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Category Archives: Philosophy of History

Hunger Is Hunger

Two passages, one from early and one from late in the Grundrisse.

The first, from the section I discussed yesterday, where Marx grapples with the extent to which his categories are historically specific:

Firstly, the object is not an object in general, but a specific object which must be consumed in a specific manner, to be mediated in turn by production itself. Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down meat raw with the aid of hand, nail and tooth. Production thus produces not only the object but also the manner of consumption, not only objectively but also subjectively.

The interweaving Marx attempts here is one of the most characteristic dimensions of his work. Hunger is something natural – something physical – but something no less historical for all that. Its historical manifestations – each of its historical manifestations – are no less natural for not being timeless invariants. Something can be an historical product – and yet deeply, profoundly, and inextricably embodied. Our activities – what we do, what we make – inform us, developing us, expressing us, creating us – and linking this self-creation intrinsically with the creation of what might superficially be taken as things wholly external to ourselves, but which Marx rather conceptualises as nonhuman objects participating in interactions with us.

The same fundamentally historical quality of the natural manifests in Marx’s scathing critique of Malthus late in the manuscript:

It is Malthus who abstracts from these specific historic laws of the movement of population, the natural laws, but natural laws of humanity only at a specific level of historical development, with a development of forces of production determined by humanity’s own process of history. Malthusian man, abstracted from historically determined man, exists only in his brain; hence also the geometric method of representation corresponding to this natural Malthusian man. Real history thus appears to him in such a way that the reproduction of his natural humanity is not an abstraction from the historic process of real reproduction, but just the contrary, that real reproduction is an application of Malthusian theory. Hence the inherent conditions of population as well as of overpopulation at every stage of history appear to him as a series of external checks which have prevented the population from developing in the Malthusian form. The conditions in which mankind historically produces and reproduces itself appear as barriers to the reproduction of the Malthusian natural man, who is a Malthusian creature. On the other hand, the production of the necessaries of life – as it is checked, determined by human action – appears as a check which it posits to itself. The ferns would cover the entire earth. Their reproduction would stop only where space for them ceased. They would obey no arithmetic proportion. It is hard to say where Malthus has discovered that the reproduction of voluntary natural products would stop for intrinsic reasons, without external checks. He transforms the immanent, historically changing limits of the human reproduction process into outer barriers; and the outer barriers to natural reproduction into immanent limits or natural laws of reproduction.

This passage is dense with implications that I won’t unpack here. Malthus stands accused of the move Marx finds most typical of the political economists: maintaining that there used to be history – the history described in terms of “external barriers” and contingent, artificial constraints – but there is no longer any – Malthus’ own laws are taken to be an eternal, natural necessity, contrasting to the external and artificial barriers that prevent these laws from becoming empirically manifest.

For Marx, by contrast, nature has history. Nature is history. A law of population, a pattern of demographic change, is no less “natural” for all that it might apply only given very specific and transient boundary conditions. Births and deaths, famines and times of plenty, become no less objective, no less “biological”, for all that their conditions have the potential to be transformed. Natural laws are not a pure, distilled, isolated, external force exerted upon objects. Natural laws are the descriptions of regularities that emerge within interactions – regularities, then, that can be as fluid as the entities interacting and the diversity of ways those interactions could probabilistically unfold.

Marx suggests that our biology, our physiology, our materiality are not “underlying” factors, onto which more transient things are grafted. Instead, it is our very materiality that is in motion, and the aspects of that materiality that are subject to change (all aspects, on a time scale long enough…) are no less “material” for their openness to transformation.

Marx constantly pushes at this – aiming for a nonreductive materialism – an historical materialism. One which has precisely nothing to do with some inevitable historical progression through defined historical eras until an inevitable culmination has been reached: this unfortunate conventional image of historical materialism transposes into Marx’s work a conception of ahistorical law – of nature as a transcendent, external driving force of more transient phenomena – that is precisely what he was attempting to oppose. It is the political economists, for Marx, who are reaching for the notion that their laws somehow grasp a form of nature that transcends empirical phenomena and the boundaries of their own moment in time. Marx is, by contrast, reaching for tendencies that manifest the peculiar and transformable nature of capitalist society. In the process, he reaches for a form of theory that can cast light on the potential to constitute new forms of interaction – and thereby open up new natures, with their own distinctive patterns – and possibilities.

The Abstraction Before Us

Marx starts what is now published as the introduction to the Grundrisse:

The object before us, to begin with, material production.

It takes over 800 pages of manuscript before he arrives at the starting point he retains in Capital:

(1) Value

This section to be brought forward.

The first category in which bourgeois wealth presents itself is that of the commodity. The commodity itself appears as unity of two aspects. It is use value, i.e. object of the satisfaction of any system whatever of human needs. This is its material side, which the most disparate epochs of production may have in common, and whose examination therefore lies beyond political economy. Use value falls within the realm of political economy as soon as it becomes modified by the modern relations of production, or as it, in turn, intervenes to modify them. What it is customary to say about it in general terms, for the sake of good form, is confined to commonplaces which had a historic value in the first beginnings of the science, when the social forms of bourgeois production had still laboriously to be peeled out of the material, and, at great effort, to be established as independent objects of study. In fact, however, the use value of the commodity is a given presupposition — the material basis in which a specific economic relation presents itself. It is only this specific relation which stamps the use value as a commodity. Wheat, e.g., possesses the same use value, whether cultivated by slaves, serfs or free labourers. It would not lose its use value if it fell from the sky like snow. Now how does use value become transformed into commodity? Vehicle of exchange value. Although directly united in the commodity, use value and exchange value just as directly split apart. Not only does the exchange value not appear as determined by the use value, but rather, furthermore, the commodity only becomes a commodity, only realizes itself as exchange value, in so far as its owner does not relate to it as use value. He appropriates use values only through their sale [Entäusserung], their exchange for other commodities. Appropriation through sale is the fundamental form of the social system of production, of which exchange value appears as the simplest, most abstract expression. The use value of the commodity is presupposed, not for its owner, but rather for the society generally. (Just as a Manchester family of factory workers, where the children stand in the exchange relation towards their parents and pay them room and board, does not represent the traditional economic organization of the family, so is the system of modern private exchange not the spontaneous economy of societies. Exchange begins not between the individuals within a community, but rather at the point where the communities end — at their boundary, at the point of contact between different communities. Communal property has recently been rediscovered as a special Slavonic curiosity. But, in fact, India offers us a sample chart of the most diverse forms of such economic communities, more or less dissolved, but still completely recognizable; and a more thorough research into history uncovers it as the point of departure of all cultured peoples. The system of production founded on private exchange is, to begin with, the historic dissolution of this naturally arisen communism. However, a whole series of economic systems lies in turn between the modern world, where exchange value dominates production to its whole depth and extent, and the social formations whose foundation is already formed by the dissolution of communal property, without

[Here the manuscript breaks off.]

It will not be until the second edition of Capital that Marx settles upon the specific presentation of the distinction between value and exchange-value that I have analysed in the detail in my thesis. (For exhaustive comparisons of Capital’s various editions, see Hans Ehrbar’s site.)

In 1857, however, Marx begins – not with the bifurcated commodity – not with the real abstraction of value – but with material production. We can see already, in this beginning, the struggle to assert that this starting point is historically and socially specific, in spite of the apparent transhistoricity of the category.

Marx’s first gloss on the term “material production” is “Individuals producing in Society”. He immediately qualifies that individuals are not an a priori given, but rather an historical result – the product of many past developments, but misrecognised as an originary starting point for historical development. This misrecognition – a projection of historical results back into prehistory – is itself peculiarly ahistorical at this moment in the text. All times, Marx suggests, make this kind of projection from the historical results they find ready to hand:

Smith and Ricardo still stand with both feet on the shoulders of the eighteenth-century prophets, in whose imaginations this eighteenth-century individual – the product on one side of the dissolution of the feudal forms of society, on the other side of the new forces of production developed since the sixteenth century – appears as an ideal, whose existence they project into the past. Not as a historic result but as history’s point of departure. As the Natural Individual appropriate to their notion of human nature, not arising historically, but posited by nature. This illusion has been common to each new epoch to this day.

By Capital, even projections back onto prehistory have their historical index – even illusions have their differentia specifica. At this earlier point, Marx is still wrestling with the historicity of his own categories: this illusion is common to all new epochs – but not this exact illusion – Marx qualifies – the illusion of individuals as originary requires a very specific historical constellation.

This leads him to qualify his opening sentence: our object is material production – but, when we speak of this, we don’t mean the sort of socially general, transhistorical category this term implies:

Whenever we speak of production, then, what is meant is always production at a definite stage of social development

This attempt to locate the concept doesn’t feel quite right either. It implies the need to talk about historical origins, to declare upfront the social specificity of the category (and we all know from Capital how very far Marx is capable of taking his intense reluctance to declare his presuppositions up front…). Marx’s reluctance to make the dogmatic declaration – to presuppose or declare a priori that his analysis will be historically bounded – leads him to point out that it’s an empirical matter, really, what aspects of production are historically specific:

Still, this general category, this common element sifted out by comparison, is itself segmented many times over and splits into different determinations. Some determinations belong to all epochs, others only to a few. [Some] determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient. No production will be thinkable without them

This still doesn’t satisfy. Marx retreats immediately to emphasising the historical element, which forms the “essential difference”:

however even though the most developed languages have laws and characteristics in common with the least developed, nevertheless, just those things which determine their development, i.e. the elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity – which arises already from the identity of the subject, humanity, and of the object, nature – their essential difference is not forgotten.

This formulation suggests that what is historical is precisely what is not general – and that the historicising move, therefore – the move that would grasp the “essential difference” – is the move that picks out the particular, and discards the general and common elements that can be found in diverse eras. The problem with political economy, Marx says here, is that it mixes up the particular and the general – it gets the general wrong – it projects the particular back onto epochs in which it cannot be found.

He thinks here about the ways in which production can be particular, and arrives at two sorts of particularity: the particularity of different sorts of production within a time (different branches of industry); and the particularity of a time itself, encompassing the various branches that mesh together at a given moment to form a totality. Both forms of particularity are contrasted with “production in general”.

The political economists seek general preconditions of production, but what they find are simple tautologies. Marx argues that this result arises because their aim is in fact not to derive such general principles, but rather to demonstrate that bourgeois relations are grounded in timeless natural law. Abstract away enough from the particular form of production characteristic of our own moment, and you can find characteristics so inextricably bound to production that they can be treated as intrinsic requirements. Declare, reductively, that these intrinsic requirements are the essential core of contemporary production – and the slide quickly to the conclusion that contemporary production therefore manifests the essential core of production as such.

Marx tries to turn now from this first pass at working out how his own categories contrast with those of political economy. His instinct tells him that the difference relates to the level of historical specificity of the categories – but has the preceding discussion captured what the political economists miss?

He introduces new categories: exchange, consumption. These hold his attention for some pages, but the original problem still nags: how are his own categories indexed to history – and how are the categories of political economy not – particularly when he is wielding categories like “production”, “exchange”, and “consumption” – which on their face sound like transhistorical terms?

I’ve previously analysed the section titled “The Method of Political Economy” (among many other places on the blog here, and also buried midway through this thesis chapter), and I won’t repeat that detailed discussion again. I write this post instead to place that discussion in the context of the earlier sections of this introduction. It is with this section that Marx finally begins to place his problem on the terrain he will continue to develop through the writing of Capital: the terrain of real abstraction.

In this section, it is possible to watch Marx pivot to a more sophisticated understanding of an impulse that must initially be seen as more visceral than explicitly reasoned through: he claims his categories are historically specific, but rejects the option of using categories that, because they are concrete seem more self-evidently historically-bounded – something seems right to him about holding on to the abstraction. He starts out in this section – as in the passages analysed above – trying to rationalise the appeal of abstract categories on empiricist grounds: ultimately, there simply are certain things that transcend historical epochs, and so general categories are important to capture these things. As above, he can’t resist the impulse immediately to qualify his own argument, delving into details and exceptions, asking himself questions, and answering himself “That depends”.

Then he finds his way to the category of labour. Here is where he finally hits it. “Labour” as a category encompassing all sorts of variegated human activity is – precisely in its abstractness – a quintessentially modern category. It is only with a rich development of the division of labour, the experience of mobility across forms of labour, a level of practical indifference to specific labouring activities in some dimension of social practice, that this category achieves what Marx here calls a “practical truth as an abstraction”. This is the issue – this will continue to be the issue, even after Marx decides to replace “material production” with the “commodity” as his starting point: the analysis of material production now requires an analysis of abstractions. Not abstractions that arise in the head. Not abstractions that can be reasoned out by looking at many societies across time, and asking what they all have in common. But abstractions that we produce as social realities…

Getting late here now, and I have an early start, so enough on this for tonight… I’ve analysed this passage in enough detail in earlier posts that it’s likely better to point back to those in any event…

Apologies for the long silences on the blog this term. It’s been extraordinarily hectic, in ways that will likely still take a while to resolve. I’ve been missing the space, though, and hope to be more active online soon.

Thesis Workshop: With What Must the Thesis Begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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Thesis Workshop: Introduction – Historical Materialism and Real Abstraction

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

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

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

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Thesis Workshop: What a Piece of Work Is Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another thesis chapter in the series that focusses on Capital‘s third chapter. This chapter spends quite a lot of time using the new material Marx is providing to take a much closer look at the opening categories of value and abstract labour. It also explores the implications of some brief comments Marx makes about “real contradictions”. These comments are methodologically quite important: they indicate that, when Marx unfolds – as he continues to do throughout Capital – new forms whose implications “contradict” those of earlier forms, he does not understand the new stage of his analysis to have superseded the earlier analysis. To state it crudely: like Hegel, Marx rejects the notion that, when two things contradict, one of those things must be wrong. Pointing to contradictions, however, can be useful as a means of establishing the boundedness and limitations of particular interpretations of social experience – a point that is stated more clearly below than I can do so in brief here. Marx’s early statements about contradiction also begin to make clear that the existence of “social contradictions” does not, by itself, point beyond the existing form of social life – although such contradictions can make it easier to recognise the contingency and artificiality of this form of social life in specific ways. Much more on this below, plus – as always – a systematic move through the underbrush of the text.

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

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Thesis Workshop: How Does Essence Appear?

I’m going to be in transit for the next couple of days, with very limited net access, and so won’t be able to respond to comments or mails. This and the next couple of thesis chapter posts have been queued, so if the blog does its job, they’ll keep trundling their way into the world in my absence.

This chapter is part of a set of three that spends a possibly inordinate amount of time unpacking the implications of the complex third chapter of Capital, in which Marx undertakes an extensive deconstructive analysis of money – exploring all the various ways in which this “single” object takes on different roles, and as a result comes to carry radically different meanings, implications and consequences for practice. This chapter is perhaps the single best example of how Marx consistently under-signposts what he is trying to achieve when he makes specific argumentative moves. There is an enormous amount of work being done in Capital‘s third chapter – something you might guess by the sheer length of the thing, but which can be difficult to tell when actually reading the text, because Marx relentlessly refuses to pause and draw out the implications on his own. Often, he’ll point out several chapters later that he sees himself to have made a specific point in an earlier chapter; he rarely emphasises the significance of his argumentative moves at the time, for reasons I’ve explained in chapter 4 of the thesis. Understanding the reasons, however, doesn’t make the practice less frustrating… This is why a single chapter of Capital can blow out into three chapters of my thesis: I provide the signposts Marx should have, but didn’t…

This thesis chapter, as you would guess from the title, focusses a lot of its time and energy on Marx’s use of Hegel’s vocabulary of essence and appearance. The idealist loan words and style of expression often manage to conceal the fact that Marx means pretty much the exact opposite of what the text intuitively seems to be saying: when Marx talks about an essence (like value) expressing itself in a form of appearance (like price), this sounds as if value is an external causal factor, driving the play of appearances. What Marx means is very different: essences are essences of their forms of appearance – it is the play of appearance that constitutes an essence as an immanent pattern that emerges in the transformation of appearances over time. Honest. Trust me. Scout’s honour.

All this – and a lot of textual interpretation – below the fold…

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

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Thesis Workshop: Personifying Commodities

Okay. Now we get to the new stuff. The argument put forward in this and the remaining chapters, although it has been discussed on the blog in somewhat abstract terms from time to time, will probably seem at least somewhat new – and at the very least much more fully developed than what I have been able to post here before. This chapter begins to unfold what might seem a somewhat counter-intuitive interpretation of moments in Marx’s text where he writes as though he is reducing other phenomena to an economic or material dimension of social experience that he finds more ontologically fundamental – as though he is making a sort of metaphysical claim about the primacy of the economic. My reading of these passages is that they are attempts to make a very different sort of claim – a claim that is very specific to capitalism, and that attempts to pick out the distinctive qualitative characteristics of a form of sociality that Marx regards as unique to capitalist societies. But better to let those who are curious click through to the actual argument, which makes the case as well as I know how – and will therefore make it better than what I could summarise here.

One funny aspect of drafting and re-drafting: I’ve done a number of essentially stylistic revisions since I got the whole argument roughly into the form I was after. I find it interesting the way my evaluation of chapters changes due to the uneven periodisation of the revision process. This chapter, for example, came out of the original drafting process relatively cleaner and clearer than the other chapters. As a consequence, I’ve been focussing my editing energy on those other chapters, and only very slightly revising this one. So now, doing one further edit tonight, I’m finding myself mildly disappointed in this chapter, because the others have (I think…) now been edited into forms that surpass it… More editing to come I guess… ;-P In any event, I think the chapter is in an adequate state to post it here…

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

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