Okay – so Chapter 25 of Capital is a monster, and I think it’ll take me quite a while to re-read it, taking notes, in a way that’ll allow me to say something helpful about the whole. So I thought I’d throw out a short ‘this is great’ kind of post before trying to say something more substantive.

There are a few qualities of Marx as a writer that are quite unusual, to my mind. First off, I’m not sure I know another writer/thinker of Marx’s stature who uses sarcasm so pervasively and centrally. It’s not just that he’s a sarcastic son of a bitch – although obviously he is. It’s that the sarcasm is woven deep into his articulation of many of his most central claims. Capital is (of course) a critique of political economy. But a lot of the time that critique is manifest mainly in Marx’s bitter, sardonic, bathetic turn of phrase. Hegelian (of a sort) that he is, Marx likes to articulate many of his points in a manner immanent to the positions being criticised – he wants to unfold the horrors of capitalism from out of the discourses aimed towards capitalist apologetics. Part of Marx’s reasoning, I think, is that if even those political economists most committed to making the case for capitalism, can be made to yield insights condemnatory of capitalism, Marx will have given his own condemnation extra power – made it more compelling. (He also, of course, wants to show that his own position contains the best of what he criticises.) (Plus he wants to show where the positions he criticises come from, what makes them – why and how.) [N Pepperell’s written a lot on issues related to this stuff – Marx’s presentational strategy, standpoint of critique, and lots of other things. I won’t put links to NP’s work in every post, because I think that’d be annoying – so take this as a general indication that a great deal of the stuff in my posts on Capital is going to be derived from NP’s work.] There’s an interesting double aspect to this procedure. On the one hand, Marx is overflowing with bile and rage at the apologism for violence and coercion that he encounters everywhere in the political economic literature. He never tires of denouncing bullshit – and it seems clear that this act of denunciation – holding up for all the world to see some particularly egregious piece of apologism, no matter how minor the text he finds it in – was one of the ways he motivated himself in his incredible labours of reading, assimilation, and synthesis. Marx the student of political economy will trudge through any piece of text – government reports, minor but interminable academic controversies, countless historical tracts. The reward at the end of it, for us, is Capital. But Marx needs more immediate satisfactions – and this is part of where the endless vicious pleasure of displaying the results of political-economic self-deception and self-interest comes from, I think. One can almost feel Marx’s glee as he happens upon a particularly revealing phrase on page 800 of some committee transcript.

On the other hand, although Marx is tireless in these condemnations, he is also doing work with his sarcastic deployment of other thinkers. The second thing that’s unusual about Marx as a writer, to my mind, is the extent to which (and the way in which) he deploys quotations. Marx will quote any fucking thing. Sometimes one wonders if there’s anything he read that he didn’t quote. (Obviously this impression is exacerbated by the fact that so much of his draftwork is extant..) So much of Marx’s own argument is made through the use of quotations. If Marx wants to say something, in Capital, he’ll find someone who’s already said it (if he can), quote them, and then show how this insight is far more powerfully and adequately articulated as part of Marx’s account of capitalism, than it is as part of whatever shonky system Marx has pulled the quote from.

Marx’s quotations, then, and the sarcastic way in which he deploys them, are central to his work.

This is by way of leading in to my favourite bit of Chapter 25 so far, re-reading. Which is Marx’s use, almost right at the start of the chapter, of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees. (Not a minor text, in terms of capitalist apologetics.) On pages 764-765 of the Fowkes Penguin edition, Marx quotes Mandeville [ellipses and square brackets are in the text]:

“It would be easier, where property is well secured, to live without money than without the poor; for who would do the work? … As they [the poor] ought to be kept from starving, so they should receive nothing worth saving. If here and there one of the lowest class, by uncommon industry, and pinching his belly, lifts himself above the condition he was brought up in, nobody ought to hinder him; nay, it is undeniably the wisest course for every person in the society, and for every private family to be frugal; but it is in the interest of all rich nations, that the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle, and yet continually spend what they get… Those that get their living by their daily labour… have nothing to stir them up to be serviceable but their wants which it is prudence to relieve, but folly to cure. The only thing then that can render the labouring man industrious, is a moderate quantity of money, for as too little will, according as his temper is, either dispirit or make him desperate, so too much will make him lazy… From what has been said, it is manifest, that, in a free nation, where slaves are not allowed of, the surest wealth consists in a multitude of laborious poor; for besides that they are the never failing nursery of fleets and armies, without them there could be no enjoyment, and no product of any country could be valuable. To make the society” (which of course consists in non-workers) “happy and people easier under the meanest circumstances, it is requisite that great numbers of them should be ignorant as well as poor; knowledge both enlarges and multiplies our desires, and the fewer things a man wishes for, the more easily his necessities may be supplied.”

What’s so great here (if ‘great’ is the word) – apart from the sheer hideousness of the quote – is the way that Marx deploys it. Marx doesn’t disagree with Mandeville’s analysis of capitalism – he thinks it’s more or less spot on. He just thinks Mandeville is an evil motherfucker. Marx’s small sarcastic textual intervention (“(which of course consists in non-workers)”) completely transforms (if it needed transforming, which apparently it does) the emphases and values of the passage quoted. Marx here hones in on the intellectual dishonesty that permits the ‘respectable’ propagation of this political and ethical monstrosity – the identification of ‘society’ with the tiny portion of society “which of course consists in non-workers”. Capitalist synecdoche. This – right up until our own time, and into the future of capitalism as well – is the most pervasive form of apologism. ‘Society’ benefits from the capitalist system. And of course ‘society’ is all of us. But in fact ‘society’ consists, really and truly, only in those who benefit. And since those who benefit benefit, everything is fine in the world. [Of course this is only part of Mandeville’s point. The other part is that if people are oppressed enough not to realistically desire decent living standards, they won’t mind the absence of decent living standards.]

Marx will consistently do this, throughout Capital. He will quote political economy, and at times he will disagree with it, and at times he will agree with it. But he will, throughout, show us what political economy means – and how this meaning – in however fig leaf a fashion – is obscured by political economy’s own forms of articulation. There’s a huge amount going on in Capital, and in Chapter 25, besides this, of course. But that can wait for other (and others’) posts.

Okay – Nate came up with the excellent idea of having an online reading group focussed on something by Marx. Participants so far [UPDATED]: Nate; N Pepperell; Reid Kane; Carl Dyke; Mikhail Emelianov; JCD; Mike Beggs; Michael Burns; possibly Nick Srnicek; Lumpenprofessoriat; yours truly. JCD has set up a Yahoo! Pipes aggregator to provide a feed of Reading Group-related posts, which should be sitting in the sidebar at this very moment – it gathers up posts containing the keyword ‘Marx’ in their titles. I’ll also do my best to cull links from the aggregator and the blogs, and put them up in this post as we go. If you want to join in and the pipe doesn’t register your post, leave a comment here (or somewhere else noticeable) and I’ll add you to the links list.

We may not get started properly for a little while yet, but the first reading matter will be Chapter 25 of Capital Volume I.

Reading Group Posts:

14/8/09: Nate. What in the hell… could make me more dense?
24/8/09: JCD. Internet Reading Group on Marx
29/8/09: Mikhail. Start Your School Year Right. Read Some Marx.

28/8/09: Nate. What in the hell… Marx will we be reading?
30/8/09: Me. Marx’s sarcasm
13/9/09: NP. Revisiting the Product of the Hand
14/9/09: Nate. What in the Hell… is Marx doing in chapter 24?
15/9/09: NP. Valued Matter
16/9/09: NP. Malthusian Asides
29/9/09: Reid. Eliminative Marxism 1: Notes on Eliminativism
2/10/09: Lumpenprofessoriat. The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation
24/10/09: Me. Chapter 25, Section I
07/12/09: Me. Chapter 25, Part II [Part One]
01/01/10: Nate. What in the hell… is going on in ch25 of v1 of Marx’s Capital?
14/03/10: Me. Initial Remarks on Value Theory

A number of Speculative Realist writers have expressed admiration for the work of H.P.Lovecraft, whose Weird Fiction evocations of an unnamable, primordial, horrifyingly alien reality resonates with many aspects of the SR turn. But if Speculative Realism is driven, in part, by impatience with “the continental reverence for dusty textual monuments“, what is to be done with the obviously textual nature of Lovecraft’s works? Is there not a dissonance here?

I believe I have the answer. Rather than focussing on Lovecraft’s work, object-oriented philosophers should focus their attention on indisputably Lovecraftian objects. Specifically: this Plush Cthulhu range of toys.

Small Cthulhu

“This absolutely adorable Cthulhu Plush is one of the first speciality plush items from Toy Vault. The mini version is 8 inches tall, is made of beautiful green fabric, and is filled with plush and beanies.”

Peeping Cthulhu

Large Plush Cthulhu

Cthulhu Santa

If you are concerned that these objects, made for loving human owners, are too entwined in humanist, anthropocentric, correlationist narcissism to be proper objects of Speculative Realist study, I direct your attention to this charming site, which provides indisputable proof that Plush Cthulhu can interact with other objects (e.g. Brown Snuggly Bear), without any correlationist compromise.

(Finally, for those alarmed by Speculative Realism’s apparent evacuation of the political, perhaps ‘Cthulhu for President: Why vote for the lesser evil?’ will set your mind at rest.)

Plush Cthulhu Conference Now!

[Hat tip NP]

Militant Atheism

August 12, 2009

From an interview with Richard Dawkins by Laurie Taylor:

“We have to consider the advancing technology that made it so much more possible for a Hitler or a Stalin to do the horrible things they did. If you planted Hitler or Stalin back in the middle ages, would they have stood out as they do to us now, or would they have seemed par for the course in terms of their nastiness? I would still suggest that they were temporary setbacks. There is general progress. We don’t now have slavery. We have equal respect for women. A universal revulsion against Hitler. Nobody can now say what Hitler once said without being instantly shouted down.”

Was he really happy to describe a planned policy to exterminate an entire race of people as “a temporary setback”?

“But that belief in the extermination of an entire race, you can say that it was a last gasp.”

Richard Dawkins on Sam Harris:

Every word zings like an elegantly fletched arrow from a taut bowstring and flies in a gracefully swift arc to the target, where it thuds into the bullseye.

Various extracts from Harris’s The End of Faith:

We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran.

No amount of casuistry can disguise the fact that the outer of “lesser” jihad – war against infidels and apostates – is a central feature of the faith. Armed conflict “in the defence of Islam” is a religious obligation for every Muslim man.

Islam, more than any religion humans have ever devised, has the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death

Is Islam compatible with a civil society? Is it possible to believe what you must believe to be a good Muslim, to have military and economic power, and not to pose an unconscionable threat to the civil societies of others? I believe that the answer to this question is no.

What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.

Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.

I love the smell of progress in the morning. Smells like fascism.

There’s been some discussion, on some of the blogs I read, recently, and on this blog too, about science, philosophy, mysticism, totality. There is a philosophical longing for, in Derrida’s terminology, presence – for completeness, the non-division of the self, the non-invasion of the self by a desire that tears the self in pieces; a desire that works to suppress the non-completeness of the self in the form of mortality, our knowledge of the ultimate collapse of the temporarily self-maintaining biological systems that have no self or sense of self outside that maintenance. Dissolution. This longing for completeness and security leads to philosophical fantasies – the desire for something that cannot be lost, even if that something is nothingness, as in the Fort! of Freud’s grandson’s Fort-Da game. (What is really lost in that text and life, of course, is not the mother, but the grandson – dead, buried and grieved.) But the self-division at the heart of that desire for non-self-division is present in and as desire. And this in turn is analysable in physical, biological, and contingently empirical terms. The terms of our painful, real, and exorbitant lives.

Knowledge is, for philosophy, shadowed by the dream of absolute knowledge. And this dream is only a dream – a dream more potent than the dream the dream dreams – the dream of apparent knowledge, as dreaming. I mean to say: Descartes imagines that all the world might be a fantasy. But this is the real fantasy, and the only fantasy Descartes refuses to doubt. For that would make him vulnerable to more exigent doubts still.

I’ve been advancing, on this blog, a claim that should be much less controversial than it is: the claim that scientific knowledge’s authority comes from its status as hypothesis. Which is also to say, in a sense, its status as fiction – or as possible fiction. It is the fact that we cannot ultimately know whether a scientific claim is a story we are telling ourselves that gives science its status as source of truth – as non fiction. Which is also to say, with Derrida, that the categories of truth and fiction are far less cleanly dissociable than they are often taken to be.

In the current theoretical reaction against not just post-structuralism, not just the linguistic turn, but against the post-Kantian problematic of human finitude itself, many fought-for insights are being suppressed and attacked. Not least of these is this emphasis on human finitude as incorrigible limit – not a locatable limit, which pens us in, but simply a limit described by wherever we happen to be and whatever we happen currently to think and do. We can move elsewhere – we can think more – we can expand or transform the limit. But a limit remains while finitude remains – and finitude is our fate and only habitat, as biological, fleshy, mortal and substantial organisms. The occlusion of the human limit gathers its forces as its pragmatic justifications fall away – as the culture of happiness reveals yet again its pale and bleeding underbelly.

I’m riffing off of and distorting Roger’s work. (Here; here, for example.) And I want to talk about Roger’s work. But for now I want briefly to pursue this idea of limit as finitude innate in knowledge and in fiction. I’ve thought for a long time that one of the more ghastly effects of the ‘analytic / continental’ divide that did so much damage to twentieth century philosophy, was the way it suppressed the resonances between the literary-theological-political emphases of ‘continental’ theorising and the logical-scientific emphases of ‘analytic’ thought. There are profound resonances and homologies here. One such homology is this idea of finitude as fiction as hypothesis, in its connection to truth.

Here’s a famous Nabokov quote: “One must have the passion of a scientist and the precision of an artist.” And there’s another quote I can’t find right now, in which Nabokov outlines the career of a researcher. The more one studies, the more there is to uncover, Nabokov writes. One encounters an endless opening up of knowledge and experience. Everything unfolds forever. This is the agony and the intense joy of curiosity and consciousness. One pushes back the limits of knowledge or experience endlessly, endlessly, endlessly – without limit, as it were.

This resonates, for me, with the scientific method. One learns more and more, builds more and more elaborate or expansively simple theories or descriptions – but one doesn’t reach the point, ever, at which the theory becomes identical with its object, rendering each pointless with respect to the other. No – the limit remains but changes.

Something similar takes place in literary endeavour, I believe. Nabokov was of the school of artists who believe in an incorrigible mystery, which can be limned in aesthetic production. This is a flaw of Nabokov’s art. The limit cannot be understood in these terms – it is more empirical than that, more basic and arbitrary. The limit is not a hole in being, through which another world can be glimpsed (as Nabokov and many many others believed). It is simply the stuff we haven’t yet gotten round to understanding or experiencing. It is the empirically undeniable fact that there are many things we will never understand, will never experience. Individually or collectively.

Nabokov’s aesthetics ontologises this limit – makes it a feature of Being itself, rather than a limit to our individual or collective understanding and experience. And this ontologisation in turn produces a suppression of the attempt to move beyond the limit – the attempt to push aesthetic, ethical, political or scientific understanding beyond the limit that is our current understanding. This aesthetic – or ethic – can present as humility; but ontologisation is never a humility; it is the narcissism of believing that reality shares our qualities – and is therefore a fundamental suppression of the nature of the limit, and, ultimately, of the limit itself. (Here Nabokov shares something with the current turn to ‘speculative’ realism – which means, of course, no realism at all.)

In his writings on aesthetics Nabokov articulates his project in a double way. On the one hand there is the task of description – of vivid and intense and ardent evocation of the details of experience. On the other hand there is the effect produced by the collation and juxtaposition of these descriptions. In these juxtapositions something is summoned or evoked which is not present in any of the individual items – something inexpressible through mere description – something, for Nabokov, transcendent – something which can touch on the divine.

This aesthetics is fractal – it describes every level of the poetic endeavour. Thus, above all, it is a description of metaphor. Two words placed side by side, or bound by a copula, summon a meaning-unit unachievable except through this contact, which transforms, in so doing, the words themselves. But this is also an account of the macrostructure of Nabokov’s novels, in which the incidents and non-incidents of their protagonists’ lives summon a larger scale meaning-unit which conveys something about those lives, or about life itself, which cannot be achieved via any descriptive account.

But what is this inexpressible? Is it inexpressible because it touches the secret of existence qua existence? This, I think, is what Nabokov would have us believe. But I prefer a more down-to-earth analysis: the inexpressible is simply what we’re not able to express – not here, not now; maybe never, but maybe just for today.

And so an honest aesthetics, I believe, engages in exactly this endeavour – the evocation of the inexpressible – but without hypostatising the inexpressible as inexpressible. Rather pushing forward, basely, in the base analysis of the production of the sensation of the unconveyable – which in turn yields new limits, and new exorbitant beauty.

I meant to go on from here to write about other things – to discuss some of Roger’s recent ravishing posts. But I think I have reached my limit, for today.