Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: June 2008

That Philosophy Woman

Someone just wandered past as I sat in my coffee shop, laptop at the ready, works by Derrida and Spivak scattered around. They did a quick double-take, walked over to my table, and burst out: “Hey! Are you that philosophy woman?”

Is there supposed to be only one of us?

Hand Waving

So just to lob one more random association into the cross-blog discussion of whose hands Derrida is amputating when he edits the passage in which Marx christens the fetish. We’ve discussed the possibility that these are Marx’s hands and Heidegger’s hands – what about Husserl’s? From On Touching (2005 pp.179-180):

This last example (the visible hand touching a visible object) defines the typical situation upong which Husserl establishes the privilege of touch in the strong sense – as the possibility of “double apprehension”: touching-touched. And this possibility, which depends on the hand or in any case a visible part of my body, presupposes a surface, the visibility of it, and (“then,” dann, says Husserl: but we may wonder what justifies this succession) the possibility of moving toward empathy and the indirect appresentation of the other man’s solus ipse. Let me quote this passage again: “… and is then transferred over in empathy: the other’s touching hand, which I see, appresents to me his solipsistic view of this hand and then also everything that must belong to it in presentified co-presence….

Hence our question: if this possibility of appresentative empathy, of indirect or analogical access, already partakes of the solipsistic “moment” – be it as a virtuality but thus also as an essential possibility – how can it be said that it comes “then,” afterward, finding itself grounded in an intuitive and pure presence or co-immediacy? And thus if we assume the “interiority of psychic acts,” isn’t it necessary, from the outset, that visibility, being exposed to the outside, the appresentative detour, the intrusion of the other, and sort forth, be already at work? And would this not condition, or at least co-condition, that on which it seems to depend and that it seems to follow, moreover in the very inside of the touching-touched as “double apprehension”? Mustn’t the intruder already be inside the place? Isn’t it necessary that this space thus open up the place for a replacing, and that it make room for the substitute, the metonymical supplement, and the technical?

Let me be more precise about the meaning or orientation of our question. Denying the possibility of a tactile experience of the touching-touched is not the point; but in acknowledging what its manual or digital example implies (as best and paradigmatic example, or “guiding thread” of the analysis), I ask whether there is any pure auto-affection of the touching or the touched, and therefore any pure, immediate experience of the purely proper body, the body that is living, purely living. Or if, on the contrary, this experience is at least not already haunted, but constitutively haunted, by some hetero-affection related to spacing and then to visible spatiality – where an intruder may come through, a host, a wished or unwished for, a spare and auxiliary other, a parasite to be rejected, a pharmakon that already having at its disposal a swelling in this place inhabits one’s heart of hearts… as a ghost.

Apologies for the lack of commentary (and for the decontextualised quotation, which I’ve severed awkwardly from its surroundings…) – buried under work today, and mainly just archiving this as a note to myself and Praxis…

Weekend Relations

My coffee shop has recently begun opening on weekends. Read more of this post

Elsewheres

I’ve banned myself from substantive writing until I finish the remnants of my marking, but wanted to point to interesting things happening elsewhere.

First, for those who haven’t seen, Praxis is heading into blogging hiatus – I suspect very much not in order to enable greater laziness, as claimed. :-) A medium-term blog holiday, Praxis suggests – so a return to look forward to, in the longer term.

Second, Drew over at Contaminations has a beautiful post up, riffing off some of the ideas Praxis and I have been bouncing around about Derrida’s elision of the “hands” from Marx’s fetish discussion. Drew suggests the hands in question might be Heidegger’s:

the hand, which is intimately caught up with the thought and speech for Heidegger, and therefore thought is the primordial handicraft, that is production and the source of all technics (and Derrida notes that Heidegger refers to Marx here). The hand, so emphasised by Heidegger, is caught up in all the metaphysical themes, according to Derrida, that Heidegger wants to think beyond. Derrida traces all of this in interesting directions to do with national socialism and animality and sexual difference (the resonances of geschlecht).

This seems right to me – but just to double check a point with Drew, while I’m thinking about it: Derrida has scattered through the text various sorts of references to the spectrality of technics – of production. Part of what I hear in his critique of Marx is a criticism of a position that is quite common in certain forms of Marxism: Marx is heard as a theorist who believes that “in reality” labour determines material reproduction in capitalism, but capitalist social relations (the market and private property) obscure this role. When Marx is read this way, the fetish passage sounds like a critique of (in Derrida’s terms) the spectrality inappropriately imposed by the market, on relations that, absent this spectrality, could become fully transparent. Marx is then understood as wanting to exorcise this spectrality – to reveal the truth that has been obscured by capitalist social relations, so that what is already an underlying reality – the centrality of labour – can be allowed to come into its own, and structure social life openly. I take this to be the sort of Marxism – or the particular spirit of Marx – that Derrida finds in the fetish passage.

Against this, I hear Derrida as both asserting that the spectral cannot be separated from technics or production in the way this reading of Marx suggests – that production is always already haunted, such that the abolition of exchange value could not abolish the spectre. And I also hear a critique, not just of this particular attempt to abolish the spectral, but also a critique more generally of attempts to ground critical standpoints in some ideal of a fully “transparent” or “intelligible” social reality – a critique of the notion of critical standpoint as something that emerges from a process of “unveiling” or of stripping away of the artificial, in order to reveal some more fundamental reality underneath.

So Derrida… hides the hands – exorcises the specific move through which Marx, in Derrida’s reading, claims to be able to strip aside the veil of exchange value, to reveal the underlying reality of labour. Derrida takes away this gesture toward an “underlying reality”, in order to preserve the ghost that haunts the non-identity of the context – and in order to selectively inherit Marx in a form different from that manifested in the Soviet inheritance.

Happy to be corrected on any of this – just my working thoughts on the kind of Marxism (the particular spirit of Marx) Derrida sees in the fetish passage. My question for you (Drew, that is :-) ) is: how compatible is what I’m writing, with the claims you are putting forward about the dialogue with Heidegger? In other words, I don’t see our points as at all incompatible – I agree that the Heideggerian referent is there, although it’s not what I’ve been trying specifically to tease out – but I’m curious whether you see a tension – whether the specific way you see Derrida to be speaking to Heidegger, suggests a different sort of critique in play when he hides the hands? Or just another layer to that critique – a layer directed (as I think it clearly is) more broadly than just at Marxism or Marx? Just curious, if you have time, if you’d like to comment specifically on this.

And third: Nate over at what in the hell… has a fantastic post up – covering a great deal of ground but, of particular interest to me, reflecting on the issue of continuity and epochal shifts, with specific reference to post-operaisti theory. A taste:

Lotta Continua dissolved in part over an incident I forget when, maybe 1973 or 1974, where men from their group got into a physical confrontation with an all women’s feminist march. Leaving aside moral outrage (which is sufficient for me, but is not the terrain of marxist analysis), if reproductive labor is value productive by this point – as Negri et al say it becomes in the passage to the new epoch – then this was at best a serious error with bad results for the interests of the working class/multitude. If reproductive labor was not then value productive, then the act was wrong (a tactical miss-step and patriarchal bullshit) but the analysis which said that the women’s movement was a distraction may have been more right.

This last kind of thing is a big deal for me, and wherever we set the goal posts we could find a similar situation of ostensibly radical men telling women (or whites telling people of color or …) that the time was not yet ripe for their struggle. The post-operaisti claims to epochal shifts strike me as serving a valuable function in undermining those sorts of “now is not the time yet” claims in the present because the time now is definitely pretty ripe for these cats (this is one of the things I like about that material; incidentally one of the earlier sources for material on the Italian situation was a journal/pamphlet published in Ireland called The Ripening of the Time) and if that’s all that matters then maybe I’m just off base here, but I think it’s an important gap that this material does not help at all in asking previously if other previous moments, “now’s” which are now over, were _also_ the time, as in they had a shot at it. Because lurking in the back of this epochal stuff is a sort of implied “no, then was not the time” kind of moment. Hardt and I got into an argument about this at a conference, friendly but no less an argument, I was trying to push him about the Diggers and other forebears in struggle that I think matter a great deal for us in the present. He finally said “look, then why wasn’t there a revolution in England back then?” with the implication being that it couldn’t be done yet. That’s what most bothers me about all this epoch stuff.

As always with Nate’s posts, much much more in the original.

The Exorcism of the Exorcism

So, since Praxis and I hatched this scheme of writing a collaborative piece on Derrida’s Specters of Marx, all sorts of fantastic conversations and debates around the work have cropped up around the blogosphere. Unfortunately, I’ve been either been preparing to be away, or actually away, while most of these discussions unfolded, meaning that I’m only very inadequately across the content. These conversations range across much wider territory, and go into much greater depth, than the rather limited scratch across the surface I’m about to post here, so I thought I should send readers on their way to more expansive discussions, while I take this opportunity to talk shop publicly with Praxis, who will hopefully not mind my shouting random draft concepts across the net, now that we can no longer workshop them face-to-face…

The proximate starting point for this collaborative project was my noticing an elision in Derrida’s text. In discussing the passage in which Marx names the fetish, Derrida omits a single sentence, subtly alterring the meaning of Marx’s text. I’ve written about Marx’s fetish discussion somewhat interminably over the past year, so for present purposes I’ll presuppose those discussions and just seize what I need to highlight what Derrida is done (anyone who wants the gory details can find the most recent synoptic version of my argument here).

To summarise – first, from my point of view: In the passage where he builds up to the naming of the fetish, Marx has established that the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity do not derive from the commodity’s “parts”, whether those parts pertain to the commodity’s use value or its value dimension. Instead, Marx has argued, the peculiar qualitative characteristics that seem to inhere in commodities, derive not from the parts, but from the whole – from the relation into which those parts have come to be suspended – from the form of the commodity itself.

Marx is actually quite explicit about the nature of his argument: he runs through the various parts of the commodity relation that relate to the commodity’s use value dimension, and concludes: “The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value.” Everyone gets this part of Marx’s argument.

What is more often overlooked is that Marx does exactly the same thing, in the subsequent passage, with reference to the commodity’s value dimension. He prefaces this discussion with the quite explicit claim: “Just as little does it [the mystical character of commodities] proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value.” There is a marked tendency to overlook this sentence, since the assumption is generally that Marx wants to criticise exchange value from the standpoint of use value, and thus to attribute the fetish to the exchange value dimension of the commodity – to the market or the process of exchange. That sort of reading struggles, however, to make sense of where Marx goes next in the text, which is to break the value dimension of the commodity down into its constituent components (as he has just done above with the use value dimension), in order to argue that none of those components, abstracted from the commodity relation, explains the metaphysical properties of the commodity. A similar strategy is in play later on in the same chapter, when Marx will run through a series of historical and speculative examples that reassemble the component parts of the commodity, within the context of very different social relations, in order to argue that, absent the commodity relation, the fetish does not arise.

So. Marx argues, in my reading, that the fetish does not derive from any of the component parts of the commodity – leading to the obvious question of what the fetish derives from instead. Marx’s argument, I suggest, is that the fetish arises, not from the parts of the commodity, but rather from the whole – from the overarching relation into which those parts have been suspended. Marx expresses this point: “Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.”

Marx then goes on to say a bit about this form (I’ll skip over the details, as I’ve discussed them elsewhere), and then moves into the passage where Derrida makes his selective edit – the passage where Marx christens the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity form with the name of the fetish. In Marx’s version, this christening passage reads:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

Derrida does a couple of interesting things with this passage when he reproduces it. First: Marx’s presentation moves through two analogies – the first, to a physical relation whose origin is genuinely asocial; the second, to a social relation whose origin is intersubjective. He uses these two analogies in tandem, I have argued, to set up a three-way contrast that helps him mark off the most peculiar characteristic of the phenomenon he is trying to pick out: that the fetish arises from a social relation – but a strange sort of social relation that is not intersubjective in its origins. Instead, this peculiar social relation arises as a sort of unintentional consequence of an aggregation of social practices that are not aimed toward bringing a social relation of the kind about. The concept of the fetish captures the qualitative characteristics of this unintentional and accidental social relation – and also aims to explain why it is socially plausible for the social agents who enact this relation, to interpret the qualitative characteristics of the relation as though these characteristics inhere in the various component parts through which the relation is effected.

In Derrida’s re-presentation of this argument, the first analogy – the one that makes reference to “a physical relation between physical things” – is analysed in a separate section of the text, separated by some distance from the passage in which Derrida analyses the remainder of the fetish passage. This enables Derrida to find a much stronger and more exclusive relationship between the analogy Marx draws between the fetish and religion, than the original passage suggests. Derrida’s re-presentation breaks apart Marx’s more complex three-way contrast between physical relations, social relations that are intersubjective, and social relations that are not intersubjective, and implies a much more straightforward equation of the fetish with some sort of “ideology” or mere false belief.

Derrida further reinforces this impression by removing a sentence when he quotes the passage in which Marx names the fetish – specifically, the sentence in which (on my reading) Marx actually tries to express that the fetish is an attempt to talk about a non-intersubjective social relation. Derrida’s iteration of the fetish passage goes:

There [in the religious world] the products of the human brain [of the head, once again, of men: des menschlischen Kopfes, analogous to the wooden head of the table capable of engendering chimera - in its head, outside of its head - once, that is, as soon as, its form can become commodity-form] appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race…. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself [anklebt] to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them. (p. 208-209)

The ellipsis in the middle of the quotation removes the sentence where Marx distinguishes fetishism from religion, arguing that, in the commodity relation, social agents somehow posit the existence on intangible entities (value, abstract labour), but not via the sorts of intersubjective processes such as shared beliefs or ritual practices through which they enact the intangible entities that figure in religious practice. Instead, Marx argues:

So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. (emphasis mine)

The non-intersubjective register of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism is therefore elided in Derrida’s selective inheritance or transformative interpretation of Marx. The question is: why?

This was a recurrent touchstone in the discussions Praxis and I held while I was in London. I can point out, as I’ve done above, what aspects of Marx’s argument – from the point of view of my own reading – become obscured by the way in which Derrida alters this passage. I can also say that it’s clear enough that Derrida wants to transform the meaning of this passage – there is some sort of exorcism here that Derrida seeks to perform, in order to carry out his selective inheritance of a certain spirit (but not other spirits) of Marx. The text is structured around a series of reflections on how inheritance is both selective and performative: the dead cannot bury themselves – they least of all are safe from us, their heirs. Derrida’s inheritance will be violent – he warns us. The question is what sort of inheritance he is enacting, and why.

In the dreamwork of a text saturated with references to Freud, Derrida sifts through the residue of the day – the happenstance of Fukuyama’s declaration of the End of History – setting up a narrative criss-crossed with complex parallels between characters, more than one of whom is a cipher of sorts for Derrida. Fukyama’s text resurrects old critiques of communism, Derrida tells us, while reviving a thinned out spirit of a certain Hegel in a drably farcical restaging of Kojève; Derrida chases Fukuyama, in the process counting off ten plagues – setting up a parallel to Marx’s pursuit of Stirner, which also punctuates its argument to the count of ten; all the major figures in the text chase after Hegel – a latent content whose inheritance lurks beneath the much more manifest pursuit of the spirit of Marx.

Derrida foreshadows heavily the coming excision of Marx’s hands – even adding to the text, after the original lectures, an extended reflection on Valéry (3-10) that pivots on a textual elision, priming the reader for the elision to come. Derrida first points out a passage in which Valéry includes Marx within a skull handled by Hamlet:

In “La crise de l’esprit” (“The Crisis of the Spirit” 1919: “As for us, civilizations, we know now we are mortal…”), the name of Marx appears just once. It inscribes itself, here is the name of a skull to come into Hamlet’s hands:

Now, on an immense terrace of Elsinore, which stretches from Basel to Cologne, that touches on the sands of Nieuport, the lowlands of the Somme, the chalky earth of Champagne, the granite earth of Alsace – the European Hamlet looks at thousands of spectres…. If he seizes a skull, it is an illustrious skull – “Whose was it?” – This one was Lionardo. … And this other skull is that of Leibniz who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant qui genuit Hegel, qui genuit Marx, qui genuit. … Hamlet does not know what to do with all these skulls. But if he abandons them! … Will he cease to be himself?

(p. 3-4)

Derrida then finds a later iteration of this same passage, one in which Valéry quotes himself, but omits the sentence that contains Marx’s name, inscribed in the skull of Kant. Derrida asks of Valéry:

Why this omission, the only one? The name of Marx has disappeared. Where did it go? Exeunt Ghost and Marx, Shakespeare might have noted. The name of the one who disappeared must have gotten inscribed someplace else. (p. 4)

What is disappeared or displaced must be re-inscribed, Derrida tells us – and hands – the hands omitted from the fetishism discussion – paw their way around this text – explicitly, in the form of recurrent references to hands and parts of hands – and also more tacitly: the stage setting for this text is the apparent triumph of the market’s invisible hand, over the planned economies that had once proclaimed themselves Marx’s heirs. But this still leaves us with the question – a question Praxis and I did not fully resolve in our discussions – the same question Derrida prompts us to ask of him, by asking it himself of Valéry – by emphasising the need to ask precisely this question, a need felt so urgently as to justify the post facto modification of the original talk in order to set up the parallel with Valéry: Why this omission, the only one? The hands of Marx have disappeared. We have a sense, perhaps, of where they went, of how Derrida has reinscribed them in his text, and of where invisible hands might have been reinscribed in our own times. But why? Why this specific gesture? What sort of transformative inheritance is Derrida hoping to enact, through this selective excision from Marx’s corpus?

One suggestion – underdeveloped. This is a work about chasing after ghosts. We chase after ghosts – and we become spooked. We want to control our ghosts by exorcising them – by banishing them – by driving them away. Derrida early characterises these attempted exorcisms as a fort/da game: we chase after ghosts, but not to drive them away, not really, but because secretly we want them, we need them to come back. He further suggests that, uncomfortable with the uncanniness of a haunted, spectral world, we stall in the process of mourning, becoming caught in the effort to ontologise the remains – to identify and localise the spectral, so as to abolish it. Fukuyama does this, Derrida suggests, with the spectre of communism – Soviet communism also tried to control this same spectre, presencing the revenant that initially appears in the Communist Manifesto as an expectation, a threat from the future menacing old Europe, as the spook haunting a time out of joint. Controlled and fixed, localised and ontologised, pinned down into a definite form, this threatening spook comes to be actualised and embodied in a totalitarian shape. Derrida points to Fukuyama’s apologist habit of differentiating a certain ideal of liberal democracy and the free market, from all the various empirical deviations from this ideal: by implication, this same question arises in relation to Marx’s most visible real-world heirs – how comfortably can we carve off a communist ideal from its totalitarian realisation? Is there some other way to inherit Marx?

Derrida pairs this question with the question of our relation to spectrality in a more general sense. Is there some other possible relation we can adopt towards our ghosts, Derrida asks – some gesture that doesn’t simply seek to banish the ghost by locating and its remains, some space between life and death that might step outside the logic that sees the spectre perpetually displaced and reinscribed through repeated, obsessional attempts to eradicate spectrality as such? Derrida, in the figure of Horatio – the scholar enjoined to speak to the spook – attempts to inherit Marx in a way that might effect such an alternative relationship to spectrality.

Derrida reads something of the Soviet inheritance out of Marx, specifically in Marx’s critique of Stirner in the German Ideology, and in Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. Derrida’s concern is that Marx shares with Stirner the desire to exorcise the ghost – the quarrel between the two revolves, on Derrida’s reading, around the most appropriate technique for achieving this common end. In Derrida’s interpretation of the fetish passage, Marx inappropriately attempts to ontologise the spectre – to locate and identify its remains: in exchange value – in something that can be abolished, so that it become possible to overcome the spectre, to send it away: exeunt ghost and Marx. Derrida seems to read Marx’s reference to “the products of men’s hands” as part of an argument that the spectrality that haunts capitalism can be exorcised by rendering explicit what is currently tacit: by explicitly realising the centrality of labour as the structuring principle of social life, through the abolition of the market; by freeing the use value dimension from its spectralising other, exchange value.

Derrida, by contrast, has made gestures throughout the text concerning the spectral character of various technologies – the spectrality, then, of production, rather than exchange – an ineradicableundeconstructible – spectrality grounded in production as such. Derrida’s edit to Marx’s text symbolically keeps labour secret – disappearing from view the products of men’s hands – removing the step by which, in Derrida’s read, Marx attempts to exorcise the spectre by casting off the veil that covers over what Derrida takes Marx to see as true relations of capitalist society: in Derrida’s version of this argument, the ghost gets to stay. Always still to come, always to haunt, forever non-identical with a present time perpetually out of joint: this is the certain spirit of Marx, the spirit of the Communist Manifesto, the spirit of a communism that is threatening, but not presenced, that Derrida enacts in his selective iteration of Marx’s text.

What Derrida effects here, then, is an exorcism of exorcism. He attempts to inherit in a way that maintains in perpetuity our ability to communicate with the ghost. In a text filled with figures chasing ghosts in order to eradicate spectrality, Derrida wants us to chase them – as he believes a certain spirit of Marx knew how to do – in order that they may continue to enjoin us to set our time right. This task, for Derrida, is intrinsically bound with the ongoing destabilisation of the present, as a time perpetually out of joint.

Very tired now, and not able either to support these claims (which are in any case provisional readings), or to develop their implications, or to suggest how I would unfold a critique from here – of both Derrida and Marx. Tasks for a later time. Apologies for the impressionistic character of these remarks… So much still to do…

[Is it completely wicked for me now to say: Praxis - over to you :-) *runs and hides*]

The Monstrous Body of Capital

Continuing my process of catching up on things that have been written while I was away, I wanted to post a pointer to Steven Shaviro’s fantastic series of reflections on Capital and contemporary Marxism over at The Pinocchio Theory. The first post introduces the problematic:

Of course, there is a good reason why recent Marxist theory is so concerned with the problem of the subject. It is a way of raising the question of agency. What is to be done? How might capitalism be altered or abolished? It’s hard to give credence any longer to the old-fashioned Marxist narrative, according to which the “negation of the negation,” or the “expropriation of the expropriators,” would inevitably take place, sooner or later. Neither the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s, nor the uprisings and radical confrontations of the 1960s, led to anything like the “final conflict” of which generations of revolutionaries dreamed. Today we are no longer able to believe that the capitalist order is fated to collapse from its own contradictions. It is true that these contradictions lead to turmoil, and to misery for many. Yet the overall process of capital accumulation is not necessarily harmed by these convulsions. If Capital could speak, it might well say, in the manner of Nietzsche’s Overman, that “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” The genius of capitalism lies in its ability to turn to its own account whatever destabilizes it, and whatever is raised against it. In the absence of that old militant optimism, we are left with the sinking feeling that nothing works, that nothing we can do will make any difference. This sense of paralysis is precisely the flip side of our “empowerment” as consumers. The more brutal the neoliberal “reforms” of the last thirty years have been, and the more they have taken away from us, the more they have forced upon us the conviction that there is No Alternative.

This crushing demoralization is itself a testimony to Marx’s prescience. How else but with a sense of utter helplessness could we respond to a world in which Marx’s insights into the tendencies and structures of capitalism have been so powerfully verified? From primitive accumulation to capital accumulation, from globalization to technological innovation, from exploitation in sweatshops to the delirium of ungrounded financial circulation: all the processes that Marx analyzed and theorized in the three volumes of Capital are far more prevalent today, and operate on a far more massive scale, than was ever the case in Marx’s own time. By the late 1990s, all this had become so evident that Marx’s analytical acumen was admired, and even celebrated, on Wall Street. As the business journalist John Cassidy wrote in a widely-noticed and frequently-cited article in The New Yorker (1997): Marx “wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence – issues that economists are now confronting anew. . . Marx predicted most of [globalization’s] ramifications a hundred and fifty years ago. . . [Marx’s] books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures.”

From this point of view, the problem with Marx’s analysis is that it is just too successful. His account of the inner logic of capitalism is so insightful, so powerful, and so all-embracing, that it seems to offer no point of escape. The more we see the world in the grim terms of capital logic, the less we are able to imagine things ever being different. Marx dissected the inner workings of capitalism for the purpose of finding a way to overthrow it; but the very success of his analysis makes capitalism seem like a fatality. For the power of capital pervades all aspects of human life, and subsumes all impulses and all actions. Its contingent origins notwithstanding, capitalism consumes everything, digests whatever it encounters, transforms the most alien customs and ways of life into more of itself. “Markets will seep like gas through any boundary that gives them the slightest opening” (Dibbell 2006, 43). Adorno’s gloomy vision of a totally administered and thoroughly commodified society is merely a rational assessment of what it means to live in a world of ubiquitous, unregulated financial flows. For that matter, what is Althusser’s Spinozism, his view of history as a “process without a subject,” but a contemplation of the social world sub specie aeternitatis, and thereby a kind of fatalism, presenting capitalism as an ineluctable structure of interlinked overdeterminations whose necessity we must learn to dispassionately accept?

This and subsequent posts go on to analyse attempts to respond to this situation, including those of Hardt and Negri, Gibson-Graham, Deleuze & Guattari, and others. Shaviro’s critiques are particularly sharp: Gibson-Graham are targeted for their optimism:

This means that we have already, without quite realizing it, reached “the end of capitalism (as we know it).” Indeed, Gibson-Graham come perilously close to saying that the only thing keeping capitalism alive today is the inveterate prejudice on the part of Marxists that it really exists. Apparently, if we were just a bit more optimistic, we could simply think all the oppression away.

Hardt & Negri for their implied return to the notion of a self-superseding capitalism, agency not required:

For their part, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are by no means so obstinately cheerful. Nonetheless, I am a bit taken aback by their insistence that globalized, affective capitalism has already established, not only the “objective conditions” for communism, but also the “subjective conditions” as well. The latter come in the form of the multitude as a universal, creative, and spontaneously collective class, ready to step in and take control of a world that has already been prepared for them. This is really a twenty-first century update of the messianic side of Marx’s vision: “The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” Thus we have come full circle, back to the position that we initially rejected: one according to which the restoration of agency is not needed, for the internal dynamics of capitalism themselves lead inexorably to its ultimate abolition.

Shaviro also critically explores their reversal of Marx’s metaphorics – their attempt to appropriate the imagery of the monstrous, which in Marx figure as critiques of the animated, undead, parasitic, and Frankensteinian body of capital, as an emancipatory imagery of the multitude:

This is why we must finally regard capital – rather than the multitude – as monstrous. Indeed, the monstrous qualities that Hardt and Negri attribute to the multitude – its impropriety, its ceaseless productivity, and its continual breaking of taboos and transgression of all limits – are themselves really qualities of capitalism itself, which Marx and Engels long ago described as having “burst asunder” all that stood in its way (1968, 40), and as possessing a “voracious appetite” not for any particular “useful products,” but for “the production of surplus value itself” (Marx 1992, 344-345). Only capitalism values productivity for its own sake,without regard to the nature of what is produced. And only capitalism exhibits a radical impropriety, because this is simply the other side of its own property fetish.By reclaiming monstrosity for the multitude, Hardt and Negri inadvertently erase the monstrosity of capital itself.

Running through all of this are reflections on Deleuze & Guattari’s analysis of the Body without Organs, culminating in some fantastic imagery for our complex relation to the metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties of our own product, become an alien force:

The “full body” or flesh of capital, therefore, is at the same time palpable and intangible – however much of an oxymoron this formulation might seem to be. We are always in contact with this ghastly flesh, but we are never actually able to “grasp” it. We do not have enough distance to apprehend it accurately; we can no more “see” it than a flea can see the dog within whose fur it is embedded. In our pragmatic, day-to-day experience, this capital-body is an alien enormity, that we cannot ever tear ourselves free from, but that we also do not own or control in any way. The experience of the capital-body is common to everyone; but this is only a suffering in common, rather than the production in common that Hardt and Negri would like it to be. Either as producers or consumers, our subjective activity is relentlessly atomized and scattered; the only unity is that of the socius itself. We scurry about in the folds and convolutions of this capital-flesh like lice or bedbugs. At best, we may manage to divert some of the flows of the body of capital, pervert them, and detourn them. We may even be able to reprogram the body’s “axiomatics” or “genetic code” here and there, just a little bit, the way that viruses do. But that is all. This capital-flesh oppresses us, but we are stuck within it. We hate it, but we are also compelled to love it, because we depend upon it for sustenance, and we cannot live without it. Understood according to the order of first causes, sub specie aeternitatis as Spinoza would have it, capital is parasitic upon the labor of the multitude. But existentially and experientially, the situation is rather the reverse: we are parasites on the monstrous body of Capital.

Fantastic series – much much more in the originals.

Making Scarce

Lots of really good work has gone up – in the form of both individual blogging and cross-blog discussions – while I’ve been away. I’m only very slowly catching up – I’m fairly far away from being able to comment sensibly. Over the next few days, I’ll at least try to toss up some pointers to interesting discussions elsewhere, even if I’m not yet up to participating substantively myself. For the moment, I wanted to toss up a couple of links to two pieces over at Larval Subjects, where Sinthome is blogging about scarcity, reflecting on Deleuze & Guattari’s suggestion that notions of lack or scarcity operate to rationalise existing forms of social organisation. Sinthome ties this together with Meillassoux’s critique of ideology and concepts of metaphysical necessity, and then builds on these thoughts to ask a set of questions touching on those that informed the post here on Social Construction. Sinthome writes:

At any rate, the manner in which the argument from scarcity works is clear within the framework of Meillassoux’s understanding of ideology. On the one hand, we are told that since resources are intrinsically scarce, social organization must necessarily take the form of inequity and hierarchy. As the old saying goes, “there are the haves and the have nots, and so it is, so it has been, and so it will always be.” As a result, questions of distribution and production, and the principles and decisions underlying distribution and production become invisible and naturalized. On the other hand, we are told that envisioning any other possibility either a) necessarily leads to the political terror of social systems such as those found under Mao or Stalin, or b) is just an immature fantasizing that fails to recognize the true nature of reality. In connection to point a, it is intriguing to note that we are told both that other alternatives are impossible and are implicitly forbidden from even contemplating alternative systems of production and distribution. There is something symptomatic in the way that something that is impossible is simultaneously prohibited. Here the elementary gesture of any critique of ideology would lie in 1) demonstrating the contingency of existing social relations, and 2) uncovering the site of possibility where another form of social relations is really possible and coming into existence.

Sinthome moves from this to Deleuze & Guattari’s attempt to recentre the analysis of social production around the question of how we expend surplus – and the related question of how particular kinds of lack or scarcity are actively created. The reflections here are similar to those articulated in Marx’s discussion, for example, of the peculiar “laws of population” characteristic of capitalist society – “laws” that, in Marx’s analysis, are specifically not biological in character – although they are taken to be… Sinthome worries in the first post about what he regards as Marx’s tendency to privilege biological needs: I would suggest that, although some forms of Marxism might adopt this stance, Marx is actually quite consistent that “need” is a category of history and society, not biology – concepts of subsistence in a work like Capital are demarcated as containing what Marx calls “historical and moral” elements. The “labour theory of value” is intended to mark out a peculiar sort of production of scarcity in the midst of potential plenty – and to compare the potentials generated by this manufactured scarcity against the potentials that could be unleashed with the creation of less ascetic forms of collective life.

Sinthome ends the first post, and focusses the second, on the question of whether posing these sorts of questions in terms of the manufacture of desire is fully adequate, marking out a careful path that would need to be walked, asking whether all forms of scarcity can be regarded as constructed to the same degree, and warning against the potential for the focus on desire to direct transformative energies away from social transformation, and toward the transformation of desire, if the materiality of desire, and its intrinsic implicatedness in the social field, is not adequately recognised.

These posts are worth more serious commentary than my time-inverted thoughts will manage at the moment – read the originals for a much better sense of the themes being suspended in Sinthome’s analysis.

Social Construction

Okay. This post is a mess. Not up for serious reflection. But Praxis opened a discussion of something slightly related to these issues that I’ve been neglecting while I’ve been away from Melbourne, and… enough time off, I suppose. I step tentatively here in the direction of some of Praxis’ questions, reaching for a bridge between what I’m working on now, for the thesis, and the broader sorts of questions I’m being encouraged to address in greater detail over there. The result… Well… Apologies – hopefully quality will improve soon…

I’ve been thinking about how I approach the question of critical standpoint – my one-sentence summary of the dissertation recently has been that it’s a study of the standpoint of critique in the first volume of Capital (we’ll see if Carl approves of this as an adequate gesture at self-vulgarisation :-) ). So, in a sense, I’ve been thinking of nothing but the question of critical standpoint for some months. Recently, though, I’ve been wondering how much confusion I might be causing, by using the term “critical standpoint” for what I’m trying to express. My worry derives from the sense that I’m not attempting to ask the sorts of questions that I think are probably most commonly associated with discussions of critical standpoint. Moving here from vulgarising myself, to the more questionable game of vulgarising others, I take those more typical questions to be: how social transformation per se should be possible; how a political agent could be constituted; and how a transcendent ideal can be identified, against which the existing social context can be judged and found wanting.

In contrast to these questions, what I am asking is more along the lines of: what else might we construct with the various sorts of social materials that we already use to build the society we’ve got? – what other sorts of social structures could we create, working as bricoleurs crafting new history out of the existing social stuff we find scattered on the ground around us? These questions do touch in various ways on the concerns that motivate the questions more traditionally associated with considerations of standpoint of critique – but they do so with a somewhat awkward and incomplete fit. I’m concerned about the potential for misunderstanding, if my claims are mapped into the framework of a sort of argument I’m not trying to make – in particular, I’m concerned to make clear the rather limited (and, from the standpoint of many approaches, I suspect fairly unsatisfying) sort of argument I’m trying to make – an argument that leaves unresolved much of what is generally taken to be central to the question I’m claiming to address – although, I would suggest, it might have a few distinctive virtues of its own.

On the issue of why social transformation per se should be possible: this question preoccupies a great many theoretical and philosophical approaches – often fuelled by a prior commitment to a notion that social reproduction relies on a sort of hyper-structuration or totalistic quality of the social context. I’ve argued previously that starting from the premise of a hyper-structured or totalistic context, can make it seem very difficult to understand how change should ever become possible, leading to forms of critique that are necessarily “pessimistic” in the technical sense of being divorced from any analysis of immanent social potentials for change, because the social itself has already been posited in a way that precludes the immanent emergence of transformative potentials. I tend to start from the notion (which seems to me empirically more plausible, if nothing else) of social contexts as multifaceted and “lumpy” [marginal note to self: it attracts very strange looks at conferences, when one asks other presenters questions relating to whether the social context is ultimately "lumpier" than their analysis allows - a more elegant way of expressing this particular point would save many blank stares and forestall any number of (hopefully?) premature conclusions that I have no idea what the hell I'm talking about], and then see what sort of work can be done through the exploration of the internal multiplicity of some particular social context.

Still, it is quite possible to theorise this sort of claim – about a multifaceted social environment – as a foundation for a more general attempt to theorise why social transformation should be possible, and I’m not unsympathetic to construction of such a general theory – a theory that might think of itself as applying in various sorts of social contexts, and not simply in our own. It just isn’t the sort of theory that I do (although it may, when I’m summarising conclusions, rather than presenting a proper version of my argument, sound like what I’m doing). What I do instead (perhaps more precisely: what I intend to do, and what I would hope to do if I were being consistent with how I think about the issue) is to work backwards from the slice of our specific social that I work on – the slice involved with the production of capital. This slice of our experience confronts us with ongoing opportunities for practical exposure to a process of reworking and transforming bits of our social context, as part of a process of social reproduction that proceeds precisely via the transformation of other elements of our social (as Carl suggested in the context of the discussion over at Praxis).

My argument would tend to be that this practical experience of transformation is… one of the bits of material that we happen to find lying around in our existing social context. Probabilistically, within the current context, this bit of material is often associated with the reproduction of capital – but this probabilistic association isn’t exhaustive of the things we can create out of this material: the practical experience of the capacity to transform elements of our social environment, forms a bit of material that is potentially portable – potentially extrapolable – we might be able to build something else with this material, aside from what we tend to build with it now. The limits on what we can do with this material – well, those are things to be tested out in practice, as well – it’s difficult to know, until we try to do, and see what sort of kickback or friction those practical experiments elicit – what sorts of consequences result.

The current practical experience, though, of working with this sort of material, provides the basis for a (tentative, hypothetical) speculative extrapolation – the extrapolation that, while we might have become particularly aware of, or sensitive to this material for quite contingent reasons at a very specific historical juncture, while we might find it particularly intuitive or easy to think the contingency and constructed character of our social life now, because we engage so actively with certain sorts of social construction in such an everyday and palpable way, still, perhaps – hypothetically – we can build something else from this material, aside from what we already find ourselves building in our present everyday. Maybe one of the things we can build – if we can find a few other appropriate support structures, bricks, mortars, and such lying about in our experiential rubble – is a – tentative, hypothetical, but more general sort of – social science, with which we might attempt to cast light on situations and experiences other than our own, whether in the past, or in some potential futures.

This sort of process – trying to trace the core theoretical concepts I want to wield, back to practical experiences that explain why such concepts might lie so ready to conceptual hand when we want to construct a theory – is largely how I understand the seemingly abstract concept of theoretical reflexivity: this process of connecting up what we think, to what we do, so that the connection between the categories of theorisation, and the time in which the theory is developed, stays sufficiently forgrounded to help keep the process of theorisation a bit… unsure of itself – a bit grounded in its own contingency – which, I would suggest, is still a solid enough foundation for the sorts of constructions we need to build. The process can get to many of the same places as a more a priori theoretical construction – the normal science of the social sciences can still unfold, just on a slightly altered metatheoretical base, one that tries to keep a slightly closer contact with how even the most abstract concepts – the ones whose qualitative characteristics cause them to seem non-specific to our society (or any other) – like the concept of “society” – express something more specific about us, about our practice – are “true” for us in some slightly different way than they might be true for other times – in Marx’s formulation, contain an “essential difference” when we apply them retrospectively to the past or speculatively to the future. This slight alteration in self-understanding – from treating ourselves as discovering latent truths, to treating ourselves as speculatively extrapolating from contingent local experiences – makes it a bit easier to hone in on the specificity and contingency of our specific moment, providing a focus that can be particularly useful for critique.

All this much too abbreviated: doing this properly requires simultaneously juggling a whole circuit of concepts, each linked back to arguments about why these concepts might be particularly intuitive to think at the present time, and then exploring the sorts of constructions that become possible once we have a collection of different building blocks to play with, rather than just one single bit of material, as I’ve used above with the gestural example of the experience of social transformation. Until I’ve suspended a whole heap of material in this way, it necessarily looks as though I’m simply presupposing a lot of things that, by my own standards, I would ideally want to explain. No doubt there will remain many, many things I do presuppose – my aim isn’t to achieve some sort of totalistic comprehensiveness, but it is at least to render impressionistically plausible the claim that it is possible to suspend many major, basic, foundational categories – the sorts of categories that tend to be presupposed as constitutive for social scientific work of any sort (society, history, etc.) and the sorts of concepts specifically central to the sort of work I do (immanence, reflexivity, etc.). These are the sorts of things that – over the long haul, certainly not in the thesis itself, other than in the most gestural way – I am attempting to juggle, whether I end up ultimately dropping the ball or not…

At any rate: all of this was by way of saying that I work backward – and in what is no doubt a philosophically completely disreputable way – from the standpoint, I think, adopted by most approaches that want to start with the question of why social transformation per se might be possible. This doesn’t mean the latter question isn’t an interesting, important, or valid one – only that my own work is probably well nigh useless for answering it, other than in the very general, limit sense, of possibly ruling out certain sorts of answers. So what I have in mind when I think about critical standpoint is, I think, somewhat at a skew to more general or abstract (arguably more rigorous) attempts to grasp conditions of possibility for transformation at a more fundamental ontological level.

I really should move from here, to talk about the other common understandings of what it means to theorise critical standpoint – the theorisation of a political subject, and the theorisation of a transcendent norm. But I’m still finding myself very sluggish from the trip – I think I’ve butchered the first set of issues comprehensively enough, and so wreaking damage on the others will need to wait for another post (possibly in the very distant future). It may be worth emphasising very briefly that, in mentioning that I am not trying to do these various things, I am not necessarily critical of approaches that do attempt to do them – my reaction to specific approaches tends to depend… on the specifics. I’m just trying, in a very gestural way, to clarify some of the limitations and the strategic intentions of my own work.

More eventually… And apologies for the very groggy state in which this was written… (How long does it take to recover from a month overseas? :-) )

Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey

Just stumbled across davidharvey.org, which is serialising 13, two-hour lectures from David Harvey, focussed on providing a close reading the first volume of Capital – up to chapter three so far, with chapters 4-6 due online in 6 days.

MSCP Winter Session

Still not “here”, but for those who are, I meant to plug this weeks ago: the winter session of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy begins on Monday. The winter session runs for three weeks. Each week, two sessions run on different topics:

Week 1: June 23 – 27
History of Philosophy III: Aristotle – The Practical Philosophy
Interpretations of Nietzsche

Week 2: Jun 30 – Jul 4
History of Philosophy IV: Medieval Philosophy I
Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age

Week 3: Jul 7 – 11
Mind and Society: Robert Brandom and the Continental Tradition
An Introduction to Hegel’s Logic

More information, registration forms, and such at the MSCP website. Unfortunately, I doubt I will be able to make any of the winter sessions, but the MSCP seminars I have attended in the past have always more than repayed the cost of admission.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers