Rough Theory

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Irony and Totality

Another fragment of offline writing re-posted here – this one’s potentially quite rough and ready, and in need of double-checking with the texts to which I refer, so read with all due caution, etc.


The notion that Capital has certain “literary” features is neither new nor uncommon. As Wolff (1988) notes, however, until very recently such analyses have generally been put forward by scholars who lacked a social theoretic background, and who could therefore point out literary tropes, but not explain what substantive social theoretic purpose these tropes might serve. In this category falls, for example, the impressionistic and somewhat breathless argument by Sypher (1948: 438) that that Capital should be understood as an example of a common Victorian literary trope of melodrama:

Philosophically, the work is not melodrama; aesthetically it is… Capital is a dramatic poem, or possibly a dramatic epic. Its great economic themes are treated chorally, with all the strophic progress of the ode and all the rhythmic stress of an ironic injustice committed against the masses. If we are not distracted by the superficial diffusion of the book, its elaborate and energetic logic and its accumulation of evidence, we see that its concealed structure is mythical.

Sypher captures the theatrical character of the work – and also suggests, as I often have, that the Hegelian dialectic is in some sense the target of the critique (441-42), but proposes no substantive reason for Capital to adopt a particular literary form, other than that melodrama was purportedly a common form of presentation at the time Marx was writing.

Wilson (1972: 191) argues that “Marx and Engels have been inadequately appreciated as writers”, foregrounds the artistic character of Capital (338), and insists that “Marx became one of the great masters of satire. Marx is certainly the greatest ironist since Swift, and he has a good deal in common with him” (340). Like Sypher, however, Wilson cannot identify a substantive argumentative reason for Capital to have been structured as a satirical work, and so ends up searching about for idiosyncratic psychological motives. Thus he explains the sardonic character of the text by arguing that “Marx had the satanic genius of the satirist: his jeers are the true expressions of his nature” – a “relentless misanthropy” – “and for this reason they are often effective” (301).

Hyman (1974: 143-45) offers an acute and insightful reading of the dramatic structure of Capital – understanding the work as a play, and dividing it into acts, much as I will also do in reinterpreting the dramatic structure of the work. Hyman interprets this dramatic structure, however, as evidence that Capital should be read “not as science, social science, or exhortation, but as imaginative literature” (133) – following Sypher in claiming that the literary form is that of Victorian melodrama (146). This perceived conflict – the purported incompatability between Capital’s “literary” character and its status as “serious” social theory – undermines Hyman’s ability to grasp the substantive points being made in and through some of the presentational strategies Hyman accurately identifies.

The first serious social theoretic attempt to analyse Capital’s presentational strategy as an integral part of its substantive argument was Wolff’s (1988: 4) short work Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, which begins with an account of the author’s reaction to Capital’s “bitterly satirical language quite unlike anything I had encountered elsewhere in political philosophy or the social sciences”. Unlike the earlier, more strictly “literary” analyses of Capital, Wolff sees a substantive social theoretic purpose in Capital’s presentational strategies. He argues: “Marx’s literary style constitutes a deliberate attempt to find a philosophically appropriate language for expressing the ontological structure of the social world” (20). Wolff’s brief treatment of the relation of style and content in Capital zooms far above the surface of Marx’s text, however, leaving the fine-grained analysis of how Capital makes substantive points through distinctive literary strategies as a task for future scholars.

These initial treatments of Capital’s dramatic structure were isolated works, not part of a broader overarching conversation about Marx’s literary techniques. In the past fifteen years, however, there has been a burst of interest in using the techniques traditionally associated with literary theory to cast light on Marx’s substantive claims, from both literary and social theorists. Derrida perhaps helped to spark this interest by providing a controversial deconstructive critique in Specters of Marx (1994), a work which both inspired imitations and provoked criticism from those who felt the reading misrepresented Marx’s theory. In 1997, Keenan produced a brilliant reinterpretation of the opening chapter of Capital, in particular highlighting the way in which the opening chapter loops back on itself, destabilising the earlier sections that had initially appeared as static “definitional” claims. In 1998 (24-28, 63-66), Carver called for greater attention to the “textual surface” of Marx’s argument and highlighted the way in which the text positions social actors as characters who are not fully exhausted by any specific role the text shows them to play. In 2007 (75-76), Wheen published a “biography” of Capital in which he argued that the text must be read with close attention to voice, tone, and dramatic genre, and homes in on the primary substantive concern driving the various literary gestures: “To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx’s text is saturated with irony – an irony which has escaped most scholars for 140 years”. In 2008, Sutherland mounted a convincing case for détournement in Capital’s opening chapter, accompanied by a scathing critique of Marxist theory for attempting to reduce Marx’s claims to a list of theoretical “contents” abstracted from the style in which those claims had originally been put forward. In Sutherland’s words:

Marx has been read, and continues now to be read, as though his thinking had nothing to do with literariness and with style, not at least in any radical sense… The most important way in which the meaning of Marx’s is transformed, not only by his translators, but likewise and as though collaboratively by current literary theorists, is through their elimination of satire from Capital. (6)

Two earlier works, not yet mentioned in the survey above, deserve particular attention in relation to the reading I have been developing: John Seery’s (1990) Political Returns, and Dominick LaCapra’s (1983) Rethinking Intellectual History. Neither of these works is focussed solely on Marx. Both, however, present interpretations that prefigure important aspects of my own argument – in particular, the claim that Capital needs to be read as a self-deconstructing text that puts forward positions that it then destabilises. I want to dwell for a moment on their arguments here.

Seery provides a detailed analysis of the foreword for Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which addresses the problem of how philosophy is possible after Hegel (243). According to Seery, the answer Marx provides is that philosophy is possible after Hegel – if it assumes an ironic form (244-45). Seery traces the way in which this theme plays itself out in subterranean form in Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the difference between Democritus’ more deterministic materialism, and Epicurus’ variant of materialism, which accommodates the potential for a “swerve” that deviates from strict determination (245-49). Seery then argues:

The foreword begins with the question of how it is at all possible to philosophize after Hegel’s total triumph, how, as it were, one can ‘swerve’ from Hegelianism. Traditionally, scholars have interpreted the young Marx as still enraptured at this time with Hegel and Hegelianism, and they have read Marx’s dissertation as an attempt ‘to fill in lacunae in Hegel’s system,’ or else to find a way to put Hegelianism into practice (as a benign resolution to his schoolboy Oedipalism). I suggest, however, that a careful reading of the foreword along with the dissertation reveals that Marx is thoroughly distancing himself from Hegel while at the same time he is informing us that his alternative stance will nonetheless resemble Hegelianism in outward form: a double stance, which cannot be reduced to the epigonal anxiety of a typical young Hegelian. (250)

I have written previously on Marx’s complex relation to Hegel in Capital – Seery’s analysis suggests a very similar understanding of that relationship, foreshadowed in Marx’s doctoral thesis. In Seery’s interpretation, Marx’s citation of the forms of Hegel’s work, the parallels between Hegel’s method and his own, needs to be understood in a deeply ironic light – as a similarity formed at a fundamental level by a desire to effect a fundamental internal transformation of Hegel’s system, while outwardly appearing consistent with Hegel’s method.

Seery argues that Marx’s embrace of irony is a specific response to the question of how we can escape from totalising philosophies:

In particular, Marx wishes to show why, in the wake of totalizing philosophies, it is necessary for the subjective form of philosophy to wear ‘disguises’ and ‘character masks’; why Plato employs myths and Epicurus endorses the principle of repulsion; and why, by extension, Marx will apparently embrace Hegelianism…

In other words, in order to philosophize after Hegel, in order to ‘live at all after a total philosophy,’ Marx is saying that we need ‘ironists,’ or those who are able to break with totalizing views of reality, and then can act on their own, like the self-initiating motion of Epicurus’ swerving atom. But because Hegel’s triumph is so encompassing, according to Marx, post-Hegelian ironists will need to couch their subjective philosophies in Hegelian terminology, nonetheless. (250-51)

Seery thus finds in Marx an anti-totalising impulse, ironically expressed in the rhetoric of a totalising philosophy. In my reinterpretation of Capital, I put forward textual evidence for a very similar claim, but in more social theoretic form. If the early Marx was striving to break away from the dominance of a seemingly omnipresent totalising philosophical discourse, the later Marx confronts a social system that, seen from certain angles, can seem totalising, not just in discourse, but in reality. In both cases, Marx opts for irony as his critical tool of choice, as the technique by which he expresses the possibility for the “swerve” that will burst apart the totality apart from within.

As a presentational strategy, however, irony can have strange effects on the reader’s experience of the text – particularly when, as is the case in Capital, the technique is not explicitly announced in advance. As Seery (1990: 253) notes:

…compounding the problem of discovering Marx’s ‘ironic’ outlook is that Marx would be, according to his dissertation, an ironist on the sly, a writer who conceals his ironic view of things. Is all hope lost of pinning Marx down?

Seery (253) goes on to recommend the sorts of reading strategies that would be required:

I suggest that we can discern Marx’s ‘irony’ by indirection, by disclosing its deep presence through elimination, by smoking it out of hiding: For unless we attribute a buried form of irony to Marx’s language, we cannot make complete sense of his ‘early’ writings. Or to put it more positively: Only by crediting Marx with an ironic, self-critical, partially detached, performative understanding of the function of his own language can we provide an answer to the questions left over from Rose’s analysis of The German Ideology [a work which Seery has used as a foil for his analysis].

The same reading strategies, LaCapra suggests, are required for Capital – a point he attempts to demonstrate through what he calls a “fictionalized reconstruction of the ‘phenomenology’ of reading Capital” (1983: 332).

In this reconstruction, LaCapra notes that the way readers approach Capital’s opening passages generally determines how they understand the claims made in the rest of the text (332). When these passages are read as straightforward definitional claims, this colours the reader’s impression of the other claims that follow, leading to the sorts of literal interpretations I have outlined in previous posts. In LaCapra’s words:

Reading these opening sections for the first time, one is struck by the seemingly abstract delineation of concepts to analyze the commodity form (use value, exchange value, abstract labour power, and so on). Marx seems to conform to the image of the pure scientist, indeed the theorist who, in the afterword to the second German edition, seems to invert Hegel by collapsing positivism and the dialectic into a purely objectivist notion of the laws of motion of the capitalist economy. A positivistic dialectic appears to be revealed as ‘the rational kernel within the mystical shell’. The first three sections of the principal text also seem to fall neatly within this ‘problematic’. (333)

LaCapra suggests, however, that as the text progresses, it calls into question this first impression – starting, in LaCapra’s read, with the section on the fetish character of the commodity, which:

… causes a rupture in the text and disorients one’s expectations about it. One is led to reread the earlier sections in its light and to notice the evidence of ‘double-voicing’ or of ‘internal dialogization’ operating to disfigure their seemingly placid positivistic façade. (333)

LaCapra goes on to highlight a number of the same ironic textual gestures I have also highlighted in my various discussions of Capital‘s opening chapter. To avoid repetition, I will not review his specific reactions here. What I want to note here is that LaCapra’s “heuristic” observations on the reader’s experience of the text are very close to the reading strategy I have suggested is most productive in confronting Capital: I have argued that reading Capital requires an iterative strategy that involves the constant re-evaluation of earlier claims in light of new perspectives introduced later in the text. This process helps bring into view what LaCapra calls double-voicing and sensitises the reader to the presence of internal dialogues as a way of making sense of the complex presentational strategy playing out in the main text. In the process, it becomes easier to see how apparently firm ontological distinctions that are put forward in the opening passages of Capital are progressively destabilised and unsettled as the text moves forward.

The In-Ourself

Okay. Labour power. Inversion. How does this inversion retroject itself onto the opening passages of Capital, transforming our understanding of what we thought we knew at that moment in the text? Just as important: how does what was already said at that early point in the text, interact with the new things that we think we know now about the centrality of the “peculiar commodity” of labour power?

It’s funny: I wrote this post – in my head, not yet in text – last night, thinking about Nate – about some of his writings, and some of our conversations – while I was composing. I woke this morning to find that, as if this imaginary dialogue had actually taken place, Nate had responded overnight to yesterday’s post on labour power. Many of Nate’s comments speak to what I’m trying to write here, but since I was writing in relation to retrojected-Nate, from past conversations, rather than in relation to this-morning-Nate, from his current post, this may result in a strange collection of overlaps and offsets between what I’m writing below, and what Nate has just written. At any rate: go read his post, which is relevant to what I’m writing here, even if I haven’t done justice to that relevance in this post. Among Nate’s reflections are comments about the experience of reading Marx – reading, not interpreting. And among those comments is the following, which just expresses so well how I have come to read Marx and other forms of complex theory, that I have to reproduce it, before I move into the topic of this post. Nate writes:

Maybe what this really boils down to is that we shouldn’t read Capital so much as re-read it. (This was my approach when I was reading Capital for the first time, as well as other difficult material – come to think of it, pretty much all German stuff … Kant, Marx, Hegel, Habermas … weird … I guess I later started applying this elsewhere. What I tried to do and sometimes still do though less rigorously/vigorously, was to never give up on reading, specifically by initially committing at a minimum to looking at all the words, rather than committing to understanding. After looking at all the words I could at least go back to the text in discussion, more than I could if I hadn’t looked at all the words, then actually read it, and afterward re-read it.)

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Now… What was I thinking about last night again? Something about commodities as things… things later revealed to be human… humans, however, that have already been revealed as things – as material objects onto which contingent social circumstances are projected – humans that remain determined as material bearers of an immaterial essence of value… Humans whose materiality – whose thingliness – is counterintuitively shown to be their distinctive form of socialisation under capitalism… The inversion that results from the introduction of the category of labour power is a far more potent inversion even than it first appears: in this category, it is not simply use value and exchange value that come to be inverted, not simply freedom and constraint – society and nature are inverted as well. Capitalism is shown to involve a distinctive practice of self as material object – as physical, biological life that is then socialised into some contingent form: the physical determinations of labour power that permeate Capital – abstract labour as the expenditure of so much quantity of nerves, muscles, and physical energy – this determination, in spite of appearances, is a social determination – this naturality, this materiality, is not the stripping away of social determination to reveal a persistent material substratum underneath: it is a specific, historically-emergent, positive form of socialisation under capitalism – Nature is the new Society… What is most distinctively socially determining of capitalism, adopts the perfect disguise – a cloak of physicality, a material veil – and thus intuitively seems not to be social at all… Let’s see if I can pick up that thread…

Okay. The commodity is introduced as a “thing outside us”. Intuitively – with intuitions encouraged by the examples (linen, coats) that Marx uses in the text – with intuitions also undermined by many marginal gestures that Marx makes along the way – but, intuitively, when Capital opens, we think we are talking about things. The subject matter is the wealth of capitalist societies – and this wealth presents itself initially in a particular way – as a vast accumulation of empirically-sensible stuff that can be grasped in terms of its (transhistorical, essential, material substance) use value and its (contingent, extrinsic form) exchange value. We learn fairly quickly that we need to look beyond the empirically-sensible, to a supersensible realm where categories of value and abstract labour operate – categories that we are initially tempted to see as themselves essences lurking behind a realm of empirical appearances to which they are only contingently connected. And then we visit an inverted world, where we begin to appreciate the connections – the relations – that bind the realm of appearance necessarily to this realm of essence: we are in train, at this point, to understanding how a particular sort of essence could be constituted from a specific kind of appearance – how everyday practices that are not intentionally aiming to constitute some sort of social essence, might constitute such an essence nevertheless.

All of this, however, operates within the ambit of the claim that commodities are “things outside us”. Things that, being passive objects, enter into social relations with one another, through the agency of their owners. Things whose collective relations then relate the owners themselves – connecting people through the mediation of objects. The type of connection being effected here is more than the material connection established by the social metabolism involved in any circulation of goods and services: an immaterial connection – a subterranean water table marking the depths and heights of the purely social fluid of value – flows through the social metabolism of material exchange. This immaterial flow has no intrinsic connection with the social metabolism of material distribution – this is part of the critical claim of the text, part of what Marx must establish, to demonstrate the non-utopian character of his critical ideals. Under capitalism, however, this immaterial flow is coterminous with social metabolism – one of various factors that encourages the hypostatisation of characteristics specific to capitalism – one of various factors that encourages people to miss how the immaterial dimensions of capitalism are not secret essences of material reproduction as such – the intertwining of these characteristics with material reproduction now, makes it difficult to see how these characteristics are not intertwined with material reproduction in some essential and intrinsic way.

The text has already introduced several layers of complexity, then, before the category of labour power is introduced. The movement from empirical, to transcendental, to dialectical – and then to something else, to whatever the unnamed perspective is, that enables the practical constitution of the fetish to be grasped – these movements already give the reader a taste of a text that will recurrently destabilise its own overt claims. The empiricist voice that opens Capital sounds confident in its articulation – so does the transcendental voice that follows – and the dialectical. The movement of the text is not so much to contradict these voices – not so much to dismiss them as errors. Instead, the movement is more like that of taking something that asserts itself as a foundation – as a firm point on which we can stand – and violently ejecting it into a dynamic environment: all these voices have something in them of truth – as long as truth is understood as something intrinsically and inevitably in motion. A truth for now. A truth for here. A truth that provides a platform wide and stable enough to stand on for some purposes. A truth whose platform borders an abyss into which we can fall, if we mistakenly assume the platform extends too far.

I’ve written about the introduction of the category of labour power elsewhere. Marx derives the category by showing that the standpoint of simple circulation and reproduction unwittingly presuppose it – that it must presuppose it, because it presupposes growth. The equilibrium values of circulation are tacitly indexed to an expanding system: for the commodity to become the socially general form of wealth – for the social contract imaginary of a society of commodity producers and exchangers to become a socially plausible just-so story – a constant transfer of new and ever-expanding productive energies are required. However much the process of circulation ratifies the success of such growth, the circulation of what already is, cannot increase the volume of what is circulated – a society as a whole does not increase the total volume of its wealth by thieving from itself in aggregate. Some new source of productive energy is required. The category of labour power captures this productive energy that enables the whole to expand.

The wealth in question, however, is not material wealth. That tends to increase too – but structurally, in terms of the argument put forward in Capital, the increase in material wealth is a side effect – a consequence of material wealth’s distinctive social role as a bearer of value. Value is the invisible and secret coin of the realm – well disguised in the visible scrabble over the empirically-sensible proxies of use value and exchange value, which empiricist sensibilities take to be the stakes of the capitalist social game. Value flows through these empirically-sensible entities, but is not minted from them – but rather from labour power alone. As the secret within a secret, the labour power constitutive of value is itself not empirically-sensible – it is abstract labour – what Marx will sometimes call “directly social” labour – labour that has been socially ratified to enable it to count as labour – a retroactive judgement of the unconscious action of the whole of society on each of its members, determining what sorts and intensities of empirical labour are treated in collective practice as possessing “value”.

The argument here is circular – tautological – and deliberately so: it is an attempt to capture an immanent qualitative characteristic of a runaway form of production become an end in itself, rather than an attempt to capture an external factor that “causes” production to assume a certain form – the category of value is an attempt to characterise clearly what we are doing, rather than an attempt to specify an independent variable that causes us to do it. Capital will discuss the forms of coercion – personal and impersonal – that tend to generate “value” as an aggregate result. At this point in the text, however, this level of analysis remains largely unspecified.

I’ve talked about all of this elsewhere – no doubt not enough, and without sufficient clarity. Nevertheless, this is revision, and not what I am trying to think about today. A diversion, as I avoid writing about things I find harder to say.

What I am trying to write about – what I am avoiding writing about – is the ricochet that takes place once the category of labour power is introduced as a pivot category that inverts our sense of what was being discussed earlier in the text. When the category of the commodity is introduced, use value and exchange value are determined as externally and contingently related: use value is specified as an intrinsic and transhistorical material substance, and exchange value is specified as a contingent social form that is projected onto this material substance. The implication here is that the substance is eternal, while the form is ephemeral – a move that would position circulation as the appropriate target for political contestation (since it is circulation – the arbitrary and contingent form – that is here positioned as able to change over time), while cordoning off production as a timeless and essential material requirement that must perpetually be reproduced.

One of Capital’s central critical targets, of course, is the compulsive reproduction of production – specifically, of human labour as a component and motive force of production – the binding together of human labour and material reproduction, no matter how great the growth in the science and technology as motive forces for the production of material wealth. The category of value is the category of this tendency – the category that gives a name, a label, to this trend to produce new forms of human labour, as older forms are automated away: Marx insists that value is constituted by human labour power alone, because value as a category is intended to give a voice to this unintentional trend toward the compulsive reproduction of the need to expend human labour time, no matter the heights of productivity. This is why he becomes so impatient with people who argue over whether nature plays some role in the constitution of value: how could it? “Value” is a term for a social drive to reproduce human labour – and nature, as Marx insists with some exasperation, has nothing to do with this historically unique social drive…

One of the distinctions that becomes inverted with the introduction of the category of labour power is the use value/exchange value distinction: the use value of the “peculiar commodity” of labour power, is to generate value – substance and form – now understood as the historically unique substances and forms specific to capitalist society – no longer appear extrinsic and contingently connected to one another, but instead intrinsically related. Which doesn’t mean that these categories aren’t also distinct – their mutual-implicatedness is not the same as their seamless identity – they are united in a tense and uncertain dynamic relation.

Subject and object also become inverted: the pivot category of the commodity – the “thing outside us” – is now revealed to rely on a peculiar commodity that is a subject, a person. But what conclusion are we meant to draw from this? That the opening categories do not apply to those peculiar commodities that happen to be people? I think not quite. Rather, we have to re-read the opening passages as determinations – we can now see – of distinctive forms of embodiment and practices of self that become widely available as possibilities within social practice with the development of capitalism.

The sale of labour power on the market is a strange thing. The labourer doesn’t sell themselves entire – this would be slavery. (It is perhaps appropriate to flag here that Marx will destabilise and invert this distinction, too: the later sections of volume 1 provide a number of examples of how the system of “free labour” results in modern slavery – particularly within families, as parents act as the brokers for the labour of their children who cannot contract for themselves, but also within work gangs – and workhouses – and the dimensions of the capitalist world market where the hard coercion of the state is freely wielded to constitute a labour force… The system of “free labour” presupposes its own inverted forms of “unfree labour” – labour that is unfree even according to the immanent standards generated by this system – as well…) The labourer instead sells a part of themselves – a capacity – specifically, their capacity for labour.

In a sense, then, the commodity labour power remains a “thing” – something objectified from its owner, who brings this thing to market. And yet this form of objectification is a self-objectification: it implicates a distinctive sort of internal bifurcation in the labourer’s socialised practice of themselves. Labourers enact themselves as agentive owners exerting their will against passive objects – passive objects that are, however, their own capacities, bound and inseparable to them, yet bifurcated and objectified – alienable and yet ineradicably their own. (All of this doesn’t get into the various levels of analysis around the conditions of agency for the working classes in the conditions where their distinctive form of “freedom” renders both plausible and necessary forms of collective self-assertion, in order for agency to be effectively asserted in conditions where the presupposition of the labourers’ “freedom” of contract, is their simultaneous “freedom” from the means of subsistence. For present purposes, I leave this issue to one side – not because it is unimportant, but because I am trying to tease out the argument about forms of embodiment – and the bifurcated or perhaps trifurcated form of embodiment tacitly being mapped out in the first chapter of Capital, in passages where the text appears only to be discussing “things outside us”.)

So if the “peculiar commodity” of labour power is retrojected back into the opening discussion of the commodity from the first chapter, we arrive at a complex discussion of a social enactment or performance of self – in at least one slice of collectively-available experience in a capitalist context. By implication, this performance of self also has its empiricist, transcendental, and dialectical dimensions. We enact ourselves as material things – use values – use values, not for ourselves (since, separated from the means of subsistence, our own capacity for labour is strangely not useful for us), but for the capitalist. A part of ourselves interests us for its exchange value – a necessary condition of which is its usefulness for another: our labour – always, concretely, some specific kind of labour, the range of things we have been trained or have the capacity to do, and therefore always, concretely, something that might not be useful for someone else – that might not be able to realise itself as an exchange value, because the labour market is flooded with “use values” like us, use values that cannot realise themselves in use, if they cannot realise themselves in exchange.

We enact our own capacities – and not just the traits of objects outside ourselves – as material bearers of exchange value. We enact our own capacities as objects outside ourselves. We perform ourselves as internally divided, as ghosts in our own physical machines – collectively enacting, as a distinctive positive, constructed, social concern, our capacity to expend, as Marx will often phrase it, so much of a quantum of brains, muscles, nerves… Marx’s recourse to this physicalist description of abstract labour is often taken as though Marx is drawing attention to some material invariant – physical human labour. This interpretation misses the thrust of Marx’s argument, which is that this “physical” determination of human capacities – the sensitivity we presently find intuitive, the ease with which we presently conceptualise ourselves as material bodiesthis is social. The physical determination of the human under capitalism, contrary to appearances, is not a conception that arises when we strip away social determinations, leaving our materiality and physicality behind. Quite the contrary, this physical determination is precisely a social determination – a specific and determinate way we enact ourselves in one slice of social practice in a capitalist context.

So that is the machine. The human machine of nerves, muscles, brains, sinews… There is more to this determination – to understanding the qualitative attributes that we intuitively attribute to these forms of materiality – than I can outline here. This post is pure gesture – I’ll have to follow the point at a later time.

But for present purposes, just a quick note that the machine has its ghost: the “transcendental” voice marks out a distinctive form of embodiment, a distinctive collective practice of self, as well. Value flows through us as well – a secret social substance in which we participate – through which we learn how much we, too, get to “count”. This experience – the Durkheimian soul of capital – marks out a supersensible unity of humanity – a unity of mutual coercion – but a unity nevertheless. A dimension of social practice in which a secret identity and equality and homogeneity flows through us, in spite of all empirically-sensible differences: a practical basis for the experience of a common human nature, misrecognised and fetishised as something inherent, rather than something constituted – natural rights, natural justice, natural laws: the children of the fetish, although no less socially explosive for all that.

I’m flagging. And I’m also not expressing any of this well… Just trying to gear up for what I’ll need to write, fumbling toward what I mean… Apologies for the murk… As with the early posts on the fetish, I hope to become clearer and more adequate over time…

I haven’t edited this – haven’t so much as glanced back it… Too tired to do so now… Apologies…

Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey

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

Conversations on Textual Strategy

I am absolutely buried at the moment, but I thought I would belatedly post a pointer to an energetic discussion still unfolding over at Larval Subjects on the question of the necessity of “difficult writing” in certain kinds of philosophical texts. From the original post:

Hopefully I have enough “cred” to inveigh against “difficult books” (I am, after all, mired in the work of figures such as Deleuze, Lacan, Hegel, etc., who are the worst of the worst), but I have increasingly found myself suspicious of the “difficult work”. On the one hand, I read texts in the sciences that express extremely complex ideas in very basic prose. Somehow I’m just unwilling to concede that what Hegel is trying to talk about is any more difficult or complex than what the biologist, complexity theory, economic social theorist, ecologist, or quantum physicist is attempting to articulate. This leads to my concern. I wonder if terribly dense styles such as we find in figures like Deleuze, Lacan, Hegel, Derrida, etc., etc., etc., aren’t a form of intellectual terrorism. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not referring to the quality of their concepts or arguments. What I am referring to is a general writing strategy that demands so much work on the part of the reader in the art of interpretation, that by the time you’ve managed to make heads or tails of what Lacan is arguing or Hegel is seeking to articulate or Deleuze is seeking to theorize, you have so much invested that you simply cannot think critically about that figure.

The rest of the post, and then the extensive discussion that follows, open interesting questions around the ways in which particular kinds of writing cultivate, or fail to cultivate, particular reading experiences and affective attachments to authors. Adam has also weighed in at An und für sich with a gloss on the original post:

I have some reservations about the recent Larval Subjects post about “difficult” books, but I think that, in part, it points toward a real phenomenon — one that I call “academic Stockholm Syndrome.” We’ve all seen it before: an academic invests great energy and undergoes profound suffering in the attempt to grasp a particularly difficult thinker and, upon succeeding, spends the rest of his or her career thoroughly identified with that thinker.

“Academic Stockholm Syndrome” sounds like it might not be a bad phrase to pick out a structural risk of a number of dimensions of academic training…

I’ve posted briefly in the discussion at Larval Subjects, before other commitments overwhelmed my blogging time. I wanted at least to put up a pointer for those who haven’t already seen the discussion…

Now That’s Gotta Hurt

So Nate’s book meme pointed me back to a work Mike Beggs had recommended to me ages ago – the volume Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism, edited by Diane Elson (1979). As often happens in the midst of PhD research, I had gone through the book really quickly, decided I wanted to go through it more carefully as there’s a lot in it that is potentially valuable for me – and then of course left it sitting by my computer for several months, staring at me, a high enough priority to be the “closest book” to me when Nate’s meme hit – but without quite getting around to doing that more careful read…

It’s really a fantastic collection. I’m meant to be writing on Diane Elson’s piece, which is very good, and which a number of people have mentioned in relation to my work, as she also uses a formulation I tend to use – that Marx is not presenting a “labour theory of value”, but something more like a “value theory of labour”. There are overlaps and also differences of emphasis in our respective arguments – and I will try to write a post on those points of contact and disjunction soon. Now that I’m looking at the book again, though, I’m finding myself drawn to some of the other articles in the collection.

This morning I was looking at Jairus Banaji’s “From the Commodity to Capital: Hegel’s Dialectic in Marx’s Capital“, which sketches a very good account of Marx’s appropriation of Hegel, while sparring along the way with other readings of Marx that fail to recognise the Hegelian subtext. Althusser receives particularly pointed criticism for his suggestion that readers just skip over the first part of Capital on an initial read – a recommendation that, I must admit, does somewhat send the shudders through anyone who reads Capital as an appropriation of the Hegelian concept of “science”. Banaji probably sees Marx as a more consistent Hegelian than I do – and he may well be correct in this view – I’ve tended to read more critical intention into Marx’s use of Hegel’s method, and I also read a stronger practice-theoretic argument about the formation of subjectivity into Marx. So my Marx (to formulate this point quite anachronistically) has a fair bit of Durkheim mixed in with his Hegel. Regardless, Banaji’s article is an excellent presentation of the textual evidence for the “Hegelian” structure of Capital – making very similar arguments about the first chapter, and also casting a quick net over the whole three volumes, which I’ve barely had time to wink at in my writings here. This article does a lot of work in a very short space.

It also – and this, I have to confess, is what actually motivated me to write this post – flings some very funny barbs at opposing readings. This volume as a whole is a bit on the snarky side, and I find myself often laughing at the way the snark bursts out the seams of what are often otherwise fairly careful, well-developed, academic presentations – I find the disjoint very entertaining, even where the barbs occasionally land in my general direction… ;-P But the closing sentence of Banaji’s piece saw me burst out laughing on the tram, coming into work. How’s this for a concluding image:

…one of the most striking manifestations of the underlying crisis in the movement as a whole is the contemporary state of Western Marxism – the ecstatic leap from the uppermost floors of an imposing skyscraper of immobilised dogma to the granite pavements of confused eclecticism. (40)


Bits of Books

Two students browsing in the University of Melbourne bookstore:

First student: “You don’t read books, though?”

Second student: “Not necessarily… You know… just… bits of books…”

Sublated Confusion

Evidently, I take great pleasure in seeing other people confused by the same things that confuse me. In the library today, where I was not doing research on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, I nevertheless kept finding myself in the stacks, near places where works on Hegel were shelved. As I wandered past, titles would distract me, and I found myself opening books to the sections where they tried to explain the section on Force and Understanding. In most cases, the result was a sort of summary – the sort of move where you can tell that an author has simply thrown up their hands at the text and gone, “Right then! There’s no making sense of this. Time to paraphrase!” (Lest this comment appear critical, I’m sympathetic to this strategy and, in context, think it’s an entirely appropriate response…)

My favourite randomly-retrieved comment on the section, though, comes from Robert Pippin’s (1989) Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness, where Pippin provides a very nice account of the strategic intent of the section, but still can’t resist expressing a measure of exasperation at the form in which Hegel presents his argument:

It is at this point that Hegel summarizes both the realist and empiricist theories of account giving by saying that both of them generate the problem of an inverted world. The worlds in question are the “supersensible” and “sensible” worlds, or what we might more generally call the “empirically independent realities of force” and the “empirically undetermined legislation of law,” versus the manifold of sensible appearances. To the extent that such realities and such legislation are empirically independent, they simply invert the sensible world into something else and do not explain it (the classic case being Plato’s forms and Aristotle’s objections); to the extent that they are not independent, to the extent that the empirical manifold is the sole criterion of knowledge, the sensible world “inverts itself,” is unintelligible without the supersensible world (itself already caught on the first horn of the dilemma).

Now, to claim that the “true” world, whether supersensuous or sensuous, turns out to be an inverted world, “really” sensuous or supersensuous, respectively, is quite an unusual way of framing the dilemma described at the start of this section. But despite Hegel’s extreme formulations of the point (the sweet is sour, punishment is revenge, etc.), I think that that dilemma is what Hegel is talking about, and the inverted world section simply generalizes and restates that dilemma in as paradoxical a way as Hegel can devise. But what the reader is totally unprepared for is Hegel’s quite baffling, extremely compressed account of the origin of such a problem and his sudden, equally baffling, shift of topics.

First, he tells us that, given such an inversion, we must

eliminate the idea of fixing the differences in a different sustaining element; and this absolute Notion of the difference must be represented and understood purely as inner difference, a repulsion of the selfsame, from itseld, and likeness of the unlike as unlike. (PhG, 98; PS, 99)

Such language alone should tell us that we are suddenly deep in Hegel’s speculative waters, a fact confirmed by the next sentence: “We have to think pure change, or think antithesis within the antithesis itself, or contradiction.” From here, somehow in the next three pages, Hegel introduces the notions of infinity, life, and the dependence of consciousness on self-consciousness that will dominate much of the rest of the book. In short, this is as important a transition as any in Hegel, and it is unfortunately as opaque as, if not more so, than any other. (pp. 137-138)

Pippin then goes on to try to make some sense of all this – but I figure it’s best to leave all of you in suspense… ;-P (Actually, Pippin suggests looking forward – both the to discussion of self-consciousness around the corner in this work, and also to Book 2 of the Logic – although, to be honest, I was reading through this last night, with the explicit intention of comparing back to the account in Phenomenology, and I’m not certain I think the version in the Logic is much less opaque…)

By the way, for those who have been wondering what happened to the series on Capital, which I was promising to sum up back in December: it has evolved (or at least taken a brief developmental detour) into the recent posts on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Science of Logic. This happened because some aspects of Marx’s argument seemed to require a quick refresher on Hegel. While I’ll obviously keep blogging on Science of Logic (and perhaps also a few more bits and pieces of the Phenomenology), I’m now – I think – ready to go back to some of the Marx material, in order to try to recast some of what I was writing late last year. Hopefully I’ll find the time for that very, very soon. For the moment, I’m obviously just happy to know that the parts of Hegel that are still confusing me, seem to be generally confusing by consensus – such that my particular confusion is apparently but a vanishing moment of a much more universal confusion… ;-P

Coming Unshelved

I’ve been to my university library three times today. It’s about to close for a week for the holidays, and I’m finding myself having panicky, pre-withdrawal, symptoms. I keep anxiously associating to books I’ve been meaning to read, and running down there to check them out. This impulse is generating new, flow-on anxieties. As it happens, several of the books I’ve attempted to check out, aren’t held at this campus, and so have to be recalled from other places: they won’t get here before the break. Some irrational part of myself – evidently certain that, over the next week, I’ll read through the seven books that I’m in the middle of right now, the dozens of other books I’ve had littering my office, untouched, for months, plus all the books I’ve just checked out today – is somehow finding energy for anxiety that I won’t have immediate access to these recalled materials. It’s like part of me is going, but, if you don’t have these exact books, a major breakthrough in your research will, will, er… um… be delayed a week!

The reality is, what I need most to do in the coming months isn’t really to read (although I’ll certainly be doing a fair amount of that, as well), but write – and write – and write. My theory is the absurd anxiety over lack of access to reading material, has more to do with the recognition that now, finally, is that “quiet time” I’ve been asking for – away from meetings and everyday distractions – so that I can finally revise a whole pile of material into some sort of coherent and linear shape. Wish me luck… 🙂

Preparing for Fragmentation

So in February I’ll be presenting to the Hegel Summer School, an event that has been taking place for the past ten years, and that brings together activists and academics to discuss specific themes in contemporary critical theory. The format involves a sort of casual introductory event the evening before the formal presentations, at which presenters and other participants can meet one another in a less structured setting, and then two days of presentations and discussions – only four presenters, with half a day devoted to each presentation (one hour for the presentation, a break for tea, and then something like ninety minutes for discussion). The aim is to allow enough time, and an appropriate format, to make it possible for the presenters to demystify some of the theoretical material often sequestered off in academic spaces, and also to make it possible for all participants to engage in meaningful discussion about the possible connections or disconnects between “academic” theory and other forms of politically engaged practice.

This year’s theme is “Solidarity or Community? Philosophy and Antidotes to Fragmentation”. The title of my presentation is intended to be “Fighting for what we mean: Reflections on the unfinished project of critical theory” – which sounds very interesting, except that I haven’t written the presentation yet, so we’ll see if I can live up to my own title… ;-P My rough intention is to outline the idea of an immanent reflexive critical theory (in the sense I tend to use on the blog) then, given the traditional Hegelian orientation of this event, discuss how understanding a little bit about Hegel, and Marx’s relationship to Hegel, can help us appropriate Marx in a meaningful way to connect a critical theory to potentials for mobilisation. I then want to spend much of my time on the question of why it can be structurally difficult to “fight for what we mean” – using this theme to say a bit about how I understand Marx’s take on potentials for misrecognition “built in” to the reproduction of capital. I’m slightly concerned that this may not hit directly enough on the “solidarity or community” theme, so I may need to find room somehow to explain the ways in which the whole question of social fragmentation and integration is a pivot point on which political economy (and then, later, sociology) turns – such that both Hegel and Marx are trying to provide a different sort of response to this problem than the political economists were intending to do. Given that I’m two months away from presenting, I still have a great deal to work out, in terms of what I want to say, and how I plan to say it…

At any rate: so why am I writing about this now, you might ask? Well, the presenters have been asked to recommend some short, accessible, topical readings that can be recommended to participants who want a bit of specific background prior to attending the event. I need to put some recommendations together soon, and I’m simply drawing a blank on what might be useful. Some selections from the first chapter of Capital probably make some sense, but offhand nothing else is coming to mind. So I thought I would toss the concept out, in case something immediately springs to anyone else’s mind. If I’m understanding correctly, the idea is that the readings should prime participants to engage more actively with the presentations, by giving background, or clarifying terms, or providing an example of the sorts of theory discussed, or similar. I’m open to suggestions 🙂

Coffee and Spirit

So, in a flashback to last summer, I’ve been working on Hegel in the coffee shop. My habit when working on a difficult text is to photocopy or print out the section on which I’m intending to write, so that I can scribble over the text and in the margins, while working up how I want to characterise the argument. I also, though, carry the entire text with me in book form, so that I can flip around in sections I haven’t printed out (and I often scribble on this text too – I just try not to obliterate it with notes in the same way I do with my printouts).

So I’m at a table, printouts scattered all around me, scribbling madly on one page, and with the book sitting neglected in an outside corner of this chaos, when an older couple wanders in. I can see them staring at me – this isn’t unusual, and it’s probably somewhat inevitable to attract some attention when sprawling papers all over a table in a public space. After a few minutes, the gentleman wanders over: “Excuse me, could I borrow your book?”

Looking up, “Uh… sure.” I figured that he must know the text, but he volunteered, “I was curious what this was, because I’ve never seen the word ‘phenomenology’ before”. I volunteered a three-word suggestion for contextualising the term, and he said, “Could I take this back to our table for a bit?” I said sure, figuring he’d have a quick flip through and then bring it back.

Instead – and this was just unspeakably cute – he pulled his chair over beside his partner’s, and they sat there for a good forty-five minutes, reading through bits of the preface, pausing often to share impressions. I couldn’t hear much – the coffee shop plays music, and they were speaking quietly. I caught isolated words and phrases – “Oh! It’s philosophy!”… “Nature”… “Science”… “This isn’t easy…” They kept at it, long enough that I stopped trying to eavesdrop and went back to my own reading. Finally, the man wandered back over, somewhat regretfully returning the text: “That’s some difficult stuff!”

Given the lack of progress I feel I’m making, in trying to decide how to write on the section on Force and Understanding, I’m inclined to agree…