Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

What Presses Now

Sinthome’s continued fascination with Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura has led to another wonderful post on historical materialism, in which Sinthome quotes a passage that expresses one of the forms of perception and thought I’ve recently been suggesting Marx is trying to ground in Capital – the distinction between a timeless “material” reality, and contingent, arbitrary, “social” attributes projected onto this reality:

A property is that which not at all
Can be disjoined and severed from a thing
Without a fatal dissolution: such,
Weight to the rocks, heat to the fire, and flow
To the wide waters, touch to corporal things,
Intangibility to the viewless void.
But state of slavery, pauperhood, and wealth,
Freedom, and war, and concord, and all else
Which come and go whilst Nature stands the same,
We’re wont, and rightly, to call by-products.
Even time exists not of itself; but sense
Reads out of things what happened long ago,
What presses now, and what shall follow after:
No man, we must admit, feels time itself,
Disjoined from motion and repose of things.

Sinthome adds:

Lucretius’ stunning observation– I’d be interested to see whether it was commonly made in antiquity, I cannot think of other examples off-hand –is that by-products are not connected to the object itself. Lucretius’ examples are clear enough: regardless of whether I have the property of wealth, poverty, slavery, freedom, or am in a state of war, or peace, I remain the same person. That is, were I to lose all my wealth, I am still this person who has lost all of his wealth. As such, these properties are not connected properties of my being.

For obvious reasons, I’m also interested in the question of how common this kind of observation might have been in other contexts: Marx is making an argument that we are somehow constituting this kind of distinction unintentionally in collective practice. Among the several stabs I’ve taken below to try to express what Marx might be up to (and to continue Marx’s grand tradition, and quote myself), I take Marx to see capitalism as a situation in which:

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

Or, a bit later in my trundle through the first chapter:

I have suggested that the argument about the fetish is not concerned solely with explaining the “supersensible” properties that are perceived to inhere in material objects: it also lays the foundation for grasping the conviction that there are “material objects” – problematising the conception (expressed in many places in the first chapter) that our perception of a “material world” represents some kind of “demythologised” form of thought that arises quasi-automatically, once artificial social determinations have been stripped away, leaving “nature” behind. Instead, the “material world” is grasped in this argument as its own practically constituted “positivity” – as the product of determinate kinds of collective practice. (As a side note, to avoid confusion: This kind of argument is not intended to position human practice as somehow generative of the entirety of the non-human world – evoking a sort of radical social constructivism – but rather to explore connections between our current sensitivity to specific potentials of the non-human world, and other dimensions of our contemporaneous historical experience.)

Note that, since I’m suggesting that Marx is unfolding a reflexive critical theory, this sort of analytical move does not invalidate his own critical deployment of a (grounded) notion of “materialism”. Instead, this move enables Marx to deploy a concept of materialism (or other normative standards) non-dogmatically, in a way that symmetrically applies the same critical framework to his own position, and to positions he criticises, and thus does not rely on critical standards that float above the context being criticised.

I therefore see the “denaturalising” move made by the argument about the fetish as cutting “both ways” – as encompassing concepts of use value and exchange value, sensuous material nature and supersensible laws, subjects and objects, and a constellation of other dichotomies that will be unfolded as having interrelated, practical bases in the course of this analysis. And I see this argument opening up the possibility for an analysis of capitalism as a peculiarly “layered” social context, constituted by intrinsically bound and yet conflictual dimensions of collective practice that mutually differentiate one another to constitute a practical dichotomy between, on the one hand, a “secularised” impersonal world of “material” objects whose interactions are governed by “universal” laws, and, on the other, a contingent, historically-variable, intersubjective realm of human custom.

Sinthome is drawn – as I think Marx also was – to the political implications of such forms of perception and thought. To sample another passage from Larval Subjects:

Lucretius’ distinction between properties and by-products has implications that reach far beyond the examples he gives, and which are a central axiom of historical materialism. His examples of freedom and slavery are particularly telling. Freedom, slavery, are not natural features of physical bodies, but are rather a product of relations among bodies. That is, they are, according to this metaphysic, institutions. Many will recall that Aristotle had argued that non-Greeks and women are naturally inferior to Greek men, thereby treating this inferiority as a property of these bodies. Aristotle naturalizes social relations, thereby treating them as the natural order of things.

If Lucretius’ words cause the world to shake, then this is because this thesis belongs not only to the various social identities we might possess, treating them all as by-products rather than properties, but it also extends (without him saying so) to all social institutions as well. Being-a-king is not a property of the king, but is instead a by-product of being recognized as a king by his subjects. Gender relations between men and women are not the natural way of things, but the result of ongoing autopoiesis whereby both parties involved reproduce themselves in their gendered identities through their interactions with one another (without it being possible to say one group produces the identity of the other). Sexual identities are not natural properties, but are again by products of practices and institutions.

Sinthome also hits perfectly on the critical intention of the form of critique in which I see Marx to have been engaging (without suggesting that Sinthome would have agreed with Marx’s specific claims or with the social or practice-theoretic framing of Marx’s critical approach):

These concepts are perhaps familiar to us today– though I hear people making such claims on behalf of the natural all the time –so it is difficult to hear just how much they make the world rumble and shake. However, if there is one central function of the project of critique and historical materialism, this is to show the essential contingency of social institutions and identities… The way they are “by-products” or “accidents”, rather than properties. The activity of demonstrating the contingency of institutions is not an activity of “debunking” or falsifying. We might, for instance, show that rights are by-products or accidents of certain social organizations. This does not render rights false, just as it is no less the case that I am a professor because being-a-professor required a whole host of institutions from universities, places to teach, states, and my students acting towards me as a philosopher. Rather, if rights are by-products or accidents, then this is because they can fail to exist in certain bodies. This entails that perhaps we fight all the more vigorously for the existence of these by-products. Rather, in the activity of critique, in the activity of uncovering contingency, we render possibilities available, allowing us to counter-factually envision how other forms of life might come to be. The slave that comes to see the institution of slavery as a contingent by-product of his socio-historical setting rather than a natural property of his being also comes to envision the possibility of another life, another world. Perhaps we should begin with the premise that we’re all slaves. Perhaps this would paradoxically be the most affirmative position one could advocate. Sometimes the entire world is changed through a simple distinction, an incorporeal transformation, a concept, that then functions as a lens so potent it is able to concentrate light into fire.

The point of immanent critique (and this perhaps touches on some of the issues currently under discussion in another thread over at Larval Subjects) is precisely not to debunk, but rather to liberate and free up for conscious political practice, potentials that may have been constituted unintentionally, in alienated form, by enabling a better understanding of the determinate sorts of relationships in which these potentials are currently constituted – and the other ways in which those relationships might be unfolded, to release potentials more completely.

Caveats as always that I am not trying in any way to assimilate Sinthome’s argument to my own – just thinking in tandem, as the waves and resonances of online discussion sometimes unexpectedly make possible…

5 responses to “What Presses Now

  1. Sinthome October 12, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    Sinthome wonders where he might have gotten this notion of critique from.

    Someone else, apparently, was at least interested in Epicurus and Democritus:

  2. N Pepperell October 12, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    I was wondering if you knew about the thesis – I’ve been meaning to point that out to you 🙂

  3. Mike Beggs October 12, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    Interesting, love that Lucretius verse.

    I would stress that it’s important to Marx that while value relations are mutable social relations, they are very real and not easy to change just by deciding to. Realising their contingency is not enough to remove their effects. They’re not imaginary in the sense that if we stopped believing in them, they would disappear (or become more changeable).

    Unmasking their contingency is part of a political strategy, but only part, because even if everybody in a capitalist society understood the direct social relations commodity exchange mask, we would still have to continue enacting those relations unless collective practice was changed. The difficulties in changing these social relations are serious because it can’t be done by a group (or certainly not an individual) simply deciding to act in other ways. The obstacles to practical change thus tend to reinforce the ideology of commodity fetishism, as economic relations appear even more as immutable forces of nature. Thus ‘economics’ as intellectual discipline explaining the interrelation of everybody’s production reacts back upon politics to limit what seems politically possible.

    That’s why what you might call immanent _practical_ critique is so important to Marx. He wanted to believe not only that capitalism could generate an intellectual critique of itself, but that it would generate social practices that would end up undermining it.

  4. N Pepperell October 12, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    Hey Mike – Absolutely. Sorry – it’s one of the problems with bashing out a quick post like I did here, particularly when I tend to play around with terms that often have a more specific “philosophical” connotation, such as “immanent critique”. My point would never be (and I would even more strongly doubt Sinthome’s point would be) that critique unmasks something “imaginary” in the sense that you could puncture it just by dispelling some kind of illusory belief structure – I’ve been clearer on this in other posts, and was taking this position for granted here.

    I take Marx to operate, in part, by… reattaching a wide range of forms of thought that are often taken to be free-standing elements of intellectual history – often interpreted, in other words, in an “idealist” vein – to other sorts of collective practices. This kind of analysis both begins to establish targets for political practice, and also begins to cast light on obstacles to transformation – obstacles that might include certain kinds of “misrecognition”, but that go well beyond this (Marx makes a very explicit point in the first chapter of Capital – I’ll write on this in a bit – about how the political economists’ eventual recognition of the existence of value does nothing to abolish the coercion this category describes).

    And yes, an important aspect of Marx’s argument involves the discussion of the ways in which, not just ideas, but collective practices that point beyond capitalism, are generated in the very heart of this social system. But even this isn’t a good way to pose the issue: it’s not that capitalism generates practices + ideas/ideals – it’s that Marx focusses relentlessly on the practical dimension of concepts of all sorts, so that he never talks about, say, ideals, without immediately tracing the ideal back to its practical enactment.

    I do think, though, that there is an element to his argument of also suggesting that the particular way in which an ideal (or practice) originates or is presently implicated in the reproduction of capitalism, can potentially be severed from the uses to which that ideal/practice could potentially be put, with a transformation of the current context. This is how I view Marx’s constant attraction to metaphors of the undead, of reanimated dead labour, etc. – and how I tend to deploy the concept of alienation: capitalism can’t help but constitute and preserve – continually reanimate – particular kinds of potentials that simultaneously play a determinate role in its reproduction and sit in tension with that reproduction. Seizing these potentials involves taking command of what was alienated, redeeming rather than reanimating the unintentionally constituted potentials of history, etc. I hope to be writing a great deal more on these issues – and hopefully a bit more clearly and cautiously than I’m expressing it now.

    But I agree with the impulse behind your comment 🙂

    I’ve been meaning, by the way, to contribute more to your posts on Keynes – this period is unfortunately a bit of a zoo, and I’ll be away in Sydney next week… With some luck, I might be able to catch up with you a bit on the trip, and perhaps lob something into the discussion, if it seems relevant, when I get back…

  5. Mike Beggs October 14, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    Yeah, I like how you put that: ” it’s not that capitalism generates practices + ideas/ideals – it’s that Marx focusses relentlessly on the practical dimension of concepts of all sorts, so that he never talks about, say, ideals, without immediately tracing the ideal back to its practical enactment.”

    Not sure where the Keynes posts are going; I don’t have much time to do anything more than basically summarise the chapter! So it’s self-clarification, but because I don’t have the time to be concise it’s a lot for people to get through… without much point since I am basically repeating the chapters!

    Enjoy the conference; I was thinking of going to that one, some friends will be there, but I have a conference paper deadline and overseas vistors so I have to give it a miss.

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