Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Value as What Will Have Been

Ktismatics has an interesting post and discussion up on different conceptions of value and the fetish, with reference to The Wire. A taste, from the comments:

I’ve been reading some of N. Pepperell’s posts about Marx on Rough Theory, and in so doing I realize that I, like Stringer, have a hard time thinking of value in terms other than product. The Wire doesn’t dwell on the effects of narcotics on the user, and it certainly doesn’t look at the work entailed in growing, processing and transporting the drugs. All we ever see is the exchange: the buyer hands off the money to person A and receives the product from person B. We do see the product being “stepped on;” i.e., reduced in potency by mixing it with baking soda, thereby increasing the sheer weight of stuff being sold. Apparently the users are willing to tolerate, and to pay for, heroin at less than full strength. It’s difficult for the user to know for sure how hard the product has been stepped on, since the high it generates is a subjective response. However, the reduction in effectiveness must be noticeable, especially in comparison to product on offer from competitors. What the buyer cares about is the subjective benefit s/he receives from the product; i.e., the quality of the high from ingesting the dope. And s/he is willing to pay more for what promises to be a better high, based on prior personal experience with the product as well as marketplace information obtained from other buyers who have used the product.

When I was replying to this thread, I found myself writing something that might or might not be clearer than some of what I’ve tossed out over here – specifically, I wrote:

I see value, instead, as referring to, if this makes sense, “what labour will have been”. We operate in a context in which all sorts of empirical activities are being carried out, in the hope that they will somehow successfully push product. Those activities don’t always succeed. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t; sometimes they don’t succeed as well as they were intended to; sometimes they succeed enormously better than expected. “Value” is the term for the level of “success” that ultimately gets conferred on product – not the labour expended, but the degree of social recognition bequeathed. The amount of value that will be conferred can never be known from the empirical labouring activities or other directly perceptible elements that go into the product. The category of value therefore refers to something of which we can never have exact knowledge – it’s the category of a society that acts out an “in itself” – an unknowable inner essence whose effects nevertheless pervade what we can know and perceive directly.

I’ll correct this comment a bit here: I see “abstract labour” as referring to “what labour will have been”. Value refers to the abstract labour “materialised” in a product. Both are fundamentally retrospective categories – categories that we can read out of macrosociological trends unfolding over time, but not categories that can be derived from any concretistic empirical analysis of actual labouring activities or actual goods at any specific moment in time. Abstract labour and value are products of the reproduction of capital.

I see Marx trying to draw our attention (in this bit of the argument) to the implications of a collective practice we take utterly for granted: the practice of engaging speculatively in labouring activities, in the hopes that these activities will produce something that “succeeds” on the market. Many of these speculative efforts fail; many don’t succeed as well as hoped; many do succeed; and some succeed beyond all expectation. There is no correlation between the amount of empirical labour, resources, and other directly measurable factors, and the level of success – Marx somewhere uses the term “conferred” – on the products of some particular labouring activity.

Marx is trying to tarry over this, when he makes the opening argument about value and the fetish – to ask what the implications of living in such an environment might be, for forms of perception, thought, embodiment, political ideals. The first chapter of Capital is a very compressed demonstration of some of those implications, before we even get to the point of examining the component practices that bring this whole system into existence and reproduce it.

One of his arguments is that the context is haunted by “what labour will have been” – by this intrinsically unknowable “abstract labour” that will ultimately be conferred on particular activities to particular degrees, endorsing or disendorsing those activities as successful inclusions in what gets to “count” as “social labour” – and therefore, over time, exerting a sort of evolutionary selective pressure that encourages the reproduction of certain forms of labour over others. In the tacit metacommentary being addressed to Kant (and Hegel) in the opening chapter of Capital, abstract labour figures as a sort of practically enacted “in itself” of capitalist society – as something we create, something we produce, something we make – but whose qualitative characteristics resemble those expressed in certain kinds of philosophical categories, and that also express, on a much more mass and popular level, certain forms of embodiment and political ideals, such as those, for example, articulated in notions of “inalienable” essences that factor into the development of “rights talk”.

“Value” is a category that picks out the “abstract labour” that has been “materialised” in the products of labour. Of course, since “abstract labour” is “what labour will have been”, value is also a category that “will have been” (in Derrida’s terms, value is inherently a category of a time out of joint – but for Marx this is a specific time and a particular sort of out-of-jointness…). In Marx’s argument, as I hear it, value is a product – and moreover a product whose existence must be deduced from the apparently random flux of the movement of goods on the market and (as Capital unfolds from the first chapter) from trends in the development of the form of production itself. Marx teases the political economists, saying that they “don’t know where to have it” – that they don’t grasp the ontological status of the category of value, and therefore don’t grasp how the category is enacted in practice. This is not because political economy suppresses knowledge of expropriation (Marx will get to that argument later) – at this point in the text, he is arguing that the political economists don’t know “where to have” value, because value is perpetually a category that “will have been” – a category whose existence can only be read off retrospectively from the outcomes of social practice oriented to other ends. Even where value and its connection to abstract labour has been successfully deduced, Marx suggests that political economy doesn’t work out how social practice comes to be constrained so as to render such categories valid for this form of social life.

The rest of the work then, among other things, attempts to work this out – to establish how these “will have beens” are effected by practices that don’t set out to produce such a result. The category of capital – and the capital-wage labour relation – will soon be introduced as the necessary presupposition for these opening categories. More on all this some other time… Just experimenting with the new vocabulary for the moment, to see how comfortable I am with where it takes me…

On other fronts, Nate has a nice post up at what in the hell… distilling points from David Graeber’s “The Sadness of Post-Workerism”.

And, to everyone who helped out as I was trying to piece the lecture together: I delivered it last night (a bit like a premature baby). All went well. I think. All went, at the very least. Not much on global warming. Quite a lot on the philosophy of science, in relation to the specific question of developing alternatives to dogmatism and scepticism. A quick romp through Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Foucault, Latour, and various parts betwixt and between. An overarching argument about how easy it is for critics to be bitten in the butt, when they fail to grasp that they are operating in a non-linear historical context. And some sort of concluding bon mot about dogmatists currently using the tools of scepticism in the service of dogma – it all sounded very Adornian at the time, I’m certain of it… ;-P But seriously: thanks everyone – it was very helpful to be able to vent and to talk some things through.

10 responses to “Value as What Will Have Been

  1. Nate May 9, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    hi NP,

    I need to give this (and much, much else on yr blog) a thorough go over and a think, but real quick on just one line/point –
    “Both are fundamentally retrospective categories”

    I agree completely. I think the same is true (though perhaps w/ a different sense) of use value: use values are retroactively posited from practices of use. Use Y means use-value Y exists/existed. Hence the discovery of use values and their measures being the work of history. Not sure that adds anything to what you’re doing, but I think it’s interesting in the sense of being another piece of the temporal registers operating in Marx’s work. Might be fun eventually to try to map/list the many various approaches (not the right word I really want, can’t think of a better one) to time in _Capital_.

    take care,

  2. N Pepperell May 10, 2008 at 5:22 am

    Might be fun eventually to try to map/list the many various approaches (not the right word I really want, can’t think of a better one) to time in _Capital_.

    I’m not sure “fun” is the word I would use 😉 – but yes, the text is obsessed with the creation and implications of the co-existence of different sorts of time, and it would be good to map them out.

    On one level, the opening perspective of Capital is explicitly historicist – talking about the discovery of the useful properties of things as the “work of history”. But there’s a strange disjoint in that opening voice, as use value is soon after positioned as a material content that is the “true” basis of wealth, regardless of the explicit social form of wealth – with the suggestion that the form varies historically, while its content remains the same. This is bound together with the notion that the material properties of goods were “always already” there, but come to be discovered in historical time.

    Marx drops a sarcastic footnote to the text, giving an example of how the “intrinsick” property of a loadstone to attract iron becomes useful only in certain circumstances. The footnote suggests the need to develop, in a sense, a more complex sort of historicism – one that doesn’t content itself with talking about how intrinsic properties come to be discovered, but that also tries to understand the conditions of possibility for the “discovery” – and suggesting that what is discovered could be conceptualised as a sort of constitutive relation that arises with material objects under certain social conditions, rather than (one-sidedly) as an intrinsic property of the thing. This then ties together with Marx’s later argument about Aristotle failing to discover what “in truth” lies beneath exchange – where Marx places the “in truth” in sardonic scare quotes, again hinting and setting up for the explicit argument that value is not intrinsic – that Aristotle didn’t fail to “discover” value, but rather value wasn’t yet there to be discovered, since value depends on other social and historical conditions that didn’t yet exist in Aristotle’s time…

    Sorry to babble – it’s very late here (for some ridiculous reason, I’ve been waking up at 3 a.m. lately… *sigh*). So if I’m making no sense, you’ll know why… I’m basically just trying (and perhaps failing) to continue the thought you were offering above…

  3. ktismatics May 10, 2008 at 8:57 am

    I started writing a comment here, but I realized that since I was quoting Jonathan Beller’s interpretation of fetish value the comment is more relevant to my own blog, where I’ve been interacting with Beller a little. Briefly though, Beller interprets fetish in more Freudian terms, as an intangible focus of desire. But this desire becomes a social accretion as recognition of the object’s value accumulates from the attention devoted to that object by many people. This cumulative attention adds fetish value to the object; therefore, says Beller, the attention of those who are captivated by the spectacle of the commodity are performing uncompensated work. I’m not sure how much of that sort of thinking was in Marx’s head. Anyhow, thanks for stopping by and helping me understand the concept.

  4. ktismatics May 10, 2008 at 9:09 am

    Ah what the heck — here’s the quote from Beller, give it a little more attention, add more value to it. Following Benjamin, Beller talks about the “aura” of a commodity; e.g., a Van Gogh painting valued at $60 million:

    the aura is the thinking man’s fetish. The thing that Benjamin calls “aura” is worked on by visual circulation: it is altered by all that looking. By the time the museum patron confronts the masterpiece on the wall, s/he must compare her/his experiences of the object with her/his perception of all that perception that has accreted to it — in short, everything that accounts for its canonical status as art, that valorizes the object socially, and that valorizes the viewer who establishes a relation to the art object… The viewer’s perception of the painted image includes his or her perception of the perceptual status of the object — the sense of the number and kind of looks that it has commanded. This abstracted existence, which exists only in the socially mediated (via lithographs, museum reproductions, etc.) and imagined summation of the work of art’s meaning (value) for everyone else (society), becomes the fetish character of the unique work.

    Since attention value accumulates in the commodity, the value of attention labor, like production labor, can only be ascertained after the act — time out of joint again.

  5. N Pepperell May 10, 2008 at 9:58 am

    Thanks for this 🙂

    In a sense, this relates a bit to what we discussing at your place, over whether Marx’s categories are individual or collective categories, and also over in what way Marx’s categories capture subjective experience. I read Marx as walking a very strange line (and as struggling a great deal to find the words to express the line he is trying to walk) where the fetish does capture aspects of perception and thought that become socially plausible – Marx uses the term socially valid – in a particular social context – so he is trying to say something about the emergence of a form of subjectivity. But this form of subjectivity arises, as I hear his argument, from something we are collectively doing – and, importantly, from something we aren’t intending to collectively do (so there’s a strange element in the argument where forms of subjectivity arise from a process that is social – in the sense of collective – but not intersubjective – in the sense of relating to “beliefs”). The thrust of the argument is that our collective practices render plausible the emergence certain forms of perception and thought, because the constitutive practices entail social actors’ adopting those forms.

    But this is a particular reading of the passage – a reading that helps me make sense of certain things Marx is doing later in the text (this reading, for my purposes, is particularly helpful in making sense of what I tend to call Marx’s “critical standpoint” – his argument about why capitalism generates, but also thwarts, potentials for transformation – and it’s also helpful for questions Marx doesn’t himself address directly, like trying to understand the sensibilities expressed in the development of the modern sciences and social sciences, the sensibilities expressed in certain kinds of popular political movements, and similar things – this is, if it makes sense, the problem space that makes me particularly interested in a specific sort of reading).

    But, in a sense, it’s possible to divide interpretations of Marx in broad brush-stroke terms over how they deal with the fetish argument. And the reinterpretation of the fetish as a psychological fetish is one major line of interpretation, which can be productive for particular problem spaces that my interpretation can’t reach.

    Then you have people like Adorno (and, I suppose, in a somewhat more crude way, Lukacs) who try to address both the collective practice dimensions I’m trying to grasp, and the psychological dynamics that might be in play as well. I actually tend to like this kind of work, although I’m not convinced its “there” in Marx, and so I’ve left it aside for my current project. But whether it’s “there” or not, the experiences of the 20th century drove a number of theorists either to look for it, or to try to amend what Marx was doing, out of the sense that the sorts of movements and historical trends they were seeing, needed to be able to thematise affective dynamics.

    I’m operating from a slightly different starting point (my Marx isn’t quite Adorno’s Marx), and I might be able to address some of the concerns of this body of theory, by coming at the problem from a slightly different way. But I’m still basically sympathetic to the need to be able to thematise affect in social theory – I just see Marx, particularly in the fetish discussion, as doing something else.

    Sorry you were held in moderation – it should happen only the first time you post.

    Take care…

  6. N Pepperell May 10, 2008 at 10:00 am

    P. S. To Nate again – your question, I just wanted you to know, caused one of those cascades where a lot of things fell into to place for me, as I was trying to go back to sleep after having unaccountably gotten up at 3 a.m. So thank you 🙂 Really very very helpful. Really.

    (I have no idea how I used to think through problems, before I started a blog… The number of things I have worked through, only because someone has a question or made a comment at just the precise amount of offset from how I was trying to think about it… It’s extremely helpful.)

  7. Nate May 11, 2008 at 3:54 am

    hi NP,
    That’s nice to hear, thanks very much. I have the same feeling – how did I understand anything before I started blogging? Maybe I didn’t. 🙂
    I’ve certainly felt dumber lately when I’ve had less time to blog. For me it’s partly a spur to think more and to do so in words rather than just in my head, because I just type a lot. There’s also the collective question and discussion bit, which is also super educational and feeds the “type more, think more” or “type-and-think more.” There’s some tie here to the Badiou ‘keep going’ thing, can’t state it clearly just now. Gotta run. Talk soon.
    take care,

  8. neoanchorite December 5, 2008 at 8:57 pm

    Just wanted to say how much I agree with your original thought before you went back to tie it to abstrast labour: ‘“Value” is the term for the level of “success” that ultimately gets conferred on product – not the labour expended, but the degree of social recognition bequeathed.’

    One of the most tricky cases for me when it comes to thinking about the value things get accorded in the market is labour itself. As a tutor who must demand payment by the hour I am always at a loss to judge what I should ask for. I tend to compare myself to a building site labourer because the time taken to train for my sort of teaching is probably roughly the same as the time taken to train to be a proficient bricklayer. But most tutors get paid more than that and I find myself wondering if there is any abstract labour theory justification for the difference or if it is just a quirk of the local social recognition of the bespectacled tutor in corduroy trousers with delicate fingers.

    P.s. Isn’t it just pushing a concept too far to say that the viewer of the Van Gogh painting is labouring?

  9. Carl December 6, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    I’m fiddling with this in a much dumber way and context (character and value of academic labor) at my place, and this is helpful. The ‘problem’ is always trying to pin relations situated in/across times and places down to essences. I never know where to start an account of how that works, and I find Marx not so much a model as a cautionary tale. Makes me tired. More power to you, NP.

    I see the point of stitching affective psychology onto marxism (Reich and Marcuse must also be mentioned) or reading it back in, but my own view is it’s a bit of a bailout compared to actually taking the time to work through the full relational implications of making the world under conditions not of our choosing. In this respect I find pragmatic interactionism (Mead, Goffman) the most ‘marxist’ of the (social) psychologies.

  10. N Pepperell December 8, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    Hey folks – Just a quick note to say that, as mentioned in another recent thread, I’m waiting on news that seems to be keeping me distracted from substantive posting – will either celebrate or seek solace in proper comments again when things are more settled… 🙂

    Take care all…

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