Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Cartesian Fragment

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… πŸ˜‰ 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


3 responses to “Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Cartesian Fragment

  1. Nate October 18, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    I look forward to this series of posts continuing! My students and I had a brief discussion the other day linking the very start of Capital w/ two other passing comments (can’t cite, didn’t bring my book home), where Marx says that consumption creates the consumer and says that tailoring – as a labor process rather than valorization process – produces clothes and therefore people. We read this as Marx implying many modes of human being are possible, but capitalism forecloses those. The real substance of wealth, then, is I think not tied to a thick concept of human being but a thin one (put differently, if Capital has an implied philosophical anthropology it’s a minimalist one). Sorry that doesn’t engage w/ much of your post, you just set wheels to turn in my head.
    I hope you’re feeling better.
    take care,

  2. N Pepperell October 18, 2007 at 11:44 pm

    Just very quickly – rapidly losing coherence tonight πŸ™‚

    There are some minimalist anthropological claims in Capital, I think – I hope eventually to draw these out, just as I’m also trying to draw out the tacit methodology in a more explicit fashion. I suspect (but don’t have a strong argument here yet) that Marx will attempt to be “reflexive” about even these minimalist claims – that he’ll immanently ground at least why it might occur to someone to make such claims in the period when he’s writing.

    But I take Marx actually to be critical above of the concept of the “real substance of wealth” – in other words, I take him to be trying to “relativise” this concept – to be presenting this notion that “the material” = “the real” as a form of thought that is rendered plausible by a specific dimension of collective practice in capitalism. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Marx thinks this concept is without… er… value (pardon the terrible pun) – just that he regards it as a specific potential or form of experience that we (unconsciously) generate, rather than as some sort of timeless truth.

    Seen this way, the form of Marx’s critique shifts slightly: rather than comparing capitalism (as a narrow social form) against some kind of (weak or strong) anthropology, Marx can instead compare moments of capitalism, to other moments of capitalism – such that capitalism becomes a genuinely self-contradictory social form, constantly tossing up potentials that point in very different directions. So capitalism simultaneously generates potentials, and forecloses the fuller realisation of those potentials – or generates potentials, while undermining them in specific respects – or generates potentials, but in an abstract form, etc., etc.

    So, for example, I take Marx to be arguing that belief in a “material world” devoid of social determinations is a fetishised form of thought: the “material world”, far from being devoid of social determinations, actually is a quite distinctive social determination constituted in collective practice in capitalism. Nevertheless, as long as we don’t hypostatise the notion of the material world, but simply recognise that this is a form of perception we are generating in specific ways in collective practice, we can actually do some interesting critical things with such a concept – like starting to play around with the notion that things like “social determinations” exist – that a great deal might be contingent and might be the product of human practice and therefore subject to political intervention, etc., etc.

    Sorry – not explaining this very clearly (extremely tired tonight). Basically, though, I don’t think that Marx “needs” to posit an anthropology as a sort of critical standard against which capitalism can be found wanting: he can instead talk about different modes of human being that become possible within capitalism – and the tensions between these modes. So capitalism attempts to foreclose, or at least abridge, what it simultaneously generates, giving it a strange compulsive self-contradictory character – out of which Marx will then try to tease a set of critical standards that he’ll deploy in his own critique.

    Falling over… πŸ™‚ Take care…

  3. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

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