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Discourse 23.3 (2001) 3-23
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Equivocation and Demoralisation
Beginning with its use in the emerging discourse of political economy, the notion of utility has been marked by an equivocation. Between the ordinary meaning of the word—loaded as it is with practical and moral connotations—and the strictly economic meaning, a distance has been deliberately introduced, a distance so great that, under the guise of a simple and innocent extension of ordinary language, it amounts in fact to the creation of a new notion. The fact that in the language of economics the word "utility" does not have the same meaning as in ordinary language (or in the language of ancient and traditional philosophy which only clarifies this ordinary language), is a preliminary remark so elementary that I hesitate to repeat it yet again; it is all too obvious, however, that although this difference is not ignored by those who frequent treatises on economics, it implies an ideological operation that has remained largely unperceived and unthought, giving rise to a very deep and tenacious equivocation that is not a simple misunderstanding. We are familiar with the problem; it is often recalled at the beginning of studies in economic science, but is evoked only as a simple lexical problem, with no interrogation of the ideological meaning of the operation. The "useful" in ordinary language is generally opposed to the harmful or the superfluous, which implies a moral judgment. This judgment establishes a demarcation between what is legitimate, necessary, reasonable, practical, urgent, etc., and [End Page 3] what is merely secondary, fanciful, frivolous, irrational, inessential, etc. We would be reluctant to speak of the utility of lace (the example often cited) or of diamonds, tobacco, etc. Bread, on the other hand, is useful, or medicine for the sick, or water for every human being. The useful can serve for something, and the idea of this "real" service is not without an implicit decision concerning the needs or desires that are judged good, appropriate, legitimate, reasonable or vital, in contrast to those that are secondary, supererogatory, not to say guilty, which in turn presupposes a general finality of actions and a narrow hierarchisation of choices within the more or less strict framework of a morality. On the contrary, in the sense assigned to it by economics, utility signifies nothing other than the property of satisfying any individual (and momentary) desire whatever. In this sense, anything is useful that is desirable here and now, even the "harmful," the "superfluous,"—and, in the ordinary sense, the "useless." . . . The fact that with the foundation of political economy, and with the establishment of an economic ideology, the word "utility" lost its traditional meaning and acquired a new and much broader "technical" meaning (so broad that it can even go so far as to contradict the familiar sense), deserves to be considered more closely; this is all the more the case in that the fundamental ambiguity that results from it generally leads critics to underestimate the enveloping force of economic logic and the power of its philosophical base, and to oppose to it illusory alternatives that are already included in its founding conceptual strategies. Quite often, for example, the critique aimed at the ideology of utility and utilitarian practices seems to fall far short of the strategic power of the foundation of economic thought. This critique seems to content itself with a caricatured target, that of a rationality based on convention and an outmoded utilitarianism belonging more to the Aristotelian, Thomistic or paleo-bourgeois universe than to the fundamental and integral dynamics of capitalism.
From this point of view, certain pages of Georges Bataille, for example, or—in a less obvious way—certain analyses of Jean Baudrillard, are not without their misunderstandings. At times they owe the apparent force of their critical energy only to the extreme reduction to which they have first subjected the image of the society they denounce or the founding ideologies they set out to attack. In Baudrillard, the notions of use-value and utility become so trivial that the gesture of opposing to them...