The Reality of Abstraction
April 20, 2008
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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.