Rough Theory

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Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Revisiting the Product of the Hand

So I’ve been deeply remiss in not making a contribution to the reading group Nate has called on the first volume of Capital – currently focussing on chapter 25, although Nate started us off with some nice reflections on chapter 23. A nice discussion has been underway at Duncan’s blog, jumping off from some observations on Marx’s sarcasm, and developing into a discussion of the meaning and implications of different conceptions of class consciousness. JCD has been kind enough to set up a feed for the reading group – if anyone would like to dive in, and isn’t listed in JCD’s aggregator, give a shout.

I’ll say at the outset that I won’t be able to write much for the group at the moment. What I want to do instead – as a sort of promissory note for later analysis – is to point out the way in which this chapter makes an explicit loop back to the opening chapter of Capital in the closing line of its first section (p. 772 in Penguin):

Just as man is governed, in religion, by the products of his own brain so, in capitalist production, he is governed by the products of his own hand.

The internal textual reference here is, of course, to the passage where Marx christens the commodity fetish. In that earlier passage, the text suggests that the fetish character of commodities arises in and through a distinctive kind of contingent historical interaction that develops between humans and other objects – uniquely, in Marx’s account, in the capitalist era. Within this interaction, material objects – including the physiological dimensions of human objects – come to be seen as possessing a distinctive kind of “objectivity” – or, to say the same thing another way, a distinctively modern form of “materiality” comes to be enacted in our collective practices.

To pick out this distinctive form of interaction, Marx distinguishes it from two other, superficially similar, sorts of interactions that result in the perception of something “objective”: he first examines the interaction between the eye and the objects it perceives – arguing that it is the relation between the eye and its object that generates the optical perception, and yet perception is generally understood to arise entirely from the activity of the object, while the eye is understood as a passive recipient of stimuli external to itself; he next examines the purely social interaction between persons who share religious practices and beliefs – arguing that belief in invisible beings arises from an intersubjective interaction among humans, and yet those beings are taken by believers to be external objective causes of the intersubjective interaction that brings them into being.

Commodity fetishism, for Marx, shares aspects of both of these forms of one-sided attribution of objectivity: like the relationship between the eye and the objects of perception, commodity fetishism involves an interaction between humans and other sorts of objects – it does not arise solely from intersubjectively shared frameworks of meaning or networks of beliefs; like the products of religious practice, however, commodity fetishism is a purely social – and therefore contingent and transformable – phenomenon. Marx expresses this point in much the same language to which he returns in chapter 25, saying:

There [in religious belief] the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter in relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (165)

In the first use of this language, we appear to be talking about “commodity production”. By chapter 25, this same language is used to describe “capitalist production”. On the way from there to here, Marx unfolds the argument that generalised commodity production – the existence of a social system in which the commodity appears self-evidently as the elementary form of social wealth – can only exist on the basis of capitalist production. As we follow the developing argument, we learn that the opening chapter always already pointed toward its conditions of possibility – conditions that Marx unspools all the way through the text to the point that, in chapter 25, he is ready to gesture back and say (in his maddeningly indirect way) to his readers: Now. Here. At this point in the text. What the fetish character always already depended on, we can now say explicitly. The promissory note from chapter one can now – Marx thinks – be cashed out. And the discussion that cashes it out is one in which Marx can finally say explicitly what he thinks the “objective social” patterns are, that political economy erroneously reads off onto the inherent nature of material production or material life as such.

This chapter therefore marks the culmination of one of the longest dramatic arcs of Capital – an arc that stretches from chapter one to chapter 25, a textual loop that closes here with a much more explicit discussion of what Marx had in mind when he hints in the opening chapter at some sort of meaningless, unintended, but still historically contingent and social, practices that generate a historically distinctive and unique form of materiality. Several other dramatic arcs have been opened and closed in the interim, while this long arc remained unresolved. It is only at this point that Marx feels he can explicitly cash out what he implies in the discussion of the commodity fetish. The internal textual reference hints that we should flip back, review and revise, and perhaps change our minds again about what the opening chapter was trying to achieve.

I’ll have to break off here – apologies – too much other work to write more… More later, I hope…

9 responses to “Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Revisiting the Product of the Hand

  1. Nate September 14, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Oh wow. Oh damn. NP, great post, and very frustrating! I’ve never liked that section on commodity fetishism and had sort of worked out an uneasy turn a blind eye kind of approach, acting as if the category basically went away with the close of the awkward first 3 chapters and the beginning of where the books starts to really get good. But no, as you say, there’s a textual arc linking it to the good parts. Argh!

    I really like your point about reading the early stuff in light of the later, as we’ve talked about before v1 is in some ways a really weird and hard book to start, intended as much for re-reading as for reading.

    One other thought, just on subtle literary-ish qualities of the text, dramatic arcs and so on, the return to religious/theological -ish themes at the end of this part of v1 also provides a nice resonance for the opening of the stuff on primitive accumulation as original sin. One question, not sure how to put this more clearly – I’m convinced by your point that this ties off the longest dramatic arc in the book. In that case, what does that mean for the ending sections on primitive accumulation? In addition to the dramatic piece, it’s also a bit odd that they come after the most general and systematic presentation of capitalism in action.

    take care,

  2. N Pepperell September 14, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Hey Nate – Just super super quickly, since I’m running off to lecture in a couple minutes – I’ll try to develop this more adequately some other time: I think the primitive accumulation section is the “real” – historical, practical – starting point of Capital. Marx believes, however, that in order to “see” that clearly – in a way where the necessity for that beginning is clear even from the starting point of political economic discourse – he needs first to do this long immanent demolition of political economy – to show that political economy itself bears the traces of that starting point, however much it overtly clouds the issue in just-so stories about how everything is based on simple commodity production and exchange – based on the exchange of the products of someone’s personal labour. So the goal is to tie together the real historical beginnings of capitalism – in violence and expropriation and theft – with the specific sorts of denials of those beginnings that Marx sees as characteristic of political economic discourse.

    This is probably not the clearest way to say this… The original thesis plan was actually intended to cover this whole arc and do this more adequately… I just didn’t have the room… 😦 So the thesis ended up collapsed back into just the very first major narrative arc – and couldn’t even get to the next arc, which leads up to the chapter on the working day, let alone get me all the way here… 😦

  3. N Pepperell September 14, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Running between lecture and tutorial – but wanted to add, in terms of your reaction to the opening chapters: I think it’s a sound reaction to have, in a way, to feel that those opening chapters operate in a kind of never-never-land. It’s just that, for Marx, even our fantasies are material – even our apologistic dreams have their practical basis, their “social validity”. Capital is structured to let Marx cash out the critique he makes early on of Feuerbach – that:

    Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-alienation, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis.

    But that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, in itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice. Thus, for instance, after the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.

    Marx seems to think that, in order to know what needs to be transformed in practice, to dispel the particular fever dream characteristic of political economy, it is necessary to trace in great detail how that fever dream is generated in collective practical activity, so that some specific apotheosis of practical relations can be understood to be implicated in everyday practices. Capital is therefore written “backwards” – starting with the standpoint to be criticised, with the intention of tracing back from that standpoint to the contradictory practical activities that both render that standpoint socially plausible, and yet also convict it as unnecessary and as a form of domination.

    Sorry – rushing badly here… but…

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  6. roger September 15, 2009 at 11:17 am

    As always, A great post on Marx, NP. It struck me, reading this, that Marx is making a sort of subtle anthropological point – that the capitalist era is one in which there is a latent return to animism. I’m reminded of the French anthropologist, Phillipe Descola, who has made a point of saying that animism, naturalism and totemism are the three big “schemata of praxis” for constructing nature. From his work with a Jivaro group that absolutely did not distinguish between the person of the human and the person, say, of the fish, Descola decided that he couldn’t really describe this in terms of an opposition of nature and culture. Which is at enigmatic play, here, in Marx – on the one hand, the shame-making accusation to the political economists, you are treating things as if they were persons! and on the other hand, the systematic insight that, in the capitalist system, persons are, really, treated as things. But the horizon in which the things separate from the persons, in which we have a clear view of how the persons simply project personhood into the things, always seems to retreat as we approach it.

  7. N Pepperell September 15, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Hi roger – yes – thank you – I think this is very much right:

    the capitalist era is one in which there is a latent return to animism

    It’s extremely difficult for me to voice – and, of course, I also think it was extremely difficult for Marx to voice, and this difficulty both drives parts of Capital‘s presentational style, and also is the non-idiosyncratic core of why the text is so difficult to read – this issue that Marx is not really relying on a firm, intuitive distinction between subject and object, animal and human, person and thing – even living and dead. He deploys these sorts of distinctions regularly throughout Capital, but the driving force of the presentational strategy text is to be adequate to the practical (and therefore contingent, historical) genesis of the distinctions deployed.

    So the text operates through an appropriation of materials that are not themselves understood as being in any way ontologically fixed or historically stable – but these unstable materials are nevertheless the most solid stuff with which we can build our critiques, our alternatives, our future histories.

    This is an argument “about” a nature/culture distinction – in which this distinction itself, along with the qualitative attributes associated with either pole, are understood as contingent, transient – and practically real. So persons are treated as things – not as a mere semblance, but in the same manner as implied in the “hunger is hunger” passage from the Grundrisse: we enact ourselves (parts of ourselves) as things – and enact thingliness itself as a specific constellation of qualitative attributes, generating a particular historical form of materiality.

    From this standpoint, the text has a very complex relationship to more familiar forms of politics – including politics fueled by a shock that persons should be treated as things. On the one hand, this sort of shock is acknowledged as something that is itself socially valid – a potential reservoir of collective outrage and contestation that arises in and through this particular enactment of materiality. On the other hand, the tacit politics of the text itself suggest that, in the topsy turvy mirror-image world that Marx understands capitalism to be, many political impulses that appear noble, have unintended consequences that generate specific forms of domination – so that, by the end, the major emancipatory possibilities that are teased out, emerge from unintended consequences of precisely the processes that treat humans as things.

    So one way of looking at the major dramatic arcs in the text would be that the chapters from 1-6 look at how labour “realises” itself at the level of the individual (and then unintended negative consequences from this self-realisation), then from chapter 7, through the discussion of the working day, the text looks at how labour “realises” itself collectively (and then, in the chapters to follow, unintended consequences of this form of self-realisation as well), and then, from the discussions of detail division of labour and machinery, which are on their face horrific in their immediate implications, emerges the possibility for an unintended consequence that might be emancipatory – the abolition of labour. So the whole narrative reads like an appropriation of Hegel’s inverted world thesis – where what seems just and good on the outside, is unjust and bad on the inside – transposed onto the practical realities of capitalism, where the unintended consequences of good acts are often bad, and the unintended consequences of bad acts could – potentially, if appropriated for the creation of a new form of collective life – be good.

    I’ve spoken with Nate before about how Marx sometimes seems a bit too taken with the theme of inversion – sometimes to the point of implying that horrific historical circumstances were somehow necessary in order to achieve emancipatory ends – as opposed to the more deflationary move, which would argue no more than that, however horrific history has been, if we want to build something else, we will end up working with the raw materials left behind in the wake of those horrors…

    But while Marx is fixated on the issue of inversion – unintended consequences, how practices and ideals might have contradictory implications – what interests me are the anthropological tools used to make this argument, and the way in which those tools make it possible to think about historical forms of materiality in a way that both undermines ontological fixedness, but in a way that doesn’t sceptically question the “reality” of whatever form of materiality we currently have. So the argument undermines simple notions of anthropological projection – all the way back to the promissory note in Marx’s critique of Feuerbach – and doesn’t ask “how do we come to believe this obviously false thing?”, but “how do we constitute this particular truth for ourselves at this moment in time?”

    Sorry this is a bit scattered… Bit exhausted at the moment…

  8. N. Pepperell September 15, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    P.S. roger – it’s bugging me a great deal that, in all the guff above, I don’t really get to your point about animism. This particular implication of Marx’s argument is actually something really important for me – and I generally don’t think I write clearly enough to get across how central I think it is. There’s a whole set of imagery around capital, as well – vitalist imagery – that I didn’t have a chance to explore in the thesis (because this imagery is stronger in the later chapters I didn’t reach), but that was actually quite central to why I wanted to write the thesis in the first place. Since I had to truncate the argument so much, the thesis weirdly has the character of a deferral… Not inappropriate, perhaps, for a work on Marx… But frustrating… Main point being: I feel I’ve skimmed across this issue in such a glancing way so far, that it was just really nice to hear someone point it out explicitly… I hope to come back to it in the future in some more adequate way. I think what happened in my reply above is that you got me associating to very important things that I couldn’t cover in the thesis – and so you got a catalogue of some of the major things I couldn’t cover, rather than a further development of the point you were making…

    Apologies… and hopefully better from me at a later time…

  9. roger September 16, 2009 at 12:54 am

    NP – Your scattering is your reader’s treasure trove. Especially in a comment! I like where you are going with the comment, and Marx’s fixation on, as Caillois would say, ilynx – games of vertigo.

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