Reading Language in the Beginning of the Grundrisse

If you say you want a revolution, read Marx. If by “you say you want a revolution” you mean you are interested in a social change through speech and communication (and not a caustic accusation about being “all talk), read Marx for language. (By language, as you will see, I do not mean the “discourse” of critical discourse theory, nor literary-poetic expression, nor grammar, nor axiomatic formal language–at least not exclusively. What I mean is speech: “natural language” to the analytics; a category close in kind to the speech acts characterized by the later Wittgenstein as moves in “language games” and the kinds of utterances to which ordinary language theorists like J.L. Austin and P.F. Strawson refer. In Volosinovian terms: neither individual subjectivist language nor abstract objectivist language, but rather social language.)

Reading Marx at all is an issue to deal with itself, though. What do you read? There is so much. And so much has been said about the so much that the prospect intimidates. Just the sheer number of written words file-able under the category “Marxist” is enough to think about when it comes to language in Marx. And I am only adding more, word by word. Cutting right to the chase: I will read the first sections of the Grundrisse and selections of Capital, Vol. 1 because the former is a conceptual laboratory of Marx’s economic thought and the latter is its widely known expression.

There is a lot to say about what I mean by “economic” as opposed to “political” or “social” or “sociopolitical,” or any one of the jaundiced jargon words uttered when thinking about the living beings called humans when they get together. When I say economic I mean “of the struktur.” One of my main goals in this reading and writing is to learn more about the difference between struktur and uberbau and where language is in the schema. For now I will cite Brad Hollingshead’s (2013) recent essay on the various voices of Marx, and follow him in listening to the economist’s voice rather than the systematician’s voice (doing kritik rather than critique as Hollingshead recommends). I am interested in the possibility of a speaking revolution, not a teleological-dialectical revolution but rather “merely” a change in the relations of production through new patterns of communication. So I think reading Marx’s  semi-formal and formal writing about ideas in economics is the best place to start (rather than the rhetorical, political, philosophical, or epistolary writings).

You can read for language, speech, and communication in the Introduction to the Grundrisse and a section at the beginning of the first notebook, the chapter on Money, in at least three ways. The first is through explicit references to communication. I can find two: the term “means of communication,” (109,161) which shares the same formulation of other important terms like “means of production,” means of distribution and exchange. “Means of x” is a repetitive, almost lyrical chorus in Marx and so we might think about communication within the frame of this formula. (He does not say “mode of communication,” for instance. Though maybe this does not matter.) The second explicit reference to language comes in the form of analogies, three of them: 1) He likens the social action of production to language (84); 2) he likens the laws of production to language (85);  and 3) he cites Aristotle who called money a “dead pledge,” which is more metaphor than analogy (160), but accomplishes the same purpose. Finally, Marx mentions “social connection between persons” (157) and similar formulations which we must assume require some language to get off the ground.

Next, other than explicit references to language, we might reasonably assume that the economic “moments” (production, distribution, exchange, and consumption) require language to occur. In other words: communication is a necessary but not sufficient condition for these moments of production to take place. There are three types of writing to look for when making this assumption : 1) when one of the moments “determines” another moment. “Consumption determines production” (91-93) we can read as “residents speak such that in the moment of consuming there is a productive aspect of the consumption” or better yet “residents speak in ways necessary for the productive aspect of consumption.” The same could go for distribution (95) and exchange (98). 2) We might reasonably stipulate that most mentions of “relation” (85, 99, 108, 109, 159, 165*) are occasions of communication (eg, relations of production), though more study of the German may reveal otherwise. Marx appears to write the word Verhältnis for “relation,” which can mean “ratio” as well as “relationship.” The former sense is a correlation between ideas while the latter implies a correspondence between speakers. What are bürgerliche Verhältnisse (bourgeois relations (87), for instance? Particularly in a Marxist epistemology? ; 3) when Marx slightly personifies moments of production: “distribution divides [products] according to social laws” may be read as: “in distribution, people speak to one another such that products are divided according to social laws.” (89)

A third way to read these sections for language is to look closely at the methodological claims Marx writes. These ideas about methods, or the way in which economists can and should think about economics itself, particularly the epistemological purview and process of categorical terms like “production in general” (85) or “labor as such” (103) are, in a manner thinking, ideas about economic words, their meanings, and how they (can and should) accrue these meanings. There is a difference between a “natural” and “historic” significances of the terms production, exchange, distribution, commodity, etc (83-85). The former’s heritage is bourgeois: for it is a convenient myth to think that any thought about economics has the status of a law of nature, to which the “heads” of economists have access (101). Since thought itself is part of production (rather than merely about production) and economic thought occurs in language, the ways in which we stipulate truth conditions for our economic terms must be considered in light of their material conditions.

(This final methodological point mirrors some epistemological claims I am fascinated by but do not yet fully understand. Althusser takes them up in Reading Marx and I feel compelled to summarize them here with Althusser’s metaphor and terms: while the object of knowledge may be the gold, the real object is the dross.)

So you can read for language in these sections by looking at analogies and metaphors; with a presumption about where language is reasonably occurring in the economy; or in the meaning of economic terms. While much more thinking needs to happen about each of these, I will end this commentary with the suggestion that, based on these ways to read for language in the GR, language is a necessary aspect of the struktur, as well as the uberbau–a distinction Marx famously makes in the Preface to the “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” but also sketches in the GR (88, 98, 110).

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