Value is a key concept in Marxist theory, which distinguishes ‘use value’ from ‘exchange value’.
Use value is the actual utility of a thing: the value of an apple if you are hungry, a blanket if you are cold or a wheelbarrow if you want to transport something by your own effort. These values exist independently of the economic system you live under. It is what induces you to want the thing in the first place.
Exchange value is what you have to pay to acquire the thing. Under capitalism, Marxists argue, this exchange value is made up of several different elements. To simplify, there is the cost of the raw materials, the cost of the labour that went into producing the object in the form of wages to the workers (‘living labour’), the cost of the technology and other components that contributed to this production, based on past labour (‘dead labour’) and the profit that the capitalist makes on top of all these costs: ‘surplus value’.
Rarely mentioned in such analyses is another aspect of value – the way in which it may be entangled with emotion. Insurance companies and claims lawyers have a way of looking at this when, having distinguished between the second-hand value of the goods they are insuring and what it would cost to buy new equivalents (‘replacement value’), they also recognise that there is such a thing as ‘sentimental value’. Auctioneers and art-dealers also attempt to put a price on originality and aesthetic value though ultimately they leave it to the market to decide what a Picasso sketch or an African mask may be worth (for an interesting discussion of how this works, read this).
In the last few weeks I have become acutely aware of this additional, emotional, dimension carried by objects, having been sorting through over half a century’s worth of stuff prior to moving house, some unlooked-at since my father’s death in 1980, some going back even further to my teenage years in the 1960s. Books, papers, preserving jars, unused stationery with defunct letterheads, reuseable files and folders, jewelry, clothes, porcelain (chipped and otherwise), tools, paintings, earthenware dishes that once held yoghurt, shapely bottles that are perfect for holding flowers, plates that can catch the drips from a plant pot… in some ways these were the easiest things to deal with because they were classifiable. Other things triggered surprisingly vivid responses, all the more so because they were often unanticipated. What became abundantly clear, whatever the category, was that what one might call the ‘affective value’ of an object is complex, socially constructed, contextually situated and subject to change in ways that Marxist concepts like ‘commodity fetishim’ are quite inadequate to capture. But nevertheless important.
One element in this emotional tangle is the awareness of the original value of the object. We may remember how it was saved up for, shown off, treasured, polished. ‘It was his pride and joy’, we say, or ‘I will never forget how carefully she looked after it’. This kind of affective value is multiplied if the object was hand-made, or carefully adapted. Added to the value of the labour embedded in its original exchange value is also the labour that went into earning that original purchase price by its buyer and disregarding that labour can be painful. To discard the thing feels like a terrible disrespect to that original owner
This may be further complicated by the memories associated with the object, especially when the number of witnesses to these memories is dwindling. I was made acutely aware of this when helping a cousin sort through the contents of my Welsh grandparents’ house in Anglesey after the death of her mother, my aunt. They had moved there in the 1920s when my grandfather retired from his position as head of a village school, when at least four of their seven children were still living with their parents. One of these, my aunt Cassie, died tragically and unexpectedly of meningitis while training as a teacher away from home. At the back of a drawer was a half-finished pair of home-made kid gloves to which somebody had attached, with a safety pin, a note saying ‘These were the gloves Cassie was making when she died’. Seventy years later, who was left, apart from us, who even knew who Cassie was? Hard though it was, we threw them out (though not without a glancing thought that, had she been famous, they would have had some exchange value).
Another element in the affective value of objects relates to their status as gifts. I suspect this is often misunderstood by those who are quick to dismiss kitsch mass-produced items as mere evidence of bad taste on the part of their owners. Walking into a claustraphobic sitting room with objects gathering dust on every shelf, it is tempting to dismiss them as simple evidence of hoarding. But what if they have been kept because each object, to the owner, is saturated with the memory of the giver: that model of the Eiffel Tower brought back as a gift from somebody’s first visit to Paris, that mug emblazoned with ‘For the World’s Best Mum’ bought with saved-up pocket money. Could it be that the imperative of not hurting the feelings of that now-adult somebody is stronger than any aesthetic motivation? And might that not be admirable?
Yet gifts are also tricky things to unravel emotionally. They are not necessarily imbued with love. They may be bought hastily without any sentiment other than resentment: at the last minute in an airport or the only shop left open on Christmas Eve. They may come with a freight of obligation to be grateful. Bruce Chatwin, writing about Australian Aboriginals in The Songlines, actually described gift-giving as a form of aggression, a concept that resonated strongly with me when I read it in the 80s.
Bequests represent an even more complicated case, sometimes feeling like a guilt-trip transmitted down the generations, sometimes a way of seeding conflict among siblings and sometimes a genuine failure to understand differences of taste. And that’s when the original intention of the deceased is respected. How much more toxic the mix becomes when the distribution of effects is mediated through the resentments and rivalries, conscious or otherwise, of other beneficiaries whose roles as executors may clash with their own covetousness or sense of who deserves what.
The shifting relationship between use value, exchange value and affective value is played out for us every day on our television screens (I wrote about this in 2015 here). In a pattern that can only be described as bulimic, programmes like Cash in the Attic,The Antiques Roadshow and Bargain Hunt point out the (second-hand) value of the objects we possess, closely followed by other programmes like Making Space, Sort your Life out and Tidying up with Marie Kondo which urge us to chuck everything out. The value of these objects is simultaneously positive and negative in a post-modern conundrum from which only those in possession of large amounts of storage space and personal time (unlikely therefore to be poor) can actually benefit.
We are also reminded by the TV antiques experts of changing fashion: how the Georgian and Victorian ‘brown furniture’ and blue-and-white porcelain we were brought up to consider worth cherishing is now worth only a fraction of its value a couple of decades ago. In a particularly perverse twist, fuelled by the hipster aesthetic which (perhaps unwittingly) tells us so much about the contradictory character of contemporary capitalism, the most valuable items nowadays seem to be precisely those outmoded relics of past technologies that previous generations were encouraged to junk: rusted machinery, chipped enamel signs, broken shop fittings and containers bearing defunct logos.
Yet another genre of programmes, such as Money for Nothing, Find it, Fix it, Flog it and Saved and Remade, shows designers spending vast amounts of money and manual labour on ‘upcycling’ such objects, to be sold (if we are to believe the programme-makers) for even vaster amounts of money for their transient value as fashion items. It is difficult to see how most viewers, lacking the time, the skills or the space, could possibly emulate this bizarre form of recommodification, and one is left to conclude that the most likely outcome of all this will be an increase in the sales of various tools and DIY products and, quite possibly, an upsurge in accidents in the home.
That one might be contributing to conserving the resources of the planet by such practices seems vanishingly unlikely. We are probably better off continuing what my generation, brought up during post-war rationing, are so often jeered at by the young for: saving string, jam jars and chipped but still functional pottery, reusing old envelopes, repurposing yoghurt pots. Back where I started!