Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: April 2008

Conversations on Textual Strategy

I am absolutely buried at the moment, but I thought I would belatedly post a pointer to an energetic discussion still unfolding over at Larval Subjects on the question of the necessity of “difficult writing” in certain kinds of philosophical texts. From the original post:

Hopefully I have enough “cred” to inveigh against “difficult books” (I am, after all, mired in the work of figures such as Deleuze, Lacan, Hegel, etc., who are the worst of the worst), but I have increasingly found myself suspicious of the “difficult work”. On the one hand, I read texts in the sciences that express extremely complex ideas in very basic prose. Somehow I’m just unwilling to concede that what Hegel is trying to talk about is any more difficult or complex than what the biologist, complexity theory, economic social theorist, ecologist, or quantum physicist is attempting to articulate. This leads to my concern. I wonder if terribly dense styles such as we find in figures like Deleuze, Lacan, Hegel, Derrida, etc., etc., etc., aren’t a form of intellectual terrorism. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not referring to the quality of their concepts or arguments. What I am referring to is a general writing strategy that demands so much work on the part of the reader in the art of interpretation, that by the time you’ve managed to make heads or tails of what Lacan is arguing or Hegel is seeking to articulate or Deleuze is seeking to theorize, you have so much invested that you simply cannot think critically about that figure.

The rest of the post, and then the extensive discussion that follows, open interesting questions around the ways in which particular kinds of writing cultivate, or fail to cultivate, particular reading experiences and affective attachments to authors. Adam has also weighed in at An und für sich with a gloss on the original post:

I have some reservations about the recent Larval Subjects post about “difficult” books, but I think that, in part, it points toward a real phenomenon — one that I call “academic Stockholm Syndrome.” We’ve all seen it before: an academic invests great energy and undergoes profound suffering in the attempt to grasp a particularly difficult thinker and, upon succeeding, spends the rest of his or her career thoroughly identified with that thinker.

“Academic Stockholm Syndrome” sounds like it might not be a bad phrase to pick out a structural risk of a number of dimensions of academic training…

I’ve posted briefly in the discussion at Larval Subjects, before other commitments overwhelmed my blogging time. I wanted at least to put up a pointer for those who haven’t already seen the discussion…

Articulating Positions (Updated)

photo of the moments of a work process in motionIn the throes of writing over the weekend, but I wanted to put up a quick pointer to a post from Carl at Dead Voles, who is reflecting on the conversation Daniel and I had here, over the meaning of some of the terms I used when trying to contrast Lukács and Marx. I’ve been thinking back over this discussion myself – not least because the discussion connects up with a more general frustration I often feel about my own work with Marx, which often leaves me feeling a bit helpless to say anything, until I’ve outlined a good chunk of everything. I’m conscious that the nature of this kind of theory asks quite a lot from readers’ patience, I struggle a great deal over how to minimise this problem when I write, and I’m always somewhat sympathetic to others’ frustrations over why I can’t say what I mean more concisely. In any event, Carl’s post manages to transpose what I often experience as a personal frustration, onto the more general terrain of the difficulties of communication across two broad approaches to philosophy:

The conversation between N. Pepperell and Daniel strikes me as a classic sort of contrast between two very different ways of thinking about things, which I’ve tried to capture in my title for this post by hijacking Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a rough analogy. Daniel is an excellent philosopher, and he is oriented toward position. N. Pepperell is also a outstanding philosopher, oriented toward movement. The uncertainty principle tells us that we can know either position or movement, but not both.

This is a lovely framing for Carl’s analysis, which I’m almost tempted to quote here in full – instead, I’ll point readers to the original.

Carl’s observations reminded me of another recent discussion of the issue of communicating across broad approaches to philosophy – the conversation sparked by Roman Altshuler’s Do Continental Philosophers Have Arguments?, to which I responded in this post. The focus wasn’t quite the same (I was concentrating on the issue of “embedding”, rather than “refutation”, as a form of critique), but there are still interesting points of contact between the two sets of reflections.

Just a quick update that Daniel has responded over at Dead Voles, clarifying that, while I might have been worried about taxing his patience with my roundabout way of backing into his questions, this was the sort of interaction he had been seeking out:

As a good Wittgensteinian/Hegelian, I’m not inclined to view my remarks this way. As I was careful to say repeatedly, I’ve not read much Marx. I find him hard to read. So, my questions were all asked from, as it were, a very high altitude (or a great distance away, as through a telescope) — they were meant to help me get Pepperell’s/Marx’s project better in view. And I think they more or less served their purpose; they got Pepperell to talk about the sorts of things I’d wanted to hear her talk about in this context (mainly, denying that Marx/Pepperell are trying to carry projects of various sorts that I think are DOA, but which I’d suspected Marx/Pepperell were still trying to make work). Pepperell kept “running criss-cross over the countryside” to make clear what she/Marx was up to, and this was what I was wanting to be done. Rereading my comments, I can see that I wasn’t as clear about this as I’d intended to be: I was self-consciously “derailing” the thread, asking questions that a remark in the post had brought to my mind, but which weren’t questions about the post per se. My apologies for not making this clearer, Pepperell. I’ve been quite happy with how our little back-and-forth has gone.

Daniel’s full response outlines a nice argument on the need to understand a concept by seeing how the concept is put to use – I recommend folks visit the original to see this argument in full, but I can’t resist reproducing the final bit:

To generalize, you can’t have a proper view of any part of anything until you have the whole affair in proper view. But there’s no need for this to cause anxiety; it’s just good ol’ hermeneutics. False, partial, abstract views need not be merely false, merely partial, merely abstract; they can just as well be on the way to understanding what’s what.

I’ve frontpaged Daniel’s blog here before, but for those who don’t yet know it, you can find his writings over at SOH-Dan.

Now I really must ground myself until I have my paper written… 😉

[Note: photo from Andy Bennet, Barry Shank, Jason Toynbee (red.): The Popular Music Studies Reader (Routledge, London 2006), s. s. 231-238, via Excerpter]

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: A Close Reading of the Naming of the Fetish

The entire long series on the first chapter of Capital, volume 1, was written as an exercise in unpacking Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism. En route, the series has done much more than that – but it has also done a bit less. Among other things, I’ve never gotten around to detailed textual analysis of the passages in which the argument about commodity fetishism is immediately presented. One of the things that I’ve been noticing, as I read other commentaries that attempt to interpret these same passages, is that certain specific “moves” in Marx’s argument tend not to be mentioned, or tend to be glossed in ways that, from the standpoint of my own reading, seem fundamentally to alter the thrust of the argument. What I want to do in this post – and this likely won’t make for entertaining reading – is to move through the first several paragraphs of the text somewhat closely, to gather together some notes on how I read this argument.

Marx begins:

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood.

I have suggested in earlier posts in this series that the “empiricist” voice that opens Capital sees the commodity this way: as a “given” – an irreducible “elementary form” whose characteristics can easily be perceived. The “transcendental” and “dialectical” voices introduced as the chapter unfolds call into question the apparent self-evidence of the commodity, enabling Marx to say, at this point in the text:

Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.

Why does the commodity possess such “metaphysical” properties? Almost all commentaries get the first step in Marx’s argument, which is that the use values of commodities cannot account for the strange properties Marx has discussed through his exposition of the “transcendental” and “dialectical” voices:

So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was.

The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value.

Many commentaries, however, want to interpret this statement in terms of a dichotomy between use value and exchange value – to assume that Marx is setting up here for an argument that use value is not mysterious, but exchange on the market introduces some sort of mystification. Where commentaries put forward this line of analysis, they often overlook or else interpret away the next move of Marx’s argument, which discusses how there is also nothing mysterious about the component parts that make up value:

Just as little does it proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value. For, in the first place, however varied the useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, &c. Secondly, with regard to that which forms the ground-work for the quantitative determination of value, namely, the duration of that expenditure, or the quantity of labour, it is quite clear that there is a palpable difference between its quantity and quality. In all states of society, the labour time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development. And lastly, from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labour assumes a social form.

So the “parts” of the commodity, as these have been determined at this point in the argument, do not – as parts – account for the genesis of the mystification Marx has associated with the commodity-form. So where does the mystification come from? From the unique relation in which these parts have come to be brought together and connected to one another, in a situation of generalised commodity production:

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.

The strong assumption that Marx is primarily concerned with opposing use value to exchange value, in order to make exchange value the primary target of his critique, tends to make it very difficult for commentators to grasp what the text is doing here. Marx is not distinguishing use value at the beginning of this section, in order to praise use value for its demystified character. He is trying to distinguish use value along with other parts of the commodity-form – the parts associated with value, as parts, are treated as no more mysterious here than the part that is marked out by the term “use value”. The argument here is not that we need to find a privileged “part” to serve as our standpoint of critique – it is, instead, that, if all we do, in analysing the commodity-form, is break it down into parts and examine those, then we will never be able to understand the genesis of certain “metaphysical” qualitative properties that Marx has been analysing throughout this chapter. This argument, in other words, is a further development of Marx’s critique of naive empiricism: he is arguing here that no amount of breaking things down into their components will ever answer the question he is trying to pose – proceeding in that manner will only lead to a point where the analysis must naturalise or treat as given the qualities Marx is trying to grasp.

Those qualities, Marx is arguing, do not arise from some “part” of the commodity-form – but from this form itself – from what happens, in other words, when these particular parts are brought together into a relation of a particular sort. The strategic thrust of this moment of the text is not to direct our attention to the mystifications of market exchange, but instead to direct our attention to the need to analyse parts only in and through an understanding of the relationships within which those parts are suspended.

(For those who have been reading regularly, my point here is similar to the one I expressed in developing the distinctions between Lukács and Marx: Lukács treats the commodity-form as a category that expresses exchange on the market – a form of practice with a very long historical provenance – and therefore views what is historically new in capitalism as the product of the quantitative expansive of this very old practice; Marx, by contrast, treats the commodity-form as a category specific to capitalism, expressive of a new social relation in which market exchange and other sorts of practices have recently come to be embedded, therefore fundamentally transforming the qualitative characteristics of these older forms of practice, by placing these practices into new relations. The relations, as well as the parts, have qualitative characteristics – and the argument about the fetish, in part, is an argument about how the qualitative characteristics of the relationship have come to be read off onto the parts, so that certain qualitative characteristics are read as intrinsic attributes, when these characteristics are instead, according to Marx, the contingent products of the suspension of the parts into a particular whole.)

The next few sentences are very compressed. Marx argues:

The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, take the form of a social relation between the products.

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.

Many commentaries see these sentences, again, as a reference to market exchange – to the abstraction from qualitative specificity and therefore the equation of goods and people that occurs when these are exchanged on the market for money. I see the argument here as much more complex than this – the Lukács piece cited above, particularly the discussion of equality in the final section, begins to outline how I see this argument, as does my earlier discussion of Diane Elson’s work. I won’t replicate that content in this post. The short version is that – at this particular moment in the text – I don’t take Marx to be talking about the reduction of everything, through market exchange, to the common denominator of money. I take Marx to be talking instead – again remembering this is an extended critique of naive empiricism – about how social actors have no way of knowing how much of the labour they empirically expend in production, will get to “count” as part of “social labour”, until market exchange reveals this result. Marx argues that this structuration of collective practice – in which social actors only find out after the fact whether, and to what extent, their activities get to “count” as part of social labour – can be seen as social actors enacting a distinction between empirical labouring activities (which can be directly perceived by the senses), and some subset of those activities whose empirical extent will only be known after market exchange takes place. This process of culling activities empirically undertaken, down to activities that get to “count”, Marx argues is tantamount to collectively treating certain activities as though they possess a “supersensible” essence – which Marx names “value” – thus enacting “value” as an intangible social reality.

Marx will later talk about the creation of value (and surplus value) as a process that takes place both inside and outside of circulation: the market isn’t the only institution relevant to the social process being shorthanded here. At this point in the text, Marx hasn’t yet introduced the categories he will need, to make the nature of his argument more overt, and so it is easier to “hear” the text as an argument about circulation. It is particularly important to remember that Marx is gradually unspooling further determinations of his initial categories all the way through the text, such that the argument at any particular moment, is expressed only in terms of the categories he has derived to that point: he adopts this strategy because he thinks it’s the only way to reveal the relationships that connect the categories to one another, in the context of an argument whose primary objective is to disentangle the qualitative characteristics and potentials of that relationship, from the qualitative characteristics and potentials of various moments. This makes the strategic thrust of the early moments of Capital difficult to appreciate, until further along in the text. Unfortunately, the received impression that Marx is trying to make an argument about “the market”, combined with the focus on circulation in the opening chapters of Capital, can occlude the strategic thrust of the text overall.

Marx then moves to a set of analogies. First, from the physical sciences:

In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things.

What Marx is reaching for here, I would suggest, is an example that involves a relation that comes to be misperceived as an object – where the emphasis is on the relationality of the example – on the need to grasp the relation, in order to grasp the process. Marx seems to realise the risk of this analogy, in the course of an argument against the tendency to treat the qualitative characteristics of social relations as the intrinsic properties of natural objects, and so reaches immediately for a more social analogy. Here he turns to religion:

But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race.

Here Marx tries to drill in that he is not trying to talk about some natural property, which comes to be filtered through socialised perception into some particular form. He is trying to talk about a distinctive sort of social entity – something entirely enacted in collective practice. He thinks his readers will find it intuitive to think of religion in this way – as a collective practice in which social actors behave as though intangible, supersensible creatures exist. This analogy has its limits as well, however: Marx worries that his readers will think that the supersensible entities of religious practice are the products of shared belief – “products of the human brain”, as Marx puts it. This also isn’t quite what Marx is reaching for: social actors (aside from the occasional political economist or philosopher) don’t need to “believe” in the existence of supersensible entities like “value”, in order to organise their collective practice to behave as though such entities exist. This is what Marx is trying to capture with his next sentence:

So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.

So it is this collective enactment of supersensible entities like value, which social actors effect unintentionally, that suspends the “parts” of the commodity-form into the distinctive relation that produces the “metaphysical” traits Marx has been analysing in this chapter. It is here that Marx finally gives this process a name:

This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

Things to Do, Places to Be (Australian Edition)

So in my ongoing quest to turn this blog into a very clumsy calendar of events, I just wanted to archive a couple of things that will be happening once I’m back from Europe. I will be presenting at two events in July:

11-13 July: Analytic vs. Continental Mini-Conference, Melbourne – a sort of… after-shock to the main AAP Conference taking place from the 6th through the 11th (which, by the way, is my nominee for the world’s worst academic conference website – who had the bright idea that site should feature animated bouncing worlds? And – although not strictly a website design issue – who came up with the “Daring Extras” optional addition to the conference registration, which will, among other things, see philosophers making their way up fake cliff faces in central Melbourne? You think I’m joking: take a look. Defensive much about the coolness factor in the profession? Sorry, I’ll stop now…)

In any event, for those who prefer to scale conceptual, rather than physical, heights… The Analytic-Continental mini-conference looks at the bridges and barriers between analytic and continental approaches to philosophy. L Magee, Andrew Montin and I put together a panel proposal that has been accepted for the event – one that grew out of a concept LM and I were tossing around some time ago, in relation to The Positivist Dispute – for the present event, though, inflected in a philosophical rather than sociological direction. My piece for this event is: “Transcending the Given: Adorno and Popper’s Conceptions of Science, Counterfactual Ideals and Critique” – more on this closer to the conference.

10-12 July Derrida Today, Macquarie University, Sydney. The paper for this event grows from, and is part of, the collaborative conversation between this blog and Praxis over Derrida’s Specters of Marx.

Title: Handling Value: Grasping the Fetish in Marx’s Capital


Derrida’s Specters of Marx seeks to exorcise the oppressive spirits of Marxist history, by conjuring an “indeterminate, abstract, desert-like” messianic potential from Marx’s work. Derrida’s argument pivots on his reading of Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism, in which Derrida convicts Marx of relying on use value as a naïve ontological ground for critique, while demonstrating that spectrality can never be eradicated.

To make this argument, Derrida suggests that Marx applies the term “commodity fetishism” to an illusion or ideology – to something created by the head:

There [in the religious world] the products of the human brain [of the head, once again, of men: des menschlischen Kopfes, analogous to the wooden head of the table capable of engendering chimera – in its head, outside of its head – once, that is, as soon as, its form can become commodity-form] appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race…. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself [anklebt] to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

This act of quotation, however, is also an exorcism – excising a pivotal sentence: “So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands“.

In this paper, we wish to explore the implications of this move, both for Derrida’s critique and for the contemporary appropriation of Marx. We argue that Derrida’s insistence on reading Capital as a form of ideology critique obscures the practice-theoretic core of Marx’s work – and, in the process, occludes how Marx might offer a way to move beyond Derrida’s abstract and formal messianic spirit, without evoking the oppressive spirits Derrida hopes to exorcise.

Attentive readers will have noticed that these two conferences appear to be happening at the same time. Unfortunately, I will need to duck out of the Derrida Today conference early, to make my way back down to Melbourne for the Analytic-Continental event…

The Reality of Abstraction

I’ve been glancing through some of the secondary literature on Derrida’s Specters of Marx, trying to piece together an abstract. I paused over the following comment, from Jameson’s “Marx’s Purloined Letter”, in Ghostly Demarcations (2008), p. 36:

As for materialism, it ought to be the place in which theory, deconstruction and Marxism meet: a privileged place for theory, insofar as the latter emerges from a conviction as to the ‘materiality’ of language; for deconstruction insofar as its vocation has something to do with the destruction of metaphysics; for Marxism (‘historical materialism’) insofar as the latter’s critique of Hegel turned on the hypostasis of ideal qualities and the need to replace such invisible abstractions by a concrete (that included production and economics). It is not an accident that these are all negative ways of evoking materialism.

For present purposes, I’m not concerned with whether Jameson fully endorses the position set out in this excerpt – what interests me is that this presentation captures one of the common ways of attempting to make sense of what Marx means, when he talks about “standing Hegel on his feet”. In this view, Hegel’s problem is that he engages in “invisible abstractions”: a proper critical approach, by contrast, requires that such abstractions be replaced with “concrete” entities that are purportedly more “real”.

As a placeholder, which I won’t develop adequately here: this is not how I read Marx’s critique of Hegel. Marx is not attempting to reject abstractions – still less to replace them with something concrete, as though the abstractions are mere illusions which can be wished away. Marx is, instead, trying to grasp the ways in which abstractions are generated in practice – in a situation in which those abstractions possess what Marx will often in the Grundrisse refer to as “practical truth”. Hegel’s abstractions become, for Marx, social realities – they aren’t tangible, they can’t be seen immediately through empirical experience, but nevertheless they do exist – and they “really” exist abstractly – if only as moments of a very specific, and potentially transient and transformable, form of social life. Marx wants to grasp these abstractions: their critique consists in the demonstration of how they are produced. The point of critique is not to debunk or to dismiss abstractions as “untrue”, but instead to explore the presuppositions or conditions of possibility for a particular sort of bounded truth – of truth for us – possibly of truth we want to abolish – but truth (for the moment) nevertheless.

The simple dismissal of abstractions, or the unmediated reduction of the abstract down to the concrete – what Hegel might call an “abstract negation” – is insufficient for Marx: only by seeking out the practical genesis of what is being criticised, can critique – for Marx – make a meaningful contribution to the practical project of emancipatory transformation.

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 3

Just like as in a nest of boxes round,
Degrees of sizes in each box are found:
So, in this world, may many others be
Thinner and less, and less still by degree:
Although they are not subject to our sense, […]

~ Margaret Cavendish “Of Many Worlds in This World”

Fragments on Lukács’ essay, focussing on how I would contrast Lukács to Marx, in relation to various claims Lukács puts forward in the first section of his essay, under the subheading “The Phenomenon of Reification”.

I. Quantity to Quality vs. Relationality

In my previous post, I mentioned a key problem confronting this text – a problem that was also a central question for Marx: if capitalism is understood as something historically unique, why do the categories used to theorise capitalism – commodities, money, interest, profit, rent, etc. – appear to be less historically specific than the object those categories purport to grasp? As I discussed previously, Lukács attempts to answer this question by suggesting that a quantitative expansion of the phenomenon grasped by these categories – to the point that this quantitative expansion becomes totalising and all-encompassing – yields a qualitative shift: in Lukács’ framework, capitalism can be generated as a historically-specific object from the extension of forms of practice that are much older historically.

Lukács believes that this is how Marx would also answer this question, and cites various passages from Marx suggestive of this idea. I would suggest that Marx’s answer actually takes a completely different form: for Marx, capitalism as an historically distinct object is constituted when various older forms of practice come to be reconfigured as component parts of an historically novel and qualitatively distinctive social relation. Following Hegel, Marx grasps the meaning of the categories as something that is determined relationally. To say this more plainly: Marx thinks that “commodities”, “money”, and similar categories are only apparently non-specific to capitalism – in his account, these categories take on a very different meaning and significance under capitalism, than various phenomena that, from our present-day point of view, look similar in other societies. The “essential difference” between these categories in a capitalist, compared to a non-capitalist, context, is therefore not due, in Marx’s account, solely to a process of quantitative expansion, but instead due to the emergence and reproduction of the historically distinct sort of social relation whose constitutive moments these categories express. Since Marx also does speak of various quantitative expansions associated with the development of capitalism, this argument is complex to demonstrate on a textual level – I’ll leave that task for another post. My goal here is simply to draw attention to a possible alternative to the sort of analysis Lukács presents, when he tries to explain why the core categories of “capitalism” appear more transhistorical than the object they purport to grasp.

II. Totalities and Tipping Points

Lukács seems to regard the “tipping point” at which quantitative expansion yields a qualitative shift, to be the point at which the “commodity-structure” becomes universalised or totalised. In Lukács’ argument:

The commodity can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole. Only in this context does the reification produced by commodity relations assume decisive importance both for the objective evolution of society and for the stance adopted by men towards it. Only then does the commodity become crucial for the subjugation of men’s consciousness to the forms in which this reification finds expression and for their attempts to comprehend the process or to rebel against its disastrous effects and liberate them, from servitude to the ‘second nature’ so created.

Logically, even within Lukács’ quantity-yields-quality framework, this isn’t the only analytical option – in principle, quantitative expansions might yield qualitative shifts without some sort of maximal, universal extent of quantitative expansion. Theorising this sort of “tipping point” concept, however, would probably pull the analysis closer to Marx’s relational approach, due to the need to explain why a certain level of quantitative expansion should yield a specific qualitative shift – an explanation that might point toward an exploration of whether some sort of specific configuration, with distinctive qualitative properties, becomes possible at some particular level of quantitative expansion. I don’t specifically see Marx’s analysis following this line – Marx seems to focus more on the effects to an entire set of practices, of the constitution of a new form of social relation, and to understand this qualitative shift to drive a quantitative expansion. Marx does, though, appeal in other dimensions of his argument to the notion that capitalism presupposes a certain (itself expanding) scale that transcends earlier historical organisations of production.

III. Personal vs. Social Relations

At one point early in this section, Lukács makes the point in passing that, at some early point in the development of capitalism, it was easier to “see through” the commodity-structure. Lukács argues:

the personal nature of economic relations was still understood clearly at the start of capitalist development. (emphasis mine)

Lukács intends this as a gloss on Marx’s argument about the fetish, in which Marx argues “a definite social relation between men… assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.” In his reformulation of Marx’s argument, Lukács tacitly assumes that the “social” equates to the “personal”. I would suggest that Marx precisely does not make this equation – that Marx is instead attempting to theorise the collective constitution of a social relation that is specifically not personal in nature. As Marx puts the point:

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. (emphasis mine)

Marx’s formulation also calls into question Lukács’ tacit suggestion that reification involves a sort of ideology or illusion – something that, when it is less totalistic, can be pierced, to reveal the “true” relation – a personal one – that sits on the other side of the veil. Marx is not attempting to theorise an ideology (not even a “necessary” one), but instead a distinctive form of social relation, characterised precisely by its “objective”, “materialist” character. Marx is not suggesting that theory needs to help up pierce the veil of an illusion of objectivity: he is suggesting that theory needs to grasp how we are collectively constituting a genuinely impersonal form of social relation. The categories of the “social” and the “personal” precisely do not align for Marx – this disalignment is central to Marx’s attempt to thematise capitalism as historically distinct, and it also alters the strategy at play in Marx’s critique, which is not to uncover the reality that has come to be crusted over by illusion, but instead to analyse the genesis and potentials of a very distinctive form of social relation.

This contrast carries over into a number of other dimensions of Lukács’ argument, some of which I’ll pick up on below.

IV. Subjects, Objects, and Things in Between

Both Lukács and Marx offer an argument about a distinctive form of subject-object dualism related to the commodity-structure. The very different conceptions of commodity-structure in play, however, point each in very different directions.

Lukács understands the commodity-structure to relate to the exchange relation. In his account, the quantitative expansion and, ultimately, totalisation and universaliation of the exchange-relation, leads, on the one hand, to a “world of objects and relations between things” – which Lukács equates with “the world of commodities and their movements on the market”. This “objective” world of market exchange confronts the individual subject as a “second nature” beyond their control – an environment whose laws the subject can attempt to anticipate and calculate, but not overcome. Proletarian subjects are further compelled to sell their labour-power onto this market – to externalise part of themselves as an object – and also confront the full effects of the fragmentation of the labour process which, in Lukács’ account, comes to be organised in such a way as to break apart the “organic unity” of use values, scattering the production of a finished product in time and space, and turning labour from a purposeful mastery of nature, into something itself mastered and inserted as a motive force into a production process to which labour must adapt. In each of these ways, Lukács argues, the subject – or, specifically, something he calls “the personality” – the aspect of subjectivity that exceeds what is required for the labour-power that is bought and sold on the market – comes to experience itself as set apart from the totality of the object world. The subject thus becomes contemplative – passively analysing and adapting itself to the laws of an object world the subject experiences as fundamentally alienated from its own practice.

Most visibly with the strange, ungrounded category of the “personality”, but also with the undertheorised category of the “object world”, Lukács’ argument here falls short of the type of theory Marx is attempting to construct. Lukács tacitly takes for granted the qualitative characteristics of both his subject and object worlds. The type of explanation Lukács uses, for example, to account for the “objectivity” of the market, could implicitly be used for any sort of social environment into which any human subject finds themselves “thrown”: single social actors do not, as single social actors, have the capacity to alter any social context – why does the “contemplative” relation of subjects to an object world not characterise all of human history? Lukács’ implicit answer hinges on his argument that capitalism uniquely breaks apart the “organic unity” of the production of use values: lurking in the background here is a notion that subjects realise themselves through their self-externalisation of themselves in material nature, coupled with a tacit romantic glance at skilled handicraft production. “Personality” – which might perhaps realise itself as an active agent in a less fragmented productive environment – lingers into an era in which it figures as nothing more than an idiosyncracy – a “source of error”. With no means available to externalise and thus realise itself as an active, creative agent, it finds itself cordoned off from the object world, which it confronts in a state of contemplation.

It is significant, I would suggest, that, in order to make this argument, Lukács directly juxtaposes – as though they were intended to make the same sort of contribution to Marx’s argument – passages from Capital that are describing commodity fetishism, and much later passages describing the transformation of the labour process that takes place under capitalism, particularly after the introduction of large-scale machinery. These juxtapositions assist Lukács in his attempt to equate Marx’s category of the “fetish”, with Lukács’ own category of “reification”. I would suggest, however, that these two categories point in quite different analytical directions. Marx’s argument about the fetish is intended to account for something that remains unproblematised in Lukács’ argument: the constitution – in the sense of the enactment or performance in collective practice – of the distinctive qualitative characteristics of the forms of “objectivity” and “subjectivity” that are enacted via the process of the reproduction of capital.

Marx’s argument here is more complex and difficult to express than Lukács’ – I won’t be able to do justice to it in this post (I have, however, erected the scaffolding within which to reconstruct this argument, in the series on the first chapter of Capital, volume one, under the Marx tab above). Here – and still very gesturally and inadequately – I can begin to sketch some of what might be at stake, by looking briefly at the contrasting ways in which Lukács and Marx approach the question of the social constitution of particular forms of equality.

V. All Else Being Equal

Just as Lukács reduces the commodity-structure down to the exchange relation, so he also attempts to explain distinctive ideals of equality with reference to the exchange relation. Once again, this pushes Lukács onto the terrain of personal relations: he speaks of the recognition of formal equality, as one of the “objective” conditions for the exchange of qualitatively incommensurable goods. This is a very common way of accounting for the modern resonance of ideals of equality – to point these ideals back to the conceptualisation of exchange as a form of contract, presupposing the formal equality of contracting parties as in principle self-determining agents who are operating free from coercion, and also presupposing the intrinsic fungibility of the goods being exchanged. Marx will make use of these sorts of arguments, as these sensibilities and their associated forms of practice are dimensions of capitalism. Significantly, however, Marx suggests a different line of argument in the immediate context of his discussion of commodity fetishism. He cites a passage in which Aristotle considers the question of whether the goods exchanged on the market – since these goods are being, in effect, “equated” with one another in social practice – might possess some underlying sort of commonality or identity – whether they might, as the chapter has just discussed, possess the homogeneous supersensible substance of “value”. Aristotle considers the possibility, and rejects it, arguing that exchange is simply a “makeshift for practical purposes”. Marx then suggests why Aristotle failed to arrive at the concept of value, and points this back to the absence of wage labour in classical antiquity. Marx argues:

The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality.

The “in truth” is sardonic – Marx is miming the forms of analysis of political economy in speaking this way. Political economists might speak as though value has always existed, but Aristotle and other thinkers failed to “discover” it until the present enlightenment enabled us to uncover what has always tacitly been there (remembering here Marx’s characterisation of the political economists, that they speak as though “there used to be history, but there is no longer any”). The argument of the first chapter of Capital, however, is that value was not there to “discover” until the development of the distinctively modern social practices that performatively (if unintentionally) bring “value” into being. Aristotle didn’t overlook the presence of value: value did not yet exist.

This argument connects in complex ways with how Marx understands the social constitution of modern ideals of equality. Value figures in Marx’s analysis as an intangible social substance – as something that cannot be directly perceived, but whose existence can be deduced through observations over time of the non-random transformations of aspects of social experience that are immediately evident to the senses. Value is an implicit social category – its existence must be deduced. This deduction is possible, because non-random (lawlike) patterns of transformation of material nature and social institutions take place over time. The constitution of value is unintentional (social actors are not attempting collectively to generate the patterns Marx labels with the category “value”), and it is impersonal (taking the form of a constantly reset social norm that marginalises social actors who cannot conform).

I have mentioned before that one image or metaphor for thinking about “commodity producing labour”, involves a nested collection of sets, where the largest includes any sort of social practice involved in any way in the reproduction of our social existence, within this, is that subset of activities oriented in some way to producing goods intended to be sold on the market, and within that is the subset of activities that succeed in what Marx calls a salto mortale – activities that survive a process that Marx describes as a reduction of the labour that social actors empirically expend in production, to labour that gets to “count” as part of social labour. This reduction takes place, in Marx’s account, behind the backs of the social actors involved in the process, who have no way of predicting what percentage of their empirical activities will get to “count”: some empirical activities will “count” fully, some partially – some excessively. And this impersonal process, over time, exerts a coercive pressure back on empirical activities themselves, creating incentives and disincentives that tend (probabilistically) to drive empirical activities in non-random directions, conferring a “developmental” directionality on aspects of capitalist history.

Marx argues – and here is where “value” enters the argument – that this impersonal, unintentional process of culling empirical activities down to a smaller subset of activities that “count” as social labour in this very specific sense, can plausibly be interpreted by social actors engaged in the process, not as a collective social process of culling excess investments of empirical labour, down to what “counts”, but rather as a process of discovering how much “value” a material object inherently or intrinsically possesses. In this dimension of collective practice, social actors behave as though something like “value” exists – as though there is a single, intangible, homogeneous substance that is the total social labour, which then comes to be subdivided in greater or lesser proportions among all the products that are empirically produced. Goods are “valued” to the degree that they participate in this intangible substance – and the degree to which they participate in this substance is not discernible when either the use value or the empirical labour invested in the good is examined: it is revealed only in the social interaction among goods – only in the process of exchange.

There is much more to this argument, but I want to break off here, to reflect briefly on the implications of what I’ve written so far, for the question of how to understand the emergence of modern ideals of formal or abstract equality. To the extent that human labour-power is also a commodity under capitalism, it also participates in this culling process – in this coercive “reduction” down from the various labour powers that have been “produced”, to those that get to “count” – partially, fully, or excessively. Social actors engaging with the labour market – whether as buyers or sellers of labour power – have practical, everyday experience with this process of reduction. “Value” – this invisible, intangible, homogeneous substance – flows in greater or lesser degrees through humankind as well, in spite of the array of visible, tangible, empirical differences that materially distinguish humans from one another. Beneath these apparent differences, something common flows through us – we all partake of a similar intangible essence. Marx suggests, in other words, that the strangely counterfactual ideal of equality that develops in tandem (he believes) with capitalism, that exerts a critical force on actual social institutions and over time is used to call into question the importance of immediately sensible differences between humans – that this counterfactual ideal is a plausible articulation of the experience of partaking in the common intangible substance of value. Quite independently of the formal, contractual dimensions of the wage relation or of other sorts of exchange (which also, of course, play their part in reinforcing ideals of equality and experiences of personhood), this unintentional, impersonal reduction of human commodities down to a common, intangible, social “essence”, helps to enact the distinctive qualitative form of modern ideals of human equality.

Through this account, Marx also hopes to render plausible what he regards as pervasive forms of misrecognition, in which these intangible – but, in Marx’s account, socially enacted – qualities are perceived, not as something we have only recently created, but rather as intrinsic essences that we have recently discovered. The argument around misrecognition is, again, quite complex – I won’t be able to recount it here. The argument hinges on a complex and largely tacit set of distinctions concerning the ways in which we perform certain dimensions of our social experience as overtly social – the personal, intersubjective dimensions – while, by contrast, an impersonal social dimension goes unrecognised as social: it plausibly appears “objective” – and, by so appearing, provides us with experience of a set of qualitative characteristics that inform our concept of “objectivity” – a concept that we might plausibly look for or be receptive to in other sorts of impersonal environments – such as material nature…

Much more is required to develop and fully substantiate this argument, let alone to draw attention to the countercurrents and side eddies that curl around the phenomena I have so inadequately described (there is never, for Marx, just one plausible articulation of our collective enactments – and the reproduction of capital, in his account, entails a bewildering multitude of additional enactments, each interacting with one another in complex and dynamic ways). For the moment, just a brief word on the issue of standpoint of critique in relation to this kind of point. As I’ve sketched the argument above, it could sound as though an ideal of equality might hinge on the sort of collective sleight of hand involved in the enactment of value. This is not Marx’s position. Capitalism may have provided the means – quite accidentally – whereby we demonstrated collectively to ourselves that we could simply perform equality – that we could treat one another as equal, at least for certain purposes and in a certain dimension of collective practice – that we could disregard empirically sensible differences in order to perform this social equality, if needed. This accidental discovery opens a space of possibility – a space that becomes potentially wider, once we recognise the collective genesis of this ideal, rather than essentialising it as a “discovery” of something we perceive as having existed all along. This space of possibility might include an exploration of other forms of relation – less formal, less abstract – but attuned to the possibility to create in and around sensible difference, by performing our selves and our relations in a different way. This topic is much too complex to address adequately here – I mention it as only the most passing of references to how Marx conceptualises the potential for the conscious appropriation of potentials that have been constituted – but in alienated form – how, in other words, he understands his standpoint of critique.

This post is a bit of a monstrosity – my deepest apologies. I am trying to capture a set of notes that I hope to develop adequately in other places at other times. I am also trying to come to grips with the difficulty I have in trying to express what I object to in other theoretical approaches, in a circumstance in which the alternative that shapes my objection is just… a great deal more vast, generally, than what I’m objecting to… Working out how to write about this, short of a full thesis-length presentation, is something with which I’m currently wrestling. At the moment, as with this post, I leave out massive amounts, to the point that, while writing is still helpful for me, because I know at least a decent portion of what I would add to flesh the argument out, the posts strike me as though they must be utterly unintelligible and bizarre to anyone reading on. Thanks all for their patience as I write through this morass… Too tired tonight to edit (which, with this post, is possibly a dire mistake…) Take care all…

Previous posts in this series on Lukács:

Seeing What Was Already There

Reification, pt. 1

Reification, pt. 2

Marx of the Day

I feel like I ought to have had this quote handy a few weeks ago, when I was writing about Derrida’s selective edits to Capital. In any event, this quotation hits on some of the themes in the various conversations that have been underway in recent weeks with Praxis on the relationship between philosophy and other forms of practice in Marx’s work:

The same spirit that constructs railways with the hands of workers, constructs philosophical systems in the brains of philosophers. Philosophy does not exist outside the world, any more than the brain exists outside man because it is not situated in the stomach. But philosophy, of course, exists in the world through the brain before it stands with its feet on the ground, whereas many other spheres of human activity have long had their feet rooted in the ground and pluck with their hands the fruits of the world before they have any inkling that the “head” also belongs to this world, or that this world is the world of the head. Rheinische Zeitung No. 195, July 14, 1842, Supplement

This passage is from a quite early piece that expresses a number of views not carried over in this form into later works. One element of the quote, however, reminds me of a number of later formulations – specifically, the distinctive double movement through which Marx criticises philosophy, while also rejecting its abstract negation: the “head” and the “hand” are part of the same world – problems arise when philosophy forgets its intrinsic connection to other forms of practice, but also when other forms of practice fail to grasp their own implicit conceptual dimensions… No huge substantive point to be made here – certainly not tonight. Just archiving the quote, in part to remind myself to talk about things like this, if I ever find time to develop properly the argument I began to sketch in relation to Specters

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 2

Whatever the elements
(it’s urban/it’s pastoral,
it’s empty/it’s open), the theory says
it could always be worse.

Until it is. Then theory fails, […]

~ Mary Jo Bang @2004 “Catastrophe Theory II”

At the opening of the “Reification” essay, Lukács puts forward the bold claim that:

It is no accident that Marx should have begun with an analysis of commodities when, in the two great works of his mature period, he set out to portray capitalist society in its totality and to lay bare its fundamental nature. For at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure. Of course the problem can only be discussed with this degree of generality if it achieves the depth and breadth to be found in Marx’s own analyses. That is to say, the problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. Only in this case can the structure of commodity-relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them.

Lukács emphasises the word “structure” in “commodity-structure” – highlighting that, in Capital, the category of the commodity is intended to describe, not simply a thing, a discrete good, but instead a distinctive kind of relationship – a relationship whose peculiar qualitative characteristics are then read off into the intrinsic properties of goods. This conception of the commodity allows the category to do much more work than might be expected: the category of the commodity figures, not simply as a category of our economy, but a category of our society – in Lukács’ terms, a “model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them”.

Is Lukács’ conception of the commodity-structure, though, quite the same as Marx’s? In the paragraphs immediately following this opening, Lukács refers to “commodity exchange”, and to the subjective and objective relations corresponding to such exchange, as though these were the relationships at stake in understanding the commodity-structure. Here Lukács runs into a problem: he stipulates that “commodity fetishism is a specific problem of our age, the age of modern capitalism” – and hence is historically specific. Simple commodity production and exchange, however, is ancient: how does an ancient practice somehow transform into the dominant and distinctive problem of modern society?

Lukács’ answer is that the quantitative expansion of commodity exchange at some point reaches a scale where quantitative increase yields a qualitative transformation. This answer suggests that the commodity-structure is founded on the the same sort of social relationship – the exchange relation – in modern and ancient times. Lukács argues that modernity is distinguished by the extension of exchange relations beyond their earlier bounds, to the point that the commodity-structure becomes totalising. Lukács characterises this as a quantitative expansion that yields a qualitative shift: his argument does not attempt to explain qualitatively distinctive forms of subjectivity or (social) objectivity with reference to the emergence of a qualitatively new social structure or historically distinctive form of social relation, but rather with reference to a kind of supersaturation of the social context by a kind of social relation whose historical origins lie in the distant past. The key social structure – the central social relation – in Lukács’ account, is therefore not historically coterminous with the form of society whose characteristics Lukács wants most to explain.

One consequence of this move (and I won’t develop this point adequately in this post) is a flattening of the qualitative characteristics of the “forms of objectivity and subjectivity” for which Lukács tries to account. The focus on exchange relationships drives him to criticise various types of formalism and quantification – forms of thought that abstract from qualitative specificity in favour of quantitative comparisons. Lukács argues that what is left out of this relation – what, therefore, cannot be grasped by bourgeois forms of consciousness – is the use value dimension – qualitative specificity, characteristics not amenable to formalisation. Lukács includes in this category production – and thus the proletariat – setting up for his argument that the proletarian class can generate a unique standpoint that can capture the perspective of the totality by grasping those dimensions of capitalism that are occluded by the bourgeois focus on exchange relations.

I will try to develop this summary more adequately in later posts – completely exhausted today, so I am just tossing up placeholders for myself now. What I wanted to suggest, however, is a certain path not taken in Lukács’ approach – a path that, I have previously suggested, is central to Marx’s argument in Capital: the treatment of the category of the commodity as a fully historically specific structure, expressing a form of social relation specific to, and definitive of, capitalism – and therefore as a category that intends to express something more than simply the exchange relation. I have suggested in previous posts that Marx understands both the exchange value and use value dimensions of the commodity as historically specific terms – use value, far from being something that “bourgeois” forms of thought cannot grasp, is a category integral to capitalism, one that grasps phenomena no less central to the reproduction of capital, than the phenomena grasped by the category of exchange value. At the same time, both use value and exchange value occupy a specific place within the overarching category of the commodity: a space of phenomena that can be directly empirically observed. As the first chapter of Capital unfolds, we quickly learn that the first “presupposition” or social “condition” of these empirically-observable categories, is a third category whose existence must be deduced or intuited, because it cannot be directly perceived by the senses: the category of value. This entire tripartite structure – not simply the “exchange relation” – is the “commodity-structure” in Marx’s account, and this structure, however much it may encompass and repurpose earlier forms of social practice, is understood as historically distinct – as temporally coterminous with the process of the reproduction of capital.

Marx’s argument does involve a complex discussion of phenomena that can directly be seen through immediate empirical observation, versus abstract patterns of social practice whose existence must be deduced through an analysis of distortions or patterns that flow through empirically-observable phenomena. Within Marx’s framework, however, both use value and exchange value fall on the side of what can be perceived directly by the senses. Neither of these categories provides access to a privileged standpoint accessible only to a particular social class: both refer to “overt” aspects of social experience for social actors engaged with the process of the reproduction of capital. And the “non-overt” dimension of social practice – the realm of the mysterious social substances like “value” that Marx argues we unintentionally enact in our collective practices – is no more emancipatory, for all that it is more difficult to perceive or understand. The question of how to understand the standpoint of critique – of how to identify a possibility for emancipatory transformation – is therefore much more complex in Marx’s work, than it is for Lukács.

If I were less tired, I would develop this contrast in much greater detail. That more developed post will have to wait for another day. Apologies for these inadequate mini-posts on Lukács – I’m essentially taking notes for myself here, but will hopefully be able to pull things together more adequately before I’m done…

Previous posts in this series on Lukács:

Seeing What Was Already There

Reification, pt. 1

Seeing What Was Already There

I’m in that stage in the writing process where the work of figuring things out is going on elsewhere, inaccessible to me – whatever part of me works out complex problems, has holed itself up, toiling away, and the rest of me is left waiting, a bit drained of energy, able to sense that intense work is being done, but excluded from the work process and in the dark as to what its end product might be. Keeping me company are various random associations that seem as though they have something to do with one another, and to whatever I’m trying to figure out. I figured I would toss some of those associations up here.

One of the things that troubles me with Lukács is his equation of the totality with the standpoint of critique – an equation that provides the touchstone, unifying concept throughout History and Class Consciousness. The opening to the essay “The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg” makes this point particularly concisely:

It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science. The capitalist separation of the producer from the total process of production, the division of the process of labour into parts at the cost of the individual humanity of the worker, the atomisation of society into individuals who simply go on producing without rhyme or reason, must all have a profound influence on the thought, the science and the philosophy of capitalism. Proletarian science is revolutionary not just by virtue of its revolutionary ideas which it opposes to bourgeois society, but above all because of its method. The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science. (p. 27)

Lukács’ emphasis on totality can be read as a sophisticated, Hegelian inflection of a common line of criticism of capitalism in the crisis-ridden period of the transition from the laissez-faire era to the development of more state-centred forms of capitalism: the critique emphasises the irrationality of capitalism, understood to be caused by the retention of an outmoded system of private property ownership and competition between capitals that prevents production and distribution from becoming fully transparent to itself, and hence rational, through centralised state planning.

The experiences of the mid-20th century led to an intense reaction against this form of critique, as state planning and the suspension of private ownership and competition, were realised in intensely repressive forms. “Rational” planning proved compatible with the rational administration of terror. In such conditions, the political ideal of a society that had become fully transparent to itself, no longer seemed to hold emancipatory promise but, instead, to imply that there would be nowhere left to hide. The pessimism of the first generation Frankfurt School issues out of its confrontation with what appeared to be the horrific oppressive realisation of socialist ideals.

So there are historical reasons for unease with Lukács’ vision of the totality as the standpoint of critique – fears that this sort of critical discourse is “normatively underdetermined” in the sense that it does not provide critical purchase on the kinds of oppression that are mediated by the state. A theory whose central critical concept is the “all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts” sounds, to contemporary ears, much more likely to facilitate and apologise for oppression, than to bring to light emancipatory possibilities.

But it’s not just 20th century history that suggests that the totality is not the best way to conceptualise the standpoint of critique. I’m writing away from my books, and so I can’t demonstrate this point textually in this post, but there is considerable material from the Grundrisse and from Capital to suggest that Marx equates the viewpoint from the totality, with a particular moment in the process of the reproduction of capital (Murray has made the point, for example, that the category of capital is introduces using Hegel’s vocabulary for the Geist – suggesting, at the very least, that Marx would not agree with Lukács’ attempt to use a similar vocabulary for the proletariat, in order to claim the totality-eye-view as the perspective of the revolution…).

If Marx does not intend the totality to be his standpoint of critique, what does he intend? How does Marx conceptualise his critical standpoint? My suggestion – and I toss this out as a placeholder for future development, rather than as an argument I intend to make in any adequate way here – is that Marx finds his standpoint, precisely not in the totality, but in various “part contexts” that are generated in and through the process of the reproduction of capital, whose distinctive potentials we tend not to “see”, because our gaze focusses instead on the ways in which these parts are currently configured into a particular whole. A great deal of Capital consists of breaking larger wholes down into their various potential parts, exploring the implications of those parts – both as they are currently configured as moments that make a contribution to the reproduction of capital, and as they might potentially be reconfigured in order to realise very different forms of collective life.

Marx metaphorises capitalism as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster – as a reanimated creature – stitched together from disparate parts, each with their own distinctive tendencies, ensorcelled to contribute to ends that are not intrinsic or essentially bound to those parts. Social actors indigenous to this monstrous context find themselves adopting practical orientations toward these parts, reproducing the parts necessarily in the process of (unintentionally) generating the whole – the subjective and objective consequence of this process, is that the reproduction of capital necessarily drags along in its wake the reproduction of these diverse habits, forms of being in the world, material potentials, and other “resources” that can be repurposed to different social ends. Critique within this framework does not speak from the point of view of the totality (although it may need to recognise that a certain kind of whole is currently being reproduced), but rather from the point of view of the parts – of their disparate potentials, which are currently being abridged in order that this particular whole might persist. To seize these potentials, however, we need to shake off the enchantment that this particular whole, is the only possible whole – we need to learn to search beneath the totality, to begin to recognise the potentials of a diverse array of constituent parts.

I will hopefully write on all this much more adequately in the coming months. For the moment, I’ll just point to a fortuitous image – a poem that happened to be linked for other reasons entirely over at Concurring Opinions today – Kenneth Koch’s “One Train May Hide Another”:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,

As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.

That is, if you are waiting to cross

The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at

Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read

Wait until you have read the next line —

Then it is safe to go on reading.


One song hide another song; a pounding upstairs

Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hide another, you sit at the foot of a tree

With one and when you get up to leave there is another

Whom you’d have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,

One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man

May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.

You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It can be important

To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

Things to Do, Places to Be

Feeling generally disorganised at the moment, so apologies if I use the blog to remind myself where and when I will need to be, in a month’s time… ;-P It’s looking for the moment as though I’ll be in Europe from 20 May through some time in mid-June, attending at least the following events.

21-23 May, Rome, John Cabot University, Beyond Reification: Critical Theory and the Challenge of Praxis (PDF flyer) – I’ll be presenting a paper on Lukács and Marx (reification and fetish) on the first day. I’m counting on being too jet lagged to be stressed, but more likely I’ll just be jet lagged and stressed. I’m sure this will result in a very impressive presentation…

29-30 May, Warwick University, Hegel Conference: Truth and Falsity (programme) – no paper from me here – this conference is purely for pleasure – a time to sit back, relax, and be confronted yet again with how much I don’t know about Hegel…

2 June, London, Goldsmiths, Marx and Philosophy (JPG flyer) – an afternoon workshop on an eclectic set of themes touching on the contemporary interpretation of Marx – I’ll be presenting a paper on Marx’s relationship to Hegel, with a focus on working out what Marx means when he speaks of setting Hegel back on his feet, with reference to the example of how Marx understands the “peculiar social character” of commodity producing labour.

Other events might or might not be added to this list, depending on whether anyone else wants to talk to me while I’m in Europe… ;-P