“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, January 15, 2011

Marx and the two removes


Last year, I did a rather hasty reading of the chapter on circulation work in Capital, Chapter six. In thinking about homo economicus, I’ve returned to chapters five through seven and thought more seriously about Marx’s analysis – his counter-magic - here. For Marx, in writing these chapters, is taking aim at an idea that took root in Mill and has now blossomed, abundantly, in every apology for the insane incomes of CEOs that one finds strewn across the pages of the mainstream economists today. Marx, in one of those dense/light passages in which he specialized (in which the heavy machinery of his concepts seems, at the same time, to be making the moves like Fred Astaire showboating), wrote, in Chapter 5:

The circulation time [Umlaufszeit – orbital time] of Capital thus puts limits overall on its production time, and thus its valorization process. And actually it puts these limits on the latter in relation to its own duration. [-R:that is, the duration of circulation time] This can vary a lot, either increasing or decreasing, and thus limit in very different degrees the production time of capital. But what the political economy sees is that which appears, namely the effect of the circulation time on the valorization process of capital in general. It grasps this negative affect as positive, because its consequences are positive. It insists even more on this semblence as it seems to deliver the proof that capital possess a independent mystical source of self-valorization apart from the exploitation of labor, that flows to it out of the circulation process. We will later see how even the scientific economists can be deluded by this semblence. It is, as will be shown, strengthened through various phenomena: a. the capitalistic mode of calculating profits, wherein the negative ground figures as positive, since for capitals in different spheres of investment, where the circulation time only functions differently, as longer circulation times serve as the ground of the elevation of prices, in short, as one of the grounds for the equalization of profits; 2. the circulation time constitutes only one moment in the circulation time, as the lateer includes the production time or reproduction time. What is due to the latter, seems due to the circulation time. 3. The conversion of commodities into variable capital (workers wages) is conditioned through its previous metamorphosis into money. By capital accumulation the conversion into additional variable capital occurs in the circulation sphere, or during the circulation time. The accumulation thus resulting seems to be owing to the latter.”

My translation, I should say.

As always, in Marx, the moment of demystification is the moment in which the images in the camera obscura of ideology are reversed – this is Marx’s deep connection to Michelet’s witch, who reverses the sacred verses in order to find the material truth about society.

Marx’s distinction between the two spheres starts an analytic process by which a new definition of value, or a new way of seeing value, is slyly introduced. In Chapter 6, as we will see, there is a fleeting reference to the difference between value for – or from the perspective of – society and value for the capitalist. The circulation worker, as Marx will make clear, is formally exploited like the production worker – her time is exploited – but not in terms of the surplus value she produces. She produces an instrumental value in terms of the sphere of circulation, but – as circulation produces no value – she cannot produce surplus value.

I will go more into that in another post. But let me hastily draw some large conclusions. I think we can find, here, the basis for a model of modernization that moves forward in “two removes” – the remove from nature and the remove from production. When Peter Drucker, in the sixties, began to popularize the idea that capitalist economy had entered a new phase with the domination of the ‘knowledge worker’, there was a core of truth in his idea, even if it was the realization of conditions that had long been the case: in modernization, the sphere of production is not only the sphere in which value is produced, but it is also marked down for shrinkage – like agriculture – as it becomes occluded by the sphere of circulation. The importance of clerk literature – Gogol’s discovery of the banal – comes about as the sociological and existential consequence of the fact that the supposed duality between culture and nature is really a threefold matter, which the circulation worker feels in his or her bones – not only does ‘culture’ block nature, but so does production. The sense that the movement of paper – or bytes – is removed from value sinks, of course, to the bottom of the collective consciousness – it is a much repressed truth – and yet it continually returns. It is in these sociological and existential conditions that homo economicus is introjected into the developed economies, and, in as much as they represent the iron and inalterable path in which all parts of the world market are moving, the destiny for the populations of all developed countries, who are not only on the treadmill of production, but that of circulation as well.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

the interstices


In a letter to a friend that serves as the preface to Francois Laye’s French translation of Book of Disquiet, Pessoa writes that “life bothers me almost noiselessly, in little sips, by the interstices.”

Pessoa’s heteronym, Bernardo Soares, whose reflexions constitute the Book of Disquiet, is, like Pessoa, a clerk and a poet. I’ve already broached the juxtaposition of commerce and poetry in my previous post. The literature of the clerk is created in the interstices of the system of world trade. The Daoist element in modernism consists in looking, with a poet’s consciousness, upon the clerk’s routine.

‘I know very well that the day when I am named the chief accountant of the firm Vasques and Company will be one of the great days of my existence. I know it with a bitter and ironic anticipation, but also with that intellectual advantage of a certitude.”

In contrast to this note of the deepest resignation – the resignation of Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, whose life is consciously devoted to an all embracing lack of faith – there is the note entitled Absurd Axioms, which begins:

To become the sphinx, even the fake sphinx, to the point of no longer knowing who we are. For, in fact, we are nothing other than the fake sphinx, and we really are ignorant of who we are. The only way to find ourselves in accord with life is to be in disaccord with ourselves. Absurdity is the divine.

To found theories by a patient and honest reflection for the sole purpose of combating them afterwards - to act and justify our actions by theories which condemn them – to trace a path in our lives for acting, consequently, in the inverse direction of the path. To effectuate all the acts, to assume all the attitudes of something that we are not, that we do not claim to be, and that we, further, don’t wish others to imagine that we are.”


This is the credo of the circulation worker on the brink of the alienation that defines his place in the system. I am indifferent to whether the circulation worker is working in the post office for the government or the marketing department for a software manufacturer. These axioms are taken from one form of the real, which was discovered by Gogol (in the sense that Columbus discovered America – Gogol simply bumped into the already-there) as the eternal banal.

Literary reflexions that I want to put in relation with another genre of discourse – that of economic rationality.

I have misused the notion of the exchange matrix as proposed by Robert Clower in a famous 1967 paper about the efficiency of money as a mediator of exchange. There is an excellent discussion of this in Philip Mirowski’s The Reconstruction of economic theory. Clower’s images still adhere to the grand principle of neo-classical economics, which is that it is prices all the way down – the seismograph takes over the earthquake machine, and we assume equilibrium where there is none because otherwise, we don’t have a theory. The assumption of neo-classical economics cleans the ‘price’ of its dialectical character – not accidentally. Instead, all are given ‘endowments’ exogenously, and enter into the system – there is no room here for Pessoa’s realization that his life is caught in the interstices.

Still, the form of the exchange matrix is excellent. I view it as a kind of spread sheet – indeed, it is a spread sheet. It is one we all carry with us. The values by which we calculate change according to the frame we are operating in. And here, borrowing from Bataille, I would say that the economist’s view of rationality is really ‘limited’ rationality – the rationality that applies to a certain common form of the spread sheet, which applies to one level of social practices, in which the capitalist element is strongest. However, limited rationality does not define all rationality. The mistake economists make when, in dismay, they confront the discoveries of behavior psychologists - that, for instance, preferences aren’t transitive or invariant, and that rational choice makes a highly select use of real individual behavior – is to think they are witnessing ‘irrationality’. What they are witnessing is the rationality that comes with changing the options of the spread sheet – for instance, the preference tool. This is possible because the spead sheet consists of affordances. Rationality is defined in terms of the options that are checked – and in this sense, that is, in the sense that there are an indeterminate number of matrixes of exchange, we are dealing with ‘general rationality.’

Monday, January 10, 2011

I prefer not to

I was talking with A. last night about what I call clerk literature – or wastepaper basket literature. I hope she likes this post.

There is a lineage that goes from Lichtenberg’s Scribble book through Lamb, Baudelaire’s Fusées, Rozanov, Pessoa, and – supremely – Kafka, whose request to Brod to burn his papers was, as it were, a request from this history itself, over and above Kafka’s personality. The principle holding this literature together was enunciated by Bartleby – I prefer not to. This is, in the universe of the clerk, equivalent to Lucifer’s non serviam – it ties together the two elements of the scribble and the institution. If we can speak of an institutional consciousness, it is always a consciousness of the system. Jack Goody, in The Domestication of the Savage Mind, notices the importance of the list in all early writing that has been found in the Mesopotamia. Goody divides lists into three types: the list that is a catalogue of names, events and offices, which he calls a ‘retrospective’ list, and which can be thought of as a representation of work-flow; the ‘shopping’ list, or the list that includes expectations and items for future projects; and the lexical list – the proto-dictionary, the list that lists the elements of listing – sounds, letters, numbers. A very important list, according to Goody, in Mesopotamia. All three of these lists are dealt with and syncretized in the clerk’s office – viewing the clerk very broadly as one of the central types of ‘circulation’ worker, as Marx named them. The accountant’s task, for instance, is – for all of its spreadsheet cleverness – directly related to the functions invented in the Mesopotamian bureaucracies.

The clerk’s literature is a form of Western Dao – Bartleby’s phrase operates in this invisible tradition much as certain phrases from the Chuang Tzu operate to bind together the concept of the Dao. “Therefore a man who has wisdom enough to fill one office effectively, good conduct enough to impress one community, virtue enough to please one ruler, or talent enough to be called into service in one state, has the same kind of self-pride as these little creatures [the cicada and the quail who mock the giant flights of monster birds, etc.] Sung Jung-tzu would certainly burst out laughing at such a man. The whole world could praise Sung Jung-tzu and it wouldn’t make him exert himself; the whole would could condemn him and it wouldn’t make him mope.”

Sung Jung-tzu’s laughter, to be sure, is different from Bartleby’s inexpressiveness. But in the line of texts that extend from Lichtenberg to Kafka (and into the pit of which, I think, literature in the age of its de-institutionalization is being inexorably lead), there is a laughter that comes out when, for instance, Kafka read his stories out to his friends. Or in a letter to Felice, when Kafka told his fiancé that he was famous in his office for his laughter [Ich bin sogar als grosser Lacher bekannt] and gave the example of his inability to stop laughing when, one day, the president of the Insurance company made a speech bemoaning the accidents of workers and the trouble this causes for insurance companies. In fact, Kafka coulndn’t help laughing, nor could he even look away and disguise his face when the President made his speech.

Therefore (the phang ascended to) the height of 90,000 lî, and there was such a mass of wind beneath it; thenceforth the accumulation of wind was sufficient. As it seemed to bear the blue sky on its back, and there was nothing to obstruct or arrest its course, it could pursue its way to the South.
A cicada and a little dove laughed at it, saying, 'We make an effort and fly towards an elm or sapanwood tree; and sometimes before we reach it, we can do no more but drop to the ground. Of what use is it for this (creature) to rise 90,000 lî, and make for the South?'