When I have a bit more time, I’ll try to follow up on my recent over-generalised reflections on real abstractions with a more grounded post on the different ways in which this concept is deployed in the works of Alfred Sohn-Rethel and Theodor Adorno. I’ve been trying to decide on a topic for an upcoming conference, and a comparison of these two authors on the issue of real abstractions may not be a bad organising concept for a paper – but I can perhaps test the waters here before I make final commitments. As I’ve been considering the concept tonight, I’ve been paging somewhat idly through some online selections from Sohn-Rethel’s Intellectual and Manual Labour: a Critique of Epistemology, reminding myself of the main lines of Sohn-Rethel’s work.
I always find myself strangely affected by Sohn-Rethel’s writing, which expresses an eager and breathless excitement about the insights that led him to his life project, and a sense of passion and urgency about what he is trying to communicate. His preface sketches with a poignant brevity the crisis that informed the development of his intellectual work:
I was stirred by the political events, partaking in discussions at street-corners and public meeting-halls, lying under window-sills while bullets pierced the windows – experiences which are traced in the pages to follow. My political awakening started in 1916, at the age of 17 and still at school, when I began reading August Bebel and Marx. I was thrown out of home and was part of the beginning of the anti- war rebellion of students in my first university year at Heidelberg in 1917 with Ernst Toller as a leading figure. For us the world could have fallen to pieces if only Marx remained intact. But then everything went wrong. The Revolution moved forward and backward and finally ebbed away. Lenin’s Russia receded further and further into the distance. At university we learned that even in Marx there were theoretical flaws, that marginal utility economics had rather more in its favour and that Max Weber had successfully contrived sociological antidotes against the giant adversary Marx. But this teaching only made itself felt within the academic walls. Outside there were livelier spirits about, among them my unforgettable friend Alfred Seidel, who in 1924 committed suicide. Here, outside the university, the end of the truth had not yet come.
There’s something immensely moving in this formulation – the sense that the “end of the truth” – the dying away of revolutionary hopes – did not happen suddenly, all at once, but instead fell in stages, hitting first the university, and then much more slowly descending on those outside. Sohn-Rethel’s response was to bury himself in a detailed study of Marx, in an effort to hold on to the revolutionary momentum – but also to understand more about why this momentum was fading away:
I glued myself to Marx and began in earnest to read Capital with a relentless determination not to let go. It must have taken some two years when in the background of my university studies I scribbled mountains of paper, seizing upon every one of the vital terms occurring in the first sixty pages of Capital, turning them round and round for definitions, and above all for metaphorical significance, taking them to, pieces and putting them together again. And what resulted from this exercise was the unshakeable certainty of the penetrating truth of Marxist thinking, combined with an equally unshakeable doubt about the theoretical consistency of the commodity analysis as it stood. There were more and other things in it than Marx had succeeded in reaching!
The result – and I’ll try to summarise the contours of this argument more adequately when I can treat Sohn-Rethel’s work in more detail – was an eventual insight that Marx’s theory might be most relevant to something other than economic analysis – that Marx’s work might provide some important, if undeveloped, pointers for the development of a self-reflexive critique of the concept of the transcendental subject. Sohn-Rethel sees in this line of analysis a means to move beyond epistemological arguments, which he regards as predicated on explaining fundamental categories as somehow immanent to the subject or to mind. He also sees an opportunity to respond to Kantian and post-Kantian approaches without a detour through Hegelian dialectics, which Sohn-Rethel regards as fundamentally bound to an untenable notion of immanence to mind.
To move beyond these impasses, Sohn-Rethel picks up on elements of Marx’s work that suggest the possibility for a form of abstraction that does not reside purely in thought – a “real abstraction” as I generally intend this term. Sohn-Rethel’s specific argument about the nature of this real abstraction is not quite the one I would make (again, I’ll leave this critical point aside until I can write on his work in greater detail), but he nevertheless situates his problem on a terrain very familiar to me, asking how we can understand the practical collective enactment of an abstraction, which can then no longer be understood adequately in terms of mere conceptual generalisation from more concrete entities:
It is not people who originate these abstractions but their actions. ‘They do this without being aware of it.’ In order to do justice to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy the commodity or value abstraction revealed in his analysis must be viewed as a real abstraction resulting from spatio-temporal activity.
Significantly, Sohn-Rethel also argues – and here I would agree – that the concept of real abstraction is both tacitly central in Capital, and that this locates Capital much more on the terrain of a critical social grounding of philosophy and natural science, than of a critique of political economy narrowly understood:
Althusser believes that Capital is the answer to a question implied but not formulated by Marx. Althusser defeats the purpose of his search for this question by insisting ‘que la production de la connaissance … constitue un processus qui se passe toutentier dans la pensee’. He understands Marx on the commodity abstraction metaphorically, whereas it should be taken literally and its epistemological implications pursued so as to grasp how Marx’s method turns Hegel’s dialectic ‘right side up’. The un-proclaimed theme of Capital and of the commodity analysis is in fact the real abstraction uncovered there. Its scope reaches further than economics – indeed it concerns the heritage of philosophy far more directly than it concerns political economy.
Like Adorno, Sohn-Rethel will try to make sense of the notion of a real abstraction in terms of the division of mental and manual labour – a step that I will examine more critically when I can treat the argument in more detail. My suspicion with both authors is that their attempts to understand fundamental aspects of modernity in terms of the mental-manual labour split (and, more tacitly, their attempts to understand capitalism primarily in terms of the market or commodity exchange) end up blurring some key historical distinctions between modern and nonmodern societies, to the detriment of the theories’ ability to grasp some core dimensions of modernity. Nevertheless, Sohn-Rethel’s work does represent an exceptionally ambitious attempt to unfold an analysis of a real abstraction, while exploring often-overlooked epistemological and philosophical implications of Marx’s work. I’m looking forward to having the time to write on the subject in greater depth.