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Category Archives: Negations

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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The Inverted World

So one of Nate’s recent posts has generated my bedtime reading for the past several days – Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital, an early work updated by Engels after Marx’s death, and his 1865 “Value, Price and Profit”. The former I have read before, but not recently. The latter I’m not sure I’ve ever read – if I have, I’ve thoroughly forgotten the content. Both works are interesting as self-popularisations – expressing Marx’s own attempt to simplify and prioritise elements from his work for a more popular audience.

From the standpoint of my own attempt to unpack and make sense of the textual strategy of the first volume of Capital, reading pretty much anything else by Marx has a particular kind of strange effect. On the one hand, his terminology in other works, particularly, but not exclusively, earlier works, is often very loose compared to the unfolding of the argument in Capital (which is not always itself consistent, but which reads, to me, much more consistent than anything else of Marx’s that I’ve read) – and, even where the terminology is reasonably consistent within a work, the sense of a term may be subtly, or even dramatically, different from the senses on which the first volume pivots. The first volume of Capital is also a “scientific” text – as Patrick Murray expresses it, Marx’s only “scientific” text – where the sense of “science” here is Hegelian: a science is something that does not step outside its object – something that reflexively accounts for its own categories as immanent moments of the relation it is analysing critically. The “point” of this kind of “scientific” analysis – as I’ve tried to express in many posts – is not to debunk the categories being analysed, but rather to locate them – to situate how our collective practices generate these particular categories as “practical truths”. Once this sort of “scientific” analysis has been carried out, the categories themselves can then be deployed – with an appreciation of their bounds and limits that derives from the “scientific” analysis itself, but without the need to replicate the massive apparatus that a reflexive critique requires. “Value, Price and Profit” in particular does this – relying on and, in places, even closely paraphrasing moments from Capital, but leaving aside the complex textual metastructure that allows Marx, in Capital to destabilise the categories in order to express at each moment their relational determination within the overarching social configuration he is trying to capture in this text.

Among other consequences – and as you would expect – these self-popularised works are much easier to read than Capital. When I bury myself in the textual strategy of Capital for too long, I always forget this: that Marx isn’t, so to speak, congenitally cryptic about his own substantive claims – that the esoteric textual strategy of Capital derives from the attempt to come up with a mode of presentation that expresses certain substantive claims about the peculiar, practically reflexive, character of the process by which capital is reproduced. Where Marx isn’t attempting to be rigorous in this very peculiar sense, he actually is capable of saying directly what he means. I often get startled by this, after spending long periods reconstructing the sense of over-subtle passages in the first volume of Capital, only then to stumble across Marx, in effect, chatting away about the point in a quite direct way in some other writing. This unfortunately doesn’t mean – at least, I don’t believe that it does – that Capital can be cast aside, in favour of other works where Marx speaks more plainly: there are things the first volume of Capital does, that are not done in other places, there is a systematicity and internal consistency to this volume compared to other works, and the very presentational form of the work itself makes a substantive argument worth unpacking in its own right. Nevertheless, I often feel a bit peculiar when shifting from the maddeningly indirect way the first volume of Capital makes its points – a form of presentation that always leaves interpretation feeling precarious and risky to me – to other works that state key points more baldly.

I’m thinking about this today because “Value, Price and Profit” concludes on a point I’ve been arguing (in work not yet on the blog… more on all this soon) is suggested by the dramatic structure of the first volume of Capital. In a concluding section titled “The Struggle Between Capital and Labour and Its Results”, Marx has, on the one hand, outlined the necessity for a struggle between labour and capital in order for labourers to realise the value of their peculiar commodity of labour power. This discussion positions the struggle between labour and capital as essential – but in a peculiarly qualified way. Marx argues first that the working classes must engage in this sort of struggle over the terms of the labour contract:

These few hints will suffice to show that the very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages, or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.

The structural tendency of the system is such that this particular sort of struggle is required in order for labourers to receive the value of their commodities: this form of struggle, in other words, takes place within the ambit of commodity-determined production, and is part and parcel of this form of production. Moreover, failure to engage in this form of struggle may render other forms of political contestation impossible, subjectively and objectively. However, so long as political contestation remains restricted to this terrain, this contestation operates as a moment of the reproduction of the capital relation – mobilising ideals and forms of organisation that do not point in a fundamental way beyond the logic of commodity-determined production. What is needed, Marx argues, is a mobilisation that, however much it may begin from this sort of immanent contestation, reaches for ideals and forms of organisation that point to the abolition of commodity-determined production as such. Marx writes:

At the same time, and quite apart form the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wages system!”

After this very long and, I fear, tedious exposition, which I was obliged to enter into to do some justice to the subject matter, I shall conclude by proposing the following resolutions:

Firstly. A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall of the general rate of profit, but, broadly speaking, not affect the prices of commodities.

Secondly. The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages.

Thirdly. Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. The fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.

In the first volume of Capital, this sort of argument is made in a strangely subtle way. On the one hand, the narrative arc of the opening chapters, through the introduction of the category of labour power, marks out a dark parody of Hegel’s Phenomenology. In Hegel’s drama, when consciousness confronts the inverted world and comes to realise that it has been its own object all along – when consciousness achieves self-consciousness – this is an achievement of spirit. In Marx’s parody, when we finally grasp the wealth of capitalist society, and come to the realisation that this wealth is not an object “outside us”, but rather is us – that labour power is the substance of value and the emergence of the “free” labourer a necessary historical condition for generalised commodity production, it is the capital relation itself that is described in the vocabulary Hegel uses for the Geist: a blind, processual, process of domination – a runaway production become an end in itself and achieving domination over humankind – is what is “realised” once the subject-object dualism is undermined in Capital. At the dramatic moment where Hegel whips aside the curtain to reveal self-reflexive consciousness, Marx stages a very different kind of dramatic pivot in his text:

We now know how the value paid by the purchaser to the possessor of this peculiar commodity, labour-power, is determined. The use-value which the former gets in exchange, manifests itself only in the actual utilisation, in the consumption of the labour-power. The money-owner buys everything necessary for this purpose, such as raw material, in the market, and pays for it at its full value. The consumption of labour-power is at one and the same time the production of commodities and of surplus-value. The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the limits of the market or of the sphere of circulation. Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

A similar dramatic downturn follows the other major “self-realisation” of labour portrayed in the first volume of Capital: the story of the achievement of the normal working day.

On the one hand, the text speaks here with enormous sympathy and evident pride for the achievements of the working class struggles that culminate in the achievement of the normal working day. The poignant concluding passage of the chapter rings with the historical significance of this triumph:

It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.” For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling. by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.” Quantum mutatus ab illo! [What a great change from that time! – Virgil]

At the same time, this conflict is positioned in the text as taking place within the ambit of commodity-determined production, with workers banding together in order to realise their rights as commodity owners – albeit of a very peculiar commodity. In the drama staged in this chapter, the conflict over the working day begins:

The capitalist has bought the labour-power at its day-rate. To him its use-value belongs during one working-day. He has thus acquired the right to make the labourer work for him during one day. But, what is a working-day?

At all events, less than a natural day. By how much? The capitalist has his own views of this ultima Thule [the outermost limit], the necessary limit of the working-day. As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour.

Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.

If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.

The capitalist then takes his stand on the law of the exchange of commodities. He, like all other buyers, seeks to get the greatest possible benefit out of the use-value of his commodity. Suddenly the voice of the labourer, which had been stifled in the storm and stress of the process of production, rises:

The commodity that I have sold to you differs from the crowd of other commodities, in that its use creates value, and a value greater than its own. That is why you bought it. That which on your side appears a spontaneous expansion of capital, is on mine extra expenditure of labour-power. You and I know on the market only one law, that of the exchange of commodities. And the consumption of the commodity belongs not to the seller who parts with it, but to the buyer, who acquires it. To you, therefore, belongs the use of my daily labour-power. But by means of the price that you pay for it each day, I must be able to reproduce it daily, and to sell it again. Apart from natural exhaustion through age, &c., I must be able on the morrow to work with the same normal amount of force, health and freshness as to-day. You preach to me constantly the gospel of “saving” and “abstinence.” Good! I will, like a sensible saving owner, husband my sole wealth, labour-power, and abstain from all foolish waste of it. I will each day spend, set in motion, put into action only as much of it as is compatible with its normal duration, and healthy development. By an unlimited extension of the working-day, you may in one day use up a quantity of labour-power greater than I can restore in three. What you gain in labour I lose in substance. The use of my labour-power and the spoliation of it are quite different things. If the average time that (doing a reasonable amount of work) an average labourer can live, is 30 years, the value of my labour-power, which you pay me from day to day is 1/365 × 30 or 1/10950 of its total value. But if you consume it in 10 years, you pay me daily 1/10950 instead of 1/3650 of its total value, i.e., only 1/3 of its daily value, and you rob me, therefore, every day of 2/3 of the value of my commodity. You pay me for one day’s labour-power, whilst you use that of 3 days. That is against our contract and the law of exchanges. I demand, therefore, a working-day of normal length, and I demand it without any appeal to your heart, for in money matters sentiment is out of place. You may be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and in the odour of sanctity to boot; but the thing that you represent face to face with me has no heart in its breast. That which seems to throb there is my own heart-beating. I demand the normal working-day because I, like every other seller, demand the value of my commodity.

We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.(bold text mine)

Between equal rights, force decides: this is a form of struggle determined by the structural indeterminacies built into the process of the reproduction of capital itself – a decentralised Foucaultian conflict that does not contravene the power relations built into the process of the reproduction of capital, but rather constitutes one of the moments for the reproduction of those relations. It is therefore not surprising that, in spite of the palpable compassion and pride with which this chapter reports the outcome of this struggle, what follows on this achievement, in terms of the dramatic structure of the text, is not a discussion of emancipation, but rather a discussion of relative surplus value – that is to say, a discussion of the particular form of surplus value extraction that results from the successful self-assertion of labour as a commodity owner.

This pivot in the text has sparked any number of debates over whether Marx is making a logical/analytical point, or describing some sort of temporally-identifiable historical shift. While I’m sympathetic to reading the point as logical, rather than as historical, I want to suggest that the more relevant point may instead be political: Marx is saying something here, through the structure and staging of the dramatic narrative of the text, about the limits of particular forms of working class mobilisation and political ideals – specifically, he is making here, subtly, the argument he makes explicitly in the passage I’ve quoted from “Value, Price and Profit” above: that not all forms of contestation, just by dint of being contestation – that not all struggles important to the working class, just by dint of being important to the working class – are revolutionary forms of conflict. Instead, the text suggests, some forms of conflict are actually part and parcel of the reproduction of the capital relation, expressive of the tendencies and of the immanent indeterminacies of that relation – vitally important for the humanisation of capitalism, crucial for their impact on the material and social forms of everyday lives, important for what they might open for a future politics – but in and of themselves not pointing beyond this social form.

So living labour – to the extent that it attempts to realise itself as living labour – participates in the reproduction of capital. This is half of the largest-scale “inversion” that structures the first volume of Capital. The other half relates to dead labour – the vampire, the were-wolf, the reanimated undead creature with no heart in its breast that survives only by constant infusions of lifeblood from the living: the graphic language of the text leaves no doubt of the horror that results from the domination of dead labour, so long as the capital relation continues to be reproduced. If the text expresses an evident pride and compassion for the struggles of living labour, it expresses an equivalent condemnation of the monstrous figure of dead labour.

And yet… In this text, capitalism figures as a Hegelian “inverted world” – a world in which what is overtly good and noble, gives birth to its opposite, participating in the reproduction of a form of domination, and what is overtly a form of domination, generates the conditions of possibility for emancipatory transformation. It is the monster – genuinely horrific in current conditions – that provides the seeds around which future emancipation can crystallise – but only to the extent that living labour – what is genuinely noble in the existing context – is destroyed. This is the major narrative inversion around which the first volume of Capital pivots – this passionate, maddening, over-cryptic plea to recognise that capitalism gives the “practical truth” of Hegel’s “inverted world”, such that emancipatory political mobilisation precisely requires a speculative reach beyond the characteristics that all things have, as they are suspended within the capital relation, and to the characteristics that these things might have – if only we can appropriate them, redeem them, reconstitute them in a new form.

No time to edit… Apologies…

Scratchpad: Chapter 1 – The Play’s the Thing

Still effectively offline – apologies again for not being able to respond to comments. Below the fold is the first chapter of the (rather completely different) new revision of the thesis. Although the early sections walk some of the same ground as the recent Goldsmiths talk, there’s a great deal more here than I could fit in there, as well as substantial revisions to incorporate the fantastic suggestions and feedback I received there and at the earlier conference at John Cabot. John – if you’re reading – I had your questions in mind when writing this, as well: although it’s probably a bit much to ask you to read such a long piece, just to get to the sections where I answer what you’ve asked, the payoff is that I almost certainly say things more clearly and more systematically here than I would in the comments – particularly now, with my very limited online time.

And a special thanks to Praxis, who has read and/or listened to multiple iterations of every thought that has made its way into this draft. Read more of this post

The Reality of Abstraction

I’ve been glancing through some of the secondary literature on Derrida’s Specters of Marx, trying to piece together an abstract. I paused over the following comment, from Jameson’s “Marx’s Purloined Letter”, in Ghostly Demarcations (2008), p. 36:

As for materialism, it ought to be the place in which theory, deconstruction and Marxism meet: a privileged place for theory, insofar as the latter emerges from a conviction as to the ‘materiality’ of language; for deconstruction insofar as its vocation has something to do with the destruction of metaphysics; for Marxism (‘historical materialism’) insofar as the latter’s critique of Hegel turned on the hypostasis of ideal qualities and the need to replace such invisible abstractions by a concrete (that included production and economics). It is not an accident that these are all negative ways of evoking materialism.

For present purposes, I’m not concerned with whether Jameson fully endorses the position set out in this excerpt – what interests me is that this presentation captures one of the common ways of attempting to make sense of what Marx means, when he talks about “standing Hegel on his feet”. In this view, Hegel’s problem is that he engages in “invisible abstractions”: a proper critical approach, by contrast, requires that such abstractions be replaced with “concrete” entities that are purportedly more “real”.

As a placeholder, which I won’t develop adequately here: this is not how I read Marx’s critique of Hegel. Marx is not attempting to reject abstractions – still less to replace them with something concrete, as though the abstractions are mere illusions which can be wished away. Marx is, instead, trying to grasp the ways in which abstractions are generated in practice – in a situation in which those abstractions possess what Marx will often in the Grundrisse refer to as “practical truth”. Hegel’s abstractions become, for Marx, social realities – they aren’t tangible, they can’t be seen immediately through empirical experience, but nevertheless they do exist – and they “really” exist abstractly – if only as moments of a very specific, and potentially transient and transformable, form of social life. Marx wants to grasp these abstractions: their critique consists in the demonstration of how they are produced. The point of critique is not to debunk or to dismiss abstractions as “untrue”, but instead to explore the presuppositions or conditions of possibility for a particular sort of bounded truth – of truth for us – possibly of truth we want to abolish – but truth (for the moment) nevertheless.

The simple dismissal of abstractions, or the unmediated reduction of the abstract down to the concrete – what Hegel might call an “abstract negation” – is insufficient for Marx: only by seeking out the practical genesis of what is being criticised, can critique – for Marx – make a meaningful contribution to the practical project of emancipatory transformation.

Fragmentary Ontological Temptations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does all this have to do with Badiou?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HSS2008 Paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting for What We Mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scratchpad: From Something, Nothing Comes

Okay. Below the fold is the preliminary draft of the chapterised version of my post from the other day on indeterminacy as a form of determination (doesn’t that line make you wanna peek beneath the fold?). The last third of this chapter is still very undeveloped – basically, if you’re reading, once you get to the point where I start talking about the relationship of all of this to Hegel’s essence/appearance argument, the text from that point gets really sketchy and dubious. If it helps, I’m aware of this, but wanted to write at least a set of placeholder notes for things I want to discuss, when I’m able to revise that section properly. I may not be able to get back to this draft for some days, however, and so I thought I might as well toss it up in its current form. The main line of argument – which relates to how you can provide a socially-immanent explanation for certain categories that appear transhistorical in Marx’s work – is (I hope!!) sufficiently clearly developed for the moment. The points that remain undeveloped will always – in this chapter – be sort of foreshadows of material I can’t discuss in great detail until I’ve set up a few more layers of this argument.

Those who read the version of the previous chapter posted to the blog may notice that the transition at the end of the previous chapter draft doesn’t “work”. That’s because, partially in response to feedback received here, I significantly expanded the previous chapter – to the point that it got a little bit cancerous, and so I split it into two chapters, dividing off the programmatic bits, from the discussion of Marx’s relationship to Hegel, and adding more material to both of those discussions. So I suppose I can now say I’m working on the draft of the third chapter of my thesis. 🙂

Usual caveats apply to the content below the fold – with the additional caveat that, for some reason, I’ve found sleep almost impossible for the past several days, and so I’m really not in the position where I can “hear” this text. I think it’s still okay, but it may be much rougher than I realise. 🙂 Here goes…

Read more of this post

From Something, Nothing Comes

I’m not sure whether to classify this post as a contribution to the reading group discussion on Hegel’s Science of Logic, or instead to treat it as part of the series on Marx. The theme is one I’m trying to work out how to discuss in my current chapter draft, but I’m pointing my argument in that chapter back to these concepts in Hegel, so perhaps these things have become too interpenetrating to distinguish clearly.

In the chapter draft, I’m working on a specific tension. On the one hand, Marx criticises, for example, the political economists for exempting their own position from their analysis – for treating the categories of other economic systems as artificial and as socially and historically conditioned, but treating the categories they use to grasp capitalism as “natural”. This critique shows up in passages such as this one, originally from Poverty of Philosophy, but replicated in a footnote to the first chapter of Capital:

Economists have a singular method of procedure. There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation from God. … Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any.

Given that Marx finds it relevant to replicate this comment in two works quite dispersed in time, and given how this critique dovetails with other sorts of critique Marx offers, evidently this is an abiding and somewhat central concern for Marx. My impulse is to take from these sorts of comments the notion that Marx does not intend to engage in this sort of political economic manoeuvre himself – that he is not simply, so to speak, criticising the political economists for being wrong in viewing their specific position as an emanation from God, but is instead arguing that it would be wrong to regard any position as such an emanation: I take Marx’s argument, in other words, to be that critique should be reflexive and provide an account of its own position of enunciation (I take Marx, in other words to share some of the sorts of concerns with abstract “philosophical” forms of critique that Sinthome has raised this morning over at Larval Subjects).

The challenge for my reading is that Marx also often makes statements that seem to jar with this notion of reflexivity – statements, for example, that compare what actually takes place under capitalist conditions of production, with what appear to be something like “essential” categories that Marx seems to claim would apply to any sort of production. The form of critique here looks very similar to what Marx objects to in the political economists. When, for example, Marx makes a claim like, e.g., the substance of wealth is always use value, and then appears to criticise capitalism for the way that it imposes additional conditions on what gets to “count” as wealth, that go beyond this unavoidable “material” requirement – this structure of argument looks rather similar to that used by the political economists, who argued that, e.g., the feudal guild system imposes additional conditions on the organisation of production, that distorted the “natural” institutions of capitalist society. Marx may offer a different version of what counts as “natural”, but this doesn’t change the apparent structure of the argument, which still involves the criticism of some set of social institutions against a standard that purports to be more “natural” than those institutions. This approach does not appear to correspond to the concept of immanent critique I’ve argued is at play in Marx’s work.

Most interpreters, of course, are comfortable with the notion that Marx is a straightforward “materialist” who doesn’t problematise the genesis of his own critical insights. Even Patrick Murray’s very sensitive reading of Capital, which captures the Hegelian subtext of the work quite well, regards Marx to be criticising both Hegel and the political economists for not recognising a difference between “genuine” (asocial) abstractions, and abstractions specific to capitalist society: on this read, Marx’s great critical contribution was to disentangle these two sorts of abstractions, and so clarify what is “essential” to material production, from what is only made to “appear” necessary by the distorted configurations characteristic of capitalist production. This reading, however, leaves somewhat unclear where Marx obtains such clarity of insight into what is truly essential, when such insight has eluded so many others.

Certain kinds of theory – Habermas would be the obvious example – try to answer this latter question through a strategy I tend to call “appealing to the historical realisation of the natural”. Here, what is “essential” is not treated as contingently constituted in social practice – the essential is thematised, either explicitly or tacitly, as always having been “natural”, at least as a latent tendency or necessary step in a developmental logic or similar – while an explanation is offered for why we have only recognised or discovered the essential in recent history. This approach still possesses the basic structure of the political economists’ argument, as Marx criticises it above: it positions the approaches being criticised as artificial, and treats its own position as natural. In the process, it treats critique as an abstract negation – as something that is left behind, when everything artificial has been stripped away. Essence is not constituted – at least not in any contingent way. Even where essence is treating as arising in human practice, it is treated as non-contingently arising. Critique takes the form of a criticism of appearance from the standpoint of essence.

I have tried to argue that Marx is doing something quite different – that he is attempting a form of theory loyal to the precepts of his critique of political economy – that he is not simply saying that the political economists are wrong in the specific thing they take to be “natural”, but wrong in adopting a whole structure of critique that does not address its own conditions of possibility. How, then, can I make sense of moments in Capital where Marx himself sets up a contrast between what material production “essentially” is, versus the specific form material production takes under capitalism? How, even moreso, can I make sense of passages in which Marx suggests that it is possible to look back through history, making sense of the changing configurations of social relations with reference to concepts like a “mode of production”?

My full answer to these questions is the subject of the chapter I am working on now, which I will post here for comment when it’s sufficiently complete. That chapter both acknowledges genuine tensions and inconsistencies in Marx’s own work, and also argues that there is a way he could be consistent to his critique of political economy, while still wielding very abstract and seemingly asocial categories like “use value” – so long as he provides an explanation for how those seemingly asocial categories are the categories of a specific form of society. This argument requires a turn to Hegel.

Part of the answer, I suspect, lies in one of the passages in the in-person reading group selection for today. At the beginning of Section One: Determinateness (Quality), Hegel makes the interesting point:

Being is the indeterminate immediate; it is free from determinateness in relation to essence and also from any which it can possess within itself. This reflectionless being is being as it is immediately in its own self alone.

Because it is indeterminate being, it lacks all quality; but in itself, the character of indeterminateness attaches to it only in contrast to what is determinate or qualitative. But determinate being stands in contrast to being in general, so that the very indeterminateness of the latter constitutes its quality. It will therefore be shown that the first being is in itself determinate, and therefore, secondly, that it passes over into determinate being… (130-131, bold text mine)

Hegel is not concerned with social theory, but the argument he makes here suggests the line I follow with Marx’s apparently asocial “materialist” categories: that the indeterminacy of these categories – their apparent detachment from any specific social configuration – is their specific determinacy. In other words, the specific social character of certain categories of capitalist society, consists in their apparent asocial character. This theme, I would suggest, runs throughout Capital.

The development of this argument, which I attempt in the chapter itself, at least as a preliminary sketch, involves an argument about real abstractions. A real abstraction is an abstraction that involves more than simply a conceptual stripping away of determinate content. A real abstraction is effected in social practice, and involves (in my appropriation of this concept) a process of mutual constitution of conflictual dimensions of practice – one of which renders particular forms of qualitative determinacy socially meaningful, while another is actively indifferent to those specific forms of determinacy. In Marx’s argument, for example, a category like “use value” – which appears to be nothing more than a catch-all conceptual abstraction that generalises from any sort of useful thing, and seems transparently capable of extension to the analysis of any human society – is actually effected in collective practice in capitalism, as the value dimension of the commodity must appear in some use value or another, but is structurally indifferent to how it appears. In this sense, an apparently asocial category like “use value” – which presents itself as a substance of wealth, indifferent to social form – is in fact closely tied to value as the social form of wealth in capitalism, which generates at the level of social practice “use value” as a meaningful, socially-immanent category. This doesn’t mean that we can’t then take such abstract categories, and apply them to the past – or, more important for Marx’s purposes, apply them to the critique of capitalism, to assist us in thinking alternative organisations of production. It does, though, provide an immanent account of such categories, and also situates the categories socially and historically, making it possible to explain why these categories are part of the “in and for itself” of our society, but did not emerge in other historical eras.

This approach repositions Marx’s apparently asocial and “materialist” categories as determinate negations – as negations that emerge out of a specific “something”, and therefore carry the traces of what they negated, in their determinate qualitative form. I’ve drawn attention to such a concept previously, in discussing this passage from Hegel’s Phenomenology:

The completeness of the forms of unreal consciousness will be brought about precisely through the necessity of the advance and the necessity of their connection with one another. To make this comprehensible we may remark, by way of preliminary, that the exposition of untrue consciousness in its untruth is not a merely negative process. Such a one-sided view of it is what the natural consciousness generally adopts; and a knowledge, which makes this one-sidedness its essence, is one of those shapes assumed by incomplete consciousness which falls into the course of the inquiry itself and will come before us there. For this view is scepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result. Nothing, however, is only, in fact, the true result, when taken as the nothing of what it comes from; it is thus itself a determinate nothing, and has a content. The scepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is – in order to cast it into some abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in the negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself. (79)

The reading group starts soon, and I need to review a bit before everyone arrives. And ack! Russ has shown up early!! (How dare you, Russ – you know I read material before we meet!!) No time to edit… Apologies…

P.S. Since Russ so rudely interrupted, I posted this before I got the chance to nudge back at Wildly Parenthetical, who has been trying valiantly to make sense of my often opaque use of terms like “abstract” and “determinate” negation – if it weren’t already clear, this piece is intended as (er… yet another?) gesture to that ongoing conversation… 🙂

Scratchpad: The Greatest Difficulty (No Kidding…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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