Marx, Gogol and the principle of the ludicrous

Marx, in the Holzdiebstahl articles, allows himself to speak of the “poorer” class - ärmere Klasse – which, for those of us who’ve done our time on the Marx job, followed the old man’s routines, read the letters, tapped the secondary literature, written our reports, know the drill – is an indication that we are in the early stages of the man’s career here, in this text. The Marx of 1860 knows that the class of the poor misconceives class – which describes levels within the system of production, not something as contingent as income. The class of workers may be poor, but their class status is defined by what they do. Meanwhile, as those covering the classical and neoclassical economists know, the poor remain fixed as a primary economic unit in their schemes and dreams, in crude opposition to the ‘rich’. For class has dissolved as an organizing property among the economists, and economic units are determined outside of their place in the system of production – outside of their productive function, which enters in terms of a labor market. The labor market is a marvelous thing, a beast as fabulous as any reported by Pliny. The labor market, of course, then gives us a throwback sociology, which gives us these things – the poor, the rich – as a sort of hybrid of magic and statistics. In the neo-classical world, the rich face the poor, in the first instance, without mediation, and then, in the second instance, in an interface mediated by the state, that ‘redistributes’ money from the rich to the poor. This is the fairy tale, this is the leitmotif, this is how it is told on all holiday occasions. And thus, so much is allowed to the second of Polanyi’s double movement – that is, the movement that pulls against and curbs the social excesses of the pure market system. The state, here, functions solely to take care of the welfare of the poor. On the other hand, the first movement is ignored – in which the state redistributes, indeed, makes possible, the welfare of the rich. The state is the dead machine that creates its live doctor Frankenstein – that is, private property itself. A process that accompanies capitalism down to the present day, where private property can now be had in the genes of a virus; we cut up the planet’s atmosphere and apportion it out. And so property emerges where no property was – and so accustomed are we to this phenomenon that we do not even think about or see it.

Thus, even at this point in his life, Marx – without his essential tools of class and the system of commodities – understood that this ‘side of the economy is, as it were, being twisted out of shape by the application of categories that do not reflect the dynamic axis of the economic system – in fact, seem as though they were designed to obscure it. The law is no longer written on stone tablets, but jimmied into place by those who control the legislative activity. All of which rather disturbs the high abstractions of the philosophy of law taught to Marx in Berlin. And – as the articles on wood theft show - the greatest of these misprisioning category-makers and voluntary blindspots turns out to be the divide between the private and the public spheres, which is ideally true, and practically a sham.

Yet, as I’ve pointed out, at this point in his career Marx is still working with these categories, still looking at socialism with the eyes of a lawyer – or rather, a philosopher of law. There is an old and oft told tale about how all of that works out, which skips over the Rheinisher Landtag and puts Marx in a capsule with Hegel, where they struggle for dominance. And who am I to object? The tale is all well and good and philosophisch like a hardon – but we should remember that Marx isn’t, actually, in a capsule, nor is he simple a figure in the history of philosophy, with its Mount Rushmore like heads. Neither the law nor justice jumped out of Hegel’s encyclopedia. The law was something any peasant, any Josef K., could bump into in the midst of life, in a wood. The legal approach to property, Marx will find out, is one-sided – insufficient. It is only when this insufficience gets too big for its britches and goes around presenting itself as the totality that we fall into mystification.

Marx already touches on parts of that mystification in these articles – but I feel irresistibly impelled, by every imp in my bloodstream, to sample some Gogol here, who had a knack, a supernatural knack, for dramatizing muddle. In the 9th chapter of Dead Souls, as we watch two women devise, between them, a story about Chichikov’s plan to elope with the governor’s daughter for which they haven’t a shred of evidence or even a thought that proceeded their confab – as this beautiful error is hatched in their gossip, and the two women become more and more descriptions of themselves – the agreeable lady and the lady who is agreeable in all aspects – Gogol pops his head out to make a rather astonishing case that this is the equivalent of what happens when the historian – shall we even say, the universal historian? – conjectures a story into the world:

“That both ladies finally believed beyond any doubt something which had originally been pure conjecture is not in the least unusual. We, intelligent people though we call ourselves, behave in an almost identical fashion, as witness our scholarly deliberations. At first the scholar proceeds in the most furtive manner, beginning cautiously, with the most diffident of questions: ‘Is it not perhaps from there? Could not such-and-such a country perhaps derive its name from that remote spot?” Or: Does this document perhaps not belong to another, later period?” Or: “When we say this nation, do we not perhaps mean that nation there?” He promptly cites various writers of antiquity and the moment he detects any hint of something – or imagines such a hint – he breaks into a trot and, growing bolder by the minute, now discouses as an equal with the writers of antiquity, asking them questions, and even answering on their behalf, entirely forgetting that he began with a timid hypothesis; it already seems to him that he can see it, the truth, that it is perfectly clear--- and his deliberation is concluded with the words: “So that’s how it was, that is how such-and-such a nation should be understood, that’s the angle from which this should be viewed!”

To so radically equate gossip with historical philosophy leads us, surely, to Marx – if only because Gogol, too, is responding to the ‘historical school’ that derives from Herder, Schiller and Schelling; and because Marx, like Gogol, has an eye for the principle of the ludicrous. There are two ludicrous themes in the wood theft articles. One consists in how, exactly, law is re-creating the status of the private property holder in the face of his history – “for no legislation abrogates the legal privileges of property, but it only strips it of its adventurous character and imparts to it a bourgeois character”. There is certainly an undertone in this description, which makes the normalization of feudal law into a cynical play, a game of dress down and dress up, of stripping the adventurer and imparting to him the burger’s placid certainties, that reminds us of Gogol’s Insprector General – and may have been meant by Marx to refer to Beaumarchais. No undertone of comedy is ever insignificant in Marx. Our second ludicrous theme consists in the parallel Marx draws between the modal status of the windfallen wood and of the poor. The wood that by custom is gathered in the forest – wood that is scattered, strewn - is cut off from the organic tree, and thus becomes philosophically unnecessary and organically dead. Meanwhile the gleaners, the poor are also cut off, in as much as their customary rights are contingent [zufaellige] concessions, and thus their very existence, insofar as it is based on these customs, is outside of justice [Recht] – which puts it in Robin Hood’s realm, apart, accidental. In fact, in a beautiful phrase, Marx claims that the custom [Gewohnheit] or usages of the poor are the “anticipation of a legal right.” The spirit of Benjamin, the angel of history Benjamin so fiercely invoked, floats over this idea that the little tradition, the shared usages of the peasants, anticipates the moment of their legal recognition in the future. That anticipation is, of course, the revolution.


Anonymous said…
Again a gentle post. Because of your achates