Rough Theory

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Monthly Archives: October 2007

Sights and Sounds

So one of the interesting things about blogging, is occasionally getting to meet people in person, whom you’ve previously known only in virtual space. Last night, I had the opportunity to meet, and talk the ear off of, a fellow blogger. This afternoon, I received the following piece of feedback on the crossover impact of this meeting on our future blog interactions:

Your blog’s totally going to have that combination accent (like, easily mistaken for Australian except for occasional curls in the words!) from now on.

So, if anyone’s been wondering what I sound like… :-)

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Cartesian Fragment

Head spinning from the conference and, of course, I have another damned cold, so I’m unfortunately not up to serious writing. I have plans for a post on several themes that have emerged during the conference, once I get back to Melbourne and catch up on some sleep. I’ll also get back to the series on Capital in a more serious way once I get home – I’ve decided to select from some of what I’ve been writing here, to put together a paper for the Modernities: Radicalism, Reflexivity, Realities conference at the University of Melbourne in late November, so I have a… strong incentive to finish writing about the first chapter of Capital before then, and to assemble the fragments I’ve been tossing up here into a more cohesive and distilled form.

Unfortunately, this decision will probably further entrench what has already been a feature of this series: revisiting and reworking sections of the text I’ve written on already, as I gradually build a clearer sense of what I’m trying to say. Might be a bit dull for others reading on, but it’s helpful for me to toss things up, and then look back over what I’ve done to see what proves closest to the mark…

Tonight, writing briefly before heading back to the conference, I just wanted to tuck a quick note to myself – no new content; just a reminder that I want to think about this particular content at greater length. In the introductory passage to Capital, which I can’t quite seem to let go of, Marx argues that the wealth of capitalist societies “presents itself” as a vast accumulation of commodities. Those commodities, in turn, present themselves as objects “outside us” – as material things. A bit later in this same passage, we learn that the intrinsic material properties of these objects present themselves as things that can be discovered in history – that, in fact, the discovery of such intrinsic material properties presents as “the work of history” – as history’s telos, perhaps? And we learn that this material layer of the commodity presents as what constitutes “the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth”. This material substance then presents as encased in a social form, which is more arbitrary and contingent, more the consequence of human practice, than the intrinsic material substance that the social form shapes.

I’ve mentioned previously that, because Marx is proceeding immanently, starting with a particular form of “givenness” or phenomenological experience, from which he gradually unfolds more and more complex categories, he cannot have recourse to all categories of analysis at the beginning of his account. One of the categories he cannot have access to, at this stage of his analysis, is the category of wage labour. This doesn’t mean that the category of wage labour is not already imbricated in these earliest moments in the text.

“For us” – to whom the category of wage labour exists – the introductory sections of Capital echo with an interesting set of additional meanings: in a situation in which commodities are objects “outside us” – and in which we (or, at least, our labour powers) are also commodities – we are also objects “outside us” – we also possess a “material substance”, whatever the social form of that substance might be – our material substance is also experienced as encased in a social form that is more arbitrary and contingent, more a product of human practice, than we take our intrinsic material substance to be – we also experience ourselves as “discovering”, over the course of history, more and more about the material properties that determine what we “really are”. We are the Cartesian ghost contemplating what we experience as our physiological machine (cf. Marx’s subsequent determinations of “abstract labour” in physiological or biological terms – as the “productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles” – a definition that, it is already clear in the text, cannot be fully “true”, since Marx has already told us that not all “productive expenditure” of biological energy gets to “count as labour” under capitalism).

Marx is therefore already, in these earliest passages, describing, not simply a relation of humans to an external world, but a relation of humans to themselves – a mode of embodiment and self-experience, that incorporates a felt distinction between material bodies, cultural or social shaping of those material bodies, and a disembodied, contemplative “ghost in the machine” that experiences itself as having “discovered” an intrinsic division between matter and society. Marx is already here setting up to relativise this mode of embodiment and self-experience by setting up for an analysis of how this apparently asocial and intrinsic “material substance” comes to be constituted unintentionally in collective practice – to be “read” or experienced as “natural” in the sense of timeless, intrinsic and asocial, when, Marx will argue, it itself is the product – very real, but still also contingent – of a particular qualitative structure of collective practice. This will not be the only form of embodiment Marx analyses in the course of Capital – I’ve already gestured in previous posts at some of the others. I am lifting this particular example out here as an illustrative example of a mode of argument that carries through much of the text.

Apologies for the repetition – again, there’s a benefit to me in reworking some of these points and experimenting with slightly different forms of expression – I’m conscious that this benefit might not carry through to folks reading on… ;-) More new material, hopefully, when I’m back in Melbourne, and a bit better rested…

Previous posts in this series include:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

Not Knowing Where to Have It


I unfortunately don’t have time today to write this up properly, but I wanted to post a quick pointer to the wonderful new blog proximities, whose early posts range across Deleuze and Guattari, Lacan, Badiou, Zizek, and others, to explore a set of questions related to reflexive theory and immanent potentials for transformation. Its inaugural post builds to a tantalising question, which hopefully this blog will continue to explore as it unfolds:

What is really at stake here is the content of the set of potentials available for actualization in a Lacanian critical jurisprudence. The courts and the legal institution in sum play a distinctive part in the perpetuation of a particular symbolic order or regime of signs. Given this, we are required to follow up: Is there a potential for liberation in the virtual sphere of a Lacanian approach? Psychoanalysis may run up against its limit here, or, for more sympathetic folks, may force the realization upon us that there is no such thing as liberation. Schopenhauerian as it sounds, we may be condemned to the particular brands of oppression brought out by our representational-democratic (i.e., pseudo-democratic) regime of signs. All we can hope for is to “traverse the fantasy,” to become docile with respect to the order of things through acceptance. But if this is the case, why did we bother with a psychoanalytical critique of law in the first place? (Zizek has some interesting things to say on this question, but I can’t discuss them now – certainly, I will return to Zizek’s role in developing a psychoanalytic critique of law, revisiting this question with a new immediacy; Zizek is able to discern in the law, in an institutional as well as cultural sense, a sort of de-limitation, a restriction that nevertheless enables, and so the possibility of a truly constructive psychoanalysis of law becomes real.) For my part, here is where I think the possibility of a Deleuzian, not to say “schizoanalytical,” approach to law becomes necessary. I’ll merely light the path here but will return in a series of future posts to begin actually following it, as I work out some details.

A central theme of the Anti-Oedipus is that social formations generate their own lines of escape, that laissez-faire capitalism, for instance, breeds marginal subjects that sense the means of egress, the “leaky spots,” made available by the functioning of the system itself. And this is its “proper” functioning: Deleuze & Guattari continually note, in that text, that capitalism “works,” there is no reason for it not to work; in “working,” however, variegated flows of labor (minor sciences, war machines of various types, and so on) come into being as a sort of remainder, in the form of a hold-over – and then it becomes a matter of seizing this liberatory potential in some constructive way, or, as Deleuze will say, “to be carried off elsewhere, the beyond, on a crazy vector, a tangent of deterritorialization” (”Two Regimes of Madness” in Two Regimes of Madness, 15). Does it become possible to follow such a tangent in a Deleuzian mode?

Of course, perhaps I would see this as tantalising, as it resonates with so much recent discussion here… :-)

The current post, which picks up on recent discussions of reflexivity at Larval Subjects, is a brilliant read that I’m tempted to quote in full – but instead, I’ll just provide a teaser, and suggest you read the original in its own space:

Recall that Deleuze, for instance, celebrates the suspension of individuation we witness in the close-up in cinema – suspension here in the sense of prolongation, moving to the edge of the void without allowing the schizophrenizing-intensifying processes to bring about a collapse of cognizance, but rather to cause an excess of cognizance, a hyper-perception. This would be freedom. Philosophy requires a perpetuality of movement, an utterly ceaseless subjectification/desubjectification circuit. This is not a “leap out” of the dominant symbolic-ideological discourse. This is a productive reconfiguration of the symbolically determined structures of subjectivity, a discernment (hence “hyper-perception”) of the virtualities / potentialities available for actualization in any given social formation. “Leaping out” is impossible – it is a negation. Freedom must be produced, and produced through adjustments to the assemblage – hence my blog’s subtitle.

Running back to the conference now…

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Not Knowing Where to Have It

Okay. Let’s see if I can move a bit further through the first chapter of Capital before I leave for Sydney.

In the last instalment, I suggested that the first chapter should be read as a sort of immanent dialectical unfolding of forms of phenomenological experience that are “given” under capitalism. Each of these forms of phenomenological experience is (at least tacitly) positioned as simultaneously a form of subjectivity and objectivity – as a form of perception and thought whose existence is rendered plausible by the experience of social actors attending to or engaging with a particular moment in collective practice. These forms of phenomenological experience are therefore not positioned in the text as imaginary – Marx doesn’t criticise them as “mere” beliefs, cognitive errors, or subjective illusions, but instead tacitly points to the ways in which they are the “true” expressions of some determinate moment of a complex, multi-layered social form.

At the same time, to the extent that Marx shows how each phenomenological perspective fails to recognise that it is the perspective of such a determinate moment – to the extent that he can demonstrate how a perspective hypostatises itself, either by abstracting itself from the determinate collective practices within which it is enacted, or by totalising its partial perspective and thus confusing its situated vision for an “objective” view of the whole – he can also demonstrate that each perspective is also false. Marx reveals this falseness by gradually unfolding, immanently from within each phenomenological perspective he analyses, symptomatic indications through which a perspective reveals its partial character – often in the form of questions a perspective can pose, but not answer; problems it can open up, but not resolve.

The complex critical strategy that motivates this presentation (discussed in more detail in previous posts) enables Marx to avoid unfolding his critique in the name of some kind of objective Archimedean point that purports to stand outside the context being criticised. Instead, he can “ground” his critique by demonstrating how his own critical perspective can be generated from within the context itself, by appropriating the insights made available by its own movement across various immanently-generated perspectives that have been constituted as moments within a complex overarching context that spawns multifaceted internal tensions and contradictions. This critical strategy has practical, as well as philosophical, significance: philosophically, it “performs” or expresses a form of subjectivity adequate to Marx’s own theoretical claims; practically, it enables Marx to demonstrate how the context itself is generative of practical potentials for its emancipatory transformation.

In the sections we’ve discussed thus far, Marx begins with a phenomenological perspective that perceives a world of subjects and objects, and a world of arbitrary human history, and timeless, essential nature. From the standpoint of this perspective, a contemplative subject interacts instrumentally with an object world, projecting its own historically variable interests onto nature’s objective reality. Instrumental manipulation of the intrinsic material properties of the natural world provides the basis for meeting human needs – and thus for the creation of use values. Use values, grounded as they are in objective materiality, are the “true” substance of wealth in all human societies. Wealth can, however, take arbitrary, historically variable forms in different human societies – in our society, for example, this historically variable form is exchange value, which appears to be a purely quantitative, accidental, and relative matter governing the proportions in which goods exchange for other goods.

Marx will move quickly to undermine this perspective. He does this by tugging on the thread of whether use value can be validly seen as the material “substance” within the historical “form” of exchange value. His argument runs roughly: If exchange value establishes quantitative proportions in which goods are exchanged, then surely there must be some common, qualitatively homogeneous “substance” whose quantity is being equated. But use values or the material properties of goods cannot provide such a substance, because use values and material objects are qualitatively diverse. Something else must therefore provide the “substance” encased in the “form” of exchange value – but the original phenomenological perspective, although it can use its subject/object, substance/form distinctions to pose such a question, is not adequate to provide an answer.

Marx then quickly unfolds a second perspective, which offers a kind of transcendental argument that the condition for exchange is the existence of some common, qualitatively homogeneous substance common to all commodities – a substance which Marx calls “value”. This second perspective “deduces” that this substance cannot reside in the material properties of commodities – for what single material property could possibly be held in common among all the universe of diverse commodities? This perspective inherits the dichotomy between material nature and human society from the first perspective, and so concludes that, if the common property cannot be material, then, ergo, the only remaining possibility is for it to be social.

But what common social property might all commodities share? “Obviously”, the property of being products of human labour. But labouring activities are as diverse as the material properties of goods, so we cannot be proposing that any specific labouring activity could serve this role. Instead, we need something universal, something abstracted from empirical labouring practices – something Marx calls “human labour in the abstract”. This phenomenological perspective sees “human labour in the abstract” as a sort of physical or biological category, a distillation of the expenditure of human “brains, nerves, and muscles” that must take on some specific form, but that can be conceptually abstracted from these particular forms and thereby grasped in its universal essence. This homogeneous universal essence of human labour can then be measured and subdivided into units, based on the duration of the expenditure of labour – labour time.

Logically, this transcendental argument suggests that it ought to be possible to measure the value that inheres in individual commodities, or that is generated by specific labouring activities, by measuring the duration of the labour empirically spent in the production of particular goods. Yet this logical conclusion isn’t drawn, as what counts in determining the measure of value is not actually the labour time empirically invested in the creation of a good, but rather the labour time socially required, on average, to produce goods of a particular sort. The amount of value that inheres within goods therefore cannot be established through the examination of an individual good or labouring activity taken as an atomised and isolated entity. Instead, individual goods (and, indirectly, empirical labour processes) must be brought into relation with one another, in order to grasp the determinants of value.

Once this relational dimension of value is brought into being, it becomes clear that we cannot be dealing with a simple conceptual abstraction. Instead, something more like a real abstraction is involved: some overarching social process that is in practice – as an “external” operation of the objective world, and not simply as an internal operation of the perceiving mind – indifferent to the empirical expenditure of labour time in production. This second perspective has thus opened onto the need for yet another perspective – one that can grasp this immaterial, but objective, relationship binding commodities to one another and constituting the substance of value. This second perspective has opened the need, in other words, for an approach that can grasp something like intersubjectivity.

And so we find ourselves in the third section of the first chapter – on which I seem strangely reluctant to write directly – I think this is now the third post that I’ve begun, intending to write on this section, that instead devolves almost entirely into elaborate retrospective reflection, as I try to reposition what I’ve been saying about previous sections, so that I can open up for a half-adequate discussion of what’s happening here. Let’s see if I can at least press a little bit into what Marx is doing here, before I become too tired to continue writing tonight.

This section begins by revisiting (is this why I always feel compelled to do this, as well?) the initial determination of the commodity as a two-fold object, with a material form related to use value, and a value form related to exchange value. No commodity, however, can directly express this dual character in its own material body. Examining an empirical commodity will reveal nothing more than its material properties, and value, as earlier sections have established, is unrelated to those. The inner duality of the commodity – the existence of its supersensible social essence – can therefore become manifest only if the commodity is brought into a social relation with some other commodity, such that their common identity as bearers of value can be compared. At this point, Marx returns to the category of exchange value, which he had set aside after the first few paragraphs in order to unfold the category of value: his analysis has now reached a point where it has immanently unfolded the need to analyse commodities, not as atomised objects or material things that sit “outside” contemplative subjects, but as “expressions or embodiments of one identical social substance” – as entities that exist intrinsically in social relations, whose inner essence therefore becomes manifest only through their social interactions, which are mediated by the process of exchange.

Marx here unfolds a simply astonishing analysis – peppered through with footnotes and textual allusions to relational and intersubjective understandings of human “nature”. He is not ready, at this stage in his analysis, to unfold the category of wage labour, but, if this has been unclear up to this point, here the interstices of the text scream the ways in which the arguments about “commodities” are intended to grasp and ground some of the self-perceptions that circulate amongst commodities of the human sort:

In a sort of way, it is with man as with commodities. Since he comes into the world neither with a looking glass in his hand, nor as a Fichtian philosopher, to whom “I am I” is sufficient, man first sees and recognises himself in other men. Peter only establishes his own identity as a man by first comparing himself with Paul as being of like kind. And thereby Paul, just as he stands in his Pauline personality, becomes to Peter the type of the genus homo (ftnt 19)

And this pair, one in the main text, and one a footnote (from a different section of the text):

And as equivalent of the linen in the value equation, it exists under this aspect alone, counts therefore as embodied value, as a body that is value. A, for instance, cannot be “your majesty” to B, unless at the same time majesty in B’s eyes assumes the bodily form of A, and, what is more, with every new father of the people, changes its features, hair, and many other things besides. (sctn. 3.2.a)

Such expressions of relations in general, called by Hegel reflex categories, form a very curious class. For instance, one man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the contrary, imagine that they are subjects because he is king. (ftnt 22)

In terms of the structure of the section: the organisation, which moves from “elementary” to fully “developed” forms, suggests an historical progression. I have suggested previously that this should be read instead as a logical progression – as an analysis of forms that should all be taken as existing contemporaneously within the same fully developed capitalist context. This section begins to suggest, in other words, that fully developed capitalism admits of the simultaneous co-existence of forms of practice that do not equally express certain potentials immanent to that context, such that it becomes possible to organise or “rank” forms of practice based on how fully they express determinate potentials. It also begins to hint at a certain risk of confusing this logical ranking with an historical one – and therefore, for example, mistaking some particular moment of capitalism for a pre-capitalist social formation, or incorrectly ascribing to human history as such a teleological direction culminating in capitalism, or similar normative moves. I’ll leave this point to one side, as I can’t fully develop these suggestions here, but there are some beautiful potentials in this section for the philosophy of history tacit in this work…

Marx first hints that all forms – even the most elementary – presuppose the full development of capitalism, by stating, “The whole mystery of the form of values lies hidden in this elementary form” – the form in which two commodities are equated by exchange. He unfolds from this binary relationship the categories of the “relative” form – the commodity whose value is being expressed – and the “equivalent” form – the commodity that expresses this value. Relative and equivalent forms are necessarily interconnected and mutually dependent – the value of one commodity can only be expressed by another – and yet also mutually exclusive and antagonistic – the same commodity cannot simultaneously occupy both roles. Marx calls the relative and equivalent forms “poles of the same expression”.

Within this “elementary” form, it is entirely accidental which commodity plays which role. Marx uses this point to ground and criticise the political economists’ fascination with which commodity (gold, pepper, salt, cattle, etc.) plays the role of equivalent. He suggests, in effect, that they become distracted by a level of arbitrariness that genuinely does exist, and therefore fail to recognise the overarching necessity that inheres in the dichotomous poles of the value relation. So, it may well be a matter of indifference (and therefore arbitrary custom) whether cattle or gold coins play the role of the equivalent, but it is not a matter of similar indifference that the value of the commodity occupying the role of the relative form, can be expressed only in relation to some equivalent form. The puzzle of why this dichotomous form should exist is therefore overlooked – the form taken for granted, while attention is deflected to the more malleable contents that occupy structural positions within this form.

Marx here begins in earnest to embed some of the forms of perception and thought that, from the standpoint of the previous two perspectives analysed in this chapter, appear “given”. He quickly suggests that the earlier determination of the commodity, which presented it as a unity of a use value and a value, could only be made in a situation in which value had found some way to become manifest – for, as an immaterial property, a physical examination of a material good in isolation would never reveal its existence. He further suggests the need to invert the transcendental argument that human labour is the condition of exchange, arguing that it is rather in the act of exchange that we equate two dissimilar material goods, and therefore, by extension, equate the dissimilar forms of activity that led to their production:

If we say that, as values, commodities are mere congelations of human labour, we reduce them by our analysis, it is true, to the abstraction, value; but we ascribe to this value no form apart from their bodily form. It is otherwise in the value relation of one commodity to another. Here, the one stands forth in its character of value by reason of its relation to the other.

By making the coat the equivalent of the linen, we equate the labour embodied in the former to that in the latter. Now, it is true that the tailoring, which makes the coat, is concrete labour of a different sort from the weaving which makes the linen. But the act of equating it to the weaving, reduces the tailoring to that which is really equal in the two kinds of labour, to their common character of human labour. In this roundabout way, then, the fact is expressed, that weaving also, in so far as it weaves value, has nothing to distinguish it from tailoring, and, consequently, is abstract human labour. It is the expression of equivalence between different sorts of commodities that alone brings into relief the specific character of value-creating labour, and this it does by actually reducing the different varieties of labour embodied in the different kinds of commodities to their common quality of human labour in the abstract.

Having thus reached beyond atomised commodities with purported supersensible properties, to the exchange relation between those commodities, Marx is now ready to move to an analysis of how these supersensible properties – although social and immaterial in origin – must also find a material expression:

There is, however, something else required beyond the expression of the specific character of the labour of which the value of the linen consists. Human labour power in motion, or human labour, creates value, but is not itself value. It becomes value only in its congealed state, when embodied in the form of some object. In order to express the value of the linen as a congelation of human labour, that value must be expressed as having objective existence, as being a something materially different from the linen itself, and yet a something common to the linen and all other commodities. The problem is already solved.

This material expression is, of course, the equivalent form.

Before moving to an analysis of the equivalent form, Marx detours into the quantitative determination of the relative form (a topic he had previously bracketed, arguing that political economy focussed too exclusively on the quantitative aspect of the problem). The argument here parallels earlier moments in which Marx has mentioned the quantitative dimension of value: it quickly runs through several scenarios in which the proportion in which goods are empirically exchanged remains the same, but in which this outcome is generated by very different “real changes in the magnitude of value”, to conclude:

Thus real changes in the magnitude of value are neither unequivocally nor exhaustively reflected in their relative expression, that is, in the equation expressing the magnitude of relative value. The relative value of a commodity may vary, although its value remains constant. Its relative value may remain constant, although its value varies; and finally, simultaneous variations in the magnitude of value and in that of its relative expression by no means necessarily correspond in amount.

These sections of the text are strategically extremely interesting – I should have drawn attention to some earlier examples, to prepare for this point. On several different levels in the text, Marx has been introducing strong distinctions between what will be perceived through immediate empirical observations of particular sorts, and the sorts of categories he is mobilising in his own analysis. Thus, the value of commodities cannot be discovered through an exploration of their material properties. Human labour in the abstract is distinct from the labour empirically expended in production, even when we conceptually abstract from the various concrete forms in which human physiological exertion takes place. And now, “real changes in the magnitude of value” cannot be observed directly from the empirical investigation of the proportions in which goods exchange on the market. Curiouser and curiouser: how, exactly, can this supersensible essence of value, which we now know always must appear in some physical form, but which can never be detected in that physical form – nor, apparently, in the relation between that form and commodities occupying the relative position – be perceived? How do we know that such a thing exists? What is its ontological status?

The answer isn’t fully clear at this point in the text. I believe, though, that we are intended to be becoming a bit perplexed: the section does begin, after all, with Marx teasing “The reality of commodities differs in this respect from Dame Quickly, that we don’t know ‘where to have it’.”… And I believe that the answer is peeking through the interstices of the examples Marx uses to illustrate the law of value asserting itself – coercively distributing socially average labour time and dictating what gets to “count as labour”. Value is gradually being determined, as the text unfolds, as Marx’s name for this unintentionally generated collective social compulsion whose existence structures and shapes collective experience into, among other things, the forms Marx has been analysing throughout this chapter.

Tired. Lots of strangeness to come in the next subsection. Time to get some sleep – with my apologies for the complete absence of proofreading in this post. I have no idea whether and how much I can post from Sydney. If I can post, it’s also possible that this particular series will be temporarily interrupted as I process thoughts provoked by the conference papers. But I suspect that, one way or another, I will find my way back here again soon…

Previous posts in this series include:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

What Presses Now

Sinthome’s continued fascination with Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura has led to another wonderful post on historical materialism, in which Sinthome quotes a passage that expresses one of the forms of perception and thought I’ve recently been suggesting Marx is trying to ground in Capital – the distinction between a timeless “material” reality, and contingent, arbitrary, “social” attributes projected onto this reality:

A property is that which not at all
Can be disjoined and severed from a thing
Without a fatal dissolution: such,
Weight to the rocks, heat to the fire, and flow
To the wide waters, touch to corporal things,
Intangibility to the viewless void.
But state of slavery, pauperhood, and wealth,
Freedom, and war, and concord, and all else
Which come and go whilst Nature stands the same,
We’re wont, and rightly, to call by-products.
Even time exists not of itself; but sense
Reads out of things what happened long ago,
What presses now, and what shall follow after:
No man, we must admit, feels time itself,
Disjoined from motion and repose of things.

Sinthome adds:

Lucretius’ stunning observation– I’d be interested to see whether it was commonly made in antiquity, I cannot think of other examples off-hand –is that by-products are not connected to the object itself. Lucretius’ examples are clear enough: regardless of whether I have the property of wealth, poverty, slavery, freedom, or am in a state of war, or peace, I remain the same person. That is, were I to lose all my wealth, I am still this person who has lost all of his wealth. As such, these properties are not connected properties of my being.

For obvious reasons, I’m also interested in the question of how common this kind of observation might have been in other contexts: Marx is making an argument that we are somehow constituting this kind of distinction unintentionally in collective practice. Among the several stabs I’ve taken below to try to express what Marx might be up to (and to continue Marx’s grand tradition, and quote myself), I take Marx to see capitalism as a situation in which:

we say that commodities possess a dual character – and then we analyse how that dual character that we take to be intrinsic, becomes manifest when commodities interact with one another on the market. We become sensitive to the possibility of a “material” world that operates according to supersensible laws whose existence can be inferred from observing patterns in the movements of material objects, and we begin to try to discover and to manipulate such “laws” instrumentally to human advantage. We become sensitive to the possibility that certain dimensions of social practice – dimensions associated with direct personal or intersubjective relations – are social (and therefore contingent on human practice and – potentially – contestable). We therefore collectively, unintentionally enact two mutually-differentiating, interpenetrating dimensions of social life: an “overtly social” realm of interpersonal relations, and an impersonal realm in which material objects are governed by invisible laws. Both realms are “social” – but not in the same way. And their mutual determination can render plausible a systematic trompe-l’œil in which one dimension of our social is taken not to be social at all.

Or, a bit later in my trundle through the first chapter:

I have suggested that the argument about the fetish is not concerned solely with explaining the “supersensible” properties that are perceived to inhere in material objects: it also lays the foundation for grasping the conviction that there are “material objects” – problematising the conception (expressed in many places in the first chapter) that our perception of a “material world” represents some kind of “demythologised” form of thought that arises quasi-automatically, once artificial social determinations have been stripped away, leaving “nature” behind. Instead, the “material world” is grasped in this argument as its own practically constituted “positivity” – as the product of determinate kinds of collective practice. (As a side note, to avoid confusion: This kind of argument is not intended to position human practice as somehow generative of the entirety of the non-human world – evoking a sort of radical social constructivism – but rather to explore connections between our current sensitivity to specific potentials of the non-human world, and other dimensions of our contemporaneous historical experience.)

Note that, since I’m suggesting that Marx is unfolding a reflexive critical theory, this sort of analytical move does not invalidate his own critical deployment of a (grounded) notion of “materialism”. Instead, this move enables Marx to deploy a concept of materialism (or other normative standards) non-dogmatically, in a way that symmetrically applies the same critical framework to his own position, and to positions he criticises, and thus does not rely on critical standards that float above the context being criticised.

I therefore see the “denaturalising” move made by the argument about the fetish as cutting “both ways” – as encompassing concepts of use value and exchange value, sensuous material nature and supersensible laws, subjects and objects, and a constellation of other dichotomies that will be unfolded as having interrelated, practical bases in the course of this analysis. And I see this argument opening up the possibility for an analysis of capitalism as a peculiarly “layered” social context, constituted by intrinsically bound and yet conflictual dimensions of collective practice that mutually differentiate one another to constitute a practical dichotomy between, on the one hand, a “secularised” impersonal world of “material” objects whose interactions are governed by “universal” laws, and, on the other, a contingent, historically-variable, intersubjective realm of human custom.

Sinthome is drawn – as I think Marx also was – to the political implications of such forms of perception and thought. To sample another passage from Larval Subjects:

Lucretius’ distinction between properties and by-products has implications that reach far beyond the examples he gives, and which are a central axiom of historical materialism. His examples of freedom and slavery are particularly telling. Freedom, slavery, are not natural features of physical bodies, but are rather a product of relations among bodies. That is, they are, according to this metaphysic, institutions. Many will recall that Aristotle had argued that non-Greeks and women are naturally inferior to Greek men, thereby treating this inferiority as a property of these bodies. Aristotle naturalizes social relations, thereby treating them as the natural order of things.

If Lucretius’ words cause the world to shake, then this is because this thesis belongs not only to the various social identities we might possess, treating them all as by-products rather than properties, but it also extends (without him saying so) to all social institutions as well. Being-a-king is not a property of the king, but is instead a by-product of being recognized as a king by his subjects. Gender relations between men and women are not the natural way of things, but the result of ongoing autopoiesis whereby both parties involved reproduce themselves in their gendered identities through their interactions with one another (without it being possible to say one group produces the identity of the other). Sexual identities are not natural properties, but are again by products of practices and institutions.

Sinthome also hits perfectly on the critical intention of the form of critique in which I see Marx to have been engaging (without suggesting that Sinthome would have agreed with Marx’s specific claims or with the social or practice-theoretic framing of Marx’s critical approach):

These concepts are perhaps familiar to us today– though I hear people making such claims on behalf of the natural all the time –so it is difficult to hear just how much they make the world rumble and shake. However, if there is one central function of the project of critique and historical materialism, this is to show the essential contingency of social institutions and identities… The way they are “by-products” or “accidents”, rather than properties. The activity of demonstrating the contingency of institutions is not an activity of “debunking” or falsifying. We might, for instance, show that rights are by-products or accidents of certain social organizations. This does not render rights false, just as it is no less the case that I am a professor because being-a-professor required a whole host of institutions from universities, places to teach, states, and my students acting towards me as a philosopher. Rather, if rights are by-products or accidents, then this is because they can fail to exist in certain bodies. This entails that perhaps we fight all the more vigorously for the existence of these by-products. Rather, in the activity of critique, in the activity of uncovering contingency, we render possibilities available, allowing us to counter-factually envision how other forms of life might come to be. The slave that comes to see the institution of slavery as a contingent by-product of his socio-historical setting rather than a natural property of his being also comes to envision the possibility of another life, another world. Perhaps we should begin with the premise that we’re all slaves. Perhaps this would paradoxically be the most affirmative position one could advocate. Sometimes the entire world is changed through a simple distinction, an incorporeal transformation, a concept, that then functions as a lens so potent it is able to concentrate light into fire.

The point of immanent critique (and this perhaps touches on some of the issues currently under discussion in another thread over at Larval Subjects) is precisely not to debunk, but rather to liberate and free up for conscious political practice, potentials that may have been constituted unintentionally, in alienated form, by enabling a better understanding of the determinate sorts of relationships in which these potentials are currently constituted – and the other ways in which those relationships might be unfolded, to release potentials more completely.

Caveats as always that I am not trying in any way to assimilate Sinthome’s argument to my own – just thinking in tandem, as the waves and resonances of online discussion sometimes unexpectedly make possible…

Points Off for Hypocrisy

I can’t resist pointing to the student plagiarism story over at ZaPaper’s Chicago Beijing. While ZaPaper focusses the entry on a teacher’s intervention gone awry, the true beauty of this case lies in the topic and argument of the plagiarised piece:

And get this, the paper was on copyright and intellectual property (specifically with respect to music sampling, U2 and Negativeland). And GET THIS: Cheater is arguing in her paper that U2 was right, Negativeland was wrong, and sampling music is cheating.

Kewpie Doll: Never do this again. Some teachers would throw you right out of the course for this.
Cheater: I know, I know. All I was thinking was “length, length, length.”

Maybe that’s what Negativeland was thinking too. Points off for hypocrisy.

Or maybe it wasn’t really plagiarism, but a sophisticated self-referential critique that chose to make its point by using stylistic strategies that directly contradict the expressed content and overt argument. (I’ve been writing way too much on Marx lately…)

Some Lesser-Known Benefits of Higher Education

I just dropped my son off at his childcare centre, and had a nice conversation with the woman who heads the teaching team in his room. I’m very happy with the centre and the staff – not least because they’ve dealt extremely well my son’s rather… non-institutional personality, allowing him an unusual amount of flexibility to drift around within their schedules and routines. Their tolerance is paired, though, with a fair amount of bemusement, and it’s not unusual for staff to pull me aside to share stories about my son’s strange combination of politeness and intractability (I’ve overheard staff joking with one another, describing the phrase “no thank you” as “classic Lyle”). He seems to be perceived as having a positive temperament, but staff seem genuinely puzzled, given this, by his desire to go off and do his own thing – as though politeness ought to correlate with instant compliance or desire for conformity… Thus is the stuff of parent-teacher conferences made…

This morning, the familiar conversation around these things took an unexpected turn: “So… what’s your son’s sign?”

Thinking I must have misheard: “His… what?”

“His astrological sign?”

“Uh… I have no idea…”

“That’s okay – what’s his birthdate?” I provided this, and then received his sign in return. I tend to respond to this kind of thing with a sort of extreme blankness, which for me signifies that I don’t really want to get into a discussion with someone about what they’ve just said, as I’m concerned that they’d find my reaction offensive, and I don’t think the issue is important enough to justify providing offence. This blank reaction, though, is often interpreted in strange ways by other people. In this case, the interpretation, apparently, was that I was struck speechless by how impressive it should be that they should be able to deduce the sign from the birth date. They blushed, and then tried to reassure, “I know – don’t worry – I can only do this because I studied it at university. Helps me with understanding the kids’ personalities.” I’m not sure I find this reassuring…

(Just a side point, from an immigrant’s perspective: astrology and other forms of new age spirituality or practice (often in instrumentalised form, as practice of manipulation or at least prediction of external events) come up startlingly often, in my experience, in professional settings in Melbourne. Every workplace I’ve been in here – the university is no exception – has quite casual, apparently sincere, discussion around new age themes, often by people who are quite scathing in their opinions of mainstream religion. And I’m not just talking about watercooler discussion or chats over coffee – I’m talking about discussion introduced into staff meetings or other formal contexts. Not that everyone or even the majority of people in a workplace participate – but there is no visible public disapprobation to airing these perspectives in a professional setting. I don’t know that I have a question here – more a sort of expression of… anthropological curiosity: what gives? What’s with the strange combination of reflexive scepticism toward older, established faiths, and the receptivity to demonstrably rather recent new age beliefs? Or have I just had profoundly atypical experiences, leading to a kind of strange new age bias in my selection of workplaces?)

No More Teachers…

Final day of my teaching year!!! Well, not quite – my postgrads have decided I should come back and teach one final session in the pub during the break. And I’m supervising an Honours thesis. And I have piles of marking still to do. And somehow I’ve let myself be talked into doing a few days of interview work for a community group. And people are already queuing up, asking whether, now that the term is coming to an end, I can’t give them just a brief bit of my time. And I shudder to think the number of things I’ve committed to write over the “break”. But still – ahhhhh, to have a relatively open schedule into which I can pour these various commitments – I floated home from work this evening.

The “break” begins for me with a quick trip to Macquarie University this coming week, for the Recognition and Work conference. I’m not doing anything meaningful at this event – just lurking and… er… trying neither to work nor to be recognised. Actually, to be honest, I’ll be taking lots of work up with me – mainly for a paper on Brandom and Habermas intended for the ASCP conference later in the year. And, if anyone is planning to be at the conference next week and wants to catch up for a coffee, I might compromise on the not being recognised part too… Not sure what the net access situation will be up there – if I’m able, I’ll try to blog some of the sessions.

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Subjects, Objects and Things in Between

I’ve been horrifically ill the past couple of days – feeling much better now, but struggling to get back into the thoughtspace of the previous post, which had originally been intended to glide smoothly into this one… ;-P Best laid plans, etc. The result is that I’m just trying to gather my thoughts at the moment, and so much of this post will be recap and repetition, with perhaps a slight kaleidoscopic reconfiguration of some of my older points.

As we’ve discussed in several earlier posts, Capital begins in a dualistic, “Cartesian” thoughtspace. From this perspective, commodities are material things (use values) that exist “outside us”, whose properties we can investigate in order to discover the ways in which they might be instrumentally useful for us. This “material” dimension of this dichotomy is perceived to be timeless and asocial (“Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth.”). This apparently timeless and asocial dimension is then paired with or mediated through a social dimension (exchange value), which is understood to be historically arbitrary, contingent, and relativistic (“In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value. Exchange value, at first sight, presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place. Hence exchange value appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently an intrinsic value, i.e., an exchange value that is inseparably connected with, inherent in commodities, seems a contradiction in terms.”).

As the argument unfolds, Marx then does a somewhat strange thing. From these two initial categories – use value and exchange value – he deduces the existence of a third: value – a coercive social relationship that determines what gets to “count as labour” and that forcibly generalises socially average labour time. This third category is positioned in the text as deducible from – or as a kind of transcendental condition for – the two “given” categories with which the text begins. Marx has therefore immanently unfolded this third category from the first two – and he has done this using a form of analysis immanently adequate to the “givens” with which he begins (more on this last in a bit). The overarching strategy here, as has been discussed in earlier posts, is modelled on a Hegelian notion of immanently unfolding the ways in which later categories are necessarily presupposed by earlier ones, such that the analysis never needs to breach its own immanent frame, but can demonstrate its own critical perspective as something immanently available to the context being analysed.

Marx determines this third category as a supersensible social essence that apparently haunts the material dimension of commodities and governs commodity exchange in an impersonal, universal, lawlike manner. The existence of this third category is not transparent: the category of value is not initially “given” – it is not positioned in the text as how the wealth of capitalism “presents itself” – although its existence can be deduced from the perspective that does “present”. Which isn’t, however, to say that the perspective that is immediately “given” – the perspective with which Marx begins his text – has a fully adequate conception of value.

One of the earliest things we learn as the text continues to unfold is that the initial perspective is insufficiently historical in its conception of value – that this perspective understands itself to be “discovering” something “given” through its contemplation of an impersonal environment that sits “outside” itself (rather than, for example, understanding itself as a moment within a constituted situation, which is exploring that situation from within). Where value is originally presented as having been logically deduced, as a sort of transcendental condition for the practice of exchange, Marx begins to suggest, in the third section of the chapter, that the practice of exchange alone is not sufficient to deduce the existence of value – that value itself has other historical and social conditions. Marx makes this point by asking why Aristotle could analyse the process of exchange, without deducing the existence of value:

Aristotle therefore, himself, tells us what barred the way to his further analysis; it was the absence of any concept of value. What is that equal something, that common substance, which admits of the value of the beds being expressed by a house? Such a thing, in truth, cannot exist, says Aristotle. And why not? Compared with the beds, the house does represent something equal to them, in so far as it represents what is really equal, both in the beds and the house. And that is – human labour.

There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality.

Marx here notes that Aristotle could not see “human labour” – the constitutive stuff of value – beneath the various diverse goods that might be exchanged on the market, because “the great mass of the produce of labour” did not take “the form of commodities”, and therefore “the dominant relation between man and man” was not “that of owners of commodities”. Very subtly here – because the analysis has not yet reached the point where Marx can immanently unfold a category of wage labour – Marx is suggesting that Aristotle could not deduce the existence of value because the commodity form is not predicated on exchange per se, but rather on the existence of wage labour – on the sale of human labour power as a commodity. Marx doesn’t say this in these terms (and the argument here also continues to be pitched in a voice that still speaks as though Aristotle’s time and the time of capitalism are pointing at the same “truth”, which we have uncovered, but which Aristotle couldn’t yet grasp – a form of argument of which Marx is expressly critical in the concluding section on commodity fetishism) because the text is not yet at a point in its exposition where the “for us” of the text can become fully explicit.

Nevertheless, this small hint begins to react back on the modes of presentation with which this text begins, and the strategic intention of the earlier sections becomes a bit clearer. At this point, it begins to become clear that the opening definitions, which appear to concern certain economic concepts about material wealth, are always and already quite sweeping categories capturing forms of subjectivity – encompassing modes of the experience of self, forms of embodiment, possible means of practising selves in their self-relation, relation to others, and relation to a nonhuman environment.

So the perspective sketched in these early sections – which sees in the commodity a material thing haunted by supersensible essences, that distinguishes between timeless materiality and artificial historicity, that unfolds its analysis through deduction from givens or analysis of transcendental conditions – this perspective experiences itself as a supersensible ghost in the physiological machine, as the cogito or atomised subject that engages in the instrumental contemplation of objects “outside” itself, from which it is irrevocably severed. From this perspective, Marx has then drawn out the immanent traces of something more relational – overtly, in the shift that takes place explicitly in the text itself, as the relational discussion of the form of value unfolds from the earlier discussion of the commodity as an object that the thinking subject confronts as an intrinsically unrelated outside. But also much more subtly, in the structure of a text that, from the very beginning, is using categories that are mobilised simultaneously as categories of objectivity and subjectivity. There is no determination of subjectivity by some objective economic base here: instead, there is a peculiar constellation of collective practices through which relations to self, others, and nature are simultaneously constituted in a specific qualitative form.

I meant to say much more, but it is late here, and I’m very tired… My terminology is a bit all over the place in this post, as well – product of beginning to suspect as I write that my earlier terminology was, in some respects, ill-chosen… Hopefully at least the broad contours of what I’m driving at here will be somewhat clear, and folks will extend some forbearance to the terminological oscillations as I gradually home in on the perspective of this text… I’ll try to do better when I next revisit this theme…

Previous posts in this series include:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Once again, I’m finding it incredibly difficult to carve out a discussion-sized section from the material in Capital’s introductory chapter – in this case, the third section, on “The Form of Value or Exchange Value”. Once again, the problem is that the meta-commentary going on in this section is densely packed and intricate, and much of the power of the section hinges on drawing attention to this too-tacit argumentative layer of the text.

I read this section, among other things, as Marx’s somewhat playful virtuoso demonstration of the ease with which he can (from his perspective) surpass Hegel by embedding certain core concepts of “dialectics” by revealing the ways in which certain dimensions of collective practice possess practically dialectical properties. It’s not an accident that Aristotle figures in this section, in a discussion of the historical determinants of logical deduction – a passage in which Marx will both relativise the deductive form of reasoning on which he had been apparently relying in the previous sections, and also suggest the need for an immanent and reflexive theory to account, not simply for the content of its own theoretical claims, but for the very form of theoretical analysis itself. The tacit argument here is that theories – even (especially?) critical ones – must locate themselves as determinate moments of the objects they theorise.

This is almost over-clever stuff, and I don’t really think I can do it justice without writing something that moves back and forth between Hegel and Marx to draw out the elements of this complex master-apprentice conversation much more clearly. For the moment, unfortunately, “not doing justice” is what I’ll need to settle for – perhaps I can come back to this more adequately over the summer break, when I’ll need to explore Hegel in more detail to prepare for an event where I’ll be speaking on Hegel and Marx… For present purposes, I’ll simply mention that one layer of this section begins to suggest an unacknowledged practice-theoretic dimension to Hegel’s analytical technique, while another layer hints at the potential for theorising how notions of reciprocal intersubjective recognition might arise as a moment within a more overarching impersonal social dynamic. Beautiful, provocative, generative material – much of which I won’t cover with anything close to adequate complexity here.

Okay. So what to say. In this post, I think I’ll limit my comments primarily to the question of how I understand the meta-commentary Marx is offering here on the reflexive relationship of theory to its context.

We’ve previously discussed Marx’s statement that the first chapter of Capital presents the “greatest difficulty” in grasping the analytical strategy of the text. In section 3A, Marx confronts us with the difficulty of that difficulty:

The whole mystery of the form of value lies hidden in this elementary form. Its analysis, therefore, is our real difficulty.

Let’s see what this might mean.

Section three begins by reminding us that we are still operating within the form of phenomenological experience that is “given” in the way that wealth “presents itself” in capitalist society. As Marx has already outlined in the first section, this form of subjectivity perceives commodities as dual entities, possessing use values that are conditioned by their qualitatively specific, bodily, natural, “material” properties, and exchange values that appear to entail accidental and purely relative quantitative proportions, and that relate to supersensible social properties that bear no intrinsic relation to the material form the commodity possesses. In the present section, Marx expresses this in the following way, incorporating elements from the discussion of value that Marx has unfolded in the previous sections:

Commodities come into the world in the shape of use values, articles, or goods, such as iron, linen, corn, &c. This is their plain, homely, bodily form. They are, however, commodities, only because they are something twofold, both objects of utility, and, at the same time, depositories of value. They manifest themselves therefore as commodities, or have the form of commodities, only in so far as they have two forms, a physical or natural form, and a value form.

The reality of the value of commodities differs in this respect from Dame Quickly, that we don’t know “where to have it.” The value of commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance, not an atom of matter enters into its composition. Turn and examine a single commodity, by itself, as we will, yet in so far as it remains an object of value, it seems impossible to grasp it. If, however, we bear in mind that the value of commodities has a purely social reality, and that they acquire this reality only in so far as they are expressions or embodiments of one identical social substance, viz., human labour, it follows as a matter of course, that value can only manifest itself in the social relation of commodity to commodity. In fact we started from exchange value, or the exchange relation of commodities, in order to get at the value that lies hidden behind it. We must now return to this form under which value first appeared to us.

Every one knows, if he knows nothing else, that commodities have a value form common to them all, and presenting a marked contrast with the varied bodily forms of their use values. I mean their money form. Here, however, a task is set us, the performance of which has never yet even been attempted by bourgeois economy, the task of tracing the genesis of this money form, of developing the expression of value implied in the value relation of commodities, from its simplest, almost imperceptible outline, to the dazzling money-form. By doing this we shall, at the same time, solve the riddle presented by money.

The simplest value-relation is evidently that of one commodity to some one other commodity of a different kind. Hence the relation between the values of two commodities supplies us with the simplest expression of the value of a single commodity.

Note that this passage still follows the deductive mode of presentation Marx has been spoofing up to this point: Marx “deduces” here that “it follows as a matter of course, that value can only manifest itself in the social relation of commodity to commodity”. This conclusion is positioned in the text as pointing to something that “Every one knows, if he knows nothing else” – that commodities share a common value-form in the form of money. The strategy of the text is important here: the question that motivates this section – how to “solve” the mystery of the value form (the question, ultimately, of why value is expressed, or, what it implies that value is distinguishable from the form in which it nevertheless must appear) – has been posed by forms of analysis that derive directly from how the wealth of capitalist society presents itself.

The question has therefore arisen immanently within a particular dimension of a specific context. Marx argues, however, that this immanently posed question cannot be answered by the forms of perception and thought that have posed it: instead, he argues, “a task is set us, the performance of which has never yet even been attempted by bourgeois economy”. Bourgeois political economy has therefore pointed beyond itself, gesturing to the existence of something that it cannot itself adequately grasp, and opening the way for a more adequate theoretical approach.

With this move, Marx has overtly, if subtly, tipped his hand, and revealed the preceding sections as the opening volleys of a dialectical presentation that has unfolded only with reference to the insights available to a particular phenomenological perspective. At this point in the text, Marx believes he has demonstrated that this initial phenomenological perspective itself betrays the signs that it is not fully adequate to the phenomenon it seeks to grasp – that its perception of the wealth of capitalist societies, as well as its self-understanding, are partial and relate to a specific moment within the reproduction of such societies. Marx’s analysis has shown how this partial character is expressed or symptomatically betrayed within the perspective he is analysing, even though the perspective itself does not recognise its own partial character or realise how it points beyond itself.

So, in this section, what I have been calling the “deductive” mode of presentation, used in the earlier sections of the chapter, is revealed explicitly as a form of theorisation expressive of the phenomenological perspective that, as described in the opening sentences of this chapter, sees the commodity as “an object outside us”. The deductive presentation on which Marx has been relying thus far in this chapter is one that takes the “objectivity” of its object of analysis as a “given” – as something that sits “outside” the perspective from which the theoretical analysis is being offered, and whose properties, once discovered, might be manipulated to serve some human purpose, but that are not constituted through contingent human practices. The deductive presentation thus perceives no intrinsic relationship between its own form, its own analytical method, and the form of its object. Subjectivity and objectivity are not posited in any intrinsic relationship.

This dualistic, deductive form of theory, however, runs aground on the problem of how to grasp the intrinsically relational and reflexive aspects of the value form. In bringing the deductive method to its limits by unfolding from it the problem of the value-form, Marx opens a breach through which some of the elements of a dialectical analysis then enter. As this “dialectical” analysis unfolds, it will react back on some of the claims put forward by the deductive mode of presentation, relativising them as forms of thought that appear adequate only when a very specific slice of an overarching context was being engaged by the analysis. When viewed in the light of the additional perspectives made available by even this introductory “dialectical” perspective, the earlier “deductive” form of presentation comes to appear both plausible, and partial – opening the way for the explicit critique Marx will offer in the section on commodity fetishism.

At this point in the narrative, then, we have moved beyond the phenomenological perspective with which Marx opens Capital. Does this mean that we have now reached Marx’s own “position” – the critical standpoint that provides the tacit “for us” of this text? I don’t believe so. As I mentioned above, I take this section to be, at least in part, a gesture toward Hegel – an acknowledgement of how Hegel’s work moves beyond the forms of thought on display in the previous sections, as well as a rapid-fire set of gestures to where Marx believes Hegel went astray. At the same time, this part of the text continues the work of suggesting how particular political economic perspectives are bound together with specific dimensions of collective practice. Since, however, the “for us” of this text voices the standpoint of an immanent critical theory, Marx will gradually appropriate the alienated elements of the context as his analysis unfolds, leveraging the critical insights unfolded with each stage of the presentation. At this moment, those critical insights are sufficient to begin to point past the dualistic forms of thought with which the text begins, to illustrate (albeit too tacitly) the presentational method of the text, and to open up the critique of commodity fetishism.

So what does Marx actually say in this section? The section as a whole gradually moves from accident to necessity. It is easy to read the textual strategy here as though Marx is making a historical argument – moving progressively through an analysis of earlier forms of production for market exchange, through to fully developed capitalist production. My impulse is to resist this interpretation, and to read this text instead as describing a logical, rather than an historical “progression” or development. My impulse, in other words, is to treat all of the forms Marx analyses here as presupposing the full development of capitalism – and, therefore, as expressions of contemporaneous moments within that fully developed social form.

Some of the moments Marx analyses here do bear a stronger resemblance to pre-capitalist institutions: the analysis of the “elementary” form of value, for example, examines transactions that resemble an intuitive notion of the sorts of exchanges that might have taken place in a pre-capitalist market. Yet Marx specifically draws attention to this possible historical interpretation, by saying that he can best cast light on some of the “peculiarities” of the equivalent form (the basis for the money form) through a digression on Aristotle. Marx then uses this digression to argue that Aristotle was not able to “discover” the secrets of the equivalent form because he lacks a concept of value – because he lacked experience with wage labour. Apparently, then, comprehension of even the most “elementary” form Marx analyses in this section, cannot proceed until capitalism is fully formed – or, better, in spite of superficial historical similarities, the “elementary” form of value should not be taken to have been constituted in collective practice until the development of capitalism.

There are some fantastic side points that beg to be made here about the construction of history and of particular imaginaries of the past, organised around moments that are generated within contemporary societies, but that possess qualitative characteristics that suggest that they are somehow historically “primitive”. For the moment, I’ll just leave this hanging as an interesting tangent for later development, as this isn’t something that Marx thematises in any detail at this point in the text.

The section on Aristotle makes a fairly clear case that the forms Marx is analysing here are not historical forms. The language of this section also hints that the forms being analysed, particularly the “accidental” form, lie quite close the surface of everyday phenomenological experience – they point back to the very first discussion of exchange value, in the opening section of this chapter, which argued that exchange value “appears to be something accidental and purely relative”. This reference to the appearance of “accident” is carried over into this section – except that, instead of looking at this accidental characteristic as it relates to the properties of an object – an individual commodity taken in isolation – we are now exploring the appearance of “accident” within a relation between commodities.

Looking at the exchange of two commodities – coats and linen – Marx differentiates two positions each commodity might occupy within the exchange relationship: the “relative form”, a role occupied by the commodity whose “supersensible” value is expressed in terms of the other commodity, and the “equivalent form”, a role occupied by the commodity whose “body” expresses the value of the other commodity. Marx unfolds some complex characteristics from this apparently simple relationship:

The relative form and the equivalent form are two intimately connected, mutually dependent and inseparable elements of the expression of value; but, at the same time, are mutually exclusive, antagonistic extremes – i.e., poles of the same expression… A single commodity cannot, therefore, simultaneously assume, in the same expression of value, both forms. The very polarity of these forms makes them mutually exclusive.

So Marx unfolds a strange, intrinsically dichotomous relationship that simultaneously binds together and opposes the bodily and supersensible qualities of commodities related in this way. Marx then argues that, when the relationship is looked at from the perspective of any two commodities, the specific role that each commodity occupies within the relationship appears arbitrary:

Whether, then, a commodity assumes the relative form, or the opposite equivalent form, depends entirely upon its accidental position in the expression of value – that is, upon whether it is the commodity whose value is being expressed or the commodity in which value is being expressed.

This appearance of arbitrariness will gradually be replaced, as the analysis unfolds, such that necessity closes in – not because the commodity that occupies the role of the equivalent isn’t an “arbitrary” matter of convention (on this level, the accidental appearance of the equivalent form is “true”, and renders plausible the forms of subjectivity that focus on the elements that are accidental within this form), but because, as Marx will argue in the section on commodity fetishism, a focus on the arbitrariness of which commodity comes to play the role of equivalent, involves a partial perspective that fixates on a single, “overtly social”, element of the value form, and thereby deflects its analytical gaze from the impersonal forms of social coercion that exert themselves in part through this form:

in the midst of all the accidental and ever fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour time socially necessary for their production forcibly asserts itself like an over-riding law of Nature. The law of gravity thus asserts itself when a house falls about our ears.

Marx thus “grounds” theories that focus on the accidental or arbitrary nature of which commodity plays the role of equivalent, by demonstrating such theories to be plausible approximations of a particular aspect of collective practice, while also setting up for a critique that such forms of thought participate in the collectively-constituted trompe l’oeil that grasps the arbitrary nature of “overtly social” dimensions of the context, while failing to grasp the contingent character of impersonal forms of compulsion that also characterise that same context.

Marx next moves to bracket the analysis of the quantitative proportions in which commodities exchange – another apparently contingent aspect of the exchange relationship that he first introduced in the preliminary discussion of exchange value at the beginning of the chapter:

Exchange value, at first sight, presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place.

In section 3.2.a, he puts forward the goal instead of considering the expression of the value of a commodity apart from the quantitative proportions in which commodities exchange:

In order to discover how the elementary expression of the value of a commodity lies hidden in the value relation of two commodities, we must, in the first place, consider the latter entirely apart from its quantitative aspect. The usual mode of procedure is generally the reverse, and in the value relation nothing is seen but the proportion between definite quantities of two different sorts of commodities that are considered equal to each other. It is apt to be forgotten that the magnitudes of different things can be compared quantitatively, only when those magnitudes are expressed in terms of the same unit. It is only as expressions of such a unit that they are of the same denomination, and therefore commensurable.

The footnote attached to this paragraph continues this argument in a less immanent voice:

The few economists, amongst whom is S. Bailey, who have occupied themselves with the analysis of the form of value, have been unable to arrive at any result, first, because they confuse the form of value with value itself; and second, because, under the coarse influence of the practical bourgeois, they exclusively give their attention to the quantitative aspect of the question.

The phrasing in this footnote is interesting: the political economists have been unable to grasp the form of value, because they confuse this form with value itself. Marx calls explicit attention here to a distinction already introduced in the previous sections: between value – as a socially-constituted “essence” of capitalist production – and exchange-value – as a necessary form of appearance of that essence. As the analysis unfolds, Marx will rely on this essence-appearance relationship to unfold an analysis of how a social “substance” like value might be constituted by social actors as an unintentional by-product of practices oriented to other goals.

Here, though, Marx focusses on unfolding an extraordinary set of metaphors to capture the qualitative, rather than the quantitative, dimensions of the value form. (I should note that Sinthome has walked before me here, in a beautiful post I wasn’t able to address adequately at the time it was written, but which picks up on Marx’s use of metaphors of coagulation and congealment in this section of Capital, and then improvises around these metaphors into a much broader set of reflections on materialist philosophy.) Marx reflects back here on the earlier sections, which had seemed to suggest that commodities, as objects, possessed a dual character; he now begins to unfold some of what was tacitly presupposed in this perception of commodities:

If we say that, as values, commodities are mere congelations of human labour, we reduce them by our analysis, it is true, to the abstraction, value; but we ascribe to this value no form apart from their bodily form. It is otherwise in the value relation of one commodity to another. Here, the one stands forth in its character of value by reason of its relation to the other.

By making the coat the equivalent of the linen, we equate the labour embodied in the former to that in the latter. Now, it is true that the tailoring, which makes the coat, is concrete labour of a different sort from the weaving which makes the linen. But the act of equating it to the weaving, reduces the tailoring to that which is really equal in the two kinds of labour, to their common character of human labour. In this roundabout way, then, the fact is expressed, that weaving also, in so far as it weaves value, has nothing to distinguish it from tailoring, and, consequently, is abstract human labour. It is the expression of equivalence between different sorts of commodities that alone brings into relief the specific character of value-creating labour, and this it does by actually reducing the different varieties of labour embodied in the different kinds of commodities to their common quality of human labour in the abstract.

Marx is beginning here to suggest that the perception that commodities are objects with supersensible social properties, always already presupposes some perspective or dimension of social practice within which these “internal” properties are “externalised” or overtly expressed – already presupposes the relation of commodities Marx has here characterised in terms of the value form:

There is, however, something else required beyond the expression of the specific character of the labour of which the value of the linen consists. Human labour power in motion, or human labour, creates value, but is not itself value. It becomes value only in its congealed state, when embodied in the form of some object. In order to express the value of the linen as a congelation of human labour, that value must be expressed as having objective existence, as being a something materially different from the linen itself, and yet a something common to the linen and all other commodities. The problem is already solved.

I’ll leave until next time an exploration of why Marx thinks this discussion has “solved” the problem that thwarted “bourgeois” economics. It’s getting late on my end, and the upcoming passages include some fantastic, suggestive sections on the objective, subjective, and intersubjective relations of commodities of all sorts. Hopefully I can work my way into some of these issues when I next return to this series.

(Apologies for typographical and editing issues above: too late on my end to do a proper review of what I’ve written…)

Previous posts in this series include:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital


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