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Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) continue to be a heated area of debate, particularly over whether they contribute much to the industries of art, business, and internet culture. But, taking a closer look at this debate reveals that it is a classic case of quantity over quality.
Using one of Karl Marx’s elementary formulas, that of the commodity’s exchange value vs. its use value, we can better understand how NFTs are thriving; they’re mainly valued because of their exchange value (exchange in terms of fungible money). If you’re looking for a more nitty-gritty, technical breakdown of what NFTs are, you can find that here.
According to Marx, what engenders a commodity with value in capitalist societies is not so much its use value (the way it satisfies human needs through its physical properties) like in pre-modern times, but its exchange value (it’s exchangeability through the medium of money as compared to other commodities). We encounter this in our cynical understanding that a prestigious brand’s name can be enough to drive the price of a given commodity sky high despite their inputs being extremely cheap. For example, a cotton hoodie made by Supreme can sell for hundreds of dollars versus one sold at Old Navy. In short: the ugly excesses of globalism and neoliberalism explain the dominance of NFTs.
Of course the NFT can have some use value because it’s ostensibly art meant to be appreciated on its artistic merits alone. However, NFTs inherent digital alienation and (as Keanu Reeves sharply pointed out in a recent interview) the ease of its reproducibility undermines what Frankfurt School thinker Walter Benjamin called an artistic piece’s “Aura”: the work’s physical presence in its unique socio-historical context (think use value here).
When you see a band performing live during a tour supporting their latest record, you recognize on some level that you are experiencing that band during a specific incarnation of their sound and that that experience can’t be exchanged with anything afterwards because it’s embedded in a specific moment.
Let’s say you even buy a shirt from that tour and it’s signed by the band members. You’re probably going to be hesitant to exchange it for an exact replica (signature and everything) that was artificially created, even if it’s virtually identical. The shirt is imbued with a certain Aura surrounding its historical context, to use Benjamin’s idea again. This is also our basic experience with relics passed down through families or gifts from those close to us; they can’t be exchanged as easily because they appeal too much to the use value found in intimate social bonds as expressed in rituals and customs.
The NFT waters down the Aura of a work almost entirely, in that it can be accessed anywhere that its digital bearer can be turned on and that not much distinguishes an original NFT from a copy other than its exchange value, which is rendered legitimate through its existence on a digital ledger, which *ahem* is not so great for the environment. That is, the experience of the original piece is boiled down to its value in a market of hype, the abstract notion of the NFT’s Aura being relegated primarily to its exchange value.
It’s no wonder, then, that NFTs have been championed mainly by big name celebrities — such as rapper Eminem who recently purchased a funny looking ape NFT for upwards of $400,000 — buying them at ludicrous prices.
If the NFT is a testament to anything, it’s that the promethean ideas of the internet as a utopian boiling-pot of culture and creativity — a rhetoric that was largely crystallised in the fanbase and associated aesthetics of the early Matrix films — has been largely undermined by the mass-privatisation of cyberspace over the last two decades.
Indeed, the meteoric hype around NFTs does not lend itself to a prosperous future for the idea of a free and open internet. That’s not to say things may not change down the road, but as it stands now, the internet is increasingly becoming a place only for the highest bidder.