Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 2

Whatever the elements
(it’s urban/it’s pastoral,
it’s empty/it’s open), the theory says
it could always be worse.

Until it is. Then theory fails, [...]

~ Mary Jo Bang @2004 “Catastrophe Theory II”

At the opening of the “Reification” essay, Lukács puts forward the bold claim that:

It is no accident that Marx should have begun with an analysis of commodities when, in the two great works of his mature period, he set out to portray capitalist society in its totality and to lay bare its fundamental nature. For at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure. Of course the problem can only be discussed with this degree of generality if it achieves the depth and breadth to be found in Marx’s own analyses. That is to say, the problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. Only in this case can the structure of commodity-relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them.

Lukács emphasises the word “structure” in “commodity-structure” – highlighting that, in Capital, the category of the commodity is intended to describe, not simply a thing, a discrete good, but instead a distinctive kind of relationship – a relationship whose peculiar qualitative characteristics are then read off into the intrinsic properties of goods. This conception of the commodity allows the category to do much more work than might be expected: the category of the commodity figures, not simply as a category of our economy, but a category of our society – in Lukács’ terms, a “model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them”.

Is Lukács’ conception of the commodity-structure, though, quite the same as Marx’s? In the paragraphs immediately following this opening, Lukács refers to “commodity exchange”, and to the subjective and objective relations corresponding to such exchange, as though these were the relationships at stake in understanding the commodity-structure. Here Lukács runs into a problem: he stipulates that “commodity fetishism is a specific problem of our age, the age of modern capitalism” – and hence is historically specific. Simple commodity production and exchange, however, is ancient: how does an ancient practice somehow transform into the dominant and distinctive problem of modern society?

Lukács’ answer is that the quantitative expansion of commodity exchange at some point reaches a scale where quantitative increase yields a qualitative transformation. This answer suggests that the commodity-structure is founded on the the same sort of social relationship – the exchange relation – in modern and ancient times. Lukács argues that modernity is distinguished by the extension of exchange relations beyond their earlier bounds, to the point that the commodity-structure becomes totalising. Lukács characterises this as a quantitative expansion that yields a qualitative shift: his argument does not attempt to explain qualitatively distinctive forms of subjectivity or (social) objectivity with reference to the emergence of a qualitatively new social structure or historically distinctive form of social relation, but rather with reference to a kind of supersaturation of the social context by a kind of social relation whose historical origins lie in the distant past. The key social structure – the central social relation – in Lukács’ account, is therefore not historically coterminous with the form of society whose characteristics Lukács wants most to explain.

One consequence of this move (and I won’t develop this point adequately in this post) is a flattening of the qualitative characteristics of the “forms of objectivity and subjectivity” for which Lukács tries to account. The focus on exchange relationships drives him to criticise various types of formalism and quantification – forms of thought that abstract from qualitative specificity in favour of quantitative comparisons. Lukács argues that what is left out of this relation – what, therefore, cannot be grasped by bourgeois forms of consciousness – is the use value dimension – qualitative specificity, characteristics not amenable to formalisation. Lukács includes in this category production – and thus the proletariat – setting up for his argument that the proletarian class can generate a unique standpoint that can capture the perspective of the totality by grasping those dimensions of capitalism that are occluded by the bourgeois focus on exchange relations.

I will try to develop this summary more adequately in later posts – completely exhausted today, so I am just tossing up placeholders for myself now. What I wanted to suggest, however, is a certain path not taken in Lukács’ approach – a path that, I have previously suggested, is central to Marx’s argument in Capital: the treatment of the category of the commodity as a fully historically specific structure, expressing a form of social relation specific to, and definitive of, capitalism – and therefore as a category that intends to express something more than simply the exchange relation. I have suggested in previous posts that Marx understands both the exchange value and use value dimensions of the commodity as historically specific terms – use value, far from being something that “bourgeois” forms of thought cannot grasp, is a category integral to capitalism, one that grasps phenomena no less central to the reproduction of capital, than the phenomena grasped by the category of exchange value. At the same time, both use value and exchange value occupy a specific place within the overarching category of the commodity: a space of phenomena that can be directly empirically observed. As the first chapter of Capital unfolds, we quickly learn that the first “presupposition” or social “condition” of these empirically-observable categories, is a third category whose existence must be deduced or intuited, because it cannot be directly perceived by the senses: the category of value. This entire tripartite structure – not simply the “exchange relation” – is the “commodity-structure” in Marx’s account, and this structure, however much it may encompass and repurpose earlier forms of social practice, is understood as historically distinct – as temporally coterminous with the process of the reproduction of capital.

Marx’s argument does involve a complex discussion of phenomena that can directly be seen through immediate empirical observation, versus abstract patterns of social practice whose existence must be deduced through an analysis of distortions or patterns that flow through empirically-observable phenomena. Within Marx’s framework, however, both use value and exchange value fall on the side of what can be perceived directly by the senses. Neither of these categories provides access to a privileged standpoint accessible only to a particular social class: both refer to “overt” aspects of social experience for social actors engaged with the process of the reproduction of capital. And the “non-overt” dimension of social practice – the realm of the mysterious social substances like “value” that Marx argues we unintentionally enact in our collective practices – is no more emancipatory, for all that it is more difficult to perceive or understand. The question of how to understand the standpoint of critique – of how to identify a possibility for emancipatory transformation – is therefore much more complex in Marx’s work, than it is for Lukács.

If I were less tired, I would develop this contrast in much greater detail. That more developed post will have to wait for another day. Apologies for these inadequate mini-posts on Lukács – I’m essentially taking notes for myself here, but will hopefully be able to pull things together more adequately before I’m done…

Previous posts in this series on Lukács:

Seeing What Was Already There

Reification, pt. 1

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4 responses to “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 2

  1. Carl April 14, 2008 at 2:59 am

    I’m picking up the discussion from the last post here. Btw, your posts are rich and layered enough that it’s very difficult to respond to them comprehensively. Sorry if I seem to be picking at threads, but if I wanted to be writing journal articles I’d just go do that.

    Standpoint of critique: I’ve mentioned already Lukacs’ move to mythologize both totalized capitalism and totalized class consciousness. The ‘mechanism’ here is therefore the same one the vulgar marxists used, dressed up in fancy philosophical clothing. The standpoint of critique is ‘immanent’ (requiring no agency, oddly enough but also oddly realistic) in the process of reification. The correct alignment of consciousness is taken to be an automatic outcome of the moment of totalization. At a certain point, critique just becomes the logic of history. Of course, if that totalization does not occur all bets are off.

    I’d suggest that the essays in *HCC* were written during heady times when history seemed to be ‘moving’, as you’ve said, and therefore it seemed like triumphally theorizing the drift was the project rather than more adequately assessing the forces and dynamics in play. It was left to the Frankfurters to do the pessimistic loser version of this train of thought. Adorno in particular strikes me as what happens if you take a mythologized capitalism as your starting point and then try to ‘think through’ a pre-doomed oppositionality. But I might be wrong because my attention quickly shifted to Gramsci, who was doomed for different reasons.

    Now, the stuff about the tip from quantitative accumulation/dissipation to qualitative emergence is very important indeed. This is related to the idea of ‘scale’ being discussed on the Savage Minds group blog (although the discussion there is mostly about linear scaling). One problem is that it’s all quantity and it’s all quality; that’s a false dichotomy.

    But with Marx it seems to me very important to grasp both his brilliance and his limitations. He became exhausted by the Capital project. Why? Because he was groping toward what we would now call a theory of complex non-linear emergence, and the best he could do was dialectics. In dialectics you get the necessary recursions and inversions, as you said, but it’s all in a linear framework where feedback loops, thresholds and phase tips can’t be well represented. That linearity is ultimately the curse of the hegelian legacy even though dialectics were a much more dynamical approach than was otherwise available.

    Marx knew that causality is not linear and smooth, but he didn’t have a conceptual framework available that would allow him to work through nondeterministic, multivariable, feedbacky systems that tipped from one state to another at shifting contexty thresholds based on apparently disproportionate inputs (e.g. ‘the butterfly effect’). Well, I’m not doing so well with explaining it myself. Anyhoo, that’s why the exposition of Capital is such a mess and why he eventually petered out into frustrated noodling. Well, that and the maid.

  2. darkdaughta April 14, 2008 at 6:11 am

    I love this. It’s so thick and rich. I am going to bookmark this for future re-reading.

    Right now I’m thinking about my ongoing conversation (mostly with myself) about prostitution and marriage as forms of commodity exchange in a heterosexual, patriarchal, monogamy dominated society where these two transactions have been present down through time.

    I’m thinking about capitalism and about how it shades and defines and obscures various kinds of sexual relationships legitimizing one kind (marriage) and tabooing the other (sex work) to the point where only one of these is widely understood as a consumerist exchange of goods for payment while the other has been hidden and obscured under layers of social, religious and legal construction.

    I think what you write about how capitalism has transformed the very nature of what it means to do business on this planet.

    I think that it makes sense to attempt to better understand the origins of this shift in meaning and significance so as to understand it not just economically but also socially, historically, politically but also intimately, as well.

    Thanks for this.

  3. N Pepperell April 14, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Hey folks – sorry for the delay responding – been one of those days… Apologies in advance that I’m feeling a bit sluggish today – my responses may be a bit more random than what I would like to write…

    Carl – This is fantastic stuff – thank you. I think this is right:

    The ‘mechanism’ here is therefore the same one the vulgar marxists used, dressed up in fancy philosophical clothing.

    Although, to be strictly fair to Lukács, he does say on a number of occasions that the sort of class consciousness that he wants to arise, doesn’t necessarily exist in the empirical proletariat at the time he is writing, and won’t arise automatically, but requires some sort of constitution. Nevertheless, I’m sympathetic to the conclusion that he replicates the vulgar Marxist reduction of subjectivity to objectivity, because, in essence, his analytical categories seem to do this, no matter how often he also protests that something more is required – in a sense, the theory is underdetermined, in terms of the claims it seems to want to make (not that this is all that unusual for a theoretical system, but I think this is true here, as well). He never seems to theorise that “something more”, and the normative ideals of the theory are derived from “objectivity” – so the gestural discussions of emancipatory forms of subjectivity read as “tacked on” to the rest of the analysis: they never actually seem to be integrated into the social theory he presents.

    And, yes, I agree that the social theory itself is overly abstract – in a sense, this is a complaint I have about a number of approaches to the social: the context is presented as monolithically structured in such a way that agency inevitably takes on a quasi-mystical quality. So here:

    I’d suggest that the essays in *HCC* were written during heady times when history seemed to be ‘moving’, as you’ve said, and therefore it seemed like triumphally theorizing the drift was the project rather than more adequately assessing the forces and dynamics in play. It was left to the Frankfurters to do the pessimistic loser version of this train of thought. Adorno in particular strikes me as what happens if you take a mythologized capitalism as your starting point and then try to ‘think through’ a pre-doomed oppositionality.

    Yes – the starting point contains its own outcome – this is a hole that only becomes deeper, when you try to dig your way out of it. Although the first generation Frankfurt School folks also end up, to me, compound the situation, by retaining categories (this is also already evident in Lukács) that are completely nonspecific to the society they are analysing – so, talking in terms of “instrumental reason”, and extending this category so that it becomes a manifesting of interaction with nature per se: this makes the pessimism even more intense, if that’s possible, than a totalising theory of one particular society. Again, Adorno holds out the possibility for something different – a different sort of relationship to nature, a different self, a different form of cognition, etc. But it’s unclear in Adorno how these possibilities could ever be realised – particularly once he makes the step of linking some of the psychodynamic trends he analyses, back to the ego’s fear of death – about as transhistorical and ineradicable a condition as one could possibly find… Lurking in the background is a critique of class domination – but, again, this is a theoretical category with an extremely long historical reach – not well-designed to pick out any specific potentials (or criticisms) of capitalism as a distinctive social form. So Lukács’ quantitative expansion leading to qualitative shift, continues to shape the trajectory of this tradition – there is a serious failure to theorise capitalism as a specific sort of object. And in this sense, there really is an incorporation (and then, in the Frankfurt School, a simple inversion) of a fairly crass trope about the present as the culmination of a teleological historical process – the teleology simply becomes a negative one.

    Now that I’ve gotten that rant out of my system, I feel compelled to add that it’s possible to read all this much more sympathetically: to view, for example, what seem to be transhistorical generalisations in Adorno’s work as statements that are offered from the point of view of contemporary society. Nevertheless, the question is still what your theoretical categories let you grasp: even on the most sympathetic reading, I’m not sure that Adorno is working with a theoretical system that will allow anything other than pessimism…

    I’ve fallen behind on other reading, so I’ve seen that the Savage Minds discussion is taking place, but I haven’t had the chance to read it yet (things are just banking up in my reader…). But this is fantastic:

    But with Marx it seems to me very important to grasp both his brilliance and his limitations. He became exhausted by the Capital project. Why? Because he was groping toward what we would now call a theory of complex non-linear emergence, and the best he could do was dialectics. In dialectics you get the necessary recursions and inversions, as you said, but it’s all in a linear framework where feedback loops, thresholds and phase tips can’t be well represented. That linearity is ultimately the curse of the hegelian legacy even though dialectics were a much more dynamical approach than was otherwise available.

    Marx knew that causality is not linear and smooth, but he didn’t have a conceptual framework available that would allow him to work through nondeterministic, multivariable, feedbacky systems that tipped from one state to another at shifting contexty thresholds based on apparently disproportionate inputs (e.g. ‘the butterfly effect’).

    I think this is quite compatible with how I read Marx – I’m interested in the ways in which he can be seen to be straining for a vocabulary to express these sorts of concepts, from within the best received vocabulary he can find – which was itself also straining for at least some of these concepts itself. One of the things that interests me – why I spend time trying to resurrect his tacit metatheory – is that it points to the need for these sorts of non-linear concepts (and well as toward some more garden variety anthropological and sociological language, some sprinkles of embodied cognition, and other bits and pieces that are easier to express at the moment) that weren’t available at the time the text was being written. In spite of these limitations, the underlying concept of what a critique might try to do, still strikes me as closer to something I might want to try doing, today, with different vocabulary, than many other approaches – and so I’ve been spending time trying to see what I could piece together (without claiming any particular originality for the sort of argument I’m making about Marx – we are in a period where these themes are in the historical air, so a lot of people will be seeing the same sorts of things I see in the text).

    darkdaughta – Many thanks for this – and for the link at your place (and apologies that you were caught in moderation: that actually shouldn’t happen, once you have a comment approved – sometimes my spam filter is over-zealous…).

    Several months back we were having an ongoing discussion here at over at What in the hell… about the issue of how one of the distinctive features of capitalism, is its selection of a very small subset of all the activities that produce and reproduce our society, which then get to “count” as “labour” (and, often, as the signifier of full citizenship or standing as a social subject).

    On the issue of capitalism affecting intimate life, and on marriage – you may have seen this before, so apologies for the possible repetition, but have you seen Kant’s definition of marriage “according to the law”? He defines it as “the union of two persons of different sex for life-long reciprocal possession of their sexual faculties”…

    I’ve been reading your posts on prostitution and marriage, and wishing I had more time to think and write in response.

    Take care…

  4. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 3

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