This is really just me going over ground that’s already been comprehensively covered by N Pepperell’s posts on the early chapters of ‘Capital’ (to which it’s just totally indebted, to the point of outright theft). It was all meant to be part of a longer post on ‘Specters’, which recently collapsed under its own weight, onto its shaky foundations. There’s something I’m not happy with in the below – something that doesn’t seem right. But I can’t figure out what it is – so I’m ignoring it. Perhaps sometime eventually we’ll get to temporality in Derrida.
When the commodity comes on stage, in ‘Capital’, according to Derrida, it comes on stage first of all as a ‘Thing’. “To say that the same thing, the wooden table for example, comes on stage as a commodity after having been but an ordinary thing in its use-value is to grant an origin to the ghostly moment. Its use-value, Marx seems to imply, was intact. It was what it was, use-value, identical to itself. The phantasmagoria, like capital, would begin with exchange-value and the commodity form. It is only then that the ghost “comes on stage.” Before this, according to Marx, it was not there. Not even in order to haunt use-value. But whence comes the certainty concerning the previous phase, that of this supposed use-value, precisely, a use-value purified of everything that makes for exchange-value and the commodity form? What secures this distinction for us?”
Yes, what? Derrida insistently reads Marx in terms of a before and after – a before of pure presence; an after of spectral capital. First use-value; then exchange value.
But this reading requires a somewhat doubtful interpretation of Marx’s text. For when the commodity first “comes on stage”, in ‘Capital’ – in the book’s first sentence – it comes on stage not as a simple Thing, but already as a commodity.
“The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’ [Marx citing his own earlier ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy]; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity.”
Marx begins with the commodity; he then disassembles the commodity into what “appear” to be its component parts: use-value, and exchange-value. And once Marx begins this disassembly, he does indeed “appear” to give temporal priority to use-value.
“The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its properties satisfies human needs of whatever kind.” [my emphases]
First of all an external object – a thing. What could be clearer? But it is perhaps worth emphasising: this “thing” is not in itself a use-value, not as such. Rather, use-value is the product of the ability of external objects to satisfy human needs – and it is only this relation that makes an object into a use-value. “The usefulness of a thing makes it a use-value.” Thus an external object ”is” a use-value, but it is a use-value (of course) only through its involvement in human society. Use-value is socially conditioned, or produced.
“Every useful thing, for example, iron, paper, etc., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. [And these “two points of view” may “appear” to map on to the use-value / exchange-value distinction…. (“As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can differ only in quantity…”)… but this parallel will be complicated as ‘Capital’ advances.] Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of things is the work of history.”
Marx is enough of a Hegelian that we should prick up our ears when he mentions “the work of history”. And there is a footnote appended to this phrase:
“’Things have an intrinsick vertue’ (this is Barbon’s special term for use-value) ‘which in all places have the same vertue; as the loadstone to attract iron.’ (op., cit., p. 6).” And then Marx adds: “The magnet’s property of attracting iron only became useful once it had lead to the discovery of magnetic polarity.”
This comment disrupts the associations that the concept of “intrinisck vertue” may seem to carry. (It is, perhaps, moments like this that lead Engels to insist, in his Preface to the third edition, that Marx should not be read as endorsing the theoretical views of the economists he quotes.) For on the one hand, the property of attracting iron is intrinsic, is a material property; on the other hand it is a use-value… thus use-value is material. But, of course, since a use-value is only made into a use-value by its social and historical position, in another sense this “intrinsick” virtue is far from intrinsic at all. “[G]eometrical, physical, chemical or other natural… properties of commodities come into consideration… to the extent that they make the commodities useful, .i.e. turn them into use-values.” Commodities, as Marx here says, have to be turned into use-values – just as they have to be turned into exchange values – and this transformation, this ‘turning’ (like the table-turning that Derrida later discusses) is “the work of history”.
So use-value is both social and historicised. And in the next sentence, Marx draws out the parallel between historicised use-value and historicised exchange-value.
“Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of these things is the work of history. So also is the invention of socially recognised standards of measurement for the quantities of these useful objects.” [my emphasis.]
The historical and social processes that give a material thing its exchange-value also give it its use-value; and use-value is not assumed to exist prior to this general social entanglement.
All this is, perhaps, tediously obvious. Of course in some sense use-value is already social, or relational – whoever thought to deny that? But I think it’s important to emphasise this stuff if we’re to discuss Derrida’s reading of ‘Capital’.
Here’s a famous passage, from the start of Marx’s discussion of commodity-fetishism, that is one of the key moments Derrida uses to convict Marx of a metaphysical privileging of the purity of use-value.
”A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it [and this is the position Derrida emphasises in his reading – an apparent treatment of use-value as non-mysterious, as escaping the mysteriousness of fetishism, and therefore as the locus of the metaphysical idea of purity that fetishism contaminates], whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour [my emphasis]. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. 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 if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.”
There seems to be a movement here from ‘ordinary’ use-value to the ‘metaphysical’ subtlety of exchange-value, or of commodification. But it should be emphasised that (as Marx says quite plainly) the “ordinary, sensuous thing” that is an object in its use-value, only becomes a use-value through the same social processes that make it into a commodity, and thus make it “transcend” sensuousness. “[I]t first takes on these properties as the product of human labour”. Ordinary sensuousness is not, in itself, enough to make the table a use-value – even though the use-value is that ordinary sensuousness.
The relevant distinction here, I think, is not between materiality as use-value, on the one-hand, and exchange-value or commodification, on the other – but rather between materiality as such, independent of human needs, and materiality as use-value. Derrida seems to assimilate use-value to materiality in general, in his reading of Marx – which is why he calls Marx’s idea of use-value ‘ontological’. And this has some justification – because a commodity’s use-value is its materiality; Marx says this very plainly. But this is a materiality – an ordinary sensuousness – that is not use-value in itself, but that has to be made into use-value, through labour (which is the basic institution of capitalism), and through the social and historical production or invention of the needs use-values satisfy. Use-value, like exchange-value, is an outcome of the general social system Marx analyses.
Is this belabouring the obvious? Maybe. But I think Derrida neglects this aspect of Marx. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about that some other time.