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Category Archives: Religion

The Missing Think

I just discovered Mark Twain’s delightful takedown of anthropocentric teleological understandings of the “purpose” of the world, in his posthumously published “Was the World Made for Man?”. (Hopefully that link will take people to the actual work, rather than to some random place in the anthology…)

Voiced as the response of a “scientist and theologian” to “Alfred Russell Wallace’s revival of the theory that this earth is at the center of the stellar universe”, the piece begins by professing a qualified belief that the world was likely made for man, but argues that patience is required, for all the necessary evidence is not yet in. What evidence is still required? And why must we be “patient” to receive it? The answers come out gradually – and implicitly – as the piece tells the story of how the preparation of the world for man came about.

First the piece deals with the age of the world – evaluating different scientific positions on how long it took to prepare the world for man:

It takes a long time to prepare a world for man, such a thing is not done in a day.

Siding with an estimate on the conservative side, the piece suggests that man has been in the world for 32,000 years, while the world itself is 100 million years old. These figures mean that quite a long run-up was required to prepare for man – which is only to be expected, the author argues:

Very well. According to these figures it took 99,968,000 years to prepare the world for man, impatient as the Creator doubtless was to see him and admire him. But a large enterprise like this has to be conducted warily, painstakingly, logically.

Then a quick absurdist jump. From logic to… the oyster:

It was foreseen that man would have to have the oyster. Therefore the first preparation was made for the oyster. Very well, you cannot make an oyster out of whole cloth, you must make the oyster’s ancestor first. This is not done in a day. You must make a vast variety of invertebrates, to start with – belemnites, trilobites, jebusites, amalekites, and that sort of fry, and put them to soak in a primary sea, and wait and see what will happen. Some will be a disappointment – the belemnites and ammonites and such; they will be failures, they will die out and become extinct, in the course of the 19,000,000 years covered by the experiment, but all is not lost, for the amalekites will fetch the home-stake; they will develop gradually into encrinites, and stalactites, and blatherskites, and one thing and another as the mighty ages creep on and the Archaean and the Cambrian Periods pile their lofty crags in the primordial seas, and at last the first grand stage in the preparation of the world for man stands completed, the Oyster is done.

The oyster was created for man. Over a long period of time – and long before man was on the scene. From the standpoint of the oyster, the author concedes, this whole process might have been thought to have the oyster for its endpoint. But this view was sadly mistaken:

An oyster has hardly any more reasoning power than a scientist has; and so it is reasonably certain that this one jumped to the conclusion that the nineteen-million years was a preparation for him; but that would be just like an oyster, which is the most conceited animal there is, except man. And anyway, this one could not know, at that early date, that he was only an incident in a scheme, and that there was some more to the scheme, yet.

And so on the article moves, through a whole absurdist evolutionary process. Many of the passages focus on the exuberantly wasteful nature of the whole process, if the purpose is to prepare a world for man:

The oyster being achieved, the next thing to be arranged for in the preparation of the world for man, was fish. Fish, and coal – to fry it with. So the Old Silurian seas were opened up to breed the fish in, and at the same time the great work of building Old Red Sandstone mountains 80,000 feet high to cold-storage their fossils in was begun. This latter was quite indispensable, for there would be no end of failures again, no end of extinctions – millions of them – and it would be cheaper and less trouble to can them in the rocks than keep tally of them in a book.

So the millions of years drag on; and meantime the fish-culture is lazying along and frazzling out in a way to make a person tired. You have developed ten thousand kinds of fishes from the oyster; and come to look, you have raised nothing but fossils, nothing but extinctions. There is nothing left alive and progressive but a ganoid or two and perhaps half a dozen asteroids. Even the cat wouldn’t eat such.

Still, it is no great matter; there is plenty of time, yet, and they will develop into something tasty before man is ready for them. Even a ganoid can be depended on for that, when he is not going to be called on for sixty million years.

At several stages, some creature foolishly believes that it is the endpoint, purpose, and culmination of the whole:

Then the Pterodactyl burst upon the world in all his impressive solemnity and grandeur, and all Nature recognized that the Cainozoic threshold was crossed and a new Period open for business, a new stage begun in the preparation of the globe for man. It may be that the Pterodactyl thought the thirty million years had been intended as a preparation for himself, for there was nothing too foolish for a Pterodactyl to imagine, but he was in error, the preparation was for man.

From this time onward for nearly another thirty million years the preparation moved briskly. From the Pterodactyl was developed the bird; from the bird the kangaroo, from the kangaroo the other marsupials; from these the mastodon, the megatherium, the giant sloth, the Irish elk, and all that crowd that you make useful and instructive fossils out of – then came the first great Ice Sheet, and they all retreated before it and crossed over the bridge at Behring’s strait and wandered around over Europe and Asia and died. All except a few, to carry on the preparation with. Six Glacial Periods with two million years between Periods chased these poor orphans up and down and about the earth, from weather to weather – from tropic swelter at the poles to Arctic frost at the equator and back again and to and fro, they never knowing what kind of weather was going to turn up next; and if ever they settled down anywhere the whole continent suddenly sank under them without the least notice and they had to trade places with the fishes and scramble off to where the seas had been, and scarcely a dry rag on them; and when there was nothing else doing a volcano would let go and fire them out from wherever they had located. They led this unsettled and irritating life for twenty-five million years, half the time afloat, half the time aground, and always wondering what it was all for, they never suspecting, of course, that it was a preparation for man and had to be done just so or it wouldn’t be any proper and harmonious place for him when he arrived.

And then a final analogy for the perspective that argues that this extravagant process has, as its culminating goal, us:

Such is the history of it. Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.

The Exorcism of the Exorcism

So, since Praxis and I hatched this scheme of writing a collaborative piece on Derrida’s Specters of Marx, all sorts of fantastic conversations and debates around the work have cropped up around the blogosphere. Unfortunately, I’ve been either been preparing to be away, or actually away, while most of these discussions unfolded, meaning that I’m only very inadequately across the content. These conversations range across much wider territory, and go into much greater depth, than the rather limited scratch across the surface I’m about to post here, so I thought I should send readers on their way to more expansive discussions, while I take this opportunity to talk shop publicly with Praxis, who will hopefully not mind my shouting random draft concepts across the net, now that we can no longer workshop them face-to-face…

The proximate starting point for this collaborative project was my noticing an elision in Derrida’s text. In discussing the passage in which Marx names the fetish, Derrida omits a single sentence, subtly alterring the meaning of Marx’s text. I’ve written about Marx’s fetish discussion somewhat interminably over the past year, so for present purposes I’ll presuppose those discussions and just seize what I need to highlight what Derrida is done (anyone who wants the gory details can find the most recent synoptic version of my argument here).

To summarise – first, from my point of view: In the passage where he builds up to the naming of the fetish, Marx has established that the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity do not derive from the commodity’s “parts”, whether those parts pertain to the commodity’s use value or its value dimension. Instead, Marx has argued, the peculiar qualitative characteristics that seem to inhere in commodities, derive not from the parts, but from the whole – from the relation into which those parts have come to be suspended – from the form of the commodity itself.

Marx is actually quite explicit about the nature of his argument: he runs through the various parts of the commodity relation that relate to the commodity’s use value dimension, and concludes: “The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value.” Everyone gets this part of Marx’s argument.

What is more often overlooked is that Marx does exactly the same thing, in the subsequent passage, with reference to the commodity’s value dimension. He prefaces this discussion with the quite explicit claim: “Just as little does it [the mystical character of commodities] proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value.” There is a marked tendency to overlook this sentence, since the assumption is generally that Marx wants to criticise exchange value from the standpoint of use value, and thus to attribute the fetish to the exchange value dimension of the commodity – to the market or the process of exchange. That sort of reading struggles, however, to make sense of where Marx goes next in the text, which is to break the value dimension of the commodity down into its constituent components (as he has just done above with the use value dimension), in order to argue that none of those components, abstracted from the commodity relation, explains the metaphysical properties of the commodity. A similar strategy is in play later on in the same chapter, when Marx will run through a series of historical and speculative examples that reassemble the component parts of the commodity, within the context of very different social relations, in order to argue that, absent the commodity relation, the fetish does not arise.

So. Marx argues, in my reading, that the fetish does not derive from any of the component parts of the commodity – leading to the obvious question of what the fetish derives from instead. Marx’s argument, I suggest, is that the fetish arises, not from the parts of the commodity, but rather from the whole – from the overarching relation into which those parts have been suspended. Marx expresses this point: “Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.”

Marx then goes on to say a bit about this form (I’ll skip over the details, as I’ve discussed them elsewhere), and then moves into the passage where Derrida makes his selective edit – the passage where Marx christens the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity form with the name of the fetish. In Marx’s version, this christening passage reads:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

Derrida does a couple of interesting things with this passage when he reproduces it. First: Marx’s presentation moves through two analogies – the first, to a physical relation whose origin is genuinely asocial; the second, to a social relation whose origin is intersubjective. He uses these two analogies in tandem, I have argued, to set up a three-way contrast that helps him mark off the most peculiar characteristic of the phenomenon he is trying to pick out: that the fetish arises from a social relation – but a strange sort of social relation that is not intersubjective in its origins. Instead, this peculiar social relation arises as a sort of unintentional consequence of an aggregation of social practices that are not aimed toward bringing a social relation of the kind about. The concept of the fetish captures the qualitative characteristics of this unintentional and accidental social relation – and also aims to explain why it is socially plausible for the social agents who enact this relation, to interpret the qualitative characteristics of the relation as though these characteristics inhere in the various component parts through which the relation is effected.

In Derrida’s re-presentation of this argument, the first analogy – the one that makes reference to “a physical relation between physical things” – is analysed in a separate section of the text, separated by some distance from the passage in which Derrida analyses the remainder of the fetish passage. This enables Derrida to find a much stronger and more exclusive relationship between the analogy Marx draws between the fetish and religion, than the original passage suggests. Derrida’s re-presentation breaks apart Marx’s more complex three-way contrast between physical relations, social relations that are intersubjective, and social relations that are not intersubjective, and implies a much more straightforward equation of the fetish with some sort of “ideology” or mere false belief.

Derrida further reinforces this impression by removing a sentence when he quotes the passage in which Marx names the fetish – specifically, the sentence in which (on my reading) Marx actually tries to express that the fetish is an attempt to talk about a non-intersubjective social relation. Derrida’s iteration of the fetish passage goes:

There [in the religious world] the products of the human brain [of the head, once again, of men: des menschlischen Kopfes, analogous to the wooden head of the table capable of engendering chimera - in its head, outside of its head - once, that is, as soon as, its form can become commodity-form] appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race…. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself [anklebt] to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them. (p. 208-209)

The ellipsis in the middle of the quotation removes the sentence where Marx distinguishes fetishism from religion, arguing that, in the commodity relation, social agents somehow posit the existence on intangible entities (value, abstract labour), but not via the sorts of intersubjective processes such as shared beliefs or ritual practices through which they enact the intangible entities that figure in religious practice. Instead, Marx argues:

So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. (emphasis mine)

The non-intersubjective register of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism is therefore elided in Derrida’s selective inheritance or transformative interpretation of Marx. The question is: why?

This was a recurrent touchstone in the discussions Praxis and I held while I was in London. I can point out, as I’ve done above, what aspects of Marx’s argument – from the point of view of my own reading – become obscured by the way in which Derrida alters this passage. I can also say that it’s clear enough that Derrida wants to transform the meaning of this passage – there is some sort of exorcism here that Derrida seeks to perform, in order to carry out his selective inheritance of a certain spirit (but not other spirits) of Marx. The text is structured around a series of reflections on how inheritance is both selective and performative: the dead cannot bury themselves – they least of all are safe from us, their heirs. Derrida’s inheritance will be violent – he warns us. The question is what sort of inheritance he is enacting, and why.

In the dreamwork of a text saturated with references to Freud, Derrida sifts through the residue of the day – the happenstance of Fukuyama’s declaration of the End of History – setting up a narrative criss-crossed with complex parallels between characters, more than one of whom is a cipher of sorts for Derrida. Fukyama’s text resurrects old critiques of communism, Derrida tells us, while reviving a thinned out spirit of a certain Hegel in a drably farcical restaging of Kojève; Derrida chases Fukuyama, in the process counting off ten plagues – setting up a parallel to Marx’s pursuit of Stirner, which also punctuates its argument to the count of ten; all the major figures in the text chase after Hegel – a latent content whose inheritance lurks beneath the much more manifest pursuit of the spirit of Marx.

Derrida foreshadows heavily the coming excision of Marx’s hands – even adding to the text, after the original lectures, an extended reflection on Valéry (3-10) that pivots on a textual elision, priming the reader for the elision to come. Derrida first points out a passage in which Valéry includes Marx within a skull handled by Hamlet:

In “La crise de l’esprit” (“The Crisis of the Spirit” 1919: “As for us, civilizations, we know now we are mortal…”), the name of Marx appears just once. It inscribes itself, here is the name of a skull to come into Hamlet’s hands:

Now, on an immense terrace of Elsinore, which stretches from Basel to Cologne, that touches on the sands of Nieuport, the lowlands of the Somme, the chalky earth of Champagne, the granite earth of Alsace – the European Hamlet looks at thousands of spectres…. If he seizes a skull, it is an illustrious skull – “Whose was it?” – This one was Lionardo. … And this other skull is that of Leibniz who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant qui genuit Hegel, qui genuit Marx, qui genuit. … Hamlet does not know what to do with all these skulls. But if he abandons them! … Will he cease to be himself?

(p. 3-4)

Derrida then finds a later iteration of this same passage, one in which Valéry quotes himself, but omits the sentence that contains Marx’s name, inscribed in the skull of Kant. Derrida asks of Valéry:

Why this omission, the only one? The name of Marx has disappeared. Where did it go? Exeunt Ghost and Marx, Shakespeare might have noted. The name of the one who disappeared must have gotten inscribed someplace else. (p. 4)

What is disappeared or displaced must be re-inscribed, Derrida tells us – and hands – the hands omitted from the fetishism discussion – paw their way around this text – explicitly, in the form of recurrent references to hands and parts of hands – and also more tacitly: the stage setting for this text is the apparent triumph of the market’s invisible hand, over the planned economies that had once proclaimed themselves Marx’s heirs. But this still leaves us with the question – a question Praxis and I did not fully resolve in our discussions – the same question Derrida prompts us to ask of him, by asking it himself of Valéry – by emphasising the need to ask precisely this question, a need felt so urgently as to justify the post facto modification of the original talk in order to set up the parallel with Valéry: Why this omission, the only one? The hands of Marx have disappeared. We have a sense, perhaps, of where they went, of how Derrida has reinscribed them in his text, and of where invisible hands might have been reinscribed in our own times. But why? Why this specific gesture? What sort of transformative inheritance is Derrida hoping to enact, through this selective excision from Marx’s corpus?

One suggestion – underdeveloped. This is a work about chasing after ghosts. We chase after ghosts – and we become spooked. We want to control our ghosts by exorcising them – by banishing them – by driving them away. Derrida early characterises these attempted exorcisms as a fort/da game: we chase after ghosts, but not to drive them away, not really, but because secretly we want them, we need them to come back. He further suggests that, uncomfortable with the uncanniness of a haunted, spectral world, we stall in the process of mourning, becoming caught in the effort to ontologise the remains – to identify and localise the spectral, so as to abolish it. Fukuyama does this, Derrida suggests, with the spectre of communism – Soviet communism also tried to control this same spectre, presencing the revenant that initially appears in the Communist Manifesto as an expectation, a threat from the future menacing old Europe, as the spook haunting a time out of joint. Controlled and fixed, localised and ontologised, pinned down into a definite form, this threatening spook comes to be actualised and embodied in a totalitarian shape. Derrida points to Fukuyama’s apologist habit of differentiating a certain ideal of liberal democracy and the free market, from all the various empirical deviations from this ideal: by implication, this same question arises in relation to Marx’s most visible real-world heirs – how comfortably can we carve off a communist ideal from its totalitarian realisation? Is there some other way to inherit Marx?

Derrida pairs this question with the question of our relation to spectrality in a more general sense. Is there some other possible relation we can adopt towards our ghosts, Derrida asks – some gesture that doesn’t simply seek to banish the ghost by locating and its remains, some space between life and death that might step outside the logic that sees the spectre perpetually displaced and reinscribed through repeated, obsessional attempts to eradicate spectrality as such? Derrida, in the figure of Horatio – the scholar enjoined to speak to the spook – attempts to inherit Marx in a way that might effect such an alternative relationship to spectrality.

Derrida reads something of the Soviet inheritance out of Marx, specifically in Marx’s critique of Stirner in the German Ideology, and in Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. Derrida’s concern is that Marx shares with Stirner the desire to exorcise the ghost – the quarrel between the two revolves, on Derrida’s reading, around the most appropriate technique for achieving this common end. In Derrida’s interpretation of the fetish passage, Marx inappropriately attempts to ontologise the spectre – to locate and identify its remains: in exchange value – in something that can be abolished, so that it become possible to overcome the spectre, to send it away: exeunt ghost and Marx. Derrida seems to read Marx’s reference to “the products of men’s hands” as part of an argument that the spectrality that haunts capitalism can be exorcised by rendering explicit what is currently tacit: by explicitly realising the centrality of labour as the structuring principle of social life, through the abolition of the market; by freeing the use value dimension from its spectralising other, exchange value.

Derrida, by contrast, has made gestures throughout the text concerning the spectral character of various technologies – the spectrality, then, of production, rather than exchange – an ineradicableundeconstructible – spectrality grounded in production as such. Derrida’s edit to Marx’s text symbolically keeps labour secret – disappearing from view the products of men’s hands – removing the step by which, in Derrida’s read, Marx attempts to exorcise the spectre by casting off the veil that covers over what Derrida takes Marx to see as true relations of capitalist society: in Derrida’s version of this argument, the ghost gets to stay. Always still to come, always to haunt, forever non-identical with a present time perpetually out of joint: this is the certain spirit of Marx, the spirit of the Communist Manifesto, the spirit of a communism that is threatening, but not presenced, that Derrida enacts in his selective iteration of Marx’s text.

What Derrida effects here, then, is an exorcism of exorcism. He attempts to inherit in a way that maintains in perpetuity our ability to communicate with the ghost. In a text filled with figures chasing ghosts in order to eradicate spectrality, Derrida wants us to chase them – as he believes a certain spirit of Marx knew how to do – in order that they may continue to enjoin us to set our time right. This task, for Derrida, is intrinsically bound with the ongoing destabilisation of the present, as a time perpetually out of joint.

Very tired now, and not able either to support these claims (which are in any case provisional readings), or to develop their implications, or to suggest how I would unfold a critique from here – of both Derrida and Marx. Tasks for a later time. Apologies for the impressionistic character of these remarks… So much still to do…

[Is it completely wicked for me now to say: Praxis - over to you :-) *runs and hides*]

Scratchpad: Chapter 1 – The Play’s the Thing

Still effectively offline – apologies again for not being able to respond to comments. Below the fold is the first chapter of the (rather completely different) new revision of the thesis. Although the early sections walk some of the same ground as the recent Goldsmiths talk, there’s a great deal more here than I could fit in there, as well as substantial revisions to incorporate the fantastic suggestions and feedback I received there and at the earlier conference at John Cabot. John – if you’re reading – I had your questions in mind when writing this, as well: although it’s probably a bit much to ask you to read such a long piece, just to get to the sections where I answer what you’ve asked, the payoff is that I almost certainly say things more clearly and more systematically here than I would in the comments – particularly now, with my very limited online time.

And a special thanks to Praxis, who has read and/or listened to multiple iterations of every thought that has made its way into this draft. Read more of this post

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Close Reading of the Naming of the Fetish

The entire long series on the first chapter of Capital, volume 1, was written as an exercise in unpacking Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism. En route, the series has done much more than that – but it has also done a bit less. Among other things, I’ve never gotten around to detailed textual analysis of the passages in which the argument about commodity fetishism is immediately presented. One of the things that I’ve been noticing, as I read other commentaries that attempt to interpret these same passages, is that certain specific “moves” in Marx’s argument tend not to be mentioned, or tend to be glossed in ways that, from the standpoint of my own reading, seem fundamentally to alter the thrust of the argument. What I want to do in this post – and this likely won’t make for entertaining reading – is to move through the first several paragraphs of the text somewhat closely, to gather together some notes on how I read this argument.

Marx begins:

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood.

I have suggested in earlier posts in this series that the “empiricist” voice that opens Capital sees the commodity this way: as a “given” – an irreducible “elementary form” whose characteristics can easily be perceived. The “transcendental” and “dialectical” voices introduced as the chapter unfolds call into question the apparent self-evidence of the commodity, enabling Marx to say, at this point in the text:

Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.

Why does the commodity possess such “metaphysical” properties? Almost all commentaries get the first step in Marx’s argument, which is that the use values of commodities cannot account for the strange properties Marx has discussed through his exposition of the “transcendental” and “dialectical” voices:

So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.

The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value.

Many commentaries, however, want to interpret this statement in terms of a dichotomy between use value and exchange value – to assume that Marx is setting up here for an argument that use value is not mysterious, but exchange on the market introduces some sort of mystification. Where commentaries put forward this line of analysis, they often overlook or else interpret away the next move of Marx’s argument, which discusses how there is also nothing mysterious about the component parts that make up value:

Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value. For, in the first place, however varied the useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, &c. Secondly, with regard to that which forms the ground-work for the quantitative determination of value, namely, the duration of that expenditure, or the quantity of labour, it is quite clear that there is a palpable difference between its quantity and quality. In all states of society, the labour time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development. And lastly, from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labour assumes a social form.

So the “parts” of the commodity, as these have been determined at this point in the argument, do not – as parts – account for the genesis of the mystification Marx has associated with the commodity-form. So where does the mystification come from? From the unique relation in which these parts have come to be brought together and connected to one another, in a situation of generalised commodity production:

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.

The strong assumption that Marx is primarily concerned with opposing use value to exchange value, in order to make exchange value the primary target of his critique, tends to make it very difficult for commentators to grasp what the text is doing here. Marx is not distinguishing use value at the beginning of this section, in order to praise use value for its demystified character. He is trying to distinguish use value along with other parts of the commodity-form – the parts associated with value, as parts, are treated as no more mysterious here than the part that is marked out by the term “use value”. The argument here is not that we need to find a privileged “part” to serve as our standpoint of critique – it is, instead, that, if all we do, in analysing the commodity-form, is break it down into parts and examine those, then we will never be able to understand the genesis of certain “metaphysical” qualitative properties that Marx has been analysing throughout this chapter. This argument, in other words, is a further development of Marx’s critique of naive empiricism: he is arguing here that no amount of breaking things down into their components will ever answer the question he is trying to pose – proceeding in that manner will only lead to a point where the analysis must naturalise or treat as given the qualities Marx is trying to grasp.

Those qualities, Marx is arguing, do not arise from some “part” of the commodity-form – but from this form itself – from what happens, in other words, when these particular parts are brought together into a relation of a particular sort. The strategic thrust of this moment of the text is not to direct our attention to the mystifications of market exchange, but instead to direct our attention to the need to analyse parts only in and through an understanding of the relationships within which those parts are suspended.

(For those who have been reading regularly, my point here is similar to the one I expressed in developing the distinctions between Lukács and Marx: Lukács treats the commodity-form as a category that expresses exchange on the market – a form of practice with a very long historical provenance – and therefore views what is historically new in capitalism as the product of the quantitative expansive of this very old practice; Marx, by contrast, treats the commodity-form as a category specific to capitalism, expressive of a new social relation in which market exchange and other sorts of practices have recently come to be embedded, therefore fundamentally transforming the qualitative characteristics of these older forms of practice, by placing these practices into new relations. The relations, as well as the parts, have qualitative characteristics – and the argument about the fetish, in part, is an argument about how the qualitative characteristics of the relationship have come to be read off onto the parts, so that certain qualitative characteristics are read as intrinsic attributes, when these characteristics are instead, according to Marx, the contingent products of the suspension of the parts into a particular whole.)

The next few sentences are very compressed. Marx argues:

The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.

Many commentaries see these sentences, again, as a reference to market exchange – to the abstraction from qualitative specificity and therefore the equation of goods and people that occurs when these are exchanged on the market for money. I see the argument here as much more complex than this – the Lukács piece cited above, particularly the discussion of equality in the final section, begins to outline how I see this argument, as does my earlier discussion of Diane Elson’s work. I won’t replicate that content in this post. The short version is that – at this particular moment in the text – I don’t take Marx to be talking about the reduction of everything, through market exchange, to the common denominator of money. I take Marx to be talking instead – again remembering this is an extended critique of naive empiricism – about how social actors have no way of knowing how much of the labour they empirically expend in production, will get to “count” as part of “social labour”, until market exchange reveals this result. Marx argues that this structuration of collective practice – in which social actors only find out after the fact whether, and to what extent, their activities get to “count” as part of social labour – can be seen as social actors enacting a distinction between empirical labouring activities (which can be directly perceived by the senses), and some subset of those activities whose empirical extent will only be known after market exchange takes place. This process of culling activities empirically undertaken, down to activities that get to “count”, Marx argues is tantamount to collectively treating certain activities as though they possess a “supersensible” essence – which Marx names “value” – thus enacting “value” as an intangible social reality.

Marx will later talk about the creation of value (and surplus value) as a process that takes place both inside and outside of circulation: the market isn’t the only institution relevant to the social process being shorthanded here. At this point in the text, Marx hasn’t yet introduced the categories he will need, to make the nature of his argument more overt, and so it is easier to “hear” the text as an argument about circulation. It is particularly important to remember that Marx is gradually unspooling further determinations of his initial categories all the way through the text, such that the argument at any particular moment, is expressed only in terms of the categories he has derived to that point: he adopts this strategy because he thinks it’s the only way to reveal the relationships that connect the categories to one another, in the context of an argument whose primary objective is to disentangle the qualitative characteristics and potentials of that relationship, from the qualitative characteristics and potentials of various moments. This makes the strategic thrust of the early moments of Capital difficult to appreciate, until further along in the text. Unfortunately, the received impression that Marx is trying to make an argument about “the market”, combined with the focus on circulation in the opening chapters of Capital, can occlude the strategic thrust of the text overall.

Marx then moves to a set of analogies. First, from the physical sciences:

In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things.

What Marx is reaching for here, I would suggest, is an example that involves a relation that comes to be misperceived as an object – where the emphasis is on the relationality of the example – on the need to grasp the relation, in order to grasp the process. Marx seems to realise the risk of this analogy, in the course of an argument against the tendency to treat the qualitative characteristics of social relations as the intrinsic properties of natural objects, and so reaches immediately for a more social analogy. Here he turns to religion:

But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race.

Here Marx tries to drill in that he is not trying to talk about some natural property, which comes to be filtered through socialised perception into some particular form. He is trying to talk about a distinctive sort of social entity – something entirely enacted in collective practice. He thinks his readers will find it intuitive to think of religion in this way – as a collective practice in which social actors behave as though intangible, supersensible creatures exist. This analogy has its limits as well, however: Marx worries that his readers will think that the supersensible entities of religious practice are the products of shared belief – “products of the human brain”, as Marx puts it. This also isn’t quite what Marx is reaching for: social actors (aside from the occasional political economist or philosopher) don’t need to “believe” in the existence of supersensible entities like “value”, in order to organise their collective practice to behave as though such entities exist. This is what Marx is trying to capture with his next sentence:

So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.

So it is this collective enactment of supersensible entities like value, which social actors effect unintentionally, that suspends the “parts” of the commodity-form into the distinctive relation that produces the “metaphysical” traits Marx has been analysing in this chapter. It is here that Marx finally gives this process a name:

This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

Some Lesser-Known Benefits of Higher Education

I just dropped my son off at his childcare centre, and had a nice conversation with the woman who heads the teaching team in his room. I’m very happy with the centre and the staff – not least because they’ve dealt extremely well my son’s rather… non-institutional personality, allowing him an unusual amount of flexibility to drift around within their schedules and routines. Their tolerance is paired, though, with a fair amount of bemusement, and it’s not unusual for staff to pull me aside to share stories about my son’s strange combination of politeness and intractability (I’ve overheard staff joking with one another, describing the phrase “no thank you” as “classic Lyle”). He seems to be perceived as having a positive temperament, but staff seem genuinely puzzled, given this, by his desire to go off and do his own thing – as though politeness ought to correlate with instant compliance or desire for conformity… Thus is the stuff of parent-teacher conferences made…

This morning, the familiar conversation around these things took an unexpected turn: “So… what’s your son’s sign?”

Thinking I must have misheard: “His… what?”

“His astrological sign?”

“Uh… I have no idea…”

“That’s okay – what’s his birthdate?” I provided this, and then received his sign in return. I tend to respond to this kind of thing with a sort of extreme blankness, which for me signifies that I don’t really want to get into a discussion with someone about what they’ve just said, as I’m concerned that they’d find my reaction offensive, and I don’t think the issue is important enough to justify providing offence. This blank reaction, though, is often interpreted in strange ways by other people. In this case, the interpretation, apparently, was that I was struck speechless by how impressive it should be that they should be able to deduce the sign from the birth date. They blushed, and then tried to reassure, “I know – don’t worry – I can only do this because I studied it at university. Helps me with understanding the kids’ personalities.” I’m not sure I find this reassuring…

(Just a side point, from an immigrant’s perspective: astrology and other forms of new age spirituality or practice (often in instrumentalised form, as practice of manipulation or at least prediction of external events) come up startlingly often, in my experience, in professional settings in Melbourne. Every workplace I’ve been in here – the university is no exception – has quite casual, apparently sincere, discussion around new age themes, often by people who are quite scathing in their opinions of mainstream religion. And I’m not just talking about watercooler discussion or chats over coffee – I’m talking about discussion introduced into staff meetings or other formal contexts. Not that everyone or even the majority of people in a workplace participate – but there is no visible public disapprobation to airing these perspectives in a professional setting. I don’t know that I have a question here – more a sort of expression of… anthropological curiosity: what gives? What’s with the strange combination of reflexive scepticism toward older, established faiths, and the receptivity to demonstrably rather recent new age beliefs? Or have I just had profoundly atypical experiences, leading to a kind of strange new age bias in my selection of workplaces?)

Blogocalypse Watch

Dr Who and Rose contemplate the end of the earth.Posting from me may be a bit quiet for a few days because THE END IS NIGH! Well, actually, because I have to put reading packs together for my courses – but a lot of people apparently believe the end is nigh, which means that, while things are quiet around here, you can all go off and read the latest installments in the cross-blog discussion of why a lot of people believe such things.

Those coming late to this party (it is later than you think…) might want to check out the original pointer to the cross-blog discussion of apocalyptic ideals in contemporary social movements, as well as the update.

Since then, the following links have come to my attention:

First, the ever-thorough High Low & in between is now up to their fifth installment in the apocalyptic sublimity series – this one engaging quite thoroughly with K-Punk’s piece (see below), as well as Sinthome’s conference paper on left and right apocalyptic visions in popular culture – and asking Joseph Kugelmass for more information on the concept of “ideological thin slicing”.

K-Punk has written an excellent analysis of Children of Men.

Gary Sauer-Thompson over at Junk for Code suggests that Leunig might be making witty comments about us, and offers some fresh reflections on apocalyptic sentiments and the experience of the sublime.

Matthew Cheney over at The Mumpsimus likes Joseph Kugelmass’ intervention, but worries that linking the themes of poetry and apocalypticism will drive us back into the old argument about author engagement

And The Constructivist over at Mostly Harmless (love the name of this blog, by the way…) has given our roving apocalyptic voyeurism a formal name – The Blogocalypse – and, having initially proposed a Carnival of the Blogocalypse as a bit of a joke, is now beginning to think it might not be such a bad idea, after all.

Given all this collective effervesence, I’m beginning to think I’ll have to change my mind about Joseph Kugelmass’ protest against the use of apocalyptic narratives to create social bonds: look how many bloggers I’ve met while contemplating our impending doom!

[Note: image @2005 BBC]

Apocalypticism as Mechanical Solidarity

Who knew that there would be such interest in the apocalypse? ;-P

Asking some forbearance for yet another update on how the conversation on apocalypticism continues to percolate across even more blogs, I wanted to post a pointer to Joseph Kugelmass’ thoughtful and provocative reflections, which have been posted to The Valve (as well as to his own site, The Kugelmass Episodes, for those who prefer a cozier venue). Joe’s posts jump off from the earlier cross-blog discussion of how to interpret contemporary apocalypticism, but develop along lines suggested in Joe’s ongoing series of critical reflections on contemporary ethics and aethetics.

Joe’s most recent interventions have been posted in two parts:

“The Poem and the Apocalypse, Part One: Destructive Fantasies” (or, at KE)- which revisits the cross-blog discussion, offers its own analysis of types of apocalyptic fantasy, and draws particular attention to the phenomenon Joe calls “thin slicing” – the instrumental and selective mobilisation of symbolically charged evidence directed to ideological ends, and predicated on the assumption that social connection necessarily requires agreement and sameness; and

“The Poem and the Apocalypse, Part Two: Children of Men and Frank O’Hara’s Personism” (or, at KE) – which moves from an analysis of Cuaron’s Children of Men to an analysis of O’Hara’s Personism, in order to unfold a series of reflections on the potential for a vision of social connection that transcends instrumentalist “thin slicing”.

I’ll apologise to Joe for flattening the content considerably in this synopsis – Joe’s posts, and the subsequent discussion, are worth reading in full to get a proper feel for the points in contention.

Updated 30 January: Yet more apocalypse! High Low & in between has added a fourth installment to the apocalyptic sublimity series of posts on the apocalypticism discussion, with yet another good summary of the cross-blog discussion as well as fresh original observations, while Sinthome has posted the conference presentation inspired by the blog discussion at Larval Subjects.

And now, update-on-the-update, we have our very own carnival… er… sort of: the Unofficial Carnival of the Blogocalypse, assembled by The Constructivist at the group blog Mostly Harmless.

Cliff Notes to the Apocalypse

I had been intending to write something pointing to the various follow-ups to the discussion on apocalyptic social movements that originally started, and has continued, as a kind of conversational flow across various blogs. I discovered this morning, though, that High Low & in between has assembled an extraordinary summary of the discussion – complete with links and annotations of the earlier rounds of the discussion, and a new response to k-punk’s latest post on the subject (which itself takes up points from the discussion between this blog and Larval Subjects). Just wanted to place a pointer to High Low & in between’s overview post here, as it can be difficult to follow a discussion like this, in which a cloud of blogs seems to coalesce around slightly different dimensions of a similar interest.

Updated 28 January: Since we seem to have incoming visitors from The Valve, I just wanted to point, as well, to further thoughts on this topic from Larval Subjects, comments on the original discussion at Smokewriting and philosophical conversations, as well as the conversation still simmering at I Cite. Happy to add other links, if people will make me aware of them.

Meanwhile, for those in a less pessimistic mood, Sinthome from Larval Subjects and I have also continued this discussion along a different fork, exploring potential overlaps between Adorno and Lacan, and continuing our long-term conversation on the project of critical theory. Sinthome’s latest contributions can be found here and here, while my latest is here.

Updated 29 January: Just wanted to post a few more links, first to a post above summarising Joseph Kugelmass’ Valve entries, and then direct links to those entries themselves.

Updated 30 January: Yet more apocalypse! High Low & in between has added a fourth installment to the apocalyptic sublimity series of posts on the apocalypticism discussion, with yet another good summary of the cross-blog discussion as well as fresh original observations, while Sinthome has posted the conference presentation inspired by the blog discussion at Larval Subjects.

And now, update-on-the-update, we have our very own carnival… er… sort of: the Unofficial Carnival of the Blogocalypse, assembled by The Constructivist at the group blog Mostly Harmless.

Dialectic and Dialogue

While I’m stealing thoughts from other blogs, I just wanted to draw attention to this lovely characterisation of philosophy, from Sinthome at Larval Subjects:

Philosophy has been the ongoing dialectic between the philosopher and the sophist, where the sophist demonstrates the manner in which the confident philosopher nonetheless falls prey to undemonstrated claims and assumptions, and the philosopher responds to the sophist, taking these assumptions into account and showing how truth is possible within their scope. For instance, today we find ourselves embroiled in how a pure beginning is possible, given that thought, knowledge, and subjectivity is thoroughly pervaded by culture which cannot itself be grounded. That’s the sophists position, advanced by thinkers such as Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Quine, Davidson, Rorty, sometimes Heidegger, and others. The philosopher that would respond to this has not yet arisen, though there are promising glimmers in Deleuze and Badiou.

The context for this comment, in a “writ large” sense, is a sprawling blog brawl over the political significance of religious fundamentalism, into which I’ve occasionally been tossing somewhat irrelevant and over-abstract theoretical points… ;-P In the post that contains the quoted passage, Sinthome reworks one of my theoretical interventions in a much more coherent and precise way than I originally formulated it, and then moves far beyond my gestural starting point, putting forward a vision – a proposal? – for a philosophical and political culture in which “one’s grounds be grounds that the other too can discover for themselves” – a vision I wholeheartedly embrace.

I need more time to work out what I think about where Sinthome has taken this at a more detailed level (and, for that matter, how committed I want to be to my own original comment, as I was writing it, in a sense, to ease myself into thinking through the religious implications of the theoretical framework we’ve been roadtesting for the past several weeks…). I thought, though, that there was something very beautiful in Sinthome’s formulation – even if I later decide I want to qualify this image of the history of philosophy (at present, I find myself drawn to the formulation, even though my historicist impulses are straining mightily to kick in)… ;-P For the moment, I’ll rest with just pointing to the discussion, for those interested…

The Falling Man

Reading the news this morning, I stumbled across a review of Henry Singer’s documentary 9/11: The Falling Man, which centres on Richard Drew’s iconic, but apparently quickly suppressed, photograph of a person falling from the Twin Towers. Read more of this post


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