# 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.