Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Abstract Materialisms vs. Real Abstractions

Praxis has helpfully suggested that my thesis should be titled “Capital in Footnotes”. Personally, I’m rather more partial to “Marx from the Margins”… ;-P In either case, another footnote for your edification – this time one that often gets cited even by people nowhere near so fond as I am of Marx’s apparatus. [Returning here to post a memo from the end of this post: this probably wasn’t the best day for me to ramble on about this topic – but I’m trying to extract time and thoughts from a schedule that leaves room for neither… Apologies in retrospective advance for the disorganised and rambly character of these points – I’d much rather have been more systematic and just… clearer… but I don’t have the thought-space to do that right now… And, once again, I haven’t even read this post myself – no editing, etc… Too exhausted from the writing of it, and too guilty at the thought of putting off any longer all the other things I need to do… At any rate… With apologies…]

From early in chapter 15 on Machinery & Large-Scale Industry:

A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of any single individual. As yet such a book does not exist. Darwin has directed attention to the history of natural technology, i.e. the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man in society, of organs that are the material basis of every particular organization of society, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in that we have made the former, but not the latter? Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations. Even a history of religion that is written in abstraction from this material basis is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly kernel of the misty creations of religion than to do the opposite, i.e. to develop from the actual, given relations of life the forms in which these have been apotheosized. The latter method is the only materialist, and therefore the only scientific one. The weaknesses of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process, are immediately evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions expressed by its spokesmen whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality. (ftnt. 4, pp. 493-94)

Rorschach sculptureThis footnote often operates as a sort of Marxian Rorschach test: it’s possible to elicit quite divergent images of Marx, depending on which bit of the quote you focus on, and which bits you subordinate or suppress. My own eye, not surprisingly, is drawn to the final sentence – the part where Marx criticises the “abstract materialism” of the natural sciences on the grounds that this materialism “excludes the historical process”. Evacuating history, this form of materialism becomes “abstract and ideological”. But what does this mean? How is Marx – speaking in earlier sentences about “the material basis of every particular organization of society” – not evacuating history?

This specific dilemma – the dilemma of what Marx thinks he is doing, when he makes sweeping criticisms of other approaches for their ahistoricity, while to all appearances setting forth his own sweeping transhistorical claims: if I had to point to one thing in Marx’s work that has driven my own approach to this text, squaring this particular circle would be it. A great deal of my working interpretation of Capital derives from a decision, in Nate’s terms, “to never give up on reading” in relation to this specific issue: from a decision to continue asking myself whether there were some way that the form of analysis put forward in Capital might actually be consistent with this sort of critique of the abstract materialism of the natural sciences – and with the closely related critique of political economy for behaving as though “there has been history, but there is no longer any” (ftnt 35, p. 175). How can Marx offer these kinds of critiques, while also clearly wielding in his own claims about “every particular organization of society”? What does he think distinguishes his approach from what he criticises? How does he think he meets the critical standards that he applies to others?

The answer to this question – what I take to be the answer – is that Marx understands his own critical categories to have been reflexively established by his analysis of the reproduction of capital. I take Marx, in other words, to think that Capital shows how the critical categories Marx wields are generated in social practice – and thus shows how these critical categories are therefore themselves the products of a contingently-emergent form of collective life. Having established this, however – having shown the process of practical constitution of his own critical categories – Marx is not troubled by the practice of using those categories – of building or constructing something out of them – even of applying those categories to other times and places – in order to think about times before and, most importantly, times after, the capitalist context that provided the contingent ground for our subjective recognition that such categories are possible – as long as this application is recognised as a speculative move, from a situated standpoint, and not fetishistically confused for the discovery of a timeless truth.

Marx’s method, in other words, is consistent with the notion that we make history – but in conditions not of our choosing. Having analysed the conditions we have not chosen, in order to unearth the various resources those inherited conditions make available to us, we can then proceed to build something new from those resources – to construct or speculate on what has been or might become possible, using as our starting point the perspectives made available by the conditions that are available to us now, improvising around what our experiences place ready to hand. The ideological move consists in losing track of the constructed and unchosen character of the conditions in which we stand. Our locatedness, however – the recognition that we stand in some particular conditions – is no impediment to our ability to analyse or criticise or act: it is, instead, simply the determinate launching point for our future lines of flight. We create by transforming materials already to hand.

For Marx to assert this position consistently, among the materials that must lie ready to hand are those that go into this specific assertion: there must be some specific way that the constructed character of our history, the social character of our society, the contingent and artificial character of our collective lives, is suggested by our own practical experience – such that the potency (and the boundedness) of our own practical activity becomes evident to us now. There must be some sense in which our particular practices are “social”, “contingent”, “constructed” – even “practical” – in some distinctive way – some way that has not been the case in other times – such that something like Marx’s critical apparatus becomes plausible now, when it has not been plausible before. From the standpoint of a time in which such an apparatus has become plausible, it then becomes possible to survey other historical periods through the lens that our experience provides – and to recognise elements of similarity – ways in which those other moments, too, can be said to have their “constructed”, “social”, “material”, “practical” dimensions. In this way, our distinctive historical experiences can form a distinctive constellation with the past, shaking loose a distinctive vision of the past – a vision that would not have been available to the times we analyse, but that possesses a validity for us, a validity in light of the potentials we have stumbled across in our own time. Marx’s method simultaneously suspends: (1) an analysis of the ways in which our insights are suggested by various contingent, located practical experiences, and (2) a complete comfort with the validity of standing on the platforms built out of these contingent, located practical experiences, in order to engage in a quite sweeping speculative analysis that tries to demonstrate what else we can build – what more we can construct – based on a systematic analysis of what we have accidentally constructed so far.

I’ve come at this issue from a slightly different direction in earlier posts, analysing the issue of real abstraction, with reference to a passage from the Grundrisse where Marx analyses “The Method of Political Economy”. Perhaps a quick pass back through that material might give a better sense of what I’m after here (or what I was, perhaps a bit obscurely, trying to express the last time I wrote on this topic).

This is a convoluted passage, in which Marx wrestles (as always) with Hegel, and with the complicated question of how to understand that some elements of capitalist society – and some categories of political economy – seem to have vastly longer histories than capitalism itself. Marx recurrently wrestles with this question, trying to do justice to his instinct that the forms of thought characteristic of political economy have something to do with the emergence of new forms of collective practice, without suppressing the evidence that similar practices and categories of thought seem also to arise in times and places Marx would not regard as capitalist. Ultimately, I think, Marx squares this circle by arguing that the process of the reproduction of capital must be understood as a distinctive relation that suspends in a new configuration forms of practice that possess different qualitative characteristics outside this relation. In this passage of his draftwork, Marx has not yet, I think, distilled this argument clearly, but instead hits on and around it, while wrenching the underlying problem into greater clarity.

In any event: Marx is wrestling here with simple categories – and with Hegel’s suggestion that a simple category concentrates a vast complexity of determinations whose refraction conditions the apparent simplicity. Marx considers how this suggestion might translate into historical and social terms: does it take a particularly complex society, before simple and abstract categories become plausible and intuitive forms of thought? Not necessarily, Marx argues – running through a complex mix of historical examples that jumble together levels of complexity and simplicity in different amalgamations.

Nevertheless, there are types of simple category that do express and rely on an underlying practical complexity: Marx singles out labour. The category of “labour” seems quite old – the notion of “labour as such” is articulated very early. Yet these early articulations, Marx suggests, contain tacit determinations that conceptualise “labour as such” in terms of some particularly form of concrete labouring activity:

Labour seems a quite simple category. The conception of labour in this general form – as labour as such – is also immeasurably old. Nevertheless, when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, ‘labour’ is as modern a category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction. The Monetary System for example, still locates wealth altogether objectively, as an external thing, in money. Compared with this standpoint, the commercial, or manufacture, system took a great step forward by locating the source of wealth not in the object but in a subjective activity – in commercial and manufacturing activity – even though it still always conceives this activity within narrow boundaries, as moneymaking. In contrast to this system, that of the Physiocrats posits a certain kind of labour – agriculture – as the creator of wealth, and the object itself no longer appears in a monetary disguise, but as the product in general, as the general result of labour. This product, as befits the narrowness of the activity, still always remains a naturally determined product – the product of agriculture, the product of the earth par excellence.

By contrast, Marx argues, the modern economic category of labour is genuinely devoid of determinations that tie it tacitly or explicitly to some specific concrete type of labouring activity or to some particular sort of product. Significantly, however, this shift does not mean that the modern category of labour is devoid of social determination full stop. He specifically rejects the notion that the modern economic treatment of “labour in general” is some kind of conceptual abstraction derived from stripping away the determinations of various sorts of concrete labouring activities, in order to arrive – in a purely ideal fashion – at the category of “labour as such”. To claim that “labour” is a purely ideal category would be to treat the category as a negation – as something we become able to think only by subtracting or stripping away its positive attributes, in order to arrive at some substratum that represents an essence that could never be realised in any particular empirical form.

Instead, in Marx’s argument, there is some way in which “labour in general” – this very abstract and “simple” category of the political economists – exists in everyday collective practice, as well as in specialised theoretical reflection – some way in which this category is an empirical, not an ideal, entity – some way in which this category is not devoid of social determination, but instead expresses a peculiar form of social determination. Marx argues:

It was an immense step forward for Adam Smith to throw out every limiting specification of wealth-creating activity – not only manufacturing, or commercial or agricultural labour, but one as well as the others, labour in general. With the abstract universality of wealth-creating activity we now have the universality of the object defined as wealth, the product as such or again labour as such, but labour as past, objectified labour. How difficult and great was this transition may be seen from how Adam Smith himself from time to time still falls back into the Physiocratic system. Now, it might seem that all that had been achieved thereby was to discover the abstract expression for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings – in whatever form of society – play the role of producers. This is correct in one respect. Not in another. Indifference towards any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant. As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. On the other side, this abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society – in the United States. Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category ‘labour’, ‘labour as such’, labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice. The simplest abstraction, then, which modern economics places at the head of its discussions, and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society.

Marx thus distinguishes here between “the mental product of a concrete totality of labours” – what I tend to refer to as a conceptual abstraction that strips away concrete determinations – and a “practical truth” – what I often refer to as a “real abstraction” – that emerges where some dimension of collective practice acts out a positive indifference toward the particular forms of concrete labouring activities, such that this positive indifference becomes an enacted social determination that actively constitutes, as a meaningful social category, something like “labour in general”.

The analysis Marx sketches here of the constitution of this real abstraction is not quite, I think, the analysis he offers by the time he writes Capital. In particular, there is a tacit notion here of a purely quantitative process of historical change – bourgeois society is the “richest possible concrete development” – a bit further on it is the “most complex” – rather than an analysis of the qualitative characteristics that mark the reproduction of capital off from other forms of social practices effecting material reproduction. By Capital, I think Marx has incorporated this sort of analysis into a more complex argument about the distinctive qualitative characteristics of the reproduction of capital.

Already here, though, he speaks of the implications for “science” of this argument that certain very abstract categories – certain concepts that might appear to be purely “ideal” categories that result from subtracting or stripping away social determinations – are “practical truths”. He argues:

This example of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations.

Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still unconquered remnants are carried along within it, whose mere nuances have developed explicit significance within it, etc. Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape. The intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species, however, can be understood only after the higher development is already known. The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc. But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society. One can understand tribute, tithe, etc., if one is acquainted with ground rent. But one must not identify them. Further, since bourgeois society is itself only a contradictory form of development, relations derived from earlier forms will often be found within it only in an entirely stunted form, or even travestied. For example, communal property. Although it is true, therefore, that the categories of bourgeois economics possess a truth for all other forms of society, this is to be taken only with a grain of salt. They can contain them in a developed, or stunted, or caricatured form etc., but always with an essential difference. The so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and, since it is only rarely and only under quite specific conditions able to criticize itself – leaving aside, of course, the historical periods which appear to themselves as times of decadence – it always conceives them one-sidedly. (bold mine)

The bold text, I suggest, makes the essential point: we can speculatively extrapolate from our own categories, from our insights, from our own practical truths. But we can do this only “with a grain of salt” – only in the recognition that there will always be “an essential difference” between our time (which generates certain categories as “practical truths”) and other times whose collective practices might not have enacted the same social determinations. When looking out on the past – also when gazing into the future – also when gazing into the natural world – with sensibilities shaped by our own practical truths, we are primed by our own experienced to find constellations – charged connections that strike us because we find them tacitly familiar, because we recognise elements of ourselves in what we see. There is nothing wrong with doing this – unless it gets read into a narrative that views the present as some sort of culmination or telos of a process of historical development, unless it gets read in ways that make aspects of our specific society appear to be necessary or essential, unless it fails to recognise that even the constellations we make, based on the practical truths available to us, are likely to reflect only a very partial and incomplete sampling of even the insights practically available in our own time. These “unlesses”, Marx suggests, are unfortunately more the norm than the exception…

Marx explicitly relates these points to the method he will need to adopt in his own “scientific” analysis:

In the succession of the economic categories, as in any other historical, social science, it must not be forgotten that their subject – here, modern bourgeois society – is always what is given, in the head as well as in reality, and that these categories therefore express the forms of being, the characteristics of existence, and often only individual sides of this specific society, this subject, and that therefore this society by no means begins only at the point where one can speak of it as such; this holds for science as well.

This passage suggests very strongly that Marx does not understand his own categories to be exempt from the critical standards he uses to convict the natural sciences of “abstract materialism” and political economy of behaving as though “there has been history, but there is no longer any”. It suggests that Marx sees himself to be doing what he, in fact, labels as “the only materialist, and therefore the only scientific” method in the footnote cited above. He sees the see society he sets out to criticise as “given, in the head as well as in reality” – sees himself as deploying categories that “express the forms of being… and often only individual sides” of this particular society. He understands Capital, I would suggest, as developing “from the actual, given relations of life” the various categories that possess a “practical truth” – a truth bounded to those relations, and often limited, partial, and “one sided” even by the universe of practical truths and insights made immanently available within those relations.

Marx’s own central categories – the categories that allow him to make these sorts of programmatic statements – concepts of society, practice, materialism – must be among the “practical truths” that are made available by dimensions of our collective practice, in order for Marx, by his own standards, not to lapse into something like the “abstract materialism” of the natural sciences, or the ahistorical perspective of political economy. He must reflexively show the historicity, the practical genesis, of his own insights – a demonstration that by no means prevents him from picking up these found categories, these practical truths, and deploying them in his own analysis – speculatively extrapolating and expanding upon the possibilities they make available. We make history in conditions not of our own choosing – but we do make history. And, apparently, we make history in some very special sense in the capitalist era – we make history with “an essential difference” – we make history “with a grain of salt” – we make history in some distinctive way – one that allows this sort of reflexive speculative theory itself to become possible.

The point of this method can sound epistemological. Yet epistemology isn’t, I think, Marx’s concern. His concern is instead with developing a method that maximises the possibility for action. The problem with not engaging in this sort of reflexive analysis, is not so much that the theory will fail to give an account of its own conditions of possibility: it’s that a non-reflexive theory increases the risk of abridging practice and missing the practical potentials of our time. We can abridge practice by falling into the assumption that our own contingent constructions are the culminations of an inevitable historical process or essential to social life as such. We can do it by confusing our own practical truths – things we are effecting in collective practice – with ideal constructions that are disconnected from what we can achieve. We can do it by confusing a small part of our current practical potentials with the whole. Marx is trying to work out a method that – as I have argued in a number of other posts – makes our history citable in more of its moments, a method that opens additional windows onto our own practices, a method that mines and speculatively extrapolates from the practical insights we are collectively making available. The goal here is radically anti-utopian, in the sense that the method is oriented to a systematic demonstration of what we already do. At the same time, the goal is radically transformative, in that it seeks to apply to itself the practically-achieved insights into the constructedness and ephemerality of our social – in order to demonstrate how we need not be restricted to what “is”, even if we will necessarily mine our current context for the building blocks of whatever we build next…

2 responses to “Abstract Materialisms vs. Real Abstractions

  1. Pingback: » The Abstraction Before Us

  2. Pingback: » Many Fragments on the Centrality of Wage Labour

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