Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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.

9 responses to “Self-Quoting in Capital

  1. john hutnyk September 29, 2007 at 9:52 pm


    I’ve been enjoying your postings on volume one, and wish there were more time to spend more time on the other chapters of this book (I do in my Capitalism and Cultural Studies lecture course) but your mention of the first sentence reminds me that I’ve wanted to point out the problems with various translations from the German.

    The Penguin edition offers ‘appears’ for ‘ersheint’ while the better Lawrence and Wishart offers ‘presents itself’. Ersheint also has this double theatrical aspect – presenting on stage ‘as if’. I had a go at writing on this in review of the Zizek Parallaxative book here: ZZZZ (and in other places too) – thought you might like to take a look.

    Now I suspect my students find this whole problem a kind of torture at first, especially since I spend the whole of the first lecture on that first sentence, but by week five they seem to stop complaining at how much there is to read each week and then brag about having read the whole text by the end of the course. Now I’ll have them reading your blog too. They deserve the punishment, it ‘appears’ to do them good, or something.

    Red Salute.

  2. N Pepperell September 29, 2007 at 11:53 pm

    Always happy to assist with something that “appears” to do students some good 🙂 The post you linked to above is fantastic – many thanks – and thanks as well for the comments on translations (I tend for convenience of readers to use the MIA version in posts, because it’s easily accessible, but since I’m generally writing posts offline using a different version, I’ve occasionally run into awkward situations when the online text varies…).

    I have high hopes of eventually making it past the first chapter, and actually writing about some of the other aspects of this and other volumes (likely at a somewhat more rapid pace than I’ve moved through these sections…) – but I still seem to find myself settling scores with these first sections.

    To ask an inexcusably naive question: what would you regard as the major secondary interpretations that “get” what in your post you’ve called the “feint” of the first chapter? I know of a few works that make this point, but it seems very common to overlook the strategic intent of the first chapter – certainly in authors who are critical of Marx, but also in many who take themselves to be sympathetic. I’m obviously trying to wrestle with the text for my own purposes, but I’m also trying to understand how “outlying” the sort of reading I’m presenting here might be – recommendations are therefore much appreciated.

  3. john hutnyk September 30, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    Thanks N (sorry, you are not a Neil, right, I got you confused with him at Transpontine) – anyways, thanks for the nice words on my Zizek post.

    OK, your question here would require more thought than I can deliver I expect… I am not sure there are all that many of ‘us’ that see this as a feint, but for me its always been Gayatri Spivak that leads my reading, her ‘scattered speculations’ essay in Diacritics is the start for my lecture course on Capital – eek, first lecture for this year on thursday, (last year’s draft syllabus is here). We have a reading group just stumbling through vol 3, which will provoke revisions aplenty to my early efforts to set out the diff between analysis and mode of presentation (first version from ten years ago here).

    The stuff in that lecture about the insertion of all the extra pages in the 1873 edition – the secret of the fetish bits – really does get my nerdy hermeneutic-theologcal juices flowing. Though I have to go back to the MEGA to sort it out properly – as the exact pages are marked in my crumbling penguin edition, and the importance of 1871 on Marx is not yet fully thought through. I’m guessing RMIT library doesn’t have the MEGA, but there is a set in the Ballieu, or was.

    Other folks I like a lot on reading Capital are Felton Shorthall, Karantani, adn Jonathan Beller who I’ve only read a bit of, but certainly seems interesting, he’s visiting us at Goldies CCS soon. I’ve only just ordered his book on Spectacle.

    Red Salute. John

  4. john hutnyk September 30, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    Felton link here

    and volume three comment here.

    Karatani Link here

    and Beller here and here

    best, j

  5. N Pepperell October 1, 2007 at 6:24 am

    lol – you’re telling me that my university library has an internationally poor reputation on these topics 🙂 (I hang out a lot at the Ballieu)… Many, many thanks for the links – this is extremely generous and helpful. (And don’t worry about the name thing – although now you’re leaving me wondering whether it’s my posts on volume one you’ve been enjoying, or whether I need to be looking up this Neil fellow… 😉 )

  6. Scott Harrison December 24, 2007 at 6:45 am

    Hello everybody here. I just stumbled by this interesting web site and (unfortunately) I only have a few minutes now to linger. But I wanted to briefly comment (if it is not too late) on N Pepperell’s initial question: Why did Marx quote himself in the very first sentence of “Capital”?

    I think the answer is quite simple. As Engels explains somewhere, in “Capital” Marx is trying to carefully note just who, where and when any idea (correct or not) was initally put forth. Citations, therefore, are not commendations or recommendations, but more like historical notes in the history of ideas.

    In the case of the self-quotation in this first sentence of “Capital”, what Marx is doing is simply this: Pointing out that it was he himself (as far as he knows) who first put foward the idea that the capitalist mode of production presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”. That Marx starts with this comment shows that he thinks it is indeed the best place to start in explaining the capitalist mode of production. That he quotes himself here is simply his statement that he thinks he was first (in the “Critique of Political Economy”) to state this particular idea.

    It is not in any way meant as bragging or self-promotion. It is simply a fact of intellectual history.


  7. N Pepperell December 24, 2007 at 9:05 am

    Hey Scott – Sorry you were caught in moderation (it should only happen the first time you post – anti-spam measure…). And definitely not too late to comment.

    I think this is right – Marx is basically treating himself here just as he treats other historical sources from which he draws. Since this post, I’ve explored some of the theoretical implications of this practice in a few places, including here, suggesting that Marx’s determination to treat himself symmetrically, applying to himself the same sorts of analytical practices he applies to others, is also a key theoretical move, particularly given his repeated criticisms of the political economists for not treating themselves as they do other forms of theory – for acting as though their own position is somehow “natural”, while other positions are “artificial”. Marx is basically saying here that his position is just as “situated” historically as the other positions he analyses – signalling that he doesn’t intend his analysis to “float” outside the context being analysed, but instead intends to locate even his own critique as a moment within the historical unfolding of the society he is criticising.

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