Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: March 2010

Hacking History

Just a quick thought, drawing on some of the elements from a conversation happening over at roger’s site.

In the post below, I mentioned that one of the parallels that could be drawn between Darwin’s work, and Marx’s, was that both are concerned to explain how a nonrandom result – a pattern of historical change – might take place without a conscious designer. Another parallel is the notion that adaptation takes place through the gradual modification of existing structures – biological structures, for Darwin; social structures, for Marx. Marx’s understanding of historical development has often been misinterpreted as teleological, as though later periods of history realise some sort of immanent essence of earlier ones. Darwin’s theory has often been similarly misinterpreted. But the point, in both cases, is much more prosaic: things that exist now – biological or social – have arisen from the gradual modification of things that existed in the past. A relation therefore connects the present to the past – not because the past necessarily drove history in some particular developmental direction, but because the present was formed from the reconfiguration of materials that existed in the past.

“God is a hacker, not an engineer”, Francis Crick is reported to have said: evolution, in other words, does not operate according to conscious intention or predetermined plan, but opportunistically, blindly seizing situational potentials for transformation. For Marx, history has been a hacker as well: our present time has emerged from a similar sort of gradual, unintentional modification of the detritus of earlier societies.

Marx poses the possibility of a new driving force of historical change – one consciously, collectively chosen. But even this possibility is situated historically – Marx’s argument is not that, unlike all preceding historical periods, our time should be the first to defy the notion of adaptation through modification. Instead, Marx carefully analyses the potentials immanent within our history, allowing him to present communism as another historical adaptation that operates by reconfiguring materials that lie ready to hand. At the same time, and more profoundly, Marx presents the possibility for the sort of conscious politics of social development on an aggregate scale as itself one of the historical adaptations that has been generated unintentionally, through a prior process of blind gradual modification operating on earlier social structures. In this case, the blind historical process, stumbling along its accidental path, has speciated a new kind of potential driving force for historical change: a possibility to recognise and consciously participate in what, up until this point, has been an unconscious process.

Very little time at the moment, so the phrasing here is probably not ideal – it’s so easy to hear either teleology or voluntarism in these kinds of discussions, and so I’m not sure the way I’ve presented this quite captures what I’m trying to convey… But more at a quieter time…

Elliptical Critique

Light posting for the moment, as it’s the beginning of our term here, and so things are quite hectic, but I wanted to pick up on one small point that had occurred to me in the course of responding to one of roger’s recent posts on Marx.

I’ve written quite a lot, at various times, on how I understand Capital to be putting forward a series of partial perspectives that are each looking on out specific aspects of an overarching process that is far more complex than any one of those perspectives is able to capture. This is a strategy that, I believe, weaves its way throughout the text, such that no particular moment gives us “the” critical standpoint of the text. This critical standpoint instead resides in the ability to move around amongst the available perspectives, constantly looking back over our shoulders at previous perspectives and seeing how the phenomena they described appear when viewed from a different standpoint.

One of the things revealed by this sort of fluid standpoint, I believe, is that the “same” social practices or social phenomena can carry multiple consequences – only some of which are easily visible from any particular point of view. In this context, categories like “capital” or the “commodity” – the categories often central to recent “new dialectical” interpretations of Marx – pick out what I have called “emergent effects”: these are categories that describe very complex patterns of aggregate social behaviour that are not caused by one type of social practice alone, or even by a few types of social practices operating together, but instead by the joint operation of a very wide array of social practices, none of which is immediately oriented to achieving such an aggregate effect.

Capital sets out to show – and this is its connection with Darwin’s work – how, in the absence of an overarching Designer or Plan, it is possible nevertheless for aggregate social practices to generate non-random results. To do this, it re-assembles the array of social practices Marx takes to be essential to achieving these peculiar aggregate social results, in order to show how the various bits of the array each generate some consequence that contributes to the peculiar overarching historical patterns Marx sets out to analyse.

One goal of the text, then, is to answer the question: how could a complex pattern of aggregate social behaviour come into being in the absence of a designer or a plan? And one could add: without this pattern arising from some essential characteristic of human nature, social life, or the material world? For Marx’s project differs from Darwin’s in that he is committed to showing the contingency of the patterns he describes.

This goal is important, but it is not the only goal governing Marx’s presentation in Capital. The text would be considerably simpler – but also much more one-sided – if the point were just to show how a particular sort of unintended consequence were generated if and only if a very specific array of social practices were operating in tandem.

Another important goal of the text is to explore all of the other consequences and implications of the social practices that – when they operate in tandem – generate emergent effects like “capital”. Because these other consequences and potentials are also dimensions of social experience for indigenous inhabitants of capitalist societies. Thus, when Capital unfurls the array of practices that must operate together to generate specific aggregate results, it also tarries over the more immediate consequences of each practice in the array, exploring the phenomenological experience of social actors who engage in that practice, often as this phenomenological experience shifts from moment to moment during the execution of the “same” practice, and also exploring the more immediate effects each practice generates for other social actors and for the material world.

These more immediate effects are often easier for social actors to discern – and might, in fact, be common to many periods of human history. What has changed for some practices is instead the more indirect effects these practices generate only because they are currently contributing to a complex system that is historically new. This distinction – between immediate effects that may be consciously intended or are at least easier for social actors to discern – and indirect aggregate effects that result from the simultaneous performance of many different kinds of social practices – is one of the reasons, in Marx’s account, that is it so difficult for social actors to grasp the ontological status of the phenomena observed by political economy.

Political economists don’t know “where to have” categories like “value”, because these categories express the emergent effects of many different practices – effects that are not intended, and that often do not resemble – or even “contradict” – the more immediate effects of the very same sorts of social practices that help generate this aggregate result. In this situation, the aggregate effects can come to seem like ontologically spooky results of capacities for self-organisation inherent in the material world, so long as humans keep out of the way. The contingent social basis for this “self”-organisation can come to seem mysterious and opaque. Marx believes that he can deflate this mystery – that he can demonstrate that political economy is being metaphysical in treating phenomena as “given” – by showing how aggregate effects can be produced by the combined operation of social practices whose immediate consequences may bear no resemblance to the aggregate phenomena they generate.

One side effect of this analysis is that it shows how the “same” social practices can generate “contradictory” consequences – depending on how far downstream the analysis follows the consequences that a specific social practice can generate. As Capital moves through various perspectives, what Marx is often exploring is what social tendencies look like, at the precise moment that social actors are engaging in specific forms of practice. Marx goes through dozens of forms of practice in this way – often breaking what we would casually regard as the “same” practice (like “using money”) down into sub-practices that involve very different sorts of actions and performative stances.

Then, quite brilliantly, he links up specific forms of political economic theory to the way the world looks, if you are using the perceptual and conceptual resources engendered by some specific form of practice. In this way, he establishes how, and to what extent, specific forms of political economic are “socially valid”: he shows that a specific theory expresses fairly well the forms of social experience that arise when people are, e.g., selling goods, or paying off debt, or earning interest. He then moves onto another practice, and shows that very different possibilities for social experience are opened up by that practice – and thus retroactively criticises earlier perspectives by showing that they capture only a very small part of the social experience available collectively to us.

In this way, political economic theories are revealed to be partial representations of some small dimension of social experience. They might be perfectly accurate as far as that small slice of experience is concerned, but they are guilty of over-extrapolation: they hypostatise that dimension of social experience and behave as though it operates in isolation, unchecked by the operation of any other practices. As a result, they arrive at a very poor sense of the dynamics and tendencies of capitalist production as a whole.

In Capital‘s third chapter, Marx steals from Hegel an interesting image for expressing a social “contradiction”:

We saw in a former chapter that the exchange of commodities implies contradictory and mutually exclusive conditions. The further development of the commodity does not abolish these contradictions, but rather provides the form within which they have room to move. This is, in general, the way in which real contradictions are resolved. For instance, it is a contradiction to depict one body as constantly falling towards another and at the time same constantly flying away from it. The ellipse is a form of motion within which this contradiction is both realized and resolved. (198)

In capitalism’s much more complex elliptical movement, poor forms of theory operate like someone who sees only one dimension of the ellipse, and doesn’t understand how that dimension is checked by other, contradictory tendencies. So they rightly see that one tendency is that two bodies are constantly falling toward one another, and they declare that the fundamental law of motion is that they shall crash! Or they rightly see that one tendency is that two bodies are constantly flying apart, and they declare that the fundamental law of motion is that they shall become ever more distant from one another! These perceptions aren’t products of poor reasoning, exactly – they are based on the genuine experience of their object. It’s just that they fail to grasp how complex that object is, in practice, and so they arrive at a much simpler, much more linear, understanding of how its dynamics will play out over time.

In roger’s recent series of posts, one recurrent touchstone has been how to understand passages where Marx seems to imply that money dissolves everything – that all relationships become fungible, all hierarchies dissolve, all solids melt into air. I would suggest that the way to understand such passages is as perspectives – perspectives that are partial, that are valid only contingently, and only in bounded ways. Marx ventriloquises such perspectives, showing how the laws of motion of capitalism appear from their standpoint – and he also tries to show what aspect of everyday, mundane practical social experience engenders the sensibilities that have been articulated theoretically into this form. But he does not use these passages to make fixed ontological claims – even historically contingent ones. He does not claim, e.g., that relationships “are” fungible – he claims that there is a dimension of social practice that if it were looked at in isolation from all other social practices would imply that this could be the case. The perspective that claims this, however, operates with a significant blind spot: it doesn’t acknowledge the effects of the many other social practices that stand in the way of realising this implicit “telos” of one small dimension of a complex whole.

At the same time, however, having a dimension of social practice – however small – that suggests the possibility to dissolve all social hierarchies: this is incendiary. Recurrent social experience – even if fleeting – with a dimension of social practice that suggests this sort of contingency has a potentially corrosive effect. The potential to transform hierarchies, to burst through barriers, is placed on the experiential table through countless mundane practices that are not in themselves transformative, but that can be articulated (as Marx does in the Communist Manifesto) to transformative ends. By themselves, these practical experiences point in no specific direction: capitalist “creative destruction” is as compatible with the notion that all barriers can fall, as is the mobilisation for a future egalitarian society – an explicitly political articulation and appropriation of this reservoir of collective experience is required. But the initial corrosive force – the introduction of a nagging possibility for transformation – first arises, in Marx’s account, in a very mundane way – as unintentional as the aggregate forms of social coercion that Capital also analyses.

Capital seeks to tease out these tacit potentials, as they arise in a wide array of everyday practices whose indirect consequence also happens to be the reproduction of capital. There is nothing in the practical constitution of these potentials that suggests that, left to their own devices, they would necessarily drive historical development in some specific direction: our practices generate accidental possibilities; something active is required – a new selective inheritance that cites different moments of our history – to break free of the elliptical movement that, at present, truncates the development of specific potentials, constraining them into a form compatible with the continued reproduction of the unintended whole.


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