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Banality and the Fetish: Reflections on Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem

Amidst a great deal of poor coverage of the mass murders in Norway, I found myself particularly annoyed by Henning Mankell’s attempt to shoehorn the event into Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil”.

My immediate reaction to Mankell’s piece (aside from thinking that the Guardian possibly shouldn’t have someone writing on the Eichmann trial who apparently got Eichmann’s actual role wrong – as per the erratum notice at the bottom of the article), was that the Norway killings are precisely not the sort of phemomenon Arendt was trying to theorise in Eichmann. The concept of the “banality of evil” is not meant to cover any killer who happens to appear relatively normal and functional prior to their atrocity – it’s not a catchall concept for people who commit barbarous crimes, whose colleagues later come forward to say that, before all this happened, they seemed remarkably normal.

The concept is instead meant to thematise the problems that the judicial system – with its tacit notions of the personal responsibility of an identifiable perpetrator for crimes against specific victims – runs into when it tries to manage large-scale atrocities that require the distributed actions of hundreds and thousands of people, most of whom are not personally pulling triggers or engaging in direct physical brutality. The Norway atrocities, by contrast, fit relatively well within a conventional conception of justice: the scale of the crime is horrific, but enacted by a definable individual who planned the crime and pulled the trigger himself, and who did not reside in a society whose members casually condone this sort of conduct as a consensus view.

So my initial reaction was to dismiss the article with irritation. But then I started thinking about the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem when the work came out (hat tip Carl). And I became curious how much Arendt’s concept may have been flattened through the general distribution of the catchy turn of phrase “banality of evil” – and also curious how much such a flattening might owe something to the very peculiar case study through which Arendt introduced this term. For, while the Holocaust required the distributed actions of many people to carry out, Eichmann was no minor player, and the level of responsibilty and autonomy he possessed place him more squarely on the terrain for which conventional judicial understandings of responsibility can be said to apply. Eichmann in Jerusalem thus suffers, as a work, from a poor fit between the specific case it examines, and the moral challenge it poses – and this poor fit, I would suggest, leads to many of the passages that have made the work such a lightening rod for generations of critics.

Eichmann’s rank and relative autonomy mean that Arendt needs to work particularly hard to narrate his circumstances in a way that allows her to shoehorn his life story into her theoretical and moral critique of the limitations of conventional judicial categories, when applied to atrocities that rely on distributed mass action. The resultant forced fit, which selectively interprets Eichmann’s history in order to turn him into an example of her general point, often comes across apologistically, as though Arendt is excusing Eichmann and downplaying his role. This leads to a number of incendiary passages and outright empirical misrepresentations, which help to make it difficult for many readers to separate out the valid theoretical challenges posed in the work, from the often offensive steps taken to enable those points to be raised in relation to this unpromising case material.

This problem is exacerbated by that fact that Arendt’s presentation is often deeply sarcastic, and this sarcasm is often expressed in the form of ventriloquising Eichmann’s own perspective on his life and fate, attempting to express the incidents in Eichmann’s life from his point of view. Arendt takes for granted that her readers will understand this presentational device, and will identify with her tacit contempt for Eichmann, rather than with her explicit re-enactment of Eichmann’s own internal stances (which she frequently clearly regards as self-evidently absurd, in how thoroughly disconnected they are from the sense of reality she expects her readers to share). Arendt’s Eichmann is at base a pathetic creature, self-absorbed and utterly unable to anticipate or understand alternative perspectives on his actions. He therefore often narrates himself as the victim of unfortunate circumstances or incomprehensible bad luck. By presenting him in what she takes to be his own voice, Arendt tries to show how thoroughly and (darkly) comically he remains oblivious to the impacts of his actions on others – impacts that Arendt takes for granted her readers will be able to infer.

The form of presentation is meant to shock her readers with their own sense of the obvious things Eichmann is unable to understand – and thus make her case that, while psychologically “normal”, he does not exist in the same universe of moral action that is often presupposed to follow from this sort of “normality”. This sort of strategy is in play, for example, in the following passage, which reports on Eichmann’s relationship to anti-Semitism:

Worse, his was obviously also no case of insane hatred of the Jews, of fanatical anti-Semitism or indoctrination of any kind. He “personally” never had anything whatsoever against Jews; on the contrary, he had plenty of “private reasons” for not being a Jew hater. To be sure, there were fanatic anti-Semites among his closest friends, for instance Lazlo Endre, State Secretary in Charge of Political (Jewish) Affairs in Hungary, who was hanged in Budapest in 1946; but this, according to Eichmann, was more or less in the spirit of “some of my best friends are anti-Semites.”

Alas, nobody believed him. (26)

This passage is written to express aspects of Eichmann’s internal monologue, as the periodic scare quotes and, eventually, the phrase “according to Eichmann” are meant to express. She outlines the reasons the prosecutor, defense and judges find him to be an unreliable narrator. Arendt is critical of their positions but, in the end, she doesn’t believe Eichmann either – and certainly doesn’t expect her readers to conclude that she is endorsing the unique self-understanding that would allow Eichmann to defend himself as not really being an anti-Semite. Many critics have been tone-deaf to this presentational strategy, and have therefore attributed to Arendt the propositional content of passages where she is attempting to present Eichmann’s own self-understanding – a self-understanding from which she distances herself precisely by the heavily sarcastic tone.

Arendt does, though, disagree with the reasons that others conclude that Eichmann’s narrative is unreliable. The prosecution and the defense both have their roles in the judicial play – the prosecutor won’t believe Eichmann because “that was not his job”; the defense doesn’t want to get into the issue of Eichmann’s internal states, but wants to focus instead on the way in which Eichmann was following external orders. But it’s the judges’ reasons for disbelief that interest Arendt in particular.

Arendt has already – with deep sarcasm – presented what she calls the “comedy of the soul experts” – the verdicts of the psychologists and minister who declare Eichmann “normal” and sane, so that he could stand trial. She argues that the judges:

…were too good, and perhaps also too conscious of the foundations of their profession, to admit that an average, “normal” person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong. They preferred to conclude from occasional lies that he was a liar – and missed the greatest moral and legal challenge of the whole case. (26)

Here we get to the heart of the matter: the “greatest moral and legal challenge of the whole case”, for Arendt. That Eichmann’s very “normality”, in the context in which he found himself, was not a foundation for a strong internal sense of “right and wrong”, but was instead precisely what could lead to his inability to distinguish them, what could drive him to commit atrocities because, in Arendt’s paraphrase of his position, what would have bothered his conscience most was “if he had not done what he had been ordered to do – to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and meticulous care” (25).

For Arendt, the judges missed the fact that:

Eichmann was indeed normal insofar as he was “no exception within the Nazi regime.” However, under the conditions of the Third Reich only “exceptions” could be expected to read “normally” [in the sense of maintaining the socially transcendent sense of right and wrong the judges assumed Eichmann must have had all along]. This simple truth of the matter created a dilemma for the judges which they could neither resolve nor escape. (26-27)

Sarcasm and irony can’t be invoked to excuse all of the statements that have drawn down fire from critics. Fundamentally, Arendt’s attempt to shoehorn Eichmann, who held a high level of personal responsibility and autonomy, into a theoretical framework that is best suited for analysing the aggregate effects of distributed actions, resulted in repeated passages that seemed to downplay Eichmann’s role, sometimes while contrastively elevating the roles of others – including, in places, the victims themselves. Even her supporters – and even Arendt herself, in later reflections on the work – have conceded that many passages were deeply problematic. If I am able to return to the book in the future, I might be able to unpack some of its more controversial sections in greater detail, while also further developing the case that the rational core of her argument relates to the distributed consequences of mass action.

But the reason I am writing a post now is less to analyse Arendt’s text, than to put up a brief placeholder to myself about the relationship between the rational core of her argument, and Marx’s conception of the fetish.

I have argued elsewhere that the concept of the fetish relates to the way in which actions can have multiple layers of consequence. Some layers are immediate and easy to perceive, so that most social actors will have some awareness of their responsibility for effecting these immediate consequences that follow from their actions. Some layers, however, are much more indirect and downstream – and may depend on the tandem performance by many other social actors of the same, of other kinds, of social practices. Marx suggests that these downstream consequences are often more difficult to see – he accuses the vulgar political economists of essentially denying they exist, and focusing just on the surface level of the most immediate and striking consequences of our social practices.

Classical political economy, for Marx, does see the downstream consequences – but doesn’t understand how these consequences arise. Its attitude toward them is therefore fatalistic – it adopts a passive relationship to these downstream consequences, “discovering” them, but not approaching them as determinate results of complex networks of social practices whose interactions can be analysed in order to understand how the aggregate result arises.

Marx thinks the complexity of the aggregate process generates so many sticking points – so much experiential flypaper – on which competing theories can get stuck. When stuck, theories fixate on a certain level of consequence, but lose the ability to keep track of other levels. Sometimes, as with vulgar political economy, this can be apologistic and self-serving: it can be in the interests of a particular observer to attend to certain consequences of their actions, but not others. Sometimes it can be closer to a socially-instituted optical illusion: some consequences can be incredibly difficult to see, because other aspects of our social experience are more prominent, and tend to deflect the eye in a different direction.

I mention all of this because one way to express one of the rational cores of Arendt’s argument, is to say that there is a fetish quality to certain kinds of atrocities whose causation relies on distributed mass action. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible for people to understand what they are contributing to, but that it’s easier for many participants to focus on the immediate consequences of their actions – interacting with colleagues, earning a wage, holding down a “respectable” position in society – than on the indirect and aggregate effects which rely on the tandem performance of many other people. It’s easy to rationalise that withholding one small contribution will in any event have little impact on the end result. And, if the impact of withholding your own contribution is so small, the calculus of how much risk to take on, for that small impact, becomes more difficult for those who confront it.

Arendt focuses particularly on the small realm of choice available in totalitarian societies, at least in this work, but the core issue is also presented by the consequences of globally distributed actions in the capitalist world system. We are each of us participants in immediate actions that are not on their face harmful – and may even be, on a local level, morally beneficial. Our actions have consequences, however, beyond this immediate and easily-perceptible layer of experience. Combined with the actions of others, in a complex global network, we make our small contributions to what, in some cases, are horrific end results. How do we think our responsibility for these downstream consequences? What sorts of institutions would be required to prevent this sort of blind, senseless, thoughtless causation of a rolling juggernaut of human tragedy?

Arendt focuses on withdrawal – on the choice to do nothing – as the quintessential moral act of those confronted with a severely limited range of choice. This centres the moral core of the analysis on the internal moral dignity of the individual person. I would focus more on the institutional question: what would be required to make disaggregated social practices more sensitive to horrific downstream consequences – what sorts of institutions do we need to prevent these sorts of horrific downstream consequences from happening?

Apologies that this piece is a bit rough and unfinished – I’m very pressed for time at the moment, but wanted to preserve some very rough thoughts to which I might be able to return more adequately later… This is a difficult work, and a difficult topic, to treat superficially, and what I’ve written risks not communicating the nature and extent of my critique of Arendt’s position. And any abbreviated discussion of atrocity, particularly one oriented to talking about very abstract concerns such as the adequacy of theoretical categories, risks charges of callousness… In spite of these concerns, I’ve decided to post this publicly and hope that I can do better justice to the topic at a later point.

Citations to Arendt from the Penguin Classics edition, 2006.

Slow Criticism

So I have an article out in Borderlands, in an edition amusingly titled Slow Criticism. You ain’t kiddin’… For various reasons, this piece has actually been floating around since 2008, but has only now made it into (virtual) print – and of course since it was written, I’ve changed almost everything about how I try to present this argument, informed by a better sense of how people hear what I say, when I try to talk about Marx’s relationship to Hegel, and also informed by a great deal of further textual work on Capital… This piece was, though, in its original verbal form, the nucleus of the argument I made in the thesis… So I thought I’d archive the link here for what it’s worth…

I should add that, the personal vicissitudes of my article aside, the edition title does have a substantive intent – from Simone Drichel’s generous introduction:

This issue of borderlands showcases what I propose to call ‘slow criticism’. Slow criticism is a criticism that takes the time to interrogate the scholarly orthodoxies that invariably seem to establish themselves in any given field of inquiry. As such, slow criticism fulfils an important corrective function in today’s academic environment. What is at stake in the production of slow criticism is nothing less than our ability to stay attuned to the ethical and political demands made on us as critics at a time when we are ever-more insidiously, and therefore powerfully, interpellated into the role of compliant scholarly citizen ready to feed the well-oiled machine of what is now so glibly called our ‘knowledge economy’. If borderlands has always offered a home to a politically and ethically invested criticism that is situated in the interstices of disciplines and that, from the space (or non-space) of these interstices, is able to interrogate prevailing disciplinary assumptions, the five contributions gathered together for this issue bring much-needed critical scrutiny to a strikingly diverse set of disciplines and debates. They approach these disciplines and debates with the kind of dual responsibility that J. Hillis Miller associates with an ‘ethics of reading’. That is, the authors read their respective texts responsibly—slowly, carefully—while never losing sight of their simultaneous responsibility to ‘the social, institutional, political realms’.

Beyond the Blank Slate

This post started as a reply to Carl’s comment below, but grew a bit cancerous, so I’ve transposed it into a post of its own…


Hey Carl – thanks for these – I’m probably more on board with the Durkheim than with the Sorel, although you’ve reminded me that I should put up something about the notion of “cleansing” violence, and about related conceptions of revolution as the instantiation of a New Man or New Society… I’m after something more evolutionary – in the biological science sense: the notion that the future we make descends from our past, but it’s a descent with modification. This doesn’t mean the change can’t be quite dramatic in character, but it does mean we’re never in the position of working from – or creating – a historical blank slate. Revolution within this framework is a hack of history, in the same sense in which Francis Crick reportedly claimed that “God is a hacker, not an engineer” – working with the modification of what exists, opportunistically tweaking what’s currently there, rather than creating from scratch via some sort of blueprint model.

Sorel’s reflections, to me, long for a blank slate. I suspect this is also part of the appeal of more recent theorists like Badiou. There’s a relation between this kind of theory, I think, and unscientific (comfortably scientific?) desires for a firm and incontrovertable ontological foundation for revolutionary practice: both are oriented to a transcendent foundation – one believes it can know what that foundation is; the other believes such a foundation isn’t accessible – at least not to thought – and then concludes that action can therefore be driven by nothing other than myth.

I’m after something more Benjaminian – in the sense Benjamin uses in his reflections on the Concept of History, where he speaks about the remarkable lack of selfishness present generations have toward the future, and suggests that what motivates us are our present desires:

‘One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature,’ writes Lotze, ‘is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.’ Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that.

I think we can explore those present desires scientifically – in the tentative, exploratory sense I’m trying to use for science here – the sense reflected in the Durkheim quote you’ve used. One of the things I think Marx is particularly good at, is looking at the practical bases of our desires – tracing desires back to things we actually do, and therefore pulling them down from the aether of disembodied desires, and back into the microfoundations of everyday practices through which we suggest to one another that particular things are possible in the real world. In this way, Marx begins to make the “scientific” case that particular desires are not in fact utopian – that there are significant dimensions of our collective experience that suggest the possibility to realise these desires in concrete, realistic, institutional forms.

There’s still a level of uncertainty around the whole enterprise, because of course the aspects of our current experience that suggest certain possibilities are offset by countervailing aspects of our social practices – there’s still a gamble involved in trying to work out what it would mean to institutionalise certain possibilities in new forms. But this is nothing like the sort of abstract, roll-the-dice, gamble implied in conceptions of the revolution as the Great Blank Slate, the revolt of Will Against History, etc. Marx’s method is intended to provide the resources for something much more concrete – to give us a sense of the aspects of our history that seem to be inviting specific emancipatory hacks.

And it’s providing these resources in a context where the question of whether to have a revolution has been settled: capitalism itself already figures as a revolutionary force – overturning traditional forms of life, and then deposing the post-traditional forms themselves in turn, tossing human and animal populations around the globe in unprecedented numbers, unpending cultures and languages and governmental forms, endlessly altering the fabric of everyday life. Marx believes this experience habituates us to planning for revolution – he thinks we already do this, all the time – just generally to non-emancipatory ends. Marx is trying to get us to hack this existing revolutionary process for emancipatory purposes – he’s trying to suggest the possibility for splicing into our historical inheritance some specific institutional transformations whose implications, while not completely predictable in advance, are nevertheless at least partially and tentatively knowable from a thorough exploration in the laboratory that is our existing society and history.

On the one hand, Capital is a work that heavily thematises unintended consequences – the introduction of a market for labour-power figures in Marx’s narrative as one of these, as does the accidental enactment of a kind of disembodied equality for labour values, as does the development of technology and the growth of scientific knowledge, and so on. So the possibility is constantly on the table that our practices, our innovations, will have unintended consequences, will generate unpredicted – and yet retrospectively comprehensible – impacts that could fundamentally change the historical game.

On the other hand, Capital is informed strongly by this sense that one of these accidental and unanticipated consequences of our past historical practice is that we have primed ourselves to become aware of the possibility of deliberately hacking history to achieve specific human goals. We may do this now to shore up the pieces left after a major crisis, to try to glue back together what was just smashed – but Marx suggests that only a slightly different selection from the diversity of existing practice is required to think we might apply similar energies to a more emancipatory end.

So Capital systematically maps the genome of capitalist production, trying to document the internal practical variability that already exists within this peculiar species of material reproduction, in order to try to make the case that this internal variability is already sufficiently diverse and contradictory to enable us to select from within it the building blocks of a very different form of social life. It’s a vision of revolution that doesn’t require that we be godlike, all-powerful, or all-knowing – a vision that acknowledges the groping, uncertain, largely accidental character of human history. And yet also holds out the possibility for creating some quite new – not by wiping clean the historical slate, but by adapting creatively to our current surroundings, by applying a slightly different sort of selective pressure, which will enable us to appropriate a different subset of existing practical potentials, and thus speciate a new form of social life…

I’ve probably pushed the evolutionary metaphor a bit farther here than I really want to take it… 🙂 I’m experimenting with ways of communicating what I’m trying to get across, so take the specific imagery with more than a small grain of salt…

But the blank slate conception of revolution is one of my targets – one of the historical ruts that seems, to me, to crop up recurrently in particular kinds of political and social theory – a rut that I don’t think is productive of good thinking about possible concrete social institutions, a rut that seems more likely, to me, to be productive of massacres than emancipatory institutions.

My argument would be that, in spite of superficial appearances, the blank slate approach – whether expressed in abstract notions of cleansing violence or in some other eschatological standpoint – is precisely not motivated by an attempt to be more aware of the boundaries of our current understanding. The motivation is rather a sort of magical belief that those boundaries can be smashed, once and for all, by some action we can take now, or by some sort of historical rapture that will magick up the worthy if they await its coming faithfully enough. These approaches may agree that we can’t think our way past the limits of our current understanding – but they haven’t given up on the notion that there is some sort of action within our control that can shatter the barrier between ourselves and some sort of absolute.

I think that Marx is after something radically different. He’s after an approach that allows us to acknowledge that our actions might have unpredictable consequences – to hold that we are in no position to dictate the end point and culmination of all social development – to maintain that future generations will have their own ideas about the sort of society they want to live in: we can do all this – refusing to write recipes for the cookshops of the future – and yet we can still put forward actual concrete proposals for the global institutional structures we’d like to see, as alternatives to the ones we have right now. And we can ground this analysis in actual analysis of the implications and possibilities suggested by actual empirical things, that we can experience now or have experienced in the recorded past. And we can therefore base political proposals on a kind of concrete, non-utopian foundation – that carries with itself the realisation that it, too, is still groping forward, limited in its ability to foretell consequences that will no doubt be transparently clear and sensible to those who come after, but that is nevertheless mining as well as it can the insights available within our own time.

At least, that’s the general idea…

The New Dialectic and the Bubble

Christopher Arthur coined the useful term “new dialectic” for recent attempts to reevaluate Marx’s relation to Hegel, by focusing on Hegel’s Logic, rather than Hegel’s philosophy of history. In Arthur’s words:

The point is usually put by saying the effort is to construct a systematic dialectic in order to articulate the relations of a given social order, namely capitalism, as opposed to an historical dialectic studying the rise and fall of social systems. (3)

Arthur contrasts this “new dialectic” to what he describes as the “lifeless formalism” characteristic of orthodox Marxist dialectics, and finds a common open and exploratory spirit in a diverse set of recent works that each explore Marx’s relationship to Hegel in quite different ways, but that share a common anti-dogmatism, together with a concern with how to understand capitalism as a system of relations.

My own work plays off against the new dialecticians more than it does other schools of Marx interpretation, and can be regarded, on one level, as a sympathetic critique of this broad church of approaches to Marx’s work. I share with many of the new dialectical authors the sense that Marx’s relationship to Hegel has often been misunderstood and misrepresented in ways that have impeded our ability to understand Marx’s own theory. I think it’s important to think about capitalism relationally, and I agree that Marx sees in Hegel’s systematic philosophy some potential for thinking in the appropriate relational terms. I also think that the new dialectical interpretations have been particularly important in laying the groundwork for realising that Capital is a more complex work, on a textual level, than has often been assumed in the past – that reading Capital as though it is operates in a typical social scientific genre, risks misunderstanding the work very badly indeed.

At the same time, in reading many of the authors that fall into Arthur’s broad new dialectical church, I’m often struck by how strongly these are texts of the great bubble – texts of the era when it was somewhat plausible to think of capitalism as a sui generis force, materially unconstrained, autonomous from social practice. This manifests itself in various ways in different authors. In Arthur, it emerges in the suggestion that Marx is able to draw on Hegelian philosophical categories because capitalism itself possesses “ideal” qualities in some genuine sociological sense. Postone makes a similar argument, only slightly pulling punches with the addition of the prefix “quasi”, when speaking about the “quasi-autonomous” categories that dominate social life. Even Ollman, in many ways more deflationary and pragmatist in his approach, metaphysicalises Marx’s theory, arguing that Marx’s relational claims about capitalist production must live or die on the accuracy of a set of transhistorical metaphysical propositions about internal relations…

It’s no accident, I believe, that so many new dialectical interpretations focus so heavily on the opening chapters of Capital. These chapters present a very particular – partial and one-sided – perspective and standpoint on the capitalist market. They are meant to be taken in tandem with later chapters, which explore other perspectives and standpoints. The categories they introduce are not master categories, providing the key to Capital as a whole. The arguments they make are not more foundational or fundamental than the arguments made later. Yet they are often treated as such a master key by new dialectical interpretations.

As a result, a set of fairly disembodied characterisations of categories like the commodity, money, and capital itself, are treated definitionally – the idealist method of presentation that Marx adopts in the early chapters in order to mock idealist approaches to the analysis of capitalist society, are taken as Marx’s own final word. Even dramatically sarcastic passages, such as the one in chapter four where Marx equates capital with the Hegel’s self-moving substance that is subject – a passage that appears alongside others where Marx also compares it to the Christian Trinity, and the goose that lays the golden eggs – are taken at face value, and then used as the basis for claims that there is something genuinely “ideal” about capitalist production. That this same chapter concludes by explicitly declaring that the perspectives voiced here are those of interest-bearing capital – perspectives that seem plausible only within the standpoint of a financial bubble – are disregarded. These mis-steps locate the new dialecticians as the theorists and articulators of a very specific historical moment – able to reclaim insights into the international market that were lost during the period in which the market was mediated largely through national domestic economies organised along Cold War lines, but not able to reach beyond these insights to attain a genuine critical perspective on the valorisation of the kind of global market that was emerging in their own time.

This locates my reading as well, of course. Although I began writing this interpretation before the global financial crisis was in full swing, a series of precursor bubbles and bursts were part of my formative intellectual experience. It is much easier, now, to recognise the comedic elements in Marx’s depiction of the puffed-up discourses that proclaim that capital is free of all material constraints, the self-moving substance that is also subject of our history. Marx’s comedy is writ large in the farce of our own times – our ears are tuned by our own immediate practical experience to this aspect of his text.

The question is whether, and how, it’s possible to use these insights – to use the elements of our own time that sensitise us to specific historical possibilities – to achieve something more critical. It’s an easy target, taking pot shots at theorists who were caught up in their own times, channeled those times with insight and perspicacity, but didn’t quite manage to extract from those times insights that are simply far easier to achieve today, than they would have been a short time ago. The ability to criticise these positions now, when the historical spell is broken, earns no plaudits for the come-lately critic, even if this criticism also forms a necessary moment of what we currently need to do. Chances are very high that the insights that come to us easily, are not the insights we actually most need… So the question is how to hold on to as much as we can – from our current moment, from past moments – to render our history citable in sufficient detail that we can speak concretely about institutional transformations that can achieve emancipatory ends in our own time. A keen awareness of our own event horizon – of how unlikely it is that we will be any more immune to the partial and one-sided character of our own experience – is crucial for this process.

Diffuse Practices

Diffusion - an illustration of the law of large numbers I found the attached image on Wikipedia, in the article on The Law of Large Numbers, while looking for some illustrative materials for a course I’ve been designing. The blurb attached to the image reads as follows:

Diffusion is an example of the law of large numbers, applied to chemistry. Initially, there are solute molecules on the left side of a barrier (purple line) and none on the right. The barrier is removed, and the solute diffuses to fill the whole container.

Top: With a single molecule, the motion appears to be quite random.

Middle: With more molecules, there is clearly a trend where the solute fills the container more and more uniformly, but there are also random fluctuations.

Bottom: With an enormous number of solute molecules (too many to see), the randomness is essentially gone: The solute appears to move smoothly and systematically from high-concentration areas to low-concentration areas.

In realistic situations, chemists can describe diffusion as a deterministic macroscopic phenomenon…, despite its underlying random nature.

Without wanting to push the image too far, I’m wondering whether it might be useful in giving a sort of gestalt sense of how Marx approaches the “structure/agency” problem – and how he views competing theories of capitalist production to go astray…

I’ve discussed in other places how Marx uses the image of the ellipse – stolen from Hegel – to criticise competing conceptions of capitalist production. The point of that image, in Marx’s work, is to thematise the problems that can arise if a theorist looks at a problem one-sidedly. If a theorist wants to understand the relationship of two bodies, where one body orbits the other elliptically, they need to recognise the essentially non-linear character of the relationship. If this non-linear character isn’t recognised, you can get some very weird, inaccurate, linear extrapolations of how the two bodies will relate to one another in future – for example, you might conclude that the two bodies will keep flying further and further apart from one another forever; or you might conclude that the two bodies will keep spiraling closer and closer to one another until they crash.

Marx believes his contemporary fellow-theorists of capitalist production suffer from this sort of defect: they grab hold of some specific linear trend or striking aspect of capitalist production, and make it the foundation of their entire theory. As a result, they overlook the countervailing trends that will tend to invalidate simple, linear extrapolations from the current state of the system. Much of Capital – across all its volumes – consists in exploring these kinds of linear extrapolations, working out what aspects of capitalist production they can plausibly be said to describe, and then panning back to show other dimensions of capitalist production – countervailing trends – generate very different tendencies.

Capitalist production, for Marx, is the production and reproduction of this whole complex of contradictory and mutually undermining trends: the term “capital” is redefined in Marx’s work so that its referent is the aggregate consequence of the mutually-conditioned interaction between all of these divergent trends. Both critics and supporters of Marx have tended to read him as a theorist who makes predictions about the future trajectory of capitalist production – but have missed that the main “prediction” he makes is that a great many other predictions, made by other theorists, are far too linear and fail to take account of contradictory trends. Since Marx is perfectly happy to dwell, often for hundreds of pages, within the thought-space of bodies of thought he intends to criticise, it’s perhaps understandable that so many people take him to be making the very predictions he is trying to explode from within. It’s nevertheless a frustrating misunderstanding of the point of his critique – where the frustration is less that people misunderstand Marx (not a particularly important thing in its own right), but that people miss a serious and sustained model for how we might critically analyse extremely complex, non-linear, contradictory social phenomena today.

So back to the image of diffusion above… One of the misapprehensions Marx grapples with is the idea that the phenomena he wants to analyse are just contingent, random results of individual practices – the sort of approach often reflected when people talk about individual choice as the guiding category for understanding what happens on the market. Marx ventriloquises aspects of this sort of theory in the opening paragraphs of Capital, and again in some of his reflections on money in chapter 2, and periodically at other junctures in the text. He’s particularly scathing of this sort of approach, and associates with what he calls “vulgar” – apologistic – political economy. He believes this kind of theorisation systematically deflects attention from large-scale structural tendencies – a deflection he sees as, at best, convenient for those who would want to draw attention away from the grievances of those disenfranchised by capitalist production.

The point of his critique is not to deny capitalist production involves a great deal of “choice” – historically capitalism opens up an enormous space for individual decision making, and this historical circumstance is important in thinking about emancipatory potentials that could be opened up in alternative forms of social life in the future. The point, instead, is to argue that this approach to theorising capitalist production forecloses the analysis of the non-random results of this explosion of “choice” – and thus creates a rhetoric of capitalism as the idyll of freedom and mutual consent, of the sort that Marx lampoons at the end of the Capital chapter 6, when he describes:

a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

This “Eden of the innate rights of man” is the sort of blinkered view that might result from looking at our social relations only through the lens represented by the first panel in our image of diffusion above. Watching the apparently random walk of the individual social “particle”, it seems plausible enough to say its movements are driven by nothing but mere chance – or, in the social example, choice – free will.

Backing up to the aggregate – which Marx believes the best of the classical political economists attempted to do – yields something more like the third image on the panel: here, at this level, things look deterministic. So deterministic that it is possible to derive general universal laws without worrying ourselves too much with the contingent reasons those laws might have come about, and with the ways those laws rely for their continued operation on the reproduction of very specific sorts of social practices.

Marx is more sympathetic with this sort of approach – he thinks it’s more promising as a starting point for a properly critical theory. He regards it, nevertheless, as also apologistic in its implications: by severing the deduction of general laws from an analysis of the practice by which those laws are generated and reproduced, classical political economy tends to elevate its laws into a transcendent realm that is treated as a kind of intrinsic essence to which human practices should conform. The deductive “is” becomes a normative “ought” – and the trends and tendencies that happen to characterise a contingent form of social life are thus shielded from critique.

What Marx wants to do, instead, is account for how these non-random trends are generated, by specific sorts of practices. He believes that neither vulgar nor classical political economy attempts this sort of analysis:

Political Economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour time by the magnitude of that value. These formulæ, which bear it stamped upon them in unmistakable letters that they belong to a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him, such formulæ appear to the bourgeois intellect to be as much a self-evident necessity imposed by Nature as productive labour itself. Hence forms of social production that preceded the bourgeois form, are treated by the bourgeoisie in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religions.

By drilling into the practical production of the sorts of trends posited by political economy, Marx is better able to explore the limitations on these trends – to avoid false extrapolations that assume that capitalism in the future will linearly expand on specific aspects of capitalism in the present. He also often “defends” aspects of political economy in a deeply ironic mode – showing that it is possible in some sense to maintain a basically problematic claim, but not for any of the reasons political economists would have used to make that claim in the first place. The labour theory of value is the most prominent, but far from the only, example of this sort of move: there is a sense, in Capital, in which capitalist production does revolve uniquely around human labour, but this isn’t because human labour power is intrinsically valuable for material production; it’s not because human labour power is uniquely important in the determination of price; it’s not even because human labour power is important as an expression of the development of the human being who develops themselves freely by externalising themselves in creative productive activity. Instead, Marx retains the “labour theory of value” in an ironic form, by showing how and why capitalist production on a global scale tends to expand and preserve the need for the expenditure of specifically human labour power in the process of production, regardless of how high productivity grows – making it possible to characterise capitalist production as unique amongst organisations of production in human history, for seeming on a structural level to value the expenditure of human labour directly, while at the same time increasingly rendering this expenditure unnecessary as a motive force for meeting even a vastly expanded set of material needs.

Marx is reaching for a form of analysis that is neither focused solely on the individual – who appears to move randomly, driven by self-interest, when examined in isolation – nor solely on the most abstract layer of aggregate consequence of the system as a whole – where the contingent process by which the system is produced falls from view. He is reaching for something that can situate both of these layers of analysis within a narrative of production – not in its narrow economic sense, but in the sense of the practical production of this distinctive and complex, contradictory and non-linear, social relation Marx calls “capital”.

Uncomfortable Science

I’ve run into the term “uncomfortable science” in two places.

The first is Raymond Firth’s reflections on whether an “applied anthropology” is possible, delivered in his 1981 Malinowski Award Paper “Engagement and Attachment: Reflections on Applying Social Anthropology to Social Affairs”. In this paper, Firth suggests – with, as it turned out, historically unfounded optimism – that the “dismal science” of economics has already learned to be very cautious about the notion that its abstract models could be applied directly to practical human behaviour. He suggests that social anthropology needs to learn a similar lesson – that its descriptive and analytic strengths do not usually translate in any direct way into proposals for social engineering or behavioural change, and that this limitation should be rather embraced than derided – even if this causes social anthropology to be viewed as the “uncomfortable science”, because it dedicates itself to exposing difficulties and contradictions, rather than to magicking them away:

…working anthropologists know that while the descriptive and analytical part of a job is usually well within their competence if they are given adequate time, any business of making positive suggestions about how to get people to change their behavior is much more chancy. In the most prestigious of the social sciences, economists have discovered this by now, and are apt to be quite cautious in going beyond the controlled area of model construction. The economists’ interest in what I believe is called “rational expectations theory” is pretty abstract, and it seems to be admitted that it is not known how far this theory really describes any actual human behavior, and if so, whether such behavior is general to all human beings or is fairly closely culturally determined (Simon 1980). Charting the formation of expectations in actual life in a given society, and how this bears on economic decisions in particular social circumstances is a field for applied anthropology—one of the most recent exercises is Mary Douglas’s study of consumer patterns in The World of Goods (1979). But while many projects in recent years have mentioned what they refer to vaguely as human or social factors, far too few of them have realized just how difficult social technology is, as compared to material technology. That anthropologists tend to identify problems rather than propound solutions has often been pointed out, by ourselves as well as by our critics. I think we must accept this position, not apologetically but firmly; that we should say straightforwardly that an important part of an anthropologist’s job is to expose the difficulties, the contradictions, the conflicts of interest in a situation in order that false hopes of easy solutions should not mislead. This caution may not increase our popularity. As in times past, economics was sometimes called “the dismal science,” so anthropology may become “the uncomfortable science” if it identifies human factors in ways people do not expect. But if we cannot become popular we may at least gain respect.

The second place I have encountered this phrase is in relation to the work of statistician John Tukey, who used the term, as Wikipedia describes:

…for cases in which there is a need to draw an inference from a limited sample of data, where further samples influenced by the same cause system will not be available. More specifically, it involves the analysis of a finite natural phenomenon for which it is difficult to overcome the problem of using a common sample of data for both exploratory data analysis and confirmatory data analysis. This leads to the danger of systematic bias through testing hypotheses suggested by the data.

A typical example is Bode’s law, which provides a simple numerical rule for the distances of the planets in the solar system from the Sun. Once the rule has been derived, through the trial and error matching of various rules with the observed data (exploratory data analysis), there are not enough planets remaining for a rigorous and independent test of the hypothesis (confirmatory data analysis). We have exhausted the natural phenomena. The agreement between data and the numerical rule should be no surprise, as we have deliberately chosen the rule to match the data. If we are concerned about what Bode’s law tells us about the cause system of planetary distribution then we demand confirmation that will not be available until better information about other planetary systems becomes available.

Both of these past encounters with the term hit on something that, for me, is the core ethical value of science of any kind: epistemological humility – the constant awareness, embodied institutionally if not always individually, of the tentativeness and the fragility of the scientific enterprise. And yet, combined with that tentativeness, a rejection of quietism and fatalism – a commitment to act on the basis of what we currently know, while preserving the constant openness to the unknown future that arises from the awareness that what we know is bounded, finite, partial, and almost certain to be superseded in time.

Weber is of course the master of presenting this ethic in a pessimistic tone:

Scientific work is chained to the course of progress; whereas in the realm of art there is no progress in the same sense. It is not true that the work of art of a period that has worked out new technical means, or, for instance, the laws of perspective, stands therefore artistically higher than a work of art devoid of all knowledge of those means and laws–if its form does justice to the material, that is, if its object has been chosen and formed so that it could be artistically mastered without applying those conditions and means. A work of art which is genuine ‘fulfilment’ is never surpassed; it will never be antiquated. Individuals may differ in appreciating the personal significance of works of art, but no one will ever be able to say of such a work that it is ‘outstripped by another work which is also ‘fulfilment.’

In science, each of us knows that what he has accomplished will be antiquated in ten, twenty, fifty years. That is the fate to which science is subjected; it is the very meaning of scientific work, to which it is devoted in a quite specific sense, as compared with other spheres of culture for which in general the same holds. Every scientific ‘fulfilment’ raises new ‘questions’; it asks to be ‘surpassed’ and outdated. Whoever wishes to serve science has to resign himself to this fact. Scientific works certainly can last as ‘gratifications’ because of their artistic quality, or they may remain important as a means of training. Yet they will be surpassed scientifically–let that be repeated–for it is our common fate and, more, our common goal. We cannot work without hoping that others will advance further than we have. In principle, this progress goes on ad infinitum. And with this we come to inquire into the meaning of science. For, after all, it is not self-evident that something subordinate to such a law is sensible and meaningful in itself. Why does one engage in doing something that in reality never comes, and never can come, to an end?

It will likely be counter-intuitive for many readers for me to suggest that Marx’s work operates from a similar standpoint of humility – a similar sense of the boundedness and limitations of our present time – encased in a scathing critique of the so-called “scientists” of Marx’s own time, who claimed to be able to find a solid and incontestable ontological ground for their fleeting “discoveries”, who pretended to elevate short-term insights of a particular historical configuration – as if these had always and ever been the implicit and latent truths of material nature or human history. In Marx, this sense of humility – this awareness of our boundedness to our own time – did not stand in the way of a present-day commitment to practical transformation: it was instead its very basis. But even revolutionary transformation stands at a kind of event horizon – obliquely reaching forward with sensibilities engendered in our own moment, grasping for gratifications we have been socialised to desire – but in the process creating a new world, whose sensibilities and desires are necessarily opaque to us.

In an afterword to the second edition of Capital vol 1, Marx responds with some exasperation to a review of the first edition that complained:

that, on the one hand, I treat economics metaphysically, and on the other hand — imagine! — confine myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing receipts (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.

Marx defends himself – typically – with exaggerated paraphrasing of the original objection, sarcastic asides (“- imagine! – “, “Comtist ones?”), and finally with extensive quotations from other reviewers, hence from people responding to the same material, but who are able to extract different possibilities, different meanings – more sense. He thus refutes the original reviewer, not simply by declaring him to be wrong, but by showing that other people, working over the same raw materials, have the capacity to arrive at something better. Whatever the deficiencies of the original reviewer, then, they are not general deficiencies of the time.

Marx is scathing toward the idea of writing recipes for the cookshops of the future – but what he contrasts approvingly to this image is a contrasting image from another review, which argues that any laws Marx has discovered, are laws that apply only to a very specific moment in time – that have arisen, and will fade away:

But it will be said, the general laws of economic life are one and the same, no matter whether they are applied to the present or the past. This Marx directly denies. According to him, such abstract laws do not exist. On the contrary, in his opinion every historical period has laws of its own.

Marx is after, not metaphysical insight, but something more akin to the knowledge gained from studying natural history – with the emphasis on the word history. Marx will try to explain the practical experiences that prime the notion that nature is a realm subject to timeless laws, but his own operating vision of nature is a much more historically pliable one. Built into the project is its own obsolescence – and, with that, an aversion to closed visions of an absolute endpoint or teleological culmination of history. From Marx’s perspective, Weber’s pessimism itself results from an unnecessary foreclosure – a naturalisation of a particular kind of linear historical trend that Marx would regard as itself a contingent historical product. By contrast, for Marx, a major limitation on our ability to anticipate the future direction of history has to do with the possibility for historical creativity and innovation – with the unanticipated possibilities for adaptation arising from creative appropriation of our existing historical materials – with the creative potential to speciate new forms of social life, whose natures cannot be precisely predicted from what we can now experience, even though these new forms are made from reconfigurations of many sorts of practices that we already know.

Here there is a kind of fundamental humility toward the future that does not imply passivity in the present. It does not require a leap outside our own time and place to orient itself to action, nor does it pretend that we can fully anticipate the needs and desires of whatever future results from our actions now. It poses the uncomfortable challenge of needing to act without certainty, and tries to inform this action as well as is possible, by mining as much information as it can from the sensibilities and practices that are available to us at our present moment in time. In doing this, it runs into some of the issues posed by the other meanings of “uncomfortable science” mentioned above: the complexities of theorising the unique circumstance presented by our own history.

On this blog, I’ll hopefully be able to explore some of these issues, and perhaps work my way toward articulating the concerns I’m hitting on obliquely in the current post…

Rough Theory

Sometimes endings are only evident in retrospect.   I started the Rough Theory blog originally as a way of communicating with a research team during a period when I was often working off campus.  I never expected the blog to gain a more general readership – just as I never expected that my doctoral research would mutate from a fairly concrete empirical study of local community conflicts, into a detailed theoretical exploration of the opening volume of Marx’s Capital.

The Rough Theory blog proved robust through these and many other changes, and I think that, if I had been able to continue posting there regularly, it would have been a perfectly fine platform for the writing I want to do now.  For the past couple of years, however, Rough Theory has been more dormant than active, as professional and personal circumstances have left me very little time to post publicly.   While my intellectual interests and the “voice” in which I present these interests publicly has continued to develop, this development has occurred largely in more formal kinds of writing and speaking – and, as a result, there has been a growing disjoint between how I think of and talk about my work now, and the body of experimental material previously developed on Rough Theory.

This isn’t to say that I disagree with the material posted to Rough Theory – for the most part, I would still be happy to endorse what I’ve written there.  It’s more that I now have a different relationship to the material – and this altered relationship affects the way I would like to talk and think about my project.   For a long period, a busy schedule simply made it impossible to blog.  More recently, however, when fragments of time have presented themselves, and I’ve considered posting new content, I’ve found myself feeling as though I should be filling in background – updating the work to express, in some compressed and telegraphed way, what’s been happening offline.  Yet writing that sort of background update isn’t particularly appealing – it’s unclear anyone would particularly be interested it, and also unclear that I would teach myself much new by writing it…

So the old blog has stalled, occasionally sputtered out a bit of content, but become gradually less and less useful as a space where I move my own thoughts forward, by working experimentally with new material.

In spite of promising to do so, I had delayed for a very long time before posting my submitted thesis to Rough Theory.  This wasn’t due to any particular anxiety about the quality of the thesis:  I had exposed much rougher and more problematic drafts of the thesis on the site before.

I think perhaps I had some tacit sense that posting the thesis would be – should be – the end of the old site.  Rough Theory began as a thesis workshop.  With the thesis complete, in a real sense the old site is “complete” as well.   I think I will let that part of my draftwork end there, with that culmination.

I’ll then see whether, by starting over here, I can begin to develop some new aspects of my work under a new guiding metaphor – no longer rough theory, but… uncomfortable science…