Today we have a post from Zen Dochterman, a student pursuing his PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA. Zen’s thoughts arose in response to my UCLA paper a couple of weeks ago.
I am going to try to pull together some of the threads about the relation between Marxism and object oriented ontology that you’ve outlined in your recent posts (here and here) to see if there might not be even more uncanny linkages between these two systems.
It seems that the talk of class as a hyperobject is on target — namely that class is something that exists outside of human subjectivity and therefore does not depend upon any recognition of it. Class should be thought of as a distribution of interactions between humans and objects — a constellation of machines, bodies, spaces, tools, money etc…Class, at the level of objects appears as a set of limitations on the possible combinations and interactions of objects — who can deal with them, how and why.
Thus any object-oriented Marxism would have to take as its starting point an analysis of private property as a discrete sort of hyper-object that organize an ever-expanding domain of object relations (between men and machines, steel and rust (those machine must get cleaned!), cash registers and oranges etc…). If we follow Timothy Morton when he says that “hyperobjects are viscous—they adhere to you no matter how hard to try to pull away, rendering ironic distance obsolete…hyperobjects are massively distributed in time and space such that any particular (local) manifestation never reveals the totality of the hyperobject,” then we can know oranges or cars, but never private property itself. Just as “climate” as hyper-object is unknowable in its totality, yet gives rise to local weather phenomena — rainstorms, droughts, overcast skies — so too, the private property form of objects structures relations of labor, buying and selling, and all sorts of juridical protections. — one whose existence would shape a set of relations to other objects as well as organize classes themselves.
In this sense, class, while never transparent to those involved in it, is relational in the sense that an owning class (the bourgeoisie) has access to a set of objects and relations to objects that the working class is denied. The bourgeoisie may do what it pleases with its yachts and machines, its third and fourth homes — whether burn them to the ground or sell them. Those who work on yachts, with machines, in houses — have a much more limited set of relations with those objects, based around their upkeep, repair, and ultimately their ability to generate surplus value.
Private property would be the organizing hyper-object that would determine how other object relations could take place (between men and machines, rust and machines (when to clean, how to repair) and recedes from knowledge at the same time that it structures an entire economic and social field.
My dilemma is that I am not sure “where” in the object something like the commodity form can be located. That is, we understand that a red light means stop and somehow this “redness” conveys the need to put our foot on the brake. But the manner in which private property compels relations of buying and selling, protection, repair, individual rights, regardless of whether that commodity is an orange, a car or even an idea (intellectual property) seems much more mysterious. What is, from an object oriented perspective similar about an orange in a supermarket and a car parked on the street inasmuch as they both compel similar social relations? Is it simply analogous to the “red light = stop” equation, or is private property a sort of hyper-object that compels certain actions although it is nowhere manifest?
Tiqqun may have hit upon this problem in their statement that the commodity is “objectivized being-for-itself presented as something external to man” and therefore the social fetish resides not in “crystallized labor” but rather in “crystallized being-for-itself” (On the Economy Considered as Black Magic #34). At the same time that the commodity alone among objects appears as self-sufficient, singular in its being, it can enter into relations of absolute equivalence with all other commodities. The orange we see in the supermarket appears to be the self-sufficient orange — extracted from its past on the tree, from the hand that picked it, from the dirt on which it fell. The orange that falls on the ground is not — in strictly Marxist terms — the same orange that we look at in the supermarket.
In the first instance, the orange has no proper “being-for-itself,” (while it is still one object in OOO terms) as it exists in relation with other objects — the tree, the grass, the sunlight and water that nourished it. By the same token, an object given as gift or grown so as to feed people would not be a commodity and therefore have no being-for-itself, because it does not yet have an abstract character but is circulated in relation to concrete social needs.
The commodity becomes a commodity only when the sets of object relations that determine it are extracted from this level of “need” or direct human interaction — and become subsumed by its infinite exchangability with other objects. This is what paradoxically makes it appear as a being-for-itself at the very moment that it becomes one being that can be replaced by any other. For the commodity “it is only to realize its essence as a pure, immediate, and abstract presence that it must be made to look like a singularity,” meaning that its apparent phenomenological singularity is the after-effect of its infinite exhchangeability (ibid. 33). Yet the singularization of the object into a sort of phenomenolgical self-sufficiency and being-for-itself (which we can differentiate from its ontological individuation) covers over the abstract character as an exchange value.
Thus, private property ensures a deployment of apparently singular commodities, seemingly phenomenally self-sufficient and present, that deny their withdrawnness, while in fact their organization within the world depends upon the abstract formal nature of exchange. Private property might be said to be that hyper-object that attempts to negate the withdrawnness of the commodity, as object, by presenting it as phenomenologically self-sufficient and fully available, in its singularity to human need and human knowledge. A simple thing, divested of its social character. Could OOO think of commodity fetishism as the “hiddenness” of social relations within the commodity, as the crystallization of being-in-itself, apart from human existence? Or would this move us away from an object-oriented ontology?
Next post will try to cover the negation of this commodity form from an object oriented Marxist perspective…