Continuing my recent spate of re-blogging, check out this post by Negatron. In it, Negatron discusses some marxists’ recent uses of categories like primitive accumulation and in the process says some things which are I think useful for making sense of other issues within marxism.

Negatron writes about a “difference of level of the specific philosophical engagement and conceptualization, what could be considered, for lack of a better word, abstraction” when it comes to how people have talked about primitive accumulation and the commons. Some times this has taken place “on a register that is primarily sociological or economic” and sometimes on a register of philosophical reflect “on contingency, violence, and social relations” and “subjective possibilities, the capacity to constitute relations through language, affects, and habits.” In general within the marxist tradition there is a frequent move across registers “where concepts are constantly extended beyond their strictly socio-economic register to become general ontological conditions: alienation, labor, reification, and commodity fetishism all have been extended or generalized in this way. This movement, from specificity to abstraction, duplicates Marx’s own theoretical production, which Balibar has described as falling short and going beyond philosophy.”

I think that’s a useful characterization. I think I’m less patient with or interested in the move to philosophical registers, or perhaps am interested in different sorts of moves. In any case, I think the distinction of registers is useful, and I think that there are clearly these sorts of registers and moves across them in Marx’s work – certainly across the body of his written works over all and often within any particular written work.

My titular question suggests there is one best register. I’m not really sure there is, I’m out to lunch on that. I’d also want to specify that “best” is a relative and contextual matter – best for some people, for some purpose, in some situation. At this point right now I don’t wrestle much with philosophical problems and don’t feel bothered by them (except in a negative/deflationary manner, trying to push these problems aside/put them back in the box). [I’ve got notes for a post on this building off Engels’ preface to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, notes that I seem to have misplaced just now, DAMN IT.]

Anyway, this thing about economic and sociological vs philosophical/ontological registers, as ways to think about and within the marxist tradition…. I’m sure there are all kinds of ways that smart people could trouble these distinctions but I think they’re still useful. (I take it as axiomatic that for any distinction X there is some argument Y with which X could be troubled and probably even shown up as untenable, but I also take it as axiomatic that 1/ any argument Y should not alone be considered a sufficient condition for abandoning the distinction X in question and that 2/ the existence of an argument Y is a relative non sequitur with regard to the utility of the distinction X in question.) Part of my irritation with recent work on the common and so forth, irritation I’m still trying to boil down to a presentable position/argument, is that it involves a sort of category mistake or register mistake.

Recent work by Negri and others involves sociological/economic claims about the uniqueness of the present in terms of objective conditions and in terms of subjective/political potentials, which they use to formulate what they think are good ideas for tasks or proposals that radicals and social movements might take on today. As far as I’m concerned these claims are largely voiced using vocabularies and modes of evidence which are of a philosophical register. More importantly, the claims to temporal/historical/conjunctural specificity are made and supported via recourse to (elements of?) a philosophical register which does not have the appropriate specficity required to support those claims. That is, claims are made like “the present has these unique qualities”, but some important attempts by Negri et al to specify those qualities fail because the qualities stated apply beyond the present, and it becomes really murky how any of that actually relates to the tasks and projects they posit.

It’s like saying “my daughter is unique, she has a latent power to draw upon the existing structure and past practices of language to generate novel utterances; as such a crucial task for the foreseeable future will be for her to actualize that potential and for us as her parents to assist that process.” All the points in the clauses making up that sentence are true:
1. my daughter is unique
2. my daughter does have a latent power to draw on language to generate novel utterances
3. a key part of parenting my daughter and of her development will her learning to use her capacity for language

What’s false are the ways that that sentence strings these elements together. Point 1 is not the case because of point 2, in fact point 2 is an element of my daughter that is not all unique, it’s something true of all or most human babies. Likewise point 3 is the case for all or nearly all human parents at least until their children achieve some threshold of fluency. Let’s say I changed “my daughter is unique” to “my daughter is at a unique moment in her development and/or her life.” That would probably be closer to the type of claim I object to in Negri at al. In that case:

1. my daughter is at a unique developmental moment
2. my daughter has a latent power to draw on language to generate novel utterances
3. a key part of parenting my daughter and of her development will her learning to use her capacity for language

Little seems to have changed. Point 1 is true. Point 2 remains true but is not unique to the moment by daughter is at. Point 3 remains true and retains its prescriptive force, but the temporal specificity isn’t here.

I’m being a bit unfair here as Negri et al do have more concrete proposals. I don’t think these proposals have anything like the tie to the ostensibly conjuncturally specific analysis that these folk think they do. Soon I need to type up all my notes on that in order to try to make the case, instead of just repeating that I happen to be convinced of it. I also should say, none of this speaks to the merit or lack of merit of the political proposals except to say that I think those proposals are treated by Negri and others as being uniquely suited the present conjuncture. I don’t think they are so suited. I also happen to underwhelmed by those political proposals on their own, but that’s another discussion (I think at best this faux conjunctural analysis stuff serves in part to short circuit discussion of these proposals on their merits, or to offer merely rhetorical support for these proposals).

Here’s another parallel to my issue with Negri and his philosophical descriptions of the present. I once was at an art gallery and read a description of a photographer’s work that said something like “this artist’s photos take an image out of its context and hold it up for aesthetic contemplation.” That description is true of those photographs, but it’s too general to say anything in particular about those particular photographs or any particular photographs. This is because it’s true of most and probably all photography. Likewise with a lot of recent work by Negri – he articulates in a philosophical registers things that are true about the present, but true about the present because true about social life as such or about capitalism as such.

None of this is to say that philosophical registers within marxism are always inferior to economic/sociological ones, or that philosophical registers must lack temporal/historical specificity. My claim is about the particular claims made/vocabularies used by Negri et al; their particular recourse to a philosophical register lacks historical specificity. The philosophical work of Negri et al is simply the wrong set of tools for the project of understanding the objective conditions and subjective potentials of the present. People may hold to all of that and still understand the present in its specificity, but in so far as they do so the categories they use will be in addition to the work of Negri and others in a philosophical register.