Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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

11 responses to “Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

  1. Nate October 22, 2007 at 4:51 am

    Fantastic post. (Daunting, even!) I like your point very much about Marx not actually making historical claims in the early bits. I’ve been telling my students that (at least early in the book) when they read Marx making appeals to historical origin they should think of this not as a claim about actual historical genesis but as a sort of abstraction or weirding procedure – Marx wants the reader to think of these phenomena as historical rather than natural, this revisable, and he wants them to seem a bit odd and clunky. Sort of like coming home after much time in another country where there’s a bit of everything that once seemed normal now seems a bit odd.

    One question – when you write that “the consequences of the teleological form of perception for modern history have been particularly devastating” do you mean “modern history” as in “the course of human societies in the modern era” or do you mean it as in “the practices of representing the past”?

    I think you and I probably differ (not sure if it’s a disagreement or just a difference in interests, and in either case I’m not fussed to argue about it) on larger (meta?) issues of social theory.

    I think this manifests for me at two points in this post. At these points I think you gesture (or at least seem to) toward matters of social theory as such – metatheoretical reflections on analyzing any society at all – instead of criticism and analysis of capitalist society alone.

    You wrote about Marx offering insights into “complex interrelationships between moments in a multi-layered social context can operate to trick the analytical eye”, which didn’t sound to me like something specific to capitalism but about any multi-layered social context.

    Likewise, you wrote of “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” while “other immanently-available perspectives reveal the teleological perspective to be an inadequate expression of the potentials it attempts to express.” That too sounded like a shift in register from analysis of capitalism into methods of analysis which could be applied to other forms of society.

    This isn’t a challenge, I just want to know if I read these bits correctly. Have I?

    take care,

  2. N Pepperell October 22, 2007 at 5:53 am

    Hey Nate – That’ll just be me trying to juggle too many things at once, and in the process losing some of the points that are actually quite important to me: I’m not at all trying to make general claims about human society or social theory in some generalised sense. The point of this kind of historicising immanent critique, as I understand it, is that it sees the theory as quintessentially a theory of its object – so the forms of analysis arise immanently within, express, and are appropriate to, only one very specific social context. So I see capitalism as multi-layered in a specific, qualitatively important, way, and I also see the comments about teleology as setting up for a critique of attempts to take forms of thought that might be appropriate within capitalism, and inappropriately trying to make some sort of meta-historical theory out of those forms of thought.

    One of the reasons that this might be confusing, in what I’ve written above, is that I see Marx as arguing that one of the typical forms of thought that arises immanently within capitalism sees itself as discovering transhistorical truths. Again, within the bounds of an immanent theory (since you lose access to “objectivity” in the sense of a standpoint utterly outside the context you are analysing), is that you don’t completely dismiss the forms of thought you are trying to criticise as “wrong” – instead, you say something more like: these forms of thought are “socially plausible” – they “express” something about the context in which they arise. But, taking advantage of other perspectives available within that same context, we can relativise those forms of thought and show the ways in which they “misrecognise” or only incompletely express what they are trying to express. This makes it possible to criticise, without a hard notion of objectivity (as in, without a need to step outside the context in which the theory is claiming everything else is embedded).

    So, Marx will talk about forms of thought that see themselves as setting up some kind of general theory of human society as such. He thinks, though, that such forms of thought are actually confusing something that is very specific to capitalism, with a sort of pure, transhistorical “essence” of “the social” or “History” as such. What he’s doing in this section, in part, is beginning to set up for an analysis of why such forms of thought arise. Particularly given that capitalism does generate certain forms of thought that are somewhat “historicising”, why isn’t is more common for theorists also to do what Marx is trying to do, and historicise themselves? Why instead do they behave as though “there used to be history, but there no longer is any”?

    So my phrasing has probably just been really unclear, since I find the concept very hard to express: but I’m not trying to set up here for a general theory of human society as such, but instead to set up for an analysis of why that particular form of theory is often intuitive under capitalism.

    In terms of the more specific question about whether I mean the course of human societies in the modern era, or the process of representing the past – a bit of both. Practices of representing (or just perceiving) the past have some strong implications for how state actions have been rationalised in the modern era, so the meta-commentary here about the representation of history is more than, say, a point about the organisation of academic history. And I also see the section as the first of many where Marx begins to set for analyses of the… er… “lumpiness” of capitalist development – of the ways in which the context continually generates moments that are inaccurately perceived as non- or pre-capitalist. These sorts of points are much clearer, and more concrete, at other points in the text – here I was just suggesting that Marx is already beginning to hint about such possibilities.

    All this said, there probably will be some general sorts of claims Marx does make about social theory as such, or about how we might go about analysing non-capitalist societies, or whatever – even the immanent analysis of a particular social configuration will involve some implications of this sort. The issue, though, is that those implications will exist in a strong sense only for us – so, if we do decide to look back across history, or try to analyse something we think sits fundamentally outside our own context, we will be doing this with a gaze conditioned by our own moment – and the immanent theory can try to help us become aware of what this means. But the primary focus here (certainly in my own work) is not a general theory of society or history as such – it’s a theory of one specific social configuration (albeit a configuration currently global in scope).

    Hope this makes some sense… I find it very difficult to write this clearly, keeping everything in view that I need to foreground… One reason I keep revisiting and rewriting on sections in this chapter – trying to figure out how to say this stuff…

  3. N Pepperell October 22, 2007 at 6:04 am

    P.S. It just occurred to me that you might be wondering how Marx can make critical judgements about teleological narratives of history, without making positive claims about historical development itself? E.g., Marx can no more step into some Archimedean point from which he can view history, than the positions he is criticising, so what’s the basis for the critique?

    The form of criticism within this framework involves “grounding” or accounting for the genesis of competing frameworks – so that you aren’t “disproving” those frameworks with reference to a concept of objective truth that exists outside the context your theory shares with those frameworks, but are instead showing the ways in which those frameworks seem to betray the existence of aspects of the shared context for which they can’t account. In this case, Marx would claim to be able to show contemporaneous relationships that are necessarily implicated in the categories that a particular teleological conception of history treats as separable categories that can therefore be read back onto different moments in history. At the same time, Marx would claim that his approach can explain why it might be plausible to take the analytical step of reading these interrelated moments back onto the past (since it is immanently plausible to “rank” them in some way, and since the nature of the contemporary relationship is such that these categories plausibly do appear to exclude one another, even though they are interrelated when looked at from a different perspective). etc.

    So the form of the argument involves rationalising or making sense of as much as possible from the competing framework, while also revealing something the competing framework doesn’t grasp, without, however, appealing to insights that you can’t yourself ground immanently… Sinthome has occasionally complained that this form of argument takes too long – there’s some validity to that point… ;-P

    Got to do something to pay the bills…

  4. Nate October 22, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    hey NP,

    Thanks for clarifying. One minor clarification of my one – I didn’t take you to be making a claim about history or society as such, but rather to be making a claim about social theory as such (so, I didn’t see you as gesturing toward some definition of society so much as gesturing toward some method for looking at any society at all), I get that I was misunderstanding now.

    One further question about immanent social theory, which I think is part of the bigger project (right?)… maybe it’s more of a confusion than a question…
    I don’t think this is what you’re doing in the Marx readings, but let’s say it is, for the sake of argument – let’s say you’re looking at Marx’s theorizing immanent to his object, and identifying the formal components of that (or, abstracting from it) so that you arrive at a concept of an immanent social theory which is free from anything in particular it’s immanent to, one based on Marx’s theory which was (is!) immanent to capitalism. (Or, perhaps, your work remains immanent to Marx’s theory?) My point, I think, is that immanent social theory as a category seems kind of slippery in relation to that which it describes, in that the metatheoretical work of parsing the aspects of immanent social theory does not itself proceed in an immanent fashion (does it?).

    I’m not sure I’m making sense here, sorry. In any case, my earlier misgivings are quelled by your remark that the “implications will exist in a strong sense only for us” – so that there’s no claim to elevate our conventional standards into something larger than being our standards.

    take care,

  5. N Pepperell October 22, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    Sorry about that – I misunderstood where you were heading. You’re making perfect sense and this is the “right” question to ask, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of whether this form of theory can manage to avoid erecting a kind of dogmatism of its own. My difficulty here is that I know (er… I think I know… ;-P) how I would answer this question, but I’m not completely confident, at least at this stage, how Marx would answer it.

    My personal answer is that I take the meta-theoretical statements about “how immanent theory must proceed” to be contingent to a particular theoretical object, whose own determinate qualitative characteristics make something like immanent theory possible. In other words, my personal response is that I think capitalism has something like a “reflexive” and “dichotomous” character, and therefore that something like a “reflexive theory of capitalism” becomes possible, because the object being analysed involves the generation of these strange, mutually-implicated but simultaneously self-contradictory, characteristics.

    I don’t assume that all objects (including other objects of analysis that exist now, in our contemporary historical moment) are amenable to this form of theorisation – I tend, actually, to have the default position that most objects can’t be theorised this way. I would regard it as sort of… ideological? to hypostatise this form of theory as a general model for social theory as such. This has probably been clearer in other things I’ve written (the post on theoretical pessimism from a while back is the one that comes to mind, as well perhaps as some of the various posts that thematise issues of “immanence” at much greater length, particularly in discussions with Sinthome – sorry, too lazy to go looking for cites 🙂 – and, in any event, I’m not sure how explicit I was about the issue, although it’s something I’ve talked about with folks locally in some detail).

    Now, there’s a complicated dance that needs to take place once I’ve said this, because, while I regard the form of theory as itself located or situated in relation to the historical emergence of a particular kind of object, I’m also not a relativist – which both means that I don’t think the form of theory is contingent within our current moment and, like anything else that emerges as a potential in any historical moment, the potential expressed by the theory can react back or be used to explore how we evaluate a wider range of objects than those to which the theory intrinsically applies.

    This point is a bit convoluted – apologies… But to take one example, one of the things that this theory would see capitalism opening up, is the possibility for a “materialist” conception of the world – this possibility of looking at the world in a “materialist” way may itself undermine other forms of attempting to apprehend the world, even when we come to understand the social genesis of the particular version of “materialism” that capitalism enacts – so, for example, particular forms of instrumental interaction with nature, sensibilities that we associate with natural science, etc., may (I’m not necessarily saying they do – just trying to give an example of how something might work) undermine the need for the “hypothesis” of non-materialist forms of thought, when it comes to trying to understand or achieve certain specific things: we may, for example, collectively be persuaded that we “have no need of the hypothesis” of non-materialistic forces, in order to understand the movements of the planets.

    So forms of thought or practice that emerge historically in some particular configuration, might have implications beyond the configuration in which that arose. Understanding the configuration, however, makes it a bit more possible to understand the extent to which we find, to continue with this example, the notion of “materialism” persuasive because it improves our ability to achieve specific kinds of outcomes, and the extent to which we find this notion persuasive because we’re enacting and embodying the dispositions associated with it at some tacit level of collective practice.

    A similar process can apply to the more abstruse tenets of “reflexive theory”. So, although I’ve argued that I see this kind of theory as something appropriate to a particular object with very idiosyncratic properties, it may be that some of the dispositions associated with this form of theory would either prove corrosive of certain other forms of theorisation, or prove useful for other purposes, etc. In this vein, it may be “overdetermined” within capitalism that we engage, for example, in certain forms of historicising thought but, once we understand a bit more about this process of overdetermination, we may still be able to defend certain types of historicisation: it doesn’t necessarily debunk or devalue a particular potential, just because we might arrive at a better idea of how we are enacting that potential as a “positivity”, in particular ways in collective practice, rather than regarding it as some kind of non-situated or non-located disposition (rather than regarding it as a pure “negation” or as some kind of transcendent objectivity).

    So some situated dispositions or forms of thought, no matter how idiosyncratic their origins, or how well we come to understand how we enact them, might still prove corrosive of certain other forms of thought. Or, at least, might open possibilities or potentials for thought and practice that we might want to remain open, rather than close off…

    In terms of how all this relates to Marx… I’m simply not sure. On the one hand, his text does an enormous amount of work establishing the dispositions and forms of thought that he will deploy in his own theoretical work, as what I’m calling “positivities” (or, in other contexts, “determinate negations” – just to be completely confusing about my terms… ;-P). So, at the very least, I think he does enough work that he is embedding his form of theory as an immanent potential of capitalism as a specific kind of object, and he therefore must regard the potential for “reflexive theory” as in some sense “more true” or “true in a stronger sense” for capitalism than for other contexts. Beyond this, I don’t have a confident read at this point (and, since Marx is light on explicit meta-theory, I may not get a more confident read than what I have now).

    When I’m writing these posts, I am mostly sticking to what I can find in Marx’s text, so I haven’t raised the issue of how I would personally deal with these kinds of questions. I will, though, need to be writing on these sorts of questions, and they are quite important to me, not least because I’m trying to bound this form of theory – to make it a bit clearer that this theoretical approach becomes dogmatic (and actually self-undermining, as well) when it tries to set itself up as a general form of Theorisation As Such… So there’s this awkward dance around thinking this form of theorisation captures certain specific things about its particular object better than other forms of theory do, and that therefore its particular theoretical methodology is important for specific reasons, while also trying to remain clear that there is no particular reason to assume that a similar form of theory would be appropriate to other objects. (I’ve occasionally in posts here commented that the movement away from “reflexive theory” in, say, the first generation Frankfurt School, would have been a completely defensible move, if they had been correct that capitalism had overcome its self-contradictory character – if this happens, then you actually need a qualitatively different form of theory to say anything useful on a practical or political level. I happen to disagree with their read of capitalism, but I don’t disagree with the consequences they drew for social theory, given that read…)

    Hopefully this gets a bit closer to the mark of what you’re asking? This is actually a really important line of questioning, and one I don’t get a lot of practice discussing, because many people are either comfortable with the notion of a general theoretical methodology, or else they reject the kind of methodology or meta-theoretical comments I’m making more wholesale – so it’s a bit difficult to get a conversation going around the issue of how it might be possible, both to justify, but also to bound a particular understanding of theory. One consequence of this lack of practice, and absence of a lot of opportunities for practice, is that I always feel a bit tentative about this: I don’t think my ideas here have been tested as well as they need to be, and I may as a consequence be saying some fairly dumb things, which need radical revision. But these are conversations I’d like to have…

  6. N Pepperell October 22, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    Nate – Just reading back over what I’ve written above, and found myself bursting out laughing: I really don’t get the chance to talk about this stuff much, and that lack of practice really shows when I try to write about it. So, if that was simply too convoluted to make any sense, my apologies – I may have to go through several rounds of this kind of thing to figure out how to make sense when talking about it (not saying you have to facilitate my doing this, but just saying that I don’t think what I’ve written above is exactly what one might call clear… ;-P).

    Sorry about this… It is really important to me to be able to talk about these sorts of things clearly, it’s just that I also find them complicated and, because on some level they are very “meta” and most of what you’d want to do, on a practical level, with this kind of theory doesn’t really require a strong understanding of the meta-theoretical dimensions of the project, for understandable reasons it’s not generally what people ask questions about…

    It would help if I could actually figure out what I think on issues without going through elaborate discussions with other people in which I gradually figure out, by way of comparison and contrast, what I actually think… ;-P But that seems to be my work process at the moment… Sorry about this…l

  7. Nate October 23, 2007 at 2:28 am

    hey NP,
    Interesting stuff all around. I’m happy to be part of a conversation the type of which you don’t get to have very often (me too, for what it’s worth, and I like this stuff very much, so the enjoyment is mutual, and I also feel like I’m not good at being clear here – so I suppose the nervous “oh sorry, I’m being convoluted” sentiment is shared as well). That said, I in no way mean to derail your commentaries on Marx – neither for your sake as you’re writing (don’t want to muddy the current track your tracing) and (even more so, to be honest!) for my own sake as a reader – I really like reading your commentary on Marx. That said, I’m happy to keep talking about the sort of metatheoretical stuff w/ you as best I’m able (in terms of time, ability, and common readings, I think you’re more up on the literature relevant to all this than I am) — Richard Rorty says somewhere that the most interesting philosophical work is metaphilosophical work, which really speaks to me.

    Onto the actual substance of what you said –

    it strikes me that there’s some sort of tension in your remarks. You write that this sort of theory is “appropriate to a particular object with very idiosyncratic properties,” and may be useful or have offer impacts on other stuff, but it may not.

    Part of what you’re doing, I think, is narrowing the range of application of the theory that you need to worry about: this stuff is a theory of capitalism, say, (or some subset of capitalisms) which means it’s not a theory of everything, which means you don’t need to defend it except in relation to your object. That’s what I take the “particular object” and “idiosyncratic” part to mean. In a sense, it stipulates that the theory applies to any O such that O has the properties X, Y, Z, etc. That’s very sensible and I agree. Capitalism (or some capitalisms, or whatever) has X,Y,Z properties and so it’s an appropriate object for the theory. In this sense, then, there’s no need to worry about object choice: the chosen theory works for the chosen object, enough said.

    On the other hand, it’s a different matter, I think, to make claims about one object vs others, about capitalism vs other modes of production. In that sense, you do start to get into object choice and to make claims not only about capitalism (having X,Y,Z properties) but about other modes of production as well (not having X or Y or Z property). The stuff in the previous paragraph is or could be a matter of capitalism’s qualities not as distinct from (or perhaps not in relation to) other modes of production. The stuff in this paragraph posits such a relationship or distinction, I think, or implies one.

    Likewise when you write that “I don’t assume that all objects (including other objects of analysis that exist now, in our contemporary historical moment) are amenable to this form of theorisation – I tend, actually, to have the default position that most objects can’t be theorised this way. I would regard it as sort of… ideological? to hypostatise this form of theory as a general model for social theory as such.”

    I’m with you on not wanting to over-extend the scope of the theory, that’d probly be ideological, and just inaccurate. But it strikes me that there’s a difference between “My only claim is about this theory in relation to capitalism (or whatever object) and I can support that relation by appeal to the following properties of capitalism” and “My claim is that this theory does apply to capitalism and does not apply to that which is not capitalism, due to the compared properties of both types of mode of production.” I know you’re not making the latter claim explicitly, but it seems implied.

    I think there’s a similar tension present here:

    you write that “particular forms of instrumental interaction with nature, sensibilities that we associate with natural science, etc., may undermine the need for the “hypothesis” of non-materialist forms of thought, when it comes to trying to understand or achieve certain specific things: we may, for example, collectively be persuaded that we “have no need of the hypothesis” of non-materialistic forces, in order to understand the movements of the planets.”

    I agree with that completely. In the face of some phenomena, certain ideas seem a bit silly. But “undermine the need for” implies not simply that some ideas seem silly in the face of some phenomena, but that there’s a historical process of certain ideas becoming more silly. Which means that in earlier times those ideas were less silly. On the one hand, this is intuitively correct and I think very useful and important for reading history (recognizing that people had need for certain ideas that now appear silly, ie that people in the past with what now appear as weird ideas weren’t crazy or whatever – a sort of cross-time empathy, so to speak). On the other hand, this implies that there was greater need for some ideas in the past; the standards of measure etc for that and the ‘place’ from which that can be judged strikes me as problematic.

    Similarly when you write about “capitalism opening up (…) the possibility for a “materialist” conception of the world”, this implies that the possibility was less open (or not present at all? present in kernel-form?) previously. Again there’s a degree to which this is intuitively right but also seems to me to lead to odd places. (I commented on something similar, I think, in Marx’s remarks on Aristotle, in a post here –
    if you’re interested.)

    Likewise here, in the use of the temporal term “become” –

    “capitalism has something like a “reflexive” and “dichotomous” character, and therefore that something like a “reflexive theory of capitalism” becomes possible, because the object being analysed involves the generation of these strange, mutually-implicated but simultaneously self-contradictory, characteristics.”

    “Becomes possible” implies a progression from prior non-possibility to present possibility, which is a theoretical or metatheoretical claim not restricted to capitalism (as a mode of production or an era), I think.

    Am I making sense?

    take care,

  8. Nate October 23, 2007 at 2:32 am

    ps- sorry, I was almost but not quite done. On the final point, I think this is clear, but I meant that “becomes possible” implies a claim about the range of possibility under capitalism and a claim about the range of possibilities in other modes of production/eras, and a claim that compares the two. I may be misunderstanding the term ‘immanent social theory’ but it strikes me that a theory capable of making such claims and comparisons is not immanent strictly to capitalism, because it makes claims outside of capitalism. (Unless capitalism contains other modes of production/eras, which would get around this because something immanent to capitalism would be immanent to the other modes subsumed by capitalism, but I think would open up other problems.)

  9. N Pepperell October 23, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Hey Nate – Thanks for this. What I think I’m going to do is respond in a couple of different locations to what you’ve written. I want to take up a couple of issues here in the comments – but I also want to respond to part of what you’ve asked – or, at least, a tangent suggested by what you’ve asked – up into a post of its own, since (although it’s not directly in the path of what I’ve been doing with the Marx readings) it provides me with an excuse to explore a certain dimension or underlying logic to elements of Marx’s argument from the first chapter. Doing this, though, might take things a bit away from the context in which you’re raising these questions so, if this leaves too much hanging or off point from the questions as you’re posing them here, we can pick up the conversation again, either here or in the comments of the other post.

    Okay, in terms of things to pick up here: I think some of the passages you rightly pick up on above, are phrased as though I’m making sort of a priori declarations about the uniqueness of capitalism as a theoretical object (as though I’m declaring from the outset that no other object can have certain “reflexive” properties), when what I was trying to say instead is that I’m sort of actively agnostic on the question of whether other sorts of objects will or will not have “reflexive” properties (or any other sort of property that I might feel needs to be theorised in relation to capitalism). In other words, my position (I think…) involves a very aggressive lack of opinion about whether such properties might inhere in other sorts of things. I don’t expect to find such properties elsewhere – and I don’t expect not to find such properties elsewhere.

    In practice, I tend to default to a kind of scepticism about claims, say, that feudalism had some kind of systematic “internal contradiction” that led to the development of capitalism (or whatever similar interpretive moves), not because I rule this out as a theoretical possibility, but because I think that what I can theorise is the way in which capitalism “primes” us for certain dispositions – and, having been “primed” in this way, there’s a certain risk of being less critical in our application of these dispositions, because they are always already plausible to us, and there’s a sort of “confirmation bias” risk.

    So I tend to try to be more sceptical when (1) I think I can account for how certain things are actively generated under capitalism, (2) someone doesn’t offer an account for how such things would be actively generated in some other context, and yet (3) someone starts attributing such things to another context. But this is, if this makes sense, a methodological precaution that relates to how I understand capitalism to be systematically generative of certain forms of “misrecognition”, rather than a theoretical assertion that similar qualitative features of social practice couldn’t under any circumstances be generated in diverse ways in different contexts.

    When speaking about history, and how pre-capitalist social formations are understood from within capitalism, there’s an additional layer of caution, for me, which relates to the sorts of things I was trying to problematise in the original post above. As I understand it, Marx is basically saying something along the lines of: there is an inherent temptation, generated within capitalism, to interpret certain moments of capitalism, as though these moments are pre-capitalist. This happens for a number of reasons.

    First, some moments of capitalism are genuinely opposed in their implications to other moments of capitalism – if a theory captures this opposition, without also capturing the ways in which this opposition is generated by interrelated forms of contemporaneous social practices, sometime the theory interprets the opposition to mean that one moment is “capitalist”, while the other moment is (erroneously) interpreted as “noncapitalist”. This happens when a theory doesn’t quite capture capitalism as a contradictory social form, and therefore thinks that capitalism must necessarily be more unified in its structure than Marx’s theory holds it to be.

    Second, not all moments within capitalism express to the same degree certain specific tendencies or potentials within capitalism. This means that it is possible to “rank” or “compare” moments within capitalism, against the measure of how completely those moments express particular potentials (or how well those moments enable particular potentials to become manifest or realised overtly in social practice). A theory that captures this potential to “rank” moments, but that doesn’t simultaneously capture how these moments are all mutually implicated and jointly constitutive of one another within fully developed capitalism, is at risk of confusing lower “ranked” moments with some kind of “less developed” form of capitalism.

    These two sorts of immanent risks (which are part of what Marx is problematising in the passages I was discussing in the original post) don’t necessitate that anyone should come up with a teleological vision of history, which projects the “ranked” moments of capitalism back into time, seeing them as stages of development leading to contemporary capitalism. And it doesn’t necessitate that some moment within capitalism become the gestalt image of a precapitalist society. But there is a sort of immanently generated risk, within capitalism, that both of these forms of historical interpretation might emerge. If such forms of historical interpretation arise (and, of course, such forms of historical interpretation in practice have arisen at various points in the capitalist era), then the theory of capitalism makes is possible to argue that these conceptions of history have been “primed” in a very specific sense by the experience of socialisation into a capitalist context. Being able to analyse how this “priming” takes place, however, does not by itself mean that such views of history are necessarily wrong. (Just as, by the same token, being able to understand how we might be “primed” for materialist forms of explanation, doesn’t necessarily mean that modern science is necessarily wrong in the sorts of claims it makes about the natural world.) It just means that we can locate or situate socially at least some of the reasons we might be particularly sensitive or open to such forms of thought in a capitalist context.

    Understanding why we might be particularly prone to finding certain forms of thought “intuitive” or “commonsensical”, then can help us apply a sort of deliberate sceptical counter-pressure: knowing that we might be “primed” to think of history in teleological terms, for example, we might look particularly closely at the basis for such claims. Of course, “looking closely at the basis for such claims” is itself a situated process – even our scepticism doesn’t involve the application of objectivity or neutrality – just a more active mobilisation of the range of perspectives available to us, in the awareness that we might be particularly prone to default to only one of the perspectives available.

    All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t necessarily have a problem with people trying to say something about non-capitalist history. But. (1) It isn’t what I’m trying to theorise myself. (And I do a really, really complicated dance around this issue, since most sociological and anthropological texts take certain distinctions between capitalism and pre-capitalist societies for granted, and then set about trying to explain the difference. By contrast, I tend to reposition these claims as something more like “discourses that arise within capitalism, about the ways in which people living in a capitalist context take that context to be distinctive”. In other words, I’m much, much more agnostic about whether the distinctions we tend to draw are “true” (even whether they are true “for us”) than most social theory seems to be. In part, of course, I have the luxury to remain agnostic on this issue, because it isn’t specifically important to what I’m trying to understand…)

    (2) Whenever we look out at pre-capitalist history, I think it’s important to keep in view that we are looking out. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every single historian or sociologist looking at anything in the past has to erect an entire massive meta-theory – but, at some level, I find it reassuring if someone is trying to think about the meta-theory around these sorts of investigations.

    (3) When we find historical narratives (or, for that matter, narratives about the natural world, or other sorts of things that can be thematised within the sort of theory of capitalism I’ve been trying to outline here) are strongly expressing dispositions that we have reason to believe are actively enacted in the course of capitalist reproduction, an extra level of scepticism may prove useful, because the theory of capitalism gives us specific reasons to worry that particular dispositions are… default “grooves” into which perception and thought tends to fall, unless we try to mobilise other perspectives that are also immanently available to us. This isn’t a plea for greater “objectivity”, but more a Benjaminian ideal that we should try to get to the point that our (contemporary) history become “citable in all its moments” – that we try to mobilise a full range of immanently available perspectives, rather than just trundling along in the deepest socially-available groove into which collective gravity and habit(us) will tend to draw us…

    I’m leaving some things hanging here, because I think I’ll pick up on some of them in a post. If, as sometimes happens, I prove unable to write the post I have in mind, or if, having written it, I decide it’s not as on-point as I had hoped, I’ll try to pick up again later in the comments… Sorry to scatter things around like this… And thanks again – still feeling extremely clumsy writing about this, and not completely happy with how I’m formulating things, but it’s good to start trundling through some of this…

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