Another snippet from The Age of Aesthetics. This time, a little excursion into Marxist theory.
It is fashionable in certain strains of “postmodern” theory to denounce Marx as a metaphysician. Thus Mark C. Taylor discovers a “latent idealism” in Marx: he berates Marx for being unwilling to celebrate “the endless rustle of desire,” as manifested in the ungrounded flows of money and financial markets. Jean-François Lyotard similarly presents a Marx “offended by the perversity of the polymorphous body of capital,” and therefore demanding that this body be “put to death.” More prosaically, Jean Baudrillard describes Marx’s concept of use-value as old-fashioned humanist nostalgia, “the hypothesis of a concrete value beyond the abstraction of exchange-value, a human purpose of the commodity in the moment of its direct relation of utility for a subject.” Just as Derrida convicts metaphysics of trying to preserve presence from the myriad mediations and perversions of writing, so Baudrillard and the others (though not Derrida himself) accuse Marx of trying to preserve use-value — an ostensibly natural, transparent, and proper or literal term — from the dreaded perversions of exchange-value.
I think, however, that it takes a certain ill will to read Marx in this manner. For it is only in the context of commodity production that Marx introduces the idea of use-value in the first place. Things that are not commodities may be “useful in various ways,” but that does not make them use-values. Marx defines ‘usefulness’ pragmatically. Nothing is intrinsically useful in itself. The only indication that a thing is “useful” is the fact that it is actually being used by somebody. Usefulness is socially contingent; it’s a matter of ever-shifting human needs and desires. “The discovery of. . . the manifold uses of things is the work of history.” Marx offers no grounds for making a division between those uses that would be productive, natural and proper, and those that would be wasteful, artificial, and perverse.
It is only when things are commodities, produced for exchange rather than direct consumption — that is to say, when they have exchange-values — that they can be said to have use-values as well. This means that use-value is itself a feature of commodity production, rather than some more authentic state that would get lost or deferred in the course of that production. Though use-value has something to do with “the physical body of the commodity itself,” it is not immediately present in that body. For “use-values are only realized [verwirklicht] in use or in consumption,” just as exchange-values are only realized in sale and purchase. In other words, use-values, like exchange-values, are irreducibly contingent. The “realization” of a value is never guaranteed; there is always the chance that something will go wrong. Goods may languish in a warehouse unsold; or they may fail to satisfy the consumer in the expected manner (a machine breaks down, a piece of fruit goes rotten). This ever-present possibility of failure is what makes crisis endemic to capitalism. The commodity form is intrinsically defined by the gap between these two dimensions of value, by the fact that they never coincide. The duality of use-value and exchange-value drives the whole process of production and circulation.
The difference between use-value and exchange-value is much like that between the aura and technological reproducibility. Just as the aura is a retrospective effect of the mass production that it seems to oppose, so use-value is a retrospective back-projection from the exchange-value that it seems to contradict. It is only in an age of technological reproducibility that it can occur to us to worry about the authenticity of a unique, irreplaceable object; and it is only in an age of ubiquitous commodification that it occurs to us to worry about an object’s usefulness. Thus when Baudrillard writes that use-value “is only the effect of the system of exchange-value, a concept produced and developed by it,” he is not deconstructing Marx as he imagines, but simply repeating Marx’s own argument.
In short, use-value for Marx is not a proper “human purpose” for the object, in contrast to the cold, inhuman abstraction of exchange-value. Rather, use-value is also a kind of reductive abstraction. Use-value is best understood as being something like the ob jective correlative of those “revealed preferences” or “decisions on the margin” so beloved of free-market economists. The use-value of a commodity is the way it embodies “my way, for today” – so that I feel impelled to buy it. Far from seeking to recall us from exchange-value to use-value, then, Marx suggests that use-value is itself a crucial part of the mystique of the commodity-as-fetish. And it’s not Marx, but the neoliberal, free-market economists, who make the mistake of hypostatizing use-value, of endowing it with fundamental meaning, of attributing to it a transparent, “direct relation of utility for a subject.”