In 2011 Fredric Jameson published Representing Capital, about volume 1 of Capital by Karl Marx. Jameson’s a marxist literary critic and academic cultural commentator and he’s a big deal in those sorts of circles. Over all, I didn’t like Representing Capital and I wouldn’t recommend it to people. That said, it wasn’t a total waste of time. (I can’t find my copy at the moment, my living room’s strewn with toys and the stack of library books in the corner has fallen over, it’s probly in there somewhere. If I find it later I will see about adding in quotes and editing this post to flesh it out more.) I’m going to start with what I liked in it.

Jameson suggests that Capital v1 is really a book about unemployment. I found that interesting because it made me think further about Marx’s treatment of how unemployment tends to be produced over and over as a result of how capitalism works, and it made me think about the importance of that point in Marx’s account of capitalism and in actual capitalism itself. I want to think more about this.

I like how Jameson presents the organization of Capital v1 as a book, and how he calls attention to that – the organization into parts, and what the parts are about, and what the individual chapters are about, and what work each chapter and part does in the whole book. He suggests that part 1, the first three chapters, sets up a kind of problem that can’t be solved in the terms put forward in that part. He further suggests that Capital proceeds like this in general. He suggests that at various points the book poses riddles to readers and gives them resources for possible answers, but those riddles can’t be answered with those resources. So in the next part or parts of the book, it will then change the riddle or provide resources to answer it, then pose a new riddle and repeat the process. I find that a convincing description of how the book works. That quality is part of what can make the book an enjoyable read intellectually (which is not to say fun), and part of what can make it really frustrating. This can also help set people up to fail in reading the book if they don’t know to expect this, and if they expect everything to make sense the whole time. I know I tried for several years to read the book, and I assumed Marx was always right and that he always meant what he said, and so when it didn’t make sense I just assumed I too dumb to read the book.

I like this point about the recurrence of difficult conceptual problems in Capital and this point about the first part both as reminders to not get bogged down or give up when reading volume one. I think that’s a pretty common problem. I also like this point because I think part 1 of the book is pretty over-rated relative to the rest of the book.

I like that Jameson notes that the chapters on the working day, machinery, and on what Marx calls the general law of capitalist accumulation, and the final part of capital, all stand out somewhat within the book, in their own ways. I think those are the best parts of the book and are worth more attention than they sometimes get.

That’s what I like about the book. Oh, I also liked that it was short, around 150 pages.

Here’s what I don’t like. I find Jameson’s prose annoying for a few reasons. He often uses words that are an noun version of an adjective version of a noun (and sometimes that initial noun was a noun version of a verb). For instance: representationality. (Represent, representation, representational, representationality.) Another was conceptuality. I never found the terms illuminating when he did that and he never defined the terms (in such a way that would make it a technical term with some implicit justification) nor did he justify this manner of writing. Without such a justification or definition, I think this is straight up bad and lazy writing (Jameson’s clearly a smart person, but bad and lazy writing by a smart person is still bad and lazy writing). I think this aspect of Jameson’s writing deserves mockery (or: I would like to note the manner of deservification of mocketizing evoked by the compositionalitity of Jameson’s texualizationalitification). I also found his prose annoying for his use of asides without real or unpacked content. These took two forms. One, allusions to writers without footnotes or other citation and no real presentation of their ideas beyond at best an unintepreted aphorism tied to a famous name, like “here we see for Marx that the essence of the point – and we do well to remind ourselves, with Valery, that art is always about the inessential – the essence is…” And sometimes (at the worst) chains of allusions, something along the lines of “this recalls Schopenhauer’s engagement with Hegel’s remarks on Kant.” That communicates very little to most readers, in my opinion, and again is bad, lazy writing. Two, the other annoying thing, was excessive use of conditional phrases, along the lines of “one might here wish to point out that the term value…” or “I will not engage with the Lacanian overtone…” and so on. Again, there’s very little content to these, beyond at best saying “hey there’s more stuff that someone could think about in all this, if you wanted to, though I’m not going to do so here.” There’s a lot of this stuff in the book. There’s nothing really wrong with this stuff in conversation or pre-writing or like in a blog post, but in a published book, it seems to me that this reduces the signal to noise ratio. I think the book could have been way, way shorter with almost no loss in content. Like I’d be this book could be edited down to a really, really good 15 or 30 page essay. Some of what I’m objecting to here is probably cultural and stylistic norms/genre conventions in the milieus Jameson’s part of. Fair enough. Not my scene I guess.

Two last things I didn’t like about the book… The book could have been closer to the text in reading Marx: more textual commentary and actually reading Marx, less meandering. The bits where Jameson reads Marx, looking at the structure of Capital and so on, are the best bits of the book. More of that, less of, well, everything else in the book, and it would have been a better book (or better short essay as I said). And then there’s the dialectical stuff. Jameson makes a big deal about Capital being dialectical. I realize this is something lots of smart, knowledgeable people have spent a lot of time on, but I have a hard time caring and I find it all more than a bit dull. I’m an agnostic on the dialectic. Or rather, I feel like arguments for and against dialectics, particularly in relation to Marx, are more heat than light and there are just too many of them relative to other concerns. There are Hegelian marxists who are very interesting and worth reading, and anti-Hegelian marxists who are very interesting and worth reading. Arguing about why Marx was REALLY a Hegelian, or not, seems silly to me and like I said more heat than light, and there’s a lot more that people could do with Marx’s writing than that. My view on dialectics is “think dialectically, or don’t, and let’s judge the dialectical or undialectical framework of thought by the results.” I also suspect that the dialectics or not issue is largely a matter of chosen vocabularies and people demanding that others speak like they do, rather than attempting to speak with each across chosen vocabularies. So… I just don’t care about the dialectic in Marx. Others might. If so, you’ll like that part of the book. I didn’t. That’s not so much a flaw of the book as it is me being the wrong audience. What *is* a flaw in the book, though, is that Jameson never bothered to say why any of this dialectics stuff matters in Marx (why reading Capital and going “oh! dialectical logic! look! this comes from Hegel!” is more important than the other sorts of responses to the book that one might have and which Jameson doesn’t spend time on). He clearly thinks it matters, but he mostly just treats that as an assumption or starting point and moves from there. Fair enough, people often write books in their chosen vocabularies and for audiences who speak those vocabularies, but for someone who has written as many books as Jameson, he could have gotten into why any of that was worth bothering with in the first place. I personally probably would have still been unconvinced and annoyed, but at least I’d have more arguments to engage with about the point.

Over all, it’s not a particularly bad book, but it’s not a particularly good book. If your times at all in short supply, I think is one that people can skip without much of a loss.