Kent D. Palmer, Ph.D. palmer at
Wed Nov 16 10:28:10 MST 1994

>From social-theory at on marx

Kent D. Palmer, Ph.D.                  editor Thinknet philosophy newsletter
Software Engineering Technologist      administrator Thinknet philosophy lists
Philosopher at large without portfolio system operator Thinknet BBS 714-638-0876
palmer at or    autopoietic social systems theorist

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: 16 Nov 94 14:47:15 GMT

Consumption - and meaning

Marx seems to me to provide a very clear analysis of the mechanisms
that operated within and made possible the very fierce forms of
exploitation involved in the early factory system. At the same time
it is easy to extend his analysis backwards and forwards (the
highland clearances, cruder forms of colonialism). Indeed Marx did
that himself in his journalism.

In order to analyse the processes shaping these social developments
Marx analyses the commodity FORM. Commodities are primarily
associated with the sphere of consumption. It is when they come on to
the market that products take the form of commodities. It is only
when they are exchanged that their commodity form realises itself. So
Marx goes to great pains in the methodological intro to the
Grundrisse to explain why he wishes to extend the analysis of the
commodity form to that of production and why, indeed he will take
production as his starting point. The rest, as they say is HISTORY...

At least one significant foundation for Marx's analyses is in
anthropological notions derived from Hegel. Man (humankind)
externalises (validates, etc.) himself (themself) in the product of
his (their) labour (which is the world and also - at least some
passages suggest - all its meanings, or its meaning for man).

Profit, exploitation, power, exploitation, manipulation,
exploitation, persuasion, exploitation - these things were of course,
even in Marx's time not new. And he recognised that. In order to
describe and explain the particular form taken on by these processes
in his own day he uses what he recognises was a very ancient
category. Production for exchange is very ancient. Alienation is not
new - it is, as is so often said - the oldest profession. What was
new was that it had extended its grip so deep into the sphere of
production. And in his discussion of the reproduction of labour power
Marx also recognised that it was not only in the workplace that the
contradictions would be sharply felt. They would be just as sharply
felt in the sphere of consumption - the home. There where consumption
as production of labour power had to take place. But Marx wrote in
the fervent hope that the workplace would provide a place where the
exploited and manipulated could take a stand. And put up some

Today the extraction of profit takes place as smoothly in the
marketplace as it ever did in the factories. A summer holiday in
Spain for someone who only gets 3 weeks off a year and all the
business that surrounds packaging that hol. A REAL need? He/she would
say so. The bugger making the booking.

But today as a result of the shift from the sphere of production to
that of consumption as an area for exploitation (in the various
senses of that word) it is not only labour and the production of
objects (and the objective world) that is alienated, estranged from
us all and dominated by the need to squeeze profits out of the
circulation and exchange that takes place. Today it is also language
(in all of its myriad forms - the language of clothes, of music, of
food, of transport . . .) and the production of meaning that is
increasingly alienated from us. We are increasingly in the hands of
the middle-men. It is less and less worthy of note when we take hold
of what is passed on or passed about in culture only after it has
been pre-digested, reshaped, amplified, edited and generally had

No-one is more precise about these processes than Walter Benjamin,
who set out in the late 20s and the 30s to do for the superstructure
what Marx had done for the base. He too felt he had to avail himself
of very ancient concepts ( the AURA, ALLEGORY, etc.). He spent the
last years of his life at work on a cultural history of the 19th C
out of which the essays by which he is known (in books such as
Illuminations and One-Way Street) developed. Unfortunately although
Benjamin is often mentioned in this context the fact that his thought
was shaped by theological ideas and that he used literary texts as
his primary object of meditation has meant that few social theorists
have followed his inspiration in any depth. But he is still way ahead
of us, providing a more pointed analysis than that of the currently
fashionable French sociologists and semiologists.

Back to Benjamin, I say.
Anyone still with me?

Lloyd Spencer
School of Media
Trinity and All Saints, Leeds


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