Tag Archives: 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.


A Problem: Polanyi Defeaters

Let’s say there are two ways to understand the world: materially and spiritually.

Material understanding thinks in real, practical, commoditized, gain-oriented, market-going, exchange-valued, utilitized, consequence-based, pragmatic, luxurious, wanting, surplus-seeking, growth-inducing, ambition-promoting, what-can-I-get-for-X terms. Generally, material understanding sees the world economically.

Spiritual understanding thinks in ideal, divine, ascetic, use-valued, subsistence-seeking, need-based, balanced, sustainable, transcendence-promoting, virtuous, appreciation-of-X-for-its-own-sake terms. Generally, spiritual understanding sees the world socially-religiously-aesthetically.

A Polanyi defeater poses an epistemological problem for those that think they can understand spiritual statements. Karl Polanyi argues in The Great Transformation that the market system has been embedded in our social relationships since the Industrial Revolution; literally, that our society is an economy, wherein we interact with one another economically and not socially. If this is true then it seems relevant to wonder if our language, the expression of our social relationships, has been similarly affected by the market system. I think it has.

In a market any statement is understood economically. We explain and understand what we mean when we speak in terms of gain and exchange. If we accept that the market system is embedded in our social relationships, and language is an expression thereof, then we must understand or explain every statement economically. Furthermore if language constitutes our thought in some essential way, then by extension our thought is economic in nature–founded in material gain and exchange.

This is a problem. If it’s true, then I can never truly understand or express, rationally or irrationally, any spiritual statement. For every spiritual explanation I can give of a statement I can produce a Polanyi defeater explaining it materially. Any statement about truth, beauty, friendship, love, virtue, or justice can be expressed in terms of material gain and exchange. I can try to understand a spiritual statement, but since understanding requires thought, and thought is economic, then any attempt to do so will fail. And since language is the expression of social relationships, then this holds for anyone that speaks the language I do.

Granted, language is an historical artifact. Another language may be safe from the Polanyi defeaters depending on its history. But given the extent of globalization from early colonial imperialism up through our own contemporary  neo-colonial cultural imperialism, the chances of finding or generating such a language are slim. Even if I do find such a language there’s little hope, if I translate it into mine–try to understand it in terms of my own–the possibility of spirituality disappears immediately. Materiality is built into the fundament of my thought. The structure of my consciousness is material and market-oriented. No matter what I do, so long as I’m thinking, I can’t be spiritual.

For example: “Lily is my friend because she enjoys my company.”

Whether or not this is true, I cannot know whether the statement refers to some deep, spiritual feeling of friendship that Lily has or if she’s is using me for some end. I have no way of knowing if this is the case.

“The sky is blue.”

Again, whether or not this is true, ‘sky’ and ‘blue’ are linguistic entities. It may be the case that the sky and blueness are transcendent properties of an actually existing, divinely or naturally created world. But these words are subject to the market system and may have been constructed and formed over time to get me to see the world in a particular way for some purpose.

“Philosophy seeks wisdom.”

This, for me, is incredibly problematic. I can produce a Polanyi defeater for it such that the only reason philosophy seeks wisdom is for some kind of material gain. Though Socrates died for the idea that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, it turns out that in our cultural moment–if you’re reading this and understanding it–then we have no way of understanding what he was talking about. We can only think about it in terms of commodity and gain because our thought is economic.

The same goes for this blog post. It’s doomed. Tragically. I have no way of understanding if what I’m writing refers to something in the world or, because I’m looking to gain something from what I’m describing, I’m just using this “reality” as a resource for my own material gain.

Gchat Might Slowly Kill Us.

Marshall McLuhan makes sure we get it right: Narcissus didn’t see himself in the water. He saw the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, sure. But he mistook his image for something other than his image. He didn’t think it was himself. He just thought it was beautiful. And he dies, lost in this beauty. His epic mistake was not that he was self-absorbed, but rather that he didn’t realize he was self-absorbed in his own image.  And it killed him.

McLuhan’s suggestion seems to be that if Narcissus had realized that it was his own image in the water, that he was lost in his own reflection, he could’ve managed his situation a little better and moved out of the way. If he’d known that he was fascinated with himself he could’ve saved himself from his mythic mistake. This is McLuhan’s general claim in ‘Understanding Media‘: only we are Narcissus and media technology is our reflection in the pond.

McLuhan says that a medium is an extension of us. A medium–alphabetic text, radio, television, speech–is an extended version of ourselves in the world. He implores us to learn from Narcissus: we must read the reflection responsibly, as a message itself, and not get ignorantly lost in the content that it carries. If we don’t see that the medium carries a message–that it’s just us, expressed in the world–then we risk a narcotized, pointless, and ignorantly self-absorbed death, our lives nothing more than a tranquilized and passive breath, self-slaughtered by an obsession with a beauty that was always our own but never under our control. (Not to mention the fact that these media change our sense ratios and change our thought to fit their patterns–as if Narcissus’s eyes got watery the more he looked into the water.)

So my question is: What are the media we’re fascinated with now, and how can we heed McLuhan’s warning? I thought of Gchat, a ubiquitous media for people my age. What do you think of it? What’s the message of Gchat? Here are a few ingredients:

–Alphabetic text
–Real-time conversation, no delay
–Held always through a Google server, and recorded if you don’t specify otherwise (under Google’s political auspices)
–You can only chat with people that you’ve corresponded with on Gmail, no one else
–Gchat is next to your email box, so you’re always looking to see who to chat with
–You can send links to videos or other websites
–Easier to participate in the Internet Dialect of English (LOL, symbols, mispellings, less grammar, slang)
–You can see when someone else is typing and type at the same time
–Different set of conversational norms: you can get up and leave one without causing as much trouble
–Can conduct several Gchats at once, the most I’ve seen is 5
–No sound, blocked from any tonal inflection
–No image, blocked from any paralinguistic suggestion

What does all this mean? If we don’t talk about it, what Gchat’s message is, then we risk sitting for hours gchatting with our friends–the media changing our patterns of thought without us knowing it or choosing it and slowly killing us.

(P.S. What’s the message in WordPress blogging?)