Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: November 2007


I’m very pressed for time today, and am thinking very roughly… I just wanted to pull into greater prominence a small bit of the discussion going on with Andrew Montin in the discussion thread for the Modernities conference paper. While the full discussion is ranging across a number of interesting topics, what I wanted to pull out for exploration here is a vocabulary issue: given how helpful I found the discussion some months back, in which a number of people discussed how they deploy the term “self-reflexivity”, I’m now curious if others are interested in chiming in with how they understand the term “contradiction” in the context of critical theory.

Andrew has asked below whether I am, in a sense, being deeply misleading by hanging onto the term “contradiction”, given how I’ve transformed that term’s meaning. He may well be right, and I’m not attached to any specific vocabulary, but am instead trying to work out how to express a particular constellation of concepts both clearly and briefly. What I want to do here is just toss up some very quick associations, as placeholders perhaps for a much more adequate discussion that I can perhaps take up at a later time.

In terms of the conversation below, Andrew suggests (with the strong caveat that he is not responsible for how I am characterising this discussion – he is simply raising issues I have been meaning to post on for some time, and had therefore reminded me of things I’ve been meaning to say) that I appear to be using the concept of “contradiction” to describe something that doesn’t sound terribly much like the everyday sense of what a “contradiction” would be – where “contradictory” things shouldn’t be able to coexist. Nor does my use of the term sound terribly much like the inflection of the term “contradiction” in, say, second and third generation Frankfurt school critique, which will sometimes speak about some existing social practice or institution undermining its own basis by “contradicting” an immanent logic intrinsic to that practice itself – this position is a particular inflection of Hegel, an attempt to “secularise” Hegel’s notion that some kind of critical standpoint can be located in the progressive, developmental unfolding of an essence over time, and to establish a “necessity” for a critical perspective, by pointing that perspective back to an immanent principle that governs that process of unfolding. While Hegel’s metaphysics would be rejected by Habermas, Honneth and others drawn to this notion of “contradiction”, these traditions still attempt to preserve a sense of the necessity of a particular critical standpoint by grounding that standpoint in an analysis of the immanent logics of certain forms of practice – communication, recognition, etc.

Just to make matters truly confusing, I engage with similar elements of Hegel to those at play in this Frankfurt-style appropriation, but I play fast and loose with Hegel’s concepts (or, to say this more Critical Theoretically, I seek to “embed” Hegel in my own analysis) in different ways. So, to take a couple of quick passages from Phenomenology of Spirit that might be relevant to both concepts of critique and “contradiction”:

The more the ordinary mind takes the opposition between true and false to be fixed, the more is it accustomed to expect either agreement or contradiction with a given philosophical system, and only to see reason for the one or the other in any explanatory statement concerning such a system. It does not conceive the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive evolution of truth; rather, it sees only contradiction in that variety. The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole. But contradiction as between philosophical systems is not wont to be conceived in this way; on the other hand, the mind perceiving the contradiction does not commonly know how to relieve it or keep it free from its onesidedness, and to recognize in what seems conflicting and inherently antagonistic the presence of mutually necessary moments. (2)


The systematic development of truth in scientific form can alone be the true shape in which truth exists. To help to bring philosophy nearer to the form of science-that goal where it can lay aside the name of love of knowledge and be actual knowledge-that is what I have set before me. The inner necessity that knowledge should be science lies in its very nature; and the adequate and sufficient explanation for this lies simply and solely in the systematic exposition Of philosophy itself. The external necessity, however, so far as this is apprehended in a universal way, and apart from the accident of the personal element and the particular occasioning influences affecting the individual, is the same as the internal: it lies in the form and shape in which the process of time presents the existence of its moments. To show that the time process does raise philosophy to the level of scientific system would, therefore, be the only true justification of the attempts which aim at proving that philosophy must assume this character; because the temporal process would thus bring out and lay bare the necessity of it, nay, more, would at the same time be carrying out that very aim itself. (5)

The underlying concept here is that there is some kind of inherent nature that leads “necessarily” through certain moments in the process of its realisation, where the concept of “necessity” here doesn’t mean (I think) that a particular developmental unfolding “had” to happen, but rather that this development can be retrospectively reconstructed as logical – and therefore the prior moments of that development can be posited to exist in some necessary and intrinsic relationship to one another. At the same time, the “inherent nature” that drives the whole process (in a weak, non-causal sense of the term “drive”), and the (reconstructably) “logical” character of the process itself, makes it possible to ground a critical perspective in the “inherent nature” whose existence has only become fully (or, at least, more fully) manifest in the present time.

One way of viewing Habermas’ project would be as an attempted “secularisation” of this kind of argument. So, communicative action (or, for Honneth, perhaps “recognition” or similar categories) has an “inherent nature” – but one that has only become recognisable over time, and through an historical development which we can (reconstructively) recognise as a logical progression. This “progressive” dimension of this historical unfolding (the potential to “order” development logically or rationally) is taken to enable critique to align itself with the expression of “inherent nature” as unfolded in time, and thus to ground critical judgements against forms of perception and thought that less adequately express the most current available insights into this “inherent nature”.

My argument (and deep apologies – this will be fast, furious, and profoundly inadequate) is that Marx represents a very different attempt to “secularise” such moments from Hegel – one that problematises far more of Hegel’s perspective than Habermas – from my point of view – seems to do. I take Marx to be suggesting that capitalism is characterised by something that appears to be an “inherent nature” that possesses certain “logical” characteristics that can plausibly be interpreted as historical developments unfolding over time, even though this interpretation is not strictly accurate even for capitalism itself (I haven’t sketched this argument in full, but preliminary gestures are here – along with scattered points in the surrounding posts in the series).

I unfortunately have very little time to develop the implications of what I’m saying (and I haven’t established this argument as a reading of Marx yet, let alone as a plausible basis for a critical social theory), but just very briefly: one implication, if I can make this sort of argument work, would be that Habermas might be engaging in something that Marx would consider a “fetishised” form of thought: taking something to be an “inherent nature” (albeit an historically emergent nature), and grounding a critical standpoint in this notion of “inherent nature”, when an alternative form of theory might be able to show how this “nature” is much more actively and contingently generated in collective practice – that it represents, not some kind of immanent potential that resides in social practice as some sort of tacit (if weak and non-causal) telos, but simply a potential for us, which we are enacting in determinate ways that can be illuminated via a theory of practice.

This approach significantly muddies the issue of how you ground a critical standpoint – not least because it suggests a need for great caution when endorsing the specific sensibilities that present themselves to us as expressing some “inherent nature”. Once we reinterpret this “inherent nature” to be something more like “the inherent nature of capitalism, so long as we continue to reproduce this social system”, then deriving your critical ideals from this single location may be tantamount to rejecting any forms of subjectivity or practice that actually point beyond capitalism.

And yet – and here we get to the notion of “contradiction” as I’ve tended to use it – my interpretation of Marx is that he argues that capitalism actually generates multiple forms of subjectivity, which point in many different directions, each seizing on different moments of a multifaceted social context without recognising their own partial characters. My suggestion would be that perhaps critical standpoint within the framework I am trying to outline involves a sliding among available perspectives, with the Benjaminian goal of making our history “citable in all its moments” – or if that sounds a bit totalising, at least, more “citable” than it tends by default to be at the present time.

From this perspective, capitalism is contradictory – but this contradiction by itself won’t “resolve” in any particular way: capitalism reproduces itself through a movement over time that is “contradictory” in something like the sense of the passages from Phenomenology above – where, in spite of an immense amount of “development” and the “overcoming” of all sorts of concrete social institutions, the same “inherent nature” still continues to play itself out, and can therefore plausibly come to be read as the “telos” of all this frenetic, coercive “becoming”. It is this “inherent nature” that needs to be overcome, from the standpoint of the sort of critique I am trying to develop, in order to overcome capitalism; and contradiction, within this framework, is the means of the reproduction of a particular society, rather than a way in which that society points beyond itself. Yet Marx also does maintain that that somehow this contradictory process of reproduction does generate determinate potentials to overcome the “inherent nature” that it reproduces. Which brings me to my terminological dilemma of the moment.

The difficulty (well, one of many difficulties) with my articulation around this issue, is that I’m aware of a tension between my vocabulary, when I want to express that:

(1) capitalism reproduces its own “inherent nature” via “contradiction” in this “Hegelian” sense – via a process that presents itself as the unfolding of an historical logic that appears to realise this nature,


(2) capitalism, in reproducing itself, also generates the practical potential for overcoming the endless production of its own “inherent nature” (Benjamin, as usual, has a lovely term for this – something along the lines of “a revolutionary cessation of happening”).

In the conference talk, I used the term “contradiction” to refer to the emancipatory potentials I’m discussing in #2. However, I also need to talk (although I haven’t done this much thus far on the blog, and have therefore been able to bracket this particular terminological dilemma thus far) about the “contradictory” character of capitalist reproduction, in the sense of #1 – where the “contradiction” is understood as an aspect of reproduction.

It will be utterly confusing to use the same term for both concepts – and I think Andrew is right to push on me for whether I ought to be using the term “contradiction” as I did in the talk. And yet, as when we were discussing the concept of “self-reflexivity”, I’m stalled over the question of what would be a better way to express what I need to say. And so I deposit this problem here, for public discussion (or not)… ;-P

This post is woefully, inexcusably inadequate – if it helps, I know – please believe me, I know – that I haven’t demonstrated any of the points I ran through so quickly above. I don’t take what I’ve written as a critique of Habermas or as anywhere close to making the case for an alternative form of theory – I’m just trying briefly to sketch the thoughtspace for a problem in my work (and, in the process, skimming over things so poorly that I will no doubt imply – perhaps accurately – the existence of all sorts of other problems… ;-P). To make matters worse, I’m doing this just as I need to leave for the rest of the day… This should probably be a post for the draft queue… But then I’m worried I’ll never get around to editing it to put it up… So here you have it, for what it’s worth…

What in the hell…

did you make me do, Nate?

I’ll be blaming you when I’m not sleeping tonight… ;-P

What I’ve done here is what I sometimes also do with L Magee (who will, no doubt, be glowering at me for working on this, rather than on Brandom…) – which is to provide your comments in full, in blue text, with my responses interspersed in black. This probably isn’t the most systematic way to respond, but it hopefully increases the chances that I won’t completely drop a major point. A lot of the responses aren’t very adequate – sometimes intrinsically, because the questions are too complicated to deal with adequately without their own full treatment, sometimes extrinsically, because I’m a bit tired and, particularly toward the end, just felt increasingly fuzzy and unclear, and so cut some responses short, hoping I’ve at least written enough to justify claiming to have tossed the ball back into your court… ;-P

For those reading on: since this is a long response to a substantive post, I’ll put the whole thing below the fold. If you haven’t read Nate’s original post, do that first, as I chop his post into pieces in order to respond to it; he was responding to my conference talk here.

Also, I notice as I’m preparing to post this that a conversation has been going on over at what in the hell… on this – I’ll just flag briefly here that I haven’t read that conversation (I wrote this post offline, and am just cutting and pasting it into the blog), let alone addressed whatever it says – that conversation I will need to pick up on over the weekend because, having written this, I’m definitely grounded and not allowed to come out to play again until my homework’s done.

Below the fold for the conversation… (which, I should also add, is rather dramatically unedited – urk!!) Read more of this post


Nate over at what in the hell… has just written a fantastic response to my conference talk from last week. He summarises the key points of my talk (which would have been much more interesting to hear, I think, if I had a similar skill with expression) and asks all sorts of questions that I have no time to answer today, but that I will try to pick up as soon as I can, because I’d far rather talk about those issues, than do what I need to do today. En route, he comes up with much more evocative terms for what I discuss than I do (my favourite has to be the “bigger-coathook” descriptor for how projects like Habermas’ approach immanent critique). And he acronymises me!! Into something that sounds like some new kind of internet relay chat!!

I’ll respond over here, unfortunately probably not until the weekend, given that I have a major deadline I absolutely must meet tomorrow. But go read Nate’s post first (and Nate, when I do answer, do you mind if I reproduce some of your post over here, and intersperse responses? As I suspect that’ll be easier to follow…).

Impure Thought

Wildly Parenthetical has posted an evocative brief reflection, taking up initially from a comment about writing, from Phaedrus, but leading to a set of questions about memory – and the relational possibilities for forms of subjectivity:

Memory is thus presented as authentic, self-sufficient and almost a way of investing the thought within oneself rather than in an elsewhere place. The self-contained subject must not permit thought to pass to elsewhere, and certainly must not allow the thought to circulate to another, much less another inanimate object—pen, paper, ink upon page, pixels on screen—before returning for it will never be the same… and nor will you.

Never let there be another to show you who you are, to let you be who you are; heaven forbid. And if there is such another, destroy him, destroy her, burn the paper, smash the liquid crystal, until there is nothing but you left, you and a lonely, isolated knowledge. As if no other form of relation were ever possible…!

My associations on reading this – which may significantly overliteralise Wildly’s intent in writing it – went immediately to the ways in which my “own” work has been influenced in profound ways by my connections and contacts with others. I’ve so often been struck by the disjoint between the notion of academic production as an “original” and “individual” effort, and my experience of “my” work as always refracting interactions with others, perpetually deflected by the shock of interaction. So much of my current writing is shaped by the problems that condense and crystallise only from dialogue, the dislocated insights made possible by sliding into perspectives of whose existence I would never have learned, except through others. I view intellectual work – not as necessarily collective, in the sense of a consciously-shared joint project (although it might under certain circumstances be that, as well) – but as transcendent of individuals who generate, not a lonely, isolated knowledge, but a unique refraction of a shared experience that each can only partially and incompletely express.

Fragment on the Working Day

To celebrate Labor’s victory in Saturday’s election, I thought it might be appropriate to post some rough thoughts on Capital, volume one, chapter 10 – The Working-Day.

Note that, since I haven’t worked up to this chapter in the systematic reading I’ve been trundling through recently, these comments will be much more provisional than my other recent posts on Capital. Corrections, as always, are welcome.

This chapter always reminds me of the William Morris quotation that I probably reproduce a bit too often:

men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…

The main line of political drama that plays out in this chapter involves a story of strange reversals: apparent working class victories are thwarted, or provoke rapid political reversals, or unexpectedly rebound to the benefit of capital – until what appears initially as a “decisive” victory of capital brings about its in own reversal, in the form of the effective mobilisation of the working classes and the final achievement of a legislated normal working day. Only after the discussion of this working class victory does Capital open up to the discussion of relative surplus value and to the development of machinery and modern industry – suggesting yet another complex consequence of political struggle anticipated by none of the participants: the strengthening and routinisation of the drive of capital for ever-increasing levels of productivity.

At some point, I hope to return to this narrative of unintended consequences more adequately, on the basis of a more thorough exposition of the chapters leading up to and out of this section of Capital. For present purposes, I want instead to draw attention to some of the interstitial metatheory that peeks through long quotations from the factory inspectors and accounts of the popular press. This chapter contains some of the more surprising and unexpected metatheoretical material in the first volume of Capital – specifically opening questions of the determinate limits of what can be predicted by this theory of capitalism – what the theory can say, and cannot say, about the sorts of struggles likely to arise, and how those struggles might play out. At the same time, this chapter begins to thematise the relationship between capital, state regulation, and the journalistic public sphere. This chapter’s particular “immanent voice” – captured in long quotations, interspersed by Marx’s own sardonic commentary – is that of state bureaucrats (factory inspectors) and journalists – as well as the voices of capital as played out in these emergent public spheres.

First some brief background – with the caveat that, as I’ll need to summarise this argument quickly here, the broader strategic intent of this economistic-sounding argument won’t be clear – I’ll hopefully be able to come back to all of this more adequately at another time.

Previous chapters have already established that there is something strange about commodities of the human sort. Somehow, such commodities manage to be sold for their full value – and yet, somehow, surplus value emerges from this transaction. Marx is aware, of course, that all sorts of swindles and abuses may prevent labour power from being sold at its full value, but he brackets these potentials because, as he puts it somewhere, an entire society cannot grow materially richer by stealing from itself: somewhere, somehow, a kind of surplus is produced and, on the level of society as a whole, such a surplus does not arise solely from unequal distribution, however unequally distributed wealth might be: a surplus must somehow be generated. But where could a surplus come from, if labour-power is bought and sold at its full value?

Marx answers this question by introducing a distinction between the costs of the reproduction of labour power, and the value derived from capital’s use of labour-power for a specific duration. Labour’s exchange value, then, is its cost of reproduction (speaking here, although it may not yet be quite clear in the text, across capitalist society as a whole – individual labour powers, like individual commodities of all kinds, may be purchased for prices above and below the actual cost of reproducing those empirical labours – a clinical-sounding point with devastating human implications). Labour’s use value, however, is the role it plays in generating surplus value. Thus it becomes structurally possible for labour (again, across the whole of capitalist society) to be bought and sold at its full value, while still also generating surplus value.

Continuing to skip superficially through the previous chapters, surplus value production takes place, according to Marx’s argument, in that period during which labour works in excess of whatever time would have been necessary merely to reproduce labour power. The sum of the time spent on both necessary and surplus labour constitutes the working day.

Marx voices this as though he is speaking of individual labourers, the wage required for their personal subsistence, and the length of their personal working day. It becomes clearer in chapter 11, on the Rate and Mass of Surplus Value, that Marx – as I’ve been noting above – intends these categories (like all his others) to be indiscernible at the level of immediate empirical experience at levels of abstraction below that of capitalist society as a whole, as its dynamic unfolds over time:

The labour which is set in motion by the total capital of a society, day in, day out, may be regarded as a single collective working-day.

More on all of this at some other time. For the moment, I intend these flashbacks and flashforwards simply to provide a bit of context to understand how the chapter on the working day slots into the text. With this out of the way, just a few brief points on the chapter itself.

The chapter on the working day explores the consequences of a structural variability or intrinsic indeterminacy at the heart of capitalist production. On the one hand, previous chapters have established that the rate of surplus value production hinges on the proportion of the working day devoted to necessary labour vs. the production of surplus value. On the other hand, no intrinsic structural determination governs the absolute length of the working day. This combination – the structural importance of the rate of surplus value production within the working day, absent a structural determination of the duration of the working day – defines a space of conflict. Marx initially describes this conflict from the perspectives immanently available to the process of commodity exchange, in which labourers and capitalists face off as sellers and buyers of the commodity labour-power, each determined to receive the full value of the exchange:

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

Here, where the forms of subjectivity that inhabit the sphere of commodity exchange reach their limit – where equal rights claims offer no basis for selecting one right above the other – Marx opens up the space for force. The “free” sphere of commodity exchange is presented here as immanently generating an impasse that points to the existence of further perspectives that lie beyond the sphere of commodity exchange, but are nevertheless connected immanently to that sphere. Marx says here:

Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class. (italics mine)

Class conflict is the mode in which the determination of the working day presents itself – expressing the perspectives available with the sphere of commodity exchange, which divides capital as buyer, and labour as seller, or the commodity labour power. This presentation (remembering that Marx tends to use this term for how some particular dimension of capitalist society “gives” itself, but where this particular “given” is not the only possible perspective that can cast meaningful light on what the “given” perspective describes) expresses a socially meaningful binary relationship generated within the sphere of commodity exchange. This presentation is not, however, identical with the empirical actors whose skirmishes play out in practice over the long process of political struggle that results in the eventual determination of the normal working day. Instead, the complex and nuanced stories Marx presents in this chapter are filled with diverse social actors combined into complex collective arrays whose allegiances frequently shift in response to circumstances that are clearly presented in the text as contingent – as something the theory of capital does not attempt to predict or regard as foreordained. The binary categories of class conflict therefore do not seem to be intended to grasp the immediate empirical identities of collective actors, but rather to capture a genuinely bifurcated set of structural consequences that arise from a much more diverse set of empirical conflicts.

Of course, as with any other immanently-available perspective unfolded in Capital, class categories can also become the nucleus around which subjective self-experiences of social actors can crystalise. And, as with other immanent-available perspectives unfolded in Capital, class categories can be confused as naturally inhering in some particular empirical group – can be confused, that is, for categories of immediate empirical experience – instead of being seen as real abstractions expressing the collective enactment of a particular structural relationship.

The consequences of this confusion are ambivalent: marking a site for creative political potential, but also for misrecognition.

On the one hand, the availability of forms of subjectivity associated with class identity makes it possible to create movements of empirical social actors united around a resonant class identity – to seize potentials latent in a real abstraction, and create a transformative movement of empirical social actors who mobilise around these potentials and this identity.

On the other hand, the assumption that some particular identity will necessarily or naturalistically inhere in the members of specific empirical groups – like the assumption that some given commodity will sell at its value – can be mistaken: the practical, empirical affiliations and responses of social actors can be expected to be much more diverse and fluid than the binary class categories suggest. On another level, a “naturalistic” misunderstanding of class categories can render more likely a politics oriented to the realisation of the working class as a working class – a form of politics that is vital in the contest to humanise capitalism, but that by itself does not point beyond capitalism. (Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, for example, polemicises against this kind of vision of working class politics in the beautifully titled The Right to Be Lazy, arguing that the working class should not assert its “right to work” – its rights as sellers of labour power in the labour market – but rather assert its “right to be lazy”, its collective potential to contest the endless productivist drive characteristic of capitalist accumulation.) All of this, however, deserves a much more elaborate treatment than I can provide here – I’ll leave these points inadequately developed for now, and move a bit further along in the text.

In the development of this evocative chapter, Marx explores the historically unique boundlessness of capitalism’s drive for surplus value. The language in these sections – of were-wolves, vampires, and other animated creatures preying on living labour – deserves an analysis in its own right (I have made previous gestures at this here), as does the analysis of decentred and diverse small-scale conflicts, reminiscent in many respects of Foucault. For present purposes, I’ll leave these issues aside, and draw attention to the voices that speak in this portion of the text: state officials and journalists (even the voices of capital, in this section, are addressed to or through one of these). Marx has unfolded the possibility for such voices immanently from within his discussion of the conflict of equal rights that remains irreconcilable within the categories available within the sphere of commodity exchange alone: between equal rights, force decides – the force, in this case, of legislation and the public sphere. The story Marx unfolds in this chapter describes these forms of force as responses to capital’s own boundless drive for surplus extraction – a drive that is coercive on individual capitals, and that therefore requires a countervailing universal force. He thus describes the gradual emergence of enforced limits on the working day as the “negative expression” of the boundlessness of capital’s own drive for surplus value:

If the Règlement organique of the Danubian provinces was a positive expression of the greed for surplus-labour which every paragraph legalised, the English Factory Acts are the negative expression of the same greed. These acts curb the passion of capital for a limitless draining of labour-power, by forcibly limiting the working-day by state regulations, made by a state that is ruled by capitalist-and landlord. Apart from the working-class movement that daily grew more threatening, the limiting of factory labour was dictated by the same necessity which spread guano over the English fields. The same blind eagerness for plunder that in the one case exhausted the soil, had, in the other, torn up by the roots the living force of the nation.

He further recounts the ways in which such constraints were initially exceptionalised (enacted for certain categories of workers – children, then women, then men in some industries but not all) – and, in this form, were initially largely unsuccessful – until, with periodic reversals and surges, constraints grew more and more universal, and thus more “adequate” to capital. A tipping point in the English story comes when large industry’s own need for predictability in the production process, combined with the fear of social unrest from the working classes, drives the development of a legislated normal working day. Marx makes clear, however, that this sequence of events was by no means uniform across different countries – that local circumstances and random events fundamentally shaped the course of the political contestation. The text suggests that the theory of capitalism Marx is outlining can make sense of the emergence of a particular kind of defused contestation, of key political ideals that would resonate during such contestations, of some of the complex consequences – many of these initially unintended by the social actors engaged in political contestation, but nevertheless plausible and intelligible with reference to the theory – that flow from various moments in this contestation, and of the form of political resolution “adequate” to prevent capital’s own boundless drive from undermining the reproduction of labour-power on which capitalist production itself relies. Yet the text also treats an enormous amount as contingent: this chapter does not suggest that a theory of capitalism will provide a vision of predictable, linear, theorisable historical outcomes from a process of political contestation, such that the theory can specify structural conditions that drive in one direction alone, and that will outweigh the effects of local situations and contingent events in determining the success or failure of specific political initiatives.

Much more needs to be said, and I’m conscious that much of what I’ve already written is extraordinarily underdeveloped and, in this form, deeply problematic – this is an intensely rich chapter, and I am not doing justice to its argument. But it’s getting very late here, and I need to call it a night. Unfortunately, I probably won’t get back to Capital for the next few weeks – many other things on my plate right now. Apologies for these various forms of truncation – at some point, I intend to get back to this. But it will be a while…

Modernities Conference Talk

Too tired to post anything substantive tonight. I’ve posted the conference talk to the Modernities: Radicalism, Reflexivity, Realities conference below the fold, for the curious.

A few folks at the conference also asked where they could find the background material that lies behind the reading of Marx hinted at in the conference paper. In case anyone drops by, the back posts on the first chapter of Capital are listed immediately below (although I’m in the process of consolidating all this into something shorter and a bit more linear than in the think-out-loud material posted to the blog thus far):

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

Not Knowing Where to Have It

Cartesian Fragment

Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

Random Metatheory

The Universal as Particular

Many thanks to folks who showed up to lend their support when I was presenting. For folks who weren’t there, but have been reading the blog regularly, I’m not certain that the materials below the fold will add much you haven’t seen. In some ways, I find conference talks more limited than the blog – the writing feels much less nuanced, even though it is probably a bit better organised than most of what I typically write here… Note that what I say at the event is never quite identical to what I write beforehand; in this case, though, it’s likely to be fairly close… Read more of this post

The Deserving Lost

So my Delegate Survival Kit has finally arrived. Sadly, its contents are disappointingly mundane: how to get from the airport to the conference, how to forage in and around Hobart (much mention of food, but not a single mention of coffee – I am deeply suspicious about the implications of this omission…). One provision did attract my attention, though:


If you’re legitimately lost or late we’ll find you. A “lost soul’s” rescue mobile number will be included in the Conference Booklet. Midnight or “Wee-Small-Hours” revellers excepted.

“Legitimately” lost? As opposed to all you bludgers out there feigning lostness when you’re really just too cheap to pay for a cab? (And, evidently, as opposed to those who are simply too blindingly drunk to find a cab – although, in that case, I suspect the use of the “rescue mobile number” might also prove a bit of a challenge…)

I note a certain tension in the document between this apparent lack of sympathy for late night revellers, and the all caps promise that, even though the conference dinner will end at 9:30, “THERE ARE PLENTY OF PLACES TO KICK-ON LATER!” Perhaps by that point, one is not supposed to care if one ends up lost…

Modernities Conference Info

The programme and venue information for the Modernities: Radicalism, Reflexivity, Realities conference has finally been posted online. The event will be held at the Graduate Centre at Melbourne University (which, I am told, is in the Gryphon Gallery, 1888 Grattan St. Carlton, near the corner of Grattan and Swanston), on Thursday and Friday this week. The conference programme is available here.

I note with some amusement that the conference organisers have evidently been resistant to updating the title and abstract for my presentation, which was originally intended to address certain themes in Benjamin and Marx (as the programme currently indicates). I’ve since refocussed the talk entirely on Marx, and on a slightly different aspect of Marx than I had originally intended, with only the most gestural reference to Benjamin, and with some additional definitional material and background information about how this fits into an overarching project… This shift happened when I realised that what I had originally intended to present, required quite a lot of prior background for comprehensibility – and that the presentation of this background would itself be difficult within the time constraints of this conference. The updated title was meant to have been “The Phenomenology of Capital: Practising Subjects, Objects and Things in Between” – regular readers of this blog can likely guess what the abstract would have said… ;-P Since I do intend to present the updated version (I hadn’t realised, actually, that the conference organisers intended to overlook the request to update the title and abstract), we’ll hope neither the organisers, nor anyone else in attendance, is too annoyed by this shift…

I will put the talk on the blog after the event – I have a tendency to keep tinkering with these things until the moment I deliver them (as well as a tendency to depart the text fairly quickly into speaking, so there’s often a somewhat random relationship between what I write, and what I say…). I very much doubt this presentation will cover any ground not already familiar to folks who have been reading the blog over the past few months. The point of this presentation is, essentially, to engage in a “cryptic looks” test: I want to see how confused people seem, when I try to deliver a 15-minute version of what I’m trying to do with Marx. The notion is that this will help me figure out how difficult my summer’s writing is going to be… Or convince me that I’ve made a terrible mistake deciding to write on this topic at all… One or the other…

Perhaps I’ll see some of you on Thursday…


head in handsThe other day, I received an out-of-the-blue apology from a friend. This deeply confused me, as I had no idea what had given them the impression they needed to apologise. I eventually worked out that they had passed by me on the street, said something to me, and I had walked past without acknowledging them – and that they had interpreted this as a deliberate act, and then tried to work out what they might have done, to cause me to treat them so badly.

This morning, I have had three separate people finally manage to attract my attention while I was working in a coffee shop. Two were able to do so only by grabbing my shoulder and shaking me. The third had to tolerate my staring at them blankly for several seconds while I tried to remember who they were (which, in context, was quite a ridiculous thing for me to need to do).

The moral of these little anecdotes is: I am spending an enormous amount of my time at the moment in another world entirely. My body may in fact be wandering aimlessly down the street, or enjoying a cup of coffee, or doing whatever it is that bodies do when their Cartesian counterpart has drifted away, but I am, unfortunately, utterly and completely oblivious to pretty much everything going on around me at the moment because, whether or not I physically look like I am writing or revising, I am writing or revising. I might look like I’m staring directly at you on the street, but all that I am actually seeing are awkward turns of phrase that I want to correct. I might appear to be smiling at you in a coffee shop, but what I am actually doing is grimacing at painful holes in my own logic… At the moment, my gaze is directed almost entirely inwardly, and I am much more than oblivious to whatever else is going on around…

At some point – hopefully soon – some of this writing will start spilling out here again. The kind of writing I am doing at the moment, involves a lot of recasting of earlier sections as later ones fall into form. Since much of what I’m recasting has already gone up on the blog in various forms, it seems at best impolite to inflict very rough interim redrafts on readers here. So I’ll wait until I have something like a complete rough redraft, and then toss the whole thing up for feedback prior to the next round of revision.

Back to oblivion now…

Lyric and Performance

Nate over at what in the hell… manages to capture pretty much every critique I’ve ever written of another theorist, in a post on immanent contradictions within musical forms:

…most of my favorite songs have a pretty despairing content lyrically. It’s part of that sensibility I like of being trapped as opposed to lost. At the same time, the music isn’t actually conveying “give up.” The content of the lyrics tends to convey that, but that same content has no explanation for why the song was written. That is, if the lyrical content told the whole story, the song would never have been written or performed. What I like about this, is that performance of a song like that conveys something that the lyrics don’t. The performance says something more than “give up,” it says “we keep on keeping on.” The “we” is important. The despairing sensibility in the words as written is usually an individual sentiment, whereas the performance involves one or more singers alongside multiple instruments and (in live performance, where music is best) a bunch of interactions with the audience which can make or break the quality of the performance. That conveys less of an idea and more of a feeling that there’s more than dead ends, that circumstances which can provoke despair can be pushed on through.

Nate goes on to suggest that perhaps the performance of such an experience is more important – more powerful – than its explicit lyrical expression could ever be:

For some reason the performance of that feeling is more powerful than the straightforward statement of that idea, I think because in moments of despair the problem is often less one of right ideas than it is of conviction in those ideas. Ideas can be (probably always are) a part of despair and its alternatives, but ideas aren’t always a sound answer, and it’s the non-idea or extra-idea parts of music that I think help to get the bits that need more than or other than just ideas.

Here we might part company a bit – although I’m open to the possibility that Nate might be right about this: I understand my work as an experiment predicated on the hope that we might become much more powerful, if we can also somehow learn to express and understand the potentials we collectively enact.

Incidentally, for those who haven’t yet seen, Nate has committed to writing a post a day this month, with an average target length of 500 words per post, as a blogging variant of National Novel Writing Month. So check in regularly to see what he does with this…