June 17th, 2005


Mix tapes and use value

An essay by Jon Beasley-Murray entitled Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx made me think about yesterday's topic of mix tapes from a slightly different angle. The music industry operates by capitalist principles, marketing cultural commodities for profit. In classic Marxist terms, we can talk fairly objectively about the "exchange value" of music: its value to the producers and distributors who profit from it. Music's exchange value appears in royalty statements, corporate balance sheets, sales charts, retail profit reports, and so on. It's numerical and objective.

Exchange value is only part of the story, though. Music also has "use value", value to its consumers. Here the economic argument falls silent, despite the fact that without use value there would be no exchange value. The use of music is seen as too subjective to talk about. What music means to me, what I do with music, how I "profit" from the music I've heard and bought, these are subjects to which no numbers can be affixed. The answers often go beyond words, passing into the realm of the religious or the spiritual, where things are simultaneously utterly real to the believer, and completely nebulous and unquantifiable. For this reason the discussion of use value has been left to artists. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard are artists, and so is Thurston Moore. Artists are considered experts in the subjective and the unquantifiable.

Now, Beasley-Murray cites John Guillory's point (made in his book Cultural Capital) that the sciences of economics and aesthetics, at least as practiced by Adam Smith and Kant, both "bracketed" use value. They did this because they both wanted their subjects to be "objective", although they defined objectivity in very different ways. Economics maintained a numerical "objectivity" (which we could also call "economistic reductionism") because it didn't want to concern itself with the subjectivity of the consumer. Aesthetics did it because it wanted to define art as something above and beyond all utility, all use value. It wanted art to be "objective" in a Platonic way: an embodiment of quasi-religious "truths" impermeable by the too-worldly logics of either use or exchange. The danger, of course, was that, like religion, this "objectivity" could all too easily be accused of being a projected, hubristic subjectivity. Why would the creator look like a man, and why would the realm of objective truth just happen to resemble the categories of human language?

Beasley-Murray then argues that Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "cultural capital" re-introduced the concept of use value into economics and aesthetics, despite the fears that these fields would be "debased" by ideas of utility. A book like Bourdieu's Distinction seems shocking to aesthetes because it proposes a sort of ulterior motive for artistic taste: the need to impress, to affirm class loyalties, to advance socially. But it also shocks economists because it muddies the numerical clarity of the balance sheet with nebulous subjective perceptions. Beasley-Murray then goes on to discuss the different ways exchange value and use value relate to time; exchange value, he says, can happen in an instant, but things must be used in and over time.

Here we should remind ourselves that Bourdieu thought that "cultural and social capital are fundamentally rooted in economic capital but they can never be completely reduced to an economic form. Rather, social and cultural capital remain effective because they conceal their relationship to economic capital." Being well-read, in other words, might be seen as a virtue in its own right, but in Bourdieu's model it's a form of capital which can be exchanged for economic capital. Being well-educated (and well-connected, another important part of the definition of "cultural capital") does make you richer, although it's difficult to make an exact link (and, Bourdieu would argue, this link is suppressed and concealed by both the economistically and aesthetically-minded). This, after all, is the logic behind most student loans schemes. Education will make you better off. With the "knowledge profit" you gain by studying, you will be able to pay off the actual money debt your study runs up.

The introduction of student loan schemes into public policy (effectively a replacement of an equality of opportunity policy with one which admits to actual differences in lived experience), the abandonment of old Marxist models like the one that says that (cultural) superstructure is determined by (economic) base, and even the appearance of a rash of books and art shows about mix tapes... what do these things have in common? I think they might be signs that Bourdieu was right, or rather, that his way of thinking is winning. As advanced societies get more consumer-oriented and more culture-oriented, and as we focus more on quality of life rather than mere affluence, we'll inevitably find ourselves looking at use value rather than exchange value. But we'll also see use value as something which can be translated back into money, which can be exchanged. (Marx anticipated this in "Capital" with his idea of 'productive consumption: "the process by which the worker consumes the means of production with his labour, and converts them into products with a higher value than that of the capital advanced. This is his productive consumption.")

It's clear from Iain and Jane's new film and Thurston's new book that something that's entirely economic (like pop music) can also be entirely subjective and even "transcendental" (like religion). It can have both use value and exchange value. But if Bourdieu is right, you can translate that use value back into exchange value: for the mix tape makers, being seen as having good taste, boasting about one's record collection, or getting laid is the ultimate goal, but for the artists collecting and collating their stories it's simultaneously about detaching pop from its market context, and returning its use value to the market in the form of books and art. (Use value here, in the form of the personal narrative, becomes an under-exploited market good, a neglected commodity.) Our tendency to segregate use from exchange value, to see one as "sullying" the other, makes us associate the two only when we want to condemn someone for duplicity or hypocrisy. I think we should lighten up about that: they're two sides of the same coin. Thurston Moore is simultaneously a merchant and consumer, a boy and a man, an amateur and a professional, a buyer and a seller, a hoarder and a spender of (sub)cultural capital. And that's okay.