Thursday, January 19, 2012

What Makes Something Real?

In 1950, my mother made her final installment payment, and took the subway from her apartment on E 51 St. near Second Avenue over to Brooklyn to pick up her new sewing machine. She would always remember that ride for two reasons. It was her first trip to Brooklyn. Instead of going under the East River, the train rode on tracks underneath the bridge. My mother has always had a phobia about heights and bridges, so she made sure, on her return trip, to find a route that went under the river.

It was a Necchi, that sewing machine. Complete with sewing machine cabinet, it had an electric treadle. Sitting on the sewing machine stool, which opened up to store sewing material, she pressed her knee against a small lever that operated the motor, turning the machine. The Italians made great sewing machines, the Olivetti and Necchi. The former was probably more popular. The Necchi, though, was built to last. My mother's, built and bought during the Truman Administration, sits in their house to this day, fully functioning, with all the original parts and extras. Needing only the occasional squirt of oil to keep the moving parts from stiffening, it should run well for another sixty years.

At this point, you're probably wondering what the heck my mother's old sewing machine has to do with the alleged subject of this post. Trust me when I tell you, the relationship could not be more vital.

Capitalist ideology limits an understanding of reality to that which can be exchanged for another thing of equal value. In advanced capitalist economies, the value of any item is the price it fetches on the market of goods. Anything that cannot be so priced, anything that is not both reified and reduced to its price on the market, is not real. The inexorable, totalitarian logic of capitalist ideology pushes society toward denying any other reality to all things. If it doesn't have a price tag, if no one wishes to pony up some money for it, it isn't real. Even marketing flirts with this in the midst of denying it. Consider the Master Card commercials that list the price of various purchases, then ends with the tag line that, these particular items, when used together by people to make memories, create an experience that is "priceless". Yet, isn't this Romantic nod toward human sentimentality actually enforcing the worthlessness of the experiences in question? After all, they would have been impossible without first purchasing the items in question; they, it would seem, are the truly and really valuable items. Because they have an exchange value. Because they have been and can be priced. The rest is, as noted above, so much sentimental guff.

The creation of useful items and their exchange was once a means to an end. The reality of these items was not determined by their exchange value, but by their usefulness for the purposes for which they were made. Some of that same process lingers even in advanced capitalist society, where items of greater durability tend to have higher value than those of less durability. Once purchased however, and actually put to the use for which they were intended, their value as determined by the market decreases substantially. Unused, however, they hold their value. Consider, for example, how collectors value an unopened toy as compared to one that has been opened and played with.

There is another way to think of what makes a thing real. Built and sold on the market, some items, like an old Necchi sewing machine, become more than just an electrical/mechanical contraption that is useful for making clothes and curtains, for stitching together a child's Halloween candy bag or stuffed animal. The item, used for the purposes for which it was constructed - a toy that's played with, say, or a settee that is sat upon - becomes an integral part of the lives of the people who use it, or are effected by its use. Its reality, then, is determined not only by its usefulness, its success at performing the tasks for which it was constructed. By being a part of the lives of people who share experiences due to that success, its usefulness is appreciated; its value becomes a function, then, not of its potential or actual price on the market as a commodity. Its value rests now on its vital connection to the life-experiences of the people who use it. It is far more real as a link in the warp and woof of human life than its moment on the market, a bar code attached.

We human beings make things real. What is real has value. This word, much misused and misunderstood, is not a function of market forces or reducible to any given's commodification. A thing becomes what it really is when it becomes integrated into human living. Until then, it is formless, a heap of matter without use or any reality of its own. Whether its an antique sewing machine, a yo-yo, a car, a chair, what-have-you, the inexorable press of capitalist ideology, reducing these to their exchange value distorts, at a fundamental level, what provides them with reality. Their value does not reside in what others are willing to pay for them. Their value, hence their reality, is the result of human use, the function and role they play in human interaction.

Because my mother made use of that old Necchi sewing machine for decades, its reality has become an integral part of my family's life, its memories and experiences. Reducing its reality to the amount of money others might be willing to pay for it strips away that reality, reducing it to little more than a heap of metal, sitting on a block of wood, shapeless, nameless. This is the lesson I've learned from thinking about this old piece of Italian craftsmanship. It is not real because it has a price; it is real because, put the use for which it was made, it provided for real experiences for our whole family.

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