Art Spiegelman’s MAUS: Working-Through The Trauma of the Holocaust
“Whether commentary […] is built into a structure of a history or developed as a separate, superimposed text is a matter of choice, but the voice of the commentator must be clearly heard. The commentary should disrupt the facile linear progression of the narration, introduce alternative interpretations, question any partial conclusion, withstand the need for closure […]Such commentary may introduce splintered or constantly recurring refractions of a traumatic past by using any number of different vantage points.”
Saul Friedländer, “Trauma, Transference and Working-Through,” History and Memory 4 (1992): 39-55.

Robert S. Leventhal

Copyright (c) 1995 by Robert S. Leventhal, all rights reserved. This text may be shared in accordance with the fair use-provisions of the U.S. Copyright Law. Redistribution and republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the written permission of the author.

Trauma, Working-Through, and the Problem of Historical Understanding

One of the most significant attempts to understand the response to the Shoah is through the texts and terms of Freudian Psychoanalysis. In his decisive essay of 1916, Mourning and Melancholia, referred to many times in this archive, Freud distinguishes between two fundamentally distinct modalities of moving through the trauamatic loss of a beloved object. In mourning, the subject grieves for the loss of the beloved, and gradually comes to terms with that loss through the sustained reflection regarding the multiple meanings of that loss. Mourning is characterized by an initial withdrawl from the external world of things and events, and centers upon the subject’s feeling of the loss of a significant aspect of one’s life. In melancholia, however, there has usually been a highly ambivalent relation to the beloved object, and the subject becomes isolated, depressed, and experiences this loss of the Other as the loss of him or herself. The melancholic reaction to the traumatic loss of a beloved is characterized by extreme self-devaluation, to the extent that the subject might actually believe that he or she is responsible for the death or departure of the Other, that he or she is a “murderer” him or herself responsible for the “killing off” of the Other. Or, conversely, the subject views him or herself as the abandoned object, having been “left” by the dead Other, and might view him or herself as a victim, as the wounded or hurt recipient of this traumatic loss that the Other has “imposed.”
In the Neo-Freudian Theories of Winicott, the attempt has been made to articulate the process of “working-through” the traumatic loss of the beloved object more precisely. Winicott’s famous phrase “Mourning without empathy leads to madness” has often been cited as the key to his theory, which is that there must be an empathetic witness to the pain of this traumatic loss, that the person who suffers this loss must be able to give testimony to someone as a way of working-through or processing this loss, and that finally certain “transitional” or “intermediate” objects might be necessary in order to move from the state of dependence and reliance on the Other to a renewed state of self-sufficiency after the traumatic severance.

The difficulty with this type of understanding is its insistence on a singular empathetic Other who hears the testimony of the witness, and thereby bears witness to the traumatic loss in a therapeutic manner. What does it actually mean to “work-through” a traumatic loss? and what does this mean with regard not to an individual, but to an entire people? Many of the normative claims of psychoanalysis are present in this type of approach: the hope is that a gradual reintergration of the meaning of the lost object occurs and the fact of the loss helps the subject to grow beyond this dependency in the construction of a self that is able to tolerate and understand alterity and is not rigidly defined. This is the thesis of Eric Santner’s Stranded Objects.

The Postmodern Melancholia

In much of what has been written about the Holocaust in recent years, one can notice a tendency to discuss the Holocaust and the responses to it in terms borrowed from the description of Melancholia. One of the most obvious instances of this can be seen in Lyotard’s connection of Auschwitz and the unrepresentable in The Differend. Here, the sublime, which since Kant has been the singular individual’s struggle of the Idea in the face of overwelming experiences, is utilized to characterize the sense of the Shoah: the individual is to “bear witness” to the unpresentable and inexpressable loss, for no language, no vocabulary can even approach the horror of Auschwitz. Auschwitz becomes a limit that defies phrasing. This is also present in the work of Cathy Caruth, “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History” Yale French Studies 79 (1991) and in her material in the edited issue of American Imago 48 nos. 1 & 4 (1991). Trauma here is not merely seen in the Benjaminian sense of the condition of history and historicity, but that History itself becomes viewed as traumatic. As Dominick LaCapra has pointed out in his recent book Representing the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell, 1994), this conflation of history with trauma might itself be the uncritical result and symptom of posttraumatic, unworked through identifications and investments. An example of what LaCapra is hinting at might also be the work of George Steiner, in which Auschwitz signifies an irrevocable loss of language, and the German language in particular. For LaCapra, one of the great challenges of postmodern and poststructuralist readings of the trauma inflicted by the Shoah would be to reflect on the ways in which they themselves participate in a melancholic reaction to the event.
Cultural Besetzung: The Canon and Canonical Texts

One of the ways in which a culture betrays (in the sense of “allows to become clear”) its own “investments” or Besetzungen, to use Freud’s term for the psychic endowment of certain things, is in its priveleging specific ways of thinking and writing, certain forms of presentation, the selection of specific genres as being “apt” or “appropriate” for certain tasks. An analysis of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List could show that the primacy of the (visual) romance in some way governs the institution of filming in that film. There is a vast difference in this respect to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and to Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler, Ein Film aus Deutschland. As Primo Levi sought to articulate the discursive and logistical space of Auschwitz, Syberberg attempts to actually enter into the distorted puppet-show of German Fascism, the “black studio” of German (film) projections and fantasies, the nostalgiac, melancholic state of Postwar, Postholocaust Germany. Lanzmann’s Shoah equally does away with conventional narrative schemes and totalizing representation, presenting the Nazi Genocide in a series of detailed “researches” or “inquiries,” and utilizing not a single foot of documentary film from the thirties or forties. Lanzmann’s film allows the contradictions between the testimony of the perpetrators and that of the victims to stand. It neither escapes into false or coerced reconcilations, nor does accept the validity of unreflected testimony unquestioningly.

The way in which a culture organizes, “disciplines,” and reads a certain event is an excellent way to find out about that culture’s “troubled areas” or “hot spots.” The philosopher Berel Lang has argued in his book Act and Idea of the Nazi Genocide that there are only certain appropriate and ethically responsible ways of representing the Shoah. In this respect, many crtics have said that the Holocaust requires an “elevated” genre, that it is the stuff of “high” literature and should not be “desecrated” by allowing low genres to communicate the destruction of the European Jews. There would at first sight seem to be an inalterable cultural hierarchy of forms, media, genres: the novel, the tragedy, a poem, a scholarly essay or book might be considered acceptable; on the other hand, a satire, a parody, a comedy, a farce — these would not seem to be eligible for “appropriate” forms of literary representation. But the fact is that both within these genres and modes, as well as with regard to the genre or mode itself, there are both “high” and “low” forms; and what is radical, chic, or revolutionary at one historical juncture might be quite reactionary or conservative at another. My view is that Spiegelman, precisely by utilizing the “comic-book” as the textual medium of a story of the Holocaust, succeeds in breaking the “taboo” or “ritualized fixity” of confronting the Holocaust. It also subverts the assignment of the “comic” to a genre of kitsch and “popular culture” in a twofold way: first, insofar as it supercedes the traditional genre in terms of the scope of its presentation; secondly, insofar as it presents a historical catastrophe in a medium usually reserved for hero-construction and morality play.

Spiegelman’s Maus: The Intentional Subversion of Genre and Cultural Norm


Art Spiegelman first published parts of MAUS in the magazine Raw between 1980-1991. Volumes I and II of the book Maus: A Survivor’s Tale appeared in 1986 (“My Father Blleds History”) and 1991 (“And Here my Troubles began”). Maus is the use of a traditionally “low” genre — the comic strip or book –for serious, grave material. It is a conscious, intentional inversion of a norm, a hierarchy, a cultural order. It is a very “strong” (in the Bloomian sense) rereading of one survivor’s tale and the transmission or testimony of this tale to the son; it is at the same time a strong revamping or reconsideration of the generic possibilites of the “comic” itself.

The reduction of the players to cats (the Nazis). mice (the Jews), pigs (the Poles) and other national stereotypes offers a conscious, intentional miniaturization and reduction, pointing up not merely the process of compression, simplification and devaluation not merely of the Nazi’s practices before and during the Holocaust, but the reduction and simplification present in many “responses” to the Holocaust aswell. In this way, Spiegelman literalizes the call for petits recits so prevalent in postmodern discourse today, especially in the writings of Jean-Francois Lyotard. On another level, there are multiple narratives and kinds of texts in Maus: in addition to images, dialogue boxes, and commentary, we find maps of Poland and the Camps, diagrams of hideouts, real photographs from the family archive, detailed plans of the crematoria, an exchange table for goods in Auschwitz, and a manual for shoe-repair. Here are some of the various text-types that one finds in Maus:


The reader moves through several different “historical subject-positions” and narrated events; there are the pre-holocaust, the Holocaust, and the postholocaust, but also, within one time-frame, there can be other times and places co-present as well. Maus thus juxtaposes and intertwines past and present, the different subject histories of each protagonist, and the very different cultural contexts of Nazi occupied Poland and Rego Park, New York. The very title of the books is a powerful reworking of the convention: Maus rewrites the cultural norm and invents a new discursive space to address the questions of Jewish trauma, guilt, shame and, perhaps most importantly, the transmission of these conflicts from one generation to the next, especially in the case that they are not sufficently worked-through.

Maus encompasses many small narratives: not merely the story of Vladek (Artie’s Father) and Anje (Artie’s Mother, who committed suicide after surviving Auschwitz and coming to America), but of Artie himself in his struggle to understand his family origins and himself. It addresses the constant resurfacing of a traumatic and “unmastered” past on a number of levels: the death of his brother, Richieu, of a poison given to him by the woman who was taking care of him as they were about to be sent to Auschwitz to be gassed, the suicide of his mother in 1968, and the murder of the European Jews. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than at the end of Volume I “My Father Bleeds History,” where Artie asks Vladek for Antje’s diaries. Vladek first tells Artie that the Diaries are gone, and then finally remembers that he himself had destroyed them — burned them to be exact — in the depths of depression. Vladek not only burned the diaries — in a ironic enactment of Nazi Book-Burning — but he sadistically adds salt to the wound when he tells Artie: “I looked in, but I don’t remember […] Only I know what she said, ‘I wish my son, whe he grows up, he will be interested in this.'” Artie, who himself suffered a depression after his mother’s suicide, calls Vladek a “murderer,” unable himself to understand Vladek’s action as itself an act of acting out the legacy of the Holocaust. In this transmission circuit, Artie is tied to his father, and we see this played out in Maus in his complete dependence on Vladek for the narrative of his own story.

The “broken” relationship between Artie, Vladek, and this unmastered past is exemplified in the broken relationship Artie has to his own Jewish heritage. In Maus I, Vladek is in a German work-camp and has a dream in which his dead Grandfather comes to him and tells him that he will leave this place and go home to his wife and child on Parshas Truma. Artie then asks his father what Parshas is, unaware of the symbolic and literal meaning of this in his life and in Jewish tradition. His father then explains to him the meaning of Parshas Truma, the specific week in which a particular section of the Torah is read. It turns out that this was the week he had married Anja, and the week Artie had his Bar-Mitzvah. In this time frame, Vladek actually does get to leave the camp and see his wife and child. The broken circuit is thus restored in the text precisely because of Artie’s interest in the narrative and the construction of the text Maus itself. But the evidence of a failure in the transmission of culture and tradition, the traces of this broken connection to the past and to history is present to the extent that Artie must now relearn this complex history.

Maus is allegorical, not merely to the extent that it treats the individuals as figures in a much more complex and global story, but insofar as its very textual structure is comparable to the allegorical structure of the emblem, with a graphic image elucidating the text, as well as a superscript expressing the “topic” or “theme,” the actual statements of the individuals in the frame, and often a subscript containing unconscious thoughts or afterthoughts. In Maus, the image is never left to stand alone, but is always caught up in the differential between narrative, image, dialogue and reflection. In this manner, an opening or aperture for critical thinking on the transmission of past trauma is created.


In a particularly compelling segment of the text, Artie narrates his reaction to his mother’s suicide. A comic book within the comic book Maus entitled “Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History,” this text-within-the-text recounts Artie’s own incomplete or failed attempt to work through the trauamatic loss of his mother, his own melancholic and masochistic tendencies to internalize the dysfunction of his family and his mother’s depression, and the degree to which his writing bears the mark of that loss and is itself a type of working-through in its own right. The subtitle “A Case History” mocks the case history in psychoanalysis, in which the patient is “cured” of the incessant return of the traumatic past through rigorous therapeutic intervention. In “Prisoner from the Hell Planet,” there isn’t any easy closure, and the suffering individual remains captive in the prison of his own masochistic melancholia, the jail cell of his own wounded self, not really understanding the unconscious connection to the melancholia of the mother and the unconscious identification with the damaged father.

Traversing the breach between past and present, Father and Son, language and image, manifest and latent, Spiegelman’s Maus bears witness to the process of bearing witness, and the technical and technological requirement of writing and tape-recording in order to produce a narrative of the trauma and thereby alleviate the symptomology of depression and withdrawl that is the danger of a past left to fester as an unhealed wound. Paul Celan’s essay Meridien states that every piece of authentic writing has a date and a place: it speaks a specificity, and in that specificty it gestures towards an Other. Spiegelman’s Maus, in transmitting the story of the father through the son, does not avoid or gloss over any of the difficulties entailed in working-through trauma, which, as we know, always brings with it some degree of “acting-out”. Maus enacts the difficulty of working through a traumatic historical past that defies attempts at mastery, and is a visceral presentation of the postmodern fragmented self struggling to come to terms with this damaged and wounded history in a conscious manner. Maus II ends with the reunification of Vladek and Anja after Auschwitz. In the final scene, Vladek tells Artie he is tired of talking: “I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it is enough stories for now.” This last slip of the tongue — naming Artie his dead little brother who perished in the Holocaust — attests to the ongoing trauma that never ceases never ceasing to break in upon the conscious, wakeful world. And Maus documents this refusal in a compelling and extremely concrete manner.


Click here to return to the Home Page of Responses

Click here for a short bibliography on Maus

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As Above……So below………….

George Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff-Know ThyselfGeorge Ivanovich Gurdjieff (January 14, 1866? – October 29, 1949) was an influential spiritual teacher of the early twentieth century. He called his discipline the Fourth Way.

He described his teaching as “esoteric Christianity.”

Gurdjieff brought to the West from his own experiences and early travels, the truth found in ancient religions and wisdom teachings relating to self-awareness in people’s daily lives and humanity’s place in the universe. Among the books he wrote are Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’All and EverythingMeetings With Remarkable Men and Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson.

Gurdjieff on As Above so Below

Gurdjieff admitted his presentation had deep roots stemming as far back as Hermetic Egypt. He quoted from the Hermetic Tablets and pointed out the absolute of looking outside in order to see within:

Esoteric knowledge is knowledge of the whole, ordinary knowledge is single ideas about a part taken separately.
It is impossible to study a system of the universe without studying man. At the same time it is impossible to study man without studying the universe. Man is an image of the world. He was created by the same laws which created the whole of the world. By knowing and understanding himself he will know and understand the whole world, all the laws that create and govern the world. And at the same time by studying the world and the laws that govern the world he will learn and understand the laws that govern him. In this connection some laws are understood and assimilated more easily by studying the objective world, while man can only understand other laws by studying himself. The study of the world and the study of man must therefore run parallel, one helping the other.

George Gurdjieff reiterated the Hermetic message as above so below in the twentieth century, as documented by his pupil Peter Ouspensky. His approach criticized modern scientific studies, the delved deep into many areas of the world while neglecting the cosmos of man. The macro-cosmos, the world that surrounded man, was only to be studied in so far as it shed light onto the micro-cosmos, the human being.

As within so without: certain phenomena could more readily be observed in man, while others in the world around him. To gain complete knowledge, one therefore had to pursue both lines of investigation. Failure to do so would result in purely theoretical knowledge, as the scientist who knows the galaxies but remains ignorant of himself, or the physician who cannot heal himself.

Further Reading:
Ouspensky on As Above so Below
William Blake on As Above so Below
Upanishads on As Above so Below
Isaac Newton on As Above so Below

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Douglas M. Jones: History and Group Consciousness « Social Evolution Forum

English: A map on different views on conscious...

English: A map on different views on consciousness from philosophy and psychology perspectives. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The article below is worth reading in relation to the discussion between Vernon/David last night about the pursuit of consciousness and at what entity it could be worked on  e.g the Individual or the Group. Some relevant paragraphs towards the end of the article………………..Douglas M. Jones: History and Group Consciousness « Social Evolution Forum.

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Preparation for SSI meeting on Thursday 24th January 2013………

PhotonQ-Homer' s Evolution Theory

PhotonQ-Homer’ s Evolution Theory (Photo credit: PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE)

Extracts from Ouspensky: In search of the Miraculous [Chapter 3] for discussion on 24th January, 2013 at the Sociological Imagination group meeting.


NB: Please read & take a copy to bring with you on Thursday……….



BY THE beginning of November, 1915, I already had a grasp of some of the fundamental points of G.’s system in relation to man. The first point, on which he laid stress, was the absence of unity in man. “It is the greatest mistake,” he said, “to think that man is always one and the same. A man is never the same for long. He is continually changing. He seldom remains the same even for half an hour. We think that if a man is called Ivan he is always Ivan. Nothing of the kind. Now he is Ivan, in another minute he is Peter, and a minute later he is Nicholas, Sergius, Matthew, Simon. And all of you think he is Ivan. You know that Ivan cannot do a certain thing. He cannot tell a lie for instance. Then you find he has told a lie and you are surprised he could have done so. And, indeed, Ivan cannot lie; it is Nicholas who lied. And when the opportunity presents itself Nicholas cannot help lying. You will be astonished when you realize what a multitude of these Ivans and Nicholases live in one man. If you learn to observe them there is no need to go to a cinema.”



Somebody asked at a meeting: “How should evolution be understood?” “The evolution of man,” G. replied, “can be taken as the development in him of those powers and possibilities which never develop by themselves, that is, mechanically. Only this kind of development, only this kind of growth, marks the real evolution of man. There is, and there can be, no other kind of evolution whatever. “We have before us man at the present moment of his development. Nature has made him such as he is, and, in large masses, so far as we can see, such he will remain. Changes likely to violate the general requirements of nature can only take place in separate units.

“In order to understand the law of man’s evolution it is necessary to grasp that, beyond a certain point, this evolution is not at all necessary, that is to say, it is not necessary for nature at a given moment in its own development. To speak more precisely: the evolution of mankind corresponds to the evolution of the planets, but the evolution of the planets proceeds, for us, in infinitely prolonged cycles of time. Throughout the stretch of time that human thought can embrace, no essential changes can take place in the life of the planets, and, consequently, no essential changes can take place in the life of mankind.”

“Humanity neither progresses nor evolves. What seems to us to be progress or evolution is a partial modification which can be immediately counterbalanced by a corresponding modification in an opposite direction. Humanity, like the rest of organic life, exists on earth for the needs and purposes of the earth. And it is exactly as it should be for the earth’s requirements at the present time.”


Very often, almost at every talk, G. returned to the absence of unity in man. “One of man’s important mistakes,” he said, “one which must be remembered, is his illusion in regard to his I.

“Man such as we know him, the ‘man-machine,’ the man who cannot ‘do,’ and with whom and through whom everything ‘happens,’ cannot have a permanent and single I.

His I changes as quickly as his thoughts, feelings, and moods, and he makes a profound mistake in considering himself always one and the same person; in reality he is always a different person, not the one he was a moment ago. “Man has no permanent and unchangeable I. Every thought, every mood, every desire, every sensation, says ‘I.’ And in each case it seems to be taken for granted that this I belongs to the Whole, to the whole man, and that a thought, a desire, or an aversion is expressed by this Whole. In actual fact there is no foundation whatever for this assumption. Man’s every thought and desire appears and lives quite separately and independently of the Whole. And the Whole never expresses itself, for the simple reason that it exists, as such, only physically as a thing, and in the abstract as a concept. Man has no individual I. But there are, instead, hundreds and thousands of separate small I’s, very often entirely unknown to one another, never coming into contact, or, on the contrary, hostile to each other, mutually exclusive and incompatible. Each minute, each moment, man is saying or thinking ‘I.’ And each time his I is different. Just now it was a thought, now it is a desire, now a sensation, now another thought, and so on, endlessly. Man is a plurality. Man’s name is legion. “The alternation of I’s, their continual obvious struggle for supremacy, is controlled by accidental external influences. Warmth, sunshine, fine weather, immediately call up a whole group of I’s. Cold, fog, rain, call up another group of I’s, other associations, other feelings, other actions. There is nothing in man able to control this change of I’s, chiefly because

man does not notice, or know of it; he lives always in the last I. Some I’s, of course, are stronger than others. But it is not their own conscious strength; they have been created by the strength of accidents or mechanical external stimuli. Education, imitation, reading, the hypnotism of religion, caste, and traditions, or the glamour of new slogans, create very strong I’s in man’s personality, which dominate whole series of other, weaker, I’s. But their strength is the strength of the ‘rolls’ in the centers. And all I’s making up a man’s personality have the same origin as these ‘rolls’; they are the results of external influences; and both are set in motion and controlled by fresh external influences. “Man has no individuality. He has no single, big I. Man is divided into a multiplicity of small I’s. “And each separate small I is able to call itself by the name of the Whole, to act in the name of the Whole, to agree or disagree, to give promises, to make decisions, with which another I or the Whole will have to deal. This explains why people so often make decisions and so seldom carry them out. A man decides to get up early beginning from the following day. One I, or a group of I’s, decide this. But getting up is the business of another I who entirely disagrees with the decision and may even know absolutely nothing about it. Of course the man will again go on sleeping in the morning and in the evening he will again decide to get up early. In some cases this may assume very unpleasant consequences for a man. A small accidental I may promise something, not to itself, but to someone else at a certain moment simply out of vanity or for amusement. Then it disappears, but the man, that is, the whole combination of other I’s who are quite innocent of this, may have to pay for it all his life. It is the tragedy of the human being that any small I has the right to sign checks and promissory notes and the man, that is, the Whole, has to meet them. People’s whole lives often consist in paying off the promissory notes of small accidental I’s. “Eastern teachings contain various allegorical pictures which endeavor to portray the nature of man’s being from this point of view. “Thus, in one teaching, man is compared to a house in which there is a multitude of servants but no master and no steward. The servants have all forgotten their duties; no one wants to do what he ought; everyone tries to be master, if only for a moment; and, in this kind of disorder, the house is threatened with grave danger. The only chance of salvation is for a group of the more sensible servants to meet together and elect a temporary steward, that is, a deputy steward. This deputy steward can then put the other servants in their places, and make each do his own work: the cook in the kitchen, the coachman in the stables, the gardener in the garden, and so on. In this way the ‘house’ can be got ready for the arrival of the real steward who will, in his turn, prepare it for the arrival of the master.

“The comparison of a man to a house awaiting the arrival of the master is frequently met with in Eastern teachings which have preserved traces of ancient knowledge, and, as we know, the subject appears under various forms in many of the parables in the Gospels. “But even the clearest understanding of his possibilities will not bring man any nearer to their realization. In order to realize these possibilities he must have a very strong desire for liberation and be willing to sacrifice everything, to risk everything, for the sake of this liberation.”




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Fetishism of Commodities………another explanation which may be helpful……


University of Economics Prague

What does Marx mean by the “fetishism of commodities”?

Alexandra Dobra


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?


The present paper aims to analyse Marx’s concept of “fetishism of commodities” by explaining the mechanism of a social genesis of determined illusions, arising in the sphere of production and circulation of commodities. It highlights the existence of an auto-sustained autarkic system of 4 variables – reification, objectification, duplicity and habit – sustaining and leading to the fetishism of commodities.

Keywords: Marx, Fetishism; Commodities; Social Relations; Reification; Duplication.


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?


“The components of human society are not the Humans but the relations existing between them.”


In The Capital Marx uses the Feuerbachian model of reversal in order to develop his notion of fetishism of commodities. A commodity is defined as “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (Marx, 1992) while fetishism is defined as attributing inherent value to an object. Commodity fetishism is the appearance that the commodity has a natural and intrinsic value, apart from the labour bestowed on it. So, the main thrust of the commodity fetishism concept is that the exchange-value (what makes something a commodity) doesn’t relate in proportion to the use-value.

For Marx, the capitalist economic world is truly of religious essence, in other words, religious ideology has been replaced by market ideology. As such “human needs are realized and appear in the form of alienated essence in religion just as economic relations do in social life according to Marx” (Hamacher, 1999). The fetishism of commodities corresponds to “a definite social where relation between men assumes the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Marx, 1992).

The present paper analyses Marx’s concept of “fetishism of commodities” by explaining how an illusory representation can produce tangible effects and contribute to the production of a specific economy and society.

“The mutual relations of the producers take the form of a social relation between products.”

(Marx, 1992)

Under capitalism the social relations of production are established by means of the transfer of “things” from individual to individual. This transfer of things has a coercive power over men via the way production is organized. Commodity fetishism describes a situation in which alienation predominates, due to “the social power which arises through the co-operation of different individuals appears to these individuals not as their own united power, but as an alien force existing outside them, of the origin and goal of which they are ignorant, which they thus cannot control” (Marx, 1992). In capitalism the domination of the “material” is not an illusory interpretation of social relations among people, it is a real social fact,


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?

fetishism is “a phenomenon of social being” (Rubin, 1972). In other words, “property, capital, money, wage labour, do not in themselves represent phantoms of the imagination, but very practical, very concrete products of self-alienated forms of two worlds”.

The fetishist character of the commodity consists in a symmetrical phenomenon of reification and deification. Reification corresponds to what as an exchange value becomes alienated from the human (Adorno, 2002). It is the confusion of social relations with their material support to objects – commodities and signs in which and through which relations of productions are materialized and signified. It is a fixation opposed to the open realization of the fluctuating and changing nature of life (e.g. : individual is reduced to a wage). In turn, deification corresponds to a supra-human personalization leading to attribute substantially to objects qualities and proprieties. At the heart of fetishism lies the reversal between the subjective and the objective. There is a reificatory objectification of subjects (of human relations and practices) and a deificatory subjectification of the object which institutes the reversal of the world (reverberated in capitalism) in which commodities command humans. The capacity of exchanging commodities is no longer the result of a common identity of products of labour, but the result of a mysterious internal characteristic, that they possess in a substantial manner, the value.

“A commodity is a mysterious thing because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character.”

(Marx, 1992)

At the level of its content, fetishism denotes a functional lack of dialectics because it is the result of a human operation insulating, hypostatizing and therefore absolutizing elements of the real. Fetishization is thus a constitutive form of socialization. “The commodity’s objectivity becomes the model of every objectivity” (Balibar, 2001), and this objectification extends to all human activities. There is a domination of the form value, of the abstraction and ultimately of the commodity. The development of exchange of objects on a marketplace brings humans into novel kinds of relationships. When objects are produced to be commodities, they possess an exchange value, which is a ratio of equivalence to other commodities. As this development of exchange increases, exchange-value loses its arbitrary nature and becomes a social phenomenon, a value inherent in the object it signifies. Commodity “transcends sensuousness” (commodity is fetish because it appears as possessing qualities beyond its own structure). The table steps forth as a commodity and is changed into something transcendent. Hence, “the subject realizes itself through a


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?

consideration of external objects, a recursive process, as object and subject act upon each other” (Miller, 1987). Objects become active agents in the construction of society.

The commodity appropriates itself the integrality of the labour’s social power by making it appear as its own power. The commodity seems to assume by its process of circulation, by the intertwining of the multiple atomized fragments, the unity in space and time of the process of production. There is a process of subversion, of transmutation; relations between humans cover the form of relations between objects. There is an illusion of the human conscience having its roots in the trade economy, which attributes to commodities, characteristics having the origins in the social relations between humans during the production process. The illusion and error in the human spirit transforms economic categories in “forms of the intellect having an objective truth” (Marx, 1992).

Labour becomes distorted and the product of labour “appears to these individuals not as their united power, but as an alien force existing outside them, of the origin and goal of which they are ignorant, which they thus cannot control” (Marx, 1992). In other words, a false consciousness occurs and the product lacks a social form anterior to its manifestation as a commodity : “mystery arises because the social character of the production is expressed only in exchange, not in production itself (Marx, 1992)”. Moreover, there is no integration and producers connect only mediately through exchange as marketers. Fetishism has as consequence the division between the concrete side immediately practical and the abstract side, the face proper to the exchange. When elements which must be united are abscinded, they become unified indirectly in illusory forms. A division in what needs to be unified leads to duplication, a second world arises to confer surrogate coherence to the fragmented elements. As such the social form becomes alienated from its productive content.

“The fetishism of commodities has its origin in the peculiar character of the social character of the labour that produces them.”

(Marx, 1992)

“It is not consciousness that determines life but rather life determines consciousness” (Marx, 1976), it follows that the human erects in absolute reality his own vision of the world; he hypostatizes his ideas and considers them as realities. When he obeys these realities he alienates himself. In capitalist societies, members are socially disconnected, “purely atomized” (Marx, 1992), and linked only via the exchange of products. “Articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of private individuals or groups who carry on their work independently of


A. Dobra What does Marx mean…?

each other” (Marx, 1992). Thus individuals consider the exchange of commodities as the reality. Fetishism is an elaborated and constraining form of social illusion, of social consciousness, sustained by the permanent transposition of the socially produced abstract wealth, privately accumulated, into social relations. The fetishism of commodity is the sign of a derealisation of the social consciousness, of a desocialization. Furthermore, the created individual relation to the object and its representation – the commodity – favours narcissist attitudes (narcissism of small differences in Freud’s terminology), illusory and asocial forms of love, contributing to enhance the social atomization and fetishization.

When people live within a capitalist society, their whole life is structured through commodities. They have to work in order to gain the money commodity, which then allows people to buy other commodities from others (C-M-C’ scheme). So, the commodity is a “thing” and a representation entertaining the logic by which it is created. This closed relationship between production and consumption alienates people into an experience of market influenced commodities. Humans are endowed with a false consciousness – the man’s labour products come to play a social determinant role – and thus become alienated by their own work. Fetishism unites the capitalist world of production and exchange to the representations and believes of individuals, which ensure the capitalist reproduction and functioning. A reversal of the world, realized by the commodity fetishism, occurs : “the economic and social reality is indeed perceived as the matrix of all human alienations” (Marx, 1988).

“Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development.”

(Marx, 1992)

As stipulated in the ut supra parts, fetishism creates a second world. There is social construction of untruths. Hence, there is a duplicity build into the economic structure of capitalism. This duplicity implies a hidden truth image and a collective social forgetting process. The forgetting operates because habit fixes on price to commodities and the hidden secret – of the value and nature of commodity – disappears from awareness. Hence, the accomplishment of social customs results into a collective unconsciousness. The collective forgetting occurs because of the human desire to drive away a disturbing thought from conscious awareness (confere Freud’s concept of Verdrängung). Succinctly expressed, there is a closed auto-sustained system between four variables, “fetishism”, “duplicity”, “habit” and “unawareness” – F-D-H-U scheme.


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The collective unawareness is also sustained by the unplanned nature of social relations. Because social relations are unplanned, knowable only à posteriori, they become visible only via the results of man’s activities, the commodities. Hence, man begins with the analysis of the result of his activities. The absence of regulation of the social process directly leads to the indirect regulation of the production process via the market, via the products of labour. So, forgetting is not just the resulting expression of the routine, but does also appear to be socially motivated. Under the capitalistic specific stage of development, human relations established in the social production and reproduction can be known to them only after the event and even then only in the opposed inverted form of the relations between things : “imaginary expressions, arise however, from the relations of production themselves. That in their appearance things often represent themselves in inverted forms is pretty well known in every science except political economy.” (Marx, 1992).


To conclude, the fetishism of commodities designates the collective and individual logic of representation, in which social relations are replaced by material relations.

The concept of fetishism of commodities is especially important in Marx’s theory because it constitutes a tool for the capitalist ideology. It contributes to institutionalize domination and to stabilize class antagonisms, via the alienation. “In all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura” (Marx, 1998).


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Adorno, T. (2002). Essays on music. Berkeley : University of California Press. Balibar, E. (2001). La Philosophie de Marx. Paris : La Découverte.

Hamacher, W. (1999). A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. Michael Sprinker Eds, London : Verso.

Marx, K., (1988). The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the Communist Manifesto. New-York : Prometheus Books.

Marx, K., (1998). The German Ideology, including Theses on Feuerbach. New-York : Prometheus Books.

Miller, A., (1987). Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Oxford : Blackwell. Rubin, I., I. (1972). Essays on Marx Theory of Value. Detroit : Black and Red.


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Ročník/Year: 2010 (vychází průběžně/ published continuously) Místo vydání/Place of edition: Praha
ISSN 1211-0442

Vysoká škola ekonomická v Praze / University of Economics, Prague nám. W. Churchilla 4
Czech Republic
130 67 Praha 3
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Redakce a technické informace/Editorial staff and technical information: Miroslav Vacura

Redakční rada/Board of editors:
Ladislav Benyovszky (FHS UK Praha)
Ivan Blecha (FF UP Olomouc)
Martin Hemelík (Masarykovo klasické gymnázium, Říčany u Prahy) Angelo Marocco (Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, Rome) Jozef Kelemen (FPF SU Opava)
Daniel Kroupa (ZU Plzeň)
Vladimír Kvasnička (FIIT STU Bratislava)
Jaroslav Novotný (FHS UK Praha)
Jakub Novotný (Vysoká škola polytechnická, Jihlava)
Ján Pavlík (editor-in-chief) (VŠE Praha)
Karel Pstružina (VŠE Praha)



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