So, since Praxis and I hatched this scheme of writing a collaborative piece on Derrida’s Specters of Marx, all sorts of fantastic conversations and debates around the work have cropped up around the blogosphere. Unfortunately, I’ve been either been preparing to be away, or actually away, while most of these discussions unfolded, meaning that I’m only very inadequately across the content. These conversations range across much wider territory, and go into much greater depth, than the rather limited scratch across the surface I’m about to post here, so I thought I should send readers on their way to more expansive discussions, while I take this opportunity to talk shop publicly with Praxis, who will hopefully not mind my shouting random draft concepts across the net, now that we can no longer workshop them face-to-face…
The proximate starting point for this collaborative project was my noticing an elision in Derrida’s text. In discussing the passage in which Marx names the fetish, Derrida omits a single sentence, subtly alterring the meaning of Marx’s text. I’ve written about Marx’s fetish discussion somewhat interminably over the past year, so for present purposes I’ll presuppose those discussions and just seize what I need to highlight what Derrida is done (anyone who wants the gory details can find the most recent synoptic version of my argument here).
To summarise – first, from my point of view: In the passage where he builds up to the naming of the fetish, Marx has established that the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity do not derive from the commodity’s “parts”, whether those parts pertain to the commodity’s use value or its value dimension. Instead, Marx has argued, the peculiar qualitative characteristics that seem to inhere in commodities, derive not from the parts, but from the whole – from the relation into which those parts have come to be suspended – from the form of the commodity itself.
Marx is actually quite explicit about the nature of his argument: he runs through the various parts of the commodity relation that relate to the commodity’s use value dimension, and concludes: “The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value.” Everyone gets this part of Marx’s argument.
What is more often overlooked is that Marx does exactly the same thing, in the subsequent passage, with reference to the commodity’s value dimension. He prefaces this discussion with the quite explicit claim: “Just as little does it [the mystical character of commodities] proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value.” There is a marked tendency to overlook this sentence, since the assumption is generally that Marx wants to criticise exchange value from the standpoint of use value, and thus to attribute the fetish to the exchange value dimension of the commodity – to the market or the process of exchange. That sort of reading struggles, however, to make sense of where Marx goes next in the text, which is to break the value dimension of the commodity down into its constituent components (as he has just done above with the use value dimension), in order to argue that none of those components, abstracted from the commodity relation, explains the metaphysical properties of the commodity. A similar strategy is in play later on in the same chapter, when Marx will run through a series of historical and speculative examples that reassemble the component parts of the commodity, within the context of very different social relations, in order to argue that, absent the commodity relation, the fetish does not arise.
So. Marx argues, in my reading, that the fetish does not derive from any of the component parts of the commodity – leading to the obvious question of what the fetish derives from instead. Marx’s argument, I suggest, is that the fetish arises, not from the parts of the commodity, but rather from the whole – from the overarching relation into which those parts have been suspended. Marx expresses this point: “Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.”
Marx then goes on to say a bit about this form (I’ll skip over the details, as I’ve discussed them elsewhere), and then moves into the passage where Derrida makes his selective edit – the passage where Marx christens the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity form with the name of the fetish. In Marx’s version, this christening passage reads:
A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.
This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.
Derrida does a couple of interesting things with this passage when he reproduces it. First: Marx’s presentation moves through two analogies – the first, to a physical relation whose origin is genuinely asocial; the second, to a social relation whose origin is intersubjective. He uses these two analogies in tandem, I have argued, to set up a three-way contrast that helps him mark off the most peculiar characteristic of the phenomenon he is trying to pick out: that the fetish arises from a social relation – but a strange sort of social relation that is not intersubjective in its origins. Instead, this peculiar social relation arises as a sort of unintentional consequence of an aggregation of social practices that are not aimed toward bringing a social relation of the kind about. The concept of the fetish captures the qualitative characteristics of this unintentional and accidental social relation – and also aims to explain why it is socially plausible for the social agents who enact this relation, to interpret the qualitative characteristics of the relation as though these characteristics inhere in the various component parts through which the relation is effected.
In Derrida’s re-presentation of this argument, the first analogy – the one that makes reference to “a physical relation between physical things” – is analysed in a separate section of the text, separated by some distance from the passage in which Derrida analyses the remainder of the fetish passage. This enables Derrida to find a much stronger and more exclusive relationship between the analogy Marx draws between the fetish and religion, than the original passage suggests. Derrida’s re-presentation breaks apart Marx’s more complex three-way contrast between physical relations, social relations that are intersubjective, and social relations that are not intersubjective, and implies a much more straightforward equation of the fetish with some sort of “ideology” or mere false belief.
Derrida further reinforces this impression by removing a sentence when he quotes the passage in which Marx names the fetish – specifically, the sentence in which (on my reading) Marx actually tries to express that the fetish is an attempt to talk about a non-intersubjective social relation. Derrida’s iteration of the fetish passage goes:
There [in the religious world] the products of the human brain [of the head, once again, of men: des menschlischen Kopfes, analogous to the wooden head of the table capable of engendering chimera – in its head, outside of its head – once, that is, as soon as, its form can become commodity-form] appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race…. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself [anklebt] to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.
As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them. (p. 208-209)
The ellipsis in the middle of the quotation removes the sentence where Marx distinguishes fetishism from religion, arguing that, in the commodity relation, social agents somehow posit the existence on intangible entities (value, abstract labour), but not via the sorts of intersubjective processes such as shared beliefs or ritual practices through which they enact the intangible entities that figure in religious practice. Instead, Marx argues:
So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. (emphasis mine)
The non-intersubjective register of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism is therefore elided in Derrida’s selective inheritance or transformative interpretation of Marx. The question is: why?
This was a recurrent touchstone in the discussions Praxis and I held while I was in London. I can point out, as I’ve done above, what aspects of Marx’s argument – from the point of view of my own reading – become obscured by the way in which Derrida alters this passage. I can also say that it’s clear enough that Derrida wants to transform the meaning of this passage – there is some sort of exorcism here that Derrida seeks to perform, in order to carry out his selective inheritance of a certain spirit (but not other spirits) of Marx. The text is structured around a series of reflections on how inheritance is both selective and performative: the dead cannot bury themselves – they least of all are safe from us, their heirs. Derrida’s inheritance will be violent – he warns us. The question is what sort of inheritance he is enacting, and why.
In the dreamwork of a text saturated with references to Freud, Derrida sifts through the residue of the day – the happenstance of Fukuyama’s declaration of the End of History – setting up a narrative criss-crossed with complex parallels between characters, more than one of whom is a cipher of sorts for Derrida. Fukyama’s text resurrects old critiques of communism, Derrida tells us, while reviving a thinned out spirit of a certain Hegel in a drably farcical restaging of Kojève; Derrida chases Fukuyama, in the process counting off ten plagues – setting up a parallel to Marx’s pursuit of Stirner, which also punctuates its argument to the count of ten; all the major figures in the text chase after Hegel – a latent content whose inheritance lurks beneath the much more manifest pursuit of the spirit of Marx.
Derrida foreshadows heavily the coming excision of Marx’s hands – even adding to the text, after the original lectures, an extended reflection on Valéry (3-10) that pivots on a textual elision, priming the reader for the elision to come. Derrida first points out a passage in which Valéry includes Marx within a skull handled by Hamlet:
In “La crise de l’esprit” (“The Crisis of the Spirit” 1919: “As for us, civilizations, we know now we are mortal…”), the name of Marx appears just once. It inscribes itself, here is the name of a skull to come into Hamlet’s hands:
Now, on an immense terrace of Elsinore, which stretches from Basel to Cologne, that touches on the sands of Nieuport, the lowlands of the Somme, the chalky earth of Champagne, the granite earth of Alsace – the European Hamlet looks at thousands of spectres…. If he seizes a skull, it is an illustrious skull – “Whose was it?” – This one was Lionardo. … And this other skull is that of Leibniz who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant qui genuit Hegel, qui genuit Marx, qui genuit. … Hamlet does not know what to do with all these skulls. But if he abandons them! … Will he cease to be himself?
Derrida then finds a later iteration of this same passage, one in which Valéry quotes himself, but omits the sentence that contains Marx’s name, inscribed in the skull of Kant. Derrida asks of Valéry:
Why this omission, the only one? The name of Marx has disappeared. Where did it go? Exeunt Ghost and Marx, Shakespeare might have noted. The name of the one who disappeared must have gotten inscribed someplace else. (p. 4)
What is disappeared or displaced must be re-inscribed, Derrida tells us – and hands – the hands omitted from the fetishism discussion – paw their way around this text – explicitly, in the form of recurrent references to hands and parts of hands – and also more tacitly: the stage setting for this text is the apparent triumph of the market’s invisible hand, over the planned economies that had once proclaimed themselves Marx’s heirs. But this still leaves us with the question – a question Praxis and I did not fully resolve in our discussions – the same question Derrida prompts us to ask of him, by asking it himself of Valéry – by emphasising the need to ask precisely this question, a need felt so urgently as to justify the post facto modification of the original talk in order to set up the parallel with Valéry: Why this omission, the only one? The hands of Marx have disappeared. We have a sense, perhaps, of where they went, of how Derrida has reinscribed them in his text, and of where invisible hands might have been reinscribed in our own times. But why? Why this specific gesture? What sort of transformative inheritance is Derrida hoping to enact, through this selective excision from Marx’s corpus?
One suggestion – underdeveloped. This is a work about chasing after ghosts. We chase after ghosts – and we become spooked. We want to control our ghosts by exorcising them – by banishing them – by driving them away. Derrida early characterises these attempted exorcisms as a fort/da game: we chase after ghosts, but not to drive them away, not really, but because secretly we want them, we need them to come back. He further suggests that, uncomfortable with the uncanniness of a haunted, spectral world, we stall in the process of mourning, becoming caught in the effort to ontologise the remains – to identify and localise the spectral, so as to abolish it. Fukuyama does this, Derrida suggests, with the spectre of communism – Soviet communism also tried to control this same spectre, presencing the revenant that initially appears in the Communist Manifesto as an expectation, a threat from the future menacing old Europe, as the spook haunting a time out of joint. Controlled and fixed, localised and ontologised, pinned down into a definite form, this threatening spook comes to be actualised and embodied in a totalitarian shape. Derrida points to Fukuyama’s apologist habit of differentiating a certain ideal of liberal democracy and the free market, from all the various empirical deviations from this ideal: by implication, this same question arises in relation to Marx’s most visible real-world heirs – how comfortably can we carve off a communist ideal from its totalitarian realisation? Is there some other way to inherit Marx?
Derrida pairs this question with the question of our relation to spectrality in a more general sense. Is there some other possible relation we can adopt towards our ghosts, Derrida asks – some gesture that doesn’t simply seek to banish the ghost by locating and its remains, some space between life and death that might step outside the logic that sees the spectre perpetually displaced and reinscribed through repeated, obsessional attempts to eradicate spectrality as such? Derrida, in the figure of Horatio – the scholar enjoined to speak to the spook – attempts to inherit Marx in a way that might effect such an alternative relationship to spectrality.
Derrida reads something of the Soviet inheritance out of Marx, specifically in Marx’s critique of Stirner in the German Ideology, and in Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. Derrida’s concern is that Marx shares with Stirner the desire to exorcise the ghost – the quarrel between the two revolves, on Derrida’s reading, around the most appropriate technique for achieving this common end. In Derrida’s interpretation of the fetish passage, Marx inappropriately attempts to ontologise the spectre – to locate and identify its remains: in exchange value – in something that can be abolished, so that it become possible to overcome the spectre, to send it away: exeunt ghost and Marx. Derrida seems to read Marx’s reference to “the products of men’s hands” as part of an argument that the spectrality that haunts capitalism can be exorcised by rendering explicit what is currently tacit: by explicitly realising the centrality of labour as the structuring principle of social life, through the abolition of the market; by freeing the use value dimension from its spectralising other, exchange value.
Derrida, by contrast, has made gestures throughout the text concerning the spectral character of various technologies – the spectrality, then, of production, rather than exchange – an ineradicable – undeconstructible – spectrality grounded in production as such. Derrida’s edit to Marx’s text symbolically keeps labour secret – disappearing from view the products of men’s hands – removing the step by which, in Derrida’s read, Marx attempts to exorcise the spectre by casting off the veil that covers over what Derrida takes Marx to see as true relations of capitalist society: in Derrida’s version of this argument, the ghost gets to stay. Always still to come, always to haunt, forever non-identical with a present time perpetually out of joint: this is the certain spirit of Marx, the spirit of the Communist Manifesto, the spirit of a communism that is threatening, but not presenced, that Derrida enacts in his selective iteration of Marx’s text.
What Derrida effects here, then, is an exorcism of exorcism. He attempts to inherit in a way that maintains in perpetuity our ability to communicate with the ghost. In a text filled with figures chasing ghosts in order to eradicate spectrality, Derrida wants us to chase them – as he believes a certain spirit of Marx knew how to do – in order that they may continue to enjoin us to set our time right. This task, for Derrida, is intrinsically bound with the ongoing destabilisation of the present, as a time perpetually out of joint.
Very tired now, and not able either to support these claims (which are in any case provisional readings), or to develop their implications, or to suggest how I would unfold a critique from here – of both Derrida and Marx. Tasks for a later time. Apologies for the impressionistic character of these remarks… So much still to do…
[Is it completely wicked for me now to say: Praxis – over to you 🙂 *runs and hides*]
This is fucking fantastic!
I can’t think of any other words to describe it. My Marx is very limited, so I struggle at times to understand let alone assess or critique your account of Marx on fetishism and of Derrida’s reading of Marx on that point. But the way you take Derrida’s elision as a question rather than as evidence of “error” on Derrida’s part (or of his impropriety, etc.) is exemplary in my opinion of the best scholarly and interpretative practice.
And your “underdeveloped”, “provisional” speculation on why Derrida enacts the inheritance in the way that he does is, in a word, brilliant. I can’t think of a more productive and responsive reading of this cruelly ignored book.
I can’t wait to see this in final form, whether posted here or published (as it most certainly will be published) in some journal of high reputation. I’d love to see this in Critical Inquiry, as the argument is certainly a match for anything in that publication.
Thanks for giving me (and others) the chance to receive this bequest, and apologies for having nothing to give in return other than my highest praise.
Hey rob – You have me all blushing here 🙂 Thank you 🙂
I was fairly uncertain when I posted this – we’ve been puzzling over this elision for quite a while, having some sense of what was going on, but not feeling very sure about how we were reading the strategic intention. It’s very clearly not an error: the text foreshadows the move much too strongly. And I see nothing inappropriate in effecting the argument this way – the text is about transformative interpretations and selective inheritance, so the gesture makes substantive sense.
One of the things we have discussed, though, is how difficult it must have been, particularly in material originally delivered in lecture format, for anyone to pick up on this move: we still haven’t seen anyone else even mention the elision, although we haven’t completed a comprehensive tour of the other reviews yet. But it’s an extremely demanding ask of the reader – I caught it only because I’ve been writing over and over again about this particular passage in Capital, and so I was in a particularly good position to spot it. Since the elision does substantive work in the text, it’s a shame, in a sense, that the gesture is, in spite of all the foreshadowing, still very easy to miss.
I can think of a few possible answers to your questions regarding strategic intent (all the while wanting to reserve the possibility that it may not have been so calculated as all that, and that what really matters is what you’ve made of it, rather than what was intended by it).
With regard to the point about “hearing” the omission in the lecture format — and that’s already an interesting question, particularly given the text’s (and Derrida’s general) recurring engagement with phenomenology: how does one hear an omission? — I think we can make sense of it in terms of Derrida’s exploitation and complication of the speech/writing opposition and his affirmation of writing (difference, deferral, derivation, absence, etc.) over speech (self-identity, immediacy, presence, etc.).
One of the blogs you linked to above, Contaminations, notes that Specters and the figure of the ghost “is a very successful embodiment (ha!) of critical elements of Derrida’s work, right from it’s earliest days.”. This “embodiment” extends, I think, to the “critical elements” mobilised in and by Derrida’s genealogies of writing and difference (Cf. Derrida’s exploitation of the homonymic quality of “différence” and “différance” in his seminal “Différance”). The themes of inheritance and bearing witness add a new dimension to this critical element perhaps, insofar as they invite the following question: what kind of inheritor is it that would not consult the written version after its spoken delivery? what kind of inheritor would not attend to the written version’s difference-in-repetition? what kind of relationship to a heritage is enacted or affirmed by a sense of satisfaction with a single reception, an isolated act of bearing witness?
On the point that even in its written version the elision is easy to miss, I think — and here I risk sounding like I’m denying or reducing the inventive, inspiring and informative quality of your reading, which I’m most certainly not — this is because I don’t think it is the key (as it were), or the only key, to the argument. So much of the text screams, “don’t ontologise!”, so much is, in a sense, internally redundant, that the general point won’t be missed by most readers who show a degree of openness to Derrida’s work. (And I think it’s worth considering the likelihood that this book is more for readers of Derrida, and for “post-structuralist theorists” generally, than for readers of Marx, and much much less for Marxists per se. The injunction here is to remember Marx and the critical spirit of Marx, and while much of what Derrida has to say about a spirit of self-critique would apply a fortiori to the various traditions of Marxism, the latter are also perhaps the least likely to hear or to heed that injunction, certainly not in its most radical formulation. So the injunction to remember Marx is largely aimed at those who would think that in embracing “deconstruction” they have “moved on” from Marx.)
Having said that, the “general” point is never really a general point, but is always one with implications that are very specific to the particular contexts and the individual formulations in which is it made. Your reading of the passage on fetishism draws out the “general” point and its implications in a way which shines a different light than other readings. Above all, perhaps, it says something about commodity fetishism and many other “traditional” Marxist problematics. But the point about the exorcism of exorcism underscores, moreover, the extent to which the critical gesture, and critique itself, can only proceed by way of the exorcism of a ghost, the (attempted but always ultimately unsuccessful) eradication of spectrality. Critique cannot not ontologise, but in that very movement it betrays the spirit of a radical (self-)critique. Critique (exorcism) is both utterly exigent and ultimately impossible:
(I hereby vow to find a way to cite this paragraph, if not much much more from this piece, should I ever be in the position again to write a paper on Specters or related issues.)
For what its worth, I found the last chapter of Specters the toughest, probably because I just don’t have the requisite familiarity with Marx’s work, and my own understanding of the “general” argument (though, of course, there is always more than one, even in the pre-deconstructive sense of that proposition) is organised more around the notion of hauntology and its possible relations to Hegelian History, and Foucault’s accounts of archaeology and genealogy (as well as the Nietzschean “version” of the latter). To that extent, I’m already predisposed, as it were, to picking up on and being thrilled by the movements of the second half of your piece. But again, don’t let that come across as implying that there isn’t something very special, very original and very exciting in this wonderful piece.
Hey rob – Many thanks for this – and apologies – in saying that I thought it was a shame that this move was so easy to overlook, I hadn’t meant to imply that the text in any way hinges on readers noticing this move – only that I personally found it to be a clever way to instantiate and perform the various themes that run through the text, and so I found it unfortunate that it seems to have been overlooked. The text, though, has a beautiful layered quality, to me, that “overdetermines” its point: I don’t think there’s any need for readers to catch this specific gesture, to see what’s going on over all. I just like the gesture 🙂
The issue of how people hear an omission is, in some sense, a presentational challenge for us, in deciding how to write the final version of this piece: even in writing, it’s a somewhat cumbersome thing to show. I’ll be presenting a dry run of the piece verbally at the Derrida Today conference – so we’ll have to figure out how to talk about elisions “out loud”, at least for that event. 🙂
There is so much else going on this text, though, that there won’t be any time to touch – and that we wouldn’t have the backgrounds to draw out. I can catch some of the play with Freud, some of the play with Hegel, etc. – but there’s a great deal going on that I won’t be adequately sensitive to, just through lack of appropriate background…
We should be able to speak in greater detail than I do above, about what is happening with Marx – so hopefully that will become a bit easier to follow in the final version. Although I think Marx’s fetish argument is doing something a bit different than the reading Derrida puts forward, Derrida’s underlying concern is still borne out, in a slightly different way, a bit later in the first chapter. Marx makes what should (by the logic of his own argument) be a fairly circumscribed critique of the fetish (a critique in which the abolition of the fetish would not necessarily imply a sweeping gesture that would eliminate spectrality as such). Then, however, the text stumbles. Marx overreaches – wants to claim something more… eschatological than the argument about the fetish (as I read it) will allow him to claim. At that point, the text sails off into some much more grandiose claims (about stripping the veil off the life process of society, etc.) – and therefore into moves much more implicated in the forms of exorcism that worry Derrida. We’ll need to develop this bit of the argument in the actual paper…
But we’ve been struggling most over interpreting the elision, and this post was really an attempt, after several frustrating days of writing and deleting attempted interpretations in the background, just to blurt out what I’ve been thinking… Not sure why this is easier for me to do in a public space – seems counterintuitive, even to me – but that seems to be my writing process at the moment…
But thank you for your comments – it’s extremely helpful.
“Is it completely wicked for me now to say: Praxis – over to you”
Yes. 🙂 But give me a few days…
My pleasure, NP. Really.
Regarding the many reverberations between the text and its various backgrounds: more and more I’m tempted to gather a bunch of people from those various backgrounds to put together an edited collection of essays on Specters. I really do think this book has not received the (productive) scrutiny it deserves — especially in those disciplines that proclaim their commitment to “political theorising”. The book has been ignored in cultural studies, for instance, and its reception in and by various traditions of Marxism has been less than affirming (to say the least). That’s one of the reasons why I’m so impressed by your reading: it’s the first genuine and productive engagement with the book — or the first I’ve come across — from someone whose background is more critical theory than Derrida.
In any case, best of luck with the presentation at the conference.
Well give a shout out if you put something together 🙂 I would be happy to contribute (and wouldn’t mind an opportunity, after this, to look more expansively at Derrida’s relation to Marx – he refers in his response in Ghostly Demarcations, for example, to arguments he makes about the fetish in Glas – which I haven’t yet read, and would at some point like to tackle…).
I’m looking forward to the conference – although what you’ve said about the reception of the work has struck me, as well, and it’s made me wonder how much I can assume any sort of familiarity with the work, even in a conference specific to Derrida? I’m used to “my” Marx being somewhat alien, but am a little worried about providing enough background on Derrida, and on Marx, to make sense in a brief presentation. The subsequent article will provide a bit more room to breathe…
Thank you again 🙂
even in a conference specific to Derrida?
I’ll be there, and will certainly be attending your paper 🙂
Nice post, and thanks for the ref, both NP & Rob. I’ll have some more up shortly.
Hey Drew! Are you presenting as well?
Yes, on the Saturday morning. I think you mentioned somewhere you’re back in Melbourne by that point…?
Ah – that’s really unfortunate: there’s another conference going on in Melbourne that same week – I’m due to present to that first thing Saturday morning, so I’ll be flying out Friday night… Is your piece on Specters? (Because, if so, it would seem they maybe ought to have put us on the same panel… I’m slightly worried our piece will be an odd one out, on the panel where it’s been scheduled…)
NP, this is fascinating and I agree with all rob’s praise. I have a couple of ‘naive’ questions that you could simply pat me on the head about or perhaps use to stimulate a process of clarification to intercept numbskulls like me.
(Btw, I should confess here that although I’m very interested in you I’m not much interested in Derrida, simply because he seems to me derivatively optional in a way that Marx is not; and I’ve made other choices in my branches of derivation. I see his value in your process, though.)
1. You talk about Marx very carefully constructing a critique of the fetish that distinguishes it from religion as a non-intersubjective, emergent product of social relations. Nice. I’m still suspending disbelief on this distinction (following Durkheim and Geertz, so really the part I doubt is the intersubjectivity of religion); because of this tuning I’m pinged by the part where you then say that Marx’s expository discipline collapses and he ‘sails off into grandiose claims’. Well, gosh, I do that but I’m basically just duffing around with this stuff; Marx is a different order of fish. Your argument in the first part hinges on his text being fully intentional. So is it possible that Marx wants the earlier distinction to get recollected into a more comprehensive theory of social processes of symbolic abstraction?
2. Then: I really feel simpleminded, but how does this not all boil down to the usual problems with symbolizing? We take big scary complicated relationships and get them manageable by packing them into a word, a label, a concept, what have you; the map is not the territory; then we take those symbols and stack them back on top of each other, creating second-order complexities requiring new symbolic reductions to manage; and so on. You can unpack the layers of symbolic reduction and stacking all you want, but you get back to complexity that needs to be symbolized to be manageable no matter what. So the question ends up being not unveiling or exorcizing but being mindful of the inputs and outputs shaping any particular symbolic regime, which is what Capital is.
Hey Carl – This is excellent – thank you. I’m in a mad rush (and coming down with a cold… *sigh*) – so let’s see what I can toss out before one of those things interferes.
First, on Marx’s intersubjective/nonintersubjective social distinction: in a certain sense, I’m suspending belief as well, although I would find this sort of distinction incredibly handy, for where it slots into things I’m trying to understand. Part of the difficulty is that Marx, I think, really struggles to express what he’s trying to pick out – and I’m not sure the various ways I’ve attempted to translate his terms, into something more intuitive, have quite managed yet to “hit” that intuitive sweet spot where it’s clear enough what he’s trying to say, that it then becomes a bit easier to figure out what we might want to keep, and what we might want to discard, from his specific analysis. (I’m saying “we” here – the contents of that “we” might just be “me”… ;-P But my point is that I’ve been wrestling primarily – recently at least – with whether I understand what he’s trying to claim, and have therefore tended to bracket, for the moment, whether I find that exact claim completely persuasive…)
On the issue of doubting the intersubjectivity of religion: yeah, to be honest I don’t particularly like this step of Marx’s argument either – I’m not sure whether our objections would be exactly the same? First: something in Marx’s favour – I’m the one who is using the specific term “intersubjectivity” to pick out what Marx is after, when he raises the analogy of religion. So some (if not all) of the problems with my discussion may boil down to my selecting precisely the wrong term to translate Marx’s argument. I do, though, see the logic of the “christening” passage to take something like the following shape:
(1) example of something “genuinely” objective (seeing a visible object)
(2) example of something “intuitively” social (religion)
(3) new thing that Marx wants to pick out (fetish) – a social entity, but with specific qualitative characteristics that seem to resemble, not the characteristics of #2, but rather those of #1
Since the trichotomy subject-intersubjectivity-objectivity has a certain intuitive currency (at least in some forms of social theory), I’ve been sort of repurposing those terms, to translate what Marx is trying to do in the christening passage – which is why I’ve used “intersubjectivity” to express what he’s after with #2. But I’m using this, in a sense, without necessarily committing either Marx or myself to the various sorts of baggage that some particular notion of intersubjectivity might carry – for example, as in the conversations that were reported over at Praxis, this vocabulary can sound as though I’m talking about something conscious (I’m not trying to restrict the meaning of “intersubjectivity” to conscious thoughts, but the term implies that baggage in some contexts), it can also sound as though I’m trying to suggest that these elements of the social are somehow more under social actors’ control (I’m not trying to suggest that either), etc.
What I’m after, I think, is something more… agh… I want a nice, pithy, one-word term for elements of the social that come to be more easily destabilised/denaturalised and perceived as social – elements of the social that we more intuitively grasp as “social”. What are those elements? Well, there’s a whole grab bag of them – languages, cultures, institutions, customs – things we relatively readily perceive as resulting from things we do (whether this gives us any particular power to change them is another matter).
Somehow, Marx thinks the fetish is something different. And so I’m trying to work out how to express how he thinks it’s different. Something about the fetish generates a sort of gestalt impression that a very specific dimension of our social possesses the qualitative characteristics that we intuitively tend to attribute to “natural”, asocial, environments. (You know from the discussion at Praxis that the reason this interests me, is that I am myself interested – once I can sort of work my way through Marx – in the question of how we might “prime” ourselves in collective practice to expect or be particularly sensitive to specific qualitative properties in asocial environments, and other qualitative properties in social environments – and that I would be inclined to think that there is some way we are enacting these sensitivities. So Marx interests me, among other reasons, as someone whose theory has potential for talking to this question – whether he completely realises this potential of his argument, or not. At any rate…)
As a side point: there’s a tendency to do a quick gloss of the fetish argument that says that the fetish just naturalises dimensions of the social – it causes us not to realise they are human creations. As I read it, the argument is slightly more complex than this: political economy figures in this chapter as an explicitly historicising form of thought – and as something that is actively trying to bring into being what it nevertheless regards as a less “artificial” set of institutions. Now on it’s face this is actually extreme bizarre: what does it mean, to grasp that you are trying to change things – which means, intrinsically, to grasp that human practices are the contingent origin point for what you want to create – while still – in spite of this recognition of history and of social practice – making some sort of claim that what you are bringing into being is somehow less artificial – more natural – than what you want to replace? I love this question – it’s a beautiful question – not least because it actually captures so much about how so many different forms of critique (political economy ain’t the half of it) – tacitly or explicitly understand the ontological status of their normative ideals or standpoint of critique. This is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful questions Marx asks – and, in this chapter, he essentially asks it in a footnote… ;-P Go figure…
But all of this is by way of saying that, when Marx tries to understand the fetish as a form of naturalisation, it’s a very very peculiar sort of naturalisation in play – it doesn’t necessarily mean that social actors are unaware of what he describes, or even that they are unaware of its recent historical origins, or of its dependence on human practice. Weirdly, it’s possible to be completely aware of all these things, and yet somehow still perceive “fetishised” aspects of social reality as “natural” – in the sense of being more adequate somehow to an inner essence of humanity or society or material life (or, particularly as the text develops, technology). (If you haven’t seen it, Nate has a lovely post up on how political problems get attributes to technical causes – as we move increasingly into Capital‘s discussion of industrial production, it will be this sort of fetishisation – blaming aspects of our social life on the requirements of productive machinery – that will increasingly become the focus of the extended argument about the fetish…)
But I’ve gone way off on a tangent… Mainly: yes, I suspect that Marx isn’t quite hitting what he’s trying to hit here – but some of this problem may be accentuated by my own clumsy attempt to express what he’s trying to do, when I haven’t hit on the best vocabulary myself.
But in terms of what I meant, when I talked about Marx “sailing off into grandiose claims”: there is a certain… discipline to the argument in Capital. In general, Marx is trying in a fairly systematic way to demonstrate how particular things are generated in very concrete forms of practice, and then to show – through historical examples where possible, through more hypothetical or speculative analysis where history is silent – that the sorts of practices and institutions that are currently bound up with the reproduction of capital, could generate very different sorts of consequences if they were repurposed to a different end goal. He is generally very systematic in pursuing this sort of argument. Every once in a while, though, he does things that I regard as “sailing off”… ;-P By using this term, I’m not trying to suggest that Marx doesn’t mean what he’s saying in these sections – I’m just reacting to his own deviation from an argumentative standard that he regards as “scientific” – sections of the text where he seems to have abandoned his otherwise careful and systematic attempt to make plausible that his critical ideals are at least possible to achieve.
Now, we may not think he’s successful in demonstrating that possibility – my point, though, is that there are moments in the text where the argument is not really even attempting such a demonstration. Often, these are frankly exhortative moments – moments where he is, in a sense, trying to rally (and reassure) the troops – moments that would be performative enactments, in something like Derrida’s sense – where Marx is trying to bring about what he’s describing, by speaking as though it’s already there, or inevitably going to happen, or similar.
Late in the first chapter, there is a gesture that has some of this exhortative element – but that also has something in it of what worries Derrida about this text. Marx has christened the fetish – making the distinctions I’ve sketched above. The argument about the fetish is an argument about a very specific social property of a very particular element of human practice in an historically delimited sort of society. Changing practice so as to overcome the fetish character of those specific practices, would therefore (the argument goes) make our history citable in more of its moments – make it possible for us to do things that we hold back from doing now. Overcoming the fetish is therefore not particularly an eschatological goal – it’s an argument about a sort of social transformation that lies potentially within reach.
In order to try to be clear what he means by the fetish, though, Marx has introduced this analogy relating to religion. My read, to be honest, is that this analogy troubles him. It troubles him because he wants overcoming the fetish – overcoming capitalism – to be something… emancipatory in a somewhat absolute sense? The way the fetish argument is structured, precisely by distinguishing the fetish, from religion, Marx has set up the fetish to be something more specific – more delineated – more socially and historically specific – than religious forms of thought (of which Marx is also of course critical). But doing this casts a certain shadow, or raises a certain doubt, over what, exactly, it means to overcome the fetish – what sort of society issues out of that process of transformation. If religion can be distinguished from the fetish, does this mean that religion would persist into a communist society? Marx doesn’t like this – and yet the distinction he himself has just drawn in the christening passage, poses this very question.
So he needs to answer the question. He does so. Late in the chapter, after running through a lot of other material designed to show that the fetish character is not intrinsic in any of the parts of the commodity form, he returns to this problem. Immediately following a hypothetical/speculative analysis of “a community of free individuals”, but without any explicit transition to explain why this point “follows” at this juncture in his analysis, he abruptly launches into an analysis of religion. He says:
My reading is that this passage “follows” from what Marx has just written, because of this nagging worry that is embedded into the christening of the fetish. Marx has distinguished the fetish from religion. Does this mean, then, that the fetish could be abolished – but religion not? What sort of “community of free individuals” would that be, if religion persisted? The possibility for the persistence of religion is a problem for Marx – he thinks he needs to address it – to show how religion will wither away.
So what does he do? Well, first, he says – yes yes: but it’s not any old religion we will be dealing with – it’s a particular kind of religion – a religion that has been itself shaped by the experience of living in a society characterised by this fetish character. By establishing this connection, he begins to make it plausible how the abolition of the fetish might also abolish the form of religion that expresses (unbeknownst to itself) this fetish character. If Marx had stopped here, I wouldn’t be accusing him of being grandiose.
But the question still bugs him: okay – so let’s say we get rid of the fetishied religious forms, when we abolish the fetish. What about some other form of religion – couldn’t that arise? Marx doesn’t want it to. He simply doesn’t think religion is compatible with a “community of free individuals” — he doesn’t think the individuals would be “free”, if they are also religious… So we get a passage that I think sits very much on the terrain of Derrida’s critique – a passage where Marx really is talking about stripping away veils to reveal an underlying reality of the life-process of society. The problem I have with this passage is not that Marx wants to make an argument about the disappearance of religion – it’s that this passage doesn’t make the sort of argument he is otherwise putting forward as the type of argument that needs to be made, in order to operate on the terrain of a non-utopian critique. Marx is extremely close here to talking about communism as the realisation of the natural society – a sort of position for which he lambastes political economy in the very next paragraph, where he complains that the political economists treat previous societies as historical, but not their own. I read a great deal of complex voicing in the first chapter of Capital, so perhaps I’m mistaking what Marx is up to here, but I can’t help but see this whole segment as an expression of a rather intense ambivalence – it reads to me as though he is terribly worried about this problem, feels he needs to address it, and yet tacitly provides the resources to criticise this manner of addressing the issue, immediately following his own argument… I may be missing some shadow play here – there’s certainly enough of it in this chapter – but I read this part of the chapter as conflictual…
So that’s what I had in mind, with the quick reference above to the grandiose nature of the claims. The developed argument about the fetish doesn’t really justify eschatology – but I think Marx does move into an eschatological space in this brief section of the text. The he seems to sort of beat himself up over making this move, and then the argument moves on… This is of course provisional, as a reading – if nothing else, I’ve learned to treat this text with great caution…
In terms of your second question – and inadequately (apologies – I wrote more than I had intended above, and now I have no time 🙂 ): I think the issue is that it boils down to a specific question about complexity – in other words, the claim would be that perhaps we don’t react to all forms of complexity the same way – and that the argument about the fetish is intended to capture some of the qualitative characteristics of the forms of conceptual or symbolic simplification that lie most ready to hand. In other words, I take the underlying impulse of the text to be sympathetic with what I hear you to be saying – and I don’t think, in general, that the argument about the fetish is an attempt to unveil (I just think Marx then makes a very different gesture in the passage I’ve quoted above) – but rather an attempt to talk about the qualitative characteristics of what we do, in a way that wants strongly to resist the gesture of treating some of those characteristics as subsisting on some separate plane of existence from others.
Apologies for tackling this so briefly (and thanks for the opportunity to tackle the material above at such length 🙂 ) – bit of a lopsided response… 🙂
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