Themes in Literature

Literary Themes Commodification/Commercialization


Commodification is a multifaceted concept, having roots in political and economic theory as well as cultural and literary studies. Broadly defined, commodification is the transformation of immaterial, social relationships into commercial relationships that often utilize the language and ideological stances of a market driven economy and capitalist society (for example, terms and ideas surrounding “buying and selling,” “supply and demand”). In order to understand this important and complex idea, we need to understand the etymology of the word commodification. At the root of the word is commodity, which in modern language usage is defined as “a kind of thing for use of sale, an article of commerce, an object of trade” and “food or raw materials as objects of trade” (Oxford English Dictionary).

The act of trading one good for another is an ancient one, and the act of using currency to purchase a grown or manufactured good is almost as ancient. The act of commodification (sometimes referred to as commoditization) is significant, then, because it is a modern metamorphosis of an ancient idea. Today, it is not only grown and manufactured goods that can be bought and sold: Ideas, social relationships, even individuals can now be viewed as commodities—goods available for trade or purchase. Commodification, in effect, turns people and ideas into goods and machines. The idea of commodification was first broadly explored when, in the Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, noted that everything— not merely food, clothing, and other tangible goods—can become a commodity in a modern, industrial, capitalistic society. It is important to remember, however, that a commodity derives its value not from what it can do (use value) but from what it can be sold or traded for (exchange value), often in order to attain some sort of perceived cultural prestige or social status or identity. To Marx and Engels, people (more specifically, the modern working class), as well as the goods they produce, have become commodities themselves, since people “live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital.” In other words, industrialization has increased the amount of commodities that can be produced (and often increased their exchange value as well), but the machine cannot run without the human being. However, the commodity costs money to produce, and so it must always be sold at a set minimum price. The human being, though, has no set minimum price, requiring only “the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race.” As a result, the laborer himself becomes a commodity in that his wage is tied to his use in producing the original good. In other words, the “worth” of the laborer is directly associated to the worth of the good (and the exchange value of the laborer is nearly always lower than the exchange value of the good).However, more and more the workers are separated from the means of production: Workers in a capitalistic society often have no connection to the commodity they are producing; the commodity will often not be purchased or utilized by the laborer’s own community.

Rather, they work for a company that is not connected to their community, producing commodities that have no relationship to them, by using machines that they merely operate. Eventually, this leads to the Marxist concept of alienation, in which laborers feels disconnected from their own work, from what they produce, and ultimately from other human beings in their community (since the product of their work is purchased by others and made by machines). The idea of alienation is important to understanding commodification because it deflects the focus of production from the human being, making him a minor part of the process. When this happens, goods can take on a life of their own, almost seeming to appear magically on the shelf of a store, where someone will purchase the good, often without having any idea where, how, or by whom it was made. The process of production (including the human factor) is hidden, and the commodity itself appears as a “natural object,” as if its existence is a matter of natural means, as opposed to manufactured means.

When this occurs, it is often referred to as “commodity fetishism” (Marx, Capital) or “reification” (Lukács, History and Class Consciousness), within which the material world is viewed as objectified and out of society’s control; the primary human actions in a reified world are those of buying and selling. In recent years, the concepts of commodification and reification have been analyzed within the sphere of popular culture. For example, theorists such as Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1944) have identified the emergence of “the culture industry,” which views popular culture as a “factory,” mass-producing goods for society’s consumption. This easy consumption of goods—being a “good consumer” in a capitalistic society—results in satisfying a perceived need for “culture,” and that being able to purchase and thereby participate in this culture will therefore create happy citizens.A criticism of such a relationship, however, is that the culture industry does not accurately reflect true human needs; instead, it creates false needs—to own certain goods in order to belong as a functioning member of society—as opposed to fulfilling “true” human needs such as liberty, creativity, and community. In other words, the culture industry creates a commodity that it sells to society as a “need” (often through the effects of advertising); society purchases the commodity, which minimizes identity and creates new, similar needs for newer, similar goods. Along the way, the human aspect of society’s consumption is weakened, and culture itself becomes commodified, creating a “culture industry.”

The need and the way of belonging and having identity in a culture industry is through ownership and image. Anything, it seems, can be commodified: art, music, footwear, ideas, “beauty,” human relationships, even dreams and ideas. The use value of the good becomes obscured, and the culturally manufactured exchange value is what compels the consumer to buy a Degas painting, an original pressing of The Beatles’ White Album, copyright a new idea or way of doing something, sell cosmetic surgeries and “fad diets,” participate in human trafficking, and even corrupt (or change) the American dream. Literature has long been society’s way of taking a close look at itself, and many literary works have taken a long, hard look at commodification and its related process, commercialization. Perhaps the most significant work to examine how something immaterial and human can be changed into a commodity—something to be purchased, or something that has an exchange value greater than its use value—is Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. In Death of a Salesman, the Loman family is struggling to find its identity and place in mid- 20th-century America. This struggle, however, is compounded by modern society’s generally uncaring attitude, best exemplified by Willy Loman’s heartless and dramatic firing by Mr. Wagner, and its obsession with material possessions and social status. While each character in the play is complicit in the commodification of the American dream, none exhibits it better than Willy Loman, who commodifies his personal image, especially in his perpetual desire to be “well liked” and his valuing of labels. For example, he believes a punching bag to be of good quality because “It’s got Gene Tunney’s signature on it!” (1.1). Willy’s willing participation in the culture industry will not allow him to separate real, human needs from the reified, manufactured image of the American dream—in Willy Loman’s case, to be a successful, well-liked, and influential salesman. In a similar vein, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby’s pursuit of an idealized, successful image of himself—in short, the commodified version of the American dream—led him to a lifelong pursuit of buying an image and a reputation.

Yes, Gatsby is a “self-made man,” part of the American dream mythos, but he is a self-made man who places greater exchange value on things and ideas than he should, and conversely, he places little value upon human friendships. The “pursuit of happiness” in Gatsby devolves largely into a pursuit of quick, greedy, superficial moments of happiness. It is money, possessions, and reputation—as well as being part of a social group (being invited to one of Gatsby’s parties, for example) that stand in as “needs,” not the traditional American dream ideas of rugged individualism, human connection, or liberty. Jay Gatsby, however, was not the only character to buy into the commodified American dream being produced by the early culture industry. Daisy, in how she views herself and how she is viewed by others, also acts as a commodity within The Great Gatsby. Daisy, married to her husband, Tom, but in love with Jay Gatsby, is a bright and progressive woman.

However, in the commodified world of the Roaring Twenties, within which Gatsby is set, it is easier for her to “buy into” the image of the woman upon whom society has placed value: simple, fun, and beautiful. Putting such an exchange value on the image and role of a woman in this society has the consequences of Daisy wishing the following for her baby girl: “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (Fitzgerald 12). Daisy hopes that her daughter will be “marketable,” and valued for her successful image within the society of Gatsby. But Daisy is not the only character commodifying women. Daisy’s husband, Tom, views her as a possession rather than as a human being—as he does many women in the novel, even having an affair, not out of love but out of exchange value. For Tom, women are merely something to be “owned.” In a different yet similar manner, Jay Gatsby also views Daisy as a commodity. While both Miller and Fitzgerald examined the commodification of ideas and ideals, Don DeLillo focuses not only on ideas, but also provides a strong critique of the culture industry in his postmodern novel White Noise. Within this novel, DeLillo examines modern suburban life. From the opening paragraph, the reader is bombarded with lists of goods being moved into college dormitories: “stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hair dryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints” (1). By presenting us with such an exhaustive list, we are immediately submerged into a materialist and image-conscious society—a society that has a department of Hitler Studies, taught by Jack Gladney, a professor who does not speak German and who is helping a friend establish a department of Elvis Studies; a society where the children are often more mature than the adults, where drugs are exchanged for sex, where the rearrangement of the supermarket is profoundly disorienting to the people of the community, and where the omnipresent television chatters in the background. Other literary works address commodification in different and interesting ways. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, for example, asks about the relationship between the use value and the exchange value of books and knowledge. In Catch-22, Joseph Heller presents an absurdist narrative of war within which soldiers and prostitutes alike are viewed as disposable commodities. In Beloved, Toni Morrison examines how human beings can be commodified, largely through the portrayal of characters who were born into slavery and who are not viewed as subjects but as objects or commodities.

A good example of self-commodification can be seen in the character of Joshua, who changes his name to Stamp Paid after he “handed his wife over to his master’s son” (124) in order to “buy” his life, and later his freedom. Stamp Paid spends the rest of the novel questioning notions of identity, obligation, and community. Commodification and the culture industry are part of modern-day society; they are built into our political, economic, and entertainment industries. While commodification can be difficult to identify, it is worthwhile to consider its role in everyday life. How does commodification change (for better or worse) how we see the world? How does it change how we view ideas and products? Most important, how does it change how we view each other? Literature, it seems, remains one of our best means of asking—and answering—these questions.

See also Defoe, Daniel: Moll Flanders; Dinesen, Isak: Out of Africa; Erdrich, Louise: Bingo Palace, The; Hawthorne, Nathaniel: House of the Seven Gables, The; Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World; Kincaid, Jamaica Small Place, A; Kingston, Maxine Hong: Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book; Lawrence D. H.: Rainbow, The; Women in Love; Melville, Herman: “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”; O’Connor, Flannery: Wise Blood; Pope, Alexander: Rape of the Lock, The; Roy, Arundhati: God of Small Things, The; Steinbeck, John: Grapes of Wrath, The; Swift, Jonathan: Modest Proposal, A; Tolkien, J. R. R.: Hobbit, The; Twain, Mark: Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, A; Updike, John: “A & P”; Wharton, Edith: House of Mirth.

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