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Category Archives: Events

Marx & Philosophy Society Talk

I will put up a proper version of this paper on the Marx & Philosophy Society website soon. I just wanted to post the text of the actual talk here for archiving purposes in the interim.

The event was fantastic, and the discussion following the paper was rich and thought-provoking – it’s a wonderful event, and I’d encourage anyone who has the opportunity to attend in the future.

More blogging soon, I hope – once I’ve caught up on a bit of sleep…

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Imminence of Immanences

So I’ve fallen into silence again here – apologies… It’s the end of the term, and I’m trying to get everything together to leave again for London, where I’ll be attending the following conferences, and presenting papers that, I’m quite firmly certain, will be less megalomaniacal than the abstracts below imply. And, while I’m there, finishing the very final thesis revisions, under Duncan’s careful supervision… Hard to predict whether and how much blogging will happen during this somewhat crowded “break”, but at the very least I’ll post the papers here after the events.

And those events are:

Marx & Philosophy Society 6th Annual conference – on 6 June.

Beyond Telos and Totality: Immanent Critique as Selective Inheritance

Abstract: Recent reinterpretations of Marx’s work have tended to emphasise the ways in which Marx puts forward a critical appropriation of concepts like teleology and totality. In many of these interpretations, Marx’s work is understood to involve a deflationary, historically specific, and non-metaphysical analysis of the ways in which capitalist societies can be said, first, to be characterised by a particular trajectory of historical transformation and, second, to generate certain practical phenomena that can be well-described by a concept like ‘totality’. In spite of the deflationary and anti-metaphysical emphasis of these readings, some critics have expressed concern that even a qualified, bounded use of categories like ‘telos’ or ‘totality’ might attribute too much power to capitalism as a social form – and thus undermine attempts to theorise possibilities for transformative agency.

In this paper, I explore one particular option for how to think the role of concepts of telos and totality in Marx’s mature works, while retaining the potential for transformative agency close to the surface of our analysis. With specific reference to the first volume of Marx’s Capital, I show how Marx zooms in and out of different layers of social experience in the course of his analysis, moving between aspects of collective life that are intuitively meaningful to social actors, and other aspects that can better be described as unintended consequences of aggregate behaviour. By focussing on this layered dimension of social experience, it becomes possible to bring more clearly into focus how Marx could both argue that aspects of capitalist societies possess ‘totalising’ qualities, without this argument in any sense undermining the ability to think about concrete potentials for emancipatory change.

Immanence and Materialism Conference (which seems not to have its own website yet, but which has been mentioned here and there…) on 23 June.

What’s the Matter with Marx?: Notes on Marx’s Immanent Critique of Materialism

Abstract: Convincing arguments have been put forward by Murray, Postone, Sayer and others that the categories of Marx’s mature works must be considered historically specific to capitalist societies, fundamentally deflationary, and anti-metaphysical. Some of these works extend this point to claim that Marx offers an immanent critique of capitalist society, basing his critique on potentials generated by the society being criticised, and therefore not reliant on any transcendent “materialist” metaphysics to ground his critical standpoint.

In this paper, I explore the ways in which such reinterpretations, sometimes in spite of their own programmatic claims, often continue to smuggle into their analysis a dichotomy between the material and the social worlds, in order to open up a gap that can serve as a standpoint of critique. Thus even the contemporary readings of Marx that are most committed to grasping his work as an immanent critique, often tacitly rely on the perspective provided by a “material outside” that somehow stands external to the society being criticised.

In spite of these inconsistencies in the literature, I argue that it is possible to read Capital as an immanent critique. Cashing out this claim, however, requires grasping the very peculiar textual strategy in play in Capital, which results in the work routinely putting forward positions – such as the dichotomy between material and social worlds introduced in the opening pages – that the text then undermines as its argument develops. In this paper, I explore elements of this textual strategy in order to open the possibility for appreciating the critique of materialism operative in Marx’s immanent critical theory.

Thesis Completion Seminar: Update

So just a quick update that yesterday afternoon I fulfilled the requirement of holding a “successful” Thesis Completion Seminar – basically, a one-hour presentation and Q&A session which is a hurdle requirement in order to become eligible to submit the thesis for examination. So: hurdle jumped.

I wanted to thank all the folks who came to lend moral support during the presentation (you guys didn’t all have to hide in the back, though, you know 🙂 – they would have let you sit up front 🙂 – but seriously, it was really good to have you all there).

Because this is a new requirement, I hadn’t known what to expect. It didn’t help that a certain sometimes commenter around these parts led the way with an absolutely terrifying presentation of their excellent research. I had been planning to speak much less formally – and, in fact, I did speak much less formally. But I spent several hours worrying about how bad a decision that might have been, having rocked up to the event intending to ad lib a presentation, rather than giving a formal paper – because the opening formal paper was, in a word, perfect.

That said, perhaps best in that context not to do something too similar… 😉 So when it came my time, I basically stood up and ranted at everyone for half an hour. I felt like something out of a Zizek video… The questions were extremely generous, giving me an opportunity to expand on many points that by rights probably should have made their way into the original rant… The atmosphere was extremely supportive – a really nice way to bring the project publicly to a close.

Now for the actual completion – which, in true dialectical fashion, unfolds as a process that follows the presentation of its results… ;-P

Marx and Philosophy

Okay, so if you were me, and you had been invited to give a talk to the Marx and Philosophy Society conference in June, what would you talk about? There are a couple bits from the thesis I would consider developing, and the inertia from the thesis may well win out, but I was curious whether anyone might have any suggestions that could stir my thoughts out of the thesis rut a little bit…

Thesis Workshop: With What Must the Thesis Begin?

This coming Friday, I have to fulfil a mandatory pre-submission requirement for the thesis that basically involves presenting on the structure and the major claims of the thesis, and then taking questions from faculty and students who happen to attend the event. The faculty who attend are provided with the abstract, first chapter, and table of contents for the thesis – unless they are actual supervisors, they are unlikely to have read anything else. The students who attend are not, to my knowledge, supplied with anything. Presumably they are either friends of the presenters, and therefore know their work through that connection, or they are simply there to see what this hurdle requirement entails. The purpose of the requirement is to provide a sort of check and balance on the supervision process – making it less likely that theses will be sent out for examination (which, here, is an entirely external process) when they are likely to require major amendments or not to pass.

If any readers from my university would like to attend, the event will be held in the Research Lounge from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday 27 February. There will be four or five of us presenting and taking questions – each of us with an hour to ourselves. I don’t know as of yet which hour is mine. If this matters, send me an email, and I’ll let you know when and if I find out…

Since the introduction I recently posted to the blog was mainly a placeholder – and one that was specifically not very well-designed, I didn’t think, for people who weren’t going to read the rest of the thesis – I have rewritten it for purposes of distribution to the staff who will be attending this event. I think it’s much better than the one I posted a couple of weeks ago, so, to satisfy my archivalist impulses, I’ve posted it below the fold. As before, it still needs a lot of detail work (and footnotes have been stripped from the blog version), but as an overarching introduction it does a much better job – I think – of preparing the reader for the sort of thesis they are about to read, the terminology used in the thesis, and the style of argument the thesis makes. I think…

I belong to the first group of students to whom this presentation requirement has been applied, so the groundrules for the event – and what you have to do to “pass” – are still a bit unformed. I’m not expecting any major dramas, but who knows… I’ll let folks know next week…

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab.]

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Historical Materialism Conference

I suppose I should mention that I’ll be presenting to the Historical Materialism Conference at SOAS in London, 7-9 November. I’ll post more details on the paper closer to the event – suffice to say that the paper I proposed way back when is… somewhat more esoteric than what I would propose to present now… Still, looking forward to the event – interesting time to be attending this conference. Perhaps I’ll see some of you there…

Some Disassembly Required

Recovering from a severe cold and drowning in work at the moment, so posting is likely to be… light and airy. I did want to archive a quick note here about one of the questions asked in response to the Derrida Today presentation – no new content, but just pulling together some old content in a very very slightly different way. The questioner (I wish I knew his name – excellent formulation of the question, to which I won’t do any justice here…) picked up on perhaps the only sentence in the paper that gave some hint of where we might go in closing the circle, and completing the discussion of Derrida with an alternative interpretation of Marx: the sentence that referenced the Theses of Feuerbach and the question of transformative interpretations. The questioner wanted to know how it would be possible to return to Marx, in a form that wouldn’t just recycle modernist political ideals and organisational structures, and he pressed the issue of whether I were engaging in a sort of backward-looking, nostalgic critique that sought to revive ideals, forms of organisation, and forms of theory that were no longer adequate to the present time.

My response was that, in interpreting Capital, I try to take seriously Marx’s claim that he was not trying to write recipes for the cookshops of the future. The point of Capital, as I see it, is not to set forth a political program, but rather to unfold, and to apply to a particular social context, a method for reading and deconstructing that context, so that it becomes easier to see that it might be possible to make other sorts of institutions, practices, and selves, out of the sorts of “raw materials” we find lying around us now. The task of working out what, specifically, to do with these materials: this is a political task, not subject to theoretical predetermination abstracted from particular situations and contestations.

I noted that Capital pivots around a series of inversions, in which perspectives are introduced only to be followed, later (sometimes much later) in the text, with their opposites. One way to read this textual strategy is to hold that Marx is trying to set up a contrast between illusion and reality – such that certain perspectives are “ideology”, while others are objective, “scientific” truth. I take Marx’s notion of “science” to be too Hegelian for this: the inversions in the text, I believe, are intended to demonstrate that none of the perspectives being analysed are “essential” or intrinsic – intended to show that, in capitalism, we do think (and practice) several impossible-to-reconcile, contradictory things in the course of our everyday lives. By demonstrating this “inverted”, topsy-turvy, looking glass character of our practices, Marx is attempting – in my reading – not to tease out which of the moments of this inverted world are “really” essential, and which are merely illusory. He is attempting instead to suggest that the presence of these inversions reveals that we are not on the terrain of any sort of timeless essence at all: rather, we are on the terrain of contingent social practices – on a terrain subject to political contestation.

What Marx also does is try to work out what other sorts of things we might be able to do, with the social materials that lie ready to hand – materials that, through over-familiarity, we might tend not to view creatively, with an eye to the question of what else we might be able to make from these building blocks. Marx uses a variety of techniques to explore this question: where possible, he trundles around through history, finding historical examples of societies that share similar sorts of institutions – in order to show that, in those other contexts, those institutions didn’t possess the same qualitative characteristics that they possess now; he also points to contradictory characteristics enacted by different dimensions of the present context; and he engages in various sorts of hypothetical and speculative analyses of what might be possible, in a transformed social situation.

All of these techniques are geared toward teasing apart the distinctive characteristics of capitalism – characteristics that are reproduced, in Marx’s argument, only so long as the capital relation is – from the characteristics that might potentially be generated, if the various component institutions and practices that currently contribute to the reproduction of capital, could be extracted from that relation and appropriated for other ends. In this reading, Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism is a critique of the tendency to treat qualitative properties that arise due to the capital relation, as though those properties inhere necessarily in the various component institutions and practices that currently reproduce that relation: Marx’s speculative claim is that a change in the relations in which component institutions and practices are suspended, would free up different qualitative properties and potentials.

Capital attempts to give some glimpse of what these qualitative properties and potentials might be – but this does not take the form of a political programme, still less an organisational structure or completed vision of what a socialist society might be. Rather than an architect’s blueprint, Capital provides something much closer to an artist’s palette – splaying out for our view the much wider range of colours and textures on which we could potentially draw in producing our collective lives.

Whatever socialism might be, Marx suggests, it could be made out of nothing more than the stuff we have ready to hand. The actual process of creation, however – including the determination of what it is we want to create: I think that Marx sees this as an intrinsically and irreducibly political process – and also as a process that will necessarily react back on what political actors wish to create, as they continue to shake loose new possibilities and potentials that cannot be foreseen now. Some potentials, once grasped, may prove particularly corrosive – the demonstration, for example, that it is possible to enact a kind of human equality – the experience of such a possibility – renders non-doxic new creations that would impose hierarchy – precisely by revealing such hierarchies to be impositions – to be human creations, and therefore subject to political contestation. These gestures toward particularly corrosive possibilities recur through Capital, confronting us with radical potentials that – in this argument – we are already enacting, if only in particular slices of our collective practice. Certain sorts of creation, certain kinds of politics – those predicated on closing off such corrosive potentials – can thus become subject to criticism by holding them up against the potentials they disavow. By making our history citable in more of its moments, we can widen our sense of what we is it possible for us to do – and gain some critical traction on what is shut down, as well as what is opened up, by particular political ideals and organisational structures.

Yet Capital provides minimal – bordering on absent – programmatic political instruction. Its energies are instead directed elsewhere: toward making the case that capitalism provides the raw materials for the construction of something very different – toward arguing that greater freedom is possible through a hack of the existing system – toward making plausible the claim that socialism is “capitalism: some disassembly required”.

Battery about to go!! (I could add, the personal as well as that on the laptop…) Apologies for the scatter and lack of editing (and care!!). I will need some recovery time, I think, before I can post substantively again.

Impure Inheritances

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

MSCP Winter Session

Still not “here”, but for those who are, I meant to plug this weeks ago: the winter session of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy begins on Monday. The winter session runs for three weeks. Each week, two sessions run on different topics:

Week 1: June 23 – 27
History of Philosophy III: Aristotle – The Practical Philosophy
Interpretations of Nietzsche

Week 2: Jun 30 – Jul 4
History of Philosophy IV: Medieval Philosophy I
Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age

Week 3: Jul 7 – 11
Mind and Society: Robert Brandom and the Continental Tradition
An Introduction to Hegel’s Logic

More information, registration forms, and such at the MSCP website. Unfortunately, I doubt I will be able to make any of the winter sessions, but the MSCP seminars I have attended in the past have always more than repayed the cost of admission.

When Is It Safe to Read Capital? (Update)

Some time around now, I will be delivering something like this talk to the Marx and Philosophy event at Goldsmiths. The topic, as in the title of this post, is: when is it safe to read Capital?

Wish me luck 🙂

Updated: Just a quick update to say that I had queued this post before making some changes, particularly to the final sections of the paper, that I didn’t have the time to mirror here. I’ve now made some edits to the post below the fold to reflect more accurately the talk actually delivered – these changes smooth out a few rough spots, but aren’t so substantive as to merit an independent reading for anyone who has already clicked through.

The event itself was fantastic – very good collection of papers and excellent discussion. In my accident-prone way, I managed to twist my ankle in a somewhat drastic way, just before the event, so I ended up presenting through a fair discomfort, which meant that I was rather more subdued than I would ordinarily be. Those who know me in person might realise that being more subdued, might not be such a bad thing… 😉 I did, though, particularly wish my attention hadn’t been distracted anklewards during the Q&A session, which was genuinely valuable and fired off a number of associations about things I’ll hopefully be writing about more adequately in the near future.

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