Category Archives: ideas

Commoditization and Communication, Capital Vol. I

(A preface: each of the posts in this category are meant as lecture notes to be developed at some later date. They are perpetually provisional and under construction.)

Whereas in the Grundrisse we get a map of the production cycle and sketches of money, exchange, etc., in the first chapters of Capital we get to the heart of the heart of capitalism: the ontology of commodities. What is a commodity? What are value, exchange, and their “relation” to the material forms upon which they eerily supervene?

The analysis relies on a sequence of terms: relation, expression, and abstraction, which, in exchange value, “put out of sight” the useful forms of embodied labor congealed in the commodity. What do these terms mean, and how do they function in the analysis?

We find out that the economic structure of society is made of relations (93), and, if I’m not rushing into the observation, without understanding the word “relation” in this first part of Capital, it’s unclear if a reader could glimpse Marx’s analysis, and perhaps, by extension, much of the ways in which he applies this analysis later in this volume and others to actually existing economic phenomena.

Whatever Marx means by “relation,” if the relations composing a society are of a certain kind, then that economic structure is of that certain kind, “which raises” a certain kind of legal and political uberbau. To what extent are these relations and expressions communicative? Focusing on capitalism and its commodity-blood, to what extent do language, speech, and communication figure into the relation and expression of equivalence between use values, such that in exchange value those useful forms of labor are put out of sight?

There is a lot at stake in these questions: justifications, and possibly the subjectivities, for the ways in which residents of capitalism dislocate, exploit, and deform social and ecological systems, rest upon these ideas. (The analysis is particularly powerful when applied to the commodity of labor and the struggle for the working day.) I will focus here superficially on Marx’s German, highlighting several words which require more study, as well as candidates for theses on how to read for language in this early section.

This first section of Capital describes how relations drawn between use values express exchange value. Such a “drawing” action is one of abstraction from the shapes and material of those use values, which thereby puts out of sight those material qualities. The first instance of “relation” occurs on 46. The German is the same from the Grundrisse: Verhältnis.

Der Tauschwert (exchange value) erscheint zunächst als das quantitative Verhältnis, die Proportion, worin sich Gebrauchswerte (use value) einer Art gegen Gebrauchswerte anderer Art austauschen (exchanged), ein Verhältnis, das beständig mit Zeit und Ort wechselt.

The “quantitative relation” is a proportion into which use-values are drawn in order to be exchanged (austauschen). In this case the two use values are brought into relation, related, or thought together–apposed–in such a way as to create an “equivalence,” a third thing between them that is neither their use value nor their material qualities nor the labor that went into creating that use value but rather their value. In such a proportion, the value of equivalence is “expressed” (drücken, 47).

The Verhältnis through which the value is drücken is drawn through abstraction (abstrahieren), a process which takes place in the “brain” (72), or to recall the Grundrisse, the “head.” Useful forms of labor which have appropriated material from nature to create the use value and the qualities which make this use value particularly useful are abstracted from, thought about, borrowing from phenomenology “given to consciousness” in a generalized way, a way which does not consider particular qualities but rather universal qualities. In other words: the use value is not considered as quality, but rather quantity. When the abstraction is completed, when the quantitative relation is drawn, these facets of the use value (Bestandteilen und Formen) are “ausgelöscht.” Our translators render this word as the noun-phrase “put out of sight,” (48) though the word can mean “extinguished” as well. (When we forget that men and women and children sit in factories for hours to make our clothing, for example, and rather focus on the price of that clothing, we have put the useful labor which created the use value out of sight.)

These are essential ingredients for commoditization, and therefore a basic thought-stuff of capitalism: relation (Verhältnis), abstraction (abstrahieren), expression (ausdrück…), and, as a kind of conclusion or result of these, putting out of sight (ausgelöscht). Through these eidetic materials living beings and their lifeworlds are measured, exploited, and interpellated by residents of capitalism as residents of capitalism. As steps in a kind of subjective process they make activity into labor, nature into resource, and useful objects into objects of exchange.

Keeping the project in mind: What do these steps have to do with communication? I can think of at least three possible theses, which are not mutually exclusive.

1) Commoditization is performative, such that relation, abstraction, and expression (and therefore putting out of sight) are conducted through language: a use value becomes exchange value because it is said to be so. The commoditizing words are the commoditizing action.

2) The commodity, as a thing, exists nominally: it only exists as language, a name naming words, rather than some particular object in the world.

3) Each step of the commoditization process has a linguistic component that is necessary such that they could not be completed without speech, and also in such a way as to open the possibility that speaking differently could short-circuit the process.

Whichever thesis is best (or some combination of them), I think it’s plausible to say that communication has something to do with the process of commoditization Marx describes in this first section of Capital, Vol.1. The ways in which we might read Marx for language listed in my previous post apply here as well (to which I will add “style,” or attending to Marx’s literary ability, which we find in full force in the worker’s speech to the capitalist on 242). The three theses above are ways in which we might interpret the passages we do find, whatever kind they might be. Take the following.

…whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labor, the different kinds of labor expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it. Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language. (85)

“We” are the ones that equate products, draw the equivalences via abstraction, which then calls exchange value into the world like a ghost. Yet Marx writes that it is this ghost itself that “converts every product into a social hieroglyphic” requiring interpretation. How could exchange value “convert” a product into a textual object? A swarm of questions fly to this passage, particularly the language analogy we find at its end: is commoditization performative? Is this is an indication of the nominal being of commodities? Or is this code for language’s supporting (if not starring) role in the drama of capitalism? (Relatedly: Is Marx being more self-reflective than critical when, in the famous section on the commodity fetish, he claims that objects relate to one another socially? It appears in his analysis of the commodity preceding the fetish section that exchange values can do things, though he is clearly aware that they cannot.) Attention is required here.

In addition the basic words above (relation, expression, abstraction) require further study. I would like to explore each of these terms and puzzle together with his many commentators what Marx meant by them. I am thoroughly fascinated and confused: what is relation, abstraction, expression, and putting out of sight, and to what extent do they require/entail language? Take “relation,” for example. In some cases Marx writes the word to refer to proportions, other times to interactions. It is the same word each time, though at times qualified with “social,” though others not. What is a “relation” for Marx?

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).

Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Walking Tour

I recently took a trip to Berlin. The city has a difficult past and was home to many influential philosophers. While many lived and wrote in Berlin, fewer were born and raised there. Walter Benjamin, though, was one of the few. He grew up in Berlin.

I brought Benjamin’s autobiographical essay “A Berlin Chronicle” on the trip. I read the essay each night and circled references to particular streets and parks, as well as phrases, commentaries, and concepts which Benjamin expresses about or close to those locations.

Inspired by the Stanford University mapping project for this essay, I made a walking tour out of it. (I’m not the first to think of doing something like this.)

If you’d like to do this walking tour, follow the directions below. The idea is to amble around the city, find each street or place, and do the activity with friends or strangers. (The numbers correspond to places in the text and not necessarily the order in which you should complete the activities.)

Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Walking Tour

6)  At Chauseestrasse, open your imagination to a boundless horizon.

11) Thinking of the people closes to you emotionally, go to Kupfergraben and contract your life into a single, profound symbol.

10) Stand somewhere on Kochstrasse and list five mysteries of your father’s work or job.

8) On Magdeburgerstrasse, find 1-2 examples of how your imagination adorns the edges of your memory with capricious frills.

9) At the Lutzkow Quay come up with an aphorism, an image with a caption, or a first attempt at philosophical reflection on “nobility.”

5) Go to Schillstrasse and talk about a time when you emanated forlornness.

4) Pause life at the Lichtenstein Gate.

7) Find a decisive bench in the Tiergarten. Debate a political question.

3) Either write a poem for Fritz Henle at his street Klopstockstrasse, or, in his honor, turn an insignificant phrase into a magic formula that heals a wound.

1) Go to Carmerstrasse, where Benjamin was born. Remember the place you were born, particularly the colors.