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Materiality, Form, and Context: Marx contra Latour

Author(s): Hylton White

Source: Victorian Studies, Vol. 55, No. 4, Special Issue: The Ends of History (Summer 2013),
pp. 667-682
Published by: Indiana University Press
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Materiality, Form, and Context:
Marx contra Latour

Hylton White

ajor theoretical projects are organized as much by what they
dispute as what they propose. What has come to be called
the ontological turn in the humanities is no exception,
and little has been more important for advocates of that turn than the
effort to repudiate the claims of critical theory.1 Take Rita Felskis call
to understand texts as nonhuman actors, participating in fluid rela-
tions with other actorsreaders, for examplethat they come across
as they circulate in an open-ended world. As Felski writes in a recent
article entitled Context Stinks! (a reference to Bruno Latour), before
we can comprehend texts as actors that enter into diverse, unpredict-
able associations, we first need to estrange ourselves from conventions
of critical inquiry (denominated as the hermeneutics of suspicion)
that interrogate texts for ties to arrangements of power in specific
historical settings. In Felskis words:

While suspicion can manifest itself in multiple ways, in the current intellectual
climate it often pivots on a fealty to the clarifying power of historical context.
What the literary text does not see, in this line of thought, are the larger circum-
stances that shape and sustain it and that are drawn into the light by the corrective
force of the critics own vigilant gaze. The critic probes for meanings inaccessible

A BSTRACT: Bruno Latours critique of so-called anti-fetishism is central to the onto-

logical turn that has spurred the recent decline of historicist approaches in the
humanities. According to Latour, anti-fetishists such as Karl Marx believe themselves
to be exposing the illusory projection of human agency onto things. This leads them,
says Latour, to overlook the actual roles and powers of nonhuman actors in constructing
actor-networks. Here I suggest that Latour has fundamentally misrecognized the
object of Marxs analysis. In Marxs account, the fetishism of commodities is not an
ideological projection but a historically specific form of life. A critical materialism
would focus not simply on demonstrating again and again the facts of nonhuman
agency, but rather on examining the historically diverse forms of material association
that organize possibilities for agency. Marxs analysis of the commodity form as a form
of estranged interaction provides rich resources exactly to that end.


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to authors as well as ordinary readers, and exposes the texts complicity in social
conditions that it seeks to deny or disavow. (574)

In rejecting critical inquiry thus described, Felski draws intellectual

inspiration from Latours actor-network theory (ANT), one of the most
influential projects within the broader anti-critical movement. The
primary goal for ANT is to show how assorted nonhuman actors
material things, particularlyparticipate in creating complex networks
or assemblages of action that cannot be understood as products of
purely human agency.2 ANT aims to reconsider the interplay between
forms of materiality, forms of connection, and forms of action: precisely
the domain in which critical theory has staked its preeminence. For
Latour, therefore, the turn to ANT is inseparable from a turn away from
critiquea turn he has charted most famously in his 2004 essay, Why
Has Critique Run Out of Steam? In calling on us to renounce critique,
and to rethink the entanglements of material objects in modes of asso-
ciation and action, Latour insists that critical theory has fallen short in
understanding the links between material facts and social ones.
This essay suggests that Latour is mistaken in ways that should
matter to the historians, literary scholars, and others who are now
adopting approaches based on his program. Nowhere is this problem
clearer than in Latours misunderstanding of the fetish, as invoked
in Karl Marxs seminal critique of commodity fetishism in the opening
chapter of Capital (1867). For Latour, the very notion of the fetish is
iconic of the suspicious methodology that seeks to look behind things
rather than at them, in an alleged privileging of depth over surface.
Latour calls that suspicious methodology anti-fetishism and uses this
term repeatedly within his refutation of the claim that Marxs critique
helps us grasp the roles of things in ordering human affairs. That refu-
tation fails, however, because it fundamentally misrecognizes its object.
There is little correspondence to be found between Marxs critique of
the fetishism of commodities and the anti-fetishism that Latourians
see in Marxist theory. When Latour targets anti-fetishism, he describes
it as a misguided epistemic crusade, whereas Marxs account of the
fetishism of commodities is an immanent critique of a form of life. To
conflate the two is not just an error in theory or in the history of ideas,
although it is certainly both of these. It is also a move with self-defeating
effects. If the point is to move beyond a critical method that merely
exposes power at work behind the veil of representation, then Latours


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critique of critique is in fact an obstacle to that exact goal. It gets in the

way of developing a more dynamic approach to the role of material
form in mediating relations, actions, and consequences. Victorianists
who are interested in material objects should (to borrow a locution
from Thomas Carlyle) put down their Latour and pick up their Marx.
Latours opposition to Marx rests on his conviction that Marxs
very idea of commodity fetishism betrays ill will toward the concrete
lives of the things placed under this description. In Latours account,
to call a thing a fetish is to show no care for the technical complexi-
ties of its creation or the sheer fragility of its existence. The Marxist
critic effectively smashes the object to satisfy a suspicion that behind its
surface lie the aims of human domination. That is to say, in Latours
rendition of Marxist critique, Marx depicts the fetish as an illusion that
has not yet been exposed for what it is: a mask that graces power. But
this is a mistake. Marx does not conceive of commodity fetishism as a
surface illusion superimposed on the facts of human agency; he does
not, in other words, conceptualize the fetishism of commodities as a
consequence of the (false) beliefs that people hold about things. In
Marxs Capital, fetishism inheres instead in the social effects of the way
the commodity form is organized, qua form, as a template for assem-
bling connections between a host of objects, actors, and activities. In
thus describing the commodity as an element of capitalist society,
Marx focuses on features that may not be characteristic of objects in
non-capitalist systems of exchange (Capital 14851). These connections
between actors and activities are inseparably historical and material,
and they have the very real (fetishizing) effect of making subjectivity
peripheral to the construction of material action in capitalist society
(16869). In no way, then, does Marx suggest that the fetishism of
commodities is a mask obscuring the underlying powers of human
subjects. Latours critique of critical theory is a misdirected caricature.
It is, dare one say, a supremely unempirical account of thingsand
one that occludes the importance of Marxist historicism in renewing a
materialist approach to critical practice in the humanities.

What Is Anti-Fetishism?

Latours attack on the concept of the fetish is a theme that

links up works produced over twenty years of battle against the scholar-
ship of suspicion. Across these polemics, Latour constructs a picture of


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anti-fetishism as the way of thinking he wishes to oppose. It is crucial to

recognize that, for Latour, anti-fetishism is not just a misguided set of
critical claims, but also the outcome of a weakness in the ethos or the
character of the critic. As Felski puts it in a clear Latourian echo,
suspicious reading is a distinctive disposition or sensibility that is
infused with a mlange of affective and attitudinal components (575).
The product of this disposition, according to Latour, is an antipathy
for the fetish that subtracts from rather than adds to our assembled
grasp of the things that share the world with us (Why Has Critique
232). But this impoverished understanding, in his view, starts with the
posture that the critics bring to bear on their engagements with the
world. Before it is an epistemological error, then, anti-fetishism is an
affective, even a moral, one. Its intellectual failures stem from a failing
in the spirit or the ethics of its practitioners.
Much of Latours account of anti-fetishism is thus focused on a
portrait of the critic as a character governed by fatal flaws and vices.
The language Latour brings to these sketches is so unremittingly
mordant that it is difficult to summarize without falling into melo-
drama. Critics of the fetish are described as puritanically austere,
suspicious to the point of paranoia, and barbarically aggressive in their
handling of the things they make into targets for their critical atten-
tions (Latour, Why Has Critique 22840; On the Modern Cult 6772).
They define themselves as Whites and Moderns in self-satisfying
contrast to those who suffer under fetishistic illusion (On the Modern
Cult 27). Worst of all, they impress themselves with the cleverness of
their activities. As Latour says in a typically caustic passage:

You are always right! When naive believers are clinging forcefully to their objects,
claiming that they are made to do things because of their gods, their poetry, their
cherished objects, you can turn all of those attachments into so many fetishes and
humiliate all the believers by showing that it is nothing but their own projection,
that you, yes you alone, can see. But as soon as naive believers are thus inflated by
some belief in their own importance, in their own projective capacity, you strike
them by a second uppercut and humiliate them again, this time by showing that,
whatever they think, their behavior is entirely determined by the action of
powerful causalities coming from objective reality they dont see, but that you, yes
you, the never sleeping critic, alone can see. Isnt this fabulous? Isnt it really worth
going to graduate school to study critique? (Why Has Critique 239)

Latour clearly believes that the failures of an anti-fetishist critical prac-

tice come from a kind of conviction that is in turn predicated on the


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critics belief in the uniquely scientific status of his or her own forms of
knowledge. Disposition and proposition thus merge in the arrogant
act of exposing fetishistic errors: The fetishist is accused of being
mistaken about the origin of the power in question. He has built an
idol with his own hands . . . yet he attributes this labor, these fantasies,
and these powers to the very object that he has created (On the Modern
Cult 8). On this account, Marx leads the critic to portray fetishism as a
type of self-deceiving human agency. The real agent at work in the act
of fetishism is the human fetishist, not the fetishized object. Most
importantly, the anti-fetishist critic thinks the kind of human agency
at work is specifically cognitive: what animates the fetish is the fact that
humans believe in it. Critique, on this view, is a project of showing how
fetishists have been deceived by their own beliefs into attributing
powers to lifeless things. But how did fetishists come to think so wrongly
in the first place? At this point, anti-fetishists supposedly inflict Latours
second uppercut. They claim scientific knowledge to show how human
beliefs are shaped by hidden mechanismsespecially the functional
imperatives of social domination (On Interobjectivity 236).
According to Latour, this two-step operation produces a
paradox. The power of things over human affairs is first exposed as a
product of misguided beliefs, after which these beliefs are exposed as
products of thing-like social mechanisms that govern human affairs.
How can critics subscribe to both assertions simultaneously, without
seeing how they controvert each other? This is only possible, says
Latour, insofar as anti-fetishists themselves believe something special
about belief, namely that beliefs drive human actions. Since their own
beliefs are scientific ones, these critics are granted the stature of world-
making heroes, while ordinary fetishists are caught in a web of illusion
that prevents them from acting freely or effectively (On the Modern Cult
1416). One of Latours main conclusions is, thus, that the concept of
belief does essential enabling work for the anti-fetishist project by
allowing critics to paper over the cracks of a performative contradic-
tion. Ironically, the category of belief allows anti-fetishist criticsnot
fetishists, noteto deceive themselves about the role of beliefs in their
own behavior.
Finally, what is it about anti-fetishist critique that the concept
of belief hides from view? The answer lies in plain sight, says Latour.
Once more it is an irony, but now it concerns the category of society
and operates with devastating effect against the supposedly social aims


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that provide the mandate for anti-fetishist criticism. Anti-fetishists

think, that is, that fetishism has a double link to the constitution of
social life. On the one hand, they convince themselves that fetishistic
beliefs about the powers of things reproduce the social order. Beliefs
project social forces onto apparently material ones, thus constituting
the object as a fetishan entity stuffed with the weight of social oppres-
sion. On the other hand, anti-fetishists also think that ordinary
peoples beliefs in things interrupt the composition of human relation-
ships. Because they are in thrall to lifeless objects, people are unable
to use their human powers to forge more free and flourishing commu-
nities among themselves. Fetishismand through it the world of things
at largeis an instrument inflicting social death.
But Latour proposes that all of this is wrong, an error not just
farcically but also tragically self-contradictory. By way of correcting the
critics mistaken faith in the reality of the social, Latour adduces his
ontological turn: the argument that things operate precisely in order to
connect us to the full range of actors, human and nonhuman alike, with
which we share a world of association (On Interobjectivity 235; On the
Modern Cult 2527). They are not inert containers wherein social forces
are channeled and concealed. It is only in the paranoid cosmology of the
critic that society becomes an overpowering context working secretly
through things. If anything, it is the critics activity that builds a social
prison around the object of critique (Felski 579). Worst of all, concludes
Latour, this paranoid delusion draws the critics into acts of aggression
against the very communities of association they say they want to
promote. Convinced that things are masks disguising the operations of
power, the anti-fetishist brings a critical hammer to the fragile scene of
connections that things facilitate for their human companions and
allies. In the end, it is not the uncritical delusion of the fetishist but the
critical barbarity of the anti-fetishist project that presents the greater
harm to our hopes of advancing a more felicitous grasp on the composi-
tion of collectives (Latour, Why Has Critique 240).

Is Marx an Anti-Fetishist?

Although my main concern here is a defense of Marxist histori-

cism against its Latourian critics, Latours attack on anti-fetishism is not
an exclusively anti-Marxist construct. In fact, anti-fetishism is the credo
for a very broad church indeed in Latours account. He thinks it describes


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the positions of parties as disparate as mainstream sociology on the one

side and the American National Rifle Associationwhich insists that it is
people, not guns, who kill peopleon the other (On Technical Media-
tion 31). Throughout the congregations of this anti-fetishist fold, Latou-
rians hear the theological echoes of the early modern Protestant war
against the religious veneration of icons. On this view, the Reformation
becomes the model for all the anti-fetishist Moderns. Whether the latter
be missionaries in the colonies or Marxists in the humanities, they are
all described as Puritan militants bent on the work of purifying humanity
of its entanglements in the fictitious powers of things.3 Marx, however, is
singled out in this company for (somehow) being the most Protestant of
all. The Marxist critique of commodity fetishism is a station to which
Latour frequently returns as he prosecutes his claim that critical theory
is the hidden heir to the Protestant mission of saving humanity from
enthrallment to its own idols.4
I want to challenge Latours interpretation of Marx as a secular
iconoclast: not just to salvage Marx from Latour, but also to save
Latours materialist project from the fatal effects of his misinterpreta-
tion of Marxs claims. As I will argue, Marx describes the world of
commodity fetishism with reference to a dynamic that is inseparably
material and historical. There is simply no way to read him as a theo-
rist of collective illusions embedding themselves secondarily and exter-
nally in things. So what has led Latour and his followers to make such
rudimentary mistakes in relating Marxs claims?
I suggest that Latours account of so-called anti-fetishism
confuses Marxist theory with forms of criticism that begin from funda-
mentally different, ultimately incompatible premises. Most proxi-
mately, these include Michel Foucaults works and other forms of
poststructuralism (from which Latour unsuccessfully strives to extri-
cate his own thinking). But they also have older precedents, most
notably in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Latours confusion of Marx with
these Rousseauian lines of criticism revolves around the status of
collective cognitive artifactsbeliefs and representationsin the
constitution of social life. Latour has incorrectly grafted Marx, that is,
to a lineage of critique that charts how states of mind support oppres-
sive political and social institutions. Whatever auxiliary roots these
latter approaches may or may not have in Protestant theology, what
distinguishes them conceptually is a very un-Marxist emphasis on the
role of representations in establishing injurious collectives.


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Take Rousseaus famous argument, in his Discourse on the Origin

of Inequality (1755), that power depends on manipulating the conscious-
ness of subject populations:

The first man who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this
is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of
civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the
human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the
ditch and cried out to his fellow-men: Beware of listening to this imposter. (44)

Rousseaus account is striking because he embeds this fatal event in a

longer story about the composition of social life as such. He tells us that,
before we could reach the point where an imposters representations
institutionalized political injustices, we first had to constitute a common
realm that was organized both through and as the flow of representa-
tions among the minds of its participants. Rousseau describes this devel-
opment as the growth of human communities where personal life is
contingent on the regard of other subjectsin other words, where social
life is intrinsically intersubjective. Thus did the solitary human indi-
vidual of the state of nature fall from a condition of robust indepen-
dence into one of living instead through the perceptions of others. To
flourish in this common space required the ability to manage the circu-
lation of representations through others minds, thus nurturing the arts
of civil duplicity: rhetoric, costume, manners (3443).
Rousseaus argument combines three theoretical axioms. The
first is a claim about what society is: namely, a space of collective mind.
The second is a claim about the character of interactions within that
common cognitive space. Social interaction is conceived primarily as
representational practice: the range of acts that circulate collective repre-
sentations. The third is a normative postulate: representations bring
burdens and distortions of mind to bear on concrete lives. If society is a
space of collective cognition, then representations function as laws that
discipline and distort the concrete world. The critics task is thus to inter-
vene in an epistemo-political struggle in which lively bodies strain against
the violence of representation. Taken together, these three claims form a
set that recombines in arguments from Rousseau to Auguste Comte and
mile Durkheim in the nineteenth century and to the linguistic turn of
structuralism and poststructuralism in the twentieth. Yet, even though a
nuanced critique of the hermeneutics of exposure would therefore have to
engage Foucaults influence rather than (or, perhaps, in addition to) that
of Marx, Latour hardly ever takes issue with Foucault or poststructuralism


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at large. This is doubtless because poststructuralism is a crucial ante-

cedent for ANT. The end result is that Latours account is incoherent:
mistaken about Marx and silent on those aspects of the hermeneutics of
suspicion that derive from linguistic emphases.5
In contrast to the dualism between objects and representations
that pervades this latter tradition, historical materialism is inspired by a
completely different philosophical anthropology. It begins from a
phenomenological (and anti-dualist) focus on the problem of the subject
in its relations with the world and, specifically, the potential of the subject
to determine its relations with its activities: in other words, from freedom
as an emergent worldly condition. As Marx says in The German Ideology
(1932), the subject only develops in the midst of its relations with things:
the history of its relations with those things is, thus, the history of the
subject and its freedom (3637). The question is therefore not how to
free the subject from the world, but rather what kinds of worldly arrange-
ments might create a subject capable of self-consciously relating itself to
itself through its relationships with objects. Far from seeking to purify
humanity of its material entanglements and dependencies, Marxs
approach to the question of freedom is therefore focused precisely on
the question of how we create ourselves materially.
But we do not even need to resort to statements of philosophy
here. When Marx puts forward the theory of the commodity form as
fetish in the opening pages of Capital, he does so in order to compre-
hend not social life in general, but one specific, historically relative form
of it: societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails (125).
And he understands this form of life, for reasons we shall see, as one in
which activity is specifically resistanteven unsusceptibleto influence
by processes of intersubjective or cognitive mediation. The last point is
fundamental. At the very point where Marx invokes the concept of the
fetish, his argument diverges most dramatically from approaches to
social analysis that, like Rousseaus, explore the ways in which forms of
collective thought legitimate oppressive institutions. Latour thus misde-
scribes Marx so profoundly that his assault on anti-fetishism simply has
no purchase on the Marxist critique of commodity fetishism.

How Do Objects Associate, Historically?

Near the opening of the most extended version of his argu-

ment, Latour positions Marx in the iconoclastic Protestant tradition by


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selectively quoting the famous lines from Capital in which Marx says
we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious
world in order to find an analogy with the fetishism of commodities
in capitalist society:

In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings
endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the
human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of mens hands.
This I call the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as
they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the
production of commodities. (qtd. in Latour, On the Modern Cult 10; see Capital 165)

With that Latour rests his case, if not his accusation. But of course, the
passage makes nothing like the claim Latour reads into it, namely that
the fetishism of commodities projects the illusions of minds onto
things. Latour cuts off this important passage not just from the argu-
ment that follows, but even from the balance of the chapter it concludes.
The effects of this are decisive, since Marxs account of capitalism is
designed to be read as a whole. In the very next line, for example, Marx
writes, as the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of
the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the
labour which produces them (165, my emphases). However, even a careful
reading of the cited passage in isolation shows that Marx is not
asserting what Latour would have us believe. What makes two things
analogous is not that their parts are identical, but that there is an
isomorphic structure in the ways those parts are arranged. When Marx
compares the products of labour to those of the human brain
attending religion, he is not proposing we understand the fetishism of
commodities as something the mind has created. He is saying that in
the fetishism of commodities, as in religion, we see a kind of activity
displacing its own human subjects. In this instance, displacement
issues not from what those subjects believe, but from the peculiar
social character of their acts. In the detail just as much as the bigger
picture, Latour simply misrepresents what he is describing.
In the bulk of this chapter on commodities, Marx assembles a
complex set of relationships between iron and coats, producers and
political economists, and ultimately value, temporality, and the lives of
things, both magical and mundane. In other words, he provides a
detailed account of what Latour ought to see precisely as a type of
actor-network. Take this well-known passage, in which Marx claims


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that the metabolism of labor into a product, far from being a reduc-
tively physical act, is diverted through the manifold of associations
converging in the commodity form as form:

It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of
nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for
instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to
be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it
changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet
on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and
evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were
to begin dancing of its own will. (16364)

Commodification, then, is the device through which the object (a table

made of wood) is translated into an element of capital (a commodity
form that transcends sensuousness). The distortions that result from
this set of social relationsthe grotesque ideas through which the
table (in un-table-like fashion) stands on its headare not projected
onto the thing in human thought, but emanate inexorably from the
mode of connection itself or, in other words, from the form (figura-
tively expressed as the tables wooden brain). Marx therefore spends
much time on carefully tracing the ways in which the commodity form
is itself a concentration of a series of relations or modes of connection.
He associates these relations with an unfolding series of value forms,
which take their turns appearing while commodities circulate through
diverse juxtapositions with the range of subjects and objects they
encounter in the society of capital. Every form of value entails a
different kind of relationship and a different implication for the
dynamics of human activity. In use value, for example, we find a rela-
tion in which the material thing is part of a chain of subject-object
mediations. Producers reshape objects with specific material qualities
that enable their consumption to particular ends in other kinds of
activities (12526). In exchange value, by contrast, the use value or the
material form of the object is a vessel for another relation entirely. Not,
let us note, a human relation disguising itself in things. Rather, in rela-
tions of exchange, where objects are related as commodities, the mate-
rial form of one thing is quite literally the social representative of the
value of another thing (13863).
This is the first appearance of the society of things that Marx
denominates the fetishism of commodities. It is not a product of mind.


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Nor is it the property of a thing as such. It is literally a structure of rela-

tionships associating things with one another. As a structure of associa-
tion for things, it also brings human actors into peculiar kinds of
secondary relationships. For Marx, however, being brought into relation
through material things is not the source of the problem. On the
contrary, as makers of useful things, human actors potentially relate to
others precisely through the properties of things that allow for the inter-
change of needs, desires, intentions, and skills (13134). This has nothing
at all to do with fetishism. In fact it is the necessary material condition, as
Marx writes in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1927), for the
flourishing of a self-conscious subjectivity in rich relations with others
(7278). In a setting in which the means of production have all been
turned into capital, however, human actors find little opportunity to
engage in this material sociality, except as the producers of things that
circulate as commodities. But as makers of commodities, human actions
do not follow from the plans that subjects have for themselves, for things,
or for other subjects. Instead they act as agents of an expenditure of
different proportions of human labour in general: the quantities of
labor-power that capital has bought from them (Capital 142). In other
words, human actors are brought into relation here as elements of
capital. As producers of commodities, their ties to their own activities
and to those of other actors are extensions of the agency of capital itself
(Postone 14857). This is the fetishism that attaches itselfreturning
to those lines that Latour misreads, but noting now the full force of the
impersonal constructionto the products of labour, so soon as they are
produced as commodities.
This is necessarily a very brief account of Marxs argument
and one that will be familiar to many readers; but let us note three
evident points. First, Marxs argument, once again, has nothing to do
with projections of illusory representations. Second, Marxs critique of
the structure of capitalist activity has nothing to do with ridding
human life of material entanglements. Quite the opposite: the problem
with the fetishism of commodities is exactly that it works to demateri-
alize the material conditions for a flourishing of intersubjectivity.
Third, what makes this condition pathological in Marxs view is not
that it contradicts the pure condition of the human (as if the human
were not itself historical in his account). It is rather that it crystallizes a
self-contradictory structure of activity, the effect of which is to discon-
nect the subject from its own materializations.


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That last point takes us directly to the question of contextat

issue for Felski and other critics following Latourand the status of
the ends of history. As participants in the technically elaborate
ecology of our age, humans have a historically grounded potential to
construct a richly material space for intersubjective becoming: a space
in which they can recognize themselves in their open engagements
with a complex world of human and nonhuman others. But in more
and more situations, they find the material world already appropriated
as capital (Marx, Capital 92730). In order to act materially, they are
forced to act as the producers of commodities (or marginally, or not at
all). As producers of commodities, however, they interact as extensions of
the impersonal dynamics of valorization. Where they could be subjects,
then, they cannot act materially. But where they act materiallyas in
their relations of laborthey do so non-subjectively.
Perhaps the most economical way to put this is that Marxs
critique describes a historically relative, richly material structure of
social action, in which the human subject is displaced from its own mate-
rial activity. We can thus read Marx as the theorist of a sort of actor-
network, as I have said. But that is only one outcome of recovering Marx
from Latourian distortions. If Marx is able to give us a language for
comprehending a non-subjective form of sociality, or one in which inter-
subjective ties have lost material mooring, he gives us something more
than Latours theoretical apparatus can provide. For all Latours insis-
tence on an open-ended ontology, his actor-networks are always chains
of interplay between two and only two kinds of causalities. There are
plans or designs on one side, and the lives of things on the other. Tech-
nical mediation is the name he gives to convergences of these elements
in potentially complex pathways of combination, displacement, and
recombination (On Technical Mediation). But somehow Latours
examples of these convergences or translations never move beyond a
repetitive back-and-forth narrative in which mind is joined to matter and
matter subsequently relays, exceeds, or displaces mind. At the post office
counter, the agent and the customer interact in accordance with a plan
designed in the architects office (On Interobjectivity 238). The civil
engineer translates the policemans command into speed humps that
address quite different motives in the driver of the car (On Technical
Mediation 3839).
The irony is clear, of course: much more than critical theory, it
is ANT that traps the object in a relationship with mind instead of


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placing it carefully in the world of all its historically particular connec-

tions. But the missed opportunity is also clear. Restricted by this intel-
lectual framework, Latour cannot see the world of objects sitting right
in front of him in his own historical setting: commodities that asso-
ciate human activity in a non-subjective mode. No amount of focus on
the translation of subjective designs will show him the formal pathways
where commodities separate subjects from the material conditions of
their intersubjectivity. To see that would require attending to how the
commodity form, as form, arranges subjects and objects in a histori-
cally specific kind of relationshipthe one that critical theory labels
capital, or the fetishism of commodities.
In other words, a materialist account of the existing world
could build much more from historical materialism than it can within
the narrow confines of Latours atemporal cosmology. To do so, it
would have to adopt a conception of the historical existence of the
commodity form. It would have to move away from the metaphysical
abstractions of the interplay between plans and things toward a histori-
cally grounded account of the work of the form in associating activi-
ties. It would thus have to do the hardest work of all in critical theory:
holding to a rigorous sense of sociohistorical relativity. For this is where
the question of illusion really emerges in the course of Marxs critique.
It is not that human subjects are unable to see themselves and their
human agency in the products of their labor. They quite correctly see
that their productive acts are actually dictated by the impersonal
dynamics of political economy. What occludes itself is the fact that this
is one historically relative form of life. It is not so much that human
work is hidden here, as that this is a peculiar way of arranging the
interaction of human activities. The mode of interaction is what
appears, illusorily, as natural fact, as an outgrowth of necessity instead
of historicity. By refusing to theorize social form as such, Latour ends
up simply replicating the way that the society of the fetishism of
commodities presents itself: as the only way of life we can possibly have.

Context Follows Form

And so we return to the question of critique, suspicion, and

context. How does our discussion of the fetish help us rethink the turn
away from historical context as the ground for critical inquiry in the
humanities? In the passage with which I opened this essay, Felski correctly


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points to the stultifying grip of a mode of criticism that interrogates

things for hidden meanings that make them vehicles of power in
surrounding social contexts. But in taking Felskis advice to heart, we
must remember that Marxs account of commodities as fetishes does
nothing of the sort. The relationship to context is precisely not a relation-
ship of meaning in Marxs analysis. In order to be a relationship of
meaning it would have to be set in the first place in an intersubjective
space, and that is what the commodity form has already put to the side.
Nor is the commoditys context best understood in terms of a focus on
power, whether in Rousseaus terms or Foucaults. To frame the problem
of freedom in the language of political oppression would require, again,
that social life be essentially intersubjective, but as Marx shows in Capital,
that is just what the fetishism of commodities interrupts. Finally, neither is
the commoditys context best understood as something that surrounds
the form on the outside, as it were. The form is itself the relationship here
and, thus, it is the historicity of the commodity form that lets us see the
historicity of the mode of association it creates. In Marxs argument,
context follows form, not the other way around. Here is something that
seems to exceed, not just the critique that Latour presumes has now run
out of steam, but also the confines of an anti-criticism that fails to grasp
what materialist critical theory actually claims.
University of the Witwatersrand


This essay originated in a panel on Things of Nature, the Nature of Things, convened
by Sarah Nuttall at the fourth Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism (see
White). My thanks to her and the other participants in that session. I am also very
grateful to Lauren Goodlad and Andrew Sartori for invaluable editorial guidance, and
to Jean and John Comaroff, Bernard Dubbeld, Charles Piot, Achille Mbembe, Cathe-
rine Burns, Julia Hornberger, and an anonymous reader for comments on earlier
Broadly speaking, the ontological turn refers to a movement away from
questions of representation, discourse, subjectivity, and identity, and toward a new
attention to the roles of material and other nonhuman agencies in constructing
concrete events, collectives, and forms of life. In anthropology, for example, this has
inspired new experiments in posthumanist or multispecies ethnography (Kirksey and
Helmreich). In literary studies, book history is related to the same trend. One of the
signature features of this movement is its explicit repudiation of critical questions and
its unabashed embrace of an empiricist agenda.
On ANT, see Latour, Reassembling 117; Callon.


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Latourian anthropologist Webb Keane, for example, compares the Marxist
critique of commodity fetishism to the anti-idolatrous projects of Calvinist missionaries
in Indonesia (813).
See Latour, We Have Never 36; On Technical Mediation; On Interobjec-
tivity 241; On the Modern Cult 10.
It is important to note that theory in this Rousseauian tradition hardly ever
makes use of the notion of the fetish, preferring instead the metaphor of the mask
(Mauss; Levi-Strauss passim). Since Latour so often writes about the critique of the
fetish as if it were a critique of the dissembling representational work of the mask, it is
all the more incongruous that he directs his ire at Marxism and not at his own post-
structuralist inspirations.


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raphy. Cultural Anthropology 25.4 (2010): 54576.
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