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….