The Fundamental Structures of Reification

[from Internationale Situationniste no. 10,  March 1966]

As though old Marx directed everything from his grave, the commodity form has contributed, by the logic of its real development, to the clarification and deepening of the critique of political economy. Admittedly the bourgeois and bureaucratic heirs of this critique have done everything theoretically and practically to conceal or maintain the confusion about the subject by drowning it under a mishmash of metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. But the world has continued without them. Marx transcribed with a blinding clarity into everyday triviality the analyses they strove to conceal. He gave to the theory of the fetishism of the commodity an objective truth and a real-life ordinariness that brought it within the understanding of everyone.

Despite the transformations it has undergone since Marx, the commodity is conserved as form: a form disguising the products of creative activity (of praxis) that wage labour has stripped of all humanity; a form that — as a faithful heir to the old Judeo-Christian God — acquired an autonomous existence and created man and the world in its image; a form that gave birth to the anthropology of an isolated individual who remained deprived of the riches of his social relationships. The commodity is the praxis of power: not only the principle of dissolution of the old peasant-religious civilization (the wreckage of which it still pursues) but a mode of representation of the world and a form of action upon it. It has reduced the totality of social reality to the quantifiable and installed the totalitarian domination of the quantitative, even extending it to those areas of life that have not yet been dominated. (cf. IS nos. 7 & 8, Basic Banalities).

What seemed to be the most concrete was in fact the most abstract: a formal rationalization, an illusion. But once it has acquired its autonomy, such an illusion — like and unlike revolutionary ideas — acts in the real world as an incentive to resignation.

The prevailing society always advances and reaches new heights through the escalation of repression and alienation. By combining the fetishism of the commodity with the fetishism of the work of art, the “cybernetic state” has created a fetish at its own level: the commodity spectacle is a projection of the entirety of life into a hypostasized and crystallized essence — simulacrum and prescriptive model of life itself. The concentration of alienations has developed parallel to the concentration of capital. Competitive capitalism was satisfied with crushing social man with a host of partial alienations. By reducing the old separated spheres to one and the same reification, bureaucratic capitalism, on the way to rapid cybernetisation, freezes him and puts him in the shop-window.

Such a process and its prospective outcome could only be unforeseeable for bourgeois thought and the stunted structuralist. In fact a structural analysis could have deduced from the commodity form the totality of the society it produces and that reproduces it, including the structuralist ideology it contains. This ideology was incapable of going through such an analysis since it only unconsciously expressed the structures of the reification processes underway and erected them into an ahistorical absolute.

Undertaken during the Renaissance, the bourgeoisie’s old work of negation was accomplished haphazardly and hesitantly. The unitary society dissolved long ago is replaced by emptiness — an emptiness established as the only possibility. To this micro-society that organized itself around unities real enough though limited in quantity and quality (village, family, guild, etc.), it substituted a cohort of reified abstractions: the individual, the state, the consumer, the market, which drew their apparent reality from the appearance of reality they have taken in our own lives.

The principles of formal logic (which penetrated the City with the first merchants) find their appropriate realization in the commodity-spectacle. The principle of identity is to the commodity what the category of totality is to the revolutionary movement. In the structure of the commodity form — before its explosive growth — the general identity of commodities was only obtainable by diverting their fictitious identification into a general abstract equivalent. This illusory identity, assumed daily, ended up inducing the identity of all needs — and thus of all consumers — and in this way attains a certain degree of reality. The complete realization of the old abstract equivalence would be the climax of this process. Due to this expansion, the area of cultural production, or advertising, has more and more trouble differentiating between products and so prophesizes the great tautology to come.

The commodity, like the bureaucracy, is a formalization and a rationalization of praxis — its reduction to some thing that can be dominated and manipulated. Under this domination social reality reduces itself in the end to two contradictory meanings: a bureaucratic-commodity meaning (which on another level corresponds to exchange value) and a real meaning. The bureaucratization of capitalism does not mean an inner qualitative transformation, but on the contrary is an extension of the commodity form. The commodity has always been bureaucratic.

The spectacular-commodity form parodies the revolutionary project of the mastery of the environment (natural and social) by a humanity that has finally mastered itself and its history. The spectacular-commodity presides over the domination of an isolated and abstract man in an environment organized by power. If it is true that men are the products of their conditions, it suffices to create inhuman conditions in order to reduce them to the state of things. In the construction of the commodity ambience, in accord with the principle of communicating vessels, “Man” is reduced to the state of [being a] thing, and things in turn take on human qualities.[1] The magazine Elle can advertise the headline: “These furnishings live” — yes, off of our very lives. Man is the world of man.

Nietzsche remarks in The Gay Science that “an enormous predominance of rice in the diet leads to the use of opium and narcotics, just as a predominance of potatoes [leads] to alcohol. […] This agrees with the fact that the promoters of modes of narcotic thought, such as Hindu philosophers, promote a purely vegetarian regime. They would like to make this regime a law for the masses, seeking thus to awaken needs that they alone are capable of satisfying.”[2] But in a society that can only secrete the need for another life, the opium of the commodity-spectacle is but a parodic realization of this sole real desire. Through the commodity form and its representations, the society of the spectacle tends to erode this unique desire by furnishing it with loads of illusory and partial satisfactions. In exchange for giving up the sole possibility — in other words, another society — it generously grants us all the possibilities of being other in this one.

The commodity-spectacle colonizes the possibilities by demarcating in a police-like fashion the practical and theoretical horizon of the times. Similar to the Middle Ages — [in which] the religious framework seemed to be the insurmountable horizon within which all class struggles had to take place — the spectacular-commodity form tends to create for itself such a framework, in the heart of which would take place all the struggles — already lost — for total emancipation.

But even though the commodity form, while monopolizing reality, only had a real existence in the brain of the 19th century bourgeois, this social nightmare is but a lived ideology — an organization of appearance that only amounts to an appearance of organization. Indeed the spectacle was only the fantastic realization of the commodity because the commodity never possessed true reality. Its mysterious character resides simply in that it reflects back to men the characteristics of their own lives by presenting them as objective characteristics. Thus power projects the image of survival, such as it allows, by integrating elements that sometimes possess a liberatory potential always open to the possible. Through this operation, these elements pass into the service of repression, rendering alienation more tolerable after it has been adorned by the flowers of critique.

Consequently the dreams of the dominant classes are more and more legible to those who can decipher the social text of the times: nothing less than the construction of an abstract society (abstracted from society) wherein abstract spectators abstractly consume abstract objects. Thus would be obtained the much desired coincidence between ideology and the real: the representations becoming an image of the world to substitute — at the limit — themselves for the world and edify a world of the image, created by power and sold in the market. The conscious representation of one’s life as a product of one’s own activity would then disappear from the mind of the consumer-spectator, who would no longer witness the spectacle of his own consumption.

The cyberneticians’ conception of transcending philosophy goes together with their dream of reconstructing, on the basis of the society of the spectacle, the lost paradise of the unitary societies, by enriching it with two thousand years of progress in social alienation. These dreams reveal, in passing, the skillfully hidden and mystified character of these societies: they never drew their unity from repression. In a reality entirely reduced to the quantitative, thoroughly dominated by the principle of identity and without the slightest contestation to threaten its balance, the old economico-philosophical verbiage would in effect become useless.

Furthermore these fantasies sometimes find an embryo of practical realization — always [an] exemplary revelation. A hospital in Richmond, Virginia, has developed an advanced “Isle of Life” for the badly burned. It is a gigantic plastic bubble kept free of all germs. The burned, after complete de-contamination, are placed inside this bubble in a pre-sterilized atmosphere: “No claustrophobia: the isle of life is transparent” (Paris Match). Awaiting the nuclear conflict that will provide this philanthropic organization with the customers it deserves, this society edifies the images of the conditions it imposes: survival in controlled isolation.

Although the commodity-spectacle tends to establish this flat and disincarnated positivity, it reheats the negative in its breast, and like all historical reality produces the seeds of its own destruction. An old socio-economic banality, the development of the mass consumer goods industry produces and overproduces overproduction. Some sociologists even get as far as understanding that with the overproduction of commodities, all objective differences between objects disappear. The sole differentiation that can be introduced is only subjective. But to discover the latent tendencies to self-destruction that such a process conceals is beyond a sociologist. With the disappearance of use-value, the general identity between things passes from lived fantasy to fantasmagorical realization. And yet use-value is the kernel of reality that is indispensable to the formation and survival of exchange value. The commodity itself suppresses its own conditions. When the system can do without reality, it is because reality can do without the system. Modern society is so pregnant with revolution that it parodies its own destruction. Gadgets work for the end of the world of the commodity. The latest gadgets are “nothing-gadgets”: the machine that serves no purpose, the self-destructive machine, the phony dollar to be burned in the fireplace.

But the commodity is also producing its own gravediggers who do not know how to limit themselves to the spectacle of its destruction, since their objective is the destruction of the spectacle. We can’t refute the conditions of existence; we can only liberate ourselves from them.

At all levels of practical contestation, gestures are looming [les gestes se profilent], ready to transform themselves into revolutionary acts. But in the absence of a revolutionary movement, this practical contestation remains at the individual level. Theft in department stores, which the psycho-sociologists of the owners have justly labelled an “unknown process,” is of a qualitatively different essence. In the spectacle of abundance, the so-called consumer goods cease being objects of enjoyment and become objects for contemplation, more and more radically foreign to those whose needs they are supposed to satisfy. Thus theft seems to be the only mode of appropriation for enjoyment, contrary to the “known process” that appears for contemplative use — which is a way of being possessed by things without enjoying them.

Some sociologists have announced, in their police-like investigations, the discovery of a relationship existing between gangs of hooligans [blousons noirs] and archaic societies. Yet it is simply and obviously only the real relationship between a society that existed before the commodity and groups that situate themselves beyond it. The voluntary destruction of commodities and the breaking of shop-windows recalls the sumptuous destructions of pre-capitalist societies (with the restriction that such gestures see their revolutionary impact limited in a society where there is commodity overproduction). Some hooligans avoid this ambiguity by stealing commodities in order to give them away. They reproduce on a higher level the practice of the gift that dominated in archaic societies and that exchange came to destroy — in so far as exchange was the formalization of social relationships on the basis of a weak level of productive forces. Thus they find a still-better way adapted to a society that defines itself as a society of abundance — and practically begin its overcoming.

During past revolutions, the most spontaneous gestures of past insurrections — those [gestures] called blind by the thugs of power — in the end were the most revolutionarily clear-sighted. To cite only one example from recent events, the insurgents of Los Angeles took literally the spectacular exchange-value that served as decor to their slavery — they stormed the heaven of the spectacle. At the same time as they destroyed the shop-windows and set fire to the supermarkets, they sketched out the terrain of the restoration of use-value: “A black carrying a stolen refrigerator in a wheelbarrow, opens it and takes out steaks and bottles of whiskey” (L’Express).

If it is true that until now revolutions have generally wasted their time dressing up in the leftovers of old fêtes, the enemy that it seems to have forgotten has always known how to remind them of the gestures that they should have been able to accomplish long before. What has been taken for gestures of despair only expressed the despair of not having accomplished these earlier. Future revolutions will rediscover these gestures immediately and fulfil them without delay. As the destruction of the commodity-spectacle, they are the bearers of hope for a free construction of life. Thus it will be a question of demanding as the property of man all the treasures dispossessed for the profit of the heaven of the spectacle — to détourn [détourner] them in the sense of a true life.[3] We will be called the destroyers of the commodity world, [but] we will only be the builders of ourselves.

Jean GARNAULT


TRANSLATOR’S FOOTNOTES

[1] It is unclear why Garnault uses the ‘principle of communicating vessels’ as a metaphor here. At first I thought he used it to illustrate the reciprocal nature of the alienation of the ‘commodity ambience’; thus the commodity takes on human characteristics as inversely we are stripped of such characteristics in a world dominated by commodities. However if this is the case it is mistaken. The ‘principle of communicating vessels’ refers to what happens to the level of liquids in containers that are joined, i.e. that are ‘communicating’ and thus effectively one body of liquid. Under such communication, if the level of the liquid is either lowered or raised in one of the vessels, than it is raised or lowered to the same level in all of the connected vessels. It seems unlikely that Garnault believed that this was literally the case with the alienation of people and things, as it seems to suggest that such alienation and its overcoming is a matter of quantitative change rather than qualitative revolutionary change. Similarly it could also suggest that to the extent commodities take on human characteristics, humans become as full of alienation. But this seems absurd if we consider alienation as the loss of our human powers. I imagine that he had in mind something similar to André Breton. In 1932 Breton published a book, Les vases communicants [The communicating vessels], in which he expounded (amongst other things), his theory of the interpenetration of dream and conscious reality. Breton was interested in establishing the inviolable reciprocal connection of dream life and waking life, rather than their apparent separation. Similarly Garnault, following Marx, is keen to draw attention to the connection between human praxis and its alienation under conditions of generalised commodity production. Perhaps I am expecting too much rigour from his metaphor?

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book Three, section 145. The Walter Kauffman translation of the entire section reads thus: ‘Danger for vegetarians. — A diet that consists predominantly of rice leads to the use of opium and narcotics, just as a diet that consists predominantly of potatoes leads to the use of liquor. But it also has subtler effects that include ways of thinking and feeling that have narcotic effects. This agrees with the fact that those who promote narcotic ways of thinking and feelings, like some Indian gurus, praise a diet that is entirely vegetarian and would like to impose that as a law upon the masses. In this way they want to create and increase the need that they are in a position to satisfy.’, New York: Vintage Books, 1974,  p. 193.

[3] The French verb ‘détourner’ is used here, which can mean ‘to divert’, ‘to turn away from’ or ‘to hijack’. Here I follow the now well established practice of keeping the French spelling of such terms as ‘détournement’, or even anglicising them as in this case (‘to détourn’ for ‘détourner’), because of the stricter sense the situationists gave such terms.

First published in Internationale Situationniste no. 10,  March 1966, pp. 36-41. Translated from the French by Anthony Hayes, August 2013.  Thanks to Not Bored! for help with the translation. You can find a pdf of the original issue number 10 here.

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