Alienation - can't do with it, and can't do without it, part 1


In the German Ideology (as Duncan pointed out to me last week) there are textual indications that Marx is disowning part of sketch of alienation he made in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.

As always, though, Marx never simply erases or annuls the conceptual contents he has used in the past – rather, he continually switches from the content to the form and back again to both ironize a content and locate it in a conceptual system that is always at work, one way or another, in the practices of everyday life. It is usual to attribute this method to Hegel, but myself, I think that is being much too philosophisch. Lenin once remarked that “Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” – and I would say, along similar lines, that Marx’s method equals Hegelian dialectic plus the railroad. That may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but Marx was well aware that one of the unintended results of technology was a revolution in perspective. While it is easy enough, abstractly, to dream of going sixty miles an hour in a vehicle from point a to point b, the “industrial experience” (to use Schivelbusch’s term) of being a railroad passenger and seeing something never seen by human beings before – to wit, a landscape going by at sixty miles an hour - was a distinct and disturbing sensation, one that had to be absorbed by nineteenth century populations, along with other industrially created perceptual experiences. The list of technological improvements in the Communist manifesto is also a list of changing sensory models. Thus, if Marx takes over and revamps the technostructure of Hegel’s dialectic, it is in coordination with the questions posed by modernity’s sensorium.

The questions I’ve been posing about the affectual structure of the commodity and money circuits of capitalism all point us to alienation. As I have said in an earlier post, nothing about alienation in Marx leads one to think that it transcends historical epochs. On the contrary, Marx, here, is employing a term that should be adapted to the circumstances – the mode of production – dominant in a historical epoch. Marx’s game, in the German Ideology, is to knock down the trans-historical sense given to certain concepts by the school of “critical critique.” However, that isn’t the same as saying that these concepts are empty. This isn’t therapeutic nihilism. They do have a communicative use – even if the notion of communication is oddly missing in the German Ideology. I should point out here that this is the one a-modern gap in that text, which is otherwise so fiercely concerned with words, so determined to bring ‘down to earth’ the flights of the philosophers, and which does so with a language in which we recognize ourselves – a language that so often seems so very contemporary. This is why we expect Marx to recognize the pragmatic, communicative dimension of language – it seems so obviously important to his project – and are surprised by the fact that it is not really there – that the brain/hand duality eclipses it.

Thus, we come to the word, which is strung with quote marks: It comes in the subsection entitled history, right after Marx has discussed the larger meaning of the division of labor:

“The social power, meaning the manifold force of production that arises through the coordination of different individuals conditioned through the division of labor, appears to these individuals, because this coordination is not chosen, but naturally generated, not as their own, united power, but rather as something foreign [fremde], a power standing outside of them, of which they know neither the whence nor the wherefore, which they thus can no longer master; and even on the contrary moves, now, through the series of phases and steps of development on its own, not only independently from the will and actions of people, but even directing the will and actions of people.

This alienation ["Entfremdung"], in order to remain understandable to the philosophers, can naturally be abolished only under two practical premises.”

The quotation marks do their disowning work here – but what is disowned is still used. I could, of course, apply my fine Derridean sniffer to root out this use of the denied – and even ask some questions about its use value. But that I will set aside for another time- since of course we “know” (o speak, denial) that Derrida in the Spectres has misunderstood something as simple as use. But the point I want to make here is that the quotations which suspend alienation also return it to one set of its property holders – the philosophers. Marx, one should remember, did study law, so for him this is a word with at least two property holders – the philosophers and the lawyers. And a lawyer could ask whether the chain of title is quite correct here – whether the philosophers have mistakenly taken property in this word as though it were not a metaphor. Indeed, as the term appears in the Corpus Juris of Justinian, which was translated into German in the 1830s, alienation is continually contrasted with Diebstahl – robbery. A proper alienation of property – making it exchangeable – is set up in contrast with the theft of property, which also makes it exchangeable. And it is from this context that alienation is taken into the language of the philosophers – whether properly or not is the question posed, but not answered, and perhaps not answerable, by placing the quotation marks around the term.