We ended last week’s class with Vincent Miller’s essay about phatic communication “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture.” Miller defines phatic exchange as “a communicative gesture that does not inform or exchange any meaningful information or facts about the world. Its purpose is a social one, to express sociability and maintain connections or bonds” (393-4). With blogs, microblogs and social media, relationships are reduced to “keeping in touch” rather than deep, meaningful exchanges between people and communities.
This conversation and Miller’s article reminded me of a discussion we had earlier in the semester in which the concept of commodity fetishism was brought up. Marx discusses commodity fetishism as a result of capitalism, as the human labor that goes into making a commodity is largely ignored and invisible. Rather than valuing the human component that went into creating something, society places that value in the object. In other words, commodity fetishism is the concept of viewing people as things and giving value to things as if they were people.
The ways in which many people communicate now strike me as a literal manifestation of commodity fetishism. Miller references sociologist Karin Knorr-Cetina, who argues that, “late modern relations are ones that are increasingly sifted through, or mediated by objects” (Miller 394). To take the example brought up in class, when we call someone on our cell phone, we aren’t calling that other person; our phone is calling another phone. It is a conversation between an object and an object, not two people. The cell phone takes the place of a physical presence and so much diminishes the human component of the call that we very likely don’t even bother to check our voicemail, if the caller even leaves a message. The phone knows that the other phone called, and will notify the receiver, so what’s the point of what is actually said? We literally don’t communicate with each other; instead our culture chooses to communicate via objects.
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique on Political Economy. Marx/Engels Internet Archive, 1999. Web. 29 September 2013.
Miller, Vincent. “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture.” Convergence. 14.4 (2008). 387-400. Web. 23 September 2013.