Rough Theory

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Immanence and Materialism Conference Talk

Another talk below the fold… this time from the Immanence and Materialism conference – which proved to be a very good event, with a collection of excellent papers that, I understand, will soon be collected for online publication at a conference website – I’ll post a link to the blog when I have one.

As usual, the text below is what was said – more or less – at the conference. I’ll put up a more polished version with full referencing on the conference website shortly.

More soon, I hope…

What’s the Matter with Marx? Notes on Marx’s Immanent Critique of Materialism

Recent reinterpretations of Marx’s work have tended to emphasise his methodological debt to Hegel’s Logic, focussing particularly on the ways in which Capital relies on a similar notion of what constitutes a “scientific” work: namely, that the work organise its categories to reveal them to be constituent moments of a self-referential network of relationships whose component parts possess the qualitative characteristics they do, only because those parts have been suspended in this specific whole.

In current Hegel scholarship, this distinctive notion of “science” is often interpreted as an attempt to construct a “presuppositionless” philosophy as an alternative to a priori deductive systems that must presuppose the starting point from which the rest of the system is derived. For Hegel, such a starting point is dogmatic: to avoid dogmatism, he proposes a reflexive philosophical system that circles back on itself, such that its opening category can be derived from the relations among all the other categories, rather than simply being presupposed.

Even when calling attention to Marx’s debt to Hegel’s method, recent scholarship tends to be uncomfortable with the notion that Marx might be developing something like a “presuppositionless” critical theory – one whose critical ideals do not require a step outside its analysis of existing social relations. Instead, it remains common practice to divide Marx’s categories into two kinds: “social” categories that are genuinely specific to capitalism; and “material” categories that transcend the specificity of any particular social context.

When Marx’s categories are understood in this way, it becomes reasonable to see Marx’s standpoint of critique – the perspective from which his theory judges capitalist production – as grounded in the perspective provided by the socially transcendent “material” categories. Under such an interpretation, access to “material” reality establishes a non-identity between social actors and the context they inhabit, providing critical distance that opens the possibility for political contestation.

In this sense, even recent “dialectical” interpretations of Marx’s work often ground the possibility of critique on the ability to reach outside the social and gain access to a socially transcendent material perspective that seems to provide a firm ontological anchor for critical distance from any specific social form. In this paper, I want briefly to illustrate this point by showing how this conception of critical standpoint manifests itself in the work of Patrick Murray and Moishe Postone, before moving on to consider another, more immanent, option – which I would call a properly historical materialism.

In Marx’s Theory of Scientific Knowledge, Patrick Murray describes Marx as “one of the most methodologically self-reflective thinkers in the history of science” (1988: 109) – a status he links to Marx’s “[a]ttention to the practical, historical rootedness of the concepts of science, as well as the values which guide it”. For Murray, Marx’s attention to the historical basis of his categories “distinguishes Marx’s theory of scientific knowledge from any positivist version” (xx). Yet Murray also characterises Marx’s method in terms of an epistemological turn back behind Hegel, to what Murray characterises as a form of Kantian naturalism. This naturalistic epistemology manifests itself, in Murray’s reading, in the way Marx distinguishes socially transcendent, “general abstractions” – what I will call “material” categories in this paper – from “determinate abstractions” such as value or abstract labour, which are specific to capitalist production – he argues:

… we can see a direct relationship between Marx’s distinction between general and determinate abstractions and his reinstatement of epistemology. Marx’s distinction is tailored to a naturalistic position. Marx uses general abstractions in his science of capitalist society in order to call attention to the natural presuppositions of capitalist society. Indeed, the tenability of naturalism, and, in particular, naturalist epistemology would seem to require a distinction such as that between general and determinate abstractions. Otherwise it is difficult to see how one can maintain the epistemological reflection on the nonidentity of the way of thought with actuality. (128)

Murray therefore understands Marx’s standpoint of critique to be grounded in the contrast between capitalism’s “natural presuppositions”, which are shared with all other forms of production, and presuppositions that are merely social. For Murray, it is the socially transcendent, historically general, “material” categories that offer a perspective from which the transformation of capitalism becomes thinkable to social actors (xviii). By stepping outside of social specificity, and into the perspective provided by historically non-specific requirements of material reproduction, it becomes possible to recognise the horizon of our specific social.

While Murray makes this point quite overtly, the same interpretation, I argue, operates tacitly in the work of Moishe Postone. Postone is perhaps the most committed of all the recent interpreters to the historically immanent and reflexive reading of Marx’s critique. Postone’s programmatic statements in Time, Labor, and Social Domination clearly set out the claim that Marx’s categories are specific to capitalist society and are designed as part of an immanent critique, rather than as part of a theory that measures capitalist production with reference to external or socially transcendent normative standards. Postone thus argues:

Marxian theory should be understood not as a universally applicable theory but as a critical theory specific to capitalist society… Moreover, the Marxian theory, according to this approach, is self-reflexive and, hence, is itself historically specific: its analysis of the relation of theory to society is such that it can, in an epistemologically consistent manner, locate itself historically by means of the same categories with which it analyzes its social context. (1996: 5)

Such programmatic claims would seem to call for an approach that interprets Marx’s categories as thoroughly historically specific, requiring no leap outside current social conditions in order to ground the possibility for critique. In practice, however, Postone’s analysis operates very similarly to Murray’s – as in the following passage, where Postone argues:

This naturalization of abstract domination is reinforced by the overlapping of two very different sorts of necessity associated with social labor. Labor in some form is a necessary precondition – a transhistorical or “natural” social necessity – of human social existence as such. This necessity can veil the specificity of commodity-producing labor – that, although one does not consume what one produces, one’s labor is nevertheless the necessary social means of obtaining products to consume. This latter necessity is a historically determinate social necessity. (The distinction between these two sorts of necessity is important for understanding Marx’s conception of freedom in postcapitalist society, as will become clear.) Because the specific social mediating role played by commodity-producing labor is veiled, and such labor appears as labor per se, these two sorts of necessity are conflated in the form of an apparently valid transhistorical necessity: one must labor in order to survive. (161, bold text mine)

Capital is presented here as relying on the strategy of disentangling what is specific to capitalist society, from what is genuinely inherent in material production. In practice, Postone presents categories such as “labor per se” or “material wealth” as socially non-specific and historically general, and therefore as capable of showing social actors how it is possible to transcend capitalism. Postone treats only what he presents as the targets of Marx’s critique – categories like value, abstract labour, and capital – as specific to capitalist society. The standpoint of Marx’s critique is tacitly conceptualised in much the same manner as what Murray openly characterises as naturalistic Kantianism: as dependent on the capacity to distinguish clearly between socially specific, and socially transcendent, forms of wealth and labour. Postone therefore presents socialism – not as a form of collective life that can be developed by creatively improvising around social potentials specific to capitalism – but as the realisation of potentials suggested by a socially transcendent, material category:

Socialism, then, cannot be understood as a society with a different mode of appropriating and distributing the same form of social wealth, based on the same form of production; instead, it is determined conceptually as a society in which social wealth has the form of material wealth. (397)

In places, Postone’s text hints at paths not taken, suggesting that it might be possible to account for the practical origins of the material/social dichotomy, by capturing the historical and social basis for both of its sides (e.g. 172-174). Postone does not, however, pursue these hints in a way that would allow him to cash out his promising programmatic claims about the immanent, reflexive, historical character of Marx’s categories, and thus more clearly differentiate his position from Murray’s “Kantian naturalism”.

As it turns out, both Derek Sayer and Patrick Murray hit upon an important clue for how we might account for Capital’s “material” categories without breaching the frame of an immanent social critique, by drawing attention to an intriguing passage from the Grundrisse where Marx analyses the social basis for apparently historically general and socially transcendent categories like “labour”. I want to first analyse the Grundrisse passage in my own words, in order to unpack how it suggests the possibility to interpret even the “material” categories from Capital as socially specific. I then look briefly at why Murray and Sayer reject the applicability of the Grundrisse passage to the interpretation of Capital, in order to suggest why this rejection might be mistaken.

In this section of the Grundrisse, Marx considers the validity of the category of “production in general”. He argues that, when he speaks of production, he always means production in a specific social form. He admits, however, that production does have certain common elements that span all historical periods, and that it can be rational to differentiate these shared elements from those specific to particular times (Marx 1993: 85).

Marx immediately, however, begins to qualify this statement. In a section titled “The Method of Political Economy”, he argues that conceptually simpler categories – more abstract, more general, more apparently decontextualised – arise in some specific sense in capitalist society. Marx analyses this question with reference to the category “labour”:

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. (103)

Here, suddenly, the register has changed. Marx is no longer speaking about conceptual abstractions, and asking whether we can validly apply abstractions that exist only in thought, to real phenomena we encounter in history. He is speaking instead about abstractions that are somehow created in practice – that are produced as social realities by specific kinds of interactions. Here he runs through a quick intellectual history to establish that it has not always been intuitive to link wealth in any way to labour, in order to highlight how distinctive was Adam Smith’s claim that labour as such – rather than labour directed toward the production of some specific thing – is productive of wealth (103-104). Marx describes Smith’s innovation as an “immense step”, which effects a particularly difficult conceptual transition (104).

At this point, Marx expressly rejects the possibility that this is simply a modern discovery of something that has always been true, but had gone unrecognised in early periods. Marx argues instead that the emergence of this new subjective understanding of labour reflects an historical shift in the objective treatment of labouring activities in collective practice – he argues:

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 presupposed 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 the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears 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 kind 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…. Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category “labour”…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. (104-105)

In this account, the practical experience of a rich variety of qualitatively distinctive labouring activities and – in particular – of the possibility for persons to move indifferently amongst these distinct activities, provides a sort of experiential matrix that makes labour in general – labour abstracted from any specific qualitative form – intuitive as a conceptual category because it can be experienced as practical category.

Marx next argues that abstract categories “in the specific character of their abstraction” have their “full validity” only within the historic relations that constitute this abstraction as a practical truth:

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 those relations. (105)

Marx develops this point into an argument that bourgeois society provides specific kinds of insights into earlier social forms because it has been constructed out of the historical detritus those societies have left behind, thus preserving elements of the practical experiences that would have been available to inhabitants of earlier societies, and thereby making certain kinds of historical insights intuitive to us:

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 relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly 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. (105-106)

For Marx, then, even the leaps we make “outside” our society, are made from the point of view of that society – whose inhabitants pursue the interests and mobilise the categories with intuitive appeal within their own historical experience. Our interpretive insights into phenomena outside our direct social experience result from what Walter Benjamin might call “tiger’s leaps”: hunts in pursuit of distinctive forms of prey whose scent strikes us as familiar, precisely because we already have experience of it (Benjamin 1999: 253). Marx expresses this point:

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, 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… it always conceives them one-sidedly. (Marx 1993: 106)

Immediately after mentioning the risk of a “one-sided” conception of very abstract “material” categories – one that misses the historical index and practical reality of such abstractions – Marx evokes an image that he will recycle in the opening chapter of Capital: he equates the method of political economy with that of the Church Fathers (106).
Marx then reasserts the contextual, historical, social character of even the simple, abstract, apparently decontextual categories he has been considering here. Significantly, he links this issue directly with the order and sequence of the categories as he will present them in his critique of political economy:

In the succession of 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 is to be kept in mind because it will shortly be decisive for the order and sequence of the categories. (106)

As mentioned above, both Murray and Sayer consider the implications of this passage for their respective interpretations of Capital. Murray, committed to the notion that critique requires a “naturalised Kantian epistemology” and clear distinctions between historically transcendent and socially specific abstractions, simply finds the Grundrisse passage muddled and incoherent, and argues that Marx moved beyond it as he worked out his developed position. Sayer takes the passage much more seriously, but ultimately also rejects the notion that Marx carries this conception over into Capital, because Capital opens by asserting a distinction between material and social dimensions of the commodity, and Sayer therefore takes Marx to endorse this distinction in his later work.

I want to suggest, however, that Capital does not abandon the immanent line of analysis suggested in the Grundrisse. Instead, Capital voices this line of analysis more consistently than the Grundrisse does – and therefore opens by speaking from the perspective it intends to criticise: the perspective of the method of political economy, which makes precisely these sorts of unreflexive distinctions between transhistorically material, and historically social, categories. The distinctions that appear in Capital‘s opening pages, I suggest, are the targets, rather than the standpoint, of Marx’s critique.

I cannot outline the full textual basis for this argument here. I can, however, point to a couple of important clues from the opening chapter of Capital that suggest that Marx still has an immanent critique in mind. The first I have already mentioned above: the conclusion to the opening chapter of Capital links the method of political economy to that of the Church Fathers, as the Grundrisse passage had done:

Hence the pre-bourgeois forms of the social organization of production are treated in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions. (175)

In an attached footnote, Marx adds a citation to his earlier critique of Proudhon, underscoring how long this concern has been central in his work:

The economists have a singular way of proceeding. For them, there are only two kinds of institutions, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation of God… Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any (175n35)

This image comes toward the end of the section on commodity fetishism – a term dulled to us through over-familiarity, but which, to Marx’s contemporary readers, would have immediately suggested that Marx was insinuating something is arbitrary and contingent about the attributes political economy ascribes to material objects. Marx makes clear that he does not regard these attributes to be imaginary: he calls the categories of political economy “socially valid”, says they express how things “really are”, and thus suggests that the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity express genuine anthropological realities of capitalist societies.

His criticism is instead that the political economists fail to grasp how these anthropological realities are produced, when we collectively interact with humans and other objects in determinate ways. The error lies in attributing the discovery of these irreducibly social realities to some kind of “enlightenment” – as though political economy has finally stripped away the arbitrary social conventions of previous organisations of production, so that the true, underlying, transhistorical properties of material life stand revealed. By showing – over the course of many chapters – how this specific kind of materiality is actively produced by historically specific forms of interaction between humans and other objects, Marx reveals the political economists to have inappropriately ontologised and naturalised the contingent consequences of particular kinds of human practice.

In the succession of economic categories – in Capital, as well as in the Grundrisse – capitalist society is therefore what is given. The apparently decontextualised “material” categories operating in the text – however simple, abstract, and possible to generalise to other social forms – possess their practical truth for the first time in capitalist society. This society – given in the head because given in practical reality – somehow makes it a matter of practical experience that apparently asocial “material” categories exist as categories of practice, as distinctive objects of human experience in a directly abstract form. Such real abstractions, I suggest, are the socially specific practical bases for the historical emergence of the abstract and apparently socially transcendent “material” categories that Capital then contrasts with more overtly social, more transparently historical, categories that reveal their social index more openly. The presentational style adopted in Capital introduces such categories in the same decontextual form in which political economy mobilises them – unfolding from this immanent presentation the resources to grasp the practical basis – and therefore the historicity – of even these apparently socially transcendent categories.

Read in this way, Capital is not attempting to carefully differentiate genuinely material categories, from categories that capture only socially specific forms of materiality. Instead, Capital is expressive of what Marx describes above as the “one-sided” perspective that political economy adopts toward its own categories – a perspective in which certain categories appear to be discoveries of intrinsic properties of material objects and processes, uncovered by stripping away contingent social characteristics. Overtly social properties, on this reading, are not the only historical determinations operating in the text: material determinations have their historical sides, as well. These apparently decontextual “material” categories therefore possess a historical index that constantly points them to the historically specific forms of practical experience.

On this reading, Marx’s “historical” materialism – the form of materialism he associates with economics as a distinctively social “science” – is distinguished by its reflexive character: by its desire not to treat itself as abstracted from the historical and social context it analyses, but rather to articulate theoretically, insights that arise from a practical process that makes available certain concepts and certain practical realities which have the ability to explode capitalism from the inside. The standpoint of critique does not require a leap outside capitalism: it requires the mining of possibilities that the production of capital generates from within.

7 responses to “Immanence and Materialism Conference Talk

  1. Tom Bunyard June 27, 2009 at 12:07 am


    A Marxist application of Hegel’s presupositionless, self-grounding approach to political and economic data is – on Hegel’s own terms – just as inadmissible as is its transposition into a philosophy of praxis. To do so is to import presuppositions into the operation of thought, and thus to lose all claims to legitimacy. Maker writes that this “would necessarily involve bringing into the system merely given and not systematically and autonomously generated determinacies”, thereby “invalidat[ing] the system’s claims to being self-grounding and hence its claim to being philosophical science.”(p.169 of Philosophy Without Foundations)

    I think he’s completely right (although I’m not convinced that we shoudl care too much – as I think Alberto said to me once, to be a good Marxist is perhaps incommensurable with being a good Hegelian) – and I cannot see how your notion of transcendental material categories could possibly avoid this critique, unless you coudl somehow claim them to be derived from the pure operation of thought itself (which is hardly a productive road to head down). As I said, I’m not convinced that this is a particularly pertinent critique, as I don’t see why adopting aspects of his system entails the necessity of the system’s own concept of legitimacy. I am however very interested in the idea of a material form of presuppositionless thought, however impossible it might seem – which is why I asked the question on Tuesday.


  2. N Pepperell June 27, 2009 at 12:32 am

    Hi Tom – Thanks for this. I’m not too concerned, to be honest, about preserving Marx’s reputation as a “good Hegelian” – that’s not the nature of my argument. What I’m trying to do, instead, is to talk about what sort of critique of Hegel Marx is trying to make, and why Marx flirts so often with aspects of Hegel’s method and Hegel’s vocabulary when he makes his critique of political economy – an issue precisely because, as you say above, this seems quite counter-intuitive for a theory of practice that presents itself as naturalistic and as oriented to the possibility of transformation.

    Marx’s critique of Hegel, I have argued (but elsewhere – not in this paper!), takes the form – as do Marx’s critiques of many other figures – of showing how it becomes possible to account for the practical generation of phenomena that Hegel takes be metaphysical. My thesis, among other things, attempts to show how that account plays out in Capital – and therefore why, for example, Capital can do seemingly problematic things like comparing capital to the Geist (which the text quite clearly does in chapter 4), without this step causing any particular problems for Marx’s critique of capitalism. This issue, though, comes out much more in the thesis – or even in my previous talk to the Marx & Philosophy Society – than it does in this paper, which was concerned with other aspects of Marx’s work.

    When Marx translates aspects of Hegel’s method onto the terrain of a critical social theory, he retains the attempt to “presuppose” as little as possible – but this attempt takes the form of offering a theory that tries to be more deflationary than competing forms of theory – a theory that takes phenomena that political economy, for example, treat as black boxes, beyond explanation, or treat as intrinsic attributes of human nature or material production – and Marx says, in effect: I can show you how these things are made. Because he can do this, he does not have to merely presuppose the existence of these phenomena or take them as given – he can instead show how they are produced – and therefore cast light on how they can be transformed.

    This isn’t “presuppositionless” in any absolute sense – it just has the power to explain a helluva lot more than the approaches it is criticising – and can thus convict those approaches of making inappropriate metaphysical assumptions about phenomena that Marx can explain in naturalistic terms. This is what the method of a “presuppositionless” philosophy becomes, in Marx’s critical appropriation.

    But all of this is very difficult to say briefly, while remaining accurate… I think I do better – though it can still be improved – when I have more room to stretch. The thesis was, in that respect, a really good opportunity to put some flesh on the bare bones that are all that make it into conference talks…

  3. Tom Bunyard June 27, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Yeah, I don’t have any problems with any of that; it’s pretty much what he says in On the Method of Political Economy – although I think I disagree with your combination of an exposition and an immanent self-critique, as regards the intial conceots being ‘targets’; as he says in the afterword to the second German edition, and as he says in On the Method, he gathers the data, figures out the basic, essential concepts, and then sets it all out in such a way that their interrelation and connections become evident. This means that the analysis and investigation (research) is not the same moment as its exposition (in the text) – and whilst that seems a completely obvious and banal point, it sounded at one point that you were implying a ombination of the two, in a kind of Phenomenology-esque, immanent self-critique. This would imply the deduction of concepts out of themselves – thus implying a kind of idealism, and thus prompting my question aout presuppositionless thinking.

    However, I do recognise that what you’re talking about has far more to do with the dialectical development of concepts than any kind of idealist auto-genesis; on your model, the work of the negative (or whatever you want to call it) seems to be carried out by comparing concepts to empirical and historical data, rather than through reason itself – and yet even so, this seems to jar – for me – with Marx’s statement that the mode of exposition is not the same as the mode of analysis, i.e. not the same moment.

    Sure, just as there are historical preconditions (presuppositions) for Hegel’s presuppositionless thought, so too are there conditions for Marx; bourgeois economics needs to have boiled everything down to the essential concepst (which it mistakenly views as trans-historical). Marx then – as you rightly state – shows that they are not trans-historical at all, but rather relate to a specific historiocal moment soon to evolve into another.

    I’ve always thought that this means that the opening chapters and concepts are the seeds from which the whole thing will grow – as pretty much stated on the opening page of Vol. 3 – but I think that’s slightly different from presenting them as a ‘target’, i.e. as the concepts of bourgeois economics rather than Marx’s own (e.g. he’s talking about socially necessary labour value rather than labour value per se). …but then I guess that relates to your contention that there are multiple ‘voices’ in the text.

    Anyway, it may well be very productive to read Marx in this way, so I’m not going to argue the point. I raised the iossue solely because it seemed to relate to the question of a materialist form of presuppositionless thinking, which is an issue I’m interested in at the moment. It was good to catch up on Tuesday; we should try and get a beer or two next time. I hope all goes well with the thesis


  4. N Pepperell June 27, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    Hey Tom – Thanks for this. Yeah – I suspect this is a difference of emphasis and terminology, probably related to the audiences we’re respectively writing for and the misunderstandings of Marx common to those specific audiences, rather than much of a substantive difference, if that makes sense.

    I’ve described the opening sections as targets of the critique to make sure readers don’t take them too much at face value, and therefore miss the way in which later passages deepen and complicate what these early passages imply. Once you know where the text is going, it becomes possible to say – as you have above – that these early passages contain the seeds of what comes after. But, a bit like Marx’s comment about the anatomy of humans containing the key to the anatomy of the ape, this line of development only becomes apparent in retrospect – by which point you no longer understand the opening passages in the same way that these passages would strike you, if you were encountering them for the first time. (My good friend Nate has commented a number of times that one shouldn’t so much read Capital, as re-read it…)

    For me, the first six chapters of the text build toward this sort of horror that becomes fully explicit once the text finally derives the category of labour-power. It’s at that point that it becomes explicit that all this discussion of commodities as “external things”, “things outside us”, has actually been a discussion of us, all along. And yet, this “reveal” does not mean that the opening discussion is, strictly speaking, “wrong” – it’s not that, with the revelation of the category of labour-power power, we can sigh with relief in the knowledge that it isn’t things that are the source of wealth, but rather human labour-power. Instead, what the text reveals is the horror of a society that enlists its members to treat part of themselves – their creative capacities and powers – such that these these personal capacities are embodied, subjectively experienced, and collectively enacted as “things outside us” – at least in this one dimension of collective practice.

    I call the opening passage a target of the critique, not because the subsequent development of the text shows that this opening is incorrect, exactly – but because the subsequent development unfolds implications from that beginning that one wouldn’t particularly expect, if one just takes the beginning “at first sight” as an “obvious, trivial” thing. Once we know the line of development that issues forth from this beginning, that knowledge ricochets back on our understanding of the beginning itself, transforming our sense of what that beginning means for humans trying to subsist in capitalist societies.

    It’s difficult to find a vocabulary to express this sort of move, since it’s not something many other texts do. Points are usually black and white – right or wrong. Capital instead involves a complex gradation of “rightness”, constantly attempting to specify in what way – and therefore within what bounds – something can be said to be “right”.

    This doesn’t – in my reading – require any sort of blurring of the method of inquiry and the method of presentation: Marx’s method of inquiry is what is sprawled out across all the thousands of pages of draftwork that leads up to Capital; his method of presentation is provided in Capital itself. One of the points I’ve made in the thesis is that this method of presentation is, in part, a demonstration – in a limited way – of how it is possible to appropriate the raw materials of this process of the production of capital – how it is possible to re-produce this process, to achieve a different end result from what the process currently achieves. So I don’t think at all that you’re meant to confuse the method of presentation with the method of inquiry – the method of presentation of the text, I think, is intended to show a particular kind of making of history out of conditions that have not themselves been chosen – in the service of a more active collective remaking of history through political transformation.

    I still do find it difficult to get at what I’m after in brief summary, though – and there’s always a problem that a form of expression that seems more or less to get things across when someone is coming from a particular space, gives entirely the opposite impression when someone is coming from another… I doubt there’s going to be an ideal vocabulary for describing what I’m after – it’s more a process of attacking the problem from multiple perspectives, so that through the collage that results something comes a bit less blurrily into view…

  5. N Pepperell June 27, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    P.S. Meant also to say: I should be back out for the Historical Materialism conference in late November (funding pending, but…), so we could catch up then…

  6. John Strong December 13, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    Would someone backup for a moment and help me find the beginning of some of these threads?

    I see a lot of talk of Monism and Dualism, etc., but it seems to me that there is a more fundamental consideration with regard to the notion of IMMANENCE, and it surprises me that it is not discussed more often. It is this: most major faiths are committed to immanence at some level or other: God works *through* “nature” (phenomenon), aren’t they?

    In fact, seems to me that belief in God stands or falls on the notion of immanence. Doesn’t it?

    I am not talking about a commitment to Pantheism or any particular form of Immanence with a capital “I”. You can believe in a “God of the gaps” someone who intervenes and disrupts normal phenomenal causes. C. S. Lewis gave a Humean-style argument along these lines, to the effect that we can not rely on induction to prove that nature is uniform. FINE. But if you believe in a creator God, you still MUST EXPLAIN HOW GOD WORKS *THROUGH* phonomena. That’s immanence.

    For instance, I would love to see some analysis of the implicit self-reference in the language of immanence.

    Immanence involves a series of spatial metaphors. On the one hand, it is an “internal” principle, yet the immanent principle (usually an intelligence, either God or the soul) is somehow separate from phenomena, and in that sense, “external”.

  7. N Pepperell December 14, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    Hi John – Unfortunately the discussions of immanence go back some years on the blog, and, even more inconveniently, often sprawl across posts and comments sections at other blogs – it’s both an advantage and disadvantage of the medium that this tends to be how discussions take place. On the positive side, it allows for the development of complex positions over time, in conversations where participants are making their way and are likely not to say everything they intend, in any one place. On the negative side, it can be very difficult to follow whenever you first stumble across the discussion. I’m unfortunately not online much for several weeks, so I’ll have to bow out of trying to draw things together in a useful way at the moment – hopefully the archives can help a bit, and perhaps I can do more at a later time.

    On my personal position, I’ve distinguished previously more metaphysical notions of immanence that often explicitly or tacitly sit in the background of theoretical discussions, from a more deflationary sense of the term, which is perhaps more specific to social theory and which doesn’t carry as strong an ontological claim, where the term “immanence” simply means that, whatever future we make, we are likely to make that future largely by reconfiguring materials that lie ready to hand – materials that might include social institutions, habitual practices, common sensibilities and beliefs, technologies, political ideals, forms of political organisation, etc. In other words, I am specifically not trying to intervene into the more high philosophic terrain of metaphysical claims about the nature of ontological reality – and, I’m trying to suggest that, although Marx appropriates some of the high philosophical tricks of the trade that are usually intended to intervene in these sorts of metaphysical discussions, Marx is actually using these philosophical resources to a different, more deflationary, more immediately practical, end than even certain social theoretic traditions seem to “grok”.

    In other threads, I’ve held discussions more on the plane where I suspect your questions lie, so this answer probably isn’t as useful to your concerns as those other conversations might have been – just clarifying what’s going on in more recent discussions, where the vocabulary of “immanence” is being used somewhat perversely, in order to make a point that lies outside the normal intention of the term.

    Hope this helps – and apologies I’m too rushed to offer a more useful guide to past conversations at the moment…

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