Rough Theory

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Scratchpad: How Must the Science Begin? (Not This Way, Surely…)

*sigh* This is awful. But I’m tired of looking at it, I need to move on now and write other things, and dumping it on the blog seems the best way to draw a bright, embarrassing line under it, and force myself to move on. Some version of this piece in the near future will be much better. It has to be. But that’s not going to happen this week. So below the fold this goes – a sort of framing mini-chapter, intended to do roughly the same work that the “Fragment on the Textual Strategy of Capital post did for the blog series on Capital, now that I’m finally ready (as I had mentioned wanting to do in the blog series) to outline this argument a bit more adequately, with reference to the work I’ve been doing on Hegel’s Science of Logic. My problem with this piece isn’t so much how it reworks these specific arguments – it’s more with everything else that somehow sneaked in along the way, with how many unintegrated layers this text seems to have acquired in its very brief life, and with the many sections where I know – please trust me, I know – I need to develop further what I have said, but where every time I add something, it just seems to make everything that much worse…

So below the fold it goes. Good riddance, for the moment at least…

Because I didn’t write this piece for the blog, the apparatus and page references and such aren’t included. That makes a somewhat substantial difference, as I tend to handle much of what would ordinarily go in a literature review, in the apparatus, in order to keep the main text relatively “clean” and linear. To slightly minimise my guilt for not including this, I should indicate a particularly deep debt here to Patrick Murray’s Marx’s Theory of Scientific Knowledge, and further substantial debts to Derek Sayer’s Marx’s Method and Violence of Abstraction, and Moishe Postone’s Time, Labour, and Social Domination. There are many, many other debts, but these are the major ones, which I would be embarrassed not to acknowledge (we’ll leave aside for the moment whether there might be texts in which someone might prefer not to be acknowledged, and whether this might be just such a text).

How Must the Science Begin?

Marx famously warns about the difficulty posed by the opening chapter of Capital, volume 1 (hereafter Capital). In the preface to the first German edition of the work, he comments:

Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences. To understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty.

The Grundrisse reveals how Marx struggles to find a beginning for his analysis, arriving at the commodity as a starting point only very late in his drafting process. Engels worries about whether the beginning of Capital will be accessible to its intended audience, warning Marx that contemporary readers will not understand or appreciate the Hegelian movement of the text – and even suggesting that Hegel is, in certain respects, stylistically easier to follow. Marx struggles with the material from his opening chapter many times, adding a “popularised” appendix on the value form, and later reworking this “popularised” material back into the main text, while also substantially expanding the concluding section on the fetishism of commodities. The beginning of Capital is thus the result of a long gestation period, as well as the focus of substantial revision.

For all this concern, Capital appears to open on a straightforward note. It begins, as is well known, with what looks like a clear a priori declaration of its starting point:

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.

If read “straight” – if understood as the introduction to a text that endorses the positions it explicitly puts forward and that deploys the analytical techniques it overtly displays – this “beginning” seems to posit a sort of “elementary form” – a simple, irreducible unit, which is then aggregated to form more complex social phenomena. Investigating the properties of the elementary unit, the text suggests, will cast some light on more complex entities that such units can build.

The text then defines the elementary unit – the commodity – as a somewhat complex entity, characterised by an internal division between an intrinsic material content and an arbitrary social form. On the one hand, the text tells us, a commodity is a useful thing – a use value. As such, the commodity is “an object outside us” that possesses material properties, both qualitative and quantitative, that enable it satisfy some human desire. The properties that make commodities useful inhere in material things, but must be discovered by humans. Such discovery is “the work of history”. Use value is therefore inextricably bound together with the inherent material properties of particular commodities. This connection to material properties means that use value constitutes “the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth”. Social forms of wealth, by contrast, vary historically. In our society, use values have become “the material depositories” of a specific social form of wealth: exchange value.

While use value is connected with the intrinsic material properties of the commodity, exchange value seems, by contrast, abstracted from anything intrinsic. It appears to express nothing more than a purely quantitative relationship between commodities – to capture only the relative proportions in which commodities are exchanged – and thus to be external to the intrinsic properties of particular goods. This quantitative relationship, moreover, is always in flux, varying with time and place. Exchange value therefore seems to be “accidental and purely relative” in many different senses.

The opening passages of Capital therefore confront the reader with an elementary unit, constructed from the unstable union of an intrinsic material content – use value – and an arbitrary social form – exchange value. At this point in the text, it appears that the intrinsic content of the commodity is not itself contingently constituted by social practice. Instead, this content inheres in the commodity’s material properties, whose intrinsic potentials can only be discovered in history – indeed, history figures in the text as a passage of time marked by the progressive accumulation of knowledge about such material potentials. The social form of the commodity, on the other hand, is contingently constituted in social practice, and in such a way that this form remains indifferent to the commodity’s intrinsic material content. Form and content are positioned here in an arbitrary, external relationship to one another. The text suggests that form is accidental and social, and can therefore conceivably be contested and replaced by some other social form; content, on the other hand, is intrinsic and material, and is therefore always reconstituted, persisting in and through all social transformations.

If readers were, at this point, to make a guess about the critical strategy of this text, a plausible interpretation would be that the text intends to base its critique on the form/content distinction with which it opens. On that reading, Marx is setting out to criticise an arbitrary social form – the form associated with exchange value – from the standpoint of his “historical discovery” of the principles governing material life. Marx’s theory here appears to gaze out on a contingent social reality, judging that reality against critical standards that, while they have been discovered at some specific historical moment, have not been contingently constituted by social practice. The theory’s critical standpoint thus resides outside the social form it criticises, residing within inherent “materialist” laws that operate behind the flux of social transformation. As the text unfolds, the material “use value” dimension of the commodity comes to be determined to include, not only nonhuman objects, but also human labour. At this point, Marx could further be interpreted as grounding his critique on the intrinsic centrality of labour to social life. The text further suggests the possibility to construct a theory of historical development that would try to grasp the succession of contingent social forms in terms of underlying “materialist” principles of social development.

All of these interpretations are, in fact, quite common readings of this text. They correspond with widespread preconceptions regarding the nature of Marx’s commitments to the working classes, materialism and science – preconceptions that find textual support in the sorts of claims Capital overtly expresses, and the sorts of analytical strategies it explicitly displays, in its opening passages.

In the present work, however, I wish to make the case for a very different kind of reading – one that hinges on the notion that Capital is what I will call an immanently voiced text. Capital‘s unusual textual strategy, I suggest, criticises other perspectives, not by overtly rejecting them, but instead by expressing them, by speaking in their voice. This strategy aims, not to endorse the perspective being expressed, but instead to demonstrate immanently – without stepping outside the boundaries of the perspective being criticised – that the perspective points beyond itself, to other aspects of a more complex social context that the perspective fails to recognise explicitly, but that it can be shown to presuppose.

The goal is to criticise competing perspectives by situating them as partial expressions of a more complex social context they cannot adequately grasp, by showing how these perspectives capture moments of that context, but fail to thematise the relationship of these moments with others or with the complex whole. This form of critique is distinctive in that it seeks to appropriate – rather than dismiss – the insights of competing theoretical perspectives, gradually assembling the raw materials for a more adequate critical perspective immanently, by demonstrating the presuppositions of the perspectives being criticised.

As an immanently voiced text, Capital very often speaks from the point of view of perspectives it does not endorse – at least not in the form in which such perspectives are initially articulated in the text. The text sets out to criticise the positions it articulates, by showing how these perspectives hypostatise isolated moments of a much more complex whole that such perspectives presuppose, but fail to grasp. If a reader does not understand that this textual strategy is in play, the resulting experience of the argument in Capital can be extremely confusing. It can be very difficult to make sense of the complex shifts among perspectives – many of which directly contradict one another – over the course of the work.

Marx heightens the potential for confusion by deploying this textual strategy so consistently throughout Capital, that he leaves only the subtlest of hints that openly flag that the text is immanently voiced. Unlike Hegel – who, as we will see in a moment, is the inspiration for this presentational style – Marx does not provide detailed discussion of his methodology or presentational strategy in prefaces or introductions that sit outside the main text. The reader is thus left with the task of reconstructing a tacit method motivating the structure of this text. Marx provides an important pointer for such a reconstruction in the quotation with which I opened this chapter, where he mentions the problem of beginnings for science. This quotation is a subtle and unmarked reference to a section from Hegel’s Science of Logic titled “With What Must the Science Begin?” A brief examination of this text will provide important clues about the presentational style and substantive claims of Capital.

The question Hegel poses in “With What Must the Science Begin?” is how to construct a philosophical system whose starting point is not dogmatic or arbitrary. Interestingly, Hegel regards this question as an historically-emergent one: “It is only in recent times,” he argues, “that thinkers have become aware of the difficulty of finding a beginning in philosophy”. Earlier philosophers concerned themselves instead solely with an ontological question – with the question of what the first principle of a philosophical system ought to be, and what could be derived from this first principle.

Contemporary philosophy, by contrast, is additionally concerned with the epistemological question of how we could be subjectively certain of any first principle. The historical emergence of this question reveals that earlier forms of philosophy treated the principle of a philosophical system dogmatically. In other words, tacitly the principle of a philosophical system had been treated as a kind of foundational exception to the system itself. Contemporary philosophy is characterised by its anxiety over this step, by its concern with how the beginning is positioned as a sort of supra-rational ground from which procedurally rational inferences can be drawn, but which itself stands outside reason.

If the beginning cannot be rationally grasped, Hegel argues, competing philosophical systems bounce off of one another, hurling dogmatic claims and counter-claims about first principles, with no rational means to adjudicate such disputes. As a result, contemporary philosophy tends to oscillate between the poles of dogmatism and scepticism – a situation that, in turn, leads some to eschew reason altogether in favour of frank irrationalism. Hegel understands contemporary philosophy to be trapped in a restless circuit amongst these alternatives. He intends his work to break through this impasse, by providing a way to incorporate the beginning within the philosophical system itself, thus ensuring that the beginning remains immanent to reason. A philosophical system is “scientific”, for Hegel, to the extent that it is adequate to this task.

It is important to understand that the concept of “science” in play here is both more, and other, than the contemporary commonsense meaning of this term. We currently tend to associate the concept of science with the study of nonhuman nature or with experimental empirical investigations; rarely with the sorts of practices that are associated with current-day philosophy. Hegel, by contrast, relates the concept of science to a process of thinking that recognises no authority other than that of reason. He therefore reserves the concept of science exclusively for systems that do not rely on presuppositions that cannot be grounded immanently to the system itself, a position that would exclude much of what is presently designated by the term science, but that relates back to Enlightenment critiques of metaphysics and to the associated ideal that reason could be a self-directing process requiring no external guidance from dogmatic tradition and authority.

With these goals in mind, Hegel proceeds to outline a method for a philosophical system that would be self-grounding and presuppositionless. Such a philosophy would not rely on any dogmatic starting point that sits outside reason, but would rather encompass its principle or beginning within the philosophical system itself. In the opening moments of the presentation of the philosophical system, the principle might initially appear dogmatic or arbitrary:

But if no presupposition is to be made and the beginning itself is taken immediately, then its only determination is that it is to be the beginning of logic, of thought as such. All that is present is simply the resolve, which can also be regarded as arbitrary, that we propose to consider thought as such.

This arbitrary appearance is gradually dispelled, however, as inferences are drawn from the starting point, and the beginning is thus determined ever more concretely. Since these determinations are inferentially derived from the starting point itself, Hegel regards each layer of determination as a further development or specification of the principle. He argues that the principle is preserved as the foundation of all the developments that flow out of it. For this reason, the beginning remains immanent to the philosophical system, rather than serving as a foundational exception that sits outside the system it grounds:

Further, the progress from that which forms the beginning is to be regarded as only a further determination of it, hence that which forms the starting point of the development remains at the base of all that follows and does not vanish from it. The progress does not consist merely in the derivation of an other, or in the effected transition into a genuine other; and in so far as this transition does occur it is equally sublated again. Thus the beginning of philosophy is the foundation which is present and preserved throughout the entire subsequent development, remaining completely immanent in its further determinations.

Indeed, precisely because the principle is immanent to all that is derived from it, the principle is not actually known until all of its determinations have been fully unfolded – until the system is complete:

It also follows that because that which forms the beginning is still undeveloped, devoid of content, it is not truly known in the beginning; it is the science of logic in its whole compass which first constitutes the completed knowledge of it with its developed content and first truly grounds that knowledge.

What initially looks one-sided, immediate, and arbitrary, is thus progressively demonstrated to be the fully mediated and necessary result of the system as a whole. Hegel describes this demonstration as a process in which the philosophical system loops back on itself, forming a circle:

Through this progress, then, the beginning loses the one-sidedness which attaches to it as something simply immediate and abstract; it becomes something mediated, and hence the line of the scientific advance becomes a circle.

In this way, the starting point is reflexively justified as necessary by the demonstration that from it can be unfolded a world that produces that starting point as its result:

This is true in still greater measure of absolute spirit which reveals itself as the concrete and final supreme truth of all being, and which at the end of the development is known as freely externalising itself, abandoning itself to the shape of an immediate being —opening or unfolding itself [sich entschliessend] into the creation of a world which contains all that fell into the development which preceded that result and which through this reversal of its position relatively to its beginning is transformed into something dependent on the result as principle.

Hegel describes this reflexive, circular movement of the philosophical system as the essential requirement for the science of logic:

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.

The philosophical system is thus positioned simultaneously as a response to the ontological question of what the first principle is, as well as to the epistemological question of how that principle can be known: the principle is nothing other than the unfolded system, and this principle can be known in no other way, other than through the process by which the system is unfolded.

This substantive claim about the unity of form and content carries implications for the manner in which the system is presented. Presentationally, the beginning ought to be what comes first in the process of thinking:

Thus the principle ought also to be the beginning, and what is the first for thought ought also to be the first in the process of thinking.

The process of thinking then structures the order of presentation within the system itself, such that it becomes impossible to speak programmatically about this process from outside the presentation of the system. The process of thinking can be presented adequately in no other way than through the unfolding of the system itself, in full:

… to want the nature of cognition clarified prior to the science is to demand that it be considered outside the science; outside the science this cannot be accomplished, at least not in a scientific manner and such a manner is alone here in place.

The unfolding of the process of thinking will then demonstrate how the system that expresses the process of thought, loops back on itself to generate the starting point that came first in the process of thinking. In this way, a specific starting point is demonstrated to be necessary, and therefore non-dogmatic:

But because it is the result which appears as the absolute ground, this progress in knowing is not something provisional, or problematical and hypothetical; it must be determined by the nature of the subject matter itself and its content.

In less hyperbolic vocabulary: a philosophical system is scientific, for Hegel, to the extent that it can reflexively justify its own point of departure, by showing how the system inferred from that starting point, unfolds this starting point immanently, as the product of the system as a whole.

When Marx references this peculiar Hegelian concept of science in the preface to the first edition of Capital, he suggests that he conceives Capital as a “scientific” work in something like this Hegelian sense. In other places, however, Marx suggests his debt to Hegel is not straightforward – that Marx understands his work as a critical appropriation of elements of Hegel’s thought. Thus, in the Afterward to the second German edition of Capital, Marx makes the famous comment that:

With him [Hegel] it [the dialectic] is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.

Unfortunately, this text provides few clues as to how Marx thinks he has turned Hegel “right side up again”, what Marx sees as the “rational kernel” of Hegel’s method, and how this statement translates into the style and substance of the work he undertakes in Capital. This question is not adequately clarified by Marx’s other explicit methodological statements, which often are underdeveloped, ambiguous, and situational. These difficulties with Marx’s explicit methodological statements have not, however, prevented interpretive traditions from crystallising around them – often resulting in conceptions of Marx’s method that reinforce the impression of Capital with which I opened this chapter.

In the present work, I take a different tack. I do not approach the question of Marx’s method “head on”, through a confrontation with Marx’s direct statements about his methodology. I focus instead on exploring how Capital presents its argument, working reconstructively to piece together the methodological commitments that would best enable us to make sense of this text. Through a close reading of key sections – with particular focus on the argument about commodity fetishism, the introduction of the category of capital, the analysis of the working day, the discussion of machinery, and the section on primitive accumulation – I ask what tacit methodological commitments would illuminate the complex shifts in perspective that characterise the development of this text. In other words, rather than focussing on the explicit methodological ideals Marx occasionally articulates in abstraction from this text, I focus instead on his practice – on the textual strategy of key moments of Capital.

One consequence of this focus is that I do not approach the present work as a form of intellectual history. I do not, for example, attempt to demonstrate through documentary and other evidence that Marx intends or claims to use a specific methodology in particular moments in Capital. Rather than trying to prove, outside the reading of Capital, that a certain set of assumptions are in play, I instead begin by deploying these assumptions, to see what sort of reading they make possible. My argument therefore initially takes the form of an interpretative gamble: it ventures assumptions that may, at the outset, appear arbitrary and even counter-intuitive in light of common interpretations of Marx’s method. As the interpretation unfolds, however, I seek to justify these opening assumptions – both by drawing attention to the (often very subtle) explicit statements of these assumptions in the text, and also by demonstrating how, when the text is read in light of these assumptions, it becomes possible to grasp the logic behind a number of otherwise puzzling shifts of perspective and apparently contradictory moments within Capital.

I argue that, when Marx situates the principles he picks up from Hegel into the context of a critical social theory, the result is a profoundly unusual (and often confusing) textual strategy, in which the text speaks largely from the standpoint of perspectives that Marx intends to criticise. Rather than adopting a standpoint outside the targets of his critique, Marx instead attempts to inhabit these perspectives from within, exploring each perspective immanently. His goal is to demonstrate how each perspective points beyond itself, symptomatically revealing itself to be a partial perspective that captures only a limited moment in the reproduction of capital, while also symptomatically betraying the existence of other moments and other perspectives. By unfolding these immanent connections that relate each perspective intrinsically – if often conflictually – to a network of others, Marx gradually assembles more detailed and concrete determinations of the moments of the reproduction of capital.

In the process, he criticises competing perspectives by demonstrating why they are plausible. Marx’s critique does not, in other words, consist in rejecting opposing perspectives by treating them as errors of cognition or as mere illusions, but rather in grounding such perspectives by showing how such perspectives become socially plausible, if some particular moment of a complex social context is taken in isolation from the other moments to which it is intrinsically bound. Marx’s own critical standpoint consists in the entire demonstration, across the whole of Capital. In other words, Marx does not fully align his critique with any of the particular perspectives through which his analysis moves (nor, for that matter, does he align his critique with a “universal” perspective that claims to grasp the totality). Instead, his perspective is voiced through the unfolding of the text as a whole, and consists in a kind of appropriation of the insights sedimented in, but not consciously available to, the partial perspectives he explores.

This approach to critique means that Marx does not evaluate the reproduction of capital from some standpoint that sits outside the process being criticised: he does not appeal to critical standards other than those that arise immanently in the course of the reproduction of capital. His critique instead proceeds by exploring the reproduction of capital from within – seeking to demonstrate, both why capital is likely to be reproduced, and also how this very process of reproduction immanently generates the subjective and material conditions for emancipatory transformation. Marx understands the form of his text – its “immanently voiced” presentational style – to be required by the substance of his argument: by unfolding his argument without moving outside the voices of perspectives that express moments of the reproduction of capital, Marx attempts to render plausible the claim that capitalism generates the resources for its own critique from within. The textual strategy adopted in Capital is intended to provide a form that adequately expresses the substance of the claim that capitalism immanently generates the potential for its own emancipatory transformation.

By reading Capital in this way, I join other recent interpreters of this text who, from different perspectives and with divergent detailed understandings of Marx’s project, share the sense that Capital intends to provide an immanent reflexive critique of capitalist society. In other words, I see Capital as making an argument about how emancipatory possibilities are necessarily generated in the very process of the reproduction of capital. This immanent generation of emancipatory possibilities enables the theory to be reflexive – to explain how the society it sets out to criticise, generates the conditions of possibility for critique and political contestation – without breaching the immanent frame of the analysis – without stepping outside the society being criticised, in order to understand its critique in terms of a conflict between that society and something else. Undertaking an immanent, reflexive critique already involves a strong substantive claim about the characteristics of the society being criticised: a claim that this society necessarily generates ambivalent potentials, some of which point toward the reproduction of society in its current form, while others point beyond the current organisation of social life, toward determinate forms of freedom whose possibility has been suggested by moments of the reproduction of capital.

In this work, I will deploy an understanding of immanent, reflexive critique heavily influenced by three notions expressed particularly well in Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”: first, the notion that what “could arouse envy in us” – what could mobilise us to transformative political action – relates to unrealised possibilities that have in some sense already been constituted in the present time; second, the notion that emancipatory transformation involves making the past – understood in terms of these potentials that have already been constituted – “citable in all its moments”; and, third the notion that overcoming capitalism involves a revolutionary “cessation of happening”.

My argument is that Capital unfolds by demonstrating how the reproduction of capital necessarily constitutes a rich universe of potentials. These potentials provide constant experiential irritations, suggesting to social actors the possibility to achieve a different and better form of collective life. The continued reproduction of capital, however, ensures that such potentials can be “cited”, or realised in social practice, in only a very partial and distorted way. Moreover, while the reproduction of capital generates potentials for a different form of social life, it does not automatically develop into another social form. Instead, its process of reproduction generates potentials, but also abridges their realisation. A revolutionary “cessation” of this reproductive process will therefore be required in order for the potentials of our historical moment to become citable in full. I develop each of these points in greater detail, as the unfolding of the analysis of Capital makes it possible to illustrate this vision of critique more adequately.

In the chapters to come, I therefore explore Capital with the assumption that the text is immanently voiced, structured in the form of a Hegelian “science”, and attempting to unfold an immanent reflexive critical theory. The opening to the text is framed by Marx’s complex theoretical joke on Hegel: Hegel wants a starting point that is also a product; Marx gives him one, in the most literal sense, by starting with the commodity. We can begin to see here how Marx “stands Hegel on his head” – how this text, structured in the form of a Hegelian science, uses this very structure to deploy a critical meta-commentary on Hegel’s work.

Hegel tells us that the beginning is not really known until the entire system has been unfolded. Capital’s commodity is also much more than it initially seems. The initial choice of the commodity appears somewhat arbitrary, but Capital unfolds as a set of inferences that draw increasingly concrete categories from this abstract beginning. Each category in turn is demonstrated to presuppose others – and thus shown to be partial, expressing moments of a process of the reproduction of capital, but inadequate to grasp the relationship of those moments to one another or to the whole. Through this chain of inferences, the commodity is gradually repositioned: no longer a simple, immediate and arbitrary starting point, it presupposes all of the more concrete categories that are derived from it and, in the end, is demonstrated to be something that could only emerge as a starting point, given the existence of fully-developed capitalist society. As this analysis unfolds, it reacts back on our initial understanding of the commodity – as well as on other perspectives derived in the course of the text. In this way, the text gradually assembles insights from a range of immanently-available perspectives, accumulating the resources for critique without ever stepping outside the object it sets out to criticise.

As these critical resources accumulate, the meta-commentary on Hegel becomes gradually clearer. Hegel seeks a system that entails a unity of form and content because he sees such a system as the only adequate expression of a self-positing and presuppositionless process of thinking, freely self-governed by reason. Marx also argues that a unity of form and content is required – but to express a very different sort of subject: the blind, instrumental, heteronomous logic of the reproduction of capital. Seen from a certain standpoint, the process by which capital is reproduced presents itself as self-positing and presuppositionless. Marx’s goal is to inhabit this process, to explore it from within – and thereby reveal how the reproduction of capital itself generates and presupposes the possibility for capital to be overcome. Marx’s appropriation of Hegel’s “science” positions Hegel as yet another partial perspective, incompletely aware of what his system presupposes. As Marx will with other partial perspectives, he appropriates the insights Hegel provides – but in order to seek the abolition of the social form characterised by a “logic” that a Hegelian science can grasp.

These reflections have taken us well into the territory that will be covered in the remainder of this work. I need now to show how the sorts of claims I have sketched above can be supported with reference to the text. This task requires first returning to the beginning of Capital, in order to read the opening passages in light of what has been argued above. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.

12 responses to “Scratchpad: How Must the Science Begin? (Not This Way, Surely…)

  1. Alexei January 14, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    Hi N,

    I’m not sure what you’re protesting about, when you claim that this piece is “is awful.” As usual, it’s a fantastic, engaging piece. I do have a few questions, though.

    (1) In the first instance, I have to admit that I have something very similar to the reading you are trying to distance yourself from. As you put it,

    On that reading, Marx is setting out to criticise an arbitrary social form – the form associated with exchange value – from the standpoint of his “historical discovery” of the principles governing material life.

    Now, I admit that the idiosyncrasies of my reading habits prevent me from making the rather vulgar claim that

    Marx’s theory here appears to gaze out on a contingent social reality, judging that reality against critical standards that, while they have been discovered at some specific historical moment, have not been contingently constituted by social practice. The theory’s critical standpoint thus resides outside the social form it criticises, residing within inherent “materialist” laws that operate behind the flux of social transformation

    but I do take it that the focus on what initially appears to be a simple form becomes staggeringly complex and loses any connection to even the most primitive understanding of content, i.e. use-value. It’s partly for this reason that Marx can emphasize alienation in the way that he does: it’s not the assembly line that alienates a worker from the products of his labour it is the forms of labour themselves, which are unpacked according the the network of exchange relation that determine value formally.

    Anyway, my point — and here comes a question — is that I’m not sure I see an inherent difference between my interpretation that takes Marx’s point of departure to be the progressive articulation of the constitution of the concept, ‘value as such’ within an industrial society, and that takes the commodity form to be a straightforward point of departure and the argument you are making. Both remain immanently voiced, it seems to me. Though perhaps you could argue that my interpretation of Marx is immanent in a Kantian sense, and yours is immanent in a Hegelian sense (Karatani’s Transcritique being an example of a immanent, Kantian interpretation of Marx). But the fact that there are now two ways to be immanent seems problematic to your argument. It suggests, at the very least, that there may be some strawman making potential in the near future.

    (2) I’m wondering why Marx’s remarks in the German Ideology, for instance, aren’t tantamount to explicating how he plans to turn hegel ‘right side up again’ I mean, insofar as it articulates the genetic development of consciousness from the re of the world, in relation to the equally material conception of needs (and hence of value), why doesn’t it provide a suitable supplement to the methodological remarks in Capital itself?

    Ok, I think that’s it (and sorry if this comes across as harsh — it’s truly not meant to be!), for now.


  2. Alexei January 14, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    ugh, all the tags seem to have disappeared from my last, NP. To avoid any confusion, paragraphs 3 and 5 are block quotations from your piece. Sorry about that

  3. N Pepperell January 14, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    Hey Alexei – Thanks for this. I have to admit, my effort to stop myself from revising this further, by tossing it up on the blog, hasn’t worked, and I’ve started tinkering with the thing again this evening – although it’s probably a bit much to post the revised version too ;-P

    What was bothering me… well… there are a few things – I introduce certain concepts a few different times, and in slightly different terms, to make it even worse – I prefer to have that sort of thing more streamlined, as I think it’s just distracting and potentially confusing. I also think the discussion on immanent reflexive critique is actually a tangent – it should either go at the very end of this chapter, or not in this chapter at all: as it stands, it basically interrupts and argument about Hegel and, now that I’ve shifted it around again (and for the moment put that tangent at the end of the chapter, still holding out the possibility that it doesn’t belong here at all), I’ve seen just a better way to articulate Marx’s relationship to Hegel – one that might actually address some of the concerns you’ve raised about this version: basically, I somehow managed to write this whole damned thing without managing to mention that I see Marx offering a practice-theoretic appropriation of Hegel – which becomes a way of approaching what, I agree, are actually some very nice discussions of the ways in which Marx is Kantian, rather than Hegelian (Patrick Murray, who agrees with my argument that Capital is structured in the form of an Hegelian “science”, also perceives Marx as a sort of Kantian – thinking the work has a “Hegelian” structure, particularly once you think that it has this structure in part in order to criticise Hegel, leaves things wide open on the Kantian front…)

    So that’s, I guess, my problem with the piece, and why I was reluctant to post it (to be honest, I felt a bit ill after tossing it online, so I’m relieved that the comments are as generous).

    I have a complicated relationship to arguments about immanence – one that I voiced a bit more clearly in a conference piece recently, where I sort of sketched out a typology of approaches to critique, explained what I took immanent social theory to be trying to do, and basically held out a sort of pluralist position – in other words, I do immanent social theory, among other things because I think the social is often thematised too one-dimensionally, and this form of theory allows me to talk about that – to get a better sense of theorisable non-identity within the process of social reproduction.

    But I see no real reason to jump from this kind of argument – i.e., the argument that this sort of theory has a role to play, and something distinctive to contribute – to some kind of broader ontological claim about where critical sensibilities are capable of arising. It’s one thing for me to say: I can say something about some of the reasons a particular sort of contestation arises here and now. It’s quite another to try to go beyond this, in a sort of regulative way, and decide that my reasons are, in a sense, the only reasons – that no other form of theory has anything useful to say. I don’t see a basis for this kind of broad claim – but I think it’s probably not unusual for me to be heard the way you’ve heard what I’ve written above – as a sort of ruling out of the validity of other approaches. I don’t mean that – I’m just struggling with how to articulate what I am distinctively doing, clearly (as I find that it’s often just hard to get across) – and I think sometimes this struggle causes me to look much more exclusive about this form of theory than I am.

    I do think Marx was trying to do the sort of theory I’m discussing – but I also don’t think that whether Marx is read “correctly” is that high a stake, if that makes sense. 🙂 The reason I push on this point is that there are actually some interesting payoffs – particularly when it comes to understanding certain things about the timing and periodisation of the natural sciences, the intuitiveness of certain forms of experience of self, and such – so it’s those payoffs I have in mind, that I think can’t be seen when Marx is taken to be criticising a contingent social form, against something non-contingent. Trying to foreground the elements in his work where it’s “social all the way down” helps me open up certain problematics – so, in a sense, I may be pushing this line harder than can make sense at this point, as I haven’t shown anyone why they should possibly care 🙂

    I absolutely agree with your comment about Marx regarding the forms of labour (rather than solely the empirical conditions of work) to be alienating – that’s actually a core point for me, as it is for someone like Postone (although I have a different conception than Postone does of what those forms of labour are). This was another thing I was sort of annoyed with myself about: that this issue somehow didn’t manage to come out in this piece. Although, to be honest, I’m not completely sure how to get it to come out, without completing reorienting what I’m saying – I think I’m just going to reserve it for the following chapter. I’m not completely happy with that, though… But in any event, the issue is that I think the “form of labour” for Marx is the commodity – the whole thing is the form, not just the value dimension. This point is important for understanding Marx’s critiques (and the critiques of someone like Lafargue) of “workerist” forms of socialism, which articulated themselves, from Marx’s point view, actually as “bourgeois” forms of critique – as movements that wanted to ditch the “unproductive” classes, and have the “productive” ones be dominant: Marx sees the assertion of “use value” as a standpoint of critique to be aligned with this position – and not to be an adequate critique of capitalism, which as a social form is distinctive for Marx precisely because it directly renders the expenditure of human labour central…

    Your comments about German Ideology are, essentially, one of the things I’ve just included in the revision today – not specifically with reference to that work (there are actually a number of places where it’s possible to draw on explicit methodological points to reinforce the reading I’m doing – I’m not really as “down” on doing this as I sound in this piece: mainly, I’m being strategic – this is a “methods” chapter, and what I mainly do is… interpret the text of Capital by doing a close reading… so what I say is basically meant to deal with the question of how I can rationalise doing a close reading, rather than trying to show what Marx “meant”. I’m probably over-worried about this issue: at my previous university, where I was meant to be an intellectual historian, I seemed to have great trouble convincing people that you could “show” something by any means other than finding a bit in the archives proving than something was explicitly intended – this was probably an institutional idiosyncracy, but it’s left me a bit sunburned, so I was probably more aggro that I should have been, saying that I wasn’t going to engage with this material. The reality is, this chapter actually pivots on two explicit methodological statements from Marx, where he refers directly or tacitly to Hegel: I can’t really be as opposed to it as I was claiming ;-P).

    But the point I’ve tried to make clearer in the revision, is that this is a practice-theoretic approach, structured in the stylistic form of a Hegelian science – so, it’s a science of the logic of capital, exploring the “necessity” of the moments of the process by which capital comes to be reproduced, based on the tacit claim that forms of perception and thought are shaped by social actors’ participation in the forms of practice associated with this process of reproduction. That Marx’s practice theoretic account can take the form of a “science of logic” is a substantive claim about a particularly weird feature of this social process: that it has “logical” properties in a Hegelian sense.

    I meant this in the draft above, but didn’t express it particularly well. I’ve tried to foreground this more in the redraft – not least because it also gives my particular spin on what Marx means when he talks about the development of consciousness from the world – that the referent is social, even though the language is often “material”.

    Just noticed your final sentence – no! Not harsh at all! I really, really appreciate this. Sorry to blurt at such length – product of being cooped up with this for too many hours… Hopefully not too boring… 🙂

  4. Alexei January 15, 2008 at 6:22 am

    Not Boring at all, NP — and now I understand why you were disappointed with this first draft: the practice-theoretic element you mentioned in your comment doesn’t come through as clearly as I think you wanted it to. At least that’s the case for me.

    I’m also deeply sympathetic to your sensitivity to the relationship between practical and ontological claims. And I didn’t want to suggest that you’re trying to rule out a particular interpretation, so much as point out, I think, that the subtler, deeper problem is that to motivate a particular interpretative strategy — to gamble on it — requires us to locate in it something that offers an interest-based advantage, which other interpretations lack Hence my question about the difference between my Kantian interpretation, and your Hegelian one. If it turns out that they are motivated by the same interests and arrive at the same end-points, then they’re not really different, functionally speaking.

    So, it seems to me that even if you’re willing to admit different species of immanent, self-reflexive critique as alternative species of theorizing the social, your mode of doing so has to offer something these other modes do not, which implies a rejection of these other kinds of critique. And you certainly intimate such an advantage here. To refresh your memory, you wrote,

    “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.

    If I may rephrase the matter in a Heideggerian register: the meaning and possibility of critique becomes a question for critique! Now, it may even be the case that this is the very interest that can provide you with a suitable linkage to move from the role theory can play (an ontic claim) and an ontological claim. Though I don’t think he’s consistent on this point, Marx himself seems to make such a claim concerning the proletariat’s interests and his own theorisation. So why wouldn’t it be legitimate for you to do something similar?

    But, if I’ve understood you, here’s the rub: the relationship you sketch out between Hegel and Marx suggests that the cardinal virtue of Marx’s mode of critique is that it includes as moments all the other modes of criticism you outlined in you typology. But precisely because these other species of critique are included (as incomplete, one-sided moments), they are deficient. So maybe you have to bite the bullet here, and make the strong claim: my version of immanent reflexive critique is the only viable species.

    Does that sound crazy?

  5. N Pepperell January 15, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    To me, this issue relates to how the critique understands its object – what it thinks it’s trying to theorise. Again, it’s an issue where I sit weirdly because, like the Frankfurt School theorists, I don’t take Marx to be offering an “economic theory” – if I did take “the economy” (as conventionally understood) to be the object of this sort of critique, then I would have a fairly easy out of saying, e.g., that there are all sorts of other social institutions, etc. that this theory doesn’t try to theorise, etc. Instead, and again, following this tradition, I take Marx to be offering a theory of the distinctive characteristics of modernity, which incorporates a theory of ways of being-in-the-world, forms of perception and thought that are going to be pervasive in a modern context. So I can’t “wall the theory off” by specifying it as an analysis only one type of social institution (I can’t take a sort of Althusserian “my theory kicks in, in the last instance” sort of approach, and thus carve out room for other theories as, for example, theories of relatively autonomous other dimensions of modernity) – the sorts of claims I make pervade.

    Nevertheless, I think this kind of theory is bounded – that it is a theory of a specific object – of a pervasive layer of social experience – an important layer of social experience because it has global reach, and because it is constitutive of perceptions of things we take to be asocial in character – but not the only thing in social experience. I think, to be honest, that the perspective from which this appears to be the only thing happening socially, is probably itself a partial perspective suggested by a dimension of the reproduction of capital that takes itself to be have achieved an unviable independence – to have become genuinely presupposionless and self-positing. I take this social form to have enormous capacity to incorporate contingency into its logic – I don’t take it to eliminate contingency.

    So, say, a Badiou, pointing to the possibility of an epochal event that could arise in some way completely unpredictable within the logic of the capitalist situation, and disrupt that situation: I see no way this could be ruled out, and no particular reason to deny that this sort of thing could happen – it would actually seem metaphysical to me to deny this – an unfair “move” in the context of what I take to be a secular theoretical approach. What I am saying, instead, is more like: yes, sure, that sort of thing might well happen, but the possibility of politics doesn’t live or die on whether it does, because there are actually theorisable potentials that arise within the situation itself that point to the possibility for determinate kinds of emancipatory change. So I don’t actually see my approach as requiring the additional step of ruling out the other sorts of theory I typologised (although, as I’ve mentioned in other places, I’m considerably more sympathetic to some moments of that typology than to others). I may think that – again to pick on Badiou (whom I have barely read, so I’m using the guy iconographically here, with apologies if I am completely misunderstanding him) – an approach like this is deficient to grasp the specific object of the reproduction of capital, because I think it gives up too soon on the complex potentials that arise within that object, and may operate so as to deflect awareness of potentials for critique and contestation that can actually be theorised, precisely because they do arise within a situation with self-contradictory potentials. But this isn’t a blanket dismissal of everything that sort of theory might have to say about political possibilities.

    A sidestep into a less politicised terrain might be more useful (particularly given that I’ve chosen an example, with Badiou, where I’m worried about someone dropping in and contesting my representation of his argument – again: just using him iconographically, and more than happy to be told I’ve completely misunderstood): there are strong implications from this sort of theory for how to make sense of periodisations within the sciences – for how to understand the intuitiveness and plausibility of searching for certain kinds of attributes in the natural world. Yet the intention here – certainly in Marx – isn’t to call the sciences “deficient” in the sense of declaring their findings about the natural world nonsense. The sciences’ self-understanding may not be complete – they may take what Marx will sometimes call a “naive materialist” understanding of what they do, they may take themselves to be speaking from a position of objectivity, rather than from a socially located position, etc.: there are payoffs to developing an understanding of how the perspectives expressed in the sciences come to be “primed” by our collective social experiences, and one of those payoffs could even be opening a more nuanced set of potentials for interacting with and analysing nature. But the act of locating certain aspects of scientific thought as being homologous to forms of thought suggested somewhere in the circuit by which capital is reproduced, is itself insufficient to invalidate those forms of thought in any kind of comprehensive way. Again, the idea here is to appropriate, not to debunk – and appropriation also means a recognition that we can accidentally stumble across the possibility of something worth preserving, even in the apparently unpromising moments of the circuit of capital.

    Just to take a crass example: one of the things Marx suggests in the first chapter of Capital are some of the experiential reasons it becomes plausible for social actors to think in terms of a realm of invisible universal laws. That Marx can explain the plausibility of this insight with reference to an historically-bounded form of social practice, means that he can account for certain things that a more naive approach to the modern sciences cannot – particularly in terms of explaining matters of historical timing and the qualitative form of the sciences. It does not mean that there are no invisible universal laws: that’s a separate question, to be assessed in different ways. Marx’s critique may make it a bit easier, actually, to ask that separate question, by puncturing the self-evidence of the notion that there must be a realm of invisible universal laws; by itself, though, Marx’s theory has nothing specific to say about whether particular claims about particular laws are valid or invalid. To go beyond this would be a form of reductionism.

    And on yet another level, a theory of this sort, that sees ways of being in the world to be primed by practical experience, is, I think, placed in a very awkward position, if it begins then to try to introduce hard ontological distinctions amongst types of practical experience that can do this sort of “priming”, and types that cannot. This is particularly the case for a theory like Marx’s, which, when I’ve been able to get a bit further along in the analysis would be clearer, actually relies on the notion that social actors (even the same social actor) have differing and often conflictual dispositions primed by their practical interactions with different dimensions of the reproduction of capital. I see no plausible way to make this kind of argument, while excluding the notion that social actors can also be primed by dimensions of social practice that, because they are not generated with the same sort of systematicity as necessary moments in the reproduction of capital, fall outside what this kind of theory can theorise.

    So, on the one hand, I can make a claim like: the experience of the process of the reproduction of capital will carry implications for things like the gender division of labour – in all sorts of ways. The tendency to align women’s labour with labour that doesn’t “count” as “social labour” from the standpoint of the reproduction of capital is a plausible inflection of gender relations in the capitalist era, so the theory of capital can help cast some light on this. It can also help cast some light on how the self-assertion of women plausibly takes the form of rights claims, and on why particular sorts of ideals of equality might resonate, etc. The process of the reproduction of capital, however, does not necessarily rely on such things: capital will quite happily, given the right circumstances, reproduce itself in a gender-blind situation. This means that the theory of capital by itself is actually not adequate – to use your term, it is deficient – in accounting for the balance of gender relations in any particular capitalist setting, because other factors jointly determine such things.

    This doesn’t mean the theory of capital can contribute nothing – any time you’re theorising ways of being in the world, forms of perception and thought, fundamental experiences of self, etc., these insights are portable – they will help make sense of broad dimensions of social experience that aren’t confined to, say, an “economic sphere”. But it does mean that it’s deeply problematic to speak as though the theory of capital is a sort of master key opening all doors: it is a master-key only to its own object, which is the process of the reproduction of capital. And, of course, I am happy to defend my variant of the theory on that specific front – I do think this approach grasps some things about that process of reproduction that other approaches aren’t grasping. I just don’t think I’m playing the only game in town.


  6. N Pepperell January 15, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    P.S. er… as though I haven’t written enough… It occurred to me that I need again to make a small qualification about how I think Marx is “Hegelian” – and this will be my fault, as I just haven’t expressed it clearly enough. I take Marx to be saying that Hegel is onto something about how the reproduction of capital works – that this process can be understood in terms of interconnected and mutually-presupposing moments. But this isn’t, as I read him, a general sort of methodological precept or ontological presumption for Marx – it is specific to capitalism as an object. So I don’t take Marx to believe that, say, all forms of society offer the possibility to unfold an analysis of how they operate, in the form of a Hegelian “logic”: it isn’t always going to be the case that everything mutually implicates in this way, such that you could position so many different elements of social experience, as moments of the same overarching totality. The fact that this form of analysis is even possible, is one of the indications of how strange this social structure is.

    Marx can be read as trying to point to the possibility for a… less logical form of social life – and trying to draw our attention to the ways in which we are already, even from within the “logic” itself, generating possibilities that the logic is not able to grasp.

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  8. Alexei January 15, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    Thanks for this, N, it clarifies a great deal for me — and your example of the gender-blindness of the logic of capital is an excellent way to show how the kind of theorisation you’re articulating isn’t, as you say, ‘the only game in town.’

  9. Charles January 16, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    I’m interested in how you see your work in relation to Postone’s. It seems from your recent posts that you’re pretty busy at the moment, and this probably doesn’t fall within your immediate concerns, but if you’ve ever written anything elaborating on your disagreement with Postone’s reading of Marx and labor, I’d love to read it.

  10. N Pepperell January 16, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    Hey Charles – Sorry you were caught in moderation – it should only happen the first time you post. You’re right that I’m busy 🙂 I am planning, though, to do a series of posts at some point this year on the authors whose versions of Marx are closest to my own – Murray, Sayer and Postone all came out with readings of Marx in the late 80s and early 90s that capture some similar dimensions of the text, and my reading operates in that same space: there are many more similarities than differences, I think, between what I do, and what each of these authors does.

    On Postone, and very very very inadequately: I agree with most of what he does – his attempt to understand Marx as a theorist of modernity, his reading of Capital as an immanent reflexive critique (although I may “situate” what this means a bit more narrowly than Postone – I’m too far away from his text to remember how he qualifies his argument in this respect). I find his arguments about the social structuration of time fantastic, and would have little if anything to add to this – which is the central – dimension of his work. Some themes that are tacit or underdeveloped in his work, come out a bit more explicitly in the reading I’ve outlining – particularly issues relating to the sorts of visions of the past that are constituted as moments within the present of capitalist modernity, the intuitive experience of the natural/social split, distinctive forms of embodiment and experience of self, and a more concrete analysis of political ideals and sites of contestation: much of this, though, I take to reflect a difference of interest and emphasis, rather than an underlying theoretical tension.

    My hesitation lies with his decision to articulate the dual character of labour in capitalism in terms of two functions or roles labour plays in capitalist society. I don’t really have time to develop this argument fully here (there are perhaps some hints in the “social character of labour” post, although this post wasn’t written directly to address this issue). My gut feel is that his argument might waver between two moves, when trying to deploy this concept to explain the “objective” character of (a dimension of) social relations under capitalism. One move, I think (and apologies, I can’t justify this claim here, so please disregard until I can walk the talk), involves a tacit naturalisation of a labour process – a naturalisation that sits in tension with explicit historicising aims of Postone’s text; the other move, I think, actually falls into equating capitalism with market exchange (admittedly, a sophisticated, autopoeitic vision of market exchange, but this is also a move that Postone aims not to make, in other dimensions of his text). If he is making these moves, I think I have a way of understanding what Marx is doing, that doesn’t rely on such steps. At the moment, I’m trying to get my head around my own argument a bit better – at that point, I’ll revisit all of the texts that have been formative for my reading of Marx, and try to work out, once I know what I’m trying to say, whether I see their arguments in a different light…

    Apologies if this is simply unclear – and please feel free to correct anything that seems a misimpression, or to suggest your own way of making sense of what Postone does with the dual character of labour, as this is a discussion that could be very helpful to me. Running!!

  11. N Pepperell January 16, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    So I’ve been thinking about your question while I was running errands – mind if I have another go? I think that I can unpack a bit of what I said above, at least to make my concerns clearer, and perhaps easier to correct. I need to stress, though, that I am very far away from Postone’s text at the moment, so what I’m writing is sort of a memory of a critical reaction at the time I worked through his book: I may have read him wrong, he may address my concerns somewhere, etc. And unfortunately my reaction is to something I think he might do, in contravention of his own explicit programmatic theoretical commitments – which means that, for me really to “cash out” this critique, I’d really need to work through Postone’s material quite closely, as it’s not a simple case of saying “I disagree with what he’s trying to do”, but more a case of “I’m not sure he succeeds at what he’s trying to do”.

    Okay. From memory. And roughly. Postone wants to come up with a way of understanding the “quasi-objective” character of a certain kind of social relation constitutive of capitalism. He doesn’t want to go the route of claiming this objectivity is a mere illusion or an ideological veil: something about this particular form of social relation is “really” quasi-objective for Postone. And he wants a historically-specified argument – an argument about how this form of quasi-objective social relation is constituted in collective practice under capitalism specifically. And he wants an argument that allows at least the possibility that the market could be distinguished from this quasi-objective social relation.

    He tries to meet these programmatic commitments by arguing that labour has come to fill two roles in capitalist society specifically: aside from its “normal” role mediating the relationship of humans to nature, labour has come to fill a distinctive role in capitalist society alone, in which it also mediates the relationship of humans to one another – under capitalism, labour has become a socially-mediating activity. Within Postone’s argument, something about this distinctive role is what confers a “quasi-objective” status on the social relations mediated this way. (As a side point, I’m using the vocabulary of “mediation” here, as from memory this is how Postone frames the issue; I tend for various reasons not to be fond of this vocabulary, as I can’t escape the sense that sometimes multiple meanings are smuggled in under the cover of this term – I’ll leave this aside, though, for now – this is more a stylistic thing than a serious complaint.)

    Again from memory, when Postone sets about trying to explain why a quasi-objective character should be conferred on social relations mediated by labour, he has at least two distinct narratives about why this happens (this is the point I was trying to make in a very abbreviated form in my first pass at this above – just to confuse things, I have a vague memory that he might actually have more than two accounts, but it’s been a while, so I’ll stick here to the two accounts I can remember ;-P). I should note that, when I say Postone has two distinct narratives, these are not presented as two distinct narratives in the text: this was simply my impression when reading – that, as the text discusses this issue in different sections, the explanation actually isn’t always consistent – different explanatory mechanisms are evoked in different places in the text. I may be wrong about this, and have misunderstood the thrust of his argument; it’s equally possible that somewhere Postone explicitly thematises these multiple narratives, and explains why he moves between them, and I just missed it. Are you well caveated now? 🙂

    One of those narratives, from memory, runs roughly: even when the labour process fills a second social function, it still does so as a labour process. In other words, the only way it can fill this second social function, is the same way it fills the first: by mediating the relations between humans and material nature. So the qualitative characteristics that come into play when humans mediate their relations with nature via labour, are carried over into this second, socially-mediating function, conferring on this social relation, the attributes of a relation between subjects and objects.

    I don’t see this as the dominant narrative in the text (I’ll get to the one I do see as dominant in a moment), but I think it’s there, in places. To me, this narrative is somewhat question-begging in the context of an attempt to understand a theory of capitalism as a theory of the distinctive characteristics of modernity – since, among those distinctive characteristics, could be included the whole issue of how it becomes possible to think in abstract categories like a “labour process” to begin with, how our interaction with nature comes to be experienced in terms of an interaction with an “objective, material world”, etc. In other words, I see this particular gesture as potentially smuggling in as a form of explanation, some of what needs to be explained (and is, in other parts of Postone’s text, explicitly thematised as some what needs to be explained).

    The second narrative, which I take to be the more theoretically central one in terms of the dominant line of argument in the text, focusses on labour as a self-mediating form of social relation. This has much more potential, I think, as a candidate for explaining how an “objective” character can be conferred on a social relation, in a way that allows our contemporary notion of objectivity also to be historicised – in a way that doesn’t smuggle that, e.g., labour as a form of interaction with nature was somehow an interaction with “objects” in the secularised, materialist sense, prior to the modern period. (Apologies if this is a bit condensed and unclear… I can try to unpack it if needed…)

    The argument here is something like an autopoietic system emerges with capitalism, in which human labour inputs are steering the production and distribution of the products of labour, behind the backs of the social actors involved in the process. This argument has much more potential, from my point of view, because it opens the possibility to historicise the notion of objectivity (in other words, our experience of this sort of system provides the practical basis that we articulate into the concept of objectivity), and offers some more promising paths for understanding the historical emergence of other, related concepts (secularised matter, universal laws, etc.). This argument, though, seems to drift quite close to an identification of capitalism with the market – which might not be a problem, except that Postone sets out explicitly to avoid this, and to construct a more abstract concept of capitalism that can account for the more state-mediated forms that arise in the early 20th century. It also may commit Postone to particular kinds of empirical claims about labour inputs and their relationship to the circulation of goods on a concrete level. It’s a complex issue, and I really need to go back to the text in greater detail to work it through.

    But more important than these points, there’s a sort of tension in the text (and maybe this gets me back a bit to that third narrative that I said at the beginning of this comment that I couldn’t remember ;-P) between this “autopoietic” vision of labour as a social relation once it becomes “self-mediating” – which accounts for the “objectivity” of the social relation in something like systems-theoretic terms – and a more complex notion that something about capitalism has the effect of rendering a verdict on “empirical” labouring activities, assessing what of those activities gets to “count” as part of “social labour”. Postone uses this third notion to talk about the “treadmill” effect of capitalism – in other words, he talks about its “objective” effects, and then also does some excellent work on the subjective experience of time bound together with this phenomenon.

    I suppose in my own work, I pull on this third thread, but in a different direction – not to contest what Postone does with it in relation to time, but in order to get back to the issue of what makes one dimension of social relations constitutive of a notion of “objectivity”, but from a slightly different direction: I focus on what I think is a fairly strong “Hegelian” line in Marx’s text, that works in some detail through the subjective implications for social actors of existing in a context characterised by a constant bifurcation between empirical entities that are the subject of their direct experience, and invisible “essences” that lurk behind the surface of those empirical entities, and whose ontological status and practical origin can be difficult to ascertain. My approach lets me be agnostic about certain things – like whether those “essences” are constituted by an autopoietic system governed by labour inputs, or whether they can be generated in other sorts of ways – without losing the ability to explain why certain dimensions of social practice are constitutive of a modern gestalt of asocial “objectivity”. I think my approach makes it a bit easier, simultaneously to open up the flip side of how certain social relations come to appear “quasi-objective” – which is the intrinsically related question of why other kinds of social relations come to be taken as overtly social. I tend to think these issues need to be thought together and simultaneously – and that there is a tendency across many works, not simply Postone’s, to take for granted something like the category of “overt” social relations, when the issue of how such a category should have come into widespread awareness is just as historically interesting and important for understanding aspects of capitalism, as the issue of “objective” relations. Similarly, I think I can open up a bit more easily the analysis of dimensions of capitalism that are not bound together with the market, and I can talk about a much wider range of forms of subjectivity and embodiment – I think.

    But of course there’s no real reason to take my word for any of this 🙂 And this wouldn’t be the kind of thing I could show in a comment, nor likely in a post – hopefully the whole thesis will get me some way there 🙂 As well, there are gestures – particularly in programmatic terms – toward much of what I’m saying here, in Postone’s work and in the work of a number of other authors, so I’m not attempting a strong critique in my comments above: these are impressions, which need much more time and attention than I’ve been able to give them, in order to work out a clear position.

    Sorry I can’t offer something better or more…

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