Friday, November 30, 2007

Terror of Ultimate Value


Marx compliments De Quincey for perceiving that subjective value is the central reality of political economy, while noting laconically that his “dialectical depth is more affected than real” (Theories of Surplus Value [1863], Chapter XX, §3c). Affectedness and depth are pretty much inextricable in TDQ, as his more experienced readers know, but Marx is right if he means that De Quincey indulges the sensationalism of dialectics. He wallows in the psychology of its extremes. De Quincey’s main subject in The Logic of Political Economy (1844) is less economic law than the vertiginous effect of its exigency. That exigency touches just one place, where it creates the wound of subjective price.

De Quincey’s solution to the unwieldiness of “use value” and “exchange value” is to configure in their place two kinds of exchange value, “affirmative” and “negative” value. Affirmative value (“U”) is the maximum the buyer will pay for what the object does for her subjectively; negative value (“D” for “difficulty”) results from circumstances such as “difficulty of attainment” (26) or the going rate of labor power. To put it another way, U is “what good it will do to yourself,” while D is “what harm it has done to some other man” (47). For what we can have at a market price or less, we don’t need to pay more, no matter how much we like it; and what we don’t value affirmatively to some degree, we won’t buy at all, no matter how cheap it is. “It is rare that the whole potential utility value is exhausted by the cost or difficulty value. But the inverse case is monstrous: D can never outrun U by the most fractional increment” (30).

The external forces of D are usually operative, so that U doesn't have to reveal itself entirely. But an economic sublime opens under one's feet when the market no longer protects the consumer from naked need: “Instantly, under these circumstances, U springs up to its utmost height. But what is the utmost?” (27). What will you pay, De Quincey knows, is a traumatic question for the buyer who takes it literally, not only because the answer might be “Everything” but, more importantly, because no matter what the answer is, on the other side is certain loss. This principle drives the plots of film noir and gangster capitalism. It doesn’t matter that the answer “fluctuates with the feelings or opinions of the individual” (54)--that ten minutes later, you might pay much less; the answer of the moment is what is owed. Bargaining and gambling move through deceptions, false answers, because the proffer of the true answer is beyond dealing—it turns toward the exigency that ends all deals, an exigency all the more painful for depending on another person’s arbitrary power. So, De Quincey explains that Theophrastus describes a “knavish friend” whose knavishness consists in just this, that he answers queries about a commodity’s price by returning the question, What will you pay? (86-87). TDQ comments: “Scamp seems to have the best of it: their benefit from the article could not be affected by the terms on which he had acquired it” (87). Price for De Quincey, then, “instead of being founded on [the object’s] cost, (or the resistance to its reproduction,) is founded on its power” to realize a purpose for the buyer, even if that purpose is objectively pointless, “pernicious, or even destructive to the user” (80). Here De Quincey writes as the addict who understands the exposure of the true extent of a subjective need as mortal confrontation. Pharmaceuticals, sex, and toys are prominent among his examples.

And so there is something terrifying about “What will you pay?” that is not to be found in “What does it cost?” We can feel this vertigo of value even in its miniature forms, when we step across the abyss to risk tiny losses on eBay and Priceline: only gamblers imagine they can get stronger from these little glimpses of death. In the 1980’s, when the game of lethal economic confrontation had some novelty to it, U.S.A. Today used to ask ludicrous poll questions: For $10,000 would you throw your dog out of an airplane? For $100,000? For $1,000,000? The paper presented these as statistics illustrated with a bar graph: 60% of Americans would throw a pet out of a plane for $10,000, 80% for $100,000, etc. In this form, “What will you take?” isn’t different from “What will you pay,” since it means “Will you pay X to get Y?” The board game Scruples was based on the same idea, with the amelioration that it was supposed to be fun to lie about it: if you could make your friends think you’d do it for $10,000, you could win a round and reclaim your reputation after—if you could still be believed. I remember an evening that ground to a pensive silence in Providence, R.I. because a friend and I discovered that we could not functionally play this game, to the bafflement of the people who invited us. Less because our scruples were perfect—we could play the game better when money wasn’t involved—than because the question, “What will you pay, you in particular,” is so invasive that Kantian scruples themselves appear as shelter from its stab. Statements like “I’d pay anything,” “I wouldn’t take anything,” and “I wouldn’t pay anything” take up morality as a defense against exposure to the threat of externally imposed loss (as does the Sadean version, “I’d do it for free”).

Image: Piero Manzoni, Line of Infinite Length, 1960

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