Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: July 2007

Paying Attention

Sinthome from Larval Subjects has posted a particularly poignant set of reflections that take as their starting point Deleuze and Guattari’s challenge:

“It may be that believing in this world, in this life, becomes our most difficult task, or the task of a mode of existence still to be discovered on our plane of existence” (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 75).

And then goes on to reflect:

Yet it is hard, is it not? It is hard to find those tenors of life that are inherently affirmative, where we are not beset by a dark malaise. When I was young I was so blissfully ignorant. When Lacan talks about the imaginary, one of the things he has in mind is the way in which we treat others as being like us, as thinking in the same way, as having the same values, beliefs, and views. I really can’t say that I was aware of “otherness” when I was young. For me the first real shock of otherness came in 2000, with the election of George Bush; but even more strikingly it came following September 11th, when I watch my fellow countrymen rally around this president’s ideology, falling for just about every trick George Orwell had described in his novel 1984. Here, before my eyes, I saw everything Orwell had described materializing and I wondered how we could be so stupid, how we could forget so easily. All my assumptions about the world and people evaporated, and I no longer knew what thoughts lurked behind the twinkling eyes of those about me. It seemed that the worst nationalistic, repressively religious, fascist madness had been loosed upon the land… And if not the worst, at least seeds of madness that could easily become the worse.

It is difficult not to go a little mad if you’re paying attention. Everything in this world seems as if it is upside down, as if viewed through Caroll’s looking glass.

Much more in the original.

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Marx’s argument remains bound to the 19th century, but I can’t help but find this particular notion of what is outdated in Marx’s argument somewhat odd.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.

Site Access Issues

Just a quick note that my web host will be carrying out various upgrades over the course of the week, and so the site may occasionally be down. In theory, there shouldn’t be more than a couple of outages, the longest of which should be for @90 minutes, and everything should be back to normal by Thursday. In practice, if people could please let me know if they notice anything not working as normal, it would be very helpful.

Placeholders on Alfred Sohn-Rethel

When I have a bit more time, I’ll try to follow up on my recent over-generalised reflections on real abstractions with a more grounded post on the different ways in which this concept is deployed in the works of Alfred Sohn-Rethel and Theodor Adorno. I’ve been trying to decide on a topic for an upcoming conference, and a comparison of these two authors on the issue of real abstractions may not be a bad organising concept for a paper – but I can perhaps test the waters here before I make final commitments. As I’ve been considering the concept tonight, I’ve been paging somewhat idly through some online selections from Sohn-Rethel’s Intellectual and Manual Labour: a Critique of Epistemology, reminding myself of the main lines of Sohn-Rethel’s work.

I always find myself strangely affected by Sohn-Rethel’s writing, which expresses an eager and breathless excitement about the insights that led him to his life project, and a sense of passion and urgency about what he is trying to communicate. His preface sketches with a poignant brevity the crisis that informed the development of his intellectual work:

I was stirred by the political events, partaking in discussions at street-corners and public meeting-halls, lying under window-sills while bullets pierced the windows – experiences which are traced in the pages to follow. My political awakening started in 1916, at the age of 17 and still at school, when I began reading August Bebel and Marx. I was thrown out of home and was part of the beginning of the anti- war rebellion of students in my first university year at Heidelberg in 1917 with Ernst Toller as a leading figure. For us the world could have fallen to pieces if only Marx remained intact. But then everything went wrong. The Revolution moved forward and backward and finally ebbed away. Lenin’s Russia receded further and further into the distance. At university we learned that even in Marx there were theoretical flaws, that marginal utility economics had rather more in its favour and that Max Weber had successfully contrived sociological antidotes against the giant adversary Marx. But this teaching only made itself felt within the academic walls. Outside there were livelier spirits about, among them my unforgettable friend Alfred Seidel, who in 1924 committed suicide. Here, outside the university, the end of the truth had not yet come.

There’s something immensely moving in this formulation – the sense that the “end of the truth” – the dying away of revolutionary hopes – did not happen suddenly, all at once, but instead fell in stages, hitting first the university, and then much more slowly descending on those outside. Sohn-Rethel’s response was to bury himself in a detailed study of Marx, in an effort to hold on to the revolutionary momentum – but also to understand more about why this momentum was fading away:

I glued myself to Marx and began in earnest to read Capital with a relentless determination not to let go. It must have taken some two years when in the background of my university studies I scribbled mountains of paper, seizing upon every one of the vital terms occurring in the first sixty pages of Capital, turning them round and round for definitions, and above all for metaphorical significance, taking them to, pieces and putting them together again. And what resulted from this exercise was the unshakeable certainty of the penetrating truth of Marxist thinking, combined with an equally unshakeable doubt about the theoretical consistency of the commodity analysis as it stood. There were more and other things in it than Marx had succeeded in reaching!

The result – and I’ll try to summarise the contours of this argument more adequately when I can treat Sohn-Rethel’s work in more detail – was an eventual insight that Marx’s theory might be most relevant to something other than economic analysis – that Marx’s work might provide some important, if undeveloped, pointers for the development of a self-reflexive critique of the concept of the transcendental subject. Sohn-Rethel sees in this line of analysis a means to move beyond epistemological arguments, which he regards as predicated on explaining fundamental categories as somehow immanent to the subject or to mind. He also sees an opportunity to respond to Kantian and post-Kantian approaches without a detour through Hegelian dialectics, which Sohn-Rethel regards as fundamentally bound to an untenable notion of immanence to mind.

To move beyond these impasses, Sohn-Rethel picks up on elements of Marx’s work that suggest the possibility for a form of abstraction that does not reside purely in thought – a “real abstraction” as I generally intend this term. Sohn-Rethel’s specific argument about the nature of this real abstraction is not quite the one I would make (again, I’ll leave this critical point aside until I can write on his work in greater detail), but he nevertheless situates his problem on a terrain very familiar to me, asking how we can understand the practical collective enactment of an abstraction, which can then no longer be understood adequately in terms of mere conceptual generalisation from more concrete entities:

It is not people who originate these abstractions but their actions. ‘They do this without being aware of it.’ In order to do justice to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy the commodity or value abstraction revealed in his analysis must be viewed as a real abstraction resulting from spatio-temporal activity.

Significantly, Sohn-Rethel also argues – and here I would agree – that the concept of real abstraction is both tacitly central in Capital, and that this locates Capital much more on the terrain of a critical social grounding of philosophy and natural science, than of a critique of political economy narrowly understood:

Althusser believes that Capital is the answer to a question implied but not formulated by Marx. Althusser defeats the purpose of his search for this question by insisting ‘que la production de la connaissance … constitue un processus qui se passe toutentier dans la pensee’. He understands Marx on the commodity abstraction metaphorically, whereas it should be taken literally and its epistemological implications pursued so as to grasp how Marx’s method turns Hegel’s dialectic ‘right side up’. The un-proclaimed theme of Capital and of the commodity analysis is in fact the real abstraction uncovered there. Its scope reaches further than economics – indeed it concerns the heritage of philosophy far more directly than it concerns political economy.

Like Adorno, Sohn-Rethel will try to make sense of the notion of a real abstraction in terms of the division of mental and manual labour – a step that I will examine more critically when I can treat the argument in more detail. My suspicion with both authors is that their attempts to understand fundamental aspects of modernity in terms of the mental-manual labour split (and, more tacitly, their attempts to understand capitalism primarily in terms of the market or commodity exchange) end up blurring some key historical distinctions between modern and nonmodern societies, to the detriment of the theories’ ability to grasp some core dimensions of modernity. Nevertheless, Sohn-Rethel’s work does represent an exceptionally ambitious attempt to unfold an analysis of a real abstraction, while exploring often-overlooked epistemological and philosophical implications of Marx’s work. I’m looking forward to having the time to write on the subject in greater depth.

Vague Generalisations about Real Abstractions

So… I’ve been in several conversations recently where I’ve tried to clarify something by mentioning the concept of a “real abstraction”, only to realise that my interlocutor expresses familiarity with the term, but means something very different by it than what I’m trying to convey. As with the concept of “theoretical pessimism”, I understand “real abstraction” in a somewhat technical way – to refer to a form of argument that claims that at least some forms of abstraction should not be understood as the products of a conceptual generalisation, but should instead be understood as a particular kind of entity that is directly, but unintentionally, constituted in collective practice (more on this in a bit). What I’m finding is that the term “real abstraction” has various other technical and non-technical meanings, each more or less closely bound to particular visions of the object, standpoint, and mechanism of critique. I thought I would toss some generalisations onto the blog on the diverse meanings of the term, both to clarify (or further obscure…) what I’ve meant by the term when I’ve used it in other posts here and elsewhere, and as part of a process of deciding whether it causes too much confusion for me to retain this particular phrase.

I’m finding that perhaps the most common interpretation of “real abstraction” that crops up in local conversation, takes the term to signify some sort of superlative abstraction. So the phrase “real abstraction” is understood to be trying to draw attention to concepts that are really, really abstract – by distinction, say, to concepts that are less abstract, and therefore hug more closely to concrete experience. This usage remains very closely bound to the conventional meaning of the term “abstraction” – where an abstraction is a kind of conceptual generalisation – and generally positions “real abstractions” as worse than… er… other kinds of abstractions. It sets up, in other words, a kind of normative privileging of concepts that hug more closely to what it takes to be concrete experience, views abstraction as something a thinking subject effects when reflecting on data (ruling out the possibility, for example, of “abstraction” as a particular kind of immanent structure or an actively and directly generated product of collective practice), and does not consider the possibility that we might miss some aspects of the “real” if we regard the qualitative characteristics of abstract entities solely as a kind of averaging out of the qualitative characteristics of concrete entities.

Even where interlocutors share a more similar “frame” to mine – even where they view a claim about “real abstractions” as an argument that something determinately abstract might be constituted in collective practice – there is a strong tendency to want to equate a “real abstraction” with an illusion, to view a “real abstraction” as a socially constituted form of appearance whose presence is masking some underlying “concrete” reality that critique is meant to uncover. This understanding of “real abstractions” is often put forward by people who see the market (or, sometimes, money) as the quintessential “real abstraction”, and who are interested in criticising the ways in which certain ideals or forms of thought they associate with the market, function to deflect attention away from the actual existence of domination in concrete practice. In this understanding, the forms of thought and practice associated with what is regarded as the “real abstraction” of the market are thus positioned as illusions that need to be unmasked to bring an underlying reality more clearly into view.

There is also a mirror-image position, which also sees a “real abstraction” as something constituted in collective practice, but which places the opposite “charge” on the abstraction: instead of treating the “real abstraction” as an illusion and as the object of critique, this approach views the “real abstraction” as the underlying reality, and sees other social institutions or forms of thought as illusory, or at least as more contingent or particularistic in character. This understanding of a “real abstraction” often arises from forms of critique that see some sociological group – the proletariat, the poor, the marginalised – as a “real abstraction”, where the abstraction is taken to arise because collective practice has placed a particular population into such a position of abject impoverishment or disempowerment or exclusion that they are reduced to what is most essentially, almost biologically (or spiritually), human – and are therefore positioned as the only social group with direct access to something like universal ideals, the only social group whose experiences render them capable of leading a genuinely universal movement for the emancipation of themselves and all other groups.

Okay. Broad brush strokes, I realise. There are many, many theoretical positions that couldn’t easily be lumped into any of these gestural categories. And now that I’ve run through these contradictory understandings of “real abstraction”, I’m beginning to wonder whether I should just drop the term… But before I make this decision, I’ll at least try to gesture at what I mean by the term – if only because I’ve been using it on this blog and in other writings for some time.

The basic idea, for me, behind the concept of a “real abstraction” is the claim that there are at least certain types of abstractions that are not being fully understood when they are interpreted as conceptual generalisations. When an abstraction is treated as a conceptual generalisation, it is being treated as though it arises from a process of subtraction – treated as a residual or a remainder, as whatever is left behind after a certain amount of qualitatively determinate properties has been stripped away in some kind of analytical process. Abstraction is here positioned as a form of pure or abstract negation, lacking its own determinate qualitative characteristics, but containing only those residue characteristics that persist once other attributes have been averaged out or peeled away. By contrast, I would understand the concept of a “real abstraction” to be an attempt to provide a sociological explanation of how at least some abstractions are constituted through collective practice – and are thus available to think, because collectively they are being enacted – they are existent entities constituted in and through collective practice. This process of collective enactment – like all processes of collective enactment – then confers determinate qualitative characteristics which are best understood as actively constituted in their qualitative determinacy, rather than as passively left behind after a process of generalisation away from more concrete characteristics.

From my perspective, even the more sociological approaches mentioned above don’t quite succeed in unfolding this kind of analysis, because they position “real abstractions” asymmetrically in relation to other dimensions of social practice, treating “real abstractions” as either illusions or essences, and therefore as entities that do not exist on the same practical plane as other sorts of social phenomena. This privileged positioning (whether negative or positive) of “real abstractions” tends to facilitate dichotomous visions of critique: visions that view the abstraction as an illusion and as the object of critique, because the abstraction is perceived to have occluded the qualitatively determinate reality of rich, sensuous, concrete existence; or visions that view the abstraction as the reality and as the standpoint of critique, because it reveals what is most essential and universal and unable to be stripped away.

I tend, by contrast, to restrict the term “real abstraction” to a form of analysis that steps outside this dichotomy, by taking seriously the notion that certain things that we experience as “abstractions” are not negativities left behind when everything has been stripped away, but are instead socially-constituted positivities – actively constructed with their own determinate qualitative characteristics generated (unintentionally) in collective practice – representing neither illusion nor essence, but rather alienated potentials. Such potentials are contingent, in that they are the results of collective practices that could well have been different – that, in other periods, seem to have been different – but they are also real, for us, in our time, which has (albeit quite accidentally) brought them into being. Their “abstract” character, however, places these potentials at risk for not being recognised as such – for being mistaken for conceptual generalisation, or for human nature, or for illusion – all interpretations of real abstractions that can be criticised for the ways in which such interpretations impede our ability to seize actively on the positive potentials we have generated in this peculiar form (I say this, realising that the point would need to be developed in significantly greater detail – for present purposes, I’m simply trying to hand wave at the way the concept of a real abstraction might function in a reworking of the concept of social critique, within a framework that rejects the structure of an unmasking and debunking critique).

So… Nice grand claims about the strategic intentions behind a technical term I still haven’t deployed in more than the most gestural way in any actual social theory… ;-P In spite of my criticisms above, a very, very rough sense of what would be involved in deploying the concept of “real abstraction” in something like the sense in which I use it, can be found in some analyses of the market as a “real abstraction”. The argument would go something along the lines of: in one dimension of the social practices that bring markets into being, markets express a genuine, collectively enacted, indifference to the determinate properties of the goods exchanged, the labours used to produce those goods, the purposes for which those goods might be used, etc; in other dimensions of social practice – including other dimensions of the social practices that bring markets into being – these determinate properties are directly and profoundly relevant. The tension between these two dimensions of social practice provides a “real” – or practical – collectively enacted, basis for rendering socially plausible the existence of certain kinds of dichotomous concepts – between exchange and use value, abstract and concrete, etc. Both poles of the dichotomy, however, are equally qualitatively determined by social practice – one pole does not reflect an essence and the other an appearance (although it may be socially plausible for essence-appearance interpretations to arise). Both poles – and the tensions between them – generate determinate potentials, the exploration and expression of which can then provide standpoints for criticism of the ways in which available potentials are being held back or restrained by the existing organising of social life.

To be clear, I offer the example of the market above because I suspect it will be at least somewhat familiar to most readers – it’s not unlikely that people will have read works using something like the technical notion of “real abstraction” I deploy, with the market as the case example. I feel some discomfort with the example, however, as I think that focussing on the market as a “real abstraction” reinforces the tendency to define capitalism in terms of the market, and makes it difficult to understand some periods of capitalist history. My own work focuses instead on the collective constitution of a long-term and non-linear pattern of historical transformation – on this pattern as a “real abstraction” – and can be seen, in some senses, as a critique of approaches that rely on a focus on the market. I’ll leave this issue aside for present purposes, however, since my main goal here is outline various meanings that seem to have attached themselves to the phrase “real abstraction”, and to explore briefly how these different meanings lend themselves to different conceptions of social critique.


It’s been an exhausting couple of weeks, gearing up for the new term, and also standing in for a colleague who has been away. It’s a strange thing, taking someone else’s course for a brief period of time – particularly during the first couple of weeks of a new term, which tend to set the tone and expectations for the rest of the course. I wonder just how far I’ve deviated from what they would have done with their students early on.

The course is called “Social Construction of the Self”, and I’ve had a great deal of fun watching how the students dealt with this concept. For the most part, they have dealt with it as many academics do (at least tacitly): treating the concept of social construction as what L Magee often calls “an irregular verb” – expressing positions that can best be characterised as: he is constructed; she is constructed; you are constructed; they are constructed; I am objectively true… Over and over in class discussion, the students expressed that they understood this social construction stuff – no sweat: all these other societies, all the rest of human history – constructed. No problem. But they persisted in using metaphors of unveiling, of discovery, of peeling away the layers – such that their current perspective somehow always ended up being positioned as the unconstructed truth that all those other – visibly constructed – positions just hadn’t yet managed to reach.

It was lovely – I had enormous fun with this. I gave examples, I drew pictures, I asked questions, I poked and prodded – and I completely, utterly, and absolutely failed to put a dent in the reflex asymmetry and exceptionalism of the students’ positions. It’s not that the students rejected the notion of social construction – that would have led to a very different sort of interaction. It’s that, as far as they were concerned, they were accepting the notion (which itself is interesting, and perhaps indicative of the students’ belief that a course with this title “expects” them to accept its namesake concept – by rights, I’d expect at least some students to query the premise – but I’ll leave this issue aside). It’s just that the position they thought they were accepting, involved some kind of recognition of how all those benighted and unenlightened other folk had constructed things – thus covering over the truth that we have now unveiled. It was glorious – I don’t think I managed to communicate to a single student the question of what it might mean to think about the “construction” of their own positions. So now I’ll be missing the course the rest of the term, wondering whether I would have remained so ineffective if I’d had the whole thirteen weeks…

While I was being ineffectual in other people’s courses, I decided I would do further damage by evangelising my particular views on academic writing. I do this, of course, to my own students all the time – but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to interfere with someone else’s students, as well. I have three major demands for student writing: that they treat other texts as arguments, rather than as authorities; that they empathise before they criticise; and that they write in order to effect a change in their reader.

The first is fairly easy to explain, and is basically just an iatrogenic issue related to how they were taught to write in high school: most students come to university inclined to treat all texts like encyclopaedias – as repositories of consensus information, rather than as arguments or attempts to effect a particular change in their readers. This leads to students seizing and rephrasing random bits of text, and then tossing a Harvard cite to the source in parentheses, with no attention to whether that text might be making a tendentious claim, whether it might disagree with the text they cite in the next sentence, etc.

The second is also reasonably easy to communicate, although very difficult for most students to do: I want students to demonstrate that they’ve made the attempt to make sense of a text – by paying very, very close attention to what it says, and how, before they leap breathlessly into judgement, telling me whether they agree or disagree. Learning to get into someone else’s text is difficult, and students don’t get as much practice doing this as I’d like (I gather this must be more of an issue for me than it seems to be for many other staff – which makes some sense, given that I’m generally teaching history and theory, while many of the other courses students take will focus more on pre-professional training). When the course theme allows it, I tend to spend a great deal of time on this issue in my classes.

The third is perhaps the strangest thing to attempt to teach. I used to express this point by telling students that academic writing involves making an argument. This seemed like a close approximation of what I was after, given that students in my courses are generally writing academic essays. This instruction, though, seemed to lead students in some strange directions. What I tended to get on initial assignments was something I’ve been calling “argumentative show-and-tell”: students would write whatever they were writing and then, in the final paragraph, and often with no relation to what came before and no supporting evidence or analysis, would suddenly burst out with something like, “But I think x…” End of essay.

I found this pattern very confusing, until I realised that this was how students were interpreting my request that they “make an argument”: they thought an “argument” was, essentially, a stance – a declaration of their position. And they treated this stance or position as if it were something like a static and fixed possession – something they could describe, but not something that had any intimate connection to the process that structured and motivated their writing as a whole. More fundamentally, there was something strangely autobiographical in their approach – the reader was somehow not in the frame – they weren’t writing to persuade someone else to think a particular way, or to effect some transformation in another person, but rather to make some kind of authentic declaration about themselves. I’ve found that this final point – writing for a reader – structuring writing to attempt to effect some specific transformation in those who encounter the writing – the most difficult to communicate successfully.

Drive-By Parentheticals

Kenneth Rufo over at Ghost in the Wire has coined a perfect phrase for one of my pet peeves:

Baudrillard is one of those people who routinely suffer from what I call “drive-by parentheticals,” wherein an article wants to assert some commonly “assumed” fact that Baudrillard might commonly be “assumed” to provide, and so randomly inserts Baudrillard into a footnote or parenthetical citation. In effect, we see comments like, “given the proliferation of simulacra (Baudrillard 1994), yada yada.” That’s the drive-by – academic style.

I’ve tended to refer to this on the blog as the “we all know” phenomenon – I’m not sure if this allows me to claim joint credit for what Ken is proposing we call Rufo’s Law:

When it comes to theoretical work of any type, the more widely “assumed” a certain argument, concept, or thinker is, the less that argument, concept, or thinker is actually understood.


Over at the always extraordinary Taking Steps, little light has a series of reflections up on sustaining the will for engagement – this brief excerpt won’t do the post justice:

How do you navigate the politics of heartbreak?
No, really.

Because I see so many of us burn out. Slow down. Drop out. Get tired, exhausted, worn down. Nothing gets to an activist like despair, and there is no despair like that inspired by just looking at things the way they are.

All of our work, all of our exhaustion and blood, will not make our own situations very different, really, for the most part. The change we want–the deep-seated social shifts that will make the world a more decent place for more people–that will echo, and grow, and move planets for our children’s children’s children, and maybe they will thank us. But we will not taste it. We will not cross the Jordan. And what is it we’re changing?

Fragment on Theoretical Pessimism

I’ve been invited to present at an event that brings together critical theorists and activists to reflect on the relevance – or lack of relevance – of particular forms of critical theory to contemporary activism. The event won’t take place until early next year – the organisers are still finalising the details of the format and specific theme in consultation with the presenters. I’ll post more specific information to the blog when things are further along. For the moment, I’m just trying to get my head around what I might present, to give the organisers some information they can use when making decisions on format and promotion for the event.

The invitation has me thinking about the concept of theoretical pessimism – and wondering specifically how many current, “living” traditions of critical social theory are not pessimistic. It will already be clear from this question that I must mean the term “theoretical pessimism” in a very specific sense. There are many critical theoretic approaches that seek to ground some potential for emancipatory transformation – in the everyday sense of the word “pessimism”, many theoretical traditions are not pessimistic at all. My question relates more to the somewhat technical meaning of “theoretical pessimism” used in discussions of the trajectory of the Frankfurt School.

In this context, the concepts of theoretical pessimism, self-reflexivity, and socio-historical immanence are intrinsically intertwined. By theorising its own socio-historical context in a way that reveals how that context generates determinate, socially immanent, potentials for its own transformation, the theory becomes self-reflexive. Self-reflexivity, in this framework, therefore means simply that the theory can account for its own existence as a potential generated immanently by the socio-historical context it is analysing. Critical social theory accounts for itself by showing how its own socio-historical context internally generates determinate potentials for transformation, potentials that are then expressed in the ideals or values articulated by the critique. Self-reflexivity is thus intrinsically aligned with – defined in terms of – the theory’s ability to identify determinate, socially immanent, practical potentials for transformation. Within this framework, when a theory cannot identify how a specific socio-historical context generates determinate internal potentials for transformation, it ceases to be self-reflexive or immanent, and becomes a pessimistic theory – a theory whose critical objections to its own social context can no longer be linked with a determinate analysis of how that context might be transformed. This is, in fact, what happened to the first generation of the Frankfurt School.

One thing that is sometimes missed – in part because earlier forms of Marxist theory sometimes attempted to extrapolate some kind of general sociological principle from this vision of immanent critical theory – is that this kind of social critique would only ever be possible if the socio-historical context were to have very specific qualities. There is no reason to assume that all forms of human community would generate determinate internal potentials for some specific form of transformation whose character could potentially be theorised before it occurs: it’s not difficult to imagine scenarios in which something like immanent social critique wouldn’t make sense – scenarios in which change is solely aleatory in structure, or driven by human actors from outside the community being theorised, or catalysed by natural events, etc. The claim that something like an immanent and self-reflexive social critique might be possible, is therefore already a strong claim about the determinate characteristics of the particular society being analysed: only in the idiosyncratic circumstance in which a socio-historical context generates some kind of systematic potential for transformation, would this model of critique make any sense. Again, the first generation Frankfurt School theorists recognised this – and therefore drew the appropriate pessimistic consequences, when their particular theory of how capitalism might generate transformative potentials seemed no longer to apply.

Many forms of critical social theory appear to have stepped away from the vision of immanent critique sketched above – accounting for the existence of critical sensibilities in other ways, if at all, rather than attempting to locate determinate potentials for transformation that provide perspectives or standpoints that the critique expresses. Instead, the socio-historical context is often positioned as the object of critique – perhaps as something that provokes the recognition or mobilisation of certain critical ideals – but not often viewed as constitutive of the qualitative characteristics of critical sensibilities, by generating the potentials for particular kinds of immanent transformation. For this reason, many forms of social theory remain “pessimistic” in the technical sense of not identifying aspects of the socio-historical context that point beyond that context in determinate ways. This level of “pessimism” could be entirely appropriate, if our socio-historical context doesn’t have the strange characteristics required for some kind of systematic internal generation of transformative potentials. What I would like to explore in my presentation, however, are approaches that still try to “cash out” the instinct that something like an immanent and self-reflexive social critique might be possible – approaches that still attempt to conceptualise social critique as an expression of a determinate potential for transformation that is generated within our specific form of social life. More on this, hopefully, when I’m a bit less tired – and apologies for the rough and overgeneralised quality of these preliminary comments, which I’ve tossed here mainly so I don’t lose track of the chain of associations in the beginning-of-term crush.

Reproducing Ambivalence

And while I’m linking and punning on Benjamin, I meant to draw attention some time ago to the nice reading of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” posted by Ryan/Aless over at massthink. A brief excerpt:

While modern mass are has negative effects, then, its potential benefits (esp. the development of a progressive stance in the waging of social battles) outweigh them. It must be stressed, however, that these positive effects, as Benjamin points them out, are potential ones. They, first and foremost, require (which is where we began with) that art be politicized. Art must find its basis in politics and politics must permeate art (art must concern politics; politics must be concerned with art) to explicitly make it a site of ideological struggle. If Benjamin is right in his assessment that massive reception is inherently progressive, then this-the mechanical reproduction of art, its massive reception, its explicit politicization-bodes well for a progressive social program (i.e. for Marxist political goals).

This is why Benjamin feels it necessary to politicize art. It is inevitable. “The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of the masses are two aspects of the same process,” a process that has and is happening. It is inevitable that art be mechanically reproduced, that it be massively received. The age of the masses has come, and the masses demand social and artistic participation. Thus, it is inevitable that art and politics be implicated with each other. This is why we must strive to politicize art. The only other alternative is for politics to be aestheticized, which, Benjamin points out, culminates in one thing: “War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. [. . .] Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.”

This, precisely, is what fascism aims for: “Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarians masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.” Fascism finds its means of survival precisely in the aestheticization of politics: “If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. [. . .] Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.”

The demand (and energy) of the masses, in other words, along with the novel forces of technology that society has developed ((e.g. mechanical reproduction), if art is not politicized (to change property relations), finds its object in war. Hence war-politics-is aestheticized: to legitimate it, to make the masses accept it. War, in effect, “suppl[ies] the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. [. . . Mankind’s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” This-the aestheticization of politics, of war, of death-is precisely (since it does not want to change property relations) what fascism does-the only alternative, according to Benjamin, if we do not politicize art-if we do not make art, see art for what it is: a crucial site of ideological struggle. In other words: Destruction if not progress(ive social goals). Fascism if not Marxism.

R/A is on break for the moment – I’ll miss reflections like this until he returns.