Friday, March 05, 2010
Last week we discussed how every commodity, or "product," is the outcome of a process which is completed before it enters the marketplace. It is, in other words, a "finished product," with no dynamic social role to play except as an object of consumption, or an object of exchange. For Marx, its social characteristics are that of "congealed labor": whatever creative process went into making the commodity is now embedded within the object, and beyond our reach as consumers, except at the abstract level of value.
One of the big points Marx wants to make about capitalism is that it is a totalizing system. In other words, insofar as capital is accumulated in certain ways, a system based on capital accumulation will want to pursue these means endlessly, into every corner of human experience. Whatever is not already "commodified" -- reduced to an object of consumption or exchange -- will come under assault by the unfolding logic of that process by which capital is produced.
Because one of the characteristics of capitalism is a "dictatorship within production," to use my unwieldy description, the people who make things generally don't have much control, either over "the making" or over the finished product they have made. As you may have observed in your everyday experience, this can make "work" one of the more unpleasant experiences in life. Whatever else work may be -- challenging, rewarding, etc. -- it is mostly something you don't have a lot of control over one way or the other.
This changes when we enter the marketplace, and take on the role of consumers. Divorced from the act of creation, we are now invited into acts of consumption and exchange. As Guy Debord points out in The Society of the Spectacle, this is hugely significant at the level of psychology: we have spent our working day disempowered and tread upon; suddenly, we are given the power to make our own choices and to value our own judgment within the world of commodities.
The implications of this are especially thought-provoking when we consider just how far consumer culture has been assimilated into "culture." Last week I brought up consumer culture in its "political" form: we look at politics not as a social process of interacting with and influencing other people, but as a marketplace of competing commodities which we consume as an expression of our savvy judgment or as a reflection of our "values." Consider also nationalism and patriotism, which are often expressed as "finished products" which you either accept or reject, rather than as social processes which people contribute to; "if you are going to criticize this country, go live somewhere else," etc.
The issue I wanted to focus on today, however, relates to the conflict between men and women as it is informed by the sexual commodification of women.