[Marxism] reification

Shane Hopkinson s.hopkinson at cqu.edu.au
Wed Jun 2 19:12:22 MDT 2004

Dear Ben and Nick

The problem with the poetic examples is that its not Marxist enough so let me try and elaborate
what I understand as Marx's idea. 

I think of it this way. Reification (thing-ification) is treating concepts and ideas as if they were independent
of human activity or social relations.  It is a feature of language, to some extent, since it is hard to have a
word for something and not imagine that it refers to something real.  The tendency is to force the world
to fit our concepts of it - consider the common phrase "it is raining".  What does the "it" refer to? Of course
what is happening is a PROCESS which we need to fit into subject-verb-object sentence structures. Raining
is a verb - a process - but we need an "it" of some kind which is the cause of the rain. We do it too on the left
when we talk about 'capitalism causing X or Y". Its OK as shorthand but when one is doing detailed analysis 
you have to be careful because "capitalism" is a concept which abstracts key processes out of the complexity
of human social interaction - it doesn't cause things on its own.

Another example is 'intelligence'.  If one devises a norm for say 3rd Graders and uses this to measure  
performance above/below the norm as defined by the test then there's no problem.  What happened with 
intelligence testing was that IQ came to be seen as a measure of some innate ability - the concept which 
was a concrete practical measuring device becomes reified so the IQ test is now seen as measuring, not 
even some ability in relation to the test but, some INNATE ability (with all the attendent ideological baggage). 

A common philosophical problem in this area is the Inuits large number of words for something that many
English speakers only have one word for ie "snow".  The question gets ask "how many types of snow are
their REALLY? and/or how can we decide who is right or is it all relative to the culture.  The answer is that its
all relative to human practice.  The Iniut live in an environment where it makes sense to have many words for
snow because it matters to them in a practical way - not so for most English speakers.  So rather than ask
"whose right?" which reifies the concept "snow" as if it is independent of the "we" who are speaking - we need
to see that truth is determined by collective social practices.

Fetishism is related but I also see it as "opposite" in some sense. Reification is seeing concepts and ideas as if 
they were independent of human practice (ie as objects or things). Fetishism is seeing objects as if they had
human powers. As Nick said Marx being before Freud naturally thought of fetishes as objects of tribal worship 
or totems of some kind in African societies.  Here humans create objects and then worship them as if they 
had a life of their own - much the same way as commodities are seen now now.  
"Coke is the real thing" "Cokes adds life"  - when Coke is sugar and water.  This is at the heart of Marx's 
critique of religion and of capital.  It is important  to see that  Marx's critique of religion is NOT that it is an 
illusion but that it has real power based on social relations which are experienced as independent of human 
activity.  In the post-Freud age we inevitably think of fetish in a sexual way but I don't think it is different. 
If I get turned on by say leather - then I experience the leather AS IF it had this power over me - and the effect 
is real enough.  Of course dead animal skin does not really have that power - but in certain sets of human 
social relations it can provoke real effects.

In relation to Nick's comment - about "a social process whereby people believe, or pretend 
for ideological reasons, that something abstract is a real or concrete thing" 

Is OK but its not a pretence or ideological - Marxists recognise that markets are a product of human
activity and serve the interests of the ruling class and that society might be structured differently. While
saying that the Market (or God or Nature) causes X or Y is reification, while people continue to believe it and
incorporate it into their practices it is REAL. Markets are not a fiction or merely ideological and totems do
have "real concrete power" (in Nick's words) precisely because they are an embodiement of real social 
relations (albeit alienated ones). 
>I remember hearing a reviewer describe the funny scene in the film of 
>"American Psycho" when the executives compare their business cards as a 
>clever representation of fetishisation in capitalism. 

I don't know the scene but I assume that if he meant it in a Marxist sense that the executives compare
cards as a means of 'getting to know each other'  via the object which represents them when in fact
they are confronting each other as real people so in a human world they wouldn't need the cards. 

> I've never got my head around the difference between reification 
> and fetishisation though.

Reification is treating concepts (human products) as if they were things (independent of humans)
Fetishisation is treating things as if they had human powers.

I hope the above makes some sense - 



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