In 1853, fourteen years before the appearance of volume one of Marx’s Das Kapital, the German Romantic poet and medical doctor Justinus Kerner published an over fifty-page, scientific study of the spiritualist practice of table-turning: Die somnambülen Tische: zur Geschichte und Erklärung dieser Erscheinung [The Somnambulant Tables: On the History and Explanation of this Phenomenon]. In the same year, a German newspaper described as an “epidemic” the frenzied interest in table-turning that had been spreading throughout Germany since 1848. By 1853, the dancing, turning, and rapping tables of the spiritualist séances had caught the attention of all levels of German society, including the watchful eyes of intellectuals and scientists. The darkened parlors of Europe became a space to personally experience, observe, and experiment with the strange, sentient life that seemed to awaken in the dead wooden matter of the séance table.
Close readers of Das Kapital (Bill Brown and W.J.T. Mitchell among them) have been frequently drawn to Marx’s curious allusion to this very same table-turning craze in his discussion of commodity fetishism.
From Chapter 1: The Commodity – 4. The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret:
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. (Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), pp. 163f.)
While Marx is largely dismissive here of the “dancing tables” of the spiritualist séance––exposing his claim to the superior position of an enlightened observer, who can see through and unveil the illusion of the commodity form––I would like to argue that his understanding of the commodity as “ein sinnlich übersinnliches Ding” [“a sensory supra-sensory thing”] in fact bears many striking similarities to the spiritualist understandings of the animated table.
In my presentation, 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, paradoxical thing: at once material and immaterial, illusionary and real, a physical mediator between persons and a ghostly embodiment of their collective energies.
(The above image is from an 1853 French publication, Les Danse des Tables by Félix Roubaud.)