Commodification: Intellectual History of a Concept and Process
In this excerpt from Valences of the Dialectic, Fredric Jameson distills the "theological niceties" that undergird our world of objects by analyzing various theories of commodification or "thingification" (as he translates it from Sartre's chosification). He takes us from Hegel through Schopenhauer, Marx and Lukacs's seminal reading of reification in History and Class Consciousness, outlining their influence on theories of image and ideology in the Frankfurt School, Debord, and Baudrillard. In the process, Jameson demonstrates that the objective truth of a notion like commodification exists in the contradictions and tensions of these various readings, or the "Valences" of the dialectic he outlines throughout the book.
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The concept of the commodity is constructed at the intersection of two phenomena, both grasped as processes or as the result of formal and structural transformations. On the one hand, the item in question must have been transformed into an object. On the other, it must be endowed with a specific value or in other words have acquired a price. Neither of these attributes is necessarily obvious: some commodities are for example not distinct physical objects in appearance, and some are seemingly natural things rather than man-made things (as Marx frequently points out to his more dogmatic followers). Nor is the exchangeability of the item, its value on the market, always clear-cut (as in the products of commercial culture).
But this means that each of these attributes must initially be examined separately. Thus, on the one hand, the analysis of commodification will lead us back to some prior discussion of the more fundamental phenomenon of objectification as such, or the organization of reality into things (or substances, as they were called in antiquity); after this initial and as it were metaphysical stage, there would then be required an analysis of reification or Verdinglichung, the imposition of that metaphysical object form on entities which are not naturally so organized. It is then the moment of reification which enables the emergence of commodification as such; or to put it the other way around, the existence of a tendency to commodification is then what motivates reification and encourages its influence in all kinds of areas (the psychic and the cultural, for example) in which it did not previously hold sway or seem applicable. Obviously enough the most dramatic and mysterious place of reification and commodification is labor power itself, in capitalism transformed into a thing by the measurement of time, and then endowed with a price and an exchange value.
Meanwhile, the other line of analysis, that of value and price, will lead back to the market mechanisms themselves, since “exchange” implies a space in which distinct objects can be made equivalent and then mediated by way of some sort of value system. In this sense, commodification as a process will depend for its precondition on the establishment of the appropriate institutionalized market: thus the commodification of artworks depends on the system of galleries and organized markets for the sale of paintings, a system which in its turn requires the codification of values by critics and museums, a codification which the market then gradually, if indirectly and in a mediated way, brings into being.
It is appropriate to trace a heightened sense of the phenomenon of thingification (chosification in Sartrean French) back to Schopenhauer’s critique of Kant. Schopenhauer indeed objected that Kant had omitted a fundamental cat- egory from his enumeration of a priori forms, and that was the form of the object or substance itself. However we judge the value of the observation as a philosophical critique, it stands as an attempt to defamiliarize our common-sense perception of objects in a more thoroughgoing way than any of the traditional accounts of substance, which take the form for granted. Schopenhauer is indeed here performing a thought experiment in which we are asked to go around behind our common-sense experience of the world as a collection of objects, and to confront some hypothetical reality in which the world is still that “blooming, buzzing confusion” evoked so memorably by William James. We must in other words be able to imagine the world without the object form in order to develop a more precise awareness of the role that form plays in our world.
The Marxist tradition, to be sure, offers a different kind of estrangement- effect to this same end. In Marxism what is imagined as preceding a world organized into objects is a world of human relations and human production, in which the appearance of objects is translated back into these very different realities (and in which presumably the static and immobile sense of a world of material substances is replaced by the historical mobility of innumerable processes).
The appearance of the commodity then determines and crystallizes this emergence of a world of things from a world of production and process; and it is in this context that Marx speaks of the objectification of human relations in the form of things (Vergegenständlichung, Verdinglichung). From one perspective, of course, the emergence of a notion of objectification may be located in Marx’s early Auseinandersetzung with Hegel himself, for whom objectification and externalization was a positive and essential (if dialectical) moment of human history and progress. Indeed, in Hegel, individual and collective or historical development are posited as a ceaseless externalization of inner forms by human beings, a relentless expansion of the social and cultural object world (taken now in the widest sense, which includes figural uses). Marx’s early conception of alienation springs from his differentiation of a bad and destructive form of objectification, to be found in the exploitation of the worker and his labor power, from that creative objectification which alone Hegel was able to see at work in history.
After Marx, however, and before the posthumous publication in 1929 of Marx’s early writings on alienation, reification as such makes its official philosophical debut in Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, in which the commodification of labor power—now identified in the form of a philosophical concept as reification—becomes the means to differentiate the conceptual (and cultural) worlds of the two contending social classes. The shift from a socially specific term, however, that of commodification, to the more philosophically general one of reification, meant that Lukács’s pathbreaking work was crucially limited in ways which the later so-called Western Marxism then attempted to reopen.
As is well known, Marx’s fundamental analysis of the commodity is to be found in the first chapter of Capital, Volume 1. It will then serve, not only as the basis for the indispensable notion of the commodification of labor power, but also of the demonstration of the structural and unavoidable embedding of exploitation and alienation within capital production as such: a central contradiction of that mode of production which cannot be eliminated by reform or by the ameliorations of social-democratic regimes.
The analysis of the commodity, that is to say of the product of exchange value, takes the form of a chiasmus across which energies are exchanged. Chiasmus indeed posits two terms which exchange their properties in what has to remain an unequal or uneven way which is masked by an apparent symmetry: thus, the seeming equation of value (the ten yards of linen that “equal” one coat) includes temporality yet only runs in one direction. It is not reversible, a peculiarity which announces the imminent transformation of one of the terms into a commodity which is not a commodity, or in other words, that “form of value” destined eventually to become money.
This asymmetry in the value equation is then thematized and ultimately identified in all its specificity when the commodity in question becomes labor power itself. At this point, the form of the equation has the ideological mission of suggesting that there can be a “just price” for labor and that a capitalist society can be reformed in such a way as to pay its workers equitably. But the price of that unique commodity which is labor power turned out to include surplus value along with the price of the worker’s means of subsistence and can thus never really be the exact equivalent of the value of the worker’s labor time.
The other outcome of this analysis of the commodity form is the religious after-effect of the mystifications implicit in the value equation. Marx derived his notion of “fetishism” from the anthropological speculations of le président de Brosses in the eighteenth century, and meant by the term that troubling surplus of human meaning an inanimate object is made to carry, not only in tribal versions of the sacred, but also in the capitalist commodity itself, which is famously “nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a rela- tion between things.”
Here also, then, Marx’s analysis leads in two separate directions, both of which will play a part in the later fortunes of the notion of commodification: on the one hand designating the practical operations of exploitation latent in Value as such and in the money form essential to capitalism; on the other, opening a symbolic realm in which potentially religious, mystical, or idealist cultural excess can be grasped and identified, but which also projects a powerful Utopian vision in the notion of a transparent society from which the commodity form has been eliminated (“an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labor-power in full self-awareness as one single social labor force”).
Lukács’s influential conception of reification (in the 1923 History and Class Consciousness) seems on the face of it to be more distant from the original notion of the commodity and even from that Verdinglichung denounced by Marx as a mystifying substitute for human production and human relations. Yet it is important to grasp its dual use in the stunning philosophical theorization of the epistemological privilege of the proletariat in that greatest of all conceptual “reflections” of Leninism.
For Lukács, indeed, reification takes on utterly different forms and knows utterly different practical outcomes depending on whether, as an inevitable social tendency of capitalism, reification is examined as a structural limitation of bourgeois thinking or on the other hand is grasped as that feature of the life world of the proletariat which endows the latter with the structural possibility (so-called imputed consciousness) of grasping society as a whole. The reification of the proletariat—its labor power become a commodity—has as a result that workers, having become things, are utterly destitute of any other interests or libidinal investments which might generate ideologies. They are thus able to grasp the antagonistic structure of capitalism (“them” and “us”) in its pure immediacy. (The theory of class suggests that the point of view from below sees the social organism as antagonism, that from above grasping it rather in analytic separation and inert juxtaposition, as strata or levels of status [Dahrendorf].) Lukács’s ultimate authority for this “workerist” epistemology is Marx’s early essay “Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” with its theory of “radical chains” (so influentially revived in the great minority revolts of the 1960s).
Meanwhile, the effect of reification on the bourgeoisie is just the opposite of this expansive possibility of thought and lies in the constriction of the idea and the experience of society visible in the various specializations and disciplines. Reification is what prevents the bourgeoisie from grasping society as a whole or totality, and thereby from experiencing the blinding reality of class struggle: something which can also serve as a way of criticizing the ideological limits the various philosophers imposed on themselves in order to avoid thinking that reality (Lukács here rejoins an alternate conception of ideology Marx offers in The Eighteenth Brumaire—ideology as limit and as occultation, rather than as false consciousness).
This analysis of bourgeois thought then makes clear the operation in Lukács of a conceptual opposition between reification and totality (or rather the “aspiration to totality”). The bourgeoisie must not confront society as a totality; the reification of its thinking makes it possible to remain within the semi-autonomous limits of this or that discipline, this or that limited thematization. Reification, however, turns the proletariat as it were into a single thing, which can thereby be experienced as a totality. The force that was a limitation for those who merely profit from and live off social production without themselves engaging in it will be the source of truth for the exploited producers themselves. In this way Lukács rejoins the Hegel of the Master/Slave dialectic, for whom ultimately the Master is abandoned to sterile enjoyment, while the Slave’s praxis is also productive of truth itself.
Precisely this duality of effects characterizes the later cultural philosophy which emerges around the notion of commodification in the Frankfurt School and also in poststructuralist France in the 1950s and 1960s. Both the Tel quel group in France and T. W. Adorno in Frankfurt concur in their assessment of the formal role commodification plays in modernist literature.
For Adorno, the latter (which he does not explicitly identify as modernist) begins, in Baudelaire, with the commodification of works of art within the tendential commodification of the entire social field by capitalism. The (modern) work can then only resist this external commodification by commodifying itself from the inside, by making itself over into a strange kind of mirror-commodity which is also an anti-commodity. “Baudelaire was right: emphatic modern art does not flourish in Elysian fields beyond the commodity but is, rather, strengthened by way of the experience of the commodity” (298; 443). “Art is modern through mimesis of the hardened and alienated ... The Absolute art-work converges with the absolute commodity” (21; 39).
The Tel quel group draws the opposite aesthetic lesson (which might be considered a postmodernist rather than a modernist one) from the same viewpoint. Agreeing that reification is the effacement of the traces of production from the object, they argued that the only formal conclusion to draw was the recommendation of an emphasis on the work’s process of production rather than on the aesthetic product in some completed art-object. The subsequent “textualization” of the work of the various members of this group (Ph. Sollers, D. Roche, etc.) constituted the attempt to put this aesthetic into practice.
Yet a third powerful statement from the period is less calculated to generate this or that future aesthetic than it is to open new directions for social and cultural analysis. Guy Debord’s proposition, indeed, that the image is the final form of commodity reification (Society of the Spectacle, 1968) throws the door open to fresh analyses of the whole new world of the simulacrum (Baudrillard) and of image or spectacle society, which characterizes the third or postmodern stage of capitalism. The impetus given here to film studies and cultural studies of all kinds is the inevitable consequence of the displacement of a language-centered modernism towards an aesthetic system in which space and the visual are dominant. Debord’s proposition also suggests that a turn to image production may well include the acknowledgement of reproductive technology as a new dominant in capitalist production in general.