Leviathan: The Reified Universe of Carlos Vermut’s Magical Girl (2014)

An article about Carlos Vermut’s film Magical Girl (2014), published on December 28th, 2016 by JILAR (Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research), the official venue of AILASA (Association of Iberian and Latin American Studies of Australasia), a consortium of Australian and New Zealandish universities, published by Taylor & Francis.

ABSTRACT
Carlos Vermut’s Magical Girl (2014), this article argues, can be seen as
a filmic testing of what we call a modern “possessive individualistic”
society. In Vermut’s movie, every single character is seeking their
personal interest, at any cost. According to the theoretical premises
of Western individualism, they all act in a perfectly “rational” manner
that is the optimal way to achieve both their personal goals and
society’s overall good. Vermut’s film seems to tell us that the contrary
is true: if fully implemented, Western individualism leads to moral and
social chaos, as well as to the utter destruction of every individual. The
foundations of what C.B. Macpherson has denominated “possessive
individualism” are explored through thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke,
Burke, de Tocqueville and Mandeville. Then, notions of a Marxist
genealogy, like Lukács’s “reification,” or Debord’s “society of the
spectacle” are used to deconstruct the possessive individualistic
society depicted in Vermut’s film.

Introduction

In Carlos Vermut’s Magical Girl (2014), Luis (Luis Bermejo) is an unemployed literature teacher and father to Alicia (Lucía Pollán), a twelve-year-old girl dying of cancer, and whose last wish is to obtain a costume from her favorite Japanese anime TV series, Magical Girl. In his desperate effort to fulfill his daughter’s last wish, Luis starts blackmailing Bárbara (Bárbara Lennie), a young and charming but eccentric woman with an obscure past and suicidal tendencies. When Bárbara realizes she is trapped in a mortal closed circuit of black- mail and perverse sexual exploitation she summons Damián (José Sacristán), her former school teacher, who has just been released from prison, and then things take an unforeseen turn for all of the film’s characters. In this article, it is argued that Vermut’s film can be read as a cinematic representation of the type of society which C. B. Macpherson (1911-1987) has called a possessive individualist society.According to Macpherson, the cornerstones of a possessive individualist or market society are: conversion of “man’s energy and skill,” that is, man’s labor, into a commodity;2 substitution of market relations for social relationsas effectuated “through the price-making mechanism of the market;”4 fierce competition at all levels among the individuals comprising society;5 hence, generalized exploitation in the long run of the dispossessed and weaker ones by the possessed and more aggressive ones, through this very mechanism which per se encourages possessiveness, exchange, aggression and competition.

Magical Girl can be seen as a kind of filmic test for this basic theoretical scheme of possessive individualism. The empirical result Vermut finally obtains seems to be that possessive individualism’s theoretical assumptions do not hold in reality and they do not necessarily lead to an optimal society as a whole, but instead to the diametrically opposite result. The destruction of both the individual and society is the final outcome.

We first track the genesis of Western possessive individualism on a theoretical level. Then, we apply the theory presented to Vermut’s film, and find that it can offer a satisfactory interpretative model for a better comprehension of the film. Once the similarities between possessive individualism in theory and the film have been established, we turn an eye to the caveats inherent in the assumptions of the possessive individualistic theory as well as to some of the existing critiques against possessive individualism, principally borrowed from the broader Marxian tradition. Then, again, we apply theory to the film, and find that if the society in Magical Girl indeed corresponds to a possessive individualistic society then, based on the evidence offered in Vermut’s film, it can definitely be claimed that destruction and death for both the individual and society is the practical outcome rather than the much evangelized common good.

Bernard Mandeville (1670 – 1733)

The Ideological Foundations of Possessive Individualism

As with any other historical development of equal importance, the emergence of the new xi was, since its very start, accompanied by the respective official ideology: the idea that individual self-interest must be encouraged as a condition sine qua non for society’s prosper- ity as a whole was proclaimed the new official credo. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love6 preached Adam Smith (1723-1790), echoing Hobbes, reminding us that human nature is connaturally egocentric and that man needs the market insofar as he reckons that his “self-love” is better promoted this way. Josiah Tucker (1713-1799)—a thinker whom Friedrich von Hayek has included in his list of the most illustrious proponents of Western individualism7—obviously shared the same idea: “Love of Self is implanted in Mankind much more strongly than the Love of Benevolence; according to the English Proverb, Self knows no Fellow.”8

This individualistic vision of man raises him to a cornerstone of social and economic existence; and no other theorist has been a more ardent supporter of this vision than John Locke, who conceived of men as being “naturally free to order their Actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit […] without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other Man.”9 This is where the quintessence of the individualistic doctrine lies in: “If this be the good of the individual, it is likewise that of mankind,” as Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) phrased it.10 Alan MacFarlane has offered a compact defini- tion of individualism which recapitulates all of the aforementioned theoretical insights: “It [individualism] is the view that society is constituted of autonomous, equal, units, namely separate individuals, and that such individuals are more important, ultimately than any larger constituent group.”11

In other, more extreme manifestations of individualism man is almost cynically presented as an utterly egoistic creature, in pursuit of his own selfish pleasure, constantly enmeshed in a fierce competitive struggle with the rest of the individuals. In Bernard Mandeville’s (1670-1733) work, for example, this essentially Hobbesian view is brought to its almost misanthropic extremes. Man is “an extraordinary selfish and headstrong, as well as cunning Animal,”12 according to Mandeville, while the principal motive behind any human action, is “pride” and “self-love.”

Man and society are immoral at their very core, believes Mandeville. Hypocrisy and lie are the essence of both. And yet, despite the recognition of this fact, Mandeville’s individ- ualism consists in his somewhat paradoxical conviction that it is exactly because man is as mean and vile as he describes him that society prospers.13

One is reminded of Thomas Hobbes’s (1588-1679) disturbing vision of man and society. According to Hobbes, human beings are seen as material automata, as “self-moving systems of matter in motion,”14 with the sole purpose of perpetuating this motion per se. Desire is the motivating force behind man’s propensity to acquire, which keeps him “in motion,” that is, alive. In order to satiate this relentless instinctive impulse men will not hesitate to harm another individual: “All men in the State of nature have a desire, and will to hurt.”15 Still worse, according to Hobbes there exists an even more aggressive category, the “immoderately desirous men”16 who, immersed in their greediness, spare no effort to extort as much as they can from the more “moderate” ones, thus compelling them as well to succumb to the same logic of conflict and aggressiveness if they are to survive.

The market is the ideal mediating factor needed if a peaceful solution to this conflic- tive—”natural,” as Hobbes believed—substratum of human relations is to be found. The market through its price mechanism offers supposedly an ideal match for the millions   of different individual desires competing with each other. In the market, everything can be exchanged as long as a seller and a buyer can be found; human labor included. In the absence of any other kind of property or valuable possession, one can in the last analysis, sell his labor as a means for his subsistence and this is how a market society converts man into a mere commodity as well: “The value, or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his price,”17 writes Hobbes.

Once the individual was proclaimed the kernel of the emerging English bourgeois society, the right to property and wealth accumulation had also to be safeguarded at any price. This is why MacFarlane completes his definition of individualism as follows: “It [individualism] is reflected in the concept of individual private property, in the political and legal liberty of the individual, in the idea of the individual’s direct communication with God.”18 Of the above three essential constituent parts of possessive individualism, the right to private property has probably been the one most ardently defended by its proponents, among whom John Locke (1632-1704) dominates. According to Locke, “every Man has a Property in his own Person,”19 from which an individual’s “natural right” of possession, in general, derives.

To the question of how much property any single individual should possess, Locke gives the following answer: “the same Rule of Propriety, (viz.) that every Man should have as much [land] as he could make use of, would hold still in the World, without straining any body, since there is Land enough in the World to suffice double the Inhabitants.”20 This “natural” “Rule of Propriety” has been valid until money appeared: “[H]ad not the Invention of Money, and the tacit Agreement of Men to put a value on it, introduced (by Consent), larger Possessions, and a Right to them.”21 Now that it was “possible to exchange any amount of produce for an asset which never spoils,”22 it was “neither unjust nor foolish to accumulate any amount of land in order to make it produce a surplus which can be converted to money and be used as capital.”23

Locke has thus justified the free limitless appropriation of land, far beyond one’s needs of subsistence or, in Macpherson’s words, the “specifically capitalist appropriation of land and money.”24 Unequal access to wealth from the outset and favorable clauses in the course of the “game,” permitting the more aggressive players to accumulate more wealth than they need for their subsistence—obviously to the detriment of the less aggressive or powerful individuals—have in fact been the prerequisites for the appearance and solidification of the typical Western possessive individualistic society.

With the sanctification of the individual’s “right” to “free,” namely, unrestrained prop- erty acquisition, individualism is already transformed to possessive individualism. Other theoreticians of the possessive individualistic society have also argued in favor of the right of the emerging bourgeois class to the limitless accumulation of land and capital, and thus fully endorsed inequality as the basis upon which the new capitalist society should develop. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), for example, hailed “the law of inheritance” as a force capable of gathering property and, by extension, power around a person, and thus of making “aristocracy spring from the soil.”25 Lord Acton (1834-1902) equated the institution of prop- erty with freedom,26 straightly echoing one of his intellectual predecessors, Edmund Burke (1729-1797) who, in the right to inherited property discerned the indisputable safeguard of the individual “against injustice and despotism implanted in our nature.”27

Wherever unequal accumulation of wealth is allowed right from the start, inequality must necessarily be perpetuated. Once Locke’s deus ex machina, which he named “natural law,” was invoked to justify accumulation of wealth at one’s own discretion, independently of other people’s needs, society’s compartmentalization into at least two distinct social classes was unavoidable: on the one hand Hobbes’s immoderately desirous men who—backed by the official ideologues of possessive individualism—managed to have access to huge amounts of land and capital; and those who were not able—and, more frequently not allowed—to have access to land and capital from the beginning, on the other. This has been more or less the point in time when the necessity of selling one’s labor force in exchange for money first emerged.28

The reduction of human labor in the form of a saleable commodity through its translation into quantitative terms—that is, units of time spent for the production of specific goods— has been the decisive factor that led to the phenomenon of commodification within the contemporary capitalist societies.29 Before we proceed further into the notion of commod- ification, though, we first have to connect the theory of possessive individualism presented so far with Vermut’s Magical Girl.

Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)

Leviathan:30 The Hobbesian, Individualistic Society Depicted in Magical Girl

In Magical Girl, a miniature of a quasi-Hobbesian society—what C. B. MacPherson has termed a possessive individualistic or possessive market society—is depicted. It is a society composed of individuals acting autonomously, exclusively in pursuit of their own—or, at most, of their family’s or close friends’—interest. In this pursuit of theirs, they do not hesi- tate to cause pain and strife to every other individual around them. According to the basic theoretical tenet of individualism, society’s overall good will automatically be achieved only on the condition that every single autonomously acting individual be set free to seek their own self-interest as they deem appropriate. In Magical Girl, however, this individualistic model leads to completely different results: the individual good does not lead de facto to society’s overall good as well, but quite on the contrary, it yields society’s disintegration and deep unhappiness for the individuals comprising it.

All of the film’s main characters are acting exclusively out of their own desires, which always come in sharp contrast to other people’s desires. Therefore, their relations are stig- matized by possession, exchange, exploitation; maximization of each individual’s welfare is their reigning principle. Each individual desire, when seen isolated, seems perfectly rational. Alicia, for example, aware that she will soon die acts quite rationally, one could claim, having a last wish, namely, to possess a Magical Girl dress. Luis is acting in an equally rational man- ner when he strives to fulfill this last wish of his dying daughter at any price. Bárbara is not excluded from this essentially Hobbesian principle of desire, despite the little information given by Vermut in this respect. Her desire is to cut her ties with an obscure and traumatic past, while at the same time it condemns her to endure stoically her dull and probably equally traumatic petit-bourgeois present. It is from this sickening present—the scene in which she vomits on Luis’s head is indicative in this respect—that she is desperately trying to escape, and this is the reason why she indulges so easily in the sexual act with Luis. Thus, the characters in Magical Girl indeed correspond to Hobbes’s vision of men as desire-driven puppets who “from their very birth, and naturally, scramble for every thing they covet, and would have all the world, if they could, to fear and obey them.”31

Trapped in this relentless struggle of desire-satisfaction, they cannot but harm each other along the way, as Hobbes again predicted. According to Hobbes, the whole net of social rela- tions among men can be summarized in the precept that every single individual in society must invariably seek “to extort a greater value from his contemners, by damage; and from the others, by the example.”32 Damage seems to be the keyword defining the interpersonal relations in Magical Girl.33 Damage is the outcome of the fulfilment of Alicia’s and, by extension, Luis’s desire; damage is the consequence of Oliver’s eclectic, and perverted, desire; and, damage must be the final result of Bárbara’s and Damian’s desires, even though in their case it is already the biological instinct that is desiring self-preservation, fully aware of its fatal entrapment within the “κοινωνία κακῶν34 that is our contemporary Western society. As already pointed out, according to Hobbes, the market is the competent mechanism responsible for conciliating the innumerable individual desires which, by definition, are in eternal competition with each other. In the ideal contingency that the theoretical model of the market society—as described by Hobbes, Locke, and others—holds, what one lacks must always be perfectly met by what one possesses in surplus. Supply and demand necessarily coincide: “[o]ne’s desire for an object is fulfilled by the sacrifice of some other object, which is the focus of the desire of another” writes Arjun Appadurai, borrowing Georg Simmel’s vision of value and the role of the market.35

Alicia desires her Magical Girl dress and, in order to acquire it, she resorts to the market, even though she does so through her father due to her age and ill health. Luis, in his desolate awareness of her only daughter’s imminent death, has one sole desire—her happiness— and faces no other option than to also resort to the market in order to satisfy it. Bárbara, although in part excused for not being the first to have openly pursued some personal desire in the form of a marketable commodity to the detriment of another person’s desire—is also obliged to have access to the market. Finally, Oliver obviously uses the market to have his distorted desires satisfied. With the exception that he is placed on the opposite side of the whole mechanism: the supply side. He is in a position to offer whatever quantity of money is required to the people who are located at the demand side of the market like Bárbara.

Therefore, the market indeed seems to offer the potential to satisfy every single human need or desire, independently of one’s specific motives or social peculiarities. Yet, Magical Girl demonstrates to us that it is exactly the simultaneous fulfillment of many individual desires that leads to both the individual and social catastrophe, despite the official theory of possessive individualism promising the opposite.

Why should this happen? Basically, for two reasons: firstly, because the market is con- structed on the basis of total indifference as to who is placed at one or the other side— supply or demand—or why. Secondly, and as a direct result of the first reason, in its very conception the market has accepted initial unequal wealth possession and accumulation as its prerequisites. Luis, Bárbara, Oliver all enter the market with a view to satisfying their personal needs and desires, however, they are significantly differentiated in terms of negotiating power, which in its turn, is directly analogous to the property they happen to possess right from the start.

C. B. Macpherson (1911–1987) 

Hence the heavy stratification of the possessive individualistic society. It has already been shown how the official theory intentionally allowed for the logical gap of indefinite property accumulation invoking the mediating agent of money. We have seen how John Locke in fact favored the emergence of the bourgeois class in the Western world by legitimizing the right of using money for land appropriation beyond what the “Natural Rule of Propriety” dictated, or else, consenting that one could acquire more land than “he could make use of.” It was thus possible that people with incommensurate amounts of wealth, like Oliver Zoco in Magical Girl, appear. Obviously, some of Oliver’s ancestors, several centuries earlier, were prudent enough and possessed the required amount of self-love and aggressiveness—in compliance with Hobbes’s or Mandeville’s theoretical systems—to appropriate much more land than they needed for their own biological needs, apparently to the detriment of the rest of the society’s members. They were also wise enough to reach “by Consent” an agree- ment for the introduction and valuation of money, which subsequently allowed them to accumulate more and more land and money with the passing of time; people whom Hobbes would have classified as the immoderately desirous men.

In the absence of any ethical scruples whatsoever against limitless land—and hence cap- ital—accumulation for the immoderately desirous men, perennial economic dependence for the moderate members of society was the inevitable result. Once it was decided that the distribution of wealth should take place in favor of the former a plausible theoretical justification for the latter’s right to subsist should also be found. It was the same doctrine of individualism and its much-advertised dogma of the unconditional protection of the individual’s rights that demanded it. Luis, Alicia, Bárbara should by no means be dismissed from the game. Especially since it was perfectly understood that they possessed something which could prove to be of utter importance for the survival and consolidation of Western capitalism: their labor power.

For people like Luis and Bárbara, the only possibility for surviving within a possessive individualistic society lies precisely in selling their labor power. The job has to be done in the market at any rate, as Hobbes would have wanted. Were reality exactly as the possessive individualism’s theorists have described it, Luis should be able at any time he wished to sell the only power he possesses—his labor—in order to subsist. However, given that in the Spanish society of today, even the possibility of selling one’s labor in the market in exchange for money has apparently been eclipsed long ago, there is no other option left for him than to use a rather unorthodox means of appropriating the amount of money needed for the fulfilment of his desire. He will blackmail Barbara.

In Bárbara’s case, again, the possibility of selling one’s labor in the market has long been eliminated. Offering one’s body in the market for sexual exploitation in exchange for money is the only means a woman possesses for appropriating the amounts of money she needs, be it for reasons of biological or—in the case of Magical Girl—social, ethical, or existential subsistence. This is a degenerated, almost dystopian market society: the only means avail- able for the plebeians—those who do not possess any property whatsoever—to survive, are either amoral stratagems or, in the case of women, selling one’s body to the immoderately desirous members of society.

In any case, commodification is inevitable especially for the weaker members of a pos- sessive individualistic society. It stems from their ineluctable need to sell the only asset they possess, their labor power, in order to survive. In doing so, however, they are automatically estranged from their humanity: they are converted into quantifiable entities; they are objec- tified. Their “thingness” consists exactly in their absolute and irreversible quantification. This is the kind of commodification Luis and Bárbara suffer from in Magical Girl. It is not the only type, though.

For those who are not in a position to be exploited on the basis of their labor power (for example, Alicia) the contemporary consumerist society has other, far more delicate and sinister ways of commodification in store. For example, people are forced to identify with the celebrity or the hero appearing on their TV screen and in this identification they are bombarded by a barrage of commodities-simulacra, which a ubiquitous marketing propa- ganda undertakes to deliver and impose mainly on defenseless children. As regards the less vulnerable members of society, such as Oliver, their subjugation to the same commodifying logic is no less insidious and total: it is achieved by the ability to acquire any object they desire, and thus, in their unimpeded continuum of desire-satisfaction they come to the point of an absolute identification with the objects-commodities they desire and acquire. In short, they end up being themselves objectified-commodified.

In what follows we proceed to a more in-depth exploration of the notion of commod- ification as well as of some other closely-related phenomena of a typical contemporary possessive individualistic society. Then, we again apply the theory discussed to relevant aspects of Magical Girl.

Sovereign Individuals or Man Turned into a Thing?

Borrowing from Ludwig Feuerbach’s (1804-1872) insight that the invention of God demon- strates man’s proclivity to erroneously attribute an autonomous divine substance to things and entities which he places apart from and beyond his own human nature,36 Karl Marx (1818-1883) formulated his own “commodity fetishism” theory later also described as com- modification. Exactly as in the realm of the Religion “the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race,”37 so it is true with the world of the commodities, where some socially determined productive relations leading to the production of socially useful goods are erroneously perceived as a set of impersonal relations between commodities, that is, between things.

The historically necessary prerequisite for the appearance of commodification has been the conversion of man’s labor power into an exchangeable thing. Thenceforth, it was made possible for the most disparate things to be exchanged on the common quantitative basis of units of (similar) labor time spent for their production. This development led to the illusion of “the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour” being “presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.”38 This was the observation that led Marx to refer to a commodity as a “mysterious thing,” of an “enigmatical character.”39

Among the early twentieth century neo-Marxists, György Lukács (1885-1971) explained that this “enigmatical character” of the commodity precisely consists in the fact that “that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing, and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.”40 Walter Benjamin (1892- 1940) also used a similar term referring to the basic quality of the commodity: “ghostly objectivity.”41 Once “divested of its real particularity,”42 the commodity gains, according  to Benjamin, a peculiar kind of autonomy, it enters a quasi-religious region full of “meta- physical subtleties and theological niceties.”43 In people’s eyes it obtains a “phantasmagorial form,” as Otto Rühle (1874-1943) has put it.44 Hence the almost obsessive use by Benjamin of the notion of phantasmagoria, interchangeably for commodification.

In The Critique of Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) considered “division, alienation—fetishism, mystification, deprivation” as an “organic, living whole,” which constitutes the totality of man, and saw the way of the socio-economic fetishism and self-alienation as the only option given to man historically: “[t]he human has been formed through dehumanization, dialectically.”45

With the advent of the “affluent society”46 in the postwar era of the twentieth century, terms like “consumerism” or “consumer society” became relevant, especially in the con- text of the neo-Marxist current of thought. The so-called School of Frankfurt occupied a preeminent position in this regard. Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), one of its basic expo- nents, identified the basic differentiating quality of the new consumer society in the covert and insidious ways by which the new pseudo-science of marketing violently imposes an ever-increasing bulk of commodities on a totally unaware consuming mass. This occurs to such an extent that one can speak of “a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form.”47 The biggest danger of the new consumerist society, according to Marcuse, lies in the fact that people have now become so identified with this mass of glittering—frequently useless—products that they “recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-f i set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.”48

In the consumerist era of western capitalism, commodification is already so absolute that it has reached the point of taking consciousness away from man by forcing him to fully identify—at the same time willingly and unintentionally—with the ever bigger quantities of commodities offered to him as highways to happiness and self-realization. The power of the new consumerist system lies in its manifold capabilities to persuade the masses that they can go on living only on the condition that they will never stop consuming. In this respect dehumanization of the human has reached pandemic dimensions. The identification of man with empty idols of projected consumerist paradises full of commodities destined to satisfy every imaginable kind of appetite is perceived as the sine qua non for his very biological existence. Both the producers of the commodities and their workers and consumers “no more function as subjects,” writes Theodor Adorno (1903 -1969), but rather “merely as components in a self-regulating machinery.”49 Hence, man’s reification takes over everything human in a total and irreversible manner.

Reification—in Lukács’s words “this self-objectification, this transformation of a human function into a commodity,”50—is, in fact, a synonym for man’s dehumanization. It is “the dehumanised and dehumanising function of the commodity relation.”51 In the context of the fully fledged capitalism of the second half of the twentieth century, reification has so much advanced that it takes the form of man’s “reified consciousness” which, unable to imagine itself as anything else beyond reification, and totally unaware of its reified state, “does not even attempt to transcend it. On the contrary, it is concerned to make it permanent.”52    Yet a step farther, in our postmodern era of late capitalism, as Fredric Jameson has

described it, reification coincides with the mutation of the world into pure image. Of course, desire continues being the fundamental driving force of man, as well as the basic reason why the market is still in force as the principal venue where innumerable contrasting human desires meet with a view to being concurrently satisfied. Hobbes’s initial intuition about the correlation between desire and the market is still valid. People keep on projecting their desires translated into images of satisfaction—exactly as they have always been doing—how- ever, the process of image-generation has now taken on frenzied overtones, dramatically stimulated by an omnipotent industry of artificial needs-creation and unceasing commod- ities-production. If in the days of Marx, labor’s exchange in the market led to its correlative commodification—the conversion of what is socially produced into an abstract thing—and, if in Lukács’s era, the same essentially process transformed man in his totality into a dehu- manized thing, in our late-capitalist or post-capitalist phase of History reification has taken over the whole of reality—human or extra-human—in the shape of the image. The world has now lost its depth and “threatens to become a glossy skin, a stereoscopic illusion, a rush of filmic images without density” as Jameson has put it.53

 Fredric Jameson again aptly observes that Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle was the first to perceive “that the ultimate form of commodity reification in contemporary consumer society is precisely the image itself.”54 Surely Debord’s grand contribution to the debate around reification and contemporary consumerist capitalism can best described by a citation from Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity which he selected as the introductory phrase for his aforementioned book: “[b]ut certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence […] illusion only is sacred, truth profane.”55

Simulacrum is the word that best describes the quintessence of both man and the world as he now perceives it in the later phase of postmodern consumerist capitalism. Jameson uses the term simulacrum as characteristic of the effigies of Duane Hanson in the sense that they represent the complete fetishization of the human body in our era, the absolute denaturalization and dehumanization of anything that formerly used to be human. Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) connects the notion of the simulacrum with our ultra-consum- erist society through a metaphor: exactly as the Melanesian natives, thrilled by the first airplanes they saw passing overhead, constructed a simulacrum of an airplane along with a landing-ground, and painstakingly illuminated the latter by night in order to attract the real airplanes, so “[t]he beneficiary of the consumer miracle also sets in place a whole array of sham objects, of characteristic signs of happiness, and then waits (waits desperately, a moralist would say) for happiness to alight.”56

And yet, happiness never arrives. It is never to be found in things or images. It can never be invited by the promise of a commodity projected into a distant future. This is how what Horkheimer and Adorno called the “cultural industry” functions: “The promissory note of pleasure issued by plot and packaging is indefinitely prolonged: the promise, which actually comprises the entire show, disdainfully intimates that there is nothing more to come, that the diner must be satisfied with reading the menu. The desire inflamed by the glossy names and images is served up finally with a celebration of the daily round it sought to escape.”57 In the meantime, in the eternal pursuit of individual satisfaction, antagonism and conflict flourish, and man’s humanity is exchanged for a sham objectification of all that it formerly stood for.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)

Commodified, Reified and Spectacular Individuals in Magical Girl

In Magical Girl, this commodification process is omnipresent, even though not exactly in its original Marxian sense, but rather in what we would term its post-capitalist manifestation. Alicia’s much desired Magical Girl dress is of course still a commodity encompassing labor time spent on its production, which converts it into a depository of exchange instead of use value, as highlighted by Marx. In post-capitalist societies, however, every remnant of usefulness a commodity might still possess—in terms of satisfaction of tangible, biological human needs—has long ago vanished. One can no longer speak of “useful articles” which “are produced for the purpose of being exchanged,”58 nor can one demand that the respective producer’s labor embedded, say, in Alicia’s dress, “must, as a definite useful kind of labour, satisfy a definite social want,” as Marx originally put it.59

As a commodity, Alicia’s dress corresponds more to a quasi-postmodern society marked by consumerism per se. As such, it is independent of any notion of usefulness the object of consumption might still possess. It is a society in which “the commodity becomes hyper- commodity […] that is to say no longer linked to distinct exchanges or determined needs, but to a kind of total descriptive universe,”60 wherein a multitude of consumption or, in a broader sense, cultural objects “have no other end than to maintain you in a state of mass integration, of transistorized flux, of a magnetized molecule”;61 A “society of the spectacle,” which brainwashes people including children with some absolutely fictitious62 needs prop- agated by an all-pervasive industry of entertainment, rather than a typical capitalist society that could be described in classical Marxian terms.

In Magical Girl desire is intentionally stimulated in people’s minds to an intolerable degree by a society whose only raison d’être is to facilitate the production and sale of ever increasing quantities of commodities—no matter whether useful for anybody or not. Happiness and pleasure are systematically presented by the organized propaganda of marketing as the only reason life is worth living and, at the same time, as a state of being exclusively attainable through the possession of as many commodities as possible. Not exactly commodities of the type that Marx had in mind—still possessing some degree of usefulness for the prac- tical needs of life—but instead commodities whose “usefulness” is artificially created and aggressively implanted in men’s minds by a multitude of mammoth commodity-produc- ing enterprises. Alicia’s Magical Girl dress is such an empty-of-any-content commodity invented by the entertainment industry, whose artificial “usefulness” has forcibly imposed been on her child’s brain, through the propagandistic tool par excellence of our fetishist civilization—the TV set.

In both Alicia’s last wish for the Magical Girl dress and the perverse sexual exploitation of Bárbara, it is the entertainment industry which facilitates the creation of “a framework in which its [the commodity’s] use value recedes into the background,” by opening up “a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted,” thus “elevating the person to the level of the commodity,” as stated by Walter Benjamin.63

In Alicia’s case, “[t]he commodity has been transformed into an idol that, although [it is] the product of human hands, [it] disposes over the human.”64 In Bárbara’s case, “nature itself takes on a commodity character. It is this commodity appearance—Warenschein—of nature that is embodied in the whore: ‘Money feeds sensuality’.”65

And Oliver’s “house” actually is nothing more than a labyrinthine entertainment venue produced by an equally “phantasmagorical” society dominated by entertainment and sensual pleasure—a “society of the spectacle” at its apogee66—which alludes to the conversion of the feminine body not just into one commodity more but into a “mass-produced article,” as again Benjamin has noted.67

Both Alicia’s dress and Bárbara’s commodified body can satisfactorily be described by Marx’s term “fetishism of the commodity,” in the sense of a generalized process of dehuman- ization of what formerly used to be human or real. There is a basic qualitative difference, though: that one can no longer simply speak of some “dehumanizing effects of labour being made into a commodity,” as Macpherson has phrased it,68 but rather of some dehuman- izing effects of man as a totality being transformed into a commodity. It is man himself who is being converted into a commodity in our post-capitalist, “society of the spectacle,” not only to the extent that he is continuously rendered a mere receptacle of innumerable “pseudo-needs”69 that the entertainment and sex industries bombard him with but, first and foremost, because he himself is reduced to a mere commodity as well. His commod- ification is perfect and unmediated, in the sense that it is no longer effectuated solely by means of his alienation from his labor power, but also through his alienation from the very biological and psychological organism that formerly constituted him. It is social relations and the human body itself that have definitely been converted into a commodity in the society depicted in Magical Girl.

The market is still present in Magical Girl ready to satisfy every human need, and it still functions more or less as in Hobbes’s time. Money is also still needed for the exchange of commodities. The initial inequality in the possession of wealth still persists; however, it has now grown to a colossal size, after several centuries during which the social and economic model that generates and officially buttresses inequality has been perpetuated. People like Luis are still obliged to have access to the market to get the money required to satisfy their needs and desires. However, having been deprived of the option of selling the only exchangeable thing he owns, namely, his labor power, Luis is instead obliged to exchange his act of sexual intercourse with Bárbara for money. If Hobbes’s and Locke’s dispossessed individuals were commodified out of their necessity of selling their labor in the market, Magical Girl’s individuals are perfectly commodified, precisely because they are deprived even of this possibility. Biological and psychological needs are now the only exchangeable assets possessed by those who have not managed to appropriate enough land, to recall Locke. By blackmailing Bárbara, Luis is not only converting his own but also Barbara’s network of social relations into a commodity, putting the social persona she has adopted in order to overcome her traumatic and obscure past at a fatal risk.

And then, when she—also deprived of the possibility of selling her labor in exchange for money, due to the ongoing economic crisis of contemporary Spain—is forced to sell her body, her only exchangeable asset on the market, she is fully converted into a commodity as well. However, Bárbara’s commodification is not socially useful anymore but useful only for the satisfaction of some non-biological, rather fictitious needs of pleasure and entertainment of those who can afford it—the “immoderately desirous men” of Hobbes.70

The characters in Magical Girl are thus completely reified. Not, however, exactly in the Lukácsian sense: not simply due to a “separation of the producer from his means of production,” further leading to a replacement of the “‘natural’ [human] relations” by some other “rationally reified relations.”71 In Magical Girl we are faced with a total “degradation of being into having”72 (Alicia’s case), or even worse, an overpowering and irremediable conversion of man himself into an object (Bárbara’s case), the way Raoul Vaneigem (1934) has formulated it: “Today, the more man is a social being the more he is an object.”73 The characters in Magical Girl are still social beings since they are still obliged to continue being “in motion”—as Hobbes’s model required—that is, to survive in a society that is already passing through its last stages of degradation and decline. However, their only possible mode of being is dehumanized humiliation, which, again according to Vaneigem, “is nothing but the feeling of being an object.”74

It is a phantasmagorical, a spectacular reification that is now at work. Desire and the concomitant image-producing mechanism of man’s thought have exploded to formerly unimaginable heights, de-materializing along the way what they had first objectified in the form of the commodity during the first steps of the capitalist process. As Marx observed in his time, our thought mechanism perceived as an object something that in fact pertained to the sphere of the human or the social and it is this same mechanism at work now, obsti- nately perceiving the world as a set of desire-fulfilling simulacra, images projected into the obscure sphere of abstraction. Iconolatry is triumphing again today, this time unanimously endorsed by both the consuming masses and the commodity-producing status-quo of a society that has been irrevocably de-realized, converted into a spectacular hologram; the void itself clumsily stuffed with countless as much as contentless commodity images and simulacra of dissimulated human happiness. Both the materialization of the non-material and the de-materialization of the material have only led to ever higher levels of reification. Wherever thought, propelled by its individualistic motives and desire, has been the acting agent, the world has been shattered by separation75 and hostility, and man has invariably been reified, prey to the same subjugating powers that he himself has set in motion.

Society in Magical Girl is utterly individualistic, consumerist, fetishist and pleasure-oriented—a nightmarish one—principally because people have in fact tacitly approved a society based on this set of principles. After all, the term society stands for nothing more than the sum total of the individuals that comprise it, the outcome of all their desires, projections, dreams and so on. It is indeed a mirror of man’s psychology imprinted on the outside world. Society has always been structured in the image of Man—not the other way round as is generally believed. Social determinism bouncing back to man is a much later idea connected to a mechanistic view of man, probably connected to the abrupt explosion of scientific positivism during the last few centuries.

In the beginning was Man. Society followed, an exact reflection of man’s biological needs and the inner psychological world. If man had never acquiesced to a structure of society which accepts individual self-love as its deity, individualism would have had little opportunity to flourish. It is only because individualism has been the only ideological sys- tem to cunningly promise a possibility for wealth and personal fulfillment, somewhere in a distant future, for every single human being, that it prevailed. And people fully endorsed it, even in the knowledge that, in the meantime, life is consumed, trapped in a far grimmer here and now.

The characters in Magical Girl have naively accepted their own self-preservation as society’s basic driving force and, in so doing, they have come to fully identify themselves with their many petty “my’s”; and thus, they have been converted into objects—they have been reified. When it is always a “my family,” “my dress,” “my daughter,” “my husband,” “my money,” “my pleasure” contrasted with another person’s respective possessions, relations between men will necessarily be converted into relations between things. Then hatred, violence, and death for all is the only possible outcome, as Vermut’s film seems to be tell- ing us. If Vermut chooses as a final solution to represent some of the “traditional” traits of the Spanish psyche—that is, revenge and vendetta—it is most probably because of his perplexity regarding the chaos and human degradation his filmic experiment in possessive individualism has uncovered.

Guy Debord (1931 – 1994)

Notes

  1. C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Ontario:
    Oxford University Press, 2011).
  2. Macpherson, 48.
  3. Ibid., 48.
  4. Ibid., 55.
  5. Ibid., 55.
  6. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Bungay, Suffolk, Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1973), Emphasis added.
  7. Friedrich von Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order (Ludwig von Mises Institute, [1948]
    2009), 4, 7. https://mises.org/library/individualism-and-economic-order
  8. Josiah Tucker, The Elements of Commerce and the Theory of Taxes (Charleston SC, USA: Gale,
    Sabin Americana, 2012), 7.
  9. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Thomas Hollis (London: A. Millar et al., 1764), http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/222
  10. Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, (London: T. Cadell, 1782), 90. http://
    oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1428
  11. Alan Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism (Oxford UK & Cambridge USA:
    Blackwell, 1994), 5.
  12. Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, 2 vols. With a
    Commentary Critical, Historical, and Explanatory by F.B. Kaye (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,
    1988). Vol. 1, 41-42. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/846
  13. In The Fable of the Bees he writes:
    Thus every Part was full of Vice,
    Yet the whole Mass a Paradise.
    […]
    The worst of all the Multitude
    Did something for the Common Good.
    (Mandeville, Vol. 1, 24).

14. Macpherson, 79.

  1. Thomas Hobbes, Philosophicall Rudiments Concerning Government and Society. Or, A
    Dissertation Concerning Man in His Severall Habitudes and Respects, as the Member of a
    Society, First Secular, and Than Sacred, (Blackmask Online, 2000), 9. http://www.unilibrary.
    com/ebooks/Hobbes,%20Thomas%20-%20De%20Cive.pdf
  2. Macpherson, 41.
  3. Thomas Hobbes, The English Works, Vol. 3 (Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of
    a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil), 76. Emphasis in original. http://oll.libertyfund.
    org/titles/585
  4. Alan Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism (Oxford UK & Cambridge USA:
    Blackwell, 1994), 5.
  5. Locke, 216.
  6. Ibid., 225. Emphasis in original.
  7. Ibid., 225.
  8. Macpherson, 208.
  9. Ibid., 208.
  10. Ibid., 208.
  11. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Historical Critical Edition of De la démocratie
    en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, Trans. James T. Schleifer, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010),
    Vol. 1, 79, http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2285
  12. John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays, ed.
    John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907), 297. http://oll.
    libertyfund.org/titles/75
  13. Edmund Burke, Select Works of Edmund Burke, A New Imprint of the Payne Edition, Foreword
    and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), Vol. 2, 241,
    http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/656
  14. Characteristically, Locke considers “labour” as “being the unquestionable property of the
    labourer” (Locke, 217), whereby it derives that “those without land can get a subsistence by
    their labour” henceforth (Macpherson, 214).
  15. Fredric Jameson describes the process as follows: “It is only with the universal commodification
    of labour power, which Marx’s Capital designates as the fundamental precondition of
    capitalism, that all forms of human labour can be separated out from their unique qualitative
    differentiation as distinct types of activity […], and all universally ranged under the common
    denominator of the quantitative, that is, under the universal exchange value of money.” In
    Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text 1 (Winter 1979):
    130-148, 131.
  16. A mythical sea monster of ancient Middle Eastern origins, especially appearing in the Hebrew
    religious tradition. Hobbes named his renowned book Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and
    Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil after Leviathan, obviously influenced by
    one of the most recurring themes in the ancient Middle Eastern religions, namely, a battle
    between a sea monster-like Leviathan representing the forces of evil and chaos and a god
    or popular hero representing order and peace. Hobbes’s basic idea is that in the absence of
    a social contract which imposes a sovereign with unrestricted jurisdiction chaos and war
    unavoidably prevail in society. We use the term in this article to refer to Hobbes’s book and the
    vision about human nature elaborated in it. According to Hobbes, human nature is essentially
    devilish, full of violence and hostility, always prone to chaos and war.
  17. Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury; Now First Collected and Edited
    by Sir William Molesworth, Bart., (London: Bohn, 1839-45), 11 vols., Vol. 7, 73. https://archive.
    org/details/englishworksofth029755mbp
  18. Hobbes, The English Works, Vol. 3 (Leviathan), 112.
  19. The word alludes to the title of Theodor Adorno’s book Minima Moralia: Reflections on a
    Damaged Life, Trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London & New York: Verso, 2005).
  20. Carlo Michelstaedter, La melodía del joven divino (Coyoacán & Madrid: Editorial Sexto Piso,
    2011), 45-46.
  21. Arjun Appadurai (editor), The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective
  22. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3.
  1. “Religion, at least the Christian, is the relation of man to himself, or more correctly to his
    own nature (i.e., his subjective nature); but a relation to it, viewed as a nature apart from his
    own” writes Ludwig Feuerbach in The Essence of Christianity. Trans. Marian Evans (London:
    Trübner & Co., Luggage Hill, 1881), 14. https://libcom.org/files/The%20Essence%20of%20
    Christianity.pdf
  2. Karl Marx, Capital, A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Vol. 1, (Hertfordshire:
    Wordsworth Editions Limited, Kindle Edition, 2013), Part 1, Chapter 1, Section 4 (The
    Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. György Lukács, History and Class Consciousness. Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Trans. Rodney
    Livingstone (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1972), 83.
  6. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin
    (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University
    Press, 2002), 181.
  7. Benjamin, 181.
  8. Ibid., 181.
  9. Otto Rühle, Karl Marx: His Life and Works, Achievement—Part III: Das Kapital, https://www.
    marxists.org/archive/ruhle/1928/marx/ch08.htm
  10. Henri Lefebvre, The Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 1. Trans. John Moore (London & New
    York: Verso, 1991), 180.
  11. The term is borrowed from John Kenneth Galbraith’s (1908-2006) book of the same title.
  12. Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, 1969, 14. https://www.marxists.org/reference/
    archive/marcuse/works/1969/essay-liberation.pdf
  13. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society
    (London & New York: Routledge, 2002), 11.
  14. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, 205.
  15. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 92.
  16. Ibid., 92.
  17. Ibid., 93.
  18. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (London & New
    York, Verso, 1991), 34.
  19. Jameson, “Reification and Utopia,” 132.
  20. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Bread and Circuses Publishing, Kindle Edition, 2012),
    Chapter 1.
  21. Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society. Myths and Structures, (London: Sage Publications,
    1998), 31. http://cnqzu.com/library/Economics/marxian%20economics/Baudrillard,%20Jean-
    The%20Consumer%20Society.Myths%20and%20Structures.pdf
  22. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Stanford: Stanford
    UP, 2002), 111.
  23. Marx, Capital, Part 1, Chapter 1, Section 4 (The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret
    Thereof).
  24. Ibid.
  25. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 68, http://www.bconradwilliams.com/
    files/7313/9690/1991/Baudrillard-Jean-Simulacra-And-Simulation2.pdf
  26. Ibid., 68.
  27. Walter Benjamin spoke of the “illusory sense of security” of the “commodity-producing
    society” (Benjamin, Arcades Project, 15).
  28. Ibid., 7.
  29. Ibid., 181.
  30. Ibid., 345.
  31. “[T]his world being nothing other than repressive pseudo-enjoyment” in Debord’s words.
    Debord, Chapter 3, 59.
  32. Benjamin, 346.
  1. Macpherson, 217.
  2. According to Guy Debord, when “autonomous economy” prevails, “the satisfaction of primary
    human needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of pseudo-needs.” Debord, Chapter
    2, 51.
  3. Macpherson, 41.
  4. Lukács, 91.
  5. Debord, Chapter 1.
  6. Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, in Selected Works 1962-1979, Kindle Edition,
    Chapter 2 (Humiliation).
  7. Vaneigem, Chapter 2 (Humiliation).
  8. Debord writes: “Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle.” (Debord, Chapter 1, 25)

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