Ktismatics

5 May 2008

It’s About Product

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 6:24 am

The West Side gang faces a crisis at the beginning of Season 3 on The Wire. The Towers, their prime location for selling drugs, have just been demolished to make way for urban renewal. Their main supplier got busted, so they’ve had to share turf with the East Siders in order to get access to better drugs. Their head man is in jail, and the sales force is demoralized. Now it’s the number two, Stringer Bell, calling the shots.
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And Stringer has been evaluating the situation…

18 Comments »

  1. I’m told it – http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49447 – is pretty decent but spoiler-ridden. You first.

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    Comment by Seyfried — 5 May 2008 @ 1:44 pm

  2. Not much spoiler danger, though I did find out the fate of one character by reading this thing. The writer of this piece remarks on David Simon’s commitment to showing the devastating effects of rampant capitalism. That commitment is clearly visible in the clip I put on this post. One of the things I’m puzzling over is how The Wire plays out relative to Beller’s Marxist look at the Cinematic Mode of Production and Vertov’s technique of peering behind the capitalistic mystification of commodity (see two posts ago). I’ll do something with that in a day or two hopefully.

    Anyhow, here in this sort of surreal setting (the chapel of a funeral parlor) we see Stringer Bell subjecting the local drug market to rational-empirical economic scrutiny. We also witness the radical deterritorialization of advanced capitalism as Stringer observes that it’s not about the territory but the product: local loyalties and antagonisms can’t stand up to the value calculus, and cooperation among competitors leads to higher margins for everyone.

    I find that already by the second season the program is getting repetitive, which is the weakness of television. Season two investigates the corruptions of organized labor, but I don’t think you learn a lot more through 12 episodes that maybe 3 or 4 would cover. And season 3 returns to the situation of season 1, and after 2 episodes there’s not a great deal of development. What’s great about the show, though, is how it sprawls out from a couple run-down neighborhoods to the whole city, as well as the detailed investigation of how shit works, how careful observation and a big picture build up to a view of flows of money, product, power, etc. at the street level.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 May 2008 @ 2:50 pm

  3. I’ve been reading some of N. Pepperell’s posts about Marx on Rough Theory, and in so doing I realize that I, like Stringer, have a hard time thinking of value in terms other than product. The Wire doesn’t dwell on the effects of narcotics on the user, and it certainly doesn’t look at the work entailed in growing, processing and transporting the drugs. All we ever see is the exchange: the buyer hands off the money to person A and receives the product from person B. We do see the product being “stepped on;” i.e., reduced in potency by mixing it with baking soda, thereby increasing the sheer weight of stuff being sold. Apparently the users are willing to tolerate, and to pay for, heroin at less than full strength. It’s difficult for the user to know for sure how hard the product has been stepped on, since the high it generates is a subjective response. However, the reduction in effectiveness must be noticeable, especially in comparison to product on offer from competitors. What the buyer cares about is the subjective benefit s/he receives from the product; i.e., the quality of the high from ingesting the dope. And s/he is willing to pay more for what promises to be a better high, based on prior personal experience with the product as well as marketplace information obtained from other buyers who have used the product.

    Now it’s certainly true true that the cost of providing narcotics to the end user is increased because of its illegality. The shippers and dockworkers face legal risks for transporting it, the distributors face the risk of getting busted for selling it: people can be found who will assume these risks for a price. But what is the relationship between labor costs and what the user is willing to pay? I don’t see that the labor cost is of any interest to the end user. As Stringer says, it’s about product. Clearly if the price were set based on cost, and if the product were legalized, the price to the end user could drop significantly. But if through establishing a cartel the sellers could agree among themselves to keep the prices artificially propped up, the buyers might continue paying a vastly inflated price forever. It’s conceivable that producers, transporters, and sellers could all form a single employee-owned company and thereby distribute equitably the profit among themselves, with none going to capital investors. But there’s still profit being made on the differential between labor cost and commodity price. And price still seems to be based on perceived use value of the product itself. I don’t see why that’s fetishistic or alienation of labor. It’s about the product.

    It seems to me that the fetish value of a commodity isn’t this gap between labor cost and use value; it’s the use value itself. Who cares what labor goes into the product; what I care about is the subjectively-judged value I receive from the product itself. Why do people regard the narcotic effect as something desirable? Is it even more desirable because it’s illegal? Are the hopelessly poor more likely to find value in something that lets them zone out? Are people more likely to use if their neighbors do? Then there’s the physically addictive nature of the product. In the TV program there’s an ethos among the sellers that they not use the product themselves: presumably the hard capitalist has to stay energetic and alert to maximize sales while minimizing the chance of getting arrested. So for the sellers there’s more value to be had from the money they get doing their job than from consuming the product themselves.

    And then there’s the matter of ethics on the seller’s side. The buyer might regard the product as worth the money, but does that mean the seller gets to believe that he’s providing a valuable service to the users? Or does the seller entirely disregard anything about the user other than the money they pay? There will always be somebody willing to do the job, and for undereducated inner-city kids there aren’t many alternative career paths beckoning. Still…

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 May 2008 @ 10:25 pm

  4. Deciding that narcotics are a menace to society seems like something a socialistic centrally-planned economy might do, thereby creating conditions ripe for developing an illegal secondary economy — which is what we have anyway. Or a centrally-planned economy might decide to produce only so much of the stuff and no more, then distribute vouchers to everyone for buying their fare share. And then people who don’t use the product would trade their vouchers to those who do, creating a market for drug vouchers based on supply and demand. Or could a centrally planned economy focus only on basic goods and services, which demands say 20 hours/week of labor, leaving the excess labor time for each person to invest in a secondary capitalistic market economy that sells socially inessential shit like narcotics? I would like to gain a better understanding of practical implications of socialistic models, even if in a place like America the chances of installing such models seem close to zero.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 6 May 2008 @ 5:00 am

  5. The economic arrangements of the West Side gang parallels straight capitalism: the street hustlers get a salary, the corner bosses get salary plus a percentage, the top bosses accumulate the bulk of the profits. Though they don’t talk about it much, the top people inherited the business from their father, the original petit-bourgeois entrepreneur who either set up this enterprise or acquired it, presumably by hostile takeover.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 6 May 2008 @ 7:39 am

  6. This is nice – have you seen Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books? It discusses the hierarchical, capitalist franchise organisation of the drug trade.

    On value and the fetish: a few different notions of the fetish in play. My own understanding of value doesn’t interpret the category as being about some kind of concealment of the contribution labour makes to production. I see value, instead, as referring to, if this makes sense, “what labour will have been”. We operate in a context in which all sorts of empirical activities are being carried out, in the hope that they will somehow successfully push product. Those activities don’t always succeed. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t; sometimes they don’t succeed as well as they were intended to; sometimes they succeed enormously better than expected. “Value” is the term for the level of “success” that ultimately gets conferred on product – not the labour expended, but the degree of social recognition bequeathed. The amount of value that will be conferred can never be known from the empirical labouring activities or other directly perceptible elements that go into the product. The category of value therefore refers to something of which we can never have exact knowledge – it’s the category of a society that acts out an “in itself” – an unknowable inner essence whose effects nevertheless pervade what we can know and perceive directly.

    It’s more common to see value as trying to reveal that expropriation exists – that labour doesn’t receive its due. Marx will analyse expropriation as well, of course – it’s just not what I see him trying to pick out with the argument about the fetish.

    And then there’s fetish in the sense that you’ve discussed it above: the fetish associated with the consumer’s desire for product…

    Same words, each picking out interesting, but different, objects…

    Take care…

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    Comment by N Pepperell — 7 May 2008 @ 4:52 pm

  7. […] Ktismatics has an interesting post and discussion up on different conceptions of value and the fetish, with reference to The Wire. A taste, from the comments: I’ve been reading some of N. Pepperell’s posts about Marx on Rough Theory, and in so doing I realize that I, like Stringer, have a hard time thinking of value in terms other than product. The Wire doesn’t dwell on the effects of narcotics on the user, and it certainly doesn’t look at the work entailed in growing, processing and transporting the drugs. All we ever see is the exchange: the buyer hands off the money to person A and receives the product from person B. We do see the product being “stepped on;” i.e., reduced in potency by mixing it with baking soda, thereby increasing the sheer weight of stuff being sold. Apparently the users are willing to tolerate, and to pay for, heroin at less than full strength. It’s difficult for the user to know for sure how hard the product has been stepped on, since the high it generates is a subjective response. However, the reduction in effectiveness must be noticeable, especially in comparison to product on offer from competitors. What the buyer cares about is the subjective benefit s/he receives from the product; i.e., the quality of the high from ingesting the dope. And s/he is willing to pay more for what promises to be a better high, based on prior personal experience with the product as well as marketplace information obtained from other buyers who have used the product. […]

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    Pingback by Roughtheory.org » Value as What Will Have Been — 7 May 2008 @ 5:44 pm

  8. Hey Ktismatics,

    Marx’s use of the word ‘fetish’ is totally different to what you’re thinking of. It doesn’t have to do with desire. It’s about how a social process appears to be embedded in objects.

    Subjective valuation doesn’t explain much about the price of a commodity, especially not on its own. The classic example is the price of diamonds relative to water. Cost is much more important in the long run because of competition: if there’s an abnormally large gap (i.e. higher than average profit margin) between the cost of producing something and the price people will pay, a supplier has an interest in undercutting that price. So prices will tend to gravitate towards the cost of production, whatever the subjective valuation. (This is I think why you’re drawn towards ‘cartels’ etc in finding a counter-example – if competition does not apply, it’s an exception to a general rule.)

    Because society’s productive capacity is limited, though – ultimately by the labour time spent in production – subjective valuation does play a role in allocating labour to different kinds of production. (But not necessarily such that an increased demand for something will increase its price: because of economies of scale, an increased demand for a particular kind of commodity might make individual instances cheaper.) This is what Marx is getting at: the relative prices of commodities ‘fetishise’ a social process – the division of labour.

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    Comment by Mike Beggs — 7 May 2008 @ 7:18 pm

  9. Thanks N for stopping by and trying to set me straight on this fetish thing — and also to keep me from talking to myself. “What labor will have been” — you mean the value of labor can’t be ascertained while the work is being done but only retrospectively, after the work is completed and the product has made its appearance in front of the users? In which case the value of labor isn’t directly related to the quantity or quality of work performed, but to the value attributed by buyers to what the workers accomplished. As you say, ““Value” is the term for the level of “success” that ultimately gets conferred on product – not the labour expended, but the degree of social recognition bequeathed.” As you say on your post, labor and value are products of what society makes of them. That makes sense, especially for speculative ventures like introducing narcotics to a new neighborhood or writing a book. But even for ongoing concerns where social recognition of the product may fluctuate unexpectedly from time to time.

    So now I’m trying to understand why this deferral of assigning value to labor is fetishistic. I thought Marx was saying that people tend to ascribe value to an inert object — the commodity — that is really the value of the labor that went into making that object. But if the value of labor is bequeathed by societal recognition of the results, isn’t that equivalent to saying that society assigns value to the object first, and this value is retrospectively credited to the labor? If labor value isn’t a function of time, effort, expertise, etc., nor even of the quality of the thing labor produces, but is rather a function of the value that society attributes to that produced thing, then isn’t it the thing that’s being valued? So the fetishization goes in the other direction, more like a religious icon: the tangible thing points “behind” itself to its producer, as if the thing weren’t as real as the spirit of the producer that haunts it. But if we set the mystification aside we realize that the icon is all there is: the creator doesn’t leave any residue of him/herself in the created object, the material thingness of the commodity is all there is to it. Or am I still missing something?

    From the standpoint of the laborer doing work on something right now, there is this pointing forward in time, this not knowing the value of one’s own work, of having to wait for some indeterminate force — societal attribution of value — to know what one’s labor “will have been.” So now the fetishization moves in the other direction: the worker puts in the time and effort, produces the commodity, but remains in the dark about what it’s worth. The produced object is infused with a spirit that reaches back from the future without revealing itself, keeping the worker mystified about whether s/he’s done anything worthwhile or not.

    I better stop here. The issue I’m struggling with is how to translate this sensible understanding of “will have been” value into terms attributable to a fetish.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 7 May 2008 @ 8:56 pm

  10. Mike, thanks to you too — I’m guessing you found me from Roughtheory. You say that for Marx fetish doesn’t have to do with desire but with social processes. If I’m following N’s argument, the social process in question is society’s attribution of value to a work product. I’m assuming that that value is ascribed based at least in part on the subjective response to the product averaged across a host of potential users. In the case of narcotics the subjective value has mostly to do with getting high. I’m presuming that getting high is valued because users want to get high; i.e., the drug offers them something they subjectively desire. No?

    I understand that the profit margin between cost and price is the territory where competition brings down unit prices. But if cost, specifically cost of labor, isn’t based on hours, effort, expertise, etc. but on the value that “will have been” ascribed to that labor by an aggregation of product users, then there would never be a gap between cost and price: cost of labor would be set at the price the users are willing to pay for labor’s end product. This I guess is how it would play out if workers owned the results of their labor: rather than assigning a fixed value to their time and letting capital take whatever risks or rewards can be found between cost and price, the workers would realize that the cost of their work IS IDENTICAL TO the value assigned to their work product by the society of users. In effect, equating work value to product price turns all workers into entrepreneurs.

    But now I’m reading your comments through N’s interpretation. You say “the relative prices of commodities ‘fetishise’ a social process – the division of labour.” Are you saying that this fetishization consists of assigning different fixed wage rates to different kinds of work performed, as if the value of labor is fixed by the nature of the work process, rather than floating with the processes by which the end users assign different values to different products?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 7 May 2008 @ 9:25 pm

  11. This is it:

    So the fetishization goes in the other direction, more like a religious icon: the tangible thing points “behind” itself to its producer, as if the thing weren’t as real as the spirit of the producer that haunts it. But if we set the mystification aside we realize that the icon is all there is: the creator doesn’t leave any residue of him/herself in the created object, the material thingness of the commodity is all there is to it. Or am I still missing something?

    Some qualifications though: in Marx’s argument, the fetish is actually something enacted – it’s not simply something we believe (and, in fact, we may not believe it or be aware of it); it’s something we (collectively) do. So there is a certain sense in which value is “there” (in the strange, retroactively posited sense in which it “exists”), and can only be set aside by changing the practices through which we collectively behave it into existence. Somewhere Marx criticises an author who dismisses ancient gods by saying they don’t exist: Marx’s argument is that they did exist, and had real material force – but only in the circumstance where people collectively acted as though they existed – this collective behaviour enacted the gods – as a social reality. Value isn’t quite the same sort of category for Marx (religions enact their gods via shared beliefs – Marx argues that value is something we do initially without even realising we’re going it – it’s only later that political economists come along an explicitly theorise it, deducing its existence from our practices) – but this is the space he’s aiming for, I think.

    In terms of trying to understand why Marx uses the term fetish to express this concept: he has in mind the anthropological, not the psychological, referent of that term. A fetish in the sense of a material object to which supernatural powers are attributed – so your imagery of “icon” is actually capturing something very much like what the term “fetish” would imply (my sense is that the notion of a “fetish” as relating to desire is a later meaning, which wouldn’t have been on Marx’s radar, but regardless, he has the anthropological meaning in mind – Capital makes frequent use of anthropological materials to strange customs, in order to try to underscore that the “customs” Marx is analysing are equally strange, no matter how normal they seem to us, who engage in them every day.)

    Apologies that I still struggle to express how I see this argument. I think Marx struggled too :-) – but this isn’t much consolation, when I’m trying to tell someone else what I mean… ;-)

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    Comment by N Pepperell — 7 May 2008 @ 9:26 pm

  12. P.S. To avoid confusion: Mike might not want to be read via my comments – I wouldn’t want him held responsible for what I am saying :-)

    Also… the issue of subjectivity is very… complicated… When I used the metaphor of “recognition” above, this is, if it sense, a very… unintentional form of “recognition”. An unintentional consequence of collective action – Marx treats it as a sort of blind process of deciding what gets to count as part of “social labour”.

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    Comment by N Pepperell — 7 May 2008 @ 9:30 pm

  13. Okay, good, that’s very helpful N. Regarding subjective recognition in a collective sense, I’m thinking again about narcotics. I’ve been reducing recognition to the individual user who wants to get high and is willing to pay a certain amount for it. But the recognition attached to getting high has to find its relative place in a portfolio of recognitions attached to food, shelter, entertainment, blah blah blah. And the relative value attached to a heroin high is almost certainly influenced by socioeconomic forces like poverty, expectations for the future, whether everybody else in the neighborhood is getting high, etc.

    I’ll get back to your series of posts in greater detail — hopefully my attention span in learning more Marx isn’t limited to this particular television program.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 7 May 2008 @ 9:48 pm

  14. So since this post I’ve watched a few more episodes. The Baltimore gangs have agreed to a cartel, sharing product and territories on a citywide basis, thereby reducing the number of homicides resulting from fierce competition, assuring consistent quality of product, and maintaining high and stable product prices. Also, one of the police lieutenants has established a free zone in his district, known on the street as Hamsterdam, where the police agree not to arrest drug traffickers as long as they stay out of the rest of the district. The intention is to protect neighborhoods and kids from the baleful influence of the drug trade by quarantining all the action in a tightly delimited area of high-intensity corruption.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 7 May 2008 @ 9:57 pm

  15. I’ve been reading (slowly, intermittently) The Cinematic Mode of Production by Jonathan Beller. Consequently I’d been interpreting “fetish” in more Freudian terms as “that obscure object of desire” which is promised by a commodity but which can never be grasped — le petit objet a in Lacan. Following Benjamin, Beller talks about the “aura” of a commodity; e.g., a Van Gogh painting valued at $60 million:

    the aura is the thinking man’s fetish. The thing that Benjamin calls “aura” is worked on by visual circulation: it is altered by all that looking. By the time the museum patron confronts the masterpiece on the wall, s/he must compare her/his experiences of the object with her/his perception of all that perception that has accreted to it — in short, everything that accounts for its canonical status as art, that valorizes the object socially, and that valorizes the viewer who establishes a relation to the art object… The viewer’s perception of the painted image includes his or her perception of the perceptual status of the object — the sense of the number and kind of looks that it has commanded. This abstracted existence, which exists only in the socially mediated (via lithographs, museum reproductions, etc.) and imagined summation of the work of art’s meaning (value) for everyone else (society), becomes the fetish character of the unique work.

    Beller contends that, since “all that looking” adds value to the commodity, the looking itself should be counted as unpaid work. The more looking, the more fetish value accumulates in the commodity, the more valuable becomes the looking that has already been done. So in this sense this sort of cumulative attention-driven fetish value is applied retrospectively to attention labor — time out of joint again.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 9 May 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  16. “I’ve been reading (slowly, intermittently) The Cinematic Mode of Production by Jonathan Beller. Consequently I’d been interpreting “fetish” in more Freudian terms as “that obscure object of desire” which is promised by a commodity but which can never be grasped — le petit objet a in Lacan.”

    http://richmond.craigslist.org/w4m/673846903.html — Oh, my.

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    Comment by Seyfried — 10 May 2008 @ 12:33 am

  17. Oh my indeed. If you have occasion to meet the writer of this personal, Seyfried, you might suggest that s/he drop the -e at the end of petit — unless it’s a signal that the writer is looking for the feminine in the masculine.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 10 May 2008 @ 9:47 am

  18. Curious (as always), I had called her out for that very thing. Her response:

    “It’s funny, no one seems to have caught that I meant for it to be insulting.”

    Well, damn, if you wanted in the my gaze that bad why didn’t you say so? Concerning Rear Window ethics, I was just looking for the masculine her feminine! Moreover, hilarity ensued after recognizing she’s got Jung in her gmail username.

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    Comment by Seyfried — 10 May 2008 @ 10:42 am


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