Expressions that pass from hand to hand like sealed containers…

Expressions that pass from hand to hand like sealed containers…

In Herbert Marcuse and Planned Obsolescence I undertook to develop a theoretical foundation for ‘planned obsolescence’ from Georg Simmel’s analysis of the “preponderance of objective culture over subjective culture that developed during the nineteenth century.” My intuition has proved to be uncannily prescient. Besides the indirect influence of Thorstein Veblen — by way of Vance Packard and Stuart Chase — Marcuse’s argument was indirectly influenced by Simmel, through the mediation of György Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, which Marcuse regarded highly.


Marcuse deployed Lukács’s concept of reification throughout One-Dimensional Man. Meanwhile, Lukács’s concept of reification came largely from Simmel. In Simmel’s preface to The Philosophy of Money, he evoked his intention to “construct a new storey beneath historical materialism” that would both preserve the economic effects on intellectual life while developing the reciprocal effects of psychological factors on economic life. Although not explicitly stated, Lukács’s intention in “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” could be characterized as attempting to construct an additional Marxian storey beneath Simmel’s storey. It’s storeys all the way down.


In the process of transmission, reification became one of those expressions that Simmel had described:

The tremendous expansion of objective, available material of knowledge allows or even enforces the use of expressions that pass from hand to hand like sealed containers without the condensed content of thought actually enclosed within them being unfolded for the individual user.

My task here will be to unfold reification. 


In his chapter on reification, Lukács attempted to brush aside Simmel’s analysis with the faint praise of his book being “a very interesting and perceptive work in matters of detail.” Even that, though, was contained as a parenthesis within a two-paragraph rant against the “empty manifestations” of bourgeois thinkers who divorce their analysis “from real capitalist foundations and make them independent and permanent by regarding them as the timeless model of human relations in general.” Lukács gave a much more positive assessment of Simmel’s contribution in an essay originally published in 1918 — that is, before he wrote History and Class Consciousness.


In my capacity as a non-specialist, non-philosopher, it seems to me that Simmel’s section on the “concept of culture” in the last chapter of The Philosophy of Money is clearer and more compelling than either Lukács’s “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” or Marcuse’s discussions of ‘reification’ and ‘planned obsolescence’ in One-Dimensional Man.  I believe Lukács later recanted his harsh assessment of Simmel and admitted his influence but I haven’t been able to find the article in translation. (see last sentence of previous paragraph for update)


Simmel used the noun ‘reification’ and the associated verb ‘reified’ sparingly in The Philosophy of Money but with surgical precision. It first appears in the subheading of the last subsection of chapter one, “Money is a reification of the general form of existence according to which things derive their significance from their relationships to each other.” In this subsection, Simmel celebrated affirmed reification as “a great accomplishment of the mind,” and the particular form of money as the “greatest triumph” of reification. Simmel would have none of that “original sin” and “root of all evil” lament.


In his last chapter, Simmel began section II, The Concept of Culture, on a similarly celebratory note. The general concept of culture involves the development by human action of natural materials into forms that increase their value to us. Simmel gave an inventory of examples of material culture ranging from “furniture, cultured plants, works of art, machines, tools and books” to more intangible cultural products that shape human relationships such as “language, morals, religion and law.”


The picture darkens, however, when Simmel compared to culture in general with the specific contemporary culture, using the course of the nineteenth century as his benchmark. During that century, material or objective culture expanded tremendously but, according to Simmel, individual or subjective culture failed to develop in proportion and perhaps even declined. “at least among the highest strata.” 


This, of course, was an empirical claim for which Simmel could give only impressionistic evidence: in spite of “a large number of refinements, subtleties and individual modes of expression. Yet, if one looks at the speech and writing of individuals, they are on the whole increasingly less correct, less dignified and more trivial.” Similarly, “it seems that conversation, both social as well as intimate and in the exchange of letters, is now more superficial, less interesting and less serious than at the end of the eighteenth century.”


Of course, Simmel’s perspective could be seen as one of those “kids these days” refrains that recur with each generation. His analysis, however, is more substantive than his evidence. To some extent, the preponderance of objective culture over subjective culture that developed over the nineteenth century can be attributed simply to change in scale accompanying urbanization. Simmel gave the counterexample of a small community with limited cultural resources in which, “the objective cultural possibilities will not extend much beyond the subjective cultural reality.” A larger group and increased cultural level “will favour a discrepancy between both.” But size does not offer a complete explanation. For a fuller, causal explanation, Simmel turned to the division of labour. Simmel’s account is broadly congruent with Marx’s:

Where the worker works with his own materials, his labour remains within the sphere of his own personality, and only by selling the finished products is it separated from him. Where there is no possibility for utilizing his labour in this way, the worker places his labour at the disposal of another person for a market price and thus separates himself from his labour from the moment it leaves its source. The fact that labour now shares the same character, mode of valuation and fate with all other commodities signifies that work has become something objectively separate from the worker, something that he not only no longer is, but also no longer has. For as soon as his potential labour power is transposed into actual work, only its money equivalent belongs to him whereas the work itself belongs to someone else or, more accurately, to an objective organization of labour.

Moreover, a similar degree of specialization and objectification of the product of work also becomes the standard for intellectual labour. 


Consumption follows a similar pattern to production:

Since the division of labour destroys custom production — if only because the consumer can contact a producer but not a dozen different workers — the subjective aura of the product also disappears in relation to the consumer because the commodity is now produced independently of him. It becomes an objective given entity which the consumer approaches externally and whose specific existence and quality is autonomous of him.

Two of the consequences of this depersonalization of consumption that Simmel noted are the estrangement between individuals and the products they produce and consume and the acceleration of fashion cycles. With regard to the first, Simmel gave the example of the younger generation viewing older people’s attachment to furniture they have had for a long time as an eccentricity. Simmel’s view on fashion, briefly outlined in The Philosophy of Money and subsequently expanded into an essay, dwells on the tension between conflicting drives to differentiation and imitation. Social class is determinate in fashion, which, “always indicates a social stratum which uses similarity of appearance to assert both its own inner unity and its outward differentiation from other social strata.” For the upper classes, it is not so much a matter of “keeping up with the Joneses,” as keeping away from them:

Wherever fashions have existed they have sought to express social differences. Yet the social changes of the last hundred years have accelerated the pace of changes in fashion, on the one hand through the weakening of class barriers and frequent upward social mobility of individuals and sometimes even of whole groups to a higher stratum, and on the other through the predominance of the third estate. The first factor makes very frequent changes of fashion necessary on the part of leading strata because imitation by the lower strata rapidly robs fashions of their meaning and attraction.

Simmel’s analysis of fashion offers an illuminating contrast with Thorstein Veblen’s ‘conspicuous consumption,’ ‘conspicuous waste,’ and ‘invidious comparison.’ Simmel’s remarks on fashion are embedded within his discussion of the division of labour and the major historical change over the nineteenth century in separating subjective culture from objective culture. Veblen’s terms addressed residual features retained from “the higher stages of the barbarian culture.” 


Since Marcuse’s references to ‘planned obsolescence’ derive ultimately from Veblen, by way of Vance Packard and, particularly, Stuart Chase, it will be prudent to next give attention to Chase’s use of Veblen in his analysis.