Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Events


Just a quick apology that I have left comments and emails hanging for some time now – my net access has been much more limited than I had expected, and unfortunately I am online only very briefly now. I will catch up – hopefully next week. In the interim, thanks to everyone for their comments and their patience.

While I have a few moments online, I wanted to post updated information for the Marx and Philosophy event that will take place at Goldsmiths on Monday 2 June (soon!!). Tom Bunyard, who has been organising the event, tells me that interest has been high enough that we’ve needed to relocate to a larger room. The updated information for the event is:

A one day workshop reflecting on issues relating to globalisation, resistance, value and the Interpretation of Capital.

The day will be geared towards discussion, and is organised around presentations dealing with the following topics: global community; civil disobedience and its tactical evaluation; recent appropriation of Marx’s concepts; the content and implications of Marx’s work, and his relation to philosophy.

Speakers and timetable

2.00 – 3.15
J. Brookes: “Marx and Global Community”
S. Meaden: “A Critical Appraisal of the ‘Reclaim the Streets’ Movement”

(3.15 – 3.30 – break)

3.30 – 4.30
B. Polhill: “Antonio Negri’s Social Ontology of Real Subsumption”
N. Gray and R. Lucas: “Formal and Real Subsumption – Logical or Historical Categories?”

(4.30 – 5.00 – break)

5.00 – 6.30
N. Pepperell: “When Is It Safe to Read Capital?”
A. Toscano: response

Venue: Room 137, Richard Hoggart Building, Goldsmiths College, New Cross, London SE14 6NW

The event is hosted by the Graduate School of Goldsmiths College, University of London.

For any enquiries please contact Tom Bunyard at:

Behind the Mountains

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

They say behind the mountains are more mountains. Now I know it’s true. I also know there are timeless waters, endless seas, and lots of people in this world whose names don’t matter to anyone but themselves.

~ Edwidge Danticat (1996) “Children of the Sea” Krik? Krak!

Off to Rome, and then to London. Back in Melbourne some time in mid-June.

Online access is likely to be quite limited, particularly for the first part of the trip. I’ve queued up a few posts for the period when I’ll be most likely to have no online access at all. Apologies in advance if I am unable to respond to comments.

I’ll be attending and, in some cases, presenting to the following events while I’m away:

21-23 May, Rome, John Cabot University, Beyond Reification: Critical Theory and the Challenge of Praxis (PDF flyer)

29-30 May, Warwick University, Hegel Conference: Truth and Falsity (programme)

2 June, London, Goldsmiths, Marx and Philosophy (JPG flyer)

Wish me luck 🙂

Things to Do, Places to Be (Australian Edition)

So in my ongoing quest to turn this blog into a very clumsy calendar of events, I just wanted to archive a couple of things that will be happening once I’m back from Europe. I will be presenting at two events in July:

11-13 July: Analytic vs. Continental Mini-Conference, Melbourne – a sort of… after-shock to the main AAP Conference taking place from the 6th through the 11th (which, by the way, is my nominee for the world’s worst academic conference website – who had the bright idea that site should feature animated bouncing worlds? And – although not strictly a website design issue – who came up with the “Daring Extras” optional addition to the conference registration, which will, among other things, see philosophers making their way up fake cliff faces in central Melbourne? You think I’m joking: take a look. Defensive much about the coolness factor in the profession? Sorry, I’ll stop now…)

In any event, for those who prefer to scale conceptual, rather than physical, heights… The Analytic-Continental mini-conference looks at the bridges and barriers between analytic and continental approaches to philosophy. L Magee, Andrew Montin and I put together a panel proposal that has been accepted for the event – one that grew out of a concept LM and I were tossing around some time ago, in relation to The Positivist Dispute – for the present event, though, inflected in a philosophical rather than sociological direction. My piece for this event is: “Transcending the Given: Adorno and Popper’s Conceptions of Science, Counterfactual Ideals and Critique” – more on this closer to the conference.

10-12 July Derrida Today, Macquarie University, Sydney. The paper for this event grows from, and is part of, the collaborative conversation between this blog and Praxis over Derrida’s Specters of Marx.

Title: Handling Value: Grasping the Fetish in Marx’s Capital


Derrida’s Specters of Marx seeks to exorcise the oppressive spirits of Marxist history, by conjuring an “indeterminate, abstract, desert-like” messianic potential from Marx’s work. Derrida’s argument pivots on his reading of Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism, in which Derrida convicts Marx of relying on use value as a naïve ontological ground for critique, while demonstrating that spectrality can never be eradicated.

To make this argument, Derrida suggests that Marx applies the term “commodity fetishism” to an illusion or ideology – to something created by the head:

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

This act of quotation, however, is also an exorcism – excising a pivotal sentence: “So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands“.

In this paper, we wish to explore the implications of this move, both for Derrida’s critique and for the contemporary appropriation of Marx. We argue that Derrida’s insistence on reading Capital as a form of ideology critique obscures the practice-theoretic core of Marx’s work – and, in the process, occludes how Marx might offer a way to move beyond Derrida’s abstract and formal messianic spirit, without evoking the oppressive spirits Derrida hopes to exorcise.

Attentive readers will have noticed that these two conferences appear to be happening at the same time. Unfortunately, I will need to duck out of the Derrida Today conference early, to make my way back down to Melbourne for the Analytic-Continental event…

Things to Do, Places to Be

Feeling generally disorganised at the moment, so apologies if I use the blog to remind myself where and when I will need to be, in a month’s time… ;-P It’s looking for the moment as though I’ll be in Europe from 20 May through some time in mid-June, attending at least the following events.

21-23 May, Rome, John Cabot University, Beyond Reification: Critical Theory and the Challenge of Praxis (PDF flyer) – I’ll be presenting a paper on Lukács and Marx (reification and fetish) on the first day. I’m counting on being too jet lagged to be stressed, but more likely I’ll just be jet lagged and stressed. I’m sure this will result in a very impressive presentation…

29-30 May, Warwick University, Hegel Conference: Truth and Falsity (programme) – no paper from me here – this conference is purely for pleasure – a time to sit back, relax, and be confronted yet again with how much I don’t know about Hegel…

2 June, London, Goldsmiths, Marx and Philosophy (JPG flyer) – an afternoon workshop on an eclectic set of themes touching on the contemporary interpretation of Marx – I’ll be presenting a paper on Marx’s relationship to Hegel, with a focus on working out what Marx means when he speaks of setting Hegel back on his feet, with reference to the example of how Marx understands the “peculiar social character” of commodity producing labour.

Other events might or might not be added to this list, depending on whether anyone else wants to talk to me while I’m in Europe… ;-P

When in Rome…

Planning trips provides all manner of opportunities for procrastination. As I’ve mentioned previously, in late May and June I’ll be in Europe – initially at a conference in Rome, and then over to Warwick for the Hegel conference in late May, and then back to London for an event on the 3rd of June – I may still arrange a few other things before returning to Melbourne in mid-June – haven’t decided. Soon, I’ll begin tossing some materials on the blog in relation to the talks I’ll be delivering. First, of course, I have to stop procrastinating over things like where I’ll be staying… ;-P

I am apparently easily entertained by advertisements for lodgings. One place offers all its guests “use of a communal chicken”. Another provides an opportunity to experience something like that communal chicken’s point of view, advertising that its “host will dine on guests at breakfast”.

Unfortunately, even the place with the cannibalistic host is charging more than I was hoping to spend… Any tips on reasonable accommodation in Rome would be much appreciated…

Europe in May/June – Suggestions?

I’ll be presenting to a conference in Rome in late May, and am hoping to be able to stay in Europe for at least a few weeks after. I hadn’t initially been certain this trip would happen – otherwise, I would have liked to put in proposals for other events. I’ll be at a point where it would be helpful to have opportunities to workshop thesis-related materials. Unfortunately, it’s a bit late to put in proposals to present to other events of which I’m aware. I’m not planning to spend the entire visit in Italy, but am trying to decide where else I might wander. That decision might boil down to whether there are interesting critical theory related events to sit in on, while I’m in the vicinity. If anyone knows of events that might be of interest, feel free to pass things on. (And, yes, in fact, critical theory events are actually what I do for leisure, even in Melbourne… ;-P)

The Difference Between “Being” and “Appearing to Be” an “Objective Social Relation”

So I submitted the following abstract for a conference, and have had the abstract accepted:

When Georg Lukács situates Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism, on the terrain of a theory of reification and rationalisation, he introduces a small, but pivotal, shift in emphasis from Marx’s original concept. Lukács characterises the commodity-form, and its connection to social relations, the following way:

The essence of commodity-structure has often been pointed out. Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.

The logic of this passage suggests the existence of a fundamental distinction between what “is” and what “appears”: the commodity-form causes what “is” – a relation between to people – to “appear” objective, to “seem” rational, to take on the “character” of a thing. Tacitly here, critique is directed toward “appearance” – directed toward dispelling a veil of objectivity that is positioned as a “phantom”. The standpoint of critique is what “is”, what pertains in a reality covered over by the veil of objectivity.

This line of argument would appear to be supported by many passages from Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism, which often imply that Marx is also attempting to dispel an illusion, to penetrate a contingent appearance to reveal the reality underneath. In a pivotal passage, however, where Marx discusses the “social character of labour” in capitalist society, Marx uses a different sort of vocabulary – one that suggests an intrinsic relationship between what “is”, and how things “appear”:

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, objective relations between persons and social relations between objects. (italics mine)

The logic of this passage suggests an intrinsic relationship between what “is” and what “appears”. In this paper, I want to trace the thread that flows from this formulation from Marx. By working closely through key aspects of the first chapter of Capital, I suggest that one of the targets of Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism, are perspectives that try to introduce a divide between essence and appearance. I further argue that the tacit vision of critique suggested by Marx’s approach, does not involve penetrating appearance in order to recover an underlying essence that has been obscured, but rather developing a standpoint from which the entire interrelated structure of essence and appearance can be criticised and overcome. By contrasting this approach, to the one put forward by Lukács, I will explore the limitations of theories that attempt to grasp capitalism in terms of the category of reification, and will suggest some of the ways in which Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism can be reinterpreted to open more productive paths for contemporary critical theory.

Now I need somehow to make this argument in a form expressible in half an hour… ;-P I take it that I’ve committed to presenting an argument that focusses fairly narrowly on what’s implied about the concept of critique and, specifically, critical standpoint, in my reading of Capital – which hopefully means that I haven’t committed to digging too deeply into how Marx conceptualises capitalism itself. In other words, I see this as a metatheory paper trying to clarify notions of critical standpoint, with reference, of course, to the sorts of substantive claims being made about capitalism as an object of analysis – but I’m assuming that, in order to deal with the specific question of how Marx and Lukács conceptualise their critical standpoint, I’ll have to be fairly gestural about… well… almost everything other than this specific metatheoretical question…

I’m somewhat conscious that this paper will end up retreading some of the ground covered in the Hegel conference paper – which of course itself retread ground from the thesis chapters, which retread ground from several months of blog entries that preceded them… I’ll say things in different words, with a different motivating question, and with a different argumentative intent. But there’s a sort of nexus of issues around Marx’s relationship to Hegel, the fetish as an argument about how to understand the genesis of a socially determinate entity, rather than as an argument about the need to penetrate an illusion to gain access to an underlying reality, and an argument about what happens to the concept of a critical standpoint, if we’re trying not to separate “essence” and “appearance” out into two different substances or worlds, but instead to treat both as dimensions of the same social context, and therefore as equally “true”, such that transformation then needs to be thought as the transformation of an entire complex structure, rather than as the selection of some moment of that structure that has come to be taken as more “essential” than whatever it is we’re trying to transform.

I feel a bit weird realising that this nexus has been working its way out of much of what I’ve written in the past year. I feel weirder that this nexus is, essentially, a side effect of my trying to make sense of other things – my direct intention was to write about the theory of capitalism – how capitalism itself is conceptualised as an object. And, on a different level, although I’m pleased to have had a couple of conferences where I had the room to work out this metatheoretical argument in sufficient detail to help me get my own head around what I’m trying to say, I’m beginning to get a bit nervous about how – short of a book-length treatment like the actual thesis – I’ll ever be able to present something that gets beyond the metatheoretical argument, to show what sort of actual work you can do within this approach. The Hegel conference paper really stretched and strained to make a very gestural argument, because so much groundwork needed to be covered first in order to open up the possibility for some other kind of claim – and, even then, I had to be extremely schematic – writing more an outline of what an argument might look like, than the argument itself. Admittedly, the purpose of that event required much more detail on Hegel than would normally be needed, but there is still a solid metatheoretical foundation I feel I need to lay before I can begin doing any proper work… I find that, if I don’t take this route through Hegel and through Marx’s argument about the fetish, people fall back into more conventional understandings of Marx, such that whatever argument I’m trying to make gets lost in the interpretive confusion… For a conference like the one to which I’ve proposed this paper, of course, I’m perfectly happy to talk about metatheory: it’s what I wanted from this event, and why I proposed this paper. I just find myself looking ahead, and wondering whether I have a sort of lifetime of having to preface every article I write with a sort of stock metatheoretical blurb that takes up half or more of the room I have for making an argument… ;-P At any rate… Something to worry about once the thesis is done…

At the moment, I’m curious about reactions people might have to the abstract. Does this strike people as a strange thing to focus on, in Lukács? Does the characterisation of Lukács’ position seem unfair? I realise I’m not exactly providing much grist to work from here… ;-P I’m just trying to get myself back into this thoughtspace, and thought I would toss out the abstract to see what sort of kickback it generates…

Sound Argument

The talk I gave to the HSS08 conference was recorded, and an mp3 version (WARNING: 35MB) is now online. To be honest, given that I took up almost the entirety of my allotted hour, and that the file is therefore not exactly a quick download, you’re probably better off just reading the text version posted to the blog. But if you’re very patient, or are really curious what I sound like, here’s your chance. ;-P

Fragmentary Ontological Temptations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does all this have to do with Badiou?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HSS2008 Paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting for What We Mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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