Reading Ranciere still, found a quote I’d forgotten, from the German Ideology:

“[L]ife involves before everything else eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life.”

Some thoughts… First, on the term “historical act” as a fundamental condition for all history. If history means “the sum total of historical acts” then the first historical act can’t really be the foundation for all historical acts, as that would introduce the problem of creation ex nihilo. It doesn’t say “the”, though, it’s just “a” fundamental condition. So the first historical act was tremendously important to all other subsequent historical acts. Fair enough. Asking after causal origins is limited, but presumably the first historical act itself came from somewhere, having a sort of pre-historical act or/as fundamental condition. At least that seems to make sense.

How can “the production of material life itself” be the first historical act, though? That would make life and history co-terminous. Where there is life there is history. I’m open to that, but I’d be surprised if Marx and Engels were. The first historical act, then, would be the production of material life out of the absence of material life. That is, the first historical act was either the production of material life out of non-material life, or the production material life out of material non-life. The former doesn’t make sense to me, so I guess it must be the latter.

Hang on a minute, though. The first historical act isn’t exactly the production of life, so much as “the production of the means to satisfy” the needs of life. That is, the production of the conditions for life. This has at least two possible sense. One is the first historical act as the production of the conditions out of which life emerged. That is, the production of the conditions of possibility of life’s beginning for the first time. The first historical act, then, is not the production of life, but the production of the possibility or potential for life. This would be connected to the production material life out of material non-life. Or, this could be the production of the conditions from which life – already existing life – would have some chance at survival. The conditions in which life could take, so to speak, in which life could last.

All of this is rather odd (“abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”) and its pursuit is probably not worth much. A few things, though. The quote is readable in line with Althusser, who I think was referencing Spinoza, when he said that what matters is that a thing lasts – what matters is persistence over time, or how a thing is reproduced. Hence the need to study v2 of Capital and the ways capitalism is reproduced. For the first historical act could be thought to be the condition in which life secures its reproduction. This act, however, is not permanent.

The security of life is only temporary. Life is mortal and is exposed to the possibilty of nonreproduction, of death. Security is a relative thing, indicating some relative distance from the likelihood of death or other worsening conditions – which implies that precarity indicates some relative proximity to these, relatively greater than the proximity of that termed security. Life on the border of death, life right before it dies – “right before” is misleading, of course, since this a fuzzy area – is bare life, life distinct from death only in that it is not death. There is a sense in which the proletariat is a sort of reproduction as bare life. Proletarian: ” from L. proletarius “citizen of the lowest class,” in ancient Rome, propertyless people, exempted from taxes and military service, who served the state only by having children; from proles “offspring, progeny”(Via.) The proletariat are defined by their being prolific (from Fr. prolifique, from M.L. prolificus, from L. proles “offspring” + root of facere “to make, [via]).

This is only a sense, however, a conceptual definition which indicates merely one possible direction of historical events (a direction too often already conceded in theory). Agamben’s writing on Artistotle and ontology are useful here, maybe, (never thought I’d say that!). Agamben notes that potentiality is always also impotentiality. That is, potential-to is always potential-not-to. A piece of wood has the potential to become a beam supporting the ceiling of a house, to become a sculpture, to become a club, to become heat and ashes, etc etc. That it is not any of these things yet is it’s impotentiality it’s potential to not become any of these things. Similarly, that the proletariat is not yet dead means it has a potential to not die. That much of the proletariat is not actually bare life means that being bare life is not the telos of being proletarian. That life is bare rather than dead means life has the potential not to die, and that some life is not bare life means that bare life is not the telos of life. It is not an ontological condition in the sense of a fixed and ineliminable state of affairs or quality. But I digress.

I think there’s an aspect in Marx and certain in Marxism of treating the proletariat’s negative conditions as a foregone conclusion (this might be one of the Marxes that Althusser dislikes), and there’s a sense in which there’s a treating of the proletariat something like bare life at work in some of this as well.

There’s another thing about this quote that I find interesting. The first historical act is first in two senses. It is first in the sense of being originary, the very first, time T1 which every other momeny comes after (in a linear series through homogeneous empty time). It is also first in the sense of being logically first, a first principle, prior in the sense of fundamental or foundational. That is, in the sense of a condition which needs to be continually reproduced. The first of these firsts might be said to be phylogenetic, the second to be ontogenetic. The first historical act “must daily and hourly be fulfilled,” that is, must be repeated, posited again and again, “merely in order to sustain human life.” This is similar to how I like to read primitive accumulation in Marx (following Bonefeld and others, who I’ll link to later).