Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: September 2007

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…

What Is Radical?

Hopefully Alexei won’t mind if I lift his latest comment into a more prominent space. The original context for the comment I’m reproducing below is in the still-percolating discussion of self-reflexivity: this comment was posted here, and was written as a direct response to this comment from Joe. I don’t want to deflect the original discussion, but my feeling was that Alexei’s response raises issues that are much more general (and – without speaking for Joe – might also be closer to the sorts of issues Joe has been trying to discuss all along). Alexei here defends a particular understanding of the value of theory and of the nature of radical transformation, to which I would like to draw attention:


while I too share your concern for the practicality of theory or philosophy, and I agree with you hat there is no such thing as ‘neutral theorizing.’ But I’m not at all sure I would agree with either of your metaphors. Like you, I don’t buy the idea that theory is mere observation. Nor, however do i think that there is an incisive — and decisive — moment, which, if missed, signals the failure to actualize whatever possibility it uncovered. Even if one picks the lock to an other’s home, bt takes nothing, and the other installs a new deadbolt, one still has the tools — and the skill — to pick it again, not to mention the knowledge of where the valuables are kept. As I see the matter, only fashion and reactionary politics can be “revolutionary”; Radical change, I think, is slow in coming.

So, if I might proffer my own analogy, I tend to think that philosophy/theory is much more like (but not identical to) Schrödinger’s box in that it is always already a world constituting and transforming intervention — although its effects are not as immediate or as direct as perhaps we would like them to be. It’s objects are social kinds, and hence produced by social practices, which can be changed by different modes of thinking. To pick up the example you used here, we need only think about the number of people who smoke today, compared to the number of folks who smoked in the first half of the 20th Century. And, while it may be true that I can come to recognize that I am addicted to cigarettes, and that smoking is killing me (however slowly), but nevertheless continue to smoke — and enjoy it — I may also affirm the various anti-smoking (by-)laws that prohibit smoking in public places, attempt to make sure minors cannot begin to smoke, etc. I can change the way we think about smoking. And, with a little luck smoking will be passé, a few generations down the road, . It may not help me, but it nevertheless changes the complexion of our social spheres.

Similarly, a theorist pursues a political interest by thinking and writing about it (I realize this probably sounds naive, but please bear with me). He disseminates his mode of thought by talking, by teaching, and by publishing, though not necessarily to bring about any immediate change, but rather to initiate its possibility (think here of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex). That is to say, a theorist creates politically important issues by making them public.

Now, perhaps I’m too patient, but I’m sceptical of every brand of millinerian theory, any Leninist avant-guardism (like Zizek’s), which promises that the revolution is (or could be) imminent, or that Utopia must come here and now. I’m sceptical of quick fixes, since they tend to come in moments of crisis, of implacable guilt, and they only lead to the continuation of crisis. At the moment, I actually think that we need more thinking, and less (mindless, instinctual, or responsive) action. We need to understand what it means to act politically, what a political action entails, whom it affects, and what it requires. And all this is this is a far cry from picking a lock, and stealing the establishment’s stereo for the good of the folks on the street.

I admit that, while I might tinker around the margins, I am sympathetic to the positions Alexei is sketching here.

We have no shortage of revolutions. Capitalism is a dynamic social form, which reproduces itself through dramatic cascades of structural transformation. The dynamic nature of the context means that it is extremely easy to confuse whatever transformation happens to follow the next crisis, with a movement toward liberation. The distinctive form of social reproduction – and the abstract character of what is being reproduced – makes it particularly important for transformative practice to gain a sense of what our context is, how the context operates, how the context is reproduced – and means that these questions lack simple and intuitive answers.

This doesn’t mean that no meaningful or important action can take place without some particular theoretical insight. It doesn’t mean that theory is a unique or exceptionalised reservoir of critical ideals. It certainly doesn’t mean that theorists have any “vanguardist” place in the leadership of social movements. It does mean that the dichotomy often drawn between “theory” and “practice” may be uniquely and specifically debilitating – may function as a form of “ideology” in the service of social reproduction – if we are oriented toward achieving emancipatory change in the present time.

Theory is a moment within collective practice, a moment which seeks to recognise and work through the implications of potentials that collective practice has already created (often unintentionally and unawares), a moment that seeks – along with other forms of practice – to deepen, extend and cultivate those potentials, to make them more available for targeted and deliberate political action in the service of emancipatory goals. The premise here is not that theoretical insight is somehow immediately and intrinsically transformative – that theory will snap its conceptual fingers, break the spell of identification, and instantaneously liberate us all. The premise is that, even in conditions where the spell is already broken and desires for liberation hang palpable in the air, we still need to work out how to extricate ourselves from the cycle that William Morris describes so well:

…men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…

Carded (Updated)

Since I clearly have nothing substantive to read and write about…

Adorno Theory CardI seem to remember L Magee having an idea like this some months backtheorycards:

The Trading Cards are a pack of 32 online cards featuring theorists and concepts close to the hearts of people interested in social and cultural theory, gender and identity, and media studies.

It’s very funny – I was just telling someone yesterday that Adorno is most widely known as “that guy who wrote elitist things on popular culture”. What timely confirmation! ;-P

My favourite description, though, has to be of Luhmann, whose answer to the question “what are your research plans” I might consider borrowing…

Hat tip Wildly Parenthetical – whose post also preserves a priceless reflection on the theoretical symptomology of styles of baldness.

Updated to add: Andrew over at Union Street seems to think these trading cards are “tokens to true nerdiness” – but hasn’t he seen the game that goes along with them? Doesn’t he believe most people would want to spend their evenings doing something like this?

1. Divide cards between players.

2. Decide who will go first.

3. The player whose turn it is, studies the card on top of their pile and selects either ‘Strengths‘, ‘Weaknesses / Risks‘ or ‘Special Skills‘.

4. All players then look at their own top card, and discuss who has got the best characteristic in this category.

For example:

— The Giddens risk, “Misguided postmodernists may attack”, is preferable to the Butler weakness, “Increasingly impenetrable writing style”. (It doesn’t matter if some postmodernists misunderstand your argument and slag you off. But if no-one can understand your argument in the first place, that’s bad). So here, when comparing ‘Weaknesses / Risks‘ , the player with the Giddens card wins (unless someone else’s card beats theirs).

— The Foucault strength, “Model of power innovative and realistic” is better than the Psychologists strength, “Resistance to postmodern self-doubt”. (Self-belief isn’t much of a contribution to the world, but good ideas are). So here, when comparing ‘Strengths‘ , the player with the Foucault card wins (unless someone else’s card beats theirs).

5. The winning player takes one card — the card which just lost that battle — from each other player.

6. If several players are involved, the discussions about who has the superior characteristic on their card will inevitably be more complex. In case of dispute, a majority vote decides the outcome. If this still does not decide it, then for God’s sake, go and watch TV instead or something.

7. The player with all (or most) of the cards at the end, wins.

Actually, my reading group sessions sort of work like this already… (Hmm… I wonder what sorts of cards could be written about the reading group members… ;-P)

Tracking Conversations?

I just wanted to draw attention to Adam’s technical question, posted in a comment below:

Great discussions like this one make me think there is a gap in our technology.

What I want is a metasite that only tracks conversations. It would represent the posts (including comments) relevant for any conversation sorted by time posted and post responded to, much like a threaded forum or mailing list. Does this exist? Can anyone make it?

Does anyone have a good workaround they’ve been using to keep track of this sort of thing?

To be honest, I tend to follow conversations via RSS readers and via wandering off to check out incoming links, and have therefore never looked into conversation tracking tools. On a very quick glance around (it’s amazing how motivating marking can be… ;-P), something like blogpulse’s Conversation Tracker looks designed to do something like what Adam is after.

When I entered the URL for the theoretical pessimism post at this blog, for example, it generated this. For Sinthome’s Problems of Self-Reflexivity, which was the more proximate epicentre of this discussion, it produces this. Some moments of the broader conversation drop out of these searches, perhaps because of the specific URLs with which I started – the discussions at Nate’s what in the hell… and Gabriel’s Self and World are two that come to mind…

Other ideas? How do people tend to track these things, once they start unfolding? This strikes me as the kind of thing that Kerim over at Keywords might have some thoughts on, perhaps… Or maybe GGollings or LMagee?

As It Is

I’ve spent the weekend trying to piece together abstracts and get my head around things I will present for various upcoming events – an activity that has torn my thoughts into all sorts of directions other than where I wanted to be thinking right now. Too scattered for focussed posting, and heading into my teaching week, which typically doesn’t leave me with time for substantive comments, I thought I should at least toss up something to change the scenery. 😉

From Adrienne Rich “The Spirit of Place” II & V

taking on the world
as it is   not as we wish it
as it is not as we work for it
to be

The world as it is: not as her users boast
damaged beyond reclamation by their using
Ourselves as we are in these painful motions
of staying cognizant: some part of us always
out beyond ourselves
knowing knowing knowing
Are we all in training for something we don't name?
to exact reparation for things
done long ago to us and to those who did not
survive what was done to them   whom we ought to honor
with grief with fury with action

Getting from A to Z

So I had an extended meeting the other day Read more of this post