Use Value (and Aesthetics)

Jon Beasley-Murray jpb8 at
Mon Mar 27 17:54:54 MST 1995

Steve, I hoped you'd be one of those to be on in this one.

I still have one basic problem (though I will be off chasing up
references when I get the time, also):

On Tue, 28 Mar 1995 Steve.Keen at wrote:

> "There are some commodities, the value of which is determined by their
> scarcity alone... rare statues ... wines of a peculiar quality ... are all
> of this description. Their value is wholly independent of the quantity of
> labor originally necessary to produce them, and varies with the varying
> wealth and inclinations of those who are desirous to possess them." (Ricardo
> 1821, p. 12)
> In other words, the use-value/exchange-value analysis applies strictly
> only to use-values which are reproducible, and which play a part in the
> reproduction of other use-values. Movies, cultural products in general,
> are not reproducible, and hence forces other than their costs of
> production can have an influence on their price (whereas for a strict
> commodity, its exchange-value is the exchange-value of the commodities
> used up in its production.

Now, like the good cultural studies student that I am, I clearly can't
take this restriction of (what I'm still hesitantly calling) the
"aesthetic" merely to statues and wines.  For a start, movies seem
eminently reproducible (and very different from rare statues), even if
the example I chose (_Shallow Grave_) would probably be relatively less
popular and so less distributed (though should a "_Shallow Grave_" fever
sweep the land, it could no doubt be reproduced sufficiently to gross as
much as any _Rambo_ or _Star Wars_).

For the moment I want to keep exchange value per se at the margins of the
discussion, by the way.

Anyhow, my real problem is that I don't see any products (or I see very
few indeed) which don't have the characteristic I ascribed to _Shallow
Grave_ (that is, initiating a logic of equivalence or quasi-equivalence
separate from strict exchange value, and thus opening up the mechanisms
of cultural "distinction").  We could translate this into saying that
*every* commodity has this "aesthetic" dimension.

Take cars--eminently reproducible commodities.  Once I am in the position
to choose (ie. once there is more than one possible type of car available
to me--not my personal position, which is why I have a 1982 Dodge Colt, by
the way), this aspect of cultural distinction inheres in my choice (and to
say otherwise is to assume the perfectly rational consumer of naive market
theory?  My contentions are getting more contentious, I suspect).  For
example, what is achieved in buying a Volvo rather than a 2CV?  Or a Volvo
rather than an Nissan, say (and we could then perhaps assume they cost the
same)?  It is important, I think, that in driving a Volvo (ie. in *using*
it to get from A to B) I am not using a Nissan (or a 2CV).  I mark myself
out as part of a community that drives Volvos (rather than Nissans or 2CV).

Or boots.  Why buy Doc Martens over Green wellingtons?  Because each
choice would signify a very different thing, and the choices are mutually
exclusive, which means more than merely that I could not wear both pairs
at once, but rather that the choices signfify and mark different, perhaps
conflicting, identities.  In certain situations I would gain approbation
for wearing one (out running with the yuppies in their country estates,
say), whereas in others the choice of such boots would be a significant
blunder.  In precisely the same situation, one could perhaps distinguish
social groups as much by their boots as by anything else (when at a
foxhunt, for example).

In all commodities, then, inheres the material for such a system of
social distinction--even in those which purportedly refuse such material
(as in own brand or generic cigarettes--see PiL's _Album_ for more on
this!).  Such a system of cultural distinction is a system of cultural
value of a system of unequal cultural "capital" (no fights about this word
as yet, please--at present I'm just making my way slowly towards
Bourdieu, or trying to do so).

> |iii. The contention?  That the above schema (and therefore *in some way*
> |the distinction between use and exchange value) doesn't work...
> Not "doesn't work", but rather, "is far more complex than" the
> justaposition of use-value and exchange-value which, in my opinion,
> forms the core of Chs 1-8 of Capital. That is the primary dialectic
> in Marx's analysis, but far from the last. It is the base of
> the iceberg, while the cultural question is one of the penguins
> flitting about on its tip.

Well, I'll be checking out the paper at the csf site.  I happen to love
your metaphor (and this makes me think that the idea of a pure commodity
is similar to the dream of a language without rhetorical
ornamentation)--a very antipodean one indeed.  I think my contention is
that this aspect of use value that is also implicated in a form of
exchange (at the very least substitution and equivalence) is part of the
structure of the ice.

In other words, there can be no "pure" consumption: is this a reversed
Kantianism? (which would make sense in the light of Bourdieu)

> Cheers,
> Steve Keen

Take care


Jon Beasley-Murray
Literature Program
Duke University
jpb8 at

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