Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, July 10, 2015

Why We See Zombies Everywhere: Fetishized Commodities/Culture Industry/Spectacle/Logo

You gotta laugh at the zombie in the front yard
Take a bath, but nothing gets the funk off
You're on TV, rocking and a rolling
Cause the dead just love to rock and roll
Every event in the world is apprehended and maintained by living beings who share the world and history. And the goods that sustain and beset us mediate historical and ecological relations among earthly beings and historical protagonists: The table I use was made and is used and maintained by people like me, and mediates my relations with countless earthlings (not all of them human, by the way) who are caught up, like me, in struggles for existence and significance in a shared space and time.

For Marx, the fetishized commodity is the good that seems to offer itself for exchange at a price and in a way that foregrounds that price and so distracts us from or even disavows all the historical and ecological relations among people that would otherwise matter to us in telling the story of its significance as it becomes a part of our own story. Who made the table? Under what conditions was it made? How did it arrive here? What is it made of, where did these materials come from, under what conditions were they gathered? What are all these people's lives like? What are the costs and risks that attend their work in bringing this table into this space and time I am living here now?

Reduced to a numerical value, the price-form seems to relate all the events in the world to one another and also to myself as a desiring being. Where otherwise I am another tool in the world historical functional division of labor -- at a loss to grasp the indispensability of my own contributions to the making of the shared world at the loss of my capacity to demand just compensation for that indispensability -- where otherwise I am another fool in the world historical crimes of collective exploitation and pollution undertaken in my name -- at a loss to testify to my protest and distress at the loss of my capacity to agitate and organize to change the world to reflect my values -- the price-form offers me the sense of knowledge at the cost of ignorance, the sense of capacity at the cost of incapacitation, the sense of self-possession at the cost of dispossession.

However it is made, whatever it is made of, whoever makes it however they do, the price of the candy bar is a fraction of the price of the sandwich is a fraction of the price of the textbook is a fraction of the price of the month's rent is a fraction of the price of the doctor's bill is a fraction of the price of the tuition is a fraction of the price of the mortgage... Through the price form I relate every event to every other event, as well as to the event of my contemplation of events, as if they were all items arrayed in the constellation of a storefront window. And reflected in the glass I see my own face looking upon these commodities: No matter how inchoate my passions, how uncertain my fortunes, how confused my complicities, I can exchange my labor for a wage I can exchange for goods that promise me satisfactions, I can narrate my time on earth as a plan to render my labor more valuable for a higher wage to exchange for goods that promise me the satisfactions I dream about when I dream about the story I will tell as the story of myself. My life is no longer who I am but another commodity available for exchange at a price, one more thing I have to have other things with.

Under the regime of mass-mediation (movies, magazines, broadcast, memes) denominated the Culture Industry by Adorno and the Spectacle by Debord, we no longer buy things and dream of buying things for the satisfactions they presumably confer -- since true freedom, true satisfaction is always deferred under the varieties of consumer capitalism, just as the revolutionary arrival at the sustainable equity-in-diversity rendered permanently possible by our achieved level of technoscientific and organizational sophistication is also always deferred so that incumbent-elites can maintain their unjust privileges and accustomed prejudices -- we buy things in order to inhabit archived images and play out available scripts the citation of which promise to confer legibility, to render us apparently reasonable, responsible, rights-bearing, property-inhering citizen-subjects to one another. We re-write ourselves in the image of the film protagonist, our homes in the image of the catalogue cover, our conversation in the image of the televised roundtable, and hence improvise a life within the constraints of scripts the failure of which or the deviation from which threatens to render us illegible, unfit, incapable, ridiculous, pathological, criminal. Leszek Kolakowski's critique that Marx as an icon and certain orthodox construals of Marxism as a system of signification have taken on the coloration of fetishized commodities themselves sets the stage for Naomi Klein's fin-de-siecle reformulation of the Fetishized Commodity/Culture Industry/Spectacle, in which advertizing/promotional practices that began as the deceptive effort to create the impression of differences in mass-produced (and hence largely indistinguishable) commodities are consummated in the regime of the Logo as the deceptive effort to create the impression of individuals in complacent conformist consumers through the subcultural signaling of the brands they buy and bear. That the algorithmic mediation of Big Data is now framing us as targets for marketing/partisan political harassment and experimental subjection now and as targets for potential prosecution or literal targeting by drone later offers up yet another iteration of this trajectory is my own, rather depressed, belief.

Thus, a sequence of degradations, the fetishized commodity-form degrades being into having, the Spectacle then degrades having into appearing, Big Data then degrades appearing into framing. Each stage re-iterates and intensifies the first Marxian formulation, in which, through our habituation to buying and selling mediated by the assertive price-form we come to confuse historical relations among people as collisions among things, social projects and public goods are drained of their living and historical substance but then invested with a deceptive and deranging significance as well as a false and threatening avidity.

Marx's accounting of this false reading of history is famous in the way it begins with the quotidian furniture of everyday life and soon finds itself telling ghost stories, in which fetishized commodities become monsters, economy becomes a witch's sabbath, goods give false testimony like specters in a seance, tables caper grotesquely like agents. But we all know what monster is drained of life only to live-in-death to menace the living: It is not the glamourous vampire who dupes the young and stupid with false promises of prevalence in parasitism. We don't even have to witness them canonically crowd the malls and food courts and crumbling McMansions of Dawn of the Dead and The Walking Dead and Janelle Monae tracks (for instance, one among many, "Dance Apocalyptic," from which I culled this post's epigraph) to know that the monster who tells us who we are now -- from monstrare, to show, to teach, to denounce -- the way we "live" now, is none other than the zombie. Marx's Capital is the first, and the foundational, zombie movie, and we have climbed the dreadful fatiguing steep pathways since to the luminous summit only to discover we are all undead.

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