Photography and the Language of Things | David Cunningham | Saturday, 09.07.2016

If Commodities Could Speak

“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood”, writes Marx, famously, in the first chapter of Capital. “Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”. For while, as an ‘ordinary’ object, “the table continues to be that common, everyday thing, wood”, “so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than ‘table-turning’ ever was”. What Marx notoriously terms the “mystical [or mysterious] character of commodities” thus takes “the fantastic form of a relation between things”, and requires, for “an analogy”, he suggests, “recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”. Instead of seeing the “transcendence” of the commodity as a product of the vast historical system of capitalism, “the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race”.

The last thing the world needs is yet another reading of “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”. Nonetheless, it is hard not to take at least a momentary detour via Marx’s words here, since, as I would be far from the first to note, there is something more than a passing resemblance between the animistic and anthropomorphic tendencies of so-called new materialism’s vibrant, ‘speaking’ objects, or Latourian ‘actants’, on the one hand, and Marx’s critical analysis of the fetish-like character of the commodity and capitalist metaphysics, on the other. And while it would undoubtedly be too hasty simply to reduce the former to a mere unreflective mirroring of the latter, given the different ‘ontological’ levels at which each is pitched, it is certainly worth asking to what degree the current fascination with things and objects across almost all areas of the arts, humanities and social sciences – and, above all, the widespread desire for objects to ‘speak’ – does reflect a historical moment dominated by those “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” definitive of the commodity form.

Among the several strengths of Hito Steyerl’s recent writings on a "language of things" – about which I have been worrying away over the course of my four previous posts – is, from this perspective, her attempt not to obscure this possible relation between a recent turn to the object and the form of the commodity, but, on the contrary, to attempt to think them together in her account of the image. Yet its consequence is, I think, what can only be described as an unresolved tension between the respective claims of a Marx-inspired historical materialism and an ultimately ahistorical (as well as proudly ‘post-critical’) ‘ontological turn’ towards a metaphysically-inclined conception of the object to which Steyerl’s own emphasis on a ‘language of things’ per se would seem necessarily to allude.

As I discussed in the third of my posts, Walter Benjamin is an obvious inspiration for Steyerl here. Nonetheless, and while this is not the place to get too bogged down in Benjamin scholarship, there is, notably, a tendency, in laying such stress on the 1916 essay on the ‘language of things’, to move seamlessly from early to late Benjamin in Steyerl’s account of his fascination with the “mute magic of things”, which does rather ignore Benjamin’s own misgivings, as he puts it in one of his letters to Adorno, about his earlier “archaic form of philosophizing naively caught up in nature”. 1See Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno, The Complete Correspondences 1928–1940, ed. Henri Lonitz (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), 88. Most importantly, while Benjamin’s ‘method’ of “deciphering modernity mainly by sifting through the wake of trash it left behind”, as Steyerl describes it, can certainly be traced back to a materialist investment in “the power of the rejected” as a means by which to articulate an experience of ‘the absolute’ that is no doubt already discernible in his writings of the 1910s, the connection of this to a deciphering of modernity, in which the ‘absolute’ becomes itself increasingly associated with a concept of ‘history’, marks an important shift in how such ‘materialism’ is understood. 2See Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience (London: Routledge, 1998), 8–9. In this sense, arguably, it is only by reading back through the later Benjamin, and through his writings on capitalism, photography and technology in particular, that the younger Benjamin’s “concept of a language of things”, in which “amps speak as if inhabited by spirits”, and “high-rise buildings chat with each other” (as Steyerl glosses Benjamin’s questions of 1916), can be given the specifically historical materialist “charge” that she seeks to derive from it.
Walter Benjamin in the Bibliothque nationale, Paris (29247) Gisèle Freund, Walter Benjamin in the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, 1937

It’s not as if Steyerl doesn’t know this. As she puts it, if the question is why “is Benjamin so in love with the language of things in the first place” – a question that might well be readdressed to many today – his own answer of 1916, “that the word of God shines forth through the mute magic of things”, “is rather an expression of Benjamin’s pompous perplexity, than a convincing case”. It is here then that she quickly directs us towards “the role that material objects took on in Benjamin’s thought later on”. But the speed at which this move is made is perhaps itself instructive, since it acts as if the earlier love affair with “the language of things” could be straightforwardly transferred, more or less without remainder, into the terms of this later thought itself. The key passage (which appears in very similar form in both “The Language of Things” and “A Thing Like You and Me”) is worth quoting at some length:

“For him [Benjamin], modest and even abject objects are hieroglyphs in whose dark prism social relations lay congealed and in fragments. They are understood as nodes, in which the tensions of a historical moment materialize in a flash of awareness or twist grotesquely into the commodity fetish. In this perspective, a thing is never just an object, but a fossil in which a constellation of forces are petrified. Things are never just inert objects, passive items, or lifeless shucks, but consist of tensions, forces, hidden powers, all being constantly exchanged. While this opinion borders on magical thought, according to which things are invested with supernatural powers, it is also a classically materialist take. Because the commodity, too, is understood not as a simple object, but a condensation of social forces.”

In running this together with the Benjamin of 1916, Steyerl may well be following Marx’s advice to take “recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”. But there is a danger that, in simply swapping for a pantheistic conception of God the investment of things with “supernatural powers” by the commodity, Steyerl’s subsequent talk of a documentary practice that would, against the violences of “representation”, seek to affirm a “pulsating symphony of matter” may serve to elide rather than to illuminate what is at stake in this conception of the thing as not a “simple object” in precisely historical terms. So, while Steyerl may be right, for example, to draw attention to the later Benjamin’s emphasis on “the liberating force within things” that he finds in surrealism (and, specifically, outmoded things), it is also case that insofar as the condition for this is Breton and Aragon’s discovery of a “profane illumination”, driven by a “materialistic, anthropological inspiration”, such “illumination” is fundamentally reliant, for Benjamin, upon the specifically modern experience of the new, through which the “outmoded” is produced, and not something that can be straightforwardly attributed to any naturalistic or metaphysical ontology of ‘things’ per se. 3See Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism”, in Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 1, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (Cambridge/MA: Belknap Press), 209–210.

The historical transformation in the relations between things, and in the relations between ‘us’ and things, is after all, according to Benjamin’s own account, brought about in important respects by capitalism and, in particular, by the social being of the commodity form. In this sense, it is clear why one might want to make such transformations the focus of a critical practice devoted to historically “deciphering” the thing-as-image – a form of interpretation that would align the image of the commodity-as-hieroglyph (that Benjamin takes from Marx) with Steyerl’s own focus on a forensic conception of the object as an indexical image-like ‘witness’, whereby, in the deciphering of ‘bruises’ and imprints of violence, things “are made to speak”. But it is far less clear why (or how) one would also want to make this the basis for a speculative language of things tout court (including for a ‘real’ beyond capitalism), except through some return to a naturalistic ‘ontology’ of vital matter – a “pulsating symphony of matter” – in a form that seems necessarily in tension with the historically-specific concerns of Benjamin or Marx or with any conception of the thing as an image in which “the tensions of a historical moment” are fossilized.

I will return to the political questions raised by this in my final post. But it is worth saying first that part of the difficulty derives, of course, from the reasons why the commodity is not a “simple object”. For although Steyerl refers to the centrality of the commodity in Benjamin’s writings of the 1930s as “classically materialist”, the materialism at stake is in fact a profoundly strange one. Formed via exchange’s abstraction from the substance of use value (so as to make concretely different ‘things’ exchangeable), what is historically specific about capitalism, on Marx’s account, resides in the manner in which what ‘originates’ in this determinate negation of substance comes to take on a strange ‘presence’ of its own – a spectral or ghostly objectivity that, assuming primacy over those physical commodity objects that exchange is initially supposed to mediate, becomes “the subject [or independent agent]” of that process determinative of capitalism as a whole. 4I draw in the following paragraphs upon David Cunningham, “Floating on the Same Plane: Metropolis, Money and the Culture of Abstraction”, Journal of Visual Culture 12, 1 (2013), 38–60.

From this perspective, if, as Marx writes, “the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible” – sinnlich übersinnlich: sensory super-sensory nonetheless, as commodity form, the commodity is, he insists, absolutely abstract, indeed actually ‘ideal’; a ‘pure’ form without pre-given ‘content’. In the words of Capital: “Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects”. “Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange values.”
Bullion (29248) Thomas Demand, Bullion, C-Print, 2003 © The Artist

Importantly, then, the animism at stake in this “intercourse as commodities” denotes a form of fetishism that is not merely, say, the manifestation of a peculiar belief about reality on the part of the unenlightened (as the catholic Latour, for example, sometimes seems to suppose is being argued in his “critiques” of the protestant “iconoclast” Marx). (Indeed, this is part of Adorno’s misgivings about the ways in which Benjamin’s own “disenchantment of the dialectical image as a ‘dream’”, in the Arcades Project, might not only serve to “psychologize it”, but also obscure the fact that the “fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather, it is dialectical in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness”.5Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno, The Complete Correspondences 1928–1940, 105. ) On the contrary, fetishism is, for Marx, something that exists out there in the actual existence of the object as “value” as opposed to its existence as a material “thing”; a value which is generated by the social relations of capitalist production and exchange. It is in this way that “the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour”. A “definite social relation between men” assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things”. If commodification is, therefore, itself akin to a process of ‘translation’, whereby objects become “values” and things themselves apparently “speak”, the “grotesque ideas” generated are not simple projections of human (false) consciousness onto things, but derive from the commodity form itself; that is, from the historically-specific ways in which things are related in and by capitalism. 6This not to dispute that the fact that the commodity “transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyph” is, for Marx, what invites its deciphering as a dispelling of any “magical thought” associated with it. Yet, at the same time, since such “magic” is here objective – a “reality” of capitalist social relations – merely seeing through it will not, in itself, suffice to render it any less “real”. Indeed, what Marx terms this “religious reflex of the real world” could only “finally vanish”, as he writes, “when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature. The life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan”. In other words, it requires socialism. Or, as Benjamin puts it of the Arcades Project, in one of his letters to Adorno: “I am busy pointing my telescope through the bloody mist at a mirage of the 19th century that I am attempting to reproduce based on the characteristics it will manifest in a future state of the world, liberated from magic” (my emphasis).

It is for this reason that someone like Latour is wrong to see Marx’s apparently “iconoclastic”, anti-fetishist demystification of the commodity’s “mystical character” as resting on a quasi-imperialist “modern” reclamation of human power from an agency ‘superstitiously’ accorded by others to objects (which is thereby shown to be something like a collective illusion on the part of the primitive or unscientific). For this misunderstands the actual argument Marx is making, which does not concern a subjective projection of agency onto things, and hence a narrowly “epistemological” problem, but rather the question of a real socio-historical “ontology”. 7See Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, Critical Inquiry 30, 2 (2004). (Charitably, we might say that, at the very least, Latour confuses an earlier problematic of ideology in Marx with the later account of value as a real abstraction.) The result of the failure to grasp this is, at any rate, in Latour’s own work, the substitution of sheer accumulative description, on the basis of a repeated observation of the necessity of non-human things to all social relations or networks, for any actual historical explanation of the formation of such networks themselves, which is Marx’s (and Benjamin’s) concern. This is why, to return to the ‘image’, it concords so well with the return to predominantly ‘aesthetic’ approaches apparent in almost all ‘post-critical’ and ‘new materialist’ accounts of individual images, as that alone which would allow ‘us’ access to the thing’s alien “intractable, unruly reality” (in the words of Christopher Pinney 8Christopher Pinney, “Bruises and Blushes: Photography ‘Beyond’ Anthropology”, in Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg (eds.), Documentary Across Disciplines (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016). ). (At the very least, while Latour may blithely conclude that capitalism is “universal only in the imagination of its enemies and friends”, ceasing to ‘believe’ in money will scarcely serve to eradicate its very real, ‘universal’ and overdetermining effects.) From this perspective, while Adorno may have been wrong to have accused Benjamin – Steyerl’s principal inspiration – of writing from a “bewitched spot” constituted at “the crossroads of magic and positivism”, 9It was on this basis that Adorno, of course, worried that the discontinuous and imagistic “montage-like” structures celebrated in both surrealism and Benjamin (not least in their enthusiasm for the ‘photographic’ as a model) were in fact “unable to explode the individual elements” from which they were constructed—thus risking, without “mediation”, a mere dream-like recapitulation of the “accepted order of things”. See Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 1997), 63. in a way which would “superstitiously attribute to material enumeration [alone] a power of illumination”, his criticism actually has more than a little purchase when it comes to Latourian ‘materialism’ and its various progeny today. 10It is telling, in this regard, that someone like Ian Bogost’s own object-oriented ‘reading’ of Stephen Shore’s 1977 photograph Perrine, Florida, November 11, for example, which I discussed in my last post, merely avoids the question of what it therefore means that “the secret lives of meals” is one itself fundamentally overdetermined by commodity relations. Shore’s image is, after all, not simply one in which “units reveal themselves: pickle dangles across meat patty, salt scuttles from fry, ice milk clings to the inside of plastic straw”, as Bogost writes; it is one in which such quasi-Heideggerian disclosure is profoundly shaped by the degree to which these are MacDonald’s pickles and patties, MacDonald’s salt and fries, MacDonald’s milk and plastic straws. It is not so surprising, then, that in instances like these it is not always easy to distinguish between a kind of democratizing of the image in which “[n]othing is overlooked, nothing reduced to anything else, nothing given priority”, as Bogost puts it, and that levelling in exchange associated with the ‘flat ontology’ of indifference and equivalence characteristic of the value form itself.It is telling, in this regard, that someone like Ian Bogost’s own object-oriented ‘reading’ of Stephen Shore’s 1977 photograph Perrine, Florida, November 11, for example, which I discussed in my last post, merely avoids the question of what it therefore means that “the secret lives of meals” is one itself fundamentally overdetermined by commodity relations. Shore’s image is, after all, not simply one in which “units reveal themselves: pickle dangles across meat patty, salt scuttles from fry, ice milk clings to the inside of plastic straw”, as Bogost writes; it is one in which such quasi-Heideggerian disclosure is profoundly shaped by the degree to which these are MacDonald’s pickles and patties, MacDonald’s salt and fries, MacDonald’s milk and plastic straws. It is not so surprising, then, that in instances like these it is not always easy to distinguish between a kind of democratizing of the image in which “[n]othing is overlooked, nothing reduced to anything else, nothing given priority”, as Bogost puts it, and that levelling in exchange associated with the ‘flat ontology’ of indifference and equivalence characteristic of the value form itself.

Evidently Steyerl’s stress on the indexical character of the thing as a kind of “fossil in which a constellation of forces are petrified” seeks, in its emphasis on the historical character of such forces, and the political and economic violence through which they are often formed, to avoid being similarly “bewitched”. (It is in this, as we have seen, that her presentation of the thing-as-image also draws upon analogies, not from “the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”, but from the technology of hard disks [“that fossilize not only their own history, but the history of their relations to the world”] and photographs [that “capture a specific relation to the universe and conserve it” in a “strata of crystallized time”].) The far from simple question that would follow would, however, be: what is the relationship between this indexical image-as-thing-as-fossil and the image-as-thing-as-commodity? The “form of translation” that would genuinely “engage with the contemporary community of matter” is, Steyerl writes, that “documentary articulation [which would] reflect and thus amplify the language of those things which are dragged across the globe on road to commodification at neck breaking speed or again tossed away and discarded as useless junk”. (I am reminded of Adorno’s comment to Benjamin concerning the “capitalist function of the ragpicker – namely, to subject even rubbish to exchange value” 11Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno, The Complete Correspondences 1928–1940, 284. .) The complication is that this “language of things” subject to the violence of capitalist accumulation, which Steyerl asks the documentary image to reflect and amplify, also “reflects” those very things that, through the working of the value form, commodification apparently makes speak in the first place.

This complicates, in turn – not least with regard to the documentary image – what it means, then, to talk of an image as a “a fragment of the real world … a thing like any other – a thing like you and me” in such a context. For the commodity as object may be a material thing – allowing for a tracing of its history from raw material to product to junk (as Steyerl does in her video essay In Free Fall) – but the commodity as value is only perceptible in its traces, since “not an atom of matter” enters into such value itself. While then the commodity may be a thing, for the thing to be a commodity – like the image, which must always be an image of something more than simply ‘itself’ in order to be an image at all – it can also never be just a (material) thing.
In Free Fall (29249) Hito Steyerl, In Free Fall, video still, 2010 © The Artist

In his discussion of that new “dominant model of what an observer was” that took shape in nineteenth-century modernity, Jonathan Crary describes, citing Adorno, the training of the eye to perceive “reality as a reality of objects and hence basically of commodities”. 12Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 6–7, 11. But if it is in this way that the commodity can be understood as the ultimate source of what has often been regarded as a hyper-intensification of the visual per se within modernity – “capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image”, in Debord’s famous definition of the spectacle – it has, crucially, as its basis that which, in its very essence, precisely eludes all visualization: that is, commodity form itself. And as Adorno puts it elsewhere, if this seems itself “abstract”, such “is the fault not of fantastic, wilful thinking, hostile to the facts, but of the objective abstraction to which the social process of life is subject – the exchange relation”. 13Theodor Adorno, “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?”, in Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 120 (translation modified). Or, to put in another way, the ‘fault’ lies not simply in ‘us’ – in, say, an insufficiently materialist failure to attend to the reality of objects and things – but lies out there, and “moves within the object itself”. 14Christopher J. Arthur, “The Spectral Ontology of Value”, Radical Philosophy 107 (2001), 41. Hence, as the juxtaposition of the two very different citations from Adorno suggests, the sense in which the social ‘reality’ of modernity must be understood, is, simultaneously, as a reality of all-too-concrete objects and a reality of abstractions.

In fact, there is one sense in which nothing is more exemplary of this point than photography itself (and documentary photography in particular), since the apparently irreducible photographic attentiveness to the concretely particular ‘thing’, to the indexical capturing of this singular moment, this person, this place – which, in a sense, Steyerl seeks to radicalize by severing it from the abstractions of ‘representation’ altogether – also appears, from another perspective, as a dividing up of the world itself into a series of exchangeable, abstract units, phantasmatically projecting some all-encompassing and flattened ‘global’ space of universality in which such ‘things’ are organised and exchanged, as the late Allan Sekula has perhaps most influentially detailed. 15See Allan Sekula, “The Traffic in Photographs”, in Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Serge Guilbaut and David Solkin (eds.), Modernism and Modernity: The Vancouver Conferences Papers (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2004), 121–154. Indeed, it is this economy of photographic vision that precisely relates it to those forms of abstraction inherent to the fetish-like character of commodities, which are “both particular, sensual objects … and values, moments of an abstractly homogenous substance that is mathematically divisible and measurable (for example, in terms of time and money)”. 16Moishe Postone, Time, Labour and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 175. If, as far as, say, visual culture is concerned, this is, then, partly a question of what Crary terms the abstraction of vision itself – the redistribution of the visual according to a regime of equivalence and indifference, and an uprooting of the image from existing forms of tactility, which is canonically linked to, but not originary with, photography, or more recently, say, digital sampling – equally it also concerns the ways in which that which is itself (unlike the photograph) absolutely abstract – and, thereby, properly invisible, only ever appearing in the traces of its ‘effects’ – is nonetheless determinative of the forms of relations that dominate the current material reality of humans and non-humans alike. Indeed, albeit provocatively, one might say that it is, above all, as a function of the very real dominance of abstraction in contemporary capitalist modernity that a certain pervasive anxiety about the status of the material manifests itself in each “return to the real”, and in our current desires to speak a language of things.