Use Value (and Aesthetics)

Jon Beasley-Murray jpb8 at
Wed Mar 29 11:14:45 MST 1995

Well, there I am, minding my own business, finishing off John Guillory's
_Cultural Capital_ (and incidentally my trying to think through the issue
of use value is prompted by having to give a paper on the same panel as
Guillory's in an upcoming conference) when I find that he has in fact
been working along very much the same lines as I have been trying to
suggest on this list!

His argument: political economy and aesthetics emerged from the same
discourse of moral philosophy, and both disciplines had to deny each
other to achieve their autonomy, which each effectively did by first
constructing and then denying the status of use-value.

Some scattered quotations:

Baudrillard (!) has apparently already argued that "'use value' is
determined by a 'logic of equivalence' identical to that of exchange
value" (301).  For "exchange value is... the condition for the
retroactive construction of the use of an object as an expression of its
value" (301).

"political economy relegates use value to a domain of subjectivity, which
it cannot enter into the equation of exchange value" (302).  More or less
the same for aesthetics (see Kant's "purposiveness without purpose" in the
_Critique of Judgment_) such that "*both* aesthetics and economics were
founded in contradistinction to the concept of 'use value'" (302).

[By the way, lots of this analysis is based on Caygill's _Art of Judgment_]

"A concept of specifically aesthetic value can be formulated only in the
wake of political economy's discourse of exchange value... it becomes
possible and even necessary to reconceive aesthetic judgment by *analogy
to exchange value*... aesthetics learns to forget political economy just
as political economy forgot aesthetics" (316f.).

Then a move to Marx and underconsumption (maybe that's the wrong term--at
least to Marx and the necessity for an expansion in consumption
appropriate to capitalization) means an attempt to explain "the capacity
of the commodity-object to create a need for itself in the absence of the
consumer's prior experience of that need" (320).

Back to the aesthetic then, to see that "the work of art is a certain
*kind* of commodity.  The commodity is a certain *kind* of work of art"
(321) so the distinction made by Smith (Guillory quotes the same passage
as Steve Keen did) finally breaks down once and for all.

Now Guillory is railing against this whole logic of commensuration, as
"the discourse of commensuration can substitute for the analysis of
social relations" (324) and incidentally, he's therefore primarily
targetting versions of relativism or pragmatism (most clearly Barbara
Herrnstein Smith's), for "it is only in the graduate seminars that one
can have the thrill of experiencing the 'contingency' of value...
[whereas] any analysis of objective social relations will on the contrary
reveal that both 'values' and the discourse of value are historically
*determined* as objective social facts.  It is time now to replace the
philosophical notion of the contingency of value with a historical
account of the determination of value" (324f.).  This latter can be taken
as one of the book's "thesis statements" and he is insistent that this
project is impossible remaining at the level of economism, and therefore
we need to look at Bourdieu's analysis of the variety of sociologics.

Anyway, there's more (of course).  I don't buy it all... surplus gets
relegated to a footnote (though not necessarily thrown out); the last few
pages are lame, lame, lame, and he's desperate for the redemption of the
aesthetic: his last thought is: "Socializing the means of production and
consumption would be the condition of an aestheticism unbound, not its
overcoming" (340).  But, in Bourdieu's terms, I think he conflates the
aesthetic with the symbolic, and hasn't looked closely enough at
Bourdieu's anthropological work with the Kabyle, which would put him off
this particular for of aesthetic utopia.

But I thought I'd throw this in.

Take care


Jon Beasley-Murray
Literature Program
Duke University
jpb8 at

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