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New Left Review 54, November-December 2008

From the philosophe De Brosses in the eighteenth century to the abstract expressionist Barnett Newman and the conceptualist Sol LeWitt in the twentieth—via Hegel, Creuzer and Marx—the fates of the fetish and the commodity, in critical thought and art.



It has become a moderately popular pastime to accuse modern philosophy and theory, particularly Marxism, of evincing a crypto-idealist aversion to objecthood. Bruno Latour claims that the quintessential modern project is to liberate the subject from its dependency on the object, one prominent instance of which is the Marxian critique of the commodity fetish, that archetypal ‘bad object’. [1] Latour’s analysis, developed in We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, ma 1993), has been varied in a number of writings since then. Part of Latour’s project is also to ‘save the honour’ of the fetish as a notion: see Latour, Petite réflexion sur le culte moderne des dieux faitiches, Paris 1996. Is materialism, then, in the grips of a religious impulse to spurn the material world and ‘attend to things invisible’—in the form of grand theoretical notions? [2] ‘Wean your heart from the love of visible things, and attend rather to things invisible’. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, quoted in Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin, Cambridge 1986, p. 33. However, time and again this transcendental impulse resulted in a proto-materialist attention to the mundane world. For all the criticisms that have been made of Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, his argument that the strongly transcendental God of radical Protestantism led to a ‘turn towards the world’, rather than a withdrawal from it, remains compelling. In fact, for dialectical materialism theoretical abstractions are necessitated by the abstraction inherent in the economic system; the commodity is regarded as insufficiently material, as too ‘theological’, prone to idealist pretenses. In Terry Eagleton’s words, ‘As pure exchange-value, the commodity erases from itself every particle of matter; as alluring auratic object, it parades its own unique sensual being in a kind of spurious show of materiality’. [3] Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, London 1990, p. 209. But this inherent duality of the commodity is not static; over time, the ‘spurious’ materiality of the ‘auratic object’ seems to become more so, the commodity becoming increasingly dematerialized and abstract. As Vilém Flusser noted, to abstract means to subtract, and specifically to subtract data from matter; throughout history, abstraction has been a movement towards information. [4] ‘Auf dem Weg zum Unding’, in Vilém Flusser, Medienkultur, Frankfurt 1997, pp. 185–9. In the ‘information economy’, capitalism has embraced a quasi-theological narrative of dematerialization, creating a need to redefine materialism that is only heightened by the turmoil in which this economy now finds itself.

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Sven Lütticken, ‘Attending to Abstract Things’, NLR 54: £3

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