Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Irony and Totality

Another fragment of offline writing re-posted here – this one’s potentially quite rough and ready, and in need of double-checking with the texts to which I refer, so read with all due caution, etc.


The notion that Capital has certain “literary” features is neither new nor uncommon. As Wolff (1988) notes, however, until very recently such analyses have generally been put forward by scholars who lacked a social theoretic background, and who could therefore point out literary tropes, but not explain what substantive social theoretic purpose these tropes might serve. In this category falls, for example, the impressionistic and somewhat breathless argument by Sypher (1948: 438) that that Capital should be understood as an example of a common Victorian literary trope of melodrama:

Philosophically, the work is not melodrama; aesthetically it is… Capital is a dramatic poem, or possibly a dramatic epic. Its great economic themes are treated chorally, with all the strophic progress of the ode and all the rhythmic stress of an ironic injustice committed against the masses. If we are not distracted by the superficial diffusion of the book, its elaborate and energetic logic and its accumulation of evidence, we see that its concealed structure is mythical.

Sypher captures the theatrical character of the work – and also suggests, as I often have, that the Hegelian dialectic is in some sense the target of the critique (441-42), but proposes no substantive reason for Capital to adopt a particular literary form, other than that melodrama was purportedly a common form of presentation at the time Marx was writing.

Wilson (1972: 191) argues that “Marx and Engels have been inadequately appreciated as writers”, foregrounds the artistic character of Capital (338), and insists that “Marx became one of the great masters of satire. Marx is certainly the greatest ironist since Swift, and he has a good deal in common with him” (340). Like Sypher, however, Wilson cannot identify a substantive argumentative reason for Capital to have been structured as a satirical work, and so ends up searching about for idiosyncratic psychological motives. Thus he explains the sardonic character of the text by arguing that “Marx had the satanic genius of the satirist: his jeers are the true expressions of his nature” – a “relentless misanthropy” – “and for this reason they are often effective” (301).

Hyman (1974: 143-45) offers an acute and insightful reading of the dramatic structure of Capital – understanding the work as a play, and dividing it into acts, much as I will also do in reinterpreting the dramatic structure of the work. Hyman interprets this dramatic structure, however, as evidence that Capital should be read “not as science, social science, or exhortation, but as imaginative literature” (133) – following Sypher in claiming that the literary form is that of Victorian melodrama (146). This perceived conflict – the purported incompatability between Capital’s “literary” character and its status as “serious” social theory – undermines Hyman’s ability to grasp the substantive points being made in and through some of the presentational strategies Hyman accurately identifies.

The first serious social theoretic attempt to analyse Capital’s presentational strategy as an integral part of its substantive argument was Wolff’s (1988: 4) short work Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, which begins with an account of the author’s reaction to Capital’s “bitterly satirical language quite unlike anything I had encountered elsewhere in political philosophy or the social sciences”. Unlike the earlier, more strictly “literary” analyses of Capital, Wolff sees a substantive social theoretic purpose in Capital’s presentational strategies. He argues: “Marx’s literary style constitutes a deliberate attempt to find a philosophically appropriate language for expressing the ontological structure of the social world” (20). Wolff’s brief treatment of the relation of style and content in Capital zooms far above the surface of Marx’s text, however, leaving the fine-grained analysis of how Capital makes substantive points through distinctive literary strategies as a task for future scholars.

These initial treatments of Capital’s dramatic structure were isolated works, not part of a broader overarching conversation about Marx’s literary techniques. In the past fifteen years, however, there has been a burst of interest in using the techniques traditionally associated with literary theory to cast light on Marx’s substantive claims, from both literary and social theorists. Derrida perhaps helped to spark this interest by providing a controversial deconstructive critique in Specters of Marx (1994), a work which both inspired imitations and provoked criticism from those who felt the reading misrepresented Marx’s theory. In 1997, Keenan produced a brilliant reinterpretation of the opening chapter of Capital, in particular highlighting the way in which the opening chapter loops back on itself, destabilising the earlier sections that had initially appeared as static “definitional” claims. In 1998 (24-28, 63-66), Carver called for greater attention to the “textual surface” of Marx’s argument and highlighted the way in which the text positions social actors as characters who are not fully exhausted by any specific role the text shows them to play. In 2007 (75-76), Wheen published a “biography” of Capital in which he argued that the text must be read with close attention to voice, tone, and dramatic genre, and homes in on the primary substantive concern driving the various literary gestures: “To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx’s text is saturated with irony – an irony which has escaped most scholars for 140 years”. In 2008, Sutherland mounted a convincing case for détournement in Capital’s opening chapter, accompanied by a scathing critique of Marxist theory for attempting to reduce Marx’s claims to a list of theoretical “contents” abstracted from the style in which those claims had originally been put forward. In Sutherland’s words:

Marx has been read, and continues now to be read, as though his thinking had nothing to do with literariness and with style, not at least in any radical sense… The most important way in which the meaning of Marx’s is transformed, not only by his translators, but likewise and as though collaboratively by current literary theorists, is through their elimination of satire from Capital. (6)

Two earlier works, not yet mentioned in the survey above, deserve particular attention in relation to the reading I have been developing: John Seery’s (1990) Political Returns, and Dominick LaCapra’s (1983) Rethinking Intellectual History. Neither of these works is focussed solely on Marx. Both, however, present interpretations that prefigure important aspects of my own argument – in particular, the claim that Capital needs to be read as a self-deconstructing text that puts forward positions that it then destabilises. I want to dwell for a moment on their arguments here.

Seery provides a detailed analysis of the foreword for Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which addresses the problem of how philosophy is possible after Hegel (243). According to Seery, the answer Marx provides is that philosophy is possible after Hegel – if it assumes an ironic form (244-45). Seery traces the way in which this theme plays itself out in subterranean form in Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the difference between Democritus’ more deterministic materialism, and Epicurus’ variant of materialism, which accommodates the potential for a “swerve” that deviates from strict determination (245-49). Seery then argues:

The foreword begins with the question of how it is at all possible to philosophize after Hegel’s total triumph, how, as it were, one can ‘swerve’ from Hegelianism. Traditionally, scholars have interpreted the young Marx as still enraptured at this time with Hegel and Hegelianism, and they have read Marx’s dissertation as an attempt ‘to fill in lacunae in Hegel’s system,’ or else to find a way to put Hegelianism into practice (as a benign resolution to his schoolboy Oedipalism). I suggest, however, that a careful reading of the foreword along with the dissertation reveals that Marx is thoroughly distancing himself from Hegel while at the same time he is informing us that his alternative stance will nonetheless resemble Hegelianism in outward form: a double stance, which cannot be reduced to the epigonal anxiety of a typical young Hegelian. (250)

I have written previously on Marx’s complex relation to Hegel in Capital – Seery’s analysis suggests a very similar understanding of that relationship, foreshadowed in Marx’s doctoral thesis. In Seery’s interpretation, Marx’s citation of the forms of Hegel’s work, the parallels between Hegel’s method and his own, needs to be understood in a deeply ironic light – as a similarity formed at a fundamental level by a desire to effect a fundamental internal transformation of Hegel’s system, while outwardly appearing consistent with Hegel’s method.

Seery argues that Marx’s embrace of irony is a specific response to the question of how we can escape from totalising philosophies:

In particular, Marx wishes to show why, in the wake of totalizing philosophies, it is necessary for the subjective form of philosophy to wear ‘disguises’ and ‘character masks’; why Plato employs myths and Epicurus endorses the principle of repulsion; and why, by extension, Marx will apparently embrace Hegelianism…

In other words, in order to philosophize after Hegel, in order to ‘live at all after a total philosophy,’ Marx is saying that we need ‘ironists,’ or those who are able to break with totalizing views of reality, and then can act on their own, like the self-initiating motion of Epicurus’ swerving atom. But because Hegel’s triumph is so encompassing, according to Marx, post-Hegelian ironists will need to couch their subjective philosophies in Hegelian terminology, nonetheless. (250-51)

Seery thus finds in Marx an anti-totalising impulse, ironically expressed in the rhetoric of a totalising philosophy. In my reinterpretation of Capital, I put forward textual evidence for a very similar claim, but in more social theoretic form. If the early Marx was striving to break away from the dominance of a seemingly omnipresent totalising philosophical discourse, the later Marx confronts a social system that, seen from certain angles, can seem totalising, not just in discourse, but in reality. In both cases, Marx opts for irony as his critical tool of choice, as the technique by which he expresses the possibility for the “swerve” that will burst apart the totality apart from within.

As a presentational strategy, however, irony can have strange effects on the reader’s experience of the text – particularly when, as is the case in Capital, the technique is not explicitly announced in advance. As Seery (1990: 253) notes:

…compounding the problem of discovering Marx’s ‘ironic’ outlook is that Marx would be, according to his dissertation, an ironist on the sly, a writer who conceals his ironic view of things. Is all hope lost of pinning Marx down?

Seery (253) goes on to recommend the sorts of reading strategies that would be required:

I suggest that we can discern Marx’s ‘irony’ by indirection, by disclosing its deep presence through elimination, by smoking it out of hiding: For unless we attribute a buried form of irony to Marx’s language, we cannot make complete sense of his ‘early’ writings. Or to put it more positively: Only by crediting Marx with an ironic, self-critical, partially detached, performative understanding of the function of his own language can we provide an answer to the questions left over from Rose’s analysis of The German Ideology [a work which Seery has used as a foil for his analysis].

The same reading strategies, LaCapra suggests, are required for Capital – a point he attempts to demonstrate through what he calls a “fictionalized reconstruction of the ‘phenomenology’ of reading Capital” (1983: 332).

In this reconstruction, LaCapra notes that the way readers approach Capital’s opening passages generally determines how they understand the claims made in the rest of the text (332). When these passages are read as straightforward definitional claims, this colours the reader’s impression of the other claims that follow, leading to the sorts of literal interpretations I have outlined in previous posts. In LaCapra’s words:

Reading these opening sections for the first time, one is struck by the seemingly abstract delineation of concepts to analyze the commodity form (use value, exchange value, abstract labour power, and so on). Marx seems to conform to the image of the pure scientist, indeed the theorist who, in the afterword to the second German edition, seems to invert Hegel by collapsing positivism and the dialectic into a purely objectivist notion of the laws of motion of the capitalist economy. A positivistic dialectic appears to be revealed as ‘the rational kernel within the mystical shell’. The first three sections of the principal text also seem to fall neatly within this ‘problematic’. (333)

LaCapra suggests, however, that as the text progresses, it calls into question this first impression – starting, in LaCapra’s read, with the section on the fetish character of the commodity, which:

… causes a rupture in the text and disorients one’s expectations about it. One is led to reread the earlier sections in its light and to notice the evidence of ‘double-voicing’ or of ‘internal dialogization’ operating to disfigure their seemingly placid positivistic façade. (333)

LaCapra goes on to highlight a number of the same ironic textual gestures I have also highlighted in my various discussions of Capital‘s opening chapter. To avoid repetition, I will not review his specific reactions here. What I want to note here is that LaCapra’s “heuristic” observations on the reader’s experience of the text are very close to the reading strategy I have suggested is most productive in confronting Capital: I have argued that reading Capital requires an iterative strategy that involves the constant re-evaluation of earlier claims in light of new perspectives introduced later in the text. This process helps bring into view what LaCapra calls double-voicing and sensitises the reader to the presence of internal dialogues as a way of making sense of the complex presentational strategy playing out in the main text. In the process, it becomes easier to see how apparently firm ontological distinctions that are put forward in the opening passages of Capital are progressively destabilised and unsettled as the text moves forward.


8 responses to “Irony and Totality

  1. roger February 26, 2010 at 1:34 am

    Nicole, what a hugely helpful post! This damn little book I’m supposed to write on Marx next month could just basically cite you!

    I have a vague memory of Kenneth Burke writing about Marx in terms of Burke’s theory of dramatization – and of course there ‘s good old Edmund Wilson, who, for all his simplifications, is aware of Marx as a historian.

    But in the list above, and the quotes, what strikes me as a little odd is that Marx – to my mind – is not just double voicing his own text, but he is, as it were, squeezing the voices out of the texts of the classical economists – a polemical technique that I think he got from Heine. It is here that the Victorian melodrama idea goes most awry – it implies an English context for Marx, when I believe his arsenal of literary techniques were forged in the late Romantic period in Germany. So often, to my ear, Marx seems to oddly prefigure writers like Karl Kraus and Elias Canetti – the same demiurgic gesture of letting a voice damn itself, which Kraus perfected.

    Which is a minor thing, something that just tickles me. The major thing is, though, that you are exactly right to see that understanding how literary Marx is shouldn’t dangerously veer into ‘let’s read Marx for literature’ – in other words, let’s put him in a reservation and trivialize him. Instead, the literary reading should release the force of what he is saying about modernity, the – as Engels calls it – aura of eternity and Lastinstantness with which the bourgeoisie endows its social and economic arrangements.

  2. roger February 26, 2010 at 2:10 am

    I found the Kenneth Burke stuff, but it is not about Capital – it is about the Communist Manifesto. In Grammar of Motives. Still, a good read.

  3. N Pepperell February 26, 2010 at 5:39 am

    Hey roger – many thanks for this. I’ve read the Burke piece some time back but had forgotten about it when putting together this little reference dump – yes – it probably belongs in here somewhere too, if the Seery does (since Seery also doesn’t talk about Capital). There are also a number of works that have spoken about theatricality in the 18th Brumaire, which I have left out here because that text “invites” that sort of analysis in such an obvious way that it doesn’t occur to many people that its preoccupation with theatricality suggests something potentially useful for reading Capital.

    I’m actually kind of fond of Wilson’s piece, even though the little blurb above probably doesn’t make that clear. I’m not completely convinced about how he reads Marx, affectively, although he does a nice job of bringing out details that are often hagiographically overlooked (so does Hyman imo) and making use of those in his reading.

    I agree of course that Marx isn’t just using some sort of ironic self-detachment, as suggested by some of the pieces quoted here – my argument is that he’s is putting on his own “production” of capital, recasting the characters and reusing the scenary and stage props he finds lying ready to hand. What I’m trying to do in the offline piece from which this has been adapted is to use these interpretations to indicate that I’m not the only one who sees something odd going on in the text – I start by bringing on a set of quite good social theoretic readings of the text, readings which consider the possibility, based on Marx’s earlier writings or their own programmatic commitments, that he might be doing something more sophisticated than is suggested by Capital opening “definitions” if you read them straight – but who then back away from that insight because the text seems to them just to be asserting a straightforward sort of traditional materialism.

    Having introduced these social theorists who consider, and then back away from, a more complex reading, I then basically ask: what if Marx doesn’t fully endorse what the text initially seems to say – and then I write about these guys as a way of indicating that there are other people who have suggested something similar. I then dig into the textual evidence for my own read.

    So that’s what this passage is “for”, strategically (I’ve posted it as a fragment because its “other half” derives from pieces I have already posted to the blog).

    Of all these pieces, to be honest, it’s the Hyman I personally find most eerie to read, as he hits on the playlike structure of the piece quite well in some respects, although I think his sense of the “plot” suffers from an inherited sense of what Marx “must” be saying – and, of course, he also seems to think that, if literature, then not social theory…

    What’s strangest about Hyman, though, is that he seems to notice the theatrical language only from the major transition after the derivation of labour-power in chapter 6. The language there of course is very overt – easier to notice than, say, the Dogberry quote at the end of the opening chapter. But there are a number of passages in between where Marx discusses dramatis personae, “actors”, the “economic stage”, etc. I would expect that, once someone notices any of the major references to capitalism-as-theatre – particularly if they then divide most of the later part of the work into acts in a play, as Hyman does, they would then trundle back through and realise that the opening chapters have this character also.

    I suppose in a general sense this is a startling aspect of many reads: since it gets a bit easier to recognise at least some of what’s happening as you move through the text, since Marx becomes more explicit about the earlier points as he moves forward, it’s not unusual to get readings that derive similar points to the ones I put forward by using later bits of the text (or by using bits of the draftwork). These readings often stumble in some way or other, though, from the attempt to retain some position Marx puts forward very early in the text – it doesn’t seem to occur to many people, aside from the ones I mention above, that something deeply odd is happening in the opening chapters.

    This is strangest with reference to all of the various denials that the commodity can speak, take itself to market, etc.: this is so wildly absurd, given that the one thing everyone knows about Marx is that he’s going to derive the category of labour-power, that I get startled how few readings realise that there’s a joke operating here. It’s a joke with a real referent, of course, because there are discourses behaving precisely as though this is the case, which Marx is then ventriloquising – the characters in Capital are, in a number of complex senses, intended to be “real” – but the re-production carried out in the text is also meant to enact a critical perspective. That perspective often flies under the radar, and the parts enacted are taken at face value, as positions being endorsed…

    I had read before on your blog that you’d been invited to write the book. What will the focus be?

  4. demet February 26, 2010 at 5:49 am

    My first comment to Roger: Apparently you convinced Nicole to go back to blogging, so I am grateful to you. I am checking every single day to see whether nicole has written smg new and if not go to read some old posts (like listening to classics 🙂 I hope I will read your book soon as well.

    And to Nicole: very nice stuff, again. It seems that in whatever I read (medieval history of economic ideas on market, price, profit; Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics and neoclassical economics in general…etc.) I am influenced by your reading of Marx and Marx’s reading of classical political economy… I dare to say few of my teachers had such an impact on me 🙂 It seems some of my intuitions about what a critique is, what market is….etc. would not be translated into well-grounded arguments without my encounter with you. Before this takes the form of a love letter, I stop here 🙂 Just to say that very happy that you re back to blogging.

  5. N Pepperell February 26, 2010 at 6:09 am

    lol – thanks demet 🙂 I’m happy to be blogging too – I find it makes other kinds of writing easier. It’s just been an incredibly hectic year – I started a new position and there were other complications… Of course, I’ve just now started a new position once again, and there are different complications… ;-P But if nothing else maybe I’m getting used to that dynamic, so it was time to work out how to blog around it… 😉

  6. roger February 26, 2010 at 6:15 am

    Nicole, don’t underetimate what you have done. I think you go beyond the idea of drama – although, obviously, you deal with that pretty brilliantly. The thing is, Marx’s “touch’ is to dramatize the bourgeois economists. And at the same time, to show that these are – I have no other term for this – points of view – not subject positions. In a sense, just as a dramatis persona can be filled in by many actors, so, too, these points of view can be filled in by many players in the script. But I think what you are showing is that in the very process of that ‘scripting’ of economic life, these points of view are constantly engaged in repair work. As you know from communication studies, repair work is not an accidental feature of speech acts, but is intrinsic to them – language wouldn’t work without repair work. We don’t speak as we play chess, where if you touch your piece, you have to move it.

    Surely I’m not hallucinating that Marx actually used the term Akt in the Grundrisse.

    Oh what I ‘ve signed a contract to do is a Marx for beginners book. It is only a big deal in that almost nothing I’ve written so far can be fit into it! Too complex. But I need to ponder these issues, actually, for my enduring never to be completed Human Limit book!

    Anyway, getting back to the structure of the analysis of capitalism in Capital – what is brilliant about your interpretation is that it rather shatters the notion that economics is a matter of finding the right models. Marx is happy to produce a model, but at the same time he shows that the premise that thee is some total viewpoint from which to make a model – which, in economics, would be the equilibrium model hypothesizing a perfect market – will always be wrong. We need a model that incorporates unmodeled moments, and it is here that theater takes us beyond algebra.

    Hmm, that doesn’t quite get it either.
    Still, I am happy that you are doing this spate of new blogging.

  7. N Pepperell February 26, 2010 at 6:39 am

    Yes – the thing that’s most difficult to “get” about Marx’s critical standpoint is that it doesn’t require occupying some sort of Archimedean point – or, for that matter, some singular point immanent to the phenomena it criticises. There’s instead this constant sliding around from point to point – and the “points” themselves are subject to adaptation and interpretation – they don’t always have to be enacted in exactly the same way. Marx will flit from one perspective to another, looking back over his shoulder at the previous perspectives, in a sense looking askance at them, showing how odd certain claims look when viewed from the perspective of other dimensions of social experience.

    The end result doesn’t occupy some one ideal position – but it’s also not “perspectival” in, say, a Mannheimian sense, where perspectives are regarded as inhering in social groups. The operation of the text simply wouldn’t work if Marx didn’t have some sense that whatever we had accidentally constituted – whatever perspectives are opened up in collective practice – weren’t potentially available, as performative stances, for social actors to move in and out of (where part of the critical barb derives precisely, then, from the revealed arbitrariness of the actual actors who occupy some specific position).

    So the whole operation of the text is driven by a sort of Benjaminian commitment to make our history citable in more of its moments – and then to foreground the potential for other forms of selective citation or inheritance of the possibilities for social development that we accidentally produce, but are too prone to treat as though these are fated to remain in their present form.

    Or something like that… 😉 What I’m trying to express is that I’ve run into great difficulty communicating the distinctiveness of the critical standpoint on which the text relies – which is neither a traditional singular “standpoint” (whether immanent or transcendent), nor is it “perspectival” (although there is plenty of analysis of “perspectives” in the text). It’s a standpoint in constant motion, and one which relies on a fundamentally creative possibility to adapt the elements we find lying around us, rather than taking those elements as something fixed and given…

  8. Gene Holland December 9, 2010 at 4:30 am

    You (plural) will be interested to know (if you don’t already) that Fredric Jameson has a book coming out early next year on “Representing Capital” – which will no doubt add grist to this mill. Also worth mentioning in this regard, retrospectively rather than prospectively though, is Hayden White’s contributions to this kind of reading (although hist most developed analyses may indeed be devoted to the “18th Brumaire,” which as N. points out may be too easy a target because it invites this kind of reading).

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