Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Hacking History

Just a quick thought, drawing on some of the elements from a conversation happening over at roger’s site.

In the post below, I mentioned that one of the parallels that could be drawn between Darwin’s work, and Marx’s, was that both are concerned to explain how a nonrandom result – a pattern of historical change – might take place without a conscious designer. Another parallel is the notion that adaptation takes place through the gradual modification of existing structures – biological structures, for Darwin; social structures, for Marx. Marx’s understanding of historical development has often been misinterpreted as teleological, as though later periods of history realise some sort of immanent essence of earlier ones. Darwin’s theory has often been similarly misinterpreted. But the point, in both cases, is much more prosaic: things that exist now – biological or social – have arisen from the gradual modification of things that existed in the past. A relation therefore connects the present to the past – not because the past necessarily drove history in some particular developmental direction, but because the present was formed from the reconfiguration of materials that existed in the past.

“God is a hacker, not an engineer”, Francis Crick is reported to have said: evolution, in other words, does not operate according to conscious intention or predetermined plan, but opportunistically, blindly seizing situational potentials for transformation. For Marx, history has been a hacker as well: our present time has emerged from a similar sort of gradual, unintentional modification of the detritus of earlier societies.

Marx poses the possibility of a new driving force of historical change – one consciously, collectively chosen. But even this possibility is situated historically – Marx’s argument is not that, unlike all preceding historical periods, our time should be the first to defy the notion of adaptation through modification. Instead, Marx carefully analyses the potentials immanent within our history, allowing him to present communism as another historical adaptation that operates by reconfiguring materials that lie ready to hand. At the same time, and more profoundly, Marx presents the possibility for the sort of conscious politics of social development on an aggregate scale as itself one of the historical adaptations that has been generated unintentionally, through a prior process of blind gradual modification operating on earlier social structures. In this case, the blind historical process, stumbling along its accidental path, has speciated a new kind of potential driving force for historical change: a possibility to recognise and consciously participate in what, up until this point, has been an unconscious process.

Very little time at the moment, so the phrasing here is probably not ideal – it’s so easy to hear either teleology or voluntarism in these kinds of discussions, and so I’m not sure the way I’ve presented this quite captures what I’m trying to convey… But more at a quieter time…

16 responses to “Hacking History

  1. Nate March 25, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    hi NP,

    Great stuff as usual, wish I had more time and brains available to dedicate to this! I have a vague recollection of some passage, it’s either Marx or Althusser, about how the primacy of the economic is not a feature of all human history but of certain epochs, I think perhaps it talked about religion being important in other epochs, does ring any bells…? That’s what I thought of first w/ this post.

    Second thing I thought of, you’ve written a lot about the many different things going on in Marx, different narrative arcs in Capital v1 etc. It seems to me that the register of Marx you’re talking about here is one of the biggest/most all encompassing. I wonder how that relates to other narrower registers. I say this in part because it’s hard to see actors with deliberate intentions that matter much at the scope you’re talking about here (not a criticism). I wonder how all this lines up at registers/temporal scopes in which actors are easier to see actors and intentions as more relevant? Sorry so vague, I can’t do better just now.

    take care,

  2. N Pepperell March 31, 2010 at 7:12 am

    Hey Nate – sorry it’s take me so long to respond – I’ve had a bad cold and a very heavy work schedule, and the combination hasn’t left me with much thought to spare at the end of the day…

    The closest thing I know to what you’ve mentioned, in Marx, is a couple of passages that speak about the reality of religion for the social actors in the periods when religious beliefs of specific sorts are in the ascendant, and that refer to religion as a material force. Personally, I think the implication of a great deal more of Marx’s argument is that “the economic” is a specifically modern phenomenon in the sense in which we mean the term now, but this is one of the things I think Marx holds onto only very inconsistently – in practice, he’s a theorist who explores the anthropological characteristics of human practices in a very broad sense; in explicit metatheoretical comments, however, Marx often speaks as though practices associated in some way with material reproduction ought to be primary – a metatheoretical position that is not what he cashes out in his actual theory…

    In terms of the other issue, of how this register relates to all the others: this sort of question is hard to answer in the abstract, I think. On the one hand, I think a major purpose of Capital is to point out that it’s possible to analyse the consequences of our practices at more than one point “downstream” from those practices themselves: so every practice has a series of more or less clear, direct consequences, but also has a series of indirect consequences that arise from how those practices operate in tandem with others. Some of these indirect consequences – like enacting a specific form of human equality, or generating a “social” sphere – Marx treats as very important, if accidental, historical achievements that provide a practical basis for really important political insights, like the insight that it is possible to act, politically, to try to institutionalise human equality in other ways, or to begin to treat certain forms of knowledge and productive capacity as common “social” resources, rather than as intrinsic possessions of any specific group of people. So on that level, at least, Marx seems to suggest that there’s an interaction between downstream, indirect consequences of practice, and things we can consciously, politically do.

    The “descent with modification” conception of how history operates is a historical extrapolation, I think, from a process that Marx sees operating much more overtly in our present time, when we are constantly – and reasonably consciously, deliberately (as in the flurry of activity that went on in the wake of the most recent financial crisis) – deliberately setting out to transform current institutions by adapting them to meet new situations. So I think Marx believes there are features of the current time that suggest this metaphor for historical development, because the metaphor is more obviously “true” for us – I don’t think he believes something more extraordinary is required for emancipatory transformation than what we already do, in the massive upheavals of financial institutions, forms of production, changes of government, etc., that are already clearly visible now. I think he believes that these transformative energies, however, while we see them in an everyday sense, are nevertheless being truncated for various reasons – he’s trying to understand that truncation: why, when everything solid is melting into air, do things continuously re-solidify in ways that preserve specific aspects of our collective lives, while demonstrating a capacity to modify almost everything else?

    So the relationship between accident, intentionality (as, in part, the conscious seizure of the implications of accident), and the truncation of intentionality (as, in part, failure to grasp how much of our present is, in fact, a contingent accidental product) becomes very complicated in his work…

    If that makes sense…

  3. roger April 7, 2010 at 3:26 am

    Nicole, I just turned in my ms. of this Marx book. I’m thinking of dedicating this book to you. Would you mind? Shall I send you the ms? Which is very very small!

  4. N Pepperell April 7, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Hey roger – congratulations!!! I’d love to see the manuscript, and would be honoured at the dedication (but are you sure you want to do that? 🙂 )

    I’ve been working on a manuscript as well, so our exchanges have been very useful to me – I’m hoping to finish everything up this month (finally finally – been living with this thing for too long now, so it will be good to send it out into the world)…

  5. roger April 7, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Of course, Nicole! I’m gonna send you the text tonight. It won’t be very surprising, I think, although I had to ruthlessly cut stuff to get it to fit the word count they want.

  6. N Pepperell April 7, 2010 at 11:26 am

    Yeah, I’m worrying about word count as well, although I’m not being hugely ruthless with myself at this point – it still needs to get through review, etc., so I figure I’ll streamline when responding to that… Trying not to think too much about what that will entail at the moment… 😉

  7. roger April 7, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Well, yours is a real book length book.
    They might let me increase my word count before it is alll done. At the moment, I’m just glad it is done!

  8. N Pepperell April 7, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Yeah – we’ll see how much length I’m allowed to keep 🙂 It keeps going up and down as I edit, and the actual argument has very little fat in it at this point – I would dread having to cut from the substantive discussion… I’m unsure, though, how much of the apparatus would be regarded as excessive – I’ve tended to push a lot of my commentary on specific kinds of Marxism down into the notes, so that, if a reader isn’t interested, they don’t have to read it. I think it’s helpful to have it there, though, for readers who are trying to understand how the argument relates to other interpretations… But it might ultimately have to go…

    I’m also slightly worried about how much of the original texts I’ve quoted: I think it’s extremely helpful to do this, since only a comparatively small number of people have an intimate sense of what the words actually are, but it’s… a lot of quotation…

    But the focus at the moment is on getting it done as I’d like it done – what happens from there… well, there’s always the possibility of putting a “director’s cut” on the blog… ;-P

  9. demet April 7, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    as a person who wrote your initial draft twice sentence by sentence, I should say that you do not need to worry about quotations. You have an extremely well flowing narrative and you will be one of the most distinctive voices in the 21st century marxism…even though I expect the positive reception might be somehow belated due to the well established conservative positions. But you ll get there 🙂

  10. demet April 7, 2010 at 11:12 pm


    of course I meant as a person who ‘read’ your draft not wrote 🙂
    Probably this was my wishful thinking 🙂 or extreme mental fatigue… Apologies!

  11. roger April 8, 2010 at 2:20 am

    I second demet. My predictions is that in the future, we will all be Pepperellians!

  12. N Pepperell April 8, 2010 at 8:31 am

    lol – thank you guys – I’m in this endless citation trudge at the moment, so it’s good to think about a point people will just be able to read the thing… At the moment, my experience of my own text has become very pointillised, since I’m looking at it bit by bit by bit… But there is an overarching narrative there still, I’m sure of it! 🙂

    demet – The flow is actually much much better this time around, I think. It’s got the same basic structure, but communicates better (I hope…) the phenomenological experience of going through the text – and therefore of thinking about the social world in Marx’s peculiar way… But we’ll see…

  13. Benoît April 20, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    Severely off-topic, but I was wondering if you’d be interested in a project I’m aiming at a number of the blog authors in the continental philosophy blogosphere. Specifically, I’m interested in developing a mailing list that would act as a “back channel” for discussion across a range of minds, the virtue of which is on-going, long-form discussion that bridges the gap between blog comments sections and email. If this interests you, let me know at what[dot]is[dot]ground[at]gmail[dot]com.

  14. N Pepperell April 20, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Hi Benoît – I’ve let the comment through in case others are interested (and so you don’t get caught in moderation if you would like to comment here again).

    For me, though, blogging is really more about the process of making work public – draftwork specifically – and attempting to develop the sorts of ongoing, long-form discussion you mention, but in this public space, where the discussion is able to show the things that normally get tucked away in backchannels – and that therefore many people never get to see… Although I do have some extended backchannel interactions with friends, the blog is better suited than backchannels (which are intrinsically a more enclosed and private space) to developing contacts with a range of minds… But these are personal preferences – people use media differently… I hope you’re successful with what you’re seeking to create…

  15. demet July 3, 2010 at 8:47 am

    Hi Nicole,

    I am reading very intensively evolutionary biology (mainly S. J. Gould) nowadays, which brought me back to one of the points you make in this post.

    You say:

    ‘Marx presents the possibility for the sort of conscious politics of social development on an aggregate scale as itself one of the historical adaptations that has been generated unintentionally, through a prior process of blind gradual modification operating on earlier social structures. In this case, the blind historical process, stumbling along its accidental path, has speciated a new kind of potential driving force for historical change: a possibility to recognise and consciously participate in what, up until this point, has been an unconscious process.’

    Familiar with your work, I do get your main point but firstly, do you mean that it is capitalism itself, unlike earlier systems, which created this potential to consciously enact historical change?

    I do know you do not want to sound ‘voluntarist’ as you say later. So can I interpret what you say in the following way? Today, it is possible to reconfigure the existing components of capitalist society. But still such reconfiguration itself may still be unsuccessful, given that one can not fully calculate what the relation between different components (for example, structural coupling, to use larval subjects’ vocabulary) will generate eventually. There is the possibility perhaps of, to refer to one of your old posts, Minerva’s owl ‘flying before the dusk’ in a way to see which strategies are more likely to generate a new set of relations but this is not guaranteed.

    Anyway, I was meant to ask to open up a little bit what you say in the last part of the post. Of course, only when you recover from your illness.

    Best. Demet.

  16. N Pepperell July 5, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Hey Demet – I’m feeling much much better – just labouring at the moment under end-of-term backlog…

    In terms of the issue of capitalism and the potential for conscious historical change, I think there are several distinct issues operating in the background for Marx. One is his obsession with differentia specifica – which would lead him, I think, to argue that capitalism will generate distinctive kinds of potential for agency/historical change, and that these qualitatively specific forms of agency wouldn’t have been as likely in other times.

    This will be associated with at least a tacit critique of approaches that simply apply contemporary intuitive concepts of agency back into other historical periods – so our comparatively intuitive application of “theatrical” metaphors to social life, where we might speak about social “roles” or an economic “stage”, Marx thinks are concepts that are intuitive to us for very specific reasons, due to the everyday ways in which our everyday experiences operate to constitute specific aspects of social experience in this distinctive “theatrical” form, such that we participate in certain kinds of social practices in a way that enacts our own behaviours as somehow being external to “us” (and, conversely, enact other parts of ourselves as somehow being more “intrinsically us” than other aspects of our practice).

    The aspects of our “selves” that we enact as contingent and external – performances, for example, that require the possession of special sorts of material objects, or specific quantities of those objects, and performances that we regularly inhabit only briefly, in a steady succession of performance with other actors – are socially enacted as artificial. From Marx’s own perspective, these enactments are no more artificial than any other sorts of social practices – but, due to the way they are enacted, this artificiality (this contingency and contestability) is much closer to the surface. These aspects of social experience that are enacted as artificial (in Marx’s account, this category aligns closely with a lot of the practices specifically associated with circulation), makes these dimensions of social life more socially available to political contestation – hence all the critiques, e.g., of money or of distribution – critiques against which Marx often polemicises, not because he objects to changing the distribution of wealth, but because he thinks these critiques are symptomatically chanelling distinctions that are integral to the social system that needs to be transformed. If we perpetually attack forms of distribution – and only forms of distribution – then we end up, as I mentioned in the discussion at your blog – hitting the sack, rather than the donkey… 😉 We end up attacking what Marx regards as a symptom, rather than a cause.

    It is possible, however, to appropriate the insights from our own collective practices – for example, the insight that at least some sorts of social roles can be external to the people who occupy those roles, and at least some sorts of social practices can be contingent and contestable. And, having appropriated these insights from our own collective practice, we can start pushing on the boundaries of what our current practice shows – by investigating, for example, whether other sorts of social roles, including those that are enacted as more “intrinsic” to the person, or hard-wired into the body, might also be contingent and contestable. This implication of Marx’s analysis is a bit clearer, for example, in the passage on hunger from the Grundrisse, when Marx identifies what is clearly a “material” process – getting hungry, needing to eat – but then makes clear that the “materiality” of the basic process doesn’t contradict the idea that the process is nevertheless utterly socially “constructed”:

    Firstly, the object is not an object in general, but a specific object which must be consumed in a specific manner, to be mediated in its turn by production itself. Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth.

    Our experience of our “physiology”, of what we embody as the pre-social, physical component of ourselves, is also thoroughly social, for Marx. Where aspects of capitalism make it relatively easy for us to denaturalise and contest certain elements of social experience – and therefore exercise transformative agency on those elements – other aspects of capitalism make it relatively more difficult for us to perceive the contingent and contestable character of other dimensions of our social experience, and therefore impede political contestation in those areas.

    This distinctive combination of denaturalisation and naturalisation defines the differentia specifica of socially likely forms of agency under capitalism – and marks these forms out as different from the socially likely forms of agency that might have been commonly asserted in other historical periods.

    Socially likely forms of agency, however, are not a set fate: we aren’t condemned to exercise only the most likely, most strikingly obvious, forms of agency available to us. Social experience is multi-faceted. There are eddies of our everyday lives that suggest the possibility for much more dramatic forms of contestation. Marx tries to mine these in Capital, showing how much more comprehensively we could mine the practical possibilities we are generating, to construct different forms of collective life. These eddies, however, are also not a set fate: there is no trend toward inevitable emancipation. These is just practical experience – complex, diverse, multi-dimensional – which provides us with certain possibilities that we can appropriate (and where the possibility for such an appropriation is itself suggested in elements of our practical experience as well – what Marx is attempting to do is to radicalise and extend those practical suggestions into a more systematic technique for working out the possibilities for the future development of society).

    While a lot of the argument, I think, is based on this kind of “hunger is hunger” argument – so, capitalism generates specific kinds of potentials for agency, but this shouldn’t be taken to imply that other forms of society offer “less” agency – only agency of qualitatively different kinds – still, there are dimensions of the argument that do have a kind of “quantitative” dimension for Marx, I believe. Capitalism generates genuinely unprecedented potentials for increasing material wealth, for Marx – and these potentials mean that certain kinds of political goals that would have been utopian in other periods, become realistic now. It might have been possible to have an egalitarian society in past periods, but Marx seems to view this past potential as an egalitarianism of penury. At the same time, capitalism generates (accidentally, and as a tendency always countered by other, contrary tendencies, so long as capitalist production is reproduced) the possibility for a form of material production whose primary motive force is not human labour. Both of these things, for Marx, make possible forms of human freedom that were not available in previous historical periods – except for a very limited, privileged, exceptionalised class.

    On the “owl of Minerva” problem: I think Marx believes that the owl is already flying for at least some of the sorts of transformations he advocates: he thinks we are already showing ourselves, at least in limited dimensions of collective practice, that specific sorts of transformations are possible. It is because we are showing ourselves these possibilities, he believes, that the associated political ideals are potentially intuitive on a mass scale. (That something is practically intuitable, for Marx, doesn’t of course mean that it’s easy to articulate that intuition, or that anyone would be able to do it – his discussion of the difficulty with which Adam Smith finally articulated the notion of “labour as such” gets across, I think, how Marx thinks of such things.)

    At the same time, once we start making changes, we will generate a new practical environment – and therefore we will generate new sorts of people, who will have their own desires and possibilities that we may not be able to anticipate. Marx’s consistency on this issue – the belief that subjects are the subjects of their own practical activities and experiences, such that a change of practice is also a change of self – is why he is famously hostile to developing “recipes for the cook-shops of the future”: we can pursue the practical possibilities that are familiar to us, reaching for the ideals that are intuitive to us – but this is not the same as positing some sort of completed model of an end-point to social development, since we can’t know what new and unanticipated possibilities and desires our actions will open up for our heirs.

    In this sense, Marx’s concept of emancipation is Benjaminian – we have envy only for the air we have already breathed. What our children and their children will envy, we cannot reliably know. We can, however, develop the practical possibilities and potentials we are currently generating, which Minerva’s owl permits us to see because these possibilities are already in the world, tangible, available to practical experience – even if in a stunted and partial form, as constrained by other dimensions of our own social practice.

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