Commodity Fetishism and Phatic Culture

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.

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2 thoughts on “Commodity Fetishism and Phatic Culture

  1. I have some issues with the way you treat the subject of phatic communication, and if I may, I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective.

    Not to harp on the whole “social media was literally revolutionary” thing (cough, Arab Spring, cough), but let’s give phatic culture its due credit. You’ve stated that with the rise of the mediums of communication that produce phatic communication, “relationships are reduced [my emphasis] to ‘keeping in touch’ rather than deep, meaningful exchanges between people and communities.” Granted, employing or excluding the example of the Arab Spring to make any argument about the state of technology is problematic; relying on it to make the case for the bright future of “new” communication, or excluding it as an anomaly from a conversation that focuses on the ways in which new technologies take away from the human-ness of our communication inevitably lands us in an unproductive space. We are caught between been apologists or polemicists, but either way, we fall into the trap of ascribing moral characteristics to our (use of) technology and view the world through technological determinist perspective (where technology dictates flows of culture).
    I take umbrage with the idea that phatic communication somehow displaces “deep, meaningful exchanges between people and communities”, because the presumption here seems to be that the depth and strength of social ties is dictated by some imaginary nostalgic form of in depth communication (read: conversation) that once made us all better friends and more deeply human. You say that “[t]he ways in which many people communicate now [my emphasis] strike me as a literal manifestation of commodity fetishism”, in that we imbue values of human contact and communication into pieces of hardware and software (which, obviously, are not human). A big concept we are neglecting, though, is that communication of any kind is cultural, therefore it cannot be standardized to the extent that you’ve assumed it is, where the standard (which resides now only in some unobtainable past) is thought to be “deep” communication. Phatic communication existed and was understood long before Twitter as an embedded part of natural human interaction (and dare I say, communication); Maussian interpretations of gift giving, for example, state that social ties (even very deeply binding ones) are reinforced by exchanges of gifts (most frequently material, but also social gestures).
    Our privileging the depth of our oral and written communication as being representative of our culture speaks to more deeply rooted lack of self-awareness that we experience in the West (one that is not divorced from believing that we are, in fact unequivocally “West”). We do not believe we are cultural in the sense that we believe in types of magic or have rituals that we don’t stop to question. In a sense, being “born digital” has aggravated this assumption, and now instills us with the false sense that we have an inherent self-awareness about digital technologies and the ways in which they affect our lives. My point is that while we are still lamenting the rise in phatic culture, we do not.

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