Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: January 2008

Off the Main Page

So Alexei is keeping me distracted with a set of excellent questions on draft work that doesn’t merit such attentions – the conversation, though, is excellent, so I wanted to draw attention to it, for anyone thinking things are inactive around here: I’ve been writing there, rather than starting a new post.

I also wanted to draw attention to two fantastic posts on Brandom, by Tom over at Grundlegung. Tom is working through Making It Explicit, which is causing me some pangs of guilt, as L Magee and I also intend to do this, but are both buried in thesis work. By the time we get around to it, Tom will have, I suspect, written all that is worth discussing on the topic :-). Check out his posts on:

Brandom’s Master Strategy


Brandom on Enlightenment and Disenchantment

I’ll try to get something else up here on Hegel in the next couple of days. The in-person reading group in Melbourne will be working through the first section of the doctrine of being. I haven’t decided yet if I will write on this, and then backtrack over the weekend to pick up again on the Prefaces and Introductions that have been discussed online in a fantastic set of posts, with links collected here, or if I will take up the blog discussion first… It may come down to how far behind I am in my reading (!!).

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…

Read more of this post

Intensification of Labour

intensification of labourApologies for the quiet around here lately: I seem to be caught in the shifting sands of a chapter that reconfigures itself every time I look at it. I have hopes that the most recent redraft will settle all but the transitional moments between this chapter and the next… We’ll see how I feel about this when I wake up in the morning…

I’ve been trying to get the thesis out of my thoughts so that I can sleep (without some sort of transition to make myself think about something else – something I can finish thinking about before going to sleep ;-P – I find myself bolting awake every few minutes with some reconfigured sentence structure or organisational improvement for whatever I’m trying to write), I ran across Hugo Gellert’s Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’ in Lithographs (hat tip Unemployed Negativity). One could argue that, strictly speaking, this isn’t terribly far removed from the thesis. ;-P And, I have to admit, I found myself glancing down periodically at the text, rather than the images, and thinking, “Shit! I have to write something on this passage!” Still, it was at least a different way to associate to Capital.

[Note: image from the online text at Graphic Witness]

Science of Logic Reading Group: Beginnings (Updated and Bounced)

Just another quick update on the Science of Logic reading group. The first in-person group meeting takes place in Melbourne on Thursday, discussing (or beginning to discuss) the Prefaces, Intro, and the section on “With What Must the Science Begin?”.

The online discussion has so far drawn posts from Mikhail Emelianov of Perverse Egalitarianism and Nate from what in the hell…. Anyone else who’d like to contribute is most welcome – just post something and link back here. I’ll periodically assemble links so that people reading along can see who has written what.

To Mikhail and Nate: I’ve been needing to focus on some dissertation-related work this week, but want to pick up on what both of you have written in a post over here, in a few days (perhaps after the in-person reading group meets, when I roll together observations on what happens there, with the things that have come up so far in the online discussion). Apologies that I’m having to do this at a delay.

Anyone wanting more background on the reading group before diving in, can find some here.

Online texts of Logic of Science can be found:

In English: from MIA

In German: from Project Gutenberg

Mikhail and I have been following the convention of quoting from the MIA version in our posts, and using the paragraph numbers from that version for easy reference to those reading on.

Updated to add: I stuffed up the link to Nate’s original post, on the first Preface, so I’ve corrected that (and a conversation has broken out over there, so check it out). I’ve also added a link to Nate’s second post, on the second Preface.

Updated to add: Alexei has written an excellent response to other posts from this first round, and Mikhail has also added some nice reflections on Hegel’s relationship to Kant and Leibniz. I’ve updated the list below to include these links, as well as a link to my own partial reflections on the Prefaces, and bounced the post to the top of the blog again for ease of reference.

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

Second Preface: Masters and Slaves, Now-Times, Alexei, commentary on the second Preface in light of themes from the Phenomenology of Spirit

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”

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

Science of Logic Reading Group: Opening Discussions

The in-person reading group in Melbourne meets tomorrow to discuss the Prefaces, Introduction, and section on “With What Must the Science Begin” from Hegel’s Science of Logic. Before that meeting, I wanted to contribute at least in a preliminary way to the discussion that has taken place at Perverse Egalitarianism and what in the hell…, in relation to the Prefaces and Introduction. The specific posts are linked below. Alexei from Now-Times, rob from around these and other parts, and perhaps Tom from Grundlegung have each expressed an interest in contributing something to the discussion at some point – and it wouldn’t surprise me if the in-person reading group lingers over these materials for more than a week, or returns to them later. The current post is therefore intended simply as an intervention into an ongoing discussion.

A quick preliminary. In spite of appearances, I generally keep personal things off the blog – just a brief deviation here to say that it’s been a bit of a rough day, in the midst of a rough period, and so what follows may be a bit… rougher theory than usual… 😉 I had wanted to weave a bit around what you folks have written, but am unfortunately a bit internalistic in my writing tonight, and am not making the sorts of explicit connections I would like with your contributions to this discussion. Please know that I am reading, and enjoying the posts very much, and will hopefully be able to pick up on the next round of discussion with more cross-connections, energy, and insight.

Preface to the First Edition

Reading Hegel’s first Preface reminded me of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment – of their concern with how enlightenment contains the immanent risk of collapsing back into myth, as it embarks on a corrosive process of demythologisation and, in its passion to undermine metaphysics, erects a new mythology of the factual, of the “given”, that, ultimately, devours the critical urge of enlightenment itself.

Hegel’s solution would not be one Horkheimer or Adorno would endorse. Still, Hegel here grapples with a similar intuition that there is a dark side to the programme of demythologisation. Hegel can’t restrain his sarcasm when he describes how the enlightenment presents itself as a leap from darkness into newfound clarity:

having got rid of the dark utterances of metaphysics, of the colourless communion of the spirit with itself, outer existence seemed to be transformed into the bright world of flowers – and there are no black flowers, as we know. (3)

black flowerHegel has already outlined the immediate costs of this shift – again in terms that reverberate through Horkheimer and Adorno’s work: the cost of enlightenment is the Kantian sacrifice “that the understanding ought not to go beyond experience” (3). The fear that going beyond the given will entail a lapse back to myth – in Hegel’s terms, the fear that “the cognitive faculty will become a theoretical reason which itself generates nothing but fantasies of the brain” – is linked explicitly in Hegel’s text with the flattening of rationality into instrumental reason:

the cry of modern educationists that the needs of the time demanded attention to immediate requirements, that just as experience was the primary factor for knowledge, so for skill in public and private life, practice and practical training generally were essential and alone necessary, theoretical insight being harmful even (3)

The older metaphysics has not survived this transition. Theology has retreated to the study of historical forms, submerged itself into the platitudes of common sense, or sunk into frank irrationalism. Logic lingers on, but in a hollowed out and instrumental form – a procedure without content, indifferent to substantive truth so long as the proper steps have been followed.

There are gestures here that sound romantic. Hegel notes the loss of those sacrificed by their community so that their lives could be dedicated to contemplation. He talks of blessedness, of temples that have lost their holy of holies. The target of this criticism, however, is one Marx would share: the reduction of all of life to the practical processes involved in securing the means of living. He decries the absence of something that can raise itself above the relentless focus on what is functional. He asks what, after the death of older forms of metaphysics and theology, will hold out the potential for transcendence – for critique.

At this point, however, the text pivots. This corrosive sceptical process is suddenly associated with the birth pangs of a new creative idea. This new idea, Hegel argues, indeed appears attenuated and rigidly formal in comparison with the richness of the old idea. In the moment of transition, rigid formalism reflects the intensity and the fanaticism of the struggle against the fully developed old. This moment, however, is passing – the new idea ready to come into its own. It is now both possible and necessary for the principle of the new idea to be elaborated in systematic form – a prospect that, for Hegel, will overcome dry formalism and allow the new idea to be grasped in its living detail. In Hegel’s words:

In its first manifestation, such an idea usually displays a fanatical hostility toward the entrenched systematisation of the older principle; usually too, it is fearful of losing itself in the ramifications of the particular and again it shuns the labour required for a scientific elaboration of the new principle and in its need for such, it grasps to begin with at an empty formalism. The challenge to elaborate and systematise the material now becomes all the more pressing. There is a period in the culture of an epoch as in the culture of the individual, when the primary concern is the acquisition and assertion of the principle in its undeveloped intensity. But the higher demand is that it should become systematised knowledge. (7)

Here, Hegel moves into the territory that will draw down Adorno’s ire – this move, for Adorno, amounts to an attempt to reconcile in thought, what could only be reconciled in practice: it is not possible to systematise away, what Adorno, following Marx, regards as real contradiction. Better Kant, Adorno at times will argue: at least his work leaves the raw contradiction exposed and unresolved.

Hegel sees his work straddling a transition – from Understanding, to dialectical reason. “Understanding”, Hegel argues, “determines, and seeks to hold the determinations fixed; reason is negative and dialectical, because it resolves the determinations of the understanding into nothing; it is positive because it generates the universal and comprehends the particular therein.” (9) He refers here to a “self-construing method” required for philosophy to become “an objective, demonstrated science” (9) – and points to the Phenomenology of Spirit as an instantiation of this method.

He then connects the Phenomenology to the Logic by arguing that Consciousness is “spirit as a concrete knowing” – intriguingly, a knowing “in which externality is involved” (10). He then argues that the “the development of this object, like the development of all natural and spiritual life, rests solely on the nature of the pure essentialities which constitute the content of logic.” (10) The meaning of this is worth attempting to grasp a bit better as we move through the text.

Preface to the Second Edition (partial comment)

If the first Preface reminds me of Horkheimer and Adorno, the second causes me to think of Brandom – unfortunately an association less provocative in its narrative implications than the one to Dialectic of Enlightenment, used to structure my reflections above. I hear a great deal of Brandom’s Hegel in this text, but I’ll leave this as a fragmentary observation for the moment, perhaps to be picked up if other readers of Brandom have any thoughts.

Hegel begins with a strangely apologetic tone: the task is utterly new – a completely new beginning is required, in order “To exhibit the realm of thought philosophically, that is, in its own immanent activity or what is the same, in its necessary development” (13). Yet there is still a history to this subject. And we should perhaps discuss it. It has, in fact, on some occasions been useful. Hegel diminishes this usefulness – dry bones, he claims, into which his system must breathe life. A resurrection, then, as Mikhail noted in one of his posts on the Introduction – but is there perhaps also a sort of sheepish awareness that this isn’t quite the virgin birth of the new idea?

Languages store forms of thought. German, apparently, stores them exceptionally well (there is a nice discussion on this passage between Nate and Le Colonel Chabert, under Nate’s post on this section). Nate is right to pick up on the complex and strange movements in this paragraph – something about it reminds me of Marx’s discussion of the political economists, value, and Dame Quickly: Hegel seems unable to communicate clearly “where to have it” – what the ontological status of the phenomena he is describing might be. In a few quick sentences, language figures as the bearer of categories – and thus of logic – sometimes clear, sometimes mixed together and confused, but embedded into the deepest recesses of human nature, constitutive, the suggestion is, of human nature. Or is that only formally speaking? Or perhaps supernatural? It depends on the aspect being considered – the relationship held in prominence at that moment in the passage. In any event, we’ll move on quickly to discuss the usefulness of particles, and leave these discussions of language, logic, and human nature behind. While having a good mixture of logical expressions in a natural language is useful, philosophy needs no special vocabulary of its own – because philosophy is not treated, here, as any kind of driving force, but rather as something that mines and systematises a much more general movement in culture:

The advance of culture generally, and of the sciences in particular, gradually brings into use higher relationships of thought, or at least raises them to greater universality and they have thus attracted increased attention. (14)

Philosophy may mine insights from general culture, but it nevertheless contributes something pivotal: it tarries with the familiar, dwells on the taken for granted. What Hegel calls “natural thinking” – impatient – satisfies itself with mere acquaintance with its objects (16). Philosophy, starting with Plato and Aristotle, breaks with this, and begins to open the possibility for a movement from mere acquaintance, to “intelligent apprehension” (17).

Hegel takes an interesting historical and sociological sidestep here. In Aristotle’s voice, he notes that philosophy requires a certain level of material comfort – something available, Aristotle notes, in Egypt due to the specialisation of a priestly class. After a quick interlude back in Hegel’s own voice – which in the structure of the text suggests that it ought to be taken as a gloss on Aristotle’s comment – Hegel is back again to Aristotle, this time talking about the nature of man being bondage, except in the science that is not studied for its utility.

In between these Aristotelian bookends, Hegel shelves a bit of his own content. Adorno rears his head again for me here: I can almost hear Adorno ask – did you see how quickly Hegel moves from Aristotle’s fairly frank discussion of the class basis of philosophical thought, into something that is subtly not a gloss on this concept? Let’s hear what Hegel says in his own words:

As a matter of fact, the need to occupy oneself with pure thought presupposes that the human spirit must already have travelled a long road; it is, one may say, the need of the already satisfied need for the necessities to which it must have attained, the need of a condition free from needs, of abstraction from the material of intuition, imagination, and so on, of the concrete interests of desire, instinct, will, in which material the determinations of thought are veiled and hidden. In the silent regions of thought which has come to itself and communes only with itself, the interests which move the lives of races and individuals are hushed. (18)

The need for material security remains in this passage – but cottoned over, submerged back into one of those mixtures Hegel seems to frown upon, in his discussion of natural languages. “The human spirit” needs to have travelled a long road, Hegel argues, suggesting a somewhat disembodied variant on Aristotle’s theme. Thought freed from need, in Hegel’s version, moves not in the temples of a priestly class, but rather in “the silent regions of thought”.

Hegel moves from here to talk about something like a sociological inversion. For Aristotle, freedom from want, freedom to concern oneself with logic – with something that contemplates thoughts in their abstraction, and thus with no aim to practical utility – seemed to offer a path for humans to reach for something beyond the human, for something outside the cycle of bondage that defined most of human existence. In Hegel’s time, by contrast, logic had become something taught to youth – to persons not ready to join in practical affairs, and thus regarded as having nothing better to do, than contemplate abstractions. This reversal – this modern valorisation of the practical – has reacted back on the teaching of logic itself, reconfiguring it as a means by which children could prepare themselves for more utilitarian ends.


It’s gotten very late – I’ll need to break off here, with a great deal of the second Preface left to go, and the Introduction still untouched. My apologies especially to Nate and Mikhail for not having been able to write more – or to draw your pieces more explicitly into what I have already written. Hopefully the whimsical nature of these comments won’t be too irritating – this is how I read, how I work myself into a text, but it’s not necessarily the best way to write about the experience, and it doesn’t exactly generate what one might call considered comments on Hegel (or Adorno, or the other folks I mention in passing), but rather my very raw reaction and association to this text, written more or less as I moved through it tonight – admittedly not on a first read, but very much without any settled or established “reading” I might eventually develop of this text.

Time to sleep… Take care all… 🙂

Writing from Home

A very small sample of interactions with my son today: Read more of this post

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Fragment on Form and Content

This will be a bit shorter than last night’s blurt… ;-P I just wanted to capture a thought before it escapes me again. I’ve been suggesting across several posts that the opening passages of Capital should not be read as expressions of Marx’s own position – at least, not in any straightforward way – but rather as expressions of a position “given” immanently within a moment in the reproduction of capital, from which Marx will then unfold evidence of other such moments, gradually establishing a more and more detailed “determination” of capitalism. I take the form of argument to be an appropriation (and critique) of Hegel’s notion of how a “science” must proceed: beginning with a principle that may initially appear arbitrary and dogmatic, but that is gradually demonstrated over the course of the analysis to be non-arbitrary, as it can be shown over the course of the analysis that from this starting point can be unfolded determinations of the world that generates the starting point itself. The analysis is thus reflexive – it loops back on itself and, by the end, justifies its point of departure, showing this point of departure to have been, not a dogmatic beginning, but instead a mediated product of the world analysed. The analysis also progressively determines the beginning in greater and greater detail as it proceeds, such that only by the end, when all determinations have been unfolded, is it at last possible for the beginning to be understood.

Okay. So back – one more time! – to the beginning of the first chapter of volume 1 of Capital:

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.

I am suggesting that this apparently arbitrary beginning will be reflexively justified by the end of the work, by progressively unfolding a more and more complex and concrete “world” from this starting point, suggesting that the starting point already presupposes (could only become a starting point given the existence of) these more concrete and complex determinations. I am also suggesting that the “meaning” of this beginning will be understood only at the end, when the beginning can at last be grasped in its determinate relationship to the world of which it is the product. The apparently simple and immediate category of the commodity will be shown to presuppose and be determined by a dynamic and complex social world whose contours are not yet fully visible at the opening moments of the text. This is the argumentative burden Marx has assumed, with this particular “Hegelian” vision of immanent critique.

In this series, I’ve for the most part stayed within what can be shown with reference to the text of this one chapter, and so I haven’t gone very far in the direction of showing how these early categories come to be repositioned in later moments in the text. I’ve made a couple of passing references to how the commodity – which at this point appears to be only a “thing” that is produced by human labour – can also be human labour-power, bought and sold on a market. And I’ve mentioned that this further determination of the starting point reveals explicitly that the comments made about “commodities” and their properties (as material things with supersensible essences) are also intended to specify ways of being in the world for commodities of the human sort. So, even if it is not fully explicit on a first “cold” read of the text, it becomes evident from how the text develops, that Marx is from the outset making an argument about the self-experience of social actors – about forms of perception, thought, and embodiment – and not simply an argument about how people treat “things” of a non-human sort.

This evening, I was thinking about the form-content distinction introduced in these early passages – I have often quoted this section:

Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.

The passage suggests that there is a material content – use value – that is timeless and “true”, which comes in history to be covered over by arbitrary social “forms”, which are contingent and ephemeral. In this formulation, there is no intrinsic connection between form and content: the content stays the same, in spite of the permutations in form. Content and form have no necessary connection to one another.

I have suggested in a number of posts that Marx is critical of this perspective: that this is not his own perspective being voiced, but a perspective he is trying to “locate” – to situate as a position that becomes plausible, given the experience of a moment of the reproduction of capital, but that fails to recognise its own partial and situated character. I have also suggested that Marx is trying to make an argument about the need to grasp the relation between form and content – that he is critical of political economy, in this and in other sections of the text, for its lack of curiosity about the relationship between content and form. I offered a few comments on this issue in yesterday’s post, which I won’t replicate here. What I wanted to mention tonight was simply one of the things that happens, as Marx further “determines” these opening categories.

Use value – which is determined initially as relating to the material properties of the commodity, the commodity’s physical side – is initially determined as only arbitrarily related to exchange value – which is determined as a social form that has nothing to do with the physicality of the commodity. As the text moves on, however, this arbitrary and apparently extrinsic relationship begins to break down – specifically around the puzzle of how surplus value comes to be generated. Marx rules out the notion that surplus value could arise solely from the process of exchange itself: somehow, something surplus has to be generated – it has to arise, and not simply to be circulated. As it turns out, in Marx’s analysis (and apologies – it’s very late here, and so I’m going to be extremely truncated – this is simply a placeholder so I won’t lose the thought) surplus value arises… from a use value. Specifically, from the use value capital acquires when it purchases the commodity labour power on the market. The commodity labour power is bought at its value – which, as with all commodities, relates to its costs of production. But when this commodity is used – is consumed, in this case, consumed in the production of other commodities – it produces new value. So here the form/content divide with which Capital opens is both sustained and broken down: on the one hand, the division between the use value and exchange value of the commodity labour power enables the production of surplus value; on the other hand, the use value of this particular commodity does not exist in an arbitrary relationship to the generation of value – this content is, instead, essential to the reproduction of this form.

This isn’t the only point in the text that reinforces this point – again, it’s late, and I’m just writing a placeholder for now to show something of how the analysis unfolds, beyond the confines of the initial chapter. My point is that Marx, on the one hand, wants to “rationalise” the sorts of distinctions with which he opens the book – to show the various ways in which these distinctions become socially plausible and arise in everyday practice, and therefore become intuitive to thought. On the other hand, Marx wants to suggest that these distinctions may reflect partial understandings of the overarching dynamic of the reproduction of capital – that core dimensions of this dynamic cannot be grasped, unless partial distinctions are grasped as moments of a whole that may contradict such distinctions in other dimensions of social practice. The form/content distinction with which Capital opens expresses one dimension of social practice – it has a social validity of a sort. But this distinction breaks down in ways that are pivotal to understand, in order to grasp the sorts of historical tendencies and dynamism that characterise the reproduction of capital.

Late. Tired. Hopefully I won’t regret having posted this when I wake up… ;-P

List of posts on Marx below the fold: Read more of this post

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: What Is the “Social Character of Labour” in Capitalism?

Still not comfortable tossing online my attempted overview and consolidation of the work I’ve been doing on this section. At the moment, I’m struggling with how to articulate something in relation to the concepts of abstract labour and commodity fetishism. I thought perhaps I could get back into the series on the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, by thinking out loud a bit about what Marx means by the following comment, from the section on commodity fetishism:

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

So what is the peculiar social character of this labour?

It’s not unusual for interpreters to gloss this section in terms of the sentence immediately following:

As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society.

If this sentence is emphasised, the “social character” of the labour that produces commodities, seems to consist in that this labour is undertaken by private individuals or groups of individuals. Yet it’s clear from the section just below this in the text – Marx’s playful discussion of Robinson Crusoe – that he doesn’t hold that private or individual labour, just by dint of being private or individual, is necessarily fetishised:

All the relations between Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his own creation, are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without exertion, even to Mr. Sedley Taylor. And yet those relations contain all that is essential to the determination of value.

The key phrase here is “intelligible without exertion”: the central question that opens the issue of the fetish for Marx is why it should be necessary to discover the existence of value, and why the determination of value by socially average labour time should be a “hieroglyphic” only deciphered through the detection of lawlike properties beneath the seemingly random flux of everyday experience:

It requires a fully developed production of commodities before, from accumulated experience alone, the scientific conviction springs up, that all the different kinds of private labour, which are carried on independently of each other, and yet as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour, are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. And why? Because, in the midst of all the accidental and ever fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour time socially necessary for their production forcibly asserts itself like an over-riding law of Nature. The law of gravity thus asserts itself when a house falls about our ears. The determination of the magnitude of value by labour time is therefore a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities. Its discovery, while removing all appearance of mere accidentality from the determination of the magnitude of the values of products, yet in no way alters the mode in which that determination takes place.

It is important to understand that Marx does not take for granted that societies should be subject to laws whose existence, nature, and practical origin is not immediately transparent to participant social actors. Marx provides a number of examples toward the end of this chapter, running through social arrangements that are good and bad, emancipatory and oppressive – but all regulated through means that are “transparent” to participant social actors and “overtly social”, whether in the form of custom, force, or self-governance by free members of an emancipated community. That capitalism should be characterised by non-overt laws whose “objective” character obscures their origin in social practice, is therefore part and parcel of its distinctive character. A theory that presupposes that there should be such non-overt laws, and then sets out simply to uncover them, misses a significant aspect of the puzzle that capitalism poses.

Back with the original passage, Marx continues:

Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers.

Above Marx said that “The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society.” By itself, that could imply that “social labour” was simply a conceptual abstraction: add up whatever private individuals empirically do, and you arrive at total social labour – regardless of the subjective isolation and privatisation of the individuals and groups whose efforts are collected into this aggregate. We already know from the examples used earlier in the chapter that Marx doesn’t mean this: not all labour empirically expended gets to “count” as “social labour” for purposes of the reproduction of capital. Hand loom weavers operating in the period of the power loom, producers whose products do not form a use value for sufficient numbers of others: the empirically-expended labour of these private producers, regardless of time and energy actually expended, does not fully “count” as part of social labour.

The privatisation of empirical labour, then, is not itself the “peculiar social character of the labour that produces [commodities]”. Rather, privately-conducted empirical labouring activities are a sort of process that takes place prior to the point at which “the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society”, while “the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange”. Commodities (rather than simply use values) are produced only in and through this coercive process that culls the efforts empirically expended in production, winnowing down to a smaller subset of those labouring activities that get to count as part of the labour of society (from the standpoint of the reproduction of capital). This winnowing process is manifested by the exchange of goods, with the proportion in which goods exchange revealing how much, and what kinds, of the empirical effort thrown into production, becomes successfully incorporated into “social labour”.

The “peculiar social character of the labour that produces [commodities]”, therefore, is the result of this process – the outcome – the coercive, unintentional and blind collective judgement of social actors who are not deliberately attempting to achieve any specific vision of what will count as “social labour”, but whose actions nevertheless do result in “reducing” empirically-undertaken labouring activities, down to what “counts” as social labour for purposes of the reproduction of capital.

Marx is trying to distance us from this process – to denaturalise it – to get us to see it anthropologically, in its alienness and exoticism. His evocative metaphors are attempts to recapture the sense of strangeness we lose in taking our own context for granted. Our collective behaviour, he argues, is equivalent to acting as though there there is some supersensible world of social labour – “human labour in the abstract”, he has earlier called it – that is not identical with the sum total of the empirical productive activities that we collectively undertake in aggregate. Marx speaks of commodities as “social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses”, and of exchange value “expressing the amount of labour bestowed upon an object” (i.e., not the amount of labour expended in the object’s empirical production) (italics mine). We elevate our collectively chosen empirical labouring activities by behaving as though they partake in this supersensible world – by allowing them to “count” as part of social labour to the extent that they produce goods that we collectively treat as the bearers of an homogenous supersensible essence – by treating these goods, in other words, as though they have “value”.

This supersensible world haunts our empirical activities – exerting a coercive force on them that generates certain lawlike effects, which allows us eventually to deduce the presence of this otherwise intangible realm, by following its indirect traces in immediate empirical experience. Its presence must be deduced because it does not align directly with our empirical activities: “social labour” is not the sum total of all labouring activities that private individuals empirically carry out; “value” cannot be discerned by examining the physical object that will bear value in the social process of exchange. The supersensible realm constituted in social practice thus possesses a counterfactual character in relation to immediate empirical experience, and its presence is therefore initially easy to miss in the apparently random flux of individual decisions, empirically diverse productive activities, and the ever-fluctuating proportions in which goods exchange.

Marx will argue that this “supersensible world” that gives commodity-producing labour its peculiar social character, and whose constitution exerts such coercive effects on empirical activities, nevertheless arises nowhere else aside from the flux and change of the immediately empirical realm: a major goal of Capital, across all three volumes, is to account for how such a process might unfold. His argument about commodity fetishism – and here he traces back over ground Hegel covers in the discussion of appearance and essence from The Science of Logic, and in the sections on Perception and Force and Understanding from the Phenomenology of Spirit – is targeted at forms of thought that fail to recognise that the supersensible “essence” of value arises only in and through the apparently random and contingent flux of the world of “appearance” – and that there is therefore a necessary relationship (so long as capitalism is sustained) between “appearance” and “essence”, contingency and law, form and content, what we take to be historical and what we take to be natural, in capitalist society. Paralleling Hegel’s argument about essence and appearance, Marx suggests that the supersensible, counterfactual, non-immediate character of “social character of labour that produces [commodities]” creates an immanent temptation to regard “form” and “content” as only externally and arbitrarily connected with one another – and to understand “essence” and “appearance” as subsisting in two different substances or worlds, one arbitrary and subject to change, and the other timeless and transcendent.

Revisiting the opening passages of Capital will place a more concrete spin on the mystical-sounding Hegelian language in play here. Marx opens Capital with an argument that commodities can be defined as containing use value and exchange value. These two parts of the commodity are described in terms of a form/content distinction:

Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.

The relationship between the content or substance of use value, and the form of exchange value, is posited here as arbitrary: “in the form of society we are about to consider”, the social form of wealth involves exchange value – by implication, this social form is different in other societies, while the material substance of use value remains a timeless and untouched content, in and through these arbitrary fluctuations in social form.

By the time Marx reaches the argument about the fetish, if not before, we know that these opening passages are intended to be examples (among others in this chapter) of fetishised thought: that they do not reflect Marx’s own perspective, but a perspective that “presents itself” within capitalism, which has a certain “social validity”, but which can be criticised from the standpoint of other perspectives that are also immanently generated within the process of the reproduction of capital. This doesn’t mean that Marx will simply reject such forms of thought. His goal is rather to render available the insights of various immanently-generated perspectives, by locating them in relation to the process of the reproduction of capital, and by casting light on their relationships with one other and with everyday forms of social practice. He argues:

The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities.

Hegel somewhere comments that the joke is that things appear as they are. Marx’s argument about the genesis of the fetish follows a similar insight. He therefore attempts, not to dismiss the fetish – to reveal it to be a mere illusion or a sort of cognitive defect that can be cast aside by shining the cold light of objectivity on capitalist society – but rather to account for its plausibility: why this form of subjectivity? Why this experience of self? Why this experience of world? How might we understand the non-arbitrary character of this set of habits for apprehending this social configuration? How might we grasp this as something “real” – but real “for us”? Note Marx’s phrasing in the following passage:

the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. (italics mine)

Marx’s criticism here is not that social actors are operating under an illusion, e.g., that things have entered into social relations, and persons into material ones. His criticism is that political economy does not go far enough in understanding how we have collectively constituted such a situation – and in exploring the implications of this situation from the “inside”, to see what potentials this situation holds. Marx then pairs this with a practice-theoretic notion of the ways in which forms of perception, thought, and embodiment are constituted and shaped in determinate ways by our everyday practical experience of such a social world – among many passages:

The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. The twofold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every-day practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labour possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful, but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labour has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labour, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labour, have one common quality, viz., that of having value.

Hence, when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.

In this and similar passages, Marx is suggesting that we are collectively enacting a situation in which everyday experiences render it plausible to experience our selves and our world in terms of material receptacles that partake in a single, uniform, homogeneous, supersensible substance, and intuitive to think in terms of immediate, empirical, sensuous entities whose apparently random movements are governed by supersensible lawlike forces. The practical social experience that “primes” us to be receptive to resonant forms of perception and thought is, however, prone to being misinterpreted as an experience of an asocial, “material” world, for determinate reasons: it is unintentional; it involves forms of coercion that are genuinely impersonal, abstract, and “counterfactual” in relation to immediate empirical experience; the lawlike operations of the supersensible realm are coercive and drive determinate forms of change in the realm of immediate empirical experience, thus rendering the realm of immediate empirical experience visibly contingent and “overtly social”, and reinforcing, by contrast, the sense that coercive laws arise in an asocial realm independent of human practice, etc.

From this perspective, both parts of the opening definition of the commodity – use value and exchange value – as well as the relation between these parts, are all equally “historical”. This claim will seem counter-intuitive, given the abstract and universalistic “materialist” meaning Marx has given to use value in the opening passages: surely it is in fact the case that material wealth is the substance of all wealth, whatever the social context? How could such a claim ever be historicised? But the movement of this chapter already suggests the determinations that lurk beneath the surface of this apparently asocial universal: how is it that we have available to us a general category for “material wealth as such”? Why does such a category originate only in certain circumstances, if it is truly such a timeless universal? And what of the “secular” character of such a category – the ability to segment off a “material” world understood as intrinsically devoid of social determinations, even if we should then project social determinations onto this void: from what standpoint does this become clear to us? How have we suddenly managed to step far enough outside our own social determinations, to recognise the intrinsic secular materialism of the natural world?

To treat such insights as “discoveries” – as timeless truths that have, quite unaccountably, suddenly become apparent to us, as if on the strength of our rational acumen alone – is, tacitly, to treat the standpoint from which the theory is articulated as a negation: to take the theorist to be speaking from a position of neutrality or objectivity that contains whatever universal content happens to be left behind, once all arbitrary particular contents have been stripped away. Other times held superstitious, culturally-conditioned visions of an anthropomorphised nature: we do not. Other eras made strange social distinctions between types of labour, but we now understand that all forms of labouring activity are united in being expenditures of human physiological energy. Etc. Marx explicitly and repeatedly mocks the political economists for such views: it is implausible that he engages in this form of critique himself.

So what is he doing instead? My suggestion is that he is trying to keep multiple perspectives simultaneously suspended in critical focus at the same time. He is not simply targeting his critique to secure the abolition of the “overtly social” elements of capitalism such as exchange value: he is trying to understand why certain dimensions of social practice sudden become visibly and overtly dimensions of social practice – why it becomes so clear that these are arbitrary and potentially contestable dimensions of collective life. At the same time, he is not basing his critique on purportedly more timeless “material” dimensions of nature or social life – nor is he simply trying to assert that what we take to be timeless, isn’t really timeless at all: he is trying to understand why certain dimensions of social practice come plausibly to appear as asocial – in part due to how they interact with, and mutually differentiate themselves from, other dimensions of social practice that are constituted as visibly contingent and overtly social. In the mix is the nucleus of an argument about how we might become “primed” in social practice – in our everyday experience of a dimension of social life that we experience as asocial – to search for certain qualities in nonhuman nature (and perhaps to be relatively less sensitive to other qualities), with ambivalent consequences for nature and for human society.

Does this mean, then, that Marx would reject, for example, the notion that something like “use value” could be said to be the material substance of wealth in all human societies – or, to state the question more generally, that he would repudiate the notion of making comparisons across historical time? I think the answer is clearly no – he would, and often does, make historical and comparative analyses that deploy contemporary categories. To do this, however, is to look out at the past with our eyes, to ask our questions, to make, in Benjamin’s terms, a “tiger’s leap” into the past, hunting for resonances with our own moment. The target of this sort of critique is not so much to undermine historical comparisons, as to ensure that we don’t miss an opportunity to grasp something about how our own society is constructed in practice: to ensure that we are attentive to possibility that there may be some special sense in which our society enacts “use values” as a general category of collective practice – some sense in which our society is really, as a matter of practice, so indifferent to the particular forms in which labour is expended and the types of products that are produced and consumed, that a “universal” category like “use value” obtains a practical reality for us that might explain the social plausibility or intuitiveness of such an abstract concept. To ignore the sense in which “use value” is uniquely and particularly a category of capitalist society is thus also to lose a source of insight into our contemporary situation, by mistaking a practically-constituted indifference that enables a universal category to arise as a kind of “real abstraction”, for a mere “conceptual abstraction” that takes itself to reflect an isolated cognitive process of generalisation from concrete particulars.

There is an argument here, in other words, about the ways in which categories that seem purely “material” – categories that seem to lack anthropological determination and that seem to be genuinely universal and non-specific to social context – are the categories that, for Marx, most purely express the most distinctive elements of the distinctive form of sociality characteristic of capitalism. Capitalism steps forward here as a society whose distinctive form of anthropological determination consists in its apparent freedom from anthropological determination – in its “disenchanted” character, its “secularism”, its “materialism” (which isn’t to say that Marx views capitalism as a purely secular form of society – “materialism” isn’t the only thing Marx is trying to ground – but he is nevertheless interested in capturing the fetishised character of even these apparently sober and scientific forms of thought). Certain kinds of universals and abstractions have a real, practical existence to which Marx is trying to draw attention: he wants to treat such things, not as negations or as what remains when determinacy and particularity have been stripped away, but as positivities in their own right, as actively constituted in collective practice, hiding in plain sight under the guise that they are nonspecific to any particular human society.

If I am correct, and this kind of argument is in play, then this greatly complicates the question of how to understand Marx’s critical standpoint. He won’t simply be criticising exchange value, for example, as the arbitrary social form that is contingent in comparison to the transhistorical “material” reality of use value. He won’t simply be criticising the strange social form of labour in capitalism, against the standpoint of labour understood as the expenditure of physiological effort. Both poles of the various dichotomies he tosses out in the course of unfolding his analysis in Capital are, I am suggesting, equally subject to critique. By the same token, however, critique in this context doesn’t automatically mean rejection: the critique is immanent to its object; Marx isn’t relying on an untainted Archimedean point from which he will claim to gaze at capitalism from “outside”. Critique within this framework involves grasping the interrelations among immanently-available perspectives – and then actively appropriating the resources those perspectives make available, in ways that react back on the reproduction of capital.

Thus the distinction between use value and exchange value, for example, can be wielded critically – without this requiring that the use value pole of this dichotomy be taken as an asocial “material” universal: it suffices that capitalism make immanently available a perspective that continuously suggests that wealth could be founded on material abundance, rather than on value. This critical insight does not depend on the metaphysics of what Marx sometimes calls “naive materialism” – on the claim that “material” realities are somehow more “true” than socially-constituted ones. It can be important not to rely on such naive materialist claims. To take an example that runs through the subtext of this chapter: the argument about the (accidental) social constitution of a kind of human equality. If the “material” (physiological) equality or identity of human beings were taken as the standpoint from which the ideal of social equality were asserted, this would actually step back behind insights gained (however coercively) from the experience of enacting a kind of human equality solely by force of collective practice. Biological difference could become the arbiter of social practice – a position that can be criticised, perhaps somewhat ironically, from the standpoint of insights generated in genuinely oppressive circumstances in which diverse labouring activities are all reduced to the common denominator of value. Marx wants to overcome this destructive process of reduction – but he also treats this process as one that has taught us something, however unintentionally, about the ability to enact something like equality through a purely social process that ignores material differences. This process of immanently mining potentials associated with different moments in the reproduction of capital can continue from here – for example, into critiques of the particularly abstract visions of equality that have tended to emerge in these circumstances – and on and on.

I toss out these examples only as gestures, without claiming they are central to how Marx perceives his specific critical standpoint in this text – my point is simply to give a sense that Marx’s analysis begins to unfold a fairly wide range of immanently available perspectives, all of which, as currently deployed, play some role in the reproduction of capital – all of which are therefore “tainted” or implicated in the reproduction of what Marx wants to overcome. This implicatedness, however, doesn’t mean that critique is impossible: we can still make our own history – just not in conditions of our own choosing. Marx is attempting to illuminate some of the potentials embodied in these circumstances we haven’t chosen, to open up a greater possibility for effective political self-assertion in the future.

I need to develop all of this in much further detail, and link it together with the materials I’ve written in earlier sections. My energy is flagging tonight, so I think I’ll break off here – with apologies that I suspect much of this could be much more clearly stated, and with better support from the text. 😦 As much as I’ve written in this series about Marx’s terminology and textual strategy, I find that I am struggling a great deal over my own presentational choices over how to present this material in a cogent way. Working back through the relevant sections of Hegel has helped in some ways – mainly in terms of giving me a better appreciation for how deeply Marx is playing with Hegel’s work in these sections. Reading Hegel is never particularly good for encouraging clarity of expression, though… ;-P I’m not hitting what I’m trying to say with the essence/appearance discussion in particular (sorry to Tom about that in particular). That, and I’m still just struggling to express what I think Marx means by concepts like “abstract labour”, “value”, and the “peculiar social character of labour” in capitalism. A bit frustrated at my own lack of clarity here… Hopefully I’ll do a bit better next time…

Links to previous posts on Marx below the fold: Read more of this post

Science of Logic Reading Group: Introduction (Updated and Bounced to the Top of the Page!)

Hey! Go to sleep hoping that someone other than me will write something on the Introduction to Hegel’s Science of Logic, wake up, and find that they have! A body could get used to this…

Mikhail Emelianov from Perverse Egalitarianism has gotten us started with some comments on the distinctions Hegel makes between his own approach, and more typical treatments of logic, draws attention to Hegel’s ever-present sensitivity to the relation of form and content, and raises the difficult question of how to understand theological themes in Hegel’s work, with particular reference to recurrent metaphors of redemption and reviving the dead (a favourite theme of mine from Marx, as well).

I’m off to the library for the day, so no detailed comments from my end yet. Just wanted to post the pointer, and get the discussion under way.

Updated 5 Jan: Updated to add that, as promised, Mikhail has supplemented his original post. I hope to pick up on some of Mikhail’s points soon, but just wanted to point folks to the new post for the moment, and bump this thread back to the top of the blog.

Posts so far in the summer Hegel discussion (even if we can’t get you to Australia, Mikhail, I’m formally inducting you into our season… warm thoughts, at least, headed your way from Melbourne…):

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”

Up the Water Spout

huntsman spider on toilet rollI’m one of those people who wanders around the house, obsessively turning lights off. My obsession competes with the opposing impulses of someone who, disliking things that go bump in the night, tends to leave them on. The delicate and ever-shifting balance of power in this ongoing conflict is currently being upset by a third party: a huntsman spider, who has chosen to share our toilet with us these past few days. It’s a selective creature: it hasn’t yet introduced itself to me. It’s apparently not quite as large as the creature in this photo – although it certainly looms large enough in the imaginations of members of the household. I somewhat suspect that, even once it is no longer with us, the ghost of its presence will continue to haunt our discussion over whether lights in disused portions of the house are best left on…