Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

For Roger

Roger is complaining about the long silence, and asking me to recycle old content if nothing else to keep things a bit noisier around here… I had been planning to break my silence with a post about sex in Capital (all together now: “ewwww!”), but since I keep having to defer writing that post, I thought I’d do the second-best thing, and lift from the comments something Roger has suggested should have made its debut in post form…

I do plan on being back soon… But I keep saying this, and it’s been a very quiet year around the blog as real-world responsibilities keep escalating as soon as I start to hit a workload groove… So for the moment, something from the old comments. More soon…


I have tried to make an extended argument that Capital needs to be read as a deflationary text – meaning that, where other forms of theory tend to presuppose certain “givens”, on the basis of which they then conduct their analysis, Capital tries not to do this. It tries, instead, to show how the major tools in its analytical toolkit – including foundational categories like “society”, “history”, or “material life” – are actively produced by specific forms of human interactions, and therefore reflect the distinctive sensibilities that are primed by particular forms of collective practice.

I’ve written before about a passage in the Grundrisse where Marx praises Smith for developing the category of “labour” – where this term means any sort of productive activity, rather than some specific form of activity (like agriculture). Marx believes that Smith was only able to come up with this category because collective practices were in fact enacting “labour” in that way – there was some dimension of collective life in which we had become genuinely indifferent to whether someone grew food or made handicrafts or provided services. This practical experience made Smith’s theoretical achievement possible, in Marx’s account – which doesn’t mean that Smith didn’t have to work very hard to work out, explicitly, the implications of that practical process – to draw the conclusion that “labour” could mean something like productive activity of whatever sort, rather than being tied to some specific kind of production.

A lot of Capital offers much more complex versions of this sort of argument. It takes categories from political economy (and other forms of theory) and explores what is happening in our practical experience to make it “socially valid” to develop these sorts of categories at a particular period of time. In the process, Marx often also points out that particular forms of theory have seized on practical processes in a “one sided” way – so, a theory may legitimately express something happening in one dimension of social practice – and may be very accurate if applied only to that dimension. However, that same theory may be completely blind to some other dimension of practical experience – and, as a result, it may overextrapolate from the dimension it does express well. It may conclude, for example, that human nature has a certain character, because humans really do behave a certain way in some slice of their social existence. This conclusion can sometimes be undermined just by bringing other slices of social experience to bear on the question. Capital attempts to do this in a systematic fashion.

When analysing Smith’s category of “labour”, Marx notes that Smith achieved this great breakthrough – he articulated explicitly the implications of this great shift in social practices, which meant that it had become tacitly possible to think about productive activity in general, rather than specific kinds of production. By making this explicit, Smith performed – Marx believed – a great service, making this explicit category available and opening up new forms of perception and practice as a result. However, Smith’s insight was precarious – Marx notes that Smith didn’t always manage to hang onto the best implications of his own insight. Sometimes, Marx argues, Smith slid back into earlier physiocratic understandings of labour – this backsliding, Marx argues, indicates how hard it actually is to hang on, explicitly, to insights that are tacit in new sorts of collective practice – it takes a while for concepts to become intuitive and settle in.

I would suggest there’s something similar happening with Marx’s more crass or “vulgar” statements about the centrality of material life to human society. The overwhelming thrust of a work like Capital is that what matters is collective practical experience – of whatever sort. The text examines practices associated with material production – but it also examines law, the state, contract relations, customs, ideals, gender relations – basically anything it occurs to Marx to fold in. Moreover, when it does analyse “material” relations, it does so in order to show how we effect our material reproduction through customary practices that have nothing to do with the intrinsic requirements of material production per se – and the text also offers an extremely complex and sophisticated analysis of how we could come to believe in the existence of a disenchanted “material world” in the first place (where the answer is that we come to believe in such a world because, at this moment, we are in fact collectively enacting such a world – and then overextrapolating from the slice of social existence where that enactment takes place, losing sight of our role in making a material world of a certain sort).

Spelling all this out is complicated – too much for a comment. So this is probably not all that convincing as stated. But it’s what was floating in the background of the offhand comment above. Some of Marx’s explicit statements to the effect that, e.g., how people meet their material needs is more analytically central than, say, language – I view these as similar to Adam Smith sliding back into physiocratic concepts of “labour”: they fall behind the level of sophistication that Marx actually deploys in Capital – they are fundamentally metaphysical – and, since Marx mounts an enormous critique of the metaphysics of political economy in Capital, he really should know better.

The core of Marx’s deflationary critique of political economy is that, as soon as a theory starts presupposing or treating as given the constitutive moments of its subject matter, it has failed to examine how that subject matter itself came into being. When it loses the ability to examine how the subject matter came into being, it naturalises its subject matter – it becomes blind to the contingency of the subject matter itself, and therefore cannot conceptualise how the subject matter itself could be abolished or transformed.

Normally Marx keeps this squarely in view. Sometimes… not so much. Passages in which he insists that material life is always at the centre are, in my view, “not so much” moments of his work – they get in the way (not just abstractly – this is, historically, practically, the impact they have had) of understanding the sorts of transformations that might be possible, and how those transformations might be achieved.

4 responses to “For Roger

  1. Carl February 18, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    The core of Marx’s deflationary critique of political economy is that, as soon as a theory starts presupposing or treating as given the constitutive moments of its subject matter, it has failed to examine how that subject matter itself came into being. When it loses the ability to examine how the subject matter came into being, it naturalises its subject matter – it becomes blind to the contingency of the subject matter itself, and therefore cannot conceptualise how the subject matter itself could be abolished or transformed.

    Yeah. I think, maybe simplemindedly, that if you get this right about Marx everything else is pretty much a matter of working through details and making rhetorical choices. This is why I had nothing much to say about your thesis – it’s always possible to fuss and prune at details and rhetorical choices. But it’s usually not helpful; better to let the work develop from its own strong roots and in relation to its particular climate.

    Latour seems to be reprising something of the deflationary procedure in his critique of sociology and the reification of ‘the social’. But this is just an impression – is that something you’ve looked at?

  2. N Pepperell February 19, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Hey Carl – good to see you 🙂 I’ve basically ended up rewriting around two-thirds of the version of the thesis you saw – mostly in order to get a better voicing and narrative structure, but partly also to smooth out some layers that had accumulated in the drafting, and to streamline and clarify some of the conceptual claims. It’s a much easier read now – more gentle on the reader, I think. But yeah, a lot of that sort of work ends up being somewhat internal…

    With Latour, it’s possible I’ve not read the work you specifically have in mind – not sure. What I’ve tended to find with his work is that, programmatically, he sounds as though he should be reaching for things similar to what I’m reaching for, but there can sometimes be a reductionist impulse that overrides the programmatic intention? A bit like what roger and I were discussing in the thread above in relation to analytical Marxism (Latour would be appalled with the comparison, but I mean this in a very specific sense): there can be a tendency to reduce the “reality” of an aggregate phenomenon down to the “reality” of that phenomenon’s component parts? So the critique of the reification of the social, for example, can take the form of arguing that the social is nothing more than its constitutive parts? But what I would argue is that what tends to get intuitively perceived as “the social” is a particular layer of interaction among constitutive parts – and this interaction can be analysed and understood in order to demystify, say, Durkheimian metaphysicalisations of the social, but without denying that there is something there that made that metaphysicalisation plausible, if inaccurate, etc.

    But I’m hesitant to write this, as I’m not sure I’m up on Latour’s recent work, so this might be an outdated critique. I always feel my work sort of ought to sit firmly in an STS or ANT sort of space – it’s just that, a bit like in the forms of social history where I originally trained, there can be this tendency not to feel that something has been explained until its been reduced to something concrete. Which begs the question: what if there are phenomena that are perfectly real – not spooky – not mystical – but also just really abstract? How do we explain those? A lot of my work – even prior to the work on Marx – was preoccupied with this sort of question… And, again, in principle it’s an STS question. But in practice what I do sticks out a bit more than it should from the bulk of the work undertaken in that space…

  3. Carl February 20, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    Yeah, I think that’s right about Latour. At some point I want to look more closely at the move he made to recover Tarde, which looks odd to me. It looks like he’s trying to step back from a reified construct to its constituents so each instance of construction / emergence can be seen in its own dynamic. In principle this wouldn’t be reductive. But Tarde is a strange ally for emergence, whereas Durkheim requires very little cleaning up to get us there.

  4. N Pepperell February 20, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Yeah, the revival of Tarde in general seems odd to me – Deleuze flirts with him as well… I was looking back at Elster due to roger’s comment above, and there’s a similar thing happening there, where he recognises that Marx is after aggregate unintended consequences, but then moves to what he explicitly classifies as a “reductive” methodological individualism. The reductiveness is not dictated simply by the goal of wanting a non-metaphysical explanation for emergent phenomena, but this seems to be where people go – it’s like a course correction gone a bit too far… The intention is to avoid a reduction in the opposite direction – to steer clear of functionalist explanations that reduce individual or collective actions to “the social” – which I think is a fine goal, but you have to hit the target on the mark, rather than veering off into an opposing form of reductionism… I’m not sure whether Latour is upset per se by the metaphysical character of what he opposes – he strikes me more as wanting to push a competing metaphysics… But his programmatic claims about wanting to avoid reductionism don’t seem fully carried through in the work I’ve read – again with the caveat that I just might have missed something that follows through more adequately…

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