The Value of Culture and the Disavowal of Things
(draft version)

Peter Stallybrass


Rembrandt
"Self-Portrait"

 

 

1. The "Priceless" and the "Valueless"

     1. The need to distinguish clearly financial value from other kinds of value seems to have taken on a pressing semantic urgency from the fifteenth century onwards. This is marked by a peculiar act of linguistic differentiation in English. "Price," from the Latin pretium, used to mean "price, value, wages," but also "reward," and also "honour, praise." "Pris"/"preis" splits during the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries into three differentiated words: "price," "praise," "prize." The first recorded spelling of "prize" in the OED is from The Merchant of Venice (3. 2. 142): "Like one of two contending in a prize/ That thinks he has done well in peoples eyes"). "Priceless" is also first recorded in Shakespeare. But now we confront a paradox. For something to be "priceless" it must be worth more than any possible financial value. "Valueless" has the same semantic form as "priceless": both mean, literally, to be without price, to be without value. But whereas the "priceless" is raised above economic valuation, the "valueless" sinks below it. "Valueless" is also first recorded in Shakespeare in the last decade of the sixteenth century, where its sense, in opposition to "priceless" is "destitute of value, having no value" (King John (3. 1. 101) "You Haue beguil'd me with a counterfeit/ Resembling Maiesty, which being touch'd and tride,/ Proues valuelesse.")

     2. The period when, as Bill Pietz has brilliantly shown, the concept of the "fetish" is formed is also the period when cultural valuation begins to be separated out from economic calculation. What is the need to construct a value that has no value, a price that has no price, and to assign the priceless to a transcendental heaven and the valueless to a material hell?

2. Value and Things

     3. We all know that we should not treat people like things. But what we "all know" is historically specific and, indeed, bizarre. We should not need Althusser to tell us that to be a "subject" is to be thrown under. What does it mean to be a monarch or an aristocrat, if not to be powerfully objectified? Robert Devereux is transformed by the act of objectification that names him Earl of Essex. The power of those lands transforms him from a mere subject into a form of objectified power. In the same way, one might call the King of France "France" or the Queen of England "England." Power here does not come from being a subject but from the value of the objects (land, in these cases) that accrue to the subject. Take the value of those objects away and what is left? Deprived of his lands, Richard II is deprived also of all that makes him him:

                    I have no name, no title;
No, not that name was given me at the font,
But 'tis usurp'd. Alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out,
And know not now what name to call myself! (4. 1. 255-59)

The power of the name comes from the power of the objectification. Take away King Lear's retainers, and he is merely "Lear," no longer the "we" of royal objectification but the "I" of the private -- that is, deprived -- subject.

     4. Now that is a distinctively non-capitalist way of thinking about the relations between person and thing: the person as the bearer of power that comes from things. So my first point is that we are normally absolutely wrong about the pre-history of capitalism. it is not we who have resolutely wanted to put a value on objects. On the contrary, we are squeamish about that process everywhere outside the area we have defined as "the economic." Our squeamishness is indeed inscribed in our attempts to separate economics from cultural valuation, persons from things, subjects from objects, the "priceless" (us) from the "valueless" (all the rest of what we imagine as the detachable world).

3. Christianity and "Value"

     5. My claim, then, is that feudalism, in however mystified a form, unashamedly celebrated the economics of culture. Value seemed to wear itself on its face. This is at the furthest remove, of course, from any labor theory of value. On the contrary, as Joan Thirsk observes, until after the full-scale development of capitalism, the goods most valued were those whose "raw materials were recognized as having substantial value"; goods "whose value lay principally in the value conferred upon them," she notes, tended to be despised. Gold and silk and scarlet dye were valuable because (suppressing the labor that conferred their value) they were seen as valuable in themselves. But if the problem of value remained a problem, the function of valuable things in the construction of a person were fully articulated.

     6. Bolingbroke becomes Lancaster in the form of vast estates, in the form of the stained glass windows of his house which bear his coat of arms, in the retainers who make up his train and hence his social body. Value is unashamedly materialized.

     7. But these materializations had to confront a contradictory system of valuation: Christianity. Christianity was, of course, throughout Europe a state religion. But it began as Nietzsche perceptively noted, as a slave religion. And its valuations were bizarre from the perspective of aristocratic materializations. For Christianity, whatever it did in the real, praised poverty. And it practiced a metaphorics of the valueless, of social and material "waste." Indeed, it narrated a series of outrageous transvaluations of value. In Christianity, power took the form of a speechless child, of uncertain parentage, who was homeless. That absolute lack of objectifying power is comically materialized through his birth: not even in a bed in an inn, but in a manger in a stable. The word "manger" has taken on all sorts of transcendental implications, but it is simply a feeding trough into which hay is put for cattle. Several medieval ivories and paintings daringly insist upon the implications of Christ's being born in a manger -- they show an ox and an ass holding Christ in their mouths as if they were about to eat him. Why should we be surprised at this? For Christianity's claim is that god was born to become bread (i.e. the wheat that the cattle eat in the form of hay) and to be eaten (in the from of the host), while the bread is, at the same time, god.

     8. The metaphorics of Christianity concern the value of the valueless (unnourishing quantities of bread and wine). And Christianity immediately materialized this valuelessness through its scriptures, written down in codices to distinguish them from the more prestigious Jewish and pagan forms of scrolls. When the codex (the form of the modern book) emerged in the second century C.E., it was immediately seized on by Christians as the material support for their religion. But in so far as the codex already existed as a pagan and Jewish form, it was as a low prestige notebook, associated in visual depictions with women and slaves rather than with citizens. God as flesh and god as word, then, inhabited the waste parts of the material world, fragments of bread, the "mere" notebooks of the codex. As a religion, and even more as a state religion, Christianity would transvalue those waste parts: the comb of Mary Magdalene, the fingernails of St. Sebastian, the girdle of the Virgin Mary, fragments of the cross, the bloody and lice-infested hair shirt of Thomas Beckett.

     9. But as a state religion, Christianity developed its own powerful economics, not only through the modernizing work regimes of the monasteries but also through the cult of relics. That is, around a priceless/valueless fingernail a reliquary of gold and precious stones would be made; around the reliquary, a cathedral would be built; around the cathedral, an urban economy would develop; around that economy, new road systems would emerge that would pull large numbers of people and large amounts of money and goods along the pilgrimage routes of Europe. The priceless/valueless fingernail, provided it was not stolen or proved a forgery (and even if it was), produced economic value.

     10. So the Christian imperium took upon itself the mantle of the Roman imperium. If Carolingian scriptures were in the "low" form of codices, they were, at their most elaborate, imperial because the parchment had been dyed purple and the ink was of gold or silver. The purple dye itself materialized the translatio imperii. Christ, depicted in purple robes, assumed the mantle of the Roman emperor. And that purple, made by a staggeringly costly process from mollusks, had traditionally been an imperial monopoly -- both reflecting and causing a literal connection between the emperor's body and purple dye. So that if you wanted to propose your own candidate for emperor, you had first to find a source of purple dye to make a mantle for him. For only in purple robes could he become a serious candidate. Christianity, in other words, while preserving its radical potential as a transvaluation of value became also, and with more or less apology, a self-consciously economic cultural system, its priceless/valueless relics were the motors of trade and exchange, its waste objects were preserved and staged in boxes and statues and buildings of great cost.

4. An Economic Story

     11. And yet there's something wrong with what I've just said. Indeed, my own account is a profoundly Protestant one, imbued as it is with the sense that I have shown the unwitting economic underbelly of belief. This is itself half-witted. Christianity never needed to be revealed as an economic story; it always-already was one. Here is the economic story:

     12. A man and a woman steal from their landlord. He discovers their theft, and so, until they can make restitution, they are in his debt. (They were, in fact, in his debt before, since they were living on his land without paying rent.) So they are set to work to pay him back. But however hard they work, they can never make enough to repay what they stole.

     13. Eventually, a benefactor intervenes. He takes over the couple's debt and "pays the price." (Note how we can still threateningly say, "you're going to pay for that). Well, he pays for the debt; he pays with his own body, as Antonio offers to do in The Merchant of Venice. In fact, so valuable is this man's body that he more than pays the debt, setting up a bank account that others can use to pay off their debts.

     14. This is just as well as it wasn't only the original couple who were in debt. Their children have also borrowed and stolen from their landlord, so the debt has been compounded. But now they can use their benefactor's account to pay off their landlord.

     15. The benefactor had a follower who set up a financial institution. This institution keeps the records of profits and losses. Some of its clients have paid in more than they owed. They are called saints (and here I am drawing upon John Parker's stunning work in "Justifying Exchange: The Christian Economy, 1495-1674"). The saints have established an account made up of their own corpses, known technically as pignora, which means security deposits. One can buy into this account, and use the saints' profits to pay off one's own debts. The only financial peculiarity is that the landlord never seems to collect his debts, so the money continues to reside in the bank that his follower, Peter, set up. This leads to a lot of trouble, as some people begin to claim that the bank is actually embezzling the money rather than investing it for the landlord. Indeed, some go so far as to say that there's no need for the bank at all and one should pay the landlord directly. But that's a whole other story.

     16. What's the point of this story, brief and vulgar as I have made it? If this narrative now looks like a travesty of Christianity, it is in part because we, Christians or not, are profoundly shaped by the Protestant attempt to drive the economics out of belief. This meant, as John Parker brilliantly shows, the separating out of what is brought together in the Latin credere (to believe, to trust, to put credit in). From this Protestant perspective, it is shocking that beliefs and creeds should be the same as an economic credit system. Creeds and credit must hence be placed in radically different realms: the economic and the religio-cultural. The trace of this demonizing of Christian economics can be seen, as John Parker demonstrates, in that central text of the Church of England, the Lord's Prayer. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us." So Cranmer has it, in his 1549 Book of Common Prayer, following Tyndale's translation of the words as they appear in the gospel of St. Matthew. But this is a bizarre translation of the Greek opheilemata or the Latin debita. This is correctly translated in all the other early translations as "forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors." "Trespasses" will win out, because one no longer wants to find economics at the very heart of Christianity. What is the result of this undoing of the spiritual economics of Christianity in the attempt to purify the spiritual from the economic? The separation establishes a hermeneutics of suspicion which will undermine Christianity itself. Christianity's critics from the Enlightenment on will find that in the supposedly pure place of the spiritual there lurks the discreditable truth of the economic. It's as if they discover, as a dirty secret, what Augustine and the New Testament openly proclaim: the economics of belief.

5. Painting, Writing, and Dematerialization

     17. With capitalism, though, the spiritual and the economic go in antithetical directions. Capitalism, that is, both draws upon the metaphorics of Christianity and is antithetical to those metaphorics. For the spirit of the commodity, as Marx, so cogently argued, is "supra-sensible"; in so far as an object becomes a commodity, "all its sensuous characteristics are extinguished." So let me turn to two objects that, with capitalism, become increasingly spiritual, even, one might say, invisible: paintings and books.

     18. In what sense are the easel paintings that develop in the Renaissance invisible? The first point is a crude one of expense. The value of medieval paintings was directly related to the price of the materials out of which they were made, and above all to the money spent on gold leaf and on lapis lazuli and on the material supports. Spiritual worth was defined unabashedly in the economic value of the paints. The Virgin will be depicted in the most costly lapis lazuli and the lesser saints and commoners will be depicted in correspondingly cheaper blues. But Renaissance easel painting steadily discards the material cost of the object. Using canvas instead of wood, cheaper paints instead of gold leaf and lapis lazuli, its value is no longer be worn on its surface. But the emergence of a value that lies outside the painting's materiality is a surprisingly lengthy process. In comparative terms, indeed, what came to define most easel painting was that it was cheap.

     19. This goes against all our presuppositions. But our presuppositions are simply wrong, except in an extremely small number of cases. That is, even an expensive artist like Van Dyck was cheap, not by the standards of a laborer of course, but by the standards of what an aristocrat or a gentlewoman might spend their money on. A full length portrait by Van Dyck cost £50. The clothes that he depicted might cost £400 or £1,200 and the jewels much more. A tapestry made from a painting (as happened to Raphael and Titian and Rubens) cost far more than the painting (thousands of pounds when a series was made with gold thread). In fact, a Van Dyck cost less than a Hilliard miniature, the latter requiring not only very expensive pigments but also a "frame" (that is, a case) that often cost more than the painting itself. The value of the Hilliard, in other words, parades itself as a material value (as had medieval reliquaries), since Hilliard was trying to keep alive the ancient skills of the goldsmith. Van Dyck, on the contrary, was trying to develop a value that lay not in the physical materials but in the imagined presence of the artist.

     20. The development of an art market for connoisseurs in the early seventeenth century produced a transformation of the "value" of art, which less and less was materialized in the paint and the frame. The value of a Rembrandt resided in the invisible presence of Rembrandt himself. Take that invisible presence away and, as the Rembrandt Research Project has demonstrated over the last few years, no one knows what the value of a "Rembrandt" is. To put it another way, there is nothing in the painting itself that gives it its value; that value comes instead from a hypothetical narrative that lies behind the painting: the narrative of the master at work.

     21. In the case of painting, the dematerializing of the object was partially compensated for by the materialization of the painter's hands. That is, where expensive materials had previously conferred value, now the hand of the master did, a hand that could be materially traced by the connoiseur in the specific brush strokes on the canvas. These brush strokes were the pineal gland connecting the spiritual genius of the cultural producer to the material artifact. But how could one relate the value of the mechanically printed book to the hand of an author, a hand manifest only in its absence (note the attempt to undo this split with presentation manuscripts)?

     22. The value of a book was less and less likely to be found in the material surface of parchment or vellum, or in the added marginalia that made the book useable; rather, it lay behind the book, in the imagined workings of the author's mind. The book itself became waste matter. Not the waste matter of a saint's body parts, which precisely in their fragmentation entered into cultural visibility and value. One learns now to read through a book, no longer conscious of its material surface. What is a "page-turner" if not an invisible book that turns its own pages? The book becomes the immaterial support where the mind of the reader communes with the mind of the author. And the author becomes a transcendental value who has no place in the material world. In this cultural regime, Byron will insist that he never be painted with books or pens around him. For inspiration is immaterial.

     23. One might say that the printed book had already invented the mystery of the value of paper money.

6. Fetishism and Dematerialization

     24. As Bill Pietz has argued, the concept of the fetish is a concept developed on the boundaries of capitalism. With the development of capitalism, it comes increasingly to point to demonized forms of materialization. A fetish is an external organ of the body, but the emergent regime of the individual will deny that the body can have external organs. To be dependent upon "mere things" is to invalidate the individual's supposed autonomy. The theory of the fetish, then, produces by back-formation the subject of modernity: an individual who, freed from fetishism, is freed from materialization. Writing detaches itself from the material supports of papyrus, parchment, rag-paper, wood-pulp; painting detaches itself from the material supports of walls, panels, canvas, paint. And finally, the theory of the fetish can turn back against the fetish itself, and find immateriality inscribed even there.

     25. For what is it that Freud discovers in the fetish? Not a shoe, but a system of displacement. Freud, in this at least, is the true heir of Protestantism. The fetish cannot be a real presence; rather, it symbolizes an absence. The culture of capital feels the greatest embarrassment before materiality itself, for it reduces the subject to silence. One enters speech, in this new regime, through the disavowal of the materiality of the object. In front of a shoe, Freud finds meaning; in front of a painting of tulips, an art critic finds a memento mori. The gaze of this subject is, as Walter Benjamin wrote, melancholic:

If the object becomes allegorical under the gaze of melancholy, if melancholy causes life to flow out of it and it remains dead, but eternally secure, then it is exposed to the allegorist, it is unconditionally in his power. That is to say it is now quite incapable of emanating any meaning or significance of its own; such significance as it has, it acquires from the allegorist. He places it within it, and stands behind it." (Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: New Left Books, 1977), pp. 183-4)

Against this melancholy gaze, the demonized fetish asks us, as Adorno puts it, "to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption" (Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: New Left Books, 1974), p. 247). As Benjamin writes, "to perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return" (Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," pp. 157-202, p. 190).

 

 

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