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A Commodity Walks into a Bar…

August 10, 2011

There are a lot of obscure jokes in Capital. I’ve argued elsewhere that the decision to start Capital with the commodity is a subtle, sort of crass, prod at Hegel’s notion that the category that founds the philosophical system must also be a category that can be demonstrated to be the ultimate product of that system, so that the system can loop back in on itself and not need to rely on an extra-systematic standpoint. So Marx starts Capital with a category that is, quite literally, a product… Ba-boom-TISH!

The number of people who would get that sort of joke is pretty small. And, to be perfectly honest, the payoff of being “in” on the joke is also not very high, whether on a literary, theoretical, or political level. I take jokes like this, which are scattered all over the place in Capital, as being sort of small gratifications Marx periodically rewards himself with, as he trudges through the difficult process of assembling the components of his argument… One long hard slog – a little tongue poke at Hegel – another difficult trudge – a pun at Ricardo’s expense… On and on we move through the text, from one bad joke onto the next…

But there are some jokes that really shouldn’t be obscure. Jokes that don’t require the reader to be intimately familiar with the farther recesses of German philosophy, or the arcania of classical political economy. And one of those jokes – the first really obvious joke in Capital – is the joke about how commodities are things outside us, external objects, that lack volition and will of their own, and therefore must be carted around and spoken for by an entirely separate ontological category of entity: the commodity owner.

We all know the punchline here – or at least, we all should, and Marx certainly expects that his working class readers all will: that there does, in fact, exist a certain class of commodity owner that brings a commodity to market that is not, in fact, a separate, external entity, physical distinct from the owner’s own physical body. That certain class of commodity owner is the working class, and the commodity it brings to market is its own physical, emotional, and intellectual capacity to work – that is to say, its labour-power.

The perspective holding forth in the opening paragraph of Capital – and again in the opening paragraphs of the second chapter – is an object of ridicule. The reader is meant immediately to startle, surprised, at this opening “definition”, because the counter-example – the commodity that is not external to us, not an object outside us – should be immediately, obviously, viscerally, ready to hand. This ridicule gets a bit more overt in the third section of the chapter, where Marx stages a series of interactions between commodities, which seems to suggest he is “projecting” onto a world of physical objects all the subtleties of the intersubjective relations characteristic of ideal conceptions of civil society. In the concluding passages of Capital‘s opening chapter, Marx asks what commodities would say, “if” they could speak. The perspective that doesn’t understand that there are commodities already that possess their own will, volition, and voice – the perspective that is in denial of the existence of this peculiar class of commodity owners that must bring their own physical capacities and skills to the market for sale – the perspective that is therefore unable to ask these commodities what they want, because it treats them as entirely external to its own concerns: that is the perspective putting forward the farcical statements at the end of chapter 1, projecting these statements into the mouths of commodities, because its conception of capitalist production (and of civil society) is too blinkered to enable intersubjective relations with the “commodities” themselves.

This farcical production on commodity speech at the end of the first chapter – which ends, after all, with a quote from Shakespeare’s Dogberry, flagging the theatrical nature of what has just been on display – nevertheless manages to attract a large amount of literary analysis that both picks up on the tonal weirdness of the section, and yet entirely misses the joke. So you get, for example, Hillis Miller, tripping over himself to provide a complex semiotic explanation of how commodities really can speak, after all, because what is money if not a complex system of signs – and then gushing at the apparent irony, as Hillis Miller takes Marx to be suggesting, that capitalism is a system in which men and women do not speak, and yet the commodities that they produce do.

Marx’s point is much more crass and direct. He is not talking about ironic sign systems, but about human agency – and about the denial of the agency of large categories of actually existing people by political economy. For Marx, the kind of political economic discourse that acts as though you can understand capitalist production by viewing it solely as a form of “social metabolism” – the production and movement of external things – without taking into account the relations between people, is blinded to the most basic facts about the system it pretends to analyse.

The farce continues, of course, beyond chapter 1. Chapter 2 also begins with the image of the commodity as a passive, inert, external object, lacking will and speech, which must therefore be taken to the market by its virile, potent, owner. Mark pokes at this image throughout the opening section of this chapter. In the main text, he mentions that, if a commodity resists, its owner may use force. Again, the reader should be stopped short by this sentence: if a commodity is meant to be this sort of inert, external, thing, how could it resist? A footnote attached to this section pokes just a little bit more: Marx lists the commodities for sale at a medieval market – among which is a prostitute: in other words, a commodity indistiguishable from its owner’s body, that is therefore capable of carrying itself to market with its own motive power, negotiating its own sale price, leasing itself to a buyer for a brief period of time – and, indeed, resisting its buyer, who must then use force to consummate the sale. This image of the potential for the forceable rape of a living commodity haunts the main text, which still farcically continues to speak as though commodities are always and everywhere inert things.

The chapter goes on to give helpful descriptions of how commodities need their owners to give them a voice, since they lack one themselves, and to assist readers who need advice in how to distinguish commodities from their owners – advice that would make no sense unless there were more possibility for confusion than the forms of theory being presented have thus far allowed.

And so the text goes, until the eventual introduction of what Marx expected his readers to have been anticipating all along: the peculiar class of owners who have nothing but themselves – their own capacities and skills – to take to market – the peculiar class that, by the end of chapter 6, has carried itself to the labour market, negotiated its own terms of sale, and then, having sold itself, must now follow behind its new owner, the capitalist, who now sets aside the pretense of equality and mutual recognition that formally characterises the wage negotiation, steps out in front and leads the way, while the workers, having sold their hides, head off for a tanning…

I get endlessly frustrated when this joke is missed – and, when missed by commentators interested in the literary form of Capital, often missed by people who go on to try to point out various ways in which Marx is being naive, or paradoxical, or contradictory, where the commentators are themselves overlooking a very basic point about the text (that the text is designed to display, and then criticise, positions that Marx thinks are absurd), and about how the text is written (generally very sarcastically). It particularly irritates me, for some reason, to read Marx being lectured for lack of sophistication by a tin-eared commentator who simply missed the joke. Attempts to “save” Marx from naivety by defending the “paradoxical” passages in some complex way are not much better – suggesting that the semiotic character of money means that, in some sense, commodities really do “speak”, manages to reproduce precisely the sort of blinded perspective Marx is trying to criticise in the first place – a perspective unable to see that, really, everyday and everywhere, commodities are carrying themselves to market, negotiating their own price, speaking – and, indeed, resisting and being forcibly, violently possessed by others. No scare quotes required.

From → Marx

5 Comments
  1. Like teaching grannies to suck eggs.

    “suggesting that the semiotic character of money means that, in some sense, commodities really do “speak”, manages to reproduce precisely the sort of blinded perspective Marx is trying to criticise in the first place”

    What you said, and also, insofar as commodities do ‘speak’ in a system of signs, they are after all speaking for and among people.

  2. Not much of a reply, other than to say thank you for the writing you do on this blog. This comment is especially helpful. Sometimes, “missing the joke” can be pretty irritating, if not disastrous…

  3. Hey fragilekeys – thanks for the comment, and sorry you were caught in moderation – it should happen only the first time you post.

  4. allan permalink

    I think I see part of what you mean. In the initial sentence of Capital, Marx is referring to Hegel, as the general to the particular, abstract to specific? Or if not that what exactly is the joke there?

    “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,”[1] its unit being a single commodity.”

    I look around and see thousands of cars, TVs, cell phones, computers, etc, etc. An immense accumulation of commodities. Money is even a commodity, traded internationally. Gold, oil, corn, wheat, everything can be a commodity. I read the other day that even worker’s compensation insurance will be traded. The commodification of everything. Human relations, marriage. Human beings are now referred to as human capital.

    I completely agree that Marx uses sarcasm, ridicule, parody, irony, etc. He uses all these and probably more in this description of a commodity: “a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” I’ve often wondered about that use of the word “queer.” Metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties seems like an obvious reference to Hegel.

    I’m glad Marx used sarcasm and ridicule. He would be too boring read otherwise and would long since have been forgotten. But I’m still not sure I see the joke in the opening sentence of Capital.

  5. Hi allan – I agree with this:

    I’m glad Marx used sarcasm and ridicule. He would be too boring read otherwise and would long since have been forgotten.

    Some of the passages would be pretty grueling and grim without the dark humour…

    In terms of the opening sentence joke, it’s not that important, substantively. In the Preface, Marx talks about how beginnings are difficult for all sciences. This is a reference to a section from Hegel’s Science of Logic, where he wrestles with the question of where to begin, and concludes that the system needs to begin with a category that will eventually be shown to be the product of the system as a whole. By the time the opening category has been shown to be this kind of product, however, our understanding of what that category means will have been completely transformed by all of the other categories whose relationships will be shown to constitute what appeared to be the simple, straightforward category with which the text began.

    Marx mentions this idea in his preface, a bit obliquely unless his readers already know the Hegel. Then he begins Capital with… a product. A defines it initially as a simple and straightforward category, and then moves through the chapter in a structure that reflects Hegel’s move from “perception”, to “understanding”. And certainly, by the end of the text, our understanding of capitalism’s “product” – our understanding of what creates the wealth of capitalist societies – has been completely transformed.

    The joke is basically that it’s possible to make this sort of argument with capitalism – Hegel thinks this sort of argument is viable only because of his distinctive and rarefied subject matter – thought freely contemplating its own development. Marx says, basically, “nah – you don’t need the rarefied subject matter – I can tell a similar story about a mundane topic: how we can grasp the wealth of capitalist societies”. The joke’s on Hegel, basically – here and elsewhere through the text, Marx is embedding Hegel in his own system.

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