who killed his brother because every brother is unique. Nothing could substitute—not even some other man given the same name and status as your brother, or a concubine who will bear a son who will be named after your brother, or a ghost-wife who will bear a child pledged to some day avenge his death. In a human economy, each person is unique, and of incomparable value, because each is a unique nexus of relations with others. A woman may be a daughter, sister, lover, rival, companion, mother, age-mate, and mentor to many different people in different ways. Each relation is unique, even in a society in which they are sustained through the constant giving back and forth of generic objects such as raffia cloth or bundles of copper wire. In one sense, those objects make one who one is—a fact illustrated by the way the objects used as social currencies are so often things otherwise used to clothe or decorate the human body, that help make one who one is in the eyes of others. Still, just as our clothes don’t really make us who we are, a relationship kept alive by the giving and taking of raffia is always something more than that.89 This means that the raffia, in turn, is always something less. This is why I think Rospabé was right to emphasize the fact that in such economies, money can never substitute for a person: money is a way of acknowledging that very fact, that the debt cannot be paid. But even the notion that a person can substitute for a person, that one sister can somehow be equated with another, is by no means self-evident. In this sense, the term “human economy” is double-edged. These are, after all, economies: that is, systems of exchange in which qualities are reduced to quantities, allowing calculations of gain and loss—even if those calculations are simply a matter (as in sister exchange) of 1 equals 1, or (as in the feud) of 1 minus 1 equals 0.
One thing that comes through strikingly in the book is that this was not only a man of endless resourcefulness and determination, but above all, a man of honor. Yet this created a terrible dilemma. To be made a slave is to be stripped of any possible honor. Naturally, Equiano wished to regain what had been taken from him. His problem was that honor is, by definition, something that exists in the eyes of others. To be able to recover it, then, a slave must necessarily adopt the rules and standards of the society that surrounds him, and this means that, in practice at least, he cannot absolutely reject the institutions that deprived him of his honor in the first place. It strikes me that this experience—of only being able to restore one’s lost honor, to regain the ability to act with integrity by acting in accord with the terms of a system that one knows, through deeply traumatic personal experience, to be utterly unjust—is itself one of the most profoundly violent aspects of slavery. It is another example, perhaps, of the need to argue in the master’s language, but here taken to insidious extremes.
“Patriarchy” originated, first and foremost, in a rejection of the great urban civilizations in the name of a kind of purity, a reassertion of paternal control against great cities like Uruk, Lagash, and Babylon, seen as places of bureaucrats, traders, and whores. The pastoral fringes, the deserts and steppes away from the river valleys, were the places to which displaced, indebted farmers fled. Resistance, in the ancient Middle East, was always less a politics of rebellion than a politics of exodus, of melting away with one’s flocks and families—often before both were taken away.