Commodity Time

Commodities bring us into a special relationship with time. That is to say, commodities are at the heart of how we relate to ourselves. For time is the privileged medium of our inner lives; it is the very substance of introspection. As Kant puts it,”time is nothing but the form of inner sense, i.e., of the intuiting we do of ourselves and of our inner state.” And in the world of commodities, this “inner sense” is organized around the rhythms of consumption — or, more precisely, of buying. Commodities seem to beckon to us from an eternal now, a perpetual present. The time to buy is always right away. There’s an urgency to it, brooking no delay. “I needed to buy them now” (Scott Westerfeld, So Yesterday) could be the mantra of every shopper.

The whole experience of shopping is focused upon a magic moment,the delirious instant of acquisition. In its splendid isolation, the commodity narrows time — and therefore the self — to an infinitesimal point. Becky Bloomwood,the heroine of Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, knows this feeling well: “That moment. That instant when your fingers curl round the handles of a shiny, uncreased bag — and all the gorgeous new things inside it become yours. What’s it like? It’s like going hungry for days, then cramming your mouth full of warm buttered toast. It’s like waking up and realizing it’s the weekend. It’s like the better moments of sex. Everything else is blocked out of your mind. It’s pure, selfish pleasure.”

So the inner experience of commodity time is that of a perpetual imminence: a pure present, without retentions and protentions, always on the verge of simply fulfilling itself. This “now” marks a rupture from the past, from anything that came before. And it doesn’t really look towards the future,either,since the act of taking possession is itself the point, rather than anything I might actually do with the items that I have just bought. As Jameson puts it, in the world of commodities we experience “a series of pure and unrelated presents in time… the breakdown of temporality suddenly releases the present of time from all the activities and intentionalities that might focus it and make it a space of praxis; thereby isolated, that present suddenly engulfs the subject with undescribable vividness.” This present is a moment of solipsistic fullness,heavy with a feeling of “just-about-to”; everything trembles on the verge of revelation. Jameson compares this experience to the clinical condition of schizophrenia, with its “breakdown of the signifying chain.” When the commodity stands forth, or shines, duration shrinks to zero,and consciousness contracts to an infinitely dense, dimensionless point.

That’s what it feels like to be a consumer. But in the Age of Aesthetics, the same temporal structure also defines the process of production. The whole point of corporate aesthetic innovation, as we have seen, is really “aesthetic ageing”: to obsolesce and efface whatever came before, to eliminate the trace of the past in the present. And the novelty of the “latest and greatest” isn’t really directed towards the future either; since once a commodity is offered for sale, it is already set to be obsolesced and replaced in its own turn. The punctual present is the ideal state, or the limit, towards which capitalist production always strives, with its continual efforts to reduce circulation time to a minimum, and to accelerate the rate of turnover. In the Age of Aesthetics, just-in-time production and instantaneous communications have allowed Capital to come closer than ever before to this limit, to a pure present purged of all memories of the past and all anticipations of the future.

Of course, such a pure present is impossible. It cannot be sustained; it would not be a “present” any longer, if it were sustained. The absolute instant of production and consumption vanishes in the very movement by which it is posited. Capitalist production never actually attains its limit-ideal, for all that it pushes closer and closer to it. Even in the age of “business @ the speed of thought” (Bill Gates), production and distribution still require a finite, and not negligible, amount of time. And if Becky Bloomwood (or any other consumer) were able to remain in her state of ecstasy, how could she ever be induced to go shopping again? Consciousness itself, as Bergson says, requires a certain thickness of duration: “when one wishes to prepare a glass of sugared water one is obliged to wait until the sugar melts. This necessity for waiting is the significant fact.” Even in the Age of Aesthetics, we still have to wait. We can’t actually inhabit the punctual, schizophrenic present of commodity time. Becky is always being brought down from her shopping raptures by some unpleasant intrusion of the outside world: a voice that “interrupts my thoughts,” or — most often — a reminder of bills that have to be paid. Becky’s Visa cards and lines of credit are always overdrawn; and this, if nothing else, reintroduces duration into her life of sheer consumption.

The dynamic of commodity time is best captured, I think, in Deleuze’s account of the event. We have seen how difficult it is to distinguish between genuine events of creation (or production), and the “pseudo-events” of advertising and marketing (or consumption). But Deleuze introduces a more useful distinction, one that goes to the heart of the event itself,and that can apply to both production and consumption. An event, he says, is not exhausted by its actualization in the present. There is also — and here Deleuze crucially cites Maurice Blanchot — “that part of the event which cannot realize its accomplishment.” This is “the future and past of the event considered in itself, sidestepping each present, being free of the limitations of a state of affairs.” The schizophrenic pure present of commodity time is haunted by an unrealized past/future, by a surplus that is superadequate to any possible realization. On the side of production, this is the surplus that capital appropriates, and without which it would be unable to valorize itself, or to expand — but whose traces of otherness it is unable to eliminate. And on the side of consumption, this unrealized residue is the source of that sense of displacement, of not coinciding with myself, that I feel sometimes at the mall, even in the midst of my most ecstatic bouts of shopping. This unrealized, past/future dimension of the event introduces a gap into the present: a glitch or a hitch in the smooth process of capital’s self-valorization. Commodity time is riven by something spectral and impalpable, not properly present, a sort of hauntology.

13 Responses to “Commodity Time”

  1. Nate says:

    Hi Steve,

    I like this. If I may, some respectful quibbling and general thoughts.

    First, on commodities bringing us into a special relationship with time or temporal experience, is this true of all commodities as such, or commodities under production for commodities, capitalism? And is this temporal experience unique to commodities (as in, the commodity inaugurates a new existential/temporal structure) or is it that commodities articulate (monopolize?) this experience?

    You cite Kant, ”time is nothing but the form of inner sense, i.e., of the intuiting we do of ourselves and of our inner state,” and write “the commodity narrows time — and therefore the self — to an infinitesimal point.” In the Kant quote I don’t think time and self are equated. Time and intuiting self, sense of self are, but I’m not convinced that self and intuition of self are identical.

    Also, you quote the shopaholic book, saying the temporal experience of buying is “like the better moments of sex.” Presumably these better moments of sex at least occasionally pre-dated the (time of) the commodity and will outlast it. (Thinking of it now, this implies an answer to my first question.) If this quote is right, consuming is like those better moments, then I don’t see how those moments could be any sort of problem. If anything, they’d be among the better moments of life under capitalism. I may be imputing a judgment to you that you don’t hold, though, that all aspects of capitalism should be absolutely suppressed. That’s my sloppy habit – everything under capitalism is bad! everything will be absolutely different later! nothing today will exist after capitalism! – this is clearly not the case for banalities like, say, breathing oxygen and eating food. Similarly, this aspect of commodity consumption may actually be one we want to retain after capitalism. I’m not sure. Any thoughts on that?

    Lastly, I think you pass rather quickly (though maybe you cover this elsewhere in the Age, I’ve read some of the excerpts you’ve posted but I think I may have missed some) from the purchasing of commodities with money we get as wages (in simple circulation, as the subtending process and ineliminable condition for capitalism) and the purchasing of commodities, including but not limited to commodified labor power, on the part of capitalists. I agree that they want to compress the time of realization of surplus value, but one key difference here I think is that labor is actually advanced on credit to the capitalist: we work a week or two, or in some countries for a month, then we get paid. This latter may actually strengthen your point, since paying after taking the commodity home (so to speak) is at least in theory a reversal of the order of past-present-future in consumption, which is another form of narrowing the duration I mentioned. They also get away with not paying their bills more often than we do, as with the recent US tightening of personal bankruptcy laws and various corporate bankruptcies to get out of pension payments etc.

    all the best,

  2. ken says:

    Hi Steve,
    Given your last sentence in this post and the reference to “hauntology” and the suggestions (throughout) about the moment or event of consumption breaking apart time is it worth it to discuss the parallel (or not) between this moment and the Derridean an-economic “gift” that also breaks apart time (“Given Time”), etc? Maybe I am just reading my own overly specific interests here, but there does seem to be a distinct correspondence (“ecstatic”) and I am curious if you think so as well, or what you think the distinctions are? In addition, while I am fascinated by the dynamics you trace here I am not entirely convinced, perhaps because I don’t experience purchases (except for maybe big ones — houses, cars, etc.) like this (hence my need to translate your discussion to the “gift”). In our household, almost every moment of consumption is horrific — labored over, deferred, angst ridden, overthought, overdiscussed — of course, this might support your case as well as refute it!!

  3. Nate, thanks for your comments. You are right “self and sense of self are not identical,” I’ve got to phrase things more carefully. In general, I am trying to suggest that the ubiquity of the commodity form creates, as it were, “transcendental” (in the Kantian sense) structures for our subjective experience.

    As for the “better moments of sex,” I want to say that life after capitalism has to involve, in Blake’s words, “an improvement in sensual enjoyment.” I certainly don’t want to take a puritanical position about the consumerist pleasures that capitalism does afford us.

    What you say about credit, and how “labor is actually advanced on credit to the capitalist,” is very much to the point — I need to work in more along those lines. From the point of view of the consumer, infintely extended debt seems to be a way of life. (In my last book, I talked about a scene in an SF novel, Noir by K W Jeter, where even when people die they are brought back as zombies in order to do forced labor to pay off their Visa card debts).

    Ken, the relation of consumerism/shopping to gift/expenditure is a difficult one. I think that every economy, as Bataille argues, is haunted by expenditure: capitalism in a specific way different from other economic formations. But I don’t think we can just move simply from the compulsive/ecstatic experience of shopping to that of the gift/expenditure, without tracing a complex series of mutations.

    In general, I think that shopping is often quite gender-coded. Confessions of a Shopoholic is a “chick lit” novel, and the heroine/narrator spends her money, and her shopping energy, mostly on clothes. For men (as for myself), it is more likely to be electronic gadgets and the like. It’s humbling to realize the exent to which one fits into a stereotype, and hence becomes a walking cliche.

  4. I’ve had my eye on a Nokia 7200 at one of the little kiosks, one of more than a hundred such, each with almost the same inventory of products and services, in the Cyberzone at the local mall here in Old Manila for about two months now. I already have five cell phones, so I need another one like an eighth hole in my head. But one of them only works in the U.S., two of them are five years old, obsolete and suffering acute battery fatigue and another one has developed annoying circuitry glitches from overuse, so I really only have one phone that functions properly, a Nokia 9210 that I bought for my wife for $600 three years ago when it was the mostest and the latest. I went top end on that phone because I thought I might be able to persuade my wife to start using a cell phone. It didn’t work. She thought it would make her a target for thieves and besides that she hates the damned things, but every so often she does find herself in situations where a phone would come in handy and promptly borrows mine, the one I bought for her.

    Here in the Philippines text messaging is all the rage and has been ever since they were introduced. It’s not a question of fashion, but of economic necessity. Until cell phones came along, landlines had a five year waiting list and the cost restricted access to all but the wealthiest fifth of the population. The cell phones are nearly all on pre-paid sims. A 300 peso card ($6) gets you only 20 minutes of talk time, but it also includes 500 text messages. The card expires after 60 days, but that means you can send nearly ten messages a day for an average cost of only 5 pesos (10 cents) a day. The cheapest cell phones are about forty dollars new. A used or stolen 3310 can be had for about ten bucks. A sim card costs 250 pesos, so now any Filipino with a thousand pesos to his or her name has access to phone service, eighty percent of the population instead of twenty percent. It’s far and away the most democratic revolution in the country’s history.

    The model I want costs ten thousand pesos ($200). It’s been out for more than a year now and is no longer available as it was superceded and phased out quickly by a model with a much bigger memory chip. But I still want it. I could pay nearly twice as much for a current model with a zoom lens on the camera and an hour of video recording time instead of fifteen seconds, but I still want it. It’s the only phone I’ve ever seen with its case coated in black crushed velour. I’ve simply got to have it. I’ll let my wife have the 9210 I bought for her three years ago. Nobody will steal it now, it’s out of date.

  5. Kirby Olson says:

    I don’t like to go shopping at all. Clothes are the worst. Groceries are pretty bad: the wait in the line feels like cancer.

    I don’t mind online shopping for books. That’s not too bad. I do like to shop for books. Everything else feels pretty bad. I don’t like to wait in the line to get the books though. So online shopping feels better.

    I know Warhol liked to shop. But then he had a lot of money and was somehow into things.

    To me it feels really bad. I’d rather go for a hike and get bitten by bugs. At least I don’t have to stand in line.

  6. Kirby Olson says:

    I forgot to ask my question: how does this love of commodity culture accord with your also avowed Marxism?

    Isn’t the lack of individually engineered products precisely what caused the inhabitants of the East Bloc to visit the West as soon as the wall came down?

    Warhol was no Marxist. Or was he?

  7. Nate says:

    hi Steve,
    Thanks for clarifying. I like that on the commodity and the transcendental. One more question on that – when you say the commodity creates these structures, do you mean it makes them for the first time (historically unprecedented), or that it creates some structure/fills some role? If the latter, is this exclusive – only commodities create a transcendental structure of subjectivity and/or only function one such structure can exist at a time per subject? I hope these don’t seem hostile questions, I’m quite into all this.

    Another thought just struck me – if the commodity creates the transcendental conditions of the subject, does this extend to the capitalist purchase of labor power as a commodity? If so, is this the subjectivity of the capitalist, or of the capitalist subject? Both? This reminds me of Tronti’s remark in “the Strategy of the Refusal” that the worker provides capital. Your argument offers an interesting gloss on that.

    Take care,

  8. pebird says:

    I had thought that the consumption surplus constituted itself as a lack. That it was a phantom or a negative surplus – a promise continually unfulfilled. Just as in value – with a use and exchange and surplus – the consumption use and exchange are non-coincident and the difference / gap comprising surplus. From the consumer’s side, it is a negative surplus, hence the hauntology of advertising / branding / corporate image to fill the gap. From the producer’s side, it’s the best that can be delivered, as use values by themselves have no surplus to valorize (I like that term better than appropriate). The name of the game is to continue (to manage?) circulation – from a crude Marxist view: whatever gets them up in the morning.

    As you point out, the consumer surplus, the jouissance, is in the act of the purchase itself – what the commodity is, what is does, is irrelevant. So this endless quest to determine what is now exciting, what is the new object of desire. Therefore time must stop. Commodity time is ahistorical –model years that don’t intersect with calendar years, seasons that run together – new holidays created for the purpose of buying, continual obsolescence, “to eliminate the trace of the past in the present.”

    The last paragraph on event needs more (for me) delineation – I don’t quite get the sense of displacement coming from an unrealized consumptive residue. I need to think about that some more.

  9. Nate, thanks again for the questions/comments. I’m inclined to think, somewhat along the lines of Foucault, that it is possible to talk about historical transcendental conditions, even though this goes against what Kant literally intended. So I want to say that the ubiquitous commodity structure is a kind of transcendental condition of our thought; presumably other social formations or modes of production would have other ‘transcendentals.’

    Yes, I think the commodity transcendental structure would extend to the capitalist purchase of labor power as a commodity. I am inclined to think that this is not (just) a class-delimited thing, but has to do with the socially circumscribed limits of thought for everyone in the social formation. (To put this differently, thinking outside the commodity form is a task and a problem, precisely because that form is so ubiquitous that it circumscribes how we think on a very deep level).

    As to whether only one such structure can exist at a time per subject: I am inclined to think that this is just one possible approach to understanding a reality that is more complex than any of our formulations — I am arguing that it is a particularly important one, not that it is the only one.

  10. pH says:

    Hello all,
    looks like I am the only one here to see an attractive link between “the delirious instant of acquisition” and our contemporary media-tele-matic world where malls are more and more a kind of strange attraction park (from a European’s pov at least).
    What Steve so accurately describes as commodity time makes me think of Acquisition, the Open source peer-to-peer file sharing program for Mac, which could perhaps defy and/or update our relationship to malls and commodities.
    Beyond this specific software, which gives the word acquisition a new meaning (no shopping involved – the cost being that of time spent with the software),
    there also seems to be a kind of connexion between the way the user interface works up a new relationship through the promise of acquiring a desired commodity/service, etc. at one (or rather several) “click” in an exponential and exclusive present that creates a convincing and often “satisfying” pseudo-event be it meeting someone, buying a plane or a concert ticket or a new computer, adding content to your blog, etc.
    This is certainly too rapid a statement at this stage, but I couldn’t resist jumping to the way we interface to the Internet while reading this entry.
    Derrida’s hauntology seems particularly connectable to this kind of on-line contract too, even though JD merely connects it to the question of media in general : The user interfaces we all have to use so as to write and read, buy and sell, download and upload, engage us in a sort of time-out-of-joint where our action has aty the same time a certain spectrality and a certain result through a precalculated or pre-programmed mode of interaction.
    The user we become through the use of our user interfaces seems to take up on the (old) consumer model and at the same time challenge and modify it (see the acquisition software situation for instance: In the case of the user, instead of the consumer’s uncreased bag, there is a highly- compressed a.k.a poor quality “used” song (mp3) or movie (avi) that a series of people have listened to or watched before me and will also listen and watch after me).
    New economic models as well as new economic attitudes are on their way all around in this haunted playground…
    Today’s post-capitalist society seems to have more interest and use in active users than romantic shoppers, as the former already include and imply the latter…


  11. Nate says:

    hi Steve,
    Thanks for clarifying again and I’m glad the questions aren’t annoying (I have a fear of being the blog equivalent of a bad houseguest). I like this very much and (not least because) I agree. I particularly like this: “this is just one possible approach to understanding a reality that is more complex than any of our formulations — I am arguing that it is a particularly important one, not that it is the only one.”

    I have an additional question, on this:

    “this is not (just) a class-delimited thing, but has to do with the socially circumscribed limits of thought for everyone in the social formation. (To put this differently, thinking outside the commodity form is a task and a problem, precisely because that form is so ubiquitous that it circumscribes how we think on a very deep level).”

    I agree completely. But in addition to being a transcendental structure of thought the commodity is a transcendental structure of power – success in thinking outside the commodity form is not just (or perhaps even necessarily primarily) a matter of being a difficult mental/existential act but would also have difficulty surviving. The argument about thought would reinforce this, I think, since the depth that the commodity form reaches to means that the (re)creation of the commodity and the extinction of it’s alternatives – the power structure – operates to some degree from nearly all points, though not in the same way. (Also don’t mean to overly distinguish thought and power of course, can’t think of better terms just now though. “Discursive”, maybe, in a monist sense cutting across bad old ‘material’ vs ‘ideal’ distinctions, would unite both registers but the trick would be to do so in a way that doesn’t render all cows black.)

    Take care,

  12. Nate, I think that you are right and that you open up some valuable material with your last point. It has to do with the relation of thought and action. We don’t want to say that these are totally separate — i.e. thought is impotent and in an imaginary world of its own — that would be just inverted idealism. It is important to say that thought is a kind of action. But there still remains the question, then, of how to link thought to other sorts of actions, including political action as traditionally conceived. Is there a way to place this in a Kantian/transcendental context? or is Kant himself too circumscribed by an idealist notion of mere thought for this to be useful? And, if action more generally is circumscribed by the transcendental structures of capital and commodity, then how do we act differently?

    All this is important, and I don’t have any real answers, though I would be more inclined (as you probably would not) to push this in a Foucault/Deleuze direction; the idea that power and resistance are everywhere, meaning that nothing is determined in advance, there are multiple sites of struggle and change, we have to understand that while there are overarching “transcendental” structures, these structures are not only historical (which is a move Foucault quite definitely makes) but that they themselves can be acted upon and altered as part of action at every point (which is, I think, what Deleuze means by proposing a “transcendental empiricism” in contrast to Kant’s “transcendental idealism”).

  13. Nate says:

    hi Steve,
    I appreciate the kind words. I’ve not got an answer to the thinking-practices and other-practices relationship. I hope to have it sorted out by Monday or so, then I’ll let you know. 😉 The Foucault/Deleuze direction you describe sounds great to me. I’m more familiar with F than D. My only real problem with D is that I have a really hard time understanding what I’ve read of him. (“Some of my best friends are Deleuzians…!”) All my other objections are really objections to Negri in his use of Deleuze/Deleuzian stuff. One thing that strikes me as tremendously interesting here, though off topic from the subject at hand, is that the sensibility you describe is very much like the Hegelian marxism of John Holloway and some others connected with him, which is a nice confluence across what are often taken to be insuperably opposed theoretical/metatheoretical positions.
    Take care,

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