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Thursday, December 24, 2009

dead wood, dead souls

Its very hard to find anything in Gogol, right up to the meaning; Gogol somehow shrinks from your touch, wriggles away. He hides, and when you finally find him it won’t be right, it won’t be him: it isn’t that you have found him, but that he thrust himself out where you didn’t expect him, where there was no place for your ideas of him, where he wasn’t yesterday. That Gogol is no longer where you remember him; this one is not where you expect him. – “Being Burried Alive, or Gogol in 1973 – Andrei Bitov

On the one hand, it is a mere coincidence that, as Marx was writing about windfallen wood in 1842, in Russia, a novel named Dead Souls was passed by Nicholas I’s censors and published. On the other hand, no Gnostic historican can afford to turn up his nose at mere coincidence – for are we not the slaves of intersignes? And surely this must be an intersigne, an exchange happening in the basement below universal history, where all the dealers in codexes are busy cutting them up and mashing them back together.

To look at windfallen wood from the aspect of whether it can be defined as private property, Marx claims, tells us a lot about what private property is defined as. The same can be said for buying dead souls – souls that exist on an equality with live ones on the tax rolls. What Chichikov has figured out (and was born to figure out – in Chapter XI, Gogol’s portrait of the birth and schooling of a rational choicer certainly shows us this much) – is what we now know in various other forms – the credit default swap, the leveraged buyout, etc. Which is that in capitalism, the nominal, given the right circumstances, easily triumphs over the substantial. One buys a company making real things – like mattresses – with debt itself. All of these brilliant financial innovations were not dreamt of in Nicholas I’s Russia; and yet, buying dead souls in order to take out a loan from the government to buy a substantial estate – Chichikov’s general plan – touched on the very essence of financialization. Touch on its intersection with the forces of life and death – which is why in the town of N. (a town Gogol describes in his notes as pure emptiness), a stout middle aged man, looking neither handsome nor ugly, having no real distinguishing trait about him, could, in the course of his business, eventually be mistaken by the townspeople for the Antichrist – that is, Napoleon – himself.

Meanwhile, in Köln, Marx is writing about dead wood and live ownership.


Duncan said...

Roger - I don't have the focus to think alongside or inside your latest Marx posts adequately - apologies. But I wanted to say that I think this associative connection between Gogol and Marx is very rich.

Messily: Capital is structured in part, of course, around the opposition between living and dead labour - and the confusion of that opposition. The category of living labour, wage labour, harsh real labour is created by the corresponding production of capital, and the dispossession associated with it (primitive accumulation, enclosure, land and wood theft). The 'Labour Theory of Value' sees living labour as the final referent of all nominal value - the dead sign versus the living presence of the sign's true meaning, if you like. But the capitalist process of labour management is also the subordination of living labour to dead labour - not just the dead labour of machines (which is how the argument is often understood), but also the 'death' that is the nominal value of money. Capitalists speculate - any investment is in some sense a speculation. And since a speculation can fail, always [even if the capitalist is then 'bailed out', say], there is a potential 'death' (of value) contained in the investment, in the production, in the coercion of real labour and real labourers - the possibility of demand collapsing, profit falling, bankruptcy or even crisis. This possibility in turn makes 'living' labour itself speculative (an inversion here, as it were) - where the failure of the speculation is not a dip in profits, but unemployment, poverty, starvation, death, for those who have no choice but to gamble their lives on another's monetary gamble. This makes 'living' labour potentially dead in the sense of being potentially nominal, unrealisable as value - and also in the sense of being constantly in danger of unemployment and everything associated with it. There is a profound connection here between the death of meaning in a symbol-system and the death of people in an economic one.

That was very unclear - sorry - needs to be said longer, probably. But the economic set-up that produces this connection is impossible without a complex bureaucratic framework - both for the management of the individual capitalist enterprise, and for the state regulatory framework within which much of the capitalist endeavour operates. And so I think Gogol is in a way cutting to the heart of things in his various meditations on the links between bureaucracy and the ambiguities of living and dead labour. Dead Souls is an example - Gogol writing at this historical moment of dead labour - dead workers - dead in the sense of both buried and nominal - where the becoming-sign seems somehow mystically connected to the becoming-dead - an artistic connection that new forms of economic behaviour are suddenly giving sinister weight to.

But I also think of The Overcoat. In that story we encounter:

- The commodity itself, with all its metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. (c.f. the Overcoat as Lamb of God on page 143 of the Penguin Capital)
- The bureaucrat located within a system productive of symbols for their own sake. ("From that time forth they left him to go on copying forever. It seemed as though nothing in the world existed for him outside his copying.")
- But also we have the ambiguities of the categories of life and death. The stolen commodity is reclaimed when the story's protagonist sloughs off the distinction, becoming neither dead nor alive - a spectre stalking the streets of Petersburg.

roger said...

Duncan, you know, until I read your comment, I was not thinking about Capital in those terms. You are right! I love this connection. I'm nibbling away here at Marx looking at property from the legal p.o.v., - for after all, that is his training. But you are perfectly right to point to the living/dead labor divide. In fact, now that you have pointed it out, I'm going, of course!

duncan said...

Oh - wasn't meaning to disrupt things... Just associating alongside. Best...

roger said...

No, not disrupt - the thing is, at the moment I am trying to pretend like the later Marx doesn't exist, in order to follow him in the forties. This is partly a con game - if Marx had died in 1848, we would have put him with, say, Moses Hess. But I like the way you point out this continuity, and how dead souls pop up in a different guise in Capital. I'm working with the theory that Marx begins with the idea that the fulcrum of social change is in the law - that is, the sphere of Recht which defines politics - and moves away from that towards thinking it is in economics. This is a simple story, too simple perhaps - but I think it is rather lost in the way in which generations of commentators have covered it over, spangled it, with a similar story all about Marx getting away from Hegel. Of course, Hegel is important, and yet it isn't any Hegel that is in question. And of course, Marx was a law student.

duncan said...

Yes that's very interesting. I don't know the early Marx well enough to think alongside on this - but it seems really productive - & I like the way you're taking Marx's comments in Contribution to a Critique seriously. Also, w/r/t the bracketing - Marx strikes me as a very... sedimented thinker - for Marx more than for most thinkers, early stuff continues to run through the entire corpus, even when everything has apparently changed or been rejected. (It's like this is part of his Hegelian impulses - the desire to incorporate his earlier selves, transforming while preserving them... :-) )

By the way - I was reading Arendt's (pretty deplorable) The Human Condition, and came across a reference to the wood theft articles. You may know it already, and it's not much use, but footnote 4 in the last chapter - Arendt's praising Weber as against Marx. Where Marx (supposedly) bases his system on the alienation of the labourer from themselves, Weber sees that capitalism is based on an alienation of world from self - an asceticism. Then in the footnote Arendt mentions the wood theft articles as a rare exception, where Marx discusses world-alienation. Marx "criticizes a law against theft not only because the formal opposition of owner and thief leaves 'human needs' out of account... but also that the wood itself is deprived of its nature." Good old Heideggerrean hearkening to the forest's Being, I guess. But for what it's worth...

Happy New Year!

roger said...

Oh, that Arendt quote made me laugh. And laughter is just what I'm on about lately! Happy NY to you, too, Duncan.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I'm reminded of a story Arendt often quotes, even in the "pretty deplorable" and "good old Heideggarian" book that is The Human Condition.

It is about Thales, aka the first philosopher, the wise man who is looking upward to observe the stars only to fall into a well. Which makes a Thracian peasant girl laugh. That someone who wants to know the sky should be so ignorant of what lies at his feet.

Arendt comments, "Men have obviously not yet discovered what laughter is good for -perhaps because their thinkers, who have always been ill-disposed to laughter, have let them down in this respect, even though a few of them have racked their brains over the question of what makes us laugh."

Plato recounts this story in Theaetetus and finds the peasant girl's laughter more threatening than indifference or overt hostility. But that was then, to be sure, not now of course.

So who are the gleaners mostly, even today?