Commodity Fetishism

It’s been three weeks since I turned in my final grades; I don’t have to teach again until September. Which means I have been able to start writing again. I’m working on a new book, tentatively titled The Age of Aesthetics. (This, like almost everything about it, is subject to change). Now, I can’t see doing the book on the blog: writing, for me, is far too much of a slow process involving multiple revisions for that to be at all practical. (In fact, it’s more the reverse: things I right initially on the blog often turn out, after much excruciating revision, to be raw material for the book). But, since writing something long like this inevitably means blogging less, I thought I could at least put up some fragments, excerpts, and outtakes from the book as occasional blog entries. I hope it won’t end up sounding too much more pedantic than the stuff I usually post here.

So here goes.

Marx defines the fetishism of commodities as a “definite social relation between men which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.” In the marketplace, as in”the misty realm of religion. . . the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race.” Traditionally, this is interpreted as a theory of alienation and illusion. According to the conventional reading, commodities are really just inert objects, things; but we project our own human relationships onto these objects, so that they seem to us, fantastically and falsely, to be alive. Zizek, however, argues for a subtle inversion of this logic. It’s not that we literally believe in the magical properties of things, so much as that, while we remain “rational utilitarians, guided only by [our] selfish interests. . .the things (commodities) themselves believe in [our] place. . . [We] no longer believe, but the things themselves believe for [us].”

However, isn’t this a case where Zizek (for once) doesn’t go far enough? Zizek seeks to overturn the common assumption “that a belief is something interior and knowledge something exterior (in the sense that it can be verified through an external procedure).” He argues, instead, that “it is belief which is radically exterior, embodied in the practical, effective procedure of people.” And this becomes the basis for his materialist theory of ideology. So far, so good. But why does Zizek, in this turn to material practice, still characterize what he finds there in terms of “belief,” which is to say cognition? Following Zizek’s own logic, we should say that commodity fetishism is not a matter of belief or ideology. It doesn’t belong to the category of mystification, or intellectual (mis)apprehension, at all. Rather, fetishism or animism is a set of ritual practices, stances, and attunements to the world, constituting the way we participate in capitalist existence. Commodities actually are alive: more alive, perhaps, than we ourselves are. They “appear,” or stand forth, or “shine” (the word Marx uses is scheinen) as autonomous beings. Commodities don’t just “believe” for us; much more, they usurp our day-to-day lives, and act pragmatically in our place. The “naive” consumer, who sees commodities as animate beings, endowed with magical properties, is therefore not mystified or deluded. He or she is accurately perceiving the way that capitalism works, how it endows material things with an inner life. Under the reign of commodities, we live — as William Burroughs said we did — in a “magical universe.”

And so, our encounter with commodities and brands is an affective experience, before it is a cognitive one. It’s not belief that is at stake here, but attraction and revulsion, euphoria and disgust, a warm sense of belonging, nostalgia, panic, and loss….

4 Responses to “Commodity Fetishism”

  1. Bill says:

    I am always amazed by your bravery. Revision and playback appear to be apects that creep up within your thought often. And for someone who takes considerable time with rewriting, the idea of posting your larval ideas is one that shatters, or at least mystifies some of the ideas behind what being a writer is. It reminds me of McLuhan’s theories on comics and how they were, and possibly still are, one of the first mediums that depended and even thrived off of the “fan opinion”. What should or could happen next was always fair game for the ones who were waiting to digest and then use the material in whatever way they saw fit. Is this where you’re going with placing draft material from your next work in your blog? And following what I interpret certain aspects of your thought “could” mean, are you attempting to open new pathways of revision or “mass critique/remix on the fly” (if you will) within the writing process?

  2. Steven Shaviro says:

    We’ll see. It is more a matter of just trying to get some of the things I am writing or formulating out there, but putting them on the blog, than of expecting feedback in comments to lead to revisions. The point of writing, for me, is to come up with ideas that I never would have thought of otherwise. This does sometimes happen through what other people say in response, but more often it is a product of the writing situation itself. My own experience supports Maurice Blanchot’s and Jack Spicer’s contention that it is not the “I” who writes. For me, at least, it is the “I” who speaks, but writing — even without an audience — is a way to force myself to let other voices, or that which is other to any voices, come through.

  3. Christian McCrea says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter. (grad student from Melbourne, working with F. Colman; and we traded email some months ago.)

    I applaud the move to throw the larvae out there; the writing situation needs changes, and blogs have been proving useful to some and horrific for others. Commentary is a curse, but like all magick, its full of intentionality that can be used. McKenzie Wark’s Hacker Manifesto developed through feedback, and the results (in my mind) aren’t too shabby. Others, not so much. I’ve had ideas stolen outright. But as brave as it is, it also allows you to exploit so much. I mean of the writing relationships; a tabula/fabula rasa doesn’t quite work the same way it did ten years ago if we spend so much time in feedback loops online.

    The festivals of fetishism that you’ve identified here, all auratics (sorry for the dread Benjamin reference) and digital maypoles – I suspect you’ll come under fire for saying affectivity occurs prior to cognition, but I’m with ya buddy! For me, Zizek’s Lacanian roots show here as someone trying to noodle a complex affective relationship *with* the problem of cognition.

  4. Forget Zizek

Leave a Reply