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Monthly Archives: May 2009

Imminence of Immanences

So I’ve fallen into silence again here – apologies… It’s the end of the term, and I’m trying to get everything together to leave again for London, where I’ll be attending the following conferences, and presenting papers that, I’m quite firmly certain, will be less megalomaniacal than the abstracts below imply. And, while I’m there, finishing the very final thesis revisions, under Duncan’s careful supervision… Hard to predict whether and how much blogging will happen during this somewhat crowded “break”, but at the very least I’ll post the papers here after the events.

And those events are:

Marx & Philosophy Society 6th Annual conference – on 6 June.

Beyond Telos and Totality: Immanent Critique as Selective Inheritance

Abstract: Recent reinterpretations of Marx’s work have tended to emphasise the ways in which Marx puts forward a critical appropriation of concepts like teleology and totality. In many of these interpretations, Marx’s work is understood to involve a deflationary, historically specific, and non-metaphysical analysis of the ways in which capitalist societies can be said, first, to be characterised by a particular trajectory of historical transformation and, second, to generate certain practical phenomena that can be well-described by a concept like ‘totality’. In spite of the deflationary and anti-metaphysical emphasis of these readings, some critics have expressed concern that even a qualified, bounded use of categories like ‘telos’ or ‘totality’ might attribute too much power to capitalism as a social form – and thus undermine attempts to theorise possibilities for transformative agency.

In this paper, I explore one particular option for how to think the role of concepts of telos and totality in Marx’s mature works, while retaining the potential for transformative agency close to the surface of our analysis. With specific reference to the first volume of Marx’s Capital, I show how Marx zooms in and out of different layers of social experience in the course of his analysis, moving between aspects of collective life that are intuitively meaningful to social actors, and other aspects that can better be described as unintended consequences of aggregate behaviour. By focussing on this layered dimension of social experience, it becomes possible to bring more clearly into focus how Marx could both argue that aspects of capitalist societies possess ‘totalising’ qualities, without this argument in any sense undermining the ability to think about concrete potentials for emancipatory change.

Immanence and Materialism Conference (which seems not to have its own website yet, but which has been mentioned here and there…) on 23 June.

What’s the Matter with Marx?: Notes on Marx’s Immanent Critique of Materialism

Abstract: Convincing arguments have been put forward by Murray, Postone, Sayer and others that the categories of Marx’s mature works must be considered historically specific to capitalist societies, fundamentally deflationary, and anti-metaphysical. Some of these works extend this point to claim that Marx offers an immanent critique of capitalist society, basing his critique on potentials generated by the society being criticised, and therefore not reliant on any transcendent “materialist” metaphysics to ground his critical standpoint.

In this paper, I explore the ways in which such reinterpretations, sometimes in spite of their own programmatic claims, often continue to smuggle into their analysis a dichotomy between the material and the social worlds, in order to open up a gap that can serve as a standpoint of critique. Thus even the contemporary readings of Marx that are most committed to grasping his work as an immanent critique, often tacitly rely on the perspective provided by a “material outside” that somehow stands external to the society being criticised.

In spite of these inconsistencies in the literature, I argue that it is possible to read Capital as an immanent critique. Cashing out this claim, however, requires grasping the very peculiar textual strategy in play in Capital, which results in the work routinely putting forward positions – such as the dichotomy between material and social worlds introduced in the opening pages – that the text then undermines as its argument develops. In this paper, I explore elements of this textual strategy in order to open the possibility for appreciating the critique of materialism operative in Marx’s immanent critical theory.


Over at Limited, Inc., roger has just written one of those lovely comments from which it’s possible to draw a large amount of energy in an otherwise gruelling period. There are moments in the process of navigating the final stages of the thesis, where everything related to the work can look so familiar and worn that it becomes blurry whether I’m talking to anyone other than myself and uncertain whether the work “communicates” – not whether it communicates some particular content that I’m trying to convey, but more whether it sparks anything in other people, whether it generates anything useful or creative for anyone other than me. It’s a wonderful gift in these periods to receive the work refracted back, fresh and with a playful spin:

go to Rough Theory, who has been writing about the Grundrisse. As always, Marx, in her hands, begins to seem like a Henry James character – if James had only created a character with his own genius, instead of the subpar strivers from the upper class who never quite live up to the authorial voice in which they are caught. RT’s Marx is a man who is hyper-aware of epistemological traps, including the trap of thinking that there are just too many epistemological traps to make broad and monumental generalizations.

That final sentence may be my new favourite characterisation of Marx.

Circular Reasoning

I’ve just been reading a work that makes the very common argument that Hegel begins the Science of Logic with the category of Being because that category is the most abstract and free of determination possible – qualities that apparently assure us that Hegel isn’t presupposing any more than he absolutely has to, at the outset of his system. This interpretation is presented as though Hegel’s process was a sort of modified Cartesian method where, instead of trying to cast everything into doubt, he tries to come up with an indubitable abstraction – as though the starting point is chosen because, after trying to force himself to think of concepts increasingly free from concrete determination, he finally reaches a point where this process of abstraction can continue no further and, on this bedrock, constructs his system. For some reason, I always find this interpretation very irritating. Perhaps because Hegel says quite expressly that this is not what he is doing…

Specifically, he responds to hypothetical critics who might find the starting point – or, indeed, the subsequent exposition of the categories – to be arbitrary. Yes, Hegel responds: it looks arbitrary at first. This is because the non-arbitrariness of the categories and their relations cannot be demonstrated, other than through the presentation of the system as a whole. The justification for the starting point and for the order of exposition is not that, by starting with something as free of determinations as possible, we give ourselves the most solid possible anchor from which to derive the other categories – this would be a linear model of derivation, one that would rely on precisely the sort of exceptionalised, external starting point that, in Hegel’s view, would toss the starting point of the system outside the system.

For Hegel, this kind of move, when trying to construct a science of logic, is tantamount to claiming that the starting point of logic is illogical and that the ground of reason is irrational. Hegel knows no greater horror. The whole point of the system is to avoid precisely this problem. Everything must be in its place. Everything. Even the starting point. Especially the starting point. It is therefore of pivotal importance, not simply that the other categories in the system should be derivable from the starting point, but that the starting point should be derivable from the presentation of all of the other categories in the system.

What justifies the starting point and the subsequent order of exposition of the categories is therefore not some external criterion – not even the criterion that the starting category be as abstract as possible so as to smuggle as few assumptions as possible into the system – but rather the immanent criterion that the relations between the categories become visible only if the categories are positioned relative to one another in this exact way. As such, the “justification” can’t be evident at the start – or, indeed, at any point until the work has been presented in full. In Hegel’s inimitable formulation:

But to want the nature of cognition clarified prior to the science is to demand that it be considered outside the science; outside the science this cannot be accomplished, at least not in a scientific manner and such a manner is alone here in place.

The notion that the starting point of the Logic is justified because it is the most abstract category thinkable to us, is precisely such an external justification. It offers a rationale outside the science. This is not sufficient for Hegel’s goal of justifying his categories in a “scientific manner”.

Reaching for terminology to describe his method, Hegel argues that the system must be conceived, not as a linear derivation of categories from an a priori foundational category, but rather as a circle, whose starting point is therefore encompassed within its own trajectory, implicated by all the other moments of the system, and derivable from those other moments:

Through this progress, then, the beginning loses the one-sidedness which attaches to it as something simply immediate and abstract; it becomes something mediated, and hence the line of the scientific advance becomes a circle. It also follows that because that which forms the beginning is still undeveloped, devoid of content, it is not truly known in the beginning; it is the science of logic in its whole compass which first constitutes the completed knowledge of it with its developed content and first truly grounds that knowledge.

Perhaps a better contemporary image for Hegel’s circle would be of a hologram – where it becomes possible to reconstruct an image of the original object from the recorded light scattered from its surface… Regardless, Hegel’s image of the circular character of the system is intended to map out an alternative to systems that rely on an exceptionalised starting point that is derived in some qualitatively different manner from the other components within the system.

Certainly this seems to be what Marx takes from the Logic in constructing the order of presentation in Capital – as he argues to Kugelmann:

even if there were no chapter on ‘value’ at all in my book, the analysis I give of the real relations would contain the proof and demonstration of the real value relation. The chatter about the need to prove the concept of value arises only from complete ignorance both of the subject under discussion and of the method of science.

That Marx’s reference to “science” here is meant in a Hegelian inflection becomes clear a few sentences on (perhaps I shouldn’t have used the term “inimitable” in relation to Hegel above…):

Where science comes in is to show how the law of value asserts itself. So, if one wanted to ‘explain’ from the outset all phenomena that apparently contradict the law, one would have to provide the science before the science. It is precisely Ricardo’s mistake that in his first chapter, on value, all sorts of categories that still have to be arrived at are assumed as given, in order to prove their harmony with the law of value.

I have to admire Marx’s wild optimism here: yes – precisely what Capital needs is less discussion of value, since the need for this category is simply so obvious from the rest of the work… Marx may have been right that the demands that he “prove” the category of value are misplaced – but a bit of Hegelian stage whispering to clarify his method would not have been amiss, whether it breaks with the immanent presentation of his categories or not…

I’ve said more on this dimension of Hegel’s (and Marx’s) method in the thesis – apologies for the gestural repetition here – just venting in order to clear the system for more reading…

Form Matters

One of the most often overlooked elements of Marx’s critique of political economy, is that Marx views the political economists as reductive materialists. The nature of this critique becomes clear at least from chapter 3 of Capital, where Marx introduces the concept of “social metabolism” – the process by which material needs are met by circulating things to places where they will be found useful. One of the major problems with political economy, in Marx’s account, is that it acts as though social metabolism is an underlying – and therefore more fundamental – process. Political economy therefore abstracts from the historically specific form in which this process takes place, reducing this form back to the supposedly more basic metabolic process that is understood to underlie it.

The result – from Marx’s point of view – is a false bifurcation of the material process. Hunger is hunger – metabolism is metabolism – but the form that these material processes assume is not some separate, immaterial thing – it is part and parcel of the particular materiality that we live and that Marx tries to understand.

The remainder of the very long third chapter explores different aspects and implications of the form taken by the social metabolism in capitalist societies. I’ve explored this argument in several chapters in the thesis, and won’t belabour the specifics here. The point is that this chapter can be read as an extended critique of the notion that it is possible to treat “materiality” as an underlying and more fundamental phenomenon. Materiality is informed. Form matters.

Chapter three of Capital provides an extended argument about the materiality of what political economy attempts to dismiss as mere sign, the substantive results of what political economy attempts to denigrate as mere means, the historical formation of what political economy takes as a transcendent materiality. Marx’s concern is with that process which is extinguished in the result that political economy myopically takes as its “bottom line”. In this way, Marx attempts map a path beyond an essentially idealist “materialism” that he regards as characteristic of political economy.

Hunger Is Hunger

Two passages, one from early and one from late in the Grundrisse.

The first, from the section I discussed yesterday, where Marx grapples with the extent to which his categories are historically specific:

Firstly, the object is not an object in general, but a specific object which must be consumed in a specific manner, to be mediated in turn by production itself. Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down meat raw with the aid of hand, nail and tooth. Production thus produces not only the object but also the manner of consumption, not only objectively but also subjectively.

The interweaving Marx attempts here is one of the most characteristic dimensions of his work. Hunger is something natural – something physical – but something no less historical for all that. Its historical manifestations – each of its historical manifestations – are no less natural for not being timeless invariants. Something can be an historical product – and yet deeply, profoundly, and inextricably embodied. Our activities – what we do, what we make – inform us, developing us, expressing us, creating us – and linking this self-creation intrinsically with the creation of what might superficially be taken as things wholly external to ourselves, but which Marx rather conceptualises as nonhuman objects participating in interactions with us.

The same fundamentally historical quality of the natural manifests in Marx’s scathing critique of Malthus late in the manuscript:

It is Malthus who abstracts from these specific historic laws of the movement of population, the natural laws, but natural laws of humanity only at a specific level of historical development, with a development of forces of production determined by humanity’s own process of history. Malthusian man, abstracted from historically determined man, exists only in his brain; hence also the geometric method of representation corresponding to this natural Malthusian man. Real history thus appears to him in such a way that the reproduction of his natural humanity is not an abstraction from the historic process of real reproduction, but just the contrary, that real reproduction is an application of Malthusian theory. Hence the inherent conditions of population as well as of overpopulation at every stage of history appear to him as a series of external checks which have prevented the population from developing in the Malthusian form. The conditions in which mankind historically produces and reproduces itself appear as barriers to the reproduction of the Malthusian natural man, who is a Malthusian creature. On the other hand, the production of the necessaries of life – as it is checked, determined by human action – appears as a check which it posits to itself. The ferns would cover the entire earth. Their reproduction would stop only where space for them ceased. They would obey no arithmetic proportion. It is hard to say where Malthus has discovered that the reproduction of voluntary natural products would stop for intrinsic reasons, without external checks. He transforms the immanent, historically changing limits of the human reproduction process into outer barriers; and the outer barriers to natural reproduction into immanent limits or natural laws of reproduction.

This passage is dense with implications that I won’t unpack here. Malthus stands accused of the move Marx finds most typical of the political economists: maintaining that there used to be history – the history described in terms of “external barriers” and contingent, artificial constraints – but there is no longer any – Malthus’ own laws are taken to be an eternal, natural necessity, contrasting to the external and artificial barriers that prevent these laws from becoming empirically manifest.

For Marx, by contrast, nature has history. Nature is history. A law of population, a pattern of demographic change, is no less “natural” for all that it might apply only given very specific and transient boundary conditions. Births and deaths, famines and times of plenty, become no less objective, no less “biological”, for all that their conditions have the potential to be transformed. Natural laws are not a pure, distilled, isolated, external force exerted upon objects. Natural laws are the descriptions of regularities that emerge within interactions – regularities, then, that can be as fluid as the entities interacting and the diversity of ways those interactions could probabilistically unfold.

Marx suggests that our biology, our physiology, our materiality are not “underlying” factors, onto which more transient things are grafted. Instead, it is our very materiality that is in motion, and the aspects of that materiality that are subject to change (all aspects, on a time scale long enough…) are no less “material” for their openness to transformation.

Marx constantly pushes at this – aiming for a nonreductive materialism – an historical materialism. One which has precisely nothing to do with some inevitable historical progression through defined historical eras until an inevitable culmination has been reached: this unfortunate conventional image of historical materialism transposes into Marx’s work a conception of ahistorical law – of nature as a transcendent, external driving force of more transient phenomena – that is precisely what he was attempting to oppose. It is the political economists, for Marx, who are reaching for the notion that their laws somehow grasp a form of nature that transcends empirical phenomena and the boundaries of their own moment in time. Marx is, by contrast, reaching for tendencies that manifest the peculiar and transformable nature of capitalist society. In the process, he reaches for a form of theory that can cast light on the potential to constitute new forms of interaction – and thereby open up new natures, with their own distinctive patterns – and possibilities.

The Abstraction Before Us

Marx starts what is now published as the introduction to the Grundrisse:

The object before us, to begin with, material production.

It takes over 800 pages of manuscript before he arrives at the starting point he retains in Capital:

(1) Value

This section to be brought forward.

The first category in which bourgeois wealth presents itself is that of the commodity. The commodity itself appears as unity of two aspects. It is use value, i.e. object of the satisfaction of any system whatever of human needs. This is its material side, which the most disparate epochs of production may have in common, and whose examination therefore lies beyond political economy. Use value falls within the realm of political economy as soon as it becomes modified by the modern relations of production, or as it, in turn, intervenes to modify them. What it is customary to say about it in general terms, for the sake of good form, is confined to commonplaces which had a historic value in the first beginnings of the science, when the social forms of bourgeois production had still laboriously to be peeled out of the material, and, at great effort, to be established as independent objects of study. In fact, however, the use value of the commodity is a given presupposition — the material basis in which a specific economic relation presents itself. It is only this specific relation which stamps the use value as a commodity. Wheat, e.g., possesses the same use value, whether cultivated by slaves, serfs or free labourers. It would not lose its use value if it fell from the sky like snow. Now how does use value become transformed into commodity? Vehicle of exchange value. Although directly united in the commodity, use value and exchange value just as directly split apart. Not only does the exchange value not appear as determined by the use value, but rather, furthermore, the commodity only becomes a commodity, only realizes itself as exchange value, in so far as its owner does not relate to it as use value. He appropriates use values only through their sale [Entäusserung], their exchange for other commodities. Appropriation through sale is the fundamental form of the social system of production, of which exchange value appears as the simplest, most abstract expression. The use value of the commodity is presupposed, not for its owner, but rather for the society generally. (Just as a Manchester family of factory workers, where the children stand in the exchange relation towards their parents and pay them room and board, does not represent the traditional economic organization of the family, so is the system of modern private exchange not the spontaneous economy of societies. Exchange begins not between the individuals within a community, but rather at the point where the communities end — at their boundary, at the point of contact between different communities. Communal property has recently been rediscovered as a special Slavonic curiosity. But, in fact, India offers us a sample chart of the most diverse forms of such economic communities, more or less dissolved, but still completely recognizable; and a more thorough research into history uncovers it as the point of departure of all cultured peoples. The system of production founded on private exchange is, to begin with, the historic dissolution of this naturally arisen communism. However, a whole series of economic systems lies in turn between the modern world, where exchange value dominates production to its whole depth and extent, and the social formations whose foundation is already formed by the dissolution of communal property, without

[Here the manuscript breaks off.]

It will not be until the second edition of Capital that Marx settles upon the specific presentation of the distinction between value and exchange-value that I have analysed in the detail in my thesis. (For exhaustive comparisons of Capital’s various editions, see Hans Ehrbar’s site.)

In 1857, however, Marx begins – not with the bifurcated commodity – not with the real abstraction of value – but with material production. We can see already, in this beginning, the struggle to assert that this starting point is historically and socially specific, in spite of the apparent transhistoricity of the category.

Marx’s first gloss on the term “material production” is “Individuals producing in Society”. He immediately qualifies that individuals are not an a priori given, but rather an historical result – the product of many past developments, but misrecognised as an originary starting point for historical development. This misrecognition – a projection of historical results back into prehistory – is itself peculiarly ahistorical at this moment in the text. All times, Marx suggests, make this kind of projection from the historical results they find ready to hand:

Smith and Ricardo still stand with both feet on the shoulders of the eighteenth-century prophets, in whose imaginations this eighteenth-century individual – the product on one side of the dissolution of the feudal forms of society, on the other side of the new forces of production developed since the sixteenth century – appears as an ideal, whose existence they project into the past. Not as a historic result but as history’s point of departure. As the Natural Individual appropriate to their notion of human nature, not arising historically, but posited by nature. This illusion has been common to each new epoch to this day.

By Capital, even projections back onto prehistory have their historical index – even illusions have their differentia specifica. At this earlier point, Marx is still wrestling with the historicity of his own categories: this illusion is common to all new epochs – but not this exact illusion – Marx qualifies – the illusion of individuals as originary requires a very specific historical constellation.

This leads him to qualify his opening sentence: our object is material production – but, when we speak of this, we don’t mean the sort of socially general, transhistorical category this term implies:

Whenever we speak of production, then, what is meant is always production at a definite stage of social development

This attempt to locate the concept doesn’t feel quite right either. It implies the need to talk about historical origins, to declare upfront the social specificity of the category (and we all know from Capital how very far Marx is capable of taking his intense reluctance to declare his presuppositions up front…). Marx’s reluctance to make the dogmatic declaration – to presuppose or declare a priori that his analysis will be historically bounded – leads him to point out that it’s an empirical matter, really, what aspects of production are historically specific:

Still, this general category, this common element sifted out by comparison, is itself segmented many times over and splits into different determinations. Some determinations belong to all epochs, others only to a few. [Some] determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient. No production will be thinkable without them

This still doesn’t satisfy. Marx retreats immediately to emphasising the historical element, which forms the “essential difference”:

however even though the most developed languages have laws and characteristics in common with the least developed, nevertheless, just those things which determine their development, i.e. the elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity – which arises already from the identity of the subject, humanity, and of the object, nature – their essential difference is not forgotten.

This formulation suggests that what is historical is precisely what is not general – and that the historicising move, therefore – the move that would grasp the “essential difference” – is the move that picks out the particular, and discards the general and common elements that can be found in diverse eras. The problem with political economy, Marx says here, is that it mixes up the particular and the general – it gets the general wrong – it projects the particular back onto epochs in which it cannot be found.

He thinks here about the ways in which production can be particular, and arrives at two sorts of particularity: the particularity of different sorts of production within a time (different branches of industry); and the particularity of a time itself, encompassing the various branches that mesh together at a given moment to form a totality. Both forms of particularity are contrasted with “production in general”.

The political economists seek general preconditions of production, but what they find are simple tautologies. Marx argues that this result arises because their aim is in fact not to derive such general principles, but rather to demonstrate that bourgeois relations are grounded in timeless natural law. Abstract away enough from the particular form of production characteristic of our own moment, and you can find characteristics so inextricably bound to production that they can be treated as intrinsic requirements. Declare, reductively, that these intrinsic requirements are the essential core of contemporary production – and the slide quickly to the conclusion that contemporary production therefore manifests the essential core of production as such.

Marx tries to turn now from this first pass at working out how his own categories contrast with those of political economy. His instinct tells him that the difference relates to the level of historical specificity of the categories – but has the preceding discussion captured what the political economists miss?

He introduces new categories: exchange, consumption. These hold his attention for some pages, but the original problem still nags: how are his own categories indexed to history – and how are the categories of political economy not – particularly when he is wielding categories like “production”, “exchange”, and “consumption” – which on their face sound like transhistorical terms?

I’ve previously analysed the section titled “The Method of Political Economy” (among many other places on the blog here, and also buried midway through this thesis chapter), and I won’t repeat that detailed discussion again. I write this post instead to place that discussion in the context of the earlier sections of this introduction. It is with this section that Marx finally begins to place his problem on the terrain he will continue to develop through the writing of Capital: the terrain of real abstraction.

In this section, it is possible to watch Marx pivot to a more sophisticated understanding of an impulse that must initially be seen as more visceral than explicitly reasoned through: he claims his categories are historically specific, but rejects the option of using categories that, because they are concrete seem more self-evidently historically-bounded – something seems right to him about holding on to the abstraction. He starts out in this section – as in the passages analysed above – trying to rationalise the appeal of abstract categories on empiricist grounds: ultimately, there simply are certain things that transcend historical epochs, and so general categories are important to capture these things. As above, he can’t resist the impulse immediately to qualify his own argument, delving into details and exceptions, asking himself questions, and answering himself “That depends”.

Then he finds his way to the category of labour. Here is where he finally hits it. “Labour” as a category encompassing all sorts of variegated human activity is – precisely in its abstractness – a quintessentially modern category. It is only with a rich development of the division of labour, the experience of mobility across forms of labour, a level of practical indifference to specific labouring activities in some dimension of social practice, that this category achieves what Marx here calls a “practical truth as an abstraction”. This is the issue – this will continue to be the issue, even after Marx decides to replace “material production” with the “commodity” as his starting point: the analysis of material production now requires an analysis of abstractions. Not abstractions that arise in the head. Not abstractions that can be reasoned out by looking at many societies across time, and asking what they all have in common. But abstractions that we produce as social realities…

Getting late here now, and I have an early start, so enough on this for tonight… I’ve analysed this passage in enough detail in earlier posts that it’s likely better to point back to those in any event…

Apologies for the long silences on the blog this term. It’s been extraordinarily hectic, in ways that will likely still take a while to resolve. I’ve been missing the space, though, and hope to be more active online soon.


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