Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Gleaning: Everyday Life in Collage Culture

Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Gleaning: Everyday Life in Collage Culture

Article excerpt

The distinction between being and having produces terrible anxieties for critics of consumer culture. For the young Karl Marx, it is the key difference between a real human paradise and a hellish state of alienation, and in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he indicts the capitalist world for preferring the possession of commodities to the cultivation of human senses. Objects themselves are not the problem, and indeed Marx claims that "only through the objectively unfolded richness of man's essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility ... either cultivated or brought into being."1 The only way to understand and cultivate what we are is to work on the world, to manifest what we are in objects and practices. In a rational world, every individual could test his or her being, and the success or failure of that labor reveals the truth of each person. For instance, if one wants to enjoy art, one must work to become "an artistically cultivated person" (105). But such a becoming is by no means guaranteed. For instance, "if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a loved person, then your love is impotent-a misfortune" (105). Achieving a state of being is so valuable because it reveals a hard-fought truth. Capitalism, however, makes a black magic out of money that "is the general confounding and compounding of all things," or simply "the world upside down" (105). With enough money, anyone can avoid the labor of being for the ease of having. With money, "what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women" (103). The labor of becoming is exchanged for the ease of having, but the price is the terrible alienation of a lie.

The problem of being and having is not unique to just money, but becomes the underlying problem of all commodities. In Capital, Marx succinctly defines the problem of the commodity form, maintaining that "the relations connecting the labor of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things."2 The form through which we exchange objects hides the social relationships that produced them, negating the being of labor and asserting that the value is simply inherent in the object, something we can buy without ever accounting for the people who produced them or our real relationships to them. Every object we have in the form of a commodity is a negation of those who made it, and we mistake what are actually profoundly human modes of being for the facile satisfactions of having.

Marx's fear is well illustrated in the fate of music. Since the ancient world, to hear music, one had to either find a musician or become one. While paintings or poems could be bought and sold, music remained a practice. Longer than most other arts, it remained difficult to commodify, and though manufacturers of pianos and publishers of sheet music flourished in the nineteenth century, one still needed musicians in order to hear music. While one could hang a painting on the wall and never have to meet the painter or see a brush, to make music still meant immediate, practical activity-either being, or being with, a musician. Once something exists as a thing divorced from the social practice of its production, the social dimensions, responsibilities, and human potentials become invisible or impossible. So long as music remained a practice, to hear it, one had to engage in profoundly social relationships; one could not simply fetishize an object.

Evan Eisenberg recounts how during the nineteenth century, the daughters of the bourgeoisie were often the musicians: "A stack of difficult scores would fool nobody, since the ladies were expected to exhibit their skills after dinner. Some rich men's daughters played so well that their teachers fell in love with them, but that was not what the rich men had in mind. …

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