Thursday, January 03, 2008

a highly complicated world in continual motion

Just starting off the new year and hopefully getting some substantial blogging done for a change. I think I'm down to one reader - me :)

I was quite taken by a post from
N. Pepperell at Rough Theory. The excerpt is from Paul Lafargue's 1890 Reminiscences of Marx which is assumed to be a reference to Capital.

I worked with Marx; I was only the scribe to whom he dictated, but that gave me the opportunity of observing his manner of thinking and writing. Work was easy for him, and at the same time difficult. Easy because his mind found no difficulty in embracing the relevant facts and considerations in their completeness. But that very completeness made the exposition of his ideas a matter of long and arduous work…

He saw not only the surface, but what lay beneath it. He examined all the constituent parts in their mutual action and reaction; he isolated each of those parts and traced the history of its development. Then he went on from the thing to its surroundings and observed the reaction of one upon the other. He traced the origin of the object, the changes, evolutions and revolutions it went through, and proceeded finally to its remotest effects. He did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its surroundings: he saw a highly complicated world in continual motion.

His intention was to disclose the whole of that world in its manifold and continually varying action and reaction. Men of letters of Flaubert’s and the Goncourts’ school complain that it is so difficult to render exactly what one sees; yet all they wish to render is the surface, the impression that they get. Their literary work is child’s play in comparison with Marx’s: it required extraordinary vigour of thought to grasp reality and render what he saw and wanted to make others see. Marx was never satisfied with his work – he was always making some improvements and he always found his rendering inferior to the idea he wished to convey …

Marx had the two qualities of a genius: he had an incomparable talent for dissecting a thing into its constituent parts, and he was past master at reconstituting the dissected object out of its parts, with all its different forms of development, and discovering their mutual inner relations. His demonstrations were not abstractions – which was the reproach made to him by economists who were themselves incapable of thinking; his method was not that of the geometrician who takes his definitions from the world around him but completely disregards reality in drawing his conclusions. Capital does not give isolated definitions or isolated formulas; it gives a series of most searching analyses which bring out the most evasive shades and the most elusive gradations.

Marx begins by stating the plain fact that the wealth of a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production presents itself as an enormous accumulation of commodities; the commodity, which is a concrete object, not a mathematical abstraction, is therefore the element, the cell, of capitalist wealth. Marx now seizes on the commodity, turns it over and over and inside out, and pries out of it one secret after another that official economists were not in the least aware of, although those secrets are more numerous and profound than all the mysteries of the Catholic religion. Having examined the commodity in all its aspects, considers it in its relations to its fellow commodity, in exchange. Then he goes on to its production and the historic prerequisites for its production. He considers the forms which commodities assume and shows how they pass from one to another, how one form is necessarily engendered by the other. He expounds the logical course of development of phenomena with such perfect art that one could think he had imagined it. And yet it is a product of reality, a reproduction of the actual dialectics of the commodity.

There are more excellent excerpts at Rough Theory. It's comforting to know the meticulous nature of his concern for context. An economist concerned with context!


N Pepperell said...

Not only one reader... ;-)

To be honest, I don't read Marx as an economist - I read him as someone trying to understand why the sorts of "decontextualised" forms of thought we associate with political economy could arise. One of his central questions is something like: what sort of context presents itself as a total absence of context? What kind of anthropological determination presents itself as what is left behind, once you strip away all anthropological determinations?

But I was very struck by the Lafargue description, as well - it gives one of the best "feels" I've seen for the fact that much more is going on in Capital than at first appears to be happening...

highlowbetween said...

Thanks for still checking in! I was trying to be pithy with my comment ;)

I really appreciate the topic/ and lead on that book. Had no idea of it's existence.