You Get What You Pay For

The prior post outlined a case for decommodifying e-books. But would a free book lose its fetish value as a desirable object?

The economic value of a book to the individual purchaser is its purchase price. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Suppose the e-book utility scheme were to come into reality, with readers downloading their own copies of e-books for free. If a book costs nothing to own, is it worth anything? Maybe a free download is valued only if it’s been pirated. If it’s a book that most people pay good money for but that I’ve managed to get my hands on by hook or crook, then the book retains its commodity fetish value even if I didn’t spend a dime for it. I even get the added thrill of sticking it to the man, thereby enhancing my own self-perceived fetish value as a post-capitalist renegade. What happens when there’s no man to stick it to?  (from Postcapitalist Books — Pamphlet 2)

Freud regarded the fetish as a penis substitute, the mother’s missing phallus, a stand-in for that which is missing, excised, castrated. Obsession with a fetish is driven, says Freud, by the male’s fear of castration, the displaced fetish-penis serving as a both an obscure object of desire and a reminder of what horrors might befall him. Attraction and repulsion, allure and contempt — like the Chinese custom of mutilating the woman’s feet and then revering them. If she gets castrated then maybe I won’t have to. Freud insisted that analysts charge high fees to their patients, lest the patients regard the analyst’s services as being of little value. In jacking up the hourly rate Freud reinforced the analyst’s fetish value to the patient. I desire the Doctor; I fear the Doctor; the Doctor suffers loss and humiliation so I don’t have to. He’s worth the money. Maybe you’re cured when you realize that the Doctor isn’t worth all of that emotional investment, and so you’re no longer willing to pay the fee.

In Marx’s theory of fetish value can be found the seeds of what would later be spawned in Freud. The capitalist castrates the worker, detaching the work product from the worker and enshrining it as an object of strange allure and fascination, an object of value, an object one would like to possess, an object worth money beyond its use value, money paid as tribute to the capitalist as tribute, as profit. Is fetish value driven by the buyer’s fear of castration, of losing control of the means and ends of production in the same way that the producer of the fetish lost control, was castrated? Does the buyer hold the fetishized commodity not only in awe but also in contempt? Is that why the buyer of the fetish becomes its consumer, incorporating its phallic potency while at the same time destroying it? Maybe you’re cured when you realize that the commodity isn’t worth all of that emotional investment, and so you’re no longer willing to pay the fee.

I’m skeptical of broad theoretical explanations. Do men value objects because they fear castration, whereas women desire those same objects because they want to recover their own castrated phallus? Do buyers value objects less when those objects are produced entirely by machines, which couldn’t care less about being alienated from their work product, or do buyers value machine-made objects more because automation castrates workers not just from their work product but from the work process as well? Is the very idea of a discrete object, disconnected from the social milieu in which it’s embedded, symptomatic of psychological perversion and economic exploitation?

I suppose I really should give serious thought to these matters. But I think it’s important to resist attempting to formulate a general abstract conceptualization and then applying it deductively to the case at hand. Instead I’d rather stick with the case at hand for its own sake, namely the sorts of value ascribed to works of written fiction. On the other hand, the abstract ideas of fetishization and objectivization eventually do prove to be part of the case at hand, to the extent that those ideas constitute products of the imagination — fictions — rather than integral features of the material world. But I’ll table that work until later. The case at hand now has to do with buying and selling novels or not buying and selling them.

Stripped of its fetish value, a commodity is reduced to its utility value. But of what use is a novel? Does it help the reader cope, or escape, or empathize, or think, or feel? Or is the very notion of utility suspect when it comes to novels? Is assigning utility to a novel an economic move to justify charging money for it? If so, then the novel’s utility value is itself a kind of fetish value, an imaginary valuation ascribed to an intrinsically useless production. In its postcommodified form,the e-novel perhaps ought to be worth nothing at all economically. The effort that the novelist invests in writing a novel shouldn’t be regarded as “work” since that effort is generated in the production of something useless, so that effort needn’t be compensated financially. Novels should be free; novelists should go unpaid.

But maybe it’s the inherent uselessness of the novel that makes it a particularly useful in considering postcapitalism and postcommodification. Fetish value is regarded as a distortion, a delusion, a perversion, a ripoff — something to be castrated. But maybe fetish value is intrinsic to psychologies and economies that fetishize use value. Valuing useless stuff becomes a kind of guilty pleasure, an exercise in decadence. But reducing value to utility, this pragmatic and efficient means-ends engineering of lives and societies — maybe that’s the real decadence. The rich have always been able to afford their decadence, living off of their inheritances or the profits generated for them by their debtors and employees. The rich are the fetishes of capitalist culture. Art for art’s sake: that sort of aesthetic decadence tends to flourish during times of acute economic exploitation. It’s a form of resistance against the commodification of people as workers, as generators of use value. What happens when the workers are rendered useless by machines? Are they discarded as worthless? Or are they able to claim as their own the decadent uselessness of the fetishized elite?

Now back to the pamphlet:

If, for e-books, the commodity form of value passes into obsolescence and is replaced by the utility form, would commodity-based metrics likewise pass into disuse? Maybe not. Sales and downloads are measures of popularity. It could be argued that popularity is the best metric for estimating societal value. That’s how most government officials are elected in a representative democracy: whoever gets the most individual votes wins. The cynic will point out that elections can be bought, that voters can be swayed by sales campaigns, that popular elections measure not what’s best for us collectively but what the greatest number of individuals believe – or are led to believe – is best for them personally. In short, democratic elections are a lot like capitalist marketplaces, where the candidates are the commodities. Might as well keep selling books one at a time if that’s the best we can do.

“Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic.” That’s what Oscar Wilde had to say on the matter. In moving beyond the commodification of books should we adopt the point of view of a Victorian-era decadent aesthete who also attained pop celebrity status during his heyday? Maybe.

I don’t like to think of my fictions – neither the ones I read nor the ones I write – as works of art. It seems pretentious, precious, presumptuous. At the same time, I don’t regard my fictions as entertainments – trivial, frivolous, demeaning. Maybe I’m just a middle-class Midwestern middlebrow at heart. I’m equally ambivalent about why I read fictions, and about why others do, or should. When it comes to evaluating fictional texts I lack conviction; I’m intimidated when critics promulgate their literary judgments as established truths, but I’m enough of a snob to dismiss popularity as bad taste.

Here’s a variant on the Wildean epigram: “Science should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself scientific.” I endorse this maxim wholeheartedly: scientific findings should be held to standards higher than popularity. If most environmental scientists assert that humans are causing global warming, I expect their consensus to be based not on what they stand to gain personally in terms of money and prestige, not on groupthink, but on reliable empirical evidence evaluated according to rigorous standards. Or another variant: “Justice should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself just.” Amen to that. I would hope that a defendant is found guilty or not based on the weight of the evidence rather than on the lawyers’ rhetorical seductions or the bandwagon of majority opinion taking shape in the jury room.

Are there objective or universally accepted criteria against which the merits and flaws of a fictional text can be weighed? Are there literary critics with such impeccable taste that their judgments cannot be doubted? No and no. Beauty, some say, is in the eye of the beholder: does that maxim translate into a beauty pageant where the eyes have it, where the sum of individual purchasing decisions or “likes” determines the winner? In the preceding pamphlet I proposed that the book industry runs like a beauty pageant where individual winners and losers might be selected by popular vote but where all of the contestants are selected by the pageant organizers. Maybe this is the most persuasive fetish value bestowed on every published book: it has been entered into the contest, prejudged by the judges as meeting high enough standards to join the competition. The published book is imbued with the plenitude of having been chosen, an aura that precedes and presages its enshrinement in material form, a plenitude not intrinsic to the book itself but bestowed upon it by the judges who, sequestered from public view, perform their transformative magic. It is the exercise of this occult power, investing word with spirit and spirit with matter, that transforms a published book into a fetish object. It is for the exercise of this transformative power that the magicians – the publishers and their agents – receive in tribute the fetish value, which is the price paid over and above the book’s cost of production, over and above its use value to the reader. Which is the profit.

But now we’re imagining a transformation not only of the book but also of the world that the book occupies – not the fetish but the niche. In the olden days, when books were copied out by hand, the book was enshrined in a library. The ancient book was valued as a cultural resource, a rare object, an artifact around which the community could gather. Copies weren’t distributed among the people; instead, the people came to the copy, admiring it, studying it, paying it homage. In the modern era, mass-produced copies of books were set loose to circulate in the marketplace, being bought and sold as commodities. The book became a consumer good, a node linking seller and buyer in the capitalist exchange circuitry. Now, in imagining books as public utilities, we’re talking about freeing the copied books entirely, no longer restricting their circulation to those able and willing to pay the price. Would the book be restored to its status as a cultural resource? Or would it be swept up in a widespread late-capitalistic race to the bottom, where the value of work is discounted to the vanishing point?

Maybe – and this might just be my personal crackpot theory – the freely distributed book presages the next phase in the expansion of human society. In the premodern era texts were precious cultural icons, positioned at the center of human settlements, surrounded by ramparts and protected by citadels. The modern era decentered books, dispersing them throughout society as commodities. Still, supplies remain limited. Maybe now, with free duplication, the dispersion of books could extend the parameters of human society itself. A book no longer points to itself or to those who own it; it no longer centers or circulates. Instead the book permeates, becoming part of the culture itself, as readily available to any and all as the language in which it is written. No longer constrained by walls or exchange networks, the book as a carrier of culture is freed to extend itself without material or financial limit. In that world, books would serve as transport terminals, as portals opening into an expanded multiverse.

On what criteria should books be deemed worthy of inclusion in a society-wide Grand Central Station of portals? And who should render the decisions? The answers might not make themselves evident until we – writers, readers, books – begin to occupy that cultural multiverse. The precise curatorship by which the ancient libraries added painstakingly copied books to their holdings would seem excessive in an era of free reproduction and distribution. Marketplace democracy – widespread popularity among consumers that translates into sales – would likewise no longer be necessary. Maybe Oscar Wilde’s aphorism would prove apt. Artistry, like knowledge and justice, need not be barricaded or hoarded as a scarce resource limited to the elite. When it’s free, when it becomes a universal societal resource, good judgment can be cultivated by anyone.

Alternatively, if most of us find ourselves immiserated in the late-capitalist apocalypse, we might all be looking for the cheapest, most effective escape routes we can find, even if those escapes are purely imaginary. Then maybe the standards for judging fictional texts, for judging the portals to which they grant their readers access, would have nothing to do with art and everything to do with survival.


2 thoughts on “You Get What You Pay For

  1. “For the possession of what we love is an even greater joy than love itself. Very often those people who conceal this possession from the world do so only from the fear than the beloved object may be taken from them. And their happiness is diminished by this prudent reticence.”
    – from this evening’s Proust reading


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