Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Scratchpad: Peculiar Commodities

Not a lot of substantive writing (or, indeed, writing of any kind) around here lately – apologies. Aside from the struggle to get on top of an unanticipated teaching load, I’ve been trundling through the process of revising various talks I’ve given in the last several months, so that they are in proper form to send off to journals. Since the contents of the talks are generally already available on the blog, and the revision process is not leading to any startling new insights, this process hasn’t been creative for new writing for the blog… Unfortunately, this relatively uncreative period will likely continue for the next few weeks, so things may remain light.

I have been toying, though, with the issue of how to voice the next chapter of the thesis – trying to cash out the narrative line I suggested in the reworked first chapter that was initially workshopped in the Goldsmiths talk. The contents of this second chapter – which follow the thread from the first chapter, to show how Marx introduces the category of labour power – have already been presented here and elsewhere in a different narrative form: my goal at the moment is to try to develop a presentation of this content that hugs the text a bit more closely, drawing attention, as the first chapter of the thesis does, to the voicing and dramatic structure of Marx’s text.

One aspect of Marx’s textual strategy in the early chapters is the constant overt assertion that the commodity is just a “thing”, an object “outside us” – a passive and inert entity. These assertions will come to be inverted with the introduction of the category of labour power – the first major inversion within the text (there are a number of more minor inversions en route to this point – including the “scholastic” demonstrations of dialectical method from the third section of the first chapter: incidentally, for those who have been following David Harvey’s lectures on Capital, I noted that his reaction to what I see as Marx’s critical/ironic scholastic performances of dialectical method, was to comment on how turgid and laboured these passages are – how boring. This stilted “voicing” of the third section is not the only reason I take this third section to be a “character actor”, rather than a straightforward expression of Marx’s position, but it is one of the reasons. Considering the possibility that the different voices or stylistic registers of the text, might themselves be part of the argument being made, at times shifts significantly the sense of the text…)

In any event, for reasons I’ve discussed in various places, Marx cannot begin Capital with the category of labour power – and yet his argument, ultimately, will be that this category has always already been presupposed by the categories he does unfold at the outset. While the text remains largely immanently voiced in these early sections – remaining within the ambit of perspectives that see the commodity as “a thing outside us” – Marx does offer a number of subtle textual gestures that destabilise this perspective, even in the course of presenting it. My rough thought is that the second chapter probably needs to begin with a discussion of these destabilisations, before moving into the material I’ve written about in other places: an outline of the specific argument through which Marx unfolds the category of labour power – that “peculiar commodity” whose characteristics invert those that have been attributed to the commodity to that point – and exception that, as it will turn out, provides the foundation point for the very phenomena that seem to contradict it.

Below is a very rough list – which I almost certainly won’t retain in this form – that begins to play with how I might present these destabilisations…


As discussed in chapter 1, the problem of the opening chapter of Capital is how to grasp the wealth of capitalist society. That chapter runs through various options: perhaps the wealth of capitalist society consists in an empirically-sensible, material object; perhaps it consists in some supersensible property that lies behind what can be perceived by the senses; perhaps it consists in a dynamic relation. Each of these options, however, remains within the explicit ambit of considering the commodity to be a thing “outside us”. The purloined Hegelian plot of this chapter suggests already that this will not be a stable assumption – that consciousness, seeking certainty of its object, will be driven to the realisation that it has been its own object all along. By appropriating Hegel’s plot to express his concerns in Capital, Marx foreshadows that the commodity must somehow be… us.

Other hints are scattered through the opening chapters, particularly in footnotes that offer what must, in retrospect if not at the time, be read as deeply ironic commentary on the positions being espoused in the main text. In a footnote to the dialectical section of the first chapter, for example, Marx offers:

In a certain sense, a man is in the same situation as a commodity. As he neither enters the world in possession of a mirror, nor as a Fichtean philosopher who can say ‘I am I’, a man first sees and recognizes himself in another man. Peter only relates to himself as a man through his relation to another man, Paul, in whom he recognizes his likeness. With this, however, Paul also becomes from head to toe, in his physical form as Paul, the form of appearance of the species man for Peter. (p. 144, ftnt. 19).

The text frequently appeals to the image of the commodity as a woman – and as a potential or actual prostitute – to destabilise the notion that the commodity is a “thing” that must therefore passively be brought to market and sold by human action outside it. The reference to Dame Quickly that marks the transition between the empiricist and transcendental voices, and the dialectical voice, opens the space for this metaphor. Marx asserts here in the main text:

The objectivity of commodities as values differs from Dame Quickly in the sense that ‘a man knows not where to have it’.

The Shakespearean play being referenced (Henry IV, Part 1, Act 3, Scene 3) involves a suggestive discussion between Falstaff, who claims, “Why, she’s neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not where to have her”, and Dame Quickly, who replies, “Thou art an unjust man in saying so: thou or any man knows where to have me, thou knave, thou!” Explicit reference to prostitution is more overt in the opening to the second chapter, where the main text tells us:

Commodities cannot themselves go to market and perform exchanges in their own right. We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are possessors of commodities. Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man. If they are unwilling, he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them. (178)

The main text therefore reiterates that commodities are things that “cannot themselves go to market and perform exchanges in their own right” – and yet the footnote hanging from the final sentence of this passage destabilises this claim with a reference to prostitutes selling their services at a medieval fair:

In the twelfth century, so renowned for its piety, very delicate things often appear among these commodities. Thus a French poet of the period enumerates among the commodities to be found in the fair of Lendit, alongside clothing, shoes, leather, implements of cultivation, skins, etc., also ‘femmes folles de leur corps‘. (178, ftnt 1)

The prostitute figures as a sometime tacit, sometime explicit, reference point as Marx draws attention to the corrosive, relativistic practices involved in commodity exchange. So Marx characterises the commodity in the second chapter:

A born leveller and cynic, it is always ready to exchange not only soul, but body, with each and every other commodity… (179)

And then, bringing the reference to the exchange of bodies more explicitly in relation to prostitution, money in the third chapter:

Since money does not reveal what has been transformed into it, everything, commodity or not, is convertible into money. Everything becomes saleable and purchasable. Circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as the money crystal. Nothing is immune from this alchemy, the bones of the saints cannot withstand it, let alone more delicate res sacrosancte, extra commercium hominum. (229)

A convoluted footnote expands on the content hidden away with the Latin phrase, as Marx makes a somewhat forced connection that:

With the Phoenicians, a trading people par excellence, money was the transmuted shape of everything. It was, therefore, quite in order that the virgins who at the feast of the goddess of love gave themselves to strangers should offer to the goddess the piece of money they received in payment. (229, ftnt 2)

These passages destabilise the presupposition still explicitly structuring the main text, that the commodity can be firmly divided off into a separate world of “objects” that subsists completely independently of the world of humankind. Some “objects” that apparently count as commodities have peculiar properties – they self-evidently can take themselves to market and perform exchanges in their own right. At the same time, commodities and money are portrayed as corrosive entities that recognise no natural boundaries – as categories that desire to spill across and undermine ontological distinctions, to exchange themselves and thus incorporate whatever might persist outside. The text is teasing the reader with the question of how stable, exactly, is the ontological boundary that separates the commodity into some other world firmly distinct from our own.

Like the footnote on Barbon analysed in the last chapter, these gestures have the effect of destabilising the claims articulated by the voice speaking in the main text, hinting at some sort of non-identity between the position being explicitly articulated, and the critical standpoint of the broader text. In this case, these destabilising gestures point toward the direction of the argument that is gradually being unspooled, as the main text traces back the presuppositions of the initial categories: an argument that, in spite of their own explicit claims, these early categories tacitly presuppose the existence of what Marx will call the “peculiar commodity” of labour power. I will quickly sketch the major moves that enable Marx to make this tacit presupposition overt.

to be continued…

2 responses to “Scratchpad: Peculiar Commodities

  1. David January 11, 2010 at 2:54 am

    Thanks for this. I’ve just begun reading Capital and I came across that passage and didn’t know what “Dame Quickly” was. I Googled it and found a sociologist’s boat’s website… and this! Makes sense, and makes reading Shakespeare more desirable.

    It’s painful enough that I can’t read the foreign-language footnotes, so I can’t accept not understanding English-language cultural references.

    Anyway: very interesting piece and website. Thanks. :)

  2. N Pepperell January 12, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    lol – a sociologist’s boat has a website? :-)

    Sorry you were held in moderation for so long – it should only happen the first time you post – I’m not online often at the moment, so I just saw your comment. I’ll be back around more soon…

    Hope you enjoy the back posts until then… :-)

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