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
Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History
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…
The Phenomenology of Capital
At the most general level, I am interested in the question of how to understand the emergence of critical sensibilities, and specifically with whether it is possible to understand such sensibilities via a social theory of a particular form – something I tend to call an “immanent, reflexive critique”. This terminology is often used in different – sometimes contradictory – ways in different literatures, making some preliminary definitions a useful starting point. First, to dispense with a couple of potential confusions that may lurk close to the surface: the vocabulary of “immanence” is often used in the context of a strong, general ontological claim – as an assertion of “materialism” in an ontological sense, or as a rejection of the notion of anything transcendent to nature, or as a claim that the subject/object dualism is illusory, or similar claims. These are all important and interesting issues. For purposes of this talk, however, I am speaking of something much more narrow, when I use the term “immanence”: when I ask whether an “immanent” critical theory is possible, I am asking whether it is possible to construct a critical theory that draws its ideals from within the society that it criticises.
“Reflexivity” is a similarly vexed term, often associated with questions related to the self-awareness of the individual subject, or the conditions of possibility for rationality. Again, I am using the term in a more narrow and technical sense: I am interested in the question of whether a theory, rather than an individual, can be “reflexive”. For my purposes, a theory is reflexive if, in the process of theorising the reproduction of the society that it criticises, it can plausibly demonstrate that social reproduction is internally contradictory, generating the possibility for some alternative organisation of social life, necessarily and in the very act of reproducing this one.
It is now quite common for critical theories to reject metaphysics, to insist on the impossibility of accessing some kind of “Archimedean point” outside of existing society, and to assert that all forms of perceiving and knowing are necessarily situated and located within some particular social context. This may suggest that most forms of critical theory are also immanent and reflexive in the sense in which I wish to use these terms. I want to suggest, however, than immanent and reflexive theories are far rarer than it may seem at first glance. There is a difference between asserting that all positions are immanent, and showing how particular positions – whether affirming or critical of a particular context – are immanently constituted by specific forms of collective practice. While I can be no more than gestural here, I would suggest that, on close examination, many common forms of critical theory take a different form than what I’m trying to “pick out” with the concept of immanent reflexive critique. Running through a few broad brush strokes categories for types of critique may help clarify what, by contrast, I am trying to do:
First, and most obviously, there are types of theory engaged in what Habermas has called “cryptonormativity” – where the theorist adopts an explicit standpoint that the “situatedness” of ideas undermines the ability to make normative judgments, but continues to engage in critical practices that the theorist’s explicit theoretical commitments cannot “ground”. An immanent and reflexive critique does not see relativism as an implication of establishing the “situatedness” of critical ideals, but instead seeks to understand better how such ideals arise in collective practice, specifically in the form of unrealised potentials for emancipatory change.
Second, there are types of theory that collapse social analysis to the notion of a functional analysis. The key issue here, from my perspective, is that a functional analysis generally does not concern itself with the question of how something is generated in collective practice, or with why something takes some particular qualitative form, but instead looks solely to the role played or function filled by its object of analysis.
Third – and very common – are theories that criticise a process of social reproduction against standards provided by something that tacitly or explicitly stands outside that process of reproduction. This understanding of critique can be found in a wide range of theories – for example: in the “tragic stoic” pessimism of Weber or Freud; in theories attempting to ground a potential for resistance in “bodily experience”, in “remainders” intrinsically generated in the process of socialisation or similar concepts; in theories seeking out some kind of “margin” because they tacitly or explicitly believe that critical sensibilities can’t be generated in the “core”; in theories that seek out residues of pre- or anti-modern social forms, etc. These diverse types of theory share a common notion that critical ideals must somehow arise outside the form of socialisation being criticised.
Fourth, theories that identify some kind of inherent undecidability or indeterminacy that prevents any process of social reproduction from becoming “totalising”. In some senses, this is a special variant on the notion that critique must arise from “the outside”. The key issue here is that such theories tend to ground a very abstract potential for unpredictable (and therefore untheorisable) forms of change to happen, which disrupt the steady process of social reproduction. These types of theory tend either to treat the form of change as unpredictable, or else to hypostatise this form by failing to theorise the ways in which its qualitative form has been shaped by a specific process of social reproduction;
Fifth, theories that change the terms of the problem, embedding the process of social reproduction inside something else (typically, a broader natural or historical process). Such theories can still assert that an “immanent” contradiction exists, and can still position themselves as “reflexive” – they just become immanent and reflexive with reference to something broader than a process of social reproduction (the obvious contemporary example of this approach would be Habermas).
I want to emphasise very strongly here that I am not listing these various approaches to critical theory in order to reject them, in favour of an alternative concept of critique that I think must be embraced to the exclusion of others. My position is that multiple forms of critique may simultaneously be valid, with reference to their respective critical targets, and that the validity or appropriateness of any particular vision of critique is something that needs to be analysed in a nuanced and non-dogmatic way.
My intention in providing this kind of rough and ready schematisation is instead to suggest that I am trying to hit a fairly narrow target with the notion of an “immanent, reflexive critical theory”. The form of theory that interests me involves an attempt, not simply to assert that all forms of criticism are inevitably located, but to provide an account of the genesis within collective practice of critical sensibilities. It involves, moreover, an attempt to account for the genesis of critical sensibilities through its analysis of the reproduction of some specific society, rather than societies in general, and it attempts to understand that specific process of social reproduction as contradictory in the sense that it simultaneously reproduces society in its existing form, and generates potentials, both material and ideal, that point beyond this process of reproduction in some specific way.
Within this framework, critical sensibilities are thus understood to arise in the core, rather than the margins, as an aspect of social reproduction, rather than as something that sits outside the reproductive process, as a determinate expression of the practical potential to transform our collective lives in some specific way, rather than as a generic and abstract potential for change. This is the target I am trying to hit, when I ask whether it is possible to constitute an adequate immanent, reflexive critical theory today.
I need to say now that I think we must approach this as an open question. I see no point in asserting dogmatically that this kind of theory should even be possible – no reason to assume that a process of social reproduction should generate systematic and therefore theorisable potentials for an alternative organisation of collective life. The issue at hand is therefore: is there some way in which our specific form of collective life might do such a strange thing now? If so, then something like an immanent, reflexive critical theory is possible. If so, then the failure to engage in such a theory will leave us in the dark about key aspects of our collective lives.
There is a great deal more I could say here – in particular, on the question of why certain historical traumas – most notably the rise of totalitarianism and state-centred forms of capitalism in the early 20th century, and then the constellation of crises emanating from the structural transformations beginning in the late 1960s, together with the iconic events of May ’68 – have worked, in different ways, to push critical theory away from this particular vision of immanent, reflexive critique.
The brief and inadequate version of this story is that theorists with critical impulses became averse – for good reason – to the notion that critical ideals should be grounded in “what is” (and with the sometimes associated belief that critique should align itself with the inexorable movement of the tide of history). Critical ideals came to be reformulated in counterfactual terms – critique was reconceptualised as a ceaselessly restless enterprise that could never fully settle in any particular existent form, but would instead remain in a state of perpetual non-identity.
This shift was, however, effected in a form that tended to sever the link between critique and any kind of immanent social contradiction – posing the challenge of how theorists could understand the relationship between their own critical ideals, and practical potentials for emancipatory change. If the current complaints about the failure of revolutionary imagination are any guide, we still find ourselves in the shadow of this historical shift.
When I pose the question of whether it is possible to construct an adequate immanent, reflexive critical theory, I therefore do so with this history in full view. Into the notion of “adequacy”, I smuggle the question of whether we can conceptualise a process of social reproduction that somehow points beyond itself – without, however, this meaning that critique is being conceptualised as somehow aligning clearly and unambiguously with some existent social institution. Is there some sense in which we can speak about the generation of practical potentials for transformation, without conceptualising transformation in terms of the generalisation or universalisation of something that currently exists, in its present form?
As Marx might say – “These are the conditions of the problem: hic Rhodus, hic salta!” This is the ground where we must make our leap.
In making this leap, I have to confess, I sought to avoid working closely with Marx. Not because I have a personal objection to Marx’s work, but because I was, and remain, quite nervous about the possibility of writing on Marx, without the reception of my work falling into one of the deep and well-established grooves into which historical gravity tends to draw interpretations of Marx.
In spite of this continuing hesitation, I have found it impossible to avoid confronting what Marx was attempting, particularly in Capital – a work which I read as an immanent, reflexive critique in all the senses I have discussed above. What I want to try to do here is simply open the question of how we might read this text, to draw from it – not a completed theoretical system that can be applied directly to contemporary concerns – but a supple model of theoretical methodology that poses some useful challenges for contemporary critique.
I want to begin by saying that a great deal of my reading of Capital hinges on the notion that Marx is very often not voicing his own position explicitly in this text. Instead, I want to suggest, a key part of the textual strategy of Capital involves the unfolding and exploration of various, often mutually contradictory, perspectives that are understood to be immanently “given” in the process of the reproduction of capital.
If this text is read “straight”, as though each moment unfolds a position that Marx himself endorses, the text becomes inexcusably and implausibly contradictory. The various moves Marx makes become more comprehensible, however, if the work is read as a kind of phenomenology – as a movement across multiple, immanently available forms of subjectivity, each related to some specific dimension of collective practice.
Because the theory is immanent and reflexive, Marx must somehow demonstrate how his own critical ideals could plausibly arise within the process of social reproduction he is criticising – such that he can criticise this process of social reproduction from within, rather than adopting a standpoint outside.
Marx folds this critical concept into the heart of his textual strategy, producing what I tend to call an “immanently voiced” text. Borrowing here from Hegel, Marx begins with a particular “given” – a specific perspective that arises immanently within a particular moment of the reproduction of capital – and then demonstrates how this moment betrays the existence of other moments – some of which ultimately react back on one another, collectively revealing the limitations and shortcomings of other perspectives. The analysis aims never to require a leap “outside”: no criticisms are to be made from some objective “Archimedean point” that floats above the process of the reproduction of capital.
In this brief presentation, I can’t do more than make a quick gesture at illustrating how this strategy unfolds within the text. The opening passage of Capital reads:
The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”, its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.
Looking ahead in the text, however, we know that Marx does not hold this view. In the concluding section on commodity fetishism, towards which this chapter builds, Marx launches into a typically sardonic diatribe against theorists who treat commodities as material objects that possess mysterious, supersensible properties, on which social practices rely.
In between the opening passage and this polemic on commodity fetishism, Marx gradually unfolds the ways in which several immanently “given” perspectives point to the existence of other perspectives, in a process that gradually accumulates critical resources without the need to breach the immanent frame of the analysis.
To trace the movement of the opening passage very quickly: Marx begins in a “Cartesian” thought-space, in which the commodity appears to be “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another”. This object has a dual character. One dimension of that duality – use value – is presented as deriving from the commodity’s material properties, the discovery of which is “the work of history”. The use values created from these material properties are framed as “the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth”. The other dimension of the commodity – exchange value – is then presented as the historically specific social form of wealth in capitalist society – and therefore as more contingent than the material substance. Exchange value is presented as one of many potential social forms to have been wrapped around this same material substance – such that the relationship between form and substance is, from the point of view of this perspective, contingent and arbitrary.
In these first few paragraphs, Marx quickly sets up a dichotomy between a transhistorical and universalistic “material” world, and an arbitrary and contingent “social” world – suggesting, perhaps, that insights into the material world might provide a privileged position from which to criticise arbitrary social determinations about wealth. Yet this dichotomy isn’t, in any straightforward sense, part of an argument Marx is trying to make, but is rather something more like an illustration of a perspective whose practical origins Marx is trying to understand. He doesn’t say this explicitly in the text, because this would break the immanent voicing and step outside the forms of perception available to this particular perspective. In Marx’s view, this would render the form of text incompatible with its content – a stylistic principle that expresses the conceptual strategy of his immanent critique (and that, interestingly, deviates from the arbitrary connection posited between form and content in the opening paragraphs of Capital).
The section on the fetish, of course, lets us know where Marx is headed. He does, though, also offer a number of textual clues earlier. The first is actually in the first sentence, where he makes the strange gesture of quoting himself midway through. Marx here subtly reminds the reader of the possible non-identity between what he elsewhere calls “the mode of presentation” and the “mode of investigation” – pointing to the fact that Capital is itself the end product of a prior process of research, which did not unfold along the same lines as the deductive analysis presented in the text. He also tacitly sets up this first sentence so that the way in which capitalist society “presents itself” – the form of perception that is “given” within the process of the reproduction of capital – references Marx: his own critical standpoint, the text suggests, is already implied, even in the very earliest categories introduced in Capital. He is flagging his intention to unfold the possibility for his own perspective, immanently, through an analysis of perspectives that initially appear quite different from his own: whether apparent yet or not, there is some sense in which the possibility for Marx’s critique is already immanently implied.
There are many other such hints, but I’ll break off from the detailed textual discussion – I’ve written more on this in other contexts, if people want to follow up. In terms of the structure of the rest of the chapter: very roughly, Marx goes on to unfold a critique of this “Cartesian” perspective, by first moving through a sort of Kantian transcendental argument, en route to a “Hegelian” dialectical mode of theory. He unfolds the possibility for each new perspective immanently from the perspective just prior – he also, particularly by the third section, begins explicitly to mobilise the insights gleaned from his analysis of specific perspectives, in the critique of perspectives earlier in the text.
In this context, critique consists in the exploration of the internal tensions within the perspectives he analyses – thus illustrating the ways in which no perspective can be interpreted as neatly separated from the broader context of the reproduction of capital. Critique also consists in “grounding” each perspective in an analysis of how such a perspective is not a “mere” error or illusion, but instead a kind of plausible interpretation of the experience of some particular moment of capitalist society, if that moment is not adequately recognised as partial. Marx therefore runs quickly through perspectives that each, in their own way, hypostatise and falsely extrapolate from experiences that do, however, genuinely express some particular dimension of the reproduction of capital.
There is some fantastic metacommentary in this chapter about the tendency to project moments of capitalism back into prehistory, and about many other themes that are often implicated in how different traditions read Marx (that is to say: many traditions read Marx to be endorsing the sorts of positions I am suggesting he is trying to criticise in this first chapter). I unfortunately don’t have time to do justice to such issues in this talk. I do, though, just want to flag in passing that I am not solely trying to defend Marx against interpreters who understand him to be applying some transhistorical version of materialism: a close unpacking of this chapter challenges a number of common interpretations of how Marx understands the standpoint of his own critical theory.
Just very briefly before I conclude, I want to suggest something of what I take to be one of the overarching frameworks Marx is unfolding, across the whole of Capital. Again, I take this text to be problematising far more than it is generally taken to problematise, and also to be positing far more multiplicity within capitalism than it is often perceived to posit. Specifically, I take Marx to be unfolding an argument that attempts to account for a number of key conceptual dichotomies that he regards as symptomatic within capitalist society, by demonstrating how such dichotomies are not merely conceptual (and therefore cannot be resolved simply by the force of the better argument), but are actively – if nonconsciously – enacted in collective practice. He offers, in other words, a social analysis of real dichotomies that can only be adequately overcome in practice – he also offers an analysis of why the practical basis of such symptomatic dichotomies might be exceptionally easy to overlook.
The pivotal dichotomy, from the perspective of my current work, involves the mutual differentiation of two different dimensions of collective practice – and here I’ll apologise, and I am moving very, very quickly. Speaking very loosely and gesturally here: one dimension involves the imposition of genuinely impersonal forms of social compulsion that are unintentionally enacted by social actors engaged in practices aimed at different ends, and therefore tends to “prime” social actors to perceive asocial environments as possessing a set of qualitative traits that they are enacting in this impersonal dimension of social practice; while a second dimension involves the sorts of social practices that seem “intuitively social” to us – intersubjective practices, for example – to which we become especially sensitised because of how – again, in collective practice – such “intuitively social” practices come to be “relativised”, by being enacted as contingent in various specific ways.
I take Marx’s theory, in other words, to be posing the question of why something like “materialism” becomes intuitive to us – why we become primed to conceptualise nature as a disenchanted realm, intrinsically devoid of anthropological determinations (suggesting, in other words, that the conceptualisation of nature as intrinsically devoid of anthropological determinations is a distinctive form of anthropological determination generated immanently within a certain social context). And also, simultaneously, to be posing the question of why we become primed to see certain kinds of collective practices as social – why we become so sensitive to history, to contingency, to the potential contestability of certain levels of social practice. I take him to be setting up for a critical position that “materialism” – whether or not it might also provide useful conceptual categories for manipulating the natural world to certain ends – somehow expresses practical dispositions that are enacted within a dimension of social practice whose qualitative characteristics make it very difficult for us to recognise as social. At the same time, I take him to be setting up for a critical position that “historicising” forms of perception – whether or not they might also provide useful conceptual categories for understanding the contingency of certain aspects of human practice – tend to distract us endlessly into contestations over dimensions of our collective life that we intuitively grasp as social – thereby tending to deflect us from other forms of contestation that might be required, if capitalism is to be overcome.