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Art and Thingness, Part Two: Thingification

Continued from “Art and Thingness, Part One: Breton’s Ball, Duchamp’s Carrot” in issue 13.

In a text written in response to the upheavals of the Russian Revolution and the early Soviet avant-garde, Carl Einstein claimed that tradition “piles up in the object”; that the object is a “medium for passive thinking,” bound to tradition and bourgeois property relations; and that in order to “assert the human person, objects, which are preserve jars, must be destroyed.” Going so far as to state that “every destruction of objects is justified,” Einstein proclaimed a “dictatorship of the thingless.” Einstein’s text seems to reflect simplistic narratives in which modernity is virtually synonymous with a purist, idealist suppression of the thing. Of course, such idealist tendencies did exist, but so did opposition to them. As if responding to Einstein’s quasi-Suprematist essay, Adorno once remarked that “someone who looks upon thingness as radical evil, who wants to dynamize all that exists into pure actuality, tends to be hostile to otherness, to the alien—which has lent its name to alienation, and not for nothing.”

In a Latourian manner, one might present the recent turn to the thing as a break with the project of modernity: after all, isn’t modernity in theory and in praxis the desperate attempt to (re)form the world in accordance with the will of an autonomous, imperious subject that turns things into ordered and emaciated objects? Such an opposition, however, is dubious; as Adorno’s remark may serve to recall, it is not only manifestly “anti-modern” modern philosophers, such as Heidegger, who prefigure the recent thing-turn. Adorno too was far from embracing objects or things as they were, rooted as his thought was in the Marxian analysis of commodity fetishism and the Lukácsian critique of reification or Verdinglichung. After all, isn’t the very term Verdinglichung—literally “thingification,” to which an important section of Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness is dedicated—manifestly idealist?

For all the problems with History and Class Consciousness—of which Lukács was well aware later in his life—it remains worthwhile to trace the main steps of its argument, whose repercussions can scarcely be overestimated. Lukács’ starting point is Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism, in which “a definite social relation between men” assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things,” which Lukács characterizes as “the basic phenomenon of reification.” But the fetishist illusion of commodities—as “social things” whose exchange value appears to follow gratuitous whims—is only one half of reification; it is not only that the commodities form a spectacle of quasi-subjects, but the subjects themselves, as workers, are transformed. In consequence of the rationalization of the work process the human qualities and idiosyncrasies of the worker appear increasingly as mere sources of error when contrasted with these abstract special laws functioning according to rational predictions. Neither objectively nor in his relation to his work does man appear as the authentic master of the process; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already preexisting and self-sufficient; it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not. As labor is progressively rationalized and mechanized, his lack of will is reinforced by the way in which his activity becomes less and less active and more and more contemplative.

Read the full article here.