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Jean Luc Nancy, Two Secrets of the Fetish (Article)

Jean Luc Nancy, Two Secrets of the Fetish (Article)

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Published by: bec61974 on May 31, 2010
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“Commodity fetishism”: Marx’s formula has been imprinted on the largest and most resistant of cultural memories. It has become almost anonymous, or rather synonymous with Marx’s very name, as is the case with certain coined terms (cogito, categorical imperative . . .). This privilege could only be due to a very particular virtue. Such a virtue is that which not only consists in characterizing, in the strict sense of the word (to typify a property or an essence), but even in characterizing in such a way that the character (the stamp, the seal) is somehow inscribed on the thing itself and can no longer be detached from it, or at least without some loss in the substance of the thing. In Kantian terms: the intuition presented under the word “fetishism” is printed or traced indelibly onto the concept of “commodity,” giving rise to a schema “commodity,” from which a new image, and thus a new idea, ensues. Not just the commodity as the fetish—as if this were one of its traits or one approach among others—but rather the essence of the commodity revealed as fetish, so that the fetish character would remain once the approach was shifted or the “secret” of its “mystical character” was revealed. (As we know, these are all Marx’s own terms.) As is also known, the secret consists in that the commodity value (or exchange value) of the object (or product), which seems to be its intrinsic or immanent property (parallel in this way to its use value, which is extrinsic and completely relative to its utilization in a given sociotechnical context) only covers, masks or represses the origin of its pure or absolute value—this last value being nothing other than the living human labor of the producer, which the act of production incorporates into the product. But the commodity value deflects this incorporated creative life toward equivalence within an exchange, where the producer (the worker) finds himself surreptitiously stripped of the part of the value that the mercantile calculation does not exchange for the maintenance of its labor force, but rather sets to the account of capital.

* * * Here we are not concerned with addressing the problems associated with the evaluation or the appreciation of living work as it is related to the intensification or the very creation of value (“the surplus-value”), nor with respect to the extortion suffered by the creator of value (the valuable and value-making man, the living man as maker, as giver of prices in an absolute fashion) to the benefit of the one who accumulates value in the form of general equivalence, creating mercantile prices through a common currency. Currency is the fetish, where fetishism is fixed: belief in the value of the market price itself. The critique of political economy—that is, the critique of the economy as politics—reveals the inanity of this belief, and if this critique cannot measure the hidden and mysticized or mystified value in monetary terms, the principle of this critique re-

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mains no less, but even more so, the incommensurability of the value creator and the marketed product. Alienation is not measurable. It is at the same time the principle of the critique and its impasse from the moment that we would like to, and indeed that we should, oppose one measure to another: the critical measure of the fetish against the mercantile measure through the fetish. In contrast, what we would like to sketch out here would have the following hypothesis as a point of departure: does not the strength of Marx’s formula derive from a power other than that of the only critique thus broached? Is there not another energy, and another enigma, slipped into the first, adding itself to the revelation of the secret, even exceeding this revelation and perhaps in this fashion displacing just a bit the secret itself (precisely because it is not measurable)? This other power would derive from “fetishism” itself. That is to say that when we first consider it as an image it could very well play another role, going almost so far as to invert the distribution proposed above regarding the Kantian indexes of intuition and of concept. In other terms, perhaps the word “fetish,” with the metaphor that it activates (or the supposed metaphor: this is precisely what is at stake), suffers such a strong and lasting impact from Marx’s formula because as we pronounce this formula we don’t just remain with the literal transposition of the fetish metaphor. Nor do we stop at the conceptual grasp of what the image would add to the intuition. Yet the image of the fetish would remain as a fetish-image that would schematize the commodity, that is, that would present the commodity to us in such a way as to give it a meaning or even a semantic value that could no longer be merely reduced to an illusory appearance and a revealed reality.1

* * * The origin of the image chosen by Marx is clear: he was familiar with a story that related how, in the Caribbean, the gold of the conquerors had become a fetish among the indigenous population. This fetishizing was therefore at the same time parallel and symmetrical to that of the commodity itself: the Europeans’ money becomes a fetish while the indigenous people perceive its virtue among the conquerors, a power whose nature appears to them as something mysterious or supernatural. Marx’s early reading of this story goes back to his student years and his then marked interest in the analysis of religious forms, and in particular (from the point of view of our immediate interest), Charles Des Brosses’s Du culte des dieux fétiches, written in the eighteenth century. For Marx, fetishism first represented, in consonance with those readings, the most “puerile” form of the “religion of sensuous desire” in which “fantasy arising from desire deceives the fetish-worshipper into believing that an ‘inanimate object’ will give up its natural character in order to comply with his desires” [CW 1: 189]. From this period on, for Marx the task of philosophy will be to “burst the orderly hieroglyphic husk” [CW 1: 196] with which religions envelop the truth of the world. Later, speaking of “fetishism,” he calls for the destruction of religion’s illusion by denouncing its artificial character. The fetish is in fact the artifice par excellence or par essence, according to the etymology of the word, from the Portuguese feitiço, “artificial.” For the conquerors, the natives’ “fetishes” are false gods, that is, idols, in the monotheistic sense of the term. As Moses did with the golden calf, Marx wants to re1. This hypothesis has certainly more than one point of origin and developments in several works on Marx. Here, we have no scientific aims.


verse the mercantile idols.2 Gold and money are “crystallizations” of the monetary abstraction, and for this reason they are “fetishes.”3 Hence, the magic of money. But in this way, “the riddle presented by money is but the riddle presented by commodities; only it now strikes us in its most glaring form” [CW 35: 103]. Thus, from this point on Marx will speak of the “fetishism of political economy” [Oeuvres 2: 412], since political economy is based on the belief that the commodity form is the apparition or the very incarnation of the product. (We should note that today in commercial speech “product” is used to designate a reality—an object or a service— synthesizing the Marxian concepts of product and merchandise. Today the emphasis has shifted from metallic money to electronic money, and it is ultimately the production that is directly fetishized.) Marx writes, “this brings to completion the fetishism peculiar to bourgeois political economy, the fetishism which metamorphoses the social, economic character impressed on things in the process of social production into a natural character stemming from the material nature of those things” [CW 36: 227].

* * * But does this revealing of the secret really disclose the nature of production? Is the creation of value really presented as such? That is, does the living humanity inscribed in a work become visible as something other than the idea of an incommensurable measure? By definition, he who topples idols promises the truth of a god that is neither ensured nor saturated by any presentation. It is always a negative theology that which unmasks idolatries: and the divine superessence, at the same time that it confirms the transcendence and authority of the true god, does not itself appear. The revealed secret is called “revealed secret” and “demystified fetish”—but this expression does not yet show the truth of production, or rather the truth of the producer in person or in subject, the truth of his singular and communal existence, whose future portrait Marx at times sketches out. But let us recognize that if he came upon us in person, the living (natural, not artificial: the nonfabricated fabricator) producer would offer his face, his true presence. He would present himself, and he would be presented to us. Still, what theology or philosophy finds reprehensible in the idol is presence as the presentation of truth. Thus, it is also in this respect that something in theology and philosophy keeps art at a distance, be it a hostile or attentive distance, a reproachful or a respectful one. Here everything revolves discreetly around art, around its artifices and its false gods. . . . Around art and production, around production as art or around art as the presentation of a living producer. . . . Around an artificial, artful presentation of this very natural yet social life and production of society itself. . . .

* * * Still, it is precisely here where the word “fetish” might very well retain a fetish character, slipped under its critical function (or critical-onto-theological function). By saying “commodity fetishism,” one announces a demystification. Nevertheless, since there is not (yet) any presence that can substitute for that of the fetish (and can there be any?),
2. At times Marx uses the word “idol” [for example, CW 1: 226; Oeuvres 2: 97]. 3. We should also remember that in the Bible the falsity of idols is often tied to the presence of precious metals, valuable woods, gems, and ivory.

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one must prevent the disillusionment of the demystification. As a result, the fascination and the luster of the fetish continue to adhere to its own denunciation. One uncovers the secret, but the word “fetish” still shelters an undisclosed secret: the very presence of the thing, whether it is named commodity or product, paid for in cash or by credit card, worshipped or utilized, the thing itself, the pro-duced thing: the thing driven to the foreground, brought forward in the strange element of presence in and for itself.

* * * (Let us imagine the rather obscure bond between the conquerors—fascinated by these gods, so puerile yet so present and so precious, present because they are precious, precious because they are present—and the conquered peoples, subjugated by the yellow metal so visibly/invisibly powerful among those powerful invaders. God for god, luster for luster, mystique for mystique, a vertigo of precious presences and their devotions, execrations, consecrations, and exorcisms. The word “fetish” says all of that from the moment of its double entry, one through the false and the other through the true.) (So the word “fetish” fetishizes itself, in the same manner as do other words that speak of the false, the phony, the tawdry, the lustrous, the artful, and of course the simulacrum of art—whether it be the most austere and the most secretive, whether it be the artfulness of the secret of art, the great art that has neither measure nor market, neither artifice nor religion. . . .) Behind the unveiled secret, another more convoluted secret cloaks itself—one that perhaps will never be revealed absolutely: it is that of presence in general, which might never be exempt of fetishism, that is, of the force of the desire by which I reach toward this presence in order to see it, touch it, and savor it, at least from the moment that “presence” does not designate the inert being of what has been put there (what has been placed there) and which is not even there, nor there, nor beyond, no matter where it is placed. The fetish is the being-there of a desire, an expectation, an imminence, a power and its presentiment, a force interred in the form and exhumed by it. Whether one considers it in the context of magic, of psychoanalysis, or the jubilant and almost incantatory use of the word in Marx, the fetish possesses a double secret: the one that critical analysis shows to be the paltry monetary secret, and the other that which remains in the intensity of a presence, which precisely as presence retains its secret, and its presence is in this keeping of the secret. Still, it is enough to suspend one’s gaze, even upon a product or currency; the intensity of the gaze is enough (and this is not its intentionality: on the contrary, it is what differs from the phenomenological intentionality and what defers it); its intension instead of its intention suffices for the enigma of the second secret to reveal itself in turn, that is, for it to become ever more enigmatic.

* * * Not “why is there something and not nothing?” but “how is there something?” or rather, not just how is a product made present, but also how is a presence produced. What is the power of the present, of presenting, of being-present? What power produces it and what force is in turn exercised by it? How to treat this untreatable enigma?—That is the desire, its tension. The transaction is attempted [tentée] by the god or by the currency.


* * * The fetish is better named than it appears. It is an artifice, a fact, something made: it is produced. It is the production of desire according to the double genitive: produced by desire and producing desire, namely, the desire of presence. We know that there are beings: it is just a matter of knowing. But that these beings present themselves and present themselves to the point of touching us, that only one of these beings or each one of them—myself being one of them—touch us for a single instant through their singularity, through their unique value—that’s what we desire. We reach toward them as toward the other side of death, which posits the inverted, equally unique touch of effacement in absence. It is not religion that brings forth the idol: it is value, indeed, meaning, and desire, not of presence but rather desire as presence, the presentation of the Being of beings, sweet and lacerating, impossible to convert into a commodity, priceless, without equivalence and without divine prevalence. The idol’s distant luster shines in the double bottom of all evaluation, of all value, the desire to give something a price without turning it into a commodity or worshipping it, without expecting anything in exchange for it. The Latin word pretium, whose sonority we hear in precious, is associated by linguists with the Latin interpres—a correlation that can work in two directions: either “interpretation” derives from the mercantile value, or the mercantile value derives from hermeneutics, which is nothing other than the transmission and the declaration of what precedes all meaning and all value, the infinite price of unbelievable presence. The fetish is presence accumulated in its sign, presence collected into a sign, brought back to it.4 Therefore, it also makes the sign valuable as presence, signifying itself, present without signifying anything else. A presence that produces the sign and a sign that produces presence, a double artifice in whose lacework the imminently strange is incrusted—a pebble tied up in a reed, a doll with shell eyes, a rosary of sequins, an odorous rag, a lock of hair, a packet of detergent, a mothball, a piece of colored gelatin—a pure sign, a pure present, the familiar uncanny of the power of nothingness. How does one deal with that? The god or the currency attempt the transaction. But when one does not trade, one remains before the untreatable; this is called at times art or thought. But it’s better not to fetishize any name. The double structure of the commodity: on the one hand, the secret today long known (everyone is familiar with it, which certainly does not prevent it from functioning, thanks to the vigilance and ingenuity of fetish-makers), and on the other hand, the desire for value or else value as desire, a sign reaching toward nothing. Mixed up between the two, there are some overtly religious commodities or some overtly commoditylike religious practices, certain feeble sorts of magic in search of effects that are like the inverse of this desire. One would think one was seeing the well-known scenario: in Renaissance Italy, a street preacher is ignored by the crowds because everyone is trying to see the marionettes at a nearby puppet show. The preacher then waves his crucifix as he shouts, “Ecco il vero Pulcinella!” Could he be saying more of the truth than it appears? If desire were always seeking the true Pulcinella, in the sense that this marionette would be . . . truth itself, not revealed like a ridiculous secret, but showing itself truthfully as the farce which the will to truth really is (or the will to value, to a first and a last sense—and that itself being truth: unexpected, nondeified, nonfetishized truth, but shaken as a joyous and disturbing fetish. As Nietzsche said, “the buffoon and the saint are the
4. We follow Heidegger’s indication concerning the fetish, commented on by Werner Hamacher in “Peut-être la question,” Les fins de l’homme [Sein und Zeit, qtd. in Hamacher 353]. Translator’s note: For an English translation of this passage, see Being and Time 112–13.

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most interesting human types,” but he ends up making a choice: “As a disciple of Dionysus, I would rather be a satyr than a saint.” Satyrs, pulcinellas (little Neapolitan chickens), fetishes: so many manifestations of this that there is nothing to reveal, and also of the fact that the secret consists in not revealing anything. This is the very art of art or the very art of life. Translated by Thomas C. Platt

WORKS CITED Hamacher, Werner. “Peut-être la question.” Les fins de l’homme. Dir. Philippe LacoueLabarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy. Paris: Galilée, 1981. 345–65. Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962. Marx, Karl. Collected Works. Trans. Richard Dixon et al. New York: International Publ., 1975. [CW] ________ . Oeuvres. Paris: Gallimard, 1982.


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