Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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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6 responses to “Elliptical Critique

  1. Demet March 16, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    beautiful, nicole, like a more mature form of the thoughts presented in this blog over the years…

    I want to think about the implications of your perspective with respect a)empirical field research b)political discourse and demands.

    1) When one starts adopting a practice-theoretic approach and tries to make sense of ‘different dimensions of social practice and the perceptions and thoughts made available by them’ as you mentioned in different places, then examining different groups of individuals (traders, manufacturers, workers, petty commodity producers….etc) assumes a different direction: It is no longer possible to talk about general perceptions of those groups about their life, their conditions, their visions for the future….etc. Since they experience different dimensions of social practice coexistently, their thoughts are equally contradictory. For example some producers can be pro-state intervention (credit or subsidies) in order to increase their competitiveness, others completely pro-market if they operate within the global circuits of capital (via supplier chains which help them to grow) and experience state intervention on prices as a threat rather than a possibility. The same producer can be very critical of certain forms of state intervention (such as favouring some capital groups) but very supportive of other forms; but the way in which he expresses those concerns can take, orally, a harsh attack on the state, which may repress, in this specific repertoire, his own aspirations to get some state support.

    When the researcher examines practices, he can be equally perplexed to interpret those contradictory and co-existent dimensions of social practices. One can well observe profit-maximising, selfish behaviour AND continuation of social bonds, trust and mutual support amongst the capitalists who compete in the market. The neoclassical economists would take the former as an ontological reality, the economic sociologists would take the latter as an invalidation of the former. Some would also say that the former is functional to sustain the reproduction of the former. When I look at those practices, however, I do not think that one is more ‘real’ than the other. They are all real subjective motivations by individuals and the function any of those practices takes can only be determined WITHIN a set of actual relations. Social bonds, kinship or trust can sustain market relations OR impede them OR become the form by which market relations express themselves OR can dissolve….depending on the specific development of capitalist relations in a locality. Even more complicated, they can assume at the same time contradictory functions (both facilitating and limiting) and since the reality of capital is geometrically fractal and temporally non-linear, it can be very difficult for an empirical study to identify those tendencies without equating any of them with a universally applicable law of the capital relation. Daniel Bensaid again makes important interventions about how to understand the very concept of tendency in that regard.

    2) ‘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.’ The political implication of such an argument is very important. How to make sure that our own political projects are not truncated by the elliptical movement and pushed to the reproduction of the unintended whole? Are there ways to avoid this truncation by our own design work, if the very whole is itself the contingent yet still unintended process without a designer? I do not have one ready answer to this but I think a more detailed analysis of the past revolutionary struggles and their failures can give us some clues to think about this question.

    Moreover, in relation to point 1, political demands can sometimes be themselves targeting one-sided yet still real dimensions of social reality, they can be meaningful and emancipatory from a specific perspective, but completely regressive by contributing to the reproduction of capital. Inevitable the reality of politics pushes one to make immediate demands on the basis of those limited dimensions, but I am convinced that such necessity for immediate reflection and action has to be complemented by a more difficult work of re-design of the existing components of a capitalist society, in the way Bogdanov does in the Red Star, a small part of which I tried to explore in my blog. This will mean we need to get inspiration from engineers, architects, hackers and natural scientists as much as we do from Lenin and Gramsci. So that we can look again and again this huge machine which is capital, un-make it and re-make it for new purposes.

    need to run to an interview now. I know I need to develop much more though.

  2. roger March 19, 2010 at 1:50 am

    Nicole, the interlibrary loan people finally delivered Postone to me – Time, labor and social domination. I’m reading it wondering what you make of Postone’s thesis that Marx is defining labor with relation to the capitalist regime of production, making his work a critique of labor. If I’m getting it right!

    You’d mentioned Postone before, which is why I ordered the book.

  3. N Pepperell March 19, 2010 at 5:26 am

    Hey folks – apologies for the delays responding – it’s ridiculously hectic at the moment.

    Demet – this is a wonderful comment. Aside from the issues of multiplicity that you mention, the other thing I would add is that you also regularly get odd phenomena where people will find most intuitive or appealing some dimension of collective experience that does not coincide with their “interests” (i.e., the examples you give under #1 above still tacitly align people’s internal contradictions with the various ways they benefit or do not benefit from different dimensions of social practice, but my historical sense is that it can get weirder than that: I remember watching a number of waves of social movements roll through the US where what was most striking was watching people get caught up in political ideals that were resonant with dimensions of practice that would not necessarily have been central or dominant aspects of experience for the people endorsing the ideals – it seemed at the time as though people found the ideals powerful in part because they seemed tacitly familiar, and yet the basis for this familiarity was difficult to place in practical terms – and this difficulty-to-place actually made the ideals more convincing, in some ways, because they seemed sui generis and “natural” in a way they might not have seemed, if people had easily been able to trace their familiarity back to everyday experience?).

    roger – if you’re able to get a copy, I’d also very highly recommend Derek Sayer’s work – either Marx’s Method or Violence of Abstraction – Sayer’s stuff is harder to get hold of than Postone’s, but is really good, with a nice deflationary relationship to the rest of the Marxist tradition. Sayer unusually (well, unusually for someone with the sort of read he has) doesn’t come at Marx via Hegel – and this leads him in some directions I find problematic – but in general I think he’s quite good.

    Postone’s work is frustrating to me. I quite like his programmatic intentions, but I don’t think he cashes most of them out on the ground. (In the intro to the thesis version posted to the blog, I express some of my frustrations, although a proper critique would take more time than I spend on him there.) Postone’s work aims itself at forms of Marxist theory that understand communism teleologically, as the emergence into history of some sort of immanent essence of labour – and argues that Marx’s work should be seen as a critique of “labour”, rather than as grounded in “labour” as its standpoint. Postone focuses so exclusively on this as his vision of Marxism – and also carries it to such an extreme (i.e., not acknowledging explicitly that there have always been strains of Marxism that have sought the abolition of labour), that unfortunately he’s gotten off-side many people who might otherwise be sympathetic with what he’s trying to do theoretically, because he seems either unaware or unwilling to credit how many other people have expressed similar goals.

    This aside, my own position is that, while Postone is programmatically good, he tends actually in a more subtle way to reproduce core tendencies in what he’s criticising. Like many theories that focus on the category of totality, Postone has trouble speaking concretely about the generation of potentials for transformation or for what Derrida might call “selective inheritance” – his theoretical system takes totality as the target, rather than the standpoint, of its critique, but the categories are designed, still, to express the “totality”, and therefore struggle to express anything else (this is a common problem, I think, in theories heavily reliant on the metaphor of totality to describe capitalism – all of which, from my point of view, miss the sardonic way in which Marx himself is borrowing this sort of imagery from Hegel).

    On a more technical level, I think Postone fundamentally misses the point with Marx’s notion of abstract labour – he seems to follow Rubin (who is also worth reading, if you haven’t yet – much of his work is available online now) in treating abstract labour as some special function labour plays under capitalism, that labour has never played before. Much of Postone’s critique of traditional Marxism hinges on the charge that traditional Marxism has missed this historically specific role of labour, and conflated this role with the role labour plays more transhistorically. I find this problematic on more ways I can outline here: I don’t think abstract labour is some sort of “function” – it’s an aggregate result – it reflects the anthropological reality that, when we engage in particular sorts of labour, we don’t know in advance how much of the labour we expend will get to “count” as part of social labour (i.e., how much labour will be able to attract “effective demand”); I don’t think Marx’s critique relies on being able to distinguish genuinely historical from genuinely transhistorical aspects of contemporary social experience (Marx puts forward a very complex argument about where our notions of “history” come from, and what characteristics we therefore attribute to things we believe are socially transcendent, historically general “material” functions), etc., etc.

    I do think, though, that Postone is quite good on aspects of the social structuration of time, which he gets to later in the book, and which, I think, is the driving force of the book. And his programmatic statements, even though I don’t think he cashes them out, have been very important to the development of my own work.

    But I have to run!!

  4. N Pepperell March 19, 2010 at 7:37 am

    P.S. roger – thinking back on it, my response may be a bit to the side of what you were asking, so: yes, I do take Marx to be offering a critique of labour – a critique that calls for the abolition of wage labour, and the automation of socially necessary labour to the greatest possible extent, so as to increase the time available for the voluntarily chosen activities that develop individual potentials. Lafargue’s Right to Be Lazy gets it right…

  5. roger March 19, 2010 at 9:46 am

    As always, Nicole, your answers are simply amazing!
    Much of the time, I find, reading secondary literature on Marx is most important for the reference to passages in Marx I overlooked, or not read carefully. Postone is great about that.

    However, I have a question about abstract labor. If it is an aggregative effect of the uncertainty inherent in routines and plans, I’m not sure that this would invalidate Postone’s point. For the composition of the expectation defining the “effective demand” could alter between modes of production, I would think. And that in turn would seem to alter the way one measures abstract labor. Wouldn’t this, then, fit in the pattern of seeing that a new system of production can emerge in an old system of production, which would in turn have the effect of, say, destroying old artisan bonds, old forms of craftsmanship, old relations between the landowner and the tenant?

    Although I guess you could say, well, still, abstract labor exists as an effect in pre-capitalist forms of life – what changes is its systematic inter-connectedness.

  6. N Pepperell March 19, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Hey roger – my reaction to Postone’s understanding of abstract labour comes from a different direction, I suspect – my objection here is somewhat technical and relates to a broader frustration with the failure within many forms of Marxist theory to theorise social phenomena that are impersonal and aggregate in character. Postone makes the right programmatic claims in relation to some of this, but I don’t think the detailed workings of his analysis cash those programmatic claims out on the ground. I don’t think his work is incompatible with mine: I think it doesn’t actually make the argument it is attempting to make (and this is actually one of the things that drove me to try to make the argument myself).

    I think that Postone programmatically gets the idea that Marx’s critique is immanent – that a new system of production can emerge as an adaptation of parts generated within the old system. It’s just that I don’t think he gets, on a more concrete level, what the social referent of “abstract labour” is, in Marx’s account.

    The way Postone discusses the phenomenon, I strongly suspect that what he does (and this contradicts some of his own programmatic claims) is tacitly identify “capitalism” with “the market” – this is the only way that it would make sense to talk about “labour” developing a historically specific function that involves serving as a means of acquiring goods, in addition to its historically general function as a means of producing goods. Lurking in the background on a tacit level in his account, I suspect, is a simplified notion of how the economy operates, such that he implies in various places that wages are driving the whole system – making labour a “reflexive” ground for capitalism in ways that actually resemble a fairly orthodox account; it’s just that Postone will claim that this ground is historically specific, and that other forms of Marxism miss the historical specificity, and believe that labour is a “ground” because it produces goods, rather than because it governs their distribution.

    It’s somewhat controversial to say this, because Postone programmatically claims he isn’t doing this: he claims that he’s trying to move beyond approaches that equate capitalism with “the market” and that focus disproportionately on distribution. I think those programmatic goals are good ones to have. I just think there’s a tacit metaphorics working in his account that mean that his argument, as presented, is basically doing exactly what he criticises. So labour still gets to be a “ground” – just a historically specific one that Postone wants to abolish. And wages make the world (or, at least, goods) go round – which flattens the complex workings of the capitalist economy to one of its moments… The argument is much more orthodox than it realises… but proving this would take some work…

    I do think Marx offers an anthropological theory of why capitalist production tends to reproduce the need to expend human labour power – but I think Postone over-fixates on what’s essentially Capital‘s first pass at explaining that: sections in the early chapters where Marx begins to suggest why people experience their need to work as driven “physiologically”. I just think the overarching argument is much more complicated.

    The thesis couldn’t hit on how this works in enough detail, because it stops basically at the chapters that Postone and many other recent re-interpretations of Marx also stop at – the opening several chapters that introduce the categories of capital, value, abstract labour, etc. While I had to stop the thesis here for reasons of length, it was unfortunate to replicate this over-emphasis on the earlier chapters, given that my argument is that too many forms of Marxist theory basically do the same thing, and thus fail to see how incredibly complicated the whole argument is, and how its parts hang together. I can get a lot more complexity out of the opening chapters than many people do – but a lot of larger questions just can’t be tackled properly until I can write systematically on the other chapters…

    But basically: no, definitionally for Marx abstract labour does not exist in pre-capitalist societies – it’s intended to be an historically-specific term. Marx is obsessed with working out the differentia specifica of capitalist societies, and abstract labour is part of that specific character that divides capitalism off from other historical periods. There’s a passage in the first chapter on Aristotle, which I’ve written about previously on the blog, and which I do some more substantial work with in the revised version of the thesis, where the point is basically to say that categories that political economy understands as straightforward “logical” deductions are not at all evident, to Aristotle, as “logical”. This passage is used to talk about the way in which intuitive “logic” is primed by practical experience. So while Marx might be fine with someone running around and looking at “labour” in past societies, he thinks it’s incredibly important methodologically and politically to know why this category exists “for us”, when it was not intuitive as a category for other times. Without this insight, using the category with indifference to historical context tends to naturalise what’s happening in our own time.

    In the Grundrisse, Marx suggests that abstract labour (he doesn’t use that term, but talks about Adam Smith’s development of a general category for labour per se) could be a product of a social process that makes it possible for people to move freely between a wide range of occupations – a position more compatible with the notion that abstract labour might arise just due to the dissolution of artisanal production. By Capital, Marx’s notion of the social process required to generate “abstract labour” has become hugely more complicated than this – it’s no longer a matter just of being able to move (or being forced to move) between different sorts of labouring activity; it’s a matter of a much more complex set of social dynamics that – Marx thinks – involve a socially unconscious enactment of an aggregate of “social labour”. Marx thinks this practical experience can be appropriated and institutionalised in very different ways – that in its current form, it’s institutionalised in ways that are coercive and destructive, but that, in principle, it could be an accidental historical insight: that there is a certain amount of “social labour” which needs to be performed – that this social labour is not identified in the old artisanal way with the identities and social status of the workers who perform it – that we could collectively develop democratic mechanisms for managing our social labour in common, in ways that would enable better individual development, etc.

    There’s nothing in Postone that would have a problem with this on a programmatic level – the devil is just in the details of what he can cash out… Apologies for not doing a better job of spelling out what I think the problem is – the issue is that it’s subtle, precisely because, on a programmatic level, Postone wants to do more than he does… At some point I’ll write on him in more detail – just haven’t yet had time…

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