I was impressed with the thinking behind Sekula’s approach to documentary photography and film that I posted on a little while ago (http://terrywassall.org/blogs/capitalism/2010/05/01/the-realism-of-the-abstact-an-encounter-with-sekula/) and have been thinking about how these ideas could be used to write a sort of material and economic history of an everyday object that would reveal in detail the process of its conception and production and the material and social relations that constructed it both as a material object, as a commodity and as a instance in the flow of capital. The idea goes something like this, imagining for instance a commemoration mug of some sort. It can be shown as a moment, a temporary coalescence, in the flow of time, space and human history. The origin of its potentiality and subsequent actualisation is in the Big Bang. Materially its substance is the product of the transformation of geology brought about by the appearance of life, i.e. chalk, clay, oxygen. The energy used by its manufacture is also the product of geology and life processes (oxygen and fossil fuel). It is also the product of a particular human and social history. The story of its conception and manufacture as a commodity is told in terms of human and cultural development, within the development a globalising capitalist system of labour relations and commodification. The mug will no doubt eventually break and possibly over 100s of years return to something like an aggregate of its physical components. If the whole process could be speeded up the mug may well appear as a brief eddy, a fleeting shape shift, in the flow and whirl of material processes (within which humanity makes a brief appearance) that have, on a different time scale, many of the characteristics of a flowing river in which temporary liquid structures are formed and dissipated in response to external, internal and contingent influences and events. In terms of society, some aspects of the modern phase of this process have speeded up enough to become visible even on a human time scale, prompting Zygmunt Bauman to introduce the concept of ‘liquid’ as a major component of his diagnosis of late modernity and a little earlier Marshal Berman to take Marx’s phrase All That Is Solid Melts into Air as the title of his book about the self-destructive nature of capitalist modernization and its relations to contemporary forms of consciousness.
Following Sekula, the story of the mug would be a short segment of the story told above and told in terms of the labour relations embedded in the mug via its production under the conditions of globalising capitalism. David Harvey focusses on the impersonal flow of value and capital that privatises and commodifies all within its grasp under the ceaseless compulsion to accumulate and achieve 3% growth through and beyond each successive systemic crises, a feature of the capitalist economic system. He also sees commodities as the embodiment of social relations that produce value.
“But what kind of social relation is presupposed here? Value is an internal relation within the commodity. It internalises the whole historical geography of labour processes, commodity production and realization, and capital accumulation in the space-time of the world market” page xx in the introduction to the 2006 edition of The Limits of Capital, Verso.
I think this is pretty close to what Sekula attempts to make visible in his documentary photographs and films.