Tag Archives: Karl Marx

Thinking About The Mezzanine and Participating in Capitalism

I was re-reading Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine this afternoon because I am teaching it in my American Literature After 1945 class tomorrow, and I was struck by a passage that I hadn’t thought about much before (which is the beautiful thing about the novel: basically every paragraph is thought-provoking if it hits one in the proper frame of mind, thus making the book eminently re-readable because different passages will stand out at different times of one’s life). The narrator describes mailing a batch of varied correspondence and his subsequent feeling of importance:

“I became aware of the power of all these individual, simultaneously pending transactions: all over the city, and at selected sites in other states, events were being set in motion on my behalf, services were being performed, simply because I had requested them and in some cases paid or agreed to pay later for them” (21-22).

While not all of the correspondence that the narrator sends is financial in nature (e.g., he mails a letter to his grandparents), what struck me is that part of why capitalism survives is that it parcels out bits of fun to everyone when we buy things, even during seemingly small transactions. I suppose this is simply another way of saying that commodity fetishes exist, but nevertheless, it is necessary to note that we support the system just as much when we make a few small, aesthetically-pleasing purchases as when we buy a house because society teaches us that such a purchase is necessary to be considered “successful.” I happened to run several small capitalistic errands today, acquiring a variety of goods: a tank of gas, a snow shovel, a wine decanter (my favorite purchase), some trail mix, and a cup of coffee at a locally-owned coffeehouse. I had the same subtle, pleasing sense of accomplishment as the narrator does, which highlighted just how deep into the system I am.

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The Environmental Issue With Digital Media

Steven Hyden has a fascinating article on grantland.com today about how digital downloads of music are quickly becoming a thing of the past as they are replaced by services such as Spotify. He notes that, while record aficionados will continue to buy physical objects (and one could also make this argument for those of us who prefer real books to their bastardized e-book cousins), no one will be nostalgic about downloading songs because no physical object changes hands. As Hyden writes, “[p]eople continue to buy vinyl records because they enjoy the process of buying and playing vinyl records;” there is no equivalent of this experience with digital files. Or, to put it in Marxist terms, buying a record (or a book!) is one of the most prominent examples of a commodity fetish.

Hyden’s explanation of the changing way we consume recorded music makes sense, but what his article (and similarly, all of the articles extolling the virtues of e-readers) fails to discuss are the consequences of having all of one’s music in digital form when we run out of fossil fuels in twenty or thirty years. All of that data becomes meaningless if there is no electricity (or so little that it is needed for more basic tasks such as cooking or heating the home) to run the computer or charge the iPod. I suppose this might also be a problem when trying to run a CD player (though it won’t when trying to read a real book as long as there is a window nearby!). But my point is that, while the Digital Age is an exciting one, we do not talk nearly enough about its environmental impact and how we will adjust when the energy that powers it is no longer as available as it is now. This is why physical libraries/archives are so important.

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