This transcript is an edited text combining Adam Bandt's site talks at the Victorian Trades Hall Council on the 15th of May and at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art on the 19th of September. These being the fourth and seventh sites respectively of the AMPEdS project in Melbourne, Australia, in 2004.
This talk is primarily about fetishism and more particularly the idea of commodity fetishism.
In her book On Anxiety, Renata Salecl suggests that in the 1990s, the dominant political ideology suggested that we had reached the end of history, that all significant conflicts had essentially ended. This is perhaps best epitomised by what describes itself as third way politics.
In this context in a world where the major hidden conflicts appear at an end and where nothing needs to be repressed or kept from view - she suggests that this ideology was paralleled by tendencies within art and culture towards showing everything, revealing everything. It was as if by the mere laying bare of the underlying workings of everything, anxieties about any hidden underlying conflicts would be assuaged.
Referring to artists like Tracey Emin, Stelarc and Damien Hirst, she wrote that:
Our ancestors might well have had a hard time understanding why robots or other types of new media machinery are art objects, or what is artistic on the use of a real cadaver in an exhibition... However, all these attempts to use new technologies to expose what is supposed to be invisible, actually do not depict lack as lack, but involve a certain denial of the lack, just as the picture of the genetic structure or even its scientific decoding does not give us a clue as to what constitutes the essence of a human being. Similarly, art which indulges in revealing everything that is supposed to be invisible, ungraspable or horrifying does not alleviate anxieties that people might have with regard to their bodies. Seeing the inside of the colon or vagina might make us shocked at how unromantic the inside looks, yet in no way affect sexual fantasies, hypochondriac fears, sublime attraction or disgust with regard to what is ungraspable in the body. But while ideology presents how everything is visible in contemporary society, people are nonetheless constantly left with an impression that someone else is running the show behind their backs
If for bodies we substitute commodities, what makes this project of Christian's notable is that it is not just about simply revealing, as if mere exposure answers the question of what makes a commodity a commodity. Instead, its actually digging a bit deeper. Its suggesting that there is a lack at the core of the commodity, a thing about commodities that cant be talked about.
It doesnt matter that you can see mattresses laid out before you: you can still feel the pea underneath them and feel that somethings out of joint.
Now, as your minds inevitably start wandering during my talk, Im really glad that the only thing that youll be able to look at is this great work here (referring to Dimitri Vilensky's film Production Line1 installed and playing alongside AMPEdS at ACCA). At the end of the day, these two projects are in some important way exactly the same: labour is the source of the thing we call value in commodities, but thats not how they appear to us.
So, how do we get from the idea of work to the idea of a monetary value for our work? What is lurking in the ellipsis the three dots on Christians poster after the time and before the money? Why are we so comfortable about talking about hourly rates of pay? What can we stick a monetary value to our work so easily that it can then follow it around, like gum stuck to our shoe, so that we can calculate the value of our work as if our work actually had a value?
Initially, Christians project screams the first few chapters of Karl Marxs Capital. In that book, Marxs aim is to lay bare the bones of capitalism. He starts with its basic unit - the commodity - and over the first few chapters he unpicks it. He suggests that commodities have a use-value (that is, they satisfy some want or need of the person who has or will have it) and it seems that to get this use-value, we simply exchange one commodity for another (e.g. money). On the surface, things that have use-values - commodities - exchange every day. We know that in this process, some of us turn up to work every day and bumble along, and others make a hell of a lot of money out of buying and selling commodities.
On first blush, it might seem that profit arises from the act of exchange itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the idea of interest, where it appears that a commodity itself (money) is creating its own value. However, Marx invites us to go,
"accompanied by Mr Moneybags [the capitalist] and by the possessor of labour power [the worker], we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face No admittance except on business. Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.
For Marx, labour is the secret life of the commodity. Labour-power is bought by your employer, and the price of it is your wage. It is the rate annotated on many of the pages of Christians project. Labour power, though, is a curious commodity and is unlike the others. Unlike the other commodities the employer uses, labour creates value. If it werent for what you do and create, there would just be inert objects sitting there. In the making of a product, labour is crystallised in that product.
However, the payment made by the employer is not the amount of value created by the labourer: it is, rather, enough for you to subsist, reproduce your labour, plus - and this is important - whatever else youve managed to wrest away. The surplus value is what is kept by the employer.
The Vogue2 is a stark reminder that labour is the source of value. Every page bears traces of crystallised labour, of human activity that results in a product, and that gives this product value.
The zero entries on some pages also reflect the role of unpaid labour in the creation of value, the labour that Toni Negri calls in one of the other projects in this exhibition the work of knowing where the socks are.
The fact that this value is erasure - not something that might be considered productive - is a reminder too that the labouring done now is often what Negri calls immaterial or affective labour. Labour that doesnt necessarily create a physical commodity, but rather works with the affects, with the senses, is still labour that creates value.
Once the commodity is stripped bare, and becomes a carrier of labour, the skeleton of the commodity is exposed. Creative labour is the source of value of all commodities. This Vogue is now an x-ray of all commodities.
In an earlier talk, Tom Nicholson approached the magazine as drawing, as both activity of drawing and trace of the activity. He said:
It is striking when you handle this object (which we are denied by its current form of exhibition) that this is an object transformed, at once physically diminished (in that it is markedly lighter for all that long suffering rubbing out) but also curiously elaborated. Although there is a melancholy about the object, it is also luminous. The erasing has eliminated the kind of luminosity of a glossy, that shine that seems to have materialised miraculously. It has replaced it with a luminosity which, in opposition to the nature of advertising, is based on exacerbating the presence of how the thing came into being. Whereas the luminosity of an advertisement is generally derived from an absence of indexical residues, specifically about the production of the merchandise (in other words, that sweatshop outside Jogjakarta needs to feel very distant indeed from the billboard on Bourke Street), the luminosity of this object is precisely a function of the process of its coming into being.
The analysis of the effacing of the trace of an advertisement is homologous to what I have just been talking about. The commodity is at pains to conceal its labour. The fantasm of the complete magazine as commodity hides the spectre of labour behind it. Christians object brings it to the surface unashamedly. It is luminous with creative labour.
In this way, Christians project is an injunction against commodity fetishism. By that phrase, I dont mean a desire for commodities or what might be called consumer culture. Rather, it is about commodities assuming the status of things that have properties that are capable in and of themselves of relating to other things.
When commodities confront each other and express their value, we seem to think it is a relationship between things. When we remember that money is just another commodity (though a universal commodity), this is apparent every time we buy something. Every receipt given to us at the supermarket checkout suggests that every item is capable of being exchanged for each other item in certain quantities, and with another universal commodity (money) in certain quantities. One loaf of bread = two cans of tomatoes = $2.80.
These exchanges appear to take place in their own world. But every can of tomatoes is crystallised labour: it represents the endeavours of people who have grown the tomatoes, processed them, packaged them, unpackaged them, sold them. When you buy the tomatoes, the result of your labour (in the form of your wage) is coming into contact with the result of others. However, we dont experience it as a mediated relationship between peoples labour, but rather a relationship between things according to a universal external standard. Marx says:
There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connexion with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.
Lets insist on the element of fantasy that here inheres. Commodity fetishism exists when we see this fantastic relation between things, and when we see these things as having their own qualities, including being able to bear value, instead of being an expression of a particular form of social relations.
In this regard, the Vogue helps us by stripping back almost everything that appeared to make this commodity have a life of its own. The shimmering quality it possessed as a magazine has been erased, and it no longer takes the symbolic place it once did. It doesnt take the same role in the glittering world of commodities and no longer appears as something that itself possessed an orthodox kind of value. The thing that takes it out of its context is labour: when the commodity says I am the crystallisation of different labours of different people rendered to one universal standard, it loses its status as a commodity.
Now, before I tell you about the octopus in the title of this paper, I just want to jump back into something far more mundane for a second. The genesis of this talk was a conversation I had with a mutual friend Andrea3, which she relayed to Christian, about how hourly rates of pay are actually calculated in Australia.
The notion of an hourly rate is a fairly recent invention. It is intimately tied up with the process Ive described whereby capital pays you for your use value and extracts the surplus.
Initially, capital resolves this dynamic by paying to the worker whatever is needed for the worker to sustain themselves, and basically making people work the rest of the time. More surplus is extracted that way.
As at 1833, Marx tells us the following system prevailed:
The Act of 1833 declares the ordinary factory working-day to be from half-past five in the morning to half-past eight in the evening and within these limits, a period of 15 hours, it is lawful to employ young persons (i.e., persons between 13 and 18 years of age), at any time of the day, provided no one individual young person should work more than 12 hours in any one day, except in certain cases especially provided for. ... The employment of children under 9, with exceptions mentioned later was forbidden; the work of children between 9 and 13 was limited to 8 hours a day, night-work, i.e., according to this Act, work between 8:30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., was forbidden for all persons between 9 and 18. The law-makers were so far from wishing to trench on the freedom of capital to exploit adult labour-power, or, as they called it, "the freedom of labour," that they created a special system in order to prevent the Factory Acts from having a consequence so outrageous. "The great evil of the factory system as at present conducted," says the first report of the Central Board of the Commission of June 28th 1833, "has appeared to us to be that it entails the necessity of continuing the labour of children to the utmost length of that of the adults. The only remedy for this evil, short of the limitation of the labour of adults which would, in our opinion, create an evil greater than that which is sought to be remedied, appears to be the plan of working double sets of children." ... Under the name of System of Relays, this "plan" was therefore carried out, so that, e.g., from 5.30 a.m. until 1.30 in the afternoon, one set of children between 9 and 13, and from 1.30 p.m. to 8.30 in the evening another set were "put to".
By 1847 the working day was reduced to a maximum of 12 hours. The price demanded by capitalists was to reduce the minimum age of exploiting children from 9 to 8 years old. By 1848 the maximum working day was 10 hours. As of 1850, children of 8 years of age were still working from 2:00pm to 8:30pm without a break.
The 8-hour day was introduced as a legislative minimum in the late 1850s. In 1856, Melbourne building workers fought for, and won, an 8-hour day for all trades in the building industry. This effectively reduced the working week from 60 to 48 hours; a world first. The five day working week that used to be standard took almost a century longer to be adopted finally in 1948.
The issue of the level of wages has a parallel history. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were significant industrial disputes across Australia. In 1907, the Harvester Judgement was handed down and it set the basis for a legislated minimum wage:
The provision for fair and reasonable remuneration is obviously designed for the benefit of the employees in the industry; and it must be meant to secure to them something which they cannot get by the ordinary system of individual bargaining with employers. If Parliament meant that the conditions shall be such as they can get by individual bargaining - if it meant that those conditions are to be fair and reasonable, which employees will accept and employers will give, in contracts of service - there would have been no need for this provision. The remuneration could safely have been left to the usual, but unequal contest, the 'higgling of the market' for labour, with the pressure for bread on one side, and the pressure for profits on the other. The standard of 'fair and reasonable' must, therefore, be something else; and I cannot think of any other standard appropriate than the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human living in a civilized community. I have invited counsel and all concerned to suggest any other standard; and they have been unable to do so. If instead of individual bargaining, one can conceive of a collective agreement - an agreement between all the employers in a given trade on the one side, and all the employees on the other - it seems to me that the framers of the agreement would have to take, as the first and dominant factor, the cost of living as a civilized being. If A lets B have the use of his horses, on the terms that he give them fair and reasonable treatment, I have no doubt that it is B's duty to give them proper food and water, and such shelter and rest as they need; and as wages are the means of obtaining commodities, surely the State, in stipulating for fair and reasonable remuneration for the employees, means that the wages shall be sufficient to provide these things, and clothing, and a condition of frugal comfort estimated by the current human standards. This, then, is the primary test, the test which I shall apply in ascertaining the minimum wages that can be treated as 'fair and reasonable' in the case of unskilled labourers.
Like all good capitalists, Justice Higgins had probably read his Karl Marx, with this passage reading like a quote from Capital. This judgement set a minimum wage designed to support a man, his wife and 3 kids. Women received 60% of the minimum wage and this continued for approximately 60 years. It enshrined the notion that in Australia wage levels would be fixed centrally.
Lurching struggles continued over the coming decades over the issues of: how much of my time do I need to spend working?; and what portion of the surplus I create for you can you keep?
The thing called an hourly rate fluctuates as a result of these struggles. In Australia, the 1960s and 1970s saw more of the surplus wrested back to workers, in the form of higher wages and social services. However, the 1980s saw a breakdown of centralised wage fixing. The Federal system started to become a minimum system, a safety net, and it was thrown back to the workplace to sort out the actual wage paid.
To work out how to define a safety net, industrial arbiters have done a curious thing. They have come back to the notion of the common standard and tried to find a way of making all labours comparable to each other. In each industry, the basic skilled worker is picked. That kind of worker counts as the base level classification (100%), and the other kinds of workers in that industry are placed relative to that classification. In the textile industry, for example, the base level classification is someone who is able to make a whole garment. It is a storeperson in the storage industry. In the printing industry, it is someone who operates a power driven screen printer. (Sadly, someone whose job it is to erase only clocks in at a relativity of 87%).
The average working week is currently set at 38 hours. The weekly rate for the 100% classification is $542.20. From this we get an average hourly rate of $14.27.
We see here the emergence of the notion that different labours are just part of a general notion of labour in the abstract that has a value expressible according to a common standard, and that value sticks to it like gum to a shoe.
The ability of it to be measured and sold for universal commodity money appears inherent in labour itself. It becomes second nature to talk about an hourly rate, and to talk about different labours being equivalent, as if in some way that was attached to the labouring process.
In other words, the contingent struggles fall into the background as a means of determining the price of labour, and into the foreground comes a notion of labour having worth, a value. So the question of what I should get paid for work becomes a sensible one. The parallel process of taking the fight over wages out of the hands of as central commission and back into workplaces might, one thinks, bearing the background closer to the front - it becomes clear that the price of labour is dependent on a fight. Unfortunately, though, we still tend to look at it filtered through the screen that remains in the foreground, the screen of labour having a value.
This can be illustrated by a hypothetical demand. While restrictions on the length of the working week are loosening, there are some demands for tightening it. Many are arguing for a cap on working hours. That is one thing. But what would be the response to a call for a cap on hours with no loss of pay? Not only would all hell break loose, but one could expect that this demand would be termed an effective wage rise, even though no more money would be paid. Indeed, it might even be difficult to get people to rally behind this call.
We think about the labour we sell as another commodity that ought to have a fair price, even though, as we have seen, the exchange is never fair. We have, in fact, been guilty of commodity fetishism of our own labour. We have taken the view that our activity, instead of being an inherently social activity that takes place in relation to others, is a thing that carries its own label around with it. All of these relations are inscribed in every dollar figure written in Christians book. It is an archive of condensed struggles.
But what is this guilt? Having exposed the secret of profit making, and having seen that labour is the source of value, why isnt merely exposing it enough? Why do we know that commodities like our labour power are constructed and contingent, but still find it so easy to talk about our hourly rate as if it was something real, as if we didnt have these insights?
We need to remind ourselves of what Renata Salecl said at the beginning, and realise that mere exposition isnt enough. Laying bare the bones of how things work is only going to get us so far.
And at this point, Slavoj Zizek has something very interesting to tell us about the notion of fetishism. Zizek agrees with Marx that commodities arent things in themselves. He also agrees that they do appear as relations between things instead of relations between people. But he says the really fetishistic bit about commodity fetishism is that people know all this, but they act as if they dont know.
This acting as if we dont know about the gaping hole at the centre of aspects of everyday life is the fetishistic aspect of ideology par excellence.
Lets take the example of the lying politician. On the surface, no one thinks that lying is a good thing. Everyone is meant to be telling the truth. Politicians are meant to say the truth and there is supposed to be debate. However, everyone actually knows that politicians lie. But it seems that merely pointing this out only gets you so far: people can go blue in the face explaining how Howard lied about "The Children Overboard Incident" but it doesnt seem to do much. This is because, says Zizek, people already know that individual politicians lie, that they are dishonest or corrupt. Ruling ideology takes this into account. By addressing people on this level it crucially acknowledges the extent to which people will know this, but will act as if they dont. Cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to this subversion: it recognises, it takes into account the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but it still finds reason to retain the mask. And the reason to retain it is that acting as if gives some solidity to everyday life. In other words, it is not simply a matter of peeling off a veneer of ideology by repetitively revealing the truth beneath it. Rather, we have to accept that people know there is a distance between the veneer and the reality, and that this distance is already taken into account. Crucial to it all is the phrase I know very well, but Ill act as if I dont know . This is the basic core of the idea of fetishism.
Thus, to come back to Christians project, I think there are some confrontations with some pretty big buts/as ifs and they centre around this: I think we can at some level all say I know very well that the price of my labour is contingent, that there is no inherent link between my creative labour and a dollar figure, but nonetheless I will act as if my work has an hourly rate.
Or, perhaps more radically, I know very well that commodities are produced by labour, that there is a direct relationship between the sweatshop in Jogjakarta and the shoes on my feet, but I will act as if I dont know this.
I think the great merit of Christians work is that it points to the commodity as precisely the place where so many of these disavowals happen. It takes us not only through the first level by reminding us that labour is the source of value of all commodities, that money sticks to the bottom of the shoe of creative labour but that they are actually quite different things but also stands as a reminder of the second level of how everyday life is structured around a necessary overlooking of these gaping holes, and how the commodity is one of those objects that is the point at which we stitch together a bundle of ideas to give make it seem like theres no gaping hole there after all.
And in that respect, one can talk about the commodity existing in the fantasy space of capitalism, some of the contours of this fantasy space Ive just tried to describe. The commodity is a kind of object that when you hold it up against this fantasy space, it seems to radiate and attain some kind of sublime quality. In this regard, Zizek talks about a Jacques Cousteau documentary
In one of his television broadcasts on the wonders of seal life, Jacques Cousteau showed a kind of octopus that, seen in its element in the ocean depths, moves with delicate grace and exerts a terrifying and at the same time magnificent power of fascination, but which, when removed from the water, becomes a disgusting lump of slime. In Hitchcocks Vertigo, Judy-Madeleine undergoes a similar transformation: as soon as she is removed from her element, as soon as she no longer occupies the place of the Thing, her fascinating beauty vanishes and she becomes repulsive. The point of these observations is that the sublime quality of an object is not intrinsic, but rather an effect in its position in the fantasy space.
The Vogue is an octopus on the beach. It is a commodity lifted out of its fantasy space and dumped somewhere else. And what you see when you look at it, is a blueprint of every commodity, of labour as the source of value of every thing you call a commodity. It is a record of the utter absurd contingency of the price of everyones labour. And just as I spent this morning flicking through that crappy Sunday Age Magazine even though I know its crap its a stark reminder of how these objects exist in our life everyday and we interact with them by pretending we dont know the gaping hole that they are covering.
I think the destruction of the fetishism of the commodity is thoroughly utopian. But I dont say that like its a bad thing. Sitting here in this excellent exhibition4, its something that doesnt just attempt to expose hidden workings as if that was enough. Instead, it points to the hidden kernel, the pea under the mattress that needs to be removed if were ever going to get a good nights sleep.
1Dimitri Vilensky's film Production Line, from the project Negation of Negation, shows workers on a car assembly line in Nizhnyi Novgorod and people leaving the building, presumably at the end of a shift.
2Vogue Hommes #92, Septembre 1986. The erased artefact.
3Andrea Maksimovic, one of the erasers/collaborators.
4Cycle Tracks Will Abound in Utopia, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 07.08.04 - 26.09.04.
Adam delivers his talk beside the magzine artefact at ACCA with Dimitri Vilensky's film Production Line in the background.
Adam's paid work is in the Industrial, Employment and Public Interest Unit at Slater & Gordon solicitors as a lawyer representing trade unions. He is also completing postgraduate study in social theory, focusing on ideas of law and legality under contemporary capitalism.