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…