Investment of Desire

I was all ready to opine at great length and weight on Philip Glass’s recent address to the Occupiers outside Lincoln Center, the proper response to David Koch’s $100 million contribution, and Satyagraha‘s place in the literature, but because I a) wasn’t there and b) haven’t seen Satyagraha, I thought better of it. Instead, allow me to steal a topic from Frank J. Oteri, whose post last week was the springboard for a very stimulating conversation about recorded media.

Everything that anyone has ever done, someone is still doing. It’s already been pointed out in Frank’s thread that LPs, CDs, cassettes, and so on will continue to be produced and consumed into foreseeable perpetuity, if only for their fetish value: Buying an album in .mp3 form is a different act than buying it on CD, which in turn is different from buying it on vinyl, and these differences themselves hold meaning for many consumers. Let me open with a quote from “Value and Affect” by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (boundary 2, Vol. 26 No. 2, [Summer 1999], pp. 77-88):

“…today one cannot imagine a definition of use value that could be given even partially independent of exchange value.”

Consider, for a moment, how you would estimate the use value of a music recording without resorting to the sticker on the front: Not so easy. A solution proposed by Daniel Wolf after Frank’s article was that a gift economy might enable us to concretize a recording’s exchange value by echoing its affectively directed use value; thus, j109′s Lego castles could be bought for the bargain-basement price of a few sunbeams. (Apologies to Daniel and j109; I’m being deliberately provocative.) In the absence of such an immaterial economy, however, it is nigh-impossible even to discuss recorded music without talking about what it costs. And what it costs—as opposed to what it does for people—is directly related to how it feeds its producers.

But all is not lost. Time for another quote from Negri and Hardt:

“The latent recognition that political economy gives to the fact that value is now an investment of desire constitutes a real and proper conceptual revolution.”

Two things about this one. First, the inside of it: “value is now an investment of desire.” Affect, which is the subject of the article this quote comes from, is how—in this abstract and alienated age—exchange value is assigned, and that assignment in turn configures our understanding of use value, as above. This situation must be truest of all when it comes to discretionary goods, including music recordings.

Second, the outside of it: That value is an investment of desire is in effect at the level of the base, not just the superstructure, and this is a historically novel phenomenon. The latter point is certainly debatable, but in any case Negri and Hardt’s framing points not only to the obvious dilemma (i.e., that political economy is powered, vampirically, by our love for things and institutions) but to an opportunity: We can choose, after all, how to invest our desire. A lot of people—including, it seems, Frank—invest desire in recordings for reasons entirely separable from their use value as conceived in a strictly Marxist sense, but in doing so they necessarily affect a change—however marginal and provisional—in their exchange value.

2 thoughts on “Investment of Desire

  1. Daniel Wolf

    Colin,

    I don’t believe that I was was suggesting a solution, but rather more accurately describing the prevailing economics of the recorded commodity, where monetary value is trending towards null and increasingly contrasts with both costs and value of live performance.

    For an example of how our gift (or potlatch) economy operates with equal (but opposite) eccentricity, consider this small item about prices in the visual art world: http://www.youmightfindyourself.com/tagged/it's%20art%20dad .

    In any case, even this old N.O.Brown student is not entirely convinced by the utility of “desire” as the currency of investment capitol; different kinds of desire are clearly different. The desire for food is, for someone who is starving, incommensurate with desire for discretionary goods. Perhaps it reflects a perverse desire on my own part, but I happen to believe that the convivial performance and experience of music lies in use value somewhere below but near the necessity of food and quite a bit above the luxury of owning a recording.

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    Daniel, I apologize for misrepresenting you – and of course Negri and Hardt’s formulation of desire vs., say, old-fashioned “demand” is problematic; I guess in order for it to make sense we have to compartmentalize one from the other in some historical way.

    I happen to believe that the convivial performance and experience of music lies in use value somewhere below but near the necessity of food and quite a bit above the luxury of owning a recording.

    I couldn’t have said this better myself.

    Reply

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