Karl Marx, “Commodities & Money”

1867

In the beginning of Capital, Marx outlines the necessary conditions for the production of commodities, or useful external objects produced for exchange on a market. Therefore, the commodity necessitates a market for exchange and a social division of labor to create specialized products. Commodities have use value (purpose) as well as exchange-value (worth). The value, Marx asserts, depends on the quantity of social labor required to produce the object. If 2 items are equatable in value, there must be a “third thing” that can be sought as well. Capitalism is unique in its pursuit of profit through the exchange of commodities – how is profit generated? For Marx, it is through labor exploitation – labor is “variable capital” because it is paid less than its worth. Commodities are more “constant capital,” contributing as they do to other, finished commodities without increasing their value. The “surplus value theory” of profit is thus that the labor of the worker exceeds what is necessary according to the value of his wages.

In this model, profit should fall with increased mechanization and industrialization, right? Indeed, this is a major flaw in Marx’s argument and we have not seen the downfall of capitalism or the shrinking of its profits. His theories are most valuable in questioning the teleological model of a stable capitalist economics (he suggests the boom & bust cycle as inevitable) and the idea that the relations between worker and capitalist are harmonious and mutually beneficial (he restages this as a class-based struggle for rights against the capitalist drive for profit).

Some excerpts from “Commodities”:

“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an ‘immense accumulation of commodities,’ its unit being a single commodity… an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another… from two points of view of quality and quantity… an assemblage of many properties, and may therefore be of use in various ways. To discover the various uses of things is the work of history” 43.

“We have seen that when commodities are exchanged, their exchange value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use-value… A use-value, or useful article… has value only because human labor in the abstract has been embodied or materialized in it. How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be measured? Plainly, by the quantity of the value-creating substance, the labour, contained in the article” 46.

“Use-value becomes the form of manifestation, the phenomenal form of its opposite, value. The bodily form of the commodity becomes its value-form… some social relation lies at the bottom of it” 62-3.

“Every product of labor is, in all states of society, a use-value; but it is only at a definite historical epoch in a society’s development that such a product becomes a commodity, viz., at the epoch when the labor spent on the production of a useful article becomes expressed as one of the objective qualities of that article, i.e., as its value. It therefore follows that the elementary value-form is also the primitive form under which a product of labor appears historically as a commodity, and that the gradual transformation of such products into commodities, proceeds pari passu with the development of the value-form…. the elementary form of value… is a mere germ, which undergo a series of metamorphoses before it can ripen into the price-form” 67.

“Each commodity such as coat, tea, corn, iron, &c., figures in the expression of value of the linen, as an equivalent, and, consequently, as a thing that is value. The bodily form of each of these commodities figures now as a particular equivalent form, one out of many. In the same way the manifold concrete useful kinds of labor, embodied in these different commodities, rank now as so many different forms of the realization, or manifestation, of undifferentiated human labor” 69.

“Gold is now money with reference to all other commodities only because it was previously, with reference to them, a simple commodity. Like all other commodities, it was also capable or serving as an equivalent… it began to serve, within varying limits, as universal equivalent… The difficulty in forming a concept of the money-form consists in clearly comprehending the universal equivalent form, and as a necessary corollary, the general form of value, form C… deducible from form B, the expanded form of value, the essential component element of which is form A, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat or x commodity A = y commodity B. The simple commodity-form is therefore the germ of the money-form” 75.

The fetishism of commodities:

“In all states of society, the labor-time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development… from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labor assumes a social form” 76.

“The equality of all sorts of human labor is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labor-power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labor; and finally, the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labor affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products” 77.

“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labor… social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses… the fantastic form of a relation between things [compared to the actual form of light reaching our eye in the transmission of the visibility of the object]” 77.

“Articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labor of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labor of all of these private individuals forms the aggregate labor of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labor does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labor of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labor of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers… not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but… material relations between persons and social relations between things” 78.

“Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language…” (think about Freud and close/symptomatic reading here. Also Heidegger’s jar?) 79.

“Labor appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves… one ton of iron and two ounces of gold appear as naturally to be of equal value as a pound of gold and a pound of iron in spite of their different physical and chemical qualities appear to be of equal weight. The character of having value, when once impressed upon products, obtains fixity only by reason of their acting and re-acting upon each other as quantities of value. These quantitites vary continually, independently of the will, foresight and action of the producers. To them, their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them” 79.

“Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of these forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him… The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production” 81.

Marx’s fantasy world is one of Robinson Crusoe made into community, which would regulate the quantity of labor and the distribution of products better than capitalism:

“A community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labor-power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labor-power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labor are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual” 83.

“The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labor to the standard of homogenous human labor – for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion” 83.

In sum, fetishism is the social control of objects over subjects to the extent that it appears natural.

“The mode of production in which the product takes the form of a commodity, or is produced directly for exchange, is the most general and most embryonic form of bourgeois production… its Fetish character is comparatively easy to be seen through. But when we come to more concrete forms, even this appearance of simplicity vanishes” 86.

What inheres in commodities is the value, not the use, as Marx proves through a series of ventriloquizations:

“Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use-value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange-values. Now listen how those commodities speak through the mouth of the economist. ‘Value’ – (i.e. exchange-value) ‘is a property of things, riches’ – (i.e. use-value) of man. Value, in this sense, necessarily implies exchanges, riches do not.’ ‘Riches (use-value) are the attribute of men, value is the attribute of commodities. A man or a community is rich, a pearl or a diamond is valuable… as a pearl or a diamond.’ So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond… the use-value of objects belongs to them independently of their material properties, while their value, on the other hand, forms a part of them as objects [so say economists, wrongly, for Marx]… The use-value of objects is realized without exchange, by means of a direct relation between the objects and man… their value is realized only by exchange… a social process… ‘To be a well-favored man is the gift of fortune, but reading and writing comes by Nature'” 87.

The end of this quote converts exchange-value from something relative into the absolute. The true relation is the opposite of what it seems.

 

 

dir. John Stahl, “Imitation of Life”

1934

In this first version of Fanny Hurst’s novel, released just a year after the book, white Bea Pullman and her daughter Jessie take in black Delilah Johnson and her light-skinned daughter Peola as live-in help. Bea markets Delilah’s pancake recipe, literally making her “the face” (like Aunt Jemima) of the business (this unfolds in the film through 2-dimensional renderings of Delilah’s smiling face that are continually flipped over – like pancakes – emphasizing their flatness). Jessie falls in love with Stephen, Bea’s beau, and they play out a comical “Boxer and the Bobby Soxer” routine before Bea refuses him, prioritizing her daughter’s feelings, and promises to come find him when Jessie has recovered. Like the Sirk film, the early version ends with the same grand funeral for Delilah, who dies of a broken heart after Peola abandons her, but here we see Peola “accept her race” and return to her Negro college. (See Lauren Berlant on both films.)

 

Frank O’Hara: Poems

Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) was of the New York School of poets, along with Schuyler, Koch, and Ashbery. Born in Baltimore, he moved to New York in 1951, where the city became for him “what the pastoral or rural worlds were for other writers, a source of refreshment and fantasy.” He explores the richness of locality, extinguishing the need for Old World symbols and charms and settling instead on the pleasures of the body. His poetry is notable for its insistence on joy and consumerism alongside loss and skepticism. In Lunch Poems, O’Hara explored the consumer’s midday break time as an innocent, rejuvenating participation in the city, including its capitalist delights. Unlike the nights of the Confessional poets, O’Hara’s poetry is distinctly a daytime voice. His campy humor (overperforming and neither affirming nor denying, but seeking a “3rd position”) is sometimes viewed as an important precursor to the work of poet laureate Billy Collins. He is also interesting to compare with Isherwood, especially A Single Man. O’Hara was killed in a beach-buggy accident on Fire Island at 41.

“WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER,” 1957

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Considers the medium of language via the medium of language, whereas the painting juxtaposes language and paint – a different project. The painting is concise and masks its inspiration because it needs to simplify; the poem is prolix and can never arrive at its topic.

LUNCH POEMS, 1964

“A STEP AWAY FROM THEM”

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.
                                          On
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
a Thursday.
                Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S   
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, è bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
             There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.
                A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
This poem juxtaposes death and the quotidian details of everyday life, the personal (“I,” the timestamp, the particulars) and impersonality (“One,” life, etc.). It emphasizes the vitality of the dead, as well as a delicious joie de vivre, a comfort that Puerto Ricans in the street can create happiness and one can carry one’s heart in one’s pocket as a book of poems.

“THE DAY LADY DIED”

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
                                           I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
Billie Holliday, the topic of the poem, is never mentioned. Rather, the poem explores how she lives and exists in collective memory, as well as in the atomized experience of the individual. The speaker obsessively timestamps the day and how he moves through it. At the end he feels a personal sadness and rage, remembering the night “everyone and I stopped breathing” at the sound of her voice – an ironic phrase that captures the suspense in terms of her actual death, but also maintains the personal/social dichotomy that characterizes so many of O’Hara’s poems.

“AVE MARIA”

Mothers of America
                                     let your kids go to the movies!
get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
                                                                             but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images
and when you grow old as grow old you must
                                                                            they won’t hate you
they won’t criticize you they won’t know
                                                                            they’ll be in some glamorous country
they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or playing hookey
they may even be grateful to you
                                                            for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
                                                       and didn’t upset the peaceful home
they will know where candy bars come from
                                                                                 and gratuitous bags of popcorn
as gratuitous as leaving the movie before it’s over
with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg
near the Williamsburg Bridge
                                                       oh mothers you will have made the little tykes
so happy because if nobody does pick them up in the movies
they won’t know the difference
                                                         and if somebody does it’ll be sheer gravy
and they’ll have been truly entertained either way
instead of hanging around the yard
                                                                 or up in their room
                                                                                                     hating you
prematurely since you won’t have done anything horribly mean yet
except keeping them from the darker joys
                                                                             it’s unforgivable the latter
so don’t blame me if you won’t take this advice
                                                                                      and the family breaks up
and your children grow old and blind in front of a TV set
                                                                                                        seeing
movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young
This poem is an ode to the movies, a lighthearted delight in the sex kids will find there that I’d like to contrast with Larkin’s darker, more depressing aesthetic in “High Windows,” which almost feels like a grungy attempted ripoff of O’Hara’s style. Also interesting to think about in terms of Vivian Sobchack and Linda Williams.

“STEPS”

How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime
and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left

here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days
(I got tired of D-days) and blue you there still
accepts me foolish and free
all I want is a room up there
and you in it
and even the traffic halt so thick is a way
for people to rub up against each other
and when their surgical appliances lock
they stay together
for the rest of the day (what a day)
I go by to check a slide and I say
that painting’s not so blue

where’s Lana Turner
she’s out eating
and Garbo’s backstage at the Met
everyone’s taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers
and the park’s full of dancers with their tights and shoes
in little bags
who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y
why not
the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won
and in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive

the apartment was vacated by a gay couple
who moved to the country for fun
they moved a day too soon
even the stabbings are helping the population explosion
though in the wrong country
and all those liars have left the UN
the Seagram Building’s no longer rivalled in interest
not that we need liquor (we just like it)

and the little box is out on the sidewalk
next to the delicatessen
so the old man can sit on it and drink beer
and get knocked off it by his wife later in the day
while the sun is still shining

oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much

The rushed, passionate, run-on sense of the poem is explained by its ending, where the speaker has overconsumed on all the stuff of life. The montage of pop and politics, personal and social is a whirlwind tour of O’Hara’s stylistic devices.

Fredric Jameson, Introduction (“Postmodernism”)

1990

Jameson’s brief introduction to the larger volume Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism precedes the infamous chapter on “Culture” (the original essay entitled “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”). In about fifteen pages, Jameson lays out the structure of the book, beginning:

“It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.” ix

For Jameson, this manifests as “the sheer enumeration of changes and modifications,” different from the modernist fixation on “the new” because it is focused on breaks and events, changes in representations, rather than new worlds and orders of perception. He argues later that both subject and object have changed, but this argument, in particular, seems to focus on the change of the subject, and how we  no longer consider “the thing in itself,” for postmodernism is the more “formal” and “fully human” mode which is

“more ‘distracted,’ as Benhamin might put it; it only clocks the variations themselves, and knows only too well that the contents are just more images.” ix

“…culture has become a product in its own right… Postmodernism is the connsumption of sheer commodification as a process.” x

Jameson suggests that in this shift, our theories should relate to Horkheimer and Adorno’s “Culture Industry” as “MTV or fractal ads bear to fifties television series” x. He notes the irony of Lyotard’s “end of master narratives” or “end of history” being narrativized in historical terms xi, since “virtually any observation about the present can be mobilized in the very search for the present itself” xii. In a world where all is surface,

“there no longer exists any such ‘deeper logic’ for the surface to manifest… a pathology distinctively autoreferential.” xii

“postmodernism – has crystallized a host of hitherto independent developments which, thus named, prove to have contained the thing itself in embryo and now step forward richly to document its multiple genealogies… like lightning striking from the superstructure back to the base, fuses its unlikely materials into a gleaming lump or lava surface.” xiii

If the modernist aesthetic paradigm was built on time, catastrophe, and disaster, postmodernism is built on space, uncertainty, disorientation. Its terminology, for Jameson, is “McLuhanite” xiii (referring to the communications philosopher and media theorist who coined the phrases “the medium is the message” and “the global village”). He proposes that Raymond Williams’ idea of “structures of feeling” only applies to postmodernism if we undergo “profound collective self-transformation” xiv, but in fact for Jameson, culture and economy in postmodernism are more mutually reinforcing than ever before; there is no “outside.”

Jameson wonders about the use of “utopia” in the “spatialized” age of postmodernity (vs modernity, focused on time), and also begins to suggest that theory (aesthetic theory in particular) seems to have begun to replace aesthetic objects as being able to “defy the gravity of the zeitgeist” xvi and perhaps even be avant-garde. However, with such theorizing, what is “the text” that replaces “the work” in “the Heisenberg principle of postmodernism… the endless slide show, ‘total flow’ prolonged into the infinite”? xvii. Whereas once the world or language was fragmented and the subject (the bourgeois ego) expressed that, now the subject is fragmented, or ceases to exist (thus the “waning of affect” Jameson notes and Ngai contends).

TERMS: Jameson also explains his use of the word “nostalgia” for the film chapter here – an affectless return of the repressed of the twenties and thirties xvii. He uses “late capitalism” as a synonym of “multinational capitalism,” “spectacle or image society,” “media capitalism,” “the world system,” and calls “postmodernism,” Adorno’s “administered society,” and even “postindustrial society” cousins of the term xviii. He traces the term back to Adorno, Horkheimer, & the Frankfurt School to refer to “a tendential web of bureaucratic control… a Foucault-like grid avant la lettre” and “the interpenetration of government and big business… Nazism… the New Deal… some form of socialism, benign or Stalinist” xviii.

Though the term has shed some of the paranoia of these older associations and (frighteningly) these features have become naturalized, it is still a useful way to think about the post-imperial stage of capitalism (see notes to Chapter 1). The pieces came gradually, but have jelled into a new system of which we are now actually aware, characterized by international labor division, media & computing on the rise, emergence of yuppies, and global gentrification xix. Jameson claims that the economic structures were laid in the 50s, but that the cultural aspect necessitated a new “psychic habitus… the absolute break” only possible a decade later:

“That the various preconditions for a new ‘structure of feeling’ also preexist their moment of combination and crystallization into a relatively hegemonic style everyone acknowledges… the basic new technological prerequisites of the… third stage… were available by the end of World War II…. Culturally, however, the precondition is to be found… in the enormous social and psychological transformations of the 1960s.” xx

“If you prefer a now somewhat antiquated language, the distinction is very much the one Althusser used to harp on between a Hegelian ‘essential cross section’ of the present (or coup d’essence), where a culture critique wants to find a single principle of the ‘postmodern’ inherent in the most varied and ramified features of social life, and that Althusserian ‘structure in dominance’ in which the various levels entertain a semiautonomy over against each other, runa t different rates of speed, develop unevenly, and yet conspire to produce a totality” ixx-xx

Jameson cuts the “short American century” to 30 years: 1945-73, beginning with WWII ending and culminating in the oil crisis, end of the gold standard and ‘wars of national liberation’/death of traditional communism of 1973 xx-xxi. “Late capitalism,” far from suggesting the system’s death, seems “more permanent precisely because more thoroughgoing and all-pervasive” xxi. Though the term “postmodernism” is not ideal, it is unavoidable, and “every time it is used, we are under the obligation to rehearse those inner contradictions and to stage those representational inconsistencies and dilemmas” xxii.

The full list of sections of the volume Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is as follows (those in bold are those I will be reading):

0) Introduction
1) Culture: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
2) Ideology: Theories of the Postmodern
3) Video: Surrealism Without the Unconscious
4) Architecture: Spatial Equivalents in the World System
5) Sentences: Reading and the Division of Labor
6) Space: Utopianism after the end of Utopia
7) Theory: Immanence and Nominalism in Postmodern THeoretical Discourse
8) Economics: Postmodernism and the Market
9) Film: Nostalgia for the Present
10) Conclusion: Secondary Elaborations