Academic journal article Helios

Marx's Aesthetics: Between Gift and Commodity Exchange

Academic journal article Helios

Marx's Aesthetics: Between Gift and Commodity Exchange

Article excerpt

What is at the heart of psychoanalysis' critique of Marxism? (1) The relatively consistent refrain has been that socialism--at least in its existing form, if not in its founding intellectual documents, namely, the writings of Marx and Engels--has refused to deal with the problem of loss. Freud was quite happy to accept socialism's damning critique of capitalist society, but he nevertheless voiced the worry that socialism might be driven by a desire to flee the "discontent" at the heart of civilization. Others have provided fundamentally similar critiques, figuring in other ways the loss that Freud designated by castration; we can think of Laclau and Mouffe's thesis, which suggests that any social order is constructed around and in response to inherent social antagonisms. But we can also find a version of this problematic in democratic Athens, where the need for democracy was premised on the fundamental impossibility of individual access to political truth. Because we do not, and cannot, have any direct access to expert political knowledge, we must parade our ignorance in the debate of the assembly in order to forge much more tentative and contingent political programs. Democracy is this debate, an ongoing intercourse of words between citizens which are always a witness to the impossibility of sure knowledge, the fundamental impotence of those words. (2)

More recently, and more importantly for my present purposes, a Lacanian-inspired critique has come from Slavoj Zizek through a comparison between the different notions of fetishism in Marxism and psychoanalysis:

[I]n the predominant Marxist perspective the ideological gaze is a partial gaze overlooking the totality of social relations, whereas in the Lacanian perspective ideology rather designates a totality set on effacing the traces of its own impossibility. This difference corresponds to the one which distinguishes the Freudian from the Marxian notion of fetishism: in Marxism a fetish conceals the positive network of social relations, whereas in Freud a fetish conceals the lack ("castration") around which the symbolic network is articulated. (49)

For the Freudian, we have an imaginary, impossible object (the maternal phallus) to which the fetishist clings as a way of avoiding loss (symbolized by castration). This belief in the maternal phallus in turn blocks the subject's path to that necessary alienation in language which can allow him to function as a social, speaking being: for the production of signifiers is an ongoing attempt to name the loss that the fetish-object, a stand-in for the maternal phallus, prevents. In Lacan's version of the encounter of the subject with language, something must be lost in order for the maternal phallus to be represented: accordingly a disavowal of loss means that there is no need to articulate it in representation--in Lacanian terms, to "name the desire of the mother." Fetishism thus prevents the subject's access to a fluid use of signifiers by blocking a more fundamental exchange, the exchange of signifiers (names) for the "desire of the mother." We use signifiers to try to specify what the desire of the mother is because we do not know what she desires, only that she desires--and so is herself lacking. Fetishism refuses the latter knowledge, and thus prevents the former attempt to deal with this lack.

Rather than drawing a distinction between these ideas and the dominant trends in Marxism, however, it is perhaps worth noting an immediate overlap with the concerns that drove the early Marx. Following Aristotle, Marx conceived of man as a fundamentally social and political being, and man's political nature as undermined and denied by the expansion of private property. (3) This remained the basis for his criticism of the market. For Marx, a vast variety of commodities parade before a consumer. But if the varieties of commodities seem to expand choice, there is a price to be paid, for the values of commodities are determined behind the backs of individual consumers, a process that deprives them of any ability to deliberate about the value of those items. …

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