[T]he problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. “ Lukacs, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.”
An outside observer would be forgiven for thinking librarianship has a culture of handringing. Much ink has been spent in writing about crisis, change, the future of libraries, the continued relevance (or not) of something called “the library”. The move from a physical to a digital information space has, it seems, called into question not only the continued viability of “the library” but also its characteristics. “The library” is not an inventory of books. “The library” is no longer a physical space. Rhetorically “the library” takes the appearance of a concrete thing, and one of the reasons the move to digital has caused such existential anguish is that we do not understand how “the library” might be represented in a decentralized, relational manner. There are many, today, who are embracing the possibility of the non-physical library (primarily through the mediating metaphor of the graph or the semantic web), but even this embrace is seen as oppositional, as a transformation of the physical library. Whether this transformation is a good or bad thing is open to (seemingly endless) debate. But what I want to talk about here is the idea that “the library” as a thing does not, and never has, existed.
In his essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”, Lukacs formulates the idea of reification, which is traditionally understood as coming from Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity through the materialism of Marx. Essentially, “reification” is the mistaking for a concrete object a series of relationships between human beings. For Marx, the problem of the reification of commodities was of primary importance: the worker who produces coats does not merely produce an object that someone can use to keep warm, but produces an object which stands between and relates many different people in different kinds of transactions: the worker herself, the factory owner, the distributor, the retailer, the purchaser, the purchaser’s family, etc, etc. In having the object stand in for all these relationships, the relationships themselves become hidden by the object.
For Lukacs, however, the process of reification applied not only to commodities, but to “all subjective and objective phenomena” in capitalist societies. I would like to suggest that “the library” itself is a reification, a mystification of an objective whole for a network of human relations that, when recognized as such, untangles all of the problems associated with change and transformation, and clears up the relationship between library work and the modern, digital world. One of the problems with reification is that the objective vision becomes trapped in a single aspect, when it can really only be understood dialectically, that is, changing over time and in relation to other things. By ascribing objective characteristics to a thing called “the library” we attempt to make it static, unchanging, so that as the world changes around it, our understanding and recognition of it become increasingly contradictory (the position in which we find ourselves today).
Another concept to support this idea of the library as social relation is that of mediation. Jameson describes the classical view of mediation as the “dialectical term for the establishment of relationships between […] the internal dynamcs of the political state and its economic base” (Political Unconscious, p. 39), and I would argue that “the library” (as a nexus of human relationships) occupies – and has always occupied – a mediatory position between various economic realities (that is, the reality of commodity production) and socio-political requirements. The public library and the academic library differ in precisely what and how they mediate these terms, but not in the fact of being themselves mediations.
To take the academic library first, we must discuss the network of economic (primarily financial) relationships that exist within the university at large. Income in the form both of tuition and grants allow students and researchers to participate an educational/research activity which claims to be financially disinterested. The library’s role is to take a portion of this income and provide access to resource and services which are purportedly “free”. The ideology of librarianship provides a set of workers who understand their role as facilitating access to these resources and services with as few barriers (technological, intellectual, financial) as possible. The library, thus, stands as the nexus of relationships between politicians, vendors of library resources and technology, faculty, students, librarians, etc. It is these relationships that constitute the core of library work. “The library” does not exist outside or beyond this network of relationships. Even the library collection should be seen as the objectification of increasingly expensive financial relationships between a whole host of agents. The fact that all of these relationships are reified is present in the language that we use: “we are managing the collection”, “we work for the library”, “students use the library”, etc.
Such is the “reified” nature of the academic library as it stands in 2016, but what are the commodity relationships that the library mediates? The university is often understood as an institution that provides an education and is more or less financially disinterested. In truth, power and prestige of those who run universities is dependent on the production of certain kinds of commodities (workers, buildings), as well as on the circulation of money through various hands as part of the massive fraud known as the financial sector (any investigation into the relationship between banks, businesses, donors, and university buildings will expose this part of the fraud). The library itself pays inordinate amounts of the income of the university to private vendors of library resources and technology, but presents those resources and that technology as “free” to faculty and students. The academic library there mediates between an academic system which is fully implicated in commodity production and financial capitalism and a vision of the university as altruistic and enlightening. The mediation is aimed primarily at student and faculty population who provide a large part of both the income and the labour of the university. The library, in the end, mystifies or hides the real economic relationships between all the agents who are connected to it.
The situation for the public library is slightly different. Public libraries tend to be branches of the capitalist state (city government, councils, etc), and part of the mystification of the capitalist state is not only to appear disinterested, but to appear to provide social services and increase the public good. However, they must also maintain the cultural logic of capitalism among the general population. Public libraries, then, play the role not only of seeming to provide a disinterested, enlightened public service, but also to prop up ideas of the value of entertainment, of consumer choice. Ironically, the free provision of popular commodities through the public library increases the fetishisation of those commodities, through implicit approval and recommendation by an authoritative, trustworthy source. The relationships objectified in “the public library” are fairly similar to those of the academic library, but the economic reality and ideological structures mediated by it are slightly different.
How can recognizing and exposing the reification of libraries and the mediations they uphold help us in dealing with the economic, social, and technological changes we are currently in the midst of? The answer may lie in the concept of hegemony taken from Gramsci and Lenin. For Lenin, and for many socialists of the 19th and early twentieth century, capitalist domination was the domain of the state, and coercion was predominantly effected through state violence. Lenin maintained, however, that in order for the proletariat to lead all of Russia’s exploited into revolution, the proletariat needed to achieve “hegemony” over the other exploited classes. By this meant that the proletariat had to recognize the needs and interests of the other classes and include the satisfaction of those needs in its own political programme.
Gramsci offered a broader and more nuanced view of hegemony. For him, in addition to the proletariat in the revolutionary movement, the dominant class also exercised hegemony, in the form of cultural, intellectual, and ideological values and norms. The ways people conditioned to think about and act in society were conditioned, not directly coerced, through state institutions like schools, churches, and political programmes (today we would add marketing, professional sports, and entertainment to this list). The library, both public and academic, also occupy spaces within this network of state control of culture.
One of the code-words for hegemonic institutions is “trust”; libraries, churches, schools, universities – these institutions are seen as bearers of public trust in ways that that more directly coercive or political institutions (like the police or the Senate) are not. Many articles have been written about the perceived trustworthiness of libraries (two examples here and here ). This position of trust indicates to me that libraries are indeed hegemonic institutions, mediating between state power and the culture of citizens.
But hegemony is a difficult thing to control and maintain, due in no small part, to the fact that exercising state violence against cultural institutions destroys the hegemonic effectiveness of the institutions, while potentially increasing it’s cultural value (which, as recent news out of Russia has shown, does not prevent the use of state force entirely). Hegemonic spaces also require the work of intellectuals in order to function, and intellectuals, too, are not usually amenable to the usual channels of state force. Hegemonic institutions, then, typically possess a small amount of play, indeed require it for their hegemonic function to be fulfilled. But this does not mean that libraries, schools, etc, are automatically spaces of potential freedom from cultural domination. As mediations, the characteristic of such spaces can only be driven by the attitudes, consciousness, and work – indeed the very social relations – of those who work in the library and those who use it. To answer the question of how recognizing and exposing the reification of libraries and the mediations they uphold help us in dealing with economic, social, and technological changes, we have to recognize not only the hegemonic position of libraries, we have to understand, in the first place, that the reification of libraries cements cultural domination and must be resisted. Once the intellectual resistance to one kind of reification takes hold, it can potentially be extended to cover the reification of all other relations, and eventually the reification of the commodity itself. But the library as mediation requires that library workers consciously recognize themselves as working within hegemonic institutions, as supporting the dominant culture and, in the end, state power, coercion, and exploitation. Only by being very clear with ourselves about that can we open up the minuscule space for resistance inherent in hegemonic institutions, and the do the work of which libraries are, I believe, capable. This work can only be undertaken together – library workers and users, no leaders, no followers – in order to be able to think an alternative – any alternative – to the cultural dominant of capitalism in the 21st century.