“Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products” (Marx describing commodity Fetishism in Capital p,73).


The other day my roommate and I were discussing Isabelle Dinoire, the French woman who received the world’s first face transplant.  While he was relatively sanguine about the whole événement, I was pretty certain this case had carried society straight into an ETA Hoffman-esque age. Is it not strange that the human face has been reduced, at least in this one case, to a mere scientific achievement of the day. I’ll be interested to hear what we will say when nanobots are rearranging atoms to create humans ex nihilo. If not this, then what would it take to set us to thinking about what it means to be human?


I am attempting to circle in on what Marx is concerned with in his labor theory of value. Marx, above all else is interested in this question of what it means to be human, and ultimately, what separates humans from the very objects with which humans surround themselves. His answer to this seems arbitrary, unfulfilling and overly victorian; labor. But things are far more philosophical than political here. When we note that for Marx social life has its basis in the mode of material life, this comes to make some degree of sense. That is, if we recognize our possibilities for action and even our very modes of thought, vis-à-vis the materialility of our existence (e.g. think for a moment about how the invention of the computer technology has redefined our conception of the human mind), it should make sense that our labor (the very construction of these possibilities for being human) might, from at least a certain analytic perspective, be seen as the absolute determining factor in the present and future of ‘humanity’ qua concept.


Before looking into Labor directly, Marx feels he must first show where humanity was, and continues to be, derailed from the truth of its existence in Labor. The point of departure is the now so deep-rooted fetishistic worldview that permits us to not be astounded by cases such as that of Madam Dinoire. This begs the question: if we get rid of the fetishism, what remains? Marx is not interested in Platonic forms, nor with timeless essences, and he had distanced himself enough from Hegel to avoid at least the kind of teleological traps governed by abstract reason. Given this, when Marx goes on about mystical clouds, masks, hieroglyphs, and the like hiding the true nature of things, what exactly, if not a human ‘essence’, does he think lies behind the clouds, and masks, and what meaning lies within the hieroglyphs?


Again, that answer is ‘labor,’ or rather, the construction of human material existence through which, and by means of which, humans realize their humanity. Exploitation fits into this as follows: Marx is interested not in ‘exploitation’ in the way that you and I are familiar with the term in its everyday usage (though such usage does fall within it).  Rather, he wants to cook up a simple technical term. For him, exploitation is any exchange of labor in which the labor power (i.e. the labour time socially necessary for its production (Godelier 162) is unequal. That’s it. 


The importance of this is quick to follow. First, however, at this moment in the analysis, one should be sure to realize that ‘exploitation’ has not yet been defined as a bad thing. ‘exploitation’ should be viewed here in terms of the second-order analysis Malinowski calls ‘sociological description’ (Malinowski 100) which he distinguishes from ‘ethnographic distinction’ by treating the former more or less as etic and the latter as an emic concern.  (I will return to this below).  For Marx’s part, he accepts exploitation as a fact of exchange-value. What troubles him is when this disequilibrium slowly develops, as his analysis shows it in fact did, into an unquestioned, unexplored, and seemingly unproblematic status quo which, rather than simply characterizing power relations between individuals, came to take the form of class relations between groups. This is where Marx’s analysis of exploitation moves from a sociological description to an ethnographic one, in which society at large becomes the ethnographic subject.


At this point I’d like to indulge in a slight tangent in order to fill out this understanding of Marx’s analytics as being alternately sociologically, and morally, critical. Malinowski’s distinction between sociological and ethnographic description serves our purposes well. After describing the many ‘preliminary activities’ such as ‘the building of canoes, preparation of the outfit, the provisioning of the expedition, the fixing of dates’ as ‘subsidiary to the Kula’ he implicitly invites his reader to wonder if we might instead see the Kula as convenient pretext to perform all of these socializing activities. Malinowski promptly reassures us that such a reversal is precisely the sociological move,  a move which he most expressly does not want to make:


“Here, however, I am not dealing in sociological, but in pure ethnographical description, and any sociological analysis I have given is only what has been absolutely indispensable to clear away misconceptions and to define terms” (100).


Certainly Malinowski’s comment on sociological description is intended less as a dismissal than as an exposition of the number of analytic modes within which he chooses to work—He applies both with equal frequency throughout his text.  These two views are not reducible to one another. For Malinowski, unlike with functionalists after him, personal motivations (ethnographic details) are not necessarily subsumed under functionalism even if they can be adequately explained in terms of functionalism.  At some points the two views run parallel, at other points they inhabit distinct and incommensurable spaces. In the functionalist worldview,  Malinowski’s hypothetical “is magic from the economic point of view a waste of time?” (116) is a valid question and can be answered in terms of how it helps or hinders a particular task.  The ethnographic view does not allow any room for this kind of question to even be posed.  In this view, magic itself is what leads to success—not the indirect sociological implications of magic!  The ethnographic-level logic works just fine for the Trobrianders and as Malinowski shows, “they have know knowledge of the total outline of any of their social structure” (83) yet they “know their own motives, know the purpose of individual actions and the rules which apply to them” (ibid).  Malinowski was perhaps a little too intent on showing the heroism of the ethnographer over the profundity of this insight in these pages, yet the point is clear. These two logics have no need for each other, yet the anthropologist has a responsibility to both of them. 


Marx, by placing our illusory state outside of consciousness in reality rather than in the human mind, draws up a similar conundrum of two logics.  If our failure to understand the reality of our condition as humans lies in the fact not that we are thinking wrongly but rather that we are thinking through the wrong objects (material conditions), then our problem becomes a sociological one and must be approached differently than we would approach an ethnographic (in Malinowski’s terms) problem. Godelier reaffirms this reading when he demands that the fetishism of commodities be understood as functioning outside of consciousness (170) (which is to say, in that analytic realm that understands our consciousness to be just fine while reality reflects itself in a perverted fashion). If this is indeed the case, and if fetishism is a sociological problem rather than (and perhaps regardless of whether it is) an ethnographic one, the question demanded of us is how we can conceive of fetishim as its appropriate object without involuntarily drawing on examples which stress personal, psychological (and thus on the level of ethnographic description), modes of fetishism.


ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture