Sunday, April 02, 2006
Spivak Reading Group/Event
I’ve agreed to participate in something of the sort. Presumably anyone else who is interested can join. The occasion for all this was - in a very loose sort of way - criticisms of me for not doing enough close reading of major ‘theorists’ in the course of my periodic grumblings against theory; or Theory, as you like. This is presumably why I have been slated to “set out some stakes at the outset.” At the risk of jumping the gun, let me quote the opening of the main proposed reading, “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value”.
One of the determinations of the question of value is the predication of the subject. The modern “idealist” predication of the subject is consciousness. Labor-power is a “materialist” predication. Consciousness is not thought, but rather the subject’s irreducible intendedness towards the object. Correspondingly, labor-power is not work (labor), but rather the irreducible possibility that the subject be more than adequate - super-adequate - to itself, labor-power: “it distinguishes itself [unterscheidet sich] from the ordinary crowd of commodities in that its use creates value, and a greater value than it costs itself” [Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 342 translation modified].
The “idealist” and the “materialist” are both exclusive predications. There have been attempts to question this exclusivist opposition, generally by way of a critique of the “idealist” predication of the subject: Nietzsche and Freud are the most spectacular European examples.
What do you take the first four sentences to say? What is the character of the indicated opposition between ‘idealism’ and ‘materialism’? And what do you take to be the warrant for the first sentence in the second paragraph? As you might guess: I have my doubts. But I’m curious what others make of it. Some of the things I think I’ll say about the essay as a whole depend on what one makes of the opening. So that’s why I’m jumping the gun.
"Presumably anyone else who is interested can join.”
Indeed, anyone can. Drop me a note in the comments here.
Yeah, that’s a tough one. With the proviso that I have no read the rest of it and am not going to do any further research, I would say that what I see is this:
1. One important aspect of the question of value is what the subject does.
2. Idealism places the subject’s action in consciousness, which denotes not “thought,” but rather its orientation toward objects (presumably preexisting objects, which the subject would “let be"). The value of the subject could be taken to be its adequation to the object.
3. Materialism places the subject’s action in production, which is something different from simply “letting things be”—it produces surplus-value. The subject has value insofar as it produces value in excess of the object.
So on the one hand, you have value as adequation or correspondance; on the other hand, you have value as excess. These two things are not the same, or are mutually exclusive. Nietzsche and Freud are the most significant figures who have tried to bridge this gap.
That’s what I understand her to be saying.
Thanks, Adam. Let me clarify that I indeed didn’t mean this to be a game in which you are not allowed to peek at the rest of the article before answering, although it strikes me that in this case doing so does not especially help. (Anyone who is curious can download it by clicking the link in the post and finding the little samizdat pdf.)
It seems to me that her way of talking about this matches with (to my knowledge) no standard exposition of the idealism/materialism division - it isn’t Cartesian, nor Hegelian, nor anything else that I’m aware of. I don’t quite agree with Adam’s exegesis. (Why say ‘what the subject does’ rather than ‘is’?) But I’ll talk about that later.
I was thinking “predication” as “giving a predicate [verb part of the sentence]” to. Basically, it was my attempt to make sense of why she would say “predication” in specific—not being a Spivakian, though, I have no idea if “predication” comes up again or has some quasi-technical meaning for her.
The meaning of the first five sentences
1) To determine what value is, we should determine the fundamental features of people.
2) Modern idealists think that the fundamental feature is consciousness.
3) Modern materialists think that the fundamental feature is labor power.
4) By consciousness, moderns don’t mean what Descartes meant, but rather what Brentano meant: intentionality, or aboutness.
5) By labor power, moderns don’t mean work, but rather the feature that Marx thought was distinctive of labor power: that it can produce goods of greater value than the cost of wages.
The character of the contrast:
Partly, it’s point about labels: people don’t think that the same philosophers can be called ‘materialists’ and ‘idealists’. Partly, it’s a point about doctrine, people don’t think that one can be a Marxist and a Phenomenologist at the same time.
The warrant of the contrasts:
The warrant, such as it is, must come two sources: first, from an identification of the philosophy of the moderns with continental philosophy, and, second, from an acquaintance with the culture of continental philosophy. As for the identification, it’s pretty much a matter of writing for a readership, and I wouldn’t get too worked up about it. As for her acquaintance with the culture of continental philosophy, she would know better than me. I’d be shocked if the terminological contrast between ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’ weren’t taken as exclusive, and I’d be surprised if the substantive contrast between Marxism and Phenomenology weren’t generally taken as exclusive, also.
John: “Why say ‘what the subject does’ rather than ‘is’?”
This seems a fair question, and I think the answer is that neither “does” nor “is” is excluded. In fact, that’s the reason for defining the “question of value” as a function of predication, rather than as a function of the subject. “Predication” is necessarily ambiguous because predicates may reveal or intimate ontological presuppositions ("X is Y"), or they may implicitly argue that meaning is constituted by relationality ("X does Y [to Z]").
To side with Marx is to cast your vote with the latter (because he shifts ontological questions [What are humans? Humans are species-beings.] to relational questions [What work do species-beings do on nature to fulfill the purpose of the species?]). (But this may just be a different way of saying that he shifts Hegelian idealism to materialism.)
And to side with Spivak (if only long enough to listen to her essay) is to see that to open this inquiry about value requires that we put the question in precisely such a way that to answer it is to take a stance on what one means by “predication,” rather than to take a position on “predication” before one begins to answer the question.
You see, to say as Mike does, “To determine what value is, we should determine the fundamental features of people” is to already situate the question of value in an idealist framework and, thus, to predetermine your answer. It’s not people or subjects we must define; it’s what they are or do (or their predicates): because only the latter enables both idealism and materialism.
I would say that the culture of continental philosophy is definitely important to understanding this—one way of answering your objection that the opposition of “idealist” and “materialist” doesn’t match any standard definition is that both “idealist” and “materialist” indicate certain trajectories in the tradition, and therefore certain types of texts, which must always be reinterpreted.
I tend to think that this lends a certain concreteness: instead of “idealism” in general as one option on the philosophical menu, you get Husserl. Instead of “materialism,” you get Marx. This constant referentiality comes out in the writing style, too—a lot of the “difficulty” stems from attempts to pack in allusions.
While it can become annoying, I prefer something like Spivak (though the jury’s still out on Spivak herself) over more of a problem-solving approach, but then, I’ve always probably had more of a text-oriented (or “literary") mind than a strictly philosophical (or “logical") one.
(One might also be able to understand how writers such as Spivak came to appeal to a discipline that was made possible only by literary modernism. But that’s a different question, and it’s not as though John or any other particular person doesn’t “understand” that possibility—I just wanted to write it.)
Here’s the unmodified translation:
“The commodity I have sold you differs from the ordinary crowd of commodities in that its use creates value, a greater value than it costs.”
I think “differs” is better in every case than “distinguishes itself,” and I"m puzzled about why it’s modified at all, unless it’s to show that Spivak has some command of the original. Someone has written about the frequency of this rhetorical tactic (Taktik) in today’s society.
It’s probably not directly relevant to this question of value, but here’ s an interview with Spivak in which she talks about computers and virtuality and such:
And John, thanks for getting the ball rolling. I know, however, that I won’t be able to get to the text until later in April, given that we first have to wrap up the semester etc.
First paragraph: mostly a standard attempt to de-economize Marx. Yes, labor-power is not labor itself, but rather the ability to do labor; that doesn’t mean that it is defined by “the irreducible possibility that the subject be more than adequate - super-adequate - to itself, labor-power”. It means what Marx says: that its use creates value, a greater value than it costs itself. Saying that labor-power is super-adequate to itself is both confused and a hegemonic move that attempts to bring Marx’ writing within whatever discipline Spivak is working in.
Second paragraph: false dichotomy backed by attempted appropriation and simplification of Nietzsche and Freud. Or the equivalent, if I understand the terms of art correctly, “finding a binary to deconstruct”. Spivak sets up two scarecrows in exclusive opposition; therefore all great thinkers who thought anything in that field must have been questioning the scarecrows.
(If my first attempt at that post appears from whatever electronic limbo it vanished into, please delete it so it won’t appear twice.)
Rich’s comment is something of a tour de force of uncharitable reading.
I tend to agree that the quoted section indicates Ms. Spivak’s tendency towards idealization, if not psychologizing, of Marxist concepts, and that that type of idealization of Marx (and really empiricism in toto) is all-too-typical of the naive postmodernist. Which is to say, a re-consideration of the core economic concepts of Capital--say in relation to literature, and to
current philosophy-- would be more productive and in a sense more politically correct than another helping of the sort of quasi-metaphysics and quasi-Marxist psychologizing characteristic of Spivak and her followers.
I think “differs” is better in every case than “distinguishes itself,” and I"m puzzled about why it’s modified at all, unless it’s to show that Spivak has some command of the original.
“Differs” is passive: two inanimate objects can differ from each other. “Distinguishes itself” suggests an active action, a deliberate intention to make oneself different. In the context of the argument she is setting up, the difference between the two differences seems significant. I take it that the German is quoted to show that the original text (and not just the English translation) can be read in both ways.
My impression was that this was a reflexive German verb that wouldn’t necessarily take the reflexive form in English, and thus the ascribing of agency to “commodity” was not the intent of the sentence, but a native German-speaking colleague sided with Spivak provisionally.
Giving agency to “commodity” is exactly what Marx is talking about.
I’d love to hear someone parse this line, as I didn’t understand it or what difference either the point or its opposite make to the rest of the argument:
“Consciousness is not thought, but rather the subject’s irreducible intendedness towards the object.”
What is the difference between “thought” and “intendedness”? I may be misreading intendedness to be a matter of intentsion, but I don’t know what else to make of the term.
Philosophically-oriented humans, and even sociologically-oriented humans, might do well to question the literary aspects of much of “postmodernism” or what is now known as “theory.” There are plenty of reasons to object to the aestheticizing of academia and of politics, and I wager Marx himself would most likely agree. To wit, does the Spivak/LS/Valve carnival concern economic value, ethical “values”, or the psychology of “value”? The chat shifts from one to the other with nary a break in speed.
Tho’ positivism is now anathema one might at least question whether a term such as “value” --even in strictly economic sense--has some clear, objective definition.
Use and exchange value may perhaps be distinguished--tho’ in many cases objects might have both qualities, or become interchangable, or be sort of variable--humans obviously differing greatly on what they value in particular (use value, tho’ even with UV there are different/subjective types of needs); and exchange value also subject at least to market forces, supply-demand (granting that that Smithian model is not always accurate); then the relation of exchange value to price is hardly clear, either for marxists or for pointy-headed capitalists. Better to start from consumer models modified by a type of consequentialism: what are the consequences (measurable--biological, economic, political) of millions of people wanting a particular item or commodity ? (say beef or oil) . And that might suffice for progressive politics without re-entering the marxist or Smithian labyrinth.Which is to say, I think semi-awake filosophes of all types have plenty of reasons to object to academic economics, whether capitalist or anti-capitalist. Galbraith himself so objected.