Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Difference Between “Being” and “Appearing to Be” an “Objective Social Relation”

So I submitted the following abstract for a conference, and have had the abstract accepted:

When Georg Lukács situates Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism, on the terrain of a theory of reification and rationalisation, he introduces a small, but pivotal, shift in emphasis from Marx’s original concept. Lukács characterises the commodity-form, and its connection to social relations, the following way:

The essence of commodity-structure has often been pointed out. Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.

The logic of this passage suggests the existence of a fundamental distinction between what “is” and what “appears”: the commodity-form causes what “is” – a relation between to people – to “appear” objective, to “seem” rational, to take on the “character” of a thing. Tacitly here, critique is directed toward “appearance” – directed toward dispelling a veil of objectivity that is positioned as a “phantom”. The standpoint of critique is what “is”, what pertains in a reality covered over by the veil of objectivity.

This line of argument would appear to be supported by many passages from Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism, which often imply that Marx is also attempting to dispel an illusion, to penetrate a contingent appearance to reveal the reality underneath. In a pivotal passage, however, where Marx discusses the “social character of labour” in capitalist society, Marx uses a different sort of vocabulary – one that suggests an intrinsic relationship between what “is”, and how things “appear”:

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, objective relations between persons and social relations between objects. (italics mine)

The logic of this passage suggests an intrinsic relationship between what “is” and what “appears”. In this paper, I want to trace the thread that flows from this formulation from Marx. By working closely through key aspects of the first chapter of Capital, I suggest that one of the targets of Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism, are perspectives that try to introduce a divide between essence and appearance. I further argue that the tacit vision of critique suggested by Marx’s approach, does not involve penetrating appearance in order to recover an underlying essence that has been obscured, but rather developing a standpoint from which the entire interrelated structure of essence and appearance can be criticised and overcome. By contrasting this approach, to the one put forward by Lukács, I will explore the limitations of theories that attempt to grasp capitalism in terms of the category of reification, and will suggest some of the ways in which Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism can be reinterpreted to open more productive paths for contemporary critical theory.

Now I need somehow to make this argument in a form expressible in half an hour… ;-P I take it that I’ve committed to presenting an argument that focusses fairly narrowly on what’s implied about the concept of critique and, specifically, critical standpoint, in my reading of Capital – which hopefully means that I haven’t committed to digging too deeply into how Marx conceptualises capitalism itself. In other words, I see this as a metatheory paper trying to clarify notions of critical standpoint, with reference, of course, to the sorts of substantive claims being made about capitalism as an object of analysis – but I’m assuming that, in order to deal with the specific question of how Marx and Lukács conceptualise their critical standpoint, I’ll have to be fairly gestural about… well… almost everything other than this specific metatheoretical question…

I’m somewhat conscious that this paper will end up retreading some of the ground covered in the Hegel conference paper – which of course itself retread ground from the thesis chapters, which retread ground from several months of blog entries that preceded them… I’ll say things in different words, with a different motivating question, and with a different argumentative intent. But there’s a sort of nexus of issues around Marx’s relationship to Hegel, the fetish as an argument about how to understand the genesis of a socially determinate entity, rather than as an argument about the need to penetrate an illusion to gain access to an underlying reality, and an argument about what happens to the concept of a critical standpoint, if we’re trying not to separate “essence” and “appearance” out into two different substances or worlds, but instead to treat both as dimensions of the same social context, and therefore as equally “true”, such that transformation then needs to be thought as the transformation of an entire complex structure, rather than as the selection of some moment of that structure that has come to be taken as more “essential” than whatever it is we’re trying to transform.

I feel a bit weird realising that this nexus has been working its way out of much of what I’ve written in the past year. I feel weirder that this nexus is, essentially, a side effect of my trying to make sense of other things – my direct intention was to write about the theory of capitalism – how capitalism itself is conceptualised as an object. And, on a different level, although I’m pleased to have had a couple of conferences where I had the room to work out this metatheoretical argument in sufficient detail to help me get my own head around what I’m trying to say, I’m beginning to get a bit nervous about how – short of a book-length treatment like the actual thesis – I’ll ever be able to present something that gets beyond the metatheoretical argument, to show what sort of actual work you can do within this approach. The Hegel conference paper really stretched and strained to make a very gestural argument, because so much groundwork needed to be covered first in order to open up the possibility for some other kind of claim – and, even then, I had to be extremely schematic – writing more an outline of what an argument might look like, than the argument itself. Admittedly, the purpose of that event required much more detail on Hegel than would normally be needed, but there is still a solid metatheoretical foundation I feel I need to lay before I can begin doing any proper work… I find that, if I don’t take this route through Hegel and through Marx’s argument about the fetish, people fall back into more conventional understandings of Marx, such that whatever argument I’m trying to make gets lost in the interpretive confusion… For a conference like the one to which I’ve proposed this paper, of course, I’m perfectly happy to talk about metatheory: it’s what I wanted from this event, and why I proposed this paper. I just find myself looking ahead, and wondering whether I have a sort of lifetime of having to preface every article I write with a sort of stock metatheoretical blurb that takes up half or more of the room I have for making an argument… ;-P At any rate… Something to worry about once the thesis is done…

At the moment, I’m curious about reactions people might have to the abstract. Does this strike people as a strange thing to focus on, in Lukács? Does the characterisation of Lukács’ position seem unfair? I realise I’m not exactly providing much grist to work from here… ;-P I’m just trying to get myself back into this thoughtspace, and thought I would toss out the abstract to see what sort of kickback it generates…

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