Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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In an indirect and incomplete way, some of the questions currently hanging in the comments here, I’ve addressed – sleepily – in a comment over at Nate’s… Rather than spreading the discussion across two sites, I thought I’d just post a pointer over there… Eventually (soon?), I’ll try to take up some of these issues over here…

Many Fragments on the Centrality of Wage Labour

Too long – and too sketchy – therefore below the fold with everything but the first paragraph (with the warning for readers tempted to click through that the hidden content does not do justice to the apparent theme)…

Why does Marx maintain that wage labour is central to capitalism? Praxis points out in a recent post that there are at least a couple of potential ways that capitalism could be defined in dialogue with Marx’s work: as a runaway process of production become an end in itself; and as a process of production centred on wage labour. Marx seems to think these two definitions are mutually implicated – in historical factuality, if not in conceptual or practical necessity. How, though, does Marx understand this mutual implication? Read more of this post

Impure Inheritances

Below the fold is something like the text delivered on Friday afternoon to the Derrida Today conference. This is a jointly-authored piece, delivered by NP, co-written with the appropriately recently-deceased, and therefore undeconstructibly spectral, Praxis Blog. Those who have been following along in the blog discussion leading up to this talk will realise that what is reproduced below the fold is half the argument: the talk covers our working interpretation of why Derrida omits the “hand” when he quotes the passage in which Marx christens the commodity fetish – and explores what this omission implies for how Derrida understands Marx and the possibility of inheriting Marx today. Along the way, we manage to talk in a somewhat rambling fashion, about a rather sweeping range of other things – but somehow in all of this, we never quite stumble across the second half of our own argument, which will attempt to outline a different sort of inheritance of Marx through a reinterpretation of the argument about commodity fetishism. The fetish, therefore, continues to haunt us – imminent, but not yet presenced, below – and yet not below – the fold… Read more of this post

Hand Waving

So just to lob one more random association into the cross-blog discussion of whose hands Derrida is amputating when he edits the passage in which Marx christens the fetish. We’ve discussed the possibility that these are Marx’s hands and Heidegger’s hands – what about Husserl’s? From On Touching (2005 pp.179-180):

This last example (the visible hand touching a visible object) defines the typical situation upong which Husserl establishes the privilege of touch in the strong sense – as the possibility of “double apprehension”: touching-touched. And this possibility, which depends on the hand or in any case a visible part of my body, presupposes a surface, the visibility of it, and (“then,” dann, says Husserl: but we may wonder what justifies this succession) the possibility of moving toward empathy and the indirect appresentation of the other man’s solus ipse. Let me quote this passage again: “… and is then transferred over in empathy: the other’s touching hand, which I see, appresents to me his solipsistic view of this hand and then also everything that must belong to it in presentified co-presence….

Hence our question: if this possibility of appresentative empathy, of indirect or analogical access, already partakes of the solipsistic “moment” – be it as a virtuality but thus also as an essential possibility – how can it be said that it comes “then,” afterward, finding itself grounded in an intuitive and pure presence or co-immediacy? And thus if we assume the “interiority of psychic acts,” isn’t it necessary, from the outset, that visibility, being exposed to the outside, the appresentative detour, the intrusion of the other, and sort forth, be already at work? And would this not condition, or at least co-condition, that on which it seems to depend and that it seems to follow, moreover in the very inside of the touching-touched as “double apprehension”? Mustn’t the intruder already be inside the place? Isn’t it necessary that this space thus open up the place for a replacing, and that it make room for the substitute, the metonymical supplement, and the technical?

Let me be more precise about the meaning or orientation of our question. Denying the possibility of a tactile experience of the touching-touched is not the point; but in acknowledging what its manual or digital example implies (as best and paradigmatic example, or “guiding thread” of the analysis), I ask whether there is any pure auto-affection of the touching or the touched, and therefore any pure, immediate experience of the purely proper body, the body that is living, purely living. Or if, on the contrary, this experience is at least not already haunted, but constitutively haunted, by some hetero-affection related to spacing and then to visible spatiality – where an intruder may come through, a host, a wished or unwished for, a spare and auxiliary other, a parasite to be rejected, a pharmakon that already having at its disposal a swelling in this place inhabits one’s heart of hearts… as a ghost.

Apologies for the lack of commentary (and for the decontextualised quotation, which I’ve severed awkwardly from its surroundings…) – buried under work today, and mainly just archiving this as a note to myself and Praxis…


I’ve banned myself from substantive writing until I finish the remnants of my marking, but wanted to point to interesting things happening elsewhere.

First, for those who haven’t seen, Praxis is heading into blogging hiatus – I suspect very much not in order to enable greater laziness, as claimed. 🙂 A medium-term blog holiday, Praxis suggests – so a return to look forward to, in the longer term.

Second, Drew over at Contaminations has a beautiful post up, riffing off some of the ideas Praxis and I have been bouncing around about Derrida’s elision of the “hands” from Marx’s fetish discussion. Drew suggests the hands in question might be Heidegger’s:

the hand, which is intimately caught up with the thought and speech for Heidegger, and therefore thought is the primordial handicraft, that is production and the source of all technics (and Derrida notes that Heidegger refers to Marx here). The hand, so emphasised by Heidegger, is caught up in all the metaphysical themes, according to Derrida, that Heidegger wants to think beyond. Derrida traces all of this in interesting directions to do with national socialism and animality and sexual difference (the resonances of geschlecht).

This seems right to me – but just to double check a point with Drew, while I’m thinking about it: Derrida has scattered through the text various sorts of references to the spectrality of technics – of production. Part of what I hear in his critique of Marx is a criticism of a position that is quite common in certain forms of Marxism: Marx is heard as a theorist who believes that “in reality” labour determines material reproduction in capitalism, but capitalist social relations (the market and private property) obscure this role. When Marx is read this way, the fetish passage sounds like a critique of (in Derrida’s terms) the spectrality inappropriately imposed by the market, on relations that, absent this spectrality, could become fully transparent. Marx is then understood as wanting to exorcise this spectrality – to reveal the truth that has been obscured by capitalist social relations, so that what is already an underlying reality – the centrality of labour – can be allowed to come into its own, and structure social life openly. I take this to be the sort of Marxism – or the particular spirit of Marx – that Derrida finds in the fetish passage.

Against this, I hear Derrida as both asserting that the spectral cannot be separated from technics or production in the way this reading of Marx suggests – that production is always already haunted, such that the abolition of exchange value could not abolish the spectre. And I also hear a critique, not just of this particular attempt to abolish the spectral, but also a critique more generally of attempts to ground critical standpoints in some ideal of a fully “transparent” or “intelligible” social reality – a critique of the notion of critical standpoint as something that emerges from a process of “unveiling” or of stripping away of the artificial, in order to reveal some more fundamental reality underneath.

So Derrida… hides the hands – exorcises the specific move through which Marx, in Derrida’s reading, claims to be able to strip aside the veil of exchange value, to reveal the underlying reality of labour. Derrida takes away this gesture toward an “underlying reality”, in order to preserve the ghost that haunts the non-identity of the context – and in order to selectively inherit Marx in a form different from that manifested in the Soviet inheritance.

Happy to be corrected on any of this – just my working thoughts on the kind of Marxism (the particular spirit of Marx) Derrida sees in the fetish passage. My question for you (Drew, that is 🙂 ) is: how compatible is what I’m writing, with the claims you are putting forward about the dialogue with Heidegger? In other words, I don’t see our points as at all incompatible – I agree that the Heideggerian referent is there, although it’s not what I’ve been trying specifically to tease out – but I’m curious whether you see a tension – whether the specific way you see Derrida to be speaking to Heidegger, suggests a different sort of critique in play when he hides the hands? Or just another layer to that critique – a layer directed (as I think it clearly is) more broadly than just at Marxism or Marx? Just curious, if you have time, if you’d like to comment specifically on this.

And third: Nate over at what in the hell… has a fantastic post up – covering a great deal of ground but, of particular interest to me, reflecting on the issue of continuity and epochal shifts, with specific reference to post-operaisti theory. A taste:

Lotta Continua dissolved in part over an incident I forget when, maybe 1973 or 1974, where men from their group got into a physical confrontation with an all women’s feminist march. Leaving aside moral outrage (which is sufficient for me, but is not the terrain of marxist analysis), if reproductive labor is value productive by this point – as Negri et al say it becomes in the passage to the new epoch – then this was at best a serious error with bad results for the interests of the working class/multitude. If reproductive labor was not then value productive, then the act was wrong (a tactical miss-step and patriarchal bullshit) but the analysis which said that the women’s movement was a distraction may have been more right.

This last kind of thing is a big deal for me, and wherever we set the goal posts we could find a similar situation of ostensibly radical men telling women (or whites telling people of color or …) that the time was not yet ripe for their struggle. The post-operaisti claims to epochal shifts strike me as serving a valuable function in undermining those sorts of “now is not the time yet” claims in the present because the time now is definitely pretty ripe for these cats (this is one of the things I like about that material; incidentally one of the earlier sources for material on the Italian situation was a journal/pamphlet published in Ireland called The Ripening of the Time) and if that’s all that matters then maybe I’m just off base here, but I think it’s an important gap that this material does not help at all in asking previously if other previous moments, “now’s” which are now over, were _also_ the time, as in they had a shot at it. Because lurking in the back of this epochal stuff is a sort of implied “no, then was not the time” kind of moment. Hardt and I got into an argument about this at a conference, friendly but no less an argument, I was trying to push him about the Diggers and other forebears in struggle that I think matter a great deal for us in the present. He finally said “look, then why wasn’t there a revolution in England back then?” with the implication being that it couldn’t be done yet. That’s what most bothers me about all this epoch stuff.

As always with Nate’s posts, much much more in the original.

The Exorcism of the Exorcism

So, since Praxis and I hatched this scheme of writing a collaborative piece on Derrida’s Specters of Marx, all sorts of fantastic conversations and debates around the work have cropped up around the blogosphere. Unfortunately, I’ve been either been preparing to be away, or actually away, while most of these discussions unfolded, meaning that I’m only very inadequately across the content. These conversations range across much wider territory, and go into much greater depth, than the rather limited scratch across the surface I’m about to post here, so I thought I should send readers on their way to more expansive discussions, while I take this opportunity to talk shop publicly with Praxis, who will hopefully not mind my shouting random draft concepts across the net, now that we can no longer workshop them face-to-face…

The proximate starting point for this collaborative project was my noticing an elision in Derrida’s text. In discussing the passage in which Marx names the fetish, Derrida omits a single sentence, subtly alterring the meaning of Marx’s text. I’ve written about Marx’s fetish discussion somewhat interminably over the past year, so for present purposes I’ll presuppose those discussions and just seize what I need to highlight what Derrida is done (anyone who wants the gory details can find the most recent synoptic version of my argument here).

To summarise – first, from my point of view: In the passage where he builds up to the naming of the fetish, Marx has established that the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity do not derive from the commodity’s “parts”, whether those parts pertain to the commodity’s use value or its value dimension. Instead, Marx has argued, the peculiar qualitative characteristics that seem to inhere in commodities, derive not from the parts, but from the whole – from the relation into which those parts have come to be suspended – from the form of the commodity itself.

Marx is actually quite explicit about the nature of his argument: he runs through the various parts of the commodity relation that relate to the commodity’s use value dimension, and concludes: “The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value.” Everyone gets this part of Marx’s argument.

What is more often overlooked is that Marx does exactly the same thing, in the subsequent passage, with reference to the commodity’s value dimension. He prefaces this discussion with the quite explicit claim: “Just as little does it [the mystical character of commodities] proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value.” There is a marked tendency to overlook this sentence, since the assumption is generally that Marx wants to criticise exchange value from the standpoint of use value, and thus to attribute the fetish to the exchange value dimension of the commodity – to the market or the process of exchange. That sort of reading struggles, however, to make sense of where Marx goes next in the text, which is to break the value dimension of the commodity down into its constituent components (as he has just done above with the use value dimension), in order to argue that none of those components, abstracted from the commodity relation, explains the metaphysical properties of the commodity. A similar strategy is in play later on in the same chapter, when Marx will run through a series of historical and speculative examples that reassemble the component parts of the commodity, within the context of very different social relations, in order to argue that, absent the commodity relation, the fetish does not arise.

So. Marx argues, in my reading, that the fetish does not derive from any of the component parts of the commodity – leading to the obvious question of what the fetish derives from instead. Marx’s argument, I suggest, is that the fetish arises, not from the parts of the commodity, but rather from the whole – from the overarching relation into which those parts have been suspended. Marx expresses this point: “Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.”

Marx then goes on to say a bit about this form (I’ll skip over the details, as I’ve discussed them elsewhere), and then moves into the passage where Derrida makes his selective edit – the passage where Marx christens the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity form with the name of the fetish. In Marx’s version, this christening passage reads:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

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.

Derrida does a couple of interesting things with this passage when he reproduces it. First: Marx’s presentation moves through two analogies – the first, to a physical relation whose origin is genuinely asocial; the second, to a social relation whose origin is intersubjective. He uses these two analogies in tandem, I have argued, to set up a three-way contrast that helps him mark off the most peculiar characteristic of the phenomenon he is trying to pick out: that the fetish arises from a social relation – but a strange sort of social relation that is not intersubjective in its origins. Instead, this peculiar social relation arises as a sort of unintentional consequence of an aggregation of social practices that are not aimed toward bringing a social relation of the kind about. The concept of the fetish captures the qualitative characteristics of this unintentional and accidental social relation – and also aims to explain why it is socially plausible for the social agents who enact this relation, to interpret the qualitative characteristics of the relation as though these characteristics inhere in the various component parts through which the relation is effected.

In Derrida’s re-presentation of this argument, the first analogy – the one that makes reference to “a physical relation between physical things” – is analysed in a separate section of the text, separated by some distance from the passage in which Derrida analyses the remainder of the fetish passage. This enables Derrida to find a much stronger and more exclusive relationship between the analogy Marx draws between the fetish and religion, than the original passage suggests. Derrida’s re-presentation breaks apart Marx’s more complex three-way contrast between physical relations, social relations that are intersubjective, and social relations that are not intersubjective, and implies a much more straightforward equation of the fetish with some sort of “ideology” or mere false belief.

Derrida further reinforces this impression by removing a sentence when he quotes the passage in which Marx names the fetish – specifically, the sentence in which (on my reading) Marx actually tries to express that the fetish is an attempt to talk about a non-intersubjective social relation. Derrida’s iteration of the fetish passage goes:

There [in the religious world] the products of the human brain [of the head, once again, of men: des menschlischen Kopfes, analogous to the wooden head of the table capable of engendering chimera – in its head, outside of its head – once, that is, as soon as, its form can become commodity-form] appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race…. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself [anklebt] to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them. (p. 208-209)

The ellipsis in the middle of the quotation removes the sentence where Marx distinguishes fetishism from religion, arguing that, in the commodity relation, social agents somehow posit the existence on intangible entities (value, abstract labour), but not via the sorts of intersubjective processes such as shared beliefs or ritual practices through which they enact the intangible entities that figure in religious practice. Instead, Marx argues:

So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. (emphasis mine)

The non-intersubjective register of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism is therefore elided in Derrida’s selective inheritance or transformative interpretation of Marx. The question is: why?

This was a recurrent touchstone in the discussions Praxis and I held while I was in London. I can point out, as I’ve done above, what aspects of Marx’s argument – from the point of view of my own reading – become obscured by the way in which Derrida alters this passage. I can also say that it’s clear enough that Derrida wants to transform the meaning of this passage – there is some sort of exorcism here that Derrida seeks to perform, in order to carry out his selective inheritance of a certain spirit (but not other spirits) of Marx. The text is structured around a series of reflections on how inheritance is both selective and performative: the dead cannot bury themselves – they least of all are safe from us, their heirs. Derrida’s inheritance will be violent – he warns us. The question is what sort of inheritance he is enacting, and why.

In the dreamwork of a text saturated with references to Freud, Derrida sifts through the residue of the day – the happenstance of Fukuyama’s declaration of the End of History – setting up a narrative criss-crossed with complex parallels between characters, more than one of whom is a cipher of sorts for Derrida. Fukyama’s text resurrects old critiques of communism, Derrida tells us, while reviving a thinned out spirit of a certain Hegel in a drably farcical restaging of Kojève; Derrida chases Fukuyama, in the process counting off ten plagues – setting up a parallel to Marx’s pursuit of Stirner, which also punctuates its argument to the count of ten; all the major figures in the text chase after Hegel – a latent content whose inheritance lurks beneath the much more manifest pursuit of the spirit of Marx.

Derrida foreshadows heavily the coming excision of Marx’s hands – even adding to the text, after the original lectures, an extended reflection on Valéry (3-10) that pivots on a textual elision, priming the reader for the elision to come. Derrida first points out a passage in which Valéry includes Marx within a skull handled by Hamlet:

In “La crise de l’esprit” (“The Crisis of the Spirit” 1919: “As for us, civilizations, we know now we are mortal…”), the name of Marx appears just once. It inscribes itself, here is the name of a skull to come into Hamlet’s hands:

Now, on an immense terrace of Elsinore, which stretches from Basel to Cologne, that touches on the sands of Nieuport, the lowlands of the Somme, the chalky earth of Champagne, the granite earth of Alsace – the European Hamlet looks at thousands of spectres…. If he seizes a skull, it is an illustrious skull – “Whose was it?” – This one was Lionardo. … And this other skull is that of Leibniz who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant qui genuit Hegel, qui genuit Marx, qui genuit. … Hamlet does not know what to do with all these skulls. But if he abandons them! … Will he cease to be himself?

(p. 3-4)

Derrida then finds a later iteration of this same passage, one in which Valéry quotes himself, but omits the sentence that contains Marx’s name, inscribed in the skull of Kant. Derrida asks of Valéry:

Why this omission, the only one? The name of Marx has disappeared. Where did it go? Exeunt Ghost and Marx, Shakespeare might have noted. The name of the one who disappeared must have gotten inscribed someplace else. (p. 4)

What is disappeared or displaced must be re-inscribed, Derrida tells us – and hands – the hands omitted from the fetishism discussion – paw their way around this text – explicitly, in the form of recurrent references to hands and parts of hands – and also more tacitly: the stage setting for this text is the apparent triumph of the market’s invisible hand, over the planned economies that had once proclaimed themselves Marx’s heirs. But this still leaves us with the question – a question Praxis and I did not fully resolve in our discussions – the same question Derrida prompts us to ask of him, by asking it himself of Valéry – by emphasising the need to ask precisely this question, a need felt so urgently as to justify the post facto modification of the original talk in order to set up the parallel with Valéry: Why this omission, the only one? The hands of Marx have disappeared. We have a sense, perhaps, of where they went, of how Derrida has reinscribed them in his text, and of where invisible hands might have been reinscribed in our own times. But why? Why this specific gesture? What sort of transformative inheritance is Derrida hoping to enact, through this selective excision from Marx’s corpus?

One suggestion – underdeveloped. This is a work about chasing after ghosts. We chase after ghosts – and we become spooked. We want to control our ghosts by exorcising them – by banishing them – by driving them away. Derrida early characterises these attempted exorcisms as a fort/da game: we chase after ghosts, but not to drive them away, not really, but because secretly we want them, we need them to come back. He further suggests that, uncomfortable with the uncanniness of a haunted, spectral world, we stall in the process of mourning, becoming caught in the effort to ontologise the remains – to identify and localise the spectral, so as to abolish it. Fukuyama does this, Derrida suggests, with the spectre of communism – Soviet communism also tried to control this same spectre, presencing the revenant that initially appears in the Communist Manifesto as an expectation, a threat from the future menacing old Europe, as the spook haunting a time out of joint. Controlled and fixed, localised and ontologised, pinned down into a definite form, this threatening spook comes to be actualised and embodied in a totalitarian shape. Derrida points to Fukuyama’s apologist habit of differentiating a certain ideal of liberal democracy and the free market, from all the various empirical deviations from this ideal: by implication, this same question arises in relation to Marx’s most visible real-world heirs – how comfortably can we carve off a communist ideal from its totalitarian realisation? Is there some other way to inherit Marx?

Derrida pairs this question with the question of our relation to spectrality in a more general sense. Is there some other possible relation we can adopt towards our ghosts, Derrida asks – some gesture that doesn’t simply seek to banish the ghost by locating and its remains, some space between life and death that might step outside the logic that sees the spectre perpetually displaced and reinscribed through repeated, obsessional attempts to eradicate spectrality as such? Derrida, in the figure of Horatio – the scholar enjoined to speak to the spook – attempts to inherit Marx in a way that might effect such an alternative relationship to spectrality.

Derrida reads something of the Soviet inheritance out of Marx, specifically in Marx’s critique of Stirner in the German Ideology, and in Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. Derrida’s concern is that Marx shares with Stirner the desire to exorcise the ghost – the quarrel between the two revolves, on Derrida’s reading, around the most appropriate technique for achieving this common end. In Derrida’s interpretation of the fetish passage, Marx inappropriately attempts to ontologise the spectre – to locate and identify its remains: in exchange value – in something that can be abolished, so that it become possible to overcome the spectre, to send it away: exeunt ghost and Marx. Derrida seems to read Marx’s reference to “the products of men’s hands” as part of an argument that the spectrality that haunts capitalism can be exorcised by rendering explicit what is currently tacit: by explicitly realising the centrality of labour as the structuring principle of social life, through the abolition of the market; by freeing the use value dimension from its spectralising other, exchange value.

Derrida, by contrast, has made gestures throughout the text concerning the spectral character of various technologies – the spectrality, then, of production, rather than exchange – an ineradicableundeconstructible – spectrality grounded in production as such. Derrida’s edit to Marx’s text symbolically keeps labour secret – disappearing from view the products of men’s hands – removing the step by which, in Derrida’s read, Marx attempts to exorcise the spectre by casting off the veil that covers over what Derrida takes Marx to see as true relations of capitalist society: in Derrida’s version of this argument, the ghost gets to stay. Always still to come, always to haunt, forever non-identical with a present time perpetually out of joint: this is the certain spirit of Marx, the spirit of the Communist Manifesto, the spirit of a communism that is threatening, but not presenced, that Derrida enacts in his selective iteration of Marx’s text.

What Derrida effects here, then, is an exorcism of exorcism. He attempts to inherit in a way that maintains in perpetuity our ability to communicate with the ghost. In a text filled with figures chasing ghosts in order to eradicate spectrality, Derrida wants us to chase them – as he believes a certain spirit of Marx knew how to do – in order that they may continue to enjoin us to set our time right. This task, for Derrida, is intrinsically bound with the ongoing destabilisation of the present, as a time perpetually out of joint.

Very tired now, and not able either to support these claims (which are in any case provisional readings), or to develop their implications, or to suggest how I would unfold a critique from here – of both Derrida and Marx. Tasks for a later time. Apologies for the impressionistic character of these remarks… So much still to do…

[Is it completely wicked for me now to say: Praxis – over to you 🙂 *runs and hides*]

Making Scarce

Lots of really good work has gone up – in the form of both individual blogging and cross-blog discussions – while I’ve been away. I’m only very slowly catching up – I’m fairly far away from being able to comment sensibly. Over the next few days, I’ll at least try to toss up some pointers to interesting discussions elsewhere, even if I’m not yet up to participating substantively myself. For the moment, I wanted to toss up a couple of links to two pieces over at Larval Subjects, where Sinthome is blogging about scarcity, reflecting on Deleuze & Guattari’s suggestion that notions of lack or scarcity operate to rationalise existing forms of social organisation. Sinthome ties this together with Meillassoux’s critique of ideology and concepts of metaphysical necessity, and then builds on these thoughts to ask a set of questions touching on those that informed the post here on Social Construction. Sinthome writes:

At any rate, the manner in which the argument from scarcity works is clear within the framework of Meillassoux’s understanding of ideology. On the one hand, we are told that since resources are intrinsically scarce, social organization must necessarily take the form of inequity and hierarchy. As the old saying goes, “there are the haves and the have nots, and so it is, so it has been, and so it will always be.” As a result, questions of distribution and production, and the principles and decisions underlying distribution and production become invisible and naturalized. On the other hand, we are told that envisioning any other possibility either a) necessarily leads to the political terror of social systems such as those found under Mao or Stalin, or b) is just an immature fantasizing that fails to recognize the true nature of reality. In connection to point a, it is intriguing to note that we are told both that other alternatives are impossible and are implicitly forbidden from even contemplating alternative systems of production and distribution. There is something symptomatic in the way that something that is impossible is simultaneously prohibited. Here the elementary gesture of any critique of ideology would lie in 1) demonstrating the contingency of existing social relations, and 2) uncovering the site of possibility where another form of social relations is really possible and coming into existence.

Sinthome moves from this to Deleuze & Guattari’s attempt to recentre the analysis of social production around the question of how we expend surplus – and the related question of how particular kinds of lack or scarcity are actively created. The reflections here are similar to those articulated in Marx’s discussion, for example, of the peculiar “laws of population” characteristic of capitalist society – “laws” that, in Marx’s analysis, are specifically not biological in character – although they are taken to be… Sinthome worries in the first post about what he regards as Marx’s tendency to privilege biological needs: I would suggest that, although some forms of Marxism might adopt this stance, Marx is actually quite consistent that “need” is a category of history and society, not biology – concepts of subsistence in a work like Capital are demarcated as containing what Marx calls “historical and moral” elements. The “labour theory of value” is intended to mark out a peculiar sort of production of scarcity in the midst of potential plenty – and to compare the potentials generated by this manufactured scarcity against the potentials that could be unleashed with the creation of less ascetic forms of collective life.

Sinthome ends the first post, and focusses the second, on the question of whether posing these sorts of questions in terms of the manufacture of desire is fully adequate, marking out a careful path that would need to be walked, asking whether all forms of scarcity can be regarded as constructed to the same degree, and warning against the potential for the focus on desire to direct transformative energies away from social transformation, and toward the transformation of desire, if the materiality of desire, and its intrinsic implicatedness in the social field, is not adequately recognised.

These posts are worth more serious commentary than my time-inverted thoughts will manage at the moment – read the originals for a much better sense of the themes being suspended in Sinthome’s analysis.

Conversations Abroad

So since I’m not writing anything lately, a couple of folks have taken it on themselves to try to continue conversations I’ve been neglecting. I thought I would take advantage of a few rare minutes online to post some pointers, at least, so that other folks were aware of the discussions going on.

Carl from Dead Voles has a post up, continuing the discussion that started here over the relationship between theory and practice, attempting to correct my… diplomacy with a bit of front-and-centre analysis of the problem of unintended consequences in attempting to think through any project of political transformation.

Praxis has decided to have a conversation about my larger project (the project that won’t make it into the thesis in any but the most gestural form) – without me 🙂 This has the benefit that folks are posing objections over there, for Praxis, rather than me, to field – my current plan is to let Praxis resolve all the objections being raised, and then to claim that of course such responses had been part of my project conception all along. (I should note by way of passing that Praxis is being very generous in calling the threads spliced together from our conversations a “project” – I think I had a project at one time, but it seems to have been mislaid somehow along the way. I suspect Praxis of ulterior motives, however – of attempting to lure me back to work that has never quite found an academic space, and on which my thoughts are currently at best rusty and ill-formed…)

I’m still a ways off from meaningful ability to comment or post – apologies for the extended silence. Hopefully I can pick up the pace a bit in a couple of weeks.

The Practice of Theory

Where do memes come from? Am I allowed to make one? Tom Bunyard from Monagyric has asked me a question down in the comments that I thought might be worth transposing up here, and passing around. Tom writes:

John’s organised a kind of series of self-critique things for the Goldsmiths Centre for Cultural Studies, and after having been volunteered I’m due to speak myself. I was thinking about saying something around the innate silliness of playing around with arch theoretical models of political emancipation whilst in academia, and thus whilst fundamentally divorced from real praxis (which pretty much defines what I do). At the last session someone had made a comment about theory and practice; whilst the practice that he had in mind was militant struggle, it was quickly interpreted by the culture industry types in the room as a problematic of getting their work identified by the advertising industry so as to secure a career. The distinction between the two notions of practice seemed to define the afternoon for me. I think I want to talk about the limits, flaws and general farce of doing ‘radical’ lefty theory within the academy, particularly in relation to my own attempts to write a PhD that only three people in the world are ever likely to read.

Consequently I’m interested in speaking to a few people as to how they figure the relation of their own political research/writing/whatever to practice; whether they view it (after Adorno) as a kind of practice itself; and to what extent they view this separation (assuming there is a separation) to be problematic. So, as someone working on Marx, how would you respond?

I’ll reproduce my response up here in a moment, but I want to see whether I might be able to turn this into a meme. I’d be interested if the following folks would be interested in answering Tom’s question, and then passing the question on to a few friends. It doesn’t have to be restricted to folks who work on Marx. The core question, as I see it, is:

How do you understand the relation of your own political research/writing/whatever to political practice; whether you view it as a kind of political practice itself; and to what extent you view the separation (assuming there is a separation) between your work and political struggle to be problematic?

I am uncomfortable requiring anyone to link back to this post if you do reply but, if you do, I can create an archive of the responses.

I tag Nate (because we’ve discussed these things before), Lumpenprofessoriat (because turnabout is fair play), Larval Subjects (because I think you will find the tag irritating and probably won’t respond), Trinketization (since it might be useful to have a response from someone who would be at the actual event), Now-Times (with a particular interest in how you might feel about the “after Adorno” aspect of the original question), and Scandalum Magnatum (as I link to your site far less often than I intend). Anyone else who feels inclined to respond is more than welcome.

My own response, lifted up from the comments, was:

First: I’m anti-idealist in perhaps a more extreme sense than many people: I think it’s a mistake to regard the concepts that academics come up with, as though those concepts aren’t related in some way to other sorts of collective practices that are unfolding at the same moment in time. This doesn’t mean that what academics do is “praxis” in some sense of direct contribution to achieving political ends – that is something that would need to be evaluated in a less abstract way. It just means that it’s not going to be “accidental”, that certain forms of theory are trending when they are, and that the tacit sensibilities that find expression in academic theory can be analysed, just as can the tacit sensibilities that find expression in any other form of human activity, as one among many clues to the possibilities we are collectively constituting at a particular moment in time. To stress: I am not suggesting that some sort of special possibility is constituted through academic work – I am suggesting that humans tends to think with our practices in a very broad sense, academics like everyone else, and so even apparently very abstract and removed forms of thought are quite likely to express something that has shifted in much more everyday forms of practice. Grasping that link – which is a lot of what I think Marx does with his critiques of various sorts of formal theory – then makes it possible to analyse the sorts of tacit practical possibilities that are finding nascent expression in various types of formal theory, political ideals, popular culture, etc.

On the more specific issue of whether some sort of formal theory makes a contribution to some particular political project: again, I don’t think this sort of question can be answered abstractly in a meaningful way. I do think that capitalism as a target of political practice, or as an object of analysis, has very peculiar “ontological” characteristics, that are very difficult to grasp without engaging “theoretically” with this object. I think political action in a dynamic social context is difficult, that it’s extremely easy for unanticipated consequences to follow on our actions, and therefore that movements increase their chances of achieving their ends, if they have a good sense of how history might bite them in the butt. This is what I think theory is “for” in a political sense – improving the odds of grasping whether particular sorts of actions are likely to have the results we hope they will. Theory helps us try to deal with the problem William Morris sketches out:

I pondered all these things… how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…

It helps us work out the name of what we are fighting for, so that other people don’t have to perpetually keep coming along behind us, setting up new struggles to achieve what we meant, but didn’t know how to fight for last time around. At least, this would be my normative criterion for what a good theory would do.

To put the same thing more briefly: if we make history, but not in conditions of our own choosing, then it can be helpful to learn as much as we can about those conditions we haven’t chosen, so that we have as good a sense as possible of the sort of history we might be able to make.

This says nothing about whether some particular kind of theory, in some specific institutional setting, is actually helpful for this end. There will always be at least a tacit theory underlying any form of practice – formal types of theory tease out and make explicit what is tacit in what we are already doing. This process of making the implications of our own practice explicit to ourselves isn’t limited to academia, but it isn’t necessarily barred to academia either. Farce isn’t limited to academia either… 😉 And there is a form of idealism, to me, nascent in the idea that real life is somewhere “out there”: Marx’s position is that humans, in a sense, aren’t that clever – we aren’t that original or creative in our thoughts – our thoughts are already “material” – our categories are things we do. He spends a lot of time showing that the same sorts of sensibilities that are cropping up in more “academic” forms of theory are sensibilities that are also being enacted in settings that take themselves far less seriously – showing that academic thought mobilises very similar sorts of perceptions and thoughts as those mobilised in the marketplace.

His strategy undermines academic pretension – but it also undermines romantic notions that there is some special sort of institutional setting where “real thought” can happen because that setting is somehow less divorced from “real life”: humans, for Marx, generate new possibilities collectively, initially in mundane actions – and largely, in the first instance at least, unintentionally. Explicit theory and conscious political practice then fumbles along behind, trying to work out and realise the potentials opened up by our collective accidents. Where this happens, what sorts of practices and institutional settings are associated with doing it in a way that is potentially transformative – all of this strikes me as a case-by-case thing…

Value as What Will Have Been

Ktismatics has an interesting post and discussion up on different conceptions of value and the fetish, with reference to The Wire. A taste, from the comments:

I’ve been reading some of N. Pepperell’s posts about Marx on Rough Theory, and in so doing I realize that I, like Stringer, have a hard time thinking of value in terms other than product. The Wire doesn’t dwell on the effects of narcotics on the user, and it certainly doesn’t look at the work entailed in growing, processing and transporting the drugs. All we ever see is the exchange: the buyer hands off the money to person A and receives the product from person B. We do see the product being “stepped on;” i.e., reduced in potency by mixing it with baking soda, thereby increasing the sheer weight of stuff being sold. Apparently the users are willing to tolerate, and to pay for, heroin at less than full strength. It’s difficult for the user to know for sure how hard the product has been stepped on, since the high it generates is a subjective response. However, the reduction in effectiveness must be noticeable, especially in comparison to product on offer from competitors. What the buyer cares about is the subjective benefit s/he receives from the product; i.e., the quality of the high from ingesting the dope. And s/he is willing to pay more for what promises to be a better high, based on prior personal experience with the product as well as marketplace information obtained from other buyers who have used the product.

When I was replying to this thread, I found myself writing something that might or might not be clearer than some of what I’ve tossed out over here – specifically, I wrote:

I see value, instead, as referring to, if this makes sense, “what labour will have been”. We operate in a context in which all sorts of empirical activities are being carried out, in the hope that they will somehow successfully push product. Those activities don’t always succeed. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t; sometimes they don’t succeed as well as they were intended to; sometimes they succeed enormously better than expected. “Value” is the term for the level of “success” that ultimately gets conferred on product – not the labour expended, but the degree of social recognition bequeathed. The amount of value that will be conferred can never be known from the empirical labouring activities or other directly perceptible elements that go into the product. The category of value therefore refers to something of which we can never have exact knowledge – it’s the category of a society that acts out an “in itself” – an unknowable inner essence whose effects nevertheless pervade what we can know and perceive directly.

I’ll correct this comment a bit here: I see “abstract labour” as referring to “what labour will have been”. Value refers to the abstract labour “materialised” in a product. Both are fundamentally retrospective categories – categories that we can read out of macrosociological trends unfolding over time, but not categories that can be derived from any concretistic empirical analysis of actual labouring activities or actual goods at any specific moment in time. Abstract labour and value are products of the reproduction of capital.

I see Marx trying to draw our attention (in this bit of the argument) to the implications of a collective practice we take utterly for granted: the practice of engaging speculatively in labouring activities, in the hopes that these activities will produce something that “succeeds” on the market. Many of these speculative efforts fail; many don’t succeed as well as hoped; many do succeed; and some succeed beyond all expectation. There is no correlation between the amount of empirical labour, resources, and other directly measurable factors, and the level of success – Marx somewhere uses the term “conferred” – on the products of some particular labouring activity.

Marx is trying to tarry over this, when he makes the opening argument about value and the fetish – to ask what the implications of living in such an environment might be, for forms of perception, thought, embodiment, political ideals. The first chapter of Capital is a very compressed demonstration of some of those implications, before we even get to the point of examining the component practices that bring this whole system into existence and reproduce it.

One of his arguments is that the context is haunted by “what labour will have been” – by this intrinsically unknowable “abstract labour” that will ultimately be conferred on particular activities to particular degrees, endorsing or disendorsing those activities as successful inclusions in what gets to “count” as “social labour” – and therefore, over time, exerting a sort of evolutionary selective pressure that encourages the reproduction of certain forms of labour over others. In the tacit metacommentary being addressed to Kant (and Hegel) in the opening chapter of Capital, abstract labour figures as a sort of practically enacted “in itself” of capitalist society – as something we create, something we produce, something we make – but whose qualitative characteristics resemble those expressed in certain kinds of philosophical categories, and that also express, on a much more mass and popular level, certain forms of embodiment and political ideals, such as those, for example, articulated in notions of “inalienable” essences that factor into the development of “rights talk”.

“Value” is a category that picks out the “abstract labour” that has been “materialised” in the products of labour. Of course, since “abstract labour” is “what labour will have been”, value is also a category that “will have been” (in Derrida’s terms, value is inherently a category of a time out of joint – but for Marx this is a specific time and a particular sort of out-of-jointness…). In Marx’s argument, as I hear it, value is a product – and moreover a product whose existence must be deduced from the apparently random flux of the movement of goods on the market and (as Capital unfolds from the first chapter) from trends in the development of the form of production itself. Marx teases the political economists, saying that they “don’t know where to have it” – that they don’t grasp the ontological status of the category of value, and therefore don’t grasp how the category is enacted in practice. This is not because political economy suppresses knowledge of expropriation (Marx will get to that argument later) – at this point in the text, he is arguing that the political economists don’t know “where to have” value, because value is perpetually a category that “will have been” – a category whose existence can only be read off retrospectively from the outcomes of social practice oriented to other ends. Even where value and its connection to abstract labour has been successfully deduced, Marx suggests that political economy doesn’t work out how social practice comes to be constrained so as to render such categories valid for this form of social life.

The rest of the work then, among other things, attempts to work this out – to establish how these “will have beens” are effected by practices that don’t set out to produce such a result. The category of capital – and the capital-wage labour relation – will soon be introduced as the necessary presupposition for these opening categories. More on all this some other time… Just experimenting with the new vocabulary for the moment, to see how comfortable I am with where it takes me…

On other fronts, Nate has a nice post up at what in the hell… distilling points from David Graeber’s “The Sadness of Post-Workerism”.

And, to everyone who helped out as I was trying to piece the lecture together: I delivered it last night (a bit like a premature baby). All went well. I think. All went, at the very least. Not much on global warming. Quite a lot on the philosophy of science, in relation to the specific question of developing alternatives to dogmatism and scepticism. A quick romp through Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Foucault, Latour, and various parts betwixt and between. An overarching argument about how easy it is for critics to be bitten in the butt, when they fail to grasp that they are operating in a non-linear historical context. And some sort of concluding bon mot about dogmatists currently using the tools of scepticism in the service of dogma – it all sounded very Adornian at the time, I’m certain of it… ;-P But seriously: thanks everyone – it was very helpful to be able to vent and to talk some things through.