Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Marx is, as a rule, sparse in his explicit methodological reflections. Major sections of Capital often begin in the voice of a position Marx will subsequently invert, such that what initially appear to be abstract definitions integral to Marx’s own stance, are revealed in later sections to be forms of thought Marx is trying to criticise. Even where this critical edge is recognised, it can be unclear what sort of critique Marx is offering: his frequent use of metaphors of moving from light to darkness, or from surface to depth, can suggest that Marx is engaging in a form of “abstract negation” – that he is trying to unmask and debunk “surface” illusions against a more essential “depth” reality. Thus, a particularly common reading of Marx is that he is criticising the illusory values of the sphere of circulation – which Marx delightfully describes as “Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham” – against the authoritarian realities of production.

At pivotal transition points in the text, however, Marx suggests that another strategy may be in play. His central analytical category – value – is expressly described at key moments as a social form that is expressed in both circulation and production, generated in both, but reducible to neither. I discussed one example of this at the end of the recent post on Marx’s discussion of the general formula for capital. Another, more famous, example can be found in the discussion of commodity fetishism in section 4 of chapter 1:

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

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

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

Marx explicitly rejects here the notion that either of the intuitive phenomenal categories put forward by classical political economy – use-value or exchange-value – offers a clear insight into the distinctive qualitative characteristics Marx wants to grasp through the category of value. He gestures quickly to the factors in terms of which the political economists claim to explain use value and exchange value – the satisfaction of human wants, the expenditure of human labour power measured by time, and the process of producing for others – and argues that nothing intrinsic to these factors accounts for the peculiar qualitative characteristics of value.

The textual strategy here – the motivating concept of critique – is Hegelian. Marx is not abstractly negating the categories of use value or exchange value – he is not dismissing the forms of thought characteristic of political economy as “mere” illusion. He is instead setting up for an argument that the phenomenological self-understanding of political economy both expresses, and yet fails to grasp, the social field in which this form of thought is embedded.

Marx is here beginning to position the phenomenological self-understanding of political economy as a necessary moment that arises within, and expresses determinate aspects of, an overarching process. Marx’s critique thus takes the form of embedding the phenomenological self-understanding of political economy – of demonstrating that he can make sense of why the forms of perception and thought characteristic of political economy arise – while also revealing this phenomenological self-understanding as partial and inadequate to grasping the overarching process within which it is but a moment. To be adequate to this form of critique, Marx will need to unfold an explanation of competing forms of thought that reveals them to be determinate moments within an overarching process, while also providing an account of that overarching process that reflexively explains the standpoint for Marx’s own critique.

If this textual strategy is not recognised, much of the strategic intention of the first volume of Capital remains opaque. Marx spends an enormous amount of time in this text on careful logical “derivations” and immanently-voiced presentations of various elements of classical political economy (and other forms of thought he is also trying to embed) – only then to jump abruptly into passages that directly contradict what he was carefully outlining in earlier sections. Such rapid shifts can seem deeply perplexing, if the abrupt transitions aren’t seen as transitions from an immanently-voiced presentation, into the perspective offered by Marx’s own developed critique. The strategy is similar to Hegel’s constant movement between, e.g., “in itself” and “for us” in Phenomenology – carefully exploring what can be seen from a very particular phenomenological perspective, in order to demonstrate that these phenomenological perspectives actually can’t make sense of – are not adequate to – what they purport to grasp, and are therefore constantly expressing or symptomatically betraying the existence of a more adequate perspective – pointing toward the “for us” that is the actual standpoint from which the text is written. Hegel stage whispers more often, and provides a more explicit account of the point of this textual strategy – just to take one example, in the Preface to Phenomenology:

But contradiction as between philosophical systems is not wont to be conceived in this way; on the other hand, the mind perceiving the contradiction does not commonly know how to relieve it or keep it free from its onesidedness, and to recognize in what seems conflicting and inherently antagonistic the presence of mutually necessary moments.

The demand for such explanations, as also the attempts to satisfy this demand, very easily, pass for the essential business philosophy has to undertake. Where could the inmost truth of a philosophical work be found better expressed than in its purposes and results? and in what way could these be more definitely known than through their distinction from what is produced during the same period by others working in the same field? If, however, such procedure is to pass for more than the beginning of knowledge, if it is to pass for actually knowing, then we must, in point of fact, look on it as a device for avoiding the real business at issue, an attempt to combine the appearance of being in earnest and taking trouble about the subject with an actual neglect of the subject altogether. For the real subject-matter is not exhausted in its purpose, but in working the matter out; nor is the mere result attained the concrete whole itself, but the result along with the process of arriving at it. The purpose of itself is a lifeless universal, just as the general drift is a mere activity in a certain direction, which is still without its concrete realization; and the naked result is the corpse of the system which has left its guiding tendency behind it. Similarly, the distinctive difference of anything is rather the boundary, the limit, of the subject; it is found at that point where the subject-matter stops, or it is what this subject-matter is not. To trouble oneself in this fashion with the purpose and results, and again with the differences, the positions taken up and judgments passed by one thinker and another, is therefore an easier task than perhaps it seems. For instead of laying hold of the matter in hand, a procedure of that kind is all the while away from the subject altogether. Instead of dwelling within it and becoming absorbed by it, knowledge of that sort is always grasping at something else; such knowledge, instead keeping to the subject-matter and giving itself up to it, never gets away from itself. The easiest thing of all is to pass judgments on what has a solid substantial content; it is more difficult to grasp it, and most of all difficult to do both together and produce the systematic exposition of it.

The beginning of culture and of the struggle to pass out of the unbroken immediacy of naive Psychical life has always to be made by acquiring knowledge of universal principles and points of view, by striving, in the first instance, to work up simply to the thought of the subject-matter in general, not forgetting at the same time to give reasons for supporting it or refuting it, to apprehend the concrete riches and fullness contained in its various determinate qualities, and to know how to furnish a coherent, orderly account of it and a responsible judgment upon it. This beginning of mental cultivation will, however, very soon make way for the earnestness of actual life in all its fullness, which leads to a living experience of the subject-matter itself; and when, in addition, conceptual thought strenuously penetrates to the very depths of its meaning, such knowledge and style of judgment will keep their clue place in everyday thought and conversation. (2-4)

Marx is much less explicit that he also regards critique as a detailed immanent working out of the necessity of the positions being criticised, rather than as a rejection of the purpose or results of a competing approach (the conventional notion of “critique”, which Hegel sarcastically labels “a dogmatic assurance exactly like the view we are opposing” (6)). Marx’s methodological subtlety occasionally provokes Engels to remind Marx that not all readers will be well-versed in Hegelian dialectics, and to demand a much clearer and more direct form of presentation. While Marx does explicitly voice his “for us” – tipping explicitly the standpoint of his critique – periodically in the text, he tends to do this in the interstices, leaving the reader to work through a great deal of immanently-voiced material whose strategic point has not yet been flagged explicitly in the text.


No time to edit – horror teaching day today… Hopefully I can revisit the section on the fetish in more detail soon…


12 responses to “Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

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