"About a year ago I spent a day at a nude beach with a group of people I didn't
Red Letter cycles on January 1st. For the first few weeks of the year, we've been tackling some difficult defining texts on commodities, reification, alienation, class consciousness, and, these last few days, commodity fetishism. A lot of the definitions we found explaining Commodity Fetishism were quite, um, dry. Hopefully, you got through it and can now pierce through the veil of reification.
Today's reading is a little treat. You already know playwright Wallace Shawn. It's almost inconceivable that you don't. In his 1990 monologue, The Fever, there is a bit on Commodity Fetishism. Today's reading is that excerpt. Back to heavy lifting tomorrow. know that well. Lying out there, naked, in the sun, there was a man who kept talking about "the ruling class," "the elite," "the rich." All day long, "The rich are pigs, they are all pigs, some day those pigs will get what they deserve," and things like that. He was a thin man with a large mustache, unhealthy-looking but very handsome, a chain-smoker. As he talked, he would laugh—sort of bitter barks that came out always unexpectedly. I'd heard about these words and these phrases all my life, but I'd never met anyone who actually used them. I thought it was quite entertaining. But for about a month afterward a strange thing happened. Everywhere I went I started getting into conversations with people I met—on a train, on a bus, at parties, in the line for a movie—and everyone I met was talking like him: The rich are pigs, their day will come, they're all pigs, and on and on. I started to think that maybe I was crazy. I thought I was insane. Could this really be happening? Was everyone now a Communist but me?
"And this was all happening at the very same time that Communism had finally died, and social pathologists were arguing over what had caused its death. The newspapers and magazines reported no nostalgia for the defunct system, and it seemed as if all the intellectuals and political leaders who had ever been known to have fallen under its sway were running in all directions looking for shelter. So then who were all these people who kept grabbing hold of me?
"One day there was an anonymous present sitting on my doorstep—Volume One of Capital by Karl Marx, in a brown paper bag. A joke? Serious? And who had sent it? I never found out. Late that night, naked in bed, I leafed through it. The beginning was impenetrable, I couldn't understand it, but when I came to the part about the lives of the workers—the coal miners, the child laborers—I could feel myself suddenly breathing more slowly. How angry he was. Page after page. Then I turned back to an earlier section, and I came to a phrase that I'd heard before, a strange, upsetting, sort of ugly phrase: this was the section on "commodity fetishism," "the fetishism of commodities." I wanted to understand that weird-sounding phrase, but I could tell that, to understand it, your whole life would probably have to change.
"His explanation was very elusive. He used the example that people say, "Twenty yards of linen are worth two pounds." People say that about every thing that it has a certain value. This is worth that. This coat, this sweater, this cup of coffee: each thing worth some quantity of money, or some number of other things—one coat, worth three sweaters, or so much money—as if that coat, suddenly appearing on the earth, contained somewhere inside itself an amount of value, like an inner soul, as if the coat were a fetish, a physical object that contains a living spirit. But what really determines the value of a coat? The coat's price comes from its history, the history of all the people involved in making it and selling it and all the particular relationships they had. And if we buy the coat, we, too, form relationships with all those people, and yet we hide those relationships from our own awareness by pretending we live in a world where coats have no history but just fall down from heaven with prices marked inside. "I like this coat," we say, "It's not expensive," as if that were a fact about the coat and not the end of a story about all the people who made it and sold it, "I like the pictures in this magazine."
"A naked woman leans over a fence. A man buys a magazine and stares at her picture. The destinies of these two are linked. The man has paid the woman to take off her clothes, to lean over the fence. The photograph contains its history—the moment the woman unbuttoned her shirt, how she felt, what the photographer said. The price of the magazine is a code that describes the relationships between all these people—the woman, the man, the publisher, the photographer—who commanded, who obeyed. The cup of coffee contains the history of the peasants who picked the beans, how some of them fainted in the heat of the sun, some were beaten, some were kicked.
"For two days I could see the fetishism of commodities everywhere around me. It was a strange feeling. Then on the third day I lost it, it was gone, I couldn't see it anymore."