Praxis

March 18, 2008

Existence and Property

Every time I try to think about things using philosophy, I’m reminded just how little philosophy I’ve read. I need a great many years absorbing the canon before I can say anything worthwhile – and I don’t have them.

So, talking crap, let me talk about the opposition between existence and properties. On the one hand, you have the philosophical vision that underpins a certain form of empiricism: a substratum, the existent, which has certain sensible properties. The properties may come and go, but the substratum remains, for it is adamantine.

There are all sorts of problems here. For one, this substratum tends to, as it were, ‘drop out’. Since (at least in this empiricist vision) it seems to be the properties, and not the thing in itself, which we perceive, it becomes easy to deny the existence of the thing in itself. Then we’re left with an alternative philosophical vision, in which there are nothing but properties – with no fundamental being to which they are attached. At this point, the concept of existence itself becomes a product of properties, and we find ourselves with a kind of idealism.

If you want to, you can see this in terms of the vocabulary of analytic philosophy. For vision (1), take Russell’s theory of descriptions, in which there is an entirely empty ‘there is an object such that…’ and then a description of the object – a list of its properties. For vision (2), take the theory that (if I remember right…) Quine gestures towards, in which the concept of the class is genuinely basic, and the property of belonging to this or that class precedes our understanding of existence.

Does existence precede essence, or does essence precede existence? – is I guess the point. Or, rather, you obviously can’t understand existence and essence separately.

I hate writing like this. I need to do some reading. But I don’t have time.

Anyway – I want to make a highly shonky move from property in this philosophical sense to property in the economic sense. I don’t think this move is necessarily as shonky as it might appear; but it’s clearly a bit dodge. The point is this: the free market is based on the exchange of property. And the owners of property are, by and large, people. (Corporations too, of course; everything’s very complicated. But let’s try to keep it simple for the minute.) People exchange commodities: that’s the free market.

But I’ve been reading Marx and Polanyi. And what they both emphasise is that capitalism is born at the moment when labour becomes commodified (or, rather, in which certain kinds of human activity become commodified as labour). The basic institution of capitalism is a market for wage-labour. And labour is, in some ways, a very different commodity from any other. Because, to be simple about it, we are labour: labour is us.

I need to qualify that immediately: so of course labour isn’t a natural category; of course all our lives aren’t all labour; of course the very idea of labour, and the way in which it’s understood, is a product of institutions, social structures, mechanisms of discipline and control; it’s the creation of the concept of labour that we want to examine here.

But having said all that. In some sense we are labour; labour is us. A human being owns property. The question is: when a human being also becomes property, what becomes of her relation to herself? Is this relation a relation of ownership? Do I own myself; am I my own most basic property? Or does property not enter into a relationship that is, fundamentally, no relationship at all, but simple existence? Or is the question entirely ill-posed in these terms? And all these questions also need to be asked in relation to slavery – one of the most massive facts of early capitalism, which is by no means dead today.

Believe it or not, these remarks were prompted by trying to re-read some of Keynes’s General Theory, and being struck by the fundamental distinction he draws (p. 23), between the income of entrepreneurs, and the income of factors of production (by and large – labour.) What’s the basic distinction between entrepreneurs and others, which is operative in so much economic thought? Why are entrepreneurs seen as the demi-gods of capitalist culture? Isn’t it because only the entrepreneur fully owns herself? And therefore only the entrepreneur fully exists? According to this logic of existence and property.

And in trying to attack this logic, don’t we have to go deep into the concept of ownership – of property (‘the proper’, as Derrida calls it) – and its relation to (human) existence?

Oh fuck it; this blog’s becoming a nightmare.

12 Comments »

  1. I’ve been hovering over how to respond to this – I don’t think the question is ill-posed, but am wondering whether it might be useful to think this:

    In some sense we are labour; labour is us. A human being owns property. The question is: when a human being also becomes property, what becomes of her relation to herself? Is this relation a relation of ownership? Do I own myself; am I my own most basic property?

    in tandem with thinking through the historical emergence of conceptions of humans as bearers of rights? There’s a certain parallel practice of self involved, where (1) personal capacities are practised as somehow sufficiently distinct from personhood that these capacities can be rented out, without this arrangement involving the sale of the total person – so that there is a socially-available form of practice of self that entails the alienation of one’s own properties, as property? while (2) persons are experienced as rights-bearers. There’s a tendency to reduce this sort of practical homology back to that of the contract/mutual recognition relationship involved in market exchange – the difficulty being that this reduction casts too wide an historical net, and doesn’t cast good light on the timing of notions of rights-bearing personhood (which, again, isn’t quite what you were trying to talk about, but which seems to me to hold the same sort of property (object/owned/separable from subject) and property (intrinsic characteristic that cannot be fully severed from the subject) with which you’re wrestling above.

    Marx will distinguish the labour market from other sorts of commodity markets because the “property” sold there has this dual characteristic (this is not the only way in which labour is bifurcated in capitalism, for Marx, and these other sorts of splits feed back into the one you are thematising here in complex ways, but this would be something I couldn’t write about adequately at 2 a.m. on the fly ;-)). For Marx, the existence of this distinctive kind of market does a number of things – as you’ve mentioned above, it’s a sort of historic precondition for capitalism, understood as a system oriented to quantitative expansion (whether this exactly means that the institution for wage labour is the “basic institution” of capitalism, may depend on how that term is understood); it involves a distinctive enactment of self that parallels an enactment of the collective treatment of nonhuman “objects” (which provides some far more interesting potentials for thinking through the linkages between forms of subjectivity, and “material reproduction” than Marx himself takes advantage of in his explicit metatheory); it suggests that much of what is often attributed to “the market” (and therefore much that appears as old as markets of various kinds) can be more adequately explained with reference to a far more historically specified sort of social institution; it specifies the distinctive product of capitalism, for Marx, etc.

    I had meant to go somewhere with this originally :-) I really need to get more sleep – and to write less at the very end of the night, when it’s beginning to hit how little sleep I’ve had… Apologies if this doesn’t point in any useful directions. What I was intending to do is to suggest that the I think the impulse is sound, to tug at the ambiguity in the term “property” – and to begin to point to some of the ways in which that strange nexus of meanings around this term do capture a certain form of social being. The trick, I think, is to do this in a way that doesn’t get lost in categories that are too transhistorical – thinking in terms of “ownership”, for example, or of “markets” as such, rather than thinking in terms of the very distinctive form of ownership over something that can be sold, but not fully severed from the seller, on a market of a more historically specified form (not to suggest that you are trying to think more transhistorically – only to point to how it can become difficult to articulate the problem in ways that don’t lend themselves too easily to generalisations across societies, that can elide interesting distinctions). Much much too late for me to be thinking about this… Apologies…

    Comment by N Pepperell — March 19, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  2. “The trick, I think, is to do this in a way that doesn’t get lost in categories that are too transhistorical” – absolutely; your remarks all seem to me to point in useful directions. :) I’m quite conscious of frequently succumbing to the philosophical temptation towards… uh.. tranhistoricality. I think this is partly just overhastiness, and partly ignorance (I don’t know enough history to start situating the things that interest me in appropriately specific contexts). What you say about the historical emergence of conceptions of human beings as bearers of rights is fascinating to me – but I don’t know anything about it. :) Any reading tips?

    There’s also a more deep-rooted (albeit blindingly obvious) problem, though – and I think this ties back to your emphasis on immanent reflexive critique. What exactly is the status of the concepts we deploy in our polemics, analyses, critiques, meditations, etc? On the one hand, it’s easy to say ‘no philosophical systems transcend history’ and critique certain dominant philosophical (or other) concepts from this stance. But then (obviously enough) the question becomes the status of the concepts we ourselves use to formulate our emphasis on non-transcendence. It seems, in general, extraordinarily hard not to be ‘asymmetrical’ here – not to smuggle in implicitly trans-historical, transcendent conceptual resources of our own. So, as you say, it’s incredibly important that we’re able to account for the status of our own ideas as well as critique the supposedly trans-historical status of others’.

    This, I think, is one of the big problems for deconstruction. Derrida (as ever) insists on a ‘double-movement’ – the historically sedimented nature of supposedly purely ‘philosophical’ concepts on the one hand; but, on the other hand, the reappearance of ‘philosophy’ in its most powerful, classical forms at the heart of many of the systems or critiques that aim to ‘cut philosophy down to size’ through an emphasis on its systems’ historical contingency. Derrida’s work is also caught in this double-movement. Put bluntly, it’s entirely unclear whether the infamous ‘metaphysics of presence’ is an in some sense inescapable feature of all thought, or just an as-it-happens-hegemonic historical contingency.

    One of the things that’s so interesting about Marx, to me, is the way he connects the resources of Hegelian philosophy to a far more ‘contingent’ view of history than that which Hegelian philosophy seems to demand. But again, total ignorance, nothing useful to say here…

    Comment by praxisblog — March 21, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

  3. Actually, this is exactly what I’ve been wondering about, in re-reading Specters over the past couple of days:

    Put bluntly, it’s entirely unclear whether the infamous ‘metaphysics of presence’ is an in some sense inescapable feature of all thought, or just an as-it-happens-hegemonic historical contingency.

    There is so much of this text that seems very specifically in dialogue with Marx’s concept of value (as I understand this concept) – but the concept of value is a radically historicised concept in Marx (it’s more ambiguous whether all other concepts are equally historicised – I’ve tried to make the case that Marx understands apparently decontextualised terms as specifically contextual, as part of an argument that a qualitatively specific kind of “decontextualisation” is a plausible perception of certain dimensions of the reproduction of capital, but that’s a more controversial reading, than the simply claim that value is a category of capitalism alone). But the thing that puzzles me, in Specters (about mid-way through the text at this point, and reading fairly casually) is that there are sections that are quite reasonable glosses on the concept of value, and other sections that are reasonable glosses on how I might understand Marx’s concept of critique, but the formulations sometimes sound… sufficiently generic? that I’m not entirely clear how Derrida understands their… historical index?

    Then there are some clearly historically specified claims (Derrida seems to feel that something about the development of media invalidates something in Marx’s concept of capitalism – I’ve written on this sort of thing before, and am generally not too persuaded: again, I can’t speak specifically enough about Derrida’s argument yet, but arguments that Marx didn’t adequately grasp the role of media, or information technologies, or culture, or similar, tend to rely on a different notion of capitalism than the one I think Marx mobilises – but I’ll leave this aside until I see the whole argument), but the claims that are clearly historically indexed don’t link (yet) in a clear way, to argument about spectrality. The consequence is not simply that elements of the argument seem to retroject back into time, but that the argument can have the implication of identifying critique with what I would call abstract negation – with something that asserts its ability to remain a pure negative, devoid of positive content. The issue with Marx’s argument about value – and the tacit conception of critical theory that accompanies it – is that, regardless of the dramatic social changes being advocated, the argument is actually quite modest: it’s talking about a specific dimension of contemporary society (albeit a global dimension, and one that has strange “ontological” properties because it consists in a pattern enacted via the transformation of empirically-observable entities) whose practical constitution generates divergent possibilities; it argue that, at the moment, we are (collectively, unintentionally) “selecting” a particular subset of possibilities, but that other possibilities are available; the (conscious, political) selection of those other possibilities then can transcend “value” – a transcendence that would also undermine the form of theory that expresses value’s distinctive qualitative characteristics… The theory is the theory of its object, and nothing more.

    There is a tendency in theories of the period in which Derrida is writing – so, not specific to Derrida at all – to be very nervous about critique as another other than negation – a move to critique as perpetual negation, as always-opposition. I understand (at least some of) the historical motivations for this stance, in the horror at the results of earlier utopian projects. There is, however, a sort of divorce between critique and practice that occurs when critique attempts to situate itself as an always-negation – as something intrinsically and necessarily disconnected from practical possibility. Trashistoricisation, in a sense, is this practical problem, translated into a problem of philosophical self-consistency and reflexive coherence… But I don’t want to make any strong claims specific to Derrida here – just marking that these sorts of questions are occurring to me as I read, even as I’m also enjoying a number of the metaphors he uses, to the extent that I read these metaphors as attempts to express the strange “ontological status” of a category like value (which, as Marx jokes, is a category whose confusing properties mean that we “don’t know where to have it”). At any rate… hopefully I’ll come up with something more coherent as I continue to read…

    On the more general issue of immanent critique: there are certain sorts of – particularly programmatic-normative – claims I suspect one surrenders the ability to make, with the step into an immanent critique. In other words, even a statement like “there can be no transhistorical philosophy” is a sort of performative contradiction – does this make sense? Immanent critique instead moves in the opposite direction – not starting with the general principle, but with its specific object? This object – say, value – has these properties, which include a property of being theorised in this (reflexive) way, because the “object” is not “a thing outside us”, but is also “us”, something we have collectively made, in making ourselves the sort of creatures who make such a thing, etc. Whether other objects can be theorised in this reflexive form, in a sense becomes a case-by-case matter, rather than an abstract theoretical principle. This can be difficult to express, because it’s easier to explain what’s being attempted in a kind of programmatic way – “critique must account for its own standpoint” – but, as with Hegel’s endless protestations that his prefaces are “by way of anticipation” and not adequate to his argument, there’s a sense in which programmatic statements are dangerous for immanent critique, threatening to erect it into yet another axiomatic system with arbitrary first principles from which conclusions then follow. The actual movement of the argument needs to be very different – it needs to be shown to emerge – the form of the theory, as well as the content of the theoretical claims – from determinate characteristics of what it theorises. Hegel took this to be a condition of rationality – the way we could show things are non-arbitrary, in a period in which we were no longer willing to accept the anchor of traditional authority; Marx translates this from the terrain of rationality to that of practicality – unless we operate this way, we won’t grasp how our ideals connect back to potentials that can be realised in practice. It’s this move that frees Marx of the need to posit some sort of overarching coherence to history, to allow contingency – but still to argue that, out of chance, can come specific and theorisable forms of potential – at least around here, around now… Not sure whether this tangent makes any sense – just thinking out loud…

    On the issue of persons as rights-bearers: apologies – I wasn’t trying to be cryptic – I had thought that might be lurking in the background of what you had written above, as the dual meaning of “property” (as something intrinsic, and something that can be sold) seems very close to the notion of person as rights-bearer – rights being strange intrinsic things that are also “properties” “possessed” by persons: the ontological status of rights is unclear – why does it suddenly become plausible to find the Rousseauian move intuitive – to assert that we are “born free” and yet we are “everywhere in chains”? These strange ontological ambiguities – our ideals of things that, strangely, exist intrinsically, and yet don’t exist at all – is, for Marx, always a marker of value – a spectral category surrounded by ontological confusions that drive a whole theology of explanations, most of which, for Marx, don’t come close to linking ideals back to practice, to showing how we might generate particular kinds of freedom – but as potential, not as invisible innate property…

    An enormous amount has been written on the issue of rights, and on the link to “bourgeois” society. I haven’t, though, found anything that doesn’t try to make this argument with reference to the market (rather than, as I think the argument probably needs to be made, with reference to capitalism, where capitalism is not being reduced to the market)). That, and I’m terrible at remembering what I’ve read ;-P – I’m the world’s worst person for recommending readings, as I sort of read randomly, remember the idea, and promptly forget the most basic details of where those ideas come from… The best I can probably do is try to keep in the back of mind that it might be interesting to mention some works, as I run across them again…

    Sorry this has been so scattered…

    Comment by N Pepperell — March 21, 2008 @ 11:57 pm

  4. “read randomly, remember the idea, and promptly forget the most basic details of where those ideas come from…” LOL! I’m the same (except for when I get competely fixated on some particular text or phrase, and try to connect it to everything else in the world for about eighteen months. :) ).

    “re-reading Specters over the last couple of days”. Dammit! You’re actually re-reading it. :) Now I’m going to have to dig out my copy and not rely on half-remembered misunderstandings. Until I do that I can’t respond more than shakily – but briefly…

    1) “There is… a sort of divorce between critique and practice that occurs when critique tries to situate itself as an always-negation”. Yeah, absolutely, and I think this, or something like it, is indeed the big problem with Derrida’s ‘political’ writings, particularly ‘Specters’. ['something like it' because, of course, Derrida is big on affirmation in his later work, and the 'negation' he proposes in 'Specters' is, obviously, the 'affirmation' of the ever-present possibility of justice. But this 'affirmation' is apparently as contentless as the 'negation' of critique; two sides of the same coin, as it were. (Where coin = capitalism :) .)]

    I don’t know if you’ve read Steven Shaviro’s post on ‘Specters’? It seems to me that he mostly hits the nail on the head. He writes: “For Derrida, it’s a matter of deconstructing, and thereby dismissing, all of Marx’s positive claims about history, about capitalism, etc., and only adhering to a sort of vague and general sense of dissatisfaction with the world as it is. Which is why Derrida ultimately rescues from Marx and Marxism only its ostensibly religious core, its messianic dimension, its utopian (though Derrida scrupulously avoids this word) promise of a better world… But to push the question to this level of metaphysical generality is to ignore the particular ways that Marx’s formulations work. Derrida convinces me that, yes, there is a logic of spectrality at work in Marx’s discussion of exchange-value and commodity fetishism; but to say this is not to exhaust the implications of Marx’s theory. Marx says that, but he also says a lot more. And that more is where Marx specifically addresses the particular implications of capitalism and commodity production. A different mode of production would involve different specters, different forms of “spectral incorporation,” different implications for human life and society, a difference in the extent of human suffering. Indeed, Derrida keeps on reminding us that the underlying problem is the one of which specters we are dealing with; but at the end of his analysis he ignores his own warning… What I’d rather see, what I’d find much more interesting, useful, and relevant, would be an approach that considered the already-deconstructive implications of Marx’s own categories.” Quite so. And this is what I meant a while back when I said that a ‘Derridean’ reading of Marx that’s radically different from Derrida’s own reading would be possible. More to follow when I’ve looked at the book again, though.

    2) Re: immanent critique: I see what you mean. I guess I don’t have a good enough handle on your approach. :) Off the top of my head, though: “In other words, even a statement like “there can be no transhistorical philosophy” is a sort of performative contradiction – does this make sense? Immanent critique instead moves in the opposite direction – not starting with the general principle, but with its specific object?” Sure – it may seem that we run into the sands of self-refutation if we try to generalise a commitment to specificity; to make trans-historical a commitment to immanence. (Assuming I’m using these terms right, or in ways you’re comfortable with). A lot of the back-and-forths I used to be interested in – particularly on the margins of analytic philosophy (stuff like Rorty, I mean) was very preoccupied by these concerns. And I’m not saying I don’t still have a lot invested in them – but I’ve developed a certain I think healthy impatience. I’d characterise my ‘philosophical’ position as something like, say, ‘bored Wittgensteinianism’. The problem for so many of the debates over ‘relativism’ [quote unquote, heavily sardonic tone] – debates in which I personally have encountered claims such as “even a statement like ‘there can be no transhistorical philosophy’ is a sort of performative contradiction” … these debates always seem to me to be skewed towards transhistoricity.

    I don’t think I’m being very clear. But consider what Wittgenstein’s response to statements rejecting an apparently transhistorical rejection of transhistoricity would be. Something like – “okay, we have here a ‘performative contradiction’ – but what makes this into a performative contradiction? And what makes a ‘performative contradiction’ into a problem? Only the language games we are choosing to play at this moment – the language games of a certain sort of intellectual endeavour. Why can’t we just say – ‘okay, it’s a contradiction, so what, shit happens?’ – or, alternatively, ‘but this isn’t want I mean by ‘contradiction’; because in the language-game I’m playing, as opposed to the one you want me to play (and in the language-game that I think you should be playing too – and here’s why…) the concept of ‘contradiction’ doesn’t apply here.” [This would be only part of a Wittgensteinian reaction; but more in a second.] So part of my response is – if we jump all over statements such as ‘there is no such thing as transhistorical philosophy’ on grounds of performative contradiction, doesn’t this partly illustrate the extent to which we remain within the philosophical systems that our (attempted) rejection of the idea of trans-historical philosophy attempts to escape? In trying to be rigorously immanent we might here be admitting too much ground to transcendence…

    I’m not sure if that makes much sense. But the other part of my response is much more grounded, and is, basically, to change the subject. (That’s the ‘bored’ part of ‘bored Wittgensteiniansism’ :) ). A lot of thinkers, like, say, Rorty, or I guess John McDowell (who I kinda hate, but never mind) try to pursue the Wittgensteinian project of bringing philosophy peace, putting an end to philosophical perplexities, etc – and their endeavours really are caught within a kind of performative contradiction, because they remain working philosophers. There’s this huge industry of philosophers explaining why they should be out of a job. That’s a performative contradiction. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t use the vocabulary and ideas of such philosophy – or of much more thoroughgoingly ‘philosophical’ philosophers – while simply engaging in a completely different project – a practical and, at least partly, empirical project, that nonetheless draws on the resources of highly abstract thought. I mean – I guess that was at least the idea behind ‘Theory’ as it developed in the American academy – a post-philosophical use of the resources of philosophy in the human sciences, lit crit, film studies, feminist and queer theory, etc. etc. And while I’m impatient with a fair amount of Theory, my impatience is basically that it isn’t practical enough.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that our idea of ‘transhistoricity’ is probably itself already socially and historically contingent. If we think we’re engaged in performative contradiction by using ideas transhistorically while emphasising the impossibility of a truly transhistorical use of ideas, that probably shows a certain lack of confidence in our endeavour. After all, it’s just true that there’s no such thing as a transhistorical philosophy – and (here comes the bored part) the philosophers can debate the supposed paradoxes that are produced by that declaration, and we can get on with using it.

    All this is very unclear – and a massive tangent. I hope it’s clear that my argument isn’t with you but with certain intellectual tendencies I’ve run across in the past… an argument I’ve been having in real life & in my head. :) I may not really understand what you mean by ‘immanent reflexive critique’ – but it seems like good news to me. :) Hope it all makes some sense… (Also, these wordpress comments boxes are an absolute nightmare to write in at any length, aren’t they?)

    Comment by praxisblog — March 23, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

  5. I’m heading off to get some sleep, but just in passing… ;-) I’ll write something more substantive when I’m no longer giddy from sleep deprivation (you joke about blogging while intoxicated – my problem is getting enough sleep to avoid a perpetual state of impairment… ;-P). I’ll respond more substantively when more awake…

    On comments boxes: yours are more capacious than mine (although I do provide a preview) – email is always possible (I’m a bit self-conscious of clogging up other people’s blogs with massive comments – somehow they always seem shorter to me, until I hit post…).

    Take care…

    Comment by N Pepperell — March 23, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

  6. Okay. Slightly more awake today (although no coffee yet, so we’ll see how meaningful this statement is…). I wanted to start at the back – on the issue of performative contradiction and bored Wittengensteinianism (lovely, lovely term). Here’s my problem (and by this I mean, literally, my problem – not a problem with what you’ve said, but a problem I experience trying to express something that is both quite central to my work, and yet difficult for me to get across adequately): I spend a lot of time talking about things that sound “idealist” or “philosophical” – and that therefore sound like things that might be amenable to a Wittgensteinian or Rortian sort of solution – they sound like problems of thought, problems in how a question is posed, etc. The solutions sounds as though it should be “so don’t think that way”. My difficulty is that I’m trying to operate in a framework in which “thought” or even formal types of philosophy, aren’t separated out somewhere, floating off, distinct from practice: my interpretative gamble (which I think was also Marx’s gamble) is that (at least certain kinds of) problems in thought are symptomatic or expressive of practical “contradictions” – and therefore can’t be “thought away”. Moreover, simply sidestepping and ignoring these problems, actually might deprive us of important clues about what is happening on a practical level – since I take the form of thought we tend to find intuitive – the sort of “gravitational wells” into which our habits of perception and interpretation tend to fall – to have something to do with how we are practically enacting our collective lives. So my objection to someone like Rorty, for example, although I’m extremely fond of his work in many ways, isn’t so much that he declares that philosophy is useless, and yet continues to be a philosopher: it’s that he thinks that the problems he sees within philosophy, emerge idealistically – as problems within philosophy, as results of bad decisions in philosophical lines of attack. This tacitly treats philosophy as divorced from everything else we do, and philosophical decisions as capable of leaping outside the horizon of other forms of practice: it’s not terribly surprising that, from this starting point, you would declare the uselessness of philosophy – this position simply realises or renders explicit the starting presumption that philosophy floats free of practice. (I’m simplifying – at its best, this sort of argument would link philosophical issues back to tempting, but incorrect, extensions of linguistic practice – so metaphors invalidly extended to places they shouldn’t extend, etc. – my real quarrel, if I were posing this argument more adequately, is that there is a reduction of “practice” back to “linguistic practice” – social practice to me is a broader category and, once wielded as a broader category, it becomes possible to link forms of linguistic practice back to other forms of social practice, and unearth qualitative homologies between the two, at least on a very abstract level – but this is becoming much too condensed for anything I could develop here…)

    At any rate: the point of this long-winded mess is to say that I see practical consequences in not paying close attention to certain problems that might appear to be “just philosophical” in character – particularly when it comes to questions like understanding why it suddenly becomes intuitive to us to think in terms of categories like a “material world”, a “social world”, and “history” – with the various specific qualitative attributes we intuitively attribute to such categories. It won’t “work” for me to just outline these concepts as starting assumptions – to declare that “it’s just true that there’s no such thing as a transhistorical philosophy” – because precisely what I want to understand (and what I think is important to understand, as it happens, to get a grip on capitalism) – is why this sort of a priori or axiomatic claim suggests itself to us as an intuitive starting point. Note that this is different from adopting a sceptical stance toward this claim – I’m not contesting the notion that philosophies are historically specific: I’m asking why this is such an easy claim for us to make. And, by extension, I’m asking about other sorts of patterns into which our thoughts and arguments tend to fall, once we make this claim – and about why, when people want to deny this sort of claim and assert some form of transhistoricity, their thoughts and arguments also tend to fall into particular forms. My argument would be, roughly, that we miss something on a practical level – that we miss something about how we are collectively enacting our relationships with one another – when we tacitly treat our positions as what I usually call an “abstract negation” – as positions that are “just true”, as positions that represent what is left behind, once everything arbitrary and artifical has been stripped away (incidentially, if the parallel doesn’t jump out at you: this is the same habit of thought that underlies the tendency in political economy to treat the social institutions for which it advocates as “natural” (even though they don’t yet exist), while treating the social institutions of which it’s critical as “artificial” – I’m suggesting that we can at least lift our critical game above that of political economy). If we aren’t treating our own positions as posititivies, as determinate negations, we are severing the link between ourselves and collective practice – we might be understanding the genesis of the things we criticise, but we aren’t understanding the genesis of potential alternatives. And it’s our grasp on those practical alternatives that renders critique non-utopian. This was a major obsession of Marx’s, and I can’t help but think he’s onto something, in the priority he places on it.

    The difficulty it causes, on a practical level, for me, is that I run around talking about the importance of doing these sorts of things – of “being reflexive” or “avoiding performative contradiction” – and it just sounds as though I’m making some pedantic point about philosophical self-consistency – and then the response (quite reasonably) is like the one you’ve given above: can’t we just assume this stuff that we all think is true anyway, and just work from there, etc. My position is precisely that we can’t assume it: not if we want to understand why and how our own critical ideals link back to practical potentials for transformation… Particularly given that I think the context in which we’re operating is one in which the “default” position – the position we end up in, when we take for granted the sensibilities that are intuitive to us around here, around now – is precisely the position that reproduces capital…

    Now as stated this is a bit grandiose, and I only believe it to a certain degree: I don’t think participants in social movements need to wander around with their annotated notes on Hegel and Marx… ;-P But I think the complete absence of this sort of reflection, at least at some level, does impair the ability to anticipate the consequences of political actions… In some ways, it’s a small contribution, this sort of work, but tacit notions of what capitalism is, how it works, what it would mean to overcome it, etc., inform political practice – and, where those tacit ideas have led in the wrong direction, this has tended to undermine emancipatory projects in a dramatic way… So I suppose one of my motivating questions is whether there is some way to make this a bit less likely in the future…

    Now I’ve completely lost track of what I’ve said, and what I haven’t said… ;-P My intention was to respond to your comment about Wittgensteinian boredom, and then, by implication, to your question about immanent critique – I’m not quite sure I’ve done either intelligibly… ;-P On Shaviro’s post on Specters – I suspect I read it some time back. I both agree and disagree with the summary you’ve posted above: I do think (as I wrote somewhere earlier in one of our exchanges) that Derrida seems to be aiming for a sort of permanent negation with all the talk of “dry messianism”; Derrida also, very weirdly, actually criticises Marx for trying to limit his analysis only to capitalism, when the things Marx discusses should have been extended to any “techne” – I find this frankly bizarre, in the sense that many readers actually miss that Marx is making historically-specified claims, but I don’t think I’ve yet seen a reader who “gets” that Marx is doing this, and then criticises this boundedness on the grounds that it is bounded… Admittedly, Derrida’s fear here seems to be that Marx mistakes the overcoming of some specific society, for something apocalyptic – as if overcoming capitalism would overcome all individual and social ills (and there are moments in Marx where he will make comments about people seeing “clearly” once capitalism has been overcome – I think these moments fall behind the best dimensions of Marx’s analysis, but I would criticise them from a different direction than Derrida seems to do). I do, however, take the issue of spectrality to be incredibly central to Marx’s work – although Shaviro is right to wonder whether, for Derrida, the assertion of this centrality is tantamount to dehistoricising or desocialising Marx’s approach… At any rate… I’ll try to take this up more adequately at rough theory when I have a bit of time…

    (Gah… sprawling mess – sorry – I can’t even proofread it…)

    Comment by N Pepperell — March 24, 2008 @ 2:11 am

  7. [...] aspects of this text, with assorted tangents on other topics, are also being discussed over at Praxis, and that Praxis helpfully pointed to the far more systematic and thorough review of this text [...]

    Pingback by Roughtheory.org » Disappearing the Apparent: Further Comment on Specters of Marx — March 24, 2008 @ 7:54 am

  8. I don’t have time right now to read through all of this, but I just wanted to mark that I… uh… wish I did. :-) And also to point out that there’s some particularly interesting stuff on the dual function of property in feminist stuff. I’d point you towards Irigaray’s ‘Women on the Market,’ but I should really glance over it first, to recall what I think of it. But there is certainly something interesting in the way that the Cartesian split works to produce the body as property (while the mind is the ‘real me’ that does the possessing… ) as Locke demonstrates. Then, of course, the fact that women are marked as never proper subjects means that they slip all too easily into being property (along with those of other races, for example). All of which is bound to a rather interesting sense of essentialism wherein *some* are rendered possessors of property, and others as essentially property themselves. And it’s at around about this point I start wondering about Heidegger and the question concerning technology— but I really ought to sleep. Phew. I really shouldn’t try to sketch. Do carry on, you two :-)

    Although I should point out that I wish I had *your* nightmares, Praxis… ;-P This blog’s teh awesome.

    Comment by WildlyParenthetical — March 24, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

  9. N. Pepperell – thanks for this comment. I don’t really feel able to respond adequately, so I’ll just throw out a few quick thoughts. Everything you say seems right and helpful and good to me. And put like that it does seem dubious to take the ‘lets take XYZ as given, and just get on with things’ line. One important thing, for me, you put like this: “I don’t think participants in social movements need to wander around with their annotated notes on Hegel and Marx…” On this isssue of the relation between theory and non-theory, and, within theory, between philosophy and non-philosophy (assuming it’s legitimate to use these vague words…): it’s probably just because of the theoretical space I’m coming out of – but I find it very important to take, at one level, a pretty brutal line regarding theory’s scope. Of course, part of me wants to reduce everything to theory (that’s the philosophical impulse, after all) – but I’m also obviously suspicious of the inclination to put everything through a certain theoretical matrix before engaging with it. Not that I’m suggesting that you’re suggesting this: it is more an issue for deconstruction: Derrida describes Marx as a pre-critical critical theorist, with the suggestion that only a Marxist thought that has passed through deconstructive space can make good on Marx’s ‘messianic’ promise… But it seems very important to me that, to some extent, we are pre-critical – that we should be pre-critical… that we can’t and don’t do anything at all without being pre-critical in the strongest sense. This is why ‘changing the subject’ is important. It’s not that it’s important just to dogmatically assert ‘there’s no such thing as trans-historical philosophy’. I’m not exactly advocating an axiomatic approach in which certain ideas are just taken for granted. Rather, I’m trying to emphasise some of what I think you’re also saying in your post: that there are different ‘levels’ at which ‘ideas’ manifest themselves; that only at a certain such ‘level’ do they manifest themselves ‘as ideas’; that philosophy is incredibly invested in reducing all the other levels to this purely theoretical level; that this can only be fought with a counter-theoretical approach that manifests itself on the philosophical level as axiomatic dogmatism; but that this approach perhaps only appears as dogmatism if we buy into the philosophical claim that ideas can’t be discussed as products of collective practice, etc. Hence the importance of changing the subject. That’s what – as you say – Rorty completely fails to do. Wittgenstein often does it – but Wittgenstein always remains within hailing distance of philosophy. Saying ‘don’t be stupid; XYZ are just true; lets stop pissing around’ isn’t a ‘naive’ philosophical claim. It’s a turning away from philosophy – in order to find ground from which philosophy can be productively criticised, and which cannot, in turn, be swallowed up by the theoretical impulse. I guess I don’t think taking this line need be incompatible with the reflexive critical approach you advocate.

    I’m not putting this at all well; and I’m not engaging properly with most of your comment – sorry. I’ll think about it all a bit more.

    [But w/r/t your immanent reflexive critique - is it dumb (or inconsistent) of me to say that there must be something that such critical theory just goes ahead and presupposes? (That the whole point of Marx's departure from Hegel is a rejection of the idea of 'presuppositionless' thought, in favour of starting from just the facts on the ground... (And mightn't Derrida's ultimate commitment to the genre of philosophy be what leads him to criticse precisely this aspect of Marx...?)) I'm just blathering now, sorry....]

    WildlyParenthetical – thank you! I’ll definitely try to check out the Irigary – it’s been added to my infinite list (but near the top…)

    Comment by praxisblog — March 27, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

  10. I’m wondering a bit from your response whether I came across as more critical of your position than I intend to be? In any event: the issue for me lies primarily in paying attention to as many possible sources of information as possible, about the nature of the context we are trying to transform. In other words, I’m not so much suggesting that it’s the engagement in philosophical argument per se that is important, certainly not (for me) for its own sake, but that what I tend to call “abstract negations” – critiques that suggest that competing positions can simply be dismissed, without an understanding of why those positions might be – not correct, but plausibly incorrect – can mean passing by an opportunity to understand aspects of our context that extend well beyond the actual sites of philosophical debate. (I also don’t regard philosophical discourse as something uniquely interesting in this respect – this is a general orientation I would adopt to much more everyday and non-technical forms of discussion, particularly when the themes or forms of subjectivity associated with those discussions seem, to me, to be repetitive over time, emerging in many different forms of discussion and practice over time.) Of course there is a practical level at which things can be dismissed or ignored – my orientation isn’t really to what would be required to “refute” another position, and I’m not asserting the need to “refute” other positions, but rather to asking what we might learn about our context, from the fact that certain positions tend to arise and resonate within it.

    On the issue of “pre-criticalness”: it depends on what you mean by this. I tend to think that practical potentials often initially arise accidentally and unintentionally, and in this sense are the products of pre-critical activity. Conscious political action is always in some sense reflective critical action – action that is trying to go past whatever we have constituted to this point, in order seize particular potentials and effect certain kinds of transformation. So I see no particular tension in thinking that potentials might arise unintentionally and “pre-critically”, but also thinking that political practice is intentional critical practice – to this extent, we’re talking, not about the difference between “critical” and “pre-critical” practice, but just the difference between different forms of “critical practice”. It may then be that certain forms of critical practice might be insufficient for particular goals, and can be criticised accordingly. I suspect we lose a bit too much, though, if we start expressing this form of objection, as an objection that seeks to valorise “pre-critical” over “critical orientations. To make this a bit less abstract: I tend to capitalism, in a very basic way, as a dynamic structure that reproduces itself via transformation. It’s very easy, in such a context, to confuse the transformation of an outgoing form of capitalism, with the overthrow of capitalism as such – and for movements that are insufficiently attentive to this risk to do various self-undermining and, at times, catastrophic things. “Pre-critical” action could, of course, accidentally manage to do away with capitalism – there’s no reason to rule the possibility out. But various forms of conscious, deliberate, critical action are already in play – ranging from mainstream economic discourses, through to various reformist or revolutionary proposals. One of the things that Marx seems to see himself as doing, is sorting through the various forms of conscious political action, in order to try to work out what consequences might follow, from efforts to follow through on their proposals – this doesn’t seem to me a bad thing to attempt to do.

    In terms of presuppositionless critique: two things. First, even for Hegel, the notion of a “presuppositionless” theory isn’t quite as mystical as it can sound. The notion of presuppositionlessness just means that, by the end of the system, Hegel will have explained why each of the categories deployed in that system – including the starting point – are equally necessary to the system. This can be difficult to express, and I’m very short on time (I’m realising I probably shouldn’t have mentioned the tangent on Hegel at all ;-P – but I’m happy to discuss this at another point, when my net access is back to normal – the short version is that the claim wouldn’t be so much that nothing is presupposed, as that all presuppositions are justified by the system itself, where “justification” means something like “demonstrated to be required in order for the other categories to have the determinations they have” – Hegel makes a joke somewhere at the beginning of the Logic to the effect that removing a dust mote from the universe, transforms the universe – that image is sort of what he’s aiming for: he “determines” everything in his system, by mapping the relationships each thing has to all the others – those relationships “are” the things – this is more or less what “presuppositionless” means for him – that he doesn’t appeal to anything that won’t eventually be determined by the network of relationships he describes. I say all of this, without claiming that Hegel succeeds by his own standards, or that I personally feel that this standards are important to meet).

    In any event, Marx isn’t aiming (on my read) to construct a Hegelian system in this sense. He is, though, aiming to demonstrate the moments of the process of the reproduction of capital, and he effects this demonstration by showing what these moments are in relationship with other moments. These “relations”, of course, are themselves contingent – we make them; we can change them. But – this is important for Marx’s argument – just looking at “facts on the ground” can actually make the relationships difficult to see – among other reasons, because this approach could obscure the ways in which “facts” become facts. But I would need to say much much more on this – apologies for this – I have too little online time at the moment. I haven’t expressed this well, but am happy to keep talking about it – when I’m settled back in Melbourne again, it will be a bit easier.

    Hopefully this hasn’t confused things even more… :-) Probably should have left this until I had more time… Take care…

    Comment by N Pepperell — March 28, 2008 @ 4:43 am

  11. I think the confusion was at my end. My thoughts are too unclear/ill-formed to be translated into helpful comments. I’ll try to be of a bit more use later…

    [And Irigaray. Jesus.] [I can in fact spell her name. Don't know what was wrong with me when I posted that comment.]

    Comment by praxisblog — March 28, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

  12. [grins] Ah, but the real test is whether you can pronounce it, Praxis ;-) I spent most of undergrad following my lecturers and pronouncing it Iri-GAR-ay. I am now assured that it is, in fact, i-RIG-aray. This is what working Australia, that far from actual French folks does to you! (It was a little embarrassing when I found out… :-))

    Comment by WildlyParenthetical — April 1, 2008 @ 11:27 pm


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