[OPE-L:60] [OPE-L:293] A juicy bit of lit

David Laibman (DLaibman@brooklyn.cuny.edu)
Thu, 05 Nov 98 18:45:00 EST

Hello, OPE.

Feeling a bit guilty for having (sort of) started the thread on Chapter 1,
but not having participated subsequently, I will only say that I think the
discussion is feeling its way toward the truly important questions;
especially: if exchange does involve exchange of equivalents, in some sense,
then what do we learn from that? Does equal exchange (and therefore value)
emerge necessarily from a sufficiently thorough conceptualization of the
social relations lying behind commodity exchange? Steve C.'s questions are
the right ones, even if he implies that there are no satisfactory answers. I
am hard at work on this stuff right now, so may have more to say on it soon.

In the meantime, I want to pass along this GEM, from the Brecht Forum's
Manifestivity celebration (in honor of the Communist Manifesto at 150) last
week. Wallace Shawn read several passages from his monologue-play, *The
Fever*, and I rushed to buy a copy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991). One of
these passages begins on p. 19, and I reproduce it here; it will make a
*wonderful* contribution to classroom work, for those of us lucky enough to
get to teach *Capital* to students.


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 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 who were 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 of 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 those 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.




David Laibman