Rough Theory

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Category Archives: Abstraction

Indirection

In an indirect and incomplete way, some of the questions currently hanging in the comments here, I’ve addressed – sleepily – in a comment over at Nate’s… Rather than spreading the discussion across two sites, I thought I’d just post a pointer over there… Eventually (soon?), I’ll try to take up some of these issues over here…

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.

For Roger

Roger is complaining about the long silence, and asking me to recycle old content if nothing else to keep things a bit noisier around here… I had been planning to break my silence with a post about sex in Capital (all together now: “ewwww!”), but since I keep having to defer writing that post, I thought I’d do the second-best thing, and lift from the comments something Roger has suggested should have made its debut in post form…

I do plan on being back soon… But I keep saying this, and it’s been a very quiet year around the blog as real-world responsibilities keep escalating as soon as I start to hit a workload groove… So for the moment, something from the old comments. More soon…

***

I have tried to make an extended argument that Capital needs to be read as a deflationary text – meaning that, where other forms of theory tend to presuppose certain “givens”, on the basis of which they then conduct their analysis, Capital tries not to do this. It tries, instead, to show how the major tools in its analytical toolkit – including foundational categories like “society”, “history”, or “material life” – are actively produced by specific forms of human interactions, and therefore reflect the distinctive sensibilities that are primed by particular forms of collective practice.

I’ve written before about a passage in the Grundrisse where Marx praises Smith for developing the category of “labour” – where this term means any sort of productive activity, rather than some specific form of activity (like agriculture). Marx believes that Smith was only able to come up with this category because collective practices were in fact enacting “labour” in that way – there was some dimension of collective life in which we had become genuinely indifferent to whether someone grew food or made handicrafts or provided services. This practical experience made Smith’s theoretical achievement possible, in Marx’s account – which doesn’t mean that Smith didn’t have to work very hard to work out, explicitly, the implications of that practical process – to draw the conclusion that “labour” could mean something like productive activity of whatever sort, rather than being tied to some specific kind of production.

A lot of Capital offers much more complex versions of this sort of argument. It takes categories from political economy (and other forms of theory) and explores what is happening in our practical experience to make it “socially valid” to develop these sorts of categories at a particular period of time. In the process, Marx often also points out that particular forms of theory have seized on practical processes in a “one sided” way – so, a theory may legitimately express something happening in one dimension of social practice – and may be very accurate if applied only to that dimension. However, that same theory may be completely blind to some other dimension of practical experience – and, as a result, it may overextrapolate from the dimension it does express well. It may conclude, for example, that human nature has a certain character, because humans really do behave a certain way in some slice of their social existence. This conclusion can sometimes be undermined just by bringing other slices of social experience to bear on the question. Capital attempts to do this in a systematic fashion.

When analysing Smith’s category of “labour”, Marx notes that Smith achieved this great breakthrough – he articulated explicitly the implications of this great shift in social practices, which meant that it had become tacitly possible to think about productive activity in general, rather than specific kinds of production. By making this explicit, Smith performed – Marx believed – a great service, making this explicit category available and opening up new forms of perception and practice as a result. However, Smith’s insight was precarious – Marx notes that Smith didn’t always manage to hang onto the best implications of his own insight. Sometimes, Marx argues, Smith slid back into earlier physiocratic understandings of labour – this backsliding, Marx argues, indicates how hard it actually is to hang on, explicitly, to insights that are tacit in new sorts of collective practice – it takes a while for concepts to become intuitive and settle in.

I would suggest there’s something similar happening with Marx’s more crass or “vulgar” statements about the centrality of material life to human society. The overwhelming thrust of a work like Capital is that what matters is collective practical experience – of whatever sort. The text examines practices associated with material production – but it also examines law, the state, contract relations, customs, ideals, gender relations – basically anything it occurs to Marx to fold in. Moreover, when it does analyse “material” relations, it does so in order to show how we effect our material reproduction through customary practices that have nothing to do with the intrinsic requirements of material production per se – and the text also offers an extremely complex and sophisticated analysis of how we could come to believe in the existence of a disenchanted “material world” in the first place (where the answer is that we come to believe in such a world because, at this moment, we are in fact collectively enacting such a world – and then overextrapolating from the slice of social existence where that enactment takes place, losing sight of our role in making a material world of a certain sort).

Spelling all this out is complicated – too much for a comment. So this is probably not all that convincing as stated. But it’s what was floating in the background of the offhand comment above. Some of Marx’s explicit statements to the effect that, e.g., how people meet their material needs is more analytically central than, say, language – I view these as similar to Adam Smith sliding back into physiocratic concepts of “labour”: they fall behind the level of sophistication that Marx actually deploys in Capital – they are fundamentally metaphysical – and, since Marx mounts an enormous critique of the metaphysics of political economy in Capital, he really should know better.

The core of Marx’s deflationary critique of political economy is that, as soon as a theory starts presupposing or treating as given the constitutive moments of its subject matter, it has failed to examine how that subject matter itself came into being. When it loses the ability to examine how the subject matter came into being, it naturalises its subject matter – it becomes blind to the contingency of the subject matter itself, and therefore cannot conceptualise how the subject matter itself could be abolished or transformed.

Normally Marx keeps this squarely in view. Sometimes… not so much. Passages in which he insists that material life is always at the centre are, in my view, “not so much” moments of his work – they get in the way (not just abstractly – this is, historically, practically, the impact they have had) of understanding the sorts of transformations that might be possible, and how those transformations might be achieved.

Immanence and Materialism Conference Talk

Another talk below the fold… this time from the Immanence and Materialism conference – which proved to be a very good event, with a collection of excellent papers that, I understand, will soon be collected for online publication at a conference website – I’ll post a link to the blog when I have one.

As usual, the text below is what was said – more or less – at the conference. I’ll put up a more polished version with full referencing on the conference website shortly.

More soon, I hope… Read more of this post

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.

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.

Thesis Workshop: With What Must the Thesis Begin?

This coming Friday, I have to fulfil a mandatory pre-submission requirement for the thesis that basically involves presenting on the structure and the major claims of the thesis, and then taking questions from faculty and students who happen to attend the event. The faculty who attend are provided with the abstract, first chapter, and table of contents for the thesis – unless they are actual supervisors, they are unlikely to have read anything else. The students who attend are not, to my knowledge, supplied with anything. Presumably they are either friends of the presenters, and therefore know their work through that connection, or they are simply there to see what this hurdle requirement entails. The purpose of the requirement is to provide a sort of check and balance on the supervision process – making it less likely that theses will be sent out for examination (which, here, is an entirely external process) when they are likely to require major amendments or not to pass.

If any readers from my university would like to attend, the event will be held in the Research Lounge from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday 27 February. There will be four or five of us presenting and taking questions – each of us with an hour to ourselves. I don’t know as of yet which hour is mine. If this matters, send me an email, and I’ll let you know when and if I find out…

Since the introduction I recently posted to the blog was mainly a placeholder – and one that was specifically not very well-designed, I didn’t think, for people who weren’t going to read the rest of the thesis – I have rewritten it for purposes of distribution to the staff who will be attending this event. I think it’s much better than the one I posted a couple of weeks ago, so, to satisfy my archivalist impulses, I’ve posted it below the fold. As before, it still needs a lot of detail work (and footnotes have been stripped from the blog version), but as an overarching introduction it does a much better job – I think – of preparing the reader for the sort of thesis they are about to read, the terminology used in the thesis, and the style of argument the thesis makes. I think…

I belong to the first group of students to whom this presentation requirement has been applied, so the groundrules for the event – and what you have to do to “pass” – are still a bit unformed. I’m not expecting any major dramas, but who knows… I’ll let folks know next week…

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab.]

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Thesis Workshop: Introduction – Historical Materialism and Real Abstraction

It’s a bit rough and ready, but I’ll post the working introduction to the thesis here anyway. If I keep this introduction in anything like its current form, I’ll need to make some slight modifications to several of the later chapters, since the introduction currently covers some of the ground discussed in later chapters, and would make those discussions seem repetitive…

Lots of detail work still to do – but this should be the end of the thesis-related posts for now. I’ll put up a PDF of the version of the thesis that is actually submitted when that is ready to go.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab.]

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Thesis Workshop: What a Piece of Work Is Man

Okay. Last substantive chapter of the thesis. This chapter was very difficult to write. I think it was worth the difficulty. But perhaps that’s just relief at finishing the argument…

This chapter outlines the derivation of the category of labour-power, explores how this derivation fundamentally alters our sense of the opening categories, and generally tries to pull everything together. I’m queueing this piece for publication several days before it will appear on the blog, so I’m not certain whether there will be an introduction and conclusion to be posted hot on the heels of this chapter, or whether this will be it for a while. I have considered possibly just ending the thesis with this chapter, as anything that follows will likely be a bit more prosaic than the ground this chapter covers, ensuring the thesis ends, so to speak, on a whimper. I suspect, though, that I need a more formal conclusion just to get a quick outline of the major points all in one place… So: a concluding chapter probably still to come, and an introductory chapter definitely still to come (and, since we all know the beginning can’t really be fully grasped until it can be shown to be the necessary starting point of the system derived from it, it’s surely fitting that what should have been first in the order of presentation, will instead appear last… ;-P).

[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.]
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