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Marx: An Epicurean in Hegelian disguise?

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“…the principle of Epicurean philosophy is not the gastrology of Archestratus as Chrysippus believes, but the absoluteness and freedom of self-consciousness — even if self-consciousness is only conceived in the form of individuality.
“If abstract-individual self-consciousness is posited as an absolute principle then, indeed, all true and real science is done away with [aufgehoben] inasmuch as individuality does not rule within the nature of things themselves. But then, too, everything collapses that is transcendentally related to human consciousness and therefore belongs to the imagining mind. On the other hand, if that self-consciousness which knows itself only in the form of abstract universality is raised to an absolute principle, then the door is opened wide to superstitious and unfree mysticism. Stoic philosophy provides the historic proof of this. Abstract-universal self-consciousness has, indeed, the intrinsic urge to affirm itself in the things themselves in which it can only affirm itself by negating them.
“Epicurus is therefore the greatest representative of Greek Enlightenment, and he deserves the praise of Lucretius:

“Humana ante oculos foede cum vita iaceret
In terris oppressa gravi sub religione
Quae caput a caeli regionibus ostendebat
Horribili super aspectu mortalibus instans,
Primum Graius homo mortalis tollere contra.
Est oculos ausus primusque obsistere contra,
Quem neque fama deum nec fulmina nec minitani
Murmure compressit caelum………………………
Quare religio pedibus subjecta vicissim
Obteritur, nos exaequat victoria caelo.”
(“When human life lay grovelling in all men’s sight, crushed to the earth under the dead weight of religion whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of the gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and growling menace of the sky…. Therefore religion in its turn lies crushed beneath his feet, and we by his triumph are lifted level with the skies.”)

“The difference between Democritean and Epicurean philosophy of nature…has been elaborated and confirmed in all domains of nature. In Epicurus, therefore, atomistics with all its contradictions has been carried through and completed as the natural science of self-consciousness. This self-consciousness under the form of abstract individuality is an absolute principle. Epicurus has thus carried atomistics to its final conclusion, which is its dissolution and conscious opposition to the universal. For Democritus, on the other hand, the atom is only the general objective expression of the empirical investigation of nature as a whole. Hence the atom remains for him a pure and abstract category, a hypothesis, the result of experience, not its active [energisches] principle. This hypothesis remains therefore without realisation, just as it plays no further part in determining the real investigation of nature.”
–Karl Marx, ‘Difference Between The Democritean And Epicurean Philosophy of Nature In General’

SOME SYLLOGISTIC ‘QUESTIONS’, AND OBSERVATIONS

What do we have here? Marx, the Epicurean affirmationist and anti-dialectician in a Hegelian garb? And was this not who Marx really always was? Is this not the Marx that Althusser and his band of Althusserians, particularly Macherey and Badiou, produce through their detour via the Greek atomists (and Spinoza in Macherey’s case), thanks to the ‘discovery’ of the “epistemological break” between Early Marx with his expressivist human ontology and subject and Late Marx with his antagonism between concrete labour and productive forces on one hand, and abstract labour and social relations of production on the other? Was this not the Marx that was always there, right at the very beginning — this being his doctoral dissertation — and who had only momentarily been obscured by the dross of Hegel’s dialectic and Young Hegelian dialectical anthropology? Did not the Marx of Capital, but especially of the Grundrisse, continue doing what he does in this doctoral thesis of his: mobilise and deploy the dialectical discourse against itself in order to have it break with itself? Is it not this break with the dialectic and its structure — which is tantamount to the universalisibality of the singular — that is evident here when he writes:” Abstract-universal self-consciousness has, indeed, the intrinsic urge to affirm itself in the things themselves in which it can only affirm itself by negating them.”? Sure, he uses the Hegelian-dialectical terminology and conception of negation to articulate this anti-dialectical universal. But is that anything more than his historically given threshold of sayability? So then, is the dialectic of productive forces and social relations of production that Marx elaborates really meant by him to be a dialectic? Or, is the relentlessness of the dialectical machine — that is his magnum opus Capital — not actually meant to indicate the relentlessness of the antagonism of the singular universalising to the dialectical universality? In fact, is that not the direction he unambiguously indicates in his Grundrisse, what with the text tending clearly towards according conceptual primacy to labour vis-a-vis capital and its labour theory of value?

The Althusserian conception of materialism of thought — which in Badiou’s conception of “subjective-materiality” finds a more rigorous and developed reformulation through Mallarme, but also Pessoa — is an Epicurean-subtractionist conception. Epicurus is so extreme in his anti-universalising rigorous particularism that it amounts to subtraction from the diremptive horizon of the universal and the particular, and is thus universal-singularity. Marx’s reading of Epicurus’s philosophy of nature points clearly in that direction. In the portion excerpted above he writes: “If abstract-individual self-consciousness is posited as an absolute principle then, indeed, all true and real science is done away with [aufgehoben] inasmuch as individuality does not rule within the nature of things themselves. But then, too, everything collapses that is transcendentally related to human consciousness and therefore belongs to the imagining mind.” The last sentence of this quote is particularly irrefutable as evidence on that count.

And this is the direction Althusser pursues in his later conception of aleatory materialism or materialism of the encounter. Badiou follows that path even further as is evident from his conceptions such as truth as “fidelity to the event”, the “universal-singular” and “subtractive ontology”. Both of them correctly grasp the materialist dialectic as the culmination of Epicurean rigorous particularism and thus subtractive universal-singularity. This evidently makes this materialist dialectic the operation of forcing the truth of the aleatory, the encounter, or the event a la Badiou. In fact, when Althusser articulates his conception of materiality as pure happening (the encounter) sans all matter, it is this Epicurean subtractionist conception of materiality that he strives to affirm.

That Marx himself adopted this Epicurean-subtractive modality of thinking – albeit in the discursive idiom of Hegelian dialectics — is evident in how he envisages and articulates his conception of natural history of capital in Capital, Volume I. Marx’s conception of natural history with regard to his discursive representation of capital as its own immanent critique – Adorno was to later further develop this conception of natural history in his Negative Dialectics — reveals how the emergence and generalisation of productive labour is constitutive of diremption between man, and nature-as-matter. Something that, therefore, renders labour, in its situation within and animation by that horizon of diremption, fundamentally immaterial.

Marx’s conception of capital in terms of natural history, therefore, also demonstrates that labour can emancipate itself from its constitutive condition of immateriality (or ideality) only in, as and through its self-abolition. That is encapsulated in clear programmatic terms in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. And labour in self-abolition would basically be materiality as a rupture with the horizon of constitutive diremption of labour in its immateriality and nature-as-matter, to be an affirmation of the singularity of nature as nonidentitarian excess of identity, or as the negativity of the historical in and as its own determinate presentation.

Clearly, therefore, materiality, a la Marx’s conception of natural history, is not simply nature-as-matter because matter is nothing but the constitutive obverse of the immateriality or ideality of labour. Rather, materiality, in this conception, is the duration and/or historicity of nature as nonidentitarian excess. This is precisely materiality without matter, as materiality should and can only be. In that context, the Althusserian conception of materialism of thought, and Badiou’s conception of “subjective-materiality” is an Epicurean-subtractionist rearticulation of this natural-historical conception of materiality without matter.
We can, therefore, also easily claim that Althusser and, especially, Badiou’s subtractionist rearticulation of the materialist dialectic – something they accomplish by reading the materialist dialectic in Marx through the prism of Epicurus and Greek atomism – is a reformulation of the Marxian conception of natural history in the discursive register of Epicurean and Greek atomism. Can we not?

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When Proust lends himself to being read through Marx

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“…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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