Thursday, January 29, 2009
Marx and vulgarity, take one
“They ought to take this Kant and give him a three year stretch in Solovki for such proofs! Ivan Nikolaevich plumped quite unexpectedly.”
One problem with trying to deal with Marx in a blog, or in the fragment form of my The Human Limit, is that Marx is a whale and LI, by design and ability, through all possible worlds, is a minnow. Thus, my analysis of Marx takes on the appearance of a conjuring act, similar to Houdini’s legendary trick of making an elephant vanish. A trick which may never have happened, and has certainly never been explained to any magician’s complete satisfaction. The minnow shall, in one tremendous bite, eat the whale, ladies and gentlemen. As a proof positive, we will then x ray the minnow, and you will be able to discern the whale’s peculiar skeleton within its sad little stomach.
So then, to return to the rules of this thread, the goal, here, is to shine a light on Marx’s idea of the romantic viewpoint. He puts it in terms of a nostalgia, of sorts, for the universal individual, the complete human, the Goethe, the Leonardo. In conjuring up this ideal, it posits itself, necessarily, as critical of the bourgeois viewpoint – which wears the complete human down to a useable stub, like a number two pencil. The well rounded individual becomes an Andrew Carnegie at best, a sage of money. Yet these two viewpoints, Marx says, are always linked together, always accompany each other. We’ve taken long hard looks at these adventure stories before – these comedies of the sage and buffoon, the Don Juan and the Sganarelle, Bruno’s asinine wisdom and the infinity of worlds. Are these viewpoints, as Marx calls them, transformations in this series, or something new?
That, at least, was one of the questions we wanted to answer – although the rules of the game require that all answers be posed with the fine irony that slips between the true and the believable.
But speaking of vulgarity – wasn’t I speaking of vulgarity? Yes, I believe I was. Well, as I said to Marx that spring in London, I am not at all sure of that sticking universal history into these notebooks in bits and pieces is the way to go about it. But I’m becoming more convinced, as the centuries wear on, that there is a method in the madness – and that method is precisely the finest form of madness, the flower, so to speak, of dementia. There is a minnow in the whale, there is a midget chessmaster in the Turk, there is, if not a theologian, still an alchemist, a treasure seeker, and Catherine the Great’s shaman behind the curtain of dialectical materialism. Or have I gone too far here?
Anyway, here’s a bit I want to deal with next. In his notebooks, Marx is using a vocabulary that he has already tried out in his political writings; this sets up a field between them of conceptual and semiotic turns; in particular, one feels that the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon breaths down the neck of Marx’s universal history in the Grundrisse. As, for instance, here, in which Marx, with the secret arrogance of a man who understands, on one level, the fallen nobility and fierce regret of the reactionary writers (if on another level he pours contempt on their nostalgia for the irrevocable and the consequent imprecision and mystification that envelops the past from which they have been expelled), sussing out the origin of the peculiar vulgarity of the bourgeois lifestyle. Marx, as we have emphasized, borrows Hegel’s dialectic and infuses it with the Wiccan insight that backward is not merely forward subtracted, but an entrance into the Night, that other order:
“Now, wealth is on one side a thing, realized in things, material products, which a human being confronts as subject; on the other side, as value, wealth is merely command over alien labour not with the aim of ruling, but with the aim of private consumption etc. It appears in all forms in the shape of a thing, be it an object or be it a relation mediated through the object, which is external and accidental to the individual. Thus the old view, in which the human being appears as the aim of production, regardless of his limited national, religious, political character, seems to be very lofty when contrasted to the modern world, where production appears as the aim of mankind and wealth as the aim of production. In fact, however, when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity's own nature? The absolute working-out of his creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes this totality of development, i.e. the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming? In bourgeois economics -- and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds -- this complete working-out of the human content appears as a complete emptying-out, this universal objectification as total alienation, and the tearing-down of all limited, one-sided aims as sacrifice of the human end-in-itself to an entirely external end. This is why the childish world of antiquity appears on one side as loftier. On the other side, it really is loftier in all matters where closed shapes, forms and given limits are sought for. It is satisfaction from a limited standpoint; while the modern gives no satisfaction; or, where it appears satisfied with itself, it is vulgar.”
PS - Rough Theory has put up the first chapter of her reading of Capital. LI, like all readers of Marx, can only echo her introductory remark: "In this chapter, I explore just how difficult it can be to tell when it is safe to read Capital, by reconstructing what I take to be the main narrative arc for the opening chapter. To anticipate and foreshadow the argument I make below: my central interpretive claim is that this narrative arc is surprisingly difficult to find."