Diminished marginal utility and collecting

by Rob Horning

25 September 2005


Does the “law” of diminishing marginal utility apply to collectors? It seems that each additional unit to the collection makes it more valuable and would therefore be more satisfying to the collector. Each additional unit to a collection manages to be both an additional unit and a unique artifact—the beer bottle collector wants each bottle he collects to have been used for beer, and he wants each one to be slightly different in some way than the rest. So in that respect, marginal utility goes immediately to zero for a specific make of bottle, but extends to infinity undiminished for bottles in general. Thus in order to circumvent marginal utility, manufacturers need to convince all consumers to see themselves as curators of their own collection of commodities. One of the means for this is to promote the idea that precise constellations of goods can communicate your identity authentically, and that one becomes a deeper and more interesting person the more goods one has collected.

Jameson, in one of the free-ranging chapters of Marxism and Form, draws on Freud to argue that commodities (like language itself)  are necessary to express desire or drive, to mediate them into something that can be tangibly manipulated and understood, which is a modification of Schiller’s dictum that “beauty is the form freedom takes in the realm of sensory appearances.” Beauty, as the consumer culture has entrenched itself, now takes the forms of goods, so access to goods can be perceived as a greater scope to be free—this in turn brought on the post WWII emphasis on expanding purchasing power rather than making permanent the redistributive policies the war necessitated. Purchasing power can be seen as freedom itself once goods are seen as the primary field in which beauty/desire can be realized. (I’m sorry if this seems ot be going in a circle—maybe that means that under Jameson’s spell my thinking has become especially dialectical.) It seems that the key question is to figure out how we are encouraged to mediate our instinctual drives and desires in the form of collections of goods rather than in the form of activity or social connection or any other way the inner drives could be made tangible in the image of something outside ourselves. Jameson writes “So it is that some chance contact with an external object may ‘remind’ us of ourselves more profoundly than anything that takes place in the impoverished life of our conscious will”—what impoverishes that will? Is it that social reality becomes so complex that individual agency becomes insignificant, that social activity seems pointless because we cn never now what butterfly effect our little deeds end up having? Jameson continues, “For unbeknownst to us, the objects around us lead lives of their own in our unconscious fantasies where vibrant with mana and taboo, with symbolic fascination or repulsion, they stand as the words or hieroglyphs of the immense rebus of desire.” So then objects become repositories for collective ideals and organizational schemes, they become the means by which we conduct social interaction in the absence of actual interpersonal contact and intimacy. We become intimate with objects instead and try to solve their mysteries by trying to organize them around ourselves in such a way that they will admit us to that storehouse of social significance embodied within them in coded inscrutable form. All the while, our energies directed thus, socila relations become ever more mediated and indirect, to the benefit of those industries that supply the goods in ever more branded and mystified forms.

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