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.