Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: October 2007

“Mainstreaming” Academic Blogging

I have all kinds of responses owing to various people – apologies for this: I’m booked absolutely to the gills this week, conducting field interviews for a community development project, and then involved in an annual planning process within my university. I really do want to pick up on the various hanging threads, but may not find the time to do this for several days.

Evidently, I don’t believe that my comment debt has grown large enough, however, because I did want to toss up one new question for consideration. I just received this from my university:

The project we’re working on is an amalgamation of current blogs produced by academics into a best of the best style tumblelog ( that can work as a place where people can see the ideas coming out of the University.

This is the first step in creating an atmosphere of blogging throughout the University to help build a community based around academic thought and its relationship to the world. It will help to build a reputation … as a place for experts.

This is an achievable goal but only with your participation.

In this first stage, the tumblelog will link directly to existing blogs and feature posts from those blogs as they are updated.

My impulse, I have to admit, is to decline to participate in this project. I feel somewhat perverse in saying this, as I’ve put some effort into promoting the concept of academic blogging within the university, and defending the potentials of the medium for serious intellectual exchange. I have no idea how widely read my blog is within the university, but most people who know me, have probably heard that I maintain an academic and a course blog. So it’s not as though I’ve kept the blog secret, or assumed that what I write here would have no ramifications for my professional work. I think it’s generally a good thing that blogging become accepted as a potential medium for serious intellectual exchange, and I personally use blogging to try out most of the concepts I later use in more formal work. All of this suggests, I suppose, that I should be comfortable with the idea that my posts might be syndicated through something like the project above.

Strangely, though, I’m finding myself having a negative reaction to this request.

A large part of what makes blogging valuable to me is precisely that difference in style, tone and content that differentiates it from other forms of academic writing. And I find myself wondering how that difference in style, tone and content meshes with the notion that the blogs of university academics will somehow showcase the university as “a place for experts”. Something about this formulation sits very poorly with how I understand blogging – which, among many other things, I value for its (occasional and partial, but still important) puncturing of claims to expertise. And not simply due to the risk that someone might leap from the ether with some kind of devastating critique, but also because the sort of intellectual production that takes place via blogging is often raw, and dynamic, and strangely collective in extremely complex ways – my felt experience of blogging, and my personal motivation for persisting with the medium as a major medium for my intellectual work, don’t mesh well with the notion, tacit in the formulation above, that blogs might be a means for experts to disseminate their views to a broader (passive?) audience.

I may be over-emphasising the focus on expertise in the invitation above – this may be more of a throwaway line, with unfortunate unintended connotations.

I am curious, though: how are other people struck by this notion? Would other bloggers be happy for their posts to be syndicated on a university-branded site? What impacts would you expect such a formalised syndication arrangement to have on your writing? What problems – and what benefits – would you anticipate?

Habermas and Brandom, Facts and Norms

Update: This piece has subsequently been revised into a conference paper. The revised version is available online, and the comments section there includes a very good discussion and debate about the conference paper. We recommend that readers interested in this piece, consult the revised version and the subsequent discussion to see the further development of the thoughts originally outlined here.

Habermas and Brandom, Facts and Norms

In spite of the obvious difficulties of joint-authoring a paper with a fictional collaborator, NP and I have decided to submit a presentation for the upcoming Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference entitled Dialogues in Place. This comes on the back of a welcome return to the Reading Group, which has been in temporary hiatus. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a position to blog or comment here, but notwithstanding… NP has exhorted invited me to initiate a discussion around some aspects of our proposed presentation. The conference itself

will focus on the conception of dialogue
in philosophy, but with particular emphasis on the opening
up of philosophical dialogue between traditions and cultures
especially between east and west and on the way the happening
of dialogue in place sheds light on both the nature of dialogue
as well as on the place in which such dialogic engagement
takes place.

Our own presentation is somewhat tangential to these concerns, but closely enough related: it aims to examine the work of Habermas and Brandom in relation to the question of normative ideals. The purpose of the following discussion is to outline, in suitably rough and tentative fashion, some thoughts in relation to a recent interchange between Habermas and Brandom, following on from the publication of Brandom’s Making It Explicit. Signficant caveat lector: both NP and I are still slowly progressing through the substantive portions of Making It Explicit, and the following remarks should be interpreted in the light of an as-yet incomplete reading of Brandom’s work. I’ll start with an overview of the exchange, and an all-too-brief synopsis of Brandom’s account, followed by a break-down of Habermas’ objections and Brandom’s replies.

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Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: The Universal as Particular

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past couple of days trying to distil my professional and intellectual biographies down into a coherent (?) written narrative, which has somewhat thrown me out of the series on the first chapter of Capital. Let’s see if I can ease my way back in, through a post that is perhaps more a commentary on a discussion currently unfolding elsewhere, than a continuation of this series in the strictest sense.

I last left off on some metatheoretical tangents that were suggested by a question Nate asked in the comments to the post immediately prior. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the immediate provocation for today’s reflections should be a comment by Mike Beggs in the still-ongoing discussion over “immaterial labour” at Nate’s what in the hell…. Mike writes:

What in the hell is ‘immaterial labour’ anyway? Marx recognised from the start that labour processes are heterogeneous. Whatever problems ‘immaterial labour’ brings were already there in the difficulties of comparing different kinds of labour based on different kinds of skills. For Marx labour was only homogenised as abstract labour, which means it can never be read directly from the labour time of any individual. Abstract labour is collective labour and always was. (emphasis mine)

Mike hits here at something I’ve been meaning to thematise more directly in this series, which – I should confess at the outset – might not be quite what Mike was trying to thematise in the passage I’ve quoted above. Hopefully Mike will forgive me for using his comment as an excuse for a comment of my own, particularly in the somewhat likely event that his words have reminded me of something he wasn’t trying to talk about at all… Here goes…

First, as I’ve mentioned here earlier, I share Mike’s confusion over how some recent theories focus on “immaterial labour”, in order to criticise Marx’s “labour theory of value”. Whatever stance one wants to take toward Marx’s theory, it is somewhat difficult to see how the development of service industries, the rise to prominence of “knowledge workers”, the development of some kind of “creative class”, or similar trends often cited as evidence of a shift toward “immaterial labour”, would have much to do one way or the other with the “theory of value” that Marx articulates.

Marx is very clear, very early in Capital, that his notion of “use value” and of “labour” is extremely broad, and can comfortably encompass the sorts of activities that some theories currently attempt to pick out with concepts like “immaterial labour”. Even in a reading like mine, where I present Marx as adopting a critical stance toward the definitions that open Capital, I still understand Marx to be engaging in a form of reflexive theory that unfolds by critically appropriating concepts, by demonstrating how a reflexive theory can understand the practical genesis, and therefore the transformative implications, of those concepts better than competing approaches. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I think Mike is precisely right to be puzzled by theories that take “immaterial labour” to pose some particular problem for Marx.

I also think Mike is right to hit on the notion that “abstract labour” – also presented as “homogenised” and “undifferentiated” labour – is specifically intended to pick out a distinction between, on the one hand, concrete, empirical labouring activities – human labour expended in some particular way – and, on the other, some other sense of the term “labour” that can be distinguished – practically, as well as conceptually – from the various empirical ways in which individuals deploy their labour power. Jumping off from the starting point Mike provides, my question then becomes whether this distinction is entirely captured in the specific formulation Mike uses above – in the statement that, “Abstract labour is collective labour and always was”.

My concern here is a bit complicated – and I also want to be very careful that I don’t voice this as though I’m making a sort of criticism of what Mike wrote – both because I think it’s quite possible that Mike actually means something compatible with what I’m about to say here, and also because I’m quoting a comment Mike wrote in the context of a specific exchange elsewhere, in a context where I wouldn’t expect the participants to be trying to develop their personal theoretical perspectives in a precise and detailed way. I therefore want to be clear from the outset that I’m using Mike’s comment as an excuse to talk about something I’ve been meaning to thematise anyway – Mike has simply provide the immediate provocation, and his comment is not in any way a “target” of this post, but simply reminded me that I’ve been remiss in leaving this topic to one side for so long…

Okay: I agree with Mike that abstract labour is collective labour. As phrased above, though, it remains unclear what the concept of “collective labour” means, when discussed in the context of Marx’s analysis of “abstract labour”. This is important, because elements of Marx’s critique hinge on the notion that abstract labour is collective labour – but collective labour in a specific, alienated form – collective labour as a specific form of unintentional, impersonal domination.

This form of domination exerts itself through the unintentional collective determination of what gets to “count as labour” under capitalism. In other words, I take Marx’s concept of “abstract labour” to pick out the end result or product of a coercive, nonconscious, social process in which social actors involuntarily determine what “collective labour” entails, from the perspective of capitalist reproduction – by constituting and imposing on one another impersonal compulsions to labour for particular purposes, at socially normative levels of productivity. Because this coercive process is not intentionally generated, social actors (whether individual or collective) have no way of knowing at the outset what forms, and what intensities, of human labour will be “counted” as part of the collective labour of capitalist society. Instead, social actors learn, after the fact, after they “labour”, whether and to what degree their labouring activities will “count” as part of the collective labour of capitalist society.

In particular periods of capitalist history, moreover, certain forms of activity that certainly seem, definitionally, as though they “belong” inside a universal category of “human labour” – certain activities that certainly appear to (and, in fact, do) involve the goal-directed expenditure of human physiological effort, orienting to the transformation of material nature, in the service of meeting human needs – are systematically excluded from “collective labour” as collective labour is “counted” for purposes of capitalist reproduction: privatised domestic labour, for example… (There is a complex argument to be made here about the interrelationships between structural dynamics within capitalism, and other sorts of social dynamics that are formally “contingent” with respect to capitalism – about the ways in which, in certain circumstances, capitalist dynamics can come to be overlaid on other dimensions of social life, so as to reinforce – or to sit uneasily and in a complex tension with – those other dimensions. I’ll leave this, incredibly complicated, issue to one side for the moment, other than suggesting that one can potentially use the perspectival understanding of capitalism I have been exploring in this series of posts, to explore the complex ways in which capitalism makes available perspectives that are indifferent to the existence of ascriptive categories like gender, or race, while simultaneously making available perspectives that suggest the potential to embody or articulate concepts of gender or race in specific ways, while simultaneously making available perspectives that wrap themselves around whatever understandings of gender or race might be contingently available, so as to generate certain structurally predictable consequences from contingencies that capitalism might not itself have generated, etc., etc. The topic is much too complex to treat adequately here, but I would hope to be able to get back to the issue in a more appropriate way, once I’ve gotten quite a bit further along in the outline of Marx’s theory of capitalism.)

My suggestion is therefore that Marx intends the category of “abstract labour” to capture, not “collective labour” in some general sense, but rather the specific determination of collective labour under capitalism. Collective labour under capitalism – abstract labour – is a much more narrow category than what we would expect would be encompassed by the notion of “things humans do to transform nature in order to meet their various needs and desires”: it excludes or fails to count fully various forms of productive activities. Interestingly – and this point is extremely important in Marx’s argument – it relates to a direct (if impersonal) compulsion to expend labour specifically in human form. In other words, while Marx repeatedly makes clear that material needs and desires might conceivably be filled in many different ways – by nature or by technology, for example, without the need for the expenditure of human labour power – capitalism, for Marx, generates an intrinsic structural compulsion that human labour power be expended – a compulsion that is independent of the level of material wealth that has been achieved.

Marx’s “labour theory of value”, in my reading, is intended to capture this direct “structural” compulsion that human labour power be expended, not in order to meet material needs, but in order to reproduce capitalism – a situation that Marx characterises as “a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him”. Marx presents this structural compulsion for the expenditure of human labour power as increasingly paradoxical, as capitalism drives the creation of higher and higher levels of productivity and propels a massive increase in our potential material wealth. This is the sort of thing, I would suggest, at which Marx is already hinting in the first chapter, when he makes otherwise strange-sounding comments like this, from chapter 1, 3.C.1:

The general value form, which represents all products of labour as mere congelations of undifferentiated human labour, shows by its very structure that it is the social resumé of the world of commodities. That form consequently makes it indisputably evident that in the world of commodities the character possessed by all labour of being human labour constitutes its specific social character.

Marx intends this comment, I think, to be jolting: on its face, the notion of “human labour” sounds like a universal. Previous sections of this chapter have, in fact, presented the notion of “human labour” as though it is a universal – writing immanently with the voice of phenomenological perspectives that take “human labour in the abstract” or “undifferentiated human labour” as categories that are generated through a process of abstraction from all qualitatively determinate characteristics – as abstract universals. On its face, then, it should appear extremely strange for Marx to claim that an abstract universal is… its opposite – a particular. And yet that is precisely what Marx seems to be doing in the passage above: “the character possessed by all labour of being human labour constitutes its specific social character” – the qualitative characteristic of being abstracted from concrete specificity is the concrete specificity of labour as determined by the value form.

This is an extremely interesting argument – with some particularly intriguing implications for, say, a Deleuzian goal of how we might understand forms of perception or thought as affirmations, that are prone to misrecognise themselves as being negations. This specific problem – of how an affirmation or a positivity comes to appear as a negation – is in fact mentioned explicitly in Marx’s text, just prior to the passage quoted above:

In this manner the labour realised in the values of commodities is presented not only under its negative aspect, under which abstraction is made from every concrete form and useful property of actual work, but its own positive nature is made to reveal itself expressly. The general value form is the reduction of all kinds of actual labour to their common character of being human labour generally, of being the expenditure of human labour power. (bold text mine)

In this section, then, Marx is explicitly attempting to explore some of the reasons that something like an abstract universal can: (1) emerge as a “real abstraction” in collective practice (although the full account of this waits much more development in later sections of the text); (2) possess specific qualitative characteristics that render plausible the perception that this “real abstraction” is instead just a “conceptual abstraction” – just a category that arises when we “negate” or conceptually abstract from empirical examples of labouring activities, to determine what properties such activities have in common – or else a “discovery” of an underlying material or social property that remains behind when more contingent properties have been stripped away; and, at the same time (3) betray the existence of other immanently-available perspectives, from the standpoint of which “abstract labour” can be seen to be, not a conceptual abstraction from, or negation of, diverse empirical labouring activities, but a instead an actively generated positivity, enacted directly in collective practice, as a form of unintentional social domination.

In other words, I take Marx to be saying something along the lines of: abstract labour is the specific form taken by collective labour in the service of the reproduction of capitalism. But what a bizarre form of collective labour this is. On the one hand, it opens up some potentials that we might just want to keep: for example, it suggests to us that it is possible to treat all sorts of human activities as being somehow the same as one another – and therefore indirectly opens up the possibility to treat all sorts of humans as somehow the same as one another. Such a potential can’t be assumed to be equally intuitive to all human societies – look at Aristotle: this possibility actually occurred to him, but he rejected it out of hand. And yet, even ordinary intellects of the present era can experience this concept as intuitive – fairly effortlessly. This potential to enact some sort of human equality through our collective practice might well be worth retaining – worth exploring – worth developing – worth improvising around – if we’re going to discuss the creation of a more emancipated form of social life.

And yet. When we think about this potential, we often don’t fully recognise that it is somehow been enacted in some specific way in human practice. In other words, we often don’t say (a): “We suddenly started treating the products of labour as… “products of labour”, and thereby – quite by accident, initially – showed ourselves that it was possible to equate vary dissimilar things”. Instead, we tend to say things more like (b): “We suddenly discovered that commodities all share a common property – that of being material things that are the products of human labour – and that all humans share a common property – that of being creatures with a common material or biological form. This underlying, pre-existent similarity explains why we can treat these things as similar in our social practice.”

Given that Marx thinks he can show (a), this leaves him with a specific theoretical problem: why do so many competing forms of theory say (b)? If we are actively creating or enacting certain potentials in our own collective practice, why would we perceive ourselves, instead, to be “discovering” intrinsic properties of material nature, which we then interpret as a kind of “material ground” for our own social practice?

Marx tries to address this problem by saying that there is something about the specific way in which (a) happens, that suggests very strongly – if we happen to look only at specific moments of the process, and ignore other moments – that (b) is the best available explanation. So, there is something specific and strange about the way that we are creating something like “collective labour” or “abstract labour” under capitalism, that plausibly suggests that these categories are abstract universals, or pure negations, or conceptual abstractions – even though, Marx will argue, these categories can actually be demonstrated to be quite particular and “situated” as moments within the reproduction of capitalism.

Marx begins to explain this distinctive form of plausible misrecognition precisely by determining abstract labour – the distinctive form of what “counts” as collective labour under capitalism – as the end result of a form of coercion, as something social actors establish unintentionally and “behind their own backs”. The argument here – even at this early point in the text – is complex, and I will try to take it up more adequately in a later post. Marx suggests, however, that this form of misrecognition captures the way in which this process confronts social actors as something “objective” – something over which they individually have no control and did not seek to constitute. It also captures the way in which the process manifests itself through relationships between commodities – relationships which themselves are constructed in such a way as to separate commodities into what plausibly appears to be a world of material things that intrinsically “bear” value, and a more apparently contingent and arbitrary world of purely quantitative relationships between those material things.

By focussing on these (genuinely present, but partial) moments in the reproduction of capitalism, without capturing other moments, competing forms of theory engage in a fetishised form of thought that overextrapolates from specific elements of complex social field. These fetishised forms of thought thus see themselves as “discovering” intrinsic, abstractly universal properties – of things, of people, of human societies – but that fail to grasp how such “universals”, in spite of their genuinely abstract character, are generated directly and specifically by our own collective practice – and thus located and situated within capitalism in a distinctive, practical way. More – and hopefully better – on all of this at a later point…

Although I can’t fully substantiate this point with reference to this moment in the text, I would suggest that Marx is also beginning to point to the ways in which capitalism – while reproducing itself through the generation of coercive abstract universals – also begins to generate the possibility for something else – for something, perhaps, like a concrete or sensuous universal – for something like “collective labour” in the sense of all the variegated activities in which we collectively engage, in the process of meeting our diverse needs and desires. These alternative “concrete universals”, however, sit in tension with the constitution of abstract universals that takes place via the coercive structural exclusion of activities that do not “count as labour” under capitalism. The tension between these two forms of immanently constituted universal generates an immanent pressure for something… Benjaminian – for a transformation that would enable the present to become “citable in all its moments”, that would make possible a less narrow and coercive, more variegated and creative, collective mobilisation of humanity…

Not doing justice to this topic – apologies… But I’ll need to leave things here for the moment – I’ve put off marking already for much too long today… I’ll try when I pick this series up again to move back into more systematic textual mode – I’d like to finish the detailed textual analysis of the first chapter quite soon, so that I can then look back over what I’ve written, and see if I can develop a kind of synoptic overview of the reading of the first chapter – so that I can then perhaps draw a temporary line under this chapter, and begin peeking a bit further into the book… Perhaps best not to look too far ahead… ;-P

Hopefully, the last couple of posts, which have deviated from the close reading, in order to explore some of the implications or things I might try to do with the sort of reading I’m trying to outline, won’t have been too murky… Or too mistaken (can be a bit hard for me to tell, given that I haven’t made up my mind completely on some of the issues about which I’m writing)… ;-P

Back to these topics soon…

Previous posts in this series include:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

Not Knowing Where to Have It

Cartesian Fragment

Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

Random Metatheory

Do You Believe in Me?

Via Acephalous: my author function has been analysed! Critical Theory and the Academy, a course blog that provides the nucleus for several student blogs that explore major themes in critical theory, has assigned the following task this week:

First, you will discuss a specific point in Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” or Foucault’s “What is an Author?”. Second, you will venture out into blogworld, find a post on an academic/theory blog that discusses authorship (the author function in literature, blog authorship, pseudonymity, etc.) in some way, link to the post in your post, and offer commentary on the linked-to post. You may handle this in one long post or in two separate posts.

Ozzman5150 finds inspiration for this assignment at Rough Theory. After an extended discussion of the concept of the “author function”, Ozzman suggests:

The second part of the assignment for this week was to find a blog from the internet on the idea of what an author is or what makes an author. I did some research and I think that I found one right from the main page of Dr. Mcguire’s blog. The blog is titled Rough Theory and I think that it provides some good insight on the idea of what an author is. I think that this blog makes some assumptions as to the ideas of what an author is and how it helps to shape our understanding of the “author function” and texts. This blog seems to hint through various posts that the author is more a work of fiction rather than acting as a function from which we can better understand the texts that we come across.

Over at Acephalous, Scott Eric Kaufman concurs:

One student insists N. Pepperell’s fictional, and I’m inclined to agree. No actual person could write that much that quickly and remain sane.

So, now I really must know: how many of my readers truly believe that “N. Pepperell” is, as Ryan/Aless might put it, “a real (material, historical) person”?

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At Your Service

My schedule is very compressed at the moment, and I have no time for serious writing, but I’ve been meaning for the past couple of days to post a pointer to a discussion going on over at Nate’s what in the hell…, sparked by Nate’s dissatisfaction with Negri’s claim that recent transformations in the nature of labour undermine “classical” conceptions of the working day and the labour theory of value. Nate argues:

It simply is not the case that there is a transition which has occurred like that which Negri describes. There certainly have been important changes in capitalism (though there are important continuities as well which I think Negri understates) but Negri’s periodization strikes me as at best a clumsy took for grasping this – like trying to catch a ball while wearing oven mits or with grease on one’s hands.

It’s not at all clear that “the classical descriptions of the “work day” and the law of value/labor no longer correspond to reality” though Negri is convinced it is. His conditional is rhetorical, not sincere – there is no question “if” the transition has happened. It has for Negri. Interestingly and I think revealingly, Negri has asserted the supercession of the law value since at least the late 1970s, well before his post-structural vocabulary and his attention to the affective and immaterial. It seems to me the case that his resort to that vocabulary and that attention is at least as much the result or expression of (that is, it’s motivated by a desire to retain) his views on the law of value as it is the case that this vocabulary and attention support his arguments about value.

The full post goes into much greater detail, and I won’t reproduce Nate’s argument here, but rather point readers to the original.

Nate’s post reminds me, though, of something I’ve been meaning to blog, about a somewhat similar reaction I had to elements of Honneth’s presentation at the recent Recognition and Work conference. Caveat here that I don’t have a copy of Honneth’s written paper, and I’m also writing this without the notes I actually took at the conference, so I write this with a strong self-consciousness about potentially being unfair to the nuance of Honneth’s position. But my impression at the conference was that Honneth, first, reads Marx as criticising industrial or factory labour against a model of craft labour (understood as self-determining activity in which people could develop themselves through the process of “objectification” in the creation of a material object). So Honneth seems to take Marx’s critical standpoint (in this one talk – I’m far from an expert in Honneth’s work as a whole) as being grounded in the notion that people can realise themselves in the transformation of material nature. It goes without saying that I find this a problematic reading of Marx, but that concerned me less than what Honneth did with this argument, which was (if I understood him correctly) to say that the shift away from industrial manufacturing and toward the development of more service oriented labour undermined this “Marxist” notion of a critical standpoint, because labourers no longer produced any kind of visible, tangible thing: no (material) object, no self-objectification, no standpoint of critique in labour (at least, labour seen with reference to its role as an activity transforming material nature).

Now, as it happens, I don’t think Marx understands his standpoint of critique this way, so in a sense it doesn’t particularly disturb me to have someone argue that the transformation of nature provides no privileged normative standpoint from which other aspects of social relations might be judged. On that level, I don’t have a dog in this fight.

On another level, though, what a strange way to conceptualise historical transformation – to see the rise of service industries (which of course poses its own unique historical challenges, not least for forms of organisation) as some sort of fundamental qualitative transformation in the nature of capitalist labour: to think that it would somehow compel us to change, say, a structural determination of labour under capitalism, because it doesn’t produce a discrete material product, but instead provides some kind of “immaterial” service for other people. Of course, it may be easy for me to say this, because I understand Marx’s argument about “value” to be an argument about how capitalism revolves specifically around the production of a social substance – something that, moreover, Marx expressly says has no “material” component. From my starting point, it’s perhaps a bit difficult to see why the shift from producing physically distinct widgets to… widgeting for other people, would mark any necessary structural shift in the nature of capitalist labour. Again, I’m not trying to suggest that the concrete organisation of production or the qualitative characteristics of what is being produced makes no difference, or is irrelevant, or shouldn’t be analysed. I am, though, saying that pointing to the shift from industrial to service industries, by itself, doesn’t have any clear or immediate implications for the “labour theory of value” – which is expressly described as being about ways in which material production (a term that, itself, Marx defines extremely broadly, in ways that would comfortably accommodate ephemeral goods like services) comes to be “haunted” by an immaterial social essence that has nothing intrinsically to do with material production at all.

For the same reason, I’m unconvinced that this sort of shift tells us anything about the validity or lack of validity of Marx’s understanding of his own standpoint of critique. Of course, again, it’s easier for me to say this, because I don’t read Marx (by Capital, certainly) as grounding his critique in some sort of romantic valorisation of craft labour, as this was progressively being threatened by the rise of industrial production. In other words, I don’t see Marx criticising capitalism against the model provided by something pre-capitalist or non-capitalist, but rather as unfolding an immanent critique of contradictory tendencies within capitalism.

My laptop battery is about to die, so I have to post this. Apologies for the brevity and lack of development of this blurt – happy to be corrected by people who think I’m being unfair to Honneth (and, again, I am responding very specifically here to things said in one paper, at one conference – I am making no general claims about Honneth’s work). Also happy to explain what the hell I’m talking about, if this post makes no sense… 🙂

But go read the discussion at Nate’s – it’s not covering exactly the same ground that I’m ranting about here, and it’s better developed… Running!!

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Random Metatheory

My previous post in the series on the first chapter of Capital has prompted a nice set of meta-theoretical questions from Nate, revolving loosely around the question of whether some of my formulations suggest the need to breach the immanent frame of the analysis. This discussion is still continuing in the comments, but some of the questions that have come up in that discussion strike me as potentially relevant for the main line of analysis of Marx’s text.

What I want to do in this post, is not so much answer Nate’s questions directly, as use the thought-space that those questions have opened as an excuse, first, to explore some of the implications of this reading of Capital for how we can conceptualise critical judgements about competing forms of theory and practice generated immanently within capitalism. And second, to talk a bit about how this kind of theory involves a form of relativising, locating, or situating dispositions (intuitive forms of perception and thought) by demonstrating at least one dimension of collective practice in which such dispositions are enacted, without, however, reducing dispositions to the theorised form of enactment (i.e., without claiming that the theorised form of enactment is the only space in which such dispositions are enacted), and without automatically undermining the validity of such dispositions (i.e., without acting as though situating a disposition by itself suffices to debunk the insights or potentials that disposition expresses).

Although I will use examples from the first chapter of Capital to explore these issues, my goal here is a bit different from my goal in other posts in this series: here, I will be deploying a particular reading of Marx without, however, trying to render this reading plausible with reference to the text of Capital. I may use some occasional quotations for illustrative purposes, but I’ll leave for the other posts in this series, the issue of whether I can defend this kind of reading textually. I will also not be concerned here with whether the reading I’m deploying is making a defensible argument about capitalism: my concern is rather to explore the form of the argument, the sorts of moves the argument makes, regardless of the content. By limiting the post in this way, I will try to bring some of the meta-theoretical implications of this reading a bit more clearly into view.

Okay. Where to start. I think the easiest way to organise this discussion is to explore (in a very, very superficial way) one example of a set of dispositions that Marx begins to “situate” in the first chapter of Capital – an example that relates to dispositions we might be tempted to associate with the study of the natural world (note that, in the discussion with Nate below, I have sketched a partial second example, relating to dispositions that we might associate with the study of history). These dispositions are related in complex ways to how social actors might be tempted to orient themselves in practice – they thus carry potential political implications, even if these implications might not be immediately clear when Marx begins his analysis.

The first chapter begins to suggest that there is some way in which we are enacting, in collective practice, a kind of social indifference to different forms of labouring activity. This indifference does not extend to all dimensions of collective practice: in some dimensions of practice, the variegated qualitative forms in which labour is expended remain collectively important. In at least one specific dimension of collective practice, however, we are treating a wide range of empirically distinct labouring activities as, in some respect, qualitatively the same – and thus enacting a practical equality of types of human labour (a practical equality that, significantly, takes the form of a coercive and normalising indifference to empirical labouring activities).

Because of how we are enacting this equality, however, it is not immediately obvious that we are the ones enacting it. The argument for why it is not immediately obvious – for why it might be structurally difficult for us to recognise our own collective hand in constituting various forms of labouring activity as equal in at least one dimension of collective practice – is complex, and not fully laid out in the first chapter of Capital. Very roughly, in terms of what is visible at this early stage in Capital, the argument involves a claim we are enacting a collective indifference to the qualitative diversity of labouring activities “behind our own backs” – unintentionally and coercively – through a form of mutual compulsion that we are not individually or collectively setting out to generate. This particular form of unintentional mutual compulsion possesses certain specific qualitative characteristics: it is “universalising”, “lawlike”, and coercively “normalising”, and manifests itself via quantitative relationships that seem to govern movements of the products of labour. It also drives a constant process of transformation of concrete labouring processes, thereby constituting such processes as contingent and potentially ephemeral. It confronts individuals and social groups as an alien force outside themselves and beyond their control, to which they must adapt. Investigation can lead to the discovery and description of some of the lawlike principles of this form of compulsion. These discoveries, however, do not by themselves dissolve the coercive force of this compulsion, which, although contingent and grounded in human practice, is not “imaginary” or subject to individual control.

Note that, at this stage in the text, when the category of capital itself has not yet been unfolded, the metaphors for this impersonal social compulsion tend toward the “Newtonian” – toward metaphors of universal, abstract, mathematical laws. As we approach the category of capital, the metaphors will become more organimistic – more vitalist. I’ll discuss this shift more adequately in relation to Marx’s text at a later point. (This point begins to suggest how I would eventually like to answer a question posed by Joseph Kugelmass some weeks back about why the model of capitalism I’ve been pointing toward seems to resemble some thematisations of evolution and complexity theory. I suspect that, in asking this question, Joe might have been tugging on some of the threads he has now written into a fantastic post at his own site and The Valve. Just as a quick side note – Joe: I haven’t forgotten your question: perhaps it will be becoming a little bit clearer why this is a particularly complicated question for me to answer, even though it’s an important question to ask… Some of your questions on uneven development from that same comment, incidentally, also lie in the background of some of my discussions in the previous post in this series – albeit very abstractly, at this point.)

For the moment, I simply draw attention to the fact that the account in the first chapter is not intended to be complete, and note that Marx will eventually ground other dispositions, aside from the lawlike universals that concern him here. In any case, when Marx draws attention to specific qualitative characteristics associated with unintentional forms of impersonal compulsion, he is setting up for an analysis of why there is an intrinsic, immanent, “structural” risk that certain specific moments generated by collective practice within capitalism, might plausibly be interpreted, not as peculiar dimensions of our social environment, but instead as qualitative characteristics of asocial material nature. The argument here is both extremely complex and irritatingly tacit in Marx’s text, and I can at best be gestural at this point. But Marx is suggesting that a complex combination of factors – the unintentional nature of the compulsion, its impersonal character, the fact that it manifests itself through the movements of “things”, the way that other elements of social practice become, by contrast, “overtly” social (demonstrated in practice to be arbitrary and contingent, and forced to adapt themselves to this more impersonal form of social compulsion) and a number of other factors – combine to render it plausible for dispositions to emerge that interpret this dimension of social practice as asocial.

The implications of this go beyond the claim that this “impersonal” dimension of social practice is thereby “naturalised” and shielded from critique. The suggestion here is also that our practical experience of this dimension of capitalism “primes” us to “expect”, or sensitises us to the possibility, that asocial environments will possess certain specific qualitative characteristics (note that these characteristics can be mutually exclusive or contradictory of one another – as always, Marx tends to try to capture capitalism as an unstable unity of opposites): that the asocial world is quintessentially “material”, for example, and that such a world exists “outside us”, as an object for human contemplation or manipulation; that the asocial world is governed by impersonal universal laws best captured via mathematical models; that the asocial world (or elements of it) has vitalist properties and should be seen as in some sense a self-determining organism; etc. Again, I am not trying here to do full justice to these suggestions in Marx’s text, but more to open a sense of the scope of the argument and a feel for the way the argument is intended to operate. The important thing here is that there is a complex argument in Marx’s text about the ways in which we unintentionally render ourselves open to certain possibilities through our experience as social actors enacting and engaging with moments of capitalism.

Okay. Here a complex dance begins. I’m going to make the claim that, in unfolding this kind of argument, Marx is not trying to reduce everything we think and perceive back to specific moments in capitalism. First, the theory of capitalism is bounded – it doesn’t capture everything in contemporary experience, and it in fact explicitly defines certain things as contingent (or, at least, as untheorisable), from the perspective available to this specific kind of theory. A simple example of this kind of defined contingency can be found in Marx’s discussion about the conflict over the working day, expressed in the famous passage:

We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.

What this passage suggests is that Marx can theorise that a particular structure of social conflict is intrinsic and likely to recur under capitalism, and he can even say a bit about the forms in which this conflict will likely be articulated (about plausible self-conceptions of political subjects and about likely forms of self-organisation, for example). He cannot, however, theorise the outcome of the conflict in any particular instance: force decides. Marx’s descriptions of actual political conflicts in Capital express this combination of contingent and “theorisable” elements – Marx is clearly comfortable with the boundedness of his theoretical framework, and with the tools it can provide to orient action, even though there are also limits to the reach of the theory (which have to do, interestingly, with limits to the compulsions that characterise capitalism itself: it’s not necessarily a good thing, strictly speaking, to inhabit a context amenable to this form of theorisation – the possibility for this form of theory itself is a testament to the existence of a particular form of constraint). As I continue to move forward through the text in future posts, I’ll no doubt have occasion to draw attention to other examples of this sort of self-bounding of the theory.

Second, the fact that a particular form of perception and thought is enacted in a specific moment of capitalism, does not mean that this form of perception and thought cannot also be enacted in some other way in collective practice. Just to take a throwaway example: Marx makes an extremely complex argument about the specific ways in which a kind of human equality is enacted in collective practice in the reproduction of capitalism. This doesn’t mean, however, that human equality is not or cannot be enacted in completely different ways (in fact, it is actually essential for Marx’s critique that it at least be possible to enact certain dispositions in different ways, else the abolition of capitalism would necessarily entail the abolition of forms of perception and thought that Marx clearly wants to preserve and views as integral to a more emancipated form of collective life). So, a particular group of people may well constitute some local environment in the present time that enacts some kind of human equality in a particular way that is separable from the ways in which a particular kind of equality is unintentionally played out in capitalist reproduction – or a human collectivity in the future might devise very different (less abstract and formal, etc.) ways of enacting human equality in a very different form of social life.

Third, even if Marx successfully establishes that a particular form of perception and thought arises as a moment in the reproduction of capitalism, this kind of argument does not by itself invalidate the entirety of this form of perception and thought. Again, let’s take the issue of human equality as an example. Marx’s argument here (and please forgive that I am stating this very, very roughly, and without trying to establish the plausibility of the argument, but only to give a sense of some of the “moves” involved) is that, in some dimension of collective practice, we are coercively enacting an indifference to the variegated qualitative forms of commodities – including commodities of the human sort – by treating those commodities, in collective practice, as bearers of a common, qualitatively homogeneous social substance, which Marx calls “value”. Sticking to the terms set out in the first chapter, we are (at first unintentionally) collectively treating commodities (including humans) as “intrinsically” material objects that possess supersensible essences and are governed by impersonal universal laws, but which can also be contingently pressed into arbitrary and ephemeral social roles. By engaging in this unintentional practice, we inadvertently constitute a situation in which “the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice”.

This prejudice has a strange, “counterfactual” character, since it is not based on any extrapolation or conceptual abstraction from our experience of empirical humans, but rather on our experience of a “real abstraction” generated in collective practice (I realise the nature of this argument will probably not be completely clear at this point – this is one of the issues I hope to thematise more precisely as I continue moving through Capital). It is therefore socially plausible that a belief in human equality should arise and spread, in conditions in which humans are in other dimensions of social practice treated profoundly unequally. This belief may then provide the motive force for the emergence of social movements that mobilise to transform other dimensions of collective practice, in order to enact the equality already being practised elsewhere. (Note that the qualitative form of equality sought politically – abstract, formal, and universalising, for example – can also be primed by the qualitative characteristics in which equality is coercively enacted in the course of capitalist reproduction.)

When social actors set about trying to understand the basis for this belief in human equality, however, they run the risk of not grasping the social genesis of the impersonal dimension of capitalist practice in which this equality is being unintentionally enacted. This risk does not reflect the potential that social actors might make a “mere” conceptual error or suffer from a defect in cognition, but is rather a risk grounded in the determinate qualitative form of specific moments within capitalism. If social actors fail to grasp this social genesis, then they might, for example, conclude that human equality is natural, while the various forms of inequality that confront us on all sides in other dimensions of social practice, might strike them, by contrast, as artificial: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”

When they try to explain the basis for this “natural” equality, they might interpret it in biological or physiological terms – Marx suggests that this is a socially plausible interpretive move when he mentions that we treat commodities as material objects in at least one dimension of social practice. Or they might interpret this naturally equality more “spiritually”, in terms of the supersensible essence – the ghost in the machine – that also emerges in our collective enactment of the commodity form.

By “grounding” these interpretive moves, by suggesting that it makes a certain social sense or reflects a certain immanent plausibility that these sorts of interpretive strategies would arise, Marx is not necessarily debunking the entirety of the claims associated with these interpretations. His argument suggests that we are “primed” for, or may find it more “intuitive” to arrive at, specific kinds of interpretations – that these interpretations seem “always already familiar” to us, and therefore lie ready at hand – in part because they do express and are adequate to particular aspects of the context in which they arise. This does not mean that these are the only interpretations possible, or that it is “predetermined” that social actors will make specific interpretations – only that they have a certain social plausibility (since Marx treats capitalism as a complex and multi-layered social form, there are always multiple plausible perspectives, such that forms of perception and thought are neither random, nor are they fully theoretically determinable) . Probabilistically, it is likely that certain kinds of interpretations will arise, given the specific qualitative characteristics of our collective practice. Marx’s argument also suggests that the existence of such interpretations can deflect our attention from the ways in which, to continue with the example, we are enacting a certain sort of equality (coercively) in collective practice. But it leaves open the possibility that these interpretive moves might themselves be subject to validation (and contestation) in their own terms (albeit with a complex potential for cross-interference between moments within capitalism and other elements within collective practice).

To explore this just a little bit more: take, as an example, the notion, mentioned above, that there might be a biological basis for human equality. Marx argues that we enact a kind of equality in collective practice by treating commodities as though they are partake in some qualitatively homogeneous social substance, which he calls value. Commodities might vary in how much of this social substance they embody, but they all share this common qualitative social “essence”. He also argues that there is a determinate risk that this common social substance won’t be recognised as social, but will instead be interpreted as “material”. If, in commodities of the human sort, this social “essence” is misinterpreted as a biological substance, this opens up certain deeply ambivalent potentials. It becomes plausible, for example, to investigate how biologically similar humans actually might be to one another, and to open up for a “secular” investigation of the human form. There is potential in such an investigation for uncovering new grounds for the assertion of human equality, as well as for other scientific and medical discoveries that increase our mastery over our own physiological states. There is also, however, great risk that biological difference – gender, race, disability, simple biological variation from the “norm” – can become inflected in terms of a lack of the common “substance” that renders us equally human – that a biologised notion of the potential basis for human equality could increase the vulnerability to a situation in which biological difference is taken as an “objective” or “material” refutation of the possibility of human equality, and received (given our “priming” to view the “material” as asocial and impersonal) as something more “objective” and less contingent than forms of inequality that appear to result from practices that we are “primed” to perceive as “overtly social” – and therefore as arbitrary and ephemeral.

One reason for exploring the links between such potentials and risks, and capitalist reproduction, is that it makes it a bit easier to understand why certain kinds of theories may recurrently arise (and be defeated, and arise again) so long as capitalism continues to be reproduced: capitalism itself may (in nonintuitive ways) be priming dispositions that render social actors receptive to specific interpretive schemas. At the same time, the sorts of social practices that might be directly associated with the reproduction of capitalism, need not be the sole or even, in particular periods, the primary ways in which particular forms of perception and thought are “primed”: other forms of institutionalisation and other types of social practice that are more contingent in relation to capitalist reproduction may operate to reinforce or to diminish the force of our experiences in engaging with, and extrapolating from, specific moments immanent to capitalism.

On another level, the ability to demonstrate that some particular set of dispositions plays a role in capitalist reproduction, does not by itself “debunk” those dispositions: capitalism may, for example, prime us to be open to many new potentials that we value and wish to retain. Theorising how we might open ourselves to such potentials simply prepares us to understand a bit more about how our own appreciation for specific potentials (and, no doubt, relative insensitivity to others) is located – is something that exists for us, in ways that we can potentially come to understand a bit better. This process of understanding our own locatedness then also potentially renders more readily available a movement across the various moments and perspectives that are available to us, rather than a default glide into whatever perspective happens to lie most closely to mind… But this is an issue for a different metatheoretical discussion.

It’s late, I’m becoming very tired, and I have a very long day tomorrow (apologies, as well, that I’ll be very unlikely to be active online over the next couple of days). I had wanted to do much more with the sorts of things I’ve discussed above (I’m particularly self-conscious about this topic, as there are folks lurking about who know far more about the specific issues, well outside the confines of a theory of capitalism, than I ever will: if it needs to be said, I’m not making grand claims for the power of a theory of capitalism to thematise such issues in a general way, but rather suggesting that there is more potential for interconnection and cross-fertilisation than might appear if Capital is read, for example, as a straightforward “economic” theory). In part, I’m realising that I’m hampered by not having gotten further in the discussion of Capital and, in part, I need more time and space for much greater nuance that I’ve allowed myself above – hopefully the resultant post won’t be too irritating, but will be taken as a sort of promissory note that I can hopefully cash in, in a less superficial way, at some later point.

Previous posts in this series include:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

Not Knowing Where to Have It

Cartesian Fragment

Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

Don’t Panic

I just received what identifies itself as a “Vital Update” from a conference I’m due to attend. Among other things, the update tells me: “We will also have a “Delegates Survival Kit” ready for you very soon.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever received a “Delegates Survival Kit” for a conference. Wondering a bit what I’ve signed on for here…

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

Okay. Back to Capital. The third section of the first chapter. When I was last discussing this section, I had just finished an analysis of the section on the relative form (3.A.2), which would suggest that I should perhaps pick up with the subsequent section on the equivalent form. But of course that would be too simple… ;-P

What I want to try to do here is skip around a bit to see if I can make some sense of a few of the overarching lines of analysis that structure this text. I’ll apologise in advance, as I suspect this might be quite a scattered post – I may need to come up behind it with subsequent posts that will express the content more clearly and coherently. But anyone reading along in this series will probably be somewhat used to that…

In earlier posts, I’ve made the claim that, in spite of appearances, Marx isn’t outlining an historical development of capitalism in this section. When I say “in spite of appearances”, this is because there are moments in the text where it looks very strongly like Marx is doing precisely that, so my claim about textual strategy is not immediately or self-evidently true. Marx speaks of “metamorphoses” that the forms must undergo, in order finally to yield the money form. He speaks of “transitions” from forms that are more “elementary” to forms that are more “complete”. He speaks of the simple commodity form as the “germ” of the money form. And in section 3.C.1, you get a long passage that looks very much as though it is recounting stages in historical development:

All commodities now express their value (1) in an elementary form, because in a single commodity; (2) with unity, because in one and the same commodity. This form of value is elementary and the same for all, therefore general.

The forms A and B were fit only to express the value of a commodity as something distinct from its use value or material form.

The first form, A, furnishes such equations as the following: – 1 coat = 20 yards of linen, 10 lbs of tea = ½ a ton of iron. The value of the coat is equated to linen, that of the tea to iron. But to be equated to linen, and again to iron, is to be as different as are linen and iron. This form, it is plain, occurs practically only in the first beginning, when the products of labour are converted into commodities by accidental and occasional exchanges.

The second form, B, distinguishes, in a more adequate manner than the first, the value of a commodity from its use value, for the value of the coat is there placed in contrast under all possible shapes with the bodily form of the coat; it is equated to linen, to iron, to tea, in short, to everything else, only not to itself, the coat. On the other hand, any general expression of value common to all is directly excluded; for, in the equation of value of each commodity, all other commodities now appear only under the form of equivalents. The expanded form of value comes into actual existence for the first time so soon as a particular product of labour, such as cattle, is no longer exceptionally, but habitually, exchanged for various other commodities.

The third and lastly developed form expresses the values of the whole world of commodities in terms of a single commodity set apart for the purpose, namely, the linen, and thus represents to us their values by means of their equality with linen. The value of every commodity is now, by being equated to linen, not only differentiated from its own use value, but from all other use values generally, and is, by that very fact, expressed as that which is common to all commodities. By this form, commodities are, for the first time, effectively brought into relation with one another as values, or made to appear as exchange values.

The two earlier forms either express the value of each commodity in terms of a single commodity of a different kind, or in a series of many such commodities. In both cases, it is, so to say, the special business of each single commodity to find an expression for its value, and this it does without the help of the others. These others, with respect to the former, play the passive parts of equivalents. The general form of value, C, results from the joint action of the whole world of commodities, and from that alone. A commodity can acquire a general expression of its value only by all other commodities, simultaneously with it, expressing their values in the same equivalent; and every new commodity must follow suit. It thus becomes evident that since the existence of commodities as values is purely social, this social existence can be expressed by the totality of their social relations alone, and consequently that the form of their value must be a socially recognised form.

What gives? How is this passage – with its “in the first beginning”, its shifts from “‘accidental” to “habitual” exchanges, its “lastly developed form”, etc. – not a description of an historical progression? The answer, I would suggest, is that the account above does express itself as though we used to have “accidental” commodity production, and then moved on to “habitual” commodity production, and finally to “fully developed” commodity production – but that the historical rendering of this narrative can be read as an expression of the particular phenomenological perspective Marx is analysing at this point in his narrative. It does not, in other words, reflect the “for us” of Marx’s text, but simply the latest located perspective – one that, in this case, confuses a potential logical ordering of these various expressions of value, for an historical progression in which the less “complete” expressions of the value form are interpreted as being more historically primitive. (This begs for a meta-commentary on Durkheim’s Elementary Forms, but I’ll restrain myself… ;-P)

How do we know that this is the case? First, because we have already been “primed” for this conclusion, in the digression on Aristotle that takes place in 3.A.3. Marx has claimed that the elementary form of value – the form in which individual commodities are “accidentally” exchanged with one another, which appears to be historically primitive in the passage above – already contains “the whole mystery of the form of value”. Yet he presents Aristotle, analysing something that looks very much like the elementary form of value – hypothetically arriving at the notion that some underlying common substance must exist, in order for the exchange of unlike goods to be possible – and yet ultimately dismissing his own hypothesis, and concluding:

“It is, however, in reality impossible, that such unlike things can be commensurable” – i.e., qualitatively equal. Such an equalisation can only be something foreign to their real nature, consequently only “a makeshift for practical purposes”.

Marx doesn’t quite voice the “for us” of the text explicitly here, but his ironic engagement with this example is more palpable than in many early sections of the text. He argues with Aristotle here – of course there is something that makes diverse goods qualitatively equal – their common quality of being products of human labour! Aristotle doesn’t see this, however, because Greek society is founded on the slavery – and, thus, on the incommensurability of different kinds of people – and, therefore, of the practices those different kinds of people perform – their diverse labouring activities. Marx then makes explicit that the “mystery” of the elementary form is one that requires a fully developed system of commodity production, to “solve”:

The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality.

Marx can’t resist putting “in truth” into quotation marks. The meta-commentary here suggests that the form of perception being analysed in this section may indeed perceive Aristotle’s society to possess the same “essence” – to contain the same “truth” – as our society. Aristotle might not have seen this truth – but nevertheless it was always there, waiting for historical circumstances to bring it to light. The “for us” of the text is meant to see through this form of perception: human labour was not “in truth” at the bottom of exchange in Aristotle’s time – the conditions of his society did not simply prevent him from seeing value or the equality of human labour – those conditions meant that this “truth” had not yet been brought into being in collective practice – the “truth” of value hadn’t yet been enacted for Aristotle to “see”. In the section on commodity fetishism, Marx offers a more explicit meta-commentary on the perspective he is illustrating here:

forms of social production that preceded the bourgeois form, are treated by the bourgeoisie in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions.

Elaborated in the attached footnote, which quotes Marx’s earlier critique of Proudhon:

“Economists have a singular method of procedure. There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation from God. … Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any”

The perspective being unfolded here is thus historicising to the extent that it is explicitly aware that not all times have possessed the insights of the current moment. It is also dehistoricising, however, to the extent that it exempts its own insights from (reflexive) historicisation, and views them instead as capturing a “truth” that has always existed, but that has become apparent only in the present time. Marx can’t resist a playful poke at the form of thought he is immanently unfolding here – offering side by side an historical explanation for why the “mystery” of value (and the solution to this mystery) relies on a particular historical configuration, while continuing to speak as though he is solving a timeless riddle – uncovering a material reality that has “in truth” existed all along.

Even without the leap forward to the section on the fetish, and even without a recognition of the mild irony in the digression on Aristotle, it is still possible to see that Marx is embedding and relativising the notion that there might be some kind of historical progression in the “development” of value’s forms of expression. Marx unfolds these forms of expression, ranking them by how well each one meets the criteria of expressing the opposition between use value and value, and of expressing value as the materialisation of “undifferentiated human labour”. Along the way, he undermines the historical interpretation by showing how the “less adequate” forms continue to be preserved as moments of the “fully developed” expression.

Thus, in the “fully developed” expression – the “general form” – one commodity (money) has come to be exceptionalised out from the universe of other commodities, such that its own value is never directly expressed, because it serves as the universal equivalent in terms of which the values of all other commodities are measured. Yet the universal equivalent can fill this role only by entering into the relationship described by the “elementary” form, with all other commodities. So the elementary form of expression of value is preserved as a necessary moment within the most developed expression:

All commodities now express their value (1) in an elementary form, because in a single commodity; (2) with unity, because in one and the same commodity. This form of value is elementary and the same for all, therefore general.

More interesting, the “expanded” form of value – which Marx initially analyses as an intermediate stage between the elementary and fully developed forms – is also preserved. Marx had originally determined this expanded form as one in which each commodity expressed its value in relation to the entire universe of other commodities. Most commodities leave this “expanded” form behind when a particular commodity crystallises out as the universal equivalent, expressing their value in terms of the universal equivalent alone. There is, however, one exception: the commodity that serves as the universal equivalent, which cannot serve as equivalent to itself, and which therefore continues to express its value through the expanded form, in relation to the entire universe of other commodities. The “expanded” form is thus also preserved as a necessary moment within most developed expression of the form of value:

The commodity that figures as universal equivalent, is, on the other hand, excluded from the relative value form. If the linen, or any other commodity serving as universal equivalent, were, at the same time, to share in the relative form of value, it would have to serve as its own equivalent. We should then have 20 yds of linen = 20 yds of linen; this tautology expresses neither value, nor magnitude of value. In order to express the relative value of the universal equivalent, we must rather reverse the form C. This equivalent has no relative form of value in common with other commodities, but its value is relatively expressed by a never ending series of other commodities. Thus, the expanded form of relative value, or form B, now shows itself as the specific form of relative value for the equivalent commodity.

Why on earth does all this matter? Well, for starters, it’s fairly clear, once Marx makes these points, that he cannot intend the logical development he traces in this section, to be any kind of straightforward historical progression: the forms that initially appear more “primitive” (and that in reality are less adequate, when viewed with reference to how fully they can express certain social potentials) nevertheless remain integral to the ongoing operation of the most “developed” form, which expresses these potentials most clearly.

This is a motif that will recur throughout Capital, and it carries profound implications for the normative evaluation of proposals for specific forms of political practice. Marx will use this sort of analytical strategy repeatedly, in order to foreground what he will claim is an underlying and tacit unity between moments of capitalist society that appear superficially opposed to one another. Although I can’t develop these points adequately here, it may be worth exploring some of the general sorts of things Marx will try to do with this kind of analysis.

At the most basic level, he will suggest, at times, that specific proposals for political practice may be “utopian” in the sense of being unrealisable – because, for example, they call for the abolition of some dimension of capitalist society that is integrally bound together and generated along with another dimension that will be preserved. In terms of the categories introduced at this point in the text, for example, it would be “utopian” to put forward a proposal for retaining the “general form” of value, while abolishing the other forms of expression, since the general form bears these other forms necessarily in its wake – this point is less narrow than it may appear, once we’ve explored some of the implications of these forms – I’ll come back to this in just a bit.

Marx will also use this form of analysis to suggest specific ways in which complex interrelationships between moments in a multi-layered social context can operate to trick the analytical eye. In the sections we’re discussing here, for example, Marx explicitly argues that certain strands of political economy get distracted by the contingency inherent in the equivalent form – in which the specific commodity that comes to play the role of equivalent is a matter of contingent social custom. This contingency is “genuine” – and it leads the political economists to make perfectly valid claims about the various arbitrary commodities that have served the role of equivalent in different times and places. Yet, to the extent that analysis stops at this point, the mystery of value cannot even be posed as a problem for analysis – the focus on which commodity serves the role of equivalent deflects attention to the contingent contents that happen to occupy a certain position in a structural relationship, and thus helps to obscure the question of how such structures or forms have come into being. As a result, the contingency or necessity of those structures becomes more difficult to analyse – the problem becomes more difficult to “see”.

The temptation to read logical ordering as historical progression is another form of perception that this text highlights as a kind of immanent risk – a socially plausible form of “misrecognition”. Marx here suggests a way to ground a teleological perspective that, once again, expresses something genuine about its context – that different forms express, to greater and lesser degrees, specific potentials immanent within the context. Yet other immanently-available perspectives reveal the teleological perspective to be an inadequate expression of the potentials it attempts to express. The teleological perspective inappropriately (if plausibly) projects a logical order back into time, confusing moments within contemporary capitalist society, for historical stages of development that purportedly led to contemporary capitalism. Capitalism thus comes to be positioned as a teleological culmination – as a kind of immanent “truth” toward which previous human history was always already tending (for better or for worse – Marx will eventually explore both potentials). This teleological perspective impedes an adequate exploration of the form of this “logic” and obscures the contemporaneous relationships that connect moments within the logical “progression” intrinsically to one another.

While Marx doesn’t thematise this issue explicitly at this point in the text, the consequences of the teleological form of perception for modern history have been particularly devastating, as actively constituted, fully modern, forms of “underdevelopment” have been recurrently recast as naturally-occurring, indigenous, “primitive” social forms, perceived as occupying some early stage on an as-yet-unrealised continuum to capitalist modernity… Marx is beginning to set up for a critique of such narratives of “underdevelopment” – very tacitly – at this early point in the text.

The tension Marx outlines between the “expanded” and “general” forms of value is also of particular normative interest. The expanded form of value – in which each commodity seeks to express its value via relationships with all other commodities – is positioned in the text as a kind of materialised relativism:

The value of a single commodity, the linen, for example, is now expressed in terms of numberless other elements of the world of commodities. Every other commodity now becomes a mirror of the linen’s value. It is thus, that for the first time, this value shows itself in its true light as a congelation of undifferentiated human labour. For the labour that creates it, now stands expressly revealed, as labour that ranks equally with every other sort of human labour, no matter what its form, whether tailoring, ploughing, mining, &c., and no matter, therefore, whether it is realised in coats, corn, iron, or gold. The linen, by virtue of the form of its value, now stands in a social relation, no longer with only one other kind of commodity, but with the whole world of commodities. As a commodity, it is a citizen of that world. At the same time, the interminable series of value equations implies, that as regards the value of a commodity, it is a matter of indifference under what particular form, or kind, of use value it appears.

And, moreover, as intrinsically corrosive and unstable:

In the first place, the relative expression of value is incomplete because the series representing it is interminable. The chain of which each equation of value is a link, is liable at any moment to be lengthened by each new kind of commodity that comes into existence and furnishes the material for a fresh expression of value. In the second place, it is a many-coloured mosaic of disparate and independent expressions of value. And lastly, if, as must be the case, the relative value of each commodity in turn, becomes expressed in this expanded form, we get for each of them a relative value form, different in every case, and consisting of an interminable series of expressions of value. The defects of the expanded relative value form are reflected in the corresponding equivalent form. Since the bodily form of each single commodity is one particular equivalent form amongst numberless others, we have, on the whole, nothing but fragmentary equivalent forms, each excluding the others. In the same way, also, the special, concrete, useful kind of labour embodied in each particular equivalent, is presented only as a particular kind of labour, and therefore not as an exhaustive representative of human labour generally. The latter, indeed, gains adequate manifestation in the totality of its manifold, particular, concrete forms. But, in that case, its expression in an infinite series is ever incomplete and deficient in unity.

The “general form” at first appears to be a solution to this spiralling relativistic regress. In this form, one master commodity steps outside the endless mutually-referential signifying chains, to stand, apparently exceptionalised, in relation to the sliding and endlessly permutating network of relationships among the universe of commodities, in an attempt to “ground” entire network of relations on a more secure foundation:

Finally, the form C [the general form] gives to the world of commodities a general social relative form of value, because, and in so far as, thereby all commodities, with the exception of one, are excluded from the equivalent form. A single commodity, the linen, appears therefore to have acquired the character of direct exchangeability with every other commodity because, and in so far as, this character is denied to every other commodity.

Significantly, this general form is presented as fully adequate as an expression of the distinctive social form of labour under capitalism – “undifferentiated human labour” – which, in this text, figures as a form of domination (more on this, hopefully, in the next post):

The general form of relative value, embracing the whole world of commodities, converts the single commodity that is excluded from the rest, and made to play the part of equivalent – here the linen – into the universal equivalent. The bodily form of the linen is now the form assumed in common by the values of all commodities; it therefore becomes directly exchangeable with all and every of them. The substance linen becomes the visible incarnation, the social chrysalis state of every kind of human labour. Weaving, which is the labour of certain private individuals producing a particular article, linen, acquires in consequence a social character, the character of equality with all other kinds of labour. The innumerable equations of which the general form of value is composed, equate in turn the labour embodied in the linen to that embodied in every other commodity, and they thus convert weaving into the general form of manifestation of undifferentiated human labour. In this manner the labour realised in the values of commodities is presented not only under its negative aspect, under which abstraction is made from every concrete form and useful property of actual work, but its own positive nature is made to reveal itself expressly. The general value form is the reduction of all kinds of actual labour to their common character of being human labour generally, of being the expenditure of human labour power.

The general value form, which represents all products of labour as mere congelations of undifferentiated human labour, shows by its very structure that it is the social resumé of the world of commodities. That form consequently makes it indisputably evident that in the world of commodities the character possessed by all labour of being human labour constitutes its specific social character.

As discussed above, however, the general form – introduced as a form that would constrain the inherent corrosive relational permutations of the expanded form – necessarily draws the expanded form along in its wake. Exceptionalised from the universe of commodities, having no relative form in common with other commodities as a result, the commodity that occupies the role of universal equivalent (money) can express its own value only in relation to the entire universe of all other commodities – only, that is, through the expanded form:

The commodity that figures as universal equivalent, is, on the other hand, excluded from the relative value form. If the linen, or any other commodity serving as universal equivalent, were, at the same time, to share in the relative form of value, it would have to serve as its own equivalent. We should then have 20 yds of linen = 20 yds of linen; this tautology expresses neither value, nor magnitude of value. In order to express the relative value of the universal equivalent, we must rather reverse the form C. This equivalent has no relative form of value in common with other commodities, but its value is relatively expressed by a never ending series of other commodities. Thus, the expanded form of relative value, or form B, now shows itself as the specific form of relative value for the equivalent commodity.

I would suggest that this complex, somewhat convoluted discussion of the relationship between expanded and general forms of value, sets up the possibility to determine a structural tension within capitalism for an antinomy between a particular kind of relativism and a particular kind of “fundamentalism” or “absolutism”. In this antinomy, both forms of thought, and the practices with which they are associated, are mutually constitutive, intrinsically drawing one another along in their mutual wake – each perhaps at times appearing as the solution to the other, both potentially failing to grasp their own mutual imbrication. Marx here suggests here a potential to embed forms of perception that seek out an exceptionalised a priori ground on which to found a stable system, as well as forms of perception that deny the possibility for such a ground, and that then see a corrosive instability as the inevitable result. He thereby points to at least one dimension within collective practice where a conflict between “absolutist” and “relativist” forms can be seen as inhering in more than abstract “ideas” – where such a conflict can be seen to be enacted within collective practice. He further suggests the potential that such a conflict – to the extent that it can be seen to be enacted in practice – might not be amenable to a purely “conceptual” solution. To the notion that such antinomies might result from trying “to scratch where it doesn’t itch”, Marx might reply that, unfortunately, the itch, although social, is nonetheless all too real – and we can’t expect to abolish in thought, what is generated in practice…

But all of this is very gestural at this point in the text – most of these points remain extremely tacit. I draw attention to them as suggestions for a potential, more fully developed, analysis, rather than as points that are in any way fully fleshed out here.

At this point, I have an awkward decision: I have a few additional points I’d like to make on this section – points that don’t necessarily follow from what I’ve written above, but that also might not be substantive enough (or sufficiently closely related to one another) to form a cohesive post of their own. I think I’ll separate them out into a separate post, just to preserve the quasi-cohesive content I’ve posted above in its own distinct space. This means, though, that the next post in this series is likely to be extremely disjoint, as it will very likely take the form of my playing around with a few stray passages with interesting implications that don’t, at this point, connect up with any the overarching narrative strands to which I’ve been drawing attention… So, one scattered post coming up after this one – and then, perhaps, I’ll be ready to move into the section on the fetish?? We’ll see…

Apologies as always for the non-proofread state – I’m particularly worried about slippage in the terminology I’ve used for the various forms (there are distinctions in the text between relative and equivalent forms within each of the forms I’ve analysed above – writing in a rush, and so I didn’t do justice to this…). Hopefully people will bear with this…

Previous posts in this series include:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

Not Knowing Where to Have It

Cartesian Fragment


A few days late, as this was posted while I was away at the conference, but I wanted to draw attention to a fantastic post from Nick at the accursed share, which explores the complexities of grasping potentials for political change within a philosophy of immanence. The full post covers a great deal of ground, and is worth reading in full. A few brief selections will give some sense of the whole:

One of the first and most important questions facing any immanent ontology of politics that aims at being revolutionary is the question of how to discern the potentials that exist immanently within a given situation. Such an analysis precludes all the teleological and transcendent determinations of social movement, since they exist precisely as overarching logics that determine immanence from a distance (remaining themselves untransformed by the vagaries of time). For much of contemporary philosophy, such a transcendent conception is a reversal into traditional metaphysics. Following John Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophy, we can describe Deleuze, Badiou, Henry and Laruelle as thinkers of immanence. To this list we could add Žižek, who, like Badiou, seeks to discern the gaps within immanence. The problem faced by all these thinkers, on a political level, is how to determine the possibility of true revolution without, however, falling into what Daniel Bensaid has called “the miracle of the event” (TA 94).

Nick goes on to contrast approaches that confront this problem through what he terms “negative immanence” – that seek “to proclaim the inauguration of the New as a complete break with the past” – an approach that he sees in the work of Žižek and (in a more qualified sense) Badiou:

In both Badiou and Žižek, therefore, there seems to be a sense that the only way to account for a truly revolutionary and immanent politics is to put forth some conception of a radical rupture at the heart of being (for Badiou, the event that breaks with the situation; for Žižek, the subject as void being the foundation of any positive order). The problem with such a radical rupture is twofold: one, it can lead to political apathy by avoiding any question of fostering the conditions for a new order to arise. By this I mean that the rupture is determined as essentially aleatory and unpredictable, and therefore incapable of being prepared for. Secondly, it tends to avoid the question of actual politics.

With a more Deleuzian alternative, which Nick describes as “positive immanence”, that:

strips negativity of any foundational status. Rather, ontology is immediately a becoming, a constant individuation premised upon intensive systems composed of a continually changing set of heterogeneous elements that differentially determine each other. Beyond the actualized, identifiable elements of our situation there exists unactualized, yet real potentials exerting force on the dynamics of the actual. The problem of revolutionary change becomes not a matter of seeking evental sites and immanent ruptures, but rather of discerning the productivity of the potentials immanent to the real sociohistorical situation we live in.

Nick moves next to Marx – and to Negri and Hardt – repositioning common critiques of Negri and Hardt’s work in order to set up for the concluding challenge:

The question is, and I’m left without an answer for the moment, can there be a rigorous method of seeking potentials? It is necessarily an immanent and hence constantly rejuvenated method, but when Deleuze and Guattari speak of ‘indices’ in Anti-Oedipus (e.g. A-O 350-3), it seems that they have in mind precisely such a method. Similarly, Deleuze’s work on Nietzsche brings up the question of a “symptomatology” which sees that a “phenomenon is not an appearance or even an apparition but a [non-representational] sign, a symptom which finds its meaning in an existing force” (N 3). It is such a science of symptoms that seems to me to be key to working out a revolutionary politics that truly faces up to immanence.

Good stuff – go read the original.

Summer Philosophy in Melbourne

I am utterly wiped out at the moment – head full of static and completely unable to write anything serious (or, for that matter, even to respond to Claude’s meme [Claude, I found myself looking at it, and literally going, “fantasy… what’s the title of a piece of fantasy I liked… hmm… maybe the next question will be better… sexy songs… hmm… can I remember any sexy songs? Any songs, of any kind?” My memory is producing absolutely nothing at the moment – regardless of the genre… Will try again later, when recall wants to work for me again…]).

So now that I’ve no doubt instilled great confidence in my intellectual capacities, I wanted to put in a quick plug for the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy, which is an “independent teaching and research school dedicated to Continental thought”. Based at the University of Melbourne, the MSCP offers a wide range of week-long seminars over the university term breaks, covering a diverse set of theorists and themes in continental philosophy. I was able to attend a series on Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, as well as a series on topics in 20th century German philosophy, during the winter break, and found the sessions excellent. They’ve just now released their schedule for the coming summer session, which includes the following sessions:

Week 1: Jan 28 – Feb 1
History of Philosophy I: The Pre-Socratics (David Rathbone)
Nietzsche & The Birth of Tragedy: Music, Science & Philosophy (Paul Daniels)

Week 2: February 4 – 8
History of Philosophy II: Plato and His Contemporaries (Cameron Shingleton and James Garrett)
Women in Dark Times (Matthew Sharpe, Lucy Ward and Sergio Mariscal)

Week 3: February 11 – 15
Emmanual Lévinas: Philosophy of Radical Alterity (Andrea León-Montero)
Thinking the Analytical/Continental Divide (George Duke and Jack Reynolds)

Week 4: February 18 – 22
The Pleasures: of Political Philosophy and Other Interruptions (Bryan Cooke)
Alain Badiou’s Being and Event (Jon Roffe)

The sessions labelled “History of Philosophy” are the first sequences in a series that will continue to unfold over the next three term breaks, intended to provide a broad orientation to the history of philosophy. Detailed descriptions of each session, as well as a registration form, can be found here.

The Hegel Summer School, in which I’m involved, will also take place at the University of Melbourne during the coming term break: 15-16 February. This unfortunately means that we will overlap the final day of the Week 3 MSCP sessions – but you guys know which session you’d rather attend, right? ;-P