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Why a Marx-Inspired Materialist Historiography cannot Afford to be Historicist and yet it often is

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A historically determinist (or hitoricist) historiography takes root when the line shifts from construing the discursive inscription of the immanent forces of history-as-movement as their limit, to making sense of such inscription as teleology. It’s this historical determinism as Marxism — which is arguably the result of reading Marx as if he was Hegel than retroactively read Hegel as Marx (i.e. read Hegel against his grain) — that has been the stageist bane of Marxist political interventions in the so-called non-European societies such as ours. The result: Marxist political discourse in the tropics has become a discourse tailor-made for the legitimation of the ideology of liberalism that can ‘survive’ and ‘succeed’ only by instituting its own materiality, which in this late capitalist conjuncture can, paradoxically, be nothing save neoliberalism.

All politico-ideological pleas of formal equality — all leftist struggles to win various violated or un-enforced juridical rights amounts precisely to that — can today succeed only by reinforcing the exchange-principle, and its basis in value-relations as the qualitative equalisation of qualitative differences through their quantitative differentiation. This would mean the reinforcement of value-relations through reinforcement of exchange-relations in their increasing precarity. And since this increasing precarity of value-relations would, in being reinforced, still be animated by the realisation or expression of value as qualitative equalisation in and through quantitative differentiation, such reinforcement of value-relations in its increasing precarity can only amount to increasing oppressiveness. The neurotic simultaneity of oppression and resistance — which is manifest in our current society and polity as the hegemony of competitive identity politics and lobby politics (both in their secular and so-called pre/non-secular forms) — is evidence of that.

In such circumstances, if one reads the Marx of Capital, in terms of his Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume I, one will clearly see how Marx reverse-shifts the line, as it were, from teleology to limit, in his reading of history. That, arguably, is what his materialist operation on the Hegelian dialectic — the extraction of the rational kernel (of the dialectic) from its mystical shell (of a prioiri orientation) in his famous, and by now much-abused, words — amounts to. This is precisely the moment of Marx’s complete liberation from historicism. It’s this that gives us the Late Marx, who speaks affirmatively, for instance, of the ‘pre-capitalist’ Russian mir as the germ of a possible Russian road of historical development that could bypass capitalism, which for historical determinists was/is a necessary and un-bypassable milestone.

What does this non-teleological historiographical approach of Late Marx — which comes out of his explication of the logic of historical development in its bare and abstract form in Capital — amount to? It means the incompleteness of capital at particular spatio-temporal locations, once capital has come into being anywhere or everywhere else, is already an integral part of capital. Thus, struggles even at those locations that have the discursive appearance of pre-capitalism must be against capital. Which is to say, those struggles have to seek to abolish all teleology, including their own that will be imposed on them as their respective limits by their respective determinate locations. In terms of a philosophy of history, it means one approach each and every moment of history as being internally divided or schizzed between two temporalities — that of contingency and necessity (or, difference-as-differing-away and difference-as-identity). More precisely, it means every moment of history is an internal division between the time of form in and as its contingent instantiation (event) and the time of form as the concrete mediation of its structuring or being-placed. Walter Benjamin adumbrates precisely this as the historical materialist approach to historiography in his ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’, particularly theses V, VI and VII.

One should, however, have no qualms in admitting that even Late Marx’s historical vision is haunted by a tension between historicism and non-teleological history. Considering that Marx envisaged his critique of historicism (the Hegelian dialectic) — as any seriously radical and profoundly engaged critic ought to – from within such historicism, his battle against historicism is always conducted under the ineluctable shadow of the latter.

Marx’s constant endeavour in Capital is to show how capital — which is nothing but historicism in concrete action — is, in its, objectivity, a moving contradiction and thus constitutively neurotic. That is because Capital shows how commodity, which is the basic unit of capital (capital in its cell-form), is an objective demonstration of itself as the mobilisation of its own immanent critique or negativity — what with commodity being qualitative difference that is use-value in its sheer bodily form embodying or phenomenalising its own negation, which is value as the substance of qualitative equalisation. We can, in other words, say that capital for Marx is qualitative differences or use-values and their respectively singular concrete labours in their limit. But precisely in not being recognised in their limit, use-values are rendered neurotic commodities, wherein use-values in their qualitatively different (or singular) bodily forms embody, in and as the equivalent pole of an exchange-relation or value-form, the substance of qualitative equalisation (value) that is their negation as singularities.

As a result, the conception of limit – which belongs to a rigorously materialist historiography – would, in Marx, often find itself encoded in the historicist language, and, at times, even conception, of destiny and inevitability. The most infamous example on that count is the little that Marx wrote on the Latin America of his times. Be that as it may, we ought to read such ‘Eurocentric’ articulations of Marx, pace Jose Arico, as the exception to the rule of materialist historiography that is definitively posed, if not also instituted, by the approach that Marx’s Capital articulates.

In such circumstances, it would not — and should not — at all be an anathema for a Marx-inspired materialist historiography to deal with questions of culture, consciousness and mentalite as a history of phenomenology of difference. But where it would differ from both the established historigraphes of culture, consciousness and mentalite on one hand; and the equally canonised historically determinist historigraphy of the so-called Marxist historians from South Asia on the other, is in its demonstration of how such differences (as subjective experiences) are both themselves and already always their own limit, and thus subsumption into regimes of necessity. It’s in this sense that a radical Marxist historiographer could – in fact, necessarily should — draw as much from the historiographies of culture, consciousness and mentalite as from the various strains of determinist ‘Marxist’ historiography. For, only in drawing from both these kinds of historiography – by thinking difference and its subsumption together, but in their separateness — will he/she be able to complete the incomplete materialism that orients both those historiographical approaches. This rigorously comprehensive materialist historiography — which is exemplified by the historiographical practices of such rarely found historians as C.L.R. James (in Black Jacobins), Timothy Mason and Arno J. Mayer — is a synthesis of both the aforementioned historiographical approaches. And in being such a synthesis the materialist historiography in question breaks with the historiographical horizon constitutive of this duality.


Some Scattered and Sketchy Critical Remarks on the Theoretical Assumptions of Subaltern Studies Historiography

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If one is allowed to indulge in some bit of abstraction one could say — pace Marx’s value-theoretic approach — that the historiographical method of the Subaltern Studies fails to account for how time-as-substance — the concrete, the qualitatively different, or the singular as a phenomenological or interiorised subjective experience — is instrumentalised to be rendered the embodiment of the tendency of its own negation, which is time-as-measure. Time-as-measure being qualitative equalisation (value as congelation of human labour in the abstract) manifest in and through quantitative differentiation. The historiography of Subaltern Studies, as a result, refuses to rigorously think the dialectical asymmetry of difference (as differing away) and difference-as-identity — or, the asymmetrical dialectic of the concrete and the abstract (or, use-value and value/exchange-value). In other words, it fails to rigorously account for the dialectic between history as a genre of writing, which is meant to be a narrative representation of diverse experiences, and history as a conceptual registration of those experiences, and thus also the structure/structuring of the experiences at hand revealed by such conceptual registration. It’s precisely this dialectic that Reinhardt Koselleck, for instance, points towards when he plays on the etymological difference between the two German words for history: historie and gesischte.

The Subaltern Studies historians refuse, nay fail, to come to terms with the fact that the asymmetry between the concrete (difference as differing-away) and the abstract (difference-as-identity) — or subjective cultural resources and social relations of production respectively — that is activated only as a radical antagonism, tends to be generative of a dialectic that, thereby, distorts their radical antagonism into a mutually constitutive contradiction. This philosophical, or theoretical, inadequacy is most clearly evident in Ranajit Guha’s reading of Marx’s Grundrisse in ‘Dominance Without Hegemony’. Here Guha mobilises the determinate registration of the dynamic tendency of antagonism to, or limit of, capital in Marx’s account arguably as a sociologically static empiric of the same. Guha, therefore, repeats the same mistake that Hegel, according to Marx’s Introduction to ‘Grundrisse’, committed: conflating the object of knowledge with the concrete real world that lies outside human thought. As a result, Guha is unable to grasp, and discursively demonstrate, how the radical separation of the two temporalities of difference and difference-as-identity is tendential, or logical, while they are, chronologically speaking, coeval. Which is to say, that even as difference as differing-away is envisaged it must be simultaneously grasped as difference-as-identity that is the limit imposed on difference on account of its inescapable determinate condition. Only such an approach can generate a rigorously anticipative, prefigurative strategic manoeuvre for suspending, as opposed to merely puncturing, capital or “History I” as the horizon constitutive of the law of value.

Guha’s inability to see that the radical separation of the two temporalities of difference and difference-as-identity – or, the concrete and the abstract – is a tendential or logical one prevents him from grasping why the tendential temporality of antagonism is, at once, generative of the counter-tendential temporality of dialectical constitutivity. In fact, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s move, in ‘Provincializing Europe’, to strengthen this conception and theoretical discourse of non-dialectical difference of History II (or outside of capital) to History I (capital) continues to perpetuate Guha’s philosophical error of hypostatising the determinate registration of the dynamic tendency of antagonism into a sociologically static empiric of the same. This, in spite of Chakrabarty’s decision to follow Heidegger in his thinking of ontological difference through phenomenological reduction; or, perhaps because of it.

It’s because of this philosophical/theoretical inadequacy — something that underlies and informs the Subaltern Studies project almost in its entirety — that the historiography/historiographies inspired and/or influenced by that project are rendered incapable of reflexively accounting for the linguistic reification that historiography as a genre of writing, or narrative representation, is bound to tend towards. Not surprisingly, the politics that such historiography affirms is radical communitarian, which is situated, all said and done, within the political paradigm of liberal-republicanism as its constitutive obverse.

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