Fetishism (Commodity fetishism)

See also Alienation; Reification; Historical materialism (Marxism)

Commodity fetishism is key concept in the work of Karl Marx. In the context of the design of narrative environments, this concept may be of value in understanding the specific modes of performativity and actantiality of material elements of the design, such as their role in the performance of identity or their role in the actantiality of exploitation, taking into account the positive and negative views of the commodity outlined below.

Marx sees capitalism as driven by the need to produce commodities for consumption in an ever-expanding market. In the process the ‘use-value’ of the objects produced by human labour is replaced by their ‘exchange-value’, expressed generally in monetary terms (Brooker, 2003).

In its primary function as a commodity under capitalism, the resulting object becomes a ‘fetish’, substituting itself for the social relations it has occluded or repressed. In his book, Capital, Marx speaks of reification, rather than alienation, a term that he had used in his earlier work, to describe this process of becoming objectified. Not only the products of labour but the labourer also becomes a commodity and is induced to see himself or herself in this way.

In the era of mass consumption, a re-conceptualization of the commodity has taken place. The commodity is now seen as having positive and flexible social, cultural and personal meanings, indeed ‘use value’, and not simply the exchange and monetary value that enforce reification, as discussed in Appadurai, ed. (1986). The idea of the commodification of labour power, along with other key Marxist concepts, has also been critiqued by critical thinkers, such as Laclau and Mouffe (1985), for example, who see it as a ‘fiction’ brought into being by a commitment to a theory of inflexible laws of economic necessity.


Appadurai, A., ed. (1986). The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brooker, P. (2003). A Glossary of Cultural Theory, 2nd ed. London, UK: Arnold.

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.

edited 18 May, 2016 by Allan Parsons

Associated Practices

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