Oh, Dear, What Can the Matter Be?:
A Response to Peter Stallybrass's "The Value of Culture and the Disavowal of Things"

Crystal Bartolovich

 

     1. Peter Stallybrass's work has for some time now been foregrounding "objects": the constitutive force of clothing; the irreducibility of the "material text" in the face of reading practices which tend toward its disavowal; and the preservation of the traces of people in the physical objects that they handle and love. "The Value of Culture and the Disavowal of Things" adds to this body of work, which seeks, strategically--as the "Introduction" to a recent collection of essays which Stallybrass edited with Margreta deGrazia and Maureen Quilligan argues--to arrest an unthinking privileging of the "sovereign subject" of modernity by confronting it with the destabilizing force of supposed mere "objects." For Stallybrass, this project involves, more specifically, a critique of capitalism as well: in spite of capital's supposed love affair with objects, it has never --literally--valued them properly; its "subjects," thus, though surrounded by "objects," are oddly de-materialized. In its preoccupation with "objects," then, Stallybrass's work must be situated not only with that of colleagues in early modern studies engaged in similar inquiries (which in addition to those collected in the Subject and Object volume include Patricia Fumerton, Jeff Masten, and Juliet Fleming, among others), but also with--as his own references suggest--an outpouring of post-war Marxist analyses which have insisted upon (as Adorno has been translated) "the preponderance of the object" (Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton, 184).

     2. One must proceed cautiously, however, when working in the wake of such an evocative statement, since while it is certainly the case that there has been active revisionism of the status of "objects" within Marxism in recent years, not everyone means the same thing by the term, nor does every writer have the same agenda. For example, in the critiques of older models of "ideology" in early British cultural studies, it became commonplace to insist on the "subversive" potential of consumption: that people were not the mere dupes of capital, but worked within its (admittedly straited) limits towards purposes not always entirely congruent with either the state or corporate interest. Along with the recuperation of subjective "agency" in the theory of "ideology," this trend implied a critique of earlier attitudes toward "objects" in two senses: firstly that consumers were not simply "objects" of advertiser-driven "mass" culture (especially advertising and the media), but continued to assert their own resistances and meanings in the seemingly unified field; secondly (and relatedly), it focused new attention on "objects"--in the sense of commodities and the products of media--as sites of negotiation, where new "subjective" (personal and social) meanings could be produced. In addition, the cultural studies of this period, in and outside of Britain, directed the attention of critics to the ordinarily ignored or derided "objects" of "popular" or "everyday" culture--from rock music to food and fan magazines--which generally had been excluded from serious academic study in the industrialized world. As has often been noted, the British wing of this tradition, especially in the earliest years, often pitted itself against Frankfurt School (and other "Continental") analyses, with all their abstractions, difficult language and (especially) mistrust of the "mass" and "the people"; indeed British Marxism has had relatively little to do with Continental Marxists (think of E. P. Thompson's passionate--and often hilarious--denunciation of Althusser) until quite recently. Since Stallybrass does ally himself explicitly in this essay with Frankfurt theorists, however, a brief detour into negative dialectics--with its understanding of "objects"--is in order.

     3. While certainly both Adorno and Benjamin, especially the latter, were concerned to preserve a sense of the irreducible materiality (in the narrow sense of physicality) of objects, their definition of "object" (or even material) cannot be reduced to the "stuff" you can put hands upon, sink your teeth into, or kick. Adorno of course arguably engaged in all these activities-- most notably upon the products of mass culture (and the occasional unlucky interlocutor, including Benjamin)--but in work such as Negative Dialectics he had more abstract fish to fry. Critiquing "idealists" and "empiricists" alike, he was mistrustful both of the "object" given in "experience" or the adequacy of "concepts" to capture "objects." "Reality" (as a totality) remained uncontainable by concepts, and immediate "experience" (as Marx had already pointed out) was inadequate because objects did not bear their "social" aspects like tattoos upon their surfaces; to the contrary only the mediation of conceptual reflection could bring one toward any understanding of the "concrete" (as social form--not as "stuff"). "Objects" of critical knowledge, then, are always, at least in part "abstract"--in a good sense--because their conditions of existence in all its complexity would elude our understanding without the aid of "theory." At the same time, however, any object of critique will resist the constraints of even such a mediative analysis (Benjamin forcefully demonstrated this to Adorno), and pull the critic back toward his (and the "object's") own historical particularity. This "excess" of the object in the face of both idealist and empirical analysis was what is meant by "preponderance of the object." There was no working it through without an attention to "objects" as necessarily social forms, not as "physical objects" alone.

     4. Indeed, in one of Benjamin's own key critical gestures, it is the movement through an object of criticism (a historically specific social form) that makes "illumination" possible. On the one hand, Benjamin was drawn to, and undertook to describe in detail, the physicality of modernity: city streets, advertisements, and so on. On the other, he did so because it was the detritus of cultures (abandoned genres, architectural ruins, outdated fashions) which he believed offered gateways to insight if they were wrenched out of the continuum of history (which had consigned them to meaninglessness and silence) and then constellated with the cultural forms of another time, or with unexpected discourses from their own, opening them to the possibility of new meanings. The confrontation with the disparate in this way, he believed, could interrupt our sense of time as an endless flow which must go on as it has, and situate us in relation to a possible short-circuiting of "history" as we know it by momentary entry into the realm beyond time where the miseries, exploitations and horrors of all the ages can be seen as addressed and reconciled. This is one aspect of the "standpoint of redemption" to which Adorno refers in the quotation from Minima Moralia Stallybrass weaves into his conclusion. Such a standpoint cannot be achieved if the object is perceived only in its physicality rather than its sociality (though, of course, physicality cannot be reduced from social form).

     5. Hence, when the anthropologist Bill Pietz undertook to write a series of essays in the journal RES in the middle and late 80s on "the problem of the fetish," and declared himself to be following Adorno in method, he emphasizes that his understanding of the "concrete" is "social" not simply "physical." Arguing that numerous human sciences continue to deploy a concept of "fetish" in spite of frequent statements of discomfort and suspicion about the term, Pietz suggests that a historicizing treatment is needful to understand how it works, and what renders it useful conceptually. Beginning with an etymological excursus, he traces the emergence of the Afro-Portuguese word fetisso (later "fetish" in English) to the cross-cultural trading communities that formed along the Western coast of Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and argues that the emergence of the term marks the historical novelty of the encounter among three strikingly different value systems: Christian feudal, African lineage and market capitalist. Specifically, "fetish" is an attempt to confront the problem of value, and the disturbing fact (to Europeans) that some African peoples seemed to treat certain objects differently than either "idolatry" or "commodity" understandings could account for. A "fetish" was an object that neither served as an "image" of a greater power (as did an idol) nor as an item for which exchange value (as Europeans reckoned it) was paramount (as was a commodity), but rather one that actually embodied virtues and values in excess of exchange value--religious, cultural, social. Hence it was "irreducibly material," in the sense of specific to a particular place and time, and a site in which personal and social systems of value converge. It refused the supposedly tidy discontinuities of commodity relations (where once the exchange is made, both parties are typically assumed to be freed of all further obligation to each other). Having (ostensibly) managed an absolute divide between "the economic" and "the religious" spheres, European traders were baffled by the assignment of extravagant "value" to objects they deemed to be "trifles" and resented being drawn into "social" obligations in excess of the economic in order to engage in trade. Pietz summarizes: "'Fetish' has always named the incomprehensible mystery of the power of material things to be collective social objects experienced by individuals a truly embodying determinate values or virtues, always as judged from a cross-cultural perspective of relative infinite degradation, denues de valuer symbolique." In other words, "Fetish" marks the clash of incommensurable systems of value, a clash it accurately describes (and thus is "true"), even as it misrepresents supposedly "African" religious practice as such.

     6. Stallybrass's "The Value of Culture" enters the problematic Pietz outlines, exploring its historical implications for European systems of valuation, especially of "art." He begins with the intriguing question of why the terms "valueless" and "priceless" emerge at the same time in English, and, while similar in semantic form, have opposite connotations, the former "below" any possible monetary valuation and the latter--a term often now used to describe art works--"above" such valuation. His next move is to suggest that feudalism "in however mystified a form, unashamedly celebrated the economics of culture" which is later disavowed with the onset of capitalism; as an example, he argues that the "power [of monarchs and aristocrats in that social formation] does not come from being a subject but from the value of the objects (land in these cases) that accrue to the subject." These "aristocratic materializations" came into conflict with the different valuation system of Christianity, which accorded extravagant power to the seemingly valueless (the most trivial fragments of the body of saint were rendered sacred; the host, holiest of things, is otherwise an un-nourishing portion of "food"), and transvalued them as priceless. This transvaluation was manifested directly and explicitly (I have altered Stallybrass's vocabulary here; he would prefer "materially") in the value of the pigments and other materials expended in decorating and embellishing the images, containers (from frames to Cathedrals), the venerative signs and supports of the sacred items. After telling two tales which indicate the explicit "economics" of Christianity, Stallybrass points to a shift in the translation of the Lord's Prayer in England, which he claims indicates an attempt to disavow the economic aspects of religion, and keep the sacred as a domain distinct from the economic. He links this rift to changes in painting and writing, which, too, are divorced from consideration in terms of their "material supports" (by which he means the raw materials of production), which had earlier been foregrounded.

     7. Stallybrass, then, has two fundamental concerns here: (1) how and why does "cultural" value become separated out from economic value with the onset of capitalism; and (2) what are the implications for subjects and their relations to "objects" after this division? He is fascinated by the evident attention to, and appreciation of, the sensuous quality of things in supposedly "spiritual" pre-capitalist Europe, and the equally evident "transcendentalizing" of art objects in supposedly "materialist" modernity. His diagnosis is that capital's squeamishness about assigning value to objects outside the marketplace is that this division suits the bourgeois individual, whose own "pricelessness" is thus asserted against mere "things"--a perspective which takes its strongest form in relation to art (hence the paper on which modern novels are printed is "valueless" in relation to "priceless" authorial genius, which is taken to reside elsewhere). The essay concludes with the implication that the project of the essay should be linked not only to that of Pietz's work on the "fetish," but also to that of Adorno and Benjamin.

     8. Since Stallybrass's argument is actually at some variance with that of Adorno and Benjamin as I describe their projects above, we must consider why he would chose to push them in the direction he does. It would be wrong, I think, to attribute it to a "misreading" in the Bloomian or any other sense. Rather, Stallybrass has shown throughout his work an admirable (and quite Benjaminian) tendency to rework theories to his own purposes, rather than simply and dogmatically "applying" them. While for Benjamin and Adorno, the (physical) "object" (as "emblem") is often more important for what it "says" about capitalist society than what it "is" (in its sensible qualities), for Stallybrass, capitalist mystification can best be undermined by the shock of confrontation with sensible qualities, to which he attends with meticulous care. Indeed, the most striking aspect of Stallybrass's recent work is its insistent "vulgarity" (I mean this in a good way--as he uses it himself, in essays such as "Marx's Coat"), which, he has argued, follows Marx with more fidelity than others have: in the face of the abstraction of exchange value, which renders products of human labor interchangeable because--at this level--they are indifferent, he insists on the "thingness" of things--including humans, in the physicality of their bodies.

     9. Stallybrass's reminder that, for Marx, physical objects are not contemptible, but, to the contrary, continuous with the "human" world, is salutary. The question that we are left with, however, is this: for a Marxist critique of capitalism at the current moment is such focus on the physical object the most propitious? At stake here, among other things, is what "objectification" (along with kindred terms, such as "material") should mean for Marxist critique. Whereas "subjectivity" is ostensibly privileged (and championed) in bourgeois sociality, Stallybrass privileges the "object" to indicate that capitalism undermines both subjects and objects; whereas exchange value requires an abstraction from sensible qualities, Stallybrass returns our attention to precisely these qualities to indicate the ruse of capital; similarly, his insistence on physicality resists the advertising industry (though Stallybrass does not discuss this, it is quite pertinent to his case it seems to me, and links his project with some Frankfurt School concerns) by which "use value" is often hijacked entirely today by images (as Baudrillard has argued), so that consumers no longer make purchases based upon immediate sensible qualities at all in many cases, but rather upon the desire for acceptance, or prestige, or respectability, with which the web of signification captures the commodity. In this context, the purpose of Stallybrass's outrageous suggestion (if we properly valued things that there would be no problem with treating people like things), is precisely to shatter the illusion of the so-called "materialism" of "consumer culture," to show that "materialism" in this sense means anything but appreciation of, pleasure in, respect for, physical objects, in their insistent thingness--which includes the transformative trace of human labor. Against capitalist abstraction, "objectification" is no calamity, but irreducible--and even desirable. There is a cunning logic to this, and certainly this essay, as all Stallybrass's work, is fresh, surprising and provocative--a pleasure to read and mull over.

     10. Nevertheless, it seems to me, if we stop our analysis at the physicality of the "object," we cannot produce a Marxist critique, which requires attention to social relations, so that the dynamics of domination and exploitation can be laid bare. Hence, Marx observes in the preface to Capital I that "in the analysis of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both." This is an "abstraction" that reveals to us the material world more clearly, not an idealism. Indeed, throughout Capital it seems clear that "materialism" for Marx does not mean attending to the physicality of objects alone. For Marx--and Marxism--as I understand it, the most "material" aspect of the world is invisible and unpalpable in any immediate sense: the "social"--how people organize and live their relations to each other and "nature"--which is certainly not reducible to the sensual qualities of physical objects--though, of course, these are by no means irrelevant. Capital may begin with a coat, but it proceeds, by Capital III, to an elaboration of the global social totality, which is not only not "physical" in the same way as a coat is, but is not even, as Fredric Jameson, among others, has been at pains to show us, fully representable, being composed, as Roy Bhaskar has noted, of "underlying relations, causal structures and generative mechanisms"-- everchanging processes and configurations, which will not stay still or assume a fully manifest physical form for our examination (See Reclaiming Reality, Chapter 7).

     11. This last point brings me to a couple of quibbles and queries for Stallybrass's work-in-progress. His section "Value and Things" opens with the observation that "we all know that we should not treat people like things"--and then proceeds, cleverly, to indicate that, injunction notwithstanding, precisely the most valuable people were equated with "things" in the early modern period, the monarch and the aristocrat, whose names were interchangeable with the "object" from which their "power" derived: land. But let us pursue this a bit further: is the "power" of the aristocrat actually derived from land as such? This claim gives rise, I would suggest, to what might be called the "Penshurst Fallacy" (as Raymond Williams reads Ben Jonson's poem in Country and the City): the land produces of itself for the lord such that no labor is required whatsoever, and the lord can be shown (mythically), then, to be beneficent to--rather than utterly dependent upon--the laborers who actually catch the fish and grow the crops which seem to offer themselves directly to all comers in the poem. Land without laborers would support no aristocrat--unless he himself became its worker, in which case he world no longer, of course, be an aristocrat. For to be an aristocrat is not--in the first instance--really to be "objectified" in the ostensibly "good" way Stallybrass describes, but rather to be in a particular social relation with respect to other people, who mediate his own relation to the land.

     12. Let's look at Stallybrass's formulation once again, but this time with "slave" or "serf" in the place of "monarch" and "aristocrat." In "classical" Marxist readings, the slave and serf are seen as literally "objectified," because socially they are reduced to the status of instrumentum vocale, and tied to the land by law or violence in ways that no aristocrat or monarch ever was--whatever his nickname might be. As Marx explains in the Grundrisse: "the serf is classified as an inorganic condition of production along with other natural beings, such as cattle, as an accessory of the earth." Stallybrass purposefully rejects this view in order to re-inscribe "objectification" as "good" in the face of a persistent implication of certain forms of Marxist argumentation that it is "bad." While Stallybrass is unquestionably correct to remind us that for Marx "objectification" is by no means necessarily bad, what a simple reversal (i.e. it is good) of the kind that Stallybrass undertakes to make here leaves to the side is the doubleness of "objectification" as an effect of oppressive social relations; under such conditions, objectification cannot occur in its felicitous form alone, but will always be accompanied by its shadow. Hence though the aristocrat was nominally allied to the land (which by the sixteenth century might bear little resemblance to the actual physical location of his landholdings, by the way) this nominal attachment (better described as control over the means of production) freed him to travel anywhere, unlike the slaves on the new world plantations in which the aristocrat might invest, or his own laborers and tenants, whose labor he contractually controlled. It gave the lord freedom from labor, while the slaves and/or serfs labored for him. And while most peasants could (and did) move around to seek the best leases by the latter middle ages, the vestiges of the literal binding of serfs to the land was preserved long after the decline of formal feudalism, well into the seventeenth century, in the habit of whipping "vagrants" back to the villages of their birth--even if they had been forced off their landholdings there.

     13. My point is simply this: one must not mistake the ("bad") "objectification" of an oppressive social relation--that is "treating someone like a thing" (as the master does the slave, the lord the serf, the owner the worker)--which is predicated on material differentials of power and control over resources, including human ones--with the "good" objectification that Marx unquestionably advocated as a human goal: our proper continuity with nature (man's "inorganic body" as Marx put it) and each other via our "labor." In the case of the feudal lord, however, who performs no labor, and is in no way directly engaged with the land he holds, the ideological relation (referring to the Lord as "Essex") of the aristocrat with the soil is a ruse--a means of rationalizing the objectifying (bad) social relation of domination through a "naturalization" of his own monopoly of control over land (and its tenants) by associating himself with the land, and thus with the raw material from which all useful things came. Although pure dependent and parasite, the aristocrat situates himself in the metonymic place of the source of use-values with which he is in no sense actually coincident. In order to demystify such ruses, Marxists assert that social relations--although you can't see them or walk on them in the way you can "the land"--must be foregrounded and exposed as actually more material than physical objects.

     14. Stallybrass would have been on firmer (and more dialectical) ground, it seems to me, if he had observed that the serf is at once a "good" (in relation to "nature") and a "bad" object (in relation to the lord); a serf unquestionably maintains--at least to some extent--what for Marx was assuredly a desirable condition, a "metabolism" (stoffwechsel) with the natural world, with whom he retains an immediate relation through labor, even as the landlord reduces him socially to the status of an ox or plough in relation to himself. Similarly, under conditions of capitalism, the social order is contradictory--including "objectification," which is why we need to retain a sense of "bad" objectification alongside a recognition of the way that a "good" object-hood persists, in spite of capital's depredations. Certain "individuals" under capitalist conditions may be in a position to think of themselves as "priceless," but the vast majority are valueless except as bearers of alienable labor power, which can be "objectified" and alienated for a very precise value, varying from New York to Singapore, but (to my mind) undesirable everywhere. A theory that provides a full critique of the modes of production would have to offer a way for us to see both "object" statuses, and indicate how to preserve the "good" objectification, while abandoning the bad, in a truly just society--and we can't do this without understanding the "social" as "material." "Things" are not inherently good or bad in themselves--on this I certainly agree with Stallybrass-- but societies are, and a Marxist critique has got to show us how to tell the difference.

     15. Let me be specific here with an example closer to our own time. When Benjamin takes up the problem of dematerializations encouraged by newspapers (as he does in the essay on Baudelaire Stallybrass cites in his piece), he does not point to our ignorance of the composition of paper and ink, or the vagaries of wayward type, but to the ways in which the organization of newspaper pages encourages social isolation and a fragmented view of the world, such that the item about, say, the merger of two oil companies and another about unrest in the Gulf or Balkans seem to have nothing to do with each other for readers. A material point of view (in the Marxist sense) directs us to see the social level at which such seemingly disconnected fragments of news (as well as their readers and the various actors described) have everything to do with each other, and refuse to reassure our sense of distance, or our lack of complicity, which help maintain exploitative relations. "Materiality" for Marxism, is not a "thing" but a process conceivable only by abstraction, but no less "real" for that; in the best of all possible worlds, material conditions of existence would entail conscious and engaged combination of human labors with "nature" to the mutual satisfaction of collectively determined needs and goals. Given this end--and the wide deviation of current conditions from it--it still seems important to me to recognize that every day some people continue to treat other people in historically specific--and unconscionable--ways as if they were "objects." Privileging our examination of physical objects in such a context has much to reveal that is interesting and compelling, as Stallybrass's essay certainly shows, but does not, it seem to me, in itself, provide the best route to dealing with the particular Marxist project of overcoming specifically capitalist objectifications.

     16. Stallybrass's political commitments and sympathies are not in doubt--his work is largely responsible for keeping Marxist concepts and perspectives alive in early modern studies over many years; my critique concerns tactics. Arguments that rely on pious claims of being "more Marxist than thou" are troubling to me, but less so in this case because my own position is derived from reading Stallybrass's earlier work, formative for me when I was a graduate student. In earlier writing (e.g. "Shakespeare, the Individual, and the Text"), pondering the problem of the "material" led Stallybrass not so much to preoccupation with the physical contents of book production and so on, but to the vast collectivity of labors that a single-minded focus on the "author" alone belies; at least that is what he led me to think about. In such arguments, "the social" is properly identified and foregrounded as "the material," whereas in Stallybrass's more recent work, "the social" seems to have been curiously bracketed. This shift in emphasis is all the more troubling since it seems to me that there are many discourses (from the elitist to the counter-cultural) in contemporary capitalist culture that would have us slow down and appreciate the sensual qualities of things more fully: taste the peaches, smell the roses. There are not, however, so many that attempt to direct us to see and understand the material-social as Marx theorized it. This reader, thus, eagerly awaits the dialectical confrontation of Stallybrass's earlier interests with his more recent ones in his always engaging and stimulating work.

 

 

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