By Amelia Cat Annalee Brown
For hundreds of years, cultural theorists have developed all sorts of useful terms to help us understand and communicate about the weirdness that is humans doing capitalism. One such term is “reification.” This term was developed by philosopher György Lukács in 1923 in his reading of Karl Marx’s work from the mid-1800s. The term Lukács used was the German word Verdinglichung, meaning “making into a thing.”
What is reification?
Reification is a process through which social constructs come to be mistaken for facts of nature. Through reification, “capital” comes to stand in for labor. “Gender” comes to stand in for consent to a lifelong set of social activities. “Race” is likewise used to represent a fantasy that you can instantly know which strangers to trust and which to (dis)regard as needing to be punished/ saved/ appropriated/ excluded.
Reification is a kind of collective fluency in forgetfulness. It is a way of allowing one thing to stand in for another. It is a codic language that contains within it hierarchies that presuppose “winners” and “losers.”
The following items have been reified as the fantasies “money,” “gender,” and “race”:
-a doctor’s assessment of a baby’s genitals at birth
-a split-second judgment about the amount of melatonin in a person’s skin and/or the shape of certain features limited to their face
The idea that these things are in any way intrinsically connected to the fantasies they have been reified as is absurd! Yet histories of oppression are actively held in place under the smooth surface of reified fantasies like “race” “capital” and “gender.” Also, we find ourselves forced to participate in co-creating these oppressive fantasies in order to achieve membership and recognition within the current social structure. This is because those who have learned to manipulate reified fantasies have used them build their own power, which further reinforces them.
Can we end the cycle?
We can fight back by questioning the language and practices that uphold these reified fantasies at every turn. It will be tough at first, though. Many people who have been deceived by reification will argue that the items that have been reified as part of a fantasy are the evidence for that fantasy’s existence. (Dude, don’t event try and explain the concept of “tautology” to someone like that—it is so not worth it.) Just remind them of the basic rule in logic that correlation is not causation. Just because it rained once in July doesn’t mean it always rains in July. Just because someone has a certain configuration of genitals does not mean they should be expected to listen to your problems, know how to use a hacksaw, or [insert random arbitrary life-long role here]. It is the same with variations in skin tone, economic predictions, etc. The existence of these things doesn’t prove the ontological existence of the fantasies our culture has assigned to them called “race,” “the market,” and “gender.”
Failed attempts at ending reification.
During the 20th Century, people around the world became aware that “the market” and “capital” are reified social fantasies, and that these fantasies hold oppressions in place. In response, millions attempted to re-reify “capital” as “the thing that causes all the bad things.” The result was disastrous.
Everything that’s called itself “communism” in the past is the same as “capitalism” only it is like hyper-capitalism, as it did away with the (meager) negotiations that the reified construct of capital lets stand between the worker and the extraction of their labor. In “communism,” “capital”—the reified exchange system of congealed labor—gets banned and replaced with an ideology, an ideology whose integrity is so fragile that thousands of academics had to be executed in the USSR and China to keep that ideology safe from their questioning.
The state (i.e., “capital’s other half”) does not go away with the mere banishing of the market! Re-reifying shit doesn’t do shit! All the bad things of hierarchy continued to exist, but just took on different forms. In totalitarian communism, it’s like the babysitter threw the kids off a bridge and still wants to get paid. The problem is not solved! Not solved! No! Meow!
And then there are cases like Cuba, where the state was pretty laid back. But then black markets just rose up and eventually become legal again. Still not solved!!
Simply doing away with reified things doesn’t solve the oppressions they held in place. Rather, it just shifts them around. Things get re-reified. Oppression just disguises itself using fancy new forms.
Is it possible to stop reifying things? (Spoiler Alert: No.)
It is very likely that reification is hardwired into us. Evidence shows that our species’ capacity for language and tool-making developed simultaneously in Broca’s Area of the brain (Uomini and Meyer 2013) through a gene-culture co-evolutionary dynamic (Morgan et al. 2014) over the last 2 million or so years. Perhaps in reification, this neurological ubiquity between language and tool-making creates a type of psychological optical illusion, a “toolification” of socially-reinforced fantasies that have been codified as language, creating that uncanny sense that reified things are real.
That is why things like “race,” “gender,” and “the market” often feel real, even though they are just co-created social constructs.
If you don’t believe me, talk to LARPers. They’ll tell you those foam swords take on a weird kind of reality when “game is on” and the “swords” have been temporarily reified as having a huge level of social value. This is seriously a hardwired thing!
Then how do we have our revolution?!
Perhaps it is impossible for us not to reify. Perhaps it is just part of how our nervous systems work. But we can do something revolutionary: we can become more aware of our propensity to reify. And we can use it consciously. We can create a reification system in which everyone has a level of consent to their roles. And when consent isn’t possible, at least a level of fairness.
By playing around with our propensity to reify, we can help each other get better at seeing the lines of the matrix—only this is a biologically hardwired matrix that we can’t escape, but rather must learn to co-create from within. (I hate to say it, but larping is probably the best way to do this.)
There is no meta- with reification, only para-. We can’t imagine ourselves to be separate outside observers from all this. Humans need meaning (which comes from co-creating our social reality….which is a huge part of reification) like we need food. Without meaning, we fall into the voids of addiction and depression. There is nothing revolutionary about cutting oneself off from meaning.
We need to stop using reification to fix reification. Rather, there is a type of “composting” that needs to happen. A relaxed breaking down of things. A movement towards self-reflection. Towards types of knowing that can be found only in leisure (Pieper 1952). Because it is through the process of building the language to lend social value to the spaces outside of what is reified that we find our power to resist and reinvent those things.
Towards widespread fluency in reification!
Games (of all things) teach us to be fluent in reification. Board games. Card games. Computer games. Just so long as we maintain our ability to pause the game and reflect on why the cards, chips, and pixels are meaningful. Something is happening inside of us that makes those game items meaningful. That is the basic mechanism that fuels reification.
By teaching kids to be literate in game mechanics—and to identify moments when reification is occurring!—they will be better able to question and understand the moments when reification creeps into society. Rather than mistaking that sense of something being real for reality, kids need to learn to laugh off the trait of reification when it emerges. The next generation should be able to say with ease: “Race/Capital/Gender/[x] is a shitty game, let’s not play that one anymore.”
Likewise, if we are to overcome reification, rote memorization must be thrown away and replaced with Experiential Learning (Kolb 1975) in the classroom. This is a type of learning where concrete experience is merged with a process of self-observation and reflection from which abstract concepts emerge, followed by a process of testing the concepts, researching, and repeating the process. This mode of education empowers people to build the cognitive tools they need to break down systems of reification in their own lives and society, while ensuring that learning remains a mode of self-empowerment, rather than other-empowerment, as happens when kids are taught to memorize rote systems without ever questioning them.
An education modality rooted in experiential learning, paired with game literacy in a culture that has reclaimed leisure—this is the greatest leap we can make towards building culture that is happier, smarter, and less likely to destroy ourselves and half our planet’s life.
The most important coming revolution will not be in the streets, but rather in/against the classroom.
don’t just trust us—read the original!
Lukács, György. 1923. Reification & The Consciousness of the Proletariat.
Mark, Karl. Das Capital.
Morgan, T.J.H., N.T. Uomini, et al. 2014. Experimental Evidence for the Co-Evolution of Hominin Tool-Making Teaching and Language.
Pieper, Josef. 1952. Leisure, the Basis of Culture.
Uomini, Natalie Thaïs, and Georg Friedrich Meyer. 2013. “Shared Brain Lateralization Patterns in Language and Acheulean Stone Tool Production: A Functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound Study.”