Commoditization and Communication, Capital Vol. I

(A preface: each of the posts in this category are meant as lecture notes to be developed at some later date. They are perpetually provisional and under construction.)

Whereas in the Grundrisse we get a map of the production cycle and sketches of money, exchange, etc., in the first chapters of Capital we get to the heart of the heart of capitalism: the ontology of commodities. What is a commodity? What are value, exchange, and their “relation” to the material forms upon which they eerily supervene?

The analysis relies on a sequence of terms: relation, expression, and abstraction, which, in exchange value, “put out of sight” the useful forms of embodied labor congealed in the commodity. What do these terms mean, and how do they function in the analysis?

We find out that the economic structure of society is made of relations (93), and, if I’m not rushing into the observation, without understanding the word “relation” in this first part of Capital, it’s unclear if a reader could glimpse Marx’s analysis, and perhaps, by extension, much of the ways in which he applies this analysis later in this volume and others to actually existing economic phenomena.

Whatever Marx means by “relation,” if the relations composing a society are of a certain kind, then that economic structure is of that certain kind, “which raises” a certain kind of legal and political uberbau. To what extent are these relations and expressions communicative? Focusing on capitalism and its commodity-blood, to what extent do language, speech, and communication figure into the relation and expression of equivalence between use values, such that in exchange value those useful forms of labor are put out of sight?

There is a lot at stake in these questions: justifications, and possibly the subjectivities, for the ways in which residents of capitalism dislocate, exploit, and deform social and ecological systems, rest upon these ideas. (The analysis is particularly powerful when applied to the commodity of labor and the struggle for the working day.) I will focus here superficially on Marx’s German, highlighting several words which require more study, as well as candidates for theses on how to read for language in this early section.

This first section of Capital describes how relations drawn between use values express exchange value. Such a “drawing” action is one of abstraction from the shapes and material of those use values, which thereby puts out of sight those material qualities. The first instance of “relation” occurs on 46. The German is the same from the Grundrisse: Verhältnis.

Der Tauschwert (exchange value) erscheint zunächst als das quantitative Verhältnis, die Proportion, worin sich Gebrauchswerte (use value) einer Art gegen Gebrauchswerte anderer Art austauschen (exchanged), ein Verhältnis, das beständig mit Zeit und Ort wechselt.

The “quantitative relation” is a proportion into which use-values are drawn in order to be exchanged (austauschen). In this case the two use values are brought into relation, related, or thought together–apposed–in such a way as to create an “equivalence,” a third thing between them that is neither their use value nor their material qualities nor the labor that went into creating that use value but rather their value. In such a proportion, the value of equivalence is “expressed” (drücken, 47).

The Verhältnis through which the value is drücken is drawn through abstraction (abstrahieren), a process which takes place in the “brain” (72), or to recall the Grundrisse, the “head.” Useful forms of labor which have appropriated material from nature to create the use value and the qualities which make this use value particularly useful are abstracted from, thought about, borrowing from phenomenology “given to consciousness” in a generalized way, a way which does not consider particular qualities but rather universal qualities. In other words: the use value is not considered as quality, but rather quantity. When the abstraction is completed, when the quantitative relation is drawn, these facets of the use value (Bestandteilen und Formen) are “ausgelöscht.” Our translators render this word as the noun-phrase “put out of sight,” (48) though the word can mean “extinguished” as well. (When we forget that men and women and children sit in factories for hours to make our clothing, for example, and rather focus on the price of that clothing, we have put the useful labor which created the use value out of sight.)

These are essential ingredients for commoditization, and therefore a basic thought-stuff of capitalism: relation (Verhältnis), abstraction (abstrahieren), expression (ausdrück…), and, as a kind of conclusion or result of these, putting out of sight (ausgelöscht). Through these eidetic materials living beings and their lifeworlds are measured, exploited, and interpellated by residents of capitalism as residents of capitalism. As steps in a kind of subjective process they make activity into labor, nature into resource, and useful objects into objects of exchange.

Keeping the project in mind: What do these steps have to do with communication? I can think of at least three possible theses, which are not mutually exclusive.

1) Commoditization is performative, such that relation, abstraction, and expression (and therefore putting out of sight) are conducted through language: a use value becomes exchange value because it is said to be so. The commoditizing words are the commoditizing action.

2) The commodity, as a thing, exists nominally: it only exists as language, a name naming words, rather than some particular object in the world.

3) Each step of the commoditization process has a linguistic component that is necessary such that they could not be completed without speech, and also in such a way as to open the possibility that speaking differently could short-circuit the process.

Whichever thesis is best (or some combination of them), I think it’s plausible to say that communication has something to do with the process of commoditization Marx describes in this first section of Capital, Vol.1. The ways in which we might read Marx for language listed in my previous post apply here as well (to which I will add “style,” or attending to Marx’s literary ability, which we find in full force in the worker’s speech to the capitalist on 242). The three theses above are ways in which we might interpret the passages we do find, whatever kind they might be. Take the following.

…whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labor, the different kinds of labor expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it. 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. (85)

“We” are the ones that equate products, draw the equivalences via abstraction, which then calls exchange value into the world like a ghost. Yet Marx writes that it is this ghost itself that “converts every product into a social hieroglyphic” requiring interpretation. How could exchange value “convert” a product into a textual object? A swarm of questions fly to this passage, particularly the language analogy we find at its end: is commoditization performative? Is this is an indication of the nominal being of commodities? Or is this code for language’s supporting (if not starring) role in the drama of capitalism? (Relatedly: Is Marx being more self-reflective than critical when, in the famous section on the commodity fetish, he claims that objects relate to one another socially? It appears in his analysis of the commodity preceding the fetish section that exchange values can do things, though he is clearly aware that they cannot.) Attention is required here.

In addition the basic words above (relation, expression, abstraction) require further study. I would like to explore each of these terms and puzzle together with his many commentators what Marx meant by them. I am thoroughly fascinated and confused: what is relation, abstraction, expression, and putting out of sight, and to what extent do they require/entail language? Take “relation,” for example. In some cases Marx writes the word to refer to proportions, other times to interactions. It is the same word each time, though at times qualified with “social,” though others not. What is a “relation” for Marx?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s