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Diacritics 31.2 (2001) 3-8

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The Two Secrets of the Fetish

Jean-Luc Nancy

"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 remains [End Page 3] 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...


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