September 30, 2007

Supersensible essences, governed by invisible laws, to things and to people

As I have presented it here, “commodity fetishism” is a form of perception or thought that perceives material objects and human beings to possess supersensible essences that are distinct from their overtly-observable, sensuous properties. These essences are understood to be governed by impersonal laws. The existence of such laws can be inferred or deduced from empirical observation and manipulated instrumentally for human ends, but the laws (and the essences) are not understood to derive from contingent human practice.
Marx will not deny that such “essences” and “laws” exist - he is not undertaking an “abstract negation” that sees political economy as a simple error in thinking. His critical argument is that he can reach beyond the political economists to show how such “essences” and “laws” are brought into being, why it is plausible to perceive such essences and laws as “natural”, and yet why it has also become possible, over time, to understand the practical basis for these fetishised forms of thought - and therefore open the possibility for transformation...
I need to be very, very, very careful here: I am making a small and quite specific point, which is that none of these arguments captures what Marx is trying to say in the section on the fetish. I am not saying that Marx never makes points like those above - in places, even during the argument about the fetish, he will. And I am not dismissive of the potential importance of such arguments as important issues for critical analysis and as pivotal rallying-cries for political mobilisation.
I am saying that these arguments as attempts to articulate the notion of commodity fetishism are missing some of the strategic intent of this section of Marx’s text. The reading I am offering here is intended to drill in on a sometimes overlooked arc in this first chapter, to draw attention to how the entire chapter revolves around a series of reflections on forms of perception that attribute supersensible essences, governed by invisible laws, to things and to people. Such forms of perception, I am suggesting, are the “target” that the term “commodity fetishism” is trying to hit.
Note that this post might not make sense unless you’ve read at least the post immediately prior, on Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions. The previous posts in this series are: Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty” Nature and Society Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

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