Commodification <debate>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 2 Mar 1996 23:46:31 +0900

Brian Howell raises two interesting questions:

"1) Are the recreations of the past in supposedly authentic terms,
to be characterized in the kind of commodification/privitization
used by Boudrillard?

2) Can members of the dominant culture perform the same kind
of creative hybridization and resistance to their own culture
which is celebrated when manifest by the subaltern

My first response to (1) is "of course not." There will be as many
characterizations as there are questions and theories about what
these representations represent. Baudrillard is, to my mind,
someone who, like Judith Williamson on advertising, has made
a reputation by starting with some useful observations and
exaggerating their implications to make a big noise. As someone
who works in advertising, I know the technique; I resist being
taken in by it. Here my resistance is stirred not only by the
rhetorical form of the question but also by Brian's suggestion that
Colonial Williamsburg, which he calls a "theme park" is an
example of what Baudrillard is talking about. As someone who
grew up a half hour's drive from Williamsburg, I fancy myself a
native informant and am irritated by a combination of gross lack
of subtlety and sheer misrepresentation.

Busch Gardens, 10 minutes down Highway 60 from
Williamsburg is a theme park. An enclosed and completely
artificial place, it contains an area called The Old Country which
simulates Europe in roughly the same sense that Mickey Mouse
simulates middle-class American life. The fun is in the sheer
fantasy combined with amusement park-style rides. Yes, Colonial
Williamsburg is also a tourist attraction, and, yes, visitors buy
tickets which admit them to the main exhibits. It is, in addition, a
painstaking reproduction of 18th century colonial life which
continues to employ a substantial staff of archeologists and
historians in on-going research designed to increase its
authenticity. It is, moreover, a genuinely historic place and a
living and lived-in town, the home of The College of William
and Mary. A theme park it is not.

Commodification is, however, an interesting concept and one I
would like to hear other's opinions about. My own
understanding at the moment is based on Marx filtered (1)
through Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Zizek on ideology and (2)
Martyn Lee, 1993, _Consumer culture reborn: the cultural
politics of consumption_, New York and London: Routledge.
>From these sources I have reconstructed a view of
commodification that includes the following elements:

(1) Mass production of goods by doubly alienated workers who
(2) are deprived of ownership of the means of production, and
(3) prevented by the nature of their jobs from realizing the
creative potential innate in every human being, where
(4) the goods in question are fetishized and appear to possess
intrinsic value, while
(5) concealing the social relations involved in their production
(6) having their exchange value assessed in abstract, monetized
terms that
(7) appear to have universal value, but
(8) through mystification distract attention from from their use
value, which is something else again.

It is, I suggest, useful to unpack these several dimensions of
commodification and examine them separately. Thus, for
example, neither Colonial Williamsburg nor Busch Gardens is a
mass-produced good; both are, in different ways, unique
examples of historical reconstruction and theme park
respectively. Those who worked to build and continue to work to
maintain and operate them do not own the means of
production. They are not, however, assembly line workers
performing repetitive tasks reduced to a meaningless minimum.
Both are fetishized and presented as having intrinsic value.
Colonial Williamsburg, at least, makes a fetish of publicizing the
people and social relations involved in its creation and on-going
evolution. As I have noted, both are tourist attractions and
insofar as tickets are sold both are valued in abstract, monetized
terms. But Colonial Williamsburg is, in fact, where many
historic events occured, and the thrills provided by the rides at
Busch Garden are visceral indeed. Tourists could spend their
cash on something else--their money is, in principle, a universal
means of exchange. But the use values of education and patriotic
pride on the one hand and mindless recreation on the other are,
it seems, apparent to those who purchase them. To assert that
mystification is at work one has to assume a third-party
perspective from which it is claimed that something else,
something false, is going on, about which only that perspective
reveals the truth. But where, dear children of the post-modern
world, is the absolute frame of reference within which such a
claim is tenable?

Seriously, I'd like someone to come up with some answers, or
even a decently provocative flame.

John McCreery
March 2, 1996

P.S. the answer to question (2) is left as an exercise for the reader.