Sunday, January 26, 2014

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.


  1. While I appreciate your questions regarding the potential of transcendence in Marx, I feel compelled to take issue with the coffee shop narrative you use to frame your post.

    While, I do agree that the coffee shop is certainly a site where the worker is part of a machine that distances them from more meaningful production, I am troubled by the idea that modifying a drink order is a "gesture of solidarity". Can an act demands the continued functioning of the machine truly be considered solidarity? Does the degree to which we are empowering the owners of the coffee house (by spending less money) really change the nature of alienation and control the employees feel?

    This is not to say that I am not also complicit in the maintenance of bourgeoisie/capitalist values, I am far more often a consumer rather than an activist. However, as Dana Cloud (1998) warns us, building in part on Marx's criticism of Idealist philosophy, that when we focus on these individual acts that make us feel like activists or in solidarity -- it is easier for us to ignore problematic material conditions (I cite Cloud as she is one of the few materialists in the discipline Communication). If we are truly concerned about for the workers at the Coffee House, let us help them fight for better conditions.

    At this moment I too am reminded of Clover's talk. While I certainly thought he tended to limit agency in troubling ways -- I do think there is a role for theory to help direct activism -- a major facet of his talk seemed demand we keep a strong focus on supporting material opposition to the problems of capitalism. While we can talk about the problems and nature of the system, when we do act it must be in defiance of the system, not just marginally less complicit.

    In sum, yes we should ask the big questions, they are worth answering, but we must also remember that these question (at least according to Marx) must consider the full range of material conditions when seeking a true theory of praxis.

    I also write this reply because I addresses one of the main questions I had while reading The German Ideology. In section II (1), Marx posits that philosophers all to often focus on self consciousness, while ignoring the material. I often feel like the discipline of communication is all to ready simply evaluate a text, ignoring the material conditions behind its production. Many scholars than label such evaluations, which may be critical of troubling aspects of the text activism. I have to wonder is the same problem prevalent in English. As such, much of my umbrage with your position in not directed specifically at you, but rather a general question of the complicity of the academy of reproducing dominant conditions (something Marx notes in III (1)).

    Broadly this leaves me wondering, can we in the academy every truly be in solidarity with anyone but the dominant classes who support our endeavors?

    Cloud, D (1998). Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics: Rhetoric of Therapy. London: Sage Publications

  2. One thing that struck me about this post is the implication for the value of ones time. In this case, the tension seems to be a tension between the time of the worker (production of the coffee) and the "free time" of the customer. Whose time is more valuable? Is the fact that the pace of the worker impacted the enjoyment of the leisure time of the "Lincoln bourgeoisie by deliberately slowing down production?" (Was the slow-down indeed deliberate?) How one's time is valued, it seems to me, is a function of class. While our readings touched briefly on free time/idle time in "The Fragment on Machines," it didn't fully articulate this aspect of class as I've experienced it (both as a waitress and as a Coffee House customer). I look forward to giving further consideration to this in terms of our class readings/discussion.

  3. "Time" is indeed a crucial aspect in Marx(its) discourse. TIME FOR REVOLUTION is a book by Negri; and Negri's reading of Marx in MARX BEYOND MARX will touch on the question of time in significant ways, too. And of course Marx gets at it in for example "Fragment on Machines"


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