Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Technology

Enjoy Your Symptom!

Okay, this is officially bad science week at Rough Theory… For those who haven’t seen this yet, I wanted to link to an article at TechCrunch on healthBase, which offers “Answers automatically retrieved from millions of authoritative health sources”. HealthBase’s search field invites you to “Enter a health condition, disease or sign”, so that its semantic search algorithms can aggregate information from across its various sources, in order to present to you a contextually appropriate list of treatments, causes, complications, and pros & cons of specific treatments.

Leena Rao from TechCrunch reports that, when users began exploring the new search engine, they found some… unexpected results. Specially, she reports that healthBase lists “Jew” as one of the causes of AIDS (please check the screenshots from the original piece). It gets better:

When you click on Jew, you can see proper “Treatments” for Jews, “Drugs And Medications” for Jews and “Complications” for Jews. Apparently, “alcohol” and “coarse salt” are treatments to get rid of Jews, as is Dr. Pepper! Who knew? I’ve included the screenshots of the results below if you don’t believe me.

The answers don’t seem motivated by anti-semitism, but by content aggregation that doesn’t adequately parse how the meaning of words can change in different contexts. Thus, as Rao reports further down, you get other, less charged, but equally nonsensical, results from other searches:

If you look at the pros of AIDS (yes, it thinks here are pros to having AIDS), it comically lists the “Spanish Civil War.”

Those responsible for healthBase are working on the problem and promise rapid improvements. Meanwhile, friends to whom I’ve passed on the link keep spamming me with their own favourite results. I’ve also enjoyed the results posted at jonquil’s site, where I originally saw the link to the TechCrunch article.

Edited to add: just to give a taste of what gets generated, I’ll include the result I added to the discussion over at Wildly Parentherical:

I got “pain” as a complication of “dying”…

Treating dying has certain pros, including: “achieve commercial success”, “fine surface finish”, “pioneer hip hop music”, and, my personal favorite: “add bonus die” (which, I suppose, is one way you could look at being brought back to life, if you were so inclined…)

If you’d rather not treat dying, perhaps you would prefer to avoid its causes, the first of which is apparently “ginger”…

See further commentary at


The printer in my office has broken down while trying to print the current draft of my thesis. What error message is it flashing?

Page 21 is too complex.

Administered Uncertainty

We have this university online environment we are compelled to use for classes. Read more of this post

Impure Inheritances

Below the fold is something like the text delivered on Friday afternoon to the Derrida Today conference. This is a jointly-authored piece, delivered by NP, co-written with the appropriately recently-deceased, and therefore undeconstructibly spectral, Praxis Blog. Those who have been following along in the blog discussion leading up to this talk will realise that what is reproduced below the fold is half the argument: the talk covers our working interpretation of why Derrida omits the “hand” when he quotes the passage in which Marx christens the commodity fetish – and explores what this omission implies for how Derrida understands Marx and the possibility of inheriting Marx today. Along the way, we manage to talk in a somewhat rambling fashion, about a rather sweeping range of other things – but somehow in all of this, we never quite stumble across the second half of our own argument, which will attempt to outline a different sort of inheritance of Marx through a reinterpretation of the argument about commodity fetishism. The fetish, therefore, continues to haunt us – imminent, but not yet presenced, below – and yet not below – the fold… Read more of this post

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*]


One of the nice things about living and working centrally in Melbourne, is that you rarely really need a car. Read more of this post

So My Laptop Died…

exploded Dell laptop Well, it didn’t die quite this dramatically – it’s been more a process of slow decline, which reached a certain point of perfection the evening before we presented in Tassie, where the machine simply refused to recharge any more. It adds an interesting, examination-like intensity to conference presentations, knowing that the only tweaks you can make to your talk, must be made within the remaining 90 minutes of your current battery life. It’s entirely possible the laptop gremlins had my best interests in mind – certainly my dead laptop ensured that I got far more sleep, the evening before the presentation, than I think L Magee was able to rationalise with a fully-functional laptop at his disposal.

In any event, traveling back to Melbourne, I had high hopes that the problem would be something simple and inexpensive – maybe the power supply or battery. But no, it’s major – of the sort that it makes more sense to purchase something new, and thus of the sort that causes one to spend an entire evening researching what new toys have come on the market in the intervening years since one has last shopped for a laptop. I think I’ve found what I’m after, and will of course now spend the morning calling around to various places, clarifying ambiguities in specs and such and, if this is successful, no doubt spend the better part of the next couple of days configuring the new machine so that it’s ritualistically prepared for this summer of intensive dissertation writing. I lost no data in the demise of the old laptop, so this is more an opportunity to prune: what from that old machine really needs to be reincarnated in the new?

All of this is by way of saying that my online time has been and will continue to be somewhat limited over the next few days. My backup desktop at the university – a default machine that I inherited with my current office – is bolted to a desk in a position that sits very far back from where I have to sit to type on it, placing the screen an uncomfortable distance from my near-sighted self. And anyone who tried to read along with my response to Andrew Montin’s question yesterday, will also realise that the desktop’s keyboard is prone (at least, when confronting my laptop-conditioned typing reflexes) to duplicating some letters, while omitting others (trust me, I caught far more of these than made their way through to the published comment).

I’d like to write something following up on Andrew’s questions, looking into Brandom’s critique of “I-we” conceptions of the social, his references to history, his appeals to “the theorist” at key points in his argument – and, basically, open up the question of how immanent and reflexive Brandom can actually be seen to be. These were originally the sorts of points with which I had thought of concluding the ASCP presentation, and which, rightly or wrongly, I cut for purposes of time, but which I’d like to raise for discussion here. Andrew has opened these questions himself [er... perhaps I should say: Andrew has asked questions which have reminded me of these questions - perhaps not quite the same thing - certainly from Andrew's point of view... ;-P], which hopefully suggests we were on the right track, in at least a rough sense, in wanting to raise these issues, in tandem with the vexed question of how Brandom understands “objectivity” and the notion of how our discursive practice opens the space for our “accountability” to dimensions of the world that do not depend on our perception or acknowledgment for their existence. I may wait, though, to write on these things, until I have a keyboard that doesn’t make me feel like I’m stuttering. (Of course, the new laptop keyboard may have its own issues – I therefore hereby blame all errors in my posts for the next several months – the conceptual, as well as the typographical – on whatever machine I happen to be purchasing to replace my sadly-defunct Dell…)

[Note: Image @2006 The Age, URL:,0.jpg%5D

The Ghost in the Machine

I had been trying to wait until I was over this cold to respond to the fantastic post over at Lumpenprofessoriat on Digital Fetishism. The cold refuses to go, and I don’t want to keep waiting for that apocryphal moment when the conditions are ripe for healthy posting – so up with the post, minus some points on potentials for transformation that I had the best intentions of including, but which will now need to wait for another time… [Updated to add: I've just realised that I made this post "live" before I intended... cold, household distractions... apologies to anyone who might have been watching on while I was inadvertently making live edits... *sigh*]

Lumpenprof’s current post picks up on some of the threads from the conversation on our shared confusion over how some critics of Marx argue that recent technological progress has rendered Marx’s labour theory of value out of date. For those interested in backtracking the conversation, the posts to date are:

Devaluing Labour (here)
mmmm… Marx! (there)
Turning the Tables (here)
Digital Fetishism (there)

As Adam gently pointed out, my last post in this exchange didn’t manage to make much sense (under Adam’s prompting, I tried to do a bit better in the comments). Lumpenprof has gracefully overlooked the somewhat unclear way I tried to formulate my questions, and has now revisited the discussion of the labour theory of value in an exceptionally clear form. I’d like to quote the better of portion of this post below – excising a few sentences from the first paragraph, to which I want to return in a bit. Lumpenprof argues:

Under capitalism, value takes the form of a single, homogenous, social substance: labor. It is quite literally the only thing that capital can value. [...] However, it is only within capitalism that value takes on such a limited form.

We can imagine a splendid array of things to value: beauty, social justice, clean air, happy children, dance music, baseball, rowdy sex, tasty food, great literature, good booze. For capital, these are only every use-values that become interesting only in so far as they may also be bearers of value. Baseball and booze have been successfully shaped into commodities that have value for capital — clean air and social justice … not so much. For Marx, the end of capital would also mean the end of labor as the sole value that trumps all other values.

Marx is certainly a fan of technology as something which sets the stage for capital’s end through creating the ability to meet our material needs with ever less necessary labor. This could certainly include digital technologies which currently produce such an embarrassing abundance of music and videos that capital has to try to recreate scarcity through legal and electronic counter-measures. However, this is where our current difficulty lies. Simply because we find many things to value online other than the efficiency of labor, this doesn’t mean that capital shares our enthusiasms.

I love these passages, and I think that they are directly on point to what Marx is trying to argue, when he talks about the “labour theory of value”: Marx is precisely not making an argument about labour’s role in the production of material wealth. He is well aware of the increasing role of machinery and technology in the material reproduction of society. For Marx, however, this sets up a central problem for social analysis – why something like the labour theory of value (originating, of course, with the political economists, rather than with Marx) should still seem to capture something central to capitalist society. But Lumpenprof has already expressed this point in a much more elegant way, and so I won’t… er… belabour it here.

I do, though, want to draw attention to the couple of sentences I excised from the passage above – sentences that don’t quite express what I take Marx to have been trying to do. In the process of defining value and discussing its centrality to capitalism, Lumpenprof argues:

Capital lives on a monotonous diet of dead labor unlevened by any other supplemental concerns or desires. And for capital more is always better, so the more dead labor capital can accumulate in the form of either commodities or money the better for capital.

Here I want to make a very quick qualification. Marx does indeed define capital in terms of “dead labour” in various passages – and I take it that this is what Lumpenprof has in mind in the passage above. However, interestingly, Marx does not define value in relation to dead labour alone. Instead, Marx positions dead labour – as bound up into capital – as parasitic on living labour, which alone in Marx’s account preserves and generates value. For Marx, it is this constant investment of living labour that capital needs, and he argues that, no matter how much dead labour capital acquires (in the form of material wealth, means of production, accumulated knowledge of techniques for meeting material needs, etc.), material accumulation will never satiate capital, because what actually drives the system on a deep structural level is the ongoing extraction of living labour – an endless, boundless, instrumental “goal” that operates without regard to any particular substantive endpoint of material wealth.

In such a context, dead labour is constantly accumulated – obsessively accumulated – because structurally, and in spite of appearances that both express and veil this structure, the accumulation of dead labour is not the goal, but instead a means for extracting and absorbing new expenditures of living labour. In this topsy-turvey social structure, the accumulation of dead labour – material wealth and the forces of production – is actually a side effect of the structural drive toward the displacement and reconstitution of living labour. Marx’s initial determinations of the labour-process (in which the labourer is defined as someone who “not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi”, and in which the labour-process is defined as “human action with a view to the production of use-values” [Capital, vol. 1 1867 ch. 7]) thus come to be completely inverted under capitalism – raw materials, physical plant, products of previous rounds of production, become important to capitalist accumulation “merely as an absorbent of a definite quantity of labour” (Capital, vol. 1 1867 ch. 7) – with capital structurally indifferent to (although also, in complex ways, dependent on) the concrete form in which this labour is expended, and yet requiring that the expenditure of living labour take place in some form.

This vision of dead labour as an “absorbent” of living labour leads Marx to make heavy use of metaphors of the undead – of vampires, were-wolves, and other animated monsters that originated in living beings, but that now live on only through the extraction of the life force of the living. Thus Marx argues that:

By turning his money into commodities that serve as the material elements of a new product, and as factors in the labour-process, by incorporating living labour with their dead substance, the capitalist at the same time converts value, i.e., past, materialised, and dead labour into capital, into value big with value, a live monster that is fruitful and multiplies. (Capital, vol. 1 1867 ch. 7, bold text mine)

And capital, within its ever-growing material carapace of dead labour, never breaks free of its parasitic relationship to living labour:

Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. (Capital, vol. 1 1867 ch. 10)

For Marx, then, capital accumulates dead labour – but dead labour constantly reanimated by the expenditure of living labour power. Capitalism is a system centred on the production of value, which requires the perpetual reconstitution of living labour, regardless of the level of material wealth. This is a very slight amendment to Lumpenprof’s framing of the issue above, but one which might have some interesting potentials for how we conceptualise what capitalism is – and also how we might conceptualise transformation.

[Public domain images modified from originals at Wikipedia here and here]

Turning the Tables

Lumpenprofessoriat has tugged on some of the threads from my recent post on Devaluing Labour. Lumpenprof raises explicitly one of the issues that was in the back of my mind when I wrote the original post – the common perception that the rise of information and communications technologies has entailed a fundamental transformation in the nature of capitalism – and then provides more robust references to Marx’s discussions of technology in Capital:

Marx devotes the longest chapter in Capital, Volume I to the topic of “Machinery” precisely in order to explain capitalism’s enthusiasm for large-scale mechanization in terms other than the highly suspect utopian notions of labor-saving devices being used to free workers from the need to toil. For Marx, machinery as used by capital is one of its most ingenious and devious strategies for extracting ever greater quantities of surplus-labor from workers. Digital machines are no different. Capital loves computers because they make workers more productive, cheapening commodities in general, and cheapening the commodity of labor-power in particular. Thus, allowing workers to donate an ever greater share of their labor time to capital for free.

That work resulting in the production of digital commodities strikes us as so different from work that produces other sorts of commodities is perhaps simply the latest version of the ability of the commodity form to dazzle us that Marx describes as the “fetishism of commodities.”

I did have one quick question, on the concluding passage:

Digital commodities seem even more clever than wooden tables, and evolve out of their computerized brains ideas yet more grotesque. They seem to take on a life of their own — they move, grow, replicate, spawn, and evolve — and so hide and obscure the human labor they embody.

I agree with the main point here – I see nothing in digital commodities that is different in terms of the role they play within capitalist reproduction to other sorts of commodities (this doesn’t of course mean that new technologies can’t introduce novel potentials for the development of new forms of subjectivity, embodied relationships, etc., but it does mean that there is nothing intrinsically non-capitalist about the new technologies). I tend, though, to describe Marx’s strategic intention slightly differently (and this may just be a matter of phrasing and emphasis). The emphasis in the passage above seems to be on the fetish as something that hides or obscures – and therefore as something Marx’s critique is trying to strip away, in order to reveal the underlying reality beneath – in this case, the reality that, in spite of the growth of technological potentials, human labour remains central.

I tend – and this difference is somewhat slight, but has some important implications – instead to present Marx’s argument about the fetish as part of an attempt to pose the question of why human labour should remain important, given the hypertrophic development of new technologies and the increases in productivity that are structural tendencies within capitalist development. Rather than simply trying to reveal the centrality of labour, Marx is, I think, trying to foreground precisely how irrational it is that human labour should remain central – trying to nudge us in the direction of realising that there is no material reason for this centrality – that material production could quite comfortably shift to something ever-more technologically mediated, and ever-less dependent on the expenditure of human labour. So: yes, on one level he is drawing attention to the human labour that continues to be required – but with the strategic intent of suggesting that this requirement is essentially bizarre – that it is “social”, that it is arbitrary – and, therefore, that it can be transformed without a regression back to premodern levels of material wealth.

Apologies if this is very unclear – and I’ll stress that I take this to be more a presentational issue, than a substantive one. Writing on the run this morning, with no time to edit… Sorry!

Devaluing Labour

I’ve read several works recently that argue that Marx’s labour theory of value, while appropriate for the period in which it was written, now needs to be updated to account for the role of technology in the production of wealth. I have no problem with the general notion that, in significant respects, Marx’s argument remains bound to the 19th century, but I can’t help but find this particular notion of what is outdated in Marx’s argument somewhat odd. The implication of this line of criticism is that, when Marx was writing, it remained unclear that technology would become increasingly important in the generation of material wealth, and that Marx – creature of his time, as are we all – simply couldn’t see that human labour would not remain as important to the material reproduction of society as it undoubtedly was in his own day. This line of criticism assumes, then, that Marx’s principal aim was to theorise the material reproduction of society, that Marx believed that wage labour was key to material reproduction in his era, and that he developed the labour theory of value in order to cast light on the ways in which, in spite of deceiving appearances created by the market, wage labour played this pivotal social role.

I’ve run into this criticism of Marx a number of times before, and I always find it extremely strange, mainly because it seems to block out any historical awareness of the industrial revolution and the utopian hopes that were placed in technological progress well into the 19th century (and beyond, of course, but my point here is that Marx would have been well aware of the concept of technological progress when he was writing). At best it seems historically implausible to think that Marx – who was attempting specifically to theorise the central historical dynamics of his time – should have been insensitive to the visibly growing role technology was playing in the production of material wealth, particularly given the contemporary attention this phenomenon received. More to the point, Capital makes frequent reference to recent technological innovations, and to the ways in which such innovations make possible the production of greater amounts of material wealth with less investment of human labour per unit output: in light of such passages, Marx can hardly be said to be unaware that the production of material wealth had come to rely more and more heavily on technology, and less and less on the investment of human labour. But if he were aware of the increasing reliance of material reproduction on technological forces – if he even drew attention to this trend in his own text – then it is worth asking what he could possibly have intended by proclaiming a “labour theory of value”: can this element of Marx’s theory be seen as anything other than the most perverse contradiction?

If we’re to see the “labour theory of value” as anything other than the most bizarre of anachronisms – not simply in our time, but in Marx’s – I think we have to consider the possibility that Capital might be trying to do something more than theorising how material wealth is generated in capitalist society. Marx in fact suggests this fairly directly, early in the first volume of Capital, first by defining exchange value as something that does not contain any use value:

As use values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use value.

And then – and more importantly – by defining value as a social substance:

If then we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour. But even the product of labour itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn, or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labour. Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract.

Let us now consider the residue of each of these products; it consists of the same unsubstantial reality in each, a mere congelation of homogeneous human labour, of labour power expended without regard to the mode of its expenditure. All that these things now tell us is, that human labour power has been expended in their production, that human labour is embodied in them. When looked at as crystals of this social substance, common to them all, they are – Values.

Marx argues that this social substance – but not material wealth – is measured in terms of socially average labour time. Significantly, he does this in a passage that explicitly thematises the role of technological progress in increasing productivity:

A use value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because human labour in the abstract has been embodied or materialised in it. How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be measured? Plainly, by the quantity of the value-creating substance, the labour, contained in the article. The quantity of labour, however, is measured by its duration, and labour time in its turn finds its standard in weeks, days, and hours.

Some people might think that if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour spent on it, the more idle and unskilful the labourer, the more valuable would his commodity be, because more time would be required in its production. The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary. The labour time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time. The introduction of power-looms into England probably reduced by one-half the labour required to weave a given quantity of yarn into cloth. The hand-loom weavers, as a matter of fact, continued to require the same time as before; but for all that, the product of one hour of their labour represented after the change only half an hour’s social labour, and consequently fell to one-half its former value.

We see then that that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production. Each individual commodity, in this connexion, is to be considered as an average sample of its class. Commodities, therefore, in which equal quantities of labour are embodied, or which can be produced in the same time, have the same value. The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labour time necessary for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other. “As values, all commodities are only definite masses of congealed labour time.”

The value of a commodity would therefore remain constant, if the labour time required for its production also remained constant. But the latter changes with every variation in the productiveness of labour. This productiveness is determined by various circumstances, amongst others, by the average amount of skill of the workmen, the state of science, and the degree of its practical application, the social organisation of production, the extent and capabilities of the means of production, and by physical conditions. For example, the same amount of labour in favourable seasons is embodied in 8 bushels of corn, and in unfavourable, only in four. The same labour extracts from rich mines more metal than from poor mines. Diamonds are of very rare occurrence on the earth’s surface, and hence their discovery costs, on an average, a great deal of labour time. Consequently much labour is represented in a small compass. Jacob doubts whether gold has ever been paid for at its full value. This applies still more to diamonds. According to Eschwege, the total produce of the Brazilian diamond mines for the eighty years, ending in 1823, had not realised the price of one-and-a-half years’ average produce of the sugar and coffee plantations of the same country, although the diamonds cost much more labour, and therefore represented more value. With richer mines, the same quantity of labour would embody itself in more diamonds, and their value would fall. If we could succeed at a small expenditure of labour, in converting carbon into diamonds, their value might fall below that of bricks. In general, the greater the productiveness of labour, the less is the labour time required for the production of an article, the less is the amount of labour crystallised in that article, and the less is its value; and vice versâ, the less the productiveness of labour, the greater is the labour time required for the production of an article, and the greater is its value. The value of a commodity, therefore, varies directly as the quantity, and inversely as the productiveness, of the labour incorporated in it.

So what’s going on here? Why these strange manoeuvres of distinguishing between value and use value (and the even stranger manoeuvre of distinguishing between value and exchange value, although I’ll leave this latter point aside for present purposes)? The passages above already suggest what’s at stake (and apologies in advance for being very abbreviated here – some of these points have been developed in greater detail elsewhere on the blog, and I’m pressed for time tonight): the distinction between use value and value allows Marx to begin to drive a wedge between a potential role technology could play, in a different organisation of social life, and the role technology actually does play in a capitalist context. Use value – material wealth, the material reproduction of society – can be generated in the absence of the expenditure of human labour: it can be produced (as Marx says somewhere) “gratis” by nature, or it can be generated by technology. Use value, or the material reproduction of society, is therefore completely indifferent to whether human labour is expended in the creation of material wealth. Capitalism, however, is not indifferent. Instead, this contingent social configuration imposes – this is Marx’s claim – a purely social coercion for the expenditure of human labour, which has – this is key to Marx’s argument – nothing intrinsically to do with the need to expend human labour for the generation of material wealth.

This social compulsion for the expenditure of human labour – which Marx understands as the impersonal and unintended side effect of collective practices consciously directed to other ends – is what Marx is trying to capture with the concept of the “labour theory of value”. Seen in this light, the “labour theory of value” is intended, among other things, to thematise the ambivalent implications of technological development under capitalism. On the one hand, technology figures in Marx’s argument as a force that increases productivity and represents a reservoir of historically-constituted potential for a form of material reproduction that is not reliant on the expenditure of human labour. On the other hand, as realised in the current social context, technological development figures as a form of actual compulsion, in that each technological innovation contributes to resetting the socially average labour time required for the production of particular goods – a distinctive social role, not intrinsic to the creation of material wealth, that binds technological innovation to a restless dynamic of coercive revolutionisation of the means of production (and of the social bonds, institutional structures, and other elements of social life that are also caught up in such transformations), such that technology comes to figure – for contingent social reasons – as the master, rather than the servant, of humankind.

Marx’s “labour theory of value”, far from being unaware of the role technology would come to play in generating material wealth, can better be understood as an attempt to grasp a central paradox of technological progress: Marx was seeking (among other things) to provide a social explanation for the boundless, “instrumental”, character of technological development in the modern era, trying to grasp why technological progress didn’t appear to be living up to the utopian hopes invested in it, asking why the restless advance of the productive forces did not appear to be accompanied by a commensurate advance in human freedom – all questions that remain quite contemporary in their resonance, even if we reject the details of Marx’s theory. Moreover, Marx’s “labour theory of value” was intended to lay the foundation for a non-pessimistic response to these questions – to argue that this paradox does not reside intrinsically in technology – that it has nothing to do with material reproduction as such – that it instead resides in a purely “social substance”, in the unintended consequences of collective human action – and, as a product of human practice, could be overcome without sacrificing technologically-mediated material production. Marx was therefore attempting to operate on the terrain of an immanent social critique – trying to identify the practical foundations of coercive dynamics, while also mining those same dynamics for the unrealised potentials they carry in their wake. In this respect, his theory compares favourably to some other critiques of “instrumental reason”, which identify these same paradoxes as central to modernity, but which claim to ground them in labour, material reproduction, or technology per se.


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