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Fetishism in Literature and Cultural Studies

Commodity Fetishism

Karl Marx (1818–1883) explains his concept of fetishism in Capital I, where he argues that when it comes to the exchange of commodities in capitalism, a social relation between people assumes the form of a relation between things. Material objects circulated as commodities, in other words, seem to embody inherently certain characteristics that, in fact, derive from social relations. He argues that commodity fetishism originates in the social character of labor: how labor becomes value when added to what is produced by that labor. Thus work is objectified in the commodity, becoming a property of the commodity itself: its value. Marx explains the analogy with anthropological uses of the term fetishism in the following manner: "In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There, the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race" (p. 165). Thus Marx associates fetishism—which he takes from a German translation of Charles de Brosses's eighteenth-century work on the cult of fetish-gods—with a religious practice that consists in anthropomorphizing objects, animating or personifying them. This is not, however, a matter of belief; it is not a matter of willfully dispelling the "mist" to which he refers. Rather, for value—the product of labor—to be understood as social and not as an objective property of products themselves, the mode of production would have to change.

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