Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Some Disassembly Required

Recovering from a severe cold and drowning in work at the moment, so posting is likely to be… light and airy. I did want to archive a quick note here about one of the questions asked in response to the Derrida Today presentation – no new content, but just pulling together some old content in a very very slightly different way. The questioner (I wish I knew his name – excellent formulation of the question, to which I won’t do any justice here…) picked up on perhaps the only sentence in the paper that gave some hint of where we might go in closing the circle, and completing the discussion of Derrida with an alternative interpretation of Marx: the sentence that referenced the Theses of Feuerbach and the question of transformative interpretations. The questioner wanted to know how it would be possible to return to Marx, in a form that wouldn’t just recycle modernist political ideals and organisational structures, and he pressed the issue of whether I were engaging in a sort of backward-looking, nostalgic critique that sought to revive ideals, forms of organisation, and forms of theory that were no longer adequate to the present time.

My response was that, in interpreting Capital, I try to take seriously Marx’s claim that he was not trying to write recipes for the cookshops of the future. The point of Capital, as I see it, is not to set forth a political program, but rather to unfold, and to apply to a particular social context, a method for reading and deconstructing that context, so that it becomes easier to see that it might be possible to make other sorts of institutions, practices, and selves, out of the sorts of “raw materials” we find lying around us now. The task of working out what, specifically, to do with these materials: this is a political task, not subject to theoretical predetermination abstracted from particular situations and contestations.

I noted that Capital pivots around a series of inversions, in which perspectives are introduced only to be followed, later (sometimes much later) in the text, with their opposites. One way to read this textual strategy is to hold that Marx is trying to set up a contrast between illusion and reality – such that certain perspectives are “ideology”, while others are objective, “scientific” truth. I take Marx’s notion of “science” to be too Hegelian for this: the inversions in the text, I believe, are intended to demonstrate that none of the perspectives being analysed are “essential” or intrinsic – intended to show that, in capitalism, we do think (and practice) several impossible-to-reconcile, contradictory things in the course of our everyday lives. By demonstrating this “inverted”, topsy-turvy, looking glass character of our practices, Marx is attempting – in my reading – not to tease out which of the moments of this inverted world are “really” essential, and which are merely illusory. He is attempting instead to suggest that the presence of these inversions reveals that we are not on the terrain of any sort of timeless essence at all: rather, we are on the terrain of contingent social practices – on a terrain subject to political contestation.

What Marx also does is try to work out what other sorts of things we might be able to do, with the social materials that lie ready to hand – materials that, through over-familiarity, we might tend not to view creatively, with an eye to the question of what else we might be able to make from these building blocks. Marx uses a variety of techniques to explore this question: where possible, he trundles around through history, finding historical examples of societies that share similar sorts of institutions – in order to show that, in those other contexts, those institutions didn’t possess the same qualitative characteristics that they possess now; he also points to contradictory characteristics enacted by different dimensions of the present context; and he engages in various sorts of hypothetical and speculative analyses of what might be possible, in a transformed social situation.

All of these techniques are geared toward teasing apart the distinctive characteristics of capitalism – characteristics that are reproduced, in Marx’s argument, only so long as the capital relation is – from the characteristics that might potentially be generated, if the various component institutions and practices that currently contribute to the reproduction of capital, could be extracted from that relation and appropriated for other ends. In this reading, Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism is a critique of the tendency to treat qualitative properties that arise due to the capital relation, as though those properties inhere necessarily in the various component institutions and practices that currently reproduce that relation: Marx’s speculative claim is that a change in the relations in which component institutions and practices are suspended, would free up different qualitative properties and potentials.

Capital attempts to give some glimpse of what these qualitative properties and potentials might be – but this does not take the form of a political programme, still less an organisational structure or completed vision of what a socialist society might be. Rather than an architect’s blueprint, Capital provides something much closer to an artist’s palette – splaying out for our view the much wider range of colours and textures on which we could potentially draw in producing our collective lives.

Whatever socialism might be, Marx suggests, it could be made out of nothing more than the stuff we have ready to hand. The actual process of creation, however – including the determination of what it is we want to create: I think that Marx sees this as an intrinsically and irreducibly political process – and also as a process that will necessarily react back on what political actors wish to create, as they continue to shake loose new possibilities and potentials that cannot be foreseen now. Some potentials, once grasped, may prove particularly corrosive – the demonstration, for example, that it is possible to enact a kind of human equality – the experience of such a possibility – renders non-doxic new creations that would impose hierarchy – precisely by revealing such hierarchies to be impositions – to be human creations, and therefore subject to political contestation. These gestures toward particularly corrosive possibilities recur through Capital, confronting us with radical potentials that – in this argument – we are already enacting, if only in particular slices of our collective practice. Certain sorts of creation, certain kinds of politics – those predicated on closing off such corrosive potentials – can thus become subject to criticism by holding them up against the potentials they disavow. By making our history citable in more of its moments, we can widen our sense of what we is it possible for us to do – and gain some critical traction on what is shut down, as well as what is opened up, by particular political ideals and organisational structures.

Yet Capital provides minimal – bordering on absent – programmatic political instruction. Its energies are instead directed elsewhere: toward making the case that capitalism provides the raw materials for the construction of something very different – toward arguing that greater freedom is possible through a hack of the existing system – toward making plausible the claim that socialism is “capitalism: some disassembly required”.

Battery about to go!! (I could add, the personal as well as that on the laptop…) Apologies for the scatter and lack of editing (and care!!). I will need some recovery time, I think, before I can post substantively again.

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One response to “Some Disassembly Required

  1. Pingback: mining potentials in capitalism: thought experiments in the communist laboratory « nights of labour

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