09 Apr

W.J.T. Mitchell, “The Rhetoric of Iconoclasm” (1986)

“The Rhetoric of Iconoclasm” appears in Iconology: Image, Text, Rhetoric. This book is not specifically about images, but “the way we talk about the idea of imagery” (1). Mitchell wants to show “how the notion of imagery serves as a kind of relay connecting theories of art, language, and the mind with conceptions of social, cultural, and political value” (2). This is also a book about the fear of images. According to Mitchell, the term iconology “turned out to be, not just about the science of icons, but the political psychology of icons, the study of iconophobia, iconophilia, and the struggle between iconoclasm and idolatry” (3).  This struggle can be seen within our conceptions of images and text. Mitchell recognizes that images cannot be read without text and context. Pictures need words and vice versa. “The recognition that pictorial images are inevitably conventional and contaminated by language need not cast us into an abyss of infinitely regressive signifiers…The history of culture is in part the story of a protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs, each claiming for itself certain proprietary rights in ‘nature’ to which only it has access” (42-43) Thus, historians cannot separate pictures from words in history or in their analyses. Ways of seeing images are socially constructed by texts and language. With this struggle between pictures and words in mind, Mitchell examines the rhetoric of iconoclasm.

Mitchel examines the rhetoric of iconoclasm in Marx’s ideology and fetishism. Marx defined ideology as a false consciousness. According to Mitchell this means “a system of symbolic representation that reflects an historical situation of domination by a particular class, and which serves to conceal the historical character and class bias of that system under guises of naturalness and universality” (4). Since Marx, historians have taken ideology to mean the “structures of values and interests that informs any representation of reality” (4). This meaning loses Marx’s notion of false consciousness, oppression, and criticism.

Marx made his notion of ideology concrete by using the language of imagery. Marx suggested that ideology was the camera obscura. Like the camera obscura, ideology projected false realities. For Marx, the camera obscura was a commodity, a bourgeois amusement that created illusion with images. Marx called for iconoclasm or a break from ideology and false ideas.

Marx also called for iconoclasm, or a break from material things in Das Capital. Marx criticized capitalists’ material objects and concrete practices in his explication of the commodity fetish. Marx applied the European idea of the fetish as a perverse, primitive, religious illusion to the commodity. Marx argued that commodities were fetishes. Commodities to the capitalist appeared to have a “transcendent” being, they were endowed with a “mystical” and “enigmatic” character (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81-96). A commodity to the capitalists “is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81). This mystery, according to Marx, stemmed from a commodity’s abstraction of labor and concealment of labor history: “A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of the labor” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 83). A commodity’s material existence seems to have nothing to do with the labor involved in its creation and its value in relation to other commodities. Thus, Marx looked for a category in his contemporary, historical moment that could describe this mysterious power of things.

 

The parallel he saw was the fetish as Europeans deployed it against West Africans. According to Mitchell, “Marx adopted fetishism as a metaphor for commodities at the moment when Western Europe (and particular England) was changing its view of the ‘undeveloped’ world from an unknown, blank space, a source of slave-labor, to a place of darkness to be illuminated, a frontier for imperialist expansion and wage-slavery. ‘Fetishism’ was a key word in the vocabularies of nineteenth-century missionaries and anthropologist who went out to convert the natives to the privileges of enlightened Christian capitalism” (W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 205).

Marx applied the word fetish to commodity as a critique of capitalism and its perception of magical things. According to Mitchell, “In calling commodities fetishes, Marx is telling the nineteenth century reader that the material basis of modern, civilized, rational political economy is structurally equivalent to that which is most inimical to modern consciousness” (191). In other words, capitalism was a perverse illusion. Capitalists fetishized commodities and money. Money embodied the value of the commodity. Marx argued that money was not a symbol of exchange, but “the direct incarnation of all human labor,” or “the embodiment of their values” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 105, 122). Capitalists ignored the symbolic form of money. They recognized that money was a real, powerful thing and that money begot more money.

Marx called capitalists to recognize their own false perceptions of material things. Capitalists were not idolaters in the sense that they worship the symbolic (money) through a material form (commodity). For Marx, capitalists were like West Africans who recognized things (for capitalists, commodities) as magical objects that contain their value (the abstraction of human labor). According to Mitchell, “Commodity fetishism can be understood then, as a kind of double forgetting: first the capitalist forgets that it is he and his tribe who have projected life and value into commodities in the ritual of exchange. ‘Exchange-value’ comes to seem an attribute of commodities even though ‘no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value in either a pear or a diamond.’ But then, a second phase of amnesia sets in that is quite unknown to primitive fetishism. The commodity veils itself in familiarity and triviality, in the rationality of purely quantitative relations and ‘natural, self-understood forms of social life.’ The deepest magic of the commodity fetish is its denial that there is anything magical about it: ‘the intermediate step of the process vanish in the result and leave no trace behind’” (W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 193). In other words commodities seem like timeless, ahistorical things with power. The abstraction of labor conceals their production processes and history. Capitalistic economics forgot “the historical character of its own mode of production” (193).  The commodity fetish and money, according to Mitchell, level “all the distinction of sex, age, and skill into quantities of universal labor time in both the exchange and factory” (196).

Protestants charged Catholics with fetishism, or idolatry. “The idolater is naïve and deluded, the victim of false religion” (197). Similarly, Marx accused Protestants of being idolaters and victims of capitalism. According to Mitchell, Marxism “plays the role in modern Western intellectual life of a kind of secular Puritan/Judaism, a prophetic iconoclasm that challenges the polytheistic pluralism of bourgeois society. It tries to replaces polytheism with a monotheism in which the historical process plays the role of messiah, and the capitalist idols of the mind and marketplace are reduced to demonic fetishes. The liberal pluralist complaint against the intolerance of its iconoclastic rhetoric is likely to be met by a Marxist dismissal of petit-bourgeois ‘tolerance’ as the luxury of a privileged minority” (207). The struggle between these two positions, Mitchel hopes, will make “both our love and hate of ‘mere images’ contraries in the dialectic of iconology” (208). Mitchell hopes to show the struggle between iconoclasm and idolatry, between words and images. He also hopes to show how ideology (in the Marxist sense) can be transformed into ideology as reality so that the iconoclast appears to stand above everyone else as the messiah. And the rhetoric of iconoclasm continues between image and text, idolatry and iconoclasm.

09 Apr

Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things” (1986)

“The Cultural Biography of Things” examines commodities and commoditization as a cultural and cognitive process. Kopytoff argues that to understand the values of commodities historians must examine the biography of things, not just production and moments of exchange.

Summary

Kopytoff begins his essay be examining the commoditization of one of the most complex things: a slave. Slaves are persons, but treated as things and commodities. After a slave is exchanged it loses its commodity status as it tries to build a life as a person. Even so, a slave is always a potential commodity because it has a potential exchange value that can be realized by resale. The life of a slave exhibits a process of commoditization, decommoditization, which Kopytoff terms “singularization,” and recommoditization. Kopytoff argues that this process is not particular to slaves as persons/things, but describes commodities in general. Thus, Kopytoff calls for historians to examine the cultural biography of things to understand their processes of commoditization and singularization.

Biographies take many forms and approaches. Historians can begin asking similar questions of things as they ask of people. Where does it come from and who made it? What has been its career? What is an ideal career for this sort of thing? What are the periods of its life? What are its cultural markers for those periods? How does the thing’s use change with age? What happens when it is considered useless? This approach to things is necessary since “Biographies of things can make salient what might otherwise remain obscure” (67). For example, the biography of a thing can tell us how it is used or perceived in a particular culture, not just how it is exchanged.  This process should be used for examining commodities.

Kopytoff defines a commodity as “a thing that has use value and that can be exchanged in a discrete transaction for a counterpart, the very fact of exchange indicating that the counterpart has, in the immediate context, an equivalent value” (68). Thus, the counterpart is also a commodity. In this exchange, “exchange can be direct or it can be achieved indirectly by way of money, one of whose functions is a means of exchange” (69). Kopytoff does not consider gifts as commodities because they are not discrete transactions. Gifts assume the opening of some other transaction, or call for a reciprocal gift. Gifts may be commodities, but when exchanged as gifts they are not commodities for Kopytoff because the transaction is not terminal.

Goods, however, are never commodities or non-commodities. Things becomes commodities through a process, or commoditization. According to Kopytoff, “Commoditization, then, is best looked upon as a process of becoming rather than an all-or-none state of being. Its expansion takes places in two ways: (a) with respect to each thing, by making it exchangeable for more and more other things, and (b) with respect to the system as a whole, by making more and more different thing more widely exchangeable” (73).

Moreover, goods are never commoditized in a single sphere of exchange as Marx supposed. Goods are exchanged in “several spheres of exchange values, which operate more or less independently of one another” (70). Commodities may be exchanged in “separate universes of exchange values, [or]…commodity spheres” (71). Spheres of exchange carry their own value systems. Thus, a commodity can circulate in more than one exchange sphere. It can be valuable as a commodity or a thing in multiple spheres.

Commodities may experience singularization in the commoditization process. Singularization makes a commodity sacred, or special. Kopytoff notes, “And if, as Durkheim saw it, societies need to set apart a certain portion of their environment, marking it as ‘sacred,’ singularization is one means to this end” (75). Singularization, however, does not guarantee sacralization. It may only pull items out of an exchange sphere.

Singularization does not apply to things that societies publicly preclude from being commoditized, like public parks and public monuments. Singularization can be extended “to things that are normally commodities—in effect, commodities are singularized by being pulled out of their usual commodity sphere” (74). For example, items revered by one society that are commodities for another. Singularization also occurs “through restricted commoditization, in which some things are confined to a very narrow sphere of exchange” (74). For example, things that may be traded but are held in another sphere, like a prestige sphere, which tries to limit exchange. These examples show that “in any society, the individual is often caught between the cultural structure of commoditization and how his own personal attempts to bring a value order to the universe of things” (76).

Singularization happens differently in different societies. In complex societies, singularization usually occurs via private singularization. For example, an individual singularizes commodities by making them heirlooms and refusing to part with them via exchange. Kopytoff suggests that heirlooms may be recognized as commodities and singularizations at the same time: “What to me is an heirloom is, of course, a commodity to the jeweler, and the fact that I am not divorced from the jeweler’s culture is apparent in my willingness to price my priceless heirloom” (80). In this examples, two different value systems are at work: that of the marketplace and that of the “closed sphere of personally singularized things” (80). The personal sphere of exchange is independent of the marketplace sphere. The personal sphere is usually based on values that come from aesthetics, morality, religion, or professional concerns. When a thing simultaneously participates “in cognitively distinct yet intermeshed exchange spheres, one is constantly confronted with seeming paradoxes of value” (82). How can an object have a price and be priceless? This paradox is perpetuated as a thing goes in and out of commoditization and singularization. Kopytoff notes, “Singularity, in brief, is confirmed not by the object’s structural position in an exchange system, but by intermittent forays into the commodity sphere, quickly followed by reentries into the closed sphere of singular art. But the two worlds cannot be kept separate for very long” (83). Kopytoff argues that “The only time when the commodity status of a thing is beyond question is the moment of actual exchange” (83).

Historiography

This essays (like the others in The Social Life of Things) seeks to expand the definition of commodities beyond Marx’s definition of goods intended for exchange in contemporary capitalist economies.

Kopytoff argues that singularization is important to a commodity’s exchange value. In other words, singularization, not just abstract labor, construct exchange value. Kopytoff suggests that Marx missed this in commodity fetishism. “For Marx, the worth of commodities is determined by the social relations of their production; but the existence of the exchange system makes the production process remote and misperceived, and it ‘masks’ the commodity’s true worth. This allows the commodity to be socially endowed with a fetishlike ‘power’ that is unrelated to its true worth” (83). Kopytoff argues that power does not only come from the hidden and abstracted labor of a thing. For Kopytoff, “some of that power is attributed to commodities after they are produced, and this by way of an autonomous cognitive and cultural process of singularization” (83). For Kopytoff, historians cannot begin to understand the constructed value of a commodity until they recognize that singularization affects value, not just abstracted labor. To examine this construction of power requires that historians study the cultural biography of things. This allows historians to examine the process of commoditization and singularization, as well as the distinct spheres of exchange in which things circulate. Biographies of things allows historians to examine the numerous and conflicting identities of things that create their exchange value.

Kopytoff’s essay is an important contribution to the study of things and commodities. 1) He suggests that commodities “must not be only produced materially things, but also culturally marked as being a certain kind of thing.” 2) Not all produced things are commodities because “only some of them are considered appropriate for marking as commodities” (64). 3) A thing may be a commodity at one time and at another time not a commodity. 4) A thing may be a commodity for one person and at the same time a non-commodity for another. 5) Although Kopytoff does not suggest this, his work implies that things have lives. By tracing the biography of a thing historians can recognize its agency.

09 Apr

Patrick Geary, “Sacred commodities: the circulation of medieval relics” (1986)

“Sacred commodities” examines relics as commodities in the Middle Ages.

Summary

Like other goods in the Middle Ages, relics were circulated via sale, barter, gift, and theft. Goods and relics were not usually bought with money. Relics during this time were “bodies or portions of bodies” (174). People recognized that relics “were the saints, continuing to live among men. They were immediate sources of supernatural power for good or ill, and close contact with them or possession of them was a means of participating in that power” (176).

The value attached to relics “required the communal acceptance of three interrelated beliefs. First, the community had to believe that individuals associated with relics were special friends of God, or saints, during their lives and in death. Second, the community had to believe that the remains of a saint were prized and should be treated in a special way. Third, the community had to believe that relics were the remains of particular saints. Relics were highly desirable and communities competed for relics of particular saints.

Relics went through a process of confirmation. This process usually included a community procession, installation, or test of relics and then the performance of miracles by the relics. If relics worked—that is, “acted as channels for supernatural intervention”—then people considered them genuine (178). Once communities recognized the efficaciousness of relics “their continuing significance and value depended on their continued performance of miracles and on their relative value compared with other relics and other sources of power” (178). Relics were circulated and exchanged as gifts, and by theft and sale. The normal means of circulation was by gift. The circulation of relics “was part of a careful program of centralized control over the sacred” (185). This control over the sacred gave communities and individuals power and authority.

Once relics were circulated their vale and power had to be reconstructed for the new community in a similar process as described above. Included in this reconstruction of value were myths of the relics’ production and circulation. According to Geary, “acquiring the relic gave it value because it was worth acquiring, and this acquisition (often in the face of grave natural and supernatural dangers) was itself evidence that relics were genuine. Circulation thus created the commodity being circulated, although to survive as a commodity it had to continue to meet the high expectations raised by the mode of its creation” (187).  Geary suggests some characteristics important to commodity exchange in medieval society. 1) Relics were demanded and demand was historically situated. 2) Historians should examine the biographies of things because relics transformed from persons to commodities to persons and back to commodities. 3) People recognized conflicts over commodities’ value and did not always agree on the value of relics. Geary ends the essay by posing some questions for further study about commodities, relics, and exchange in medieval societies.

Historiography

This essays (like the others in The Social Life of Things) seeks to expand the definition of commodities beyond Marx’s definition of goods intended for exchange in contemporary capitalist economies. Geary argues that historians can understand relics as commodities since we already think of slaves as commodities. Relics belong to the same category that treats persons as things and vice versa. Thus, commodities are not just produced goods exchanged in the modern marketplace. Commodities can by any thing or person that is circulated or exchanged in history. Geary’s essay is important because it considers relics as commodities. It also important because it suggests that historians must examine the biographies of things to understand their value. Value is gained not only in particular moments of exchange when a thing is a commodity, but also when the thing is a person (like a relic in a church). Value is constructed throughout the life of an exchanged thing.

08 Apr

Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: commodities and the politics of value” (1986)

Appadurai examines the social life of things within systems of exchange. Exchange is the source of commodity value, not commodity forms and functions. For Appadurai, commodities refer to things that “at a certain phase in their careers and in a particular context, meet the requirements of commodity candidacy” (16).

Appadurai defines commodities as “things with a particular social potential, that they are distinguishable from ‘products,’ ‘objects,’ ‘goods,’ ‘artifacts,’ and other sorts of things – but only from certain respects and from a certain point of view” (6). A commodity can be “any thing intended for exchange” (9). Appadurai wants to get away from relating commodities to products and production. This allows him to consider things bartered for and things gifted as commodities. Defining commodities as things exchanged “means looking at the commodity potential of all things rather than searching fruitlessly for the magic distinction between commodities and other sorts of things. It also means breaking significantly with the production-dominated Marxian view of the commodity and focusing on its total trajectory from production through exchange/distribution, to consumption” (13).

Appadurai argues that the commodity situation “in the social life of any ‘thing’ be defined as the situation in which exchangeability (past, present, or future) for some other thing is its socially relevant feature” (13). The commodity situation can be broken into three features. 1) The commodity phase, which is the idea that commodities can move in and out of the commodity state. The movements can be fast and slow, reversible or terminal. Things may not always be commodities. 2) The commodity candidacy, which is a conceptual feature. It refers to the “standards and criteria (symbolic, classificatory, and moral) that define the exchangeability of things in any particular social and historical context” (14). Commodity candidacy can refer to a price set by humans or the conditions under which humans exchange things. 3) The commodity context, which refers to the “variety of social arenas, within or between cultural units, that help link the commodity candidacy of a thing to the commodity phase of its career” (15).

Commodities are exchanged via paths and diversions. Politics is seen in moments of exchange. Politics is relations, assumptions, and contests of power. Politics is “what create the links between exchange and value” (3). Politics examines the demand-side of the commodities rather than the production-side to describe their value. Within the paths of exchange, commodities are agents. Examining politics in the moment of exchange allows scholars to see and analyze the social life of things in terms of their “socially relevant features.”

Appadurai’s emphasis on exchange as the source of a commodity’s value overlooks certain aspects of the life of things. By focusing only on exchange, Appadurai dismisses the value in other moments in the life of a thing. The important moments are only the “socially relevant” moments when a commodity is exchanged between humans. This seems to dismiss the notion of the life of a thing. It is only important and an agent when it interacts with humans. But, the thing does exist and has a life even when it is not exchanged. Focusing too much on exchange obscure the life of a thing.

08 Apr

Karl Marx, “Capitalist Production” in Capital (1867)

“Capitalist Production” defines commodity and commodity fetishism. These are important categories for the analysis of things because Marx used these categories to criticize materialism, and objects exchanged and produced in capitalist societies. Marx wrote Capital while living in London and working as a journalist for the New York Daily Tribune. Capital was a critique of political economy, more specifically labor exploitation in capitalism and a bourgeois society that relied on things exchanged.

Commodity

Marx defined “commodity” as “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 41). Commodities have a use-value and an exchange-value.

The use-value of a commodity is determined by the desires of humans, or how useful a thing is. Use-value is qualitative. The commodity is the use-value. The use-value cannot be measured until the thing is exchanged, or in use and consumption.

A commodity has an exchange-value that is determined by the quantity of other commodities for which one commodities is exchanged. The exchange-value of a commodity cannot be determined by its physical characteristics or properties. The material nature of the commodity has nothing to do with its exchange value. Exchange-value is quantitative and is set by humans, not the commodity. Exchange-value is an expression of the value of a commodity.

Value connects all commodities so they may be exchanged with one another. Value is set by the social necessary labor time of a commodity. This value is tied to use-value because if no one wants the commodity the labor has no value. Commodities only have value when they have use-value for others, or social use value. Use-value, exchange-value, and value are all separate, but related.

Socially necessary labor has a direct correlation with the value of a commodity. As labor increases or decreases so does the value of a commodity. Different types of socially necessary labor are abstracted so that labor of different commodities can be compared. Commodities hide their individual labor histories. The concealment of labor history is what Marx explains via “the fetishism of the commodity.”

The Fetishism of the Commodity

Marx applied the European idea of the fetish as a perverse, primitive, religious illusion to the commodity. Marx argued that commodities were fetishes. Commodities to the capitalist appeared to have a “transcendent” being, they were endowed with a “mystical” and “enigmatic” character (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81-96). A commodity to the capitalists “is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81). This mystery, according to Marx, stemmed from a commodity’s abstraction of labor and concealment of labor history: “A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of the labor” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 83). A commodity’s material existence seems to have nothing to do with the labor involved in its creation and its value in relation to other commodities. Thus, Marx looked for a category in his contemporary, historical moment that could describe this mysterious power of things.

The parallel he saw was the fetish as Europeans deployed it against West Africans. According to W.T. Mitchell, “Marx adopted fetishism as a metaphor for commodities at the moment when Western Europe (and particular England) was changing its view of the ‘undeveloped’ world from an unknown, blank space, a source of slave-labor, to a place of darkness to be illuminated, a frontier for imperialist expansion and wage-slavery. ‘Fetishism’ was a key word in the vocabularies of nineteenth-century missionaries and anthropologist who went out to convert the natives to the privileges of enlightened Christian capitalism” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 205).

Bill Pietz has chronicled this history and the encounter of European traders with West Africans. Pietz argues that the problem-idea of the fetish “arose within and remains specific to a particular type of cross-cultural experience first engaging European consciousness in ongoing situations on the West African coast after the fifteenth century.” The characteristics of the fetish include: 1) irreducible materiality, or the recognition that the object embodies truth; 2) a fixed power to repeat an original event and order; 3) social value of things; and 4) personal connection with the object so that personhood is inseparable from the object. The fetish is a “factitious universal” and was never used by a religious group to name its objects or relationship with objects. The term was used by Europeans to describe West Africans’ relationship with material objects. Thus, it emerged from cross-cultural interaction. The fetish names something personal and its truth is experienced as a movement from inside the self to outside the self into a material object in space. The fetish subjects the body to material objects.

Marx applied the word fetish to commodity as a critique of capitalism and its perception of magical things. According to Mitchell, “In calling commodities fetishes, Marx is telling the nineteenth century reader that the material basis of modern, civilized, rational political economy is structurally equivalent to that which is most inimical to modern consciousness” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 191). In other words, capitalism was a perverse illusion. Capitalists fetishized commodities and money. Money embodied the value of the commodity. Marx argued that money was not a symbol of exchange, but “the direct incarnation of all human labor,” or “the embodiment of their values” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 105, 122). Capitalists ignored the symbolic form of money. They recognized that money was a real, powerful thing and that money begot more money.

Marx called capitalists to recognize their own false perceptions of material things. Capitalists were not idolaters in the sense that they worship the symbolic (money) through a material form (commodity). For Marx, capitalists were like West Africans who recognized things (for capitalists, commodities) as magical objects that contain their value (the abstraction of human labor). According to Mitchell, “Commodity fetishism can be understood then, as a kind of double forgetting: first the capitalist forgets that it is he and his tribe who have projected life and value into commodities in the ritual of exchange. ‘Exchange-value’ comes to seem an attribute of commodities even though ‘no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value in either a pear or a diamond.’ But then, a second phase of amnesia sets in that is quite unknown to primitive fetishism. The commodity veils itself in familiarity and triviality, in the rationality of purely quantitative relations and ‘natural, self-understood forms of social life.’ The deepest magic of the commodity fetish is its denial that there is anything magical about it: ‘the intermediate step of the process vanish in the result and leave no trace behind’” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 193). In other words commodities seem like timeless, ahistorical things with power. The abstraction of labor conceals their production processes and history. Capitalistic economics forgot “the historical character of its own mode of production” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 193).  The commodity fetish and money, according to Mitchell, level “all the distinction of sex, age, and skill into quantities of universal labor time in both the exchange and factory” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 196).

The commodity fetish like the West African fetish had roots in religious behavior. Marx linked the commodity fetishism to Christianity, and particularly Protestants and Puritans. Marx argued that for a society that reduces “individual private labor to the standard of homogenous labor…Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 91). Marx continued, “in so far as the hoarder of money combines asceticism with assiduous diligence he is intrinsically a Protestant by religion and still more a Puritan” (Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859, 130). Protestantism was the religion of capitalism. Protestants abstracted man in Christianity just as capitalists abstracted human labor. Both elevated things (man and commodity) to the magical statuses and then denied it through words and ideas.

04 Apr

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion—How Things Matter” (2012)

“Material Religion—How Things Matter” offers an introduction to Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. It introduce readers to the study of religion and things.

Over the past twenty years, historians have been concerned with ideas and beliefs in religion. These are important, but they often dismiss the other aspects of religions. Belief ignores the things that people use in religion. Belief assumes that religion is rational, internal, and about thinking, not feelings, things, and places. The scholarly emphasis on belief can be traced to Max Weber’s dismissive attitude toward religious material culture. Weber emphasized belief as central to Protestantism. He suggested that the further religion progressed, the less it relied on things or material objects. E.B. Taylor also emphasized the belief of religion when he defined religion as animism (the animation of things), which could be explored for its larger meaning. The de-emphasis of materiality can also be traced to Protestants during the Reformation who destroyed Catholic images.

Meyer and Houtman argue that “frontier zones,” where religious cultures meet, are a good place to start examining things. This is especially true of idols and iconoclash. The latter term was coined by Bruno Latour to describe how images gain power through being opposed as idols. The relations between religious cultures can also help scholars understand what W.J.T. Mitchell meant by “bad objecthood.” The terms totem, idol, and fetish are not just different types of things. Their names mark them as bad things; things that carry certain attitudes that influence their use.

The turn to material things has become popular in social sciences and humanities. Scholars have traced ideas about matter and materiality to schools of philosophy. The have examined how things are signs that construct social meaning. Scholars look to nineteenth-century materialism to examine how religions have opposed materiality. In 2000, David Chidester called for a “new materialism.” Others have called this approach material culture and materiality. This approach does not use matter to criticize religion, but rather it uses matter to criticize the study of religion. New materialism and material culture ask how and why things matter to religions and religious peoples. Scholars examine the materiality of religion by studying icons, totems, images, fetishes, idols, inconoclash, bodies, words, commodities, and things.

30 Mar

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936)

Walter Benjamin wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936 for a small circle of academics discussing art and mass media. The article was published in French in 1936, in German in 1955 and 1961, and in English in 1968. Benjamin argues that the work of art transforms over time and that historians must recognize this transformation. Art works in particular ways in the age of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin situates his analysis of the work of art in Marxist terms. Marx recognized commodities as history-less objects whose value was determined by exchange rather than their actual material form and the labor relations in their production.

Summary

A work of art has always been reproducible in the sense that replicas have always been made for craft, diffusion, and gain. Mechanical reproduction “represents something new” (218). Mechanical reproduction advanced from replicating small bronze statues and coins to the production of woodcuts, lithographs, and photographs. Photography was special because in this process of reproduction the artists’ hands were freed from reproduction. The photographer only needed his eye and the lens in the process of reproduction. Mechanically reproduced images and sounds culminated in film in the twentieth century. The “reproduction of works of art and the art of film” have had the most profound influence on art in its traditional form (220).

Mechanical reproductions of art lack unique existences and histories. The presence created by time, space, and history give a work of art is authenticity and authority. Mechanically reproduced artworks lack history, or the presence of the maker. Since mechanically reproduced artworks don’t have a specific history they can be “inserted into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (220). Thus, mechanically reproduced artworks lack authenticity and authority. “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (221). When the historical testimony of an artwork is affected, the authority of the object is jeopardized. History matters for works of art. When history is eliminated “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (221).

The human sense of perception can be historicized to understand the current decay of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. In the 1930s, Benjamin recognized that the human sense of perception relied on “the masses.” “Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.” The masses wanted mechanically reproduced images in magazines and film. Benjamin argued that the masses’ sense perception was the “sense of the universal equality of thing.” Mechanical reproductions were sensed by the masses as equal works of art because the works of art had no particular histories. Art work was not unique.

For Benjamin, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition” (223). This is exemplified by artwork in ritual. Artwork in ritual is thought of as unique and having aura because it is embedded in place, location, time, and a particular history. Mechanical reproduction posed a problem for artwork because “it emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (224). In other words, mechanical reproduction does not focus on the ritual and history of an object. Mechanical reproduction is based on the practice of politics.

Works of art have been received based on different value planes. One is the cult of value, which recognizes value as the existence of the material thing and ritual. The other is exhibition value which recognizes value based on the display of things. Exhibition vales does not favor ritual history. In the 1930s, people favored exhibition value. This changed the nature of the work of art, like photography and film, which took on a new function based on exhibition value.

Photography did not take on this new nature from the beginning. People favored photography at first for its cult value. Photographs created a “cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead” where the cult value and aura resided in the photographed face. As men withdrew their faces from photographs, something changed. You could no longer see the cult value in images. Their meaning depended on the captions and other images that surrounded them, particularly in film. “When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever” (226). In other words, without history and ritual and cult value, art could not act of its own accord. The meaning of art had to be created by the other images which surrounded it. Films could be taken out of their actual context and create their own meaning, their own history.

The camera guided the audience’s interpretation of the film, not the actor’s aura. Benjamin argues that “for the first time—and this is the effect of the film—mas has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing it aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura, which on stage, emanates from Macbeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public. Consequently, the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays” (229). The audience did not have a relationship with the actors themselves or the set. The camera guided reception and meaning. The cult of the actor (or the Hollywood persona) and films were commodities. They were taken out of history, out of time, place, and context. Capitalism set the agenda of films. While some films could “promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property” the films that Benjamin was concerned with were not doing this. Benjamin concludes, “In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculation” (232). Films could create a new reality with camera equipment, lighting, and machinery. The work of art was, indeed, to present a reality. “Thus, for contemporary man the presentation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thorough going permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to as from a work of art” (234).

But, the “mechanical reproduction of art changed the reaction of the masses toward art” and transformed reality. Mechanical reproduction changed the way art worked. Film allowed art to be viewed by mass audiences. Individual reactions to this art were constrained and formed by the mass audience response. Films changed the ways and the numbers of people who reacted to art. The camera also introduced us “to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulse” (237). The camera was the meaning-maker. The camera was sinister. Mechanical reproduction was responsible for the loss of aura and for a “change in the mode of participation.” Mechanical reproduction meant that “the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” Benjamin concluded “Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeable in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in appreciation, finds in the film its true means of existence. The film with its shock effect meets this mode of reception halfway. The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent one.” The masses absorbed the realities created by film.

In the “Epilogue” Benjamin contextualizes his argument for the decay of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. “The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its own counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.” Benjamin recognized that art as film had been commoditized. It lost its aura because there was no recognizable history in the making of the film. Fascists used history-less art to create their own history in films which created alternative realities. The masses bought into these realities because they could not recognize the production of film beyond its created aesthetics and commodity form. Mechanically reproduced art supported the Nazi party and controlled the distracted masses. Benjamin argued that Communism recognized this creation of history through history-less things. Benjamin called for this recognition by politicizing art.

Historiography

Historians have read Benjamin as suggesting that mechanical reproduction decays the aura of mass reproduced art. And, this is his argument. But, scholars must be careful in their application of Benjamin to their projects. Benjamin recognized the decay of aura above all in film. Photography and lithography did not erode aura in the same way or to the same degree as film. Benjamin also recognized the decay of aura in a particular time and place. He argued that the mechanical reproduction of images via film hid the realities of twentieth-century Fascism, which created new realities through film. Film, as a commodity, did not have a history because its production was concealed. Film was used a propaganda to create new histories among the masses. Mechanical reproduction via film changed the form of art and its reception among the masses. Mechanically reproduced art concealed reality. Film was a means of control. Film lost it aura, or its history of production and in doing so it created something sinister, something with no authenticity.

30 Mar

Arjun Appadurai, “The Thing Itself” (2006)

“The Thing Itself” examines the relationship and problem between the profusion and abstraction of things. In the Social Life of Things (1986), Appadurai and other scholars investigated the “idea that persons and things are not radically distinct categories, and that the transactions that surround things are invested with the properties of social relations” (15). Appadurai continues thinking about people and things in this essay. He argues that scholars must also recognize “the thing itself” not just the social relations of things and persons.

Things can move in and out of categories, from commodities to singularities and back. Things are always in motion in terms of their object status, but they are also moving in terms of their position, materiality, and permanence. “These underlying materials are ever volatile, which is why museums always insist that “we do not touch” them. What is at risk is not just aura or authenticity but the fragility of objecthood itself” (15). This illusion of permanence comes through not just in the material composition of the thing. It comes through when we can see the production of the thing, or the traces of its maker and production. These traces require further action through restoration and conservation. These actions are a “testimony to the fact that the very objecthood of art objects requires action in order to resist the historical processes that turn one kind of thing into another kind of thing” (16). Art objects are constantly in motion. They require action to maintain them and these actions often change their status. Appadurai argues that “all art is a momentary assemblage of mobile persons and things and that art objects, assemblages, events, and performances vary only in the intensity of their interest in denying or celebrating the social trajectory to which all things are subject” (16).

Appadurai turns to the profusion of things in India to explain why the thing itself is important. India is filled with things and people. “In regard to both…what is sought and desired is the warmth of profusion and the enchantment of multiplicity” (17). Profusion means that things are wanted in and of themselves for their thingness, and, so, things are multiplied. Profusion does not recognize a sharp line between people and things. This characteristic exemplifies the arguments of Mauss and Marx about things. For Mauss, things never lose the magic of their makers, owners, or handlers. For Marx, people and things both share in the mystery of the commodity form and are defined by the value of labor. Profusion does not define art objects against everyday objects. This profusion of things calls Appadurai to examine abstraction.

The profusion of things, especially in capitalist societies like the United States, often leads to the abstraction of materiality. Abstraction entails that things are not enjoyed for their sheer materiality. Things are always means to other ends. Abstraction also recognizes that things are convertible and no thing is truly priceless. Things don’t have values in and of themselves. Abstraction also means that there is a deep tension between the singularity and the commodity. This tension was addressed in The Social Life of Things. This tension can also be seen in the gift economy and the commodity economy in the United States. People buy commodities and give them as gifts, but people recognize the commodity as “my” gift. They give a history to the commodity. So, “a gift and a commodity are often one and the same thing” (20). But, no thing is singular forever and ever, and no commodity can be a singularity. This exemplifies a problem: “how to create human relations in a world where all things are potentially in the market or on the market” as commodities (20).

A possible space for redemption of this problem, especially for India, which is an emerging capitalist society, is the “idea of the thing itself.” According to Appadurai, “the idea of the thing itself is a way to capture the stubbornness of the materiality of things, which is also connected to their profusion, their resistance to strict measures of equivalence, and to strict distinctions between the maker and the made, the gift and the commodity, the world of art and the objects of everyday life.” The idea of the thing calls for historians, artists, and critics to focus more on the thing, its physical, material nature, in order to understand its social relations. By focusing on the thing itself, “abstraction may remain the servant of materiality.” Appadurai thinks the idea of the thing itself may help “India’s artists and critics find pathways through the global market without losing entirely the magic of the materiality and the unruliness of the world of things.” The thing itself seems to shift the weight of analysis to the material nature of things in order to observe their social relations and social life. The thing cannot have a social life without the recognition that the thing is a thing itself.