Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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.

8 responses to “Seeing What Was Already There

  1. Carl April 13, 2008 at 7:15 am

    I’m also writing away from my texts and a few years after having this stuff uppermost in my mind. But I remember arguing that the category of totality in Lukacs is really a myth he’s adopted, not unlike Sorel’s myth of the general strike, to overcome in theory the fragmentation of proletarian (and capitalist) consciousness that a more sociological investigation would have produced (e.g. in a tentative way in Bernstein and a more elaborated way in Gramsci).

    It’s worth remembering that Lukacs was a quintessential geek intellectual. He’s the guy who got appointed Minister of Culture in the revolutionary government and thought the workers would flock to the theater if he made it free. (Eventually he ‘had to’ require the workers to attend the theater because they didn’t go otherwise.) He did not have a real practical orientation toward revolutionary process.

    As a philosopher he was comfortable with big chunky essences but not careful observation. As a result, the ‘capitalism’ he works with in *History and Class Consciousness* is totalized by conceptual fiat into this rigorous monolithic apparatus of domination. A myth. It’s not at all clear how the proletariat could oppose or overthrow such a formidable foe, so he counters the mythically totalized capitalism with a mythically totalized proletarian class consciousness. Bingo bongo.

    There’s really no reason to think this had anything to do with anything other than ideas in his head, shaped by his devotion to the kind of essentialist thinking that now gives philosophy a bad name with some folks.

  2. N Pepperell April 13, 2008 at 10:25 am

    lol! Yeah, sure – I understand the mythic dimension of the text – it’s not even all that uncommon to have someone try to use theoretical work as a sort of performative act, to bring into being what it’s claiming to theorise, using whatever limited “aura” a theoretical work might possess, in order to convince the world to shift in a particular way – in order to make something possible.

    Nevertheless, there are some reasons – for me individually – to wrestle with this work. One is a matter of contingent annoyance: I’ve been exploring how Marx uses Hegel and, unfortunately, whenever I talk about the fact that I do this, the first reaction is often: “Lukács!” So I thought I should write a bit, to show how talking about Marx using Hegel, doesn’t have to mean taking a Lukácsian approach to the question of standpoint of critique.

    Second, I do see some similarities between the sorts of formulations Lukács was putting forward, and more widespread and influential political ideals – I see him as a sort of inflection of a particular understanding of capitalism and transformation – one that, as it happened, aligned itself with a transformation within capitalism, confusing this with a transformation beyond capitalism. I have a general interest in this sort of phenomenon – with the excitement movements often feel because they are “moving” with something in history – but what they are moving with, may not be quite what it appears to be. This is a sort of abstract interest to hook to Lukács’ text, so I’m less saying that this problem emerges out of his writing, than that I’m interested in this problem, and therefore seem to find excuses to study it everywhere… 😉

    And finally, I tend to prefer to read as sympathetically as I can (and, I’ll admit, Lukács strains my sympathy) because – quite selfishly – I get more out of the process, than if I take the easiest opportunities to dismiss an approach… One could argue that I might get even more out of it, if I’d pick better texts to toss myself at… ;-P But I’m generally up for trying to take most things seriously…

    Sorry you were held in moderation, by the way – anti-spam thing; should happen only the first time you post.

    Take care…

  3. Carl April 13, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    Yeah, you’re right about all of that, including the versteheny method. I’m intrigued especially by your idea about moving within history but not knowing quite what that means. That seems very productive. I also understand why you feel like the Hegel/Marx thing pushes you toward Lukacs – quite right – although that ground is awfully well trodden and pushes you further into the Frankfurt School, which, you know, er, um, maybe you’d rather, um? Not?

    I started out being really excited about Lukacs for youthful romantic reasons. He does make a lot of sense in context, including a rather forlorn attempt to overcome his own bad class privilege without giving up all the thinky toys he loved.

    In my own stuff I paired Lukacs with Lenin, who was not much of a theorist exactly but had a much more resolute and effective orientation toward practice. It seems to me that in that main phase we pay attention to, Lukacs was trying to supplement Lenin by turning the revolution into something ‘better’, transcendentally speaking, than a gamble. Lenin knew it was a gamble and got down to the dirty business of polemicizing accordingly.

    Btw, no worries, I know about quarantine. Thanks for sharing your brain with us.

  4. N Pepperell April 13, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Apologies for not being able to a better job of explaining what I’m after, when I talk about movements moving “with” a transformation of capitalism, while thinking that they are moving beyond capitalism – in many ways, this is a driving theoretical interest for me, but it’s difficult for me to explain concisely. I suppose a lot of my work involves trying to think this issue more clearly – it may be that I’m not at the point of thinking it clearly enough myself 😉 It’s also an easier point to illustrate, in some ways, with reference to social history (my earlier work dealt more with social movements than what I’m writing on at the moment) – when I’m past the heavily theoretical writing to which I’m committed for the next while, I’ll hopefully be able to come back to the issue more adequately and more directly.

    My interest in how Marx uses Hegel is a relatively late interest, if that makes sense: I have a particular reading of how Marx “voices” and structures his argument in the first volume of Capital in particular, which suggests to me that he is critical of many of the positions he is often taken to endorse. When I finally got around to working through Hegel, I realised that Marx’s strange voicing and structure seems to owe a heavy debt to certain Hegelian concepts, so it became a bit clearer to me why (if I’m correct about the underlying argument) Marx might choose to voice the argument in what otherwise seems a somewhat counter-intuitive way. So the issue for me is not so much that I see Marx as a “Hegelian” in a substantive sense, but that I see him as continuing to play around with certain Hegelian terms and argumentative structures – in part, I think, because he believes this will demonstrate that his system can “embed” and explain Hegel’s, while also surpassing it.

    So recently I’ve been presenting Marx alongside a presentation of bits and pieces of “Marx’s Hegel”, in order to try to talk about why Capital is structured the way it is. Presenting Marx this way, though, tends to come across as though I’m making a more strongly substantive claim than I’m trying to make – and so it’s easy, I think, for me to cause confusion by sounding as though I’m trying to make a more Lukácsian or Frankfurtian point.

    But these aren’t the sorts of problems I would expect to interest other people… 😉 Just part of an ongoing process by which I try to work out how to say what I want to say, while minimising plausible misunderstandings – something I usually manage to do only by stirring up a brand new set of plausible misunderstandings along the way…

    My relationship to the Frankfurt School material is complicated. I tend to see the development of this tradition as a set of quite plausible and even reasonable moves – given what I would tend to see as a flawed starting point. So if I bracket my reaction to the starting point, I’m often somewhat sympathetic – there’s a certain “there but for the grace of history” element in my reaction, since I think certain things are simply easier to see, historically, from where we’re sitting, than from where they sat. In their position, I might have made many of the same moves – it’s hard to tell.

    I do draw on some of the very early programmatic goals of the Frankfurt School folks – I use a notion of immanent critique that emerges out of their tradition although, again, what they mean by this concept, and what I mean by this concept, are very different things (and, from my point of view, what they do isn’t really immanent critique at all – even before their pessimistic turn). But I feel a bit as though I’ve pillaged some of their concepts (along with concepts from a range of other sorts of theory), even if I’ve repurposed these concepts, sometimes in ways they might not recognise, and probably often in ways they wouldn’t approve. But where they end up, in good Hegelian sense ;-P, is – to me – already present in embryo in their starting point – and it’s the starting point – the basic understanding of capitalism, of contradiction, and of critical standpoint – that I don’t share…

  5. Carl April 13, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    You’ve been very generous with your time with me here. If this conversation is any help to you in clarifying your own thoughts, I wonder if you could remark on the role of dialectical method in your analysis of Marx’s relationship to Hegel.

    There’s all sorts of bad work on Marx that takes everything he says at face value. And there’s a long tradition of pointing out that he’s actually working his way through a thesis/antithesis/synthesis process, so the first thing he says (the thesis) is always going to be opposed (antithesis) and overcome (synthesis) later in the exposition.

    The problem is in trying to pin Marx down into a statics of history. His history is dynamic, as is his exposition in Capital.

    When Lenin finally figured this out he famously remarked that Capital could not be properly understood without first reading Hegel’s Logic. Good luck with that, pal, but there’s something to it.

  6. N Pepperell April 13, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    When Lenin finally figured this out he famously remarked that Capital could not be properly understood without first reading Hegel’s Logic. Good luck with that, pal,

    lol! We have a local reading group running on the Logic at the moment – I’m ridiculously far behind in trying to blog about our discussion, but I still have vain hopes of catching up (I was still adding posts to the blog on Phenomenology something like a year after we had finished discussing it – and I still think I only wrote about maybe one-third of the book… I find Hegel very difficult to write about…). There was a nice burst of cross-blog discussion on the prefaces and introduction to the Logic when the group first started – I think everyone has been a bit snowed under from the term since then, but links to the posts are archived under the Hegel tab up top – these are, though, just a group of us wrestling through the text – certainly I wouldn’t claim to have a strong “read” of Hegel.

    The most recent formal piece I’ve written on Marx’s relationship to Hegel, and how this relationship affects the style of exposition in Capital, is here. This was, though, a situational piece, written for a very specific event – I’ll be revisiting this issue over the next couple of months, trying to be clearer than I was in this piece, about the practice-theoretic dimensions of Marx’s argument (which I don’t think came across very well in the piece I’ve linked to, making “my” Marx sound more thorough-going in his Hegelianism than I meant him to sound). Apologies for linking off to another piece, rather than just answering on the fly: my rather lame excuse is that I find it very difficult to write about Hegel on the fly, and so I think I’d probably do more harm than good tring to answer… ;-P

    The paper is somewhat long, though: I can at least offer the short version that I don’t so much take a thesis-antithesis-synthesis approach (to either Hegel or Marx). Instead, what drew my attention when I read Hegel, was the way in which he traces back through the presuppositions of his categories, and structures the analysis around that sort of trace. So Hegel will start with something that seems very abstract – say, Being, at the beginning of the Logic – and the category looks very arbitrary. And Hegel will go, “When we try to think this category, what happens?” – and this is how he gets to his next category – Nothing – by arguing that thought slides between these categories – when it tries to think one, it necessarily thinks the other. And then he will ask what category encompasses these two categories – and derive Becoming, as a category that expresses and at the same time transcends Being and Nothing. And so on through the whole of the text. The later categories are therefore understood as further determinations or specifications of the earlier categories: the earlier categories can be said to presuppose the later ones – to be impossible to think, at least in the way that we think them, unless the later categories were also part of the system.

    Capital has a sort of ethnographic inflection on a similar concept: the initial categories are gradually shown to presuppose other categories – ultimately, to presuppose the whole set of social arrangements, practices, and beliefs that go into the reproduction of capital. So Marx uses this Hegelian structure, but repurposed to a much more practice-theoretic end – to demonstrate that categories that political economy takes as “givens”, could only become “given” in a very specific social circumstance. I think this point could be made more clearly without the Hegelian structure of presentation, but given that Marx adopted a sort of Hegelian presentation, understanding the mode of presentation makes it much easier to unearth the sort of argument Marx was trying to make.

    There are some other areas where I think Marx borrows from Hegel very strongly – including a particularly abstruse set of moves around “inversions”. Hegel makes an argument in Phenomenology of Spirit about how consciousness, confronting something Hegel calls “the inverted world”, becomes aware of its own implicatedness in the construction of its object – consciousness becomes aware, in effect, that it has been its own object all along. Marx replicates this argument, in part, in the first chapter of Capital – and seems to think he has thereby demonstrated that certain things that political economy takes to be intrinsic or essential properties, are in fact social in origin. Marx will then trace a series of “inversions” throughout the course of Capital, in order to highlight the social (and therefore transformable) character of various moments of the reproduction of capital.

    But this may just sound very bizarre, blurted out like this… In any event, the point of all this – from my point of view – was basically just to make more sense of the structure of Capital as a text, so that it then becomes a bit easier to see what was being argued – so that it then becomes possible to think through the adequacy of that argument for things we might want to understand. So I have found Hegel useful in understanding Marx – but I also experience a fair amount of frustration at Marx’s decision to articulate the argument in this particular way, without some very explicit metatheoretical commentary to explain the textual strategy. I also understand why Marx didn’t provide hat kind of commentary (he would have thought it contradicted the substantive claims of his own analysis) – but in the end, I value clarity more than that sort of theoretical consistency… Even Hegel was more explicit with his metatheory… ;-P

  7. Pingback: » Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 2

  8. Pingback: » Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 3

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