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Category Archives: Contradiction

Fragment on the Concept of a “Standpoint of Critique”

The recent discussion of Derrida’s Specters of Marx has reminded me (albeit in a somewhat indirect way) that I should probably toss up some notes on the concept of a “standpoint of critique” – a term I often use to cast light on how I understand other bits of technical vocabulary I use, but which I don’t believe I’ve ever written on in its own right. I’m never sure, I think, how common or self-evident the concept of a “standpoint of critique” might be – the concept isn’t a difficult one and, unlike other technical terms I use (“immanence”, “reflexivity”, “theoretical pessimism” – even “critical theory”) that have tended to be controversial in some overt way, I don’t believe anyone has ever asked me to explain what I mean by “critical standpoint”. Still, I can’t help but be struck by some key differences between how I think the question of “critical standpoint” is posed by Marx, compared to how the question seems to be posed in many other theoretical traditions. If nothing else, I thought that tugging on some of these differences might help me articulate some of what I am trying to say about Marx’s work.

At the most general level, a “standpoint of critique” is something that accounts for the critical ideals or sensibilities that are expressed in a critical theory. Here’s the first rub: theories differ over why such an account is needed – and therefore what needs to be accounted for. Generally, an account of a “standpoint of critique” attempts to explain the genesis of critical sensibilities – to explain where critical sensibilities “come from”, how critical sensibilities are generated. Very often, the possibility for the emergence of critical sensibilities is pointed back to the something that prevents social actors from becoming fully “identical” to their socialisation – pointed back to some aspect of material or social nature that cannot be fully subsumed into any particular form of socialisation. In this case, critical sensibilities are understood to express something that conditions the possibilities for practice that are available to social actors, but that represents a sort of breakdown in the process of socialisation or a “remainder” that exceeds socialisation. Depending on the theory, this breakdown or remainder might result from some intrinsic and ineradicable imperfection in socialisation itself, in some property of our physical embodiment, in some characteristic of language, in some aspect of material nature, or in other properties or processes that are interpreted to secure or guarantee that social actors can never succeed in becoming fully “at home” in their social context. These sorts of explanation for “critical standpoint” can vary substantially from one another. In spite of these differences, they share a conception that critical sensibilities are generated in a failure in socialisation (albeit that this failure may be conceptualised as intrinsic to, and even constitutive of, socialisation itself) that creates an ever-present possibility for social actors to achieve a level of distance from any particular form of socialisation – not simply distance from whatever forms of socialisation might be present at the moment the theory is articulated.

Marx, I want to suggest, approaches the question of “critical standpoint” in a slightly different way. He subordinates the question of how critical sensibilities are generated, to the question of how the practices that reproduce the social context, simultaneously involve the practical constitution of resources, institutions, habits, and ideals that sit in tension with the process of reproduction that generates them. In this approach, the rise of critical sensibilities does not relate to the breakdown of socialisation or to a remainder that exceeds socialisation, but instead to the success of socialisation – in the specific context where the social form being reproduced, generates conflictual possibilities. Here, the argument about critical sensibilities is less an argument about the characteristics of social actors (although this must be theorised as well), than it is an argument about the characteristics of the social context itself. The core of the argument is an explanation of why it is not utopian to judge the existing process of social reproduction as wanting – critical ideals are accounted for, by demonstrating that these ideals can be “cashed out” by relating them to practical potentials whose genesis is the direct concern of the theory. In this approach, it is socialisation – rather than its breakdown or excession – that gives rise to the critical standpoint to which the theory appeals. As a consequence, the theory has nothing to say about how critical ideals might arise in other social contexts, and its account of critical standpoint must be understood to be limited to the society it criticises: this theory is the theory of its object, and lives and dies with the target of its critique.

These two approaches to understanding critical standpoint are not intrinsically contradictory: they simply theorise different objects. Where this is not understood, discussions or comparisons between the two sorts of approaches can speak to cross purposes. To some degree, I see this happening in Derrida’s analysis of Marx in Specters: the “dry messianic” spirit Derrida hopes to resurrect from Marx’s work, seems to invoke a concept of critical standpoint as an ineradicable possibility – a critical standpoint related to the necessary imperfection in the iteration required for the reproduction of our social inheritance. From this standpoint, Marx’s various suggestions that the transformation of capitalism would overcome the tensions and conflicts in socialisation, look violently utopian – they appear as assertions that the overcoming of capitalism would also overcome the non-identity of the individual and society. To most theorists of the latter half of the 20th century, this sort of formulation carries totalitarian overtones – it is not surprising this would be a spirit Derrida would wish to “exorcise” from Marx’s work. If Marx is understood, however, as taking his critical standpoint from within capitalism itself, his claims read a bit differently: not as assertions that the overcoming of capitalism would overcome any potential for critique or any source of non-identity between the individual and society, but simply as assertions that – definitionally – overcoming capitalism means an overcoming of those specific tensions that characterise its distinctive process of reproduction.

Marx of course is writing too early to know to fend off this particular line of misinterpretation – some formulations are ambiguous or inconsistent with the main line of his analysis. My concern is less to protect Marx against critiques of his own ambiguities, than it is to draw attention to a way of exploring the question of critical standpoint, in a way that relates this question directly to an analysis of specific practical potentials that are immanent to the process of social reproduction being criticised, where the concern is less to explain why sensibilities arise, than to demonstrate that sensibilities can be pointed back to practical, non-utopian potentials for change. Whether Marx succeeds in this task is separable from the question of whether this might be a useful line of exploration for contemporary critical theory.

Still a bit tired from my trip – will post without reading back over this, with apologies for editing issues and for the fragmentary nature of these observations.

The Matter with Form

Apologies for the recent silence on the blog – I’ve been preoccupied with offline things, and blogging will unfortunately remain slow for a bit. I did want to point to a very nice recent post over at Larval Subjects, on “Social Multiplicities and Agency”. This post continues Sinthome’s recent reflections on the problem of how to thematise agency, asking whether the starting assumptions of much social and political theory – assumptions manifest, in particular, in a form/matter dichotomy – drive theory to oscillate between antinomic poles of abstract structure and agency:

At the heart of what I will call the “Althusserian model”, is the old Aristotlean conception of individuation based on the distinction between form and matter. While Althusser’s social structures are historical in the sense that they come to be and pass away and are thus unlike Aristotle’s forms which are eternal and unchanging, social structure is nonetheless conceived as forms imposed on passive matters, giving these passive matters their particular form or structure. The passive matters in question, of course, are human individuals. I am formed by social structures tout court and without remainder. In response to this conception– and I realize that I am unfairly simplifying matters –we should ask if this is an accurate conception of either agency or the social. Does not Althusser and other structuralist inspired Marxists severely simplify both social dynamics and the social itself? When Badiou speaks of the “state of the situation” “counting-multiplicities as one”, has he not severely simplified how the social is in fact organized, creating the illusion that there’s a monolithic structure at work in social formations? Do not Lacanians and Zizekians severely simplify the social by reading all social phenomena through the lens of the symbolic and formations of sovereignity (Lacan’s masculine sexuation)? Perhaps, in these simplifications, we create the very problems we’re trying to solve and end up tilting against monsters of our own creation.

Sinthome reaches for new metaphors for thinking the social, and finds productive resonance with certain themes in evolutionary theory, which provide tools for thinking, not the reduction of the social to the natural, but rather a more complex and multilayered conception of the social:

To draw the parallel to Althusser and similarly minded theorists– emphasizing once again that I am not seeking to apply natural selection to social formations, but to think the organization and levels of social formations –where the Althusserian form/matter social model postulates two thing (social structure and individuals), where one thing, the social formation, hierarchically imposes form on another (individuals), Gould’s model envisions a number of different levels in which distinct processes take place. As Gould goes on to say, “…[A]djacent levels my interact in the full range of conceivable ways– in synergy, orthogonally, or in opposition” (73). That is, among the different levels processes taking place can reinforce one another, they can be independent of one another, or they can be in conflict or opposition with one another. Were such a nuanced and multi-leveled conception of the biological carried over into social theory, we would no longer engage in endless hand-wringing as to whether or not agency is possible, nor would we need to postulate theoretical monsters like the Lacanian subject or subjects of truth-procedures. If such moves would no longer be necessary, then this is because we would no longer postulate hierarchical and hegemonic relations among the various strata or levels of social formations. Instead, we would engage in an analysis of these various levels and strata, examining the relations of feedback (positive and negative) that function within them, their relations of synergy, orthogonality, and antagonism, and the various potentials that inhabit these relations. Here we would need to look at the variety of different social formations from individuals, to small associations like groups (the blog collective for instance), to larger groupings and institutions, to global interrelations, treating none of these as hegemonizing all the others, but instead discerning their varying temporalities, organizations, inter-relations, points of antagonism, and so on. This, I think, is far closer to Marx’s own vision– or at least the spirit of his analyses in texts like Grundrisse and Capital.

I agree with this characterisation of Marx’s work – my discussion in the recent HSS paper of how Marx uses the concept of “inversion”, gestures at how I would begin to develop this position. I hope to be able to spend much more time on how this kind of analysis plays out concretely in Capital, in the coming months.

Sinthome’s post also resonates with the recent discussion of Diane Elson’s work (here and here), in which I was exploring Elson’s take on the concept of “determination” in Marx’s work. Much as Sinthome mines concepts used to think evolution, Elson deploys metaphors from chemistry to try to move beyond thinking of structure as something that subsists separately to, and exists in an external causal relationship with, what is structured.

All of these discussions remind me again of one of my favourite characterisations of Marx’s work, from Paul Lafargue’s Reminiscences of Marx:

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

His intention was to disclose the whole of that world in its manifold and continually varying action and reaction.

Compare with Sinthome’s lovely description of:

capitalism as a heterogeneous multiplicity with a variety of different levels, often at odds with itself, spinning off in a variety of different directions, calling for nuanced and local analyses and strategies

Apologies for the associative character of this post – systematicity eludes me at the moment… 😉 Much more on these themes in Sinthome’s original post.

Reflections on Elson’s “Value Theory of Labour”, part 1

So, by popular demand, a follow up to the book-meme post, where I responded to Nate’s tag with a few sentences from Diane Elson’s “The Value Theory of Labour” from her edited volume (1979) Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism. This post wasn’t the first time someone has asked me to talk about my work in relation to Elson’s, so I promised to follow up on the short meme post with something longer soon. This is that something longer… ;-P

Before I get into Elson, I should mention the progress of the meme over at Now-Times – where my tag forced poor Alexei to have to translate a text in German, which also contained selections from Greek – I suppose, like all viruses, this one hits some people harder than others… Over at Grundlegung, Tom responded to the meme, but then rudely placed himself in quarantine and refused to share and share alike. I have patiently tried to explain that Tom has undertaken the commitment to infect others when he undertook the commitment to acknowledge the tag, but Tom, as always, stubbornly resists the implications of Brandom’s queen’s shilling argument. Tom: I have updated your score accordingly. Praxisblog promises “an appallingly long and obsessive response to that damn book meme”. I think I am afraid. The meme has hit massthink whilst Ryan/Aless is travelling – I’m certain we can all understand how inconvenient that is – he’ll respond in a more settled moment. I didn’t tag Gabriel Gottlieb over at Self and World, but the bug got to him anyway, and I’ll link his response here because I am still groaning from his title: “On the Very Idea of an Internet Meme”. Andrew over at Union Street tried to tag me, only to realise I’ve already been bitten – if you like, Andrew, you can consider this post a relapse, and consider that your second tag made me come down with a much worse case of this thing, forcing me to engage more deeply with the text than just quoting a few sentences…

Okay. Diane Elson. Note that I’m likely just to post notes on Elson’s piece here, rather than provide a worked out argument about how our positions intersect – since a few other folks hovering around have also read her, there should be some possibility for correcting anything I get too terribly wrong here…

Elson’s piece starts with an excellent question: what is Marx’s theory of value a theory of? The answer to this question is far from obvious, and major differences of interpretation of Marx’s work pivot on the issue.

Elson begins by outlining two common interpretations of the labour theory of value:

(1) The theory of value allows Marx to prove the existence of exploitation.

Elson associates this position with a transhistorical conception of the category of value – a conception that holds that surplus in all societies is based on value, but that in capitalism this is concealed – hence the need for a theory to reveal value (and human labour) as the basis for the surplus. Elson argues that Marx does not appear to have regarded value as a transhistorical category, and also that Marx’s concern was not to demonstrate that exploitation exists under capitalism, but rather to analyse the form of exploitation specific to capitalism. She argues, however, that this approach does at least keep the political charge of Marx’s theory at the forefront. (115-116)

(2) The theory of value allows Marx to explain prices.

Elson associates this approach with attempts to see Marx as a sort of critical culmination of classical political economy, proposing a theory with a similar object to that of Smith, Ricardo or Mill, which provides an explanation of equilibrium prices in a capitalist economy. Elson notes the (tacit or explicit) depoliticisation of the theory entailed by this reading – and also notes a tendency to hold the question of the determination of equilibrium prices to be so central that the category of value has come to be rejected, as arguments have been put forward that for why this category is inadequate to account for prices. (116-121)

She then opens a third possibility: that the object of the concept of value was never to theorise price – or, indeed, to account for “the origin or cause of anything” (121). She suggests that Marx’s concept of “determination” has been flattened into a notion of “cause” or “origin” in a way quite alien to Marx’s use of the term. (I agree with Elson on this – “determination” is one of a number of concepts that picks up very different analytical valences when lifted out of its Hegelian context and translated into the terrain of the applied social sciences – to the detriment of Marx’s analysis.) She therefore turns to an analysis of the object of Marx’s theory and the method of Marx’s analysis, as a necessary precursor to teasing out Marx’s relationship to Ricardo and to the questions that preoccupied classical political economy. (122-123)

Elson argues that the object of Marx’s theory was not the phenomena of exchange, but rather labour. In her words:

It is not a matter of seeking an explanation of why prices are what they are and finding it in labour. But rather of seeking an understanding of why labour takes the forms it does, and what the political consequences are. (123)

This analysis of the form of labour, moreover, is concerned with more than simply how labour is distributed within capitalism – a question that, for Elson, points back to the more traditional understanding of the labour theory of value. (124-128) It also points beyond the analysis of what Elson calls the “structure of production” – a concept Elson regards as too “deterministic” in a causal sense. (128-129) In Elson’s own words:

As several authors pointed out, Marx’s concept of determination is not ‘deterministic’… Although Marx stresses that determination can never be simply an exercise of individual wills, he also stresses that it is not independent of and completely exterior to the actions of individuals….

Distribution of social labour is not an adequate metaphor for this process of determination, because such determination always begins from some pre-given, fixed, determinate structure, which is placed outside the process of social determination. What is required is a conceptualisation of a process of social determination that proceeds from the indeterminate to the determinate; from the potential to the actual; from the formless to the formed. Capital is an attempt to provide just that. (129-130)

Elson notes that Marx’s formulations of this problematic, particularly prior to Capital, are often confusing and inconsistent – in part, she argues, because he was wrestling this problematic out of political economic texts that were concerned with something closer to a “labour theory of value”. Elson therefore centres her analysis on Capital, where she believes the object and method that are specific to Marx’s work are developed more clearly. (130)

Elson next offers the interesting suggestion that the readings of value theory she has already discussed are all guilty of what she calls a “misplaced concreteness” – a tendency to posit that certain “independent” variables are somehow already “given” in the process of production, while understanding the problem to be how to determine, based on those givens, certain other, “dependent” variables in the process of circulation. She argues:

It is simply taken for granted that any theory requires separable determining factors, discretely distinct from what they are supposed to determine….

This approach poses the relation of determination as an effect of some already given, discretely distinct elements or factors on some other, quite separate, element or factors, whose general form is given, but whose position within a possible range is not, using what Georges-cu-Roegen calls ‘arithmomorphic concepts’. Essentially a rationalist method, it assumes that the phenomena of the material world are like the symbols of arithmetic and formal logic, separate and self-bounded and relate to each other in the same way. This is not Marx’s method; his theory of value is not constructed on rationalist lines. (131)

“Arithmomorphic concepts” may become my new favourite term. I agree with Elson on this – I’ve been drawing attention to a similar problem by tugging on the issue of what Marx means when he calls Capital a “scientific” work – a phrase that is often misinterpreted in analogous ways to the concept of “determination” that Elson focusses on here. Just as Marx’s “science” is not an instrumental or positivist exercise, but an exercise in reconstructing a network of relationally-determined concepts, his notion of “determination” is intended to situate his categories within the network of relationships within which they acquire their present-day meaning: the concept of “determination” operative in his work is not a causal concept in an applied social science sense of the term.

Back to Elson: She argues that this presupposition – of givens strictly separated from dependent variables – operates even in some apparently unlikely places, such as in Althusser’s concept of “structural causality”, and in approaches that break with concepts of structure, only to try to recover “conditions of existence” purported to lie behind structure. (131) She then uses Ollman, as well as her own examination of Marx’s chemical metaphors and his complex discussion of the relationship between value, exchange-value, and labour time, to illustrate the ways in which Marx’s categories include within themselves aspects of the reality they are described as “determining” – undermining an interpretation that would see them in terms of independent-dependent variable relationships. (132-135)

She uses this analysis to argue that Capital, while viewing labour-time and price as distinct, does not understand the relationship between the two as that of an independent to a dependent variable. Elson argues:

The social necessity of labour in a capitalist economy cannot be determined independent of the price form: hence values cannot be calculated or observed independently of prices. (136)

Thinking back for a moment to the argument I’ve been making on the blog and in the thesis about Marx’s appropriation of Hegel: one of the things I’ve suggested that Marx draws from Hegel, is a peculiar argument about the relation of “essence” and “appearance”. Hegel criticises approaches that separate essence and appearance into two separate substances or worlds, and then try to answer the question of how these separate substances are related to one another. Essence and appearance are intrinsically related, for Hegel: they are mutually interpenetrating, mutually generative, sharing the same substance, but also distinct from one another. Marx takes this sort of argument over into Capital, with value presented as a kind of “social essence” generated in and through the flux and apparent lawlessness of the appearance of exchange (the argument is a bit more complex than this, as exchange isn’t the only site of “flux” – I’ll leave this point aside for now). In Marx’s argument, this social “essence” does not exist as some separate substance that sits outside exchange, determining the movement of “appearances” in the form of prices. Instead, value is something that emerges in and through that flux – a pattern or regularity that the flux itself generates, in and through its apparent random walk. Within this framework, it doesn’t make sense to talk about “value” as if it exerts a casual force on exchange as the dependent variable. Value is rather itself an “effect”, a “result”, intrinsically bound together with the flux through which it becomes manifest as a non-random pattern emergent over time. This pattern “determines” the flux, not in a casual sense, but as a description of the qualitative attributes of one of the aspects of, in this case, an overarching process in which both the “law” of value and the “flux” of exchange are moments.

I’m not suggesting here that Elson is making exactly the same argument, or would agree with how I’m am (somewhat clumsily) expressing the point here – I’m just trying to link her argument back to the ways I’ve expressed similar points recently on the blog. Elson, for her part, goes on from the quote above into a (to be honest, somewhat confusing to me – but that’s probably because I’m used to making this argument via Hegel’s essence/appearance distinction) discussion of “immanent measures”. Her point is to draw attention to what I usually call the “counterfactual” dimension of value-determining labour: the fact that this labour bears no relationship to empirically-observable inputs of labour time in production. She uses this to segue into an argument that money, not labour-time, serves as the social standard of measurement – and that labour-time and money are not understood as discrete variables whose proportional relationship to one another must be discovered, but rather as different forms assumed by a continuous a social process. (136-139)

Elson next asks whether she has perhaps demonstrated that Marx’s argument is incoherent, circular, or serves no purpose. If the argument can’t explain causation or origin in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, what possible purpose could the argument serve? (139)

To address this question, she moves to an argument about dialectical materialism – about Marx’s theory as theory of immanent historical transformation through which social forms dissolve themselves and change into new forms, via internal social dynamics with no external cause. In Elson’s read, this approach does not involve making an argument about how earlier social forms led to later ones: even if the raw materials for a later social form derive from an earlier form, it is not this story of historical origin that is important for grasping a social form – this would entail adopting a standpoint outside a social form, to grasp that social form – an approach that Elson argues falls back into the independent-dependent variable trap. Instead, social forms must be understood with reference to their own immanent logic – and uncovering how that logic suspends within itself contradictory moments or potentials that determine that social form as transient and transformable. (139-142)

Elson argues that it is these contradictory moments that Marx describes as “determinants” – and that this description does not imply that the “determinant” somehow sits outside the social form, causing that social form to unfold in a particular way. Instead, “determinants” are moments of a complex social form, isolated out in Marx’s analysis and considered in abstraction from one another, in order better to draw attention to the conflictual potentials embodied in the society as a whole. The analysis does not stop with this process of isolation and abstraction, but then moves on to resubmerge the isolated moments back into the social process, which we can now grasp differently, as a unity that presupposes all the conflictual moments that have been analysed in isolation. Elson’s description here again echoes points I have been making through my analysis of Hegel’s influence on Marx:

These different, counter-posed aspects are often referred to be Marx as ‘determinants’ or ‘determinations’ (just as the opposed movements whose resultant is the ellipse are referred to as ‘determinants’). But that does not mean that the form is produced or caused by the ‘determination’ or ‘determinants’ acting in some autonomous way… The point is that the determinants are not independent variables, but are simply aspects, one-sided abstractions singled out as a way of analysing the form.

The analysis of a form into its determinants is, however, only the first phase of the investigation. After this phase of individuation of a moment from the historical process, and dissection of the tendencies or aspects counterposed in it, comes the phase of synthesis, of reconstitution of the appearance of the form, and of re-immersing it in process… This second phase does not simply take us back where we began, but beyond it, because it enables us to understand our starting point in a different light, as predicated on other aspects of a continuous material process. It suggests new abstractions which need to be made from a different angle, in order to capture more of the process. The phase of synthesis brings us back to continuities which the phase of analysis has deliberately severed. The whole method moves in an ever-widening spiral, taking account of more and more aspects of the historical process from which the starting point was individuated and detached. (142-143)

This is a very nice description of Marx’s method in Capital. From my point of view, it omits some details that begin to explain the order in which Marx introduces this categories – but this is a sort of trivial point to make, in response to a brief discussion that has other argumentative targets in view. I like very much the way Elson emphasises Marx’s practice of taking something that presents itself as a unified object, and then breaking that object into aspects, and teasing out the often conflictual dimensions of each aspect – this point is quite central to how I read Marx. I’m less happy with the characterisation of this method in terms of a back-and-forth movement from analysis to synthesis, although these are terms that Marx himself occasionally uses in discussion of his work, and my unease is more a matter of concern that these terms – much like “determination” – have more common associations that don’t quite capture what Marx does. I like the way that Elson emphasises how Marx’s method makes it possible to transform our understanding of categories – although I would like to supplement this with a discussion of how the categories are then introduced based on the order required to tease out the relationships that connect them to one another, to reveal how categories presuppose one another, would also open up an argument about how our understanding of earlier categories comes to be transformed, not simply by Marx’s analysis of the moments of those categories, but by the unfolding of the later categories as well. Again, though, I don’t understand this as something required for what Elson is trying to achieve in this article.

Elson concludes this pivotal section by asking what form of knowledge we acquire through this method. Her answer:

It cannot give a Cartesian Absolute Knowledge of the world, its status as true knowledge validated by some epistemological principle. Rather it is based upon a rejection of that aspiration as a form of idealism…. It is taken for granted, in this method, that the world has a material existence outside our attempts to understand it; and that any category we use to cut up the continuum of the material world can only capture a partial knowledge, a particular aspect seen from a certain vantage point. (143)

Elson uses this point to argue that world cannot be appropriated fully in thought; she suggests, however, that it could perhaps be fully appropriated in practice (143) – a position I’m not sure Marx would share, as practice also has its situatedness, its form: I’m not sure that appropriation of the world can be “completed”, whether in thought or in practice… She then moves to a criticism specifically of “capital logic” approaches, on the grounds that such approaches confuse capital – which she takes to be a category of analysis – with an entity, existent in the world in some form. She argues that this move falls into an:

illusion, taking capital not as a one-sided abstraction, a category of analysis, but as an entity; and understanding the historical process of form determination as the product of the self-development of this entity. (144)

My reaction to this comment depends on what Elson means by certain key terms. As phrased, this comment strangely sounds to me a bit like a reintroduction of a sort of essence/appearance distinction of which Elson is critical in other moments of her account: the comment seems to position our “thoughts” about an object, as subsisting outside that object – and also to position our thoughts as, in Hegelian terms, “inessential” in relation to their object, which is constructed as separate from themselves. I take Marx instead to be making a practice-theoretic argument about the generation of categories of thought – such that what we “think” is what, in some dimension of social practice, we “do”. I take his arguments about value, abstract labour, capital, and similar “supersensible” categories to be Durkheimian – to be arguments that we are enacting such things as social entities by behaving as though such entities exist in our collective practice. This doesn’t mean that such entities exist somehow outside our practice, “determining” that practice in a causal sense – and I take it that it is this move of which Elson is critical, as this sort of move is both idealist and tends to be undermining of attempts to conceptualise agency. I understand the concern motivating her critical comments here. As expressed, however, these comments treat capital as more “illusory” than I think Marx takes it to be: capital is something we do, something we create – and also something we can undo, something we don’t need to create. It is a social – not solely a conceptual – reality in the present time; it needn’t be either a social or conceptual reality in the future.

I’m only about halfway through Elson’s chapter at this point – from here, having laid a solid foundation, Elson jumps into the textual and argumentative specifics of her reading of the labour theory of value. I think I’ll pause here for tonight – it’s getting late, and I have an early start tomorrow. Hopefully I can find time to comment on the remainder of the piece soon. [Note: part two here.]

Fragmentary Ontological Temptations

For some reason, I’ve been exhausted since the conference. I don’t think it is a reaction to the conference itself, but probably more to the way in which the process of writing the paper for this event, provided an excuse to pull together much of what I’ve been working on over the past few months. The event therefore had a certain “life passing before my eyes” quality that I think has left me in only a semi-responsive state… ;-P

There’s a seminar at Melbourne Uni all week this week on Badiou’s Being and Event – I had booked myself into this, figuring I would want a break from Hegel and Marx after the conference, and also figuring it would be a chance finally to tackle this work. The lecturer is one of the folks who had been involved in the excellent series on Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition back in July – an event I had used similarly, as a spur to get myself to work through something I had been meaning to read for some time. Both events have been organised under the auspices of the truly fantastic Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy, which runs events like this over the term breaks, and is about to start running an “evening school” during the term as well.

I’m only around a hundred pages into Badiou’s text – planning on reading enough to stay a bit ahead of the lectures, and to finish by the end of the week. And of course, in spite of reading this because I want a break from Marx and Hegel, I’m finding myself thinking about Marx and Hegel as I read. I’ll leave Hegel aside for the moment, but I did want to toss something up on parallels with Marx, mainly because it gives me an excuse to leave a placeholder for myself about something that came up at the conference, and about which I’ll want to write more later.

When I wrote the conference paper, I think I was expecting people to contest the sorts of links I draw between Hegel and Marx – not so much because it’s terribly controversial to claim that Marx is borrowing from Hegel’s concept of “science” in writing Capital, but because of the specific way I extend this claim by also drawing attention to some parallels between Capital and Phenomenology. On the one hand, this extension allows me to make sense of a lot of what’s going on in the first chapter of Capital in particular – and specifically to argue, as I did in the paper,

Shifts in perspective are particularly rapid in the first chapter of Capital, making this chapter a rich source for illustrating Marx’s analytical techniques. The text opens, as I have discussed above, with an “empiricist” perspective that limits itself to material and social phenomena that can be directly perceived by the senses. This empiricist perspective is adequate to introduce the opening category of the commodity, but the text must shift to a different perspective – a “transcendental” one – in order to unfold the categories of value and abstract labour, which are intangible social structures and therefore cannot be directly perceived by the senses. Their existence must therefore be intuited by reason. Finally, the text shifts to a “dialectical” perspective over the course of the derivation of the money form.

On the other hand, this extension also opens up what I would expect to be one of my more controversial claims about how I understand the critical standpoint of Capital to operate:

In Hegel, it is the confrontation with the inverted world that drives consciousness finally to recognise that its object does not reside in some separate substance or world outside itself, but is rather consciousness itself. Consciousness comes to recognise its own implicatedness in its object – comes to see that it has, in fact, been its own object all along. At this point in Hegel’s text, consciousness becomes reflexive – becomes self-consciousness.

Marx traces a similar sort of narrative in his analysis of the genesis of the money form, a narrative that culminates in a series of inversions of the distinctions with which the analysis begins. Significantly, after drawing attention to these inversions, Marx opens the concluding section of the chapter, where he discusses commodity fetishism. Here Marx finally voices explicitly that the forms of thought expressed earlier in the chapter are examples of what he calls fetishised forms of consciousness: forms that are valid for a specific social situation, but which have failed to grasp their own social conditions of possibility, and have therefore naturalised the contingent features of capitalist society.

By breaking into a more explicitly critical voice at this point in the text, Marx hints that, like Hegel, he endorses the position that more adequate forms of consciousness can arise immanently, through the confrontation with the contradictions and “inversions” generated by the reproduction of capital. Marx then structures Capital to draw attention to the ways in which later categories “invert” the conclusions the text had derived from earlier categories. As with Hegel’s argument about the “inverted world”, Marx’s “inversions” are intended, not to suggest that the “inverted” conclusions are “true” and the original conclusions are “false” – this would be to allocate “appearance” and “essence” to separate substances or worlds. Instead, the point is to illustrate that the same social context generates opposing potentials – that the process of the reproduction of capital is contradictory – and therefore that critical reflexivity is generated as an immanent possibility.

I expect this claim to be controversial because many interpretations of Capital see the form of critique expressed in the text to be a kind of unveiling, whereby an illusory dimension of discourse or social practice is penetrated by the critique in order to reveal an underlying reality that provides the standpoint of critique. In my approach, critique does not rely on an underlying reality: it is, so to speak, fetish all the way down. In this reading, however, the fetish is reinterpreted as a distinctive (and complex) structure of social experience that generates conflictual potentials, some of which are more likely to be recognised by social actors than others. I won’t rehash the entire argument here, as the paper covers it in brief, and the thesis will cover it in detail, but the basic claim is that Marx is not criticising the political economists for their failure to penetrate the fetish, but rather for their failure to explore how the fetish is generated in social practice – and, relatedly, what the various potentials of the practices that generate the fetish might be. The aim here is Benjaminian: to make our own history citable in (more of) its moments, and therefore to make political decisions possible based on a fuller sense of the potentials immanently available to us, rather than to conceive of political action as necessarily requiring a step outside of history, in order to criticise our society against normative ideals provided by some socially non-specific truth.

The conference paper necessarily covered this argument in a very condensed way and, because of the focus of the event on Hegel, spent much more time, relatively speaking, talking about Marx’s relationship to Hegel, than it did about how I understand the complex question of the sort of critical standpoint Capital makes available. One consequence of this, I realised during the discussion, is a few people were perhaps a bit too persuaded by my argument about Marx’s close ties to Hegel, and therefore came away with the sense that I am arguing that Capital is essentially an “idealist” work or an analysis of the internal contradictions and tensions within the discourse of political economy. Whether people then liked, or disliked, the implications of this, depended on their personal political and theoretical commitments. Regardless, it wasn’t quite what I was trying to argue.

Marx does organise the text to expose contradictions within political economic discourse, and understanding his relationship to Hegel helps in clarifying why he organises the text the way he does. The tacit metatheory underlying his critique of political economy, however, is more Durkheimian than it is Hegelian. I mean by this that, like Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Marx takes the position that we do not organise our social life in a specific way because we believe certain things or hold certain ideals, but rather we believe certain things or hold certain ideals, because we organise our social life in a specific way. This argument isn’t causal – the claim is not that we engage in certain practices, which then externally cause us to think certain ways: this would involve a dualism I think Marx rejects. The argument also isn’t functional – that we think certain ways because these forms of thought are useful for some social purpose. The argument is rather that practices are intrinsically bound together with tacit dispositions, such that the qualitative characteristics of our practices necessarily implicate the qualitative character of how we experience ourselves, perceive, think, etc. – and explicit theoretical reflection then tends to work, bricoleur-like, with the raw materials generated by our practical experiences. I’m reasonably certain this metatheoretical stance is what Marx has in mind, when he talks about how Hegel has everything “standing on its head” – i.e., has ideas driving practice – while Marx has turned things right side up again. (I’ll leave aside whether this is fair to Hegel, and also my own critique of the way in which Marx then emphasises one particular dimension of social practice – a move that, arguably, implicates his own analysis in some of the things he criticises in writing about the fetish.)

In this context, the analysis of “discourse” provides a window onto collective practices in a very general sense – and the contradictions and tensions within a discourse open onto contradictions and tensions in practice. A great deal of the legwork in Capital therefore consists in leveraging the tensions of political economic discourse, by using those tensions to unearth the lumpy and conflictual character of the sorts of practices that contribute in various ways to the process of the reproduction of capital.

So what does all this have to do with Badiou?

I couldn’t help but be struck by how much Badiou’s argument about being qua being, echoes Marx’s argument about value. (And please note I am only a quarter of the way through the text, and am not trying to make any serious point about Badiou, as I don’t have the basis to understand his argument in full. My interest is more in thinking through an issue in relation to Marx, by means of the different vocabulary set out in Badiou’s text.) I’ve now dog-eared a great many passages that struck me in this way – I’ll just pull out a single longish example for attention here:

Take any situation in particular. It has been said that its structure – the regime of the count-as-one – splits the multiple which is presented there: splits it into consistency (the composition of ones) and inconsistency (the inertia of the domain). However, inconsistency is not actually presented as such since all presentation is under the law of the count. Inconsistency as pure multiple is solely the presupposition that prior to the count the one is not. Yet what is explicit in any situation is rather that the one is. In general, a situation is not such that the thesis ‘the one is not’ can be presented therein. On the contrary, because the law is the count-as-one, nothing is presented in a situation which is not counted: the situation envelops existence with the one. Nothing is presentable in a situation otherwise than under the effect of structure, that is, under the form of the one and its composition in consistent multiplicities. The one is thereby not only the regime of structured presentation but also the regime of the possible of presentation itself. In a non-ontological (thus non-mathematical) situation, the multiple is possible only insofar as it is explicitly ordered by the law according to the one of the count. Inside the situation there is no graspable inconsistency which would be subtracted from the count and thus a-structured. Any situation, seized in its immanence, thus reverses the inaugural axiom of our entire procedure. It states that the one is and that the pure multiplicity – inconsistency – is not. This is entirely natural because an indeterminate situation, not being the presentation of presentation, necessarily identifies being with what is presentable, thus with the possibility of the one.

It is therefore veridical… that, inside what a situation establishes as a form of knowledge, being is being in the possibility of the one. It is Leibniz’s thesis (‘What is not a being is not a being‘) which literally governs the immanence of a situation and its horizon of verity. It is a thesis of the law.

This thesis exposes us to the following difficulty: if, in the immanence of a situation, its inconsistency does not come to light, nevertheless, its count-as-one being an operation itself indicates that the one is a result. Insofar as the one is a result, by necessity ‘something’ of the multiple does not absolutely coincide with the result. To be sure, there is no antecedence of the multiple which would give rise to presentation because the latter is always already-structured such that there is only oneness or consistent multiples. But this ‘there is’ leaves a remainder: the law in which it is deployed is discernible as an operation. And though there is never anything other – in a situation – than the result (everything, in the situation, is counted), what thereby results marks out, before the operation, a must-be-counted. It is the latter that causes the structured presentation to waver toward the phantom of inconsistency.

Of course, it remains certain that this phantom – which, on the basis of the fact that being-one results, subtly unhinges the one from being in the very midst of the situational thesis that only the one is – cannot in any manner be presented itself, because the regime of presentation is consistent multiplicity, the result of the count.

I’m realising as I finish typing this monster that I’m getting very tired, and won’t be able to write a proper argument to flesh out my point. Just a few quick notes then, and perhaps I’ll come back to this issue when I’ve read Badiou properly.

Leaving aside for the moment the context in which Badiou is asserting these sorts of claims, this and similar passages wouldn’t be a terrible way of trying to express what Marx is after with categories like “value” – categories which are dynamic structures that manifest themselves in and through the transformations of the objects of our immediate experience. As structures that manifest only through the transformations of more mundane objects of experience, such categories can never be “presented” in their own right – they possess no separate substance – but are instead “phantoms” that “haunt” the objects of our immediate experience. Viewed synchronically, there is nothing in the objects of immediate experience that would allow such “inconsistencies” – what I tend to call the “counterfactual” dimension of these categories – to be directly perceived or grasped.

Marx, however, views his counterfactual categories as socially specific – and tries to link them back to the practices that generate them. Something like value is generated in collective practice when social actors engage in a vast array of empirical labouring activities, without being able to know in advance which activities will successfully “assert themselves” to become part of “social labour”. The process by which activities succeed or fail in becoming successfully incorporated into “social labour” operates behind the backs of social actors. This process whereby the universe of activities undertaken, is forcibly reduced down to the much smaller subset of activities that get to “count”, is one of the bases for what Marx calls the fetish. Our collective behaviour, Marx argues, is tantamount to treating the products of labour as though they possess a supersensible substance (value) and treating labour as though it participates in a supersensible world (of abstract labour). Value and abstract labour thus become constituted in social practice as supersensible, counterfactual categories, because we behave as though such supersensibile entities exist. Having first simply “practiced” as though such entities exist, we eventually “deduce” their existence. Deduction is required because we are not consciously setting out to create such entities, and because these entities are intangible “structural” elements that can be perceived only through the lawlike deflection of the objects of our immediate sense experience.

Marx’s argument about the fetish suggests that the ontological status of these is particularly difficult for social actors to discern – this is the point of his joke about Dame Quickly in the first chapter of Capital: we don’t know “where to have them”. Confusion over the ontological status of the categories does not reflect a conceptual error: the qualitative characteristics of the categories themselves generate the risk that they will be “read off” onto some separate substance, something that resides behind the flux of our sensible experience of either the material or the (overtly) social world. Another way to come at this same point, from a different direction, is to say that it’s structurally tempting to treat certain categories of our social experience as “negations”, or categories that arise only once we subtract from everything that is specific to what we plausibly perceive as our determinate social experience. Marx wants to reposition these categories as “positivities” – to help us to recognise how they are constituted in some determinate qualitative form, rather than failing to perceive their determinate qualitative character because we are treating such categories as the results of a process of subtraction or abstraction from other sorts of entities.

In other words, according to Marx (and recognising that I’m skipping through this much too quickly), we are “primed” by at least one dimension of our social practice, to find elements of a Badiou-style ontology plausible. It’s important that this point not be made reductively: we are also “primed” by dimensions of our social practice, in Marx’s argument, to be receptive to notions of a material world governed by universal laws – this priming no doubt tells us something about the timing of the historical emergence of a particular style of scientific enquiry, but it would be a category error to jump from this historical insight, to any immediate judgement on the truth or falsehood of particular scientific claims. The same holds for other forms of thought whose emergence might seem to resonate particularly strongly with some element of Marx’s social critique.

Nevertheless, where we can demonstrate (and I don’t claim to have demonstrated in this post – again, these comments are just rapid placeholders before sleep overtakes me) that we might be primed by social practices to experience a form of thought as familiar, we can be conscious that we might find that form of thought persuasive, because it is familiar – as resonating with our existing habits of perception and thought – as being something we “recognise” as salient, without being fully aware of how or why. On another level, particularly when trying to develop critical theories or philosophies with an emancipatory intent, it can be helpful to play claims about socially nonspecific potentials, off against analyses of socially specific ones: Marx’s “structural” categories, for example, are the targets, not the standpoints, of his critique – the things he wants to abolish, not the things in whose name his critique speaks. Categories like value certainly do disrupt the “count” of the situation – they react corrosively back against what is – but this is not an emancipatory disruption, but rather a constitutive one. This doesn’t at all mean that Badiou can’t develop something critical using his own categories – only that the peculiarly dynamic and counterfactual character of the reproduction of capital might also need to be kept in mind, in order to prevent a kind of normative underdetermination that might suggest that any counterfactual category is, by dint of sitting outside presentation, automatically critical. Badiou may well thematise this issue – always a problem with commenting on such a text while only a fragment of the way through… I write as part of a process of thinking out loud, and without the intention of making anything resembling an argument at this stage. 🙂

HSS2008 Paper

I’m both wired and utterly exhausted. I presented today to the Hegel Summer School conference. Prepping for this event has been a bit all-consuming, and I haven’t been able to get my thoughts together for blogging or even responding to comments. I still won’t respond tonight – I just want to get the paper online, as I promised this at the event, but I need some rest before I can get back into the swing of blogging.

This paper was originally meant to bring together some of what I’ve been working on in the thesis, particularly in the second chapter, with some of what I’ve been writing on the blog, particularly in relation to the reading group posts for the Science of Logic and Phenomenology of Spirit. I had no idea, to be honest, that bringing this material together would prove as productive for me as it has – I now have a much clearer idea (I think…) of what I’ve been trying to say about Marx’s relationship to Hegel and also about the textual strategy of the first chapter of Capital. Most surprising and pleasant to me, was also finally figuring out something I’ve been dancing around for a very long time, about how Marx understands the textual strategy of the first volume of Capital, to relate to what I’ve been calling immanent critique. In a sense, writing this paper was almost too useful for me: now I have to go back and rewrite at least one, and possibly two, chapters in the thesis. One step forward, etc…

An event like this is so unusual and rare. Time to unfold a genuinely complex argument. Space to tackle some extremely difficult theoretical material. Incredible scope for discussion – we went, I think, for something close to three hours. Where many conferences have left me longing for the blog, where ideas can be worked out in detail and the discussion can sprawl, this conference is truly special. It was an extraordinary opportunity, and I’m humbled and a bit stunned by the time and attention and ideas and energy that the participants have put into the event.

My head is spinning from the ideas that came forward from discussion – I’m utterly unable to summarise any of it. I had been planning to wait to post the paper until I could perhaps say something about the issues that came up in discussion, but I’m realising that it may take quite a while for all of that to sink in. I’ll put the paper up now, and will most likely be working through the ideas sparked by the discussion in a more embedded way in whatever it is I write over the next while.

I’m conscious of many debts for this paper. The online and in-person participants in the Science of Logic reading group have been of enormous help as I’ve tried to get my head around at least a small slice of this text. Wildly Parenthetical took the time to read over an earlier version of this paper, and to workshop concepts, and generally to force me to be a little bit clearer (and perhaps bolder ;-P). L Magee somehow got drafted into chairing my session, and managed this last-minute appointment exceptionally well. 🙂 A number of people attended to provide moral support (one of my lasting memories from this event will be of my head of department, overhearing someone ask me during a coffee break, “So is your university a major centre for Hegel scholarship?”, and almost choking on his tea…). And others I haven’t named individually provided genuinely formative feedback on draft work.

I’ll place the intro above the fold to give a sense of the general theme, and the rest below, as of course it’s an hour-long talk, and so a bit bulky for the main page…

Fighting for What We Mean

I’m going to be talking today about Hegel and Marx, two thinkers who analyse relational networks of mutually-determining phenomena. This style of theory makes it extremely difficult to say anything, unless you intend to say everything. Marx and Hegel say “everything” in works totalling thousands of pages – in Marx’s case, works that were never actually completed. Today, we have an hour. An hour in which I have tried to say at least something – but have perhaps included a bit more of everything than might have been ideal. What I suggest is that, particularly if you aren’t familiar with the texts I am analysing, you not worry about the details of the argument, but focus instead on the overarching contour. I can review the details if needed during discussion, and I will place the talk online after this event for anyone who wants to work through the arguments more closely.

The title of the event today – “Solidarity or Community: Philosophy and Antidotes to Fragmentation” – frames the problem confronting us in a very specific way. It suggests that:

  1. fragmentation – understood as the breakdown of the social bonds connecting us to one another – is a central theoretical and practical problem for our time – something that requires an “antidote”;
  2. two potential “antidotes” present themselves immediately to us: one, encompassed in the concept of “solidarity” and the other, encompassed in the concept of “community”; and
  3. philosophy – specifically, Hegelian philosophy – may be able to help us understand why social bonds are breaking down, or how we can prevent or correct this breakdown.

The title suggests that something – let’s call it capitalism – is corrosive of social bonds – that it erodes such bonds, and that such an erosion is a bad thing, something that deserves to be the target of critique. Yet capitalism is presented here, not simply as something that produces negative effects, but as a negation – as something that strips away, leaving us to confront a gap or an absence – which then must be filled by some new sort of positive social bond, in order to avoid fragmentation.

The question I want to consider today is what might be missing from this picture: what are we at risk of overlooking, if we thematise capitalism one-sidedly, as a corrosive force that erodes social bonds? Is there any sense in which we can grasp capitalism as constitutive or generative of some particular kind of social bond? If capitalism can be understood as generative in this way, then why is the problem of social fragmentation so striking? These questions, I suggest, carry us into the heart of Marx’s motivation for appropriating Hegel’s work, when he sets out to write Capital.

Hegel is perhaps Marx’s most consistent theoretical reference point, and Marx critically appropriates a number of Hegelian concepts in his work. Today, I want to focus on two concepts that are particularly important in making sense of the textual strategy of Capital: Hegel’s concept of “science”, and the associated methodology Hegel sets out in the Science of Logic; and a complex set of arguments relating to appearance, essence, and inversion, which Hegel makes with different emphases in a number of works – for today’s talk, I will focus on the version of the argument Hegel presents in the early chapters of the Phenomenology of Spirit.

When thinking about how to appropriate Hegel’s work for critical social theory, his concept of science or his arguments relating to appearance and essence are not necessarily the ones that most immediately leap to mind. It is more common to turn to Hegel’s own more direct reflections on civil society, the state, and other recognisably “social” topics, to discuss Hegel’s comments on labour and the master-bondsman relation, or else to explore the complex theme of mutual recognition. These dimensions of Hegel’s work are logical starting points for a social theoretic appropriation, as they seem most directly to touch on questions that we recognise intuitively as “social” – questions relating to intersubjectivity, social relations, or social institutions.

It is therefore particularly striking that Marx’s relies quite heavily on the more abstract, “philosophical” – and, in fact, “idealist” – elements of Hegel’s project, when developing the structure and method of Capital. Today I’ll briefly sketch what I mean by this claim, in order to render more visible the tacit methodology at work in Marx’s text. Focussing particularly on the categories of the commodity and labour power, I then illustrate how recognising Hegel’s influence can help us make sense of elements of Marx’s argument and presentational style that are otherwise easy to overlook. From this foundation, I return to my opening question of whether something might be missed, if we conceptualise capitalism as a negation – as something that corrodes social bonds – without asking at the same time what sort of distinctive social bond capitalism might also generate. Read more of this post

Scratchpad: The Greatest Difficulty (No Kidding…)

all work and no play makes jack a dull boyOkay. Below the fold, one substantially – substantially – revised version of my previous attempt to develop a sort of programmatic chapter, outlining the broad brush-strokes of how I’m attempting to approach Capital in the thesis. This version sucks much less than the previous version – it’s decent enough that I would even post it to the main page, except that it’s simply too long (@12,000 words, for those tempted to peer below the fold). This time around, I managed not to forget my main argument while writing the piece. Hopefully this version comes a little closer to addressing some of the fantastic questions Alexei raised in relation to the previous iteration – it’s impossible for me to express how valuable such thoughtful, sympathetic critiques are in the formation of this project, particularly when, as Alexei did, someone takes the time to offer such criticisms with reference to an incredibly crude and… er… speaking frankly, deeply problematic version of the argument I was trying to make.

There are elements with which I’m still fairly uncomfortable. I’ve used, for example, a language of “embodied cognition” in some programmatic bits of the text. While this is a useful shorthand for some of what I’m trying to say about Marx’s argument, it’s also not completely accurate – at least, I don’t think it is… But for the moment, it’s somehow sneaked its way into the text, perhaps to be replaced by something more adequate later on.

There are also elements that are still, essentially, placeholders – the discussion of Phenomenology of Spirit, for example, may well be replaced by a discussion of the treatment of essence and appearance from the Logic – but I haven’t decided yet, and I’m ready to write on these issues in relation to Phenomenology, whereas I’m not quite ready to do this in relation to the Logic, so I’ve written the version that I can include now, in order to give readers at least some sense of what I want to argue in that portion of the chapter.

There is a lot of stylistic chaos in the piece – particularly in the final half, which I still find myself substantially revising each time I look at the text. A few parts have survived relatively unscathed since the previous version: the first two pages are similar, as is the summary of Hegel’s “With What Must the Science Begin?” Everything else is completely new, and therefore as raw, in its own way, as the draft I tossed onto the blog last time. I think this version has a clearer sense of what it’s trying to do, and I hope the internal structure is adequate to render the connections between the various sections clear, and that the piece provides sufficient background along the way that readers aren’t having to struggle to figure out what I am trying to argue. We’ll see…

The text loses something from having the footnotes excised: I write a lot of footnotes, often make substantive points in them, and engage with other literature primarily in this apparatus. It’s unfortunately clumsy to reproduce such things on the blog. As with the previous version, there are heavy debts here to Patrick Murray (for his work on Capital as a Hegelian “science”), Derek Sayer (for his work on Marx’s methodological eclecticism), and Moishe Postone (for his work on Capital as an immanent critical theory), as well as passing references to many others. I’m happy to clarify these sorts of debts in the comments, if anyone is curious.

I owe a very different sort of debt to certain people who have been putting up with my various thesis-related freakouts off the main page 🙂 Everyone who walks within range at the moment gets an earful of speculation about how Marx understands the relationship between essence and appearance. I suspect somehow that most folks don’t find this topic quite as enthralling as I seem to at the moment. I’m therefore particularly grateful to the ones who haven’t yet started running the other direction whenever they see an email from me 🙂 Such support is more deeply appreciated than you can know. You’re welcome to “out” yourselves here if you’d like, but otherwise I’ll keep under wraps that you get sneak peeks of ideas that are too ill-formed even to toss up on the blog. ;-P

Below the fold for the piece itself… Although I am still revising this piece, and working on the following chapter, there is a real sense in which working out what I’ve posted below really has been the “greatest difficulty” for me. I’m going to take a break from the blog and from all forms of writing for the rest of the day, but I will hopefully find time tomorrow at least to update the list of posting related to the Science of Logic reading group, which has seen a burst of inspired reflections over at Now-Times during the period when I’ve exiled myself from blogging to get this other writing done. Read more of this post

Scratchpad: How Must the Science Begin? (Not This Way, Surely…)

*sigh* This is awful. But I’m tired of looking at it, I need to move on now and write other things, and dumping it on the blog seems the best way to draw a bright, embarrassing line under it, and force myself to move on. Some version of this piece in the near future will be much better. It has to be. But that’s not going to happen this week. So below the fold this goes – a sort of framing mini-chapter, intended to do roughly the same work that the “Fragment on the Textual Strategy of Capital post did for the blog series on Capital, now that I’m finally ready (as I had mentioned wanting to do in the blog series) to outline this argument a bit more adequately, with reference to the work I’ve been doing on Hegel’s Science of Logic. My problem with this piece isn’t so much how it reworks these specific arguments – it’s more with everything else that somehow sneaked in along the way, with how many unintegrated layers this text seems to have acquired in its very brief life, and with the many sections where I know – please trust me, I know – I need to develop further what I have said, but where every time I add something, it just seems to make everything that much worse…

So below the fold it goes. Good riddance, for the moment at least…

Read more of this post

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Fragment on Form and Content

This will be a bit shorter than last night’s blurt… ;-P I just wanted to capture a thought before it escapes me again. I’ve been suggesting across several posts that the opening passages of Capital should not be read as expressions of Marx’s own position – at least, not in any straightforward way – but rather as expressions of a position “given” immanently within a moment in the reproduction of capital, from which Marx will then unfold evidence of other such moments, gradually establishing a more and more detailed “determination” of capitalism. I take the form of argument to be an appropriation (and critique) of Hegel’s notion of how a “science” must proceed: beginning with a principle that may initially appear arbitrary and dogmatic, but that is gradually demonstrated over the course of the analysis to be non-arbitrary, as it can be shown over the course of the analysis that from this starting point can be unfolded determinations of the world that generates the starting point itself. The analysis is thus reflexive – it loops back on itself and, by the end, justifies its point of departure, showing this point of departure to have been, not a dogmatic beginning, but instead a mediated product of the world analysed. The analysis also progressively determines the beginning in greater and greater detail as it proceeds, such that only by the end, when all determinations have been unfolded, is it at last possible for the beginning to be understood.

Okay. So back – one more time! – to the beginning of the first chapter of volume 1 of Capital:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.

I am suggesting that this apparently arbitrary beginning will be reflexively justified by the end of the work, by progressively unfolding a more and more complex and concrete “world” from this starting point, suggesting that the starting point already presupposes (could only become a starting point given the existence of) these more concrete and complex determinations. I am also suggesting that the “meaning” of this beginning will be understood only at the end, when the beginning can at last be grasped in its determinate relationship to the world of which it is the product. The apparently simple and immediate category of the commodity will be shown to presuppose and be determined by a dynamic and complex social world whose contours are not yet fully visible at the opening moments of the text. This is the argumentative burden Marx has assumed, with this particular “Hegelian” vision of immanent critique.

In this series, I’ve for the most part stayed within what can be shown with reference to the text of this one chapter, and so I haven’t gone very far in the direction of showing how these early categories come to be repositioned in later moments in the text. I’ve made a couple of passing references to how the commodity – which at this point appears to be only a “thing” that is produced by human labour – can also be human labour-power, bought and sold on a market. And I’ve mentioned that this further determination of the starting point reveals explicitly that the comments made about “commodities” and their properties (as material things with supersensible essences) are also intended to specify ways of being in the world for commodities of the human sort. So, even if it is not fully explicit on a first “cold” read of the text, it becomes evident from how the text develops, that Marx is from the outset making an argument about the self-experience of social actors – about forms of perception, thought, and embodiment – and not simply an argument about how people treat “things” of a non-human sort.

This evening, I was thinking about the form-content distinction introduced in these early passages – I have often quoted this section:

Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.

The passage suggests that there is a material content – use value – that is timeless and “true”, which comes in history to be covered over by arbitrary social “forms”, which are contingent and ephemeral. In this formulation, there is no intrinsic connection between form and content: the content stays the same, in spite of the permutations in form. Content and form have no necessary connection to one another.

I have suggested in a number of posts that Marx is critical of this perspective: that this is not his own perspective being voiced, but a perspective he is trying to “locate” – to situate as a position that becomes plausible, given the experience of a moment of the reproduction of capital, but that fails to recognise its own partial and situated character. I have also suggested that Marx is trying to make an argument about the need to grasp the relation between form and content – that he is critical of political economy, in this and in other sections of the text, for its lack of curiosity about the relationship between content and form. I offered a few comments on this issue in yesterday’s post, which I won’t replicate here. What I wanted to mention tonight was simply one of the things that happens, as Marx further “determines” these opening categories.

Use value – which is determined initially as relating to the material properties of the commodity, the commodity’s physical side – is initially determined as only arbitrarily related to exchange value – which is determined as a social form that has nothing to do with the physicality of the commodity. As the text moves on, however, this arbitrary and apparently extrinsic relationship begins to break down – specifically around the puzzle of how surplus value comes to be generated. Marx rules out the notion that surplus value could arise solely from the process of exchange itself: somehow, something surplus has to be generated – it has to arise, and not simply to be circulated. As it turns out, in Marx’s analysis (and apologies – it’s very late here, and so I’m going to be extremely truncated – this is simply a placeholder so I won’t lose the thought) surplus value arises… from a use value. Specifically, from the use value capital acquires when it purchases the commodity labour power on the market. The commodity labour power is bought at its value – which, as with all commodities, relates to its costs of production. But when this commodity is used – is consumed, in this case, consumed in the production of other commodities – it produces new value. So here the form/content divide with which Capital opens is both sustained and broken down: on the one hand, the division between the use value and exchange value of the commodity labour power enables the production of surplus value; on the other hand, the use value of this particular commodity does not exist in an arbitrary relationship to the generation of value – this content is, instead, essential to the reproduction of this form.

This isn’t the only point in the text that reinforces this point – again, it’s late, and I’m just writing a placeholder for now to show something of how the analysis unfolds, beyond the confines of the initial chapter. My point is that Marx, on the one hand, wants to “rationalise” the sorts of distinctions with which he opens the book – to show the various ways in which these distinctions become socially plausible and arise in everyday practice, and therefore become intuitive to thought. On the other hand, Marx wants to suggest that these distinctions may reflect partial understandings of the overarching dynamic of the reproduction of capital – that core dimensions of this dynamic cannot be grasped, unless partial distinctions are grasped as moments of a whole that may contradict such distinctions in other dimensions of social practice. The form/content distinction with which Capital opens expresses one dimension of social practice – it has a social validity of a sort. But this distinction breaks down in ways that are pivotal to understand, in order to grasp the sorts of historical tendencies and dynamism that characterise the reproduction of capital.

Late. Tired. Hopefully I won’t regret having posted this when I wake up… ;-P

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Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: What Is the “Social Character of Labour” in Capitalism?

Still not comfortable tossing online my attempted overview and consolidation of the work I’ve been doing on this section. At the moment, I’m struggling with how to articulate something in relation to the concepts of abstract labour and commodity fetishism. I thought perhaps I could get back into the series on the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, by thinking out loud a bit about what Marx means by the following comment, from the section on commodity fetishism:

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

So what is the peculiar social character of this labour?

It’s not unusual for interpreters to gloss this section in terms of the sentence immediately following:

As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities, only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society.

If this sentence is emphasised, the “social character” of the labour that produces commodities, seems to consist in that this labour is undertaken by private individuals or groups of individuals. Yet it’s clear from the section just below this in the text – Marx’s playful discussion of Robinson Crusoe – that he doesn’t hold that private or individual labour, just by dint of being private or individual, is necessarily fetishised:

All the relations between Robinson and the objects that form this wealth of his own creation, are here so simple and clear as to be intelligible without exertion, even to Mr. Sedley Taylor. And yet those relations contain all that is essential to the determination of value.

The key phrase here is “intelligible without exertion”: the central question that opens the issue of the fetish for Marx is why it should be necessary to discover the existence of value, and why the determination of value by socially average labour time should be a “hieroglyphic” only deciphered through the detection of lawlike properties beneath the seemingly random flux of everyday experience:

It requires a fully developed production of commodities before, from accumulated experience alone, the scientific conviction springs up, that all the different kinds of private labour, which are carried on independently of each other, and yet as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour, are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. And why? Because, in the midst of all the accidental and ever fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour time socially necessary for their production forcibly asserts itself like an over-riding law of Nature. The law of gravity thus asserts itself when a house falls about our ears. The determination of the magnitude of value by labour time is therefore a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities. Its discovery, while removing all appearance of mere accidentality from the determination of the magnitude of the values of products, yet in no way alters the mode in which that determination takes place.

It is important to understand that Marx does not take for granted that societies should be subject to laws whose existence, nature, and practical origin is not immediately transparent to participant social actors. Marx provides a number of examples toward the end of this chapter, running through social arrangements that are good and bad, emancipatory and oppressive – but all regulated through means that are “transparent” to participant social actors and “overtly social”, whether in the form of custom, force, or self-governance by free members of an emancipated community. That capitalism should be characterised by non-overt laws whose “objective” character obscures their origin in social practice, is therefore part and parcel of its distinctive character. A theory that presupposes that there should be such non-overt laws, and then sets out simply to uncover them, misses a significant aspect of the puzzle that capitalism poses.

Back with the original passage, Marx continues:

Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers.

Above Marx said that “The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society.” By itself, that could imply that “social labour” was simply a conceptual abstraction: add up whatever private individuals empirically do, and you arrive at total social labour – regardless of the subjective isolation and privatisation of the individuals and groups whose efforts are collected into this aggregate. We already know from the examples used earlier in the chapter that Marx doesn’t mean this: not all labour empirically expended gets to “count” as “social labour” for purposes of the reproduction of capital. Hand loom weavers operating in the period of the power loom, producers whose products do not form a use value for sufficient numbers of others: the empirically-expended labour of these private producers, regardless of time and energy actually expended, does not fully “count” as part of social labour.

The privatisation of empirical labour, then, is not itself the “peculiar social character of the labour that produces [commodities]”. Rather, privately-conducted empirical labouring activities are a sort of process that takes place prior to the point at which “the labour of the individual asserts itself as a part of the labour of society”, while “the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange”. Commodities (rather than simply use values) are produced only in and through this coercive process that culls the efforts empirically expended in production, winnowing down to a smaller subset of those labouring activities that get to count as part of the labour of society (from the standpoint of the reproduction of capital). This winnowing process is manifested by the exchange of goods, with the proportion in which goods exchange revealing how much, and what kinds, of the empirical effort thrown into production, becomes successfully incorporated into “social labour”.

The “peculiar social character of the labour that produces [commodities]”, therefore, is the result of this process – the outcome – the coercive, unintentional and blind collective judgement of social actors who are not deliberately attempting to achieve any specific vision of what will count as “social labour”, but whose actions nevertheless do result in “reducing” empirically-undertaken labouring activities, down to what “counts” as social labour for purposes of the reproduction of capital.

Marx is trying to distance us from this process – to denaturalise it – to get us to see it anthropologically, in its alienness and exoticism. His evocative metaphors are attempts to recapture the sense of strangeness we lose in taking our own context for granted. Our collective behaviour, he argues, is equivalent to acting as though there there is some supersensible world of social labour – “human labour in the abstract”, he has earlier called it – that is not identical with the sum total of the empirical productive activities that we collectively undertake in aggregate. Marx speaks of commodities as “social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses”, and of exchange value “expressing the amount of labour bestowed upon an object” (i.e., not the amount of labour expended in the object’s empirical production) (italics mine). We elevate our collectively chosen empirical labouring activities by behaving as though they partake in this supersensible world – by allowing them to “count” as part of social labour to the extent that they produce goods that we collectively treat as the bearers of an homogenous supersensible essence – by treating these goods, in other words, as though they have “value”.

This supersensible world haunts our empirical activities – exerting a coercive force on them that generates certain lawlike effects, which allows us eventually to deduce the presence of this otherwise intangible realm, by following its indirect traces in immediate empirical experience. Its presence must be deduced because it does not align directly with our empirical activities: “social labour” is not the sum total of all labouring activities that private individuals empirically carry out; “value” cannot be discerned by examining the physical object that will bear value in the social process of exchange. The supersensible realm constituted in social practice thus possesses a counterfactual character in relation to immediate empirical experience, and its presence is therefore initially easy to miss in the apparently random flux of individual decisions, empirically diverse productive activities, and the ever-fluctuating proportions in which goods exchange.

Marx will argue that this “supersensible world” that gives commodity-producing labour its peculiar social character, and whose constitution exerts such coercive effects on empirical activities, nevertheless arises nowhere else aside from the flux and change of the immediately empirical realm: a major goal of Capital, across all three volumes, is to account for how such a process might unfold. His argument about commodity fetishism – and here he traces back over ground Hegel covers in the discussion of appearance and essence from The Science of Logic, and in the sections on Perception and Force and Understanding from the Phenomenology of Spirit – is targeted at forms of thought that fail to recognise that the supersensible “essence” of value arises only in and through the apparently random and contingent flux of the world of “appearance” – and that there is therefore a necessary relationship (so long as capitalism is sustained) between “appearance” and “essence”, contingency and law, form and content, what we take to be historical and what we take to be natural, in capitalist society. Paralleling Hegel’s argument about essence and appearance, Marx suggests that the supersensible, counterfactual, non-immediate character of “social character of labour that produces [commodities]” creates an immanent temptation to regard “form” and “content” as only externally and arbitrarily connected with one another – and to understand “essence” and “appearance” as subsisting in two different substances or worlds, one arbitrary and subject to change, and the other timeless and transcendent.

Revisiting the opening passages of Capital will place a more concrete spin on the mystical-sounding Hegelian language in play here. Marx opens Capital with an argument that commodities can be defined as containing use value and exchange value. These two parts of the commodity are described in terms of a form/content distinction:

Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.

The relationship between the content or substance of use value, and the form of exchange value, is posited here as arbitrary: “in the form of society we are about to consider”, the social form of wealth involves exchange value – by implication, this social form is different in other societies, while the material substance of use value remains a timeless and untouched content, in and through these arbitrary fluctuations in social form.

By the time Marx reaches the argument about the fetish, if not before, we know that these opening passages are intended to be examples (among others in this chapter) of fetishised thought: that they do not reflect Marx’s own perspective, but a perspective that “presents itself” within capitalism, which has a certain “social validity”, but which can be criticised from the standpoint of other perspectives that are also immanently generated within the process of the reproduction of capital. This doesn’t mean that Marx will simply reject such forms of thought. His goal is rather to render available the insights of various immanently-generated perspectives, by locating them in relation to the process of the reproduction of capital, and by casting light on their relationships with one other and with everyday forms of social practice. He argues:

The categories of bourgeois economy consist of such like forms. They are forms of thought expressing with social validity the conditions and relations of a definite, historically determined mode of production, viz., the production of commodities.

Hegel somewhere comments that the joke is that things appear as they are. Marx’s argument about the genesis of the fetish follows a similar insight. He therefore attempts, not to dismiss the fetish – to reveal it to be a mere illusion or a sort of cognitive defect that can be cast aside by shining the cold light of objectivity on capitalist society – but rather to account for its plausibility: why this form of subjectivity? Why this experience of self? Why this experience of world? How might we understand the non-arbitrary character of this set of habits for apprehending this social configuration? How might we grasp this as something “real” – but real “for us”? Note Marx’s phrasing in the following passage:

the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. (italics mine)

Marx’s criticism here is not that social actors are operating under an illusion, e.g., that things have entered into social relations, and persons into material ones. His criticism is that political economy does not go far enough in understanding how we have collectively constituted such a situation – and in exploring the implications of this situation from the “inside”, to see what potentials this situation holds. Marx then pairs this with a practice-theoretic notion of the ways in which forms of perception, thought, and embodiment are constituted and shaped in determinate ways by our everyday practical experience of such a social world – among many passages:

The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. The twofold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every-day practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labour possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful, but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labour has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labour, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labour, have one common quality, viz., that of having value.

Hence, when we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it.

In this and similar passages, Marx is suggesting that we are collectively enacting a situation in which everyday experiences render it plausible to experience our selves and our world in terms of material receptacles that partake in a single, uniform, homogeneous, supersensible substance, and intuitive to think in terms of immediate, empirical, sensuous entities whose apparently random movements are governed by supersensible lawlike forces. The practical social experience that “primes” us to be receptive to resonant forms of perception and thought is, however, prone to being misinterpreted as an experience of an asocial, “material” world, for determinate reasons: it is unintentional; it involves forms of coercion that are genuinely impersonal, abstract, and “counterfactual” in relation to immediate empirical experience; the lawlike operations of the supersensible realm are coercive and drive determinate forms of change in the realm of immediate empirical experience, thus rendering the realm of immediate empirical experience visibly contingent and “overtly social”, and reinforcing, by contrast, the sense that coercive laws arise in an asocial realm independent of human practice, etc.

From this perspective, both parts of the opening definition of the commodity – use value and exchange value – as well as the relation between these parts, are all equally “historical”. This claim will seem counter-intuitive, given the abstract and universalistic “materialist” meaning Marx has given to use value in the opening passages: surely it is in fact the case that material wealth is the substance of all wealth, whatever the social context? How could such a claim ever be historicised? But the movement of this chapter already suggests the determinations that lurk beneath the surface of this apparently asocial universal: how is it that we have available to us a general category for “material wealth as such”? Why does such a category originate only in certain circumstances, if it is truly such a timeless universal? And what of the “secular” character of such a category – the ability to segment off a “material” world understood as intrinsically devoid of social determinations, even if we should then project social determinations onto this void: from what standpoint does this become clear to us? How have we suddenly managed to step far enough outside our own social determinations, to recognise the intrinsic secular materialism of the natural world?

To treat such insights as “discoveries” – as timeless truths that have, quite unaccountably, suddenly become apparent to us, as if on the strength of our rational acumen alone – is, tacitly, to treat the standpoint from which the theory is articulated as a negation: to take the theorist to be speaking from a position of neutrality or objectivity that contains whatever universal content happens to be left behind, once all arbitrary particular contents have been stripped away. Other times held superstitious, culturally-conditioned visions of an anthropomorphised nature: we do not. Other eras made strange social distinctions between types of labour, but we now understand that all forms of labouring activity are united in being expenditures of human physiological energy. Etc. Marx explicitly and repeatedly mocks the political economists for such views: it is implausible that he engages in this form of critique himself.

So what is he doing instead? My suggestion is that he is trying to keep multiple perspectives simultaneously suspended in critical focus at the same time. He is not simply targeting his critique to secure the abolition of the “overtly social” elements of capitalism such as exchange value: he is trying to understand why certain dimensions of social practice sudden become visibly and overtly dimensions of social practice – why it becomes so clear that these are arbitrary and potentially contestable dimensions of collective life. At the same time, he is not basing his critique on purportedly more timeless “material” dimensions of nature or social life – nor is he simply trying to assert that what we take to be timeless, isn’t really timeless at all: he is trying to understand why certain dimensions of social practice come plausibly to appear as asocial – in part due to how they interact with, and mutually differentiate themselves from, other dimensions of social practice that are constituted as visibly contingent and overtly social. In the mix is the nucleus of an argument about how we might become “primed” in social practice – in our everyday experience of a dimension of social life that we experience as asocial – to search for certain qualities in nonhuman nature (and perhaps to be relatively less sensitive to other qualities), with ambivalent consequences for nature and for human society.

Does this mean, then, that Marx would reject, for example, the notion that something like “use value” could be said to be the material substance of wealth in all human societies – or, to state the question more generally, that he would repudiate the notion of making comparisons across historical time? I think the answer is clearly no – he would, and often does, make historical and comparative analyses that deploy contemporary categories. To do this, however, is to look out at the past with our eyes, to ask our questions, to make, in Benjamin’s terms, a “tiger’s leap” into the past, hunting for resonances with our own moment. The target of this sort of critique is not so much to undermine historical comparisons, as to ensure that we don’t miss an opportunity to grasp something about how our own society is constructed in practice: to ensure that we are attentive to possibility that there may be some special sense in which our society enacts “use values” as a general category of collective practice – some sense in which our society is really, as a matter of practice, so indifferent to the particular forms in which labour is expended and the types of products that are produced and consumed, that a “universal” category like “use value” obtains a practical reality for us that might explain the social plausibility or intuitiveness of such an abstract concept. To ignore the sense in which “use value” is uniquely and particularly a category of capitalist society is thus also to lose a source of insight into our contemporary situation, by mistaking a practically-constituted indifference that enables a universal category to arise as a kind of “real abstraction”, for a mere “conceptual abstraction” that takes itself to reflect an isolated cognitive process of generalisation from concrete particulars.

There is an argument here, in other words, about the ways in which categories that seem purely “material” – categories that seem to lack anthropological determination and that seem to be genuinely universal and non-specific to social context – are the categories that, for Marx, most purely express the most distinctive elements of the distinctive form of sociality characteristic of capitalism. Capitalism steps forward here as a society whose distinctive form of anthropological determination consists in its apparent freedom from anthropological determination – in its “disenchanted” character, its “secularism”, its “materialism” (which isn’t to say that Marx views capitalism as a purely secular form of society – “materialism” isn’t the only thing Marx is trying to ground – but he is nevertheless interested in capturing the fetishised character of even these apparently sober and scientific forms of thought). Certain kinds of universals and abstractions have a real, practical existence to which Marx is trying to draw attention: he wants to treat such things, not as negations or as what remains when determinacy and particularity have been stripped away, but as positivities in their own right, as actively constituted in collective practice, hiding in plain sight under the guise that they are nonspecific to any particular human society.

If I am correct, and this kind of argument is in play, then this greatly complicates the question of how to understand Marx’s critical standpoint. He won’t simply be criticising exchange value, for example, as the arbitrary social form that is contingent in comparison to the transhistorical “material” reality of use value. He won’t simply be criticising the strange social form of labour in capitalism, against the standpoint of labour understood as the expenditure of physiological effort. Both poles of the various dichotomies he tosses out in the course of unfolding his analysis in Capital are, I am suggesting, equally subject to critique. By the same token, however, critique in this context doesn’t automatically mean rejection: the critique is immanent to its object; Marx isn’t relying on an untainted Archimedean point from which he will claim to gaze at capitalism from “outside”. Critique within this framework involves grasping the interrelations among immanently-available perspectives – and then actively appropriating the resources those perspectives make available, in ways that react back on the reproduction of capital.

Thus the distinction between use value and exchange value, for example, can be wielded critically – without this requiring that the use value pole of this dichotomy be taken as an asocial “material” universal: it suffices that capitalism make immanently available a perspective that continuously suggests that wealth could be founded on material abundance, rather than on value. This critical insight does not depend on the metaphysics of what Marx sometimes calls “naive materialism” – on the claim that “material” realities are somehow more “true” than socially-constituted ones. It can be important not to rely on such naive materialist claims. To take an example that runs through the subtext of this chapter: the argument about the (accidental) social constitution of a kind of human equality. If the “material” (physiological) equality or identity of human beings were taken as the standpoint from which the ideal of social equality were asserted, this would actually step back behind insights gained (however coercively) from the experience of enacting a kind of human equality solely by force of collective practice. Biological difference could become the arbiter of social practice – a position that can be criticised, perhaps somewhat ironically, from the standpoint of insights generated in genuinely oppressive circumstances in which diverse labouring activities are all reduced to the common denominator of value. Marx wants to overcome this destructive process of reduction – but he also treats this process as one that has taught us something, however unintentionally, about the ability to enact something like equality through a purely social process that ignores material differences. This process of immanently mining potentials associated with different moments in the reproduction of capital can continue from here – for example, into critiques of the particularly abstract visions of equality that have tended to emerge in these circumstances – and on and on.

I toss out these examples only as gestures, without claiming they are central to how Marx perceives his specific critical standpoint in this text – my point is simply to give a sense that Marx’s analysis begins to unfold a fairly wide range of immanently available perspectives, all of which, as currently deployed, play some role in the reproduction of capital – all of which are therefore “tainted” or implicated in the reproduction of what Marx wants to overcome. This implicatedness, however, doesn’t mean that critique is impossible: we can still make our own history – just not in conditions of our own choosing. Marx is attempting to illuminate some of the potentials embodied in these circumstances we haven’t chosen, to open up a greater possibility for effective political self-assertion in the future.

I need to develop all of this in much further detail, and link it together with the materials I’ve written in earlier sections. My energy is flagging tonight, so I think I’ll break off here – with apologies that I suspect much of this could be much more clearly stated, and with better support from the text. 😦 As much as I’ve written in this series about Marx’s terminology and textual strategy, I find that I am struggling a great deal over my own presentational choices over how to present this material in a cogent way. Working back through the relevant sections of Hegel has helped in some ways – mainly in terms of giving me a better appreciation for how deeply Marx is playing with Hegel’s work in these sections. Reading Hegel is never particularly good for encouraging clarity of expression, though… ;-P I’m not hitting what I’m trying to say with the essence/appearance discussion in particular (sorry to Tom about that in particular). That, and I’m still just struggling to express what I think Marx means by concepts like “abstract labour”, “value”, and the “peculiar social character of labour” in capitalism. A bit frustrated at my own lack of clarity here… Hopefully I’ll do a bit better next time…

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With What Must the New Year Begin?

chaoscopeA post for midnight, to confirm a tradition, and to kick off the reading group discussion for this year: some brief, very preliminary reflections on the section on “With What Must the Science Begin?” from Hegel’s Logic of Science.

Hegel begins this section by situating its question in time: “It is only in recent times that thinkers have become aware of the difficulty of finding a beginning in philosophy” (88, emphasis mine).

Earlier periods, Hegel argues, set out a principle – a determinate content – of philosophy, understood either as an objective beginning of everything, or as a criterion of the nature of cognition. In comparison to these determinate contents, the subjective moment of philosophy – and thus the form of philosophy and the question of where to begin – were regarded as accidental and arbitrary, as lacking any necessary relationship to philosophy’s content. Questions of truth or ground seemed to be questions of content – of ontology – alone (89).

Modernity is distinctive in being concerned with how the principle – the determinate content – of philosophy could be established non-dogmatically. To ontology, then, epistemological questions have been added. Hegel points here to a triad of problematic possibilities that have emerged in response to this epistemological anxiety: first, the mirrored antinomies of dogmatism and scepticism, which share the notion that beginnings can never be more than arbitrary decisions, but then divide over whether they accept or reject this move; next, what Hegel regards as an even more fundamental retreat – the attempt to displace method and logic by the appeal to inner revelation. Against these possibilities, Hegel puts forward a fourth option: the subjective moment of philosophy must be recognised as an essential moment of objective truth; the form of philosophy must be united with its principle; the process of thinking must be the process of unfolding the principle (90).

Hegel’s approach, however, alters the sorts of questions that can be answered, outside the unfolding of the philosophy itself. Hegel can stage whisper what his answers will be – pointing to the form the philosophy ultimately will take. To his opening question of whether the beginning of philosophy is mediated or immediate, he can answer:

…there is nothing, nothing in heaven or in nature or mind or anywhere else which does not equally contain both immediacy and mediation, so that these two determinations reveal themselves to be unseparated and inseparable and the opposition between them to be a nullity. (92)

Stated this way, though, the answer appears dogmatic – a raw ontological assertion. The adequate demonstration of this answer requires the unfolding of the system as a whole. To abridge this process – to ask how the system will address questions, aside from watching these questions and their responses unfold immanently within the system itself – is a performative contradiction:

…to want the nature of cognition clarified prior to the science is to demand that it be considered outside the science; outside the science this cannot be accomplished, at least not in a scientific manner… (92)

But what does it mean, to unfold a system immanently from a starting point? How is it possible to generate the starting point itself, reflexively, by unfolding its own potentials, in a way that loops back to demonstrate that starting point to be non-arbitrary – non-dogmatic – non-decisionistic?

Hegel foreshadows his answer. He discusses the starting point that he will actually use, in this work, in his system. A starting point that is the result of the “science of manifested spirit”, which began from “empirical, sensuous consciousness”, and led to the “Idea as pure knowledge” (93). He describes this result, this starting point, as without distinction, as simple immediacy – but as simple immediacy that contains a reference to its distinction from what is mediated. He describes it as “being and nothing else, without any further specification or filling” – but as being that has arisen – that has come to be, through a process of mediation that has suspended itself (93-97).

The Science of Logic picks up from this result, taking the result as it presents itself, immediately, without presupposing anything else: “its only determination is that it is to be the beginning of logic, of thought as such” (95, 98). Again Hegel notes the risk of apparent dogmatism: this beginning “can also be regarded as arbitrary”, precisely because it is abstract and does not presuppose anything, is not determined in relation to anything else, is not mediated by anything, and does not have a ground (98). The beginning is immediacy itself – pure being (99).

Hegel has already indicated that other questions must await the unfolding from this beginning – ruling out the concept that metatheoretical comments at this stage could do justice to the nature of the argument, or adequately explain how this beginning will be immanently grounded through the unfolding of the system. Wait, he has said – and will say a number of times again. Be patient. See. There is no answer aside from the unfolding. This is, in fact, a central substantive claim of his approach.

But metatheory tempts him. Perhaps some preliminary gestures will be useful. He sounds impatient with himself for not being able to resist such moves – “preliminary prejudices”, he calls them, and dismisses them from the outset as moves that have no place within the science itself (100).

Yet these preliminary prejudices contain some of the most interesting commentary in this section. He begins by criticising the suggestion that philosophy could only begin with a hypothetical, an interpretive gamble whose outcome is not initially known. Hegel rejects this position, but – as always with his critiques – he also derives something from it: he associates it with an important insight. Specifically:

… progress in philosophy is rather a retrogression and a grounding or establishing by means of which we first obtain the result that what we began with is not something arbitrarily assumed but is in fact the truth, and also the primary truth. (101)

It’s difficult to paraphrase Hegel here in a way that would add anything to his formulations – readers will hopefully forgive me a further quote:

… absolute spirit which reveals itself as the concrete and final supreme truth of all being, and which at the end of the development is known as freely externalizing itself, abandoning itself to the shape of an immediate being – opening or unfolding itself [sich entschliessend] into the creation of a world which contains all that fell into the development which preceded that result and which through this reversal of its position relatively to its beginnning is transformed into something dependent on the result as principle. (102)

So here the starting point, the beginning – the principle – is also the result, the end, of the very process unfolded immanently from that from starting point. For Hegel, this renders the starting point non-arbitrary – non-dogmatic – as it provides the beginning from which can unfold a world which itself unfolds this beginning, which generates this principle.

[If anyone has wondered why I use the ouroboros as a site logo, this conception of critique is the reason… 😉 Although, via Marx, I would argue that a process that would enable this form of critique, is itself the process that must be overcome – this form of immanent theory is something that, if critical, aims to abolish itself, along with its object… But these aren’t thoughts I can develop adequately here… Back to the text…]

At this point in the narrative, Hegel does something extremely interesting – something somewhat unexpected. He draws a distinction between form and content. Specifically, he distinguishes between the particular beginning of the Science – his content, his principle (which is also meant to be form) – and this conception of the form of critique:

The essential requirement for the science of logic is not so much that the beginning be a pure immediacy, but rather that the whole of the science be within itself a circle in which the first is also the last and the last is also the first. (102, emphasis mine)

In another author, this sort of move wouldn’t be so striking. And there are ways to interpret this statement without contradicting Hegel’s overarching argument. Hegel is so sensitive, though, to moves that suggest that something is arbitrary or inessential – he is so focussed on the unity of content and form. In such a context, this sentence opens the trace of a potential: has Hegel quite captured what he thinks he has captured, if even his text contains threads of a divide between his content – his principle – and this form? Marx will tug on such threads to unspool his own immanent critique, in Capital.

Hegel moves on from here to provide further details of the movement of this kind of critique: the beginning, although it may appear arbitrary or one-sided at the outset, will itself be shown to be a mediated result and, through progressive determinations, will lose its apparent one-sidedness. The inferences made from this beginning point are not abstract negations or rejections of the starting point, but are instead further – less abstract, more detailed – determinations of the beginning. The beginning is therefore preserved in everything that follows from it, in and through a process of transition and negation – indeed, the process of transition and negation, ultimately, is the process through which the beginning is constituted and preserved. For this reason, the beginning is actually not known at the beginning: it is fully determined only in and through the fully developed system. For this reason, as well, the beginning is not arbitrary, provisional, or hypothetical: it is the only possible beginning from which the totality that generates such a beginning can unfold. (103-107)

Hegel moves on from here, away from this more “essential” requirement, and back into the specifics of his… particular beginning. He foreshadows elements of the argument to come, providing the sorts of preliminary justifications whose validity he has also repeatedly ruled out, and engaging in skirmishes with a few other approaches. I’ll leave this material aside for the tonight – hopefully the post is substantive enough at least to open discussions for the new year 🙂 I have a little one wanting to play with sparklers, now that it’s dark enough to see them – I’ll set this post to go live at midnight.

Thanks to everyone who has participated in discussions here over the past year – I have benefitted more than any of you could possibly know from these engagements, and I hope we have opportunities to have many more such discussions in the coming year.

[Note: image @sandyckato]