Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: August 2007

Spring Research Carnival

So that presentation on blogging that I mentioned a couple of weeks back, which was originally tentatively scheduled for today, has now been repackaged into something called the “Spring Research Carnival” – a set of events that will take place over the next few months, covering a range of topics (most of which are more useful, I suspect, than my own presentation will be). I’ve attached the carnival flyer for local folks who might be interested. The basic dates, times and details for these events are:

Monday, 10 September, 3-4:30 p.m.: How Will the Research Quality Framework Affect Academic Careers?

Wednesday, 19 September, 3-4:30 p.m.: Using ABS Data in Social Research

Friday, 5 October, 3-4:30 p.m.: Online Tools for Building Research Networks

All events are in the Research Lounge, which is across from Swanston Library, in Building 8, level 5 – no RSVP requested. I have the impression that something pub-ish might happen after the events.

I will be (a very small) part of the panel for the 5 October event. The organiser tells me: “You don’t need to prepare, just come and show people your blog and talk about your experience with it, pros and cons and advice for others with similar ideas.” I’m not sure about the “showing people my blog” part (and am mildly nervous that the URL for the blog has appeared on the event flyer), but I’ll cobble something together that will hopefully be of interest.

Quick Reflexes

So I’ve finally finished my homework (or, as the case may be, other people’s homework that I’ve been marking), and can come out to play – only briefly, unfortunately, as today is a very heavy teaching day for me. I wanted, though, at least to begin to take up Joseph Kugelmass’ post on self-reflexivity (with discussions currently underway at The Kugelmass Episodes and The Valve). I won’t be able to address all the issues Joe raises adequately, in the amount of time I have to reply today. But hopefully I can at least tug on a couple of threads, and see what that manages to unravel…

I want to start with the challenging declaration with which Joe begins: “From my point of view, reflexive critiques are not capable of doing what we want them to do”. In the comments over at The Valve, rob has already suggested the minefield covered over by this casual “we”. 😉 One of the most fascinating things in the cross-blog discussion of self-reflexivity, has been the range of meanings attached to the term “self-reflexivity”. Not surprisingly, these different meanings carry their own, sometimes radically different, senses of what self-reflexive critiques are, and what purpose such critiques might serve. Joe contributes a new vision of self-reflexivity in his post – one that overlaps with some of the meanings in play in the original discussion, but one that also deviates in interesting ways, setting up for some important critical points about the limitations of self-reflexive theory as Joe understands the term. The first question, then, is what Joe takes self-reflexive theory to be – and how “his” self-reflexive theory relates to the version of self-reflexivity I’ve tended to push on this blog.

Readers who haven’t read Joe’s post should start there. I’ll write this response comment-style, and so this may be a bit difficult to follow if you aren’t familiar with what Joe has written.

Joe begins with a couple of quotes from Sondheim and Zizek, illustrating what he takes self-reflexive theory to be. Both quotes centre on a form of analysis in which an individual (or group) reflects consciously on the formative factors (social, economic, life circumstance) that have made them what they are. Mischievously, Joe selects quotes that represent an all-too-familiar narrative trope, in which persons engaging in violent or criminal activity demonstrate that self-reflection – insight into the possible causes of their objectionable behaviour – can quite happily co-exist with the objectionable behaviour itself. In this way, Joe sets up for a critique of the notion – which I agree is quite common in certain forms of critical theoretic work – that knowledge or insight is somehow intrinsically transformative. Joe’s argument is both that insight can quite easily be divorced from transformation – and that transformation can quite easily be divorced from insight.

Throughout Joe’s post, he glosses the concept of “self-reflexivity” with phrases like “self-reflexive thinking” (my italics), and links self-reflexivity to the self-awareness of individuals or groups – to their understanding of, and conscious reflection on, what causes them to be the way they are. Joe questions the possibility of this kind of self-reflexivity, arguing that we “can [n]ever be so self-aware as to lack an unconscious element“. He also questions the power of this kind of self-reflexivity, questioning theories predicated on the notion that “if I come to understand what is causing my behavior, I will lose interest in repeating this behavior”. This is beautiful, challenging material – Joe is right to push these points, and we should continue to discuss them, as he has hit on some important common assumptions about why theoretical practice might be effective that deserve to be interrogated. It’s precisely because I share substantial sympathy with Joe’s questions, that I feel a twinge of guilt for what I will do next, which is to bracket these questions entirely, in order to make what is essentially a terminological point. For, while Joe’s questions are quite valid and deserve a full discussion, I don’t believe they connect with the specific sense of “self-reflexivity” that I put into play, when discussing what Joe has delightfully christened my “great theme”.

To avoid confusion, I’ll follow the convention that emerged in the cross-blog discussion, and use the term “reflexive theory” to refer to the idiosyncratic constellation of concepts I’ve generally tried to capture through the term “self-reflexivity”. A reflexive theory is not primarily concerned with the question of how an individual theorist adopts a critical attitude or orientation toward their context. The point is not to explain how the critic is possible – or to suggest that some special kind of thinking (“self-reflexive thinking”) will somehow magically constitute a rupture that denaturalises the social field and renders transformation possible. The point instead is to unfold an analysis of the social field that highlights (1) how that field tends to be reproduced, and (2) how the very process of reproduction is such that a particular social field cannot be reproduced, without this process of reproduction also entailing the production of determinate possibilities for transformation. By analysing social reproduction in a way that exposes the existence of such possibilities, the theory “self-reflexively” incorporates itself – its own possibility – an account of the origins of the potentials whose existence the theory expresses – into its theory of social reproduction. A reflexive theory is therefore, as Sinthome has expressed it in his contribution to this exchange, a theory that can account for its “own position of enunciation” – a theory that can specify its “standpoint of critique”, and show how that standpoint is immanent to the society being criticised, rather than reflecting some kind of transcendent standpoint outside of society, against which society is being judged and found wanting.

This question is related in complex ways to the question of how people might come to desire transformation (and I’m happy to discuss these relationships in greater detail), but it is analytically distinct from this question. On a philosophical level, reflexivity is intended to allow a theory to be adequate to the concept of immanence – to make a serious attempt at thinking what critique might look like, if we are not asserting (or tacitly smuggling in) transcendent standards that do not arise immanently within the context within which the theorist is situated. On a practical level, reflexivity is intended to identify social, psychological and material resources, generated by collective processes that may not be consciously intended to have any such result, that suggest the possibility for transformative practice. In this specific sense, it’s unintentionally ironic that Joe sought to contrast what he takes to be my focus on reflexivity, with the form of theory Marx deploys in Capital. Joe argues:

When Karl Marx wrote that the contradictions within capitalism would eventually destroy it, he wasn’t writing a purely reflexive analysis. He was writing a historical analysis that used the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a model for the transition from capitalism to socialism.

Leaving aside that I don’t quite read Marx’s argument this way, what Joe is unintentionally pointing to here is actually very close to my sense of “reflexivity”: Marx is, to me, the quintessential reflexive theorist – which may perhaps clarify how far my notion of self-reflexivity is, from the notion of “self-reflexive thinking”. What is “reflexive”, for me, is the theory – not the theorist’s cognition: if a theory is aiming at emancipatory transformation, the theory reflexively allows for its own possibility by theorising its context in such a way as to highlight how that context produces the potential for particular forms of practice that hold the potential for reacting back on the reproduction of society itself.

This may begin to clarify somewhat how I would respond to Joe’s final question, which relates to why I have expressed an objection to theories that centre themselves on notions of intersubjectivity. The point – and rob and Sinthome have both picked up on this, in their respective interventions – is not to argue that the notion of intersubjectivity is invalid, or to suggest that theories that focus on intersubjectivity are somehow logically inconsistent or lacking in methodological rigour. The point – somewhat ironically, given where Joe begins his post – is that such theories are often very poor at thematising non-conscious, unintentional side effects of collective practice. My quarrel isn’t with the notion of theorising intersubjective processes, but with an exclusive focus on such processes. In his interpretive gloss on my (correctly quoted) comment about theories of intersubjectivity, I notice that Joe adds a “the” outside the quotation, and therefore becomes concerned about what I might regard as “the” central dimensions of contemporary society. I want gently to suggest that this is a concern perhaps introduced from the outside – that the definite article was deliberately omitted from my original comment 🙂 In criticising theories of intersubjectivity, my intention was not to reject them in favour of theories that focus on “the” important issues as I define them, but to draw attention to additional aspects of contemporary society that tend to be overlooked by such theories, including particularly (in the case of my own work) unintended side effects of practices oriented to other purposes entirely.

I’ll have to leave this post in its somewhat undercooked (and unedited!) state – I have to teach until late this evening. Apologies for the truncated discussion here, for the bracketing of important issues, and for any delays that might affect my ability to respond to further comments. The substantive issues Joe raises deserve their own discussion – likely a more interesting one than the terminological issues on which I’ve concentrated here. Hopefully we’ll have time to get back to all these things in the near future.

Reflex Reflux

Just a very quick note, as I’m running and can’t comment substantively until later, that Joseph Kugelmass has picked up on the cross-blog discussion on self-reflexivity, with cross posts at The Kugelmass Episodes and The Valve that ask whether reflexive thought is possible – and whether such thought is really required for emancipatory transformation. Sinthome has responded at Larval Subjects, with an amazing post that discusses the “cash value” of the concept of reflexivity with reference to Lacanian practice and to critical theory. I promise a response as soon as I have time (Joe – you go away for the summer, you don’t call, don’t write, and then you come back and write something like this when I’m too busy to respond! Seriously – welcome back, and apologies for the delay in my substantive response), but wanted to put up a pointer to the discussion in progress.

For those who missed the original cross-blog conversation, the posts are indexed here.

Circulating Perspectives

Marx begins his discussion of the general formula for capital with an apparently strange distinction, between “money that is money only, and money that is capital”. In Marx’s account, money that “is money only”, is money in its role as a medium of exchange in a circuit in which commodity producers sell their commodities in order to buy other commodities: Marx’s C-M-C – a circuit oriented to the acquisition of a use value that is then consumed, and therefore oriented to a substantive endpoint that lies outside the circuit itself. Money that is capital, by contrast, inhabits a circuit in which possessors of money purchase commodities in order to resell them to obtain more money: Marx’s M-C-M – quickly redefined as M-C-M’ – a circuit oriented to its own endless quantitative expansion. Marx distinguishes the two circuits:

The repetition or renewal of the act of selling in order to buy, is kept within bounds by the very object it aims at, namely, consumption or the satisfaction of definite wants, an aim that lies altogether outside the sphere of circulation. But when we buy in order to sell, we, on the contrary, begin and end with the same thing, money, exchange-value; and thereby the movement becomes interminable… The simple circulation of commodities – selling in order to buy – is a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely, the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits.

In social practice, these two circuits don’t describe two separate institutions or physically distinct processes of circulation, but rather practically distinguishable moments within the same overarching process – a point that allows Marx to open a strategically crucial discussion of how social actors who are engaging with the very same process, might still plausibly emerge from this engagement with radically different practical orientations and subjective perceptions of what the process entails. Marx is using this discussion, in other words, to open up an analysis of a social process that intrinsically entails a proliferation of conflicting perceptions, subjective orientations, and engagements with a core social institution. This is an analytical strategy Marx uses throughout Capital – not something he regards as unique to the analysis of the sphere of circulation: Capital relies heavily on the notion that the same context can be generative of forms of perception, thought, and practice that conflict with one another, but that nevertheless share the common quality of expressing determinate potentials of that context.

Analysing some of the forms of subjectivity that express the potentials of the sphere of circulation, Marx notes the subject position that the capitalist personifies:

As the conscious representative of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value, which is the objective basis or main-spring of the circulation M-C-M, becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at. This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange-value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation.

The phrasing is important here. Marx does not say that we can predict how groups of empirical people will perceive or engage with the process of circulation by, for example, examining how much money they possess, determining whether they own the means of production, or monitoring how they engage with the process of circulation. His point is instead a definitional one: he says that a possessor of money becomes a capitalist, to the extent that they consciously represent and adopt as their subjective aim, a movement that is described in the text as an objective process – a process that confronts individuals as something beyond their personal control – to which the capitalist then orients subjectively in terms of their ongoing search for profit.

At the beginning of the following chapter, Marx further proliferates the perspectives from which this same social process can be viewed, by pointing out that most participants in the exchange process don’t adopt the perspective of the capitalist, but instead engage with the process as if it were a matter of simple commodity exchange – as if the process of circulation were a process of obtaining determinate use values for consumption. Marx argues:

The form which circulation takes when money becomes capital, is opposed to all the laws we have hitherto investigated bearing on the nature of commodities, value and money, and even of circulation itself. What distinguishes this form from that of the simple circulation of commodities, is the inverted order of succession of the two antithetical processes, sale and purchase. How can this purely formal distinction between these processes change their character as it were by magic?

But that is not all. This inversion has no existence for two out of the three persons who transact business together. As capitalist, I buy commodities from A and sell them again to B, but as a simple owner of commodities, I sell them to B and then purchase fresh ones from A. A and B see no difference between the two sets of transactions. They are merely buyers or sellers. And I on each occasion meet them as a mere owner of either money or commodities, as a buyer or a seller, and, what is more, in both sets of transactions, I am opposed to A only as a buyer and to B only as a seller, to the one only as money, to the other only as commodities, and to neither of them as capital or a capitalist, or as representative of anything that is more than money or commodities, or that can produce any effect beyond what money and commodities can. For me the purchase from A and the sale to B are part of a series. But the connexion between the two acts exists for me alone. A does not trouble himself about my transaction with B, nor does B about my business with A. And if I offered to explain to them the meritorious nature of my action in inverting the order of succession, they would probably point out to me that I was mistaken as to that order of succession, and that the whole transaction, instead of beginning with a purchase and ending with a sale, began, on the contrary, with a sale and was concluded with a purchase. In truth, my first act, the purchase, was from the standpoint of A, a sale, and my second act, the sale, was from the standpoint of B, a purchase. Not content with that, A and B would declare that the whole series was superfluous and nothing but Hokus Pokus; that for the future A would buy direct from B, and B sell direct to A. Thus the whole transaction would be reduced to a single act forming an isolated, non-complemented phase in the ordinary circulation of commodities, a mere sale from A’s point of view, and from B’s, a mere purchase. The inversion, therefore, of the order of succession, does not take us outside the sphere of the simple circulation of commodities, and we must rather look, whether there is in this simple circulation anything permitting an expansion of the value that enters into circulation, and, consequently, a creation of surplus-value. (italics mine)

Marx breaks down further potential perspectives in each chapter, each predicated on a socially plausible form of engagement with this very same process of circulation. He customarily links these perspectives, either in the text or in his notes, with specific figures or intellectual movements that express each perspective. These often rapid fire and gestural links are intended as immanent critiques – as demonstrations that Marx will not dismiss alternative forms of theory as “mere” errors or illusions (a form of abstract negation these competing forms of theory often practice on one another), but will instead grasp them as expressions of determinate dimensions of a shared context Marx is also seeking to theorise. By doing this, Marx begins to set up what he intends as a determinate negation – in the form of a theory of capitalism in which circulation itself is positioned as but a moment in an overarching process.

In these two chapters, he only hints at the perspective his own critique expresses, setting up for the analysis of wage labour to follow:

We have shown that surplus-value cannot be created by circulation, and, therefore, that in its formation, something must take place in the background, which is not apparent in the circulation itself. But can surplus-value possibly originate anywhere else than in circulation, which is the sum total of all the mutual relations of commodity-owners, as far as they are determined by their commodities? Apart from circulation, the commodity-owner is in relation only with his own commodity. So far as regards value, that relation is limited to this, that the commodity contains a quantity of his own labour, that quantity being measured by a definite social standard. This quantity is expressed by the value of the commodity, and since the value is reckoned in money of account, this quantity is also expressed by the price, which we will suppose to be £10. But his labour is not represented both by the value of the commodity, and by a surplus over that value, not by a price of 10 that is also a price of 11, not by a value that is greater than itself. The commodity owner can, by his labour, create value, but not self-expanding value. He can increase the value of his commodity, by adding fresh labour, and therefore more value to the value in hand, by making, for instance, leather into boots. The same material has now more value, because it contains a greater quantity of labour. The boots have therefore more value than the leather, but the value of the leather remains what it was; it has not expanded itself, has not, during the making of the boots, annexed surplus-value. It is therefore impossible that outside the sphere of circulation, a producer of commodities can, without coming into contact with other commodity-owners, expand value, and consequently convert money or commodities into capital.

It is therefore impossible for capital to be produced by circulation, and it is equally impossible for it to originate apart from circulation. It must have its origin both in circulation and yet not in circulation.

We have, therefore, got a double result.

The conversion of money into capital has to be explained on the basis of the laws that regulate the exchange of commodities, in such a way that the starting-point is the exchange of equivalents. Our friend, Moneybags, who as yet is only an embryo capitalist, must buy his commodities at their value, must sell them at their value, and yet at the end of the process must withdraw more value from circulation than he threw into it at starting. His development into a full-grown capitalist must take place, both within the sphere of circulation and without it. These are the conditions of the problem. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!

Conferences without Confidence

So I was looking for information on a conference I might want to attend next year, and somehow stumbled across this rather self-effacing announcement for a completely unrelated event. Maybe it’s just me, but these folks sound like they’re meeting to decide whether to pack it all in, give up, and disband their field:

(Re)Discovering Childhood
3 to 4 July 2008
Melbourne, Australia

Given the persistence of ideas about the specific nature of childhood, this conference endeavours to consider whether it is necessary or desirable to unpack these historical constructions.

Reflexive Connections

Tom from Grundlegung has returned from much too long an absence (I’ve missed your voice around these parts!), to join the ongoing discussion of self-reflexivity. Tom points to some of the connections between the two senses of self-reflexivity the rest of us have been trying to distinguish during this conversation. I’m glad someone has written on this, as I had been worrying that, in trying to make clear in this conversation what I mean by “self-reflexive theory“, I was making distinctions that were also occluding the potential to generate these sorts of connections. Tom’s piece both provides his take on the strategic intentions of the positions being distinguished, and then explores one avenue through which one might also get “back” from the notion of “theoretical self-reflexivity” (or “reflexivity”, as I think we are now calling this concept by local convention) to some of the issues Alexei and Gabriel have raised in relation to the more common understanding of the term “self-reflexivity”. Tom argues:

To begin: when NP discusses ‘reflexivity’ then the term is deployed at a meta-theoretic level where it describes a condition of adequacy for theories that can explain how the context interpenetrative with a set of practices (paradigmatically a social field, such as one inclusive of capitalist relations of production) provides both the ground for the reproduction of those practices whilst containing an opening for a change or development (specifically, emancipatory change) in those practices. As I read this general line of thought, the aim is to determine a normative stance — some standards for assessment — that do not float freely of the object of critique; rather, they are to be rooted immanently in their objects. (Hegel attacks the contrasting pure ‘oughts’ in both his earliest works like The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate as well as his last ones, such as the Preface to the Philosophy of Right.)

A reflexive theory is one that will be able to explain its own role as an element within its analytic field, specifically the way that the very formation of the theory opens up new avenues for critical practice. Non-reflexive theories are thus those prone to forget their own contribution to their explanandum; so while they may be quite competent in characterising the mechanisms or functions that contribute to the reproduction of a set of practices, they ignore the fact that the very attempt to grasp this reproduction of practices, especially if the analytical theory is an especially insightful one that allows us to come to a good understanding of this reproduction, can intensify or disrupt the process of reproduction of practices. A fully reflexive theory will not only proclaim its membership of its own analytic field but will be able to demonstrate how it itself opens (and perhaps closes) critical potentialities. That is, it can show how its analysis of its object (the fact of its analysis, not just its content) does or does not provide a basis for specific changes in our practices — changes that were not even latently potential ones without the formulation of the theory. (In light of Sinthome’s posts on the materiality of writing, I am tempted to say ‘how it provides a material basis for practice.’) This will allow it to avoid an abstract negation that dismisses its object as inadequate without furthermore showing how this inadequacy may be overcome by building upon such things as the very realisation and attendant explanation of why the object is inadequate.

Logically speaking, a reflexive relation is simply one that something bears to itself (e.g. ‘tired cliché’ is a tired cliché). Thus, the meta-theoretic sense of ‘reflexive’ describes a theory that applies to itself. The other sense of ‘reflexive’ that has been in play over at Now-Times is one of self-reflexivity: the relation that the self has to itself. It might appear that there is only a linguistic similarity here then, for initially there seems to be no reason to suppose that the self’s relation to itself has anything much to do with a theory’s relation to itself.

Yet, I take it that the Kantian insistence on self-reflexivity as a condition for knowledge — that I must be able to relate to myself as a condition of entering into cognitive relations with the world — extends to normativity in general; that is, I must be able to relate to myself in a certain way if it is to be intelligible that I am legitimately appraisable for my actions in and attitudes towards the world. Furthermore, the way that I must so relate to myself is of the same form as the meta-theoretic notion of reflexivity. To see meta-theoretic reflexivity as a condition for an adequate critical theory — thereby a norm-bearing and not merely descriptive one — is to suppose that a theory must understand its own capacity to enable new determinate interventions with respect to its objects. A parallel move is, I think, to be found at the heart of the subject. So, a meta-theoretically reflexive critical theory is a structure of beliefs that theorises itself as a condition of its own normative claims being authoritative; where I take it that subject (qua minimally rational agent) is something that understands itself to have the power to determine itself insofar as it can be responsive to purported norms — introducing a possible tension between what it is possible we should do and what we might in fact do — as a condition of its activities being actually norm-governed (and thereby both potentially intentional and also rationally defensible and thereby be themselves authoritative).

That last claim is almost impossibly compressed here. To give a basic hint of what I have in mind, I want to claim that it is a necessary condition for the possibility of a norm being authoritative with respect to a certain activity that the person engaged in that activity can (but not necessarily does, as in constructivism) take themselves to be subject to the authority of that norm. The central consideration here being that it is the possibility of so taking oneself, endowed as we are with the critical faculties of rational agents to contextualise our activities against the background of standards which we can then endeavour to pursue, that is important. It is this capacity to view our activities against a backdrop of norms that fall short of rigid determinations of what we will in fact do that provides a partial ground for norms being actually intelligibly in play at all.

Tom situates these… er… reflections in the context of his own work, which, as he describes:

is coalescing around the compatibility of various broadly Kantian accounts of autonomy and their compatibility with post-Sellarsian understandings of how we can be ‘objectively’ accountable to an ‘external’ world that can exert a normative force on our practices.

Fantastic stuff – go see the original!

I suspect this conversation may also have reached the point where we may need a running tally of contributions. On some level, this conversation has been running between Larval Subjects and this blog for some time now. In its recent incarnation, however, I think the “excuse” for the discussion began with a very brief post here on theoretical pessimism. Sinthome then initiated the conversation proper, with a beautiful post over at Larval Subjects titled “Problems of Self-Reflexivity”, which used Sartre to develop some of my fragmentary points on theoretical pessimism into a potent set of reflections on how to grasp the potential for rupture within a social field. This post provoked a vibrant discussion, which eventually led Alexei over at Now-Times to chime in with “On the Concept of Reflection”, which tried to situate the discussion on the terrain of the conditions of possibility for the self-reflexive subject. I responded with the post “Self-Reflexivity Beyond the Self”, which tried to describe a bit better how I use the term “self-reflexive” to capture a property of a social field, while Gabriel Gottlieb posted a set of reflections of Fichte and the concept of self-reflexivity over at Self and World, arguing that Fichte might provide a means to do what both Alexei and I were trying to do. Alexei then followed up with more reflections on Fichte, which explored the issue of a self-reflexive process that generates products that are also producers, reacting back on the process itself. Fantastic discussions have ranged across all of these blogs – making this one of the most productive and generative cross-blog discussions I’ve seen (of course, I’m biased on this topic… ;-P).

Updated to add: Nate from the fantastic What in the hell…, who has been in this fray in the comments here and at Larval Subjects, has now chimed in back at home, with a set of reflections on the connections – and lack of connections – of this kind of theoretical work and the work of organisation, and between argument, and conviction.

A Friend in Need

Naive netiquette question. I have a Facebook account, which I don’t use (I created it some months back for some specific reason I have now forgotten, but which didn’t involve an intention of using the account actively for the near future). I occasionally glance in to look at some of the discussions about my university, but have generally avoided learning much about the whole thing because, frankly, I have well and truly exceeded my personal quota of opportunities for online distraction for the foreseeable future. (I need something like a carbon trading scheme for units of online procrastination: disciplined people could fund their dissertations by trading their unused procrastination credits – they’d probably finish sooner and live more comfortably during their write-up – and so would the procrastinators!, having been appropriately incentivised to ration their procrastinatory impulses. Can everyone tell I’ve been sick and am still slightly delirious?)

At any rate, one consequence of not having paid any particular attention to Facebook is that I have no real idea of the internal norms and etiquette within the system. This morning, I got an email letting me know that a student has added me as a “friend”. Since I have hitherto remained friendless in Facebook, and am therefore actually reading the boilerplate text on notification mails, I noted with some amusement that Facebook: “need[s] you to confirm that you are, in fact, friends with [x].”

My question is this: is it normal for students to add faculty to their “friends”? Is it normal for faculty to confirm that they are, in fact, “friends”? I normally follow an expansive “when in Rome” policy on such things – in this case, though, I haven’t read the travel guide. Perhaps more Facebook-active folks can give me a sense of their experiences?

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]

Online Tools for Building Research Networks

So I’ve been asked, somewhat at the last minute, to present as part of a panel on “Online Tools for Building Research Networks”. Specifically, I’ve been asked to speak on “Blogging about Research”. Hmm… is that what I do here?

The other panellists won’t be bloggers (the intention of the event is to provide an overview of the various sorts of online tools, communities, and projects that might be useful to academics relatively unfamiliar with the concept of online networking tools). So I suppose I’ll need to introduce the medium in some way (and try to keep the discussion as far as possible from what I personally do… ;-P). If people have any ideas about what it might be useful to say (from experiences you have with similar presentations or discussions with non-bloggers in an academic context), I’m all ears.

The questions I get most frequently are along the lines of:

  • What the hell is a “blog”?
  • Is it, like, some kind of chat room/online dating site/bulletin board/strange arcane hobby you picked up in America, etc.?
  • How do people find you?
  • Why do people find you?
  • Aren’t you worried someone will steal your stuff?
  • Isn’t it risky, putting your draft work up where everyone can see it?
  • If you write something good on a blog, isn’t it wasted? I mean, there’s no way for people to cite blogs, is there?
  • How much time do you spend on this, anyway?
  • Wouldn’t that time be better spent doing something else?
  • How much “serious” discussion can you really do on a blog?
  • Don’t you have to know programming to do this?
  • Don’t you have to pay money to do this?
  • Will anyone pay you for doing this?
  • I looked at some blogs once – I couldn’t make any sense of the conversation! How do you follow this stuff?
  • I looked at some blogs once – I couldn’t find anything I was interested in! How do you find blogs that are relevant?
  • I posted at a blog once – they ignored me/yelled at me/banned me! How do you actually get a conversation going?

If other people can think of other questions that pop up in discussions with non-blogger academics, more than happy to take them on board.

Local folks are welcome to attend – provisionally the formal panel will take place on 31 August, from 3:00-4:30 p.m., with the session then relocating to the pub (as no doubt befits the seriousness of our topic…) – some details on times, dates, and locations to be confirmed; I’ll post an update here when things are finalised (assuming this post doesn’t get me kicked right back off the panel…).

Blind Process and Critical Vision

So, since today is a horrific day teaching, and I’m unlikely to find time to write anything here, another pointer to Now-Times, where the discussion on self-reflexivity continues to unfold, in two main posts (linked here previously, but just to mention that the discussion in both is still “live”).

I also wanted to cross-post another comment fragment, again because it outlines some things that I should take up here in greater detail at some point – with the caveat that, since this is written contextually in response to an ongoing conversation, it’s rather… abbreviated and somewhat problematic as written, and should therefore be read as a placeholder in need of development):

Both Marx and Hegel make gestural comments in various places about “things appearing as they are” – among other things, this sort of comment indicates that they are both trying to develop a form of analysis that does not reduce from appearance to essence, while still capturing the qualitative determinacy of what they are analysing. Both of them are attempting to figure out what it might mean to criticise, without having a notion of objective truth at our disposal.

Hegel tries to square this circle with a sort of developmental notion, where the forms of thought being criticised are both necessary (as moments in an unfolding process), and yet also partial (as revealed when they are compared with later, more adequate, moments). Hegel can do this, though, because he has a concept of the universal realising itself in time.

Marx inverts this argument: his “universal” is capital – a blind, meaningless, destructive force – a mockery of Hegel’s Spirit. However, this blind, meaningless, destructive process is also generative: potentials for freedom arise from it, even though nothing and no one sets out to create them. Marx sees an historical opportunity for us to seize these potentials from the alienated forms in which they have been constituted, and derives from this potential the immanent critical standards against which he judges existing forms of social life wanting.

I tilt more toward Marx than Hegel. That is, I don’t think there is a “meaning” to the overarching process (historical or natural) that has brought us to where we are. However, I think this blind, aleatory process has generated the possibility for meaning. I don’t think history or nature “needs” the individual, but I think individuals have been generated – and, more specifically, potentials for free subjects have been generated. And I think that being constituted in and amongst such potentials has impacts on what we desire – on the kind of world we will find adequate to our own constitution: we do not feel at home in the world as it currently is, precisely because, as its creatures, we know that this world could be other and more.

I think this would be compatible with the evolutionary/emergent concept you suggest above – just with a stronger emphasis on the notion that nothing has necessarily been “pointing” human or natural history in this direction “all along” – and nothing is going to lead quasi-automatically to any kind of transcendence now. It’s just that the blind process that has tossed creatures like us out of itself as unintended side effects, has generated creatures who might be subjects – and it is toward the realisation of this immanent possibility that I would understand critical theory to be directed.

I’ve also been meaning for some time to point to Sinthome’s piece on Morphogenesis, Marx, and Coagulation– Questions for a Materialist Philosophy – a fantastic set of reflections on Marx’s use of metaphors of coagulation and congealment, which then moves to a discussion of morphogenesis and materialist philosophy. Sinthome’s post, I suspect, was part of the constellation out of which the above comment crystallised.