Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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.

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6 responses to “Imminence of Immanences

  1. roger June 2, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    I think you should have highlighted, a bit, the phrase ‘zooms in and out” – I do like it! Anyway, hope you have an excellent time in London.

  2. lisa June 2, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Your papers sound really interesting. Will you publish anything from them at some stage do you think?

  3. N Pepperell June 3, 2009 at 2:53 am

    Hey roger – I use that phrase somewhere in the thesis, and I’m very fond of it as an image for what Marx is doing :-) I haven’t forgotten your original suggestion for this paper, by the way – hope to do more on the issue of history, and the creation of universal history, for another event later this year or next…

    Hey lisa – The Marx & Philosophy society seems to post the papers from its events – if they don’t plan to, I’ll put the text of the talk online here. The piece for the other event is actually a sort of test run of an argument I’m writing for a chapter in a collection, so there will be a more developed version of the argument in print hopefully in the future, but again I’ll probably put the text of the talk online here.

    I’m still finding it quite difficult to give a sense of how my argument “works” in short pieces. The Marx & Philosophy Society talk is around 40 minutes long, but even that requires some severe pruning and bracketing of important dimensions of the argument. The Immanence conference papers are very very short – 20 minutes – which is absolutely standard for a conference, but which is not friendly to arguments that require taking the audience/reader through multiple layers before you can reach the conclusion. I’m planning basically on writing something much longer, but only presenting a single section – one or two steps, rather than the whole argument that would be required to cash out that abstract… We’ll see how it goes…

  4. lisa June 3, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Thanks NP. What’s the collection again? I know you’ve mentioned it, but have forgotten the details.

    I know what you mean about condensing material. I often try to squeeze too much in, which just means no-one understands it but me, or else I spend long hours trying to edit it, which is exhausting. Good luck with it.

  5. Bis June 25, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    hi n :-)

    i am reading chris arthur’s “dialectics of labour” at the moment. I am particularly interested in how your “Immanence and Materialism” paper approaches interpretations such as his where the “second order mediation” of labour’s self alienation is mapped on to the “first order mediation” of material production.

    Looking forward to reading the paper – when is it going to be up?!

  6. N Pepperell June 25, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Hey Bis – I’m putting it up this afternoon! So watch this space :-) (I’ll also send a properly cited version to be posted, along with the other papers – which were very good – at a website for the conference – details on that as soon as I have them.)

    Because of time and space constraints, though, I dealt with Murray and Postone (and, to a very slight degree, Sayer), rather than Arthur, so it might not quite hit on what you’re after. The revised doctoral thesis is much more likely to address what you’re after, when I get around to putting that up.

    The first paper, by the way, was delivered with Chris Arthur sitting in the front row, right in front of me as I was speaking – his hand was the first up as soon as I had finished… ;-) He was very very generous – not entirely convinced, mind you, but generous nonetheless… :-) I had very good discussions with him, which will factor into the final thesis revisions in, I think, a useful way… But talking to myself here really: point is, paper will be up in a sec… ;-)

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