Category Archives: Lecture Notes: Marx and Language

Means and Modes of Determination

So, what have we been talking about? A revolution. Or: social change. These things mean different things to different people, but to me each mean shifts in society that reduce suffering and ill. So we’ve been studying Marx. Why? He writes ideas that put words to questions that arise when one becomes interested in social change: What is society? What is society at this moment? How might we get society so that it’s different than it is, in such a way as to reduce the suffering and ill?

What have we learned so far from Marx?

We have learned about production: that people get together and appropriate what they find around them to get along. This appropriation is a unified set of moments: production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. The relations (verhaltnisse) of production hold between residents (person to person) and between residents and things as the production occurs. These relations take the form of ratios and social interactions. The productive forces or means of production are the “what’s around them”: stuff to appropriate and stuff to appropriate with. There are different kinds of definite relations and different circumstances of productive forces. These differences will enliven, define, and make definite the labels of political economies: slavery, serfdom, feudalism, capitalism, agrarianism, etc.

In capitalism exchange is “intense”: the commodity suffuses the formation. Though labor appropriates and fashions things into useful objects, that worth is not identical to the value of those objects. Every thing in society is valued rather (via a reductive abstraction) according to a general equivalent, the most developed form of which is money. Use-value and useful forms of labor and other “particular” aspects of stuff are “put out of sight” (ausgelocht), including the particular aspects of human activity (which creates the class struggle).

All the above (relations and forces of production) are in the economy. There is another part of society to consider: legal, political, scientific, religious, and cultural norms, practices, and policies. Society therefore has two “layers,” as Williams puts it (echoing Gramsci’s gestures towards an “historical bloc”). One layer is the economic structure, or struktur, Grundlage. The other layer is the superstructure, or uberbau. Society, as you read Althusser, Cohen, and Gramsci, is a social formation composed of these layers. How do the layers interact with one another?

While the uberbau is relatively autonomous (Althusser on Engels), the uberbau nonetheless arises out of the struktur and “ratifies” it (Williams). The uberbau “formulates and protects” the strucktur (Cohen). The struktur is composed of residents’ powers (things they are able to do, in relative ranges of difficulty and costliness). The uberbau is composed of residents’ rights (the legal duties stipulated by law and enforced by the state).

Elsewhere (Chp. 3 of Karl Marx’s Theory of History), Cohen describes the uberbau as a roof which, through downward pressure, holds the struts of a house together. The struts are the struktur. The whole house is much stronger because of this roof. The struts are steadier because of the roof, though of course the roof rests upon the struts. The struts would wobble otherwise, and the downward pressure from the roof is great enough to hold the struts in such a way as to not move in very strong winds. While the roof is its own thing, the roof’s the position and shape is entirely contingent upon the position and shape of the struts.

The total force of the structure would be equal analogously to society’s hegemony: the reason why the house won’t move–social change. This hegemony, and the shape of the roof together with the struts, creates the conditions for Cohen’s man in a room who wants to leave but thinks the door is locked, even though it isn’t.

What is the roof holding down exactly? What are the struts? The same questions: What is the economy? What is politics? The economy is the way people live their material lives: the production, appropriation of what they find around them in order to continue living, breathing, and being. The uberbau holds in place a particular, specified, definite way of living, breathing, and being. What does this have to do with social change?

So society, the social formation, has these layers, which emerge as people live their material lives: the real ways in which they appropriate what’s around them to keep on keeping on, and the policies, norms, and traditions that ratify the way in which they do  that.

That’s society. The way society is now is capitalist. But we have to remember that no set of relations is natural. There are no natural laws of keeping on: there are only specific instances, specified forms, definite historical arrangements of production. People make their way in all kinds of ways over time.

If someone tells you there’s a natural law of social life, they’re probably trying to appropriate you.

The ways in which people relate to one another can change and have changed. The determinations that we find throughout the struktur and uberbau, the various relations and ratifications of relations, the powers that people have (see Cohen, the upward pressure of the struts) and the rights they enjoy which exert downward pressure upon the powers to ossify them–all this is historical. Subject to change. There is no simple internal principle according to which these relations manifest (Althusser), no Hegelian Idea which props up society such that it stands “on its head,” or such that the mental stuff “in the brain” determines, in any real sense of prefiguration, material life. That simple principle, that natural law, is the “mystical shell” that covers the “rational kernel” of thinking about society. Marx’s theory of history is an inversion of Hegel’s.

For example. In the various and complex instances of production during their specific moments in history contradictions will accumulate (Althusser), or “conjunctures” will happen (Gramsci). Money will be both a means of exchange and a measure of value. The contradiction of a person selling their labor at a price much lower than it’s worth. The contradiction of people appropriating other people, who permit themselves to be appropriated and then refuse this appropriation by striking. The contradiction of clearly visible qualities being put out of sight at massive scales. These contradictions will pile up until the social formation cannot withstand it: the struts sink into the ground, warp, quiver beneath the mismatched roof. There’s a strong wind. They bend and fray at the edges from overuse. It finally collapses. The contradiction is in the house’s collapse, not in its blueprints.

The concatenations of limits and pressures, society’s determining factors, no longer make sense for those elements within and upon which they exert and are exerted. Powers outshine rights. Rights no longer match powers. The productive forces overflow the relations of production or the relations of production sap the productive forces dry in a screaming mess. That’s history.

Change has happened and will happen again and there are choices we can make and enact which will exert certain pressures rather than others, limit certain energies rather than others.

This layered society can form, deform, and reform: in fact it will. But what will be the next specific form? What are the contents of our contradictions? The terms of our conjunctures? When will they overdetermine and bring down the house? What do we envision as better strukturs and uberbaus? How do we go about shifting them?

If the uberbau rises from the struktur, limiting, pressuring, determining it–and thus vice versa; if those determinations emerge from relations of production and productive forces; and if all these determine and are determined by residents of the house of the social formation, people keeping on–then certainly determination is a very important word. And if capitalism runs on exchange value, which is an expression of the reduction of useful particularity to a general equivalent via abstraction, an expression which puts those particularities out of sight, puts quantity before quality–what, then, is the determination proper to our capitalist social formation? What is the determining factor in any social formation, and what are the ones particular to our definite, specified, historical instances of material life? What are modes and means of determination in society, and can these modes and means shift to create better determinations? Ones that pressure and limit with less suffering as a consequence?

(A response to the question of determination is forthcoming in another post on Althusser’s “Shade of Hegel.” For now, note Harman’s excellent survey of perspectives on determination, base, and superstructure: Mechanical, based on a reading of the Poverty of Philosophy (Kautsky, Plekhanov) and analytic unwillingness to engage with the old new left (Cohen); non-mechanical, based on readings of Engels in his correspondence to Bloch (Stalin, Mao); non-mechanical structuralist readers of Stalin and Mao, though more philosophically complex (Althusser, Gramsci); Voluntarism (Thompson); and others (Jones) who reject the relation of base and superstructure entirely, as well as any determinative relation.)

I will continue to argue that language, speech, and communication are the modes of determination in any social formation, and that there are specific, definite, and historical means of determination local to our current capitalism: our old, brilliant capitalism whose residents enrich themselves upon one another internationally in a series of astounding instances which imbue the formation with great suffering, to which the culprits and victims of this suffering are “blind,” though can see.

I will argue that speaking exerts the pressures, sets the limits, and therefore determines the relations of production in the struktur, the ratifications of the uberbaus, and ultimately the rhythm of appropriations of the world which fuel material life: that keeping on is determined by talking, that the means of communication (cf. Grundrisse) are the means of determination.

I have already sketched five ways to read Marx for language. (I found a sixth in today’s readings: the way in which we talk about Marxist claims.) I have also devised three potential philosophical interpretations of language’s status in Marx’s claims. Now that we have read Marx for language we will change gears and read language for Marx. That is, look at language–what it is–with the sense that it is the means of determination in social formations. We will think of language materially, economically, and then return again to the means of capitalist determination: the language of our social formation, and thus find ways of going about it differently: saying our revolution.


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?