Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Times Like Bats

Escher's Angels and DevilsVilfredo Pareto famously commented: “Marx’s words are like bats. One can see in them both birds and mice”. As I work on expressing how I understand Marx’s standpoint of critique in Capital, I keep thinking about this phrase. If readers will bear with me as I toss out some rather disorganised thoughts around this theme, I’d like to try at least to juxtapose, if not entirely integrate or work out, a few themes that I’ve tended to discuss in separation from one another, in order to give some sense of how I hope eventually to connect everything up.

I’ve suggested in a number of earlier posts that I see the first three sections of the first chapter of Capital as, among other things, a metacommentary on the opening sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Specifically, what Marx recreates in these opening sections is a movement from what Hegel would call Perception, through Understanding, and into the confrontation with an Inverted World through which consciousness becomes reflexive, gaining awareness that it has been its own object all along. The first several paragraphs of the first chapter of Capital manifest the orientation toward the sensuous world that Hegel associates with Perception: the voice speaking in those early paragraphs stands outside the context it is analysing, examining what “presents itself” – what is immediately given to the senses – and attempting to grasp the social context based on what it can perceive in such givens. This voice allows a discussion of commodities in terms of the sensible properties of use-value and exchange-value.

A second voice soon intrudes, objecting that these sensible givens presuppose the existence of conditions that cannot be directly perceived by the senses. Hegel’s Understanding has come on the scene, claiming to deduce the existence of the “supersensible” categories of value and abstract labour as transcendental conditions of possibility for the sensible dimensions of the commodity.

The third voice then picks up, unfolding a “dialectical” analysis of the genesis of the money form that illustrates the dynamic relationality and mutual-implicatedness of the earlier categories. This third voice takes pains to illustrate the way in which, with the derivation of the money form, it becomes possible to grasp a number of inversions. These inversions claim to illustrate that what had appeared, when viewed statically, to be dichotomous oppositions, can instead be grasped as mutually-determining moments of a dynamic relation. It is at this point, after the illustration of these inversions, that Marx opens up the discussion of commodity fetishism, which, I have suggested, finally brings his own perspective overtly into the text.

My claim has been that the structure of this chapter is making an argument. Several arguments. But the line that interests me here relates to what I take to be Marx’s reflexive analysis of the conditions of possibility for his own theory: the structure of the chapter suggests that something like Marx’s critique becomes possible because capitalism immanently confronts consciousness with an inverted world. The inversions Marx has in mind aren’t simply the ones articulated by the “dialectical” voice in the third section of the chapter: I take Marx to be critical of that voice, as he is also critical of the “transcendental” and “empiricist” voices that precede it. Rather, I believe that Marx has in mind the “inversion” constituted by the tacit argument that permits the very structure of this opening chapter: the voices expressed in these opening sections conflict with one another, quarrelling over what the commodity “is” – a combination of sensuous properties? a supersensible transcendental unity? a dialectical dynamic? As Marx comments in the opening to section three:

The reality of the value of commodities differs in this respect from Dame Quickly, that we don’t know β€œwhere to have it.”

Marx doesn’t, I would suggest, think this difficulty arises solely due to poor thinking on the part of political economists. The difficulty is instead intrinsic. It reflects (social) ontological properties of the object of analysis. We have difficulty capturing the characteristics of our context, because we live in times like bats.

I want to suggest that Marx conceptualises the central task of critical theory, to be the task of drawing attention to the existence of inversions within our context. Marx’s concept of inversion, however, is vastly more multiplicitous than the more orthodox Marxist notion of contradiction. Marx isn’t simply seeking out one overarching, cataclysmic contradiction – between, say, the forces and relations of production. Instead, his analysis finds inversions everywhere – in Benjamin’s terms, the context is “shot through with chips of Messianic time”. Marx meanders his analysis through the moments of the process through which capital is reproduced, persistently examining the process and its moments from multiple perspectives, recurrently drawing the reader’s attention to how those perspectives each express something socially valid – it’s just that these various social validities often conflict with one another and suggest very different possibilities for the development of future forms of practice.

Why do this? Why draw attention to the inversions shooting through the context? In part, because their very existence denaturalises the context, opening a space for political choice. If some aspect of our social experience demonstrates something to be alternatively a mouse, when we approach it in one way, and a bird, when we approach it in another, then in its “essence” it is neither mouse nor bird – it “is” what we have made it to be. The question then becomes what we will make next.

Apologies for the underdeveloped character of this comment – as my previous post indicates, I hadn’t actually intended to be posting at all. But these thoughts have been nagging at me, and the best way to get some rest seemed to be to get them out of my brain and deposit them in a safer place. πŸ™‚

6 responses to “Times Like Bats

  1. ktismatics May 15, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    “in its β€œessence” it is neither mouse nor bird – it β€œis” what we have made it to be.”

    I understand that you’re writing to yourself here, just to get the ideas down, so no need to reply — I’m thinking out loud. “Essence” sounds like idealism, so let’s set it aside. You’re positioning Marx not as a realist who’s going to get behind illusion to the truth that’s inherent in the material world, but as a social constructivist. It seems appropriate that meaning would be a product rather than a given, the result of human work. Maybe meaning, like other work products, has use value — which moves Marx’s thought in a pragmatist direction.

  2. N Pepperell May 15, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Hey there – Thanks for this. “Essence” was in quotation marks for this reason πŸ˜‰ Many of the people who write on the way that Marx channels Hegel, speak in terms of categories like “essence” and “appearance” – I was just flagging (for anyone who might be coming at my work from that direction) that I’m not the “sort” of Hegelian Marxist who sees Marx’s standpoint of critique as residing in an “essence” – the logic of his argument, from my point of view, tends to undermine essentialist claims.

    But my particular cross-disciplinary terminological complexities to one side πŸ™‚ – yes, mine is a constructivist, pragmatist Marx (all vocabularies have their baggage, and some of what I think about Marx might not fit with some of the associations those terms carry, but I’m not unhappy with this description of Marx myself). I see Marx as a sort of reflexive constructivist or pragmatist, if this makes sense – as a theorist who tries not simply to assert these sorts of positions as a stance, but also reflexively to suggest why these sorts of positions might arise, due to the special features of a particular “constructed” context that make constructivist notions easier to think.

    Marx’s interest in “inversions” is related to this: there are aspects of capitalism, for Marx, that “relativise” aspects of personal relations, making available a practical experience of the “constructedness” of our institutions. This happens unintentionally and not necessarily for good reasons: we relativise institutions in practice by ripping them apart and replacing them with something new – over and over and over and over again. The process isn’t pleasant but it also carries certain critical potentials for appropriating and turning to other purposes, this practical knowledge that we can actively reconstruct aspects of our institutions, cultures, practices, relationships…

  3. Tom Bunyard May 15, 2008 at 5:51 pm


    I hope all is well, and I’m sorry for not getting back to our previous conversation; I’m horribly busy at the moment, but have been meaning to for ages. I liked this post, by the way; the clearer an understanding i get of what you’re actually up to the more interesting I find it. Just out of curiosity – and I’m really not sure how much this actually matters, so purely through curiosity – to what extent to you see yourself as elucidating Marx’s actual positions, and to what extent do you see yourself as developing your own particular reading, i.e. using Marx as a launch pad for your own stuff?

    The reason I’m writing is that I was wondering if you might be in a position to send through a draft version of your paper before too long (next week or so, or thereabouts), so that I can give Alberto a bit of time to read through it; he asked if he could have it a couple of weeks beforehand, so it would be good if I could pass it on to him towards the end of next week. …And i want to read it too.

    Sean told me yesterday that he might have to pull out of his talk, meaning that we might be one speaker down. I’m trying to persuade a friend of mine to step into the breach as I’m very reluctant to do so myself (no time to prepare, and I think another Hegel-orientated paper is too many for the unconverted), but iother than that all is still on track.



  4. N Pepperell May 15, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    Hey Tom – Good to hear from you. Ack! – the last time we’d spoken about it, it hadn’t been certain whether Alberto would want an advance copy, so I’ve just kept tinkering around, thinking there was no specific lead time required πŸ™‚ I had been planning on converting my crude working draft into a proper talk while I’m in Rome, and then sending it to you once I’m in London – this would be around the 26th.

    If it helps for choosing someone else to present, my paper will probably “pitch” the Hegel discussion at something like the level of this post – in other words, I’m not planning on going into a lot of detail on Hegel, or on Marx’s relationship to Hegel – just enough to provide a frame for the particular reading of Marx. A lot of my time will most likely be spent trying to explain what I’m after with the notion of a “real abstraction” – which is an abstruse enough topic in its own right, but not in the same way as discussing Hegel – in a sense, I’ve been trying to work out ways of simplifying my discussions of Marx’s relationship to Hegel (not just for this event, but in general) because I’m realising that some other aspects of my argument are more counter-intuitive than I had expected, and so I need to focus more attention on presenting those. All of this is by way of saying that it would probably work out fine, if you or someone else does a bit more with Hegel during the event – I don’t think my piece will be so Hegel-heavy that it would feel like overkill to participants.

    Good to hear that my stuff might be growing on you πŸ˜‰ In terms of your question about how much of my work “is” Marx, and how much is springboard… My orientation is to the question of how we develop a better basis for a contemporary theory so, if Marx says [x], and I suspect that [y] would be a better option, I’ll go with [y], if that makes sense…

    But if the question is more along the lines of how loyal do I perceive my reading to be, that’s more difficult to answer. When I started looking very closely at Capital, to be honest, I had known that my own earlier reading of Marx had caused me to become interested in certain questions and theoretical approaches, but I hadn’t expected that those questions and approaches were actually “in” Marx – I thought it was more a sort of cascade of associations and such that was loosely coupled with the text. So when I started on the current project, I set out thinking I would be writing against the grain of the text, talking about possibilities not considered or developed, etc. Then I started working through Hegel, and it recast the way I saw the text as a piece of writing – the text was much more consonant with the sort of theory I would like to develop, than I had expected it to be.

    At the same time, when I say this, Marx’s explicit metatheoretical statements that describe what he takes himself to be doing, won’t necessarily emphasise the sorts of things I’m pulling out of the text – I’m drawn to particular lines that run through the text, but they aren’t the only thing going on and, although I do think sections of the text are more consistent than they are sometimes read as being, I don’t see the text as fully self-consistent or as fully consistent with other things Marx writes or as transparently or self-evidently consistent with the reading I’m outlining… Not sure if that’s much of an answer πŸ™‚ I guess my position is that there is more of Marx in all this than I had expected when I set out, and so I’m more comfortable now, than I was at the beginning, saying at least that the first volume of Capital does these things – but I’m not too worried if other readers of the text think there’s more of “me” in this.

    And don’t worry about letting the discussion ebb and flow. I’ve actually been very ill for the past week, and I’ve generally had a very writing-intensive term: discussions are great, but lulls have their goods sides as well πŸ™‚

    By the way, are you going to make it to the Warwick conference?

  5. Tom Bunyard May 15, 2008 at 9:35 pm


    Yeah, I’m definitely planning on going to Warwick; I sent them a cheque last week, but as yet haven’t heard anything back. I’m assuming that I’ve got a place, but probaby best to check before too long.

    So do you think yuo could send some kind of draft version through around the start of next week? If that’s going to be a problem let me know, and I’ll warn Alberto. I’m sure it won;t be a problem at all, but as he’s busy at the end of term I ought to let him know

    On a completely different subject:

    John’s organised a kind of series of self-critique things for the Goldsmiths Centre for Cultural Studies, and after having been volunteered I’m due to speak myself. I was thinking about saying something around the innate silliness of playing aroudn with arch theoretical models of political emancipation whilst in academia, and thus whilst fundamentally divorced from real praxis (which pretty much defines what I do). At the last session someone had made a comment about theory and practice; whilst the practice that he had in mind was militant struggle, it was quickly interpreted by the culture industry types in the room as a problematic of getting their work identified by the advertising industry so as to secure a career. The distinction between the two notions of practice seemed to define the afternoon for me. I think I want to talk about the limits, flaws and general farce of doing ‘radical’ lefty theory within the academy, particularly in relation to my own attempts to write a PhD that only three people in the world are ever likely to read.

    Consequently I’m interested in speaking to a few people as to how they figure the relation of their own political research/writing/whatever to practice; whether they view it (afetr Adorno) as a kind of practice itself; and to what extent they view this separation (assuming there is a separation) to be problematic. So, as someone working on Marx, how would you respond?

  6. N Pepperell May 16, 2008 at 8:04 am

    Yeah, the Warwick folks didn’t send me a confirmation either, but a friend who’s going pointed out that my name is up on their site on the list of participants. My guess is, regardless, that they’ll be able to squeeze a few stray Hegelians into the room if needed… πŸ˜‰

    If Alberto needs something before I leave Melbourne, I can send a crude draft, but the caveat is that the form of presentation (the order in which I will present the concepts, the way I will “frame” the piece, etc.) will change, possibly in a very complete sense, by the time I actually present – stylistic order of presentation is always something I decide on very very late, and I often alter things in a very dramatic way in the course of trying to work out how to express them for oral presentation. It might be worthwhile asking Alberto whether it makes sense to him to receive something like a conceptual draft, knowing that the words and order of presentation won’t much resemble what I say, or whether it makes more sense to wait a week, and see something much closer to what he would hear on the day. It basically comes down to what he thinks would be the best use of his time.

    I’ve actually seen the announcement for the series you’ve mentioned – I can’t remember if this was at John’s site or while looking up something at the Goldsmiths site. It looks like a good concept.

    First: I’m anti-idealist in perhaps a more extreme sense than many people: I think it’s a mistake to regard the concepts that academics come up with, as though those concepts aren’t related in some way to other sorts of collective practices that are unfolding at the same moment in time. This doesn’t mean that what academics do is “praxis” in some sense of direct contribution to achieving political ends – that is something that would need to be evaluated in a less abstract way. It just means that it’s not going to be “accidental”, that certain forms of theory are trending when they are, and that the tacit sensibilities that find expression in academic theory can be analysed, just as can the tacit sensibilities that find expression in any other form of human activity, as one among many clues to the possibilities we are collectively constituting at a particular moment in time. To stress: I am not suggesting that some sort of special possibility is constituted through academic work – I am suggesting that humans tends to think with our practices in a very broad sense, academics like everyone else, and so even apparently very abstract and removed forms of thought are quite likely to express something that has shifted in much more everyday forms of practice. Grasping that link – which is a lot of what I think Marx does with his critiques of various sorts of formal theory – then makes it possible to analyse the sorts of tacit practical possibilities that are finding nascent expression in various types of formal theory, political ideals, popular culture, etc.

    On the more specific issue of whether some sort of formal theory makes a contribution to some particular political project: again, I don’t think this sort of question can be answered abstractly in a meaningful way. I do think that capitalism as a target of political practice, or as an object of analysis, has very peculiar “ontological” characteristics, that are very difficult to grasp without engaging “theoretically” with this object. I think political action in a dynamic social context is difficult, that it’s extremely easy for unanticipated consequences to follow on our actions, and therefore that movements increase their chances of achieving their ends, if they have a good sense of how history might bite them in the butt. This is what I think theory is “for” in a political sense – improving the odds of grasping whether particular sorts of actions are likely to have the results we hope they will. Theory helps us try to deal with the problem William Morris sketches out:

    I pondered all these things… how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…

    It helps us work out the name of what we are fighting for, so that other people don’t have to perpetually keep coming along behind us, setting up new struggles to achieve what we meant, but didn’t know how to fight for last time around. At least, this would be my normative criterion for what a good theory would do.

    To put the same thing more briefly: if we make history, but not in conditions of our own choosing, then it can be helpful to learn as much as we can about those conditions we haven’t chosen, so that we have as good a sense as possible of the sort of history we might be able to make.

    This says nothing about whether some particular kind of theory, in some specific institutional setting, is actually helpful for this end. There will always be at least a tacit theory underlying any form of practice – formal types of theory tease out and make explicit what is tacit in what we are already doing. This process of making the implications of our own practice explicit to ourselves isn’t limited to academia, but it isn’t necessarily barred to academia either. Farce isn’t limited to academia either… πŸ˜‰ And there is a form of idealism, to me, nascent in the idea that real life is somewhere “out there”: Marx’s position is that humans, in a sense, aren’t that clever – we aren’t that original or creative in our thoughts – our thoughts are already “material” – our categories are things we do. He spends a lot of time showing that the same sorts of sensibilities that are cropping up in more “academic” forms of theory are sensibilities that are also being enacted in settings that take themselves far less seriously – showing that academic thought mobilises very similar sorts of perceptions and thoughts as those mobilised in the marketplace.

    His strategy undermines academic pretension – but it also undermines romantic notions that there is some special sort of institutional setting where “real thought” can happen because that setting is somehow less divorced from “real life”: humans, for Marx, generate new possibilities collectively, initially in mundane actions – and largely, in the first instance at least, unintentionally. Explicit theory and conscious political practice then fumbles along behind, trying to work out and realise the potentials opened up by our collective accidents. Where this happens, what sorts of practices and institutional settings are associated with doing it in a way that is potentially transformative – all of this strikes me as a case-by-case thing…

    This sounds like it will be a good session, though – a good thing to reflect on and discuss. I had wondered whether any of talks in that series were happening while I’m in London – I’d love to be able to attend, if it were possible.

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