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Reification (German: Verdinglichung, literally: "making [some idea] into a thing" (from Latin "res" meaning "thing") or Versachlichung, literally "objectification" or regarding something as a business matter) is the consideration of an abstraction, relation or object as if they had human (pathetic fallacy) or living (reification fallacy) existence and abilities, when in reality they don't; at the same time it implies the thingification of social relations.

Typically it involves separating out something from the original context in which it occurs, and placing it in another context, in which it lacks some or all of its original connections yet seems to have powers or attributes which in truth it does not have. Thus reification involves a distortion of consciousness, ranging from the rather innocent, to the grotesque.

Reification in thought occurs when an abstract concept describing a relationship or context is treated as a concrete "thing", or if something is treated as if it were a separate object when this is inappropriate because it is not an object or because it does not truly exist in separation.

Marx argues that reification is an inherent and necessary characteristic of economic value as it manifests itself in market trade, i.e. the inversion in thought between object and subject, or between means and ends, reflects a real practice where attributes (properties, characteristics, features, powers) which exist only by virtue of a social relationship between people are treated as if they are the inherent, natural characteristics of things, or vice versa, attributes of inanimate things are treated as if they are attributes of human subjects.

This implies objects are transformed into subjects and subjects are turned into objects, with the result that subjects are rendered passive or determined, while objects are rendered as the active, determining factor. Hypostatization refers to an effect of reification which results from supposing that whatever can be named, or conceived abstractly, must actually exist, an ontological and epistemological fallacy.

The concept is related to, but is distinct from, Marx's theories of alienation and commodity fetishism. Alienation is the general condition of human estrangement. Reification is a specific form of alienation. Commodity fetishism is a specific form of reification.

Contents

Five quotations from Marx showing the use of the concept

Here a financial institution reifies its services as tangible merchandise-like packages.

"Commodities, which exist as use-values, must first of all assume a form in which they appear to one another nominally as exchange-values, as definite quantities of materialised universal labour-time. The first necessary move in this process is, as we have seen, that the commodities set apart a specific commodity, say, gold, which becomes the direct reification of universal labour-time or the universal equivalent." [3]

"Capital employs labour. The means of production are not means by which he can produce products, whether in the form of direct means of subsistence, or as means of exchange, as commodities. He is rather a means for them, partly to preserve their value, partly to valorise it, i.e. to increase it, to absorb surplus labour. Even this relation in its simplicity is an inversion, a personification of the thing and a reification of the person, for what distinguishes this form from all previous ones is that the capitalist does not rule the worker in any kind of personal capacity, but only in so far as he is "capital"; his rule is only that of objectified labour over living labour; the rule of the worker's product over the worker himself." [4]

"[B]ecause as a result of their alienation as use-values all commodities are converted into linen, linen becomes the converted form of all other commodities, and only as a result of this transformation of all other commodities into linen does it become the direct reification of universal labour-time, i.e., the product of universal alienation and of the supersession of all individual labour." [5]

"The production of capitalists and wage-laborers is therefore a major product of the process by which capital turns itself into values. Ordinary political economy, which concentrates only on the objects produced, forgets this entirely. Inasmuch as this process establishes reified labor as what is simultaneously the non-reification of the laborer, as the reification of a subjectivity opposed to the laborer, as the property of someone else's will, capital is necessarily also a capitalist. The idea of some socialists, that we need capital but not capitalists, is completely false. The concept of capital implies that the objective conditions of labor—and these are its own product—acquire a personality as against labor, or what amounts to the same thing, that they are established as the property of a personality other than the worker's. The concept of capital implies the capitalist. However, this error is certainly no greater than that of, e.g., all philologists who speak of the existence of capital in classical antiquity, and of Roman or Greek capitalists. This is merely another way of saying that in Rome and Greece labor was free, an assertion which these gentlemen would hardly make. If we now talk of plantation-owners in America as capitalists, if they are capitalists, this is due to the fact that they exist as anomalies within a world market based upon free labor. Were the term capital to be applicable to classical antiquity—though the word does not actually occur among the ancients (but among the Greeks the word arkhais is used for what the Romans called the principalis summa reicreditae, the principal of a loan)—then the nomadic hordes with their flocks on the steppes of Central Asia would be the greatest capitalists, for the original meaning of the word capital is cattle." [6]

"Capital employs labour. Even this relation in its simplicity is a personification of things and a reification of persons. But the relation becomes still more complex—and apparently more mysterious—in that, with the development of the specifically capitalist mode of production, not only do these things—these products of labour, both as use values and as exchange values—stand on their hind legs vis-à-vis the worker and confront him as "capital"—but also the social forms of labour appear as forms of the development of capital, and therefore the productive powers of social labour, thus developed, appear as productive powers of capital. As such social forces they are "capitalised" vis-à-vis labour. In fact, communal unity in cooperation, combination in the division of labour, the application of the forces of nature and science, as well as the products of labour in the shape of machinery, are all things which confront the individual workers as alien, objective, and present in advance, without their assistance, and often against them, independent of them, as mere forms of existence of the means of labour which are independent of them and rule over them, in so far as they are objective; while the intelligence and volition of the total workshop, incarnated in the capitalist or his understrappers (representatives), in so far as the workshop is formed by the combination of the means of labour, confront the workers as functions of capital, which lives in the person of the capitalist. The social forms of their own labour—the subjective as well as the objective forms—or the form of their own social labour, are relations constituted quite independently of the individual workers; the workers as subsumed under capital become elements of these social constructions, but these social constructions do not belong to them. They therefore confront the workers as shapes of capital itself, as combinations which, unlike their isolated labour capacities, belong to capital, originate from it and are incorporated within it. And this assumes a form which is the more real the more, on the one hand, their labour capacity is itself modified by these forms, so that it becomes powerless when it stands alone, i.e. outside this context of capitalism, and its capacity for independent production is destroyed, while on the other hand the development of machinery causes the conditions of labour to appear as ruling labour technologically too, and at the same time to replace it, suppress it, and render it superfluous in its independent forms. In this process, in which the social characteristics of their labour confront them as capitalised, to a certain extent—in the way that e.g. in machinery the visible products of labour appear as ruling over labour—the same thing of course takes place for the forces of nature and science, the product of general historical development in its abstract quintessence: they confront the workers as powers of capital." [7]

Development and significance of the concept

After Marx, the concept was developed in extense by Georg Lukács in "Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat", part of his book History and Class Consciousness. The concept of reification has also been present in the works of the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, for example in Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, and in the works of Herbert Marcuse. Others who have written about this point include Gajo Petrović, Raya Dunayevskaya, Raymond Williams, Axel Honneth and Slavoj Žižek.

Petrović, in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, defines reification as:

The act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man‑produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man and govern his life. Also transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of ALIENATION, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modern capitalist society.[1]

Reification occurs when specifically human creations are misconceived as “facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will”.[2]

Examples include the creation of false desires by the real labor of advertising. This is the construction of nouns naming parts of reality as intrinsically desirable "products", where the legal system of the capitalist country provides "fit for use" presumptions, and legislation allows the entrepreneur to create, for example, a reified and indeed fetishised noun, from “intellectual property” to “Hula Hoop” and “Windows Vista”.

Criticism

French philosopher Louis Althusser criticized in his 1965 article Marxism and Humanism, what he called "An ideology of reification that sees 'things' everywhere in human relations"[3] . Althusser's critique derives from his theory of the epistemological break, which finds that Marx underwent significant theoretical and methodological change between his early writings and his mature ones.

The concept of reification is used in Das Kapital, Marx's most mature work; however, Althusser finds in it an important influence from the similar concept of alienation developed in The German Ideology and in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

Frankfurt School philosopher Axel Honneth reformulates this key "Western Marxist" concept in terms of intersubjective relations of recognition and power in his recent work Reification (Oxford, 2008). Instead of being an effect of the structural character of social systems such as capitalism, as Karl Marx and György Lukács argued, Honneth contends that all forms of reification are due to pathologies of intersubjectively based struggles for recognition.

References

  1. ^ Gajo Petrović, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, Laurence Harris, V.G. Kiernan, Ralph Miliband (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 411-413; [1]
  2. ^ Berger, Peter, & Luckmann, Thomas. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Anchor/Doubleday.
  3. ^ Althusser, Louis; "Marxism and Humanism" in For Marx, p. 230 - endnote 7, [2]

Further reading

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