Turning Tables

by

 

It has often been the case that we fail to notice the natural phenomena lying closest to us, that we disbelieve those nearby observers who are attentive to such things and pass them by with only a smile.

             –– Justinus Kerner, The Somnambulant Tables (1853) 1

 

 A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.

             –– Karl Marx, Capital (1867)2


 Illustration of a table-turning séance from Félix Roubaud’s 1853 text, Les Danse des Tables.

Illustration of a table-turning séance from Félix Roubaud’s 1853 text, Les Danse des Tables.

 

 I.

In 1853, fourteen years before Karl Marx would publish his first volume of Capital, the German Romantic poet and medical doctor Justinus Kerner completed a book-length study of the history, theory, and practice of table-turning: The Somnambulant Tables: On the History and Explanation of this Phenomenon. In the same year, a German newspaper described as “epidemic” the popular interest in spiritualist table-turning that had been spreading throughout Germany since the late 1840s.3 By 1867, when Capital was first published, the table-turning craze had largely subsided in Europe, but Marx’s brief allusion to the animated, dancing tables of the 1850s would have been no doubt familiar to the majority of his contemporary readers. Marx’s specific formulation––that the mysterious inner life of the commodity is “far more wonderful” than even the dancing tables of the spiritualist séance––is part of a larger rhetorical strategy to disclose the magical, mystical, and ghostly qualities of even the most basic of our modern manufactured commodities.

 

Marx’s more general analogy with fetishism, as W.J.T. Mitchell explains, functions as, “a violent yoking of the most primitive, exotic, irrational, degraded objects of human value with the most modern, ordinary, rational, and civilized.”4 The very notion that there is a Fetischcharakter to the commodity form stands to accuse a supposedly modern, civilized, and rational nineteenth-century society of a secretly pre-modern or primitive core: a fetishistic relationship with the most basic of its material objects––the commodity. This modern relationship with material things––after being derisively linked to the “misty realm of religion”5 and the Enlightenment discourse on fetishism––receives the full ire of Marx’s iconoclastic critique, which claims: (1) to first de-familiarize the commodity form, to expose “ the whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour”6; and (2) to finally dispel this false relationship with things, to enlighten the “mysterious character of the commodity form”7, and to ultimately correct it through revolution and transformation of the mode of production. Marx’s reference to the European table-turning craze of the 1850s intends to evoke a more recent and familiar folly in the mind’s of his readers, and to stress that our relationships with commodities are now even more dubious than the belief in the dancing, turning, and rapping tables of recent memory. For Marx’s rhetoric to remain consistent, the fetish-character of the commodity must be “more wonderful” than the turning tables of the 1850s séances. (Marx’s table not only dances, but “stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas.”) For Marx to acknowledge that an enthusiastic and public belief in animated, living things was already well at home in the mid-nineteenth-century would be to dull the edges of his iconoclastic critique. Better to quickly close the doors on the darkened parlors of Europe, where only a decade earlier a strange and sentient life seemed to awaken in the dead wooden matter of the séance table.

 

Despite his best efforts, Marx’s table remains a tricky and unwieldy thing, far more stubborn and resistant to critique than he would prefer to admit. I would argue further that Marx’s theory of the commodity fetish (as exemplified by his description of the table cited above) in fact exhibits many striking parallels with the slightly earlier theories and practices of table-turning of the 1850s, thus linking Marx’s critical notion not only to the older Enlightenment discourse on fetishism but to more contemporaneous, scientific investigations into spiritualist phenomena. Citing the specific example of commodity fetishism, Bruno Latour reminds us that, “even as textual entities, objects overflow their makers, intermediaries become mediators. […] the textual fetish does much more in the text of Marx than what Marx himself reduces the fetish to do.”8 The multi-valency of Capital’s evocative and figurative language accounts for both the strength and unintended consequences of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. Most important of these consequences is a common occurrence in such iconoclastic critiques: that the accusation of “fetishism” persistently turns against the accuser. Even as a textual entity, Marx’s fetish-concept is, in Peter Pels words, “matter that strikes back.”9

 

In the case of Marx’s table, the concept of commodity fetishism is granted a particularly concrete and resilient presence, which also embodies a number of key contradictions in Marx’s theory. Rather than simply accepting Marx’s critical analogy between modern commodity relations and so-called ‘primitive’ fetishisms, I would like to suggest that Marx’s theory of the commodity fetish in fact shares many similarities with more contemporaneous, scientific theories of animated and ‘talking’ matter as explored through the practice of table-turning. Following W.J.T. Mitchell’s reading of Marx in Iconology, I would like to re-explore commodity fetishism as a “concrete concept” (i.e. a concept traceable back to a concrete and historically-situated situation or image)10, but make the commodity fetish concreter still: by locating Marx’s table in roughly the same historical moment that gave rise to the turning tables of the séance and investigating their surprisingly similar conceptualizations of how the most familiar and domesticated of objects could take on such a ghostly and mysterious life. I hope to draw out some of the structural parallels between the practice and theories of table-turning and Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism––finding in both, the table as a strange and paradoxical thing: at once material and immaterial, real and illusionary, a physical mediator between persons and a ghostly embodiment of their collective energies.

 

 II.

In his fairly recent book, A Sense of Things (2003), Bill Brown singles out the same ‘table-passage’ in Capital to elaborate what he considers the central contradiction of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism: “The unruly table seems all the more unruly because of its unwillingness to abandon its physicality. Perhaps the table alone exemplifies the contradictory doubleness of commodities as such, their materiality and immateriality both, their status as “sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible”.” 11 (This contradiction is expressed even more directly in the original German, where commodities are described as “sinnlich übersinnliche” [“sensory supra-sensory”] things.12) What Brown correctly identifies here is the stubborn physicality and materiality of Marx’s fetish-concept. While Marx’s theory of the commodity marks a clear binary––between the sensuous, material quality of the table as use-value and its abstract, ethereal side as exchange-value––his articulation of commodity fetishism “amounts to the eradication of this doubleness.”13 Whereas the Fetischcharakter of the commodity is clearly linked to the commodity as exchange-value––as a product of abstract labor for exchange, and completely detached from its use or physical form––Marx’s table expresses this ghostly, animated side of the commodity-form in strongly material terms: as developing whims or strange ideas [Grillen] out of its wooden brain [Holzkopf] and acrobatically flipping over onto its head in relation to all other commodities.14 As Brown explains: “This is Marx’s way of representing a metaphysical condition as a physical event.”15

 

This striking image of the acrobatic and sentient table brings into focus the same fraught sense of materiality that Marx’s commodity fetish shares with the turning tables of the spiritualist séance––yet another physical event with a mysterious metaphysical nature. From the numerous observational accounts of table-turning from the early 1850s, we know that both participants and outside observers paid close attention to the exact material circumstances of the experiment, often in hopes of isolating variables influential on the strange movement and noises excited in the table. In addition to the ages, names, and social standings of participants in the experiment, the exact dimensions, structure, and materials of the table were recorded, along with flooring type, indoor and outdoor temperatures, barometric pressure, wind direction and general weather conditions.16 Participants seated themselves around the table, created a chain with their hands while resting their fingertips lightly on the edges of the table, and then waited, sometimes up to an hour, before the table would begin to rock and turn, apparently of its own free will. While skeptics were quick to dismiss the phenomenon as a hoax, or speculate that unconscious motor activity in the hands and feet was the cause, many respectable scientists approached table-turning with the same inquisitive and discerning eyes they devoted to other fields. After a number of successful experiments were confirmed by scientists and circulated in the press, theories started to develop to account for the phenomenon. Whether expressed in terms of electricity, galvanism, or animal magnetism, the theories had the same general character: that some form of energy was flowing from the human participants into the dead organic matter of the table and thus granting it life. 17                 

 

To convincingly assert and defend such theories proved difficult during the 1850s since no reasonable or predictable correlations could be found between experimental variables and outcomes. Experiments with magnetizing or electrically charging the tables, for example, had no discernable effects on the results. In The Somnambulant Tables, Justinus Kerner paraphrases a number of modest conclusions from his own observations as well as from others: that humidity or moist hands seems to increase the chance of movement in the table; that higher success rates are found in cases with women and children participants; and that light has an overall negative effect [!] on table motion.18 In addition, the moving object in question need not be a table: similar experiments found success with hats, wine glasses, rapiers, and boats. Kerner goes on to offer his own term for the fluid form of energy responsible for animating the objects: “Nervengeist” [“nerve-spirit”]. From Kerner and others, it seems that the close attention paid to material details in the experiments were largely in vain, as the objects seemed to turn and dance according to a whim all their own. Like the ghostly exchange-value side of Marx’s commodity, the strange life of the turning tables could not be found in their physical, material form. If Kerner were looking for signs of exchange-value rather than Nervengeist, he would have no doubt agreed with Marx that, “not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects. We may twist and turn a single commodity as we wish; it remains impossible to grasp it as a thing possessing value.”19

 

From a rhetorical standpoint, Marx and Kerner have then a very similar challenge: to convince their readers that the most common and familiar of objects (a table) is capable of (or indeed already) possessing a secret and mysterious life. Their arguments, however, proceed from opposite and yet complementary directions. Kerner’s starting point is the physical and directly observable evidence of the turning-table séance, from which he postulates the influence of a mysterious and undetectable spirit-fluid, emanating from the human participants and enlivening the dead matter of the table. Marx, who would no doubt scoff at Kerner’s notion of Nervengeist, nevertheless sets about animating the table in a surprisingly similar manner. If we consider that, “as exchange-values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time,”20 then Marx’s labor theory of value must attribute the ghostly, fetish character of commodities to a quantifiable accumulation of abstract human labor, or, in other words, to a collection of detached human energies, expended not to create a usable, physical object, but to lend that object its mysterious social life as exchange-value. Unlike Kerner, however, Marx claims no direct observations of dancing tables with wooden brains. Rather, proceeding from his theory of the commodity-form, Marx develops a language of material evidence to give concrete shape to his concept of commodity fetishism: a ‘textual fetish,’ which, as already noted, does far more dancing than Marx bargains for. The critical afterlife of his concept of ‘commodity fetishism’ is evidence enough.

 

With the comparison to Kerner and table-turning, it seems then that Marx’s accusation of fetishism on the part of 19th century bourgeois society looses quite a bit of its critical bite. We might even wonder how appropriate his analogy with fetishism is in the first place. Clearly absent from Marx’s theory of the commodity is the sense of arbitrary materialism and attachment to crude material forms that characterizes the Enlightenment conception of the fetish. Marx’s ‘unruly table’––being both material and immaterial, sensory and suprasensory––occupies rather the unstable boundary between animism and fetishism, between (again in Peter Pels’ terms) “spirit in matter” and “spirit of matter.”21 This uncertain condition is nicely encapsulated in Marx’s own formulation of “ghostly materiality” [“gespenstige Gegenständlichkeit”], which he uses to describe the abstract, exchange-value side of the commodity form.22 (Is the material in fact ghostly itself or is it instead haunted by an inhabiting ghost?) To conclude with an image of my own, I would place Marx alongside Kerner in the darkened parlor of the table-turning séance, ready to encounter for himself the animated table of his own invention––but this time in observable, physical form. If from his detached and enlightened position, Marx were to succeed in inverting the unruly table, in flipping it right side up and back on its feet through sheer critical force, I doubt very much that it would cease its mysterious movement. Instead, the table would continue to dance on its feet to the morbid delight of the room. 

 

 Notes

1 Justinus Kerner, Die somnambülen Tische: zur Geschichte und Erklärung dieser Erscheinung (Stuttgart: Ebner & Seubert, 1853), p. 1. My translation.

2 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol 1., trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), pp. 163f.

3 See Timo Heimerdinger, Tischlein rück’ dich: Das Tischrücken in Deutschland um 1850: Eine Mode zwischen Spiritismus, Wissenschaft und Geselligkeit (Münster: Waxmann, 2001), p. 9.

4 W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 191.

5 Marx, Capital, p. 165.

6 Ibid., p. 169.

7 Ibid., p. 164.

8 Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford UP, 2005), p. 85.

9 See Peter Pels, “The Spirit of Matter: On Fetish, Rarity, Fact, and Fancy,” in Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 91.

10 See Mitchell, Iconology, pp. 160–164.

11 Bill Brown, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 28.

12 Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, vol 1. (Berlin: Verlag für Literatur und Politik, 1932), pp. 76 and 78.

13 Brown, A Sense of Things, p. 28.

14 For the original German, see Marx, Das Kapital, p. 76.

15 Brown, A Sense of Things, p. 28.

16 On the scientific observation and description of table-turning experiments around 1850, see Timo Heimerdinger, Tischlein rück’ dich, pp. 64–69.

17 See Heimerdinger for a much fuller account of the various table-turning experiments and competing theories.

18 See Kerner, Die somnambülen Tische, p. 34.

19 Marx, Capital, p. 138.

20 Marx, Capital, p. 130.

21 See Peter Pels, “The Spirit of Matter,” pp. 91–102.

22 Marx, Das Kapital, p. 42. Ben Fowkes translates this as “phantom-like objectivity,” which seems less to the point. See Capital, p. 128. 

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