Date: Sun, 3 Mar 1996 22:44:28 +0900 (JST) From:

Dear Friends,

My last request, for information on the history of the concept "ideology," produced such a treasure trove that I am tempted now to ask in a similar vein for work which touches on the history of the concept "commodification." I am, of course, aware of such authors as Eagleton and Zizek, whose works on ideology I now have in hand and am working on (Thank you all very much!), so I've got some sense of the Marxist roots of the concept. I am also aware of a current business usage in which a product's becoming a commodity means that it competes in a market primarily in terms of price and has to be sold in large volumes to make a profit. (Computers are a good example, which in just a couple of decades have gone from massive custom installations to equipment you can pick up at Circuit City or order through the mail.) Still, when I read on other lists that someone is proposing an academic panel on "The commodification of language," for example,I am curious about what they are talking about and where they are coming from. In the last few days I have responded to a query on ANTHRO-L as follows and would greatly appreciate your comments on my response.

John McCreery

Brian Howell raises two interesting questions:

"1) Are the recreations of the past in supposedly authentic terms, always
to be characterized in the kind of commodification/privitization terms
used by Boudrillard?

2) Can members of the dominant culture perform the same kind of creative hybridization and resistance to their own culture which is celebrated when manifest by the subaltern classes/groups?"

My first response to (1) is "of course not." There will be as many characterizations as there are questions and theories about what these representations represent. Baudrillard is, to my mind, someone who, like Judith Williamson on advertising, has made a reputation by starting with some useful observations and exaggerating their implications to make a big noise. As someone who works in advertising, I know the technique; I resist being taken in by it. Here my resistance is stirred not only by the rhetorical form of the question but also by Brian's suggestion that Colonial Williamsburg, which he calls a "theme park" is an example of what Baudrillard is talking about. As someone who grew up a half hour's drive from Williamsburg, I fancy myself a native informant and am irritated by a combination of gross lack of subtlety and sheer misrepresentation.

Busch Gardens, 10 minutes down Highway 60 from Williamsburg is a theme park. An enclosed and completely artificial place, it contains an area called The Old Country which simulates Europe in roughly the same sense that Mickey Mouse simulates middle-class American life. The fun is in the sheer fantasy combined with amusement park-style rides. Yes, Colonial Williamsburg is also a tourist attraction, and, yes, visitors buy tickets which admit them to the main exhibits. It is, in addition, a painstaking reproduction of 18th century colonial life which continues to employ a substantial staff of archeologists and historians in on-going research designed to increase its authenticity. It is, moreover, a genuinely historic place and a living and lived-in town, the home of The College of William and Mary. A theme park it is not.

Commodification is, however, an interesting concept and one I would like to hear other's opinions about. My own understanding at the moment is based on Marx filtered (1) through Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Zizek on ideology and (2) Martyn Lee, 1993, _Consumer culture reborn: the cultural politics of consumption_, New York and London: Routledge. >From these sources I have reconstructed a view of commodification that includes the following elements:

(1) Mass production of goods by doubly alienated workers who (2) are deprived of ownership of the means of production, and (3) prevented by the nature of their jobs from realizing the creative potential innate in every human being, where (4) the goods in question are fetishized and appear to possess intrinsic value, while
(5) concealing the social relations involved in their production and
(6) having their exchange value assessed in abstract, monetized terms that
(7) appear to have universal value, but (8) through mystification distract attention from from their use value, which is something else again.

It is, I suggest, useful to unpack these several dimensions of commodification and examine them separately. Thus, for example, neither Colonial Williamsburg nor Busch Gardens is a mass-produced good; both are, in different ways, unique examples of historical reconstruction and theme park respectively. Those who worked to build and continue to work to maintain and operate them do not own the means of production. They are not, however, assembly line workers performing repetitive tasks reduced to a meaningless minimum. Both are fetishized and presented as having intrinsic value. Colonial Williamsburg, at least, makes a fetish of publicizing the people and social relations involved in its creation and on-going evolution. As I have noted, both are tourist attractions and insofar as tickets are sold both are valued in abstract, monetized terms. But Colonial Williamsburg is, in fact, where many historic events occured, and the thrills provided by the rides at Busch Garden are visceral indeed. Tourists could spend their cash on something else--their money is, in principle, a universal means of exchange. But the use values of education and patriotic pride on the one hand and mindless recreation on the other are, it seems, apparent to those who purchase them. To assert that mystification is at work one has to assume a third-party perspective from which it is claimed that something else, something false, is going on, about which only that perspective reveals the truth. But where, dear children of the post-modern world, is the absolute frame of reference within which such a claim is tenable?

Seriously, I'd like someone to come up with some answers, or even a decently provocative flame.

John McCreery
March 2, 1996

P.S. the answer to question (2) is left as an exercise for the reader.

Date: Mon, 4 Mar 1996 15:06:37 -0600 (CST) From: heikki emil lempa <>

To the literature on commodification:

As far as I know the topic recurs to Walter Benjamin's works on Paris, especially on Baudelaire. It was re-invented by the so-called school of "Kapitallogik" in West-Germany in the early 1970s. Wolfgang Fritz Haug's Konsum und Werbung is a sort of semi-classic in the field. It has been translated into English a couple of years ago.

Heikki Lempa, University of Chicago

Date: Wed, 06 Mar 1996 01:05:49 EST
From: Charley Shively, (617) 287-5727, 661-7534 <>

Who first used the term "commodifiction" in English? in French? in German? in Spanish? in Italian? etc. c

Date: Wed, 06 Mar 1996 15:31:29 CST
From: Hughie Lawson, Murray State <A06432F@MSUMUSIK.MURSUKY.EDU>

Did anybody mention Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, in connection with the commodification theme? I can't recall whether his (excruciatingly difficult) book uses this term, but his idea of reification seems closely related.

Hughie Lawson, Murray State

Date: Wed, 13 Mar 1996 23:30:11 +9:00
From: Chris Hill <>

As Hughie Lawson suggested, Lukacs is essential to work on commodification coming out of the marxist tradition. The essay to read is "Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat," especially the first section, "The Phenomenon of Reification," in _History and Class Consciousness_ (MIT Press). Lukacs' arguments in this essay are basic to the work of Benjamin and Adorno, Kracauer, and others associated with the Frankfurt school. The Benjamin essays to look at would be "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century," "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," and the well-worn "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," all in either _Illuminations_ or _Reflections_. The classic statement by Adorno and Horkheimer is the chapter "The Culture Industry" in _Dialectic of Enlightenment_. Kracauer's "The Mass Ornament" in _Critical Theory and Society_, an FK school anthology, also is useful and has the advantage of being short and entertaining.

Chris Hill


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