“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Revolution as method

In my post a few days ago, I proposed one way of looking at the ideology critique that runs through Marx’s writings – namely, in terms of a synchronic and diachronic grid. At the center of the grid, at the defining source of the synchronic and the diachronic, is an impossible present – which, from the Derridian perspective, joins – and logically can’t join – the synchronic and the diachronic, the modern and the historical. To my mind, this point is defined by revolution. Revolution here is the ground of the possibility of Marx’s own writing – his own thought, his own liberation. Marx is a unique social theorist in as much as his understanding of modernity, while it uses the apparatus of the positivist truth procedure and even offers predictions, such as those having to do with the crises of capitalism, does not stand or fall with the truth procedure, but with this revolutionary moment. Marx recognizes that the political economists are playing a kind of fixed game by presenting us with models that serve as the unquestioned reference points of our truth procedure. They, too, have a problem with the moment that ties together the synchronic and diachronic axes of their interpretation – but their strategy is to get around this moment by adopting infinite deferral, by changing the conversation, by promising to reform and repair a system that their very models mystify. The bourgeoisie have, indeed, made universal history possible – and in this sense have, indeed, operated on a worldwide revolutionary basis – but have done so within a sort of neurosis – to use a very non-Marxian term. The neurosis, or ideology, systematically trivializes its founding discovery – freedom – while encouraging the penetration of an economic system of commodity fetishism into every sphere of our private life. Marx likes to exaggerate this penetration – in fact, almost three hundred years after Adam Smith, altruism and a patchwork of non-fungible economic relationships are still the basis of private life. Prostitution has not replaced marriage; nor has the egotism of the marvelous Sadean fucker replaced the altruism of the harried parental unit.

In this sense, Lukacs is right in History and Class Consciousness:

“Materialist dialectic is a revolutionary dialectic. This definition is so important and altogether so crucial for an understanding of its nature that if the problem is to be approached in the right way this must be fully grasped before we venture upon a discussion of the dialectical method itself. The issue turns on the question of theory and practice. And this not merely in the sense given it by Marx when he says in his first critique of Hegel that “theory becomes a material force when it grips the masses.” [1] Even more to the point is the need to discover those features and definitions both of the theory and the ways of gripping the masses which convert the theory, the dialectical method, into a vehicle of revolution.”

While, at first glance, one might classify Marx, in Bakhtinian terms, as a great monologist, in actuality he is always pursuing a dialogue. The dialogue is not just with the masses – or rather, it is with the masses in the same way the dialogue of actors in a play take as a dialogue partner the audience that listens to them. Rather, his dialogue partners are very much in the mode of the figures that the Nephew of Rameau parodies in Diderot’s dialogue. Marx is an indefatigable ventriloquist. Like other highly sensitive post-Romantics – Flaubert, Baudelaire, Karl Kraus – he has such sensitive skin that the misuse of language can give him a rash. And so one feels him furiously scratching as he imagines his dialogue partners, from Adam Smith to Bastiat.

Thus, even as he pursues a serious theme, like commodity fetishism, and seeks to demonstrate the ideology that makes the classical economist attribute exchange value to nature, he goes off – like a blister in the sun – to do something more than argue against the ideologue. It is in this sense that he is more dialogic than monologic – by refusing the protocols of turntaking that structure argument, and using, instead, the full register given to him by world literature, that recent event to which he gives special mention in the Communist Manifesto.

Here’s an example of how sense and speech act cannot be separated in Capital:

“Since the commodity form is the most universal and most undeveloped form of bourgeois production – and for that exact reason is the first to emerge – although not in the same dominant, and thus characteristic manner as today – its fetish character seems relatively easy to see through. By concreter forms even this semblence of simplicity itself disappears. From whence stems the illusions of the monetary system? It isn’t in looking at the gold and silver themselves, for they are presented as money for a society’s production relationship, although in the form of natural things with curious social properties. And doesn’t the fetishim become palpable in the modern economist, who with a high and mighty air grins down at the money system, as soon as it is a question of capital? For how long has the physiocratic illusion been dissipated that rents on land grow out of the earth, and not out of society?

But yet in order not to get ahead of ourselves, it is enough here to mention an example with relation to the commodity form itself. If commodities could speak, so they would say, that our use values might concern men – but they don’t concern us as things. What thing-lishly concerns us, is our value. Our own intercourse [Verkehr] as commodity things shows this. We are related only as exchange values with each other. Now listen as the economist speaks out of the soul of the commodity. [Man höre nun, wie der Ökonom aus der Warenseele heraus spricht]
As so often in the first book of Capital, the serious point here is put in terms of a joke, a killing joke, so to speak.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

As poor as a machine: from the economic philosophical manuscripts

“And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”.

“Während die Teilung der Arbeit die produktive Kraft der Arbeit, den Reichtum und die Verfeinerung der Gesellschaft erhöht, verarmt sie den Arbeiter bis zur Maschine. Während die Arbeit die Häufung der Kapitalien und damit den zunehmenden Wohlstand der Gesellschaft hervorruft, macht sie den Arbeiter immer abhängiger vom Kapitalisten, bringt ihn in eine größere Konkurrenz, treibt ihn in die Hetzjagd der Überproduktion, der eine ebensolche Erschlaffung folgt.”- Marx

“While the division of labor increases the productive power of labor, and the wealth and refinement of society, it leads to the impoverishment of the laborer until he sinks to the level of the machine. While labor incites the accumulation of capitals and thus the increasing well being of society, it makes the laborer ever more dependent on the capitalist, thrusts him into a greater competition, drives him into a rush of overproduction, from which follows an equivalent slump.”

Kolakowski has correctly written that Marx, unlike the socialists of the 40s, had a firmer grasp of the fact that capitalism was rooted in de-humanization. His economic analysis does not marginalize this insight, but builds upon it – which is why Marx never puts the market at the center of economic analysis, even as he is able to represent the reasons that mainstream economists do so.

In the Economic-Philosophical manuscripts, the figure for that de-humanization is the machine.

Not, I notice, an animal. Traditionally, the poor were compared to animals. I’ve done a number of posts on this already – see the posts beginning with this one, on animals and personhood - the conclusion of which was that Sergio della Bernardina was correct to see that the concept of the person, outside of philosophy, is a matter of degrees and situations, and not an absolute. Which means that how personhood intervenes in social practice can’t necessarily be predicted from our definition of personhood – in the cases Bernardina examines, the tormenting of a bear or a bull before it is killed does not happen because its tormenters lack a sense of the animals personhood, but precisely because they want to provoke aggression on the part of the animal to which they can respond, shifting the blame for the animal’s death to the animal itself as a person responsible for lashing out, for acting badly.

In the Christian tradition, it is only recently that environmental historians have pursued the thesis that Christianity, by entrusting nature to man, devalued the environment. I think, again, that this is a mistake. Christianity, in the broad ancient tradition, certainly did not ascribe property to animals. They owned nothing. Yet they did have holes and nests. They had families. Christian iconography is actually replete with peaceful animals, with the redeemed sheep, with the dove, etc.

The animal might not have a property relationship with the world – they could be hunted, they could be sacrificed, they could be eaten – but they were, of course, God’s creation.

Not the machine. The machine not only has not property claim on the world – it has no home. It has no family. The son of man would not say, the chariots have sheds, the hammers have a box – although he’d know it, being a carpenters son. In the double logic of the dissolution of the human limit, when Descartes and the early modern natural philosophers compare the animal to the machine – and man, too – they both advance a new claim about the human relationship to the world (dissolving any limit to its use) while advancing a new and unrecognizable form of human – the man machine, the Other – as the human subject.

The poverty of the worker, who sinks to the state of a machine, is the flip side of the glory of the proletariat, the Other who is the subject of universal history. What does the poverty consist in? Marx sees it, of course, in terms of wealth – but also refinement – the “Verfeinerung der Gesellschaft.” I would call this poverty an imprisonment in routines. It is hard to resist jumping ahead to Freudian terms, having to do with obsessive behavior and neurosis, which, after all, is the mechanical coming to the surface – the arm or leg that doesn’t work, that has returned to dead matter.

p.s. I should say a little more about the machine. It is easy to forget that the Descartes or Le Mettrie’s machine was an automaton, an entertainment. Court societies love F/X, whether it is Versailles, Hollywood or D.C. – but in real material terms, the automata did nothing more than demonstrate the uses of a winding mechanism. What Marx is talking about is not that kind of machine.

As Schivelbusch nicely puts it at the beginning of The Railway Journey, the Europe of the eighteenth century, which was still the Europe of wood and woods, of energy supplied by streams and forests, was losing its woods. He quotes Sombart – and I am going to give some elbow room here to exaggeration and the blind eye turned to the forests in America. Still, wood was becoming more expensive, and in this way an opportunity opens up for other means of energy and structure – notably, coal and iron. To which one must add that water, too, but in a new form – as steam – is part of the complex. In one of the historical ironies that the economic historian scrupulously skirts, even the Corn laws, decried for two centuries, actually contributed to the industrial revolution, for, by raising the price of grain and thus of keeping horses, they “helped replace horsepower by mechanical power in much the same way shortage of wood in 18th century Europe had accelerated the development of coal production.”

So, the older elements of life – that obsession of the romantics in perhaps the last final bloom of eotechnical Europe – were being reconfigured before Marx’s eyes. When Marx was expelled from Paris in 1845, he took the messagerie – the stagecoach – to the Belgian border. In 1848, when he was kicked out of Belgium, he took the train back to Paris.

So, the machine like worker is not, here, the automaton, but rather the new machines which incorporated an unheard of precision and standardization.

Schivelbusch, interested in how the consciousness caught the phenomenological changes being wrought by the machine, quotes a wonderful passage from an advocate of steam engine powered transport in 1825, who describes the imperfect movement of the horse: ‘the animal advances not with a continual progressive motion, but with a sort of irregular hobbling, which raises and sinks its body at every alternate motion of its limbs.”[12] Similarly, Schivelbusch notes that the steam boat was admired at first because it did not tack – it could move against the current and the wind.

A culture picks up in its proprio-phenomenological net such major changes to its habits, but often doesn’t express their novelty, because the vocabulary to express it is lacking. Marx is a monument of the modern moment because, among other things, he understood that the vastness of the changes taking place around him called for the deployment of an entirely different understanding of the world.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The fabulous freaks are leaving town

The fabulous freaks are leaving town

The concept of ideology in Marx must be located on two axes. Diachronically, ideology substitutes the individual for the work of the system. This gesture is present not only in the Enlightenment Robinson myth, which gives us the origin of society in the story of some one individual, but also in the attribution of systematic effects to the ideas of some individual. In reality, those ideas are grounded in the possibilities opened up by some specific historical situation. Marx happily would say the same thing about his own work, which he consciously places in relation to his education, his experience in a Germany emerging from the old order and plunging, inconsistently, into the capitalist order, the social advances produced by the French Revolution, etc. This is, by the way, Marx’s supremely irreligious gesture – although as a romantic writer he adopts a prophetic tone, he characteristically disclaims the prophetic relationship to the world.

Synchronically, ideology names the process of naturalizing the social. This, it is easy to see, is not synonymous with the diachronic axis. Far from operating in terms of individuality, here ideology appeals to such natural instincts as that of appetite, or the instinct for barter, etc., which orients the market in such a way that it can’t be interfered with. Iron laws rule there. Where the Marxist would claim that our future is in the hands of men, the ideological claim is that men are always subject to the iron laws of the market. Derivatively, the class structure of society will then reflect some natural hierarchy – those on top are alpha males, or whatever. Whereas, going back to the diachronic axis, Marxists would discuss the workings of the cultural system, while ideology would see the ideas and inventions of great men.

This is, obviously, a delicate interpretative grid. From the Derridean perspective, it is one that grounds itself in an impossible present which simultaneously joins the synchronic and diachronic and pulls them apart. Or, as Hamlet might say, the time is out of joint.

I meant, when starting this, to quote a lively bit from the Grundrisse. But just to mess up the implications of this post, or at least play with them, a quote, instead, from Bataille’s Interior Experience:

Small comic recapitulation. Hegel, I imagine, touched the extreme. He was still young and he thought he was going mad. I even imagine that he elaborated his system in order to escape (every kind of conquest, without doubt, is performed by a man fleeing a menace). To finish with it, Hegel arrives at satisfaction, turns his back on the extreme. Supplication is dead inside him. If someone searches for salvation, so it goes, and continues to live, one can’t be sure, one has to continue to plead. Hegel gained, living, salvation, killed supplication, mutilated himself. He left behind only the handle of a shovel, a modern man. But before mutilating himself, without doubt he touched the extreme, knew supplication: his memory carried him to the abyss he had perceived so he could annul it. The system is annulation. [EI, 56]

ps - I just saw that Nicole has written two new posts at Rough Theory about Marx. As usual, they are revelatory. Go here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Many of LI's readers may recoil our friend and foil, Paul Craddick. Paul's been rather out of the blogging scene, but he sent me an email alerting me to a group he and his wife have formed, Cantrip. Go to Myspace and check them out! And then inundate EMI with letters and phonecalls demanding that these two get a ten year contract.