Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Things and Their Relations

Exhausted today, so just a stray association – something I wouldn’t mind exploring systematically at some point, but will just point out as a curiosity for now.

Reading Lukács’ “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat“, I noticed an interesting displacement that occurs when Lukács translates Marx’s concept of the fetish, into his own concept of reification. In the first section of this work, Lukács offers the following gloss of Marx’s argument:

The essence of commodity-structure has often been pointed out. Its basis is that 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.

Compare this to Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism:

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself. The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

I’m much, much too tired to outline – let alone substantiate – a proper argument here, but I wanted to suggest briefly that there is an interesting, if subtle, tension between these two formulations. Lukács takes commodity fetishism to refer to a situation in which “a relation between people takes on the character of a thing” (emphasis mine). Marx speaks, instead, of a situation in which producers’ relation to “the sum total of their own labour” is expressed in terms of “a social relation… between the products of their labour”, and in which “a definite social relation between men… assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things” (emphasis mine).

Among the different paths these concepts then travel: Lukács describes social relations taking on a “phantom objectivity”, and goes on to argue that this is related to the ascendency of formal, abstract and instrumental forms of perception and thought; Marx, by contrast, draws attention to an apparently mystical process in which material things are constituted as the bearers of supersensible social properties. Lukács speaks as though the spread of market relationships generates “reification”; Marx instead argues that the fetish results from “the peculiar social character of labour” – something that he does relate to the spread of market exchange, but only en route to discussing how commodity-producing labour possesses a dual character, split between human energy actually expended in concrete “sensuous” labouring activities, and “human labour in the abstract” – a collectively-enacted, supersensible pool of homogeneous, undifferentiated “labour” in which concrete labouring activities partake, more or less successfully, at the point that their products enter into relations with one another during market exchange. Lukács’ reification picks out the hypertrophic and cancerous expansion of a one-sided, abstract and formal “rationality”; Marx’s fetish picks out a sensuous material world “haunted” by supersensible entities.

At some point when I’m less tired, I’ll try to do something with this tension. 🙂 For the moment, I just toss it out as a placeholder, and to see whether others have any thoughts or associations on the issue…

2 responses to “Things and Their Relations

  1. Robin Oberg October 1, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    I’d say they are both right.
    Using phenomenology, the theory is that all things are socially constructed.
    A football is not percieved as an eating utensil because we don’t use it for eating.
    It’s an interaction between the individual’s social sphere and it’s culture,
    we’re socialized to use footballs as material in a game,
    therefore we don’t immediately act on the football as something else.
    This should imply a relationship between both the relationship between things and the relationship between peoples. We as people are the things that create the other things.
    We’re chasing ourselves, looking at ourselves, when we try to find the essence of things.
    That’s probably why it feels like something mysterious, it’s like looking at your shadow and describing your own contours.

  2. N Pepperell October 1, 2007 at 9:59 pm

    Hey Robin – Thanks for your comment.

    My sense is that both Marx and Lukács are after something a bit more historically and socially specified with the concepts of “reification” or “commodity fetishism” than, at least as you’ve phrased it above, it sounds as though you are suggesting? I suspect both, for example, would suggest that, if we start by “using phenomenology” (phrased in this unqualified way), we might be missing an interesting possibility to investigate how phenomenological experience comes to be structured or given in a particular way.

    Both authors are trying to say something about how a particular kind of “given” phenomenological experience comes to be given in a particular form – and both invoke a kind of “practice theoretic” framework to do so. This would require both authors to make a much more historically and socially specified argument than the one involved in talking about humans as things who create other things: on one level, the terms you use here seem tacitly transhistorical – you speak of “all things” being “socially constructed”, and of humans as “things that create other things” – and then suggest that it is some aspect of this state of being things that create other things, which causes what you describe as a “feeling” of something mysterious.

    But both Marx and Lukács believe they are describing something that is not a transhistorical property of human subjectivity. And both also suggest that there is some relationship (perhaps not the same relationship, for the two authors) between these new forms of subjectivity and “forms of objectivity” or forms of collective practice. If there is something mysterious in this, then that mystery will presumably need to be something as historically specific as the experience itself.

    At the same time, neither Marx nor Lukács is actually speaking about something that social actors themselves perceive as “mysterious”: Marx and Lukács, trying to “denaturalise” a particular form of subjectivity, are trying to shock their readers into realising how very “unnatural” and “mysterious” a certain way of being-in-the-world ought to seem – again, this line of argument doesn’t lend itself to explanation with reference to something that presents itself as a general or transhistorical property, like recognising our own shadow in things we have created.

    On another level, I suspect both Marx and Lukács would ask you: why has it suddenly become intuitive to conceptualise ourselves as “things” – and as “things that create other things”? Would this have been a common form of phenomenological experience in all human communities?

    Of course, you could come back and reply that Marx and Lukács are wrong – that they have mistaken the basis for the phenomenological experience they are analysing – that they have taken something to be historically specific, when in reality (according to the argument you suggest above), it actually just boils down to a quite general experience that derives from the productive practice of humans in general. This debate would then come down to seeing what Marx and Lukács might be able to explain by using historically-specific categories, and seeing whether you can explain as much with transhistorical ones.

    As it happens, I wasn’t trying to ask these sorts of questions in this post – although it’s fair enough to discuss them. I also wasn’t specifically trying to decide whether Marx or Lukács were “right” although, again, this is a fair question to investigate.

    What interested me here, though, was more that Lukács was trying, with his concept of reification, to express what Lukács takes to be Marx’s argument about the “fetish”. Lukács quotes the same passage from Marx that I quote above, as well as other closely-related passages – but he also draws a number of other quotations from Marx, taken from other moments in Marx’s texts. Lukács takes these various passages to be talking about the same phenomenon – and therefore takes “commodity fetishism” to be about something very similar to what Weber discusses when he speaks about capitalism as a process of instrumentally rational accumulation.

    Marx definitely offers an extended analysis of these sorts of “Weberian” phenomena. I was curious, though, whether, in focussing very strongly on these dimensions of Marx’s argument, and by assimilating the concept of “commodity fetishism” to this particular notion, Lukács might perhaps be overlooking something else to which Marx also wanted to draw attention – something that might draw our attention to a slightly different aspect of the collective practical constitution of capitalism.

    This is an open-ended question for me: I suspect I can make an argument along these lines, and I suspect that I can then explain why Lukács might have run into certain theoretical and practical problems with the approach he outlines in this work. But I would need to work through Lukács much more carefully before I would feel comfortable pushing this kind of claim. So I thought I would toss it out, and see whether others familiar with Lukács and Marx might also feel that there is a tension here, or whether it looks like I’m just reading something in.

    None of this is intended to close down the lines of questioning that you raise, but just to indicate that my mind was wandering in a different direction when I originally wrote this post…

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