I’ve got a little girl who’s seven, and she lives in a world that’s all potentially magic. Within her imagination, the possibility of supernatural things sits alongside school and real things. There’s no distinction. At the same time she’s kind of assaulted by magic. What she watches on TV, the magic there is some kind of code for consumerism at its most insidious. They deliberately confuse children’s appetites by mixing magic and stuff up. I sit with her and watch all of this, some of it I really like but some of it is evil. It’s how you approach magic.
There’s that classic line by [Arthur C. Clarke] who says, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. And Marx talks about how the commodity has these almost magical properties. We’re in awe of them because they appear to us as supernatural. It’s like this black box idea: you can’t access the thing, it’s just this mysterious slab. Kids are fascinated by them not just because you’re using them but because they look like amulets or something. They look magical.
We no longer recognise brands and commodities as socially constructed, so we want to oversimplify and assign agency to them – agency that is really much more chaotically distributed, structurally prescribed, and historically driven. We tend to say, for instance, that the Walkman changed how we listen to music, rather than saying that home electronics companies changed how we listen to music, or the desire for portable listening devices changed how we listen to music, or an influx of inexpensive Japanese consumer goods into the malls of America changed how we listen to music – all of which are also true.
This interests me because Diduck is approaching a problem with considerable similarities to one of my own long-standing bugbears, namely the absence of a language, or more accurately a narratology, that can successfully portray networked causalities.
It’s recently become apparent to me that, in some respects at least, this is one of the things that Marx was trying to deal with in Capital: the dialectical method is an attempt to describe a highly complex and emergent system in a way that shows that everyone involved is equally complicit in it. Certainly Marx took the side of the worker, and I do as well, but the point is that no one — capitalists or otherwise — sat down and designed capitalism to work the way it does; rather, it has a terrifying bootstrapped autopoiesis all its own.
In my own work, this manifests primarily in what I call the self-effacement of the metasystem: the way in which infrastructure has steadily made its own seeming magicality an intrinsic part of its appeal. Back to Diduck for a bit:
[…] attributing these kinds of immense cultural movements to the purview of products rather than their vast social and industrial dimensions, ascribing them near-mystical abilities to affect real-world changes of enormous magnitude, is the very definition of commodity fetishism. This misidentification of power has disastrous consequences: the subject’s alienation; the transference of fear and desire to things rather than people; and ultimately, the determinist air of it all. As Robin James wrote, “When building capacity and the pleasure in doing so is experienced neither for its own sake nor our own sakes but for the sake of generating profits for the wealthy, the pleasure we feel in resiliently overcoming our prior limitations merely masks our subjection.”
The self-effacement of infrastructure is the expression of the commodity fetish after having metastasised into systems of distribution and provision. The misidentification of power in this case is the assumption that it is the infrastructural system (or, more often, the devices that we connect to it) that provides us with the functions fulfilled by clean water, electricity, etc etc. In fact, it is the world (or what we erroneously refer to as “nature”) which provides these capacities, but that provision has been so successfully mediated — along with our experience of the world, of which that world’s repackaging as “nature” is a crucial and inevitable element — that we think of it as little more than a warehouse through which the essentials of our existence are prepared and dispatched by some unacknowledged but nonetheless vaguely perceived authority.
I’ll probably make a lot of Marxians vary annoyed by saying so, but the problem with Marx’s analysis of capital is that it tends to be read as if capital is the villain of the piece. This isn’t entirely Marx’s fault; he certainly ascribes capital a great deal of agency in the system he describes, and even personifies it a fair amount — in a manner which is very influential on science fiction, as it happens; he was big on the concretised metaphor, which he blagged from the Gothic literature of his own time — but he never makes a moustache-twirling villain of it. Rather, we do that ourselves, because we are trained to a narratology in which villains and heroes stubbornly remain the standard model of linear causality.
Which, you might think, is a long wander away from soft drinks sponsorship in the music industry… though it turns out to be less so than I expected. Diduck talks in his piece about the rise of water scarcity, and the epidemic of addiction to refined sugars, in which the companies which make commodities like R*d B*ll and C*ca-C*la are very much complicit. Of course, they didn’t design capitalism to work the way it does. But they continue to take maximal advantage of the commodity fetish and the self-effacement of systems of provision in order to meet the goal of increasing shareholder value — an autopoiesis of the organism which echoes the autopoiesis of its systemic environment. They’re merely responding to the incentives that surround them.
Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not merely to describe the world, but to change it. My worry is that we can never describe it completely enough that our best-intentions attempts to change it won’t have catastrophic unforeseen consequences.
To be clear, though, that ain’t gonna stop me from trying.