Head spinning from the conference and, of course, I have another damned cold, so I’m unfortunately not up to serious writing. I have plans for a post on several themes that have emerged during the conference, once I get back to Melbourne and catch up on some sleep. I’ll also get back to the series on Capital in a more serious way once I get home – I’ve decided to select from some of what I’ve been writing here, to put together a paper for the Modernities: Radicalism, Reflexivity, Realities conference at the University of Melbourne in late November, so I have a… strong incentive to finish writing about the first chapter of Capital before then, and to assemble the fragments I’ve been tossing up here into a more cohesive and distilled form.
Unfortunately, this decision will probably further entrench what has already been a feature of this series: revisiting and reworking sections of the text I’ve written on already, as I gradually build a clearer sense of what I’m trying to say. Might be a bit dull for others reading on, but it’s helpful for me to toss things up, and then look back over what I’ve done to see what proves closest to the mark…
Tonight, writing briefly before heading back to the conference, I just wanted to tuck a quick note to myself – no new content; just a reminder that I want to think about this particular content at greater length. In the introductory passage to Capital, which I can’t quite seem to let go of, Marx argues that the wealth of capitalist societies “presents itself” as a vast accumulation of commodities. Those commodities, in turn, present themselves as objects “outside us” – as material things. A bit later in this same passage, we learn that the intrinsic material properties of these objects present themselves as things that can be discovered in history – that, in fact, the discovery of such intrinsic material properties presents as “the work of history” – as history’s telos, perhaps? And we learn that this material layer of the commodity presents as what constitutes “the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth”. This material substance then presents as encased in a social form, which is more arbitrary and contingent, more the consequence of human practice, than the intrinsic material substance that the social form shapes.
I’ve mentioned previously that, because Marx is proceeding immanently, starting with a particular form of “givenness” or phenomenological experience, from which he gradually unfolds more and more complex categories, he cannot have recourse to all categories of analysis at the beginning of his account. One of the categories he cannot have access to, at this stage of his analysis, is the category of wage labour. This doesn’t mean that the category of wage labour is not already imbricated in these earliest moments in the text.
“For us” – to whom the category of wage labour exists – the introductory sections of Capital echo with an interesting set of additional meanings: in a situation in which commodities are objects “outside us” – and in which we (or, at least, our labour powers) are also commodities – we are also objects “outside us” – we also possess a “material substance”, whatever the social form of that substance might be – our material substance is also experienced as encased in a social form that is more arbitrary and contingent, more a product of human practice, than we take our intrinsic material substance to be – we also experience ourselves as “discovering”, over the course of history, more and more about the material properties that determine what we “really are”. We are the Cartesian ghost contemplating what we experience as our physiological machine (cf. Marx’s subsequent determinations of “abstract labour” in physiological or biological terms – as the “productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles” – a definition that, it is already clear in the text, cannot be fully “true”, since Marx has already told us that not all “productive expenditure” of biological energy gets to “count as labour” under capitalism).
Marx is therefore already, in these earliest passages, describing, not simply a relation of humans to an external world, but a relation of humans to themselves – a mode of embodiment and self-experience, that incorporates a felt distinction between material bodies, cultural or social shaping of those material bodies, and a disembodied, contemplative “ghost in the machine” that experiences itself as having “discovered” an intrinsic division between matter and society. Marx is already here setting up to relativise this mode of embodiment and self-experience by setting up for an analysis of how this apparently asocial and intrinsic “material substance” comes to be constituted unintentionally in collective practice – to be “read” or experienced as “natural” in the sense of timeless, intrinsic and asocial, when, Marx will argue, it itself is the product – very real, but still also contingent – of a particular qualitative structure of collective practice. This will not be the only form of embodiment Marx analyses in the course of Capital – I’ve already gestured in previous posts at some of the others. I am lifting this particular example out here as an illustrative example of a mode of argument that carries through much of the text.
Apologies for the repetition – again, there’s a benefit to me in reworking some of these points and experimenting with slightly different forms of expression – I’m conscious that this benefit might not carry through to folks reading on… 😉 More new material, hopefully, when I’m back in Melbourne, and a bit better rested…
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