What follows is a preamble to something relevant and current. I hope you’ll bear with me.
by Stephen Boni Ghion Journal Feb 9, 2019
Back in a former life, when I was studying film and theories of representation, there was a word I simply could not escape: reify (ree-iff-eye). This was a word used in almost obligatory and obsessive fashion among my professors and fellow students and I really hated it for its pretentious post-modern complication of some very common-sensical things that happen in both life and art.
The technical definition of the word reify is about how abstract ideas get made real and concrete. This is really just a fancy way of acknowledging that ideas, feelings and values tend to actively manifest themselves in our lives. While I was always loath to use the word, over time I found the concept of “reification” to be quite valuable.
If you take a closer look at the various permutations of the 1960s counterculture, for instance, you find this concrete manifestation of abstract ideas all over the place. Let’s use the anti-Vietnam war movement as an example. Here you had thousands of young people in revolt, not just over the war, but over the repressive state of American culture as a whole. Protesters sought liberation not just from calcified politics, but from calcified consciousness, gender roles, racial hatred, social class, sexuality, work, living arrangements, even food.
Yet, as many women discovered while taking part in the movement, the gender hierarchies their male colleagues grew up with didn’t just disappear because they’d embraced revolutionary politics. Even in the midst of all the liberatory activity of movement building and taboo shattering, women somehow found themselves being talked over in meetings, sent off to the kitchen to make snacks, and later used for sexual gratification and emotional fulfillment.
You could say that patriarchy, an abstract concept, got reified in the counterculture, devalued women’s leadership roles in the anti-war movement, and undercut the liberatory potential of the entire endeavor. Just as I learned in middle school science class, matter is neither created nor destroyed. It merely changes form. So it is for feelings, ideas and values such as male supremacy—unless they are actively identified, confronted and challenged.
The economic system of capitalism also gets endlessly reified. Staying with the 60s counterculture, let’s take a look at Jimi Hendrix and his death. What has that got to do with capitalism? Well, consider this for a minute. Jimi was a relatively introverted, diehard money-eschewing hippie making revolutionary music. To do that full time and build an audience, though, he needed to pay for recording studio sessions, make albums for capitalist record companies and tour constantly to satisfy their demand for profits.
The need to always be in the studio, on the road, talking to the press, and dealing with fans and groupies and an entourage enervated and exhausted Hendrix. He never had time to think or relax. In the middle of all this, it’s a miracle he was able to continue coming up with the astonishing music he did.
It’s an old story by now. Using harder drugs insulated Hendrix from the capitalist circus his life had become, but those drugs were too dangerous and they killed him.
In the end, the abstract values of capitalism were so powerful that they easily manifested themselves in the day-to-day process of Hendrix’s art, despite his revolutionary sound and message.
End of wordy preamble
You want to get into reification in the 21st century? Fast forward to this past week and the appearance of a segment from Angie Speaks, the popular UK-based anarchist video program run by its namesake, Nigerian-British left intellectual and activist Angie. In her piece, entitled Social Justice Can Be a Clout Game: Here’s How to Avoid It, Angie deftly explores how the capitalist underpinnings of platforms like Twitter have a tendency to reify capitalist motivations and goals, even among people who got on the platform to propagate alternatives to capitalism and fight against the oppression with which it’s associated.
Her main example is what’s become known as “call-out culture” and she examines how using social media to stand up for social causes like #MeToo or go after bad actors of various stripes allows those who do it to accumulate social capital, which translates into followers, status, ad revenue, Patreon subscribers, book sales, and the boosting of individual careers as opposed to collective goals of justice and well-being (hello Rose McGowan).
It’s a fascinating discussion and immediately brought to mind the current takedown of popular racial justice advocate Shaun King, who has been accused of using his social media platform to boost his career on the backs of those less powerful. Instead of merely shaming careerist opportunists, though, Angie Speaks articulates the structural problem with using platforms composed of essentially capitalist incentives.
In vivid ways, SpeaksAngie shows how the ceaseless drive to gain more—followers, view counts, retweets, subscribers, etc.—to achieve anti-capitalist ends only fuels capitalism. #BreakingFad. And she offers some helpful ideas on how to avoid falling into just the type of reification I’ve attempted to describe in this piece.
Awareness is everything, and sometimes the means we use to achieve a goal have a way of misshaping our goal along the way. Give Angie’s program some attention and consider what you may be unconsciously allowing to manifest as you work on the issues you care about.
Final note: If you see me using the word “reify” again in future pieces, please do flame me.
Anthropologists are often concerned to show that social and cultural phenomena are results of underlying processes that we have a tendency to overlook, and that they are thus “something other than what they seem to be”.
Reification stands for the opposite: a process in which we take phenomena for given, as they appear to us. It is often claimed, for example, the concept of culture is a reification, since we have a tendency to think of “a culture” as a completed object, a “thing” we can “touch and feel”, which all members of the culture share, rather than a complex aggregate of processes, which different people participate in, to a greater or lesser extent.
When we reify, we do not see the details, because they are overshadowed by the whole. We think, e.g. of “Norway” as if it were one thing, while in reality it is a near-infinite agglomeration of people, projects, actions, expressions and objects, in constant movement and conflict, within a landscape which is neither homogeneous, stable or geographically bounded. When I say “I am a Norwegian”, this is a reification, which hides the countless other things I also am.
As always, thanks for reading.
(header image: “Ceci n’est pas une religion.” = This is not a religion.” René Magritte)