Friday, 28 September 2012

The dismalist pragmatics of sealed organiser-training (as the bee sucks upon the rosily luxuriant teat of Honecker’s missing gold) shall heed not the insults to-day-to-day needs made amongst the amateur theatrics of crow-shit parables – and never shall we tolerate this abyss-inching, nihilist communist, gristler-realist reductional poetics of the ur-commodity

Even if, in consideration of the commodity form’s dual character, we are to accept a fragment of historical continuity within our concept of ‘exchange’, we cannot also safely suppose a similar temporal protraction in the category of ‘use’...  Elsewhere, I have attempted to audaciously fabulate a third, compulsive element (which may well prove to be multiple in itself) from which the commodity has conjured up and later sustained the magical allure of its fetish character. 

It has been necessary in this pursuit to suspend the line of enquiry which leads back to the category of human labour as the source and origin of the commodity’s powerful mystique, as this rather obvious act of demystification forecloses on that transcendent other quality which labour indirectly serves beyond both its practical end and its self-preserving motivation. 

I have supposed that the commodity’s third element, as it induces a tendency in humans towards compulsivity in their quest for meaning, a surplus to all actual instances of exchange. This third aspect holds something ‘essential’, or merely ‘generalisable’, that is present in every object, but which is also found in higher concentration in the ‘ur-commodities’. 

We can be certain that the hypnotic quality of the commodity-form expresses the materialisation of something in human relations that cannot easily be relinquished. We also know that all instances of power are routed through the commodity- form as there can be no direct power relation between human beings. There is always mediation, always delay... the voice of authority emerges from the remote past. Benjamin notes this phenomenon with reference to Lenin's death, 'movement in the distance means enlargement'. 

All extant social relations are drawn from, expressed in, and circulated through a complex of inherited cultural materials which must first be activated as a shared resource of meaning before individual human beings may appear on the scene. The given structure of power, which is manifested through things ensures that there has never been any direct, lived relations amongst human beings, and nor can there be. Every intended act of communication also communicates a message from the physicalised relations of power in which it is articulated. Nothing communicated is permitted to remain as intended. We must assume a structural interference. Hark then, there is a voice in the voice, a message in the message.

Relations between living human beings are bound up with pre-formed character masks, they cannot but reach for the facilitating presencing of inert objects. Humans, in their intercourse, may not decide against the reactivation of already manufactured procedures, which thereafter function as the pre-formatted channels of their communication. 

We speak through pictures, texts, pots, flowers, spoons, obelisks, gates, dwellings, spears, headdresses. And these have all been made. And they always also speak of the manner of their making even as we seek to use them to speak for us. One question now occurs: if things really speak, and how, if our intentions must travel along the designated paths, may we then listen in to the noise made by the conduits, may we hear the voice in the voice, the message in the message? 

I have elsewhere attempted, via an ersatz interpretative freudianism, to discern the human sound of things. My investigations have led me to formulate the third aspect of the commodity form, which I have located as the objective reservoir for non-utility based activity. I have sought to grasp what it is that is social in things but which is not work. 

I have examined the marvellous of the surrealists, the detourning in situationist practice, and the intangible quality of that which is to be raised up as the communised in communisable relations (as these are now proposed by various human strike groups in France). My investigations evidently refer back to Benjamin’s presentation of anachronistic object-mediated relations which he characterised as an ‘awakening’  (as this refers to certain disjunctive counter-expropriative events between the historical form of a present consciousness and the historical form of past objects).

I have tentatively called this third element, which is so difficult not to define by the category of ‘use’, as other than use... I have made the guess that it is this deep third quality which is the source of any given object’s capacity to flick the switch of suggestibility in human consciousness and set in motion thoughts and utterances. It is equivalent to where Balzac casually mentions the those in ‘one of those cups’ and thus engages the apparatus of mass production. I have supposed that other than use refers to the origin of pre-commodity fetishism, by which reproducible clusters of behavioural-affects are coded in relation to prized objects, as ‘autonomous’ and external properties.  

My fable continues along these lines: in deep history, specific procedural chains of ritual were drawn, or precipitated, from memory by revered objects. Such objects were thus considered essential to the maintenance and enforcement of ritual performance. These boundary markers to cultural drift were necessary where a society’s capacity to reproduce itself was in constant danger of erosion by its youthful demographic and rapid generational successions. 

Where social constancy by force of necessity had to be internalised, invested objects would be understood to speak to the rituals of renewal, which as a sort of external object themselves, then responded ‘automatically’ (i.e. independently of the rituals’ performers – their words and gestures being drawn from them according to the established pattern). A homeostatic, autonomous cultural circuit was thus established where the elevated object was understood to speak to the ritual, and the ritual was understood to speak to the object. 

The components of ritual (ritual is always a mechanism of sorting memories) are necessarily commensurate with each other and thus mutually reinforcing... the material expropriation of a moment by ritualised memory therefore performs a function of higher reassurance and certainty for the community by excluding that which is deemed extraneous to its reproduction. 

Ritual always seeks out the core of its community and represents it as such. The ritual object works by means of the celebrants feeding their understanding through it. Access to the transcendent in itself, for the community, is therefore derived from its attempt to see the world on the object’s terms, as if the object were a lens. The world is thus filtered and rearranged through the object, and in relation to the community (everything is made to bend towards the community which becomes the centre of the world). That which appears before the community, appears as a stable field of projected significances.    

Is the third aspect of the commodity nameable? Can we identify the secret about humanity that the commodity holds within itself? Can we say it is the unconscious? Or the unrealised surplus of any given moment? Or is it the past? A residue, a wound? Futility? Or, merely a half-life trace? Is it impossibilism? Is it proximity? Is it duration? Either one abyss or another? Slime? The Law? Is it the mortified flesh of an other’s relinquished existence? Magnetism, surface tension, an unblinking gaze? Is it crime? Could it be nothing? Or materiality? Grit, dregs, sediment? A bacillus? Is it fascination? Is it community? Is it the alien set before itself? Decomposition? A rusted portal? Is it excess? Contamination? A maggot

Further to this investigation, but without hope of adding anything unprecedented theoretically to the original insight, I have called to mind the fetish quality affects related to the very first pre-capitalist commodities. What is it about these, their effect on human relations, which ensured both their continued circulation and the reproduction of the relations in which they were so valued? How is it that these particular substances became active within and upon human relations? How did they function as mediating objects? 

Consider these:

i. The resin, frankincense was transportable over vast distances and at each place of its burning, reproduced the same fragrance. That is, frankincense is one source of the regulation of the sense of smell. It contained within it the power to transform the atmosphere of any internal space, thus creating an effective non-visible boundary. As a means for expropriating internal spaces, we can now imagine how frankincense was once used to separate a priest’s domain from that of the prince. 

ii. The fabric, silk was transportable over vast distances and at each place of its draping, reproduced upon the body supporting it, a clinging, rippling effect and thereby causing the undifferentiated body to appear as an isolated form. This too, indicates an intervention by means of separation between the merely corporeal and the transcendently sensuous. We can now imagine that sexuality was invented with silk – but silk is also a surface that conjures on the threshold between the fleeting and the veiled as these stand in relation to bare life.

iii The pigment, ultramarine was transportable over vast distances, and in each place of its application produced the brilliant flashes of a distilled and otherworldly power.  It is enough to note that ultramarine is so distinct from the familiar hues of the everyday that it is obvious to our imagination that its use would necessarily extend the frame of reference into the transcendent wherever pictorial representation was valued in the world. God could not be invoked by any other shade than this blue.

iv. The spices, cinnamon, clove, pepper, nutmeg were transportable over vast distances and at each place of their addition transformed the taste of food. The social purpose of spice has been to facilitate the concept of hospitality, by which elite culture is able to present an equivalent of jewels as food to guests. Food as spectacle separated the cultural function of the feast from the social question of mere sustenance. At the same time it elevated the encounter of host and guest to the status of an event, being mediated through the ritualised displacement activity of consumption without hunger. 

Each of the above listed commodities produce powerful and consistent effects from relatively small quantities. They are transportable over long distance and are not easily spoiled. By definition, for each of them, ‘a little goes a long way’ but also a high value was placed on their concentrated form. The question then of their distribution and their predictable qualities is therefore essential – their function as signs of transcendence had to be readily recognisable widely in the world which required established far reaching trade routes (between Rome and China for example). 

We also understand that the qualities of the commodities listed above are derived from an aestheticised sensuous interaction of the human with the object which cannot be reduced to the category ‘use’ (although of course, I have stressed their instrumental applications as this ‘third’ aspect is by its nature difficult to categorise). The compactness of the form and the reproducibility of disproportionate effects from such small quantities is perhaps the source of the idea of the uncanny or otherworldliness – can we not, thus prompted, religiously imagine an infinite power from that which has no physical dimensions at all? Along this spectrum of indiscernible power, it would seem reasonable to assume that God is more in lapis lazuli than in grain. Even so, the ur-commodities were a means for both marking thresholds between privilege and utilitarian activity and also a suggestion of the pure state contained within the boundaries of privilege.  

Taking a further step, we perceive that it is the susceptibility in humans for passing through the opened door to transcendence which is at the core of every fetish mechanism – communication is never anything but the communication of that which is not but also acting as a suggestion of that which could be. In the case of commodity fetishism, the third aspect, compulsivity, is manifested as a surplus of existence. It is encapsulated in certain external essences, rather than in, for example,  practical applications of use, or even accumulation for its own sake. 

Marx did not have an adequate understanding of the term fetishism, and the amalgam ‘commodity fetish’ still begs its true political significance. His usage of the term drifts between an abstractly regulated, universalised self-mystification of productive activity, and a truncation of consciousness by the means of its mediation (a shortening realised by its extension). Generally though, Marx seems not to be referring to ‘fetishism’ at all, but to a complex projection-feedback-displacement syndrome. 

It would be necessary to accept Marx's idealist categories of both ‘man’ and demystification for us to agree with his assertion that commodity fetishism ‘... is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things’. If the alternative to commodity fetishism is the full disclosure of the world to consciousness, or the world’s physicality readily submitting beneath the hand of for-itself human relations, then there is no alternative to commodity fetishism... as, for humans, there can be no such ideal state, and their fetishes ceaselessly breed, multiply and transmute but never diminish in the folds that form between part-knowledge and general ignorance.

Evidently, Marx is not referring to ‘fetishism’ as such but to ‘commodity fetishism’ a distinction strenuously made by his adherents. Even so, a particular usage of a term must map onto a general/ordinary definition, which in this case, Marx fails to achieve... ‘fetishism’ for him is never more than an association of what he is trying to describe with something else. In order to permit Marx’s special conception of fetishism we would also have to accept a hypothetical state of affairs where fetishism did not function, where objects did not ‘autonomously’ mediate human relations, and where human beings themselves were not emergent from, and animated by, autonomic ‘objects’ and the chemical and biological processes which move them. 

However, even a rudimentary survey of the material dynamics in human society would indicate that ‘fetishes’ (i.e. compacted signals in material form as comprised in physical objects, gestures, language use and so on) are perpetually created, and are always responded to, as if they were ‘autonomous’. Human consciousness in its struggle to reflect upon the ‘traumatic kernel’ of itself, is nothing but the relentless, compulsive expulsions of ‘fetishes’ - it has no recourse but the external accumulation of its unceasing fragmentation into furtive treasures. The orphean structure of human consciousness impels it to look back, it cannot help but turn and gaze, into the underworld of dead things.

For the purpose of this account, I use a more conventional definition of the term fetishism which supposes elements of strained credulity, projection, compulsion, collateral energy, compaction, systems of automated switches, ambiguous signals, arbitrary borders, secret thresholds and that so necessary cell of malignancy (as all signs, via ironic transposition, are ultimately signs of death). Fetishism here refers to those relational and communicative devices that, as a result of the extreme compression of sequences of association and significance with which they are invested, seem to precipitate disproportionate sets of affective responses from those who cannot help themselves but turn towards them. 

Therefore, our militant enquiry does not concern whether fetishes should exist or not, as it is settled that they must, but is directed instead towards social permissions for the relative proportional ‘autonomies’ between ‘live’ and ‘dead’ components. Which speck of dead labour cannot be expunged from a ‘live relation’? And what is it that has become autonomous, living, in this congealed thing?  The abolition of the commodity form undoubtedly involves a proportionate rebalancing in the social relations of command, but it also supposes a reconfiguration of our existence before things.

Whilst not all fetishes are commodities, all commodities conform to the basic structure of fetishism – that is to say, a commodity is always arranged about a cavity into which has drained the pus of hope. The mapping onto fetishism’s structural compulsivity is particularly observed in the above-mentioned ur-commodities. Over millennia (the stability of the spice and silk routes is significant), and as a result of their relative chemical inertia and material resilience, the other than use aspect of these commodities has become fetishised; by repetition of affect, resulting in cultural codification. The repeated reappearance across the centuries of the same elite objects culturally established them as the aestheticised models upon which all subsequent commodity circulating systems would be built. That which silk, incense, pigment, spice did not satisfy as a need, but which they suggested, as an absence, as a vacancy, as a cavity (within which is lodged transcendent possibility) is precisely that aspect which all commodities draw upon in their appeal beyond the rationalisations of utility.

This then is the essence of what we can call the third aspect of commodities: i. the drawing out of a predicted and regulable affect; ii. the capturing of a space and a moment; iii. an external reservoir of the stuff of meaning; iv. the internal structuring of the compulsion to construct meaning.  

The cultural-psychological susceptibility, on the widest possible global scale, to the regularity and reproducibility of objects in the form of an aesthetic and affective appreciation, defines that which is other than use in human life. It is in the intermingling of desires with objects that we find how things really do lay down the command pathways into consciousness – and consciousness is never more than a record of the manner in which things as things have acted upon it.