# PHILOSOPHY /// Short Approach to the notion of Commodity for William Burroughs and Karl Marx

In the first pages of the Naked Lunch, William Burroughs draws a powerful description of the logic involved in the drug trade. He uses junk as a “generic term for opium and/or derivatives including all synthetics from demerol to palfium” (Burroughs 1959) and defines it as “the ultimate merchandise.” Indeed, the scheme he describes (see below) seems to be an exacerbated illustration of the logic involved in capitalism and the trade of commodities in general. The fact that he uses this term, junk, which also means any kind of object with no particular specificity, expresses his will of blurring the limits between this extreme products, and more banal ones.

I have seen the exact manner in which the junk virus operates through fifteen years of addiction. The pyramid of junk, one level eating the level below (it is no accident that junk higher-ups are always fat and the addict in the street is always thin) right up to the top or tops since there are many junk pyramids feeding on peoples of the world and all built on basic principles of monopoly:

1 Never give anything for nothing
2 Never give more than you have to give (always catch the buyer hungry and always make him wait)
3 Always take everything back if you possibly can.

The Pusher always get it all back. The addict needs more and more junk to maintain a human form…buy off the Monkey.
Junk is the ideal product…the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy… The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client. He pays his staff in junk.

William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch (1959)

In this text, W.Burroughs anthropomorphizes -or at least, biomorphizes- merchandize in affirming the merchant sells the consumer to his product. This method is also splendidly used by Karl Marx in his exhaustive and referential descriptions of the commodity in Capital. In the fourth part of the first chapter of the first volume, in which he exposes the fetishism that is triggered by the commodity, he pictures a table dancing (“als wenn er aus freien Stucken zu tanzen beganne”) when it transfer from the status of useful object to the one of commodity:

At first glance, a commodity seems to be something obvious and trivial. But its analysis brings out that it is quite intricate, abounding in metaphysical hairsplit- and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about the commodity, whether we consider it from the point of view that, its properties, it satisfies human needs, or that it first obtains these properties as product of human labor. The activity by which man changes the forms of the materials of nature in a manner useful to him is entirely accessible to the senses. The form of the wood, for instance, is altered when a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table is still a piece of wood, an ordinary thing which can be seen and touched. But, as soon as the table steps forth as a commodity, it changes into something that has extra sensory features attached to its existence. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but in relation to all other commodities it turns itself on its head, out if its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far spleenier than if it suddenly were to begin dancing.

Karl Marx, Das Capital, Fourth Edition (1890)

Later in the same chapter, Marx even makes the commodities speak (“Could commodities themselves speak, they would say”) to make its point clearer. But the introduction of merchandise as an own entity -or rather as a multitude of individual entities- is also consistent with the understanding of capitalism as a complex system in which the humans are only a part in it. It also participate to a materialist philosophy, a non-anthropocentric vision in which the world exists independently from the interpretations that are made from it. As in the Naked Lunch, this vision is both terrifying and paradoxically useful for us to know which part we are taking within it.

7 Comments on “# PHILOSOPHY /// Short Approach to the notion of Commodity for William Burroughs and Karl Marx

  1. ((Warning! this is a parasite posting which seeks to sustain itself off the juicy morsels of your excellent comparison of Marx and Burroughs, do not be alarmed there is no real risk in hosting these parasitic ideas, thank you.))

    First I have to say, excellent comparison. my favorite essay by Burrows is, the fall of art, from the adding machine. In it Burrows starts by explaining how the cut-up, and collage in general are actually the same as human conciseness, I can’t really express how much I love this idea, I kind of stabled upon it independently a couple of years ago, well actually, I was inspired by Deleuze’s concept of the montage which is basically the same, that secretions of film images are essentially film conciseness in the way they connect diverse images into a whole which makes up its own perspective, Deleuze did this first by showing that film montage and Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiology theory are really the same in that they are both chains of image, which gain meaning through their reference to each other. He then combined this with Burgeons theory of duration to show that this referential quality is not only true of memory and film, but of everything that exists, thus to Deleuze each film is really a construction of reality it’s self, quite brilliant if you ask me, but I’m shore you know all this because you’ve written extensively on Deleuze here on your site.

    Anyway, back to the fall of art. after Burrows shows that both cut-up and collage are of the very nature of cognition he procede to outline a history of art in which the image takes on an increasingly commoditized form, comparing it to native American potlucks, and than he bilds this theme until it culminates in a global economic war in which states destroy massive amounts of art in order to destabilize foreign markets. It’s actually the most interesting thing I’ve ever read and I’m really not doing it justice here, but the point is that he showed that cognition it’s self can be and often is commoditized.

    And this brings us to the great Marxist, Guy Debord, whom I’m shore you’re well familiar with, who does the very same thing, all-be-it in a vary different way. Debord uses the image and his term the spectacle interchangeably, but he doesn’t really mean the same thing by image as Deleuze, he means something I think a bit more Platonic, to him the spectacle hides the real truth, kind of like shadow play on a cave wall. In his book the society of the spectacle he states:

    42. The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life. Not only is the relation to the commodity visible but it is all one sees: the world one sees is its world. Modern economic production extends its dictatorship extensively and intensively….

    So here we see that for Guy Debord the spectacle isn’t really just any image it’s a special kind of image, it’s an image that spreads the commodity form into the visual realm. I think this is confused by the connotation that image as mere appearance has had throughout the philosophical tradition from Plato on through Descartes and Kant, but the point I’m making is that we don’t have to distrust all image in order to understand what Guy Debord means by the spectacle, in fact I think that once we can compare the spectacle with other images we will better understand what the spectacle really is.

    In all the discussions that go on about the commodity it is funny how rarely the term is actually explained, I guess thats because those that have these kinds of discussions assume that this is just to basic and that everyone knows what this term means. A commodity is a good that can be extended without qualitative differentiation, that is, it is assumed that all such items are basically the same. Examples of commodities are crude oil, lumber, coal, salt, sugar, coffee beans, soybeans, aluminum, copper, rice, wheat, gold, silver, palladium, and platinum. I know that everyone knows that these are commodities but what’s important to note is what makes these commodities, that they can be split into units without any qualitative distinction, and thus can be used as currency in exchange for other commodities or money.

    So what makes the spectacle distinct from all other forms of image is that it has lost its individual irreducibility, and has become measurable, and therefore able to be easily exchanged in a capitalist economy as nothing more then symbols of statice. So you can see that there is no reason to conflate the spectacle with image in general, in fact if we learn to understand and respect visual meaning in such a way as to make each image irreducible to any basic unit, we will in turn make it un-exchangeable on the market and there-by begin to combat the commodification of image, and begin to advance against the whole of the society of the spectacle by force.

    Easier said than done to be shore, but I actually think that Deleuze could be good for this endeavor because he more than any other philosopher proclaimed the non- represent-ability of all image.

    • Dear Gravel (can I call you Dusty?!)

      Thank you very much for your insight. This article was so short compared to what it should be and I am happy to see that I can count on other people to complement my text.
      Don’t assume too much that I know my classics! I watched the Society of Spectacle a long time ago but only a few days ago, I figured that I should go back to it via the book and try to understand better Debord’s take.

      Please don’t interpret the fact that I won’t response to your comments as a lack of interest but rather as a lack of time which I have already difficulties to find to update the blog as often as possible.

      Thanks again
      Have a good day


  2. Dusty gravel – you may be more like a fungus working with leopold the roots (symbiosis).

    My question here is same in theme as I posted on the recent blog about Rem Koolhaas’s disciples, is there an alternative (to commodification)?

    Dusty states/hints at an option – which one could argue in terms of existential philosophy is called “becoming”. Commodification happens upon reflection of that which is “becoming”. The act of reflection (thinking about a memory) abstracts that which is “becoming” into a concept removed from time, a virtual object detached from its history and future, a stand alone entity (gegenstand), which can always re-establish its meaning by reference to other virtual objects, for instance in a collage or montage or a frame in a movie, or by being reinserted into time as a force or object (against the grain of time – gegen stand).

    I see no way around commodification without removing the act of reflection.

    Let’s assume the only true “reality” is the one that is “becoming” both virtually and physically, including the acts of reflection. All other (memories, nouns, objects) are myths. The truth can not be a “noun” or “object” it can only be a “verb” or “function”. A “verb” can not have discrete value in terms of a commodity and for this reason the truth is that which can not be a commodity. “Verbs” and “functions” can formulate value and upon a method reflection appear to obtain a commidified value, but this value would be a myth. See Georg Cantors breakdown of infinities of higher orders etc…in short one bad act of reflection (poincare agrees).

    So either propose a method for reflecting that does not lead to commidification or admit commodification is inevitable as much as “becoming” is the truth and as I believe Jean Baudrillard was suggesting in the “impossible exchange” there is no “other” to give balance or counter this inevitable fact of life – commodification. A powerful myth.

  3. This was a very, very interesting comparison! I haven’t read much of Burroughs, but your article definitely gave me food for thought. I also enjoyed Dusty’s follow-up. I would like to give this exchange to my students as reading material.

  4. Pingback: # PHILOSOPHY /// My Desire is Someone else’s Fiction: William Burroughs & Control as seen by Frédéric Claisse in Multitudes 48 | The Funambulist

  5. Pingback: N7E Pays Tribute to William Burroughs | Quilas

  6. Pingback: # ARCHIPELAGO /// Burroughs’s Interzone as the Space of the Suspended Law Contained in the Thickness of the Line | The Funambulist

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