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Britney Spears explains the commodity form

We’ve all probably imbibed, in one form or another, a left-wing culture criticism that draws, in one way or another, on Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis of the culture industry; even I find it difficult to like Paris Hilton sometimes. But their essay is more interesting than the reflexive anti-commodification that is now so common. As Owen pointed out when I mentioned this before, you can occasionally see a glimpse of utopian possibilities in popular culture in the Frankfurt School, and this strain is even more pronounced in Benjamin. I talked to our local Marxism reading group about this a couple of weeks ago; here’s what I said:

Adorno and Horkheimer criticize mass culture on the basis of a particular understanding of art. True art is autonomous, and so negative or critical. True art is purposeless, and so provides us with an image of something outside of instrumental reason (which is, for Adorno and Horkheimer, always a logic of domination). However, this autonomy involves a contradiction, and hence a dialectic. Art’s purposelessness comes to be construed in terms of an inability to act, and so freedom, paradoxically, becomes equated with inaction. This is the point of the story of Odysseus and the Sirens: Odysseus is free in the aesthetic sense, he can listen to the Sirens, only because he is tied to the mast and unable to act; his crew, reciprocally, are able to act only because Odysseus has prevented them from hearing the music of the Sirens. This impotence becomes art’s condition of existence under capitalism: “so long as art declines to pass as cognition and is thus separated from practice, social practice tolerates it as it tolerates pleasure” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 33).

This disconnectedness of art from practice is completed by mass culture, which thereby in a sense completes, by abolishing, art: “The regression of the masses today is their inability to hear the unheard of with their own ears, to touch the unapprehended with their own hands” (DE, 36). So mass culture is something that looks like art, but isn’t—it’s the culture industry, a culture subordinated to technical rationality, not autonomous from it. Culture thus becomes a part of the total system of capitalism. Art becomes a commodity, and takes on the formal qualities of the commodity. Cultural objects become interchangeable, replaceable: “Not only are the songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but the specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears to change” (DE, 125).

This commodification is not just a feature of “low culture.” Adorno and Horkheimer insist that all contemporary culture is being integrated into capitalist production. Low culture is not separate from high culture, but is “the social bad conscience of serious art” that reminds the serious artist that she too is just producing commodities for the art market. Adorno expands on this in a letter to Benjamin, where he congratulates Benjamin for defending “the kitsch film against the quality film” (Aesthetics and Politics, 122), thereby puncturing the illusion that high art is autonomous.

Watch: Betty Boop – Be Human

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, then, the complaint is not, or not just, that people listen to jazz instead of Schoenberg, but also that they watch Donald Duck instead of Betty Boop. This suggests that Adorno and Horkheimer’s understanding here is more dialectical than it sometimes appears. If there is liberation, it doesn’t exist outside the culture industry, because there is no such outside. Instead, we occasionally see moments of liberation within mass culture. Probably the most poignant example:

In spite of the films which are intended to complete her integration, the housewife finds in the darkness of the movie theatre a place of refuge where she can sit for a few hours with nobody watching, just as she used to look out of the window when there were still homes and rest in the evening (DE, 139).

But even here, the culture industry functions as, at best, a poor substitute for something that has been lost. The underlying logic of Dialectic of Enlightenment does seem to be one of an increasing subordination of culture to technical rationality. It’s hard, than, to see how even such momentary liberation is possible.

I want to suggest that Benjamin can help us here. Benjamin’s unusual interpretation of commodity fetishism is particularly interesting when applied to commodified art. The central feature of the commodity, in Marx’s account, is exchange, an indefinite chain of equivalences: “A given commodity, e.g., a quarter of wheat, is exchanged for x blacking, y silk, or z gold, &c” (Capital, vol. 1, 44). The interesting part here is the “&c,” the limitlessness of the exchangeability or communicability of the commodity. More explicitly, we can see this in Marx’s description of the passage between three different forms of exchange: the elementary form, the total form, and the general form.

The elementary form expresses the exchange value of one object in another determinate object; this implies to possibility of exchange with an indeterminate array of objects, and this is the total form of exchange. This is superseded, however, by the general form, in which the equivalent again becomes determinate, but a determinate commodity, not a concrete object. In the elementary and total forms, exchange value is defined by opposition to use value. In the general form, however, the exchange value of one commodity is defined by the exchange value of other commodities, with no reference to use value. As Marx puts it: “The general form results from the joint action of the whole world of commodities and from that alone” (C, 71, my emphasis). The general form produces a kind of mirror-world, in which commodities endlessly reflect one another.

Watch: Britney Spears – Lucky

This is the completion of commodity fetishism; no reference is made any longer to labor, and the commodity is liberated from any dependence on use value. This recalls Adorno’s comment about “the liberation of things from the curse of being useful” (AP, 110), a comment which links the account of art in Dialectic of Enlightenment to Benjamin’s work on Baudelaire, which is entangled with the Arcades project (it’s interesting to note in passing that Benjamin in the Arcades Project, writing about the 19th century, was at about the same historical distance from his subject matter as we are now from the popular culture that Adorno and Horkheimer were writing about).

Another example of liberation from the curse of being useful occurs with the world exhibitions; as Benjamin enigmatically describes them, “the world exhibitions were training schools in which the masses, barred from consuming, learned empathy with exchange value” (The Arcades Project, 201). The point here, I think, is that, at world exhibitions, where commodities were on display, not for sale, the masses were barred from consumption and the commodity barred from being consumed. Hence the commodity appeared more purely in its general form, as exchange value with no relation to use value. The “empathy with exchange value” here is an empathy with the idea of exchangeability, transmissibility, or communicability: the world fairs appear at the same time as the proletariat assumes a new subjectivity as international, universal and universally equivalent. It’s worth noting that, according to the sources Benjamin quotes, some workers recognized this connection, using the world exhibitions as opportunities for international organization (and, I wonder, is there any similarity here with the cycle of summit protests?).

Empathy with the commodity also appears in cultural forms, for example advertising. Through posters, advertising is “emancipated” and spreads out to cover the whole city. As with the world exhibitions, as the commodity form spreads through advertising, it takes on an ambiguous character, and becomes form in which alternatives to capitalism can be articulated, as well as a form that reinforces capitalism. Benjamin discusses the deep affinity between advertising and revolutionary propaganda. He quotes a description of revolutionary posters from 1848, which attributes them to “Monsieur Everyone.” This universal revolutionary subject is an abstraction, like the commodity, but also like the commodity, a materially produced abstraction.

Watch: Coca-Cola – Happiness Factory

This kind of universalism as unrestricted exchange is also present within advertising. Benjamin connects advertising back to Grandville‘s comically utopian visions such as a the solar system represented as a bridge lit by gaslamps, and forward to the surrealists who “treat words like trade names, and their texts are, at bottom, a form or prospectus for enterprises not yet off the ground” (A, 173). The Coke ad above, called “Happiness Factory,” also reminds me of Benjamin’s description of an advert as “an image of the everyday in utopia” (A, 174). The ad is an astounding image of commodity fetishism, but commodity fetishism almost as parody; or commodity fetishism as seen by a utopian imagination that almost immediately points beyond capitalism.

This can help explain the glimpses of liberation that Adorno and Horkheimer see in commodified art. For example, returning to their description of mass cultural products as interchangeable, they write that “even gags, effects, and jokes are calculated like the settings in which they are placed” (DE, 125). But the image this brings to mind is not dystopian; it’s the image of a Buster Keaton film, where the calculation and inevitability of the gags is emphasized, precisely as a parodic liberation from mechanism and fatality. I’m also reminded of Judith Butler’s description of Hegel’s dialectic as a burlesque.

Watch: Buster Keaton in Sherlock Junior

If the commodity form is, as Marx tells us, continually coming up against its own limits, we might expect to find the same thing in the forms assumed by commodified art. Hence the culture industry is not just the ever increasing subordination of art to technical reason, but also the expression of the dialectical overcoming of technical reason through its own contradictions. This suggests a Marxist approach to mass culture that emphasizes two things that are too often ignored. One is the changes mass culture produces on its consumers (and there’s interesting material here in Benjamin’s work on fashion); the other is the attempt to understand mass culture in terms of its contradictions. Both would allow us to see mass culture not as something that is simply employed by capitalism, but rather as something potentially reversible, existing both within and against capital.