Rough Theory

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Irony and Totality

Another fragment of offline writing re-posted here – this one’s potentially quite rough and ready, and in need of double-checking with the texts to which I refer, so read with all due caution, etc.

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The notion that Capital has certain “literary” features is neither new nor uncommon. As Wolff (1988) notes, however, until very recently such analyses have generally been put forward by scholars who lacked a social theoretic background, and who could therefore point out literary tropes, but not explain what substantive social theoretic purpose these tropes might serve. In this category falls, for example, the impressionistic and somewhat breathless argument by Sypher (1948: 438) that that Capital should be understood as an example of a common Victorian literary trope of melodrama:

Philosophically, the work is not melodrama; aesthetically it is… Capital is a dramatic poem, or possibly a dramatic epic. Its great economic themes are treated chorally, with all the strophic progress of the ode and all the rhythmic stress of an ironic injustice committed against the masses. If we are not distracted by the superficial diffusion of the book, its elaborate and energetic logic and its accumulation of evidence, we see that its concealed structure is mythical.

Sypher captures the theatrical character of the work – and also suggests, as I often have, that the Hegelian dialectic is in some sense the target of the critique (441-42), but proposes no substantive reason for Capital to adopt a particular literary form, other than that melodrama was purportedly a common form of presentation at the time Marx was writing.

Wilson (1972: 191) argues that “Marx and Engels have been inadequately appreciated as writers”, foregrounds the artistic character of Capital (338), and insists that “Marx became one of the great masters of satire. Marx is certainly the greatest ironist since Swift, and he has a good deal in common with him” (340). Like Sypher, however, Wilson cannot identify a substantive argumentative reason for Capital to have been structured as a satirical work, and so ends up searching about for idiosyncratic psychological motives. Thus he explains the sardonic character of the text by arguing that “Marx had the satanic genius of the satirist: his jeers are the true expressions of his nature” – a “relentless misanthropy” – “and for this reason they are often effective” (301).

Hyman (1974: 143-45) offers an acute and insightful reading of the dramatic structure of Capital – understanding the work as a play, and dividing it into acts, much as I will also do in reinterpreting the dramatic structure of the work. Hyman interprets this dramatic structure, however, as evidence that Capital should be read “not as science, social science, or exhortation, but as imaginative literature” (133) – following Sypher in claiming that the literary form is that of Victorian melodrama (146). This perceived conflict – the purported incompatability between Capital’s “literary” character and its status as “serious” social theory – undermines Hyman’s ability to grasp the substantive points being made in and through some of the presentational strategies Hyman accurately identifies.

The first serious social theoretic attempt to analyse Capital’s presentational strategy as an integral part of its substantive argument was Wolff’s (1988: 4) short work Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, which begins with an account of the author’s reaction to Capital’s “bitterly satirical language quite unlike anything I had encountered elsewhere in political philosophy or the social sciences”. Unlike the earlier, more strictly “literary” analyses of Capital, Wolff sees a substantive social theoretic purpose in Capital’s presentational strategies. He argues: “Marx’s literary style constitutes a deliberate attempt to find a philosophically appropriate language for expressing the ontological structure of the social world” (20). Wolff’s brief treatment of the relation of style and content in Capital zooms far above the surface of Marx’s text, however, leaving the fine-grained analysis of how Capital makes substantive points through distinctive literary strategies as a task for future scholars.

These initial treatments of Capital’s dramatic structure were isolated works, not part of a broader overarching conversation about Marx’s literary techniques. In the past fifteen years, however, there has been a burst of interest in using the techniques traditionally associated with literary theory to cast light on Marx’s substantive claims, from both literary and social theorists. Derrida perhaps helped to spark this interest by providing a controversial deconstructive critique in Specters of Marx (1994), a work which both inspired imitations and provoked criticism from those who felt the reading misrepresented Marx’s theory. In 1997, Keenan produced a brilliant reinterpretation of the opening chapter of Capital, in particular highlighting the way in which the opening chapter loops back on itself, destabilising the earlier sections that had initially appeared as static “definitional” claims. In 1998 (24-28, 63-66), Carver called for greater attention to the “textual surface” of Marx’s argument and highlighted the way in which the text positions social actors as characters who are not fully exhausted by any specific role the text shows them to play. In 2007 (75-76), Wheen published a “biography” of Capital in which he argued that the text must be read with close attention to voice, tone, and dramatic genre, and homes in on the primary substantive concern driving the various literary gestures: “To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx’s text is saturated with irony – an irony which has escaped most scholars for 140 years”. In 2008, Sutherland mounted a convincing case for détournement in Capital’s opening chapter, accompanied by a scathing critique of Marxist theory for attempting to reduce Marx’s claims to a list of theoretical “contents” abstracted from the style in which those claims had originally been put forward. In Sutherland’s words:

Marx has been read, and continues now to be read, as though his thinking had nothing to do with literariness and with style, not at least in any radical sense… The most important way in which the meaning of Marx’s is transformed, not only by his translators, but likewise and as though collaboratively by current literary theorists, is through their elimination of satire from Capital. (6)

Two earlier works, not yet mentioned in the survey above, deserve particular attention in relation to the reading I have been developing: John Seery’s (1990) Political Returns, and Dominick LaCapra’s (1983) Rethinking Intellectual History. Neither of these works is focussed solely on Marx. Both, however, present interpretations that prefigure important aspects of my own argument – in particular, the claim that Capital needs to be read as a self-deconstructing text that puts forward positions that it then destabilises. I want to dwell for a moment on their arguments here.

Seery provides a detailed analysis of the foreword for Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which addresses the problem of how philosophy is possible after Hegel (243). According to Seery, the answer Marx provides is that philosophy is possible after Hegel – if it assumes an ironic form (244-45). Seery traces the way in which this theme plays itself out in subterranean form in Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the difference between Democritus’ more deterministic materialism, and Epicurus’ variant of materialism, which accommodates the potential for a “swerve” that deviates from strict determination (245-49). Seery then argues:

The foreword begins with the question of how it is at all possible to philosophize after Hegel’s total triumph, how, as it were, one can ‘swerve’ from Hegelianism. Traditionally, scholars have interpreted the young Marx as still enraptured at this time with Hegel and Hegelianism, and they have read Marx’s dissertation as an attempt ‘to fill in lacunae in Hegel’s system,’ or else to find a way to put Hegelianism into practice (as a benign resolution to his schoolboy Oedipalism). I suggest, however, that a careful reading of the foreword along with the dissertation reveals that Marx is thoroughly distancing himself from Hegel while at the same time he is informing us that his alternative stance will nonetheless resemble Hegelianism in outward form: a double stance, which cannot be reduced to the epigonal anxiety of a typical young Hegelian. (250)

I have written previously on Marx’s complex relation to Hegel in Capital – Seery’s analysis suggests a very similar understanding of that relationship, foreshadowed in Marx’s doctoral thesis. In Seery’s interpretation, Marx’s citation of the forms of Hegel’s work, the parallels between Hegel’s method and his own, needs to be understood in a deeply ironic light – as a similarity formed at a fundamental level by a desire to effect a fundamental internal transformation of Hegel’s system, while outwardly appearing consistent with Hegel’s method.

Seery argues that Marx’s embrace of irony is a specific response to the question of how we can escape from totalising philosophies:

In particular, Marx wishes to show why, in the wake of totalizing philosophies, it is necessary for the subjective form of philosophy to wear ‘disguises’ and ‘character masks’; why Plato employs myths and Epicurus endorses the principle of repulsion; and why, by extension, Marx will apparently embrace Hegelianism…

In other words, in order to philosophize after Hegel, in order to ‘live at all after a total philosophy,’ Marx is saying that we need ‘ironists,’ or those who are able to break with totalizing views of reality, and then can act on their own, like the self-initiating motion of Epicurus’ swerving atom. But because Hegel’s triumph is so encompassing, according to Marx, post-Hegelian ironists will need to couch their subjective philosophies in Hegelian terminology, nonetheless. (250-51)

Seery thus finds in Marx an anti-totalising impulse, ironically expressed in the rhetoric of a totalising philosophy. In my reinterpretation of Capital, I put forward textual evidence for a very similar claim, but in more social theoretic form. If the early Marx was striving to break away from the dominance of a seemingly omnipresent totalising philosophical discourse, the later Marx confronts a social system that, seen from certain angles, can seem totalising, not just in discourse, but in reality. In both cases, Marx opts for irony as his critical tool of choice, as the technique by which he expresses the possibility for the “swerve” that will burst apart the totality apart from within.

As a presentational strategy, however, irony can have strange effects on the reader’s experience of the text – particularly when, as is the case in Capital, the technique is not explicitly announced in advance. As Seery (1990: 253) notes:

…compounding the problem of discovering Marx’s ‘ironic’ outlook is that Marx would be, according to his dissertation, an ironist on the sly, a writer who conceals his ironic view of things. Is all hope lost of pinning Marx down?

Seery (253) goes on to recommend the sorts of reading strategies that would be required:

I suggest that we can discern Marx’s ‘irony’ by indirection, by disclosing its deep presence through elimination, by smoking it out of hiding: For unless we attribute a buried form of irony to Marx’s language, we cannot make complete sense of his ‘early’ writings. Or to put it more positively: Only by crediting Marx with an ironic, self-critical, partially detached, performative understanding of the function of his own language can we provide an answer to the questions left over from Rose’s analysis of The German Ideology [a work which Seery has used as a foil for his analysis].

The same reading strategies, LaCapra suggests, are required for Capital – a point he attempts to demonstrate through what he calls a “fictionalized reconstruction of the ‘phenomenology’ of reading Capital” (1983: 332).

In this reconstruction, LaCapra notes that the way readers approach Capital’s opening passages generally determines how they understand the claims made in the rest of the text (332). When these passages are read as straightforward definitional claims, this colours the reader’s impression of the other claims that follow, leading to the sorts of literal interpretations I have outlined in previous posts. In LaCapra’s words:

Reading these opening sections for the first time, one is struck by the seemingly abstract delineation of concepts to analyze the commodity form (use value, exchange value, abstract labour power, and so on). Marx seems to conform to the image of the pure scientist, indeed the theorist who, in the afterword to the second German edition, seems to invert Hegel by collapsing positivism and the dialectic into a purely objectivist notion of the laws of motion of the capitalist economy. A positivistic dialectic appears to be revealed as ‘the rational kernel within the mystical shell’. The first three sections of the principal text also seem to fall neatly within this ‘problematic’. (333)

LaCapra suggests, however, that as the text progresses, it calls into question this first impression – starting, in LaCapra’s read, with the section on the fetish character of the commodity, which:

… causes a rupture in the text and disorients one’s expectations about it. One is led to reread the earlier sections in its light and to notice the evidence of ‘double-voicing’ or of ‘internal dialogization’ operating to disfigure their seemingly placid positivistic façade. (333)

LaCapra goes on to highlight a number of the same ironic textual gestures I have also highlighted in my various discussions of Capital‘s opening chapter. To avoid repetition, I will not review his specific reactions here. What I want to note here is that LaCapra’s “heuristic” observations on the reader’s experience of the text are very close to the reading strategy I have suggested is most productive in confronting Capital: I have argued that reading Capital requires an iterative strategy that involves the constant re-evaluation of earlier claims in light of new perspectives introduced later in the text. This process helps bring into view what LaCapra calls double-voicing and sensitises the reader to the presence of internal dialogues as a way of making sense of the complex presentational strategy playing out in the main text. In the process, it becomes easier to see how apparently firm ontological distinctions that are put forward in the opening passages of Capital are progressively destabilised and unsettled as the text moves forward.

Marx & Philosophy Society Talk

I will put up a proper version of this paper on the Marx & Philosophy Society website soon. I just wanted to post the text of the actual talk here for archiving purposes in the interim.

The event was fantastic, and the discussion following the paper was rich and thought-provoking – it’s a wonderful event, and I’d encourage anyone who has the opportunity to attend in the future.

More blogging soon, I hope – once I’ve caught up on a bit of sleep…

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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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Thesis Workshop: Hic Rhodus, Hic Salta

Now that we’ve finally escaped chapter 3 of Capital, a quick breeze through chapters 4 and 5, focussing on the imagery in chapter 4 of capital-as-Geist, and then on the impasse Marx sets up in chapter 5, as a wedge through which he will drive the category of labour-power in the following chapter.

Chapter 4 contains one of the more overt references to Hegel’s Phenomenology in the text – a number of commentators have noticed the parallel being drawn there between capital and the Geist. There is a certain tendency, however, to beat up on the authors who notice this gesture, as though these authors are attributing to Marx the position that capital is actually the Geist – an autonomous, self-grounding process that has achieved independence from human agency. I’m not convinced this is a fair reading of other commentators who have noticed this same reference in the text. Regardless, in my discussion of this issue below, I position this gesture into the context of Marx’s critique of Hegel: Marx is not saying that capital is the Geist – he’s saying that the process of the production of capital includes within itself a perspective that makes that process appear to possess certain qualitative attributes that Hegel attributes to the Geist. This is the same move Marx makes when criticising any competing form of thought: critique for Marx involves a process of demonstrating why a competing position is plausible – a demonstration that, for Marx, takes the form of showing what aspect of practical experience could plausibly be interpreted in the form being criticised – and then, having done that, showing all the other things that competing position can’t grasp, because it gives too much ontological weight to one small aspect of a much larger phenomenon. If the reader were in any doubt as to whether Marx thinks capital just might be a god-process after all, this passage of text is filled with Marx’s signature destabilising gestures that – more clearly in this section than in many other passages in Capital mock the perspective being presented overtly in the text. All this and more below…

Chapter 5 presents a nice deconstructive analysis of an aporia within commodity circulation – a process that both presupposes the creation of surplus-value, and yet offers no perspective from which this creation can be grasped as anything other than a mysterious, occult phenomenon. This analysis sets up for Marx to offer a preliminary practice-theoretic account of this phenomenon, beginning in the following chapter.

[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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Thesis Workshop: Crossed Circuits

After this chapter, readers will finally be able to make their escape from the deconstructive thicket that is the third chapter of Capital. Before we part ways with this chapter, though, Marx engages in some extremely clever moves to begin to open a wedge through which he will finally drive the category of capital in the following chapter. Here he begins to make the case that commodity circulation allows – and, in some cases, necessitates – exchanges that are not driven by the need to meet material needs, but rather by the need to make money. This may sound like an obvious point, but Marx needs to make it in a way that makes clear that this is not a possibility that arises extrinsically to commodity production, as some sort of corruption of a more fundamental process, but rather is implied by the very nature of the process itself. This chapter is also, by the way, where I most directly treat the issue of crisis – a topic I can approach only in an extremely preliminary way in the thesis, since I am focussing only on the opening chapters of Capital

So one last dance with chapter 3 – and then we get to meet the Geist!

[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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Thesis Workshop: Forms of Motion

Another thesis chapter in the series that focusses on Capital‘s third chapter. This chapter spends quite a lot of time using the new material Marx is providing to take a much closer look at the opening categories of value and abstract labour. It also explores the implications of some brief comments Marx makes about “real contradictions”. These comments are methodologically quite important: they indicate that, when Marx unfolds – as he continues to do throughout Capital – new forms whose implications “contradict” those of earlier forms, he does not understand the new stage of his analysis to have superseded the earlier analysis. To state it crudely: like Hegel, Marx rejects the notion that, when two things contradict, one of those things must be wrong. Pointing to contradictions, however, can be useful as a means of establishing the boundedness and limitations of particular interpretations of social experience – a point that is stated more clearly below than I can do so in brief here. Marx’s early statements about contradiction also begin to make clear that the existence of “social contradictions” does not, by itself, point beyond the existing form of social life – although such contradictions can make it easier to recognise the contingency and artificiality of this form of social life in specific ways. Much more on this below, plus – as always – a systematic move through the underbrush of the text.

[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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Thesis Workshop: How Does Essence Appear?

I’m going to be in transit for the next couple of days, with very limited net access, and so won’t be able to respond to comments or mails. This and the next couple of thesis chapter posts have been queued, so if the blog does its job, they’ll keep trundling their way into the world in my absence.

This chapter is part of a set of three that spends a possibly inordinate amount of time unpacking the implications of the complex third chapter of Capital, in which Marx undertakes an extensive deconstructive analysis of money – exploring all the various ways in which this “single” object takes on different roles, and as a result comes to carry radically different meanings, implications and consequences for practice. This chapter is perhaps the single best example of how Marx consistently under-signposts what he is trying to achieve when he makes specific argumentative moves. There is an enormous amount of work being done in Capital‘s third chapter – something you might guess by the sheer length of the thing, but which can be difficult to tell when actually reading the text, because Marx relentlessly refuses to pause and draw out the implications on his own. Often, he’ll point out several chapters later that he sees himself to have made a specific point in an earlier chapter; he rarely emphasises the significance of his argumentative moves at the time, for reasons I’ve explained in chapter 4 of the thesis. Understanding the reasons, however, doesn’t make the practice less frustrating… This is why a single chapter of Capital can blow out into three chapters of my thesis: I provide the signposts Marx should have, but didn’t…

This thesis chapter, as you would guess from the title, focusses a lot of its time and energy on Marx’s use of Hegel’s vocabulary of essence and appearance. The idealist loan words and style of expression often manage to conceal the fact that Marx means pretty much the exact opposite of what the text intuitively seems to be saying: when Marx talks about an essence (like value) expressing itself in a form of appearance (like price), this sounds as if value is an external causal factor, driving the play of appearances. What Marx means is very different: essences are essences of their forms of appearance – it is the play of appearance that constitutes an essence as an immanent pattern that emerges in the transformation of appearances over time. Honest. Trust me. Scout’s honour.

All this – and a lot of textual interpretation – below the fold…

[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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Thesis Workshop: Personifying Commodities

Okay. Now we get to the new stuff. The argument put forward in this and the remaining chapters, although it has been discussed on the blog in somewhat abstract terms from time to time, will probably seem at least somewhat new – and at the very least much more fully developed than what I have been able to post here before. This chapter begins to unfold what might seem a somewhat counter-intuitive interpretation of moments in Marx’s text where he writes as though he is reducing other phenomena to an economic or material dimension of social experience that he finds more ontologically fundamental – as though he is making a sort of metaphysical claim about the primacy of the economic. My reading of these passages is that they are attempts to make a very different sort of claim – a claim that is very specific to capitalism, and that attempts to pick out the distinctive qualitative characteristics of a form of sociality that Marx regards as unique to capitalist societies. But better to let those who are curious click through to the actual argument, which makes the case as well as I know how – and will therefore make it better than what I could summarise here.

One funny aspect of drafting and re-drafting: I’ve done a number of essentially stylistic revisions since I got the whole argument roughly into the form I was after. I find it interesting the way my evaluation of chapters changes due to the uneven periodisation of the revision process. This chapter, for example, came out of the original drafting process relatively cleaner and clearer than the other chapters. As a consequence, I’ve been focussing my editing energy on those other chapters, and only very slightly revising this one. So now, doing one further edit tonight, I’m finding myself mildly disappointed in this chapter, because the others have (I think…) now been edited into forms that surpass it… More editing to come I guess… ;-P In any event, I think the chapter is in an adequate state to post it here…

[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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Thesis Workshop: With What Must a Science Begin?

Another chapter whose contents may seem largely familiar to regular readers: this chapter deals with Marx’s relationship to Hegel’s Logic, and then, since this chapter is already more or less untethered from the text, it offers a number of other clarifications of aspects of Marx’s method. The chapter tosses around the term “real abstraction” quite often, as though readers will already know what I mean by this term. Folks who have hung around here for a while may well have a sense of this, but the reason I’m being so casual with the term in this chapter is because there is a lengthy discussion of this topic in the opening chapter of the thesis – the chapter I haven’t yet published to the blog, because I have to rethink it now that I know what the thesis will actually say… Hopefully it will be clear enough what I’m about without that information…

I’ve been meaning to mention, for those who haven’t yet seen them, that Limited, Inc. has also been posting a series on Marx recently – among other things, riffing on anthropological themes and – among my favourite topics when thinking about Marx – vulgarity. Where my work on Marx tends to inch its snail’s path through the micro-ecology of the text, Roger’s tends to explode small passages of text, chasing the embers to see where they land, examining what they set alight and, wherever possible, fanning the flames. Something about it reminds me of Marx’s comment from the Grundrisse:

…if we did not find concealed within society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic. (159)

It’s good stuff: go have a look.

[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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