Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: January 2008

Scratchpad: From Something, Nothing Comes

Okay. Below the fold is the preliminary draft of the chapterised version of my post from the other day on indeterminacy as a form of determination (doesn’t that line make you wanna peek beneath the fold?). The last third of this chapter is still very undeveloped – basically, if you’re reading, once you get to the point where I start talking about the relationship of all of this to Hegel’s essence/appearance argument, the text from that point gets really sketchy and dubious. If it helps, I’m aware of this, but wanted to write at least a set of placeholder notes for things I want to discuss, when I’m able to revise that section properly. I may not be able to get back to this draft for some days, however, and so I thought I might as well toss it up in its current form. The main line of argument – which relates to how you can provide a socially-immanent explanation for certain categories that appear transhistorical in Marx’s work – is (I hope!!) sufficiently clearly developed for the moment. The points that remain undeveloped will always – in this chapter – be sort of foreshadows of material I can’t discuss in great detail until I’ve set up a few more layers of this argument.

Those who read the version of the previous chapter posted to the blog may notice that the transition at the end of the previous chapter draft doesn’t “work”. That’s because, partially in response to feedback received here, I significantly expanded the previous chapter – to the point that it got a little bit cancerous, and so I split it into two chapters, dividing off the programmatic bits, from the discussion of Marx’s relationship to Hegel, and adding more material to both of those discussions. So I suppose I can now say I’m working on the draft of the third chapter of my thesis. 🙂

Usual caveats apply to the content below the fold – with the additional caveat that, for some reason, I’ve found sleep almost impossible for the past several days, and so I’m really not in the position where I can “hear” this text. I think it’s still okay, but it may be much rougher than I realise. 🙂 Here goes…

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Passing Class

I have been somewhat saddened to see the turn taken by at least one small part of the discussion started by Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time, whose thoughtful post on why she teaches literature elicited what I took at first to be a more lighthearted critique from Joseph Kugelmass – perhaps I mistook the tone: it had been a long day, and I was overtired from writing. Unfortunately, this has turned into a more heated conflict – one I probably ought to stay out of, since I am buried in work right now. In fairness to Dr. Crazy, though, and since when I wrote my previous post, I wouldn’t have realised the need to be clearer where I stand in relation to the substantive issues in what has now become a more serious dispute, I thought I should at least go on record. Readers may be more interested in following up directly with the posts at Reassigned Time (here and here) and the Kugelmass Episodes (here and here). There is also a very good discussion percolating away over at Acephalous.

Some of the heat in this dispute has revolved around a matter of cross-blog etiquette – around the question of whether Dr. Crazy’s post, written in a personal voice developed to communicate with an established community of readers, and intended to voice a personal perspective and individual motivations, was an appropriate target for a more abstract and philosophical form of engagement. More substantively, the debate has revolved around issues of social class and the role of higher education in enabling students to achieve higher socioeconomic status – and, most controversially, teaching students to “pass” in class contexts other than the ones in which they grew up. Dr. Crazy’s original post suggested that one – one among many, but still one – of her goals in teaching literature was the following:

To give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile. Most of my students do not come from families that discuss books over dinner – or art, or advances in science, etc. If they don’t learn how to have conversations about these things, they face a disadvantage when they leave college and enter the broader world. (I should say, I think this may be one of the most compelling arguments for the humanities in the context of higher education at my kind of institution, as it doesn’t matter what degree one has if one can’t hobnob with people from higher class backgrounds when one is done.)

In his original post, the discussion that followed in the comments, and now a new post, Joseph has been objecting with increasing volume to this point. He finds in this comment a patronisation that, to be honest, I can’t hear myself – perhaps my own class background is a bit too similar to those of the students Dr. Crazy discusses – and I have, of course, written previously about my reaction to colleagues who occasionally believe that there is something elitist in trying to help students learn to open the doors that can sometimes be opened only through certain “academic” ways of knowing.

Joe raises more serious concerns about the issue of helping students learn to “pass”. Joe worries that this concept: already expresses a devaluation of working class culture; could easily lead students to adopt middle class ideals – including, perhaps, the ideology that social outcomes derive solely from personal effort – in an uncritical way; is unrealistic, in the sense that academic contexts are unlikely to provide an adequate ability to advance socially, and even more unlikely to equip students with a sufficiently robust “habitus” to blend seamlessly into middle class culture; and could constitute a form of policing or gatekeeping:

Etiquette has two faces: it is a form of courtesy, and also a form of policing. Passing is both empowerment and entrapment. If passing was of vital importance to a particular student population, so much so that it became a primary lens for their whole educational experience, I could imagine building a wonderful literature course around it. It would, like any course, perform its share of socialization, and it would comprehend the desire to pass as other, but it would not settle the matter comfortably. That cannot happen until the injustice itself has passed.

It’s difficult for me to know what to say to all this, perhaps because my own background gets in the way. I’m unclear what the “output” would be from Joe’s approach – what pedagogical principles are being advocated. Injustice is not going to pass during the term. Most of us are engaged in the problem of how to teach now, with the students who exist before us, with the backgrounds they have, in a world that has existing power relations that students must navigate, unjust or not. These are conditions not of our choosing – or theirs. Hic Rhodus, hic salta. This is where we must make our leap.

Something about the whole exchange reminded me of an interview Marx gave late in life. He listed the goals of the International Society – universal male suffrage, health and safety regulations, freedom of assembly, legislation by the people, etc. The reporter, obviously expecting a more radical programme, said:

“But,” I said, “socialists generally look upon the transformation of the means of labor into the common property of society as the grand climax of the movement.”

Marx replied:

“Yes; we say that this will be the outcome of the movement, but it will be a question of time, of education, and the institution of higher social status.”

Demanding Literature

Joseph Kugelmass has tagged me (cross-post at The Valve) to respond to a meme, explaining: Why do you teach literature?

I feel guilty about being tagged for this meme for several reasons. First, thinking of responding causes me to look back over my shoulder guiltily at Claude, whose own tag still somehow eludes me.

Second… perhaps a delicate matter… I… er… don’t teach literature – at least in the sense implied by the posts I’ve read thus far in the discussion, and by Joe’s tag itself, which mentions hoping to hear reflections about the value of teaching in the humanities… I am instead a lurker and reader of the blogs of those who teach literature and the humanities, parasitic on this community for intellectual stimulation, while I myself study and teach… sundry fields – often of the sort that would fall on the “social science” side of the line. As my lurking and, perhaps, writing habits indicate, I don’t place much stock in the social science/humanities divide, and don’t affiliate myself in a strong sense with any particular discipline. I’m nevertheless conscious that, unlike the other respondents to this meme, I have never formally taught a literature course (what happens informally… well, that’s another matter…).

Third, this meme has attracted some truly fantastic responses already, originating in the reflections posted at Reassigned Time, being born as a meme at Free Exchange on Campus, and then viralling its memetic tendrils through Citizen of Somewhere Else, A White Bear, and other sites, no doubt due to increase greatly in number in the near future. Very good discussions have broken out around these posts, and both the original posts and the comments are well worth a read. [Updated to add: Free Exchange on Campus is now maintaining a running archive of contributions.]

Fragonard The ReaderThese earlier posts, and those spiralling out from them, open onto a number of interesting questions about how we engage students with complex materials. Dr. Crazy from Reassigned Time opens the discussion with a reaction against an MLA panel whose justifications for teaching literature appeared too closely bound to the student populations and teaching loads of elite universities:

Those who make claims about why we teach literature often teach very little and teach to a very specific sort of student population; those who talk about trends in the discipline often have very little connection to the vast majority of practitioners within the discipline.

And then suggests the following reasons for teaching literature to a much more diverse range of students, in conditions in which much teaching follows a “consumer model of education”:

– to inspire curiosity;
– to disrupt the consumer model of education;
– to insist on complexity and fine distinctions for understanding the world;
– to give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile; and
– to offer students a break from the other demands on their lives.

The Constructivist, from Citizen of Somewhere Else, discovers analogies between the teaching of literature and the coaching of golf, focussing on cultivating readers who are more attentive to themselves and to texts. The coaching metaphors allow The Constructivist to talk about the important limits of pedagogy:

I’m not trying to indoctrinate my students into what I consider to be the one best way of swinging a club, playing a hole, and thinking your way around a course. Sure, I’ll demonstrate a few shots, show them clips of how various golfers have played a given hole, and give them advice on playing a particular course. But I can’t play the game for them. What I can do is to try to give all my students the tools and the opportunities to practice making their own decisions on how, when, and why to play the game. Because I know from experience that each round of golf is different, even when played on the same course by the same person, I take for granted that every person is going to have their own experience on each reading of a literary text. That doesn’t mean they designed the course; it just means they’re following a fairly unique path around it. And it’s worth their time and effort to keep track of their path, compare it to others’, and reflect on the similarities and differences, not just to modify their techniques and strategies for the next round, but to get a better sense of the range of experiences and emotions golf offers, as well.

This limit, reflected upon, becomes a realm of possibility, a means for students to become aware of the intrinsically social character of our encounter with literature:

Reading is not just the personal and individual and private process of experiencing a text, it is also the social and collective and public process of sharing one’s experiences with others.

A White Bear comments on the need to break through her students’ orientation to texts as commodities, noting students’ tendencies to analyse texts as though reflecting on their potential mass audience commercial appeal, at the expense even of registering their own personal likes and dislikes:

To teach students to approach literature (and language and culture in general) as analysts, with a sense of history, and tools, and expertise, is to give them the power to think as individuals in the face of a large and difficult set of problems. It offers them a way out of obsessing about consensus and marketability. It leads them past the narcissism of personal taste. It makes them ask why things are the way they are and how they got that way. Who benefits? Who suffers? To read and think clearly is to see authors, characters, and even other possible readers not as an undifferentiated mass with spending power or cultural capital, but as individuals, with specific, often conflicting, desires and needs. Reading literature analytically is about making necessary distinctions and prudent, fruitful comparisons, maintaining difference where there is difference, and spotting a false note or an obfuscation for what it fails to represent.

Her post also offers the one-sentence version of this argument:

I teach literature in a desperate plea to my students not to be suckers.

Joseph Kugelmass offers some critical reflections on Dr. Crazy’s original post, pointing to a potential tension within the list above, between moments that attempt to disrupt the consumer model of education, and moments that would seem in some ways to reinforce the core assumptions of that model. Joe searches for a means to cultivate, through literature, a “social and empathic curiosity” through a pedagogical practice that aims explicitly to be impractical in both an economic and (narrowly understood) political sense, aimed squarely at any form of instrumentalisation of the teaching of literature. Joe seeks to open doors: his students must walk through them on their own. At the same time, he playfully appropriates A White Bear’s concept of “the sucker” to suggest the sort of disjoint he wants to achieve through this technique – knocking his students just slightly out of kilter with the straight plane of an instrumentally-oriented world:

A White Bear writes, very wittily, that she teaches in order to plead with her students not to be suckers. I do love the salty, healthy skepticism that aesthetic training provides. Nonetheless, I have to admit that most often books make readers look like suckers. They bore their friends with the details of character and plot. They buy tributary, explanatory books with annotations or critical essays. They name various things after books or parts of books, including cats, computers, and their personas on the Internet. Whenever a reader is acting most naturally, minus the solemnizing accessories of a leather chair and a study, she looks like a dreamer, a fool, or both. Yes, that’s what I teach. It’s not always dignified, but it’s irreplaceable.

These are wonderful reflections, and I’m unsure that I would find much to add, even if I were not a student of sundry fields, who spends much of my time teaching social science methodology and economics – with the occasional foray into planning theory as the closest approach to humanities subjects (and here under heavy duress to suppress the connections I do make to the humanities). Yet the concerns raised in the posts above do resonate for me – and not simply abstractly, but as matters of direct pedagogical urgency.

chimeraOne of the things I find myself thinking about often is a strange tension in at least the local variant of the consumer model of education. Courses should be “practical” – shouldn’t stray too far or fast from what is necessary to equip students for the professional demands of their careers. This position is justified with reference to the claim that the students are the consumers, and their demand drives toward greater and greater practicality and professional relevance for their coursework. This rationale, however, is a chimera. When students – undergraduate students – come to us, they do not know what their professions will demand of them, what it means for coursework to be “practical” in a professionally-relevant sense. They also don’t know what professions exist – or what sorts of work might be possible within the professions they have heard something about – and thus what sorts of “practices” might be relevant, somewhere, somewhen, in some professional space. They also don’t know what university is – what university “ought” to be. And they don’t know what they are – or what they might become, as possibilities are opened for them through their encounters with one another, with teachers, with texts, at university.

They learn the answers – or, perhaps more accurately, the boundaries or limits on the acceptable types of answers – largely from us. From their encounters with marketing materials, recruitment staff, orientation, the courses we require – and the courses we allow them to choose. We create our own consumers – whose constructed demands we then somehow manage to position as forces that exist outside of us, forms of domination to which we must comply. Of course, we don’t create our own consumers in a vacuum – given my own work, I can’t help but be aware of the pressures on students and universities alike to instrumentalise education in the service of employability, accountability, direct applicability in some professional sphere. When we start inflecting these complex structural pressures, however, in terms of some rhetoric of “consumer choice” – as though we are reacting to a “given” presented by the autonomous decisions of our students – we greatly diminish our appreciation for our own institutional agency in constituting, and in failing to engage critically with, certain forms of “demand”.

My classes, generally, are hard. They involve a great deal of reading and writing. The texts are not easy. The concepts are difficult. The students are often initially extremely sceptical, having been socialised (not least by their university experiences) to be distrustful of anything too “academic”. This reaction, though, isn’t fixed and frozen, as suggested by the model of “consumer driven” education. The course itself transforms the nature of student expectations and demands – not for all students, of course, but for a significant number. How much more might this be possible – and how many new and interesting “demands” might our “consumers” place upon us – if more opportunities for such exploration were built in to the curriculum? I’m not sure if this exactly answers the question posed, but these concerns certainly do shape how I teach – which is with an eye to opening possibilities that students could not otherwise encounter, outside the confrontation with difficult material, taught in a way that attempts to demystify this difficulty, and in the process show students something about themselves and their world that they could not have dreamt without at least a bit of… philosophy…

Okay. I think I’m supposed to tag people now… ;-P Not sure whom to tap. Nate, Wildly, the folks at Perverse Egalitarianism (do you count as more than one? or do you get out of this entirely, since you write so often and so well on pedagogical issues?), ZaPaper, and – can I tap someone who doesn’t have a blog? – would perhaps rob be willing to comment on this?

[Note: images from Wikipedia, with original sources linked above.]

We Are a Million in the Streets. Why Should We Go Home?

I was looking up some material on May ’68 this evening – Marxists Internet Archive has a wonderful eyewitness account, particularly sensitive to the details of how various formal working class “representatives” behaved during the uprisings. It’s a story, among other things, of attempted control of the events by various organisers – and of the moment of spontaneity that overflowed such attempts.

image from the May 68 uprising

Lots of anecdotes of this sort:

Although the demonstration has been announced, as a joint one, the CGT leaders are still striving desperately to avoid a mixing up, on the streets, of students and workers. In this they are moderately successful. By about 4-30 p.m. the student and teachers’ contingent, perhaps 80,000 strong, finally leaves the Place de la République. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have preceded it, hundreds of thousands follow it, but the “left” contingent has been well and truly “bottled-in.” Several groups, understanding at last the CGT’s manoeuvre, break loose once we are out of the square. They take short cuts via various side streets, at the double, and succeed in infiltrating groups of 100 or so into parts of the march ahead of them, or behind them. The Stalinast stewards walking hand in hand” and hemming the march in on either side are powerless to prevent these sudden influxes. The student demonstrators scatter like fish in water as soon as they have entered a given contingent. The CGT marchers themselves are quite friendly and readily assimilate the newcomers, not quite sure what it’s all about.


The part of the march in which I find myself is now rapidly approaching what the organizers have decided should be the dispersal point. The CGT is desperately keen that its hundreds of thousands of supporters should disperse quietly. It fears them, when they are together. It wants them nameless atoms again, scattered to the four corners of Paris, powerless in the context of their individual preoccupations. The CGT sees itself as the only possible link between them as the divinely ordained vehicle for the expression of their collective will. The “Mouvement du 22 Mars,” on the other hand, had issued a call to the students and workers, asking them to stick together and to proceed to the lawns of the Champ de Mars (at the foot of the Eiffel Tower) for a massive collective discussion on the experiences of the day and on the problems that lie ahead.

At this stage I sample for the first time what a “service d’ordre” composed of Stalinist stewards really means, All day, the stewards have obviously been anticipating this particular moment. They are very tense, clearly expecting “trouble.” Above all else they fear what they call “debordement,” i.e. being outflanked on the left. For the last half-mile of the march five or six solid rows of them line up on either side of the demonstrators. Arms linked, they form a massive sheath around the marchers. CGT officials address the bottled-up demonstrators through two powerful loudspeakers mounted on vans, instructing them to disperse quietly via the Boulevard Arago, i.e. to proceed in precisely the opposite direction to the one heading to the Champ de Mars. Other exits from the Place Denfert Rochereau are blocked by lines of stewards linking arms.

On occasions like this, I am told the Communist Party calls up thousands of its members from the Paris area. It al so summons members from miles around, bringing them up by the coachload from places as far away as Rennes, Orleans, Sens, Lille and Limoges. The municipalities under Communist Party control provide further hundreds of these “stewards” not necessarily Party members, but people dependent on the goodwill of the Party for their jobs and future. Ever since its heyday of participation in the government (1945-47) the Party has had this kind of mass base in the Paris suburbs. It has invariably used it in circumstances like today. On this demonstration there must be at least 10,000 such stewards possibly twice that number.

The exhortations of the stewards meet with a variable response. Whether they are successful in getting particular groups to disperse via the Boulevard Arago depends of course on the composition of the groups. Most of those which the students have not succeeded in infiltrating obey, although even here some of the younger militants protest: “We are a million in the streets. Why should we go home?” Other groups hesitate, vacillate, start arguing. Student speakers climb on walls and shout:

“All those who want to return to the telly, turn down the Boulevard Arago Those who are for joint worker-student discussions and for developing the struggle turn down the Boulevard Raspail and proceed to the Champ de Mars.”

Those protesting against the dispersion orders are immediately jumped on by the stewards, denounced as “provocateurs” and often manhandled. I saw several comrades of the “Mouvement du 22 Mars” physically assaulted, their portable loudhailers snatched from their hands and their leaflets torn from them and thrown to the ground. In some sections there seemed to be dozens, in other hundreds, in other thousands of “provocateurs.” A number of minor punch-ups take place as the stewards are swept aside by these particular contingents. Heated arguments break out, the demonstrators denouncing the Stalinists as “cops” and as “the last rampart of the bourgeoisie.”

A respect for facts compels me to admit that most contingents followed the orders of the trade union bureaucrats. The repeated slanders by the CGT and Communist Party leaders had had their effect. The students were “trouble-makers,” “adventurers,” “dubious elements.” Their proposed action would “only lead to a massive intervention by the CRS” (who had kept well out of sight throughout the whole of the afternoon). “This was just a demonstration, not a prelude to Revolution.” Playing ruthlessly on the most backward sections of the crowd, and physically assaulting the more advanced sections, the apparatchniks of the CGT succeeded in getting the bulk of the demonstrators to disperse, often under protest. Thousands went to the Champ de Mars. But hundreds of thousands went home. The Stalinists won the day, but the arguments started will surely reverberate down the months to come.

And from Daniel Cohn-Bendit, prescient:

“Explain to us”, Cohn-Bendit said, “why the Communist Party and the CGT told their militants to disperse at Denfert Rochereau, why it prevented them joining up with us for a discussion at the Champ de Mars?”

“Simple, really”, sneered Catala. “The agreement concluded between the CGT, the CFDT, the UNEF and the other sponsoring organisations stipulated that dispersal would take place at a pre determined place. The Joint Sponsoring Committee had not sanctioned any further developments.”

“A revealing answer”, replied Cohn-Bendit, “the organizations hadn’t foreseen that we would be a million in the streets. But life is bigger than the organizations. With a million people almost any thing is possible. You say the Committee hadn’t sanctioned anything further. On the day of the Revolution, comrade, you will doubtless tell us to forego it “because it hasn’t been sanctioned by the appropriate sponsoring Committee.”

Note: other May 68 materials in English here and in French here.

From Something, Nothing Comes

I’m not sure whether to classify this post as a contribution to the reading group discussion on Hegel’s Science of Logic, or instead to treat it as part of the series on Marx. The theme is one I’m trying to work out how to discuss in my current chapter draft, but I’m pointing my argument in that chapter back to these concepts in Hegel, so perhaps these things have become too interpenetrating to distinguish clearly.

In the chapter draft, I’m working on a specific tension. On the one hand, Marx criticises, for example, the political economists for exempting their own position from their analysis – for treating the categories of other economic systems as artificial and as socially and historically conditioned, but treating the categories they use to grasp capitalism as “natural”. This critique shows up in passages such as this one, originally from Poverty of Philosophy, but replicated in a footnote to the first chapter of Capital:

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.

Given that Marx finds it relevant to replicate this comment in two works quite dispersed in time, and given how this critique dovetails with other sorts of critique Marx offers, evidently this is an abiding and somewhat central concern for Marx. My impulse is to take from these sorts of comments the notion that Marx does not intend to engage in this sort of political economic manoeuvre himself – that he is not simply, so to speak, criticising the political economists for being wrong in viewing their specific position as an emanation from God, but is instead arguing that it would be wrong to regard any position as such an emanation: I take Marx’s argument, in other words, to be that critique should be reflexive and provide an account of its own position of enunciation (I take Marx, in other words to share some of the sorts of concerns with abstract “philosophical” forms of critique that Sinthome has raised this morning over at Larval Subjects).

The challenge for my reading is that Marx also often makes statements that seem to jar with this notion of reflexivity – statements, for example, that compare what actually takes place under capitalist conditions of production, with what appear to be something like “essential” categories that Marx seems to claim would apply to any sort of production. The form of critique here looks very similar to what Marx objects to in the political economists. When, for example, Marx makes a claim like, e.g., the substance of wealth is always use value, and then appears to criticise capitalism for the way that it imposes additional conditions on what gets to “count” as wealth, that go beyond this unavoidable “material” requirement – this structure of argument looks rather similar to that used by the political economists, who argued that, e.g., the feudal guild system imposes additional conditions on the organisation of production, that distorted the “natural” institutions of capitalist society. Marx may offer a different version of what counts as “natural”, but this doesn’t change the apparent structure of the argument, which still involves the criticism of some set of social institutions against a standard that purports to be more “natural” than those institutions. This approach does not appear to correspond to the concept of immanent critique I’ve argued is at play in Marx’s work.

Most interpreters, of course, are comfortable with the notion that Marx is a straightforward “materialist” who doesn’t problematise the genesis of his own critical insights. Even Patrick Murray’s very sensitive reading of Capital, which captures the Hegelian subtext of the work quite well, regards Marx to be criticising both Hegel and the political economists for not recognising a difference between “genuine” (asocial) abstractions, and abstractions specific to capitalist society: on this read, Marx’s great critical contribution was to disentangle these two sorts of abstractions, and so clarify what is “essential” to material production, from what is only made to “appear” necessary by the distorted configurations characteristic of capitalist production. This reading, however, leaves somewhat unclear where Marx obtains such clarity of insight into what is truly essential, when such insight has eluded so many others.

Certain kinds of theory – Habermas would be the obvious example – try to answer this latter question through a strategy I tend to call “appealing to the historical realisation of the natural”. Here, what is “essential” is not treated as contingently constituted in social practice – the essential is thematised, either explicitly or tacitly, as always having been “natural”, at least as a latent tendency or necessary step in a developmental logic or similar – while an explanation is offered for why we have only recognised or discovered the essential in recent history. This approach still possesses the basic structure of the political economists’ argument, as Marx criticises it above: it positions the approaches being criticised as artificial, and treats its own position as natural. In the process, it treats critique as an abstract negation – as something that is left behind, when everything artificial has been stripped away. Essence is not constituted – at least not in any contingent way. Even where essence is treating as arising in human practice, it is treated as non-contingently arising. Critique takes the form of a criticism of appearance from the standpoint of essence.

I have tried to argue that Marx is doing something quite different – that he is attempting a form of theory loyal to the precepts of his critique of political economy – that he is not simply saying that the political economists are wrong in the specific thing they take to be “natural”, but wrong in adopting a whole structure of critique that does not address its own conditions of possibility. How, then, can I make sense of moments in Capital where Marx himself sets up a contrast between what material production “essentially” is, versus the specific form material production takes under capitalism? How, even moreso, can I make sense of passages in which Marx suggests that it is possible to look back through history, making sense of the changing configurations of social relations with reference to concepts like a “mode of production”?

My full answer to these questions is the subject of the chapter I am working on now, which I will post here for comment when it’s sufficiently complete. That chapter both acknowledges genuine tensions and inconsistencies in Marx’s own work, and also argues that there is a way he could be consistent to his critique of political economy, while still wielding very abstract and seemingly asocial categories like “use value” – so long as he provides an explanation for how those seemingly asocial categories are the categories of a specific form of society. This argument requires a turn to Hegel.

Part of the answer, I suspect, lies in one of the passages in the in-person reading group selection for today. At the beginning of Section One: Determinateness (Quality), Hegel makes the interesting point:

Being is the indeterminate immediate; it is free from determinateness in relation to essence and also from any which it can possess within itself. This reflectionless being is being as it is immediately in its own self alone.

Because it is indeterminate being, it lacks all quality; but in itself, the character of indeterminateness attaches to it only in contrast to what is determinate or qualitative. But determinate being stands in contrast to being in general, so that the very indeterminateness of the latter constitutes its quality. It will therefore be shown that the first being is in itself determinate, and therefore, secondly, that it passes over into determinate being… (130-131, bold text mine)

Hegel is not concerned with social theory, but the argument he makes here suggests the line I follow with Marx’s apparently asocial “materialist” categories: that the indeterminacy of these categories – their apparent detachment from any specific social configuration – is their specific determinacy. In other words, the specific social character of certain categories of capitalist society, consists in their apparent asocial character. This theme, I would suggest, runs throughout Capital.

The development of this argument, which I attempt in the chapter itself, at least as a preliminary sketch, involves an argument about real abstractions. A real abstraction is an abstraction that involves more than simply a conceptual stripping away of determinate content. A real abstraction is effected in social practice, and involves (in my appropriation of this concept) a process of mutual constitution of conflictual dimensions of practice – one of which renders particular forms of qualitative determinacy socially meaningful, while another is actively indifferent to those specific forms of determinacy. In Marx’s argument, for example, a category like “use value” – which appears to be nothing more than a catch-all conceptual abstraction that generalises from any sort of useful thing, and seems transparently capable of extension to the analysis of any human society – is actually effected in collective practice in capitalism, as the value dimension of the commodity must appear in some use value or another, but is structurally indifferent to how it appears. In this sense, an apparently asocial category like “use value” – which presents itself as a substance of wealth, indifferent to social form – is in fact closely tied to value as the social form of wealth in capitalism, which generates at the level of social practice “use value” as a meaningful, socially-immanent category. This doesn’t mean that we can’t then take such abstract categories, and apply them to the past – or, more important for Marx’s purposes, apply them to the critique of capitalism, to assist us in thinking alternative organisations of production. It does, though, provide an immanent account of such categories, and also situates the categories socially and historically, making it possible to explain why these categories are part of the “in and for itself” of our society, but did not emerge in other historical eras.

This approach repositions Marx’s apparently asocial and “materialist” categories as determinate negations – as negations that emerge out of a specific “something”, and therefore carry the traces of what they negated, in their determinate qualitative form. I’ve drawn attention to such a concept previously, in discussing this passage from Hegel’s Phenomenology:

The completeness of the forms of unreal consciousness will be brought about precisely through the necessity of the advance and the necessity of their connection with one another. To make this comprehensible we may remark, by way of preliminary, that the exposition of untrue consciousness in its untruth is not a merely negative process. Such a one-sided view of it is what the natural consciousness generally adopts; and a knowledge, which makes this one-sidedness its essence, is one of those shapes assumed by incomplete consciousness which falls into the course of the inquiry itself and will come before us there. For this view is scepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result. Nothing, however, is only, in fact, the true result, when taken as the nothing of what it comes from; it is thus itself a determinate nothing, and has a content. The scepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is – in order to cast it into some abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in the negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself. (79)

The reading group starts soon, and I need to review a bit before everyone arrives. And ack! Russ has shown up early!! (How dare you, Russ – you know I read material before we meet!!) No time to edit… Apologies…

P.S. Since Russ so rudely interrupted, I posted this before I got the chance to nudge back at Wildly Parenthetical, who has been trying valiantly to make sense of my often opaque use of terms like “abstract” and “determinate” negation – if it weren’t already clear, this piece is intended as (er… yet another?) gesture to that ongoing conversation… 🙂

Let It Be

I had hoped to write a post tonight for the Science of Logic reading group on the first part of the discussion on Being. Unfortunately, I find myself in one of those vampiric states where, every time I try to sleep, I bounce back up again with something I feel I must jot down for the chapter I’m working on. This has built up an enormous sleep deficit, and I simply don’t feel I can write anything coherent until I’ve slept a bit more 🙂

I was, though, intensely enjoying the discussion of this section started by Alexei’s reflections over at Now-Times. There is some first-rate commentary from Alexei and Daniel around how to understand the relation between the Phenomenology and the Logic, as well as some material I wish I were awake enough to take up adequately here, around the “necessity” of the particular beginning Hegel uses in the Logic. Among many other fantastic points in this exchange, I am particularly interested in Daniel’s claim that:

For if the true starting-point of the Logic is not “merely” an abstract concept, but is our own thought of the abstract concept, then we can take a different tack on Hegel’s comment in ss98 of the Logic that “all that is present is simply the resolve, which can also be regarded as arbitrary, that we propose to consider thought as such.” We don’t have to start with “Being”! We can start anywhere, but regardless of where we choose to start, we can only end our inquiry into thought by canvassing the entire system of Logical categories. Thus the choice of a “starting point” is arbitrary; the only part of the beginning that is important as a beginning is the fact that (wherever we are starting off at), we are aiming to consider thought, here (as opposed to considering biology, or history, or sociology, or physics, or psychology, or some other such topic). So the “invocation of Being” here is just — an aesthetically pleasing way to start the book.

My own interpretation of the same passage isn’t quite the same (not that this should necessarily be seen as significant, as my reading of the text is very provisional). My impulse, though, is to think that it’s significant here that Hegel says the beginning can be regarded as arbitrary: my temptation is to take this phrasing as quite deliberate, and to read this is saying something like “sure, it may seem arbitrary now – but this doesn’t mean it actually is arbitrary”. I take it more that the non-arbitrariness of the beginning won’t be visible until the system as a whole has been developed – until that point, it may in fact look as though you could as well begin anywhere else. Hegel periodically challenges those who suggest that they could achieve something similar, from a different start, to go ahead and try 🙂 (apologies – much too tired at the moment, or I would look up an example). So I think more is at stake here for Hegel than simple “aesthetics” (although I do agree with Daniel’s more general point about grasping this as a consideration of thought, which therefore intrinsically confronts the issue of how to consider something that is also carrying out that process of consideration…).

Nevertheless, I think Daniel is onto something – although my instinct was to see it as something of a tension in the work, rather than to take literally the statement about the arbitrariness of the starting point. I drew attention to a strange distinction Hegel makes in par. 102:

The essential requirement for the science of logic is not so much that the beginning be a pure immediacy, but rather that the whole of the science be within itself a circle in which the first is also the last and the last is also the first.

Hegel moves immediately from here, back to a defence of the claim that being must be the beginning, but there is a tacit disjoint here between the methodology and its content – a disjoint that I find interesting, in light of some of Hegel’s other methodological suggestions.

Much too tired to say anything of substance, but I did want to draw readers’ attention to a very good discussion-in-progress. While I’m at it, I also want to put in a plug for Daniel’s SOH-Dan blog – which I just discovered via this exchange, and which is a fantastic site, with some rich material up on Hegel, Brandom, McDowell and others – the site should be of great interest to readers here who haven’t yet discovered it.

Science of Logic Reading Group: To Be or Not To Be

So the in-person reading group on Hegel’s Science of Logic is meeting again on Thursday, having decided last week to slow our pace a bit, and move more slowly through the Doctrine of Being. This week, we will be discussing Chapter 1, Being (and, you know, Nothing…), and we’ll trundle along at a chapter per week through this section, and then decide whether we want to maintain this pace, or speed things along.

The online discussion since last week has been driven by the exceptional efforts of Alexei at Now-Times, who has written a series of posts that have moved from the first preface through to the section on Being, exploring connections between Phenomenology and the Logic along the way. This is fantastic stuff, to which I want to respond substantively – after I get my next chapter out of the way (with high hopes that this won’t be the monster that the previous one has proven to be). I will, though, try to write something tomorrow on one particular aspect of the discussion of Being – something that I find important (wait for it!) for what Marx is doing in Capital. (I promise to be less one-note in my writing soon – at the moment, I am enjoying precious and rare uninterrupted writing time, and am hording as much of it as possible for the thesis.)

Joining the Fray:

Anyone reading on who would like to contribute some material to the online discussion, but who would like a bit of background on the reading group first, can find some here. Note that, for whatever reason, I’m not finding pingbacks all that reliable lately, so, if you do write something, and I don’t pick up on it here, please email me to let me know.

Online texts of Science of Logic can be found:

In English: from MIA

In German: from Project Gutenberg

Posts so far in the online discussion:


What in the hell… is the spirit of practicality?, what in the hell…, Nate, on the first Preface

What in the hell… happens next?!, what in the hell…, Nate, on the second Preface

Opening Discussions, Rough Theory, N. Pepperell, on the first Preface and a fragment of the Second

Preparing for Being, Now-Times, Alexei, commentary on the other contributions on the first Preface

Masters and Slaves, Now-Times, Alexei, commentary on the second Preface, with reference to the issue of emancipatory possibilities

Transformative Negativity, against the Abstract Ought, Now-Times, Alexei, continuation of post above, with specific reference to the ethical import of Hegel’s approach, and with comparisons between Phenomenology and Logic


Hegel’s Science of Logic: Introduction, Perverse Egalitarianism, Mikhail Emelianov

Introduction (Some More Random Observations), Perverse Egalitarianism, Mikhail Emelianov


With What Must the New Year Begin?Rough Theory, N. Pepperell, on “With What Must the Science Begin” (Note that I’ve reprised this material in the conference paper here – the paper covers a lot of ground on Marx and also on Hegel’s Phenomenology, but the section on the method of the Logic is more accurate and complete than the material in the original post from which it was redrafted.)

Concretion and Appearance, Now-Times, Alexei, reflections on the relationship between appearance and Concept, spanning Phenomenology and Logic

Let It Be, Rough Theory, N. Pepperell, reflection on one aspect of the discussion of the “Concretion and Appearance” discussion at Now-Times

Background and General Comments

Online Resources on Hegel – English, Now-Times, Alexei

Online Resources on Hegel – German, Now-Times, Alexei

The Comfort of DeterminismPerverse Egalitarianism, Mikhail Emelianov, reflections on Kant, Leibniz and Hegel’s desire to erase the distinction between form and content

Scratchpad: The Greatest Difficulty (No Kidding…)

all work and no play makes jack a dull boyOkay. Below the fold, one substantially – substantially – revised version of my previous attempt to develop a sort of programmatic chapter, outlining the broad brush-strokes of how I’m attempting to approach Capital in the thesis. This version sucks much less than the previous version – it’s decent enough that I would even post it to the main page, except that it’s simply too long (@12,000 words, for those tempted to peer below the fold). This time around, I managed not to forget my main argument while writing the piece. Hopefully this version comes a little closer to addressing some of the fantastic questions Alexei raised in relation to the previous iteration – it’s impossible for me to express how valuable such thoughtful, sympathetic critiques are in the formation of this project, particularly when, as Alexei did, someone takes the time to offer such criticisms with reference to an incredibly crude and… er… speaking frankly, deeply problematic version of the argument I was trying to make.

There are elements with which I’m still fairly uncomfortable. I’ve used, for example, a language of “embodied cognition” in some programmatic bits of the text. While this is a useful shorthand for some of what I’m trying to say about Marx’s argument, it’s also not completely accurate – at least, I don’t think it is… But for the moment, it’s somehow sneaked its way into the text, perhaps to be replaced by something more adequate later on.

There are also elements that are still, essentially, placeholders – the discussion of Phenomenology of Spirit, for example, may well be replaced by a discussion of the treatment of essence and appearance from the Logic – but I haven’t decided yet, and I’m ready to write on these issues in relation to Phenomenology, whereas I’m not quite ready to do this in relation to the Logic, so I’ve written the version that I can include now, in order to give readers at least some sense of what I want to argue in that portion of the chapter.

There is a lot of stylistic chaos in the piece – particularly in the final half, which I still find myself substantially revising each time I look at the text. A few parts have survived relatively unscathed since the previous version: the first two pages are similar, as is the summary of Hegel’s “With What Must the Science Begin?” Everything else is completely new, and therefore as raw, in its own way, as the draft I tossed onto the blog last time. I think this version has a clearer sense of what it’s trying to do, and I hope the internal structure is adequate to render the connections between the various sections clear, and that the piece provides sufficient background along the way that readers aren’t having to struggle to figure out what I am trying to argue. We’ll see…

The text loses something from having the footnotes excised: I write a lot of footnotes, often make substantive points in them, and engage with other literature primarily in this apparatus. It’s unfortunately clumsy to reproduce such things on the blog. As with the previous version, there are heavy debts here to Patrick Murray (for his work on Capital as a Hegelian “science”), Derek Sayer (for his work on Marx’s methodological eclecticism), and Moishe Postone (for his work on Capital as an immanent critical theory), as well as passing references to many others. I’m happy to clarify these sorts of debts in the comments, if anyone is curious.

I owe a very different sort of debt to certain people who have been putting up with my various thesis-related freakouts off the main page 🙂 Everyone who walks within range at the moment gets an earful of speculation about how Marx understands the relationship between essence and appearance. I suspect somehow that most folks don’t find this topic quite as enthralling as I seem to at the moment. I’m therefore particularly grateful to the ones who haven’t yet started running the other direction whenever they see an email from me 🙂 Such support is more deeply appreciated than you can know. You’re welcome to “out” yourselves here if you’d like, but otherwise I’ll keep under wraps that you get sneak peeks of ideas that are too ill-formed even to toss up on the blog. ;-P

Below the fold for the piece itself… Although I am still revising this piece, and working on the following chapter, there is a real sense in which working out what I’ve posted below really has been the “greatest difficulty” for me. I’m going to take a break from the blog and from all forms of writing for the rest of the day, but I will hopefully find time tomorrow at least to update the list of posting related to the Science of Logic reading group, which has seen a burst of inspired reflections over at Now-Times during the period when I’ve exiled myself from blogging to get this other writing done. Read more of this post

Marx of the Day

This is probably not the most self-enobling observation, but I must confess that I enjoy Marx’s snarky footnotes. This one from the second chapter of Capital caught my eye today:

Proudhon begins by taking his ideal of Justice, of “justice éternelle,” from the juridical relations that correspond to the production of commodities: thereby, it may be noted, he proves, to the consolation of all good citizens, that the production of commodities is a form of production as everlasting as justice. Then he turns round and seeks to reform the actual production of commodities, and the actual legal system corresponding thereto, in accordance with this ideal. What opinion should we have of a chemist, who, instead of studying the actual laws of the molecular changes in the composition and decomposition of matter, and on that foundation solving definite problems, claimed to regulate the composition and decomposition of matter by means of the “eternal ideas,” of “naturalité” and “affinité”? Do we really know any more about “usury,” when we say it contradicts “justice éternelle,” équité éternelle “mutualité éternelle,” and other vérités éternelles than the fathers of the church did when they said it was incompatible with “grâce éternelle,” “foi éternelle,” and “la volonté éternelle de Dieu”?

There’s an enormous amount packed into this short passage, and I don’t have time to write on it in adequate detail. A few quick points on distinctions Marx makes between types of critique, some more tacit than others in the passage quoted. I toss these here by way of placeholders for future posts, as I don’t have time to do more than make notes now.

One is the issue of utopian forms of critique – forms of critique operating in the name of ideals that could never be realised (generally, in Marx’s work, this charge is levelled at a form of critique that he believes is assuming that some necessary moment of the reproduction of capital could be overcome, while all the other moments remain intact – since Marx sees the reproduction of capital as a “logic” that tends to generate its own conditions, he is deeply sceptical of such critiques; a major goal in Capital is to specify more precisely what needs to be overcome, in order to halt the reproduction of capital).

A separable issue is that of types of critique that operate within the established social form – appealing to ideals that resonate, that can to some degree be realised, and whose more complete realisation might make a significant difference to living conditions on the ground, but in situations where the ideals do not point beyond the existing social form. Such forms of critique can be problematic to the extent that they take themselves as something more transformative than they are, and thus obscure a recognition of what would be required to overcome that social form itself. Recognised as contestations within the existing social framework, however, these forms of critique can make a significant difference in the humanisation of everyday living and working conditions – precariously, as there will remain pressures to roll back humanising reforms, but with meaningful consequences while they hold, including perhaps the consequence of increasing receptivity to more fundamental transformations.

A third – quite significant – issue here is Marx’s criticism of Proudhon for shoving what Marx regards as historically-emergent ideals into an asocial and decontextualised space. Marx (characteristically) immediately likens this move to a form of religious mysticism, and reaches for practice: what are we doing that renders such ideals plausible to us? How do these ideals arise? Only once we can answer these questions, are we in the position to speak in terms of critique. For Marx, critique doesn’t float in an intrinsic “ought”, but is practically-emergent, albeit in a form that can react back on the existing organisation of social practice.

I have to leave this hanging for the moment – trying to get something else done on a deadline, and so depositing these thoughts here more to clear space for the things I’m meant to be thinking about right now. I’m sure I’ll have ample opportunity to retract later, what I’ve posted here in too much haste. 🙂

Spectral Supervision

karl marxMy office at the university is part of a string of offices that, although private and enclosed, have a section at the top of their walls that is glass, meaning that we can each see into the upper fifth or so of one another’s rooms. The day that I started this round of revision in earnest, a new neighbour moved into the office next door. There is only one spot in their office visible to me when I’m seated writing at my computer. In that spot, they have hung a gigantic poster of Karl Marx.

Whenever I pause in my writing, trying to make sense of what I should say next, I tend to look away from my computer. The automatic direction of my gaze? That poster. Karl stares me down, cheerfully, but insistently, every time I stall in my writing.

And the name of the person occupying the office next door?