Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Critique

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

Marx of the Day

This is probably not the most self-enobling observation, but I must confess that I enjoy Marx’s snarky footnotes. This one from the second chapter of Capital caught my eye today:

Proudhon begins by taking his ideal of Justice, of “justice éternelle,” from the juridical relations that correspond to the production of commodities: thereby, it may be noted, he proves, to the consolation of all good citizens, that the production of commodities is a form of production as everlasting as justice. Then he turns round and seeks to reform the actual production of commodities, and the actual legal system corresponding thereto, in accordance with this ideal. What opinion should we have of a chemist, who, instead of studying the actual laws of the molecular changes in the composition and decomposition of matter, and on that foundation solving definite problems, claimed to regulate the composition and decomposition of matter by means of the “eternal ideas,” of “naturalité” and “affinité”? Do we really know any more about “usury,” when we say it contradicts “justice éternelle,” équité éternelle “mutualité éternelle,” and other vérités éternelles than the fathers of the church did when they said it was incompatible with “grâce éternelle,” “foi éternelle,” and “la volonté éternelle de Dieu”?

There’s an enormous amount packed into this short passage, and I don’t have time to write on it in adequate detail. A few quick points on distinctions Marx makes between types of critique, some more tacit than others in the passage quoted. I toss these here by way of placeholders for future posts, as I don’t have time to do more than make notes now.

One is the issue of utopian forms of critique – forms of critique operating in the name of ideals that could never be realised (generally, in Marx’s work, this charge is levelled at a form of critique that he believes is assuming that some necessary moment of the reproduction of capital could be overcome, while all the other moments remain intact – since Marx sees the reproduction of capital as a “logic” that tends to generate its own conditions, he is deeply sceptical of such critiques; a major goal in Capital is to specify more precisely what needs to be overcome, in order to halt the reproduction of capital).

A separable issue is that of types of critique that operate within the established social form – appealing to ideals that resonate, that can to some degree be realised, and whose more complete realisation might make a significant difference to living conditions on the ground, but in situations where the ideals do not point beyond the existing social form. Such forms of critique can be problematic to the extent that they take themselves as something more transformative than they are, and thus obscure a recognition of what would be required to overcome that social form itself. Recognised as contestations within the existing social framework, however, these forms of critique can make a significant difference in the humanisation of everyday living and working conditions – precariously, as there will remain pressures to roll back humanising reforms, but with meaningful consequences while they hold, including perhaps the consequence of increasing receptivity to more fundamental transformations.

A third – quite significant – issue here is Marx’s criticism of Proudhon for shoving what Marx regards as historically-emergent ideals into an asocial and decontextualised space. Marx (characteristically) immediately likens this move to a form of religious mysticism, and reaches for practice: what are we doing that renders such ideals plausible to us? How do these ideals arise? Only once we can answer these questions, are we in the position to speak in terms of critique. For Marx, critique doesn’t float in an intrinsic “ought”, but is practically-emergent, albeit in a form that can react back on the existing organisation of social practice.

I have to leave this hanging for the moment – trying to get something else done on a deadline, and so depositing these thoughts here more to clear space for the things I’m meant to be thinking about right now. I’m sure I’ll have ample opportunity to retract later, what I’ve posted here in too much haste. 🙂

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: 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…

Links to previous posts on Marx below the fold: Read more of this post

And While I’m Talking about Hegel

I also wanted to toss up one quotation from the concluding passages to Hegel’s Introduction to the Phenomenology – with apologies that I’m too tired to explain right now why I think this quote is interesting in relation to the discussion that has been taking place between myself, L Magee, and Andrew Montin, over how Brandom conceptualises “objectivity” (or, perhaps, how Habermas takes Brandom to conceptualise “objectivity”). To avoid possible misunderstandings, I will note briefly, that, in saying the quote is “interesting” in relation to these ongoing discussions, I don’t mean to imply that I think the quote resolves any aspect of this discussion in anyone’s favour. What caught my attention was more that I think Hegel gestures here toward a certain terrain on which Habermas is likely positioning at least some of Brandom’s statements. To me, at least, this leaves standing our open question as to how valid it might be to read Brandom as “Hegelian” in this respect. Since this is likely a somewhat internalist discussion to many readers (even LM and Andrew may wonder why I’m reproducing this quotation, given that I’m not explaining my reasoning), and this quotation is long and will be reproduced without background or commentary, I’ll tuck the quote below the fold. Read more of this post


Some aspects of the recent discussion of Brandom have led me to read a bit more of Brandom’s interpretation of Hegel, which has led me in turn to think again about some dropped tangents from last summer’s reading group discussion of Phenomenology. I had meant to write much more on Phenomenology than I was able to do at the time, but have instead largely incorporated the stray thoughts that emerged from that reading, into some of the work I’ve been doing on Marx. Marx, of course, was directly engaging with the Science of Logic, rather than with the Phenomenology, when he was writing Capital – one of the reasons I’ve been so gestural and, in a sense, sloppy when pointing Marx’s strategy back to Hegel’s work, has been my awareness that it would make more sense, and be more intuitively persuasive, in terms of Marx’s own statements about his work, to raise these sorts of claims about textual and analytical strategy in relation to a discussion of the Logic. Fortunately, I seem to have conned a few stray souls who will be trapped in Melbourne over the holidays into working through the Logic with me – perhaps now creating the beginnings of a tradition of summer Hegel reading, but in all events instituting something more immediately practical for me than it likely will be for the other participants… ;-P

Still, turning back to Phenomenology as I have been over the past couple of days, it’s easy to be struck once again by certain similarities connecting the concerns and style of this text, with the sorts of moves Marx makes in Capital. I’ve been looking back particularly at the sections on Perception and Force & Understanding. It feels somewhat strange now, reading these sections, which have shaped the sorts of claims I’m making about Capital and which in particular sensitised me to the sorts of subtle textual cues that hint at the different perspectives or voices being expressed in particular moments of Marx’s text, to see now how this reading of Capital then reacts back and distances me from Hegel’s text in turn. I don’t intend specifically to develop this line of thought here, but I did want to take the opportunity to toss up a few scattered notes on these sections, while I’m thinking about them – I’ll start tonight with the section on Perception, and hopefully follow up soon on the section on Force and Understanding – although, given that I’ve promised to write on these sections before, this may be a somewhat tenuous offer… ;-P

The section on Perception takes over from the discussion of sense-certainty (Joseph Kugelmass has ensured that I will never be able to think of Hegel’s sense-certainty discussion without thinking of Spaceballs – I’m not sure whether to thank or criticise Joe for this apparently indelible association), which sought to demonstrate that a shape of consciousness that understands itself to be bound to sensuous immediacy – bound to “the This” – instead expresses its direct opposite: universality. I’ve discussed how this argument unfolds in greater detail previously.

Perception, by constrast, starts with the universal – but a universal it experiences in terms of two moments that are immediately distinguished from one another: a universal “I”, confronting a universal “object”. In one of his many stage whispers designed to keep readers from losing themselves in the shape of consciousness being analysed at particular stages in the text, Hegel reminds his readers that “for us”, looking at perception from a standpoint not immanent to perception itself, the “I” and its “object” exist in a logically necessitated relation, and represent two different forms in which the same process can appear, depending on whether this process is viewed from the perspective of pointing out and indicating (the “I” or process of perceiving), or whether this process is viewed from the perspective of a “simple fact” (the ”object” perceived). “We” grasp the essence of perception to be the universal as principle, and “we” see that perception fails to grasp the logical necessity that connects the “I” to the “object” as different moments or perspectives of the same process. Perception, however, sees the “I” and the “object” as only contingently related, and thus parcels out the distinction between essential and nonessential between these moments, treating the moments as indifferent to one another – and, in terms of the shape of consciousness analysed here, initially taking the “object” to be essential, and indifferent to whether it is perceived or not by the “I”, while the “I” is taken to be inessential and variable – more contingent than the object it perceives.

Hopefully readers will forgive me the tangent that this is where Marx starts Capital: with objects that present themselves as “things” “outside us”, whose material properties we can “discover” over time. These material properties are associated with use value, which presents itself as the invariant – in Hegel’s terms, the “essential” – substance of wealth, regardless of that wealth’s social form. That social form is contingent, nonessential, and historically variable – the “I” that understands itself to be only contingently and accidentally related to the material “object”.

Marx opens Capital in this way, I would suggest, to express that he has set himself a problem analogous to Hegel’s: how can we grasp the necessity that underlies this apparent contingency? How can we understand the intrinsic interconnectedness of this particular kind of “I” – the sort of consciousness whose self-understanding is expressed at the beginning of Capital – and the particular kind of “object” to which that “I” addresses itself – a material world that is understood as intrinsically disenchanted and indifferent to human perception? What sort of process involves the constitutions of such “I’s” and such “objects” as moments in its dynamic unfolding?

Okay. Back to Hegel. Hegel needs to unfold the “for us” of the text from within the categories available to the shapes of consciousness being analysed: otherwise, his own analysis would be applied to its object from the “outside” – it would be only contingently connected, rather than expressing a logical necessity that justifies Hegel’s approach as more than one among many possible duelling assertions, each dogmatically claiming superior access to some privileged perspective that stands outside what is being analysed. Hegel’s notion of science is bound together with his advocacy of this kind of argument:

For science cannot simply reject a form of knowledge which is not true, and treat this as the common view of things, and then assure us that itself is an entirely different kind of knowledge, and holds the other to be of no account at all; nor can it appeal to the fact that in this other there are presages of a better. By giving that assurance it would declare its force and value to lie in its bare existence; but the untrue knowledge appeals likewise to the fact that it is, and assures us that to it science is nothing. One barren assurance, however, is of just as much value as another. Still less can science appeal to presages of the better, which are to be found present in untrue knowledge and are there pointing the way toward science; for it would, on the one hand, be appealing again in the same way to a merely existent fact; and, on the other, it would be appealing to itself, to the way in which it exists in untrue knowledge, i.e. to a bad form of its own existence, to its appearance, rather than to its real and true nature (an und für sich) . For this reason we shall here undertake the exposition of knowledge as a phenomenon. (76)

Instead, Hegel wants to demonstrate the logical necessity, the intrinsic interconnectedness, of the shapes of consciousness he analyses, such that his own position emerges as a determinate negation, rather than an abstract or sceptical rejection, of what he criticises:

The completeness of the forms of unreal consciousness will be brought about precisely through the necessity of the advance and the necessity of their connection with one another. To make this comprehensible we may remark, by way of preliminary, that the exposition of untrue consciousness in its untruth is not merely a negative process. Such a one-sided view of it is what the natural consciousness generally adopts; and a knowledge, which makes one-sidedness its essence, is one of those shapes assumed by incomplete consciousness which falls into the course of the inquiry itself and will come before us there. [Note: Hegel is self-conscious here that his form of presentation is not adequate to the analytical principles he is, as a service to the reader, outlining here, and he therefore flags very explicitly that he does not intend to exempt, even the programmatic sorts of statements he makes here, from the sort of analysis he is calling for in this passage.] For this view is scepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result. Nothing, however, is only, in fact, the true result, when taken as the nothing of what it comes from; it is thus itself a determinate nothing, and has a content. The scepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is – in order to cast it into the same abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in the negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself. (79)

Motivated by his concept of critique, Hegel shifts from the “for us” of his commentary on perception, to the question of what can be unfolded immanently from perception itself. He determines perception initially as a shape of consciousness that starts from the opposition between the “object” and the “I”, taking the “object” to be essential and indifferent to its perception, and the “I” to be insubstantial, inconstant, and inessential. In Hegel’s account, perception provides the determinate negation of sense-certainty, expressing sensuous, immediate universals that escaped expression in sense-certainty, which, confined to pointing to some immediate particular that is “meant”, instead managed only to express the negation of immediate particulars – the “most universal of all possible things”.

In perception, however, the “object” shows itself to be mediated by presenting itself as a “thing with many properties”. Here, and not in sense-certainty, sense knowledge can be expressed – not in the form of apprehension of an immediate particular, but instead in the perception of sensuous, immediate universals: the determinate properties an object possesses. Perception, in Hegel’s account, understands each property possessed by an “object” to be only self-related and indifferent to other properties. These properties are in turn differentiated from what Hegel calls “pure self-relation” – “Thinghood” – as a “medium” within which these properties coexist without affecting one another. Perception thus retains and repositions the “Here” and the “Now” discussed originally under the perspective of sense-certainty, as a medium for sensible properties – as a “Thing”.

Hegel next argues that, if determinate properties were truly as indifferent to one another as they are taken to be in this initial perspective, these properties would actually be indeterminate – properties become determinate and distinguishable from one another, not from residing indifferent to one another within the simple unifying medium of “Thinghood”, but instead as properties positioned in relation to other properties as their opposites. This relation of opposites, however, falls outside the simple unifying medium of “Thinghood”, pointing to a different sort of unity – a “repelling”, excluding unity, a moment of negation – which Hegel calls the “One”.

Hegel hints in various passages that more is to be said – but not at this point in the analysis (remembering, again, that he seeks to unfold his points immanently from perspectives available at each moment in his analysis). At this point in the text, he determines the “Thing” – the “object” of perception – in terms of three mutually-determining perspectives: a “universality, passive and indifferent” that unites constituent elements or “matters”; a simple negation that excludes opposite properties; and the multiplicity of properties, in relation to the first two moments. Hegel slides among these three immanently-unfolded perspectives, examining how the “Thing” is constituted in perception:

Taking the aspect that these differences belong to a “medium” indifferent to what is within it, they are themselves universal, they are related merely to themselves and do not affect each other. Taking, however, the other aspect, that they belong to the negative unity, they at the same time mutually exclude one another; but do no necessarily in the shape of properties that have a separate existence apart from the “also” connecting them. The sensuous universality, the immediate unity of positive being and negative exclusion, is only then a property, when oneness and pure universality are evolved from it and distinguished from one another, and when that sensuous universality combines these with one another. Only after this relation of the unity to those pure essential moments is effected, is the “Thing” complete. (115)

Hegel argues that consciousness is perceptual, to the extent that it takes this “Thing” as its object, and assumes an attitude of pure apprehension. Having thus unpacked moments of perception, with reference to perspectives on the “object” (or the “simple fact” perceived), he then moves to an analysis of perception viewed from the perspective of the “I” (or the process of perceiving).

In Hegel’s account, the “I” of perception directs itself to this complex “object”, assuming that truth can be found in the apprehension of the object. The “I” takes its “object” to be essential, but takes itself to be variable and non-essential – it takes its own relation to the “object” to be a contingent happening, and therefore worries that it might perceive the “object” wrongly and deceive itself as to the nature of the object. Perception takes the criterion of truth to be selfsameness – correspondence with an “object” that is taken to be selfsame. Any perceived nonidentity of the object is interpreted as due to a flaw in the process of perception – a flaw in the contingent perceiving “I” – not as something that might express a nonidentity of the “object”. Yet Hegel has just determined the “object” as nonidentical – as immanently pointing to multiple perspectives across which consciousness will therefore necessarily slide in the process of perception. The result of the apprehension of such an object is therefore not the fixed knowledge that the “I” of perception expected to find, but rather a restless movement around a circuit that nowhere provides a stable ground. Hegel then rapidly sketches the path followed by consciousness on confronting this circuit, first taking into itself – into the perceiving “I” – characteristics it had previously attributed to the “object”, and then taking as its object the process it had previously divided into the separate moments of the “object” and the “I”, and then attempting to secure the identity of the “object” by allocating the object’s contradictory moments to different things.

Hegel argues that each of these perspectives fails to secure the desired non-contradictory and selfsame “object”, but rather points necessarily back toward the perceptual object’s essentially relational character: the attempt to posit an object whose essential nature lies in what that object is “for itself”, indifferent to the process of perception, is undermined by the ways in which the form of universality associated with the perceptual object is conditioned by its derivation from sense knowledge, which introduces an intrinsic nonidentity that sits in tension with the reach of perception toward universality. As in his discussion of sense-certainty, Hegel follows the reach, rather than the grasp, of perception, arguing that the whirling restlessness characteristic of the movement of perceptual consciousness points to the necessity to transcend perception, in search of “unconditioned absolute universality”. In this way, perception immanently points beyond itself – to understanding.

More on subsequent sections as I have time. The posts on Phenomenology were never as organised or gathered into a series as the recent series on Capital has been. I have never aimed to present a coherent narrative on this work, and so the posts are much more scattered, both stylistically and conceptually. For the curious, some compilations of links back to previous Hegel discussions can be found in these older posts.

What in the hell…

did you make me do, Nate?

I’ll be blaming you when I’m not sleeping tonight… ;-P

What I’ve done here is what I sometimes also do with L Magee (who will, no doubt, be glowering at me for working on this, rather than on Brandom…) – which is to provide your comments in full, in blue text, with my responses interspersed in black. This probably isn’t the most systematic way to respond, but it hopefully increases the chances that I won’t completely drop a major point. A lot of the responses aren’t very adequate – sometimes intrinsically, because the questions are too complicated to deal with adequately without their own full treatment, sometimes extrinsically, because I’m a bit tired and, particularly toward the end, just felt increasingly fuzzy and unclear, and so cut some responses short, hoping I’ve at least written enough to justify claiming to have tossed the ball back into your court… ;-P

For those reading on: since this is a long response to a substantive post, I’ll put the whole thing below the fold. If you haven’t read Nate’s original post, do that first, as I chop his post into pieces in order to respond to it; he was responding to my conference talk here.

Also, I notice as I’m preparing to post this that a conversation has been going on over at what in the hell… on this – I’ll just flag briefly here that I haven’t read that conversation (I wrote this post offline, and am just cutting and pasting it into the blog), let alone addressed whatever it says – that conversation I will need to pick up on over the weekend because, having written this, I’m definitely grounded and not allowed to come out to play again until my homework’s done.

Below the fold for the conversation… (which, I should also add, is rather dramatically unedited – urk!!) Read more of this post


Nate over at what in the hell… has just written a fantastic response to my conference talk from last week. He summarises the key points of my talk (which would have been much more interesting to hear, I think, if I had a similar skill with expression) and asks all sorts of questions that I have no time to answer today, but that I will try to pick up as soon as I can, because I’d far rather talk about those issues, than do what I need to do today. En route, he comes up with much more evocative terms for what I discuss than I do (my favourite has to be the “bigger-coathook” descriptor for how projects like Habermas’ approach immanent critique). And he acronymises me!! Into something that sounds like some new kind of internet relay chat!!

I’ll respond over here, unfortunately probably not until the weekend, given that I have a major deadline I absolutely must meet tomorrow. But go read Nate’s post first (and Nate, when I do answer, do you mind if I reproduce some of your post over here, and intersperse responses? As I suspect that’ll be easier to follow…).

Modernities Conference Talk

Too tired to post anything substantive tonight. I’ve posted the conference talk to the Modernities: Radicalism, Reflexivity, Realities conference below the fold, for the curious.

A few folks at the conference also asked where they could find the background material that lies behind the reading of Marx hinted at in the conference paper. In case anyone drops by, the back posts on the first chapter of Capital are listed immediately below (although I’m in the process of consolidating all this into something shorter and a bit more linear than in the think-out-loud material posted to the blog thus far):

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

Not Knowing Where to Have It

Cartesian Fragment

Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

Random Metatheory

The Universal as Particular

Many thanks to folks who showed up to lend their support when I was presenting. For folks who weren’t there, but have been reading the blog regularly, I’m not certain that the materials below the fold will add much you haven’t seen. In some ways, I find conference talks more limited than the blog – the writing feels much less nuanced, even though it is probably a bit better organised than most of what I typically write here… Note that what I say at the event is never quite identical to what I write beforehand; in this case, though, it’s likely to be fairly close… Read more of this post

Lyric and Performance

Nate over at what in the hell… manages to capture pretty much every critique I’ve ever written of another theorist, in a post on immanent contradictions within musical forms:

…most of my favorite songs have a pretty despairing content lyrically. It’s part of that sensibility I like of being trapped as opposed to lost. At the same time, the music isn’t actually conveying “give up.” The content of the lyrics tends to convey that, but that same content has no explanation for why the song was written. That is, if the lyrical content told the whole story, the song would never have been written or performed. What I like about this, is that performance of a song like that conveys something that the lyrics don’t. The performance says something more than “give up,” it says “we keep on keeping on.” The “we” is important. The despairing sensibility in the words as written is usually an individual sentiment, whereas the performance involves one or more singers alongside multiple instruments and (in live performance, where music is best) a bunch of interactions with the audience which can make or break the quality of the performance. That conveys less of an idea and more of a feeling that there’s more than dead ends, that circumstances which can provoke despair can be pushed on through.

Nate goes on to suggest that perhaps the performance of such an experience is more important – more powerful – than its explicit lyrical expression could ever be:

For some reason the performance of that feeling is more powerful than the straightforward statement of that idea, I think because in moments of despair the problem is often less one of right ideas than it is of conviction in those ideas. Ideas can be (probably always are) a part of despair and its alternatives, but ideas aren’t always a sound answer, and it’s the non-idea or extra-idea parts of music that I think help to get the bits that need more than or other than just ideas.

Here we might part company a bit – although I’m open to the possibility that Nate might be right about this: I understand my work as an experiment predicated on the hope that we might become much more powerful, if we can also somehow learn to express and understand the potentials we collectively enact.

Incidentally, for those who haven’t yet seen, Nate has committed to writing a post a day this month, with an average target length of 500 words per post, as a blogging variant of National Novel Writing Month. So check in regularly to see what he does with this…