Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Incarnation of Value

No time for posting anything substantive tonight (or, most likely, for the next several days). I just wanted to archive for future reference a quotation from Marx that I’ve always liked – from a discussion of the general equivalent, from the first edition of Capital, volume 1. Marx is struggling here, as he is in many places, to try to get across the concept of a real abstraction – an abstraction that represents something enacted, rather than some sort of conceptual generalisation. Talking about the general equivalent – about money – he writes:

New British 2 Pence Coin, with LionIt is as if, alongside and external to lions, tigers, rabbits, and all other actual animals, which form when grouped together the various kinds, species, subspecies, families, etc. of the animal kingdom, there existed in addition the animal, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom.

The analogy isn’t perfect – the sentence is dropped from later editions – but I’ve still always enjoyed this particular image of money as “the animal” romping alongside all the heterogeneous instances of particular sorts of animality that exist around it… Marx is trying to express here the sense in which certain kinds of abstractions are enacted in practice – not abstractions that derive solely from how we think (although they are that as well), but abstractions that we do, collectively, through the distinctive practices we perform.

At some point when I have time, I need to write on the context in which I encountered this quote again – a couple of versions of an argument on “The Concept of Money” by Christopher Arthur, whose work on Marx’s relationship to Hegel I should review as part of the “Marxes” series. While I’m archiving, Arthur’s gloss on the above quotation is also worth tossing on the blog (with apologies that I don’t have time to develop my own position relative to Arthur’s argument now):

This example is a reminiscence of Hegel’s point; as follows:

“Animal as such” cannot be pointed out; only a definite animal can ever be pointed at. “The animal” does not exist; on the contrary, this expression refers to the universal nature of single animals, and each existing animal is something that is much more concretely determinate, something particularised. But “to be animal”, the kind considered as the universal, pertains to the determinate animal and constitutes its determinate essentiality. If we were to deprive a dog of its animality we could not say what it is. Things as such have a persisting, inner nature, as well as an outward existence.

Now the peculiarity of gold money is that as ‘the universal commodity’ it can be ‘pointed out’. The universal aspect uniting commodities is presupposed to be value, and in money this ‘inner nature’ is posited as ‘a thing’ beside them.

Hegel rejects the analytic opposition between the universal as wholly abstract and the singular as concrete. His dialectical view is that the universal is no mere abstraction; it is a concrete universal that comprehends within itself its particularisations. Now, as we have just seen in the passage where Hegel discussed ‘the animal’, it is not the case that the concrete universal exists alongside the individuals. The universal is understood as the inner essence of the singulars, making them what they are. Why, with the concept of value, if this is to be considered as such a concrete universal, is it not found within the commodities but outside them, incarnate in a money commodity that counts as their universal essence? It is because commodities as such are materially heterogeneous and share no inner nature. The generation of value as a concrete concept is secured only when money as a material existent gives commodities a universal form in price. While the universal thought-form comprehends its particularisations in thought, the value form comprehends its particularisations through the objective relation in which such money stands to commodities.

It follows there is a difference between applying Hegel’s logic and my parallelism. In the first case the hypothesis would be that there is a universal immanent to commodities which can be abstracted by thought. In contrast, I argue the movement of exchange models Hegel’s concept in practice. This is why a material bearer of the universal moment is required alongside the singular commodities it comprehends as values.

Hegel explicitly mocks the idea that the universal exists as particular apart from its instantiations. He writes:

The universal must be distinguished from the particular, according to its proper determination. Taken formally, and put side by side with the particular, the universal itself becomes something particular too … as if someone who wants fruit, for instance, were to reject cherries, pears, raisins, etc., because they are cherries, pears, raisins, but not fruit.

However, in the case of value just this situation obtains. Marx writes:

Though a commodity may, alongside its real shape, iron for instance, possess an ideal value-shape or an imagined gold-shape in the form of its price, it cannot simultaneously be both real iron and real gold.

The owner of the iron cannot go to the owner of some other commodity, and refer him to the price of iron as proof that it is itself virtually money.

The peculiar necessity for value, as universal, to appear in a form capable of interacting with commodities means it must take the shape of the analogue of ‘the animal’, namely a locus of universality alongside the singulars. But since, at first, the only relation commodities have is to other commodities, a single commodity must be posited in this role. Money stands apart from commodities because only thus can their value be presented to them.

Apologies for the lack of commentary – running!!


One response to “The Incarnation of Value

  1. Pingback: The Syndication of Plagiarism SZ: (For Nicole Pepperell) – trinketization

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