The Two Secrets of the Fetish

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Commodity fetishism: Marxs formula has been imprinted on the largest and most resistant of cultural memories. It has become almost anonymous, or rather synonymous with Marxs very name, as is the case with certain coined terms (cogito, categorical imperative . . .). This privilege could only be due to a very particular virtue. Such a virtue is that which not only consists in characterizing, in the strict sense of the word (to typify a property or an essence), but even in characterizing in such a way that the character (the stamp, the seal) is somehow inscribed on the thing itself and can no longer be detached from it, or at least without some loss in the substance of the thing. In Kantian terms: the intuition presented under the word fetishism is printed or traced indelibly onto the concept of commodity, giving rise to a schema commodity, from which a new image, and thus a new idea, ensues. Not just the commodity as the fetishas if this were one of its traits or one approach among othersbut rather the essence of the commodity revealed as fetish, so that the fetish character would remain once the approach was shifted or the secret of its mystical character was revealed. (As we know, these are all Marxs own terms.) As is also known, the secret consists in that the commodity value (or exchange value) of the object (or product), which seems to be its intrinsic or immanent property (parallel in this way to its use value, which is extrinsic and completely relative to its utilization in a given sociotechnical context) only covers, masks or represses the origin of its pure or absolute valuethis last value being nothing other than the living human labor of the producer, which the act of production incorporates into the product. But the commodity value deflects this incorporated creative life toward equivalence within an exchange, where the producer (the worker) finds himself surreptitiously stripped of the part of the value that the mercantile calculation does not exchange for the maintenance of its labor force, but rather sets to the account of capital.

* * * Here we are not concerned with addressing the problems associated with the evaluation or the appreciation of living work as it is related to the intensification or the very creation of value (the surplus-value), nor with respect to the extortion suffered by the creator of value (the valuable and value-making man, the living man as maker, as giver of prices in an absolute fashion) to the benefit of the one who accumulates value in the form of general equivalence, creating mercantile prices through a common currency. Currency is the fetish, where fetishism is fixed: belief in the value of the market price itself. The critique of political economythat is, the critique of the economy as politicsreveals the inanity of this belief, and if this critique cannot measure the hidden and mysticized or mystified value in monetary terms, the principle of this critique re-

diacritics / summer 2001

diacritics 31.2: 38


mains no less, but even more so, the incommensurability of the value creator and the marketed product. Alienation is not measurable. It is at the same time the principle of the critique and its impasse from the moment that we would like to, and indeed that we should, oppose one measure to another: the critical measure of the fetish against the mercantile measure through the fetish. In contrast, what we would like to sketch out here would have the following hypothesis as a point of departure: does not the strength of Marxs formula derive from a power other than that of the only critique thus broached? Is there not another energy, and another enigma, slipped into the first, adding itself to the revelation of the secret, even exceeding this revelation and perhaps in this fashion displacing just a bit the secret itself (precisely because it is not measurable)? This other power would derive from fetishism itself. That is to say that when we first consider it as an image it could very well play another role, going almost so far as to invert the distribution proposed above regarding the Kantian indexes of intuition and of concept. In other terms, perhaps the word fetish, with the metaphor that it activates (or the supposed metaphor: this is precisely what is at stake), suffers such a strong and lasting impact from Marxs formula because as we pronounce this formula we dont just remain with the literal transposition of the fetish metaphor. Nor do we stop at the conceptual grasp of what the image would add to the intuition. Yet the image of the fetish would remain as a fetish-image that would schematize the commodity, that is, that would present the commodity to us in such a way as to give it a meaning or even a semantic value that could no longer be merely reduced to an illusory appearance and a revealed reality.1

* * * The origin of the image chosen by Marx is clear: he was familiar with a story that related how, in the Caribbean, the gold of the conquerors had become a fetish among the indigenous population. This fetishizing was therefore at the same time parallel and symmetrical to that of the commodity itself: the Europeans money becomes a fetish while the indigenous people perceive its virtue among the conquerors, a power whose nature appears to them as something mysterious or supernatural. Marxs early reading of this story goes back to his student years and his then marked interest in the analysis of religious forms, and in particular (from the point of view of our immediate interest), Charles Des Brossess Du culte des dieux ftiches, written in the eighteenth century. For Marx, fetishism first represented, in consonance with those readings, the most puerile form of the religion of sensuous desire in which fantasy arising from desire deceives the fetish-worshipper into believing that an inanimate object will give up its natural character in order to comply with his desires [CW 1: 189]. From this period on, for Marx the task of philosophy will be to burst the orderly hieroglyphic husk [CW 1: 196] with which religions envelop the truth of the world. Later, speaking of fetishism, he calls for the destruction of religions illusion by denouncing its artificial character. The fetish is in fact the artifice par excellence or par essence, according to the etymology of the word, from the Portuguese feitio, artificial. For the conquerors, the natives fetishes are false gods, that is, idols, in the monotheistic sense of the term. As Moses did with the golden calf, Marx wants to re1. This hypothesis has certainly more than one point of origin and developments in several works on Marx. Here, we have no scientific aims.


verse the mercantile idols.2 Gold and money are crystallizations of the monetary abstraction, and for this reason they are fetishes.3 Hence, the magic of money. But in this way, the riddle presented by money is but the riddle presented by commodities; only it now strikes us in its most glaring form [CW 35: 103]. Thus, from this point on Marx will speak of the fetishism of political economy [Oeuvres 2: 412], since political economy is based on the belief that the commodity form is the apparition or the very incarnation of the product. (We should note that today in commercial speech product is used to designate a realityan object or a service synthesizing the Marxian concepts of product and merchandise. Today the emphasis has shifted from metallic money to electronic money, and it is ultimately the production that is directly fetishized.) Marx writes, this brings to completion the fetishism peculiar to bourgeois political economy, the fetishism which metamorphoses the social, economic character impressed on things in the process of social production into a natural character stemming from the material nature of those things [CW 36: 227].

* * * But does this revealing of the secret really disclose the nature of production? Is the creation of value really presented as such? That is, does the living humanity inscribed in a work become visible as something other than the idea of an incommensurable measure? By definition, he who topples idols promises the truth of a god that is neither ensured nor saturated by any presentation. It is always a negative theology that which unmasks idolatries: and the divine superessence, at the same time that it confirms the transcendence and authority of the true god, does not itself appear. The revealed secret is called revealed secret and demystified fetishbut this expression does not yet show the truth of production, or rather the truth of the producer in person or in subject, the truth of his singular and communal existence, whose future portrait Marx at times sketches out. But let us recognize that if he came upon us in person, the living (natural, not artificial: the nonfabricated fabricator) producer would offer his face, his true presence. He would present himself, and he would be presented to us. Still, what theology or philosophy finds reprehensible in the idol is presence as the presentation of truth. Thus, it is also in this respect that something in theology and philosophy keeps art at a distance, be it a hostile or attentive distance, a reproachful or a respectful one. Here everything revolves discreetly around art, around its artifices and its false gods. . . . Around art and production, around production as art or around art as the presentation of a living producer. . . . Around an artificial, artful presentation of this very natural yet social life and production of society itself. . . .

* * * Still, it is precisely here where the word fetish might very well retain a fetish character, slipped under its critical function (or critical-onto-theological function). By saying commodity fetishism, one announces a demystification. Nevertheless, since there is not (yet) any presence that c