Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Transformation

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…

Some Disassembly Required

Recovering from a severe cold and drowning in work at the moment, so posting is likely to be… light and airy. I did want to archive a quick note here about one of the questions asked in response to the Derrida Today presentation – no new content, but just pulling together some old content in a very very slightly different way. The questioner (I wish I knew his name – excellent formulation of the question, to which I won’t do any justice here…) picked up on perhaps the only sentence in the paper that gave some hint of where we might go in closing the circle, and completing the discussion of Derrida with an alternative interpretation of Marx: the sentence that referenced the Theses of Feuerbach and the question of transformative interpretations. The questioner wanted to know how it would be possible to return to Marx, in a form that wouldn’t just recycle modernist political ideals and organisational structures, and he pressed the issue of whether I were engaging in a sort of backward-looking, nostalgic critique that sought to revive ideals, forms of organisation, and forms of theory that were no longer adequate to the present time.

My response was that, in interpreting Capital, I try to take seriously Marx’s claim that he was not trying to write recipes for the cookshops of the future. The point of Capital, as I see it, is not to set forth a political program, but rather to unfold, and to apply to a particular social context, a method for reading and deconstructing that context, so that it becomes easier to see that it might be possible to make other sorts of institutions, practices, and selves, out of the sorts of “raw materials” we find lying around us now. The task of working out what, specifically, to do with these materials: this is a political task, not subject to theoretical predetermination abstracted from particular situations and contestations.

I noted that Capital pivots around a series of inversions, in which perspectives are introduced only to be followed, later (sometimes much later) in the text, with their opposites. One way to read this textual strategy is to hold that Marx is trying to set up a contrast between illusion and reality – such that certain perspectives are “ideology”, while others are objective, “scientific” truth. I take Marx’s notion of “science” to be too Hegelian for this: the inversions in the text, I believe, are intended to demonstrate that none of the perspectives being analysed are “essential” or intrinsic – intended to show that, in capitalism, we do think (and practice) several impossible-to-reconcile, contradictory things in the course of our everyday lives. By demonstrating this “inverted”, topsy-turvy, looking glass character of our practices, Marx is attempting – in my reading – not to tease out which of the moments of this inverted world are “really” essential, and which are merely illusory. He is attempting instead to suggest that the presence of these inversions reveals that we are not on the terrain of any sort of timeless essence at all: rather, we are on the terrain of contingent social practices – on a terrain subject to political contestation.

What Marx also does is try to work out what other sorts of things we might be able to do, with the social materials that lie ready to hand – materials that, through over-familiarity, we might tend not to view creatively, with an eye to the question of what else we might be able to make from these building blocks. Marx uses a variety of techniques to explore this question: where possible, he trundles around through history, finding historical examples of societies that share similar sorts of institutions – in order to show that, in those other contexts, those institutions didn’t possess the same qualitative characteristics that they possess now; he also points to contradictory characteristics enacted by different dimensions of the present context; and he engages in various sorts of hypothetical and speculative analyses of what might be possible, in a transformed social situation.

All of these techniques are geared toward teasing apart the distinctive characteristics of capitalism – characteristics that are reproduced, in Marx’s argument, only so long as the capital relation is – from the characteristics that might potentially be generated, if the various component institutions and practices that currently contribute to the reproduction of capital, could be extracted from that relation and appropriated for other ends. In this reading, Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism is a critique of the tendency to treat qualitative properties that arise due to the capital relation, as though those properties inhere necessarily in the various component institutions and practices that currently reproduce that relation: Marx’s speculative claim is that a change in the relations in which component institutions and practices are suspended, would free up different qualitative properties and potentials.

Capital attempts to give some glimpse of what these qualitative properties and potentials might be – but this does not take the form of a political programme, still less an organisational structure or completed vision of what a socialist society might be. Rather than an architect’s blueprint, Capital provides something much closer to an artist’s palette – splaying out for our view the much wider range of colours and textures on which we could potentially draw in producing our collective lives.

Whatever socialism might be, Marx suggests, it could be made out of nothing more than the stuff we have ready to hand. The actual process of creation, however – including the determination of what it is we want to create: I think that Marx sees this as an intrinsically and irreducibly political process – and also as a process that will necessarily react back on what political actors wish to create, as they continue to shake loose new possibilities and potentials that cannot be foreseen now. Some potentials, once grasped, may prove particularly corrosive – the demonstration, for example, that it is possible to enact a kind of human equality – the experience of such a possibility – renders non-doxic new creations that would impose hierarchy – precisely by revealing such hierarchies to be impositions – to be human creations, and therefore subject to political contestation. These gestures toward particularly corrosive possibilities recur through Capital, confronting us with radical potentials that – in this argument – we are already enacting, if only in particular slices of our collective practice. Certain sorts of creation, certain kinds of politics – those predicated on closing off such corrosive potentials – can thus become subject to criticism by holding them up against the potentials they disavow. By making our history citable in more of its moments, we can widen our sense of what we is it possible for us to do – and gain some critical traction on what is shut down, as well as what is opened up, by particular political ideals and organisational structures.

Yet Capital provides minimal – bordering on absent – programmatic political instruction. Its energies are instead directed elsewhere: toward making the case that capitalism provides the raw materials for the construction of something very different – toward arguing that greater freedom is possible through a hack of the existing system – toward making plausible the claim that socialism is “capitalism: some disassembly required”.

Battery about to go!! (I could add, the personal as well as that on the laptop…) Apologies for the scatter and lack of editing (and care!!). I will need some recovery time, I think, before I can post substantively again.

The Exorcism of the Exorcism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There [in the religious world] the products of the human brain [of the head, once again, of men: des menschlischen Kopfes, analogous to the wooden head of the table capable of engendering chimera – in its head, outside of its head – once, that is, as soon as, its form can become commodity-form] appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race…. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself [anklebt] to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(p. 3-4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monstrous Body of Capital

Continuing my process of catching up on things that have been written while I was away, I wanted to post a pointer to Steven Shaviro’s fantastic series of reflections on Capital and contemporary Marxism over at The Pinocchio Theory. The first post introduces the problematic:

Of course, there is a good reason why recent Marxist theory is so concerned with the problem of the subject. It is a way of raising the question of agency. What is to be done? How might capitalism be altered or abolished? It’s hard to give credence any longer to the old-fashioned Marxist narrative, according to which the “negation of the negation,” or the “expropriation of the expropriators,” would inevitably take place, sooner or later. Neither the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s, nor the uprisings and radical confrontations of the 1960s, led to anything like the “final conflict” of which generations of revolutionaries dreamed. Today we are no longer able to believe that the capitalist order is fated to collapse from its own contradictions. It is true that these contradictions lead to turmoil, and to misery for many. Yet the overall process of capital accumulation is not necessarily harmed by these convulsions. If Capital could speak, it might well say, in the manner of Nietzsche’s Overman, that “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” The genius of capitalism lies in its ability to turn to its own account whatever destabilizes it, and whatever is raised against it. In the absence of that old militant optimism, we are left with the sinking feeling that nothing works, that nothing we can do will make any difference. This sense of paralysis is precisely the flip side of our “empowerment” as consumers. The more brutal the neoliberal “reforms” of the last thirty years have been, and the more they have taken away from us, the more they have forced upon us the conviction that there is No Alternative.

This crushing demoralization is itself a testimony to Marx’s prescience. How else but with a sense of utter helplessness could we respond to a world in which Marx’s insights into the tendencies and structures of capitalism have been so powerfully verified? From primitive accumulation to capital accumulation, from globalization to technological innovation, from exploitation in sweatshops to the delirium of ungrounded financial circulation: all the processes that Marx analyzed and theorized in the three volumes of Capital are far more prevalent today, and operate on a far more massive scale, than was ever the case in Marx’s own time. By the late 1990s, all this had become so evident that Marx’s analytical acumen was admired, and even celebrated, on Wall Street. As the business journalist John Cassidy wrote in a widely-noticed and frequently-cited article in The New Yorker (1997): Marx “wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence – issues that economists are now confronting anew. . . Marx predicted most of [globalization’s] ramifications a hundred and fifty years ago. . . [Marx’s] books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures.”

From this point of view, the problem with Marx’s analysis is that it is just too successful. His account of the inner logic of capitalism is so insightful, so powerful, and so all-embracing, that it seems to offer no point of escape. The more we see the world in the grim terms of capital logic, the less we are able to imagine things ever being different. Marx dissected the inner workings of capitalism for the purpose of finding a way to overthrow it; but the very success of his analysis makes capitalism seem like a fatality. For the power of capital pervades all aspects of human life, and subsumes all impulses and all actions. Its contingent origins notwithstanding, capitalism consumes everything, digests whatever it encounters, transforms the most alien customs and ways of life into more of itself. “Markets will seep like gas through any boundary that gives them the slightest opening” (Dibbell 2006, 43). Adorno’s gloomy vision of a totally administered and thoroughly commodified society is merely a rational assessment of what it means to live in a world of ubiquitous, unregulated financial flows. For that matter, what is Althusser’s Spinozism, his view of history as a “process without a subject,” but a contemplation of the social world sub specie aeternitatis, and thereby a kind of fatalism, presenting capitalism as an ineluctable structure of interlinked overdeterminations whose necessity we must learn to dispassionately accept?

This and subsequent posts go on to analyse attempts to respond to this situation, including those of Hardt and Negri, Gibson-Graham, Deleuze & Guattari, and others. Shaviro’s critiques are particularly sharp: Gibson-Graham are targeted for their optimism:

This means that we have already, without quite realizing it, reached “the end of capitalism (as we know it).” Indeed, Gibson-Graham come perilously close to saying that the only thing keeping capitalism alive today is the inveterate prejudice on the part of Marxists that it really exists. Apparently, if we were just a bit more optimistic, we could simply think all the oppression away.

Hardt & Negri for their implied return to the notion of a self-superseding capitalism, agency not required:

For their part, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are by no means so obstinately cheerful. Nonetheless, I am a bit taken aback by their insistence that globalized, affective capitalism has already established, not only the “objective conditions” for communism, but also the “subjective conditions” as well. The latter come in the form of the multitude as a universal, creative, and spontaneously collective class, ready to step in and take control of a world that has already been prepared for them. This is really a twenty-first century update of the messianic side of Marx’s vision: “The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” Thus we have come full circle, back to the position that we initially rejected: one according to which the restoration of agency is not needed, for the internal dynamics of capitalism themselves lead inexorably to its ultimate abolition.

Shaviro also critically explores their reversal of Marx’s metaphorics – their attempt to appropriate the imagery of the monstrous, which in Marx figure as critiques of the animated, undead, parasitic, and Frankensteinian body of capital, as an emancipatory imagery of the multitude:

This is why we must finally regard capital – rather than the multitude – as monstrous. Indeed, the monstrous qualities that Hardt and Negri attribute to the multitude – its impropriety, its ceaseless productivity, and its continual breaking of taboos and transgression of all limits – are themselves really qualities of capitalism itself, which Marx and Engels long ago described as having “burst asunder” all that stood in its way (1968, 40), and as possessing a “voracious appetite” not for any particular “useful products,” but for “the production of surplus value itself” (Marx 1992, 344-345). Only capitalism values productivity for its own sake,without regard to the nature of what is produced. And only capitalism exhibits a radical impropriety, because this is simply the other side of its own property fetish.By reclaiming monstrosity for the multitude, Hardt and Negri inadvertently erase the monstrosity of capital itself.

Running through all of this are reflections on Deleuze & Guattari’s analysis of the Body without Organs, culminating in some fantastic imagery for our complex relation to the metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties of our own product, become an alien force:

The “full body” or flesh of capital, therefore, is at the same time palpable and intangible – however much of an oxymoron this formulation might seem to be. We are always in contact with this ghastly flesh, but we are never actually able to “grasp” it. We do not have enough distance to apprehend it accurately; we can no more “see” it than a flea can see the dog within whose fur it is embedded. In our pragmatic, day-to-day experience, this capital-body is an alien enormity, that we cannot ever tear ourselves free from, but that we also do not own or control in any way. The experience of the capital-body is common to everyone; but this is only a suffering in common, rather than the production in common that Hardt and Negri would like it to be. Either as producers or consumers, our subjective activity is relentlessly atomized and scattered; the only unity is that of the socius itself. We scurry about in the folds and convolutions of this capital-flesh like lice or bedbugs. At best, we may manage to divert some of the flows of the body of capital, pervert them, and detourn them. We may even be able to reprogram the body’s “axiomatics” or “genetic code” here and there, just a little bit, the way that viruses do. But that is all. This capital-flesh oppresses us, but we are stuck within it. We hate it, but we are also compelled to love it, because we depend upon it for sustenance, and we cannot live without it. Understood according to the order of first causes, sub specie aeternitatis as Spinoza would have it, capital is parasitic upon the labor of the multitude. But existentially and experientially, the situation is rather the reverse: we are parasites on the monstrous body of Capital.

Fantastic series – much much more in the originals.

Social Construction

Okay. This post is a mess. Not up for serious reflection. But Praxis opened a discussion of something slightly related to these issues that I’ve been neglecting while I’ve been away from Melbourne, and… enough time off, I suppose. I step tentatively here in the direction of some of Praxis’ questions, reaching for a bridge between what I’m working on now, for the thesis, and the broader sorts of questions I’m being encouraged to address in greater detail over there. The result… Well… Apologies – hopefully quality will improve soon…

I’ve been thinking about how I approach the question of critical standpoint – my one-sentence summary of the dissertation recently has been that it’s a study of the standpoint of critique in the first volume of Capital (we’ll see if Carl approves of this as an adequate gesture at self-vulgarisation 🙂 ). So, in a sense, I’ve been thinking of nothing but the question of critical standpoint for some months. Recently, though, I’ve been wondering how much confusion I might be causing, by using the term “critical standpoint” for what I’m trying to express. My worry derives from the sense that I’m not attempting to ask the sorts of questions that I think are probably most commonly associated with discussions of critical standpoint. Moving here from vulgarising myself, to the more questionable game of vulgarising others, I take those more typical questions to be: how social transformation per se should be possible; how a political agent could be constituted; and how a transcendent ideal can be identified, against which the existing social context can be judged and found wanting.

In contrast to these questions, what I am asking is more along the lines of: what else might we construct with the various sorts of social materials that we already use to build the society we’ve got? – what other sorts of social structures could we create, working as bricoleurs crafting new history out of the existing social stuff we find scattered on the ground around us? These questions do touch in various ways on the concerns that motivate the questions more traditionally associated with considerations of standpoint of critique – but they do so with a somewhat awkward and incomplete fit. I’m concerned about the potential for misunderstanding, if my claims are mapped into the framework of a sort of argument I’m not trying to make – in particular, I’m concerned to make clear the rather limited (and, from the standpoint of many approaches, I suspect fairly unsatisfying) sort of argument I’m trying to make – an argument that leaves unresolved much of what is generally taken to be central to the question I’m claiming to address – although, I would suggest, it might have a few distinctive virtues of its own.

On the issue of why social transformation per se should be possible: this question preoccupies a great many theoretical and philosophical approaches – often fuelled by a prior commitment to a notion that social reproduction relies on a sort of hyper-structuration or totalistic quality of the social context. I’ve argued previously that starting from the premise of a hyper-structured or totalistic context, can make it seem very difficult to understand how change should ever become possible, leading to forms of critique that are necessarily “pessimistic” in the technical sense of being divorced from any analysis of immanent social potentials for change, because the social itself has already been posited in a way that precludes the immanent emergence of transformative potentials. I tend to start from the notion (which seems to me empirically more plausible, if nothing else) of social contexts as multifaceted and “lumpy” [marginal note to self: it attracts very strange looks at conferences, when one asks other presenters questions relating to whether the social context is ultimately “lumpier” than their analysis allows – a more elegant way of expressing this particular point would save many blank stares and forestall any number of (hopefully?) premature conclusions that I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about], and then see what sort of work can be done through the exploration of the internal multiplicity of some particular social context.

Still, it is quite possible to theorise this sort of claim – about a multifaceted social environment – as a foundation for a more general attempt to theorise why social transformation should be possible, and I’m not unsympathetic to construction of such a general theory – a theory that might think of itself as applying in various sorts of social contexts, and not simply in our own. It just isn’t the sort of theory that I do (although it may, when I’m summarising conclusions, rather than presenting a proper version of my argument, sound like what I’m doing). What I do instead (perhaps more precisely: what I intend to do, and what I would hope to do if I were being consistent with how I think about the issue) is to work backwards from the slice of our specific social that I work on – the slice involved with the production of capital. This slice of our experience confronts us with ongoing opportunities for practical exposure to a process of reworking and transforming bits of our social context, as part of a process of social reproduction that proceeds precisely via the transformation of other elements of our social (as Carl suggested in the context of the discussion over at Praxis).

My argument would tend to be that this practical experience of transformation is… one of the bits of material that we happen to find lying around in our existing social context. Probabilistically, within the current context, this bit of material is often associated with the reproduction of capital – but this probabilistic association isn’t exhaustive of the things we can create out of this material: the practical experience of the capacity to transform elements of our social environment, forms a bit of material that is potentially portable – potentially extrapolable – we might be able to build something else with this material, aside from what we tend to build with it now. The limits on what we can do with this material – well, those are things to be tested out in practice, as well – it’s difficult to know, until we try to do, and see what sort of kickback or friction those practical experiments elicit – what sorts of consequences result.

The current practical experience, though, of working with this sort of material, provides the basis for a (tentative, hypothetical) speculative extrapolation – the extrapolation that, while we might have become particularly aware of, or sensitive to this material for quite contingent reasons at a very specific historical juncture, while we might find it particularly intuitive or easy to think the contingency and constructed character of our social life now, because we engage so actively with certain sorts of social construction in such an everyday and palpable way, still, perhaps – hypothetically – we can build something else from this material, aside from what we already find ourselves building in our present everyday. Maybe one of the things we can build – if we can find a few other appropriate support structures, bricks, mortars, and such lying about in our experiential rubble – is a – tentative, hypothetical, but more general sort of – social science, with which we might attempt to cast light on situations and experiences other than our own, whether in the past, or in some potential futures.

This sort of process – trying to trace the core theoretical concepts I want to wield, back to practical experiences that explain why such concepts might lie so ready to conceptual hand when we want to construct a theory – is largely how I understand the seemingly abstract concept of theoretical reflexivity: this process of connecting up what we think, to what we do, so that the connection between the categories of theorisation, and the time in which the theory is developed, stays sufficiently forgrounded to help keep the process of theorisation a bit… unsure of itself – a bit grounded in its own contingency – which, I would suggest, is still a solid enough foundation for the sorts of constructions we need to build. The process can get to many of the same places as a more a priori theoretical construction – the normal science of the social sciences can still unfold, just on a slightly altered metatheoretical base, one that tries to keep a slightly closer contact with how even the most abstract concepts – the ones whose qualitative characteristics cause them to seem non-specific to our society (or any other) – like the concept of “society” – express something more specific about us, about our practice – are “true” for us in some slightly different way than they might be true for other times – in Marx’s formulation, contain an “essential difference” when we apply them retrospectively to the past or speculatively to the future. This slight alteration in self-understanding – from treating ourselves as discovering latent truths, to treating ourselves as speculatively extrapolating from contingent local experiences – makes it a bit easier to hone in on the specificity and contingency of our specific moment, providing a focus that can be particularly useful for critique.

All this much too abbreviated: doing this properly requires simultaneously juggling a whole circuit of concepts, each linked back to arguments about why these concepts might be particularly intuitive to think at the present time, and then exploring the sorts of constructions that become possible once we have a collection of different building blocks to play with, rather than just one single bit of material, as I’ve used above with the gestural example of the experience of social transformation. Until I’ve suspended a whole heap of material in this way, it necessarily looks as though I’m simply presupposing a lot of things that, by my own standards, I would ideally want to explain. No doubt there will remain many, many things I do presuppose – my aim isn’t to achieve some sort of totalistic comprehensiveness, but it is at least to render impressionistically plausible the claim that it is possible to suspend many major, basic, foundational categories – the sorts of categories that tend to be presupposed as constitutive for social scientific work of any sort (society, history, etc.) and the sorts of concepts specifically central to the sort of work I do (immanence, reflexivity, etc.). These are the sorts of things that – over the long haul, certainly not in the thesis itself, other than in the most gestural way – I am attempting to juggle, whether I end up ultimately dropping the ball or not…

At any rate: all of this was by way of saying that I work backward – and in what is no doubt a philosophically completely disreputable way – from the standpoint, I think, adopted by most approaches that want to start with the question of why social transformation per se might be possible. This doesn’t mean the latter question isn’t an interesting, important, or valid one – only that my own work is probably well nigh useless for answering it, other than in the very general, limit sense, of possibly ruling out certain sorts of answers. So what I have in mind when I think about critical standpoint is, I think, somewhat at a skew to more general or abstract (arguably more rigorous) attempts to grasp conditions of possibility for transformation at a more fundamental ontological level.

I really should move from here, to talk about the other common understandings of what it means to theorise critical standpoint – the theorisation of a political subject, and the theorisation of a transcendent norm. But I’m still finding myself very sluggish from the trip – I think I’ve butchered the first set of issues comprehensively enough, and so wreaking damage on the others will need to wait for another post (possibly in the very distant future). It may be worth emphasising very briefly that, in mentioning that I am not trying to do these various things, I am not necessarily critical of approaches that do attempt to do them – my reaction to specific approaches tends to depend… on the specifics. I’m just trying, in a very gestural way, to clarify some of the limitations and the strategic intentions of my own work.

More eventually… And apologies for the very groggy state in which this was written… (How long does it take to recover from a month overseas? 🙂 )

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

When Is It Safe to Read Capital? (Update)

Some time around now, I will be delivering something like this talk to the Marx and Philosophy event at Goldsmiths. The topic, as in the title of this post, is: when is it safe to read Capital?

Wish me luck 🙂

Updated: Just a quick update to say that I had queued this post before making some changes, particularly to the final sections of the paper, that I didn’t have the time to mirror here. I’ve now made some edits to the post below the fold to reflect more accurately the talk actually delivered – these changes smooth out a few rough spots, but aren’t so substantive as to merit an independent reading for anyone who has already clicked through.

The event itself was fantastic – very good collection of papers and excellent discussion. In my accident-prone way, I managed to twist my ankle in a somewhat drastic way, just before the event, so I ended up presenting through a fair discomfort, which meant that I was rather more subdued than I would ordinarily be. Those who know me in person might realise that being more subdued, might not be such a bad thing… 😉 I did, though, particularly wish my attention hadn’t been distracted anklewards during the Q&A session, which was genuinely valuable and fired off a number of associations about things I’ll hopefully be writing about more adequately in the near future.

Read more of this post

Simulcasting

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

The Practice of Theory

Where do memes come from? Am I allowed to make one? Tom Bunyard from Monagyric has asked me a question down in the comments that I thought might be worth transposing up here, and passing around. Tom writes:

John’s organised a kind of series of self-critique things for the Goldsmiths Centre for Cultural Studies, and after having been volunteered I’m due to speak myself. I was thinking about saying something around the innate silliness of playing around with arch theoretical models of political emancipation whilst in academia, and thus whilst fundamentally divorced from real praxis (which pretty much defines what I do). At the last session someone had made a comment about theory and practice; whilst the practice that he had in mind was militant struggle, it was quickly interpreted by the culture industry types in the room as a problematic of getting their work identified by the advertising industry so as to secure a career. The distinction between the two notions of practice seemed to define the afternoon for me. I think I want to talk about the limits, flaws and general farce of doing ‘radical’ lefty theory within the academy, particularly in relation to my own attempts to write a PhD that only three people in the world are ever likely to read.

Consequently I’m interested in speaking to a few people as to how they figure the relation of their own political research/writing/whatever to practice; whether they view it (after Adorno) as a kind of practice itself; and to what extent they view this separation (assuming there is a separation) to be problematic. So, as someone working on Marx, how would you respond?

I’ll reproduce my response up here in a moment, but I want to see whether I might be able to turn this into a meme. I’d be interested if the following folks would be interested in answering Tom’s question, and then passing the question on to a few friends. It doesn’t have to be restricted to folks who work on Marx. The core question, as I see it, is:

How do you understand the relation of your own political research/writing/whatever to political practice; whether you view it as a kind of political practice itself; and to what extent you view the separation (assuming there is a separation) between your work and political struggle to be problematic?

I am uncomfortable requiring anyone to link back to this post if you do reply but, if you do, I can create an archive of the responses.

I tag Nate (because we’ve discussed these things before), Lumpenprofessoriat (because turnabout is fair play), Larval Subjects (because I think you will find the tag irritating and probably won’t respond), Trinketization (since it might be useful to have a response from someone who would be at the actual event), Now-Times (with a particular interest in how you might feel about the “after Adorno” aspect of the original question), and Scandalum Magnatum (as I link to your site far less often than I intend). Anyone else who feels inclined to respond is more than welcome.

My own response, lifted up from the comments, was:

First: I’m anti-idealist in perhaps a more extreme sense than many people: I think it’s a mistake to regard the concepts that academics come up with, as though those concepts aren’t related in some way to other sorts of collective practices that are unfolding at the same moment in time. This doesn’t mean that what academics do is “praxis” in some sense of direct contribution to achieving political ends – that is something that would need to be evaluated in a less abstract way. It just means that it’s not going to be “accidental”, that certain forms of theory are trending when they are, and that the tacit sensibilities that find expression in academic theory can be analysed, just as can the tacit sensibilities that find expression in any other form of human activity, as one among many clues to the possibilities we are collectively constituting at a particular moment in time. To stress: I am not suggesting that some sort of special possibility is constituted through academic work – I am suggesting that humans tends to think with our practices in a very broad sense, academics like everyone else, and so even apparently very abstract and removed forms of thought are quite likely to express something that has shifted in much more everyday forms of practice. Grasping that link – which is a lot of what I think Marx does with his critiques of various sorts of formal theory – then makes it possible to analyse the sorts of tacit practical possibilities that are finding nascent expression in various types of formal theory, political ideals, popular culture, etc.

On the more specific issue of whether some sort of formal theory makes a contribution to some particular political project: again, I don’t think this sort of question can be answered abstractly in a meaningful way. I do think that capitalism as a target of political practice, or as an object of analysis, has very peculiar “ontological” characteristics, that are very difficult to grasp without engaging “theoretically” with this object. I think political action in a dynamic social context is difficult, that it’s extremely easy for unanticipated consequences to follow on our actions, and therefore that movements increase their chances of achieving their ends, if they have a good sense of how history might bite them in the butt. This is what I think theory is “for” in a political sense – improving the odds of grasping whether particular sorts of actions are likely to have the results we hope they will. Theory helps us try to deal with the problem William Morris sketches out:

I pondered all these things… how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…

It helps us work out the name of what we are fighting for, so that other people don’t have to perpetually keep coming along behind us, setting up new struggles to achieve what we meant, but didn’t know how to fight for last time around. At least, this would be my normative criterion for what a good theory would do.

To put the same thing more briefly: if we make history, but not in conditions of our own choosing, then it can be helpful to learn as much as we can about those conditions we haven’t chosen, so that we have as good a sense as possible of the sort of history we might be able to make.

This says nothing about whether some particular kind of theory, in some specific institutional setting, is actually helpful for this end. There will always be at least a tacit theory underlying any form of practice – formal types of theory tease out and make explicit what is tacit in what we are already doing. This process of making the implications of our own practice explicit to ourselves isn’t limited to academia, but it isn’t necessarily barred to academia either. Farce isn’t limited to academia either… 😉 And there is a form of idealism, to me, nascent in the idea that real life is somewhere “out there”: Marx’s position is that humans, in a sense, aren’t that clever – we aren’t that original or creative in our thoughts – our thoughts are already “material” – our categories are things we do. He spends a lot of time showing that the same sorts of sensibilities that are cropping up in more “academic” forms of theory are sensibilities that are also being enacted in settings that take themselves far less seriously – showing that academic thought mobilises very similar sorts of perceptions and thoughts as those mobilised in the marketplace.

His strategy undermines academic pretension – but it also undermines romantic notions that there is some special sort of institutional setting where “real thought” can happen because that setting is somehow less divorced from “real life”: humans, for Marx, generate new possibilities collectively, initially in mundane actions – and largely, in the first instance at least, unintentionally. Explicit theory and conscious political practice then fumbles along behind, trying to work out and realise the potentials opened up by our collective accidents. Where this happens, what sorts of practices and institutional settings are associated with doing it in a way that is potentially transformative – all of this strikes me as a case-by-case thing…

Becoming Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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