When Proust lends himself to being read through Marx


“…sometimes a man will appear in society for whom it has no ready-made character or at least none that is not being used at the moment by somebody else. First they give him one that doesn’t suit him at all. If he is a man of real originality and there is nothing his size in stock, incapable of trying to understand him, society ostracizes him; unless, of course, he can gracefully play the young juvenile who is always in demand.”
–Proust, ‘Fragments from Italian Comedy’ (Pleasures and Regrets)

This “man of real originality” that Proust presents us with is meant to articulate the exorcism of his very own predicament – the predicament of his writerly practice to be precise. How does one enter “society”, and mingle in it, in order to be able to critically reveal it for what it is: an economy of fetishised appearances? That is, how does a writer such as Proust ensure that his critique of “society”, as an economy of fetishised appearances – a regime of exchange-values or value-relation, to take recourse to Marx’s terminology – in being situated within that economy of value relation is not itself reduced to a fetish; an ideology?

But then who or what is this “man of real originality”? Marx writes in Capital, Volume I: “Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use-values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use-values, but use-values for others, social use-values (And not only for others, without more. The mediaeval peasant produced quit-rent-corn for his feudal lord and tithe-corn for his parson. But neither the quit-rent-corn nor the tithe-corn became commodities by reason of the fact that they had been produced for others, whom it will serve as a use-value, by means of exchange.) In that light, we can perhaps say that Proust’s “man of real originality” is someone who produces himself only in order to have that production of the self serve the fact of its own existence. He is one who “directly satisfies his wants (to be or to exist) with the produce of his own labour (the labour of producing himself as his own being or existence).”

Clearly, therefore, he is as that “man of real originality” a use-value and its creator, but not a commodity and its producer. And that is because by virtue of being a “man of real originality”, somebody for whom “there is nothing his size in (society’s) stock, he is not a “social use-value”. That is to say, his existence or being is not something that has “been produced for others, whom it will serve as a use-value, by means of exchange”.

The fact that Proust’s “man of real originality” is so precisely because “there is nothing his size in (society’s) stock” is an apposite demonstration of him being a use-value that is, however, not a commodity. Which is to say, he as his own existence or being is a use-value that cannot and does not enter his historically contemporary relation of exchange, or value relation. That “society ostracizes him” symptomatises precisely that. His being a “man of real originality” is doubtless a use-value, but one that is not a “social use-value”. That is to say “a man of real originality” is the singularity of means as its own end.

Proust’s “man of real originality” is being or conation as determinate subtraction, and thus destructive excess, from the economy of fetishised appearances, or exchange/value relation. For, no ostracisation (or exclusion) by society can ever be truly and fully accomplished as long as society exists to identify, and thus include, the ostracised as thus ostracised. Clearly then, full ostracisation of something or someone by society can be truly accomplished only when society as a historically concrete realisation of the mode of valorisation and identification – that is, as the mode of exchange relation and value relation – ceases to be. That Proust’s affirmation of a “man of real originality” is also his affirmation of ostracisation by society thought to its farthest extremity is amply evident when he envisions, in ‘A Young Girl’s Confession’ (in Pleasures and Regrets), “the option of solitude” as “the final decision”, “the choice”, “the truly free act”. And such solitude, as the affirmation of ostracisation by society thought to its farthest extremity, would be a radical solitude, which in turn, would be nothing save communism as the universalisability of the singular.

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Yakub Memon’s Impending Execution in the Light of a Passage from Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’ Read through a Marxist Prism


“The public execution did not re-establish justice, it reactivated power. In the seventeenth century, and even in the early eighteenth century, it was not, therefore, with all its theatre of terror, a lingering hang-over from an earlier age. Its ruthlessness, its spectacle, its physical violence, its unbalanced play of forces, its meticulous ceremonial, its entire apparatus were inscribed in the political functioning of the penal system.”
–Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

Yakub Memon’s execution will, therefore, be no aberration of our penal system. It will be an exception that is meant precisely to enable the reproduction, through confirmation, of the norm of everydayness of terror that is modernity, and capital. Albeit one that now openly displays its irrational, exceptional and coercive kernel, thanks to this being its historically concrete moment of crisis.

This phenomenon is, therefore, nothing but the norm as an unconcealed and unconcealable neurotic symptom: the norm itself as the demonstration of the crisis of normativity and normalisation. As a result, it now comes across even in its appearance as the entirely arbitrary political functionality that founds, underpins and animates the economy/rationality of the modern penal system.

Hence, let not our outrage — that is produced by the scale and magnitude of the phenomenon at hand — blind us to that. For, that would also blind us to the reformist purport of liberal politics that lies at the heart of such outrage. Instead, let us temper that outrage into a steely resolve to exceed and abolish capital and the modern state — which is nothing but the grammar of capitalist social relations, or the qualitatively equalising and thus distributionist value-relation to be precise, in its institutional congealment. After all, it’s precisely this distributionist dimension of the law of value that, as far as the modern state in its liberal-democratic Indian specificity is concerned, is the objective material basis of the ideological dominance of, among other things, Islamophobia. The ideology that evidently informs the dogged pursuit of capital punishment for somebody such as Yakub Memon.

In other words, let the cry for the abolition of death penalty, which has been sparked off by Yakub Memon’s imminent execution, not remain a weak human rights-based reactive demand placed on the Indian state. Let us strive, instead, to transform that cry into a strong call for constructing a concretely collective political project that seeks, in the here and now, to determinately abolish the state. For, the modern state in being the embodiment and operationalisation of the rule of law is genetically programmed to do precisely that which it currently seeks to accomplish in the specificity of its Indian incarnation: reinforce its monopoly over violence by re-establishing the slave-morality of ressentiment (revenge) as justice.

This is, clearly, a juridico-legal morality that is, therefore, an inseparable and integral ideological dimension of the capitalist social formation constitutive of the structure of mutual competition for domination, and its reproduction. To not grasp that and to insist on envisaging the abolition of death penalty as a human rights-based demand amounts to a blundering failure to recognise that the Benjaminian “divine” or “law-unraveling violence” rests in an embryonic form within this cry for the abolition of death penalty. And to not recognise that is to already repress that potential and distort it into “lawmaking violence”, which faces off “law-preserving violence” of the state merely as its constitutive antithesis. Not for nothing does such human rights-based ‘politics’ presuppose the conceptual and thus concrete validity of the modern state — and the juridico-legal social formation of which such a state is both an effect and reinforcing cause — that it ‘confronts’ with its politics of demand. In the ultimate analysis, such politics ends up, not surprisingly, reinforcing and reproducing the condition of possibility of precisely those enormities it claims to want to eliminate.

So, let’s not allow our outrage to be a cathartic expenditure and exhaustion of politics. Rather, let it simmer like a slow fire over which we forge the concrete strategy of how (our) red ‘terror’ can emerge with full antagonistic force against the epochal social power that orientates and articulates the continuous norming and normalisation of (their) white terror.

The essence of what one has articulated here in a hurriedly clumsy manner is put forth with elegance and aphoristic precision by Walter Benjamin in the last two sentences of his VIII thesis on philosophy of history: “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge — unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.”