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Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 3

Just like as in a nest of boxes round,
Degrees of sizes in each box are found:
So, in this world, may many others be
Thinner and less, and less still by degree:
Although they are not subject to our sense, […]

~ Margaret Cavendish “Of Many Worlds in This World”

Fragments on Lukács’ essay, focussing on how I would contrast Lukács to Marx, in relation to various claims Lukács puts forward in the first section of his essay, under the subheading “The Phenomenon of Reification”.

I. Quantity to Quality vs. Relationality

In my previous post, I mentioned a key problem confronting this text – a problem that was also a central question for Marx: if capitalism is understood as something historically unique, why do the categories used to theorise capitalism – commodities, money, interest, profit, rent, etc. – appear to be less historically specific than the object those categories purport to grasp? As I discussed previously, Lukács attempts to answer this question by suggesting that a quantitative expansion of the phenomenon grasped by these categories – to the point that this quantitative expansion becomes totalising and all-encompassing – yields a qualitative shift: in Lukács’ framework, capitalism can be generated as a historically-specific object from the extension of forms of practice that are much older historically.

Lukács believes that this is how Marx would also answer this question, and cites various passages from Marx suggestive of this idea. I would suggest that Marx’s answer actually takes a completely different form: for Marx, capitalism as an historically distinct object is constituted when various older forms of practice come to be reconfigured as component parts of an historically novel and qualitatively distinctive social relation. Following Hegel, Marx grasps the meaning of the categories as something that is determined relationally. To say this more plainly: Marx thinks that “commodities”, “money”, and similar categories are only apparently non-specific to capitalism – in his account, these categories take on a very different meaning and significance under capitalism, than various phenomena that, from our present-day point of view, look similar in other societies. The “essential difference” between these categories in a capitalist, compared to a non-capitalist, context, is therefore not due, in Marx’s account, solely to a process of quantitative expansion, but instead due to the emergence and reproduction of the historically distinct sort of social relation whose constitutive moments these categories express. Since Marx also does speak of various quantitative expansions associated with the development of capitalism, this argument is complex to demonstrate on a textual level – I’ll leave that task for another post. My goal here is simply to draw attention to a possible alternative to the sort of analysis Lukács presents, when he tries to explain why the core categories of “capitalism” appear more transhistorical than the object they purport to grasp.

II. Totalities and Tipping Points

Lukács seems to regard the “tipping point” at which quantitative expansion yields a qualitative shift, to be the point at which the “commodity-structure” becomes universalised or totalised. In Lukács’ argument:

The commodity can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole. Only in this context does the reification produced by commodity relations assume decisive importance both for the objective evolution of society and for the stance adopted by men towards it. Only then does the commodity become crucial for the subjugation of men’s consciousness to the forms in which this reification finds expression and for their attempts to comprehend the process or to rebel against its disastrous effects and liberate them, from servitude to the ‘second nature’ so created.

Logically, even within Lukács’ quantity-yields-quality framework, this isn’t the only analytical option – in principle, quantitative expansions might yield qualitative shifts without some sort of maximal, universal extent of quantitative expansion. Theorising this sort of “tipping point” concept, however, would probably pull the analysis closer to Marx’s relational approach, due to the need to explain why a certain level of quantitative expansion should yield a specific qualitative shift – an explanation that might point toward an exploration of whether some sort of specific configuration, with distinctive qualitative properties, becomes possible at some particular level of quantitative expansion. I don’t specifically see Marx’s analysis following this line – Marx seems to focus more on the effects to an entire set of practices, of the constitution of a new form of social relation, and to understand this qualitative shift to drive a quantitative expansion. Marx does, though, appeal in other dimensions of his argument to the notion that capitalism presupposes a certain (itself expanding) scale that transcends earlier historical organisations of production.

III. Personal vs. Social Relations

At one point early in this section, Lukács makes the point in passing that, at some early point in the development of capitalism, it was easier to “see through” the commodity-structure. Lukács argues:

the personal nature of economic relations was still understood clearly at the start of capitalist development. (emphasis mine)

Lukács intends this as a gloss on Marx’s argument about the fetish, in which Marx argues “a definite social relation between men… assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.” In his reformulation of Marx’s argument, Lukács tacitly assumes that the “social” equates to the “personal”. I would suggest that Marx precisely does not make this equation – that Marx is instead attempting to theorise the collective constitution of a social relation that is specifically not personal in nature. As Marx puts the point:

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. (emphasis mine)

Marx’s formulation also calls into question Lukács’ tacit suggestion that reification involves a sort of ideology or illusion – something that, when it is less totalistic, can be pierced, to reveal the “true” relation – a personal one – that sits on the other side of the veil. Marx is not attempting to theorise an ideology (not even a “necessary” one), but instead a distinctive form of social relation, characterised precisely by its “objective”, “materialist” character. Marx is not suggesting that theory needs to help up pierce the veil of an illusion of objectivity: he is suggesting that theory needs to grasp how we are collectively constituting a genuinely impersonal form of social relation. The categories of the “social” and the “personal” precisely do not align for Marx – this disalignment is central to Marx’s attempt to thematise capitalism as historically distinct, and it also alters the strategy at play in Marx’s critique, which is not to uncover the reality that has come to be crusted over by illusion, but instead to analyse the genesis and potentials of a very distinctive form of social relation.

This contrast carries over into a number of other dimensions of Lukács’ argument, some of which I’ll pick up on below.

IV. Subjects, Objects, and Things in Between

Both Lukács and Marx offer an argument about a distinctive form of subject-object dualism related to the commodity-structure. The very different conceptions of commodity-structure in play, however, point each in very different directions.

Lukács understands the commodity-structure to relate to the exchange relation. In his account, the quantitative expansion and, ultimately, totalisation and universaliation of the exchange-relation, leads, on the one hand, to a “world of objects and relations between things” – which Lukács equates with “the world of commodities and their movements on the market”. This “objective” world of market exchange confronts the individual subject as a “second nature” beyond their control – an environment whose laws the subject can attempt to anticipate and calculate, but not overcome. Proletarian subjects are further compelled to sell their labour-power onto this market – to externalise part of themselves as an object – and also confront the full effects of the fragmentation of the labour process which, in Lukács’ account, comes to be organised in such a way as to break apart the “organic unity” of use values, scattering the production of a finished product in time and space, and turning labour from a purposeful mastery of nature, into something itself mastered and inserted as a motive force into a production process to which labour must adapt. In each of these ways, Lukács argues, the subject – or, specifically, something he calls “the personality” – the aspect of subjectivity that exceeds what is required for the labour-power that is bought and sold on the market – comes to experience itself as set apart from the totality of the object world. The subject thus becomes contemplative – passively analysing and adapting itself to the laws of an object world the subject experiences as fundamentally alienated from its own practice.

Most visibly with the strange, ungrounded category of the “personality”, but also with the undertheorised category of the “object world”, Lukács’ argument here falls short of the type of theory Marx is attempting to construct. Lukács tacitly takes for granted the qualitative characteristics of both his subject and object worlds. The type of explanation Lukács uses, for example, to account for the “objectivity” of the market, could implicitly be used for any sort of social environment into which any human subject finds themselves “thrown”: single social actors do not, as single social actors, have the capacity to alter any social context – why does the “contemplative” relation of subjects to an object world not characterise all of human history? Lukács’ implicit answer hinges on his argument that capitalism uniquely breaks apart the “organic unity” of the production of use values: lurking in the background here is a notion that subjects realise themselves through their self-externalisation of themselves in material nature, coupled with a tacit romantic glance at skilled handicraft production. “Personality” – which might perhaps realise itself as an active agent in a less fragmented productive environment – lingers into an era in which it figures as nothing more than an idiosyncracy – a “source of error”. With no means available to externalise and thus realise itself as an active, creative agent, it finds itself cordoned off from the object world, which it confronts in a state of contemplation.

It is significant, I would suggest, that, in order to make this argument, Lukács directly juxtaposes – as though they were intended to make the same sort of contribution to Marx’s argument – passages from Capital that are describing commodity fetishism, and much later passages describing the transformation of the labour process that takes place under capitalism, particularly after the introduction of large-scale machinery. These juxtapositions assist Lukács in his attempt to equate Marx’s category of the “fetish”, with Lukács’ own category of “reification”. I would suggest, however, that these two categories point in quite different analytical directions. Marx’s argument about the fetish is intended to account for something that remains unproblematised in Lukács’ argument: the constitution – in the sense of the enactment or performance in collective practice – of the distinctive qualitative characteristics of the forms of “objectivity” and “subjectivity” that are enacted via the process of the reproduction of capital.

Marx’s argument here is more complex and difficult to express than Lukács’ – I won’t be able to do justice to it in this post (I have, however, erected the scaffolding within which to reconstruct this argument, in the series on the first chapter of Capital, volume one, under the Marx tab above). Here – and still very gesturally and inadequately – I can begin to sketch some of what might be at stake, by looking briefly at the contrasting ways in which Lukács and Marx approach the question of the social constitution of particular forms of equality.

V. All Else Being Equal

Just as Lukács reduces the commodity-structure down to the exchange relation, so he also attempts to explain distinctive ideals of equality with reference to the exchange relation. Once again, this pushes Lukács onto the terrain of personal relations: he speaks of the recognition of formal equality, as one of the “objective” conditions for the exchange of qualitatively incommensurable goods. This is a very common way of accounting for the modern resonance of ideals of equality – to point these ideals back to the conceptualisation of exchange as a form of contract, presupposing the formal equality of contracting parties as in principle self-determining agents who are operating free from coercion, and also presupposing the intrinsic fungibility of the goods being exchanged. Marx will make use of these sorts of arguments, as these sensibilities and their associated forms of practice are dimensions of capitalism. Significantly, however, Marx suggests a different line of argument in the immediate context of his discussion of commodity fetishism. He cites a passage in which Aristotle considers the question of whether the goods exchanged on the market – since these goods are being, in effect, “equated” with one another in social practice – might possess some underlying sort of commonality or identity – whether they might, as the chapter has just discussed, possess the homogeneous supersensible substance of “value”. Aristotle considers the possibility, and rejects it, arguing that exchange is simply a “makeshift for practical purposes”. Marx then suggests why Aristotle failed to arrive at the concept of value, and points this back to the absence of wage labour in classical antiquity. Marx argues:

The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality.

The “in truth” is sardonic – Marx is miming the forms of analysis of political economy in speaking this way. Political economists might speak as though value has always existed, but Aristotle and other thinkers failed to “discover” it until the present enlightenment enabled us to uncover what has always tacitly been there (remembering here Marx’s characterisation of the political economists, that they speak as though “there used to be history, but there is no longer any”). The argument of the first chapter of Capital, however, is that value was not there to “discover” until the development of the distinctively modern social practices that performatively (if unintentionally) bring “value” into being. Aristotle didn’t overlook the presence of value: value did not yet exist.

This argument connects in complex ways with how Marx understands the social constitution of modern ideals of equality. Value figures in Marx’s analysis as an intangible social substance – as something that cannot be directly perceived, but whose existence can be deduced through observations over time of the non-random transformations of aspects of social experience that are immediately evident to the senses. Value is an implicit social category – its existence must be deduced. This deduction is possible, because non-random (lawlike) patterns of transformation of material nature and social institutions take place over time. The constitution of value is unintentional (social actors are not attempting collectively to generate the patterns Marx labels with the category “value”), and it is impersonal (taking the form of a constantly reset social norm that marginalises social actors who cannot conform).

I have mentioned before that one image or metaphor for thinking about “commodity producing labour”, involves a nested collection of sets, where the largest includes any sort of social practice involved in any way in the reproduction of our social existence, within this, is that subset of activities oriented in some way to producing goods intended to be sold on the market, and within that is the subset of activities that succeed in what Marx calls a salto mortale – activities that survive a process that Marx describes as a reduction of the labour that social actors empirically expend in production, to labour that gets to “count” as part of social labour. This reduction takes place, in Marx’s account, behind the backs of the social actors involved in the process, who have no way of predicting what percentage of their empirical activities will get to “count”: some empirical activities will “count” fully, some partially – some excessively. And this impersonal process, over time, exerts a coercive pressure back on empirical activities themselves, creating incentives and disincentives that tend (probabilistically) to drive empirical activities in non-random directions, conferring a “developmental” directionality on aspects of capitalist history.

Marx argues – and here is where “value” enters the argument – that this impersonal, unintentional process of culling empirical activities down to a smaller subset of activities that “count” as social labour in this very specific sense, can plausibly be interpreted by social actors engaged in the process, not as a collective social process of culling excess investments of empirical labour, down to what “counts”, but rather as a process of discovering how much “value” a material object inherently or intrinsically possesses. In this dimension of collective practice, social actors behave as though something like “value” exists – as though there is a single, intangible, homogeneous substance that is the total social labour, which then comes to be subdivided in greater or lesser proportions among all the products that are empirically produced. Goods are “valued” to the degree that they participate in this intangible substance – and the degree to which they participate in this substance is not discernible when either the use value or the empirical labour invested in the good is examined: it is revealed only in the social interaction among goods – only in the process of exchange.

There is much more to this argument, but I want to break off here, to reflect briefly on the implications of what I’ve written so far, for the question of how to understand the emergence of modern ideals of formal or abstract equality. To the extent that human labour-power is also a commodity under capitalism, it also participates in this culling process – in this coercive “reduction” down from the various labour powers that have been “produced”, to those that get to “count” – partially, fully, or excessively. Social actors engaging with the labour market – whether as buyers or sellers of labour power – have practical, everyday experience with this process of reduction. “Value” – this invisible, intangible, homogeneous substance – flows in greater or lesser degrees through humankind as well, in spite of the array of visible, tangible, empirical differences that materially distinguish humans from one another. Beneath these apparent differences, something common flows through us – we all partake of a similar intangible essence. Marx suggests, in other words, that the strangely counterfactual ideal of equality that develops in tandem (he believes) with capitalism, that exerts a critical force on actual social institutions and over time is used to call into question the importance of immediately sensible differences between humans – that this counterfactual ideal is a plausible articulation of the experience of partaking in the common intangible substance of value. Quite independently of the formal, contractual dimensions of the wage relation or of other sorts of exchange (which also, of course, play their part in reinforcing ideals of equality and experiences of personhood), this unintentional, impersonal reduction of human commodities down to a common, intangible, social “essence”, helps to enact the distinctive qualitative form of modern ideals of human equality.

Through this account, Marx also hopes to render plausible what he regards as pervasive forms of misrecognition, in which these intangible – but, in Marx’s account, socially enacted – qualities are perceived, not as something we have only recently created, but rather as intrinsic essences that we have recently discovered. The argument around misrecognition is, again, quite complex – I won’t be able to recount it here. The argument hinges on a complex and largely tacit set of distinctions concerning the ways in which we perform certain dimensions of our social experience as overtly social – the personal, intersubjective dimensions – while, by contrast, an impersonal social dimension goes unrecognised as social: it plausibly appears “objective” – and, by so appearing, provides us with experience of a set of qualitative characteristics that inform our concept of “objectivity” – a concept that we might plausibly look for or be receptive to in other sorts of impersonal environments – such as material nature…

Much more is required to develop and fully substantiate this argument, let alone to draw attention to the countercurrents and side eddies that curl around the phenomena I have so inadequately described (there is never, for Marx, just one plausible articulation of our collective enactments – and the reproduction of capital, in his account, entails a bewildering multitude of additional enactments, each interacting with one another in complex and dynamic ways). For the moment, just a brief word on the issue of standpoint of critique in relation to this kind of point. As I’ve sketched the argument above, it could sound as though an ideal of equality might hinge on the sort of collective sleight of hand involved in the enactment of value. This is not Marx’s position. Capitalism may have provided the means – quite accidentally – whereby we demonstrated collectively to ourselves that we could simply perform equality – that we could treat one another as equal, at least for certain purposes and in a certain dimension of collective practice – that we could disregard empirically sensible differences in order to perform this social equality, if needed. This accidental discovery opens a space of possibility – a space that becomes potentially wider, once we recognise the collective genesis of this ideal, rather than essentialising it as a “discovery” of something we perceive as having existed all along. This space of possibility might include an exploration of other forms of relation – less formal, less abstract – but attuned to the possibility to create in and around sensible difference, by performing our selves and our relations in a different way. This topic is much too complex to address adequately here – I mention it as only the most passing of references to how Marx conceptualises the potential for the conscious appropriation of potentials that have been constituted – but in alienated form – how, in other words, he understands his standpoint of critique.

This post is a bit of a monstrosity – my deepest apologies. I am trying to capture a set of notes that I hope to develop adequately in other places at other times. I am also trying to come to grips with the difficulty I have in trying to express what I object to in other theoretical approaches, in a circumstance in which the alternative that shapes my objection is just… a great deal more vast, generally, than what I’m objecting to… Working out how to write about this, short of a full thesis-length presentation, is something with which I’m currently wrestling. At the moment, as with this post, I leave out massive amounts, to the point that, while writing is still helpful for me, because I know at least a decent portion of what I would add to flesh the argument out, the posts strike me as though they must be utterly unintelligible and bizarre to anyone reading on. Thanks all for their patience as I write through this morass… Too tired tonight to edit (which, with this post, is possibly a dire mistake…) Take care all…

Previous posts in this series on Lukács:

Seeing What Was Already There

Reification, pt. 1

Reification, pt. 2

HSS2008 Paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting for What We Mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scratchpad: The Greatest Difficulty (No Kidding…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Full of Stars

So I set out to write a bit more on the section on “Force and Understanding” from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit – if only to give Alexei something to read when he gets back from break. Somehow, I’ve written a monster, which goes back over much of the ground covered in my previous post on this section, and then struggles through to the end of the chapter. Even for this blog, I suspect that the resulting post is too long to deposit in its entirety on the front page. I’ve therefore pushed the content below the fold.

Since lately I seem to think of Hegel only in relation to film, and since Wizard of Oz illustrations didn’t quite seem to carry me through the end of this chapter last time, I’ve found myself associating to 2001: A Space Odyssey while writing this post – must be Hegel’s discussion of what happens to consciousness when Understanding encounters Infinity. The illustrations used below are fragments of the full images from the gallery of the 2001: A Space Odyssey Internet Resource Archive. It may just be me, but these images seemed somehow appropriate for a discussion of how consciousness moves from its initial experience of itself in an uncertain and tenuous relationship with an external object, through its confrontation with infinity, toward Self-Consciousness.

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The Man Behind the Curtain

Following the yellow brick roadSo the other day, I was blaming Joseph Kugelmass for the fact that I now can’t think of Hegel’s discussion of sense-certainty without associating to Spaceballs. I will have to blame myself, however, for the fact that the section on Force and Understanding causes me to think of The Wizard of Oz. My only excuse is that this association surely seems inevitable, given how the previous chapter provides a narrative that consciousness is propelled into Understanding via its confrontation with the whirling maelstrom that results when it seeks certainty through Perception, while this chapter closes with a scene in which consciousness finally steps behind the curtain of appearance – to realise that it was itself behind the curtain all along. Random associations aside, let’s see if I can make some sense of at least a small slice of this material.

I’ve discussed with Alexei in the comments to another post, how difficult I find this chapter in particular to read. I think this problem derives partially from how much time I’ve spent recently on the first chapter of Capital. As I mentioned in the previous post on Perception, Marx opens Capital roughly where Hegel begins the section on Perception, and then moves on to spend the bulk of the rest of the first chapter discussing themes that Hegel addresses in the chapter on Force and Understanding (along with some gestures to material Hegel includes in his material on Self-Consciousness). Marx’s argument about the fetish therefore involves an intricate, tacit metacommentary on Hegel’s approach to similar themes – and, as a consequence, my recent work, trying to tease out the nature of Marx’s argument, seems to be creating a fair amount of “interference”, as I now go back now to try to make sense of these parts of Hegel.

My work on Marx can’t be the only thing causing problems for me, however, as I’ve been procrastinating on writing about Hegel’s discussion of Force and Understanding for longer than I’ve been working intensively on the first chapter of Capital. Even though I generally find Hegel’s voicing clearer than Marx’s – in the sense that Hegel is generally more explicit about the perspective from which he is speaking at any given time – something about this particular section seems to blink in and out of focus for me. Hegel seems to me to loop several times in this section back through the shapes of consciousness he has discussed in earlier sections, without always clearly delineating these retrospective moments from the discussion of moments distinctive to Understanding – and sometimes without clearly delineating all of these things from the “for us” perspective he intends the reader of the text to adopt. As a result, I think I have a handle on the overarching argument, but many smaller-scale moves don’t seem to be falling neatly into place for me. Whether this is an intrinsic problem with this section or, as seems more likely, an intrinsic problem with me, every time I sit down to write on this material, I end up putting the text aside, deciding that I’m not yet sufficiently comfortable with my grasp of the material to write on it at any length. This post therefore represents an attempt to break through this long-standing logjam – without claiming that I’ve somehow achieved a breakthrough in terms of the clarity with which I now apprehend the text. Corrections are therefore most welcome.

Okay. Since this section, I think, loops back through points from the previous two sections, a few words on what binds these sections to one another might make a useful starting point. These three sections – on sense-certainty, perception, and understanding – each unfold within a space where consciousness takes its object to be something outside itself, which consciousness regards as separated from its own process of experience or apprehension. The “for us” of the text – the perspective meant to express the point of view of the reader, which Hegel will also sometimes refer to as the position that remains implicit for whatever shape of consciousness is being analysed at a given point in the text – is meant to grasp, throughout, that what consciousness takes to be distinct entities – an object, a process of apprehension, and a medium connecting the two – are simply moments of the same dynamic process that assumes these particular forms. This dynamic movement uniting these moments, however, is not yet apparent to the shapes of consciousness being analysed here. In each section, Hegel therefore tries to show, both how the moments in a dynamic process could present themselves to consciousness in the inadequate configuration analysed in that section, and also how consciousness’ own confrontation with the immanent limitations of such inadequate configurations, could drive it closer and closer to the “for us” of this text.

While Hegel traces a development of consciousness through each section, in each of these initial developments, consciousness fails to recognise its own implicatedness in the development of its object: consciousness takes its object to be a thing outside itself – as something essential, on which certainty can be grounded, and to which consciousness is opposed as inessential. The qualitative character of that “thing” – of the object – shifts with each stage, and consciousness along with it. But only when consciousness finally transcends Understanding does it confront the truth that it has all along been its own object – that what had previously presented themselves as opposed extremes (subject/object, being-for-self/being-for-other, form/content, etc.) had been moments in the same dynamic process.

Dorothy looks out the window into the tornadoEach section therefore tells a story of consciousness running up against immanent limits that it then transcends, while still preserving insights achieved via the confrontation with the impasse being overcome. Thus the search for sense-certainty, which attempts to achieve certainty through immersion in some particular “this” that is “meant”, leads consciousness to the realisation that such immersion aims implicitly at its opposite: universality emerges as the immanent truth of sense experience, and consciousness steps back from identifying certainty with some particular that is “meant”. Perception, which takes up from this insight, entails a search for certainty via the apprehension of universals conditioned by sense experience. This search in turn also leads, not to certainty, but to a perpetual restless movement that points consciousness toward the need for inherent universals not conditioned by sense perception. Understanding then takes over from this point, and searches for supersensible universals. Yet Understanding also reconstitutes, on this higher level, the problematic divide between consciousness and its object – taking unconditioned universals still as an object apart from consciousness. Understanding thus results in another unstable and restless configuration, which will drive immanently toward its own transcendence in the recognition by consciousness of its implicatedness in its object – in Self-Consciousness. The section on Understanding explores how such a transcendence unfolds.

The Wizard of OzHegel has a great deal of fun with Understanding – positioning the gratification consciousness receives from it as a form of unintentional and misrecognised intellectual onanism. The reader – a voyeur looking in on Understanding’s distinctive pleasures – is meant to recognise that consciousness is enjoying itself in this activity – however much consciousness may protest that it engages in chaste contemplation of some external object, discerned with great effort through the veil of sense perception:

Understanding has, indeed, eo ipso, done away with its own untruth and the untruth in its object. What has thereby come to view is the notion of the truth as implicit inherent truth, which is not yet notion, or lacks a consciously explicit existence for itself (Fürsichseyn), and is something which understanding allows to have its way without knowing itself in it. (133)


This process or necessity is, however, in this form, still a necessity and a process of understanding, or the process as such is not the object of understanding; instead, understanding has as its objects in that process positive and negative electricity, distance, velocity, force of attraction, and a thousand other things–objects which make up the content of the moments of the process. It is just for that reason that there is so much satisfaction in explanation, because consciousness being there, if we may use such an expression, in direct communion with itself, enjoys itself only. No doubt it there seems to be occupied with something else, but in point of fact it is busied all the while merely with itself. (163)

The man behind the curtainThe question then becomes how consciousness can move through the experiences Understanding provides, to achieve the explicit realisation of its own implicatedness in its object. Hegel’s argument here is complex, and I am certain I won’t come close to doing it justice. He begins by stage whispering that the unconditioned universal – although achieved through the negation of perception – has the positive significance of establishing the unity of existence-for-self and existence-for-other, which, for Hegel, involves a unity of form and content. Through Understanding, however, consciousness cannot fully grasp this unity, because it still takes the unconditioned universal as its object – as an extreme opposed to itself. As a consequence, a distinction of form and content is reconstituted in Understanding. The remainder of the chapter explores the permutations of this form/content distinction, in order to unfold an account of how this distinction should finally be overcome.

Hegel first discusses Force (for us) as a dynamic process comprised of a movement through moments of dispersion into independent elements, which Hegel calls the Expression of Force, and moments of withdrawal back into unity, which Hegel calls Force proper. Understanding initially holds Force and its Expression in immediate unity – taking the distinction between these moments to exist only in thought. Yet these distinctions obtain objective existence in the movement of the interaction between Force and its Expression – for Force, understood as the inner, inherent being of things, lying behind the random flux of perceptual experience, must express itself, and this expression presents itself to consciousness initially as the interaction of two forces – one an inciting or attracting force that draws out the inner essential being of the other, enabling this inner being to be expressed. Yet to describe the interaction in this way is to adopt a one-sided perspective, for the interaction is reciprocal: each of the two forces serves as the inciting force that allows the inner essence of the other to be expressed and, in turn, expresses its own inner essence in response to the other’s incitement. This interaction between Force and its Other therefore involves a reciprocity or tautology that drives toward the realisation that these “two” forces are really one and the same – that force has no existence apart from its expression; that form and content are unified; that what are taken as distinct forces are moments of a dynamic unity.

Hegel uses his analysis of force to unfold a distinction between force as substance, and the true inner being of things. The play of forces now becomes the realm of Appearance – which Hegel positions as a development of the negative, in the form of a restless process of moments turning into their opposites, but with a positive content: the universal – here, however, positioned in the form of the object existing per se, with truth conceptualised as the inner being of the object. This true inner being, however, is taken to exist in a mediated relationship to consciousness, which can directly access only the realm of appearance. Understanding thus seeks to pierce the play of forces in order to discern the stable background that is now taken to be real and true – but also taken to be a negation of sensible world, such that the object of consciousness has come to be a supersensible realm lying beyond the sensuous world of appearance.

(A very quick aside: readers of the series on the first chapter of Capital may already have recognised that these are more or less the same moves Marx makes when analysing the category of Value – which he presents as a category of a supersensible realm that cannot be detected by immediate empirical observation, as a category that necessarily expresses itself in the Form of Value (exchange value), as something that appears initially to be a distinction in thought, but then is realised in the form of universal laws that emerge from the apparently random flux of the process of exchange, etc. Marx deploys the discussion in Capital to overtly similar effect to Hegel’s analysis here – embedding a kind of “Kantian” sensibility in his analysis of the reproduction of capital – while also tacitly offering a metacommentary on Hegel’s work as a buried subtext.)

Consciousness, in Understanding, takes the world of appearance as a mediation between itself and the inner being of things. The inner world, posited here as something beyond consciousness, presents itself as empty and inaccessible to knowledge. Hegel gestures in passing at approaches that stop at this point – accepting this barren “beyond” as the necessary limit of consciousness. He argues that such approaches fail to recognise that this barrenness derives from consciousness’ taking inherent being as an object outside itself – starting from the position that the inner, true realm is devoid of objective reality (and thus supersensible), and holding the position that it is also devoid of consciousness – leaving only a void that tosses consciousness necessarily back into the phenomenal realm of appearance. For Hegel, this conclusion follows, however, only if we remain bound to Understanding.

Hegel counterposes the position that the supersensible arises only in and through the realm of appearance, such that the play of forces in the realm of appearance, the flux of the sensible realm, is the mediation through which the supersensible inner world is generated. The realm of appearance thus fills what, to Understanding, presents itself as a void, by establishing an inner world through which the sensible world is transcended. At the same time, consciousness, as itself a moment in this dynamic process, is not walled off from an inner being intrinsically beyond itself, but is rather already implicated in its object.

As I write this section, with the text sitting beside me, open, but untouched, this chapter has spontaneously separated itself from the spine, and slithered out of the book and onto the floor: the entire section on Force and Understanding – and only the section on Force and Understanding – has now self-excised from my copy of the Phenomenology. I’m wondering how to interpret this. The silent unweaving of Spirit? Regardless, it’s getting late, and I need to stop for the night – unfortunately at what is probably a slightly misleading juncture (even assuming I haven’t been massively misreading Hegel’s voicing to this point). Worse, I have left myself still to write on the parts of this section that I find most difficult. Still, it would undoubtedly lead to worse results, for me to try to write on this text even later into the night… Apologies if I should have made this decision much earlier than this…

Note that, while my various posts on Phenomenology are working notes, written with long gaps in between and without a strong guiding thread linking the posts, this post does draw on some points developed in earlier posts on the section on Perception and Sense-Certainty. A compilation of links to other occasional posts on Phenomenology are listed in this post.

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: An Aside on the Fetish

Okay. I want to stop here for a moment, catch my breath, and emphasise a couple of things about how I’m interpreting the argument on the fetish, before moving back into the text in greater detail. Note that this post might not make sense unless you’ve read at least the post immediately prior, on Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions.

As I have presented it here, “commodity fetishism” is a form of perception or thought that perceives material objects and human beings to possess supersensible essences that are distinct from their overtly-observable, sensuous properties. These essences are understood to be governed by impersonal laws. The existence of such laws can be inferred or deduced from empirical observation and manipulated instrumentally for human ends, but the laws (and the essences) are not understood to derive from contingent human practice.

Marx will not deny that such “essences” and “laws” exist – he is not undertaking an “abstract negation” that sees political economy as a simple error in thinking. His critical argument is that he can reach beyond the political economists to show how such “essences” and “laws” are brought into being, why it is plausible to perceive such essences and laws as “natural”, and yet why it has also become possible, over time, to understand the practical basis for these fetishised forms of thought – and thereby to open the possibility for transformation.

In the previous posts in this series, I have suggested that this line of argument opens up some very interesting potentials for understanding dimensions of modernity that reach well beyond the discourse of political economy: our sensitivity, for example, to a particular kind of dichotomy between “society” and “nature”, in which both poles of this dichotomy possess a very distinctive qualitative form; our sensitivity to the possibility for something like “matter” (understood as secularised “stuff” whose intrinsic nature is devoid of anthropological determinations); our sensitivity to the notion of an essential “human nature” lurking beneath the diverse overlays of culture (I’ll poke Wildly Parenthetical here, although I think she’s away at the moment – readers should note I’m not trying to hold her responsible for what I’m saying, but just flagging something I suspect she’ll be interested in – her work on experiences of an inner self is much more extensive than mine, so this is just a quick nod and a wave as I stumble across her terrain…). I could add other examples – and none of the examples I list here have been unfolded in a persuasive way in the writings I’ve undertaken so far. I list these points as placeholders for future development, as partial explanations for why I’m spending so much time lately on Marx, and as suggestions that Marx offers something vastly more powerful than a “critical economics” – that his work carries implications for a critical social theory of modernity that does something much more wide-reaching than it might initially seem.

A few further asides, on other interpretations of the fetish. The argument on the fetish is very often understood – or, at least, very often used – in quite different ways from what I’m outlining here. It is often used, for example, as a kind of anti-consumerist critique: we value money or material wealth so highly that we forget that it’s just an object, just a thing, of importance socially only because we make it important. It is often used as a kind of critique of individualism or private property: because we produce goods privately, rather than planning production collectively, we don’t become aware that, in reality, we are collectively engaged in a single, unified process of social production. It is often used as a critique of class domination: because the circulation of goods appears to involve only the exchange of equivalents, the reality of inequality and class domination is masked. It is often used as a critique of market distribution: markets abstract from the concrete conditions in which goods and services are produced, and thus veil the network of concrete social relations in which material reproduction actually unfolds. It is often used as a critique of “reification” or the domination of instrumental reason: because we perceive the natural world, and our fellow human beings, as “things” – as objects – we therefore treat them instrumentally, as nothing more than objects to be manipulated for our own gain. Etc.

I need to be very, very, very careful here: I am making a small and quite specific point, which is that none of these arguments captures what Marx is trying to say in the section on the fetish. I am not saying that Marx never makes points like those above – in places, even during the argument about the fetish, he will. And I am not dismissive of the potential importance of such arguments as important issues for critical analysis and as pivotal rallying-cries for political mobilisation.

I am saying that these arguments as attempts to articulate the notion of commodity fetishism are missing some of the strategic intent of this section of Marx’s text. The reading I am offering here is intended to drill in on a sometimes overlooked arc in this first chapter, to draw attention to how the entire chapter revolves around a series of reflections on forms of perception that attribute supersensible essences, governed by invisible laws, to things and to people. Such forms of perception, I am suggesting, are the “target” that the term “commodity fetishism” is trying to hit.

Understanding the argument in this way clarifies what was going on in the earlier sections of this chapter – in which Marx was deploying forms of thought that attribute supersensible essences to things and people, and then claiming to deduce laws from this starting point, in order to set the stage (hat tip john hutnyk) for the critique of such forms of thought. This interpretation makes sense of the first chapter as a reasonably unified argument, driving all along toward the critique of commodity fetishism. At the same time, this reading begins to suggest the power of Marx’s critique as a theory of modernity, and as a critical social theory that reaches far beyond a critical analysis of an “economic dimension” of modern society.

I have to plunge into marking first-year economics essays now – something that I suspect will see me longing for a bit of “critical economics” by the time I’m done. I’ll try to come back to this arc later in the week – I have to decide whether to plunge back into the minutiae of the sections of the chapter I’ve skipped across, or whether I’ve said as much as I have to say on this chapter for now, and should move forward in the text…

The previous posts in this series are:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

Those who have been following this discussion closely enough to read along in the comments, know that I have been struggling to work out how to write this post. The main thing I’ve been wrestling with is how to write something that captures the concepts I think Marx was trying to express, while also giving some sense of why Marx expresses those concepts in the style that he does. My sense is that the style of these early sections of Capital – the form of presentation or the way in which the concepts are unfolded and defended in the first couple of sections of the chapter in particular – is intentionally not really adequate to the concepts these sections purport to express. In fact, the form of presentation in these early sections actually contradicts some of the specific claims that Marx will make later in this same chapter. This leaves the reader in the very strange position of trying to decide whether Marx is wildly inconsistent, or whether there is something very strange going on here at the level of presentational strategy. What I want to do here is try to express how I have threaded my way through this decision.

My way of trying to understand this text is to view the entire chapter as building toward the argument about commodity fetishism (I assume everyone would agree with this), but then to take the – perhaps more controversial? (how common is the reading I’m unfolding here?) – step of suggesting that elements of the earlier sections of the chapter are actually illustrations of fetishised forms of thought. Marx begins this chapter, in other words, within the fetish – within in a form of thought that attributes particular social properties to material objects. Thus: the wealth of capitalism presents itself as a vast accumulation of commodities – a commodity has a dual character – therefore we can deduce that the labour that goes into the production of a commodity has a dual character – therefore we can see how the process of exchange and the development of money expresses what we have discussed as a tacit, internal duality within commodities. The arc of the first few sections of the chapter unfolds in this way, with occasional interstitial comments that suggest that something else must be in play.

As I suggested to Nate in the comments below, I think this arc is “backwards” from the standpoint Marx unfolds later in this same chapter: these early sections unfold as though objects (commodities) possess supersensual properties that then become manifest when we toss those objects into relations with one another: what could this presentation be describing, if not precisely the form of thought Marx is criticising in the section on the fetish? I therefore think we need to see the concluding section on the fetish as reacting back critically upon the earlier sections of this chapter, revealing these sections to be expressing forms of thought predicated on fetishised modes of experience.

So, reviewing some of the material I covered in the previous post, when Marx tries to analyse why exchange is possible, he unfolds this argument as though there must be some common non-material property congealed in the objects themselves, that provides a universal, quantifiable essence that enables objects to be exchanged in whatever proportions ensure that they contain the same quantity of this supersensible substance. Marx then presents an argument that claims to deduce (through a decontextualised application of reason that Marx himself will refute in the discussion of Aristotle in the third section of this chapter) that this common substance is labour. The labour that enables exchange, however, is not labour in its variegated concrete forms, because these diverse labouring activities have no more common identity than does the material dimension of the diverse commodities such concrete labour produces. Instead, concrete labouring activities also possess a cryptic supersensible property that cannot be identified when just examining the overt qualitative characteristics of the production process: the property of being “human labour in the abstract” – of being an aliquot portion of the (normative!) labour power of society as a whole:

The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour power. The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units.

This homogeneous labour power is then allocated across the universe of all commodities produced, determining which kinds and which amounts, of all the diverse concrete labouring activities that are empirically undertaken and that generate concrete goods and services that comprise material wealth, get to “count as labour” under capitalism. Marx argues that the production of “human labour in the abstract” – of the “total labour power of society” – and its allocation among the universe of commodities, is determined by the labour power socially required, on average, to generate those use values for which there is a social demand. Empirical labouring activities that produce material goods for which there is insufficient social demand may not count as labour under capitalism, because they will not receive an aliquot portion of “human labour in the abstract” – no matter how much concrete effort has gone into their empirical production process. Empirical labouring activities that fall behind the socially average level of productivity may also experience a disjoint between the amount of time empirically spent in labouring activities, and the labour time that gets to “count as labour”.

“Value” is Marx’s name for the supersensible measure of the amount of labour power that “counts as labour” within particular commodities. The quantity of “Value” cannot be determined from any empirical property of a commodity or a labouring process taken in isolation: it is established only when goods are brought into relation with the entire universe of commodities through the process of exchange. Yet, in Marx’s account, “Value” is also not created within exchange – instead, the apparently random and arbitrary proportions in which commodities are exchanged are taken to express an underlying “lawlike” regularity that governs exchange in such a way as to distribute an impersonal compulsion to labour at socially average levels:

The character of having value, when once impressed upon products, obtains fixity only by reason of their acting and re-acting upon each other as quantities of value. These quantities vary continually, independently of the will, foresight and action of the producers. To them, their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them. 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.

Marx’s own “position”, I would suggest, goes something like: we are doing something extremely strange with our collective practice under capitalism. We are behaving collectively as if there exists some supersensible entity called “human labour in the abstract” – a specific, bounded quantity of a homogeneous substance that exists apart from material wealth or the actual expenditure of human effort to achieve some determinate aim, and that comes to be congealed in material objects as “Value”. By behaving this way, we are, in effect, creating or enacting “abstract labour” and “Value” as real (albeit social) entities. We do this by unintentionally collectively enacting a situation in which the production and distribution of value is somehow the pivot around which much of our social and material reproduction revolves. This unintentional collective enactment of a supersensible realm of “real abstractions” (more on this term later), far from bringing into being a rational and demystified form of social life, generates its own distinctive mystifications:

…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.

For many reasons (I’ll come back to this more adequately in later posts), when we come to discover that such “real abstractions” are operating to constrain our behaviour, we don’t initially grasp that our own social practice is the origin point for these coercive abstract structures or patterns. Instead, we do what the political economists did: we interpret these supersensible, socially-constituted entities to be an “essence” intrinsically existing tacitly within more overtly-observable, “sensuous” empirical entities.

So we say that commodities possess a dual character – and then we analyse how that dual character that we take to be intrinsic, becomes manifest when commodities interact with one another on the market. We become sensitive to the possibility of a “material” world that operates according to supersensible laws whose existence can be inferred from observing patterns in the movements of material objects, and we begin to try to discover and to manipulate such “laws” instrumentally to human advantage. We become sensitive to the possibility that certain dimensions of social practice – dimensions associated with direct personal or intersubjective relations – are social (and therefore contingent on human practice and – potentially – contestable). We therefore collectively, unintentionally enact two mutually-differentiating, interpenetrating dimensions of social life: an “overtly social” realm of interpersonal relations, and an impersonal realm in which material objects are governed by invisible laws. Both realms are “social” – but not in the same way. And their mutual determination can render plausible a systematic trompe-l’œil in which one dimension of our social is taken not to be social at all.

There is much, much more to say here – I’m not doing the argument justice, both in the sense that I am skipping details that are present in this chapter, and in the sense that I am also skipping ahead to elements of the argument that are not yet evident from this chapter at all. I’ll try to come back to all of this more adequately as I have time. My goal for the moment is just to render plausible the notion that Marx might be aiming for a WTF? reaction in the early sections of Capital. Marx might expect his readers already to know the punchline – already to be “in” on the joke. Marx then takes us through an immanent exploration of this fetishised position anyway because the standards of immanent critique don’t allow him to dismiss fetishised forms of thought as “mere” errors – he has to show how and why they arise, and also how they point beyond themselves, suggesting the possibility for something like his own critical position. And he also has to give an account of how his own position is given immanently within the social context he is criticising. He doesn’t do any of these things completely in this first chapter, but I think this is the kind of argument he is trying to set up here, to prime the reader for what is to come. Perhaps there’s a point to be made here about what goes wrong when an author has to explain their own jokes – or, perhaps in this case, what goes wrong when an author desperately needed to explain their own jokes, but didn’t get around to doing it… At any rate…

More on all of this as I have the time…

The quotations here are taken from the version of the first chapter available online through the Marxists Internet Archive.

Previous posts in this series are:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Vague Generalisations about Real Abstractions

So… I’ve been in several conversations recently where I’ve tried to clarify something by mentioning the concept of a “real abstraction”, only to realise that my interlocutor expresses familiarity with the term, but means something very different by it than what I’m trying to convey. As with the concept of “theoretical pessimism”, I understand “real abstraction” in a somewhat technical way – to refer to a form of argument that claims that at least some forms of abstraction should not be understood as the products of a conceptual generalisation, but should instead be understood as a particular kind of entity that is directly, but unintentionally, constituted in collective practice (more on this in a bit). What I’m finding is that the term “real abstraction” has various other technical and non-technical meanings, each more or less closely bound to particular visions of the object, standpoint, and mechanism of critique. I thought I would toss some generalisations onto the blog on the diverse meanings of the term, both to clarify (or further obscure…) what I’ve meant by the term when I’ve used it in other posts here and elsewhere, and as part of a process of deciding whether it causes too much confusion for me to retain this particular phrase.

I’m finding that perhaps the most common interpretation of “real abstraction” that crops up in local conversation, takes the term to signify some sort of superlative abstraction. So the phrase “real abstraction” is understood to be trying to draw attention to concepts that are really, really abstract – by distinction, say, to concepts that are less abstract, and therefore hug more closely to concrete experience. This usage remains very closely bound to the conventional meaning of the term “abstraction” – where an abstraction is a kind of conceptual generalisation – and generally positions “real abstractions” as worse than… er… other kinds of abstractions. It sets up, in other words, a kind of normative privileging of concepts that hug more closely to what it takes to be concrete experience, views abstraction as something a thinking subject effects when reflecting on data (ruling out the possibility, for example, of “abstraction” as a particular kind of immanent structure or an actively and directly generated product of collective practice), and does not consider the possibility that we might miss some aspects of the “real” if we regard the qualitative characteristics of abstract entities solely as a kind of averaging out of the qualitative characteristics of concrete entities.

Even where interlocutors share a more similar “frame” to mine – even where they view a claim about “real abstractions” as an argument that something determinately abstract might be constituted in collective practice – there is a strong tendency to want to equate a “real abstraction” with an illusion, to view a “real abstraction” as a socially constituted form of appearance whose presence is masking some underlying “concrete” reality that critique is meant to uncover. This understanding of “real abstractions” is often put forward by people who see the market (or, sometimes, money) as the quintessential “real abstraction”, and who are interested in criticising the ways in which certain ideals or forms of thought they associate with the market, function to deflect attention away from the actual existence of domination in concrete practice. In this understanding, the forms of thought and practice associated with what is regarded as the “real abstraction” of the market are thus positioned as illusions that need to be unmasked to bring an underlying reality more clearly into view.

There is also a mirror-image position, which also sees a “real abstraction” as something constituted in collective practice, but which places the opposite “charge” on the abstraction: instead of treating the “real abstraction” as an illusion and as the object of critique, this approach views the “real abstraction” as the underlying reality, and sees other social institutions or forms of thought as illusory, or at least as more contingent or particularistic in character. This understanding of a “real abstraction” often arises from forms of critique that see some sociological group – the proletariat, the poor, the marginalised – as a “real abstraction”, where the abstraction is taken to arise because collective practice has placed a particular population into such a position of abject impoverishment or disempowerment or exclusion that they are reduced to what is most essentially, almost biologically (or spiritually), human – and are therefore positioned as the only social group with direct access to something like universal ideals, the only social group whose experiences render them capable of leading a genuinely universal movement for the emancipation of themselves and all other groups.

Okay. Broad brush strokes, I realise. There are many, many theoretical positions that couldn’t easily be lumped into any of these gestural categories. And now that I’ve run through these contradictory understandings of “real abstraction”, I’m beginning to wonder whether I should just drop the term… But before I make this decision, I’ll at least try to gesture at what I mean by the term – if only because I’ve been using it on this blog and in other writings for some time.

The basic idea, for me, behind the concept of a “real abstraction” is the claim that there are at least certain types of abstractions that are not being fully understood when they are interpreted as conceptual generalisations. When an abstraction is treated as a conceptual generalisation, it is being treated as though it arises from a process of subtraction – treated as a residual or a remainder, as whatever is left behind after a certain amount of qualitatively determinate properties has been stripped away in some kind of analytical process. Abstraction is here positioned as a form of pure or abstract negation, lacking its own determinate qualitative characteristics, but containing only those residue characteristics that persist once other attributes have been averaged out or peeled away. By contrast, I would understand the concept of a “real abstraction” to be an attempt to provide a sociological explanation of how at least some abstractions are constituted through collective practice – and are thus available to think, because collectively they are being enacted – they are existent entities constituted in and through collective practice. This process of collective enactment – like all processes of collective enactment – then confers determinate qualitative characteristics which are best understood as actively constituted in their qualitative determinacy, rather than as passively left behind after a process of generalisation away from more concrete characteristics.

From my perspective, even the more sociological approaches mentioned above don’t quite succeed in unfolding this kind of analysis, because they position “real abstractions” asymmetrically in relation to other dimensions of social practice, treating “real abstractions” as either illusions or essences, and therefore as entities that do not exist on the same practical plane as other sorts of social phenomena. This privileged positioning (whether negative or positive) of “real abstractions” tends to facilitate dichotomous visions of critique: visions that view the abstraction as an illusion and as the object of critique, because the abstraction is perceived to have occluded the qualitatively determinate reality of rich, sensuous, concrete existence; or visions that view the abstraction as the reality and as the standpoint of critique, because it reveals what is most essential and universal and unable to be stripped away.

I tend, by contrast, to restrict the term “real abstraction” to a form of analysis that steps outside this dichotomy, by taking seriously the notion that certain things that we experience as “abstractions” are not negativities left behind when everything has been stripped away, but are instead socially-constituted positivities – actively constructed with their own determinate qualitative characteristics generated (unintentionally) in collective practice – representing neither illusion nor essence, but rather alienated potentials. Such potentials are contingent, in that they are the results of collective practices that could well have been different – that, in other periods, seem to have been different – but they are also real, for us, in our time, which has (albeit quite accidentally) brought them into being. Their “abstract” character, however, places these potentials at risk for not being recognised as such – for being mistaken for conceptual generalisation, or for human nature, or for illusion – all interpretations of real abstractions that can be criticised for the ways in which such interpretations impede our ability to seize actively on the positive potentials we have generated in this peculiar form (I say this, realising that the point would need to be developed in significantly greater detail – for present purposes, I’m simply trying to hand wave at the way the concept of a real abstraction might function in a reworking of the concept of social critique, within a framework that rejects the structure of an unmasking and debunking critique).

So… Nice grand claims about the strategic intentions behind a technical term I still haven’t deployed in more than the most gestural way in any actual social theory… ;-P In spite of my criticisms above, a very, very rough sense of what would be involved in deploying the concept of “real abstraction” in something like the sense in which I use it, can be found in some analyses of the market as a “real abstraction”. The argument would go something along the lines of: in one dimension of the social practices that bring markets into being, markets express a genuine, collectively enacted, indifference to the determinate properties of the goods exchanged, the labours used to produce those goods, the purposes for which those goods might be used, etc; in other dimensions of social practice – including other dimensions of the social practices that bring markets into being – these determinate properties are directly and profoundly relevant. The tension between these two dimensions of social practice provides a “real” – or practical – collectively enacted, basis for rendering socially plausible the existence of certain kinds of dichotomous concepts – between exchange and use value, abstract and concrete, etc. Both poles of the dichotomy, however, are equally qualitatively determined by social practice – one pole does not reflect an essence and the other an appearance (although it may be socially plausible for essence-appearance interpretations to arise). Both poles – and the tensions between them – generate determinate potentials, the exploration and expression of which can then provide standpoints for criticism of the ways in which available potentials are being held back or restrained by the existing organising of social life.

To be clear, I offer the example of the market above because I suspect it will be at least somewhat familiar to most readers – it’s not unlikely that people will have read works using something like the technical notion of “real abstraction” I deploy, with the market as the case example. I feel some discomfort with the example, however, as I think that focussing on the market as a “real abstraction” reinforces the tendency to define capitalism in terms of the market, and makes it difficult to understand some periods of capitalist history. My own work focuses instead on the collective constitution of a long-term and non-linear pattern of historical transformation – on this pattern as a “real abstraction” – and can be seen, in some senses, as a critique of approaches that rely on a focus on the market. I’ll leave this issue aside for present purposes, however, since my main goal here is outline various meanings that seem to have attached themselves to the phrase “real abstraction”, and to explore briefly how these different meanings lend themselves to different conceptions of social critique.

Empirical Questions

As part of my attempt to recover and recharge from the term, I’ve been very casually reading through Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. I was struck by the following passage, which I will reproduce here as a sort of bookmark, without making any assumptions about whether Deleuze intends the passage in the sense that it struck me:

A book of philosophy should be in part a very particular species of detective novel, in part a kind of science fiction. By detective novel we mean that concepts, with their zones of presence, should intervene to resolve local situations. They themselves change along with the problems. They have spheres of influence where, as we shall see, they operate in relation to ‘dramas’ and by means of ‘cruelty’. They must have a coherence among themselves, but that coherence must not come from themselves. They must receive their coherence from elsewhere.

This is the secret of empiricism. Empiricism is by no means a reaction against concepts, nor a simple appeal to lived experience. On the contrary, it undertakes the most insane creation of concepts ever seen or heard. Empiricism is a mysticism and a mathematicism of concepts, but precisely one which treats the concept as object of an encounter, as a here-and-now, or rather as an Erewhon from which emerge inexhaustibly ever new, differently distributed ‘heres’ and ‘nows’. Only an empiricist could say: concepts are indeed things, but things in their free and wild state, beyond ‘anthropological predicates’. I make, remake and unmake my concepts along a moving horizon, from an always decentred centre, from an always displaced periphery which repeats and differenciates them. The task of modern philosophy is to overcome the alternatives temporal/non-temporal, historical/eternal and particular/universal. Following Nietzsche we discover, as more profound than time and eternity, the untimely: philosophy is neither a philosophy of history, nor a philosophy of the eternal, but untimely, always and only untimely – that is to say, ‘acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come’. Following Samuel Butler, we discover Erewhon, signifying at once the originary ‘nowhere’ and the displaced, disguised, modified and always re-created ‘here-and-now’. Neither empirical particularities nor abstract universals: a Cogito for a dissolved self. We believe in a world in which individuations are impersonal, and singularities are pre-individual: the splendour of the pronoun ‘one’ – whence the science-fiction aspect, which necessarily derives from this Erewhon. What this book should therefore have made apparent is the advent of a coherence which is no more our own, that of mankind, than that of God or the world. (pp.xx-xxi)

Many things strike me about this passage. Deleuze may not mean any of them… ;-P The notion that concepts should be understood as having a relational coherence with other concepts, but that this relational coherence must simultaneously be understood as coming from “elsewhere” – as pointing back to a “local situation” in which those concepts intervene – reminds me of some of the things I’ve occasionally written on Marx’s passing suggestions about logical deduction: Marx implies, particularly in his reflections on Aristotle and the labour theory of value in the first volume of Capital, that certain “logical” relationships become so only once a given local situation can be presupposed – only once a context has been constituted that renders a particular conceptual leap intuitive. The implication is that even the operations of logic – when these are applied to determinate content, when “deductive” reasoning is applied to phenomena in the world – cannot be understood in terms of the operation of an abstract and instrumental procedure, but instead owe their plausibility to the ways in which they incorporate substantive contents that lie ready-to-hand only in very specific situations.

The focus on the mystical nature of empiricism also reminds me of Marx – specifically, Marx’s discussions of the fetish, which revolve precisely around trying to understand how social determination in capitalism presents itself in the historically distinctive shape of an absence of social determination – in the shape of a kind of empiricist sensibility, a “view from nowhere” – Deleuze’s “free and wild state”. Marx suggests that forms of perception and thought that are qualitatively specific to capitalism appear not to be social – not to be historical, even if they are self-evidently historically-emergent – because their distinctive social character consists precisely in their claim to be devoid of social character – in their claim to be devoid of “anthropological predicates”. Thus Marx speaks of political economy as evaluating social institutions from a standpoint in which “there has been history, but there no longer is any”: as simultaneously expressing the corrosive recognition that social determinations exist, that forms of thought and practice can arise and fade away, but also veiling this recognition, by failing to apply this insight self-reflexively to thematise how this recognition itself expresses a distinctive social determination – and therefore failing to ask the pivotal question of how our “empiricist” concepts themselves manifest determinate potentials constituted in particular ways in our local situation.

Marx views political economy as a non-self-reflexive form of thought – and therefore as a form of thought limited to applying its insights negatively and in a backward-looking fashion, to other targets of critique, rather than to itself. For Marx, this means that political economy can recognise the “artificiality” of the institutions and beliefs of other times and places – and can therefore engage in an unmasking and debunking critique that declares this artificiality, that brings this artificiality “to light”. These negative and backward-looking critiques are offered, however, as if from a standpoint free of “anthropological determinations” – and, more importantly, as if the concept of a standpoint free of anthropological determinations were not itself the product of qualitatively distinctive anthropological determinations.

To move beyond this kind of negative, backward-looking critique requires, for Marx, a self-reflexive move that seeks to identify and understand the anthropological determinations that underlie the emergence of the concept of a standpoint free from anthropological determinations. The object of this kind of self-reflexive critique is precisely not to “unmask and debunk”: Marx isn’t seeking simply to point out that political economic thought is itself “guilty” of the same artificiality it discovers in competing forms of thought. The object is instead to link particular kinds of critical insights to the determinate forms of practice constitutive of a “local situation” – and thus to open that situation to a critical exploration of the generative and creative potentials the situation itself possesses.

From this perspective, the distinctive forms of perception and thought associated with empiricism can be recognised and valued for their corrosive and creative potentials – for the ways in which they prime and open us for an appreciation of dimensions of a broader natural world decentred from the human community, for how they sensitise us to the potential for the transformation of human institutions and beliefs. At the same time, we can self-reflexively remain aware that these critical insights do not themselves mean that we have stepped “outside”, into a position of neutrality or asociality – instead, these insights are themselves expressions of a determinate form of social imbrication. Understanding the determinate characteristics of our social – the distinctive forms of practice and interconnection – that open us to such critical forms of perception and thought, will help us understand and cultivate the immanent potentials for transcendence that our context generates.

I offer all of this, of course, more in the spirit of free association, than as anything substantively connected with Deleuze. While I found the passage striking for the thoughts it provoked, I am not trying here to suggest anything about Deleuze’s position – to which perhaps I can return in a more informed way, once I have read in much greater depth.