The more I think about the recent discussion surrounding Life After People and narrativity (here, here, here, and here), the more it seems to me that what is at stake is something similar to what Marx denounced under the title of “commodity fetishism”. Initially, this suggestion might sound very strange coming from an object-oriented ontologist, for commodity fetishism occurs when relationships between people are treated as relations between things. However, a bit of reflection reveals that what is at stake in the hegemonic fallacy and commodity fetishism are isomorphic to one another.

David Harvey gives a nice illustration of what is at stake in commodity fetishism in his latest (which is really quite good, by the way). There Harvey asks,

…what’s going on here [with commodity fetishism]? You go into a supermarket and you want to buy a head of lettuce. In order to buy the lettuce, you have to put down a certain sum of money. The material relation between the money and the lettuce expresses a social relation because the price– the "how much" –is socially determined. Hidden within this market exchange of things is a relation between you, the consumer, and the direct producers– those who labored to produce the lettuce. Not only do you not have to know anything about that labor or the laborers who congealed value in the lettuce in order to buy it; in highly complicated systems of exchange it is impossible to know anything about the labor or the laborers, which is why fetishism is inevitable in the world market. The end result is that our social relation to the laboring activities of others is disguised in the relationships between things. You cannot, for example, figure out in the supermarket whether the lettuce has been produced by happy laborers, miserable laborers, slave laborers, wage laborers or some self-employed peasant. The lettuces are mute, as it were, as to how they were produced and who produced them. (39 – 40)

Note that while the supermarket situation disguises collective relations insofar as all we’re confronted with in the market is the price and the empirical properties of the head of lettuce, it does not follow from this that this disguise is an illusion in the ordinary sense. The lettuce, the price, and the cashier are all things that are really there. What is absent are the collective relations this lettuce embodies as congealed or crystallized labor.

read on!

If I’ve shifted from describing commodity fetishism as disguising social relations to describing commodity fetishism as disguising collective relations, then this is because I think Marx somewhat fudges his own insight. It is not simply that the laborers become disguised in the commodity, but also that all sorts of nonhuman actors such as the tools used, the factories, the resources used, etc., are disguised in the final commodity. This is why watching shows like Modern Marvels where we are shown meat processing can be so disturbing. Marx’s formulation thus tends to be at odds with his own object-oriented insight. While, in his chapters on the working day or his various glosses on technology, Marx does a very good job investigating the role of nonhuman actors and how they are not only transformed by human labor but also transform humans themselves, his suggestion that commodity fetishism disguises social relations rather than collective relations tends to obscure this insight, placing the emphasis entirely on the human to the detriment of all these other nonhuman actors at work in production. It is this veiling that I was trying to get at and formalize in my recent post on category theory (sadly ignored! I must have made no sense!).

Harvey goes on to show how this objective illusion (the commodity really is there in reality) has profound and negative theoretical consequences for economic theory:

But how is this dialectic to be replicated in thought? Many political economists got it (and still get it) wrong, says Marx, because they look at prices in the supermarkets and think that’s all there is, and that is the only material evidence they need to construct their theories. They simply examine the relationship between supply and demand and associated price movements. (40 – 41)

The problem is that while there is definitely truth to the theory of supply and demand in the sense that exchange-values fluctuate in response to these variables, it is unable to account for the exchange-values where supply and demand are in states of equilibrium. That is, the value of the good persists despite an equalization of these variables. And the reason for this is, according to Marx, because value arises not from supply and demand but from labor. Yet all of this becomes invisible in the commodity.

This sort of objective and immanent transcendental illusion is precisely what onticology seeks to overcome in its critique of the hegemonic fallacy; so much so that commodity fetishism can be treated as a species of this fallacy where the hegemonic fallacy is a genus. When onticology critiques correlationism and gives Kant a hard time, this is not because it has a specific gripe with Kant, but because the Kantian argument is the origin of a far more pervasive line of argument that characterizes nearly every dominant strain of philosophy and theory today. Here I have in mind both the linguistic turn and phenomenology. The linguistic turn, rhetorical turn, semiotic turn, discursive turn, or hermeneutic term (call it what you will, it has many variants), all have the structure of commodity fetishism writ into ontology and epistemology.

The argument runs something like this: texts, signifiers, discursive structures, signs, and language are both what is given and are the agencies through which anything given is given, therefore to investigate anything it is necessary to interpret these signs and texts. It is in this way that Derrida’s perhaps misinterpreted thesis that there is nothing outside the text, or Lacan’s thesis that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric”, or that Peirce’s semiontology is generally understood. As a consequence, any change or phenomena is to be accounted for in linguistic, textual, or semiotic terms. As a consequence, the theorist comports himself in much the same way as the bourgeois political economist in the grips of commodity fetishism. The riddle of all phenomena are to be sought in texts, signs, signifiers, and language, such that all non-linguistic actants disappear altogether. In philosophy, for example, we no longer talk about the world or substances, but texts. This is, of course, more a problem with Continental philosophy than Anglo-American philosophy. Indeed, we train our graduate students not in the articulation of problems and questions, but in textual analysis and it is understood that dissertations are to be about philosophical texts and only indirectly the world. This is part and parcel of “semiotic fetishism”, and it is likely that part of the reason this shift emerged is the result of developments in communications technologies in recent years. However, note well: The linguistic/rhetorical/semiotic/hermeneutic turn has great difficulty theorizing its own emergence because the conditions of that emergence are dependent on extra-textual entities such as telephone wires, mass printing, etc., etc., etc., that can’t be properly thought in terms of the signifier.

The point is not that there isn’t a reality or truth in the rhetorical turn. Just as that head of lettuce is there in the supermarket and just as fluctuations in supply and demand do effect price, semiotic entities are actants in collectives as well. The problem is that when we fall prey to semiotic fetishism the rest disappears and our modes of analysis become hopelessly crippled. We expect, for example, all change to come from the semiotic domain, from the domain of content, missing the role that nonhuman actants play in collectives creating a set of stable-state attractor points that keep these collectives organized in the same way despite semiotic, discursive, interpretive, and linguistic shifts that take place within the field of the collective. It is precisely this that the critique of the hegemonic fallacy seeks to overcome.