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Category Archives: Fetish

The Devil’s Dialectic

And as long as I’m posting… A tiny bit of new content, excerpted from something I’ve been writing offline…

Roger has been writing on Marx and Faust recently – so a quick riff on the passage in chapter two of Capital where the text explicitly invokes him… This passage mocks the perspective that has, just previously in this chapter, been occupying Capital‘s main stage. That perspective takes the idiosyncratic social preconditions for the exchange of material good so much for granted, that it simply looks through them, seeing only the material end result of the complex social process through which the exchange of material goods is brought about. For part of chapter 2, it is possible to read along, believing that you are seeing a discussion of direct barter. No longer – the passage on Faust begins a process of destabilising and, ultimately, relativising the perspective introduced earlier in the same chapter, in the process convicting that earlier perspective for naturalising and taking for granted the specifically social preconditions through which this material result has been brought about. The text says:

In their difficulties our commodity-owners think like Faust: ‘In the beginning was the deed.’ They have therefore already acted before thinking. The natural laws of the commodity have manifested themselves in the natural instinct of the owners of commodities. They can only bring their commodities into relation as values, and therefore as commodities, by bringing them into an opposing relation with some one other commodity, which serves as the universal equivalent. We have already reached that result by our analysis of the commodity. But only the action of society can turn a particular commodity into the universal equivalent. The social action of all other commodities, therefore, sets apart the particular commodity in which they all represent their values. (180)

At this point, something sinister strides forth into the text. Summoned by the reference to Faust above – and followed immediately by the arrival of the beast of Revelation (181): “Money necessarily crystallizes out of the process of exchange” (181). These satanic images lead directly into an analysis of how money develops as the product of a historical dialectic driven by the internal contradictions of the commodity-form:

The historical broadening and deepening of the phenomenon of exchange develops the opposition between use-value and value which is latent in the nature of the commodity. The need to give an external expression to this opposition for the purposes of commercial intercourse produces the drive towards an independent form of value, which finds neither rest nor peace until an independent form has been achieved by the differentiation of commodities into commodities and money. At the same rate, then, as the transformation of the products of labour into commodities is accomplished, one particular commodity is transformed into money. (181)

This historical dialectic directly contradicts Marx’s repeated criticisms of political economy for its ahistorical treatment of its categories as the explicit realisations of qualities understood to be latent in nature – a critique repeated at the beginning of this chapter with reference to Proudhon. It also contradicts the discussion on the immediately prior page of how, in the absence of money, goods offered for exchange simply are not commodities, but merely products. Whatever internal tensions may be enacted in the commodity form, these are the emergent results of a complex social process, rather than the immanent drivers of the historical realisation of money: where commodities are, money is always already on the scene – as are many other sorts of social practices yet to be introduced, which must operate in tandem to generate any of the emergent results analysed in this text.

This dialectical sweep needs to be read, I suggest, as an ironic performance of a particular kind of analysis – one that usually recounts historical processes that gradually bring forth miraculous beings such as the Geist. In this passage, however, the imagery is satanic, and the historical dialectic is tacitly portrayed as unleashing the devil into history. The dialectical imagery here is the butt of a convoluted joke, rather than a demonstration of a form of analysis we are meant to apply. Unfortunately, where the joke is missed, it can seem as though the text advocates a form of idealist dialectical analysis: both critics and supporters of Marx have sometimes missed the punchline, and taken such moments – which are put forward periodically in Capital – as illustrations of Marx’s own method, rather than as one of the many methods Marx sets up for critique…

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Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Malthusian Asides

Miro's singing fishMarx reserves a special sort of loathing for Malthus. Since chapter 25 of Capital focusses precisely on the ways in which capitalism generates its own distinctive laws of population, the chapter can in many respects be read as a frontal assault on Malthus’ work. Marx’s antipathy is so strong, however, that he has to ease into the direct mention of Malthus’ name. Safeguards are required. A certain amount of buildup is needed.

First, Marx will establish his capacity for equanimity in the face of some fairly explicit apologistic material. Marx quotes – in the main text – Bernard de Mandeville’s sage advice on keeping the poor in their place:

It would be easier, where property is well secured, to live without money than without poor; for who would do the work? … As they [the poor] ought to be kept from starving, so they should receive nothing worth saving. If here and there one of the lowest class, by uncommon industry, and pinching his belly, lifts himself above the condition he was brought up in. nobody ought to hinder him; nay, it is undeniably the wisest course for every person in society, and for every private family to be frugal; but it is in the interest of all rich nations, that the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle, and yet continually spend what they get … Those that get their living by daily labour … have nothing to stir them up to be serviceable but their wants which it is prudence to relieve, but folly to cure. The only thing then that can render the labouring man industrious, is a moderate quantity of money, for as too little will, according as his temper is, either dispirit or make his desperate, so too much will make him insolent and lazy … (765)

After allowing Mandeville the floor for this and other choice recommendations, Marx praises him – calling Mandeville as “an honest man with a clear mind” – and offering nothing more vituperative than a mild corrective rebuke for Mandeville’s failure fully to understand “the mechanism of the accumulation process” (765). Marx then quotes Eden, who agrees that:

It is not the possession of land, or of money, but the command of labour which distinguishes the opulent from the labouring part of the community. (766)

Marx goes on to “remark… in passing” that Eden “was the only disciple of Adam Smith to have achieved anything of importance during the eighteenth century” (766). The comment appears casual, trivial, and beside the point – a curiosity we could surely skip lightly past on the way to the substantive material in the next paragraph. Except that a massive multi-page footnote blocks our way and, when we decide that a footnote of such prodigious length might be important, finally locate the footnote marker at the end of the “passing remark” above, and cast our eyes down into the marginalia, we discover that special circle of textual hell into which Marx has decided he will deposit Malthus…

Malthus is therefore introduced into this chapter with an insult: Eden is the only disciple of Smith to amount to anything – making Malthus a disciple of Smith who… didn’t… Just in case the reader doesn’t make the connection, Marx makes it for them, in the opening sentence of his note:

If the reader thinks at this point of Malthus, whose Essay on Population appeared in 1798, I would remind him that this work in its first form is nothing but a schoolboyish, superficial plagiarism of Defoe, Sir James Steuart, Townsend, Franklin, Wallace, etc., declaimed in the manner of a sermon, but not containing a single original proposition of Malthus himself.

And so on. For three pages of small-typed footnote, which rapidly veers off into a mischievous round of speculation (for which the textual pretense is an observation about Malthus’ personal vow of celibacy) asking why Protestant clergy in particular should have proven so well-represented amongst theorists of overpopulation, and concluding with comments on how Adam Smith was reprimanded for his friendship with the atheist Hume…

Malthus finally makes his way into the main text of this chapter in section 3, in a discussion of modern industry’s need for surplus population. Malthus figures here as a sort of limit case of the obviousness of the point Marx is making: “Even Malthus”, Marx points out, “recognizes that a surplus population is a necessity of modern industry…” The implication is that, if even Malthus recognises it, the point is simply too obvious to be denied…

Even here, however, Marx can’t give Malthus credit for one point well understood: Malthus accounts for this, Marx argues, “in his narrow fashion, not by saying that part of the working population has been rendered relatively superfluous, but by referring to its excessive growth” (787). Marx quotes Malthus at length here – speaking dourly about how many years it takes to bring “an increase of labourers… into market in consequence of a particular demand”, compared to the much shorter cycles of investment of accumulated capital, such that natural population increase is too blunt a means of increasing the supply of workers to accommodate the vicissitudes of industrial demand (787).

At this point, Marx introduces the burlesque image of political economy as a cross-dressing discourse – one that adopts one character to proclaim the necessity of a surplus population available to deploy at any moment, only then to shift to another character that holds the population responsible for not increasing its numbers beyond what subsistence can allow:

After political economy has thus declared that the constant production of a relative surplus population of workers is a necessity of capital accumulation, she very aptly adopts the shape of an old maid and puts into the mouth of her ideal capitalist the following words addressed to the ‘redundant’ workers who have been thrown onto the streets by their own creation of additional capital: ‘We manufacturers do what we can for you, whilst we are increasing that capital on which you must subsist, and you must do the rest by accommodating your numbers to the means of subsistence.’ (787-788)

The final quoted passage does not come from Malthus, but the logic of the section inserts Malthus into this scene – as someone stepping into the character mask required for a particular apologist production, ready to cast that mask aside and step into another as the situation requires…

Malthus crops up again – in the form of a reference to “Malthusians” – in the final section of the chapter, in a passage which summarises the results of a long empirical and theoretical discussion aimed at showing how processes specific to capitalist societies generate demographic trends – laws of population – that are anything but inscribed intrinsically in nature:

Here then, under our own eyes, and on a large scale, there emerges a process which perfectly corresponds to the requirements of orthodox economics for the confirmation of its dogma, the dogma that misery springs from an absolute surplus of population, and that equilibrium is re-established by depopulation. This is a far more important experiment than the mid-fourteenth century plague so celebrated by the Malthusians. (861)

Once again, Marx is unwilling to place Malthus at the centre of his focus – even in a passage in which Marx is essentially claiming to have derived the historically and socially specific basis for the phenomena Malthus reads off onto timeless nature. Once again, Malthus cannot be dignified with a direct discussion, but is allowed to enter the text only obliquely – by way of an aside: “Let us remark in passing,” Marx says:

if it required the naivety of a schoolmaster to apply the standard of the fourteenth century to the relations of production prevailing in the nineteenth century, and the corresponding relations of population, the error was compounded by overlooking the difference between its consequences in England and in France.

Marx underscores here an important point in relation to what he means by “law”. Not only are Marx’s “laws” historically and socially specific – not only are they understood to derive from contingent social practices, rather than invariant nature – but they are also probabilistic – they are tendencies, which play themselves out in different forms in specific situations within the historical and social context Marx sets out to analyse, which confront countervailing tendencies, and which are highly dependent on complex boundary conditions. Like many other chapters in Capital, this chapter draws attention to multiple theoretical possibilities – and a diversity of actual empirical outcomes – every time it attempts to illustrate a “law” at work.

Marx then further highlights the social dimension of the laws that he has derived, by taking one final shot at the Malthusian analogy to the plague – tacitly asking what sort of “natural” law would operate like this:

The Irish famine of 1846 killed more than 1,000,000 people, but it killed poor devils only. (861)

The chapter ends with an extended discussion of the Irish famine and migration, emphasising the social character of what is portrayed. It also – characteristically – draws attention to the mirror world – to the unintended consequences of the ways in which this “law” has been allowed to play itself out:

Like all good things in the world, this profitable mode of proceeding has its drawbacks. The accumulation of the Irish in America keeps pace with the accumulation of rents in Ireland. The Irishman, banished by the sheep and the ox, re-appears on the other side of the ocean as a Fenian. And there a young but gigantic republic rises, more and more threateningly, to face the old queen of the waves

Marx Reading Group: Ch. 25 – Revisiting the Product of the Hand

So I’ve been deeply remiss in not making a contribution to the reading group Nate has called on the first volume of Capital – currently focussing on chapter 25, although Nate started us off with some nice reflections on chapter 23. A nice discussion has been underway at Duncan’s blog, jumping off from some observations on Marx’s sarcasm, and developing into a discussion of the meaning and implications of different conceptions of class consciousness. JCD has been kind enough to set up a feed for the reading group – if anyone would like to dive in, and isn’t listed in JCD’s aggregator, give a shout.

I’ll say at the outset that I won’t be able to write much for the group at the moment. What I want to do instead – as a sort of promissory note for later analysis – is to point out the way in which this chapter makes an explicit loop back to the opening chapter of Capital in the closing line of its first section (p. 772 in Penguin):

Just as man is governed, in religion, by the products of his own brain so, in capitalist production, he is governed by the products of his own hand.

The internal textual reference here is, of course, to the passage where Marx christens the commodity fetish. In that earlier passage, the text suggests that the fetish character of commodities arises in and through a distinctive kind of contingent historical interaction that develops between humans and other objects – uniquely, in Marx’s account, in the capitalist era. Within this interaction, material objects – including the physiological dimensions of human objects – come to be seen as possessing a distinctive kind of “objectivity” – or, to say the same thing another way, a distinctively modern form of “materiality” comes to be enacted in our collective practices.

To pick out this distinctive form of interaction, Marx distinguishes it from two other, superficially similar, sorts of interactions that result in the perception of something “objective”: he first examines the interaction between the eye and the objects it perceives – arguing that it is the relation between the eye and its object that generates the optical perception, and yet perception is generally understood to arise entirely from the activity of the object, while the eye is understood as a passive recipient of stimuli external to itself; he next examines the purely social interaction between persons who share religious practices and beliefs – arguing that belief in invisible beings arises from an intersubjective interaction among humans, and yet those beings are taken by believers to be external objective causes of the intersubjective interaction that brings them into being.

Commodity fetishism, for Marx, shares aspects of both of these forms of one-sided attribution of objectivity: like the relationship between the eye and the objects of perception, commodity fetishism involves an interaction between humans and other sorts of objects – it does not arise solely from intersubjectively shared frameworks of meaning or networks of beliefs; like the products of religious practice, however, commodity fetishism is a purely social – and therefore contingent and transformable – phenomenon. Marx expresses this point in much the same language to which he returns in chapter 25, saying:

There [in religious belief] the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter in relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (165)

In the first use of this language, we appear to be talking about “commodity production”. By chapter 25, this same language is used to describe “capitalist production”. On the way from there to here, Marx unfolds the argument that generalised commodity production – the existence of a social system in which the commodity appears self-evidently as the elementary form of social wealth – can only exist on the basis of capitalist production. As we follow the developing argument, we learn that the opening chapter always already pointed toward its conditions of possibility – conditions that Marx unspools all the way through the text to the point that, in chapter 25, he is ready to gesture back and say (in his maddeningly indirect way) to his readers: Now. Here. At this point in the text. What the fetish character always already depended on, we can now say explicitly. The promissory note from chapter one can now – Marx thinks – be cashed out. And the discussion that cashes it out is one in which Marx can finally say explicitly what he thinks the “objective social” patterns are, that political economy erroneously reads off onto the inherent nature of material production or material life as such.

This chapter therefore marks the culmination of one of the longest dramatic arcs of Capital – an arc that stretches from chapter one to chapter 25, a textual loop that closes here with a much more explicit discussion of what Marx had in mind when he hints in the opening chapter at some sort of meaningless, unintended, but still historically contingent and social, practices that generate a historically distinctive and unique form of materiality. Several other dramatic arcs have been opened and closed in the interim, while this long arc remained unresolved. It is only at this point that Marx feels he can explicitly cash out what he implies in the discussion of the commodity fetish. The internal textual reference hints that we should flip back, review and revise, and perhaps change our minds again about what the opening chapter was trying to achieve.

I’ll have to break off here – apologies – too much other work to write more… More later, I hope…

Social Metaphysics and Artificial Ontologies

It’s the first week of the term here, my department was moved just last week into a new building, and so I’m working out of boxes there and elsewhere. All of this adds up to very little time online – with most of the time I do have, caught up in administrative issues relating to the courses I’m teaching…

So once again I’d like to point to discussions elsewhere – Benjamin Noys writes on the metaphysics of labour, the problem of agency, and how to conceptualise critique without a “positive” standpoint. Reid Kane from Planomenology responds with a different take on how to conceptualise agency without a “positive” standpoint. I’ve made some brief contributions to both discussions – unfortunately far less substantive than I would like. But the original posts are far more substantive than my drive-by interventions, and so I wanted to point readers to the ongoing conversation.

Immanence and Materialism Conference Talk

Another talk below the fold… this time from the Immanence and Materialism conference – which proved to be a very good event, with a collection of excellent papers that, I understand, will soon be collected for online publication at a conference website – I’ll post a link to the blog when I have one.

As usual, the text below is what was said – more or less – at the conference. I’ll put up a more polished version with full referencing on the conference website shortly.

More soon, I hope… Read more of this post

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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Thesis Workshop: Introduction – Historical Materialism and Real Abstraction

It’s a bit rough and ready, but I’ll post the working introduction to the thesis here anyway. If I keep this introduction in anything like its current form, I’ll need to make some slight modifications to several of the later chapters, since the introduction currently covers some of the ground discussed in later chapters, and would make those discussions seem repetitive…

Lots of detail work still to do – but this should be the end of the thesis-related posts for now. I’ll put up a PDF of the version of the thesis that is actually submitted when that is ready to go.

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

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Thesis Workshop: What a Piece of Work Is Man

Okay. Last substantive chapter of the thesis. This chapter was very difficult to write. I think it was worth the difficulty. But perhaps that’s just relief at finishing the argument…

This chapter outlines the derivation of the category of labour-power, explores how this derivation fundamentally alters our sense of the opening categories, and generally tries to pull everything together. I’m queueing this piece for publication several days before it will appear on the blog, so I’m not certain whether there will be an introduction and conclusion to be posted hot on the heels of this chapter, or whether this will be it for a while. I have considered possibly just ending the thesis with this chapter, as anything that follows will likely be a bit more prosaic than the ground this chapter covers, ensuring the thesis ends, so to speak, on a whimper. I suspect, though, that I need a more formal conclusion just to get a quick outline of the major points all in one place… So: a concluding chapter probably still to come, and an introductory chapter definitely still to come (and, since we all know the beginning can’t really be fully grasped until it can be shown to be the necessary starting point of the system derived from it, it’s surely fitting that what should have been first in the order of presentation, will instead appear last… ;-P).

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]
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Thesis Workshop: Hic Rhodus, Hic Salta

Now that we’ve finally escaped chapter 3 of Capital, a quick breeze through chapters 4 and 5, focussing on the imagery in chapter 4 of capital-as-Geist, and then on the impasse Marx sets up in chapter 5, as a wedge through which he will drive the category of labour-power in the following chapter.

Chapter 4 contains one of the more overt references to Hegel’s Phenomenology in the text – a number of commentators have noticed the parallel being drawn there between capital and the Geist. There is a certain tendency, however, to beat up on the authors who notice this gesture, as though these authors are attributing to Marx the position that capital is actually the Geist – an autonomous, self-grounding process that has achieved independence from human agency. I’m not convinced this is a fair reading of other commentators who have noticed this same reference in the text. Regardless, in my discussion of this issue below, I position this gesture into the context of Marx’s critique of Hegel: Marx is not saying that capital is the Geist – he’s saying that the process of the production of capital includes within itself a perspective that makes that process appear to possess certain qualitative attributes that Hegel attributes to the Geist. This is the same move Marx makes when criticising any competing form of thought: critique for Marx involves a process of demonstrating why a competing position is plausible – a demonstration that, for Marx, takes the form of showing what aspect of practical experience could plausibly be interpreted in the form being criticised – and then, having done that, showing all the other things that competing position can’t grasp, because it gives too much ontological weight to one small aspect of a much larger phenomenon. If the reader were in any doubt as to whether Marx thinks capital just might be a god-process after all, this passage of text is filled with Marx’s signature destabilising gestures that – more clearly in this section than in many other passages in Capital mock the perspective being presented overtly in the text. All this and more below…

Chapter 5 presents a nice deconstructive analysis of an aporia within commodity circulation – a process that both presupposes the creation of surplus-value, and yet offers no perspective from which this creation can be grasped as anything other than a mysterious, occult phenomenon. This analysis sets up for Marx to offer a preliminary practice-theoretic account of this phenomenon, beginning in the following chapter.

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]
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Thesis Workshop: Crossed Circuits

After this chapter, readers will finally be able to make their escape from the deconstructive thicket that is the third chapter of Capital. Before we part ways with this chapter, though, Marx engages in some extremely clever moves to begin to open a wedge through which he will finally drive the category of capital in the following chapter. Here he begins to make the case that commodity circulation allows – and, in some cases, necessitates – exchanges that are not driven by the need to meet material needs, but rather by the need to make money. This may sound like an obvious point, but Marx needs to make it in a way that makes clear that this is not a possibility that arises extrinsically to commodity production, as some sort of corruption of a more fundamental process, but rather is implied by the very nature of the process itself. This chapter is also, by the way, where I most directly treat the issue of crisis – a topic I can approach only in an extremely preliminary way in the thesis, since I am focussing only on the opening chapters of Capital

So one last dance with chapter 3 – and then we get to meet the Geist!

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]
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