Voyou Désœuvré

I think Lenin underestimates the genuine pathos of the Toy Story films in his review, which reinforces (and is reinforced by) his pedagogical theory of ideology, which tends to emphasize the power of cultural products to impart ideology, thereby underemphasizing why audiences accept and inhabit this ideology. To describe the emotional charge of the films as merely manipulative misses the way in which they allegorize quite real aspects of contemporary life in ways which are both insightful and genuinely affecting (which doesn’t mean they aren’t ideological). Lenin damns the films for “reminding you that your alienated, commodified relationships are perfectly normal, human, desirable and moreover actually protected as human rights in the advanced capitalist states,” but under capitalism human beings really are commodities, and to explore the emotional terrain of that condition is not mystificatory or necessarily reactionary.

I think the Toy Story films (at least, the first two—I haven’t seen the new one) are actually kind of interesting in registering some ambivalences about commodification. A large part of the second film revolves around the theft of Woody by a toy collector, who keeps his toys on display shelves, or, preferably, untouched in the original packaging. From the point-of-view of the film, of course, this is what makes the collector a villain, as he keeps the toys away from their proper role in the lives of children. One could read this as advocating  a certain sort of socialism, in which the evil of capitalism is that it privileges exchange value, where socialism would  only be concerned with use value.

What this misses is Marx’s point that use value and exchange value are two sides of a dialectic, both of which are implicated in commodity fetishism; we can’t simply extract the one we like and discard the other. Toy Story 2 is actually quite a nice example to use to illustrate this. Although the toy collector runs a toy shop, the toys he collects are not offered for sale, but are arranged solely for display. Commodities are usually transparent—we buy them because we need, or want, them, and then we consume them, and the nexus that connects exchange and use, the commodity form, disappears in these two moments. It is only when the toys are in their display cases and original packaging, suspended between exchange and consumption, that the commodity becomes visible as such. I’m reminded of Benjamin:

The world exhibitions were training schools in which the masses, barred from consuming, learned empathy with exchange value. “Look at everything; touch nothing.” (Arcades, G16,6)


  1. Giovanni, 1:12 pm, August 18, 2010

    If you can stomach to watch it, there is a promotional video for the new line of Toy Story toys – which are closer to collector’s replicas that things a child might want or in fact be allowed to play with – in which Lasseter reveals his own feelings about the nexus of use and commodity value. It opens with an anecdote he’s been telling for years, about being at Dallas airport days after the release of the first film and seeing a child holding a Woody doll, and that’s supposedly when he knew that the film had been not only a commercial success but that it had genuinely touched its audience as well. The narrative of that transition – from spectator full of wonder to fulfilled toy owner – is not without its own pathos I think.

    But then Lasseter goes on to describe and sell the new line of toys, urging children to buy two of each, one toy to play with and the other to keep on a shelf, suggesting that there is a form of pleasure to be derived from that suspended state you describe, from beholding the commodity. (And perhaps what made the collector a villain in TS2 was in fact that he did not seek that pleasure. He only cared to keep the toys in good order so that he could sell them to a museum for monetary gain – and as always the message there is that commodities are good, but money itself is bad.)

    Without wishing to spoil it since you haven’t seen it, Toy Story 3 is open to more options regarding the lives of the toys than 1 and 2, including that being owned by adults might not completely perverse.

  2. Favorite movies (about the humanities?) of 2010, with digressions on resistance to affect and on leaving grad school « Have a Good Time, 10:32 pm, January 22, 2011

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