Saturday, September 17, 2016


Marx famously wrote, “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood.  Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Das Kapital I, 1).  And there is no stranger commodity in the history of capitalism than that which drives the economy of the Information Age—Opinion.  Opinions function mysteriously because they have no intrinsic exchange or use value.  You cannot fix a price on an opinion, and yet whole industries profit through their exchange: the press, social media, pollsters, webzines, television.  Even the Use Value of an opinion is disputable, which may seem counterintuitive, given that opinions are believed to be a guarantor of Democracy—the Voice of the People; the free exchange of ideas is practically sacrosanct, underwritten by the First Amendment.  And yet, traditionally, opinion has never been highly regarded.  

Plato derided opinion as mere doxa, unexamined collective beliefs, which Socratic inquiry serves to dispel.  Hippocrates distinguished between science, which begets knowledge, and opinion, which begets ignorance.  Ben Jonson wrote that “Opinion is a light, vain, crude, and imperfect thing.”  And JFK pops up on Facebook in memes bearing this nugget: “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”  Opinion in this guise is merely prejudice; but it wears others.  In bourgeois society, opinion became the arbiter of social class and conduct.  Machado de Assis characterized it as “esse olhar agudo e judicial”—that sharp judgmental stare—and an effective solder (“boa solda”) for society.  And with the rise of mass media, it became a means to shape consensus and manipulate the masses, as Walter Benjamin noted: “It is precisely the purpose of public opinion generated by the press to make the public incapable of judging, to insinuate into it the attitude of someone irresponsible, uninformed.”

Defenders of opinion like to make a distinction between knee-jerk and informed opinion; but the distinction is moot: and not just because an informed opinion is something more than mere opinion, and thus deserves a separate category; the distinction is moot because it fails to take into consideration the means whereby opinions are generated and disseminated.  In the Information Age, Opinion’s Medium is the Message.  Opinion is not simply a message; it is an environment.  And the purpose of this environment is only ostensibly the free exchange of ideas.  Its fundamental purpose, the reason for the existence of the media that govern its exchange, is its function as markers of trends, tastes, biases; in short, opinions function as statistics, which are plotted in order to serve markets—or state security apparatuses.  Thus, opinion is a signifier whose connection to meaning and value exists as a kind of displacement; like any metaphor, its meaning is manifold, and the tenor is to be found not in the immediate thought being expressed, but in its oblique reference to a feature, a trace, a clue that forms part of a consumer (or suspect) profile.

For the capitalist, silence is not golden.  CBS’s president, Les Moonves, made that quite clear when he told all of us that constant commentary on Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS . . . The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”  Your comment is his profit.  So, instead of feeding the media machine, should we all keep silent?  What about the way in which opinion can mobilize people and bring about change?  These days social movements seem to spring out of a meme, like Athena from the head of Zeus.  Sometimes Opinion shapes history even more than policy.  Surely the real value of opinion inheres in its power to move mountains?  Those who have such faith are henceforth obliged to live with a contradiction; for the capitalist, there is no contradiction.  Because its function as a mode of free speech does not necessarily subvert the commodification of opinion; on the contrary, that function guarantees its commodification: In the Information Age, free speech is the ideal commodity, because it is infinitely renewable and minimally regulated.  Yet another theological nicety that beats easy understanding . . .