Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Be a Footnote!

Limited, Inc. needs our help. Secure your place as a footnote in intellectual history, by giving generously to help Roger pay his bills. Just follow the convenient PayPal link at the bottom of the page on Limited, Inc. and be a footnote now!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Digital Fetishism

Rough Theory has continued the thread on Marx and digital commodities with a response to my previous post and writes:

I agree with the main point here - I see nothing in digital commodities that is different in terms of the role they play within capitalist reproduction to other sorts of commodities (this doesn’t of course mean that new technologies can’t introduce novel potentials for the development of new forms of subjectivity, embodied relationships, etc., but it does mean that there is nothing intrinsically non-capitalist about the new technologies). I tend, though, to describe Marx’s strategic intention slightly differently (and this may just be a matter of phrasing and emphasis). The emphasis in the passage above seems to be on the fetish as something that hides or obscures - and therefore as something Marx’s critique is trying to strip away, in order to reveal the underlying reality beneath - in this case, the reality that, in spite of the growth of technological potentials, human labour remains central.

I tend - and this difference is somewhat slight, but has some important implications - instead to present Marx’s argument about the fetish as part of an attempt to pose the question of why human labour should remain important, given the hypertrophic development of new technologies and the increases in productivity that are structural tendencies within capitalist development. Rather than simply trying to reveal the centrality of labour, Marx is, I think, trying to foreground precisely how irrational it is that human labour should remain central - trying to nudge us in the direction of realising that there is no material reason for this centrality - that material production could quite comfortably shift to something ever-more technologically mediated, and ever-less dependent on the expenditure of human labour. So: yes, on one level he is drawing attention to the human labour that continues to be required - but with the strategic intent of suggesting that this requirement is essentially bizarre - that it is “social”, that it is arbitrary - and, therefore, that it can be transformed without a regression back to premodern levels of material wealth.

I'm also never very satisfied with pitching the fetishism riff as one of concealment, although that strand is certainly present in Marx. Here's yet another way to shift that emphasis that may be more compatible with the point being pursued above by Rough Theory.

Under capitalism, value takes the form of a single, homogenous, social substance: labor. It is quite literally the only thing that capital can value. Capital lives on a monotonous diet of dead labor unlevened by any other supplemental concerns or desires. And for capital more is always better, so the more dead labor capital can accumulate in the form of either commodities or money the better for capital. However, it is only within capitalism that value takes on such a limited form.

We can imagine a splendid array of things to value: beauty, social justice, clean air, happy children, dance music, baseball, rowdy sex, tasty food, great literature, good booze. For capital, these are only every use-values that become interesting only in so far as they may also be bearers of value. Baseball and booze have been successfully shaped into commodities that have value for capital -- clean air and social justice ... not so much. For Marx, the end of capital would also mean the end of labor as the sole value that trumps all other values.

Marx is certainly a fan of technology as something which sets the stage for capital's end through creating the ability to meet our material needs with ever less necessary labor. This could certainly include digital technologies which currently produce such an embarrassing abundance of music and videos that capital has to try to recreate scarcity through legal and electronic counter-measures. However, this is where our current difficulty lies. Simply because we find many things to value online other than the efficiency of labor, this doesn't mean that capital shares our enthusiasms.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

mmmm... Marx!

Rough Theory has a tasty recent post on Marx, technology, and the labor theory of value. The post begins:

I’ve read several works recently that argue that Marx’s labour theory of value, while appropriate for the period in which it was written, now needs to be updated to account for the role of technology in the production of wealth. I have no problem with the general notion that, in significant respects, Marx’s argument remains bound to the 19th century, but I can’t help but find this particular notion of what is outdated in Marx’s argument somewhat odd.
I share this sense of oddity and I'm often disturbed when I see discussions of the internet and of digital commodity production used as examples of a new mode of production that exceeds the bounds of the labor theory of value described by Marx. I touched on this recently in the exchange on The Labor Theory of Blogging arguing that blogging could be viewed as another form of unwaged labor, like housework or schoolwork, and so still functions as labor for capital.

Marx devotes the longest chapter in Capital, Volume I to the topic of "Machinery" precisely in order to explain capitalism's enthusiasm for large-scale mechanization in terms other than the highly suspect utopian notions of labor-saving devices being used to free workers from the need to toil. For Marx, machinery as used by capital is one of its most ingenious and devious strategies for extracting ever greater quantities of surplus-labor from workers. Digital machines are no different. Capital loves computers because they make workers more productive, cheapening commodities in general, and cheapening the commodity of labor-power in particular. Thus, allowing workers to donate an ever greater share of their labor time to capital for free.

That work resulting in the production of digital commodities strikes us as so different from work that produces other sorts of commodities is perhaps simply the latest version of the ability of the commodity form to dazzle us that Marx describes as the "fetishism of commodities."
A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.
Digital commodities seem even more clever than wooden tables, and evolve out of their computerized brains ideas yet more grotesque. They seem to take on a life of their own -- they move, grow, replicate, spawn, and evolve -- and so hide and obscure the human labor they embody.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Parents Strongly Cautioned

By way of Professor Zero. Note to self: must strive to use saltier language in the future. "Dead," "hell," and "bastard" were the worst this gizmo could find in my blog.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Fire Blogging

July wasn't a very productive month for blogging for the LumpenProf. My attention hasn't been online -- which isn't really a terrible thing. But I've started to miss my online exchanges, so it's time to start back again. August will be a much better month to blog, I think, if for no other reason than that I'll need the distraction from all the other reading and writing I ought to be doing to get ready for the school year.

This afternoon I'm burning a pile of lumber scraps in the front yard. Somehow, blogging on the front porch swing while drinking a beer and listening to the amazingly loud pops and cracks of some of the venerable, but sadly useless and rotting, American Chestnut boards on the bonfire seems like the thing to do.

I haven't really posted since I got tagged by the Combat Philosopher for the 8 things meme. Like the CP, I'm also somewhat ambivalent about these memes, since they seem to be the blog equivalent of chain letters. But since they are mostly harmless and innocuous chain letters, I'll play along. With one proviso. I hereby proclaim that I will accept any and all resulting bad karma for any of the folks I tag who do not wish to play. So, without further ado, here are eight lumpenfacts about the LumpenProf:

  1. I'm currently learning to play clawhammer banjo. It's strangely relaxing. Plus, I have a beautiful old Luscomb banjo from the 1890's that's nice to hold and plunk on.
  2. Another musical factoid, in college I once played guitar with a blues band that played in the bar where the bloody final shootout would be filmed for Robert Rodriguez' Desperado. As I recall, we set up right about where Antonio Banderas leaves the pile of dead bodies.
  3. I once shook hands with the father of the voice of Alvin the Chipmunk.
  4. I went to grad school with Mr. Limited, Inc. who is still the smartest man I know.
  5. I habitually read Catch-22. I don't know why.
  6. Sometimes, when I'm feeling happy, I brew beer. It's pretty good beer too.
  7. Wherever I am, but especially when I'm traveling, strangers stop me on the street to ask me directions. I used to think this happened to everyone. But evidently not. I must look either exceptionally knowledgeable, or exceptionally harmless. Or both.
  8. I can handle a snake whip.
Now I will pass on this dubious honor to the following eight bloggers: Limited, Inc., What in the hell, Wildly Parenthetical, Professor Zero, Genderquake, notes of a neophyte, I think and it is so, and Academic Cog. You are all cordially invited to post eight things about yourselves on your blogs and then tag eight more poor unsuspecting bloggers out there.