Friday, October 2, 2009

Food for Thought

Marx's theory of commodity fetishism is undeniably a bit hard to understand and come to terms with... especially when you consider Marx argues we aren't even aware of our fetishism culture. So it makes me wonder - Do we live for commodities? Why do you think Marx argues that we are able to recognize fetishism in previous cultures, but not in our own? Is this a fair assessment of ourselves? While I do think he has some valid points, his arguments undeniably leave me a bit uneasy.

Below is a link to a short video clip that discusses the Dali Lama, Barbie and commodity fetishism:

In the video, the speaker argues that fetishism is rampant in America. In fact, he argues that in a way, it is a defining characteristic of the "American Dream". Is it? Do we place to much emphasis on commodities? Or is this guy just blurting out useless rhetoric? What does it mean that we send Barbie to China despite all of our ideological differences and anger over human rights issues and such? While it is undoubtably hard to take the speaker serious, it does make me wonder why we are so seemingly willing to place economics over humanity (as the speaker argues in the clip). I guess another question I would ask is this.... Is Marx fair in describing "fetishism" in terms of a religion? Religion seems to imply we have faith in these commodities or that they are some how mystical or powerful, yet are they? Is it fair to talk about this theory of fetishism in terms of religious sentiments? In sending Barbie to China, do we believe that eventually are western ideas and principles will travel with her? Is Barbie, as a commodity, that powerful? Is this just another demonstration of our unwavering faith in commodities?


  1. Provocative post, Carolyn. We didn't really talk about Marx's beef with religion (it's probably self-evident, though), but I think we can see that religion, to the extent that it places a premium on objects--aftifacts, relics--that some might call meaningless (bones of dead saints are still just bones, right?), operates with the same kind of fetishist impulse that capitalism does. Can Barbie free Tibet? Why not? She's been just about everthing else--safari explorer, business woman, astronuat (I'm guessing here)--so why not political activist? She obviously holds quite a bit of cultural weight--of cultural capital, even though, once again, she's merely plastic.

  2. This reminds me of a poem by Denise Duhamel.


    In the 5th century B.C.
    an Indian philosopher
    Guatama teaches "All is emptiness"
    and "There is no self."
    In the 20th century A.D.
    Barbie agrees, but wonders how a man
    with such a belly could pose,
    smiling, and without a shirt.

  3. First of all, the fetishization of a particular item is always in the eye of the beholder. Tobacco was fetishized by American Indians in a very different way than it was by English settlers when they discovered it for themselves. That's to say that having a particular product in common cannot be confused for cultural similarity. I also think that imported goods only form the basis of very shallow cross-cultural relationships, if they form relationships at all (they usually don't). I'm not saying that Barbie will not bring anything new to the current generation of adolescent Chinese girls (and boys), but that Barbie will mean different things to them than she meant to you or me or Professor Fisher when we were growing up.

    I forget where I read this, but once I read an article about postmodernity and identifying as a particular type of cultural consumer. The writer argued that today, when choose a product or when we say, "I like that," what we really want to communicate is, "I am like that." This has so much to do with how much I loved Barbie-- owning Barbies and playing with them ("playing" in this case consisted of changing outfits and going on repeated honeymoons with Ken) made it possible for me to feel like I was like Barbie. I immersed myself in the doll I was playing with so that I felt beautiful and older and sophisticated, and even by choosing the more realistic Barbies (doctor Barbie over mermaid Barbie--though honestly the latter is looking more realistic these days), my friends and I tried to make it more plausible for the Barbies to represent us in the future. I think that creating an ultimate universe for you and your friends to exist in is a huge part of the appeal of dolls. The kind of doll you choose, and the kind of world you make for it is a way of representing yourself. This is why it's so appealing to have dolls that look like you-- and why Mattel has bothered designing new Chinese Barbies. The more the doll resembles who's playing with it, the easier it is for that person to suspend his/her disbelief.

    Chinese kids will make the dolls fit into the fantasy worlds they already have. I don't believe that Western overtones of any consequence will be carried over by the Barbies themselves.

  4. I think that many US practices involving commodities definitely fall under fetishism as defined by Marx but both on an individual and national level. Like Carolyn said, we export and import billions of dollars from China despite severe idealogical differences with China, which Marx would definitely argue is a severe case of fetishism where we place a desire for commodities and money over basic humanity, but I think that something that has become more apparent in recent years is the ability to use economics as a tool for good, but also a tool to wield power.

    I think that the largest thing that Marx overlooks is the untapped power that existed in economics before the United States through the system of capitalism found a way to use economics as almost a weapon. The TV Show West Wing argued that "Chinese prisoners are going to be sewing soccer balls with their teeth whether or not we [America] sell them cheeseburgers." and I think thats definitely true, but I do think like Carolyn said there is some altruism behind putting economics above immediate humanitarian interests. If we trade with a country, we are inherently requiring them to enter the international system and begin to standardize their labor practices to meet the morality of the global economy. The issue with this is though that right now the global economy does not have much morality and therefore your tech support call is answered by an indian guy who learned english from Friends and gets paid half as much as his american counterpart. So i guess in conclusion, there is a humanitarian purpose at times behind American fetishism, but in the end so far it does seem like the requirement for commodities overrules the desire for basic human rights

  5. I definitely feel that American fetishism originated with the American dream. Most people obsess over that which they can't have, and what everyone else does have. Once we acquire something of value (a commodity) we want to show it off so others can be envious of it too. The American dream began with fetish-ing over a white picket fence, nice car in the driveway, and dog playing in the yard. Soon everyone started setting their eyes on things like this because society as a whole created norms that "everyone" had to have, beyond the picket fence and dog. Girls starting going crazy over Barbie, boys over Hot Wheels, and before we knew it, these fetishes were born. Sending it overseas is just spreading the epidemic to countries where such commodities were not necessarily in the front row. I personally feel that America as a whole is more materialistic than China (I could easily be wrong about that), but spreading such a culture revolving around useless, plastic, and meaningless commodities isn't helping the world.