Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: May 2008


Just a quick apology that I have left comments and emails hanging for some time now – my net access has been much more limited than I had expected, and unfortunately I am online only very briefly now. I will catch up – hopefully next week. In the interim, thanks to everyone for their comments and their patience.

While I have a few moments online, I wanted to post updated information for the Marx and Philosophy event that will take place at Goldsmiths on Monday 2 June (soon!!). Tom Bunyard, who has been organising the event, tells me that interest has been high enough that we’ve needed to relocate to a larger room. The updated information for the event is:

A one day workshop reflecting on issues relating to globalisation, resistance, value and the Interpretation of Capital.

The day will be geared towards discussion, and is organised around presentations dealing with the following topics: global community; civil disobedience and its tactical evaluation; recent appropriation of Marx’s concepts; the content and implications of Marx’s work, and his relation to philosophy.

Speakers and timetable

2.00 – 3.15
J. Brookes: “Marx and Global Community”
S. Meaden: “A Critical Appraisal of the ‘Reclaim the Streets’ Movement”

(3.15 – 3.30 – break)

3.30 – 4.30
B. Polhill: “Antonio Negri’s Social Ontology of Real Subsumption”
N. Gray and R. Lucas: “Formal and Real Subsumption – Logical or Historical Categories?”

(4.30 – 5.00 – break)

5.00 – 6.30
N. Pepperell: “When Is It Safe to Read Capital?”
A. Toscano: response

Venue: Room 137, Richard Hoggart Building, Goldsmiths College, New Cross, London SE14 6NW

The event is hosted by the Graduate School of Goldsmiths College, University of London.

For any enquiries please contact Tom Bunyard at:


Some time around now, something resembling the talk below the fold is being presented here. Read more of this post

Behind the Mountains

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

They say behind the mountains are more mountains. Now I know it’s true. I also know there are timeless waters, endless seas, and lots of people in this world whose names don’t matter to anyone but themselves.

~ Edwidge Danticat (1996) “Children of the Sea” Krik? Krak!

Off to Rome, and then to London. Back in Melbourne some time in mid-June.

Online access is likely to be quite limited, particularly for the first part of the trip. I’ve queued up a few posts for the period when I’ll be most likely to have no online access at all. Apologies in advance if I am unable to respond to comments.

I’ll be attending and, in some cases, presenting to the following events while I’m away:

21-23 May, Rome, John Cabot University, Beyond Reification: Critical Theory and the Challenge of Praxis (PDF flyer)

29-30 May, Warwick University, Hegel Conference: Truth and Falsity (programme)

2 June, London, Goldsmiths, Marx and Philosophy (JPG flyer)

Wish me luck :-)


Somehow I managed to avoid noticing that offers DVDs of their collection. I wish I had seen this earlier: I would have ordered it to take with me overseas…

The Practice of Theory

Where do memes come from? Am I allowed to make one? Tom Bunyard from Monagyric has asked me a question down in the comments that I thought might be worth transposing up here, and passing around. Tom writes:

John’s organised a kind of series of self-critique things for the Goldsmiths Centre for Cultural Studies, and after having been volunteered I’m due to speak myself. I was thinking about saying something around the innate silliness of playing around with arch theoretical models of political emancipation whilst in academia, and thus whilst fundamentally divorced from real praxis (which pretty much defines what I do). At the last session someone had made a comment about theory and practice; whilst the practice that he had in mind was militant struggle, it was quickly interpreted by the culture industry types in the room as a problematic of getting their work identified by the advertising industry so as to secure a career. The distinction between the two notions of practice seemed to define the afternoon for me. I think I want to talk about the limits, flaws and general farce of doing ‘radical’ lefty theory within the academy, particularly in relation to my own attempts to write a PhD that only three people in the world are ever likely to read.

Consequently I’m interested in speaking to a few people as to how they figure the relation of their own political research/writing/whatever to practice; whether they view it (after Adorno) as a kind of practice itself; and to what extent they view this separation (assuming there is a separation) to be problematic. So, as someone working on Marx, how would you respond?

I’ll reproduce my response up here in a moment, but I want to see whether I might be able to turn this into a meme. I’d be interested if the following folks would be interested in answering Tom’s question, and then passing the question on to a few friends. It doesn’t have to be restricted to folks who work on Marx. The core question, as I see it, is:

How do you understand the relation of your own political research/writing/whatever to political practice; whether you view it as a kind of political practice itself; and to what extent you view the separation (assuming there is a separation) between your work and political struggle to be problematic?

I am uncomfortable requiring anyone to link back to this post if you do reply but, if you do, I can create an archive of the responses.

I tag Nate (because we’ve discussed these things before), Lumpenprofessoriat (because turnabout is fair play), Larval Subjects (because I think you will find the tag irritating and probably won’t respond), Trinketization (since it might be useful to have a response from someone who would be at the actual event), Now-Times (with a particular interest in how you might feel about the “after Adorno” aspect of the original question), and Scandalum Magnatum (as I link to your site far less often than I intend). Anyone else who feels inclined to respond is more than welcome.

My own response, lifted up from the comments, was:

First: I’m anti-idealist in perhaps a more extreme sense than many people: I think it’s a mistake to regard the concepts that academics come up with, as though those concepts aren’t related in some way to other sorts of collective practices that are unfolding at the same moment in time. This doesn’t mean that what academics do is “praxis” in some sense of direct contribution to achieving political ends – that is something that would need to be evaluated in a less abstract way. It just means that it’s not going to be “accidental”, that certain forms of theory are trending when they are, and that the tacit sensibilities that find expression in academic theory can be analysed, just as can the tacit sensibilities that find expression in any other form of human activity, as one among many clues to the possibilities we are collectively constituting at a particular moment in time. To stress: I am not suggesting that some sort of special possibility is constituted through academic work – I am suggesting that humans tends to think with our practices in a very broad sense, academics like everyone else, and so even apparently very abstract and removed forms of thought are quite likely to express something that has shifted in much more everyday forms of practice. Grasping that link – which is a lot of what I think Marx does with his critiques of various sorts of formal theory – then makes it possible to analyse the sorts of tacit practical possibilities that are finding nascent expression in various types of formal theory, political ideals, popular culture, etc.

On the more specific issue of whether some sort of formal theory makes a contribution to some particular political project: again, I don’t think this sort of question can be answered abstractly in a meaningful way. I do think that capitalism as a target of political practice, or as an object of analysis, has very peculiar “ontological” characteristics, that are very difficult to grasp without engaging “theoretically” with this object. I think political action in a dynamic social context is difficult, that it’s extremely easy for unanticipated consequences to follow on our actions, and therefore that movements increase their chances of achieving their ends, if they have a good sense of how history might bite them in the butt. This is what I think theory is “for” in a political sense – improving the odds of grasping whether particular sorts of actions are likely to have the results we hope they will. Theory helps us try to deal with the problem William Morris sketches out:

I pondered all these things… how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…

It helps us work out the name of what we are fighting for, so that other people don’t have to perpetually keep coming along behind us, setting up new struggles to achieve what we meant, but didn’t know how to fight for last time around. At least, this would be my normative criterion for what a good theory would do.

To put the same thing more briefly: if we make history, but not in conditions of our own choosing, then it can be helpful to learn as much as we can about those conditions we haven’t chosen, so that we have as good a sense as possible of the sort of history we might be able to make.

This says nothing about whether some particular kind of theory, in some specific institutional setting, is actually helpful for this end. There will always be at least a tacit theory underlying any form of practice – formal types of theory tease out and make explicit what is tacit in what we are already doing. This process of making the implications of our own practice explicit to ourselves isn’t limited to academia, but it isn’t necessarily barred to academia either. Farce isn’t limited to academia either… ;-) And there is a form of idealism, to me, nascent in the idea that real life is somewhere “out there”: Marx’s position is that humans, in a sense, aren’t that clever – we aren’t that original or creative in our thoughts – our thoughts are already “material” – our categories are things we do. He spends a lot of time showing that the same sorts of sensibilities that are cropping up in more “academic” forms of theory are sensibilities that are also being enacted in settings that take themselves far less seriously – showing that academic thought mobilises very similar sorts of perceptions and thoughts as those mobilised in the marketplace.

His strategy undermines academic pretension – but it also undermines romantic notions that there is some special sort of institutional setting where “real thought” can happen because that setting is somehow less divorced from “real life”: humans, for Marx, generate new possibilities collectively, initially in mundane actions – and largely, in the first instance at least, unintentionally. Explicit theory and conscious political practice then fumbles along behind, trying to work out and realise the potentials opened up by our collective accidents. Where this happens, what sorts of practices and institutional settings are associated with doing it in a way that is potentially transformative – all of this strikes me as a case-by-case thing…

Times Like Bats

Escher's Angels and DevilsVilfredo Pareto famously commented: “Marx’s words are like bats. One can see in them both birds and mice”. As I work on expressing how I understand Marx’s standpoint of critique in Capital, I keep thinking about this phrase. If readers will bear with me as I toss out some rather disorganised thoughts around this theme, I’d like to try at least to juxtapose, if not entirely integrate or work out, a few themes that I’ve tended to discuss in separation from one another, in order to give some sense of how I hope eventually to connect everything up.

I’ve suggested in a number of earlier posts that I see the first three sections of the first chapter of Capital as, among other things, a metacommentary on the opening sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Specifically, what Marx recreates in these opening sections is a movement from what Hegel would call Perception, through Understanding, and into the confrontation with an Inverted World through which consciousness becomes reflexive, gaining awareness that it has been its own object all along. The first several paragraphs of the first chapter of Capital manifest the orientation toward the sensuous world that Hegel associates with Perception: the voice speaking in those early paragraphs stands outside the context it is analysing, examining what “presents itself” – what is immediately given to the senses – and attempting to grasp the social context based on what it can perceive in such givens. This voice allows a discussion of commodities in terms of the sensible properties of use-value and exchange-value.

A second voice soon intrudes, objecting that these sensible givens presuppose the existence of conditions that cannot be directly perceived by the senses. Hegel’s Understanding has come on the scene, claiming to deduce the existence of the “supersensible” categories of value and abstract labour as transcendental conditions of possibility for the sensible dimensions of the commodity.

The third voice then picks up, unfolding a “dialectical” analysis of the genesis of the money form that illustrates the dynamic relationality and mutual-implicatedness of the earlier categories. This third voice takes pains to illustrate the way in which, with the derivation of the money form, it becomes possible to grasp a number of inversions. These inversions claim to illustrate that what had appeared, when viewed statically, to be dichotomous oppositions, can instead be grasped as mutually-determining moments of a dynamic relation. It is at this point, after the illustration of these inversions, that Marx opens up the discussion of commodity fetishism, which, I have suggested, finally brings his own perspective overtly into the text.

My claim has been that the structure of this chapter is making an argument. Several arguments. But the line that interests me here relates to what I take to be Marx’s reflexive analysis of the conditions of possibility for his own theory: the structure of the chapter suggests that something like Marx’s critique becomes possible because capitalism immanently confronts consciousness with an inverted world. The inversions Marx has in mind aren’t simply the ones articulated by the “dialectical” voice in the third section of the chapter: I take Marx to be critical of that voice, as he is also critical of the “transcendental” and “empiricist” voices that precede it. Rather, I believe that Marx has in mind the “inversion” constituted by the tacit argument that permits the very structure of this opening chapter: the voices expressed in these opening sections conflict with one another, quarrelling over what the commodity “is” – a combination of sensuous properties? a supersensible transcendental unity? a dialectical dynamic? As Marx comments in the opening to section three:

The reality of the value of commodities differs in this respect from Dame Quickly, that we don’t know “where to have it.”

Marx doesn’t, I would suggest, think this difficulty arises solely due to poor thinking on the part of political economists. The difficulty is instead intrinsic. It reflects (social) ontological properties of the object of analysis. We have difficulty capturing the characteristics of our context, because we live in times like bats.

I want to suggest that Marx conceptualises the central task of critical theory, to be the task of drawing attention to the existence of inversions within our context. Marx’s concept of inversion, however, is vastly more multiplicitous than the more orthodox Marxist notion of contradiction. Marx isn’t simply seeking out one overarching, cataclysmic contradiction – between, say, the forces and relations of production. Instead, his analysis finds inversions everywhere – in Benjamin’s terms, the context is “shot through with chips of Messianic time”. Marx meanders his analysis through the moments of the process through which capital is reproduced, persistently examining the process and its moments from multiple perspectives, recurrently drawing the reader’s attention to how those perspectives each express something socially valid – it’s just that these various social validities often conflict with one another and suggest very different possibilities for the development of future forms of practice.

Why do this? Why draw attention to the inversions shooting through the context? In part, because their very existence denaturalises the context, opening a space for political choice. If some aspect of our social experience demonstrates something to be alternatively a mouse, when we approach it in one way, and a bird, when we approach it in another, then in its “essence” it is neither mouse nor bird – it “is” what we have made it to be. The question then becomes what we will make next.

Apologies for the underdeveloped character of this comment – as my previous post indicates, I hadn’t actually intended to be posting at all. But these thoughts have been nagging at me, and the best way to get some rest seemed to be to get them out of my brain and deposit them in a safer place. :-)

Meme: Passion Quilt

Lumpenprof has tagged me with a meme with the following conditions:

Post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures what YOU are most passionate for students to learn about.

Give your picture a short title.

Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt.”

Link back to this blog entry.

Include links to 5 (or more) educators.

I notice the emphasis on the “YOU” in the meme, so I am assuming that we aren’t talking about what I spend the most time on, in my teaching (which often relates to the cultivation of reading and writing skills) but rather – taking the meme at its viral word – what I am most passionate about. What I am most passionate about is giving students a particular sort of orientation to history – and particularly to the present as history. I am most passionate about throwing time out of joint. Ironically (or appropriately) enough, I lack the time to develop these thoughts at the moment, so I’ll post my picture and allow Benjamin (as so often) to do the talking for me – under the caption:

Open Time

breaking open the rosary beadHistoricism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, though events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.

Passing the meme on to:


Dead Voles

The Kugelmass Episodes

Union Street


[Note: Image citation - "Rosary Bead [South Lowlands (Brabant)] (17.190.475)”. In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)]

Value as What Will Have Been

Ktismatics has an interesting post and discussion up on different conceptions of value and the fetish, with reference to The Wire. A taste, from the comments:

I’ve been reading some of N. Pepperell’s posts about Marx on Rough Theory, and in so doing I realize that I, like Stringer, have a hard time thinking of value in terms other than product. The Wire doesn’t dwell on the effects of narcotics on the user, and it certainly doesn’t look at the work entailed in growing, processing and transporting the drugs. All we ever see is the exchange: the buyer hands off the money to person A and receives the product from person B. We do see the product being “stepped on;” i.e., reduced in potency by mixing it with baking soda, thereby increasing the sheer weight of stuff being sold. Apparently the users are willing to tolerate, and to pay for, heroin at less than full strength. It’s difficult for the user to know for sure how hard the product has been stepped on, since the high it generates is a subjective response. However, the reduction in effectiveness must be noticeable, especially in comparison to product on offer from competitors. What the buyer cares about is the subjective benefit s/he receives from the product; i.e., the quality of the high from ingesting the dope. And s/he is willing to pay more for what promises to be a better high, based on prior personal experience with the product as well as marketplace information obtained from other buyers who have used the product.

When I was replying to this thread, I found myself writing something that might or might not be clearer than some of what I’ve tossed out over here – specifically, I wrote:

I see value, instead, as referring to, if this makes sense, “what labour will have been”. We operate in a context in which all sorts of empirical activities are being carried out, in the hope that they will somehow successfully push product. Those activities don’t always succeed. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t; sometimes they don’t succeed as well as they were intended to; sometimes they succeed enormously better than expected. “Value” is the term for the level of “success” that ultimately gets conferred on product – not the labour expended, but the degree of social recognition bequeathed. The amount of value that will be conferred can never be known from the empirical labouring activities or other directly perceptible elements that go into the product. The category of value therefore refers to something of which we can never have exact knowledge – it’s the category of a society that acts out an “in itself” – an unknowable inner essence whose effects nevertheless pervade what we can know and perceive directly.

I’ll correct this comment a bit here: I see “abstract labour” as referring to “what labour will have been”. Value refers to the abstract labour “materialised” in a product. Both are fundamentally retrospective categories – categories that we can read out of macrosociological trends unfolding over time, but not categories that can be derived from any concretistic empirical analysis of actual labouring activities or actual goods at any specific moment in time. Abstract labour and value are products of the reproduction of capital.

I see Marx trying to draw our attention (in this bit of the argument) to the implications of a collective practice we take utterly for granted: the practice of engaging speculatively in labouring activities, in the hopes that these activities will produce something that “succeeds” on the market. Many of these speculative efforts fail; many don’t succeed as well as hoped; many do succeed; and some succeed beyond all expectation. There is no correlation between the amount of empirical labour, resources, and other directly measurable factors, and the level of success – Marx somewhere uses the term “conferred” – on the products of some particular labouring activity.

Marx is trying to tarry over this, when he makes the opening argument about value and the fetish – to ask what the implications of living in such an environment might be, for forms of perception, thought, embodiment, political ideals. The first chapter of Capital is a very compressed demonstration of some of those implications, before we even get to the point of examining the component practices that bring this whole system into existence and reproduce it.

One of his arguments is that the context is haunted by “what labour will have been” – by this intrinsically unknowable “abstract labour” that will ultimately be conferred on particular activities to particular degrees, endorsing or disendorsing those activities as successful inclusions in what gets to “count” as “social labour” – and therefore, over time, exerting a sort of evolutionary selective pressure that encourages the reproduction of certain forms of labour over others. In the tacit metacommentary being addressed to Kant (and Hegel) in the opening chapter of Capital, abstract labour figures as a sort of practically enacted “in itself” of capitalist society – as something we create, something we produce, something we make – but whose qualitative characteristics resemble those expressed in certain kinds of philosophical categories, and that also express, on a much more mass and popular level, certain forms of embodiment and political ideals, such as those, for example, articulated in notions of “inalienable” essences that factor into the development of “rights talk”.

“Value” is a category that picks out the “abstract labour” that has been “materialised” in the products of labour. Of course, since “abstract labour” is “what labour will have been”, value is also a category that “will have been” (in Derrida’s terms, value is inherently a category of a time out of joint – but for Marx this is a specific time and a particular sort of out-of-jointness…). In Marx’s argument, as I hear it, value is a product – and moreover a product whose existence must be deduced from the apparently random flux of the movement of goods on the market and (as Capital unfolds from the first chapter) from trends in the development of the form of production itself. Marx teases the political economists, saying that they “don’t know where to have it” – that they don’t grasp the ontological status of the category of value, and therefore don’t grasp how the category is enacted in practice. This is not because political economy suppresses knowledge of expropriation (Marx will get to that argument later) – at this point in the text, he is arguing that the political economists don’t know “where to have” value, because value is perpetually a category that “will have been” – a category whose existence can only be read off retrospectively from the outcomes of social practice oriented to other ends. Even where value and its connection to abstract labour has been successfully deduced, Marx suggests that political economy doesn’t work out how social practice comes to be constrained so as to render such categories valid for this form of social life.

The rest of the work then, among other things, attempts to work this out – to establish how these “will have beens” are effected by practices that don’t set out to produce such a result. The category of capital – and the capital-wage labour relation – will soon be introduced as the necessary presupposition for these opening categories. More on all this some other time… Just experimenting with the new vocabulary for the moment, to see how comfortable I am with where it takes me…

On other fronts, Nate has a nice post up at what in the hell… distilling points from David Graeber’s “The Sadness of Post-Workerism”.

And, to everyone who helped out as I was trying to piece the lecture together: I delivered it last night (a bit like a premature baby). All went well. I think. All went, at the very least. Not much on global warming. Quite a lot on the philosophy of science, in relation to the specific question of developing alternatives to dogmatism and scepticism. A quick romp through Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Foucault, Latour, and various parts betwixt and between. An overarching argument about how easy it is for critics to be bitten in the butt, when they fail to grasp that they are operating in a non-linear historical context. And some sort of concluding bon mot about dogmatists currently using the tools of scepticism in the service of dogma – it all sounded very Adornian at the time, I’m certain of it… ;-P But seriously: thanks everyone – it was very helpful to be able to vent and to talk some things through.

The Incarnation of Value

No time for posting anything substantive tonight (or, most likely, for the next several days). I just wanted to archive for future reference a quotation from Marx that I’ve always liked – from a discussion of the general equivalent, from the first edition of Capital, volume 1. Marx is struggling here, as he is in many places, to try to get across the concept of a real abstraction – an abstraction that represents something enacted, rather than some sort of conceptual generalisation. Talking about the general equivalent – about money – he writes:

New British 2 Pence Coin, with LionIt is as if, alongside and external to lions, tigers, rabbits, and all other actual animals, which form when grouped together the various kinds, species, subspecies, families, etc. of the animal kingdom, there existed in addition the animal, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom.

The analogy isn’t perfect – the sentence is dropped from later editions – but I’ve still always enjoyed this particular image of money as “the animal” romping alongside all the heterogeneous instances of particular sorts of animality that exist around it… Marx is trying to express here the sense in which certain kinds of abstractions are enacted in practice – not abstractions that derive solely from how we think (although they are that as well), but abstractions that we do, collectively, through the distinctive practices we perform.

At some point when I have time, I need to write on the context in which I encountered this quote again – a couple of versions of an argument on “The Concept of Money” by Christopher Arthur, whose work on Marx’s relationship to Hegel I should review as part of the “Marxes” series. While I’m archiving, Arthur’s gloss on the above quotation is also worth tossing on the blog (with apologies that I don’t have time to develop my own position relative to Arthur’s argument now):

This example is a reminiscence of Hegel’s point; as follows:

“Animal as such” cannot be pointed out; only a definite animal can ever be pointed at. “The animal” does not exist; on the contrary, this expression refers to the universal nature of single animals, and each existing animal is something that is much more concretely determinate, something particularised. But “to be animal”, the kind considered as the universal, pertains to the determinate animal and constitutes its determinate essentiality. If we were to deprive a dog of its animality we could not say what it is. Things as such have a persisting, inner nature, as well as an outward existence.

Now the peculiarity of gold money is that as ‘the universal commodity’ it can be ‘pointed out’. The universal aspect uniting commodities is presupposed to be value, and in money this ‘inner nature’ is posited as ‘a thing’ beside them.

Hegel rejects the analytic opposition between the universal as wholly abstract and the singular as concrete. His dialectical view is that the universal is no mere abstraction; it is a concrete universal that comprehends within itself its particularisations. Now, as we have just seen in the passage where Hegel discussed ‘the animal’, it is not the case that the concrete universal exists alongside the individuals. The universal is understood as the inner essence of the singulars, making them what they are. Why, with the concept of value, if this is to be considered as such a concrete universal, is it not found within the commodities but outside them, incarnate in a money commodity that counts as their universal essence? It is because commodities as such are materially heterogeneous and share no inner nature. The generation of value as a concrete concept is secured only when money as a material existent gives commodities a universal form in price. While the universal thought-form comprehends its particularisations in thought, the value form comprehends its particularisations through the objective relation in which such money stands to commodities.

It follows there is a difference between applying Hegel’s logic and my parallelism. In the first case the hypothesis would be that there is a universal immanent to commodities which can be abstracted by thought. In contrast, I argue the movement of exchange models Hegel’s concept in practice. This is why a material bearer of the universal moment is required alongside the singular commodities it comprehends as values.

Hegel explicitly mocks the idea that the universal exists as particular apart from its instantiations. He writes:

The universal must be distinguished from the particular, according to its proper determination. Taken formally, and put side by side with the particular, the universal itself becomes something particular too … as if someone who wants fruit, for instance, were to reject cherries, pears, raisins, etc., because they are cherries, pears, raisins, but not fruit.

However, in the case of value just this situation obtains. Marx writes:

Though a commodity may, alongside its real shape, iron for instance, possess an ideal value-shape or an imagined gold-shape in the form of its price, it cannot simultaneously be both real iron and real gold.

The owner of the iron cannot go to the owner of some other commodity, and refer him to the price of iron as proof that it is itself virtually money.

The peculiar necessity for value, as universal, to appear in a form capable of interacting with commodities means it must take the shape of the analogue of ‘the animal’, namely a locus of universality alongside the singulars. But since, at first, the only relation commodities have is to other commodities, a single commodity must be posited in this role. Money stands apart from commodities because only thus can their value be presented to them.

Apologies for the lack of commentary – running!!

The Quantitative Indeterminacy of Value

Completely exhausted at the moment – just tossing some quick and probably very ill-thought notes onto the blog for future development. I keep meaning to say something about the curious way that Marx often uses simple mathematical relations to talk about value in the first volume of Capital. What interests me specifically is the way in which these passages – due to the mathematical form in which they are written – could seem to suggest that value is something one could potentially calculate. Yet the actual substance of the passages actually undermines any ability to get back “behind” the flux of the proportions in which goods exchange, to determine anything about the amount of “value” that is expressed through these fluctuations. So, for example, in a section titled “The Quantitative determination of Relative value”, Marx writes:

Every commodity, whose value it is intended to express, is a useful object of given quantity, as 15 bushels of corn, or 100 lbs of coffee. And a given quantity of any commodity contains a definite quantity of human labour. The value form must therefore not only express value generally, but also value in definite quantity. Therefore, in the value relation of commodity A to commodity B, of the linen to the coat, not only is the latter, as value in general, made the equal in quality of the linen, but a definite quantity of coat (1 coat) is made the equivalent of a definite quantity (20 yards) of linen.

The equation, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, or 20 yards of linen are worth one coat, implies that the same quantity of value substance (congealed labour) is embodied in both; that the two commodities have each cost the same amount of labour of the same quantity of labour time. But the labour time necessary for the production of 20 yards of linen or 1 coat varies with every change in the productiveness of weaving or tailoring. We have now to consider the influence of such changes on the quantitative aspect of the relative expression of value.

I. Let the value of the linen vary, that of the coat remaining constant. If, say in consequence of the exhaustion of flax-growing soil, the labour time necessary for the production of the linen be doubled, the value of the linen will also be doubled. Instead of the equation, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, we should have 20 yards of linen = 2 coats, since 1 coat would now contain only half the labour time embodied in 20 yards of linen. If, on the other hand, in consequence, say, of improved looms, this labour time be reduced by one-half, the value of the linen would fall by one-half. Consequently, we should have 20 yards of linen = ½ coat. The relative value of commodity A, i.e., its value expressed in commodity B, rises and falls directly as the value of A, the value of B being supposed constant.

II. Let the value of the linen remain constant, while the value of the coat varies. If, under these circumstances, in consequence, for instance, of a poor crop of wool, the labour time necessary for the production of a coat becomes doubled, we have instead of 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, 20 yards of linen = ½ coat. If, on the other hand, the value of the coat sinks by one-half, then 20 yards of linen = 2 coats. Hence, if the value of commodity A remain constant, its relative value expressed in commodity B rises and falls inversely as the value of B.

If we compare the different cases in I and II, we see that the same change of magnitude in relative value may arise from totally opposite causes. Thus, the equation, 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, becomes 20 yards of linen = 2 coats, either, because the value of the linen has doubled, or because the value of the coat has fallen by one-half; and it becomes 20 yards of linen = ½ coat, either, because the value of the linen has fallen by one-half, or because the value of the coat has doubled.

III. Let the quantities of labour time respectively necessary for the production of the linen and the coat vary simultaneously in the same direction and in the same proportion. In this case 20 yards of linen continue equal to 1 coat, however much their values may have altered. Their change of value is seen as soon as they are compared with a third commodity, whose value has remained constant. If the values of all commodities rose or fell simultaneously, and in the same proportion, their relative values would remain unaltered. Their real change of value would appear from the diminished or increased quantity of commodities produced in a given time.

IV. The labour time respectively necessary for the production of the linen and the coat, and therefore the value of these commodities may simultaneously vary in the same direction, but at unequal rates or in opposite directions, or in other ways. The effect of all these possible different variations, on the relative value of a commodity, may be deduced from the results of I, II, and III.

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. (emphasis mine)

In other words, we have direct empirical access only to the shifts in the relative proportions in which goods are exchanged. There is no way to get back “behind” these empirically perceptible shifts, to perceive what value is “in itself” – value is operating in the text here as an an sich. Lukács takes Marx to be arguing that this is how the matter appears from the standpoint of bourgeois political economy. Lukács therefore supposes that, from a different standpoint – the standpoint of the proletariat – there is a means to make transparent and explicit, an underlying reality that remains opaque and mysterious from other standpoints.

I take Marx’s point to be otherwise. On the one hand, I hear Marx’s argument as an account of how a concept like an an sich might emerge historically at a given moment, due to social actors’ experience with a very mundane dimension of their social existence that provides everyday practical exposure to navigating something like a phenomena/noumena divide. On the other hand, I hear Marx’s argument to be that value is an immanent order – something that has no separate existence apart from the flux in which it manifests itself – something that does not lie behind empirical phenomena or otherwise exist separately from empirical phenomena, such that it might explain those phenomena. Instead, value is a pattern of empirical phenomena – a “determination” (not a cause, but a specification) of the qualitative characteristics of their movements.

Long-term and contradictory historical trends to displace labour in certain forms by increasing productivity, while reconstituting labour in new forms by constituting new industries and new needs: these tendencies amount to a collective enactment or performance of human labour as a sort of social pivot around which other aspects of “material” life revolve. This social centrality of human labour – revealed over time as productivity increases do not lead to commensurate reductions in human labour expenditure – suggests that there is a unique and distinctive non-economic sense in which capitalist society values labour, quite apart from the role human labour might play as a motive force in material reproduction. Material reproduction, for Marx, might plausibly be facilitated by nature – or machinery. Capitalism, however, relies on human labour – even as it also continues to accumulate historically unprecedented technological, organisational, and scientific capacities that render the contribution of human labour as a motive force for material production, increasingly negligible. Marx suggests that the political economists both stumble across the traces of these trends, and then make the plausible – but inappropriate – move of substantialising what they find – treating the consequences of historical trends – treating value – as something whose existence becomes manifest in the movement of phenomenal forms, and therefore missing how value is not a justification or explanation or cause of the movements that take place, but rather itself a product or implicit order acted out in and through those movements themselves, and inseparable from them…

I’m expressing this in a very imprecise way – just scattering notes here for myself…


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