Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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.

10 responses to “The Reality of Abstraction

  1. Chuckie K April 21, 2008 at 4:09 am

    I kinda figured, Marx’s beef was ‘speculative’ method. Deducing from axioms, with validity guaranteed by following rules for reasoning. The abstract leading to the abstract. Instead of starting with that right around us and what we do in it as the place to start reasoning to generalizations.

  2. N Pepperell April 21, 2008 at 11:07 am

    I am pausing a bit over how to answer as, for example, for Hegel, the “speculative” method is intended as an alternative to axiomatic deductive systems whose validity is guaranteed by procedural rules… So we may not mean quite the same things, and I’m worried about speaking at cross-purposes to what you are intending to ask… Apologies in advance if I am setting off in a strange direction…

    The way I read Marx is that, yes, he is critical of theoretical systems that are imposed on their subject matter from the outside – theoretical systems that are only extrinsically and externally connected to what they theorise. He takes this position over from Hegel (although he doesn’t “implement” his critique in the same way Hegel does). Marx also spoofs an axiomatic, deductive form of presentation, and a “transcendental” argument, and also a “dialectical” argument, all in a very condensed space in the first three sections of the opening chapter of Capital, volume 1: in my reading, these are actually critiques of these sorts of theoretical approaches – Marx is showing off, revealing very quickly that his approach can “embed” these others sorts of theories. Unfortunately, he is often read as endorsing these forms of argument, rather than gesturing at how he would criticise them – a reading that can make large sections of chapter one look deeply self-contradictory.

    All that aside: I don’t disagree that Marx wants us to start with a specific object – and that this object is our actual (social) world. I’m less sure, though, that it’s a good idea to phrase this as “starting with that right around us”. The reason for my hesitation is that a critique of immediate empirical perception is very central to Capital – as it is to Hegel’s work (although, again, Marx implements his critique of immediate sense perception in a different – more practice-theoretic, anthropological – way than Hegel does). The issue for Marx is that what is “right around us”, is only “there” because it has been produced: he analyses what is “right around us” – but he does this in order to ask the question: what does the objects of our immediate experience, and the categories of our perception and thought, presuppose – what are the conditions of possibility for these things to come into being? So in a very specific sense, Marx is critical of what is “right around us” – he would have to be, because he wants to talk about the possibility for transformation.

    And all of that aside: a central argument in Capital relates to entities that are “real” because we constitute them as real – we perform or behave as though they exist – in our collective practice. When I was talking about abstractions with a “practical truth” above, it is these sorts of categories I am thinking of – what might now be called “real abstractions”. These real abstractions both are, and aren’t, “right around us”: they are part of our social environment, but we specifically cannot perceive them directly with our empirical senses – they take the form of patterns that unfold over time, and their existence must therefore be deduced. A great deal of the work carried out in Capital involves an attempt to get us to see the existence of this “supersensible” social dimension – while also showing how this dimension is brought into being in a very mundane way, through collective practices that are not attempting to bring about this result.

    This approach means that Marx is critical of what he would consider naive forms of empiricism that take for granted what is “given” in our environment – and that also take “us” for granted – that make no effort to analyse why our perceptions are attuned or primed to perceive our environment in particular ways. This critique of empiricism, though, doesn’t take the form of an anti-empirical approach to the construction of theory – it takes the form of a reflexive orientation to our particular empirical world, where the theory attempts to understand itself as an aspect of what it theorises…

    This is a very abbreviated version of the argument – apologies if this is unclear…

  3. Carl April 22, 2008 at 5:45 am

    Agreed with all of this.

    Btw, “Marx is showing off, revealing very quickly that his approach can “embed” these others sorts of theories” is freaking brilliant.

  4. Daniel April 22, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    For some reason the “Leave A Comment” thing on the third Lukacs post isn’t showing up for me, so I’m posting this here instead:

    {Ed: Daniel – Apologies – there were some issues with the site earlier today – I’ve relocated your comment where you originally intended to write it, and will respond down there. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get to this – long working day for me… ~NP}

  5. Tom Bunyard April 23, 2008 at 8:26 pm


    …um, I think both you and Jameson are correct. Marx is concerned with the production of history by human beings rather than by the ‘Idea’; with creating history rather than retrospectively admiring it, and in this sense he’s very much concerned with bringing Hegel down from the clouds. However, as you point out, that doesn’t necessarily entail doing away with abstraction – or indeed thought, which is essentially what this is about – altogether. After all, abstraction is a key tool in Marx’s analysis. I think you’re right to say that he’s interested with the way in which material conditions produce ideological formations, but that opens out onto the problematic of reciprocal relations between ideal and material. Been reading Karl Korsch over the last couple of days, and he has some very interesting things to say about that (stresses a dialetcial relation between the two); his book Marx and Philosophy is very short and quick to read, so maybe worth a look.

    …also, I meant to say something about Lukacs but never got round to it. I’ve been struggling through the Critique of Pure Reason, and found lots of quotes that are interesting in relation to Lukacs’ ‘nature is a social category’ thing (and indeed his claim that bouregeois consciousness is exemplified by Kant. I’m a bit too hungover to try and do all that now – but what do you make of the ‘naturte as social category’ thing, and his repudiation of that in the 1967 preface?

  6. N Pepperell April 23, 2008 at 10:21 pm

    Hi Tom – Good to see you around these parts. I’m actually not trying to talk about the way in which material conditions produce ideological formations – I don’t actually think that this is how Marx thinks of the problem – and I therefore tend therefore to think that trying to translate the argument about the fetish, into an argument about ideology, is missing the thrust of what Marx is trying to do. I think Marx is instead doing something much more similar to what, say, Durkheim does: that he is talking about forms of social being that are enacted or performed through collective practice. Once you’ve posed a dichotomy between “material” and “ideal” worlds, then you start worrying about how to bridge that dichotomy – and I suspect that Marx, much like Hegel, thinks that this is a losing proposition.

    When I speak about “abstraction” above, I’m also not trying to discuss abstraction as a methodological principle (Marx does occasionally discuss abstraction in this methodogical light, but that’s not what I’m trying to thematise here – and, to be honest, I don’t think it’s the best possible phrasing Marx could have chosen for the methodological point he was trying to make – although I often feel this about Marx’s explicit methodological comments).

    Abstraction in the context that interests me here, doesn’t refer to conceptual abstractions, but to intangible social realities – what might today be called a “real abstraction” – what Marx calls an “abstraction with practical truth”: this term doesn’t refer to some methodological action Marx undertakes, and doesn’t have anything to do with forms of thought, but instead is an attempt to pick out the consequences of collective practices that behave as though certain intangible entities exist – and therefore, according to Marx, bring those intangible entities into a kind of existence, as social “realities”. Marx thinks we are collectively acting as though something like “value” exists – and, by acting this way, we do bring value into existence, although only as a peculiar, intangible social entity – an “entity” that only exists so long as we collectively behave as though it does.

    To try to clarify what he’s after with these sorts of categories, Marx makes the analogy to religion – where people enact intangible entities in practice by sharing a belief that such things exist. These intangible entities have material effects, because they are believed in – they have effective social force – they exist in practice (there’s a lovely quote on this – can’t look it up now – where Marx is chiding someone for acting as though the gods of classical antiquity were mere illusions: Marx points to the social existence of such intangible entities).

    When he talks about the fetish, Marx makes this analogy to religion, but specifically argues that categories like “value” are not enacted in collective practice through belief – social actors’ belief or disbelief in the existence of value doesn’t matter. Instead, these categories are enacted through collective behaviour, through the unintentional side effects of collective practice oriented to other ends. This practically constituted intangible entity is not an “ideological formation” constituted by “material conditions”. It’s a pattern that emerges unintentionally within collective behaviour, whose existence can be traced through observing the deflections of more tangible (“sensuous”, synchronically empirical) dimensions of social practice. The division of “ideal” and “material” is not presupposed, and so this approach isn’t oriented to the question of how to bridge the dichotomy between these terms.

    And now I’ve blathered so long that I need to get some work done – I may try to pick up your point on Lukács in another round. 🙂 Take care…

  7. Drew May 6, 2008 at 7:59 am


    I’ve been reading your Spectres posts with interest, as I’m reading it at the moment too, though my interest isn’t so much on Derrida’s critique of Marx. (Why am I reading it then? Derrida spends a lot of time not talking about Marx, for one thing…). But anyway, just wondered if you had done any thinking on D’s relationship with Hegel as well? I appreciate the size of that question though, and that time, well, there’s never enough.

  8. N Pepperell May 6, 2008 at 8:29 am

    Yes – I hope to get back to Specters in a more adequate way soon, but just have too much on my plate right now. Praxis, who’ll be co-writing with me on this work, may pick up some of the slack in the interim (and may have also done more thinking on the specific issue you’re interested in, as well). I have no time (sorry!!) to develop this today, but one of the things that interests me about Specters are the textual parallels between Derrida going after Fukuyama, and Marx going after Stirner – the battles over a certain Hegelian inheritance being compared through this juxtaposition. I haven’t, though, yet read Glas (or, no doubt, many other works) that I ought to read, to say anything intelligent on the issue of how Derrida’s relationship to Hegel plays out in a more general sense.

    I don’t know whether rob is lurking the thread at all – if so, he might be able to comment more effectively.

    I’d be very interested, as well, if you feel like tossing out some thoughts…

  9. Drew May 7, 2008 at 10:53 am

    the battles over a certain Hegelian inheritance being compared through this juxtaposition.

    Yes, this is what interests me too. The whole discussion of an inheritance from Marx is – who wants to say haunted here? there are too many ghosts – shadowed by the question of an inheritance from Derrida, and he is frequently attempting to exorcise deviant readings of deconstruction, or if not exorcise them, at least seperate himself from them.

    Unfortunately, I know little of Hegel, but am planing to improve on this point. Though the little I know makes this a daunting task…

  10. N Pepperell May 7, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    I hope to have time to write something on this issue – at least as it plays out in Specters – once I escape to Europe (and escape from the presentations I need to give while I’m there… ;-P) – I also have an enormous backlog of things I want to write on Hegel’s Science of Logic… So many things to read and write…

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