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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


I’ve banned myself from substantive writing until I finish the remnants of my marking, but wanted to point to interesting things happening elsewhere.

First, for those who haven’t seen, Praxis is heading into blogging hiatus – I suspect very much not in order to enable greater laziness, as claimed. 🙂 A medium-term blog holiday, Praxis suggests – so a return to look forward to, in the longer term.

Second, Drew over at Contaminations has a beautiful post up, riffing off some of the ideas Praxis and I have been bouncing around about Derrida’s elision of the “hands” from Marx’s fetish discussion. Drew suggests the hands in question might be Heidegger’s:

the hand, which is intimately caught up with the thought and speech for Heidegger, and therefore thought is the primordial handicraft, that is production and the source of all technics (and Derrida notes that Heidegger refers to Marx here). The hand, so emphasised by Heidegger, is caught up in all the metaphysical themes, according to Derrida, that Heidegger wants to think beyond. Derrida traces all of this in interesting directions to do with national socialism and animality and sexual difference (the resonances of geschlecht).

This seems right to me – but just to double check a point with Drew, while I’m thinking about it: Derrida has scattered through the text various sorts of references to the spectrality of technics – of production. Part of what I hear in his critique of Marx is a criticism of a position that is quite common in certain forms of Marxism: Marx is heard as a theorist who believes that “in reality” labour determines material reproduction in capitalism, but capitalist social relations (the market and private property) obscure this role. When Marx is read this way, the fetish passage sounds like a critique of (in Derrida’s terms) the spectrality inappropriately imposed by the market, on relations that, absent this spectrality, could become fully transparent. Marx is then understood as wanting to exorcise this spectrality – to reveal the truth that has been obscured by capitalist social relations, so that what is already an underlying reality – the centrality of labour – can be allowed to come into its own, and structure social life openly. I take this to be the sort of Marxism – or the particular spirit of Marx – that Derrida finds in the fetish passage.

Against this, I hear Derrida as both asserting that the spectral cannot be separated from technics or production in the way this reading of Marx suggests – that production is always already haunted, such that the abolition of exchange value could not abolish the spectre. And I also hear a critique, not just of this particular attempt to abolish the spectral, but also a critique more generally of attempts to ground critical standpoints in some ideal of a fully “transparent” or “intelligible” social reality – a critique of the notion of critical standpoint as something that emerges from a process of “unveiling” or of stripping away of the artificial, in order to reveal some more fundamental reality underneath.

So Derrida… hides the hands – exorcises the specific move through which Marx, in Derrida’s reading, claims to be able to strip aside the veil of exchange value, to reveal the underlying reality of labour. Derrida takes away this gesture toward an “underlying reality”, in order to preserve the ghost that haunts the non-identity of the context – and in order to selectively inherit Marx in a form different from that manifested in the Soviet inheritance.

Happy to be corrected on any of this – just my working thoughts on the kind of Marxism (the particular spirit of Marx) Derrida sees in the fetish passage. My question for you (Drew, that is 🙂 ) is: how compatible is what I’m writing, with the claims you are putting forward about the dialogue with Heidegger? In other words, I don’t see our points as at all incompatible – I agree that the Heideggerian referent is there, although it’s not what I’ve been trying specifically to tease out – but I’m curious whether you see a tension – whether the specific way you see Derrida to be speaking to Heidegger, suggests a different sort of critique in play when he hides the hands? Or just another layer to that critique – a layer directed (as I think it clearly is) more broadly than just at Marxism or Marx? Just curious, if you have time, if you’d like to comment specifically on this.

And third: Nate over at what in the hell… has a fantastic post up – covering a great deal of ground but, of particular interest to me, reflecting on the issue of continuity and epochal shifts, with specific reference to post-operaisti theory. A taste:

Lotta Continua dissolved in part over an incident I forget when, maybe 1973 or 1974, where men from their group got into a physical confrontation with an all women’s feminist march. Leaving aside moral outrage (which is sufficient for me, but is not the terrain of marxist analysis), if reproductive labor is value productive by this point – as Negri et al say it becomes in the passage to the new epoch – then this was at best a serious error with bad results for the interests of the working class/multitude. If reproductive labor was not then value productive, then the act was wrong (a tactical miss-step and patriarchal bullshit) but the analysis which said that the women’s movement was a distraction may have been more right.

This last kind of thing is a big deal for me, and wherever we set the goal posts we could find a similar situation of ostensibly radical men telling women (or whites telling people of color or …) that the time was not yet ripe for their struggle. The post-operaisti claims to epochal shifts strike me as serving a valuable function in undermining those sorts of “now is not the time yet” claims in the present because the time now is definitely pretty ripe for these cats (this is one of the things I like about that material; incidentally one of the earlier sources for material on the Italian situation was a journal/pamphlet published in Ireland called The Ripening of the Time) and if that’s all that matters then maybe I’m just off base here, but I think it’s an important gap that this material does not help at all in asking previously if other previous moments, “now’s” which are now over, were _also_ the time, as in they had a shot at it. Because lurking in the back of this epochal stuff is a sort of implied “no, then was not the time” kind of moment. Hardt and I got into an argument about this at a conference, friendly but no less an argument, I was trying to push him about the Diggers and other forebears in struggle that I think matter a great deal for us in the present. He finally said “look, then why wasn’t there a revolution in England back then?” with the implication being that it couldn’t be done yet. That’s what most bothers me about all this epoch stuff.

As always with Nate’s posts, much much more in the original.

The Exorcism of the Exorcism

So, since Praxis and I hatched this scheme of writing a collaborative piece on Derrida’s Specters of Marx, all sorts of fantastic conversations and debates around the work have cropped up around the blogosphere. Unfortunately, I’ve been either been preparing to be away, or actually away, while most of these discussions unfolded, meaning that I’m only very inadequately across the content. These conversations range across much wider territory, and go into much greater depth, than the rather limited scratch across the surface I’m about to post here, so I thought I should send readers on their way to more expansive discussions, while I take this opportunity to talk shop publicly with Praxis, who will hopefully not mind my shouting random draft concepts across the net, now that we can no longer workshop them face-to-face…

The proximate starting point for this collaborative project was my noticing an elision in Derrida’s text. In discussing the passage in which Marx names the fetish, Derrida omits a single sentence, subtly alterring the meaning of Marx’s text. I’ve written about Marx’s fetish discussion somewhat interminably over the past year, so for present purposes I’ll presuppose those discussions and just seize what I need to highlight what Derrida is done (anyone who wants the gory details can find the most recent synoptic version of my argument here).

To summarise – first, from my point of view: In the passage where he builds up to the naming of the fetish, Marx has established that the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity do not derive from the commodity’s “parts”, whether those parts pertain to the commodity’s use value or its value dimension. Instead, Marx has argued, the peculiar qualitative characteristics that seem to inhere in commodities, derive not from the parts, but from the whole – from the relation into which those parts have come to be suspended – from the form of the commodity itself.

Marx is actually quite explicit about the nature of his argument: he runs through the various parts of the commodity relation that relate to the commodity’s use value dimension, and concludes: “The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value.” Everyone gets this part of Marx’s argument.

What is more often overlooked is that Marx does exactly the same thing, in the subsequent passage, with reference to the commodity’s value dimension. He prefaces this discussion with the quite explicit claim: “Just as little does it [the mystical character of commodities] proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value.” There is a marked tendency to overlook this sentence, since the assumption is generally that Marx wants to criticise exchange value from the standpoint of use value, and thus to attribute the fetish to the exchange value dimension of the commodity – to the market or the process of exchange. That sort of reading struggles, however, to make sense of where Marx goes next in the text, which is to break the value dimension of the commodity down into its constituent components (as he has just done above with the use value dimension), in order to argue that none of those components, abstracted from the commodity relation, explains the metaphysical properties of the commodity. A similar strategy is in play later on in the same chapter, when Marx will run through a series of historical and speculative examples that reassemble the component parts of the commodity, within the context of very different social relations, in order to argue that, absent the commodity relation, the fetish does not arise.

So. Marx argues, in my reading, that the fetish does not derive from any of the component parts of the commodity – leading to the obvious question of what the fetish derives from instead. Marx’s argument, I suggest, is that the fetish arises, not from the parts of the commodity, but rather from the whole – from the overarching relation into which those parts have been suspended. Marx expresses this point: “Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.”

Marx then goes on to say a bit about this form (I’ll skip over the details, as I’ve discussed them elsewhere), and then moves into the passage where Derrida makes his selective edit – the passage where Marx christens the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity form with the name of the fetish. In Marx’s version, this christening passage reads:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

Derrida does a couple of interesting things with this passage when he reproduces it. First: Marx’s presentation moves through two analogies – the first, to a physical relation whose origin is genuinely asocial; the second, to a social relation whose origin is intersubjective. He uses these two analogies in tandem, I have argued, to set up a three-way contrast that helps him mark off the most peculiar characteristic of the phenomenon he is trying to pick out: that the fetish arises from a social relation – but a strange sort of social relation that is not intersubjective in its origins. Instead, this peculiar social relation arises as a sort of unintentional consequence of an aggregation of social practices that are not aimed toward bringing a social relation of the kind about. The concept of the fetish captures the qualitative characteristics of this unintentional and accidental social relation – and also aims to explain why it is socially plausible for the social agents who enact this relation, to interpret the qualitative characteristics of the relation as though these characteristics inhere in the various component parts through which the relation is effected.

In Derrida’s re-presentation of this argument, the first analogy – the one that makes reference to “a physical relation between physical things” – is analysed in a separate section of the text, separated by some distance from the passage in which Derrida analyses the remainder of the fetish passage. This enables Derrida to find a much stronger and more exclusive relationship between the analogy Marx draws between the fetish and religion, than the original passage suggests. Derrida’s re-presentation breaks apart Marx’s more complex three-way contrast between physical relations, social relations that are intersubjective, and social relations that are not intersubjective, and implies a much more straightforward equation of the fetish with some sort of “ideology” or mere false belief.

Derrida further reinforces this impression by removing a sentence when he quotes the passage in which Marx names the fetish – specifically, the sentence in which (on my reading) Marx actually tries to express that the fetish is an attempt to talk about a non-intersubjective social relation. Derrida’s iteration of the fetish passage goes:

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.

As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them. (p. 208-209)

The ellipsis in the middle of the quotation removes the sentence where Marx distinguishes fetishism from religion, arguing that, in the commodity relation, social agents somehow posit the existence on intangible entities (value, abstract labour), but not via the sorts of intersubjective processes such as shared beliefs or ritual practices through which they enact the intangible entities that figure in religious practice. Instead, Marx argues:

So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. (emphasis mine)

The non-intersubjective register of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism is therefore elided in Derrida’s selective inheritance or transformative interpretation of Marx. The question is: why?

This was a recurrent touchstone in the discussions Praxis and I held while I was in London. I can point out, as I’ve done above, what aspects of Marx’s argument – from the point of view of my own reading – become obscured by the way in which Derrida alters this passage. I can also say that it’s clear enough that Derrida wants to transform the meaning of this passage – there is some sort of exorcism here that Derrida seeks to perform, in order to carry out his selective inheritance of a certain spirit (but not other spirits) of Marx. The text is structured around a series of reflections on how inheritance is both selective and performative: the dead cannot bury themselves – they least of all are safe from us, their heirs. Derrida’s inheritance will be violent – he warns us. The question is what sort of inheritance he is enacting, and why.

In the dreamwork of a text saturated with references to Freud, Derrida sifts through the residue of the day – the happenstance of Fukuyama’s declaration of the End of History – setting up a narrative criss-crossed with complex parallels between characters, more than one of whom is a cipher of sorts for Derrida. Fukyama’s text resurrects old critiques of communism, Derrida tells us, while reviving a thinned out spirit of a certain Hegel in a drably farcical restaging of Kojève; Derrida chases Fukuyama, in the process counting off ten plagues – setting up a parallel to Marx’s pursuit of Stirner, which also punctuates its argument to the count of ten; all the major figures in the text chase after Hegel – a latent content whose inheritance lurks beneath the much more manifest pursuit of the spirit of Marx.

Derrida foreshadows heavily the coming excision of Marx’s hands – even adding to the text, after the original lectures, an extended reflection on Valéry (3-10) that pivots on a textual elision, priming the reader for the elision to come. Derrida first points out a passage in which Valéry includes Marx within a skull handled by Hamlet:

In “La crise de l’esprit” (“The Crisis of the Spirit” 1919: “As for us, civilizations, we know now we are mortal…”), the name of Marx appears just once. It inscribes itself, here is the name of a skull to come into Hamlet’s hands:

Now, on an immense terrace of Elsinore, which stretches from Basel to Cologne, that touches on the sands of Nieuport, the lowlands of the Somme, the chalky earth of Champagne, the granite earth of Alsace – the European Hamlet looks at thousands of spectres…. If he seizes a skull, it is an illustrious skull – “Whose was it?” – This one was Lionardo. … And this other skull is that of Leibniz who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant qui genuit Hegel, qui genuit Marx, qui genuit. … Hamlet does not know what to do with all these skulls. But if he abandons them! … Will he cease to be himself?

(p. 3-4)

Derrida then finds a later iteration of this same passage, one in which Valéry quotes himself, but omits the sentence that contains Marx’s name, inscribed in the skull of Kant. Derrida asks of Valéry:

Why this omission, the only one? The name of Marx has disappeared. Where did it go? Exeunt Ghost and Marx, Shakespeare might have noted. The name of the one who disappeared must have gotten inscribed someplace else. (p. 4)

What is disappeared or displaced must be re-inscribed, Derrida tells us – and hands – the hands omitted from the fetishism discussion – paw their way around this text – explicitly, in the form of recurrent references to hands and parts of hands – and also more tacitly: the stage setting for this text is the apparent triumph of the market’s invisible hand, over the planned economies that had once proclaimed themselves Marx’s heirs. But this still leaves us with the question – a question Praxis and I did not fully resolve in our discussions – the same question Derrida prompts us to ask of him, by asking it himself of Valéry – by emphasising the need to ask precisely this question, a need felt so urgently as to justify the post facto modification of the original talk in order to set up the parallel with Valéry: Why this omission, the only one? The hands of Marx have disappeared. We have a sense, perhaps, of where they went, of how Derrida has reinscribed them in his text, and of where invisible hands might have been reinscribed in our own times. But why? Why this specific gesture? What sort of transformative inheritance is Derrida hoping to enact, through this selective excision from Marx’s corpus?

One suggestion – underdeveloped. This is a work about chasing after ghosts. We chase after ghosts – and we become spooked. We want to control our ghosts by exorcising them – by banishing them – by driving them away. Derrida early characterises these attempted exorcisms as a fort/da game: we chase after ghosts, but not to drive them away, not really, but because secretly we want them, we need them to come back. He further suggests that, uncomfortable with the uncanniness of a haunted, spectral world, we stall in the process of mourning, becoming caught in the effort to ontologise the remains – to identify and localise the spectral, so as to abolish it. Fukuyama does this, Derrida suggests, with the spectre of communism – Soviet communism also tried to control this same spectre, presencing the revenant that initially appears in the Communist Manifesto as an expectation, a threat from the future menacing old Europe, as the spook haunting a time out of joint. Controlled and fixed, localised and ontologised, pinned down into a definite form, this threatening spook comes to be actualised and embodied in a totalitarian shape. Derrida points to Fukuyama’s apologist habit of differentiating a certain ideal of liberal democracy and the free market, from all the various empirical deviations from this ideal: by implication, this same question arises in relation to Marx’s most visible real-world heirs – how comfortably can we carve off a communist ideal from its totalitarian realisation? Is there some other way to inherit Marx?

Derrida pairs this question with the question of our relation to spectrality in a more general sense. Is there some other possible relation we can adopt towards our ghosts, Derrida asks – some gesture that doesn’t simply seek to banish the ghost by locating and its remains, some space between life and death that might step outside the logic that sees the spectre perpetually displaced and reinscribed through repeated, obsessional attempts to eradicate spectrality as such? Derrida, in the figure of Horatio – the scholar enjoined to speak to the spook – attempts to inherit Marx in a way that might effect such an alternative relationship to spectrality.

Derrida reads something of the Soviet inheritance out of Marx, specifically in Marx’s critique of Stirner in the German Ideology, and in Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. Derrida’s concern is that Marx shares with Stirner the desire to exorcise the ghost – the quarrel between the two revolves, on Derrida’s reading, around the most appropriate technique for achieving this common end. In Derrida’s interpretation of the fetish passage, Marx inappropriately attempts to ontologise the spectre – to locate and identify its remains: in exchange value – in something that can be abolished, so that it become possible to overcome the spectre, to send it away: exeunt ghost and Marx. Derrida seems to read Marx’s reference to “the products of men’s hands” as part of an argument that the spectrality that haunts capitalism can be exorcised by rendering explicit what is currently tacit: by explicitly realising the centrality of labour as the structuring principle of social life, through the abolition of the market; by freeing the use value dimension from its spectralising other, exchange value.

Derrida, by contrast, has made gestures throughout the text concerning the spectral character of various technologies – the spectrality, then, of production, rather than exchange – an ineradicableundeconstructible – spectrality grounded in production as such. Derrida’s edit to Marx’s text symbolically keeps labour secret – disappearing from view the products of men’s hands – removing the step by which, in Derrida’s read, Marx attempts to exorcise the spectre by casting off the veil that covers over what Derrida takes Marx to see as true relations of capitalist society: in Derrida’s version of this argument, the ghost gets to stay. Always still to come, always to haunt, forever non-identical with a present time perpetually out of joint: this is the certain spirit of Marx, the spirit of the Communist Manifesto, the spirit of a communism that is threatening, but not presenced, that Derrida enacts in his selective iteration of Marx’s text.

What Derrida effects here, then, is an exorcism of exorcism. He attempts to inherit in a way that maintains in perpetuity our ability to communicate with the ghost. In a text filled with figures chasing ghosts in order to eradicate spectrality, Derrida wants us to chase them – as he believes a certain spirit of Marx knew how to do – in order that they may continue to enjoin us to set our time right. This task, for Derrida, is intrinsically bound with the ongoing destabilisation of the present, as a time perpetually out of joint.

Very tired now, and not able either to support these claims (which are in any case provisional readings), or to develop their implications, or to suggest how I would unfold a critique from here – of both Derrida and Marx. Tasks for a later time. Apologies for the impressionistic character of these remarks… So much still to do…

[Is it completely wicked for me now to say: Praxis – over to you 🙂 *runs and hides*]

Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey

Just stumbled across, which is serialising 13, two-hour lectures from David Harvey, focussed on providing a close reading the first volume of Capital – up to chapter three so far, with chapters 4-6 due online in 6 days.


Some time around now, something resembling the talk below the fold is being presented here. Read more of this post

Becoming Theory

I’m still drowning, with no time for substantive posting, but I wanted to put up a pointer to a post over at Larval Subjects. Sinthome picks up on some of the themes from our longstanding conversation around what difference it might make, for understanding the process of social reproduction and the possibility for transformation, when “the social” is reconceptualised as immanently conflictual – in the vocabulary that has sedimented out from this conversation, when the social is seen as a form of assemblage or constellation whose component parts generate divergent possibilities from one another and from the current whole. Sinthome writes:

N.Pepperell once told me that she does not believe assemblage theory is a theory. I got irritated at the time as is my custom when I’m enthusiastic about something, but in this I think she’s right insofar as the concept of assemblage is not yet a theory or an explanation of a particular field of individuation, of a particular individuation or phenomenon, but rather an ontological concept that precedes a theory. For example, Marx’s historical materialism stipulates that there are no essences of the human or society. This is a general ontological claim, not yet a theory. We have not yet proposed a theory until we engage in the arduous work of accounting for the specific regularities governing a particular socio-historical moment. Marx becomes a theory when he explains why the historical moment takes the particular form it does (i.e., when he articulates all the processes and contingencies by which particular subjects were formed, particular social relations came into being, and particular tensions or antagonisms developed) and when he envisions the immanent processes by which these historical moments are undergoing transformation. In short, what is required is not logos but immanent logoi, immanent patterns of (re)production internal to a phenomena, absolute specific to situations and their organization.

I’m also remiss in not pointing to the discussion immediately prior, which began by picking up on some issues related to the cross-blog discussion about “difficult styles”, but (appropriately enough) speciated mid-discussion into a conversation focussed more on how the introduction of new social practices into an existing context could react back on that context itself. I’ll archive here part of my comment from that discussion, just to preserve its juxtaposition to Sinthome’s comments above. I suggested:

In terms of examples (and I’m thinking here of the type of argument being made, rather than whether the substance of the example I’m about to use is itself correct): Marx presents the introduction of a new social practice – the exchange of labour power on the market – as a novelty that was both conditioned by the existing environment (in order for this novel practice to arise, you need a whole set of prior historical developments, such that you have markets and production for markets, a developed social division of labour, certain cultural and political formations, a coercive process of “primitive accumulation”, and many other things, without which the new practice would not have become “socially plausible”). So the emergence of this new practice is “conditioned” by the milieu in which it emerges. The practice itself, however, is presented as something that reacts back on the milieu in which it emerged, differentiating capitalism in fundamental respects from other social forms, even where those social forms contain many of the same components (money, production for exchange, developed divisions of labour, etc.) that remain central to the reproduction of capitalism. In Sinthome’s terms, a sort of social speciation or branching off took place, without this meaning that this process was in any sense an ex nihilo event.

The issue here, again, is not whether the specific example is correct – it can be debated whether Marx is correct about which shift releases the cascade of unintended social consequences that effects a “speciation”, but I would take this to be the sort of argument suggested here.

I’d like to say much more – and I am attempting to say (a very little bit) more in the piece on Lukács, which I’ll toss onto the blog eventually. Unfortunately, I have to submerge again… Readers should take a look at the original posts and discussions at Larval Subjects for the full context.

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 3

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

~ Margaret Cavendish “Of Many Worlds in This World”

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

I. Quantity to Quality vs. Relationality

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

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

II. Totalities and Tipping Points

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

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

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

III. Personal vs. Social Relations

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

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

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

the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things. (emphasis mine)

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

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

IV. Subjects, Objects, and Things in Between

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

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

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

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

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

V. All Else Being Equal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous posts in this series on Lukács:

Seeing What Was Already There

Reification, pt. 1

Reification, pt. 2

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 2

Whatever the elements
(it’s urban/it’s pastoral,
it’s empty/it’s open), the theory says
it could always be worse.

Until it is. Then theory fails, […]

~ Mary Jo Bang @2004 “Catastrophe Theory II”

At the opening of the “Reification” essay, Lukács puts forward the bold claim that:

It is no accident that Marx should have begun with an analysis of commodities when, in the two great works of his mature period, he set out to portray capitalist society in its totality and to lay bare its fundamental nature. For at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure. Of course the problem can only be discussed with this degree of generality if it achieves the depth and breadth to be found in Marx’s own analyses. That is to say, the problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. Only in this case can the structure of commodity-relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them.

Lukács emphasises the word “structure” in “commodity-structure” – highlighting that, in Capital, the category of the commodity is intended to describe, not simply a thing, a discrete good, but instead a distinctive kind of relationship – a relationship whose peculiar qualitative characteristics are then read off into the intrinsic properties of goods. This conception of the commodity allows the category to do much more work than might be expected: the category of the commodity figures, not simply as a category of our economy, but a category of our society – in Lukács’ terms, a “model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them”.

Is Lukács’ conception of the commodity-structure, though, quite the same as Marx’s? In the paragraphs immediately following this opening, Lukács refers to “commodity exchange”, and to the subjective and objective relations corresponding to such exchange, as though these were the relationships at stake in understanding the commodity-structure. Here Lukács runs into a problem: he stipulates that “commodity fetishism is a specific problem of our age, the age of modern capitalism” – and hence is historically specific. Simple commodity production and exchange, however, is ancient: how does an ancient practice somehow transform into the dominant and distinctive problem of modern society?

Lukács’ answer is that the quantitative expansion of commodity exchange at some point reaches a scale where quantitative increase yields a qualitative transformation. This answer suggests that the commodity-structure is founded on the the same sort of social relationship – the exchange relation – in modern and ancient times. Lukács argues that modernity is distinguished by the extension of exchange relations beyond their earlier bounds, to the point that the commodity-structure becomes totalising. Lukács characterises this as a quantitative expansion that yields a qualitative shift: his argument does not attempt to explain qualitatively distinctive forms of subjectivity or (social) objectivity with reference to the emergence of a qualitatively new social structure or historically distinctive form of social relation, but rather with reference to a kind of supersaturation of the social context by a kind of social relation whose historical origins lie in the distant past. The key social structure – the central social relation – in Lukács’ account, is therefore not historically coterminous with the form of society whose characteristics Lukács wants most to explain.

One consequence of this move (and I won’t develop this point adequately in this post) is a flattening of the qualitative characteristics of the “forms of objectivity and subjectivity” for which Lukács tries to account. The focus on exchange relationships drives him to criticise various types of formalism and quantification – forms of thought that abstract from qualitative specificity in favour of quantitative comparisons. Lukács argues that what is left out of this relation – what, therefore, cannot be grasped by bourgeois forms of consciousness – is the use value dimension – qualitative specificity, characteristics not amenable to formalisation. Lukács includes in this category production – and thus the proletariat – setting up for his argument that the proletarian class can generate a unique standpoint that can capture the perspective of the totality by grasping those dimensions of capitalism that are occluded by the bourgeois focus on exchange relations.

I will try to develop this summary more adequately in later posts – completely exhausted today, so I am just tossing up placeholders for myself now. What I wanted to suggest, however, is a certain path not taken in Lukács’ approach – a path that, I have previously suggested, is central to Marx’s argument in Capital: the treatment of the category of the commodity as a fully historically specific structure, expressing a form of social relation specific to, and definitive of, capitalism – and therefore as a category that intends to express something more than simply the exchange relation. I have suggested in previous posts that Marx understands both the exchange value and use value dimensions of the commodity as historically specific terms – use value, far from being something that “bourgeois” forms of thought cannot grasp, is a category integral to capitalism, one that grasps phenomena no less central to the reproduction of capital, than the phenomena grasped by the category of exchange value. At the same time, both use value and exchange value occupy a specific place within the overarching category of the commodity: a space of phenomena that can be directly empirically observed. As the first chapter of Capital unfolds, we quickly learn that the first “presupposition” or social “condition” of these empirically-observable categories, is a third category whose existence must be deduced or intuited, because it cannot be directly perceived by the senses: the category of value. This entire tripartite structure – not simply the “exchange relation” – is the “commodity-structure” in Marx’s account, and this structure, however much it may encompass and repurpose earlier forms of social practice, is understood as historically distinct – as temporally coterminous with the process of the reproduction of capital.

Marx’s argument does involve a complex discussion of phenomena that can directly be seen through immediate empirical observation, versus abstract patterns of social practice whose existence must be deduced through an analysis of distortions or patterns that flow through empirically-observable phenomena. Within Marx’s framework, however, both use value and exchange value fall on the side of what can be perceived directly by the senses. Neither of these categories provides access to a privileged standpoint accessible only to a particular social class: both refer to “overt” aspects of social experience for social actors engaged with the process of the reproduction of capital. And the “non-overt” dimension of social practice – the realm of the mysterious social substances like “value” that Marx argues we unintentionally enact in our collective practices – is no more emancipatory, for all that it is more difficult to perceive or understand. The question of how to understand the standpoint of critique – of how to identify a possibility for emancipatory transformation – is therefore much more complex in Marx’s work, than it is for Lukács.

If I were less tired, I would develop this contrast in much greater detail. That more developed post will have to wait for another day. Apologies for these inadequate mini-posts on Lukács – I’m essentially taking notes for myself here, but will hopefully be able to pull things together more adequately before I’m done…

Previous posts in this series on Lukács:

Seeing What Was Already There

Reification, pt. 1

Seeing What Was Already There

I’m in that stage in the writing process where the work of figuring things out is going on elsewhere, inaccessible to me – whatever part of me works out complex problems, has holed itself up, toiling away, and the rest of me is left waiting, a bit drained of energy, able to sense that intense work is being done, but excluded from the work process and in the dark as to what its end product might be. Keeping me company are various random associations that seem as though they have something to do with one another, and to whatever I’m trying to figure out. I figured I would toss some of those associations up here.

One of the things that troubles me with Lukács is his equation of the totality with the standpoint of critique – an equation that provides the touchstone, unifying concept throughout History and Class Consciousness. The opening to the essay “The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg” makes this point particularly concisely:

It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science. The capitalist separation of the producer from the total process of production, the division of the process of labour into parts at the cost of the individual humanity of the worker, the atomisation of society into individuals who simply go on producing without rhyme or reason, must all have a profound influence on the thought, the science and the philosophy of capitalism. Proletarian science is revolutionary not just by virtue of its revolutionary ideas which it opposes to bourgeois society, but above all because of its method. The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science. (p. 27)

Lukács’ emphasis on totality can be read as a sophisticated, Hegelian inflection of a common line of criticism of capitalism in the crisis-ridden period of the transition from the laissez-faire era to the development of more state-centred forms of capitalism: the critique emphasises the irrationality of capitalism, understood to be caused by the retention of an outmoded system of private property ownership and competition between capitals that prevents production and distribution from becoming fully transparent to itself, and hence rational, through centralised state planning.

The experiences of the mid-20th century led to an intense reaction against this form of critique, as state planning and the suspension of private ownership and competition, were realised in intensely repressive forms. “Rational” planning proved compatible with the rational administration of terror. In such conditions, the political ideal of a society that had become fully transparent to itself, no longer seemed to hold emancipatory promise but, instead, to imply that there would be nowhere left to hide. The pessimism of the first generation Frankfurt School issues out of its confrontation with what appeared to be the horrific oppressive realisation of socialist ideals.

So there are historical reasons for unease with Lukács’ vision of the totality as the standpoint of critique – fears that this sort of critical discourse is “normatively underdetermined” in the sense that it does not provide critical purchase on the kinds of oppression that are mediated by the state. A theory whose central critical concept is the “all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts” sounds, to contemporary ears, much more likely to facilitate and apologise for oppression, than to bring to light emancipatory possibilities.

But it’s not just 20th century history that suggests that the totality is not the best way to conceptualise the standpoint of critique. I’m writing away from my books, and so I can’t demonstrate this point textually in this post, but there is considerable material from the Grundrisse and from Capital to suggest that Marx equates the viewpoint from the totality, with a particular moment in the process of the reproduction of capital (Murray has made the point, for example, that the category of capital is introduces using Hegel’s vocabulary for the Geist – suggesting, at the very least, that Marx would not agree with Lukács’ attempt to use a similar vocabulary for the proletariat, in order to claim the totality-eye-view as the perspective of the revolution…).

If Marx does not intend the totality to be his standpoint of critique, what does he intend? How does Marx conceptualise his critical standpoint? My suggestion – and I toss this out as a placeholder for future development, rather than as an argument I intend to make in any adequate way here – is that Marx finds his standpoint, precisely not in the totality, but in various “part contexts” that are generated in and through the process of the reproduction of capital, whose distinctive potentials we tend not to “see”, because our gaze focusses instead on the ways in which these parts are currently configured into a particular whole. A great deal of Capital consists of breaking larger wholes down into their various potential parts, exploring the implications of those parts – both as they are currently configured as moments that make a contribution to the reproduction of capital, and as they might potentially be reconfigured in order to realise very different forms of collective life.

Marx metaphorises capitalism as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster – as a reanimated creature – stitched together from disparate parts, each with their own distinctive tendencies, ensorcelled to contribute to ends that are not intrinsic or essentially bound to those parts. Social actors indigenous to this monstrous context find themselves adopting practical orientations toward these parts, reproducing the parts necessarily in the process of (unintentionally) generating the whole – the subjective and objective consequence of this process, is that the reproduction of capital necessarily drags along in its wake the reproduction of these diverse habits, forms of being in the world, material potentials, and other “resources” that can be repurposed to different social ends. Critique within this framework does not speak from the point of view of the totality (although it may need to recognise that a certain kind of whole is currently being reproduced), but rather from the point of view of the parts – of their disparate potentials, which are currently being abridged in order that this particular whole might persist. To seize these potentials, however, we need to shake off the enchantment that this particular whole, is the only possible whole – we need to learn to search beneath the totality, to begin to recognise the potentials of a diverse array of constituent parts.

I will hopefully write on all this much more adequately in the coming months. For the moment, I’ll just point to a fortuitous image – a poem that happened to be linked for other reasons entirely over at Concurring Opinions today – Kenneth Koch’s “One Train May Hide Another”:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,

As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.

That is, if you are waiting to cross

The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at

Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read

Wait until you have read the next line —

Then it is safe to go on reading.


One song hide another song; a pounding upstairs

Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hide another, you sit at the foot of a tree

With one and when you get up to leave there is another

Whom you’d have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,

One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man

May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.

You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It can be important

To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 1

I’ve been wanting for some time to toss up some notes on Lukács’ essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” from History and Class Consciousness (note that the version of this text online at suffers from a number of OCR issues, most of them just nuisances, but some more significant, including omitted phrases and sentences – the text version is preferable).

Each time I sit down to post something on this text, I find myself hesitating over how to approach this work, without quite understanding the basis for my hesitation. I think part of my difficulty is that the text strikes me as often tantalisingly sophisticated in its details, while frustratingly superficial in its overarching perspective. I’m not sure how to capture its contradictions, without myself becoming mired in minutiae. We’ll see how I go… As with the other posts in the “Marxes” category, this one will consist mainly of notes and sketches – written internalistically to myself. I’ll revisit a slice of this material more formally soon, as Lukács is the focus of one of the papers I will be presenting in Europe. For the moment, though, I want to speak in a more tentative voice, and wander through the text in a nonsystematic way… I’m low on laptop battery at the moment, so just the barest of preliminary thoughts here, without even getting into the text at all – just opening the curtain, with more to follow.

One of the problems that confronts Marxist theory is how to understand the relationship of its own categories – which appear to be “economic” categories – to social phenomena that are not generally taken to be “economic” in nature. The stereotypical “vulgar” solution to this problem is reductionism: those dimensions of social life that are taken to be “economic” are posited as ontologically or causally primary in some sense, and other dimensions of social life are taken to be epiphenomena – caused by, or expressive of, an “underlying” economic reality. This reductionist impulse can extend into fairly sophisticated forms of theory, which grant various kinds of relative autonomy and/or reciprocal causal power to “non-economic” dimensions of social experience. Regardless of the epicycles permitted around the reductionist core, critique tends to be understood as a voice that speaks from the standpoint of an “underlying”, more “essential” reality, in order to target more epiphenomenal or artificial dimensions of social experience.

Lukács is, among other things, an attempt to think this problem in a different way – to do away with the dualistic question of how to relate the “economic” categories of Marxist theory to other social dimensions, by rendering apparently “economic” categories into descriptors of a distinctive form of social life. Within this framework, the theory of capitalism becomes, not an economic theory, but a theory of modernity, and apparently economic categories are reinterpreted as categories of the distinctive forms of subjectivity and objectivity characteristic of modern society. Modern society itself is conceptualised as a totality – and critique is understood as a voice that speaks from the standpoint of the totality, in order to realise the potentials of that totality.

My own work shares the sense that Marx’s own categories should not be understood as “economic” categories in the conventional meaning of that term – that these are categories of distinctive forms of social practice, intended to describe the practical rituals through which indigenous members of capitalist society collectively (and largely unintentionally) enact distinctive forms of subjectivity and objectivity. My analysis, however, does not rely on a notion of “totality” (and tends to view the perception of capitalism as a “totality” as a false, albeit plausible, extrapolation from hypostatising a small subset of the potentials generated by the process of the reproduction of capital), and regards the process of the reproduction of capital as only one dimension of modern social experience, albeit a dimension whose global reach and peculiarly abstract properties render it plausible to experience this slice of social experience as a “background” within which other dimensions of social life unfold. This form of theory attempts to grasp a specific kind of critique – a critique of the process of the reproduction of capital – and attempts to give voice to the conflictual practical orientations that social actors routinely adopt in the process of enacting the reproduction of capital, in order to show that the process of the reproduction of capital is precisely not a totality, but a conflictual assemblage that can potentially be reassembled in different ways, unleashing different potentials for personal and social experience. The standpoint of this form of critique is that diverse constellation of potentials that are being partially enacted, and yet also abridged, by the current configuration of the reproduction of capital. The goal, following Benjamin, is to make our own history citable in more of its moments…

More very soon…