Late last night, after having spent a considerable amount of time trying to reformat my latest writing A ≠ A: Capitalism, Symbols, and the Conditioning of Human Nature. The whole thing took a good bit longer than I expected, including this latest formating headache. I thought to myself, “why the hell did I spend so much time doing this?” Considering the dire state of things, why is a piece of writing that aims to tackle this abstract concept of reification important at all? This blog post is an attempt to articulate its importance concisely. Tell me if you think I’m full of shit, I can take it ;)... seriously send me an email!
Reification is a word we should all get familiar with. It is a quick way to describe a process that is all pervasive in our society, in which symbols, abstractions, and myths get mistaken for the things they represent. It describes an extremely oppressive and limiting lack of reflection.
You might ask, “why the fuck should I care about some abstract shit when black people are out here getting killed by police, and folks from Latin America are fleeing horrendous conditions only to get detained at the US border, folks in rural appalachia are starving, etc. etc.”
Reification is at the heart of the continuation of all oppressive characteristics of our society. Since the dawn of agriculture, reification (in various forms) has been at the heart of how power structures kept control over their populations and the resources that population produced. In pre-industrial agricultural societies this mostly meant convincing people that some divine being bestowed a king and his government with the authority to rule. This is a form of reification in which the myth of divinity takes the place of the reality that a king is just duping his population into giving him their food surplus to do with what he pleases. This type of thing still goes on, but since the dawn of capitalism we have been in a much more complex situation (see Georg Lukacs' essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat). Reification happens both as the necessary result of widespread consumerism and, as in the previous example involving the king and his bullshit, also as manufactured ideology.
It is necessary for power structures to obscure the relationship between myths, symbols, and abstractions, and the things they are supposed to represent. Without this, capitalists would not be able to make money (i.e.commodity fetishism and consumerism), soldiers would not fight the ruling classes’ wars, and common folks of different races, and gender and sexual identities would easily able to build solidarity towards the opposition of the ruling classes. It would be a nightmare for those in power! Reification is the byproduct, fuel, and glue that holds together our white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society. We have to accurately label it, so we can fight it.
It's also important to remember, we can create and perpetuate the bullshit too! As artists and activists, if we become dogmatic, or start to mystify the root causes of oppression, we too create and fall into our own reification traps. The ruling classes want this to happen. Falling into these traps, we do their work of suppressing our own movements, while simultaneously fooling ourselves into thinking that our resistance is thriving.
Ok. So. This is why this is an important word. If we do not have a name for such a slippery and pervasive thing, we will not be able to fight and protect ourselves against it.
SO ONCE MORE, TOGETHER, WITH FEELING!
Ah, that feels better. Though, I’m still filled to the brim with anxiety. But, I don’t think that will ever subside under these conditions. Of course I am very privileged, but… well as I used to say often in high school: THIS SHIT IS FUCKED!
Most of my work, in one way or another, deals with the relationship between symbols and the things they represent. For a more in depth view of how reification functions, you can check out my most recent writing here: elinamay.org/a-a