Has Capitalism Gone Virtual? Content Containment and the Obsolescence of the Commodity


Olga Sezneva, Sébastien Chauvin (2014)

Has Capitalism Gone Virtual? Content Containment and the Obsolescence of the Commodity

Critical Historical Studies 1(1): 125-150.

Drawing on debates over the alleged virtualization of capitalism, this article examines how recent strategies of commodification have responded to challenges posed by digital and other self-reproducing contents. Using the examples of digitized cultural goods, plant patenting and online gaming, the paper argues that challenges to commodification have not come from intangibility per se but from forms of physical inscription associated with negligible costs of reproduction, sharing and transmission.The commodity form has always been intangible and analytically distinct from commodified content, if empirically intertwined with it. Successful commodification involves the containment of content within the boundaries of the form. Whereas the physical characteristics of industrial products more or less met the requirements of content containment, self-reproducing and digital goods have demanded increasingly costly prosthetics to insure their maintenance as commodities. The article offers three key conclusions. First, although containment has consistently assumed juridical forms, it also has recently taken the shape of technological and physical devices embedded into objects, ironically conferring renewed materiality on the commodity form. Secondly, and paradoxically, physical materializations of the commodity also provide a fresh handle for its manipulability: technological policing reintroduces some of the vulnerabilities that juridical containment aimed at curbing. Virtual worlds seem to offer a radical solution to these dilemmas by internalizing the space of valorization itself, but their unavoidable physical inscription maintains possibilities for piracy. Finally, expanded prosthetics of commodification carry ambivalent ideological implications. Heightened material obviousness contributes to reiterate fetishistic beliefs in the self-containment of commodity-objects. Yet, prosthetic swelling can also become a source of ideological failure and an indicator of obsolescence – not the decline of the commodity, but the increasingly blatant historical inadequacy of its forcibly prolonged maintenance.

Extensive presentation in Russian by Olga Sezneva (video and text): http://contextfound.org/events/y2014/m10/n96