Commodity fetishism and object liberation

A wooden box containing a wine glass, an egg, a bubble pipe, a map of the moon, and other objects.

Do Joseph Cornell's boxes imprison objects, or liberate them from use?

One of the criticisms of object-oriented ontology which has some currency is the suggestion that it is a form of, or a philosophized alibi for, commodity fetishism. I don’t want to violate the rigid Leninist discipline of AUFS by coming to OOO’s defense here, but I think this criticism is likely to mislead us about commodity fetishism. In fact, object-oriented philosophy might provide a way of analyzing commodity fetishism which we could use to provide a Marxist corrective to the banality of much leftist critique of reification (such as that of Axel Honneth).

The kind of critique I have in mind is one that sees the problem of capitalism as the “spread of the inert,” the way in which the growing concern with inert objects harms human intersubjective relationships . This line of thought tends to lead into a moralizing critique of consumerism in which the problem with capitalism is our over-absorption with consumer goods (with revolution being, presumably, the symbolic violence towards Ikea furniture in Fight Club).

This might look like a Marxist analysis, as it is, after all, a rejection of commodities. But the point of the analysis of commodity fetishism isn’t that commodities are bad, but rather an exposé of the way in which commodity production makes us misperceive relations between things. That is to say, the critique of inert objects isn’t a critique of commodity fetishism, but rather remains completely caught up within it. Marx’s point is that, as commodities, objects are not inert: tables dance and “evolve out of their wooden brains grotesque ideas” (Capital). Because of this, object oriented ontology’s understanding of objects as active can be helpful in understanding commodities.

But, you might say, doesn’t object-oriented ontology, with its isolated objects that never enter into relations, make the mistake of commodity fetishism to an even greater degree than the anti-consumerism argument, by completely removing objects from the social relations of which they are the bearers? I’m not sure it does. One of the things that object-oriented ontology rightly reminds us of is the importance of distinguishing between ontological dependence and causal dependence. That objects cannot be reduced to their relations does not mean that they could have come to exist without these relations. The relations of production which produce commodities as commodities are no less visible on an object-oriented view. Furthermore, for Marx commodity fetishism is not just an illusion, a misrecognition of relations as objects. Rather, commodity fetishism is a material reality: capitalism really does produce autonomous objects which gain their powers from the relations which produced them. Object-oriented ontology’s account of objects is compatible with this materialist analysis of commodity fetishism, indeed, may be better placed to explain commodities than a philosophy which focuses on the human subject (putting it this way risks buying into the “us vs. the evil correlationists” frame you sometimes get in OOO; obviously there are more options, including both Hegel and Marx, but I think OOO can be an interesting foil).

And this might show us a way out of commodity fetishism, by directing criticism not towards the commodity, but towards the fetish. The problem with commodity fetishism is the opacity it generates about the relationships in which humans and commodities are captured. The solution to this, then, would not be to reject commodities, but to liberate them from the occulted networks of commodity production, which would allow the independent powers of objects to act, rather than standing over against humans as a store of congealed labor. The end of commodity fetishism would be the liberation of the commodity as much as it would be the liberation of the proletariat (indeed, the two are bound up with one another inasmuch as labor-power is itself a commodity).

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14 Responses to “Commodity fetishism and object liberation”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Perhaps this post can usher in an era of glasnost on OOO, allowing those who are less hostile to openly admit it.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    More seriously, and to perhaps give an example from everyday ideology to fill in what you’re saying in the end, this post reminds me of the whole “simplicity” trend, where one continually hears people moaning about the amount of “stuff” (and I think we can all hear the exact way the word “stuff” is typically pronounced in these discussions) that dominates our lives. Of course, it’s bad when we endlessly accumulate “stuff” for the sake of doing so, but that’s actually illustrative of the way capitalism perverts our relationship to “stuff,” keeping us from genuinely enjoying it.

    Think of an authentically cool and pleasing object like an iPad — not only do we become complicit in exploitative labor, etc., when we use it, but we are constantly tempted to view it primarily as a status symbol, a way of signalling our in-group affiliation (Apple cultists), or simply as a way of having the “latest thing” (such that Apple can steal our joy by making a new version). Even for someone “sincerely” not affected by such pressures, there’s always the meta-pressure of worrying that you’ll be perceived as responding to them, etc., etc. In the communist utopia, the iPad will be restored to its status of a pleasing toy.

  3. matthewchrulew Says:

    Just out of interest:
    Voyou: “The end of commodity fetishism would be the liberation of the commodity as much as it would be the liberation of the proletariat”
    Adam: “In the communist utopia, the iPad will be restored to its status of a pleasing toy.”
    Are either of these intentional allusions to Agamben on profanation?

  4. Utisz Says:

    I think this would hold water if any of those who actually put forward OOO were that interested in Marx and showed any desire to acquaint themselves with debates within Marxism 1850-2011 or were by any stretch of the imagination political activists. They seem more interested in fighting ‘anthropocentrism’ and riffing on a strange combination of Leibniz, Whitehead and Arne Naess. I’d recommend reading a figure like Naess – this is the sort of thing we’re really dealing with here. Of course there’s an ‘orientation’ to things in Marx (critically not speculatively so, there’s the rub) as there was to objects in Hegel (critically and speculatively). But no analysis of things in today’s world can with any responsibility ignore or downplay their relation to labour or to the subject respectively. A better approach would be: no object-orientation without equal subject-orientation (the subject, yes, scandalously different from rocks and flowers and bacteria), no speculation without critical self-reflection, awareness of contradiction, paralogism, etc. Object-orientation is forever caught in a dualism flailing around trying to battle a supposed privelege of subject over object by merely plumping enthusiasticaly for the other. Abstrakte Negation. No Glasnost for me, I’m afraid.

  5. Bryan Says:

    This post is counterintuitive, and therefore already better than most OOO-related things. My only criticism would be that I think the vaguely polemical tone overestimates the originality of the insight, i.e. one’s natural first thought when reading about OOO is to immediately assume the “commodity fetishism” interpretation, but the reversal (“perhaps it’s truly a liberation…”) isn’t an entirely inconceivable step. I think the final question is just to wonder whether the positive or negative valuations (liberating vs. mystifying) produce any sort of interesting result, and when it comes to OOO I’m not really sure they do, despite agreeing with you about the staleness of post-Frankfurt School culture critique.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Matthew, Yes, there is some influence of Agamben on what I was saying there.

    Another possible example: what about the coins that most people have simply laying around their house? We have three separate containers of coins that we are constantly adding to — whenever I have change in my pocket, I instinctively put it in there. This could be freeing the change from the circulation of money, but it is also the ultimate stockpiling of money. Another related question: what about coin collecting? It’s an interesting example because it returns money to its dignity of being a particular object with particular features, rather than simply an inert equivalent whose physical being can be of no interest if it is to fill its designated role.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Another possible topic for reflection: the use of “liberate” as a euphemism for shoplifting.

  8. voyou Says:

    I wasn’t really trying to be polemical, Bryan, but you’re right that I don’t really make the case for the positive value of OOO to understanding commodity fetishism, over and above what we get from Marx. I guess I think there’s something interesting in the role that Harman gives to appearance as the way in which objects relate to one another, which would be worth thinking about as a metaphysical underpinning to Benjamin, say, though I don’t know if anything useful would actually come of that.

    Adam, I really like this:

    capitalism perverts our relationship to “stuff,” keeping us from genuinely enjoying it.

    I was reading something in Jameson’s book on Capital where he points out that capitalism is hostile to “enjoyment,” because, as soon as something is consumed, that consumption becomes part of another cycle of production.

  9. Craig Says:

    I was cleaning under some furniture last night and there were some long-lost coins on the floor. Given that I had survived however long without that eighty or so cents, I decided I could continue to survive without that eighty or so cents. Rather than putting them into a useless change bucket, I decided to sweep them up with the rest of the dust, dander, and pet fur and put them in the garbage. Finally: money liberated from circulation until such a time as the municipal dump is excavated by alien archaeologists trying to understand our insane civilization long after it is gone.

  10. Commodities, Objects, and Persons « Larval Subjects . Says:

    [...] Posted by larvalsubjects under Uncategorized 1 Comment  Over at An und fur sich Voyou has a nice post up on OOO and commodity fetishism. As Voyou writes, One of the criticisms of object-oriented [...]

  11. Ross Wolfe Says:

    The “liberation” of the commodity would, like the “liberation” of the proletariat, only be true insofar as both the commodity and the proletariat qua proletariat would render themselves anachronistic. For the working-class, it would mean the self-abolition of labor as such. Produced goods would obviously remain for their consumption and use by a postcapitalist society, but they would no longer commodities. Commodities are distinguished by the fact that they are alienated from their most direct producers as the marketable property of the owner of the means of production. The capitalist insists upon the production of commodities so that labor (itself a commodity) can further valorize the original value of the materials being consumed in production. The point of the production of goods in a globally emancipated society would be so that it could be equitably distributed throughout the world, so that everyone could better cultivate his individual personality without fear of hunger, scarcity, disease, or violence.

  12. Ross Wolfe Says:

    I think this would hold water if any of those who actually put forward OOO were that interested in Marx and showed any desire to acquaint themselves with debates within Marxism 1850-2011 or were by any stretch of the imagination political activists. They seem more interested in fighting ‘anthropocentrism’ and riffing on a strange combination of Leibniz, Whitehead and Arne Naess. I’d recommend reading a figure like Naess – this is the sort of thing we’re really dealing with here. Of course there’s an ‘orientation’ to things in Marx (critically not speculatively so, there’s the rub) as there was to objects in Hegel (critically and speculatively). But no analysis of things in today’s world can with any responsibility ignore or downplay their relation to labour or to the subject respectively. A better approach would be: no object-orientation without equal subject-orientation (the subject, yes, scandalously different from rocks and flowers and bacteria), no speculation without critical self-reflection, awareness of contradiction, paralogism, etc. Object-orientation is forever caught in a dualism flailing around trying to battle a supposed privelege of subject over object by merely plumping enthusiasticaly for the other. Abstrakte Negation. No Glasnost for me, I’m afraid.

    I would tend to agree with the sentiments of this statement. Aside from Reid Kane/Kotlas, who has lately been distancing himself from OOO and SR in general, I have never seen anyone who works within the framework of OOO really engage with Marxism beyond a vague familiarity with the Manifesto and the first volume of Capital. Conversations with OOOists have demonstrated to me an utter lack of acquaintance with figures like Bebel, Bernstein, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotskii, etc. or any of the major controversies of the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd Internationals. Even though I admit that the sectarian quibbling of the various Trotskyist groups is tedious, the legacy of the 4th International is also important in the history of Marxist politics.

  13. On Commodities and the False Liberation of the Object « The Charnel-House Says:

    [...] much-celebrated Marxian concept of commodity fetishism, outlined in the first chapter of Capital.  Voyou seems to want to use the Object-Oriented Ontological approach because it promises for him a sort of [...]

  14. Ross Wolfe Says:

    Voyou,

    I have written up a brief entry in response to both this original post and the subsequent post by Levi Bryant over at Larval Subjects.


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