Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Thesis Workshop: When Is It Safe to Go on Reading Capital?

I haven’t finished the chapter that will become the proper introduction to the thesis – in part because I have a cold (been fighting it off for weeks – my body obviously figured that, since I have finished my major writing, now must be a good time… ;-P). Below the fold, though, is the first substantive chapter. For those who have followed earlier drafts, this is a substantial rewrite of the first part of the old opening chapter (which I gather from various bits of feedback was too long, and so has now been split into two shorter chapters). It’s considerably clearer about the overarching stakes of the argument than the old version, but it’s still not as “new” as most of the thesis chapters may seem to regular readers here.

I keep considering fleshing out the discussion of Hegel’s Phenomenology – I have good draft material that does this, which I could technically splice in. I keep not including it, however, because the finer points of Hegel’s argument aren’t really important to the argument I’m making in the thesis. So I alternate between wincing because I can explain Hegel’s position much more adequately, and reminding myself that the thesis isn’t about doing justice to Hegel’s work, but only needs to talk about the much more limited topic of how Marx uses Hegel…

Since I haven’t put up a proper introduction, I should provide the context that the thesis focusses on a very close reading of the first six chapters of Capital, concentrating on how Marx effects the shift from the discussion of commodity circulation to the introduction of the category of labour-power. The guiding questions are how we should understand the analysis of “simple commodity circulation” in relation to the argument being made by Capital as a whole – and how the introduction of the category of labour-power transforms rather completely what these early chapters of the text seemed to be attempting to say. These quite specific questions, which provide the narrative thread that holds the thesis together, provide a sort of scaffolding for analysing the presentational and analytical strategy in Capital as a whole, interpreting how Marx understands the standpoint of critique in his text, and unfolding from Capital the nucleus of a quite sophisticated metatheory that casts Marx as offering a fundamentally deflationary, practice-theoretic account of phenomena that are usually explained in a far more mystical way. I’ll try to say all this much better in the proper introduction – just wanted to give some sense of what the thesis is trying to do.

One further idiosyncracy: I deal with the literature almost exclusively in footnotes – a habit I seemed to have picked up during my previous theses. The text has a very complex and cumulative argument to make, and one which runs across a great many different literatures: past experience has shown that it is incredibly distracting for readers when I interrupt the flow of the main argument to go chasing how specific topics have been dealt with by other authors. This strategy causes problems, however, when I reproduce chapters on the blog, since I don’t have a good system for managing footnotes here. When I have this thing properly completed, I’ll put up a PDF that includes the full text. Until then, unfortunately, you are just stuck with my argument, stripped of community context…

I don’t want to flood the blog with thesis chapters, so this post will be the first in a series – I’ll try to put up new chapters every few days or so, as I have time to handle the html. I should emphasise that these are still drafts – lots of cleanup left to do. But they are considerably less drafty than earlier posts and – for those who have followed as I’ve tried to work out pieces of this argument in dribs and drabs on the blog over the past 18 months – should be easier to follow and much more systematic than anything you’ve so far seen.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

When Is It Safe to Go on Reading Capital?

In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line –
Then it is safe to go on reading.

~ Kenneth Koch (2005), “One Train May Hide Another”

Capital confronts its readers repeatedly with conflicting lines of argument – sometimes without the conflict being explicitly marked in the text. Claims that seem initially to be put forward with confidence, are often undermined and contradicted by later passages. The most obvious lines of argument are commonly revealed over time to have concealed within themselves the potential for very different sorts of arguments, which only become explicit much later in the text. As the text unfolds, the introduction of layer upon layer of new lines of argument, lines which were hidden securely away at the opening of the text, completely transforms our sense what the original argument had once self-evidently seemed to mean. This counter-intuitive presentational strategy means that Capital offers repeated opportunities for readers to be blindsided by an argument they did not realise was heading their way. It is a text, in other words, for which Kenneth Koch’s poem could have been written: a text where it is uncommonly important to wait until we have read the next line, before we conclude that it is safe to go on reading.

In this chapter, I explore just how difficult it can be to tell when it is safe to read Capital, by reconstructing what I take to be the main narrative arc for the opening chapter. To anticipate and foreshadow the argument I make below: my central interpretive claim is that this narrative arc is surprisingly difficult to find. This difficulty arises in the first place because, as I argue below, the first chapter must be understood as a kind of play within a play, in which Marx demonstrates – in a very compressed, concentrated form – the central thematic concerns that recur throughout Capital, as well as key aspects of the presentational strategy through which the text explores those concerns.

In this chapter-length microcosm of Capital as a whole, Marx pursues the question of how we can best grasp the wealth of capitalist societies. The answer to this question at first seems straightforward: the text turns to the commodity and examines the social and material properties of this object, as these properties are immediately evident to the senses. This initial empiricist analysis soon runs into difficulties, however: in addition to its immediately sensible properties, the commodity possesses, as it turns out, supersensible properties that cannot be discerned by the senses, but must be deduced by reason as transcendental conditions for commodity exchange. This transcendental analysis soon runs into difficulties of its own, as a dialectical analysis demonstrates further dimensions of the commodity that can be understood only when commodities are explored within the context of the dynamic relations that they form with other commodities. The opening chapter of Capital, in other words, successively introduces a series of conflicting answers to its central question. Variations on this presentational strategy, as it turns out, will be deployed throughout Capital. The first chapter thus establishes the need for the reader to beware: crossing the complex intersections of this text will involve navigating a number of conflicting lines of argument.

Layered onto this already complex presentational style is a subterranean dialogue between Marx and Hegel. Most commentators on Marx now recognise the importance of his relationship to Hegel, and so it is nothing unusual for an interpretation of Capital to stress the connection to Hegel’s work – particularly the connection to Hegel’s Science of Logic. I also see Hegel’s Logic as important to an understanding of Marx’s method, and I address this issue in some detail in chapter 4. When confronting the opening chapter of Capital, however, I suggest that reference to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit may be equally useful. In my reading, the narrative structure of the first chapter of Capital implicitly references the narrative arc deployed in the early chapters of Hegel’s Phenomenology, setting up for more explicit references to this work in the fourth chapter of Capital, as well as for a more subterranean critique of Hegel that runs throughout the first six chapters of Capital. In this subterranean dialogue with Hegel, Marx gradually assembles the resources to put forward a deflationary, pragmatist account of the genesis of a number of contingent phenomena whose qualitative characteristics resemble those Hegel attributes to the Geist. Marx overtly applies such a deflationary strategy to the work of the political economists: for Hegel, whose method infuses Marx’s work at a much more fundamental level, this deflationary critique is effected largely through unmarked gestures that tend to recede into the background of the text. Recognising that Hegel is an implicit target of Marx’s critique can help make sense of some otherwise cryptic moves in these opening chapters of Capital, and can also clarify the major strategic goals of this section of the text.

While the purpose – or even the existence – of such complex textual strategies is nowhere explicitly thematised, the opening chapter is shot through with subtle gestures that draw the reader’s attention to the artificiality of the performance playing out in the main text, by recurrently destabilising and undermining the claims that the text puts forward. By focussing on these destabilising gestures, and by drawing attention to the voicing and the dramatic structure of the various sections of the chapter, I hope to render plausible that claim that the text deliberately sets out to undermine the claims with which it opens – and then to explore why Marx believes it is important to open his text with claims that he intends to undermine.

Interpreting the chapter in this way has profound effects on how we understand Marx’s relationship to the various claims articulated in this chapter, how we make sense of the argument about commodity fetishism, and even how we understand Marx’s broader method and standpoint of critique. I explore these effects in some detail below, while also providing a preliminary analysis of why Marx might choose to begin Capital this way – why Marx’s content assumes this peculiar form. I suggest that the form of the first chapter expresses what I take to be a substantive claim about the way in which capitalism itself possesses a theatrical character, due to its constitution of a set of social relations that are peculiarly disembedded from the human agents who enact them, rendering these agents into social actors in a particularly literal sense – into bearers of economic roles who, to the extent that they step forth onto what Marx often explicitly calls the economic stage, find themselves performing acts and voicing scripts that are in some meaningful sense not reducible to those agents’ personal subject positions, but are instead externalised and collectively-constituted parts that transcend the actors who happen to perform them in any particular production of capital.

These brief comments already suggest a broader claim that is central to my interpretation of Capital. In my reading of this text, many of the “materialist” positions that are often ascribed to Marx – for example, the position that economic or material factors are ontologically more fundamental than other aspects of social experience, or the claim that social actors are merely epiphenomena of more fundamental structural phenomena – are not put forward in the text as descriptions of Capital‘s own ontological assumptions. Instead, many of these passages can be better understood as anthropological depictions of peculiar qualitative properties that are specific to capitalist societies – and often specific to quite limited dimensions of capitalist societies – but that present themselves to social actors in a decontextualised and apparently asocial form.

Such anthropological depictions are often initially presented in the text in the form of ahistorical – if not frankly mystical – ontological claims. This presentational strategy, however, is intended to capture the qualitative form in which specific aspects of their practical experience can confront the indigenous inhabitants of capitalist society – to express how particular forms of decontextualised perception become contextually plausible, due to determinate characteristics of particular kinds of interactions that bind together humans and nonhuman objects in a very specific way. When indigenous inhabitants of capitalist societies lose track of how their own practices are implicated in the constitution of the very phenomena that mystify them, they confront the consequences of their own collective practice as though these consequences are mysterious, alien, and occult properties that inhere necessarily in material objects as such, independent of the ways in which those objects enter into interactions with humans. The immanently-voiced presentational strategy often adopted in Capital is designed to allow Marx to start from within such decontextualised perceptions, in order to deconstruct them from the inside by showing how they subtly index their own historical specificity and contingency.

In spite of first impressions, therefore, Capital‘s goal is to undermine, rather than endorse, the abstract and ahistorical forms of “materialism” incubated by the production of capital. The text pursues this goal by gradually demonstrating how the various qualities that social actors attribute to material objects per se, are instead contingently enacted in determinate forms of interaction between humans and nonhuman objects. These qualities are therefore perfectly real – and really inherent in material objects – but only when those objects become imbricated in particular sorts of contingent relations with humans. By identifying the practical interactions that give rise to contingent properties in material objects, the text opens up possibilities for transformation – for the development of more creative social practices oriented to emancipatory ends. The full meaning and significance of this claim will become much clearer in later chapters, but I begin to lay the foundations for this argument in a preliminary way here.

Before developing these points and exploring their implications, I need first to render plausible the claim that all is not as it appears in the opening lines of Capital. This argument will require a close reading of a number of passages in this chapter, dwelling initially on some very minor textual gestures. As we move forward through Capital‘s early chapters, we will often see that the text deploys such gestures to suggest the future direction of the argument, long before that direction becomes explicit in the text. Grappling with the opening chapter of Capital therefore provides a foretaste of the reading strategies required for later chapters as well.

I. Obvious, Trivial Things

In the opening sentence of Capital, Marx quotes himself, referencing his own earlier work: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails,” he tells us, “appears as [self-quotation] ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’” (125). This gesture is peculiar. Having opened the text and set about reading, we would generally assume that we are engaging with Marx’s argument about capital. Only a handful of words in, however, and we are confronted with a curious problem: if we are already reading Marx, then why does the text need to quote him? Has he not been speaking all along? If he has, why does the text not simply restate his position, perhaps footnoting his earlier work if the goal is to mark the origin of the idea being expressed? What is the benefit of intruding into the main text with an explicitly marked quotation of the author’s own earlier writing?

This gesture suggests a distance between the voice expressed in the text, and Marx’s own citable positions. It hints that the voice speaking to us in the opening sentence of Capital is somehow not fully identical to Marx’s voice, such that the intrusion of Marx himself into the text must be explicitly marked in the form of a quotation. Somehow the argument being made in the opening sentence references Marx – Marx’s position is in some sense positioned as immanent to the opening declarations about how the wealth of capitalist society “appears” – but, at the same time, the very act of quotation seems to suggest the main text is somehow disjointed from Marx’s views. What the distinction might be between the Marx who is quoted, and the voice otherwise speaking to the reader in the main text, remains at this point quite unclear. How should the reader make sense of this bifurcation, this play within a play or Marx within a Marx, in the opening sentence of Capital? Perhaps – already here, in the first sentence of the work – we have been reading too quickly. Maybe we need to wait and read the next line, to make sure it is safe to go on reading.

A few sentences later, and we stumble across another subtle warning – another trace of multiple lines operating simultaneously in the text. In the main body of the text, we are being told: “The discovery… of the manifold uses of things is the work of history” (125). A footnote provides a citation to Barbon – a quotation that seems to support the claim being made in the main text: “Things have an intrinsick vertue”, Marx quotes, “which in all places have the same vertue; as the loadstone to attract iron” (ftnt. 3, p. 125). Reading the next line, however, changes this picture: it turns out that Marx is criticising Barbon here – and, by implication, criticising the position put forward in the main text, which the Barbon citation supports. Barbon speaks of “intrinsick vertue”, and the main text tells us that uses lie latent, waiting the long years until at last we discover them in history. In the footnote, Marx disagrees, arguing, “The magnet’s property of attracting iron only became useful once it had led to the discovery of magnetic polarity”. But what could such a statement mean? How could Marx possibly disagree with the claim that material things have intrinsic properties that humans discover over time? Even more perplexing, given that Marx seems to have such a disagreement, why whisper it in a footnote, while declaiming quite the contrary so prominently in the main text? Who exactly is speaking in the main body of Capital? Why does Marx appear marginalised and bracketed – footnoted and quoted, but nevertheless strangely excluded from the main line of argument in the body of his own text?

This problem only deepens as we continue to move forward, hoping to find the point at which it is safe to go on reading. The opening paragraphs tell us that “first of all” the commodity is an “external object” that satisfies our changeable needs through its own intrinsic material properties (125). Our needs are described as contingent and as varying with time; not, however, the properties of material things that satisfy those needs, which are described as intrinsic to the materiality of those things. We discover material properties – given time and effort – but these properties themselves subsist outside us: they are objects of our contemplation, more essential, more timeless, more stable than we. Use-value, bound as it is to material properties, is also more essential: the text describes it as a transhistorical substance of wealth, as contrasted with the more transient and socially specific form of wealth, which in capitalism happens to be exchange-value (126). Exchange-value is then itself described as a purely relative form – as an expression of the ways in which quantities of commodities may be equated to one another – without a substantive content specific or intrinsic to itself (126).

At this point in the text – if we ignore Marx’s unsettling intrusions and puzzling objections from the sidelines – it looks as though we know what the commodity is: it is a unity of sensible properties, some more essential than others, but all subject to direct empirical investigation by a contemplative consciousness that sets its sense perception working hard to determine the characteristics of the commodity, understood as an object external to consciousness.

Bizarrely, just as we seem to have all this settled, and to be arriving at a decent sense of what the commodity might be, a second voice intrudes – enter stage left – and an argument breaks out (126-131). This new character tells us that the first voice is sadly mistaken: a commodity cannot at all be understood with reference to its sensible properties alone for, in order for commodities to be exchanged, they must share some property in common. This common property, however, cannot be anything in the commodity’s sensible form, as sensible properties vary from one commodity to the next. It must therefore be something that transcends sensuousness entirely – a supersensible property whose existence can be intuited by reason, but to which our sensory perception remains sadly blind.

This second voice then engages in a virtuoso demonstration of its deductive acumen, dazzling us with a bit of geometry (127), and then walking us through a sort of transcendental deduction of the existence of the supersensible category of value, deriving the determination of value by labour time, and then unpacking the intuition that the labour involved here derives from some strange entity the text calls “human labour in the abstract” (127-131). These supersensible categories are presented as something like transcendental conditions of possibility for commodity exchange – conditions whose existence was invisible from the perspective of the opening voice, which doggedly held fast to what could be perceived directly by the senses, and therefore overlooked these intangible properties that subsist behind the world of sensuous experience.

In this supersensible world, the apparently arbitrary and contingent appearance of exchange-value is dispelled. Exchange-value, it turns out, does have an intrinsic content – an essence – albeit an intangible essence that cannot be directly perceived by the senses: value (129-131). Moreover, in this supersensible world, the proportions in which commodities exchange no longer appear purely arbitrary and conventional, but rather exhibit lawlike properties: the determination of value by socially necessary labour-time emerges as an immanent order behind the apparently random motion of goods that is immediately perceptible to our senses (131).

So have we finally found Marx in this text? Is this second voice – tussling explicitly with the first – Marx’s proper entry onto the main stage of Capital? Here it helps to know that Hegel has staged something like this play before. A comparison of the opening chapter of Capital with the early chapters of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit suggests that Marx is adapting an earlier work – appropriating the plot and turning it to his own ends, rather than staging a fully original production. A quick review of the narrative arc that structures Hegel’s chapters on “Perception” and “Force & Understanding” will bring to light important similarities between the drama unfolding in Hegel’s work, and what I suggest is the comedic restaging of Hegel’s plot in the first chapter of Capital.

II. The Phenomenology of Capital

In these early sections of the Phenomenology, Hegel sets out to show how consciousness seeks certainty of its object, which consciousness initially assumes subsists separately, outside itself. Consciousness assumes a number of different shapes in its attempt to grasp its object, propelled forward into new efforts as each shape proves unstable – unable to offer the certainty consciousness seeks because, in Hegel’s account, this certainty can never be attained so long as consciousness clasps tight to the presupposition that its object subsists in a separate substance or world that is severed from consciousness.

When these sections of the Phenomenology are read against the opening sections of the first chapter of Capital, a number of striking parallels leap out. Hegel traces a shape of consciousness – he calls it Perception – that in one of its configurations takes its object to be a thing outside itself, a collection of sensible properties. Consciousness takes this thing to be more essential than itself, and adopts a contemplative stance toward it, assuming that anything transient or unstable about its perception of this object, derives from the error-prone and ephemeral nature of consciousness itself (Hegel 2003, 64-66). In Hegel’s account, Perception fails to achieve the certainty consciousness seeks, and consciousness finds itself driven toward a new shape, which Hegel calls Understanding. Understanding attempts to reach beyond Perception, by taking its object to be supersensible universals. It therefore searches for certain knowledge that transcends the sensible realm but can be intuited by reason (72, 74, 90). The opening sections of Capital appear to be retracing Hegel’s steps, mimicking Hegel’s narrative of the strategies through which consciousness seeks to grasp its object – but transposing this narrative onto the problem of how we can best grasp the wealth of capitalist societies.

This parallel with Hegel’s text already suggests that the introduction of the second voice will likely not be the final act of Marx’s production: it is still not safe to read Capital. For Hegel, Understanding also fails to provide a stable resting place for consciousness as it seeks certainty of its object. Understanding does open up for consciousness an appreciation of the lawlike regularities that lie behind the apparent randomness of what can be perceived by the senses. In spite of this useful insight, however, Understanding falls into the error of presupposing that these laws subsist in some separate substance or world that lies behind the flux perceptible to the senses, thus replicating in a new form the separation of consciousness from its object that has plagued Perception. This new shape of consciousness is therefore also unstable, leading in Hegel’s narrative to a restless oscillation through which it finally confronts what Hegel calls an “inverted world” (90-91).

Within the Phenomenology, consciousness’ confrontation with the inverted world provides one of the major dramatic pivots of the text. Through this confrontation, consciousness realises that what it had taken to be a realm of flux and appearance is generative of lawlike regularity, and what it had taken to be a realm of law and timeless essence, is generative of flux. In the process, consciousness comes face to face with the instability of the ontological divisions and hierarchies into which it had previously attempted to carve its world. What consciousness had taken to be separate substances or worlds, now come, through the confrontation with the inverted world, to be grasped instead as mutually-implicated and interpenetrating moments of the very same dynamic relation. This relation, moreover, implicates consciousness as one of its moments, such that consciousness comes to realise that it can no longer position itself as external to its object, but finally grasps that it has been its own object all along. At this point in Hegel’s drama, consciousness achieves Self-Consciousness (96).

This part of Hegel’s narrative, in which Understanding confronts an inverted world and achieves Self-Consciousness, is paralleled in the third section of the first chapter of Capital. In this section, a third character enters the stage, arguing with the previous two, insisting that the commodity cannot be understood adequately in terms of either its immediately sensible properties or some sort of “transcendental” essence that subsists “behind” what can be perceived by the senses. Instead, this third voice insists, the commodity must be understood dialectically, as a dynamic relation comprised of mutually-implicating moments (Marx 1990, 138-163). This section of Capital is rife with references to self-reflexivity, in both footnotes and in the main text, and it mimics particularly closely the concerns of Hegel’s analysis of Force and the Expression of Force, morphing this into an analysis of value and its expression. This third, “dialectical” voice derives the money form through an analysis it claims would be unattainable from the standpoint of the “empiricist” or “transcendental” perspectives and, in the process, unfolds a series of “inversions” in which moments of the same dynamic relation are shown to be expressed by their opposites – thus demonstrating the intrinsic interconnection and mutual presupposition of aspects of experience that, taken statically, might appear to be antinomically opposed.

It is at this point, after the dialectical voice confronts the reader with the existence of an “inverted world”, that Marx opens the section titled “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof”. The narrative arc of the first chapter of Capital thus inserts the commodity fetishism discussion at the precise point where Hegel’s Phenomenology draws aside the curtain that has been separating consciousness from its object, to reveal that consciousness has been its own object all along. The section on commodity fetishism thus seems, at least at first glance, to occupy the point in the dramatic structure of the text where Hegel would present consciousness achieving Self-Consciousness.

The dramatic structure of the text seems to hint that we have now found Marx’s voice: that the “empiricist” and “transcendental” characters might e confused about the commodity’s ontological status, but a bit of dialectics has thankfully dispelled this confusion. Here I would urge caution and suggest that all is still not as it seems: this text is not yet safe to read; even the “dialectical” analysis will ultimately be revealed as the performance of another actor on the stage. But before I discuss the reasons for drawing this conclusion, I want to pause for a moment to examine more closely some of the implications of the parallels Marx is making with the Phenomenology.

The parallels between the first chapter of Capital, and Hegel’s Phenomenology, suggest that the first chapter of Capital must be seen, at least in part, as a metacommentary on Hegel’s earlier work. Like Hegel’s grand drama of how consciousness struggles to attain certainty of its object, in the process gradually transforming its conception of its object, and thereby itself, the first chapter of Capital also stages a struggle over “where to have” an object. In the case of Capital, however, this elusive object is the commodity, and the production takes the form of a burlesque squabble over how to grasp the wealth of capitalist society. Marx is suggesting, through the very structure of the chapter, that what Marx will later call the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” that emerge in Hegel’s narrative, already arise in a much more everyday and indeed crass context, in the course of commodity production and exchange. The most basic, most common, most apparently self-evident object of our economic experience – the commodity – has in this chapter been shown capable of generating great ontological confusion. What is a commodity, this chapter asks? A collection of sensible properties? A transcendental unity that lies behind sensible experience? A dynamic relation with mutually-implicated parts? All of these positions, unfolded originally in the course of Hegel’s high drama, re-emerge here in Capital in a sort of debauched parody of Hegel’s work.

I have suggested above that all of the voices that have been speaking thus far in Capital have been characters – actors Marx has brought on stage to perform for the reader’s edification their own particular interpretation of the commodity, enacting parts that display different perspectives for the reader’s benefit. But what benefit does Marx expect the reader to derive from this production? I suggest that he wants to confront the reader with the existence of an inverted world. Not the inverted world displayed by the dialectical character – who does indeed perform various dialectical inversions, but who does so, I suggest, to set the scene and establish its character, much as the “transcendental” character displays a bit of geometrical knowledge for a similar end. I do not mean to suggest that Marx rejects the validity of what can be derived from the dialectical (or any other) act – I will come back to this point in a moment. I do, though, suggest that Marx conceptualises the entire chapter as a demonstration – by means of a play within a play – of a complex, layered world whose component elements do not always carry the same implications, consequences or potentials. Aspects of this multifaceted world may differ or even “invert” one another, confronting the inhabitants of that world with multiple, co-existent, socially-plausible interpretations of even the apparently straightforward category of the commodity.

The narrative of this chapter, I suggest, unfolds a bit like the joke about the three blind men, trying to determine what an elephant is by touch. One grabs hold of its ear and proclaims that it is like a giant fan; another latches onto its tail and proclaims that it is like a garden snake; a third grasps its leg and announced that it is like a tree trunk. All of these perspectives are “right” to some degree – they are all saying something valid, so far as it goes, about their object. The problem is that they simply do not realise that their object is a lot larger and more complicated than the part they are touching – and they therefore do not know to ask how their part might possibly relate to other parts.

Marx sees the categories of political economy in something like this way: as grappling hooks that fasten to some aspect of the reproduction of capital; as categories that are, as Marx phrases it, “socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production” (169). He therefore does not attempt to debunk such categories. Rather, his critique proceeds by trying to grasp what these categories cannot: their own social presuppositions or conditions – and therefore their limits and boundaries. Marx does not want to dismiss political economy, but rather to understand what sort of world is required, in order to make political economy a socially plausible sort of theory. By examining the social presuppositions of political economic categories, Marx intends, so to speak, to reverse engineer the production of capital. Having thus reconstructed how capital is produced, Marx then intends to analyse how this production could be adapted, to generate a form of collective life that transcends the limitations of the original work.

At this point, I want to turn from the analysis of the overarching structure of the first chapter, to a much more fine-grained discussion of the section on commodity fetishism. The preceding analysis should make it a bit easier to grasp the strategic intention of moments of the commodity fetishism section that are often overlooked or interpreted away, because this section is too often read without an awareness of the “theatrical” character of those passages that precede it. When these earlier sections are read as a series of straightforward declarations of Marx’s position, rather than as performances of analytical approaches that will become the targets of Marx’s critique, the text appears at best wildly internally inconsistent and methodologically naïve. As a result, the problem for which the discussion of commodity fetishism is intended to provide a solution does not come readily into view, obscuring the substantive claims being put forward in that section of the text. In the next chapter, I explore those substantive claims, through a close reading of the commodity fetishism passage.

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7 responses to “Thesis Workshop: When Is It Safe to Go on Reading Capital?

  1. Pingback: Reading Capital and Beyond « Larval Subjects .

  2. Kvond February 5, 2009 at 2:33 am

    Rough Theory: “So I alternate between wincing because I can explain Hegel’s position much more adequately, and reminding myself that the thesis isn’t about doing justice to Hegel’s work, but only needs to talk about the much more limited topic of how Marx uses Hegel…”

    Kvond: Don’t splice it in, post the Hegel chapter as an Appendix

  3. N Pepperell February 5, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Hey Kvond – Sorry you were held in moderation – should only happen the first time you comment. Thanks for this – I had been thinking of doing this, to be honest, although a bit worried that it’s somewhat self-indulgent, even as an appendix. The justification for it would be that Marx doesn’t particularly do justice to Hegel (and, when he mentions Hegel explicitly, is often clearly thinking of some appropriator of Hegel – like, say, Proudhon) – and so, when I speak of Hegel in the main text of the thesis, I’m sort of necessarily going through Marx to get to him. An appendix would offer an opportunity to think more explicitly about what this relationship might look like, seen from the Hegelian side, so to speak. But precisely for that reason, it might not actually be relevant to the thesis, even as an appendix…

    In any event, still worrying over it… But I think it’s definitely right not to splice it in.

    Take care…

  4. Kvond February 7, 2009 at 12:07 am

    I don’t know, I haven’t looked at the material. And one might say that any proposed interpretation is somewhat audacious, especially of a well-trod thinker like Marx. The way that I look at it in general is that your reading of Hegel may not have immediate bearing upon anything that you are strictly saying of Marx, but can serve as a conceptual constellation touch-point, bringing about a perspective that might make your treatment of Marx more clear, broadly so. Even your short explanatory paragraph above would help position the text.

    I understand though that there is a kind of guilt here. You want to include it because there is “some pretty good stuff in there” (or something like that), and there is a hiistorical/traditional connection between Hegel and Marx. If it is just a question of guilt over indulgence, I would say go forward. Just write an expanded bridge introduction like the above, orienting the text. The way that I think of it is like a cartography: Here is a very detailed map of this island chain, and in the appendix is located a broadscale map of the continental coast line that has had much historical interaction with this chain.

    take care.

  5. N Pepperell February 7, 2009 at 3:09 am

    I actually learned today that the research committee here frowns on appendices (frowning taking the form of counting the content as part of the word count of the thesis…). I’m quite close to the margins, unfortunately, of the word count as it is, so this option is probably barred…

    But yes: the main concern – I mean, a thesis is a somewhat indulgent thing in the best of cases, and so there’s an issue of not pushing that even more by tossing in material that the reader doesn’t really need to know, to follow the substantive argument. I may just eventually make the material available here – there’s a great deal, in any event – and on Marx, not just Hegel – that hasn’t made it into the thesis. Blog grist for the year to come… ;-)

  6. Kvond February 7, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Sorry to hear about the committee. One should never push the committee, no matter the fate of Benjamin’s Habilitation, and his most offending but brilliant Prologue.

    You can always include the appendix on the reprint of the thesis, in its second or third edition (you never know).

    The best.

  7. N Pepperell February 8, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    lol – yes – but here’s to hoping the actual thesis doesn’t require multiple editions… ;-) The book that derives from the thesis – that’s fine… ;-)

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