Thursday, February 10, 2011

Brief Cinema Notes on the Status of the Commodity in Post-Fordism

What is the status of the commodity, the bearer of exchange value, the embodiment of labor, and the means of capital circulation identified by Marx at the center of capitalism, today, when the categories and processes outlined in Capital seem to be superseded and scrambled, decoded and recoded in a landscape aptly described as Post-fordist? These notes rely on 2 passages- from Capital and from the recent writings of Maurizio Lazzarato- and 2 recent films that are consciously oriented around the uncertain status of the commodity in our world (or, the status of the commodity in our uncertain world.) Jia Zhang-Ke's 2006 Still Life by its English title draws attention to the contrast between inert material objects and the teeming relational movements of lived existence. The film is set on the hypermodern margins of the present, inhabiting the ruins of underdevelopment literally being destroyed by the prerogatives of rising Chinese economic hegemony. Yet even in the majesterial setting of the fog-shrouded Yangtze River valley, Jia foregrounds the small, cheap, basic commodities that mediate social existence with unconventional textual superimpositions. Olivier Assayas's 2008 Summer Hours, on the other hand, dwells on the unsure status of the commodities in the historical core of modern capitalism, where material wealth has dissolved measures of value and boundaries of the material/immaterial/experiential. Sentimental in contrast to Jia's bracing materiality, it nonetheless speaks to the same contemporary reality, albeit from far across the developed/developing divide. What follows are small attempts to draw some lines of connection.


A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labor. It is clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, everyday thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than "table-turning" ever was.

The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use-value. Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value. For, in the first place, however varied the useful kinds of labor, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, etc. Secondly, with regard to that which forms the groundwork for the quantitative determination of value, namely, the duration of that expenditure, or the quantity of labor, it is quite clear that there is a palpable difference between its quantity and quality. In all states of society, the labor-time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development. And lastly, from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labor assumes a social form.

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labor, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself. The equality of all sorts of human labor is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labor-power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labor; and finally, the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labor affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor...

Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 1, Sec. 4


Alighting from the ferry, Han Sanming is pressed into a scam-artist magic show, in which the shabby magician conjures up a wad of American money out of thin air. It is just this magic act that Marx exposes in Capital. Surplus labor-value expropriated from workers by capitalists is the very material mechanism that makes wealth appear. Commodities are the containers of dead labor that make it all work, the C in the basic formula of capital, M-C-M'. Our problem, then, is posed from the first scenes of Still Life: the sociality of the working class, crowded onto a ship bound up the Yangtze, immensely productive in their conviviality; confronted with and captured by the scam that perpetuates their poverty, the illusions of capital and its commodity-forms.

Jia highlights four commodities- cigarettes, liquor, tea, toffee- which, by being central to social negotiations of working class Chinese, are fine examples of Marx's commodity-fetishism. These four items, earthy and quotidian, mediate the interactions of the film's working class characters. The distribution of cigarettes and toffees ensures solidarity among work teams, liquor lubricates an awkward reunion. As Marx observes, the use value of commodities is not the source of their mystery. The mystery lies in the alienated labor that produced them and in their status under the law of exchange-value. In
Still Life Marx's classical formulation of commodity fetishism holds true. Basic commodities that ensure the collective productivity of labor and the reproduction of social relations, and that indeed are expressive of just that labor, are mystified as separate objects mediated by wages and money. That Han Sanming and his fellows in waged destruction cannot see their labor in the cellphones compared and toffees chewed is not an accident, but part and parcel of capitalist relations.

Most commentators, and with some justification, describe Jia as a poet of globalization, documenting with surprising beauty wrenching, massive economic and social change in China. It is the impressive creative destruction of previous economic modes to make way for the Three Gorges Dam that looms over and visually dominates Still Life. The dam is a symbol and concrete manifestation of a profound restructuring of capitalist relations; its construction has literally submerged a previously underdeveloped capitalism of small, shoddy cities and peasantry to provide power for high-rise cities which house both global financial functions and labor-intensive manufacturing facilities. It is on the other side of this transformation to immaterial commodities and precarious labor- information flows, computerized management of production, metropolitan wealth accumulation- that Jia can not help but acknowledge (visually presented most brilliantly with the night-time lighting of a new modern bridge over the ancient Yangtze valley.) Still Life does not lose its way, however, in the blinding spectacle of the massive, the novel, the high-tech. Like his two couples wrenched apart, a quantitative economic rupture does not render null the qualitative reality on either side of the break, or break a more fundamental continuity. Perhaps it is a strange new capitalism, but these toffees, tea, liquor, cigarettes would have been familiar to Mao himself.


As far as immaterial labor being an "author" is concerned, it is necessary to emphasize the radical autonomy of its productive synergies. As we have seen, immaterial labor forces us to question the classical definitions of work and workforce, because it results from a synthesis of different types of knowhow: intellectual skills, manual skills, and entrepreneurial skills. Immaterial labor constitutes itself in immediately collective forms that exist as networks and flows. The subjugation of this form of cooperation and the "use value" of these skills to capitalist logic does not take away the autonomy of the constitution and meaning of immaterial labor. On the contrary, it opens up antagonisms and contradictions that, to use again a Marxist formula, demand at least a "new form of exposition."

The "ideological product" becomes in every respect a commodity. The term
ideological does not characterize the product as a "reflection" of reality, as false or true consciousness of reality. Ideological products produce, on the contrary, new stratifications of reality; they are the intersection where human power, knowledge, and action meet. New modes of seeing and knowing demand new technologies, and new technologies demand new forms of seeing and knowing. These ideological products are completely internal to the processes of the formation of social communication; that is, they are at once the results and the prerequisites of these processes. The ensemble of ideological products constitutes the human ideological environment. Ideological products are transformed into commodities without ever losing their specificity; that is they are always addressed to someone, they are "ideally signifying," and thus they pose the problem of "meaning."

The general public tends to become the model for the consumer (audience/client). The public (in the sense of the user- the reader, the music listener, the television audience) whom the author addresses has as such a double productive function. In the first place, as the addressee of the ideological product, the public is a constitutive element of the production process. In the second place, the public is productive by means of the reception that gives the product "a place in life" (in other words, integrates it into social communication) and allows it to live and evolve.
Reception is thus, from this point of view, a creative act and an integrative part of the product. The transformation of the product into a commodity cannot abolish this double process of "creativity"; it must rather assume it as it is, and attempt to control it and subordinate it to its own values.

What the transformation of the product into a commodity cannot remove, then, is the
character of the event, the open process of creation that is established between immaterial labor and the public and organized by communication. If the innovation in immaterial production is introduced by this open process of creation, the entrepreneur, in order to further consumption and its perpetual renewal, will be constrained to draw from the "values" that the public/consumer produces. These values presuppose the modes of being, modes of existing, and forms of life that support them. From these considerations there emerge two principal consequences. First, values are "put to work." The transformation of the ideological product into a commodity distorts or deflects the social imaginary that is produced in the forms of life, but at the same time, commodity production must recognize itself as powerless as far as its own production is concerned. The second consequence is that the forms of life (in their collective and cooperative forms) are now the source of innovation.

Maurizio Lazzarato, Immaterial Labour, (trans. Paul Colilli & Ed Emery)


Summer Hours weaves its family drama around a quite different, more ambiguous ensemble of commodities: works of art, books, affective experiences. How are we to measure the value of these by Marx's classic formulation, here in the heart of Old Europe that is the film's setting? It is a question the characters wrestle with, as they liquidate the estate of their late mother, holdings including paintings, decorative art pieces, sketch books, and a house itself. The liquidation is, of course, complicated by their own emotional, nostalgic attachment to the objects, a mysticism added to the unsure status of the cultural commodity, its value seemingly deriving from individual genius and critical reception. Assayas draws attention to the class nature of this determination: the state, with its heritage industry, considers the objects as a tax offset; the bourgeois family is torn between refined sentiment and cold financial calculation; the working class maid takes home a knick-knack, unaware of its "true" status as a valuable modernist work of art. What commodities, in turn, do these characters produce? Older brother Frederic is an economist vainly promoting his new book; sister Adrienne makes designer tableware; Jeremie holds a connection to industrial capitalism with a postmodern twist, managing a Chinese sneaker plant for a European corporation. And what of the key commodity, labor-power itself, which for these characters, who produce cognitively and creatively, is likewise unbound from traditional quantitative measures? This is the admirable mess that makes for such a compelling film. Concrete commodity production is a distant globalized function of an unseen proletariat and the vaunted art and ideas of the highly developed metropolis provides not comfort or security but confused calculations of value and benefit. One need not be swept up as the filmmaker at times falls into a melancholy here.

The passage from Lazzarato above offers some initial suggestions for rethinking the commodities of Summer Hours. First, in affirming their centrality, not marginality to post-fordist- these are indeed commodities, and we can work through an understanding of them as such without too much backtracking and buffering. The artworks are less helpful to us, although in their marginality to the economy as a whole, they indicate the extremities of postmodern commodity production and consumption. They carry enormous value, ideological value included, as their desirability to the state's cultural institutions indicates. But this value would seem to be determined by their role in the double process of creativity- the artist's genius, and the lifestyles, receptivity, etc. of the art consumer. Unlike a car, or a loaf of bread, which has a set value for state or consumer, for Assayas' family members, the works have a value, but a confused one based on affective reception, purely nostalgic and sentimental.

The Musee d'Orsee, where the estate's modernist furniture winds up, seems to align somewhat with Lazzarato's notion of ideological products. Perhaps a bit arcane, Assayas draws attention to the postmodern space of the museum by foregrounding a tour guide for global visitors cynically chatting with a friend on his cell phone, a detail at first watching extraneous. Indeed, the museum is a site of commodity production very much of an immaterial order: the experience of steeping oneself in priceless, famous art, in the center of a world-famous city, is the commodity. The tour of the museum is the ideological product. And it is an ideologically charged commodity, addressing a public attune to a specific world view, relation to aesthetics, class culture- and modulated by concerns of the state and the social imagination. Summer Hours' audience presumably would be familiar with these globalized cultural attractions, which indeed seem to trade equally on patrimony and cutting edge methods in the cultivation of their unique commodity, be it through new media or aggressive marketing.

Frederic, an entrepreneurial academic, would seem to also resonate with the above analysis, as a worker in immaterial labor, whose product is an economics book. Yet most conspicuous in the film is the diffuse nature of production; material goods ubiquitously litter the landscape (symbolized poignantly by the gift of a cordless phone left behind in the matriarch's emptied home), but the working class is not visible. The characters may all have jobs, but they are jobs that are creative, immaterial, and largely unbound by time and space- Frederic and Adrienne are "working" while pondering art or speaking with others; Jeremie has a foot in old-fashioned material production, but as a functionary in a global supply chain based as much on marketing, telecommunications, and organizational strategy. The opening sequence of the film, much as in Jia's Still Life, unlocks much of Summer Hours' secrets. The children of the family scramble around the estate looking for "treasure": it is clear that the intense social experience in common is the point, not the treasure itself.

The treasure hunt.