Technology as Fetish: Marx, Latour, and the Cultural Foundations of Capitalism

“The concept of time-space appropriation thus offers a way to define and even quantify asymmetric global flows of resources that are fundamental to the accumulation of physical capital.” ~ Alf Hornborg

Technology as Fetish: Marx, Latour, and the Cultural Foundations of Capitalism

by Alf Hornborg


This article discusses how the way in which post-Enlightenment humans tend to relate to material objects is a fundamental aspect of modern capitalism. The difficulties that conventional academic disciplines have in grasping the societal and political aspect of ‘technology’ stem from the predominant Cartesian paradigm that distinguishes the domain of material objects from that of social relations of exchange. This Cartesian paradigm has constrained the Marxian analysis of capital accumulation from extending the concept of fetishism to the domain of technology. Both Marxian and mainstream thought represent technological objects as empowered by their intrinsic properties, which derive from human ingenuity and tend to progress over time. To transcend this paradigm will be possible only through the kind of post-Cartesian perspective on material artefacts that has been championed by Bruno Latour.  

The article thus aims to reconnect the discourse on fetishism, the main thrust of which has become largely restricted to exploring personal phenomenologies of aesthetic or sensuous experience, to a general critique of global capitalist relations. The ambition here is not to attempt to review the voluminous discourses on fetishism, animism, epistemology, magic, materiality, technology, or consumption, but to bring together a few essential insights from these various topics to suggest new ways of illuminating some cultural dimensions of modernity and capitalism. More specifically, the goal is to combine some relevant perspectives from cultural anthropology with perspectives from political economy, world-system analysis, and ecological economics in order to ‘defamiliarize’ our everyday understanding of technology.


22 responses to “Technology as Fetish: Marx, Latour, and the Cultural Foundations of Capitalism

  1. Thx. You know what I thought about lately: why is Marxism such a ubiquitous analysis? In particular, where do we get the idea that in capitalism the value of the individual worker is diminished?

    I read Kapital. And I remember thinking wow this dude was so smart and he’s just so right on any hit the market and Anna made so much sense in and all that.

    But recently, I am wondering this surplus value from which capitalists gain profit, i’m not sure it’s a real thing.

    Actually I think that it is A type of fetishism, type of magic. Lol

    It’s like a sort of slight of hand, a conceptual slight of hand through which people’s thoughts about their existence, there value in the world lessons. I’m not sure that it is some sort of stable or static truth of existence or something like that.

    And this is kind of dawned on me so I’m not really sure you know all the inns and outs.

    But if I was to take some thread and make myself a shirt.

    And then I step over the factory line that’s making shirts and I do my job at the factory line, there is been no alteration in the value of the work that I do. I am still working for that amount of time and actually the value of my time was probably more just in the fact that I’m thinking that it is more valuable to me that I’ve made a shirt from thread that I made myself.

    I think this is the kind of religious twisting of what is actually occurring, A religion of sorts. Maybe this is where Marxism gets its power from: that ideology is the power of argument to twist peoples ideas about what is occurring by using Theory.

    I think it has more to do with the ability of a person. If I know how to do is to pick weeds, and I go about picking weeds from my plot of land and I grow great fruit food and I keep myself and my family fed, then my skillet picking weeds is fucking great.

    I think what changes is actual existence, I sort of evolutionary situation were different levels of evolutionary progress exist at the same time, and that perhaps humanity, as an evolutionary product, it’s south can represent different aspects of the same category such that the term “human“ becomes A category within which there are variations. Like if I say grass, how many different types of grass that thrive under all sorts of various conditions are there?

    I think you probably know what I’m saying.

    If the weed picker is not just a weed picker but was actually just a weed picker because that was what was needed at the time and space of his particular existence, then when existence changes the weed picker will become something else, will become more skillful at something else that will allow him to still feed his family and himself.

    Anyways thanks

      • It’s been a while, so I’m not so versed in Marxism.

        But it seems to me the whole Marixist structure is based on the idea of the the worker.

        Use value and Market value I think stem from the primary source of ‘selling ones labor’ cheaper than what it is ‘actually’ worth.

        I think only particularly ‘naive’ types find themselves subject to such forces, at least as an explanatory trope which justifies how they feel about their lives.

        But if we stabilize the human being (worker) as opposed to having a disembodied ideology that is understood as stable, I think a different analysis might arise which instead speaks of, perhaps, sane and insane, or maybe adaptable and not adaptable, or various graduations of adaptable, which is to say “types” of human beings, rather than types of power that is asserted over the common (same) human.

        It seems that then that the Marxist theoretical trope argues its situation for the benefit of those who are “more able”, casting upon the less able a role for them in the hierarchy that gives them a chance to make sense of it all, to justify their particular station.

        • not sure what yer on about they make profits by selling goods for more than it costs them in materials and labor and try to do what they can to maximize their gains including capturing their govt regulators, now would we be less alienated in another system maybe not but degrees matter to lived experience so we don’t need a difference in kinds.

              • Lol. Ok. So what I’m saying is that perhaps from the workers standpoint this is not what occurs.

                It only occurs from the standpoint of the supposed “Marxist”. Not from the capitalist. In this sense , the capitalist is actually a different type of human being.

                say for example I’m talking about grass.

                If I live in the desert, like Phoenix Arizona say, and I want a grass yard, are use a certain type of grass. One that uses less water and is generally more hearty. If I live in say New Orleans where it’s super humid, I can use a different type of grass because there’s plenty of water.

                I don’t just move someplace and say give me some grass.

                Similarly, i’m saying that it could be the Marxist that imposes this theory upon the working class because the working class lives in the state of magical fetishism, One that does not understand how capital functions, but indeed neither understands how the philosophical reason functions through reflecting itself out onto the world in an act of self justification.

                But I’m saying that it is equally plausible that it is not some supposedly unethical capital list that exploits other human beings. I’m saying that is equally Plaza bowl (lol) that there are different types of human beings, different types of human beings that do well under different circumstances, and in fact fill their roles in the same sense the different grasses appear in different areas of the world, as an analogy.

                I’m saying that I may have started by being a measly cashier at a gas station. But many people do not want to go to school they do not like school they don’t like philosophy they don’t want to be educated in anyway, all they want to do is make money and eat and fuck and drink beer and smoke weed. But I was a cashier but because the circumstances changed I also changed. Just as an analogy hypothetical example.

                Innoway I’m looking at things from this kind of speculative or object oriented kind of post human kind away viewing things.

                Perhaps Marx was just a self-centered arrogant capitallist at heart, using the enlightened philosophical reason, it’s material and it access and the product that is his theory, but ethically he felt like he was wrong in that sense and so he had to come up with some sort of way to justify his position in the world, and he did that by associating himself with people that were actually of a lower mentality or lower state or whatever you might want to call it, than himself . Perhaps he was in the mindset of enlightenment thinking that views the insight gained from reason and the inspiration there of, as self evident of a justified world. And thereby in this kind of mindset reviewed the world in this way as a justification of his own position in the world.

                I don’t know, I’ll have to look on wiki to see the situation family situation social situation from which he came. But
                I doubt that he was plowing fields and thinking up this theory. In fact, before I look on wiki I would say that if he was plowing fields and came up with this theory it was this theory that allowed him to stop plowing fields.

                And I am kind of suggesting that perhaps what makes people feel unhappy about their situation is not so much that they can’t buy an iPhone, but that they’re being told by people who have this kind of enlightenment self justified view up on the world, that takes in hand these other people that are being oppressed or something by the very enlightened view that is coming up on the self-justified existence , that if they don’t have an iPhone then something is wrong with their life.


                • not sure why people have these predispositions to make things more difficult or grandiose than what they live day to day, or can be found in any decent reporting, and add things that aren’t there but I know I’m in the extreme minority in this, it’s yer world over there so speculate away.

                  • Lol. 😂. I think I’m being quite practical, and actually I would say that your guy there of your post might be being more speculative that I am.

                    I was just trying to put it into context that you might be able to relate to. Lol.

                    My point is that Marxism itself can be a capitalistic imposition that describes the situation from the point of someone that is benefiting from the excess, profiting from all this talk about power and exchange.

                    I mean I could talk about the relationship between my butt and this chair and turn it into a giant discourse about how the world operates and how technology might be related to whatever else. It doesn’t mean that it has any truth just because a whole bunch of people are talking in that same way.

                    That perhaps that’s all it is; and not actually relating anything actual. Quite postmodern in its discursive power play . Perhaps.

        • yer psychologizing what is an objective matter/observation whether or not you personally feel exploited or alienated isn’t what Marx was writing about to deny the general facts of the impacts of capitalists on our world is the problem you are presenting. Now if people try and make capitalism into something like a force of nature of some other grand narrative of an underlying structure to all things than fine that’s waxing theological but otherwise good luck setting your own standards of value/use on your time. labor, food, health, etc in our market systems:

            • sure, not sure what you mean by the answer but of course it’s all projection, but if you mean something like cure there tragically is no getting folks out of their fly jars since they are their fly jars.
              I tend to focus on who is doing what (with what) to whom but that’s not largely appealing…

              • I suppose I have a demented propensity to help where I can 😜

                Thank you for engaging because that’s how I learn. And I know very very few people (even on wp) who will discuss things like critical theory and such .

                That’s changing soon. But still. Thx.

                • sadly blogs haven’t proven very useful for conversation, so much for “social” media guess I should have known that as badly as we fail to have discussions in the full powers of face to face that less context/contact would only make things worse, wanting to help is fine as long as one can stop when it doesn’t work, easier said than done…

                  • Yeah. Who anymore sits around in a symposium with a bunch of people. And discusss actual issues at length and depth ? Discussion is about proving ones righteousness to get identity credits. Lol.

                  • That article is actually pretty good. 🐛. I’m always criticizing the theoretical basis of things rather than the content of the essays. Lol

                    I think one of these things that I’m gone that I’m in the process of learning if I’m ever going to be able to engage people on a social intellectual level, is you have to engage with them in the content that they are putting forward and not toward their theoretical basis. 🌪

                  • …. but I think you’re right. I think that I see many philosophical and critical theoretical proposals as evidence of a type of psychology.

                    In fact I’m writing a book right now that hopefully will be done in the next month or so that approach his philosophy in exactly that way. I definitely am realizing that I’m more of a Zizek kind of New psychoanalysis theoretician.

                    I’m not sure that we are finding any solutions through two things through merely placing everything on a flat Horizon of “reason”. It appears to me more and more that critical theory and philosophical arguments really are not trying to solve anything. It seems to me more like they’re just playing a game, kind of non-zero sum game. Where they just pretend to care for the purpose of making a living for themselves is really what I got to say about it. Lol. Not that that is inherently bad because everyone’s got to make a living and it’s all good in that respect. I just I suppose that I have difficulty and people being taken as if they are talking about such deep and significant things went really on a personal level and Anna real actual level they really don’t give a fuck except that they got a nice house in a car.

                    Sorry I think I’m a little too much an antisocial punk rocker hippie.


                    But I’m learning to be more superficial; I’m make it. 😸

          • that was a rude awakening for me back in the day that academics don’t want to actually discuss matters in detail, the Q&A’s in seminars and at lectures generally turn into people pretending to ask questions but really switching the subject to their own pet projects, I for one won’t mourn the unfolding demise of the humanities in general tho it will hurt people I care about.
            As you know from experience blog comment sections are also prone to these kinds of non-exchanges, such critters we be…

            • Good essay; yes. What I got from it is a resonance to the topic of my almost down book:
              Take Heidegger’s Greek’ ‘techne’, what it implies. and then Hornborg’s fetishized human being, that we suck their life energy.
              to me that sounds suspiciously like more magic going on their, a magical way of thinking about things.
              The end result of Hornborg should be (the conclusion I thought he was moving toward, but I think it is too drastic a move) that technology, yes, is a fetishized item, but what that says, then, is that our manner of using terms are likewise “magical”, speaking and using technology in a quite “spell-like” manner, actually not dissimilar to the animism that Modernism is supposed to be different from.

              It seems to me that the only thing different might be the way we speak about things, and not the actual ‘mode’ or manner that we engage with objects. That is to say: An intrinsic mythology sees itself as a progressed or more true version of knowing that the other ‘mythological’ or ‘superstitious’ phrase universe of other cultures or ideologies.

              And then I think: Is the only reason why I have so few readers of my book because I do not have a MA or PhD after my name?

  2. Hornberg’s an interesting writer but I would be surprised if his work actually manages to “defamiliarize” anyone’s relationship to technology, anyone out there have that reaction to his work and what is it now like for you?

  3. “If we follow Marx in understanding the commodities we consume (i.e. metaphorically eat) as embodiments of other people’s life energy, not
    only is capitalism a transformation of slavery, as Graeber (2007) has argued, but of cannibalism. The defining feature of capitalism is its specific social and cultural organization of the appropriation of geographically remote labour and land. Modern forms of market exchange, technology, and consumption represent net transfers of embodied (human) time and (natural) space extracted from some social groups for the disposal of others. Rather than directly controlling the labour of other human bodies in the vicinity, as in slavery, this is achieved by controlling the products of labour. Rather than shipping commoditized labour (in chains) across the oceans, modern ocean-liners thus ship the commoditized embodiments of labour. Ever since the first textile factories emerged in early industrial Britain, machines have assumed an illusory dissociation from the social relations of exchange through which their raw materials are extracted, appropriated, transformed, and redistributed.”

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