Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

The pathos of commodities

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)