questions for class


From Laura, Elizabeth, and Gina:

1. All of the authors this week reference Marx’s theory of the fetishism of commodity in Capital (we pasted the except below for your reference). Marx’s key argument is that through the process of capitalist production, the worker is completely alienated from the product of their labor and the buyer from the social life of the commodity’s production. The “social character” of the labor that produces the commodities is therefore completely hidden in daily exchanges. Marx terms this entire masking process as “the fetishism of the commodity.” As we begin our class discussion tomorrow, we would like to first “unmask” what a fetish is, taking into account both Marx’s theory and the authors who reference him. How is a fetish different (or similar) from a thing or object?

2. Does the fetish require a fetishist? (And, for that matter, is a fetishist one who fetishizes?)

Several of these readings push us to think of the fetish not only as a material thing, but as a process or a relationship–not (primarily) a semiotic relationship in the sense of one thing representing another, but instead, a relationship of interaction or substitution–such as that between a a coat and its wearer, or a coat and the writing-paper for which it might be exchanged. Is the fetish, a la Pels, “an occult counterpoint that marks the limits of a dominant discourse of representation”? (112)

3. Key to these discussions of the fetish is the question of its agency: for Pels, “fetishism is animism with a vengeance. Its matter strikes back.” (91) Pels argues that Appadurai’s methodological fetishism is not really fetishism at all, because it limits itself to an essentially animist focus on what people invest in things (spirit in matter) rather than deal with the power of the fetish over people (spirit of matter). So what might a methodological fetishism in Pels’ sense look like? And how does it relate to the approaches proposed in last week’s readings (such as Henare et al’s call to “think through things”), and/or to those of the other authors we’ve read this week?

4. Last week we wrestled with how to define, describe, distinguish things and objects, and how these relate to subjects and language. Keane’s “Calvin in the Tropics” addresses, destabilizes, and enlightens many of these understandings. How does the piece work as an “object study”? More specifically, how might this help us consider our choice of methodology and analysis when locating the fetish, objects, and the material?

5. The fetish as a source of power is a theme throughout several of the readings, yet is perhaps most clearly exemplified by the Spyer’s discussion of clothing as a “civilizing skin” (170) in Aru. In her article, power is wielded both through clothing, and upon it. The role of clothing in signifying social status and nostalgic memories is clear, yet does this mean we can consider clothing as a fetish? If so, what or who is more powerful: the clothing or the person who wears it? Finally, what relationship (if any) can we make between Spyer’s observations and the sexualization of the term “fetish” as evidenced by the images of the Google search?

6. Keane and Pels mention instances of gendering in their depictions of subject/object relations (respectively, “to associate commodity exchange with being female” and the “too feminine” epistemology of “fancy”). we’ve discussed object studies as marginalized and other, but would it also be useful to incorporate a feminist reading of object studies? isn’t the material world, for many groups, already gendered?

Marx, Karl. 1990 [1865]. The fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof. In Capital, vol. 1 page 165:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.


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