Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Of interest--a review of a (relatively) new book by Jameson, Representing Capital (2011).

Monday, January 27, 2014

Resources for Marxist Theory

Hi everyone. I am not going to be regularly making posts, as I am only auditing the course. But I thought I'd share a few resources for those looking for supplemental reading/viewing material. The first is a Resources for Marxist Theory reading list put together by Paul Heideman that has links to many article length texts on questions ranging from political economy, the state, socialist organization, women's oppression, class and class analysis, and racism and race. Another great visual and audio resoure is WeAReMany. I saw that several earlier posts reference Dana Cloud. WeAreMany has three audio recordings of talks she has given at an annual conference calls Socialism. The link to her talks is here: Another great resource for articles coming from contemporary marxist perspectives in the International Socialist Review. They have just relaunched their journal and articles are all free online. A particularly useful article considering our early readings, "Is there Anything to defend in Political Marxism," by Neil Davidson, can be found here: Looking forward to class discussion.

Marx, Marxist, marxists...

After reading Marx and most of the blog posts already presented, I am struck by how my impressions of Marx diverge from Marx’s own words in The German Ideology.  Continuing our, perhaps over used but endlessly entertaining, metaphor from the first class, I showed up to the party. Over heard some partially disparaging rumors about Marx, and then introduced myself to him proper. In this week’s readings, three factors struck me as particularly productive and or insightful. By productive, I mean that I now understand why Marx himself may not have been a marxist. A proverb whose true meaning escaped me until as recently as my Saturday readings.  These three items center neatly around ideology, Marx’s ontology, and finally the ubiquity of marxist thoughts in my daily course readings.
Marx’s ideological and ontological insights fit neatly together.  Contrary to earlier rumors and whispers of Marx,  I found his empiricist, at times strictly empiricist, conception of reality mildly surprising.  Of course, given the heavy materialism, attacks on the Hegelian idealists, and emphasis on false consciousness, my surprise is perhaps born of my own ignorance.  After all, the suggestion of false consciousness perfunctory assumes a true consciousness which is inherently suggestive a one discoverable reality. Yet, the vigor, and frankly sass, with which Marx regards such idealists was refreshing: “The most recent of them have found the correct expression for their activity when they declare they are only fighting against “phrases”. They forget,however, that they themselves are opposing nothing but phrases to these phrases, and that they are in now way combating the real existing world when they are combating solely the phrases of the world.” (Marx, The German Ideology, p. 36).  A note that has been repeatedly sung by authors in our field like Dana Cloud.
In one recent, also Saturday, reading concerning a critical approach to interpersonal communication, Marx’s contributions to critical theory unhindered by failed predictions became obvious.  Lannaman (1991) critiques the interpersonal communication field for assuming the isolated monadic nature of the individual. Questions of intentionality, consequence, and awareness are largely uninterrogated in interpersonal communication. Other stones left unturned include questions of the material and cultural positions of interviewed participants. A critique that can easily be extended to cognitive psychologists etc.. Of course, Lannaman draws off of Althusser more than a pure Marx reading of marxism. But both Lannaman and Marx critique the individualist assumptions of liberalism.  For Lannaman and Marx, contemporary interpersonal communication scholars commit the sins of past historiographers when the take “Every epoch at its words and believes that everything it says and imagines about itself is true” (Marx, The German Ideology, p. 71).
Such a use and reading of Marx suggests two things. First, though in fields sympathetic to critical study Marx and marxist critiques of the perception of the liberal and enlightened individual are common, outside of our offices and bookshelves this assumption continues and informs the foundations of entire fields.  Perhaps, we might add this analysis to Sunkara’s  “Why the Ideas of Karl Marx Are More Relevant Than Ever in the 21st Century.” Finally, Marx’s empiricist and positivist approach to a single material reality foreshadows later authors who may disagree with his ontological assumption.

Lannaman, J.W. (1991). Interpersonal communication research as ideological practice. Communication Theory, 1(3), 179-203.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Potential of General Intellect

Perhaps one of the elements I appreciated most about Marx’s arguments is that his explanations address meaningful connections between people living within a capitalist system. As Chandler points out, on surface, the dialectic is apparently tidy. I, however, was taken by the complexity and careful articulation of the interrelatedness and interdependence of such a system: “Production, then, is also immediately consumption, consumption is also immediately production. Each is immediately its opposite.” It is in identifying how each stage is unique and interrelated that we are able to begin to understand the complex workings of a capitalist system. This understanding allows us to consider where chinks in the system’s armor are weakest.
The conclusion we reach is not that production, distribution, exchange, and consumption are identical, but that they all form the members of a totality, distinctions within a unity. . Mutual interaction takes place between the different moments. This the case with every organic whole (Exchange and Production para. 4)
Such understanding is key to progress—or dare I say, Revolution. The true nature of the political economy lies disguised within these mutually perpetuating, bi-directional relationships. The distinction between each element is reified within public discourse; each element is examined as unique and unrelated. What is more, individuals are separated from each other, unable to see their relationships to others. While individuals are constrained by their individually situated conditions, we can understand and exploit the interrelatedness of the system.
            This understanding has to come in some sort of general intellect. It is not enough that a few recognize this interconnectedness, but rather such knowledge must compose some sort of communal doxa. While prophetic in some regards, Marx surely had little conception of the extent to which contemporary life would be governed by machinery and technology. Although, in some regards, his conversations concerning machinery condemn society to a spiraling, capitalist hell have come true, in others, we might find the seeds of revolutionary potential.
As early as 1999 Nick Dyer-Witherford argued that technological advancements would break down walls. Economic powers have certainly sought to protect themselves—tightening regulation and controls to keep up with such advancements (consider instances from SOPA, to the death of Aaron Schwartz, to ongoing net neutrality battles). Outside of the strictly commercial, however, Dyer-Witherford suggests that technology can be used to foster a revolutionary knowledge, arguing that, “working-class emancipation involves the collective ownership not only of the physical machinery of production but also of ‘the general intellect’” (p. 220). While far from perfect, we might take into account the role of techology in recent revolutions in across the Middle East. More than simply the where and when of a protest or action, technology revealed and communicated the ways that power manifested itself throughout diverse contexts—and then proposed solutions. While many of these efforts have resulted in little material change (if not a return to some instantiation of pseudo-democracy), I wonder if it is false hope to see the seeds of possibility within the digital. If not televised, I wonder if, through the fostering of revolutionary general intellect, the Revolution might be Tweeted?

Within popular culture, I thought NPR’s T-Shirt Project did a great job of exposing the interconnectedness of our chains of supply and demand, tracing the production of a T-Shirt from cotton field to Western store to an “after-life” in sub-Saharan Africa

Dyer-Witheford, N. (19991). Cyber-Marx. University of Illinois Press: Champaign, IL

The Coffee House

I noticed a couple of things while waiting in the long line at the Coffee House on Saturday morning. The members of the working class behind the counter were responding to the endless demands of the Lincoln bourgeoisie by deliberately slowing down production (and affecting a somewhat pissy attitude in the process). Whatever works, right? In a gesture of solidarity, I avoided placing an order for a complicated beverage and instead ordered just a cup of coffee. At one point while reading Marx, I realized that “Children of the Revolution” by T. Rex was playing.

We were asked to consider the reading of The German Ideology from the logic of the argument as well as the details of the argument itself. I appreciate this task, as the myriad moves of the argument would take some time grasp as nuance (I’m not quite ready for the final exam). That being said, I am really interested in the first step by which man essentially comes into being: “They [man] begin[s] to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation” (37). So, from here, it’s all about production—the materialist view of history. Interestingly, this seems to be almost a casual sentence for Marx, who drops it in along his way to describing larger operations. But is there any pressure that can be placed on this seminal moment? I actually can’t think of any. What I also find troublesome is the fact that conceding this point to Marx means that—like Hegel—an enclosed system is established. In a materialist view of history, we are inescapably tied to that thing that defines us. Therefore, there is nothing extraneous to the system; there is no transcendence. He returns to this notion time and again. But to turn quickly to his famous vision of a communist society where “it is possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic” (53), doesn’t he offer this vision as a corrective to a system that he at least implies is unequal, and therefore unjust? But isn’t justice a transcendent concept? Maybe not, come to think of it. The material view of history would argue that justice is based on some ideal form of equity in some mode of production or productive output.

I bring up the concept of justice because I have been thinking about Joshua Clover’s presentation last semester. I don’t remember if he used the language of “justice” when arguing that it was time to overturn cars, break windows, and set fire to things in order to wipe capitalism from the face of the Earth. But again, the notion of injustice certainly informed his arguments. In addition to a few people alluding to the possibility that such an approach has been tried before to varying degrees, it is worth asking what this activity means as part of an enclosed system. (And I know that we are not talking specifically about capitalism at this point.) My question relates to the Communist (or the Communist Revolution), which for Marx, is “a question of revolutionising the existing world, of practically coming to grips with and changing the things found in existence” (44). Is his operation here in reality actually a transcendent one because man will consciously separate from and thereby control production? Is man not transcending that which originally defined him? If so, is it not untenable based on Marx’ own materialist construct. (Just to be clear, I am not making that tired Reagan-era proposition that Communism is untenable because it is a utopian fantasy. Marx clearly has no interest in the fantastic.)

For now, I am just going to avoid ordering fancy coffee beverages when there’s a long line.

On Production and Language

Did I misread this, or is Marx’s German Ideology a critique full of hysterical and sarcastic remarks directed towards schools of German philosophy? I laughed at each instance, though not without my doubts for what came off as dry humor. 
Whether or not I misunderstood Marx’s humor, I think we can appreciate his wit in the manner in which he employs the opening to Grundrisse so as to explain (rather concisely) the unquestionable relevancy of production: “Production by an isolated individual outside society – a rare exception which may well occur when a civilized person in whom the social forces are already dynamically present is cast by accident into the wilderness – is as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to each other.”  So, even if Tarzan would volunteer for an empirical study, Marx would very likely deem it a needless endeavor: “There is no point in dwelling on this any longer.”  Production, like language, are fundamental conditions to the creation (or production) of history.  To return to Marx’s German Ideology, then, the production of history is at the center of a social process that involves “the co-operation of several individuals, no matter under what conditions, in what manner and to what end.”  Similarly, language can be thought of as consciousness in the sense that “language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men.”

I will be interested in further examining the function of language in the form of literature, namely through the process Marx later describes where production “appears as the point of departure,” and consumption its conclusion; distribution and exchange, of course act as mediators between the two, but how this process mediates language is not yet clear.   

Marx's Dialectics

In trying to get a handle on Marx's dialectics, I found the Introduction to the Grundrisse extremely interesting, as I think the logic makes itself more apparent there than elsewhere in our initial readings. In this section, Marx methodically works through the relations between production, distribution, exchange, and consumption, demonstrating how each exists as a moment in a "totality" or in an "organic whole," although production is always the predominant moment. In so doing, Marx also demonstrates how standard cause-and-effect logic is subsumed within dialectics: it has its place but is necessarily limited in its insight.

Marx begins by examining the relation between consumption and production and comes to a threefold concept of the identity between the two. First, production and consumption are related immediately. Every moment of production is a moment of consumption: nothing can be produced without consuming something else at the same time, and nothing is consumed without producing something new. In this sense, production and consumption are two sides of the same moment in the flow of matter from one form to another.

Second, production and consumption are related mediately; they appear as "indispensable to each other" but still "external to each other." In this sense, consumption is a means or condition for production to take place, just as production is a means or condition for consumption. Naturally, without production there can be no consumption: if an object isn't first produced it can't be consumed. However, without consumption production is also impossible, because consumption "creates for the products the subject for whom they are products." A product isn't a product in reality, unless it is really consumed.

Third, and finally, production and consumption are related causatively or creatively. Each moment of production or consumption "creates the other in completing itself, and creates itself as the other." This identity corresponds to traditional logic: production causes consumption and consumption causes production; because of this, Marx acknowledges that this identity is "frequently cited in economics" in the law of supply and demand.

I think that what we see in this threefold identity is Marx's dialectic at work. Just as the first moment in Hegel's dialectic is Being (or, in the "Lordship and Bondsman" chapter, self-consciousness that exists "in itself and for itself,") the first moment in Marx's is the immediate relation between production and consumption-- production is consumption and consumption is production. From this first moment, immediacy comes outside itself and mediates itself through an other: Being is mediated by Notion, one consciousness is mediated by another, and production is mediated by consumption (and consumption by production). Finally, the other is subsumed and the dialectic advances: consumption creates a new moment of production and production creates a new moment of consumption.

Marx is careful to emphasize that production is the real point of departure for this process and therefore holds a sort of predominance over consumption: "The individual produces an object and, by consuming it, returns to himself, but returns as a productive and self-reproducing individual." However, distribution and exchange step in between production and consumption to create further complications and Marx continues to move forward building the network of dialectical relations that holds everything together.

It seems clear to me that the method that Marx demonstrates here is the method of "rising from the abstract to the concrete" that he explains in the section later in the Introduction titled "The Method of Political Economy." Marx starts with the abstract concepts of "production" and "consumption" and works through a dialectical logic to connect them to each other and then later to the concepts of "distribution" and "exchange," slowly making the total process that each of these concepts are a piece of more complete. I would like to better understand this section, however, and the relationship Marx explores between his method and "the process by which the concrete itself comes into being," how his method is related to the real world.

Tim Lundy


I wonder about Marx's view of production, distribution, consumption, and exchange in the introduction to the Grundrisse because it seems that the main reason for its inclusion is to showcase Hegel. Reading a phrase like "a mediating movement takes place between" production and consumption--which are both immediately each other--makes it clear that Marx is desperately trying to engage in Hegelian dialectics (91). But it seems to me to be the only real motive for the section. Isn't it obvious to suggest the aim of production of any object is in its consumption; in the consumption of the object that the production is realized? Marx goes on to say that "production predominates not only over itself...but over the other movements as well" (99), before concluding that "mutual interaction takes place between the different movements" (100). These two statements detract any profundity that could be drawn from the passage because they sound like conclusions that are so easily reached. The depth of these processes that Marx defines makes it clear that he has given careful consideration to the intricacy of the individual components, and yet the interplay between them seems comparatively lacking in richness (or at least lacking in necessity for inclusion). I am more than likely missing the spark of genius in the passage, but from my understanding, it amounts to a dialectical practice and hardly anything else. If that is the case, the subject of Marx's analysis loses importance because it could be replaced with any other subject that lends itself to a similar dialectical approach.

Thoughts on "Grundrisse"

Thoughts on Marx’s Grundrisse:
Chandler (though I am working from his draft) questioned the profundity of Marx’s analysis of the moments of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. I was a little surprised by his question, because I found this section so illuminating. Chandler is right to point out the obviously Hegelian dialectic nature of Marx’s analysis of the relationship between these four moments, but making this analysis doesn’t seem to me as obvious as he claims. When we think of “the economy” we don’t think of what we on a daily basis as being “production of human beings”—we call ourselves “consumers” (and I my understanding is that this was true in Marx’s mid-19th century as well). Therefore, showing the dialectic relationship between production and consumption—that in fact, via negation, only the other completes them—helps us see how complex a seemingly straightforward concept like “the forces of production” really are. If all production is in fact both immediately consumption and mediates consumption then it is, after all, the determining base to the determined superstructure. This section seems to me to be working very hard to establish the grounds for the “materialist conception of history” that we read about in the Marx’s polemic against Feuerbach.
            What puzzles me here is although he argues that production is the “point of departure for realization and hence also its predominant moment”, he has to admit at the end of the section that “[m]utual interaction takes place between the different moments. This is the case with every organic whole.” (95,100). So, if things are interacting mutually, organically, always already determined, (as with the social distribution of the means of production, or the concepts which create the “assemblages” of available materials) then what is it about production that makes it so special? Traditionally, it was desire—a lack, a negative reality—which was understood to drive production. Marx seems to want to make production rather more self-propelling and less linked to Geist. To say that the production is the first thing seems to ignore the fact, raised earlier, that to produce anything is always social—always comes with a history, is always being put to a social use. This is clearly covered when Marx talks about man as a zoon politikon, and the social nature of language. But he seems to drop social (and ideal) determination when he ends up talking about social production as if it were immanent and changeable by individuals, I think this is what is at issue on 101, when he talks about “thought appropriating the concrete.” It seems like Marx wants to isolate the “concrete substratum” from any meaningful relationships which could create what we could properly call a “world”. He seems to want to have it both ways—a socially produced world and a preexisting world (I’m indebted to Bruno Latour for that argument) Am I reading that correctly? Does Marx deal with these questions better than I have understood?

            I don’t think that my quibble invalidates his critique of the methods of political economy, or his ideology critique of the bourgeois de-historicizing of the category of capital. The notes on page 108 seem to break down our capitalist society in a quite reasonable way, and like I said, I found all of this a very illuminating way to think about economies—but I was still a bit confused by what struck me as inconsistencies.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Thoughts on early Marx writings

To my mind, what's interesting about Marx in these early works is not only how he frames and develops his argument, culminating with Capital, but also how he separates his views through criticism of other thinkers and schools of thought, such as Feuerbach and the Young Hegelians. For example, in the preface to The German Ideology, he outlines his goal to bring the Young Hegelian theories -- which Marx says are tied to God and the "ideal man" -- closer to reality by joining them with the "wretched and real" conditions of the German working classes. Further, Marx claims that Feuerbach is stuck in the realm of pure theory, that he does not see the connection between history and materialism, and therefore never arrives at the true existence of man (46).

In this manner, Marx is asserting the value of his "study" to his peers, although his argument has not yet crystallized. In the German Ideology, he says that to answer the most important questions -- e.g. to what extent to historical conditions affect production, and what part does it play in the course of history?  -- we must first study the production process, the engine of capitalism. He begins his analysis by stressing the importance and interconnectedness of each mode of the process -- production, distribution, consumption, exchange -- but claims that production, as the starting point, is the predominant and driving force in the process.  

In other words, Marx believes his study of political economy is valuable because, unlike other thinkers, he is attempting to marry theory with the reality of current working conditions: i.e, his analysis of the production process, and how it is affected by changing social and historical conditions, will reveal the strengths and flaws of capitalism more accurately than "pure theory."  In Grundisse, reinforces these concepts and ideas: for example, how man cannot be productive in isolation, and how there can be no production without the right conditions, such as labor and capital. Historically, he discusses how "conquering" nations like Britain used colonies like Ireland, India, and America to boost commerce and manufacturing, even using the phrase "for pillage to be possible, there must be something to be pillaged."  He argues that in nations like the U.S., labor has become a de-individualized process, a form of creating wealth, rather than (as in Russia, perhaps) labor being an expression of skill and individuality.

Finally, Marx states that capitalism has succeed by forming classes and divisions: Capital, wage labor, and property. Town and country. Production and distribution, and exchange between them. All this has created a social hierarchy: the working class, the middle class, and those who own the property and means of production.  In my view, these early writings are ambitious and thought-provoking, and when I read Capital I will be eager to see how much he "proves" or follows through on these ideas.

-Tom Bennitt

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I want to emphasize that I don't expect you to post super polished texts here. Of course it's desirable that you edit your writing before posting; but consider this space as an opportunity to explore, experiment, test out ideas, put yourself out there, interact, etc. It's not about getting it "right."

Also, you may very well want to respond to something you've read early and perhaps pose a question about a text or your understanding thereof. Others might reply to your query and help you work through something, even before coming to class.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Welcome to our Marx/ism course blog

Hello everyone,
this space is intended to foster conversations among you about the assigned readings. The idea is twofold:
--each of you should regularly post some "original" thoughts in response to one or more of the assigned reading for a given class meeting (see syllabus)
--each of you should regularly post responses to those "original" responses.

Those posts are due by Sunday, midnight, before our scheduled class meetings.

I will largely stay out of the conversation in this space but will monitor it and use what you post in preparing our class meetings.

See also the "Assignment" document on Blackboard. If anything is unclear, please ask me.

Happy blogging! (something that's entirely new to me...)