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Monthly Archives: September 2007

I Knew This Would Happen…

Having just cleared out an interesting moderation queue, a small public service announcement to spammers who appear somewhat confused: it’s not that kind of fetish. But thanks for your interest.

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: An Aside on the Fetish

Okay. I want to stop here for a moment, catch my breath, and emphasise a couple of things about how I’m interpreting the argument on the fetish, before moving back into the text in greater detail. Note that this post might not make sense unless you’ve read at least the post immediately prior, on Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions.

As I have presented it here, “commodity fetishism” is a form of perception or thought that perceives material objects and human beings to possess supersensible essences that are distinct from their overtly-observable, sensuous properties. These essences are understood to be governed by impersonal laws. The existence of such laws can be inferred or deduced from empirical observation and manipulated instrumentally for human ends, but the laws (and the essences) are not understood to derive from contingent human practice.

Marx will not deny that such “essences” and “laws” exist – he is not undertaking an “abstract negation” that sees political economy as a simple error in thinking. His critical argument is that he can reach beyond the political economists to show how such “essences” and “laws” are brought into being, why it is plausible to perceive such essences and laws as “natural”, and yet why it has also become possible, over time, to understand the practical basis for these fetishised forms of thought – and thereby to open the possibility for transformation.

In the previous posts in this series, I have suggested that this line of argument opens up some very interesting potentials for understanding dimensions of modernity that reach well beyond the discourse of political economy: our sensitivity, for example, to a particular kind of dichotomy between “society” and “nature”, in which both poles of this dichotomy possess a very distinctive qualitative form; our sensitivity to the possibility for something like “matter” (understood as secularised “stuff” whose intrinsic nature is devoid of anthropological determinations); our sensitivity to the notion of an essential “human nature” lurking beneath the diverse overlays of culture (I’ll poke Wildly Parenthetical here, although I think she’s away at the moment – readers should note I’m not trying to hold her responsible for what I’m saying, but just flagging something I suspect she’ll be interested in – her work on experiences of an inner self is much more extensive than mine, so this is just a quick nod and a wave as I stumble across her terrain…). I could add other examples – and none of the examples I list here have been unfolded in a persuasive way in the writings I’ve undertaken so far. I list these points as placeholders for future development, as partial explanations for why I’m spending so much time lately on Marx, and as suggestions that Marx offers something vastly more powerful than a “critical economics” – that his work carries implications for a critical social theory of modernity that does something much more wide-reaching than it might initially seem.

A few further asides, on other interpretations of the fetish. The argument on the fetish is very often understood – or, at least, very often used – in quite different ways from what I’m outlining here. It is often used, for example, as a kind of anti-consumerist critique: we value money or material wealth so highly that we forget that it’s just an object, just a thing, of importance socially only because we make it important. It is often used as a kind of critique of individualism or private property: because we produce goods privately, rather than planning production collectively, we don’t become aware that, in reality, we are collectively engaged in a single, unified process of social production. It is often used as a critique of class domination: because the circulation of goods appears to involve only the exchange of equivalents, the reality of inequality and class domination is masked. It is often used as a critique of market distribution: markets abstract from the concrete conditions in which goods and services are produced, and thus veil the network of concrete social relations in which material reproduction actually unfolds. It is often used as a critique of “reification” or the domination of instrumental reason: because we perceive the natural world, and our fellow human beings, as “things” – as objects – we therefore treat them instrumentally, as nothing more than objects to be manipulated for our own gain. Etc.

I need to be very, very, very careful here: I am making a small and quite specific point, which is that none of these arguments captures what Marx is trying to say in the section on the fetish. I am not saying that Marx never makes points like those above – in places, even during the argument about the fetish, he will. And I am not dismissive of the potential importance of such arguments as important issues for critical analysis and as pivotal rallying-cries for political mobilisation.

I am saying that these arguments as attempts to articulate the notion of commodity fetishism are missing some of the strategic intent of this section of Marx’s text. The reading I am offering here is intended to drill in on a sometimes overlooked arc in this first chapter, to draw attention to how the entire chapter revolves around a series of reflections on forms of perception that attribute supersensible essences, governed by invisible laws, to things and to people. Such forms of perception, I am suggesting, are the “target” that the term “commodity fetishism” is trying to hit.

Understanding the argument in this way clarifies what was going on in the earlier sections of this chapter – in which Marx was deploying forms of thought that attribute supersensible essences to things and people, and then claiming to deduce laws from this starting point, in order to set the stage (hat tip john hutnyk) for the critique of such forms of thought. This interpretation makes sense of the first chapter as a reasonably unified argument, driving all along toward the critique of commodity fetishism. At the same time, this reading begins to suggest the power of Marx’s critique as a theory of modernity, and as a critical social theory that reaches far beyond a critical analysis of an “economic dimension” of modern society.

I have to plunge into marking first-year economics essays now – something that I suspect will see me longing for a bit of “critical economics” by the time I’m done. I’ll try to come back to this arc later in the week – I have to decide whether to plunge back into the minutiae of the sections of the chapter I’ve skipped across, or whether I’ve said as much as I have to say on this chapter for now, and should move forward in the text…

The previous posts in this series are:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

Those who have been following this discussion closely enough to read along in the comments, know that I have been struggling to work out how to write this post. The main thing I’ve been wrestling with is how to write something that captures the concepts I think Marx was trying to express, while also giving some sense of why Marx expresses those concepts in the style that he does. My sense is that the style of these early sections of Capital – the form of presentation or the way in which the concepts are unfolded and defended in the first couple of sections of the chapter in particular – is intentionally not really adequate to the concepts these sections purport to express. In fact, the form of presentation in these early sections actually contradicts some of the specific claims that Marx will make later in this same chapter. This leaves the reader in the very strange position of trying to decide whether Marx is wildly inconsistent, or whether there is something very strange going on here at the level of presentational strategy. What I want to do here is try to express how I have threaded my way through this decision.

My way of trying to understand this text is to view the entire chapter as building toward the argument about commodity fetishism (I assume everyone would agree with this), but then to take the – perhaps more controversial? (how common is the reading I’m unfolding here?) – step of suggesting that elements of the earlier sections of the chapter are actually illustrations of fetishised forms of thought. Marx begins this chapter, in other words, within the fetish – within in a form of thought that attributes particular social properties to material objects. Thus: the wealth of capitalism presents itself as a vast accumulation of commodities – a commodity has a dual character – therefore we can deduce that the labour that goes into the production of a commodity has a dual character – therefore we can see how the process of exchange and the development of money expresses what we have discussed as a tacit, internal duality within commodities. The arc of the first few sections of the chapter unfolds in this way, with occasional interstitial comments that suggest that something else must be in play.

As I suggested to Nate in the comments below, I think this arc is “backwards” from the standpoint Marx unfolds later in this same chapter: these early sections unfold as though objects (commodities) possess supersensual properties that then become manifest when we toss those objects into relations with one another: what could this presentation be describing, if not precisely the form of thought Marx is criticising in the section on the fetish? I therefore think we need to see the concluding section on the fetish as reacting back critically upon the earlier sections of this chapter, revealing these sections to be expressing forms of thought predicated on fetishised modes of experience.

So, reviewing some of the material I covered in the previous post, when Marx tries to analyse why exchange is possible, he unfolds this argument as though there must be some common non-material property congealed in the objects themselves, that provides a universal, quantifiable essence that enables objects to be exchanged in whatever proportions ensure that they contain the same quantity of this supersensible substance. Marx then presents an argument that claims to deduce (through a decontextualised application of reason that Marx himself will refute in the discussion of Aristotle in the third section of this chapter) that this common substance is labour. The labour that enables exchange, however, is not labour in its variegated concrete forms, because these diverse labouring activities have no more common identity than does the material dimension of the diverse commodities such concrete labour produces. Instead, concrete labouring activities also possess a cryptic supersensible property that cannot be identified when just examining the overt qualitative characteristics of the production process: the property of being “human labour in the abstract” – of being an aliquot portion of the (normative!) labour power of society as a whole:

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.

This homogeneous labour power is then allocated across the universe of all commodities produced, determining which kinds and which amounts, of all the diverse concrete labouring activities that are empirically undertaken and that generate concrete goods and services that comprise material wealth, get to “count as labour” under capitalism. Marx argues that the production of “human labour in the abstract” – of the “total labour power of society” – and its allocation among the universe of commodities, is determined by the labour power socially required, on average, to generate those use values for which there is a social demand. Empirical labouring activities that produce material goods for which there is insufficient social demand may not count as labour under capitalism, because they will not receive an aliquot portion of “human labour in the abstract” – no matter how much concrete effort has gone into their empirical production process. Empirical labouring activities that fall behind the socially average level of productivity may also experience a disjoint between the amount of time empirically spent in labouring activities, and the labour time that gets to “count as labour”.

“Value” is Marx’s name for the supersensible measure of the amount of labour power that “counts as labour” within particular commodities. The quantity of “Value” cannot be determined from any empirical property of a commodity or a labouring process taken in isolation: it is established only when goods are brought into relation with the entire universe of commodities through the process of exchange. Yet, in Marx’s account, “Value” is also not created within exchange – instead, the apparently random and arbitrary proportions in which commodities are exchanged are taken to express an underlying “lawlike” regularity that governs exchange in such a way as to distribute an impersonal compulsion to labour at socially average levels:

The character of having value, when once impressed upon products, obtains fixity only by reason of their acting and re-acting upon each other as quantities of value. These quantities vary continually, independently of the will, foresight and action of the producers. To them, their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them. It requires a fully developed production of commodities before, from accumulated experience alone, the scientific conviction springs up, that all the different kinds of private labour, which are carried on independently of each other, and yet as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour, are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. And why? Because, in the midst of all the accidental and ever fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour time socially necessary for their production forcibly asserts itself like an over-riding law of Nature. The law of gravity thus asserts itself when a house falls about our ears. The determination of the magnitude of value by labour time is therefore a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities. Its discovery, while removing all appearance of mere accidentality from the determination of the magnitude of the values of products, yet in no way alters the mode in which that determination takes place.

Marx’s own “position”, I would suggest, goes something like: we are doing something extremely strange with our collective practice under capitalism. We are behaving collectively as if there exists some supersensible entity called “human labour in the abstract” – a specific, bounded quantity of a homogeneous substance that exists apart from material wealth or the actual expenditure of human effort to achieve some determinate aim, and that comes to be congealed in material objects as “Value”. By behaving this way, we are, in effect, creating or enacting “abstract labour” and “Value” as real (albeit social) entities. We do this by unintentionally collectively enacting a situation in which the production and distribution of value is somehow the pivot around which much of our social and material reproduction revolves. This unintentional collective enactment of a supersensible realm of “real abstractions” (more on this term later), far from bringing into being a rational and demystified form of social life, generates its own distinctive mystifications:

…the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

For many reasons (I’ll come back to this more adequately in later posts), when we come to discover that such “real abstractions” are operating to constrain our behaviour, we don’t initially grasp that our own social practice is the origin point for these coercive abstract structures or patterns. Instead, we do what the political economists did: we interpret these supersensible, socially-constituted entities to be an “essence” intrinsically existing tacitly within more overtly-observable, “sensuous” empirical entities.

So we say that commodities possess a dual character – and then we analyse how that dual character that we take to be intrinsic, becomes manifest when commodities interact with one another on the market. We become sensitive to the possibility of a “material” world that operates according to supersensible laws whose existence can be inferred from observing patterns in the movements of material objects, and we begin to try to discover and to manipulate such “laws” instrumentally to human advantage. We become sensitive to the possibility that certain dimensions of social practice – dimensions associated with direct personal or intersubjective relations – are social (and therefore contingent on human practice and – potentially – contestable). We therefore collectively, unintentionally enact two mutually-differentiating, interpenetrating dimensions of social life: an “overtly social” realm of interpersonal relations, and an impersonal realm in which material objects are governed by invisible laws. Both realms are “social” – but not in the same way. And their mutual determination can render plausible a systematic trompe-l’œil in which one dimension of our social is taken not to be social at all.

There is much, much more to say here – I’m not doing the argument justice, both in the sense that I am skipping details that are present in this chapter, and in the sense that I am also skipping ahead to elements of the argument that are not yet evident from this chapter at all. I’ll try to come back to all of this more adequately as I have time. My goal for the moment is just to render plausible the notion that Marx might be aiming for a WTF? reaction in the early sections of Capital. Marx might expect his readers already to know the punchline – already to be “in” on the joke. Marx then takes us through an immanent exploration of this fetishised position anyway because the standards of immanent critique don’t allow him to dismiss fetishised forms of thought as “mere” errors – he has to show how and why they arise, and also how they point beyond themselves, suggesting the possibility for something like his own critical position. And he also has to give an account of how his own position is given immanently within the social context he is criticising. He doesn’t do any of these things completely in this first chapter, but I think this is the kind of argument he is trying to set up here, to prime the reader for what is to come. Perhaps there’s a point to be made here about what goes wrong when an author has to explain their own jokes – or, perhaps in this case, what goes wrong when an author desperately needed to explain their own jokes, but didn’t get around to doing it… At any rate…

More on all of this as I have the time…

The quotations here are taken from the version of the first chapter available online through the Marxists Internet Archive.

Previous posts in this series are:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Self-Quoting in Capital

So now I’m curious: in this discussion below, both Nate and The Constructivist have raised the question of why Marx quotes himself in the first sentence of Capital:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.

The Constructivist has mentioned Keenan’s discussion of the same question, in Fables of Responsibility (around p. 104 in this edition).

I’ve offered my (very off the cuff!) guess here – or perhaps a little self-quoting will make this easier:

I don’t have a definitive take on the issue, but, given that I read Marx as self-consciously putting forward an immanent critical theory, the most straightforward thing Marx might have been doing in quoting himself, was treating himself as he treats the political economists: flagging himself, and the critical perspective he is putting forward in the text, as objects of analysis – hinting to the reader that this starting point is not a priori, but something that will eventually be embedded as the text unfolds. In this sense, he is treating himself symmetrically to how he treats the political economists, whose quotations he footnotes and occasionally brings into the main text, and whom he criticises for their failure to treat themselves as objects of analysis, in the same way that they treat older forms of thought that they criticise. So I would take that initial quotation as a quick signal that Marx is placing himself and his positions on the same plane that he will place the political economists – which means that he has to understand their errors as more than “mere” errors – as errors that were historically plausible given the circumstances in which they were working – and he also needs to position his insights as more than “mere” good thinking – he needs to explain why his insights have become plausible in his own historical period.

I’m curious whether others have an opinion on this question – or whether anyone knows of other secondary sources who have commented on this question.

While I’m posting on Marxian things, I should also mention Sinthome’s interesting post and discussion on “The Utopia of the Commodity– Revolution by Proxy”, and the discussion at Nate’s what in the hell… on a troublesome passage from the section on primitive accumulation.

When I Upgrade, I Want to Be…

I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently, mostly on a laptop that I cart around and perch precariously on my knees while I sit in various ergonomically-dubious positions. Today, my son walked up, wanting to sit on my lap. He expressed this by saying: “Could I be a laptop now, please?”

ouch, ouch, ouch…

Your Future Is Our Future

I’ve been seeing this Westpac ad recently on billboards along my tram route. I gather the intention is to express that Westpac has made commitments to environmentally and socially responsible lending practices. This isn’t, though, my immediate association on seeing the ad… In many ways, in fact, this might make an excellent model for one of the demotivational posters at

Westpac ad showing penguin on melting ice shelf, captioned Your Future Is Our Future

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Nature and Society

Just a fragment tonight – very tired… A quick look at the introductory section of the first chapter of Capital, from the online version here.

Marx begins this chapter with what looks to be a fairly straightforward definition of the commodity:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.

A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production.

Every useful thing, as iron, paper, &c., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. It is an assemblage of many properties, and may therefore be of use in various ways. To discover the various uses of things is the work of history. So also is the establishment of socially-recognized standards of measure for the quantities of these useful objects. The diversity of these measures has its origin partly in the diverse nature of the objects to be measured, partly in convention.

The utility of a thing makes it a use value. But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity. A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use value, something useful. This property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities. When treating of use value, we always assume to be dealing with definite quantities, such as dozens of watches, yards of linen, or tons of iron. The use values of commodities furnish the material for a special study, that of the commercial knowledge of commodities. Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.

Exchange value, at first sight, presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place. Hence exchange value appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently an intrinsic value, i.e., an exchange value that is inseparably connected with, inherent in commodities, seems a contradiction in terms.

I’ve previously suggested that this opening definition is not meant to represent Marx’s own position, but is instead intended to express the way in which the wealth of capitalist societies is intuitively perceived by social actors embedded in this context. By examining the implications of these intuitive perceptions, Marx will gradually unfold more complex categories – with the intention, ultimately, of looping back and “grounding” the sorts of definitions with which he starts: showing that these apparently simple and pristine beginnings presuppose, and express, the much more complex social and historical process that he will analyse throughout Capital.

In this opening passage, Marx suggests that capitalism presents itself in terms of a bifurcation between nature and society. On the one hand, in discussing use value, Marx suggests that capitalism presents us with (or sensitises us to the possibility of) a “thingly”, objective, material world that possesses timeless intrinsic properties. We can study and eventually uncover the properties of material objects over time, and we can also project human desires and meanings onto them, but the material world fundamentally sits “outside” of us.

On the other hand, in moving from use value to exchange value, Marx suggests that capitalism presents us with (or sensitises us to the possibility of) our current social arrangements as only the most recent instance in an ever-changing, accidental, relativistic historical succession – a succession of human conventions that may wrap themselves arbitrarily around, or project themselves contingently on, the “outside” material world. The material world figures by contrast as intrinsically devoid of anthropological determinations, as what remains behind when arbitrary human social arrangements have been stripped away – as a “true” content, which then comes to be covered over or masked by arbitrary social forms.

Why do I suggest that this is not Marx’s own position? Am I suggesting that Marx doesn’t believe that human social conventions are historical to their core? Am I positioning him as some kind of radical constructivist who sees in the natural world nothing but a human invention? No, to both questions. But something about the ways in which nature and society “give” themselves to us intuitively under capitalism, strikes Marx as in need of further investigation: after he outlines the definitions above, he invites: “Let us consider the matter a little more closely”.

Where he goes next is to a series of deductions or “conceptual abstractions” (the significance of this term will become clearer over time). Here, once again, I would suggest that Marx is not entirely speaking in his own voice, but is instead attempting to remain immanent to the phenomenological perspective he is trying to analyse.

So, still speaking in this immanent voice, Marx begins to analyse the process of exchanging two commodities. He presents an argument that runs along the following lines: The material forms of the commodities you intend to exchange are qualitatively different from one another: the goods aren’t in any qualitative sense the same. You would hardly desire to exchange one for the other if the goods were identical: what would be the benefit? Yet exchange makes an equation: it determines that the goods must be exchanged for one another in some specific quantitative proportion – the goods must therefore be “equal” in some sense.

But what is being equated? Not the determinate, qualitative, material properties of the goods – we have already established that we do not exchange goods that are qualitatively the same and, Marx adds, in a context in which any good can in principle be exchanged for any other, we are clearly willing to abstract from every material property of a good for purposes of exchange.

If we aren’t equating a material property of the goods, then we must be equating something else – Marx suggests that this must be a purely social property – without “an atom of use value”. Marx nominates the social property of being the products of human labour, “arguing” (remembering, again, that we aren’t yet reading Marx’s own position, but rather his exposition of what is “given” to a particular phenomenological perspective) that the only possible thing diverse commodities could have in common, is their common origin in human labour.

This common property, however, can’t refer to any specific kind of labour: if the determinate qualitative characteristics of particular labouring activities were taken into account, then we still wouldn’t have a common property, something homogeneous and uniform, to render possible the exchange. We must therefore be talking about labour abstracted from all its variegated concrete forms – abstract labour – a measure of the human labour power congealed in particular objects – a “social substance” that Marx calls “Value”.

But how is this labour power measured, such that it becomes possible to equate commodities in various exact proportions? Marx suggests (again not in his own voice) that abstract labour, devoid as it is of any qualitative characteristics, can only be measured by its duration – as labour-time. The measurement of the labour-time congealed in particular commodities enables the equation required for exchange.

Yet different amounts of labour are expended in the production of particular goods of the same type – and, if the actual labour time empirically invested in production were to determine the Value of a good, then the least efficient production process would generate the greatest Value. What prevents such a thing from happening? Marx answers: Value is not measured by the labour time empirically spent in particular individual acts of production, but rather by the labour time required, on average, in a given historical and social context, to produce a particular good.

Value therefore acts as a coercive social standard, which operates independently of particular empirical processes of production, which may be more or less efficient than the social norm expressed in Value. Producers labour as they do, at the level of productivity their skill and equipment allow. Value then determines how much of the labour they empirically spend in production, gets to “count as labour”. The producers can’t reliably know in advance how much of their labour will “count”:

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.

And, even where producers have reasons to suspect that much of their labour won’t “count”, they may be powerless to avert the situation:

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.

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.

In summarising Marx’s text above, I have suggested several times that he is not quite speaking in his own voice: I should clarify here the sense in which I mean this. Marx does retain the notion that socially-average labour-time constitutes the “social substance” of the Value congealed within commodities. The voicing in this section – the deductive form of the presentation that suggests that this social puzzle could be reasoned through with a detached and decontextualised logic – is something Marx will explicitly call into question in section 3, by asking the simple question of why, if logical reasoning were all that were required to deduce the existence of Value, Aristotle rejected the notion and viewed market exchange as a mere “makeshift for practical purposes”. As the chapter unfolds, Marx will therefore suggest that something other than a “conceptual abstraction” is at stake in the recognition of Value – that this conceptual breakthrough of political economy may owe an unrecognised debt to historical shifts – specifically to the constitution of a “real abstraction” enacted in collective practice.

More on the notion of a real abstraction, the concept of abstract labour, and the argument about the fetish (which will bring us back to the nature/society dichotomy with which I started this piece), as I have the time…

The previous instalments in this series are:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Outline of a Practice of Theory

Just a quick pointer to Alexei’s “Philosophy and Social Change” over at Now-Times. In this post, Alexei picks up more systematically on several of the threads from the recent discussions here and at The Kugelmass Episodes (cross-posted to The Valve) on how to conceptualise the relationship of theory and practice. A brief teaser:

Such a concepion of the import of Theory for social, ‘radical’ change, might shift the implicit question that seems to guide the current politicization of the humanities. The predominant view that the Humanities lack any immediate effect hen it comes to social and political change of certain tendencies of theory, which is concentrated in Literary studies and Philosophy, or perhaps even from Anthropology and Sociology, stems from a guilty conscience that ‘necessarily attaches to our precise social position: we can study only within a system, but the price of being able to study is effectively the renunciation of any direct, practical activity. We don’t build bridges, or even dig ditches. We don’t save lives, or even make them ‘better’ (or maybe that’s just me and my relationship to my students). And since there are only 24 hours in the day, and some of us are profoundly lazy, we simply can’t be as directly engaged as we think we ought to be. Being an academic these days amounts to a guilty conscience precisely because we are aware of our paradoxical situation. We rely upon a system we wish to change and simultaneously insulate ourselves from this very system in order to pursue our academic — and generally impractical in the short term — studies. More than anything else, I think that the burgeoning guilt of being an academic (in the Humanities) accounts for the politicization of various fields in the humanities.

Now, I’m certainly not claiming that this is a bad thing. I would, however, like to point out that no one, prior to, say, May ‘68, would have ever thought that the humanities were somehow ineffectual. And it’s this shift that needs to be investigated.

I’ll have to apologise to both Alexei and Joe, as well as to anyone else who has been following these exchanges, for not being able to dive into this discussion in greater detail: I’m in the middle of some particularly difficult conceptual work at the moment, and need to remain a bit single-minded for the next several days. So, while I may (or may not!) toss up some further contributions to the series of posts on Capital, as these posts relate to what I’m currently working on, my ability to participate in other discussions will be severely curtailed for the moment. In the interim, there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on in the comments here without me (!), and in Alexei’s post at Now-Times – and I do promise to pick up the various hanging threads from this discussion as soon as I can free myself of my current domination by the form of Value… ;-P

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

In the Preface to the first German edition of Capital, Marx notes:

Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences. To understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty.

Marx begins Capital with a chapter on commodities. Why this beginning? And what kind of difficulty, exactly, does this beginning present?

The other day, writing on the textual strategy in Capital, I suggested that one of the things that makes this text difficult – far more difficult, in fact, that the text appears to be at first glance – is that Marx starts with an immanently voiced presentation that aims to present nothing, initially, other than the forms of phenomenological experience “given” immanently within capitalism, and expressed by political economy (and other forms of thought Marx wishes to embed). I suggested that Marx starts from these forms of “givenness”, and then gradually unfolds other, more complex, categories – trying to make the case that the possibility for these more complex categories is already presupposed by the initial forms of “givenness” with which he begins. The strategic intention here is complex.

On one level – and over the course of Capital as a whole – Marx will suggest that the initial, apparently simple and “primitive” categories with which he begins, themselves could not exist – would not be “given” – without the whole complex social structure that Marx proceeds to analyse in the rest of the text. These simple initial categories, from which Marx appears to “deduce” more complex categories in the opening sections of Capital, are thus gradually revealed over the course of the argument to be products or end results of a process of historical development, rather than decontextualised and ahistorical starting points of Marx’s analysis. These products, however, are also productive: the results of this historical process provide the materials (“subjective” and “objective” – practical) to point beyond the process that produced them.

Which brings us to the other strategic intention of this mode of argument: Marx is trying to engage in an immanent social critique – and therefore needs to show that capitalism, in reproducing itself, also generates potentials that can react back on this process of reproduction and therefore ground the potential for transformative practice and critique. The immanent voicing of the text is one of the ways that Marx tries to flag, on a stylistic level, that this kind of immanent social critique is possible: by showing how phenomenological experiences that are part-and-parcel of capitalism – that presuppose capitalism and are themselves demonstrated to be the historical products of this social system – also and necessarily (if tacitly and unintentionally) express the contradictory potentials of this social form, Marx is trying to suggest that we do not need to reach outside capitalism to overcome this social form: that the resources necessary for transformation are already present, generated within that social form itself.

This concern with immanent voicing explains why Marx doesn’t begin his presentation somewhere else: with, for example, a declaration that capitalism is unjust, or a call to revolutionary arms, or a polemic about the conceptual limitations of political economy. Instead, he starts within capitalism – with the practices and forms of thought given by, and intuitive within, this system. He then gradually shows how these practices and forms of thought themselves betray the possibility, first, for us to understand their own intuitiveness – for us to grasp how these specific givens are given – and, second, for us to criticise these givens as partial, with reference to other perspectives that can also be shown to be immanently generated within the same social field – other perspectives whose existence is, in fact, implied by the partial perspectives expressed by political economy.

As previously discussed, the strategy here is Hegelian – with theoretical concerns that interact in complex ways with principles set out in discussions like this one, from Hegel’s Phenomenology:

Among the many consequences that follow from what has been said, it is of importance to emphasize this, that knowledge is only real and can only be set forth fully in the form of science, in the form of system; and further, that a so-called fundamental proposition or first principle of philosophy, even if it is true, is yet none the less false just because and in so far as it is merely a fundamental proposition, merely a first principle. It is for that reason easily refuted. The refutation consists in bring out its defective character, and it is defective because it is merely the universal, merely a principle, the beginning. If the refutation is complete and thorough, it is derived and developed from the nature of the principle itself, and not accomplished by bringing in from elsewhere other counter assurances and chance fancies. It would be strictly the development of the principle, and thus the completion of its deficiency, were it not that it misunderstands its own purport by taking account solely of the negative aspect of what it seeks to do, and is not conscious of the positive character of its process and result. The really positive working out of the beginning is at the same time just as much the very reverse, it is a negative attitude towards the principle we start from, negative, that is to say, of its one-sided form, which consists in being primarily immediate, a mere purpose. It may therefore be regarded as a refutation of what constitutes the basis of the system; but more correctly it should be looked at as a demonstration that the basis or principle of the system is in point of fact merely its beginning. (24 – bold text mine)

Hegel presents here the notion of a form of “refutation” or critique that is not simply an abstract “negation” – that does not simply reject what it sets out to criticise. Instead, critique takes the form of unfolding, from what initially appears to be a first principle or a simple, immediate universal, a demonstration of the way in which the “first principle” actually immanently undermines, or symptomatically reveals the inadequacy of, its own self-understanding as a “basis”. The unfolded analysis thus enables a critique of the perception that something is a “first principle”, but in a manner that preserves or “grounds” that “first principle” by determining it as a moment or partial perspective within an overarching system.

I’m sure this clarifies everything for everyone… ;-P My main point here is simply to gesture to some of the ways in which Marx’s vision of critique – and his presentational style – is not individually idiosyncratic, but can be situated in relation to Marx’s dialogue with Hegel’s work. The initial passages of Capital can most productively be read, I am suggesting, with certain Hegelian presentational and analytical principles in mind. Passages like the following, with which Hegel begins his discussion of Sense-Certainty, suggest some of what is involved. Hegel writes:

THE knowledge, which is at the start or immediately our object, can be nothing else than just that which is immediate knowledge, knowledge of the immediate, of what is. We have, in dealing with it, to proceed, too, in an immediate way, to accept what is given, not altering anything in it as it is presented before us, and keeping mere apprehension (Auffassen) free from conceptual comprehension (Begreifen). (90)

Hegel then proceeds (and not just in this section, but each time he moves to a new phenomenological perspective) to remind his reader that they cannot have direct recourse to the “for us” from whose perspective the text has actually been written: that they must instead unfold all insights immanently, as these would be given to each shape of consciousness under consideration. Look, for example, at the shifts between “we” and “it”, and at the use of words like “appear” and “seems” and “given”, in this passage from Phenomenology – looking not so much for the contents of the argument Hegel is trying to make here (much of which I’ve excised for brevity), but for the standards of argument that Hegel puts into play:

The concrete content, which sensuous certainty furnishes, makes this prima facie appear to be the richest kind of knowledge, to be even a knowledge of endless wealth–a wealth to which we can as little find any limit when we traverse its extent in space and time, where that content is presented before us, as when we take a fragment out of the abundance it offers us and by dividing and dividing seek to penetrate its intent. Besides that, it seems to be the truest, the most authentic knowledge: for it has not as yet dropped anything from the object; it has the object before itself in its entirety and completeness….

92. But, when we look closely, there is a good deal more implied in that bare pure being, which constitutes the kernel of this form of certainty, and is given out by it as its truth. A concrete actual certainty of sense is not merely this pure immediacy, but an example, an instance, of that immediacy….

93. It is not only we who make this distinction of essential truth and particular example, of essence and instance, immediacy and mediation; we find it in sense-certainty itself, and it has to be taken up in the form in which it exists there, not as we have just determined it. One of them is put forward in it as existing in simple immediacy, as the essential reality, the object. The other, however, is put forward as the non-essential, as mediated, something which is not per se in the certainty, but there through something else, ego, a state of knowledge which only knows the object because the object is, and which can as well be as not be. The object, however, is the real truth, is the essential reality; it is, quite indifferent to whether it is known or not; it remains and stands even though it is not known, while the knowledge does not exist if the object is not there.

94. We have thus to consider as to the object, whether in point of fact it does exist in sense-certainty itself as such an essential reality as that certainty gives it out to be; whether its meaning and notion, which is to be essential reality, corresponds to the way it is present in that certainty. We have for that purpose not to reflect about it and ponder what it might be in truth, but to deal with it merely as sense-certainty contains it.

95. Sense-certainty itself has thus to be asked: What is the This? (90-95, bold text mine)

In passages like this, Hegel outlines standards for an immanently-unfolded argument – in particular, the standard that the argument must proceed only on the basis of what is given to whatever shape of consciousness is being analysed. To meet these standards, Hegel provides long, immanently-voiced analyses, which seek to describe what is available from within particular perspectives. These immanently-voiced sections are then used critically – to show how each particular perspective points beyond itself – how each perspective suggests the necessity for something that, at the outset, would have appeared alien to the perspective under investigation.

Hegel isn’t, though, particularly shy about telling his readers what his presentational strategy is – what these immanently-voiced passages are intended to achieve. He also doesn’t hesitate to editorialise in the margins of his immanently-voiced argument, foreshadowing the conclusions the immanent analysis will draw.

Marx, in a sense, takes the issue of immanent voice more seriously – making his text far more unforgiving of readers who overlook the technical meaning or precise strategic intention of certain key phrases that bookend his presentation. Thus, in the very first sentence of chapter one, Marx thinks he is providing sufficient warning of his immanently-voiced, phenomenologically embedded, approach, when he begins:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity. (bold text mine)

He offers other subtle flags as he unfolds new categories:

Exchange value, at first sight, presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place. Hence exchange value appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently an intrinsic value, i.e., an exchange value that is inseparably connected with, inherent in commodities, seems a contradiction in terms. (bold text mine)

After these initial categories of use value and exchange value are introduced, Marx proceeds to offer what look like either deductive or definitional elaborations from those initial categories. The text is often read as though Marx is setting out his “first principles” or the key terms on which he will rely subsequently in the text, and then proceeding from these “incontrovertible” or “certain” foundations, to more complex aspects of his own analysis. I am suggesting instead that Marx is not speaking in his own voice much at all in these early passages – Hegel’s chatty stage whispers on textual strategy, as well as his constant foreshadowings of how things look “for us”, are largely missing from Marx’s text, while Marx tries to explore how capitalism “gives” itself to us – attempting to express the forms of perception and thought and practice that appear intuitive to people individuated within this context. He will then try – as Hegel also does – to demonstrate how these “givens” ultimately react back on themselves, undermining their givenness as “first principles”, and suggesting the need for a form of analysis that will instead capture them as products and as partial.

So a passage like the following, on use value, looks like nothing more than a definition – and a fairly obvious and intuitive one at that:

A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production.

Every useful thing, as iron, paper, &c., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. It is an assemblage of many properties, and may therefore be of use in various ways. To discover the various uses of things is the work of history. So also is the establishment of socially-recognized standards of measure for the quantities of these useful objects. The diversity of these measures has its origin partly in the diverse nature of the objects to be measured, partly in convention.

The utility of a thing makes it a use value. But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity. A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use value, something useful. This property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities. When treating of use value, we always assume to be dealing with definite quantities, such as dozens of watches, yards of linen, or tons of iron. The use values of commodities furnish the material for a special study, that of the commercial knowledge of commodities. Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.

Only in the footnotes – and in a typically wry way – does Marx explicitly hint that “we” are not meant to agree fully with the definitional, and tacitly ahistorical, presentation offered in the main text. Marx’s footnotes offer a subterranean narrative quite distinct from the more immediately striking, overt narrative presented in the eye-catching centre of vision in the main text. As always, for Marx, the style of presentation mirrors the content of the critique: critical perspectives thus are available, even in these earliest moments of the text – but what is most immediately striking, and what therefore tends to distract the eye and the mind, is the central and textually prominent discussion of those forms of perception and thought that most evidently “give” themselves to awareness under capitalism – the reader has to work to unearth the counter-narrative suggested by the structure of the text. The footnotes map, for the most part without any explicit commentary on the strategic intention of this textual strategy, the earliest historical moment at which each position recounted in the text came to be articulated. This citational strategy got Marx into trouble in his own time, as hostile readers took Marx to be illegitimately citing these historical sources as support for his own views. Engels eventually attempts to clarify Marx’s strategic intent in the Preface to the 3rd German edition:

In conclusion a few words on Marx’s art of quotation, which is so little understood. When they are pure statements of fact or descriptions, the quotations, from the English Blue books, for example, serve of course as simple documentary proof. But this is not so when the theoretical views of other economists are cited. Here the quotation is intended merely to state where, when and by whom an economic idea conceived in the course of development was first clearly enunciated. Here the only consideration is that the economic conception in question must be of some significance to the history of science, that it is the more or less adequate theoretical expression of the economic situation of its time. But whether this conception still possesses any absolute or relative validity from the standpoint of the author or whether it already has become wholly past history is quite immaterial. Hence these quotations are only a running commentary to the text, a commentary borrowed from the history of economic science, and establish the dates and originators of certain of the more important advances in economic theory.

In stressing such strategic elements of Marx’s presentational strategy, I don’t wish to imply that Marx never breaks with his immanent voice. Increasingly he will do so in the text itself – initially mainly in transitional points, but the immanent analysis is of course intended to demonstrate that it is possible to unfold, from within what is “given” by capitalism, the categories that allow for a more explicit expression of Marx’s own critical standpoint in the main text. Even very early, Marx can’t always restrain himself, and he periodically bursts into sarcastic meta-commentary in the footnotes on the historical sources he cites. In the third footnote of the first chapter, for example – the footnote that hangs off the sentence “To discover the various uses of things is the work of history.” – Marx couples his historical citation with a dryly sarcastic observation:

“Things have an intrinsick vertue” (this is Barbon’s special term for value in use) “which in all places have the same vertue; as the loadstone to attract iron” (l.c., p. 6). The property which the magnet possesses of attracting iron, became of use only after by means of that property the polarity of the magnet had been discovered. (bold text mine)

The meta-commentary Marx is making here is extremely subtle (and also, I should note, isn’t phrased as precisely as Marx will put similar points in other places). I draw attention to it, however, because recognising that a meta-commentary is being made – already, in these opening passages – becomes important for fleshing out what Marx is trying to do in pivotal (but often misread) sections like the later discussion of commodity fetishism. Let’s spend a bit of time with this footnote.

In the main text, the form of thought being analysed – the form of thought that reflects the way things “present” in capitalist societies – looks at first glance like a historicising form of thought: how could it not be historicising, to point out that discovering the uses of things is the “work of history”?

And yet. The concept of “discovery”, as a way of understanding historical change, has strangely dehistoricising implications: for something to be “discovered”, it must already somehow be present – existent – waiting to be unveiled. “History” here – thematised as “discovery” – is a process that uncovers something that is already there – a process of unveiling – a process of uncovering what lies in wait within nature, which itself is thematised as possessing timeless and invariant traits, and as intrinsically devoid of anthropological determinations.

Marx’s sarcastic aside re-presents the loadstone’s properties, not as some timeless “intrinsick vertue” patiently waiting to be unveiled, but as something actively constituted as relevant for us by the way in which a particular kind of interaction with a natural object comes to be rendered socially meaningful in practice – in use, through the emergence of a particular kind of collective activity. Marx hints here at the importance of situating what present themselves as “discoveries” of the timeless and intrisic properties of things, in the context of shifts in collective practice that render socially meaningful a sensitivity to some specific selection from among the universe of determinate potentials tacit within natural objects.

Marx’s comments here are reminiscent of a criticism that he will repeatedly make of the political economists: that their specific mode of historicisation fails to be reflexive – that it falls short of treating their own position as fully historical – that it captures that capitalism is historically-emergent, but still somehow treats capitalism as a “natural” form of society – that it treats its insights as “discoveries” of principles that are “given”, but fails to analyse the determinate ways in which that particular given comes to be given, in this specific form, with determinate properties that necessitate that what is given possesses non-explicit properties that need to be “discovered” in a particular way.

Marx will hit this same point over and over again as he unfolds his analysis: he is constantly suggesting, on many different layers in the text, that qualitative characteristics that we intuitively take to be “natural” – more specifically, that we take to be material – are instead social. He means this in a more fundamental sense than may be apparent at first glance. As we will see when we reach the section on commodity fetishism, Marx will suggest that the very notion of a “material world” must be understood as a product of human practice – not in the sense that all of nature can be reduced to a human construction, but in the sense that the intuitive gestalt of “materialism” – of “matter” – of a natural world that exists independently of human cultural and social determinations – is the distinctive cultural and social determination that our society projects onto “nature”. (Describing this in terms of “projection” is a simplification – the term isn’t fully adequate to the requirements of an immanent critique. To avoid overcomplication at this stage in the analysis, however, I’ll stay with this expression for now, with the caveat that this issue will need to be revisited more adequately at a later point.) Marx will try to argue that we do this, of course. But, more importantly (since many theorists will “declare” the notion of “materialism” to be a cultural construct – and thus offer an “abstract negation” or ungrounded negation or oppositional stance to the notion of materialism), Marx will also try to show how we do this – why this is not a contingent or arbitrary form of perception and thought, but is instead deeply (if unintentionally) embedded in specific forms of collective practice. It is this that makes his account a determinate negation of materialism.

More on this, and other elements of the text, next time I return to this theme…

[Citational note: Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Capital are taken from the text of Chapter 1, Section 1 available at the Marxists Internet Archive; all quotes from Hegel’s Phenomenology are from the online text here.]

Gender and the Culture of Academic Philosophy

Rushing, and unfortunately I don’t have time to write on this in detail at the moment, but I wanted to point those who hadn’t yet seen it to Sally Haslanger’s piece “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone)”, which begins:

There is a deep well of rage inside of me. Rage about how I as an individual have been treated in philosophy; rage about how others I know have been treated; and rage about the conditions that I’m sure affect many women and minorities in philosophy, and have caused many others to leave. Most of the time I suppress this rage and keep it sealed away. Until I came to MIT in 1998, I was in a constant dialogue with myself about whether to quit philosophy, even give up tenure, to do something else. In spite of my deep love for philosophy, it just didn’t seem worth it. And I am one of the very lucky ones. One of the ones who has been successful by the dominant standards of the profession. Whatever the numbers say about women and minorities in philosophy, numbers don’t begin to tell the story. Things may be getting better in some contexts, but they are far from acceptable. (from the online version posted here – final published piece in Hypatia Spring 2008)

She continues:

Why there aren’t more women of my cohort in philosophy? Because there were very few of us and there was a lot of outright discrimination. I think a lot of philosophers aren’t aware of what women in the profession deal with, so let me give some examples. In my year at Berkeley and in the two years ahead of me and two years behind me, there was only one woman each year in a class of 8-10. The women in the two years ahead of me and the two years behind me dropped out, so I was the only woman left in five consecutive classes. In graduate school I was told by one of my teachers that he had “never seen a first rate woman philosophy and never expected to because women were incapable of having seminal ideas.” I was the butt of jokes when I received a distinction on my prelims, since it seemed funny to everyone to suggest I should get a blood test to determine if I was really a woman. In a seminar in philosophical logic, I was asked to give a presentation on a historical figure when none of the other (male) students were, later to learn that this was because the professor assumed I’d be writing a thesis on the history of philosophy. When I was at Penn as a junior faculty member and told a senior colleague that I was going to be married (to another philosopher, Stephen Yablo, then at UM), his response was, “Oh, I’m so sorry we’ll be losing you.” This was in 1989.

I’ve written here before about the frank discussions people feel comfortable having in front of me about whether “young women” – especially “young mothers” – can handle this or that position for which I’m being considered. I’ve been getting the “are you really female” jokes (or the simple declarative: “you aren’t really female”) since I was a young child. In my previous program, I found myself continuously having to explain that being female, and having theoretical interests, did not mean that I considered myself a “feminist theorist”: people kept asking whether, instead of working on whatever I was trying to work on, I wouldn’t rather “do something about women” instead. At any rate – not enough time to discuss this properly now, and the topic tends to evoke non-productive fury. I’ll leave it here for the moment: go read the article and the discussions, which will be more useful than what I would rant about right now…

The discussions at Inside Higher Education, Lumpenprofessoriat, and Crooked Timber are also worth a look.