Tuesday, December 8, 2009
A Blackberry Fetish
The simplest way to explain the lasting appeal of the Soviet experiment is to say that it has offered the only serious critique of, or alternative to, capitalist modernity. Nick is on to something when he discusses the Soviet Union’s theoretical (in both senses of the word) attempt to glorify work as opposed to consumption in terms of how human beings should go about making their lives meaningful, or go about making meaning in general.
To celebrate the proletariat was to celebrate production at the expense of consumption. But to propose a successful alternative to capitalist modernity involves Marx’s theory of the commodity fetish. And while this writer is not equipped to analyze this theory in depth, it may be enough to say that anybody who has been to Best Buy recently may have some idea about the strength of America’s commodity fetish. As you stroll around this massive marketplace of electronics, you can’t help but be impressed by your own insignificance in comparison with what the Russians might call, a technological “field of wonders.”
Once upon a time, the washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and stereos might have awed the consumer into reverent silence. Today, the gadgets and technological marvels are proliferating at unprecedented speed, with something new and unprecedented appearing each time you visit the store. The result, as we all know, is a consumer paradise. We all want many things at Best Buy: a bigger television, a thinner television, a new game system, a more advanced phone, a faster computer, etc. I was impressed most recently by a pen that could record dozens of hours of lecture and was equipped with a camera and computer chip that allows the writer to transfer his or her scribbles directly on to a computer in the same form in which the scribbles appeared on paper.
The consumer’s paradise (see the French novel Ladies Paradise for a nineteenth century diagnosis of the same problems) is ultimately linked in profound ways to human identity under capitalism. Why do we care so much about owning a bigger television if not to reinforce our own identity as a powerful earner-consumer? The sophistication of the new video games tells the story without even resorting to metaphor. Our identities are clearly wrapped up in the alternative selves or avatars we create on Nintendo, Play station, Wii, or X-Box worlds.
Marx was of course concerned with the mystification process involved in the capitalist commodity. And while it’s true that nobody thinks twice about the “labor value” or “surplus value of labor” that went into each of these consumer products, this isn’t really the primary effect of the capitalist commodity fetish. As Christina Kiaer writes in Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism, Marx pointed to the issue when he said something to this effect: material relations were becoming persons, and personal relations were becoming things.
Now it may be unfair to say that your new Blackberry has become one of your closest friends, but surely if your Blackberry actually required a seat at your coming wedding, you’d make room for it at the expense of an annoying high school friend or distant relative. Whether your Blackberry would be allowed to bring a date is a different and more delicate question.