Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Middlesex Philosophy

Updated 11 June – just to say that my ill-at-ease reaction to the partial resolution to the Middlesex situation has been posted in the comments over at Perverse Egalitarianism.

Just signal boosting the bizarre story most of you will have already seen on other theory blogs, about the inexplicable decision by Middlesex University to cut its Philosophy Department:

Earlier this afternoon all staff in the Arts and Education section of Middlesex University received the following email:

Dear colleagues,

Late on Monday 26 April, the Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities, Ed Esche, informed staff in Philosophy that the University executive had ‘accepted his recommendation’ to close all Philosophy programmes: undergraduate, postgraduate and MPhil/PhD.

Philosophy is the highest research-rated subject in the University. Building on its grade 5 rating in RAE2001, it was awarded a score of 2.8 on the new RAE scale in 2008, with 65% of its research activity judged ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. It is now widely recognised as one of the most important centres for the study of modern European philosophy anywhere in the English-speaking world. The MA programmes in Philosophy at Middlesex have grown in recent years to become the largest in the UK, with 42 new students admitted in September 2009.

The Dean explained that the decision to terminate recruitment and close the programmes was ‘simply financial’, and based on the fact that the University believes that it may be able to generate more revenue if it shifts its resources to other subjects – from ‘Band D’ to ‘Band C’ students.

As you may know, the University currently expects each academic unit to contribute 55% of its gross income to the central administration. As it stands (by the credit count method of calculation), Philosophy and Religious Studies contributes 53%, after the deduction of School admin costs. According to the figures for projected recruitment from admissions (with Philosophy undergraduate applications up 118% for 2010-11), if programmes had remained open, the contribution from Philosophy and Religious Studies would have risen to 59% (with Philosophy’s contribution, considered on its own, at 53%).

In a meeting with Philosophy staff, the Dean acknowledged the excellent research reputation of Philosophy at Middlesex, but said that it made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the University.

Needless to say, we very much regret this decision to terminate Philosophy, and its likely consequences for the School and our University and for the teaching of our subject in the UK.

· Professor Peter Hallward, Programme Leader for the MA programmes in Philosophy,
· Professor Peter Osborne, Director, Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy,
· Dr. Stella Sandford, Director of Programmes, Philosophy

Infinite Thought reposts (from Peter Hallward) a useful list of people to contact to contest this decision.

As you might expect we’re scrambling to put together a response, and to begin with we’re asking colleagues and friends to send a brief email or letter about the closure to the University administrators who have made this unexpected decision. If you have time to write such a message, please feel free to extract some points from a draft letter that is being sent to Times Higher Education, below.

The four people to write to are as follows:

Vice-Chancellor of the University, Michael Driscoll, m.driscoll@mdx.ac.uk;

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise, Waqar Ahmad, w.ahmad@mdx.ac.uk;

Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic, Margaret House, m.house@mdx.ac.uk;

Dean of the School of Arts & Education, Ed Esche, e.esche@mdx.ac.uk.

(The full set of emails is m.driscoll@mdx.ac.uk; w.ahmad@mdx.ac.uk; m.house@mdx.ac.uk; e.esche@mdx.ac.uk).

If you are able to send such an email, it would be helpful if you blind copied (BCC) it to our campaign email, savemdxphil@gmail.com.

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…

Elliptical Critique

Light posting for the moment, as it’s the beginning of our term here, and so things are quite hectic, but I wanted to pick up on one small point that had occurred to me in the course of responding to one of roger’s recent posts on Marx.

I’ve written quite a lot, at various times, on how I understand Capital to be putting forward a series of partial perspectives that are each looking on out specific aspects of an overarching process that is far more complex than any one of those perspectives is able to capture. This is a strategy that, I believe, weaves its way throughout the text, such that no particular moment gives us “the” critical standpoint of the text. This critical standpoint instead resides in the ability to move around amongst the available perspectives, constantly looking back over our shoulders at previous perspectives and seeing how the phenomena they described appear when viewed from a different standpoint.

One of the things revealed by this sort of fluid standpoint, I believe, is that the “same” social practices or social phenomena can carry multiple consequences – only some of which are easily visible from any particular point of view. In this context, categories like “capital” or the “commodity” – the categories often central to recent “new dialectical” interpretations of Marx – pick out what I have called “emergent effects”: these are categories that describe very complex patterns of aggregate social behaviour that are not caused by one type of social practice alone, or even by a few types of social practices operating together, but instead by the joint operation of a very wide array of social practices, none of which is immediately oriented to achieving such an aggregate effect.

Capital sets out to show – and this is its connection with Darwin’s work – how, in the absence of an overarching Designer or Plan, it is possible nevertheless for aggregate social practices to generate non-random results. To do this, it re-assembles the array of social practices Marx takes to be essential to achieving these peculiar aggregate social results, in order to show how the various bits of the array each generate some consequence that contributes to the peculiar overarching historical patterns Marx sets out to analyse.

One goal of the text, then, is to answer the question: how could a complex pattern of aggregate social behaviour come into being in the absence of a designer or a plan? And one could add: without this pattern arising from some essential characteristic of human nature, social life, or the material world? For Marx’s project differs from Darwin’s in that he is committed to showing the contingency of the patterns he describes.

This goal is important, but it is not the only goal governing Marx’s presentation in Capital. The text would be considerably simpler – but also much more one-sided – if the point were just to show how a particular sort of unintended consequence were generated if and only if a very specific array of social practices were operating in tandem.

Another important goal of the text is to explore all of the other consequences and implications of the social practices that – when they operate in tandem – generate emergent effects like “capital”. Because these other consequences and potentials are also dimensions of social experience for indigenous inhabitants of capitalist societies. Thus, when Capital unfurls the array of practices that must operate together to generate specific aggregate results, it also tarries over the more immediate consequences of each practice in the array, exploring the phenomenological experience of social actors who engage in that practice, often as this phenomenological experience shifts from moment to moment during the execution of the “same” practice, and also exploring the more immediate effects each practice generates for other social actors and for the material world.

These more immediate effects are often easier for social actors to discern – and might, in fact, be common to many periods of human history. What has changed for some practices is instead the more indirect effects these practices generate only because they are currently contributing to a complex system that is historically new. This distinction – between immediate effects that may be consciously intended or are at least easier for social actors to discern – and indirect aggregate effects that result from the simultaneous performance of many different kinds of social practices – is one of the reasons, in Marx’s account, that is it so difficult for social actors to grasp the ontological status of the phenomena observed by political economy.

Political economists don’t know “where to have” categories like “value”, because these categories express the emergent effects of many different practices – effects that are not intended, and that often do not resemble – or even “contradict” – the more immediate effects of the very same sorts of social practices that help generate this aggregate result. In this situation, the aggregate effects can come to seem like ontologically spooky results of capacities for self-organisation inherent in the material world, so long as humans keep out of the way. The contingent social basis for this “self”-organisation can come to seem mysterious and opaque. Marx believes that he can deflate this mystery – that he can demonstrate that political economy is being metaphysical in treating phenomena as “given” – by showing how aggregate effects can be produced by the combined operation of social practices whose immediate consequences may bear no resemblance to the aggregate phenomena they generate.

One side effect of this analysis is that it shows how the “same” social practices can generate “contradictory” consequences – depending on how far downstream the analysis follows the consequences that a specific social practice can generate. As Capital moves through various perspectives, what Marx is often exploring is what social tendencies look like, at the precise moment that social actors are engaging in specific forms of practice. Marx goes through dozens of forms of practice in this way – often breaking what we would casually regard as the “same” practice (like “using money”) down into sub-practices that involve very different sorts of actions and performative stances.

Then, quite brilliantly, he links up specific forms of political economic theory to the way the world looks, if you are using the perceptual and conceptual resources engendered by some specific form of practice. In this way, he establishes how, and to what extent, specific forms of political economic are “socially valid”: he shows that a specific theory expresses fairly well the forms of social experience that arise when people are, e.g., selling goods, or paying off debt, or earning interest. He then moves onto another practice, and shows that very different possibilities for social experience are opened up by that practice – and thus retroactively criticises earlier perspectives by showing that they capture only a very small part of the social experience available collectively to us.

In this way, political economic theories are revealed to be partial representations of some small dimension of social experience. They might be perfectly accurate as far as that small slice of experience is concerned, but they are guilty of over-extrapolation: they hypostatise that dimension of social experience and behave as though it operates in isolation, unchecked by the operation of any other practices. As a result, they arrive at a very poor sense of the dynamics and tendencies of capitalist production as a whole.

In Capital‘s third chapter, Marx steals from Hegel an interesting image for expressing a social “contradiction”:

We saw in a former chapter that the exchange of commodities implies contradictory and mutually exclusive conditions. The further development of the commodity does not abolish these contradictions, but rather provides the form within which they have room to move. This is, in general, the way in which real contradictions are resolved. For instance, it is a contradiction to depict one body as constantly falling towards another and at the time same constantly flying away from it. The ellipse is a form of motion within which this contradiction is both realized and resolved. (198)

In capitalism’s much more complex elliptical movement, poor forms of theory operate like someone who sees only one dimension of the ellipse, and doesn’t understand how that dimension is checked by other, contradictory tendencies. So they rightly see that one tendency is that two bodies are constantly falling toward one another, and they declare that the fundamental law of motion is that they shall crash! Or they rightly see that one tendency is that two bodies are constantly flying apart, and they declare that the fundamental law of motion is that they shall become ever more distant from one another! These perceptions aren’t products of poor reasoning, exactly – they are based on the genuine experience of their object. It’s just that they fail to grasp how complex that object is, in practice, and so they arrive at a much simpler, much more linear, understanding of how its dynamics will play out over time.

In roger’s recent series of posts, one recurrent touchstone has been how to understand passages where Marx seems to imply that money dissolves everything – that all relationships become fungible, all hierarchies dissolve, all solids melt into air. I would suggest that the way to understand such passages is as perspectives – perspectives that are partial, that are valid only contingently, and only in bounded ways. Marx ventriloquises such perspectives, showing how the laws of motion of capitalism appear from their standpoint – and he also tries to show what aspect of everyday, mundane practical social experience engenders the sensibilities that have been articulated theoretically into this form. But he does not use these passages to make fixed ontological claims – even historically contingent ones. He does not claim, e.g., that relationships “are” fungible – he claims that there is a dimension of social practice that if it were looked at in isolation from all other social practices would imply that this could be the case. The perspective that claims this, however, operates with a significant blind spot: it doesn’t acknowledge the effects of the many other social practices that stand in the way of realising this implicit “telos” of one small dimension of a complex whole.

At the same time, however, having a dimension of social practice – however small – that suggests the possibility to dissolve all social hierarchies: this is incendiary. Recurrent social experience – even if fleeting – with a dimension of social practice that suggests this sort of contingency has a potentially corrosive effect. The potential to transform hierarchies, to burst through barriers, is placed on the experiential table through countless mundane practices that are not in themselves transformative, but that can be articulated (as Marx does in the Communist Manifesto) to transformative ends. By themselves, these practical experiences point in no specific direction: capitalist “creative destruction” is as compatible with the notion that all barriers can fall, as is the mobilisation for a future egalitarian society – an explicitly political articulation and appropriation of this reservoir of collective experience is required. But the initial corrosive force – the introduction of a nagging possibility for transformation – first arises, in Marx’s account, in a very mundane way – as unintentional as the aggregate forms of social coercion that Capital also analyses.

Capital seeks to tease out these tacit potentials, as they arise in a wide array of everyday practices whose indirect consequence also happens to be the reproduction of capital. There is nothing in the practical constitution of these potentials that suggests that, left to their own devices, they would necessarily drive historical development in some specific direction: our practices generate accidental possibilities; something active is required – a new selective inheritance that cites different moments of our history – to break free of the elliptical movement that, at present, truncates the development of specific potentials, constraining them into a form compatible with the continued reproduction of the unintended whole.

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…

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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…

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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…

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.

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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.

The Fetish and the Commune

Marx makes significant edits to Capital between the first German edition in 1867 and the second in 1873 – edits that begin to be articulated in his revisions for the serialised French publication of Capital between 1872 and 1875. Revisions are particularly heavy in Capital‘s opening chapter – where the concept of the fetish character of the commodity is massively expanded and gains its own section. When interpreting the dramatic structure of the first chapter, as I’ve done on this blog off and on for the past few years, I’ve followed the text as it stands after the revisions of the second German edition. I would have done this even if I had regarded these revisions as fundamentally altering the meaning and structure of the first edition but, as it happens, there is textual evidence from the first edition that Marx understood the dramatic structure of that original edition to be very similar to what I find in the edition familiar to us: a text that enacts three different perspectives on the wealth of capitalist societies, and then destabilises even the final perspective by suggesting that it is still not fully adequate to express the characteristics of that wealth. In Marx’s words (using Hans Ehrbar’s extremely useful side-by-side German-English version of the first edition) these are the final sentences of the equivalent to our current opening chapter:

The commodity is immediate unity of use-value and exchange-value, i.e. of two opposite moments. It is, therefore, an immediate contradiction. This contradiction must develop as soon as the commodity is not, as it has been so far, analytically considered once under the angle of use-value, once under the angle of exchange-value [by which, in this edition, Marx means what will be called “value” from the second edition], but as soon as it is placed as a whole into an actual relation with other commodities. The actual relation of commodities with each other, however, is their exchange process [which is what Marx will explore in the following section]. (cf. Ehrbar 148)

So: three voices, the first two of which do not have the capacity to show how the contradictions in the commodity can be developed in practice – the third of which does potentially lead in a more promising direction, but not in the form in which it has been presented in this opening chapter. The revisions for the second edition, on my reading, bring out the distinctions between these voices more clearly – at which point Marx, in a typical move, excises the little bit of stage direction I have quoted above, ending the chapter instead on the Dogberry and Seacoal exchange that, in the first edition, takes place in the paragraph prior. The edits to the chapter – which include a much clearer terminological distinction between exchange-value and value, as well as the expansion of the discussion of the fetish character of the commodity – each seem, on my reading, ways of cashing out more clearly the claims of its original concluding sentence.

Particularly in Marxist Humanist readings of Capital, it is common to argue that the revisions to the first edition were provoked by Marx’s experience of the Paris Commune, which, it is suggested, for the first time give him a sense of the standpoint from which the fetish character of the commodity can be penetrated: the standpoint of freely-associated labourers.

Peter Hudis, for example (159-60), argues:

Remarkably, there is no section on commodity fetishism in the 1867 (first) edition of Volume 1 of Capital. It was only between 1872 and 1875, in revising Capital for the French edition, that Marx created a section entitled ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and Its Secret’. Marx introduced certain crucial changes to his discussion of commodity fetishism in the French edition, which he said ‘had a scientific value independent of the original’. One of the most important changes concerned his effort to answer the question of ‘whence arises this enigmatic character of the product of labour, once it assumes the form of a commodity’. It is only with the French edition that Marx answered this to his satisfaction, by stating, ‘Clearly from this form itself’. With this change, Marx makes it clear that what explains the fetish is the very form assumed by the product of labour, the very nature of the ‘peculiar social character of the labour’ which produces commodities. This new formulation, as well as the new section on commodity fetishism as a whole, explicitly posed the abolition of fetishism as centring on the abolition of value-producing labour.

What intervened between the first German edition in 1867 and the French edition of 1872-5 which explains Marx’s reworking of the section on commodity fetishism? The Paris Commune. The changes introduced in the French edition reflect its impact…

The activity of the Communards thereby allowed for a new leap in thought. Commodity fetishism cannot be penetrated by enlightened critique which assumes a privileged standpoint outside the value-form; nor can it be stripped away by pointing to a hidden essence obscured by the ‘illusion’ of fetishism. Instead, ‘The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surround the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes as soon as we come to other forms of production.’ The emergence of a new form of association pointing to the transcendence of the value-form in 1871 provided the vantage point for penetrating the secret of the fetish. Marx’s reworking of the section on commodity fetishism after the Paris Commune reveals the impact of the workers’ revolts on the creation of his central value-theoretic categories.

Hudis’ argument subtly displaces the form in which Marx presents his discussion of the free association of labourers. In Marx’s text, the sentence on how the mystery of commodities vanishes when we confront other forms of production, does not immediately lead into the discussion of freely-associated labourers. Instead, that passage describes the hypothetical Robinson on his island, then moves to a discussion of medieval serfdom, then to a discussion of labour in common within a patriarchal household – and only then to a discussion of freely associated labourers. Moreover, when this more emancipatory example is introduced, the text makes clear that the point is not specifically to put forward a model for future social development, but rather to come up with an example that closely parallels the component aspects of commodity production that have been put forward earlier in this chapter. By omitting all of the other examples Marx considers, and juxtaposing the example of freely-associated labour directly with Marx’s claim to reveal the “magic and necromancy” that surrounds commodities, Hudis makes it sound as though the discovery of the possibility for freely-associated labour is what allows Marx to penetrate the mystery of the commodity form.

Hudis seems unaware that the first edition of Capital – published in 1867, prior to the Commune – already includes the passage on freely-associated labourers (cf. Ehrbar 2009: 120-22). It immediately follows a discussion of Robinson on his island. In other words, the first edition of Capital already contains the nucleus of the passage Hudis presents as new to the French edition – and that nucleus already contains the central insight Hudis argues is pivotal to Marx’s post-Commune critique of the fetish.

What is new with the later edition is that the two earlier examples – Robinson on his island, and freely-associated labour – are now joined by two further, historical examples. What Marx changes, in other words, is a passage from the original edition that included only hypothetical examples: he beefs up the passage by adding a couple of real-world examples from actual historical cases. The nature of this change suggests that Marx might have been worried that, without real-world examples, it would seem utopian to suggest that the fetish-character of the commodity was not in some sense inherent. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but the logic of this revision does not suggest that, when he speaks of an association of free labourers in this context, he has the very real-world example of the Commune in mind. This point should not be too surprising, however, given that the text expressly says that this more emancipatory example has been chosen for the parallels it offers to commodity production, rather than as a recommended model for future social development.

I have written elsewhere on the function these examples serve within the architechtonic of Marx’s argument: they allow him to demonstrate that you can take some of the same component practices that – in their present configuration – help to reproduce capital, and reconfigure them into new forms in which they can be shown no longer to generate this unintentional aggregate result. If I am right about what Marx is trying to show, revising the passage to add historical examples would make sense: otherwise it could appear that Marx is unable to show – other than by ungrounded hypotheticals – that it should be possible to transform social relations in such a way that the fetish character would no longer exist. For this purpose, Robinson on his island – or a hypothetical future society of freely associated labourers – are useful thought experiments, but could leave a nagging doubt about the practical reality of Marx’s claims. The historical examples thus bolster the argument by identifying actual examples of social relations that, while by no means ideal, nevertheless help illustrate that the fetish character of social relations is not an inevitable result of material production – or even of class domination. This strategic goal, I suggest, drives these particular revisions.

Essence, Appearance and Elster

Since I’m writing on Elster… another bit that caught my eye in passing…

Elster (1985:124-25) understands that Hegel is being name-checked when Marx appeals to notions of essence and appearance in discussing the relation of value and price. Because, however, Elster assumes Marx is attempting to explain movements of price via his theory of value, he accuses Marx of missing Hegel’s point:

Marx frequently referred to a distinction between ‘Wesen’ and ‘Erscheinung’, essence and appearance, in economic life. I shall not go deeply into the darkly Hegelian origin of these notions, except to suggest that in his best-known application of them Marx may have misunderstood Hegel quite radically.

The appearance, that which appears, allows for two different antonyms. First, it may be contrasted with what is hidden, and accessible only by the mediation of thought. In this sense one may say that behind the appearance of a table is the atomic structure that forms its essence. This, broadly speaking, is how Marx conceived the relation between labour values and prices. The former are of a different and more fundamental ontological order than the latter, which, however, are the only ones that appear to the economic agents. Prices are on the surface of things, in the double sense of being immediately observable and of being explicable in terms of a deeper and more fundamental structure. Secondly, one may focus on the local character of the appearance – since what appears always appears to a person occupying a particular standpoint and observing the phenomena from a particular perspective. Hence any given appearance may be contrasted with the global network of appearances that is not tied to any particular standpoint. As far as I understand Hegel’s theory of essence and appearance, the second interpretation is the correct one. It says that the essence is the totality of interrelated appearances, not something that is ‘behind’ them and of a different ontological order.

Needless to say, I believe that it is precisely this second sort of analysis that Marx puts forward. Elster overlooks this possibility because he is misled by the peculiar presentational strategy that leads Marx first to speak in the voices of positions he intends to criticise, only in order to destabilise and relativise those voices as the argument moves on. Marx deviates from Hegel, not in wanting to view essence as persisting in some different ontological dimension than appearance – this is what he criticises political economy for doing, when he asks why it has never pursued the question of why a specific content appears in a specific form. He differs from Hegel in wanting to mobilise this sort of framework to make more visible the potential to disaggregate the parts that contingently generate a particular set of unintentional aggregate consequences like value.

Ironically, a few pages after the quotation above, Elster cites later passages in Capital – by which point, of course, the text has gathered the resources to be more explicit about its method – to suggest that Marx sometimes adopts a better understanding of the essence/appearance distinction – at which point Elster (126-27) argues:

We are dealing here [in the discussion of the wage form] with a generalized form of fetishism, that is structurally induced illusions about how the economy works. One might be tempted to conclude that the proper place for the essence-appearance distinction is not in economic theory proper, but in the sociology of economic thought…

One might indeed. Perhaps, in fact, one should. By not recognising the reflexive, iterative character of the text, Elster misses a great opportunity to realise how the essence-appearance distinction always already operates – even in the earlier sections where Marx has not yet tipped his hand and is still ventriloquising idealist metaphysical presentations in the main body of his text.

Notes on Elster’s Game-Theoretic Concept of Emergence

Roger’s comments below on Jon Elster’s methodological individualism reminded me that I should stash somewhere (like here) a few fragmentary notes on Elster’s recognition that Marx is making an argument about emergent phenomena – and the way in which Elster’s sense of how this sort of argument operates, differs from mine.

In Making Sense of Marx (1985), Elster draws repeated attention to how Marx focuses on the unintentional aggregate consequences of individual actions. He emphasises how Marx’s work is related to theories that understand human history as the result of human behaviour, but not of intentional human action (3-4), speaks of Marx’s “striking analyses of the way in which micro-motives are aggregated into macro-behaviour” (4), describes the importance of “supra-intentional causality” (22) and “counter-finality” (24-27) for Marx’s argument, etc.

Although my vocabulary is different, I draw attention to similar aspects of Marx’s argument. Yet Elster’s methodological conclusion – that methodological individualism provides the best means to grasp such phenomena – is not one that I myself would draw. What causes this difference?

A good portion of the difference, I suspect, lies in the different sorts of emergent phenomena Elster and I believe Marx is trying to explain. Elster focuses on Marx’s analysis of what Elster (48) calls “fallacies of composition” – passages in which Marx talks about how particular practices would be beneficial for individuals if they were the only ones carrying out those practices, but generate unintentional collective consequences that are very negative when many individuals carry out the same practice. So, for example, Elster (46-48) draws attention to how, for each individual capitalist, it seems like a good idea to lower the wages of their workers, because this increases profits. When every capitalist does this, however, it lowers the amount workers – in their alternative social role as consumers – can spend, and thus reacts back negatively on the capitalist class as a whole.

When Elster talks about unintentional aggregate consequences, this is the sort of phenomenon he has in mind. And Marx certainly does, here and there, offer analyses of this sort of phenomenon. If I thought this were the main thing Marx was trying to explain, I might agree that game-theoretic or methodologically individualistic tools might give us a decent first approximation of the phenomenon.

What Elster overlooks, I would suggest, is that the emergent phenomena that interest Marx are vastly more complex than these sorts of bad individual calls in the collective competitive game. Marx is attempting to explain aggregate patterns of social behaviour that manifest themselves in complex patterns of transformation of social institutions in capitalist societies – examining, for example, the recurrent dynamic of the expulsion and reabsorption of human labour that defines capitalist production as pivoting around the expenditure of human labour power in a much more direct way than would appear necessary, given the levels of automation possible in capitalist production.

These sorts of phenomena, I suggest, do not arise due to bad judgement calls in some specific strategic field of intentional action. They arise instead from how apparently unrelated sorts of social practices, which seem to social actors to be unfolding in very different strategic fields of social practice, operate in tandem to generate cascades of unintentional effects whose multifaceted and indirect causes make it extremely difficult for social actors to sort out how their actions could possibly be responsible for the aggregate result. As a consequence, the aggregate result is discovered playing itself out in the realm of material reproduction and, because it has no obvious social cause, is plausibly interpreted as arising due to some inherent principle for spontaneous self-organisation in the material world. This is how Marx’s argument about the fetish links up with his argument about unintentional aggregate consequences of social action – a connection Elster does not seem able to make, hence his dismissal of the bulk of the fetish argument.

I don’t have time to develop or properly substantiate these points here, so, for what it’s worth, fragmentary notes for a future argument…

Measuring the Social

A quick archival post before the weekend steals me away from the blog for a bit – from the opening chapter of the first edition of Capital, as per Hans Ehrbar’s translation (106):

The measuring stick for “being social” must be borrowed from the nature of the relations peculiar to each mode of production, not from imaginations alien to it.

Accidental History

I’ve claimed below that Marx is being ironic – or, perhaps more accurately, satirical or burlesque – when he displays forms of analysis that suggest an idealist dialectic playing out in history. One of the reasons I make this claim is that dialectical gestures of this sort are very regularly followed in Capital by an alternative story of historical development – one that emphasises the accidental and contingent character of the history that has led to us, a history which Marx very much does not conceive as the realisation of an immanent telos of historical development. This sort of gesture – a dialectical derivation quickly followed by a contingent historical account – features prominently in Capital‘s opening chapter, in the way in which the dialectical derivations in the third part of that chapter are followed up in the section on the fetish character of the commodity. On a much grander scale, the architechtonic of Capital as a whole pivots on this sort of gesture: the section on original accumulation comes after the more dialectical presentation of the earlier chapters, underscoring the extent to which the history that has led to our present cannot be regarded as a dialectical unfolding of an immanent potential.

In terms of the chapter I have been discussing in this series of posts – the second chapter of Capital: after the brief dialectical demonstration I outlined below, the text returns again to the combined images of the object that, because it is external, can be owned, and the reciprocal social contract relations enacted between the owners of such external objects:

Things are in themselves external to man, and therefore alienable. In order that this alienation [Veräusserung] may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men to agree tacitly to treat each other as the private owners of those alienable things, and, precisely for that reason, as persons who are independent of each other. (182)

As phrased, this passage seems to suggest that private property and social contract relations are somehow grounded in the inherent properties that objects possess “in themselves” – as though the legal relations have a “natural” basis. The text is enacting here the sort of legal apotheosis already held up for criticism at the beginning of the chapter. In case the reader has forgotten, the text immediately underscores the historical specificity of these forms of “natural” law:

But this relationship of reciprocal isolation and foreignness does not exist for the members of a primitive community of natural origin, whether it takes the form of a patriarchal family, an ancient Indian commune or an Inca state. (182)

At this point, the text runs through another historical account – this time much more contingent and tentative than the dialectical history presented on the previous page. This second historical account of the origins of money does not position money as a teleological achievement, driven by an immanent potential that must realise itself historically. Instead, it analyses forms of social practice that arise contingently, for contextually-meaningful reasons, and acknowledges the uncertain historical developments that eventually gave rise to aspects of our own history. It begins by suggesting that the exchange of commodities might initially have begun with other communities, when goods were produced in excess of subsistence needs at home. This contextually-meaningful historical innovation was then available for creative appropriation – as one of the historically available raw materials social actors did not choose, but out of which they could build their future histories. Once exchange was available as a practice, accidental exchanges and trades could gradually become more common and expected – enabling the innovation of production specifically for exchange, rather than the exchange of accidental surpluses (182). As exchanges grew in frequency and speed, money also develops – not at the end of a dialectical process that realises the immanent nature of the commodity, but as part and parcel of the contingent growth of exchange itself:

The need for this form [an independent value-form] first develops with the increase in the number and variety of the commodities entering into the process of exchange. The problem and its solution arise simultaneously. Commercial intercourse, in which the owners of commodities exchange and compare their articles with various other articles, never takes place unless different kinds of commodities belonging to different owners are exchanged for, and equated as values with, one single further kind of commodity. This further commodity, by becoming the equivalent of various other commodities, directly acquires the form of a universal or social equivalent, if only within narrow limits. The universal equivalent form comes and goes with the momentary social contacts which call it into existence. It is transiently attached to this or that commodity in alternation. But with the development of exchange it fixes itself firmly and exclusively onto particular kinds of commodity, i.e., it crystallizes out into the money form. (182-83)

This analysis portrays a contingent and fragile historical development, rather than any necessary dialectical unfolding. Such contingent stories help us make sense of our present situation came about. But this story should not be told as though past historical moments somehow realised their own necessary telos in contemporary history. Instead, we look back at the past with eyes focused by our own experiences, validly curious how we came to be. Our questions and concerns can help us understand our own becoming – but this ability to reconstruct the accidental historical shifts that led to our present does not mean that we are in any sense the culmination of the only, the best – or even the worst – potentials generated by past societies.