The Fetishism Of Commodities Cultural Studies Essay
The idea of the fetish has a particular presence in the writings of Karl Marx. It implies for this theorist of the social, a particular form of relation between human beings and objects. In the work of Marx the idea of the fetish involves attributing properties to objects that they do not really have and that should correctly be recognized as human. While Marx’s account of fetishism addresses the exchange-value of commodities at the level of the economic relations of production, it fails to deal in any detail with the use-value or consumption of commodities. In contrast Freud's concept of the fetish as a desired substitute for a suitable sex object explores how objects are desired and consumed.
Drawing on both Marx, another scholar, Baudrillard, breaks with their analyzes of fetishism as demonstrating a human relation with unreal objects. He explores the creation of value in objects through the social exchange of sign values, showing how objects are fetishised in ostentation. This paper argues that while Baudrillard breaks with the realism characteristic of Marx's analyses of fetishism, he does not go far enough in describing the social and discursive practices in which objects are used and sometimes transformed into fetishes. It is proposed that the fetishization of objects involves an over-determination of their social value through a discursive negotiation of the capacities of objects that stimulates fantasy and desire for them.
The theory of commodity fetishism originated from Karl Marx's references to fetishes and fetishism in his analyses of religious superstition, and in the criticism of the beliefs of political economists. Marx borrowed the concept of "fetishism" from The Cult of Fetish Gods (1760) by Charles de Brosses, which proposed a materialist theory of the origin of religion. Moreover, in the 1840s, the philosophic discussion of fetishism by Auguste Comte, and Ludwig Feuerbach's psychological interpretation of religion also influenced Marx's development of commodity fetishism.
This paper will focus on the explanation of domination upon, what I believe to be, one of the most important conceptual pillars of domination theory: commodity fetishism. Marx asserts that social reality under capitalism presents itself in a way that mystifies those who live in it. This mystification is political because it conditions human beings to accept circumstances of inequality, exploitation and domination.
For Marx, economists, like all other individuals in capitalist society, are unable to understand the inner workings of capitalism because they are confined to an experience of "the appearance forms" of political economy which lead them to deficient theoretical accounts. This insight into the theoretical insufficiency of other economists prompted Marx to demonstrate, what he thought to be, the inner workings of capitalism, and why they are hidden from individuals in capitalist society.
Commodity fetishism refers to the transformation of human relations formed from the exchange of commodities in the market. The human relations that form among people as they trade in goods and services in the market are expressed in terms of the objectified economic relations among money and commodities and the buyers and sellers. Therefore, commodity fetishism has the ability to transform the subjective, abstract aspects of economic value into objective and real things that people believe have intrinsic value (Rubin, 1990, 5).
Karl Marx is the main proponent of commodity fetishism. Marx states that it is a social relation between people that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. Commodity fetishism is, therefore, religious. This is because it involves a belief in something that assumes a supernatural status.
According to Karl Marx, fetishes do arise from commodity-producing societies due to one major reason (Wells, 1981, 46). Since man uses their brains to create commodities from raw materials, each product acquires a life of its own. The commodities enter relationships with each other and man as well. Fetishism attaches itself to the products of labor as soon as they are produced as commodities. However, it should be noted that that there is no relationship between the physical nature of a commodity and the commodity form and the value-relation of the products of labor that go into the production of the commodity (Pietz, 1985, 5). Essentially, man endows certain qualities in a commodity such that it acquires a life and status of its own, holding a special meaning in the relations between people and the products they produce.
The word fetish derives from the French fétiche, which comes from the Portuguese feitiço ("spell"), which in turn derives from the Latin facticius ("artificial") and facere ("to make"). A fetish is an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a man-made object that has power over others. Essentially, fetishism is the attribution of inherent value or powers to an object. Essentially, fetishism is the endowment of special attributes to an object such that the object holds power of some sort over others or the people who subscribe to them.
Commodities are defined as things that are bought and sold in a social system of exchange. The concept of commodity culture is intricately allied with the idea that we construct our identities through the consumer products that inhabit our lives. The idea of a commodity culture has been described by media theorist Stuart Ewen as a commodity self. He believes that we are constructed through our relationship with and use of commodities in our everyday lives (Himmelweit & Mohun, 1981, 75).
Karl Marx believes that a fetish is an ordinary object which has been given a type of mystical power that consequently makes it more valuable within a consumer society. This essay will explain the concept of commodity fetishism through looking at the theorist Karl Marx and also through looking at the three different images provided.
In the work of Marx and Freud the term 'fetishism' is used to identify a misunderstanding of the world in which properties are attributed to objects that can only correctly be attributed to human beings. The use of the term allows them to connect these misunderstandings to a pre-humanistic scheme in which spirits, sometimes residing within material objects, were treated as a significant part of the ontological order of the world.
Their use of the terms 'fetish' and 'fetishism' continue a tradition of cultural critique with its origins in commentary on religious practices surrounding objects. To identify a fetish is to expose the inadequate beliefs of those who revere it for what they believe it is capable of, by pointing to the real, material, qualities of the object and identifying its presumed capacities as really residing elsewhere - in the 'true' god; in human labor; in arousal by a person of the opposite sex.
The theory of commodity fetishism is presented in the first chapter of Capital: Critique of Political Economy (1867), at the conclusion of the analysis of the value-form of commodities, to explain that the social organization of labor is mediated through market exchange, the buying and the selling of commodities (goods and services). Hence, in a capitalist society, social relations between people—who makes what, who works for whom, the production-time for a commodity, et cetera—are perceived as economic relations among objects, that is, how valuable a given commodity is when compared to another commodity. Therefore, the market exchange of commodities masks (obscures) the true economic character of the human relations of production, between the worker and the capitalist
In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx uses the term 'fetish-worshippers' to describe the supporters of the monetary and mercantile system and how they looked upon private property (Dant, 1996, 6). Following Engels, he compares the fetishism of the mercantilists to that revealed by Luther's critique of the paganism and external religiosity of Catholicism. The objects of private property stand in for real human relations and so appear to have a power that is their own whereas the political economists' critique shows that human labor is the essence of private property. Of course Marx goes on to criticize the political economists for not identifying the contradictory essence of private property as the product of alienated labor.
Whereas in proto-anthropology the term 'fetish' referred to the cultural meanings and uses of certain objects, in Marx's account the term is used to criticize more general beliefs about capitalist culture. Nothing specific than 'private property' in general is identified as the fetish object. Nevertheless, later in the Manuscripts Marx does specify metal money as a fetish, referring to the dazzle of its "sensuous glitter" (Marx 1975: 364).
The fetished exchange establishes a fantastic relationship between things that obscures the real relationship between people - workers whose labor produces things of value to others. The cultural forms which incorporate such 'fantasies', mistaking them for reality, are critiqued by Marx in his analysis of commodity fetishism in Capital. Marx distinguishes the use-value of objects from their exchange-value. Use-values are to do with the quality of objects and are only realized in use or consumption whereas exchange values are quantifiable in terms of other commodities (Marx 1976: 126-128). Baudrillard (1981: 130-4) points out that Marx restricts his analysis of commodity fetishism to exchange-value whilst use-value remains "an abstraction" a residual category, prior to and outside the economic relations of socially assigned value, of equivalence and of quantity.
The term fetishism can refer to the relative quality of desire and fascination for an object that is not intrinsic but is nonetheless part of it. The reverence shown for its capacities supplements its material form, showing what it means how it is valued in its cultural context. For instance, the fetish quality of cars, works of art, mobile 'phones, shirts and Italian food is not an intrinsic or stable quality of the object. It is assigned through cultural mediations, a circulation of signs, including the objects themselves. It is realized though a worshipful consumption of the objects in which reverence is displayed through desire for and an enthusiastic use of the object's capacities.
The fetishistic quality of objects varies over time and place and between different groups of people. This is a fetishism of objects that does not distinguish their unreality from an essential material, natural or normal reality but recognizes, at both the material and semiotic levels, the fetish as a cultural production, a work of humans that is as real as anything can be.