Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Use Value, Exchange Value – and Collection?

Convolute H in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project relates to collection, and collectors. Its concerns are very similar to the ones Benjamin expresses in “On the Concept of History” – which is, among other things, a critique of a kind of historicism that seeks to document the past “the way it really was”.

In “On the Concept of History”, Benjamin argues (if you can use this term for a work that tries to induce a gestalt perception in its readers, through the juxtaposition of meaning-filled fragments) that a connection exists between historicism – the attempt to document the past exactly as it was – and the belief that historical “progress” will inevitably and automatically bring about emancipation. For Benjamin, both forms of thought are reactionary and disempowering, because both fail to recognise the potential power of human agency in history. The “true picture of the past”, for Benjamin, represents the one in which the historian has “fann[ed] the spark of hope in the past” – that is, recognised the potential that the past might have been different from what it was. For Benjamin, this task is intricably linked to the ability to seize the emancipatory potentials of the present time.

Convolute H pursues similar concerns – playing off the image of the historicist (who seeks to keep all historical remnants in their proper order in time and space), against the image of the collector (who eclectically reassembles and juxtaposes historical remnants in relationships that may have little to do with their actual temporal relationship). For Benjamin, it is the collector, and not the historicist, who accurately recognises the contingency of the past – the fact that history might not have developed in a particular way, that other potentials were also possible, but were never realised.

Convolute H, however, juxtaposes these reflections about history, with parallel reflections about use value and exchange value. Benjamin was aware that many critics of capitalism offer their criticisms in the name of use value, and against exchange value – arguing, for example, that capitalism is unjust because it focusses on profits, rather than recognising and adequately compensating the practical, useful, material contributions of labour to the economy. Within this framework, emancipation would follow from an elevation of use value to its proper social status. Benjamin, however, takes a different tack – rejecting, not only the capitalist who sees only profit (exchange value) in goods and labour, but also the critic who sees in these same things only their use value. Both, for Benjamin, are examples of forms of thought that work against the realisation of potential freedoms.

Instead, Benjamin proposes the model of the collector – someone whose interest in goods does not relate to either their exchange value or their use. The collector adopts a purely impractical relationship to the objects collected – and it is precisely this impractical attitude that breaks out of the utilitarian relationship to objects and to people that, for Benjamin, as for Adorno and Horkheimer, represents the primary force of unfreedom under capitalism.

The collector is therefore a potent metaphor for Benjamin, capturing a relationship to history, and also a relation to production and consumption in the contemporary world, as these might potentially be transformed in the “open air of history”.

16 responses to “Use Value, Exchange Value – and Collection?

  1. MT December 16, 2005 at 6:46 am

    Aside from the issue of how a use-value system might work, I’m having trouble imagining how thing’s values would be assigned or inferred even at a single moment in time. Value according to whom? We already have systems where people pay an item’s assessed value to them personally in money in traditional bazaars and markets, where people negotiate the price for each item or order. If use value is something different, I can only imagine it as involving a philosopher king or queen fixing the prices of everything according to their per quantum “value to the world” as he or she reckons it. If that’s the idea, what’s the point of hypothesizing such a system? Or what is the idea?

  2. N Pepperell December 16, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    Personally, I’m not a fan of critiques from the “standpoint” of use value – one of the things that interests me about Walter Benjamin (and the Frankfurt School tradition in general) is that they are one of the few attempts to think about social critique that doesn’t posit use value as some kind of privileged, critical point of view.

    The basic idea behind critiques from the standpoint of use value, though, doesn’t come from Benjamin: it comes from classical Marxism. Although there are a number of varieties of Marxism, all of them tend to define capitalism in terms of the market – that is, as a system for distributing material wealth (goods and services). Marxism then focusses its critique on the inequities of distribution by the market, arguing that the material wealth of capitalist society is generated by the working classes. A fair and equitable distribution of material wealth, according to Marxism, would be to distribute wealth according to the “real” contribution made by individuals to the production of this material wealth – so, a fair society would be one in which the working classes actually receive the material benefits of their labour; capitalism is unfair (in this framework) because it “steals” material wealth from the working classes, and diverts this wealth to “unproductive” classes like the bourgeoisie.

    Within this Marxist framework, there are then various proposals for how you should distribute material wealth, if you were to abolish the market – you could have the state filling the role of your philosopher king, for example, or you could use an idea like Proudhon’s “time chits” – a type of currency that reflects that amount of time a labourer spends working on whatever they produce, which they could then exchange for goods that take equivalent labour-time to manufacture, etc.

    My personal problem is not so much with the issue of how one could “calculate” use value, as with the issue of whether the whole Marxist framework is adequate – that is, whether we really should understand capitalism in terms of an opposition between use value and exchange value, and then choose the “side” of use value when we analyse the strengths and weakenesses of capitalist society.

    My interest in people like Benjamin, in the Frankfurt School, and in Habermas, is that they all – in slightly different ways – try to move beyond this conception of capitalism. This movement puts their projects closer to Max Weber, or Emile Durkheim, than to classical Marxism, in that they are really seeking to understand capitalism anthropologically – to grasp what makes this global society historically distinctive from other forms of human community. Personally, I don’t think use value and exchange value are supple enough concepts to get us to this kind of understanding – and neither do these authors. Which isn’t to say that their approaches don’t introduce their own problem and issues.

  3. MT December 17, 2005 at 8:45 am

    My personal problem is not so much with the issue of how one could “calculate” use value, as with the issue of whether the whole Marxist framework is adequate – that is, whether we really should understand capitalism in terms of an opposition between use value and exchange value, and then choose the “side” of use value when we analyse the strengths and weakenesses of capitalist society.

    This seems to get to my scientists’s or Philistine’s methodological bias about “keeping it real.” I want to know if we’re talking about anything real with “use value” before talking about it in any other way. Or at least I want to see the concept tested against some prediction before I go entertaining sociological theories founded on it.

  4. N Pepperell December 17, 2005 at 2:20 pm

    I’m not disagreeing with you – I’m just saying that a prior objection can be made to the concept of use value, before we start worrying about whether the concept can be calculated and quantified. Once you start working on how to quantify something, you’ve effectively already conceded that it could potentially have some validity as a concept – if only you could nail it down precisely enough, etc. I think a more fundamental objection can be made, and I’m therefore not going to bother with trying to quantify the concept, because I think the concept can be dispensed with in other ways.

    If you’re really interested, there are a number of potentially empirically testable propositions put forward about use value – particularly in the interminable literature about whether labour inputs somehow, on some level, explain the movements in prices of goods.

    My point is that, regardless of whether some of these empirically testable propositions can be proven in some way, the concept of use value still doesn’t hold strong explanatory power, because – even taken at its best – it only grasps capitalism as a mode for the distribution of material goods. I would argue that this isn’t the best route into understanding the historical distinctiveness of capitalism (or into understanding those aspects of capitalism that may not be historically distinctive).

    In terms of the broader goal of “keeping it real”: reality includes within itself the various ways that reality comes to be perceived by human actors. So, yes, I would ultimately criticise various theoretical approaches by arguing that they don’t accurately perceive social reality. But, if I stopped here – at the point of simply accusing other theorists of suffering from defective reasoning – I actually wouldn’t offer a very comprehensive vision of “reality”.

    If it is relatively easy to refute someone else’s position empirically (and there are many, many theories in the social sciences that are easy to refute empirically), and yet those theories continue to “resonate” and feel plausible to people – then this, itself, poses an interesting empirical question: why do people persist in putting forth positions that can be empirically refuted?

    If we’re talking about a small number of people, then maybe we can convince ourselves that these particular people, e.g., don’t have access to the relevant information, or are biased for some reason, or aren’t very bright, etc. But if a large number of people persist in holding a refutable position – and, particularly, if a large number of people suddenly begin to hold a refutable position at a particular moment in time – then something more complex may be afoot. The same holds if a large number of people suddenly begin to perceive the errors inherent in an earlier position: unless we want to posit that the mediocre thinkers of today are somehow brighter than the best of a previous generation, we need to ask ourselves why it has suddenly become so easy for us to see something that eluded earlier minds.

    This is the kind of question I am interested in answering, and I tend to look for the answers by examining whether there is some aspect of “reality” that renders the inaccurate theory plausible, even though, on a closer examination, we can demonstrate that the theory is inaccurate. I am also interested in exploring those changes to (social) “reality” that make it easier to see some empirical facts (while perhaps working to obscure others).

    I am obviously interested in applying this line of questioning to social phenomena, but the general principle is applicable to the physical sciences, as well – e.g., quantum mechanics suggests that Newtonian physics is not a fully accurate way of looking at the physical universe, but we can nevertheless understand why Newtonian physics seems plausible, because it’s not a bad approximation of how things work at the level of everyday experience, etc.

    An analogous project can be seen in Ian Hacking’s work on the historical emergence of the mathematics of probability. Hacking argues, in effect, that certain social and cultural changes made it very easy to perceive probabilistic principles, resulting in a sudden rapid development of this branch of mathematics, as well as a basic appreciation of the concept of probability even among the “lay” population. His work does not suggest that probabilistic principles weren’t “real” before our mathematicians stumbled across them – but it does suggest that it became much easier for us to pay proper attention to the dimensions of reality that could be described probabilistically, at a specific historical moment.

  5. MT December 18, 2005 at 2:59 am

    I think we’re on the same page. You remind me of my reaction to the 2004 US election results. Also of a New Yorker article by Louis Menand around that time about how people form opinions about all kinds of things, including what detergent to buy. Your reference to Hacking gets at how I justify the hubris of doing on occasion what I used to think only cranks do: self publishing big ideas on the Web nearly completely naive of the scholarship on the topic. Somewhere along the road (Kuhn? personal experience?) I feel I’ve gotten a feeling for how areas of scholarship evolve, and I think the herd mentality and timing have a lot to do with it: “Timing” in the sense that suddenly something that was in hindsight obvious is revolutionary in impact, because members of the discipline were being so herdy. On this principle, a potential winning strategy for intellectual innovation would be to look away from whatever light is dazzling the herd and go with whatever strikes you. i.e. assuming a licensed scholar stumbles on my potentially revolutionary big idea–via a keyword search on Google or because my style somehow circumvents the “crank” reflex and people don’t mind reading nine hopelessly naive and/or redundant ideas for every one genuinely interesting one. But perhaps I overestimate my performance ratio. Also no doubt I rationalize wishful thinking. How can one tell when one’s a crank? Anyway, I’m having fun and no one’s going to lose an eye. Other people play slots. Actually, if you look at what Hacking does he’s all over the academic map–probability, philosophy of science, mental illness, social construction–so presumably in some way that depends on actual reading, he’s perhaps avoiding the glomming effect of the herd.

  6. MT December 18, 2005 at 4:55 am

    It occurred to me I didn’t very directly address your question about why people believe refutable things: I suspect you and I both believe it’s because ideas come in bundles. If use value is part of Marx’s analysis, then I suppose few wanted to throw out that breathtaking baby with the bathwater. I staked out an idealistic and often impractical position when I declared above that I’m not interested in talking about something unless I’ve got some reason to believe it’s premise. Or even if that’s not exactly true, not every idea on which a theory or a story relies attracts the scrutiny of the ones we think to label “premises.” Now that you tell me “use value” is early Marx I suppose it’s not central, like his blank-slate metaphysics. It’s my impression that Einstein and Bohr didn’t conscientiously attack what on logical analysis wouldbe the foundational principles of Newton & Maxwell’s theories. Didn’t Einstein derive relativity because it irritated him that current carrying wires exert a force on each other, which Maxwell couldn’t explain? And the “ultraviolet catastrophe” sure doesn’t seem like a downright catastrophe. I suppose sometimes the experiment hasn’t been performed that refutes an assumption and sometimes the assumption is tolerable because a) of its place in a story and b) how badly a culture wants a story.

  7. N Pepperell December 19, 2005 at 4:13 am

    Good stuff here – I don’t have a lot of time to reply, but I’ll see what threads I can pick up.

    First, just for clarity: I want to be careful not to overstate my own claims about what Marx “really meant”, whether in his early or late writings. My main goal isn’t, say, to rescue Marx from the Marxists, but more to acknowledge where I personally got a particular concept or approach. Nevertheless, my reading of Marx does run on parallel track to those of some recent Marx scholars – particularly the interpretation put forward in Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination (although, for my taste, Postone is still too deeply engaged with Marxism, and also seems to perpetuate some ontological assumptions about the interaction of humans and nature that I don’t personally share).

    But yes, in my reading, in his later works Marx is not trying to create some kind of alternative political economy, but rather to explain why it is that classical political economic theory sounds plausible to people – why it resonates so widely – even though it makes certain claims that are actually fairly easy to refute empirically. So this places Marx, for me, among the small collection of theorists interested in exploring this kind of question.

    In terms of how to think about why people persist in believing refutable concepts – yes, I probably lean more toward the sort of Kuhnian notion that we embrace a gestalt paradigm, which focusses our attention on particular issues, and deflects our attention from others, rather than to the notion that people follow the “herd”. Not because I don’t think that people follow the herd – but because I think all people follow some herd, even when they’re feeling their most original.

    To personalise this a bit, I don’t know many people in person who are interested in the sorts of questions that interest me, or who share a similar theoretical approach (unless they’ve taken courses I’ve taught, where of course I’m biasing my sample…). I know, though, that I’m still not being terribly original, because I’m aware of what is being written in other disciplines and in other countries – the explosion of work on embodied concepts, for example, or the burst of interest in self-reflexivity in the ’90s – and I can recognise that I am part of a broader “movement”, even if I have no direct, personal interactions with the other people writing on these issues.

    I see this as sort of analogous to those historical moments when several people are independently working on discovering the same technology or theory, and independently produce quite similar work in a short time period: they may each individually be quite “creative” – but creativity is the child of its time, and some times lend themselves to some discoveries. (Hacking discusses the flip side of this phenomenon, when he discusses what he calls the “key turning in the lock” eureka moment in scientific work. Hacking is suspicious – and I share his suspicion – that, at such moments, we are particularly vulnerable to making logical errors or wild extrapolations in advance of the evidence, because the sense of the “key turning in the lock” can derive from how well our ideas resonate with other social and cultural experiences, rather than with how well our theories match the evidence.)

    On the US elections, if you’re not already familiar with him, you might enjoy some of George Lakoff’s writings on this issue (although I have argued here that Lakoff’s political works don’t incorporate his research insights as thoroughly as they could have).

    On a more crass level, putting aside the more complex issue of why people are attracted to particular political parties or ideologies, I’ve been struck since moving to Australia by how voting systems can impact election results: voting in Australia is compulsory for all citizens, and voting is also preferential (you rank candidates in order of preference, rather than choosing only one candidate). These voting system differences make the Australian system less vulnerable to exploitation by small and unrepresentative, but well-organised and disciplined, minority groups. They also, however, make it “easier” to vote for an actual minor party, because you can dictate that, once that minor party has been eliminated from a race, your vote should then be directed to a specific mainstream party. A bit of a tangent from what you were saying, though, I realise…

    On publishing on the web, I suppose it depends how you think about what you’re doing. If you think of it as analogous to self-publication, then, sure, it can have an unsavoury connotation. I tend to think of it as more analogous to what I do in a classroom or at a conference – exchange ideas that aren’t fully formed, in the hopes that they’ll become stronger and clearer through discussion. Hopefully, the quality and movement of the discussion will indicate whether we’re cranks… 🙂 In traditional “vanity” self-publication, you don’t have the potential for this level of feedback. (Which doesn’t mean there isn’t a “vanity” element in writing for the web, but there’s a vanity element in any kind of production for an audience.)

  8. MT December 19, 2005 at 4:28 pm

    I don’t know many people in person who are interested in the sorts of questions that interest me, or who share a similar theoretical approach

    I can believe it. I’m barely able to square the critical theory and the urban planning. Anyway, didn’t Le Corbusier establish that one designs first and theorizes second?

  9. N Pepperell December 19, 2005 at 6:15 pm

    LOL! Well, yes, I can see that it looks a bit odd – planning has a reputation for being a very technical (and technocratic) discipline.

    Strangely, though, Habermas actually does have an audience among planners – via people like Patsy Healey and John Forester, who are mainly concerned with planning as a form of (potentially) democratic governance. And Leonie Sandercock and others have brought Foucault and Lyotard into planning discussions, as a means of casting light on power relations in the planning process.

    I’m not actually trained as a planner, however (although I did play one in the workforce, for a while). I was recruited for an interdisciplinary research project into urban planning, as a member of a team deliberately recruited for their diverse academic and professional backgrounds – the hope being that, through collaboration, we’ll produce better work.

    My individual task, as set out in the grant that pays the bills, is to think about how we can overcome certain dichotomies that currently characterise the planning theory literature. It’s a fantastic project, but also means I need other outlets, if I want to speak with people who are specifically interested in the sorts of things that interest me (hence the blog).

  10. orange. December 25, 2005 at 11:56 am

    “the past ‘the way it really was’.”

    Do you know this quote’s origin and context?

  11. orange. December 25, 2005 at 12:09 pm

    Ok, excuse me, that was a rhetoric question and shall be just a random note, as this is not your entry’s main topic.
    To describe the past “as it really was” tracks back to Leopold von Ranke, a 19th century german historian, who actually argued AGAINST historicism as it is represented for example by Heinrich von Treitschke.

  12. N Pepperell December 25, 2005 at 6:20 pm

    Actually, I don’t think your question needs to be purely rhetorical – I am interested in Benjamin precisely for his philosophy of history. Your question suggests, though, that I haven’t been clear enough in my post, to distinguish my summary of Benjamin’s argument, from my own “voice” in this and other posts.

    I should perhaps clarify that, in this post (as in many of the other posts in this blog) I am primarily trying to spell out what another theorist is thinking. I often disagree with the theorists I’m writing about in this blog but, before I plunge into that disagreement, I first try to clarify what the original theorist was talking about. This is particularly important with someone like Benjamin, because it can be so difficult to parse what Benjamin is trying to say.

    So, yes, I am familiar with Ranke. But more to the point, so was Benjamin – and I do believe that Benjamin intended to target Ranke by choosing to quote the phrase the past “as it really was”.

    Basically, Benjamin is (among many other things) trying to juxtapose two approaches to history that are often perceived as direct opposites, and then argue that these apparently different approaches actually share some common assumptions, and yield a common political impact. One approach is Marxist history – specifically, the variety of Marxist history that claims to identify inexorable historical “laws”. The other is Ranke-style historical investigation that rejects concepts like historical “laws”, and focusses on grounding historical accounts in empirical fact.

    For Benjamin, these two approaches are only superficially in conflict – Benjamin believes they share an underlying assumption that the past (and, by implication, the present and the future) could not have been other than what they are. In other words, Benjamin believes that both approaches understate the role of human agency.

    It may well be that Benjamin (or his translators – I’m not sure how the passages read in Benjamin’s original) shouldn’t have used the term “historicism” to refer to the kind of empiricist history Benjamin wants to criticise. But this probably isn’t the most central issue.

    Benjamin is, I think, trying to be deliberately contrarian by comparing Ranke’s empiricism to Marxist historical laws. He expects (I think) his readers to look at this comparison, blink, do a double take, and ask how this comparison can possibly make any sense – and then, hopefully, to move a bit closer to understanding Benjamin’s core point about the potential for human agency to bring about a freer society.

    In highlighting and trying to make sense of Benjamin’s work, I’m not necessarily saying that I am a Benjamin acolyte. I tend to be drawn to theorists who are asking similar questions to mine – and I think Benjamin falls into this category. But I suspect I’d offer a different kind of answer – and also that I wouldn’t choose exactly the same targets as Benjamin does, in setting forth my own critiques. Nevertheless, I want to make sure I understand as well as I can the sorts of answers Benjamin (and others) have provided to these questions, in the hopes that this will improve the quality of my own work…

  13. MT December 26, 2005 at 5:46 am

    I prefer Ffforde’s and Pullman’s views of history.

  14. orange. December 26, 2005 at 7:12 pm

    Thank you very much for this reply–much in for me to think about.
    I was unpolite. Sry.

  15. N Pepperell December 27, 2005 at 3:23 am

    Nothing to worry about – I’d rather people ask the questions they’re thinking. I had written the original post as though the readers would be familiar with Benjamin’s “On the Philosophy of History” – which talks explicitly about Ranke – and so I hadn’t made it clear enough that I was speaking in Benjamin’s voice, and paraphrasing him very closely. Benjamin is still a fairly obscure theorist – not a lot of people read him, and many people read only his “Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” article, or his literary criticism, and they don’t focus on the social theoretic themes in his work.

    Since I don’t know the backgrounds of the people who read posts here, it’s difficult for me to judge how much information to provide so that the posts will make sense, and I can easily miss the mark. Questions and comments help me get a better sense for this – and also give me a chance to comment in return, to clarify things in case other people have the same question or reaction.

  16. Pingback: A Collection on Convolute H « Reading the Arcades / Reading the Promenades

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