The oppression ouroboros: Intersectionality eats itself

Jason Walsh

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

— Macbeth, Act V, Scene V

For those of you lucky enough to live the real world, which is to say having no connection to academia, the Left, or Twitter, what follows may seem obscure to the point of being obtuse. Sadly it is neither.

Richard Seymour, a former junior intellectual in the Socialist Workers’ Party turned majordomo of the International Socialist Network, has been censured by his own organization. His crime? Defending “race play,” a form of racialized and sadistic sexual role playing. That he would even mount such a defense, according to his fellow intersectionalists, means Mr Seymour is racist. Anyone who pays attention to such things cannot but find it darkly comic. Mr Seymour himself has shown little mercy in the past, denouncing many of his opponents as beyond the pale. As the intersectionalists themselves might well say: “Wow. Such schadenfreude. Very gloating.” But the anathematizing of one ex-Marxist is just one short chapter in the development of an ideology so toxic that it threatens to drive a wedge into mainstream political discourse.

Intersectionality, devised in the late 1980s by UCLA law scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is a theory of justice that’s been embraced by the radical left since the 2008 financial crisis. Though initially the theory was mostly influential in post-Apartheid South Africa, intersectionality proposes, modestly enough, that disadvantage — which its proponents call oppression — comes in many forms, forms that intersect with one another, not only compounding each other but dividing the interests of the oppressed. So, a black woman may be oppressed by white feminists, a black feminist herself may be oppressing gay women and all of them may be oppressing transsexual women. Since then it has taken up residence in university departments, particularly though far from exclusively, in the United States. Popular in social science and cultural studies, it has spread to disciplines as seemingly unrelated as literature, and, of course, is rapidly becoming dominant in gender studies.

So far, so what? Well, were this simply another academic fashion or cranky far left displacement activity it wouldn’t matter a jot. Its importance lies in the fact that not only does it specialize in the application of guilt and silencing through deploying epithets such as racist, misogynist, and homophobe, thus going some way toward making sincere debate impossible, but also because it fits so perfectly, not into radical politics, but into US-style social liberalism.

There are a number of factors that differentiate intersectionality from previous far left identity politics, such as the radical feminism of the 1970s or Eurocommunism of the 1980s. For a start the liberals, for want of a better word, got there first. Leaving aside the Gramsciite/Eurocommunist (in the UK) and New Left (in the US) antecedents of the theory, the core of intersectionality isn’t much more than multicultural babble, arranging pyramids of oppression, complaining of privilege, and clamoring for “recognition.” It’s for this very reason that it took off so rapidly: liberal-minded people were already receptive to the core idea. It thrives in academia for similar reasons: the dominance of “theory,” particularly postcolonial, critical, and Gramsciite, et al, and the thoroughgoing destruction of truth performed by the now passé postmodernists (who seem mild by comparison). Intersectionality is the tyranny of good intentions, bent badly out of shape. Continue reading

Lenin on the bourgeois revolutions

Contra the “Leninists”

Image: Jacques Louis-David,
The Tennis Court Oath (1793)

Introduction: Against leftist senility

I am posting this here because of the widespread incredulity witnessed recently on the part of self-declared “Marxists” toward the historical legacy of the bourgeois revolutions. This is, I contend, the flipside to the tendency of leftists to claim all manner of backwater populists like
Chavez or Allende — their tendency to disclaim truly revolutionary figures who come out of the bourgeois tradition, Jacobins like Jefferson or Danton and radical Republicans like Lincoln. Since they’ve had so few notable political leaders and organizers in recent decades, leftists have lionized sheepish socialists and reformists of all sorts while denigrating the accomplishments of bourgeois revolutionaries. Engels, addressing a crowd gathered in 1845 to mark the “festival of nations,” commemorated the protagonists of the great bourgeois revolutions, adding that “[i]f that mighty epoch, these iron characters, did not still tower over our mercenary world, then humanity must indeed despair.”

Needless to say, this goes double in a time such as ours. Despite the admirable efforts of historians like Neil Davidson, whose recent book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? takes explicit aim at such blatant revisionism, neo-Stalinist academics like Domenico Losurdo insist that the category of “bourgeois revolution”

is at once too narrow and too broad. As regards the first aspect, it is difficult to subsume under the category of bourgeois revolution the Glorious Revolution and the parliamentary revolt that preceded the upheavals that began in France in 1789, not to mention the struggles against monarchical absolutism, explicitly led by the liberal nobility, which developed in Switzerland and other countries. On the other hand, the category of bourgeois revolution is too broad: it subsumes both the American Revolution that sealed the advent of a racial state and the French Revolution and the San Domingo Revolution, which involved complete emancipation of black slaves. (Liberalism: A Counter-History, pg. 321)

In an interview I conducted with him over a year ago, the Italian theorist expanded on this point with reference to bourgeois revolutions, faulting Marx himself. “I criticize Marx because he treats the bourgeois revolutions one-dimensionally, as an expression of political emancipation,” he told me. “I don’t accept this one-sided definition of political emancipation, because it implied the continuation and worsening of slavery…We have numerous U.S. historians who consider the American Revolution to be, in fact, a counter-revolution. The opinion of Marx in this case is one-sided.” (Losurdo conveniently forgets it was Engels — the “late” Engels of Anti-Dühring, no less, not a piece juvenilia penned by a supposedly “young” Marx — who maintained: “What the American Revolution had begun the French Revolution completed”). Continue reading

Book Review: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

Sunit Singh

Image: Cover to the new Philcox translation of
Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (2008)


Originally published in the Platypus Review.

New York: Grove Press, 2008

It is no coincidence that there is a new English translation of Black Skin, White Masks [Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (1952), hereafter BSWM], since in this first book, Frantz Fanon himself believed that the fight against racism had nowhere found more succor than in the United States. Fanon poetically describes the shorn “curtain of the sky” over the battlefield after the Civil War that first reveals the monumental vision of a white man “hand in hand” with a black man (196). Yet while blacks continue to remain segregated under Jim Crow, the situation for the French man of color haunted by liberal metropolitan racism, is rather different. He remains locked in an existential struggle for recognition, unaware that freedom means “when there are no more slaves, there are no masters” (194). Fanon contends in BSWM that there is no more insidious obstacle than racism to the realization of our species capacities or the completion of the historical dialectic. Of course this claim only makes sense if racism is treated, like in BSWM, as a symptom of capitalism. That is, even The Wretched of the Earth [Les Damnés de la Terre (1961), hereafter W of E], fails to achieve the depth of analysis in BSWM.[1] The Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was presumably speaking about W of E in the quip that “every brother on a rooftop” in the 1960s was able to recite Fanon. For no one quoting BSWM can miss its incisive rebuke of black militancy as proffering a chimeric freedom or its bold claim about alienation as the exclusive privilege of a certain class of blacks. “Fervor,” the narrator in BSWM poignantly remarks, “is the weapon of choice of the impotent” (9 CLM).[2] The awful truth that no one, except a handful of academic leftists interested in presenting BSWM as an anti-humanist phenomenology,[3] reads this book anymore indicates the depth of the sea change in attitudes about race on the Left. But if the utopian interracial schema of BSWM speaks to us at all, this is a consequence of the peculiarity of the US as a “nation of nations,” where the experience of racism raises the dilemma of freedom with acuteness.

The historic importance of W of E to the New Left overshadows the brilliant analysis of racism in BSWM.[4] Even the appearance of a new translation on the scene scarcely alters the conditions of this elision. His latest translator, Richard Philcox, in his afterword to the retranslation of W of E, explains the relevance of — or rather, expresses the contemporary confusion about — Fanon thus: “We cannot forget the martyrdom of the Palestinians when we read…‘On Violence’….We cannot forget the lumpenproletariat, the wretched of the earth, who still stream to Europe from Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the countries of the former Eastern bloc, living on the periphery in their shantytowns.” As Philcox laments, “[there are those who] still unreservedly and enthusiastically adopt the thought characteristics of the West.”[5] The Freud-Marx confluence in BSWM sits at odds with this politically naïve anti-imperialism. No doubt this at least partially explains why the new translation elicits a tepid foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah. More pointedly, Appiah reads three themes as shared across both works — a critique of “the Eurocentrism of psychoanalysis,” a bid to reckon accounts with Negritude, and a concerted effort to develop a “philosophy of decolonization” — as if these formed a triptych. However this is no more than a trompe l’oeil. The concern with “disalienation” in the first book is non-identical with anxieties about “decolonization” in the latter: Whereas BSWM analyzes the wretchedness of racism under capitalism, W of E recoils from the task of pushing through what, in the conclusion to BSWM, is referred to as the “pathology of freedom” by virtue of its close identification with Third Worldism. On the other hand, the foreword seems apposite to this new translation, since the choices that Philcox makes in trying to render into English the peculiarity of the French in BSWM often coincide with the interpretation Appiah advances on the thematic unity of Fanon’s oeuvre. Hence, in its endeavor to restore some of the philosophically inflected categories (particularly in the fifth chapter), the new translation mirrors a wider historical trend privileging a descriptive phenomenology of race over a psychoanalytic interpretation.[6] The manner in which the new edition assumes the onus of parsing the French words nègre or noir (“black/the black man,” “negro,” or “nigger”) tends to blunt the affective charge of “negro” as well as the rhetorical use of “nigger” by preferring to update — although by no means always — these epithets with the more innocuous “black” or “the black man.” Part of the issue is that the French uses a number of words to express the gray scale that distinguishes black skin from white, “the Creoles, the Mullattoes, and Blacks,” (la békaill, le mûlatraille et la négraille), that in English are collapsed into “black/black man” or the more pejorative “negro/nigger.” Nevertheless, the cumulative effect is that the newer version shrouds a claim at the heart of BSWM: Blacks as much as whites share the connotations or stereotypes associated with what is “black,” so that the “nigger” is always someone else, somewhere else.[7] The new, “more accurate” translation painstakingly reconstructs the specificity of the numerous cultural references in the text, its idiosyncratic use of medical jargon, and its loanwords from existentialism. But these virtues are limited by the fact that it lacks the apparatus of a critical edition with which to adjudicate matters of nuance. Despite its infelicities, the older translation by Charles Lam Markmann, first issued in 1967, seems more aware of its intended audience; its age captures quaintly the historical texture of BSWM. The older translation was, in an important sense, more aware of the stakes of BSWM. Continue reading

Platypus International Convention, Chicago 2012 (March 30th-April 1st @SAIC)

2012 Platypus International Convention banner

Plenary 1: The 1990s Left today (Friday, March 30th, 2012)

Description: After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and collapse of the Soviet Union soon after, a new political era opened, in which Marxism was discredited and anarchism became predominant on the radical Left. The most pressing challenges of post-Cold War neo-liberal globalization came amid an era of prosperity at the supposed “end of history.” Postmodernist disenchantment with “grand narratives” of emancipation meant a turn against “ideology.” Social “justice” rather than freedom became the watchword for a better world. “Resistance” and “horizontal” or “rhizomatic” politics provided a model for “changing the world without taking power” (as John Holloway, inspired by the Zapatistas, put it). Information technology — the rise of the internet — matched the new cosmopolitanism. The global order of “empire” confronted by the “multitude” demanded access to the “commonwealth” (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri). The “death of communism” challenged the Left’s imagination of an emancipated future. “Black bloc” protest and “communization” theory replaced traditional socialism, as the 20th century came to an uncertain close.

Plenary 2: The 2000s Left today (Saturday, March 31st, 2012)

Description: As a result of the 9/11 attacks, the War on Terror rekindled anti-imperialist protest, even while it seemed to deliver a grave blow to the newly emergent World Social Forum, “alterglobalization” movement. Neo-conservatism in the U.S. presented the specter of growing divisions in the global order, to which the world’s most vulnerable might fall victim. Religious fundamentalism appeared to surge. Disenchantment with capitalist development accompanied the social imagination of ecological crisis and economic downturn: the desire for a “green economy” and apparent need for decreased consumption. At the same time, new intensification of global migration of workers presented challenges for political integration. The U.S. and allied wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond, were met by an anti-war movement and a new generation of radicalization. But the wars were eclipsed by financial crisis and Obama’s election, bringing anti-austerity protests (setting the stage later for #Occupy), as the first decade of the 21st century ended with the economic crisis lingering and even deepening, scotching hopes for a reversal of neoliberalism and return to “Keynesian” social investment policies. Neoliberalism and neoconservatism both stood in disrepute, but without presenting a clear alternative for the future. Continue reading

On the Left Front of Art: An Interview and Counter-Interview with the Anarchist Performance Artist Kalan Sherrard

The following interview with Kalan Sherrard, the 23-year-old self-described “anarcho-naïvist” performance artist originally hailing from Seattle, took place over the course of a series of e-mails exchanged for a few weeks between myself and Sherrard last month. I first encountered Mr. Sherrard outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where he was going through one of his set interactive pieces entitled “Discourse on the Other.” Recognizing that this probably in some way related to the Levinasian/Derridean vein of recent French theory, I approached him with questions regarding his vocation as a leftist artist, whereupon he referred me to his official website, The Enormous Face. From there I set up a correspondence with Sherrard, the fruit of which is the interview (and counter-interview) that is reproduced below.

It is my hope that this engagement will form a part of an ongoing occasional series of interviews/intersections with parts of the artistic Left, both Marxist and non-Marxist alike. My intention is to problematize the political aspects of the artist’s relationship to himself, to his work, and to his world. In these ways do I believe that I can challenge the politics of the artist through an ethical, logical, and pathical examination of their existence, in keeping with the Aristotelian rhetorical schema of ethos/logos/pathos. I aim to encourage the subjects with whom I’ll be dealing to understand themselves at a critical and historical level, in order that they might situate themselves more properly to the various discourses and practices in which they take part.

It is my personal belief that contemporary art stands at an historical impasse, especially in its expression of politics. As the opportunities for revolutionary political change have dwindled, so have the prospects for genuinely revolutionary artistic innovation. Increasingly, art has struggled to deal with its own incoherence, an incoherence which has arisen historically in proportion to the incoherence of the social order out of which it has emerged. Art and politics, which have for so long struggled in common with the utopian business of imagining another world (different from our own), have arrived at a point at which they have become untethered from the transcendental basis of their own possibility. These problems of contemporary art, and especially contemporary political art, I intend to elicit through my interviews.

With respect to the present interview specifically, I should like to highlight several of its peculiarities. First of all, I would like to make clear that Mr. Sherrard, upon receiving my interview questions, proposed that he should write his own meta-interview questions to me, in an attempt to interview the interviewer. This I happily agreed to, though I will hardly be making this a standard practice or general requirement of my inquiries going ahead. Second, I have chosen to leave Mr. Sherrard’s written answers in the form in which I received them, rather than polish them up as for a more formal publication. I feel that their jagged character reflects the quasi-academic, schizoid, and confused nature of his answers in all their original urgency. I am not sure as yet if I will make this a broader policy of my interviews or if it will be observed only in certain instances. Either way, this is the form in which the interview (and counter-interview) will be published for now.

Continue reading

On Commodities and the False Liberation of the Object

The Soviet avant-garde produced agitprop and advertisements for goods, such as this beer advertisement by Maiakovskii and Rodchenko. The point of advertisement in a postcapitalist society, it was argued, was not to entice the customer to buy unneeded products, but rather to inform the consumer of new goods that had become available

In a recent series of posts over at the blog An und für sich and Larval Subjects, Levi Bryant and the author Voyou have engaged in a discussion trying to link Object-Oriented Ontology to the 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 “liberation of the object,” the object being the thing commodified.  Bryant follows him in this respect by stating first that under capitalism, “things are no less alienated in commodities than labor,” and then rephrasing it couple paragraphs later by saying that “things are no less alienated under capitalism than persons.”  Without conflating their positions too much, it would thus seems that the “liberation” Voyou proposes would be the object’s liberation from its own self-alienation under the commodity-form, as Bryant construes this state of affairs.  There is some small amount of truth to this proposition, but in such a manner that neither Bryant nor Voyou traces out.  This will become apparent in the following.

Backtracking a bit, Voyou mentions at the outset of his piece the seemingly counter-intuitive nature of an Object-Oriented Ontological approach to commodity fetishism.  He rightly notes that “[o]ne 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.”  This stems from the Object-Oriented Ontologists’ “daunting” claim that objects exist independently of their relations.  Or, as Voyou puts it, anticipating the obvious philosophical criticism:

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?

Levi Bryant, remarking on this passage from Voyou’s exposition, offers an important corrective to this rather simplistic understanding of relationality within the framework of Object-Oriented Ontology.  “OOO doesn’t claim that objects don’t relate,” insists Bryant, “but that objects are external to their relations such that they can move out of a particular set of relations and into another set of relations, i.e., objects aren’t constituted by their relations, though they are certainly affected by their relations.”  But here Voyou’s subsequent comments about how different kinds kinds of relations entail different forms of dependence for the objects involved come into play.  Voyou thus continues to note the fact 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.”

In other words, if I may draw some conceptual distinctions of my own, Object-Oriented Ontology does emphatically deny that the existence of objects is dependent on their relation to human cognition, to their mental representation by a subject.  However, it would be preposterous to assert that objects exist independently of the objective forces of the social relations of production.  An object that has been subsumed beneath the commodity-form could not appear in such a form were it not for these shadowy relations 0f production that take place “behind the backs” of these objects, to paraphrase Hegel.  Even in precapitalist modes of production, when the preponderance of the commodity-form was not as yet total, the appearance of objects that were the products of human labor would clearly be the result of relations of production specific to that social formation.  The mark of their artifice would be inscribed in their objectivity.  And so again, the existence of certain objects could not appear external to the productive relations that gave them their shape and constitution.

This point does not seem to be controversial, and I believe that most Object-Oriented Ontologists would gladly concede it.  However, I should like to make the further claim commodities do not exist independently of their relation to cognition, either.  In fact, it is only through their social recognition as commodities that they can function as such, as essentially fungible and equivalent to one another.  This recognition alone provides the key to how commodities can function as fetishes, how they are able to reify the conditions of the present into the seemingly timeless conditions that obtain in all societies, past and present.  For it is only through their transfiguration into objects of ideology that qualitatively multiform objects, each unique in the aspect of their utility, can be reduced to quantitatively uniform equivalencies.  The overarching thought-forms of society, the ruling ideologies, allow (among other things) objects to be represented t0 the social subject as commodities available in their quantifiable immediacy.  Of course, it is through the general social acceptance of this representation as empirically valid that allows capitalist society to sustain itself, not as some sort of illusory veil pulled over the eyes of the masses, but as an historically specific reality.  In his dialectical unmasking of this ideological fetishization, Marx notes that

[t]he categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of this [relative] kind.  They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e., commodity production.  The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes therefore as soon as we come to other forms of production.

And it is precisely this “representationalist” aspect of commodity fetishism that so constantly eludes the grasp of Object-Oriented Ontology.  Vigorously denying the legitimacy of “correlationist” philosophies, which hold that the objects of experience arrive to the subject only in the form of “representation,” Object-Oriented Ontology is unable to make sense of how the phenomenon of reification or commodity fetishism takes place.  Their realism is such that it simply tries to bypass the eidetic apprehension of reality.  This allows for their unfettered speculation into the constitution of the real, without having to bother with troublesome socio-epistemological questions of how subjects perceive and misperceive the world.  In fact, it is unclear whether or not the contemplative subject of post-Cartesian philosophy vanishes entirely.  This point is brought up in a brilliant comment by the poster Utisz, who highlights not only the methodological quandaries involved when Object-Oriented Ontology is forced to deal a counter-intuitive concept like commodity fetishism, but also the superficial way in which Marxist theory has been appropriated by members of the OOO movement.  His comment, which seems otherwise to have been ignored, runs as follows:

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.

Utisz hits the nail on the head when he mentions Object-Oriented Ontology’s obsessive mania to avoid anything that even remotely resembles “anthropocentrism.”  For the movement’s adherents, human beings are just one kind of object leading an unprivileged existence within a more inclusive “democracy of objects,” to use Bryant’s terminology (though I’m not quite sure how inhuman objects can constitute a demos).  So while Object-Oriented Ontology is quick to attribute the category of “agency,” a faculty usually reserved solely for human subjects, to non-human objects (Latour’s “actants”), it is slower to admit the qualitative difference of human agents from the rest of nature.  A microcosm of this tendency appears in Levi Bryant’s post concerning his rather opaque concept of “wilderness ontology,” in which he collapses the distinction between human and non-human architectural enterprises.  “[T]here is, in a wilderness ontology, no categorical distinction between the natural and the cultural, the human and the natural,” asserts Bryant.  “There is just a flat field where, occasionally, human creations happen to populate this field in much the same way that we occasionally come across the marvelous architectural feats of termites on the African and Australian plains.”  The astounding difference between anthills or termite mounds, which are the blind product of natural social instinct, and a modern skyscraper, a profoundly unnatural, geometricized conglomeration of synthetic materials like ferro-concrete and glass, designed by an architect or team of architects — all traces of this qualitative difference disappear within a shapeless mass of equivocation.

And this is what returns us, circuitously, to the problem of commodity fetishism in the first place.  For one of the most pernicious features of the commodity is its tendency to naturalize its own existence within the collective consciousness of society.  The existing social relations it engenders are reified into a bizarre sort of “second nature,” wity its own set of seemingly immutable laws and forces.  Or, as Lukács explained it:

[M]en are constantly smashing, replacing, and leaving behind the “natural,” irrational, and actually existing bonds, while, on the other hand, they erect around themselves in the reality that they have created and “made,” a kind of second nature which evolves with exactly the same inexorable necessity as was the case earlier with irrational forces of nature (more exactly: the social relations which appear in this form).

And this is what separates the speculative realist approach of Object-Oriented Ontology from the critical realist approach of Marxism.  There is nothing in the positive constitution of the commodity would suggest that there is anything peculiar about it; in enumerating its objective qualities, the social matrix that engendered it is nowhere to be found.  The analysis thus undertaken rises no higher than the level of the empirical, extracting only the metaphysical properties from the datum of immediate experience.  By contrast, the ruthlessly critical essence of Marxism presumes a radically anti-empirical approach to the study of reality.  Nothing is as it immediately seems.  For only through a rigorous dialectical investigation is one able to discover the quasi-theological roots of the commodity’s existence.  Through this method the underlying category of socially congealed labor-time is exposed, which allows for the possibility of exchange and a potential equivalence between otherwise fundamentally different objects of use.  The physical immediacy of the commodified object conceals its dark origins in the web of social relations, contained within its value-dimension.  In the case of commodity fetishism, a social relation between people becomes objectified as a permanent state of affairs that exists independent of their own activity, as “just the way things are.”  Or, as Lukács put it, “a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.”  Bryant thus rightly quotes a passage from Adorno that confirms this totalizing logic of homogeneity within capital and in the commodity fetish in particular:

The barter principle, the reduction of human labor to the abstract universal concept of average working hours, is fundamentally akin to the principle of identification. Barter is the social model of the principle, and without the principle there would be no barter; it is through barter that non-identical individuals and performances become commensurable and identical. The spread of the principle imposes on the whole world an obligation to become identical, to become total.

This passage simultaneously also demonstrates how Bryant misconceives Adorno’s critique of “identitarian thinking” in Negative Dialectics.  For Adorno is only trying to save that dialectical principle of non-identity, of the inadequacy of the concept to its logic.  He acknowledges that the logic of identity that dominates late capitalist society (“administered” society) is real, it is simply Adorno’s concern that theory does not become complicit with it.  It is only through the resolute apprehension of reality as dialectical, contradictory, and antagonistic that one’s thought avoids becoming a mere symptom of that reality.  But as Adorno would be the first to point out, facile emancipatory gestures toward the utopia that does not yet exist, impotent performances that simulate resistance or difference, are just as assimilable to the capitalist totality as those behaviors that are straightforwardly conformist.  And this is precisely why the “identity politics” of recent times falls prey to the homogenizing logic of our present social formation.  Clinging to instantiations of difference, performances that “defy” the normative or “challenge” the status quo become integral to the maintenance of the present order.  Or as Adorno’s true successor in critical theory, Moishe Postone, points out,

[T]he contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity, doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism, but can serve to veil and legitimate a new global form that combines decentralization and heterogeneity of production and consumption with increasing centralization of control and underlying homogeneity.

But to return to the original premise of the “liberation” of objects, a few words might be said.  The “liberation” of anything non-human is a decidedly abstract notion.  Unlike their non-human animal counterparts, humans are able to sublimate their primordial drives and urges in order to pursue rational action.  As Freud famously pointed out, this formed the entire basis for any further possibility of “civilization.”  For despite his animal origins, the first seeds of self-consciousness and free will were gradually awakened in the mind of man.  The natural instincts that drove him mindlessly toward the satisfaction of this or that primitive desire were gradually suppressed, and sacrificed so that man might cultivate the earth and himself along with it.  This is taught not only by Hegel in his dialectic of the master and the slave, but also (as mentioned) by Freud, who saw that the redirection or sublimation of these natural instincts toward conscious ends was a prerequisite for society.  “Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life,” wrote Freud.  “If one were to yield to a first impression, one would say that sublimation is a vicissitude which has been forced upon the instincts entirely by civilization. But it would be wiser to reflect upon this a little longer. In the third place, finally, and this seems the most important of all, it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression, or some other means?) of powerful instincts.”

Humans, who can approximate or aspire toward the ideal of Kantian freedom, self-governing rational autonomy, apart from pathological drives, instincts, and inclinations, are therefore uniquely poised to take hold of the emancipatory opportunities offered by society.  Human liberty is thus a concrete, real thing, easily intelligible to anyone.  By contrast, concepts such as “animal liberation” or (in the present case) the “liberation of objects” are hopelessly abstract.  For what sort of rights or freedoms might an animal possess, slavishly following its most base instincts? Even more difficult to grasp is how objects might ever be “liberated” from their commodity form.  This liberation, should it be called such at all, would not be a liberation for the objects themselves, but for the society that utilizes them.

Here is where the notion of a “liberation” of objects from their “bondage” as commodities actually bears some semblance of truth.  As Marx justly observed, commodities predated the existence of capitalism, but capitalism arises only when commodities become the primary form of goods that are produced.  Once the primitive accumulation of capital ripened to the point where it could be unleashed upon a mass of workers freed from the countryside, commodity-production superseded by leaps and bounds all its competition.  From this point onward, as capitalist relations reproduced themselves through the constant selfsame mutation of capital through its money- and commodity-forms, the circulation of commodities became the primary site of the realization of value that had already been revalorized by labor.  With the capitalist social formation rapidly outstripping and assimilating rival modes of social existence, the objective quality of nearly every individual product everywhere was essentially commodified.  Furthermore, since capitalism is predicated on the notion of commodity-production being the predominant object of society’s labor, a postcapitalist society is only imaginable to the extent that the commodity-form can itself be overcome.  The objects that exist presently as commodities for exchange must be “freed” of their need to constantly valorize themselves through the processes of production and circulation, and must instead be directed toward society’s most vital needs.  Use-value, the old aspect of the commodity-form that was so frequently overshadowed under capitalism by exchange-value, would thus be gloriously resurrected in an emancipated society.  Artificial objects, materially appropriated from nature, would have as their societal intent the idea of how they might best be put to use, for the benefit of society writ large.  And so yes, if the notion of the “liberation of objects” is confined to this more modest proposition, then indeed the shackles of their commodification can be cast off for the good of all humanity, if not for themselves.