Commodification of culture

Timothy Burke tburke1 at
Wed Sep 27 11:48:27 MDT 1995

Well, okay, I obviously judged too fast...this is a pretty interesting if
rather intellectually formidable list. Flame in haste and repent in

My own work is centrally on the subject of commodification, so I found the
last couple of postings on this subject of interest. While I agree that
band names aren't actually off-topic, there are other issues that could be
taken up in response to Bocobo's original request for information on the
commodification of inner city culture. The simple answer is that there
isn't much literature specifically on this issue; the closest that one
gets, perhaps, is in cultural studies scholarship on hip-hop fashion that
proceeds from Dick Hebdige's short book -Subculture-.

There are some serious larger issues posed by the concept of
commodification for marxian praxis and theory. I don't know if anyone here
has had a chance to read Edmond Preteceille and Jean-Pierre Terrail's work
-Capitalism, Consumption and Needs-, but I found it an extremely
interesting if sometimes overly orthodox acknowledgment that marxian
authors and movements have frequently tended to treat the historical
development of consumer needs under capitalism as fairly straightforward
instances of "false consciousness" which are very distant from real and
meaningful forms of utility.

Preteceille and Terrail argue that at the very least, marxists will need to
take needs and desires generated under modern capitalism rather more
seriously than in the past, and not suppose that pointing out the
historicity of such needs in and of itself constitutes a meaningful

I tend to go rather further in my own work. It seems to me that one of the
persistent reasons that marxist critique falls on deaf ears is precisely
because of the way it sees commodification as an inevitably inauthentic,
alienating and destructive process. In many instances, this is surely true:
but it also often equally (and simultaneously) true that commodification
produces new forms of pleasure, consciousness and material possibility.

A simplistic hostility to commodification usually requires both a naive
assertion that some good or practice existed in some kind of untainted or
precommodified form in the recent past and a kind of killjoy puritanism
towards whatever pleasures both bourgeois and subaltern consumers derive
out of consumption in the present. For me, commodification is one of those
quintessentially capitalist processes whose history, closely studied in
particular settings, suggests that marxists need to find new ways to
appreciate and incorporate, as opposed to merely straightforwardly assault,
the cultural and social fecundity of capitalism.

Timothy Burke
Swarthmore College, Department of History
Swarthmore, PA 19081
610-328-8115 (w), 610-544-2504 (h)

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