Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Theatricality, Critical Standpoint, and the “Reality” of All Moments of Social Experience

Okay… this post originated as a comment to add to the discussion with roger and demet in the thread below, but grew a bit cancerous, so I’m elevating it to post status. What I’ve done here is to replicate the content of my final comment to roger, and then added underneath it what would have been a new comment, in order to get everything together in one place. Note that there is lots of other substantive material in the comment thread below – I’m lifting this content up because I can’t remember whether I’ve put it all into one place like this on the blog…

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…


One other point that I was just thinking in the background, which I’m not sure has made it onto the blog completely clearly: the other bit of work that Marx’s theatricality does, aside from generally allowing him to highlight a multiplicity of perspectives and generate a very complex and agile sort of critical standpoint, is that it allows him to link “forms of subjectivity” and “forms of objectivity” together in a very unusual way.

The more Hegelian interpretations of Marx tend to understand, programmatically, that this is somehow part of the “package”: that part of what Capital is trying to do is talk about forms of subjectivity and objectivity using the same basic categories. Those approaches just tend to vastly underestimate the complexity of the argument, such that you end up with a relatively small number of categories that are understood to replicate, in a fractal manner, at different scales or in different aspects of experience. Marx will suggest things like this, from time to time, but this is only scratching the surface of the argument.

The more interesting move is to decide to treat different aspects of social practice as performances – which means not only that they are artificial, contingent, etc., but that they can be thought of in terms of performative stances, which are combined with particular sorts of practical orientations. Forms of subjectivity and objectivity are thus linked, not because they all share “the commodity form” or something like that, but because what we do, when we engage in a particular practice, is adopt a specific performative stance, while seeking to achieve certain kinds of practical impacts on other people and/or nonhuman objects. In this sense, forms of subjectivity and objectivity are intrinsically interrelated, not because one can be reduced to the other, or because one is related to the other by a more or less mystical concept of “social form”, but just because that’s what a practice is – a combination of a specific performative stance combined with an attempt to have a particular sort of impact on the world.

On this reading, Marx’s doesn’t have one, or even a small number, of basic social forms he’s analysing: he has dozens and dozens. In the third chapter of Capital, for example, he breaks down something that is often casually grouped together – “using money” – into several major sorts of activities, and then he breaks each of those activities down into different stages, each of which involve different performative stances and practical objectives. Each one of these opens up different perspectives onto the “same” social process (including perspectives that do not recognise how they participate in a process that also necessarily involves perspectives other than their own).

All of this, however, relates to aspects of social experience that are potentially intersubjectively meaningful – this is why it is possible to analyse them in terms of performative stances. In addition, there are whole other dimensions of social experience – and here we begin to get to the thing the Hegelian interpretations of Marx do tend to grasp, but they grasp it as though it’s the only thing going on – that relate to the unintended and indirect consequences of all these performative activities, which also generate consequences that then confront social actors, demanding responses of some sort of other.

So social practices are presented as each potentially having several layers of consequences – some of them immediate and easy to discern, some of them quite indirect and arising only because a whole constellation of practices are taking place in tandem, enabling them to generate aggregate effects they would never create in isolation, or even in tandem with a different constellation.

Because it’s very difficult for social actors to anticipate these indirect consequences – in part because they are indirect, in part because these consequences often do not resemble (and may even “contradict”) the more direct consequences of individual practices, in part because the consequences require a very particular combination of different practices to arise – such consequences can be plausibly interpreted as not arising from social practice at all. (It’s more complicated than this, but this is the most basic version of the argument – the one that’s already implied in the commodity fetish discussion.)

These aggregate, emergent consequences are patterns of social behaviour that initially become visible in observations made of the movements of material goods. Because no one sets out to create these patterns, and because the practical conditions required to generate the patterns are so complex, the patterns are plausibly interpreted as not being contingent social phenomena at all, but instead as arising from some inherent capacity for self-organisation that arises when material objects are allowed to interact “free” of human intervention. Capital implies that this very distinctive sort of social experience primes us to expect that a “material world” – as it exists in itself, free of anthroporphic projection – would be a lawlike, spontaneously self-organising realm: our secular, disenchanted conception of material nature is, in Marx’s account, the specific form of anthropomorphism of our time.

Capital is designed to show – I think – how this distinctive unintentional aggregate effect is inadvertently constituted, as people go about their everyday lives, engaging in various intersubjectively-meaningful practices that involve specific performative stances and generate distinctive sorts of impacts on other people and on nonhuman nature.

To understand the critical standpoint of the text, what is most important is to see that – like Hegel – Marx steadfastly refuses to allocate quanta of reality among different parts of social experience. In his account, both the overarching, aggregate, emergent effect and the various intersubjectively-meaningful practices from which it ultimately arises, share an equivalent ontological status. One is not more “real” than the other. All of these elements of social experience are potentially citable – and appropriable – as raw materials around which we can innovate in constructing new forms of history with the materials we have lying ready to hand…

8 responses to “Theatricality, Critical Standpoint, and the “Reality” of All Moments of Social Experience

  1. roger March 2, 2010 at 5:33 am

    I don’t want to be the only one to comment on these notes, but damn, I do like that last paragraph. ‘Real’ has always been an over-achiever concept in philosophy – on the one hand, it is an understudy for everything, but on the other hand, it is pretty clear that it is always used on a quasi moral basis to mean this real-er thing against that un-realer thing. In the slow days of the scholastic era, this might have been great – another century of woolgathering, boys!

    But in the era of perspectives and standpoints, this won’t do. I’ve been reading Schivelbusch’s book about the railroad journey and how the first observers, looking out the window, found it extremely bizarre – the way scenery would shoot away so fast. Marx (like, hell, Einstein!) must have noticed that perceptual transformation. Schivelbusch speaks of the fact that the worker on the train and the passenger are uniquely bound in sharing an industrial experience – which is different from the segregation between the experience, say, of the coal miner and the experience of the persons using the coal to light a furnace. I’ve been thinking that the industrial experience creeps into the way Marx writes – as though the text were an object moving through a landscape that seems like it is moving too.

  2. N Pepperell March 4, 2010 at 3:02 am

    Hey roger – sorry for the delay in replying: it’s our first week back teaching here, so it’s a bit hectic. But yes: this for me was one of the driving forces of the project – a frustration with the way in which many forms of theory (let alone many readings of Marx) rely on an allocation of “reality” among different parts of social experience, so that theories are operating as though something has been “understood” when you’ve decided what bit of that something gets to be more “real” than other bits.

    Certainly I think this sort of move is particularly deadly when it comes to understanding the critical standpoint of a text like Capital. There are any number of interpretations of Capital that are actually explicitly driven by the desire to remove the contradictory elements of the text – which, in the process, basically edit out the critical standpoint, because they excise bits of social experience that Marx is playing off against other bits, in order to develop complex composite perspectives that require a dynamic movement between different aspects of collective experience.

    In terms of your final comment, it reminds me of the Lafargue piece that I’ve quoted here before:

    He saw not only the surface, but what lay beneath it. He examined all the constituent parts in their mutual action and reaction; he isolated each of those parts and traced the history of its development. Then he went on from the thing to its surroundings and observed the reaction of one upon the other. He traced the origin of the object, the changes, evolutions and revolutions it went through, and proceeded finally to its remotest effects. He did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its surroundings: he saw a highly complicated world in continual motion.

  3. demet March 6, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Excellent post! I am actually writing smg which asks the question of what is a marxist ‘critique’ in the analysis of contemporary political economy and some of the things you say make so much sense to me. When I read articles in the field of political economy, there is a repetitive criticism of neoclassical economics first, of institutionalist perspectives secondly and then a marxist alternative of the relevant topic. Mostly this so-called marxist alternative would blame neoclassicals of being abstract, a-historical, individualistic, would accuse institutionalism of defending a refined version of neoclassical thought (by simply adding institutions reducing transaction costs and information assymetries). Then when I try to distinguish what is ‘marxist’ about the alternative, I see an analysis of ‘power relations’, of ‘underlying structures’, of ‘class interest’. There are two problems in such a view: 1) one does not need to refer to marxism in order to talk about power relations and underlying structures’, those dimensions can be examined with other sociological approaches (interest group theories or more refined versions of institutionalism talking about relative bargaining power) 2) it is not problematised why the criticised approaches take as their starting point rational individuals, abstract market models in the first place, an issue Marx would probably consider if he were to write now. In other words we need to engage with contemporary theories of political economy in the way marx did with the classical political economy in his period. Why contemporary theoreticians are so obsessed with homo economicus’ preferences and choices, what is the (one-sided yet still existing) ‘reality’ about the transaction costs? Of course individuals are embedded in social relations and that markets are historically contingent…etc. but this does not tell us anything about the strange and peculiar form those social relations took in contemporary capitalism. That is why we need to take more seriously competing theories, contradictory perceptions and thoughts, their corresponding practices in political economy. More to elaborate later, I have to leave now. but thank you for making Marx’s point of view so clear and also… I dare to say more interesting 🙂

  4. N Pepperell March 6, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Hey demet – rushing at the moment, but just wanted to say that this is excellent:

    1) one does not need to refer to marxism in order to talk about power relations and underlying structures’, those dimensions can be examined with other sociological approaches (interest group theories or more refined versions of institutionalism talking about relative bargaining power) 2) it is not problematised why the criticised approaches take as their starting point rational individuals, abstract market models in the first place

    …with the caveat that I believe Marx actually does problematise this sort of thing, although you’re right that it’s not the sort of central focus it might be, sitting as we are on this side of the “micro” turn of the 1970s – so for Marx it’s one position in the mix.

    I’ve been wanting, once the current manuscript is finally done, to do a series of essays that demonstrates what it might look like to apply the sorts of things I claim Marx was doing, to contemporary theories that, because they are more familiar to us, will also make it easier to see the underlying critical methodology being deployed in a work like Capital

    One other, slightly tangential, association from your comment: I have a very similar reaction to your point #1 above, but in relation to people making claims about what Capital was trying to do – e.g., claims that Capital was trying to expose the existence of class exploitation or similar narratives of what the work is about. My reaction is always along the lines of: good god, wouldn’t there be easier ways to show that there is class domination, than write a 1000-page book of this sort? Wouldn’t most of the other ways to establish this point also be clearer and more accessible? etc.

    If this is what Marx is trying to do, honestly, what a terrible way to do it! ;-p There are simpler ways to talk about power relations, exploitation, domination, etc. Which isn’t to say that the work doesn’t also talk about such things – just: the form, structure, and basic complexity of the work can’t be driven by that, since there are much simpler and clearer ways to achieve those goals. Which leaves us with the question of what all the complexity in the text is “for” – which is, I guess, a lot of what drives my reading…

    But more soon…

  5. demet March 6, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    Thanks, Nicole, for this. I was in an internet cafe while writing the post, so could not make my point clear enough. About my point (2) the contemporary Marxists political economists do NOT problematise such things, Marx definitely DOES, in his own period and he WOULD DO now as well. And yes, of course Marx enables us to talk about such things (structures, power, class) in complex ways (and I think Daniel Bensaid’s Marx for Our Times is the best work which grasps the complex and multiple determinations Marx sheds light on in capitalist society for an analysis of class, power…..etc. as well. My point is similar to yours: This still does not reveal the specificity of Marx says. I want to write more but have to finish smg. unfortunately, will continue later.

  6. Chuckie K March 10, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Just curious. Are you using Bertell Ollman here? The basic characterization rsembles very strongly the section on what he calls ‘vantage point’ in the chapter on abstraction in Marx’s method in his Dialectical Investigations (1993).

  7. N Pepperell March 10, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Hi Chuckie K – In a more formal presentation of this argument, I actually use this aspect of Ollman as a lead into some of my argument. For some strange reason, I read Ollman ridiculously late, in terms of my own process of thinking through this, so the parallels between us are more a process of convergent evolution, than because I was working from Ollman initially, but I like a great deal of what he says.

    I find less helpful Ollman’s attempt to articulate Marx’s work in terms of a philosophy of internal relations – although I understand how he comes by that interpretation. By focusing on unintentional aggregate consequences as one of the targets of Marx’s analysis, I’m reaching for something that can be a bit less metaphysical than the notion of internal relations. So I’m trying to argue that Marx draws attention to how specific sorts of practices can generate more than one sort of consequence – with some consequences easier to see than others, some consequences more direct than others, and some consequences occurring only if certain other things are happening simultaneously, to contribute to a specific aggregate effect. This kind of phenomenon can be thought without having to commit to a specific metaphysics that claims, e.g., that what a thing “is”, is the sum total of its relations, etc.

    If that makes any sense…

  8. N Pepperell March 10, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    I should also probably say that I suspect I see Marx’s “abstracts” as less… conceptual than Ollman? I focus heavily on what I think is a recurrent analysis of different sorts of performative stances enacted in small moments of everyday practice. Those performative stances often provide the sensibilities through which specific forms of “abstraction” are effected in actual practice – so that it’s capitalism itself that is slicing itself up into the various parts that play out in Marx’s text – or at least providing the experiential resources for that sort of disaggregation.

    Not that Ollman denies this, exactly, but something about how he describes Marx’s process of abstracting elements of capitalist production seems slightly off the mark to me, although I’ve not thought through it in detail…

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