Thursday, June 22, 2006

Three Phases of the Commodity-in-Itself

"In the hands of a free spirit, the cinema is a magnificent and dangerous weapon.” ~ Luis Buñuel

Many people are quite anal about their possessions – they keep them with pride, they dust them, have a little story of the acquisition, etc.

But is this well done? A thing possessed, even if it is a nice thing, is still merely a thing. It often comes with a price tag, which we tend to circumcise from the precious object the moment we take it unto ourselves. Foreskin begone! I have tended to do otherwise. The price tag of, say, the painted Madonna on tin that I purchased at El Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City for a few pesos was part of that work. It is a document in its history, and – I guess this is the point – to me, it is the relational history of the commodity, rather than the commodity in its showcased, pristine Ding-an-Sichlichkeit,* that is the object of my curiosity, possibly even of my desire. People have told me they found it somehow tasteless to be looking at some object in my home and then to notice the price tag. Some don't assume I should immediately be adjudged to have bad taste; rather they make the humane inference that I have overlooked the existence and matter of the tag, even when it’s in such plain view, as on the front of the Madonna’s tin frame, as to glare.

It’s not just historical data like price and provenance, though. I had to decide the fate of a number of things I owned after the hurricanes of 2004. Some things suffered mild damage. If it was a matter of harm – mildew on wood bookcases – I did all I could to eliminate it. But for example, there are two little prints that hung on a wall beneath a ceiling that caved in. Bits of attic insulation, wet, drifted down onto these little prints, and dried on them. Not enough to give them a whole new skin, just blotches here and there. I’ve never removed them. The prints bear the marks of their vicissitudes under my stewardship –- marks that belong to their history, and therefore, who am I, just because I have some legal claim as their owner, to deprive them of the traces of their past?

I am sure a certain reader is thinking this is all quite silly and how this could be taken to absurd lengths. I might for example have simply left my house in its storm-damaged state, with its insulation snowfalls, its indoor rain forests, mold and all, because that would be truer to its history. It would also have made it unhealthy and uncomfortable to live in –- aside from the fact that the state itself took the trouble to condemn the building, barring me, the owner, from inhabiting it until it was repaired and inspected. No, I don’t pretend to that sort of single-minded dedication to the idea of the Commodity-in-Itself. But I do fantasize about one day walking into someone’s home and, instead of furnishings such as paintings, books, chairs, and so on, seeing nothing but price tags. The tags that were on those now missing items when they were purchased. I fantasize about that person whose monastic purity put such value in the vertiginous moment of price acceptance, if that’s what it would be, as to require nothing more. He would jettison the things themselves with the same dispassionate dispatch with which the rest of us cut off the tags. Such a person I would congratulate for having worked his way so deeply into the conundrum of property and appropriation as to prize the tag above the thing, and above the history of the thing. With such sufficiency, we are on the far side of historical stewardship – as extreme in its own way as are those others who insist on sitting on chairs, and dining on tables, and looking at works of art under the sterile privation of untagged, ahistorical, unreflected commodity blindness.

*the horrendum pudendum, says Nietzsche.


Anonymous klaus said...

When my family emigrated from Ireland in the 1830's they became shopkeepers, which persisted into the 1960's when my last shopkeeping relative was running a neighborhood grocery store.

Back in the 1870's, they worked out a system for encrypting the wholesale price of an item on it's pricetag, which could be decrypted in the seller's head on-the-fly during a transaction.

This adds a whole other cosmic dimension to the value of pricetag collections. You could build a civilization on the priestly reading of these encrypted tags, just like the grocery list in A Canticle for Liebowitz, or a analysis of a bookmark account. Tags. Think about it.

6/24/2006 10:16 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

Thanks Klaus - I love stories of this sort of merchant strategem. I'd be curious whether this sort of tag cryptography, in one form or another, was/is a more general practice. And yep - tags.

6/25/2006 8:28 AM  
Anonymous Tutor said...

My wife and I have checked the Mexican table-runner and religious icon you gave us. I note that you thought so little of us as to have clipped off the precious price tags, leaving us with the bare commodity. You pocketed those tags no doubt.

By the way, certain men's suit manufacturers with high class brand names, are now putting the label on the outside of the suit, on the upper cuff. That way people will know that your gray suit is a Calvin Klein suit. To make the status more visible the name of the brand is printed in royal purple on dark gray, against the lighter gray of the suit itself. Such labels will be lovingly sewn back on, should they ever fall off.

6/26/2006 1:31 AM  
Anonymous tom said...

Tutor, as a maker of gifthub you will recognize giftgiving to be a whole other dimension. In this case, the objects in question, purchased from a family that ran its own in-house operation, came without tags, receipts, or other forms of transactional signifiers. Then again, I believe I bowed to the prevailing code at the welcoming home of you and your wife. Had there been invoices or receipts attached to the splendid dinner, breakfast, amenities, carpet cleaning, etc., perhaps I'd have been emboldened to improvise some handmade tags for you.

6/26/2006 7:43 AM  
Anonymous bmo said...

Right. I like this. I'm thinking of papering the living room with my Visa statements.

6/27/2006 2:25 PM  

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