Rough Theory

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Category Archives: Abstraction

Thesis Workshop: Hic Rhodus, Hic Salta

Now that we’ve finally escaped chapter 3 of Capital, a quick breeze through chapters 4 and 5, focussing on the imagery in chapter 4 of capital-as-Geist, and then on the impasse Marx sets up in chapter 5, as a wedge through which he will drive the category of labour-power in the following chapter.

Chapter 4 contains one of the more overt references to Hegel’s Phenomenology in the text – a number of commentators have noticed the parallel being drawn there between capital and the Geist. There is a certain tendency, however, to beat up on the authors who notice this gesture, as though these authors are attributing to Marx the position that capital is actually the Geist – an autonomous, self-grounding process that has achieved independence from human agency. I’m not convinced this is a fair reading of other commentators who have noticed this same reference in the text. Regardless, in my discussion of this issue below, I position this gesture into the context of Marx’s critique of Hegel: Marx is not saying that capital is the Geist – he’s saying that the process of the production of capital includes within itself a perspective that makes that process appear to possess certain qualitative attributes that Hegel attributes to the Geist. This is the same move Marx makes when criticising any competing form of thought: critique for Marx involves a process of demonstrating why a competing position is plausible – a demonstration that, for Marx, takes the form of showing what aspect of practical experience could plausibly be interpreted in the form being criticised – and then, having done that, showing all the other things that competing position can’t grasp, because it gives too much ontological weight to one small aspect of a much larger phenomenon. If the reader were in any doubt as to whether Marx thinks capital just might be a god-process after all, this passage of text is filled with Marx’s signature destabilising gestures that – more clearly in this section than in many other passages in Capital mock the perspective being presented overtly in the text. All this and more below…

Chapter 5 presents a nice deconstructive analysis of an aporia within commodity circulation – a process that both presupposes the creation of surplus-value, and yet offers no perspective from which this creation can be grasped as anything other than a mysterious, occult phenomenon. This analysis sets up for Marx to offer a preliminary practice-theoretic account of this phenomenon, beginning in the following chapter.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]
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Thesis Workshop: Crossed Circuits

After this chapter, readers will finally be able to make their escape from the deconstructive thicket that is the third chapter of Capital. Before we part ways with this chapter, though, Marx engages in some extremely clever moves to begin to open a wedge through which he will finally drive the category of capital in the following chapter. Here he begins to make the case that commodity circulation allows – and, in some cases, necessitates – exchanges that are not driven by the need to meet material needs, but rather by the need to make money. This may sound like an obvious point, but Marx needs to make it in a way that makes clear that this is not a possibility that arises extrinsically to commodity production, as some sort of corruption of a more fundamental process, but rather is implied by the very nature of the process itself. This chapter is also, by the way, where I most directly treat the issue of crisis – a topic I can approach only in an extremely preliminary way in the thesis, since I am focussing only on the opening chapters of Capital

So one last dance with chapter 3 – and then we get to meet the Geist!

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]
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Thesis Workshop: Forms of Motion

Another thesis chapter in the series that focusses on Capital‘s third chapter. This chapter spends quite a lot of time using the new material Marx is providing to take a much closer look at the opening categories of value and abstract labour. It also explores the implications of some brief comments Marx makes about “real contradictions”. These comments are methodologically quite important: they indicate that, when Marx unfolds – as he continues to do throughout Capital – new forms whose implications “contradict” those of earlier forms, he does not understand the new stage of his analysis to have superseded the earlier analysis. To state it crudely: like Hegel, Marx rejects the notion that, when two things contradict, one of those things must be wrong. Pointing to contradictions, however, can be useful as a means of establishing the boundedness and limitations of particular interpretations of social experience – a point that is stated more clearly below than I can do so in brief here. Marx’s early statements about contradiction also begin to make clear that the existence of “social contradictions” does not, by itself, point beyond the existing form of social life – although such contradictions can make it easier to recognise the contingency and artificiality of this form of social life in specific ways. Much more on this below, plus – as always – a systematic move through the underbrush of the text.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

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Thesis Workshop: How Does Essence Appear?

I’m going to be in transit for the next couple of days, with very limited net access, and so won’t be able to respond to comments or mails. This and the next couple of thesis chapter posts have been queued, so if the blog does its job, they’ll keep trundling their way into the world in my absence.

This chapter is part of a set of three that spends a possibly inordinate amount of time unpacking the implications of the complex third chapter of Capital, in which Marx undertakes an extensive deconstructive analysis of money – exploring all the various ways in which this “single” object takes on different roles, and as a result comes to carry radically different meanings, implications and consequences for practice. This chapter is perhaps the single best example of how Marx consistently under-signposts what he is trying to achieve when he makes specific argumentative moves. There is an enormous amount of work being done in Capital‘s third chapter – something you might guess by the sheer length of the thing, but which can be difficult to tell when actually reading the text, because Marx relentlessly refuses to pause and draw out the implications on his own. Often, he’ll point out several chapters later that he sees himself to have made a specific point in an earlier chapter; he rarely emphasises the significance of his argumentative moves at the time, for reasons I’ve explained in chapter 4 of the thesis. Understanding the reasons, however, doesn’t make the practice less frustrating… This is why a single chapter of Capital can blow out into three chapters of my thesis: I provide the signposts Marx should have, but didn’t…

This thesis chapter, as you would guess from the title, focusses a lot of its time and energy on Marx’s use of Hegel’s vocabulary of essence and appearance. The idealist loan words and style of expression often manage to conceal the fact that Marx means pretty much the exact opposite of what the text intuitively seems to be saying: when Marx talks about an essence (like value) expressing itself in a form of appearance (like price), this sounds as if value is an external causal factor, driving the play of appearances. What Marx means is very different: essences are essences of their forms of appearance – it is the play of appearance that constitutes an essence as an immanent pattern that emerges in the transformation of appearances over time. Honest. Trust me. Scout’s honour.

All this – and a lot of textual interpretation – below the fold…

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

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Thesis Workshop: Personifying Commodities

Okay. Now we get to the new stuff. The argument put forward in this and the remaining chapters, although it has been discussed on the blog in somewhat abstract terms from time to time, will probably seem at least somewhat new – and at the very least much more fully developed than what I have been able to post here before. This chapter begins to unfold what might seem a somewhat counter-intuitive interpretation of moments in Marx’s text where he writes as though he is reducing other phenomena to an economic or material dimension of social experience that he finds more ontologically fundamental – as though he is making a sort of metaphysical claim about the primacy of the economic. My reading of these passages is that they are attempts to make a very different sort of claim – a claim that is very specific to capitalism, and that attempts to pick out the distinctive qualitative characteristics of a form of sociality that Marx regards as unique to capitalist societies. But better to let those who are curious click through to the actual argument, which makes the case as well as I know how – and will therefore make it better than what I could summarise here.

One funny aspect of drafting and re-drafting: I’ve done a number of essentially stylistic revisions since I got the whole argument roughly into the form I was after. I find it interesting the way my evaluation of chapters changes due to the uneven periodisation of the revision process. This chapter, for example, came out of the original drafting process relatively cleaner and clearer than the other chapters. As a consequence, I’ve been focussing my editing energy on those other chapters, and only very slightly revising this one. So now, doing one further edit tonight, I’m finding myself mildly disappointed in this chapter, because the others have (I think…) now been edited into forms that surpass it… More editing to come I guess… ;-P In any event, I think the chapter is in an adequate state to post it here…

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

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Thesis Workshop: With What Must a Science Begin?

Another chapter whose contents may seem largely familiar to regular readers: this chapter deals with Marx’s relationship to Hegel’s Logic, and then, since this chapter is already more or less untethered from the text, it offers a number of other clarifications of aspects of Marx’s method. The chapter tosses around the term “real abstraction” quite often, as though readers will already know what I mean by this term. Folks who have hung around here for a while may well have a sense of this, but the reason I’m being so casual with the term in this chapter is because there is a lengthy discussion of this topic in the opening chapter of the thesis – the chapter I haven’t yet published to the blog, because I have to rethink it now that I know what the thesis will actually say… Hopefully it will be clear enough what I’m about without that information…

I’ve been meaning to mention, for those who haven’t yet seen them, that Limited, Inc. has also been posting a series on Marx recently – among other things, riffing on anthropological themes and – among my favourite topics when thinking about Marx – vulgarity. Where my work on Marx tends to inch its snail’s path through the micro-ecology of the text, Roger’s tends to explode small passages of text, chasing the embers to see where they land, examining what they set alight and, wherever possible, fanning the flames. Something about it reminds me of Marx’s comment from the Grundrisse:

…if we did not find concealed within society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic. (159)

It’s good stuff: go have a look.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

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Thesis Workshop: Turning the Tables

Okay. Another chapter whose contents will be somewhat familiar to regular readers. This chapter suffers from containing some of the oldest layers of the thesis – points that I have now written in a number of different forms, not only for the thesis itself, but for various conference presentations and journal articles. The result is that it’s quite difficult for me now to “hear” this part of the thesis – or to keep in my head whether I’ve used this material to make a specific point in this version, or if I’m remembering some other presentation of the material. I’ve tried to align the voice of this section so that it is adequate to the things I learned while writing the other chapters – and this process has meant that I have introduced some new content into this chapter, trying to weaving this in as seamlessly as I can. I’m not sure I’ve quite gotten there yet. Work in progress and all that…

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

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Thesis Workshop: When Is It Safe to Go on Reading Capital?

I haven’t finished the chapter that will become the proper introduction to the thesis – in part because I have a cold (been fighting it off for weeks – my body obviously figured that, since I have finished my major writing, now must be a good time… ;-P). Below the fold, though, is the first substantive chapter. For those who have followed earlier drafts, this is a substantial rewrite of the first part of the old opening chapter (which I gather from various bits of feedback was too long, and so has now been split into two shorter chapters). It’s considerably clearer about the overarching stakes of the argument than the old version, but it’s still not as “new” as most of the thesis chapters may seem to regular readers here.

I keep considering fleshing out the discussion of Hegel’s Phenomenology – I have good draft material that does this, which I could technically splice in. I keep not including it, however, because the finer points of Hegel’s argument aren’t really important to the argument I’m making in the thesis. So I alternate between wincing because I can explain Hegel’s position much more adequately, and reminding myself that the thesis isn’t about doing justice to Hegel’s work, but only needs to talk about the much more limited topic of how Marx uses Hegel…

Since I haven’t put up a proper introduction, I should provide the context that the thesis focusses on a very close reading of the first six chapters of Capital, concentrating on how Marx effects the shift from the discussion of commodity circulation to the introduction of the category of labour-power. The guiding questions are how we should understand the analysis of “simple commodity circulation” in relation to the argument being made by Capital as a whole – and how the introduction of the category of labour-power transforms rather completely what these early chapters of the text seemed to be attempting to say. These quite specific questions, which provide the narrative thread that holds the thesis together, provide a sort of scaffolding for analysing the presentational and analytical strategy in Capital as a whole, interpreting how Marx understands the standpoint of critique in his text, and unfolding from Capital the nucleus of a quite sophisticated metatheory that casts Marx as offering a fundamentally deflationary, practice-theoretic account of phenomena that are usually explained in a far more mystical way. I’ll try to say all this much better in the proper introduction – just wanted to give some sense of what the thesis is trying to do.

One further idiosyncracy: I deal with the literature almost exclusively in footnotes – a habit I seemed to have picked up during my previous theses. The text has a very complex and cumulative argument to make, and one which runs across a great many different literatures: past experience has shown that it is incredibly distracting for readers when I interrupt the flow of the main argument to go chasing how specific topics have been dealt with by other authors. This strategy causes problems, however, when I reproduce chapters on the blog, since I don’t have a good system for managing footnotes here. When I have this thing properly completed, I’ll put up a PDF that includes the full text. Until then, unfortunately, you are just stuck with my argument, stripped of community context…

I don’t want to flood the blog with thesis chapters, so this post will be the first in a series – I’ll try to put up new chapters every few days or so, as I have time to handle the html. I should emphasise that these are still drafts – lots of cleanup left to do. But they are considerably less drafty than earlier posts and – for those who have followed as I’ve tried to work out pieces of this argument in dribs and drabs on the blog over the past 18 months – should be easier to follow and much more systematic than anything you’ve so far seen.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]

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The Doing of Dialectics

Okay. I’m realising that I’m in a situation a bit like what happened a year ago, when I started thinking I really should write a quick post on Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism – and then realised I needed to outline a bit of background first – and then ended up with that background blowing out into dozens of posts on the first chapter of Capital and, ultimately, into a doctoral thesis… ;-P I keep stalling over “quick” posts about specific aspects of Marx’s work that would be potentially relevant to analyses of the current crisis, because I realise that, in order to write those posts and have any hope of making sense, I need to outline a fair bit of background. Attempts to sidestep this background by coming up with some other way through Marx’s presentational thicket just seem to be adding even more bits of background to my list of things I need to cover… Since this seems to be threatening a sort of infinite regress, I think I need just to start tossing out some of this background, without worrying, for the moment, how I might eventually pick up these various pieces and do something useful with them. Apologies for this, as this is a moment when it might be particularly… useful… to do something… useful… But for the time being I can’t see a good way around it…

So… first fragment… Capital spends an enormous amount of time unfolding what Marx generally calls “formal” analyses of various categories – analyses of forms. “Dialectical” or “categorial” readings of Marx tend to distil these formal analyses, sifting them out from other aspects of the text – sometimes because the formal analyses can be a bit difficult to follow, and so a pristine presentation of the forms and their relations can make it easier to work out what Marx is doing in these parts of his analysis – but sometimes, as well, because these sorts of readings simply regard the formal analysis as the core (or even the entirety) of the analysis put forward in Capital, and therefore interpret other aspects of Marx’s textual strategy as more or less unfortunate digressions from the main thrust of his text. At some point, I’ll try to outline how this plays out in the work of specific commentators. For the moment, I’ll just let this caricature stand as a placeholder without directly impugning the work of any specific commentator with this simplification – my goal here is simply to mark for myself that I need to write on this, while not getting too deep into the Marxological trenches at this precise point.

Okay. Continuing the caricature – another placeholder: Dialectical or categorial readings are often criticised for rendering Marx into an idealist – for hypostatising or reifying Marx’s categories – for granting undue ontological status to what should be seen as “mere” concepts, as the ideological abstractions of political economy – for losing the “materialist” orientation of Marx’s text. For present purposes, I won’t explain why dialectical or categorial readings might draw down on themselves this sort of critique. My personal position is that these sorts of critiques often rely on a somewhat ungenerous reading of dialectical or categorial approaches to Marx – and also that these critiques often miss the nature of Marx’s critique of idealism, which consists – I would argue – in showing how what are often taken to be merely “ideal” entities, are themselves enacted in specific ways in collective practice, and thus possess a constituted collective reality.

Dialectical or categorial readings of Marx are often better on this issue as a programmatic matter – they frequently (although not always) at least note that Marx’s formal analysis is trying to grasp, not “mere” concepts, but, e.g., real abstractions, forms of social being, or similar entities. These readings generally don’t, however, close this programmatic circle by outlining how Marx believes he has shown the practical collective generation of his formal categories – instead, the tendency is to focus on the meaning of the categories, and the relationships between them. This omission takes place, I would suggest, because, once you distil out the formal analysis from other aspects of Marx’s text, you have actually removed much of the means through which Marx effects this demonstration – thus picking out those elements of the text that outline the “ideals” for which Marx is trying to account, while leaving behind many of the moves through which he casts light on the genesis of these ideals in collective practice.

The tendency of dialectical or categorial readings to assert, but not fully cash out, the claim that Marx is doing something more than an idealist analysis is, I believe, one of the reasons that it is somewhat easy to mistake dialectical or categorial readings for being more “idealist” than they generally see themselves as being. (As always, there are exceptions: some dialectical readings of Marx understand Capital primarily as a sort of thought experiment in constructing an ideal type of pure capitalism: these would be frankly idealist readings of the text.)

One of the things I am aiming to do with my own reading – whether this is sufficiently evident in the blog posts to this stage or not – is to draw more attention to how Marx thinks he can demonstrate the practical genesis of the forms he analyses. The principal obstacle to my work is Marx’s own textual strategy, which can very easily be read as a logical – hence, purely ideal – derivation of subsequent categories from earlier ones. The text does present a categorial derivation – new categories are introduced by demonstrating impasses that cannot be resolved by earlier categories. The manner of presentation suggests very strongly that one could, in principle, be able to derive the categories through sheer force of thought alone – as in the opening transcendental “derivation” of the categories value and abstract labour (127-131), the derivation of the “peculiar commodity” of labour power from the demonstration that greater value can arise neither in circulation nor in production alone (268-271), and countless similar moves through the text. The manner of presentation also periodically suggests a strongly idealist vision of pre-existing concepts that can be held up against an empirical reality that can then be judged to be more or less adequate to those categories – as when Marx, for example, analyses the adequacy with which various forms of value express immanent potentials of this category (157-161), or says of world money that it is at this point that money’s “mode of existence becomes adequate to its concept” (241). And finally, the manner of presentation often treats the categories as though they are agents in their own right, shaping the contours of empirical reality – as when, for example, Marx talks about value requiring “an independent form by means of which its identity with itself may be asserted” (255).

There are other ways of understanding what Marx is doing in these sorts of passages – I’ve provided alternative readings of some of these passages in the past, and will hopefully tackle some of the others in the near future. My point is simply that dialectical or categorial readings often attract criticism for being too “idealist” precisely when they retain too much of Marx’s mode of presentation when trying to develop what Marx is doing in these sorts of passages: they attract this criticism because Marx is in fact using frankly “idealist” forms of presentation in such passages, and so it can be difficult to discuss these aspects of the text without making it seem as though concepts have become independent agents on the world-historical stage, while human actors are reduced to the status of mere “bearers” of these concepts – as, indeed, Marx often explicitly labels them to be (254). But if Marx does not understand his argument in idealist terms – if he is intending instead to critically situate idealism as a hypostatisation of “real abstractions” or “forms of social being” that are generated in collective practice – then the weight of his own analysis must somehow lie behind an argument about how such abstractions are generated – how they are products, and not independent drivers, of human action, how they are practised, and not simply thought.

We know that Marx is aiming for this sort of argument from Marx’s rare metatheoretical reflections in the margins of Capital – as in the following footnote, which I have analysed on the blog before, and which states explicitly that the goal is to develop the ideal from an analysis of “actual, given relations” – to show how determinate aspects of collective practices generate some particular ideal, which thus exists in a non-random relation to those practices:

It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly kernel of the misty creations of religion than to do the opposite, i.e. to develop from the actual, given relations of life the forms in which these have been apotheosized. The latter method is the only materialist, and therefore the only scientific one. The weaknesses of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process, are immediately evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions expressed by its spokesmen whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality. (ftnt. 4, 493-94)

Some of the earliest posts on this blog mention how Marx draws the reader’s attention to this agenda in his very early discussion of Aristotle from the discussion of the value form in the third section of the opening chapter (151-152). Aristotle figures here as someone who almost does derive the concept of value as a concept – through something like brute force of logic, from thinking through what might cause the collective practice of exchange to involve the exchange of equivalents. While Aristotle’s towering logic enables him to deduce the possibility of something like value, Aristotle nevertheless dismisses the concept, and concludes that there is no underlying substance that is being equated in the process of exchange. Exchange is, instead, a mere “makeshift for practical purposes”. Marx here explicitly says that the “historical limitation inherent in the society in which he lived” prevented Aristotle from arriving at the category of value: the absence of wage labour – which we will soon learn Marx regards as the “historical pre-condition [that] comprises a world’s history” (274) – prevented Aristotle from “discovering” value. Marx’s mode of presentation doesn’t allow him to say more directly, at this point in the text, that this is because value is not there to be “discovered” – I have argued at length elsewhere that this is Marx’s position.

The categories Marx analyses in Capital are:

forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e. commodity production (169)

Marx is attempting to grasp that social validity – to grasp the generation, and therefore the conditions and limits, of these categories. In doing this, he adopts an idealist idiom – in no small part because he seems to think this idiom grasps qualitatively important characteristics of the forms of social validity he seeks to understand. If value stalks the stage of Capital as an “automatic subject” (255) – and yet Marx maintains that value is a “social substance” (128, italics mine) into which “[n]ot an atom of matter enters” (138) – there must be some way in which our collective practices constitute something that confronts us, its creators, as “a regulative law of nature” (168): something we create reacts back on us as a blind and alien process to which we become subjected. Marx argues that “These formulas [of political economy] bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man” (174-175) – in which our own creation, the product of our collective action, has come to be experienced as an external force of domination. In such a context, idealism offers Marx the resources to express important qualitative characteristics of the phenomena he is trying to grasp – and yet he must also go beyond these expressions, to analyse the practical genesis of what presents itself to us as though it is an agent independent of our control. The “idealist” properties of the context cannot therefore be dismissed as mere errors – instead, these properties need to be situated and explained, through a demonstration of how we collectively effect phenomena that can to some extent be validly (if incompletely) described in “idealist” terms. My suggestion is that Marx tries to square this circle by thematising core aspects of capitalism as aggregate unintentional side effects of collective action that is oriented to other ends – that categories like “value”, “abstract labour” – “capital” itself – are real abstractions that we collectively make, without setting out to achieve such a result. Marx finds idealism – Hegel’s idealism specifically – useful in trying to grasp the qualitative characteristics of these real abstractions, and thus positions Hegelian idealism as a metaphysical hypostatisation of the “actual, given relations” of a distinctive form of social life.

More on all this later… For the moment, just notes for myself… Unproofed. Apologies…

Abstract Materialisms vs. Real Abstractions

Praxis has helpfully suggested that my thesis should be titled “Capital in Footnotes”. Personally, I’m rather more partial to “Marx from the Margins”… ;-P In either case, another footnote for your edification – this time one that often gets cited even by people nowhere near so fond as I am of Marx’s apparatus. [Returning here to post a memo from the end of this post: this probably wasn’t the best day for me to ramble on about this topic – but I’m trying to extract time and thoughts from a schedule that leaves room for neither… Apologies in retrospective advance for the disorganised and rambly character of these points – I’d much rather have been more systematic and just… clearer… but I don’t have the thought-space to do that right now… And, once again, I haven’t even read this post myself – no editing, etc… Too exhausted from the writing of it, and too guilty at the thought of putting off any longer all the other things I need to do… At any rate… With apologies…]

From early in chapter 15 on Machinery & Large-Scale Industry:

A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of any single individual. As yet such a book does not exist. Darwin has directed attention to the history of natural technology, i.e. the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man in society, of organs that are the material basis of every particular organization of society, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in that we have made the former, but not the latter? Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations. Even a history of religion that is written in abstraction from this material basis is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly kernel of the misty creations of religion than to do the opposite, i.e. to develop from the actual, given relations of life the forms in which these have been apotheosized. The latter method is the only materialist, and therefore the only scientific one. The weaknesses of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process, are immediately evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions expressed by its spokesmen whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality. (ftnt. 4, pp. 493-94)

Rorschach sculptureThis footnote often operates as a sort of Marxian Rorschach test: it’s possible to elicit quite divergent images of Marx, depending on which bit of the quote you focus on, and which bits you subordinate or suppress. My own eye, not surprisingly, is drawn to the final sentence – the part where Marx criticises the “abstract materialism” of the natural sciences on the grounds that this materialism “excludes the historical process”. Evacuating history, this form of materialism becomes “abstract and ideological”. But what does this mean? How is Marx – speaking in earlier sentences about “the material basis of every particular organization of society” – not evacuating history?

This specific dilemma – the dilemma of what Marx thinks he is doing, when he makes sweeping criticisms of other approaches for their ahistoricity, while to all appearances setting forth his own sweeping transhistorical claims: if I had to point to one thing in Marx’s work that has driven my own approach to this text, squaring this particular circle would be it. A great deal of my working interpretation of Capital derives from a decision, in Nate’s terms, “to never give up on reading” in relation to this specific issue: from a decision to continue asking myself whether there were some way that the form of analysis put forward in Capital might actually be consistent with this sort of critique of the abstract materialism of the natural sciences – and with the closely related critique of political economy for behaving as though “there has been history, but there is no longer any” (ftnt 35, p. 175). How can Marx offer these kinds of critiques, while also clearly wielding in his own claims about “every particular organization of society”? What does he think distinguishes his approach from what he criticises? How does he think he meets the critical standards that he applies to others?

The answer to this question – what I take to be the answer – is that Marx understands his own critical categories to have been reflexively established by his analysis of the reproduction of capital. I take Marx, in other words, to think that Capital shows how the critical categories Marx wields are generated in social practice – and thus shows how these critical categories are therefore themselves the products of a contingently-emergent form of collective life. Having established this, however – having shown the process of practical constitution of his own critical categories – Marx is not troubled by the practice of using those categories – of building or constructing something out of them – even of applying those categories to other times and places – in order to think about times before and, most importantly, times after, the capitalist context that provided the contingent ground for our subjective recognition that such categories are possible – as long as this application is recognised as a speculative move, from a situated standpoint, and not fetishistically confused for the discovery of a timeless truth.

Marx’s method, in other words, is consistent with the notion that we make history – but in conditions not of our choosing. Having analysed the conditions we have not chosen, in order to unearth the various resources those inherited conditions make available to us, we can then proceed to build something new from those resources – to construct or speculate on what has been or might become possible, using as our starting point the perspectives made available by the conditions that are available to us now, improvising around what our experiences place ready to hand. The ideological move consists in losing track of the constructed and unchosen character of the conditions in which we stand. Our locatedness, however – the recognition that we stand in some particular conditions – is no impediment to our ability to analyse or criticise or act: it is, instead, simply the determinate launching point for our future lines of flight. We create by transforming materials already to hand.

For Marx to assert this position consistently, among the materials that must lie ready to hand are those that go into this specific assertion: there must be some specific way that the constructed character of our history, the social character of our society, the contingent and artificial character of our collective lives, is suggested by our own practical experience – such that the potency (and the boundedness) of our own practical activity becomes evident to us now. There must be some sense in which our particular practices are “social”, “contingent”, “constructed” – even “practical” – in some distinctive way – some way that has not been the case in other times – such that something like Marx’s critical apparatus becomes plausible now, when it has not been plausible before. From the standpoint of a time in which such an apparatus has become plausible, it then becomes possible to survey other historical periods through the lens that our experience provides – and to recognise elements of similarity – ways in which those other moments, too, can be said to have their “constructed”, “social”, “material”, “practical” dimensions. In this way, our distinctive historical experiences can form a distinctive constellation with the past, shaking loose a distinctive vision of the past – a vision that would not have been available to the times we analyse, but that possesses a validity for us, a validity in light of the potentials we have stumbled across in our own time. Marx’s method simultaneously suspends: (1) an analysis of the ways in which our insights are suggested by various contingent, located practical experiences, and (2) a complete comfort with the validity of standing on the platforms built out of these contingent, located practical experiences, in order to engage in a quite sweeping speculative analysis that tries to demonstrate what else we can build – what more we can construct – based on a systematic analysis of what we have accidentally constructed so far.

I’ve come at this issue from a slightly different direction in earlier posts, analysing the issue of real abstraction, with reference to a passage from the Grundrisse where Marx analyses “The Method of Political Economy”. Perhaps a quick pass back through that material might give a better sense of what I’m after here (or what I was, perhaps a bit obscurely, trying to express the last time I wrote on this topic).

This is a convoluted passage, in which Marx wrestles (as always) with Hegel, and with the complicated question of how to understand that some elements of capitalist society – and some categories of political economy – seem to have vastly longer histories than capitalism itself. Marx recurrently wrestles with this question, trying to do justice to his instinct that the forms of thought characteristic of political economy have something to do with the emergence of new forms of collective practice, without suppressing the evidence that similar practices and categories of thought seem also to arise in times and places Marx would not regard as capitalist. Ultimately, I think, Marx squares this circle by arguing that the process of the reproduction of capital must be understood as a distinctive relation that suspends in a new configuration forms of practice that possess different qualitative characteristics outside this relation. In this passage of his draftwork, Marx has not yet, I think, distilled this argument clearly, but instead hits on and around it, while wrenching the underlying problem into greater clarity.

In any event: Marx is wrestling here with simple categories – and with Hegel’s suggestion that a simple category concentrates a vast complexity of determinations whose refraction conditions the apparent simplicity. Marx considers how this suggestion might translate into historical and social terms: does it take a particularly complex society, before simple and abstract categories become plausible and intuitive forms of thought? Not necessarily, Marx argues – running through a complex mix of historical examples that jumble together levels of complexity and simplicity in different amalgamations.

Nevertheless, there are types of simple category that do express and rely on an underlying practical complexity: Marx singles out labour. The category of “labour” seems quite old – the notion of “labour as such” is articulated very early. Yet these early articulations, Marx suggests, contain tacit determinations that conceptualise “labour as such” in terms of some particularly form of concrete labouring activity:

Labour seems a quite simple category. The conception of labour in this general form – as labour as such – is also immeasurably old. Nevertheless, when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, ‘labour’ is as modern a category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction. The Monetary System for example, still locates wealth altogether objectively, as an external thing, in money. Compared with this standpoint, the commercial, or manufacture, system took a great step forward by locating the source of wealth not in the object but in a subjective activity – in commercial and manufacturing activity – even though it still always conceives this activity within narrow boundaries, as moneymaking. In contrast to this system, that of the Physiocrats posits a certain kind of labour – agriculture – as the creator of wealth, and the object itself no longer appears in a monetary disguise, but as the product in general, as the general result of labour. This product, as befits the narrowness of the activity, still always remains a naturally determined product – the product of agriculture, the product of the earth par excellence.

By contrast, Marx argues, the modern economic category of labour is genuinely devoid of determinations that tie it tacitly or explicitly to some specific concrete type of labouring activity or to some particular sort of product. Significantly, however, this shift does not mean that the modern category of labour is devoid of social determination full stop. He specifically rejects the notion that the modern economic treatment of “labour in general” is some kind of conceptual abstraction derived from stripping away the determinations of various sorts of concrete labouring activities, in order to arrive – in a purely ideal fashion – at the category of “labour as such”. To claim that “labour” is a purely ideal category would be to treat the category as a negation – as something we become able to think only by subtracting or stripping away its positive attributes, in order to arrive at some substratum that represents an essence that could never be realised in any particular empirical form.

Instead, in Marx’s argument, there is some way in which “labour in general” – this very abstract and “simple” category of the political economists – exists in everyday collective practice, as well as in specialised theoretical reflection – some way in which this category is an empirical, not an ideal, entity – some way in which this category is not devoid of social determination, but instead expresses a peculiar form of social determination. Marx argues:

It was an immense step forward for Adam Smith to throw out every limiting specification of wealth-creating activity – not only manufacturing, or commercial or agricultural labour, but one as well as the others, labour in general. With the abstract universality of wealth-creating activity we now have the universality of the object defined as wealth, the product as such or again labour as such, but labour as past, objectified labour. How difficult and great was this transition may be seen from how Adam Smith himself from time to time still falls back into the Physiocratic system. Now, it might seem that all that had been achieved thereby was to discover the abstract expression for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings – in whatever form of society – play the role of producers. This is correct in one respect. Not in another. Indifference towards any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant. As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. On the other side, this abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society – in the United States. Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category ‘labour’, ‘labour as such’, labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice. The simplest abstraction, then, which modern economics places at the head of its discussions, and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society.

Marx thus distinguishes here between “the mental product of a concrete totality of labours” – what I tend to refer to as a conceptual abstraction that strips away concrete determinations – and a “practical truth” – what I often refer to as a “real abstraction” – that emerges where some dimension of collective practice acts out a positive indifference toward the particular forms of concrete labouring activities, such that this positive indifference becomes an enacted social determination that actively constitutes, as a meaningful social category, something like “labour in general”.

The analysis Marx sketches here of the constitution of this real abstraction is not quite, I think, the analysis he offers by the time he writes Capital. In particular, there is a tacit notion here of a purely quantitative process of historical change – bourgeois society is the “richest possible concrete development” – a bit further on it is the “most complex” – rather than an analysis of the qualitative characteristics that mark the reproduction of capital off from other forms of social practices effecting material reproduction. By Capital, I think Marx has incorporated this sort of analysis into a more complex argument about the distinctive qualitative characteristics of the reproduction of capital.

Already here, though, he speaks of the implications for “science” of this argument that certain very abstract categories – certain concepts that might appear to be purely “ideal” categories that result from subtracting or stripping away social determinations – are “practical truths”. He argues:

This example of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations.

Bourgeois society is the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production. The categories which express its relations, the comprehension of its structure, thereby also allows insights into the structure and the relations of production of all the vanished social formations out of whose ruins and elements it built itself up, whose partly still unconquered remnants are carried along within it, whose mere nuances have developed explicit significance within it, etc. Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape. The intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species, however, can be understood only after the higher development is already known. The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc. But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society. One can understand tribute, tithe, etc., if one is acquainted with ground rent. But one must not identify them. Further, since bourgeois society is itself only a contradictory form of development, relations derived from earlier forms will often be found within it only in an entirely stunted form, or even travestied. For example, communal property. Although it is true, therefore, that the categories of bourgeois economics possess a truth for all other forms of society, this is to be taken only with a grain of salt. They can contain them in a developed, or stunted, or caricatured form etc., but always with an essential difference. The so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and, since it is only rarely and only under quite specific conditions able to criticize itself – leaving aside, of course, the historical periods which appear to themselves as times of decadence – it always conceives them one-sidedly. (bold mine)

The bold text, I suggest, makes the essential point: we can speculatively extrapolate from our own categories, from our insights, from our own practical truths. But we can do this only “with a grain of salt” – only in the recognition that there will always be “an essential difference” between our time (which generates certain categories as “practical truths”) and other times whose collective practices might not have enacted the same social determinations. When looking out on the past – also when gazing into the future – also when gazing into the natural world – with sensibilities shaped by our own practical truths, we are primed by our own experienced to find constellations – charged connections that strike us because we find them tacitly familiar, because we recognise elements of ourselves in what we see. There is nothing wrong with doing this – unless it gets read into a narrative that views the present as some sort of culmination or telos of a process of historical development, unless it gets read in ways that make aspects of our specific society appear to be necessary or essential, unless it fails to recognise that even the constellations we make, based on the practical truths available to us, are likely to reflect only a very partial and incomplete sampling of even the insights practically available in our own time. These “unlesses”, Marx suggests, are unfortunately more the norm than the exception…

Marx explicitly relates these points to the method he will need to adopt in his own “scientific” analysis:

In the succession of the economic categories, as in any other historical, social science, it must not be forgotten that their subject – here, modern bourgeois society – is always what is given, in the head as well as in reality, and that these categories therefore express the forms of being, the characteristics of existence, and often only individual sides of this specific society, this subject, and that therefore this society by no means begins only at the point where one can speak of it as such; this holds for science as well.

This passage suggests very strongly that Marx does not understand his own categories to be exempt from the critical standards he uses to convict the natural sciences of “abstract materialism” and political economy of behaving as though “there has been history, but there is no longer any”. It suggests that Marx sees himself to be doing what he, in fact, labels as “the only materialist, and therefore the only scientific” method in the footnote cited above. He sees the see society he sets out to criticise as “given, in the head as well as in reality” – sees himself as deploying categories that “express the forms of being… and often only individual sides” of this particular society. He understands Capital, I would suggest, as developing “from the actual, given relations of life” the various categories that possess a “practical truth” – a truth bounded to those relations, and often limited, partial, and “one sided” even by the universe of practical truths and insights made immanently available within those relations.

Marx’s own central categories – the categories that allow him to make these sorts of programmatic statements – concepts of society, practice, materialism – must be among the “practical truths” that are made available by dimensions of our collective practice, in order for Marx, by his own standards, not to lapse into something like the “abstract materialism” of the natural sciences, or the ahistorical perspective of political economy. He must reflexively show the historicity, the practical genesis, of his own insights – a demonstration that by no means prevents him from picking up these found categories, these practical truths, and deploying them in his own analysis – speculatively extrapolating and expanding upon the possibilities they make available. We make history in conditions not of our own choosing – but we do make history. And, apparently, we make history in some very special sense in the capitalist era – we make history with “an essential difference” – we make history “with a grain of salt” – we make history in some distinctive way – one that allows this sort of reflexive speculative theory itself to become possible.

The point of this method can sound epistemological. Yet epistemology isn’t, I think, Marx’s concern. His concern is instead with developing a method that maximises the possibility for action. The problem with not engaging in this sort of reflexive analysis, is not so much that the theory will fail to give an account of its own conditions of possibility: it’s that a non-reflexive theory increases the risk of abridging practice and missing the practical potentials of our time. We can abridge practice by falling into the assumption that our own contingent constructions are the culminations of an inevitable historical process or essential to social life as such. We can do it by confusing our own practical truths – things we are effecting in collective practice – with ideal constructions that are disconnected from what we can achieve. We can do it by confusing a small part of our current practical potentials with the whole. Marx is trying to work out a method that – as I have argued in a number of other posts – makes our history citable in more of its moments, a method that opens additional windows onto our own practices, a method that mines and speculatively extrapolates from the practical insights we are collectively making available. The goal here is radically anti-utopian, in the sense that the method is oriented to a systematic demonstration of what we already do. At the same time, the goal is radically transformative, in that it seeks to apply to itself the practically-achieved insights into the constructedness and ephemerality of our social – in order to demonstrate how we need not be restricted to what “is”, even if we will necessarily mine our current context for the building blocks of whatever we build next…