Monday, December 10, 2012

Notes on Nicole Pepperell's PhD Dissertaion

It is my fondest hope that this is soon revised and published as a book.  I think that Nicole Pepperell's thinking about Capital as a phenomenology in Hegel's sense is very important.  I don't quite agree with the sense in which she speaks of phenomenology and experience and I have a definite problem with her pragmatism because it seems to utterly lack a way of dealing with "the efficacy of abstraction" (I owe thanks to Vidar Thorsteinsson for the clarity of his exposition of this important problem in Pepperell's work), or rather, it simply denies it.

Taking the definite philosophical differences into account, there is nonetheless something genuinely engaging and thoughtful in this analysis that is not present in most treatments of Capital, from her refreshing engagement with language, tone, and style, to the awareness that the categories as worked up at any given moment are neither final nor wholly adequate and are not only Marx's.  Her discussion of the first chapter is especially crucial in this respect and should provide a platform to entirely re-frame the discussion as to whether or not Marx himself holds to contradictory notions of value (embodied labor theory of value vs. value-form theory of labor), where instead she brilliantly develops the idea that Marx actually takes us through several presentations of the commodity and value, moving from the empiricist to the rationalist, to the dialectical idealist notion and only in the course of this analysis to a really adequate concept, but one which is only developed as far as the categories themselves are able to be developed at this point.

So here are my notes, but I recommend that the dissertation itself be read and shared as widely as possible.

91 Para 2
This would seem especially appropriate as Capital is subtitled A Critique of Political Economy.

Nicole Pepperell’s Philosophical Terms Reference Library
Emergence In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems.

Emergent Properties emergent entities (properties or substances) ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them. (For example, it is sometimes said that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain.) Each of the quoted terms is slippery in its own right, and their specifications yield the varied notions of emergence that we discuss below. There has been renewed interest in emergence within discussions of the behavior of complex systems and debates over the reconcilability of mental causation, intentionality, or consciousness with physicalism.

deflationary theory of truth According to the deflationary theory of truth, to assert that a statement is true is just to assert the statement itself. For example, to say that ‘snow is white’ is true, or that it is true that snow is white, is equivalent to saying simply that snow is white, and this, according to the deflationary theory, is all that can be said significantly about the truth of ‘snow is white’.

Assemblage  An assemblage is any number of "things" or pieces of "things" gathered into a single context. An assemblage can bring about any number of "effects"—aesthetic, machinic, productive, destructive, consumptive, informatic, etc. …The book, as described above, is a jumbling together of discrete parts or pieces that is capable of producing any number effects, rather than a tightly organized and coherent whole producing one dominant reading.  The beauty of the assemblage is that, since it lacks organization, it can draw into its body any number of disparate elements. The book itself can be an assemblage, but its status as an assemblage does not prevent it from containing assemblages within itself or entering into new assemblages with readers, libraries, bonfires, bookstores, etc.

Operationisable  “defining an abstract concept in such a way that it can be practically measured.”  Operationalism is based on the intuition that we do not know the meaning of a concept unless we have a method of measurement for it. It is commonly considered a theory of meaning which states that “we mean by any concept nothing more than a set of operations; the concept is synonymous with the corresponding set of operations” (Bridgman 1927, 5). That drastic statement was made in The Logic of Modern Physics, published in 1927 by the American physicist P. W. Bridgman. The operationalist point of view, first expounded at length in that book, initially found many advocates among practicing physicists and those inspired by the tradition of American pragmatism or the new philosophy of logical positivism.

Foundationalism  Foundationalism is a view about the structure of justification or knowledge. The foundationalist's thesis in short is that all knowledge and justified belief rest ultimately on a foundation of noninferential knowledge or justified belief.

The central insight of foundationalism is to organize knowledge in the manner of a well-structured, architectural edifice. Such an edifice owes its structural integrity to two kinds of features: a firm foundation and a superstructure of support beams firmly anchored to the foundation. A system of justified beliefs might be organized by two analogous features: a foundation of unshakable first principles, and a superstructure of further propositions anchored to the foundation via unshakable inference. 

Programmatic Claims  A programmatic claim “advocates a plan of research for addressing some outstanding problem without, however, attempting to construct a full plausibility argument… However, they are useful only insofar as they indicate the possibility of, or need for, new plausibility arguments.  An attack on an existing, often widely accepted, plausibility argument on the grounds that the plausibility argument is incomplete is a kind of programmatic claim.  Critiques of human sociobiology are commonly of this type.” 413, Robert Boyd, Peter J. Richerson, The Origin and Evolution of Cultures, Ch. 19, “Simple Models of Complex Phenomena”

Downstream Consequences  Seemingly related to assemblages and emergent properties/phenomena, as “simple” actions or practices feed like tributaries feeding a larger (“complex”) body of water, which then has its own dynamic.

Perfect example of how this stuff begins to play out in her analysis:
“What Marx is trying to express, I suggest, is that the fetish character of the commodity is an emergent phenomenon. He is arguing that the component parts of the commodity are currently arrayed in an overarching assemblage that generates a distinctive effect – the fetish character of the commodity – that would not be produced by any of those parts, taken in isolation or assembled into other wholes. 99  In Marx’s own terms, he is claiming that, if you could abstract use-value from the commodity relation, nothing about its components would generate consequences that would render “socially valid” the sorts of “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” expressed in the interpretations Marx has brought on stage earlier in this chapter. If you could abstract the determinants of value from the commodity relation, those parts would not generate such consequences either. Only the aggregate effect of combining these parts, into this historically and socially specific whole, accounts for the fetish character of the commodity.”

Premise 1: use-value and exchange-value are “simple” or “component parts”.
Premise 2: use-value and exchange-value can be “arrayed in an overarching assemblage”, which is the commodity.
Premise 3: That you can speak of all three of these as if speaking of a machine composed of parts.  Obviously, the machine is not simply the parts (that is, if you take out parts, either the machine breaks or it is a new machine), hence the idea with the “emergent phenomenon” that the whole cannot be reduced to its parts, it is something else.

The problem is that use-value, exchange-value, value, commodity all go together.  It is not as if you could have exchange-value without the commodity, anymore than you could have use-value without the commodity.  You can’t have the “determinants of value” without the value-form, commodity-form, etc.  If you had use without the value-form you would not have use-value abstracted from the commodity relation, you would have something completely different, mere use subjected to some other social relation.

That said, it is true that the fetish character of the commodity is not a product of exchange-value, use-value, or even value, but of the whole.  I realize there is a desire to avoid a mystical notion, but in this assemblage and emergent phenomenon is no less mystical because it mystifies the relation of the moments to the whole form.

The reference to the Robinson Crusoe section misses the point that with Crusoe there is no social production.  There is no exchange of labor, there is no production for exchange.  The whole issue resolves on what are considered the determinants of value, which is to say “concrete” labor which produces “use-values”.  In other forms of production the product of labor is not a commodity.

101 para 1
“Marx’s aim in the discussion of the fetish character of the commodity is therefore not to position these metaphysical and theological properties of the commodity as illusions, nor to criticise the characters from the early sections of the chapter for falling into some sort of naïve conceptual error. Rather, his point is to establish the need to grasp the practical conditions that are required for these metaphysical and theological properties to become real – and thereby to establish that these properties can be transcended once those conditions have been overcome.”

103 para 1
Also better.  The fetish character of the commodity does derive from the relation (the problem remains that uv and ev are not ‘parts’ as they don’t exist independently of the relation as such.)

Para 2
Similarly to Kurz (Domination without a Subject), the social characteristics are not the product of an intersubjective process, but are 1) unintentional, 2) indirect.

The equality of kinds of human labor takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the products of labor as values.
The measure of expenditure of human labor by its duration takes on the form of the magnitude of the value of the products of labor.
The relationships between producers take on the form of a social relation between the products of labor.

Is her reading valid, that “the equality of various kinds of human labor is implicitly constituted by a particular sort of equality that is more overtly established between the goods this labour produces”?  It would seem that the phrase “takes on a form in” is not the same as “takes its form from”, and that Pepperell’s reading is more akin to the latter.  In the second part it is “measure… by its duration” which “takes on the form of the magnitude of the value” would seem to indicate that this measure of expenditure acquires a social form or exists only as the magnitude of the value.

I think that Fowkes’ translation here is possibly subject to criticism.  Reference to the German would be essential.

104 para 2
The commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as material properties in the products.  In other words, the three moments above read from material form to social form, but what Marx actually says is that this is a mystification.

So can we say that “patterns of social behavior” (the social characteristics of men’s own labor, in Marx’s words) arise as “unintentional consequences of aggregate social practices” (social relations between objects)?  Then “social characteristics” should equal “patterns” and “labor” should equal “social behavior”, but there is no real parallel between “social relations between objects” or “objective characteristics of the products of labor” and the “unintentional consequences of aggregate social practices” because there are no aggregate social practices here.  Labor would be the social behavior and the practice.  Unless the pattern of social behavior is the “reflecting” and “substitution” arising as “unintentional consequences” of “the social characteristics of men’s own labor”  But Marx speaks of the “social characteristics” or qualities of men’s own labor, not aggregate social practices.  Exactly the “characteristics”, the qualities, of those practices are left out.  Her interpretation does not work either way.  There is no form, only patterns of behavior arising out of social practices.  This is actually tautological since behaviors are practices, so we have patterns of practices arising as “unintended consequences” of (aggregate*) practices.

*(Aggregate is an irrelevant term, except for someone who believes that individual practices in sufficient mass necessarily develop a pattern a la complexity theory)

Marx however does not say that we have patterns of practices arising as “unintended consequences” of practices.  He says that “the commodity-form consists… in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics [qualities]of men’s own labour as objective characteristics [qualities] of the products of labour themselves, as socio-natural properties of these things”, which is to say that Marx is telling us about the commodity-form, that is, that the social form is this reflection, and like any reflection in a mirror it gives the image back to us in reverse.  Then he says that “it”, aka the commodity-form, “also reflects the social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers”.  This is a double movement.  The social characteristics of men’s labor appears as a natural property of the products of labor and the products are what appear to have social relations independently of the producers.   Thus the commodity-form inverts the relations between men and their products (as men to men, men to products, and products to products) and the products of labor as commodities are sensuous and supersensible.

I fail to see how this “vocabulary of emergence” helps us at all.  So far it seems to avoid the question of how these “individual social practices that produce it [the emergent pattern]” (p. 105) are structured.  Do we just have unstructured, formless, contingent practices which somehow give rise to “patterns”?  If these are individual social practices, then they are already structured (mediated and determinate) practices and saying that in the “aggregate”, “downstream”(?) some patterns will arise explains nothing whatsoever.  It is completely mystical.

“Marx’s argument is, first, that the complexity of the array of social practices that must operate in tandem in order to confer on objects their distinctive “objective” character, makes it easier for social actors to lose track of their own collective impacts on the phenomena they observe. As a result, the “objective” character those objects possess seems unrelated to human activity: it appears as though it must have arisen spontaneously from the latent characteristics of the objects themselves, since no humans are trying to generate this result, and there is no immediately obvious mechanism by which humans are generating the phenomena they observe.”

This is sort of a terrible paragraph.  The claim that “the complexity of the array of social practices that must operate in tandem in order to confer on objects their distinctive “objective” character, makes it easier for social actors to lose track of their own collective impacts on the phenomena they observe” basically argues that the reason we lose track of our own “collective impacts on the phenomena” we observe is a product of “the complexity of the array”, but not on the social form.  Marx argues quite the opposite: it is exactly the commodity-form itself which is mystifying

Is the absence of a sense of first-nature and second-nature at issue here?

Pepperell notes three distinct kind of phenomena:
1)    physical relations that are genuinely impersonal in origin and which arise from interactions between humans and natural phenomena
2)    intersubjectively-shared beliefs that are overtly meaningful and which arise from interactions between humans and their own ideational creations
3)    Marx contrasts these with the fetish: neither genuinely asocial, nor is it intersubjective in its origins: it is instead a phenomenon that arises from human practice, and is therefore social in origin; at the same time, it is a very peculiar sort of social phenomenon – one that is disembedded from intersubjective frameworks, and that therefore confronts the social actors who create it as though it were an autonomous entity or alien force.

She is right to note the specific aspect of this.  Zizek and Kurz have also noted that the phenomenon subsists without any need to be believed in.  It is interesting that Marx calls it “…the fetishism of commodities which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities…”  This fetishism attaches itself to the products of labor, but what is this that is attaching itself?  The difference is that religion is a product of “men’s brains” while the commodity is a product of “men’s hands”, but this tells us about what the fetish attaches itself to, not to the fetish itself.  Fetishism is the structure of consciousness as structured by the unconscious pace Robert Kurz.  The fetish is not about the physical commodity whatsoever or the material relations arising out of it, but the “definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”  Fantastic is not a good translation, either.  Rather, it is phantasmagoric, indicating a ghost-like or hallucinatory status.  The social relations are inverted in our consciousness (again structured as unconscious) assuming the form of a relation between things.

When Marx refers to the foregoing analysis on p. 165, I do not think it is clear that he refers only to the preceding couple of paragraphs, but to the entirety of chapter 1.

“Marx argues that the social agents engaged in the process of exchange rightly perceive the fetish-character of their relations to one another…”
No, this is almost perfectly wrong.  The producers do not perceive the fetish-character of their relations, they perceive the social relations in the form of appearance given to them by the fetish-character.  If they perceived the fetish-character, they would appear as “direct social relations between persons in their work”.  This perceiving of the relations in the form of appearance of the fetish-character is valid for capitalist society.

She is right in noting that social labor takes the form of private labor and is only validated, recognized, as social labor after the fact, and not completely, in exchange.

“He is suggesting that generalised commodity production and exchange involves the collective enactment of a nonconscious social judgement that determines which empirical activities get to count as part of social labour”  note here that a non-conscious social judgment entails a mental act.

112 fn 109
The footnote raises a good point, that abstract also refers to the state of the labor relative to its validity.  That is, whether or not the labor performed will be partially, completely, or extra validated is indeterminate, and thus the labor is abstract insofar as it remains indeterminate in terms of the degree to which it will be validated.

I don’t understand the constant reference to Kay & Mott as if their criticism was so good.  It was pretty lame, with a very ontological conception of labor.

What does the italicized part mean?  What is the meaning of contingent there?  Is this another way of saying “historically particular”?  Non-necessary?  If it is non-necessary, how can it be a “real characteristic” of a determinate relation?
“The fetish character cannot be analysed away, because it does not arise from a conceptual error or perceptual illusion, but rather from the real – if contingent – characteristics of a determinate sort of social relation.”

Her translations seem dubious based on what I understand from the analytical secondary literature.

For example, it is sensuous-supersensuous, not sensuous supersensible.  (see Human Dignity, p. 31)

Or the translation of the quote on 114, which should read:
“Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within this form. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product. These forms, which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself.”

But the translation she uses leaves out the phrase “why this content has assumed that particular form” and replaces “form” later in the paragraph with “formula”, which is completely wrong.

Further on, she equates Marx’s use of “forms of appearance” with “actual social practices” which generate results.  Forms of appearance speaks of the way in which an essence manifests itself, which is necessary and therefore not contingent.  It seems highly unlikely that lawful behavior can arise from “contingent social practices”, that is, non-necessary ones.

“What is required – as Marx begins to suggest already in the first chapter of Capital – is to treat essential phenomena as emergent patterns of aggregate social behaviour that arise in and through the constant flux of everyday social practices (168)… it is possible to provide a deflationary, pragmatist account of how such essences are contingently made.”  Orly?

Very interesting and I think decent enough discussion of Hegel and logic I the preceding pages, until we come to this weird section:

“In what Marx calls its “rational” form, the dialectic operates as a critical tool, revealing the ways in which existing patterns of social behaviour are transient and ephemeral, emerging from the detritus of past social practices, and capable of being developed or destroyed (103). If the principles of necessity and rationality are stripped from the dialectic, however, what remains is the practice of organising categories into a system in a manner that exposes the relations of the categories to one another. When this method is combined with Marx’s orientation to social practice, the dialectic becomes a method for analysing the complex assemblages into which social practices have come to be organised, the multidimensional consequences those practices generate, and the different ways such arrays might be broken apart, generating new forms of collective life. 121”

I call this weird because Pepperell views removing necessity and rationality from the dialectic as good.  She even notes just prior to this that “Marx argues that Hegel’s attempt to demonstrate the necessity and rationality of what exists has been used apologistically by Hegel’s heirs “to transfigure and glorify what exists”.”  Hence, Marx does not accuse Hegel but his heirs of an uncritical appropriation.  For Hegel, “what is” has to be necessary and rational, that is, it has to be valid and determinate.  This does not mean that it is the end.

It becomes clearer further down, however, since she clearly thinks of this as Historicism, “the immanent working of necessity and reason in history”, as opposed to the idea that “society” is “a contingent and arbitrary product of collective human practice”.  But I don’t believe Marx sees social orders as contingent and arbitrary, that is, once they establish themselves, though their origin may indeed be so.

This stuff about “dialectic becomes a method for analyzing complex assemblages into which social practices have come to be organized” is pretty dodgy.  What assembles the assemblages?  This could either collapse into infinite regress or viscious circularity, as everything is taken as first-order, which since this is Deleuze and he loves Spinoza and Nietzsche and is trapped in metatheory following Heideggerian incursions post Durkheim, seems most likely.

I do like the point that if Hegel expects to show that the beginning of the work is the product derived from the system itself, Marx too starts with a/the product, the commodity.  Now, whether or not this is an excellent quip or just Pepperell would require a close analysis of the words Hegel and Marx both use in working this out.  If Hegel doesn’t really say “product” or if it is in a way that doesn’t accord with Marx’s use of commodity, then maybe this is something read into the text.  I would think this could actually be discerned.  Sadly, Pepperell does not take us to this depth.

Marx deploys “a pragmatist version of dialectical techniques”.  And what are these techniques?

132 1st paragraph
Very good.

132 2nd paragraph
Not so good.  Always “combined actions of many different forms of social practice”.  There is no discussion of what holds these many forms, how they relate, everything, order or lawfulness is “emergent”, which is why many people refer to emergence as mysticism.  Also, extremely Cartesian: you get to know the whole assemblage by knowing its parts.

Very good.

So here is a seemingly innocuous formulation that is very full of problems:
“Nevertheless, after reading Capital’s third chapter it is clear that value and abstract labour are, not independent variables that cause patterns of social behaviour, but instead the emergent results of a complex social process. Value and abstract labour emerge from this chapter as thoroughly “supersensible” categories – aggregate trends that become visible only retroactively, when examining patterns in the transformation of the social division of labour over time.”

No one has claimed that value and abstract labour are “independent variables”. 
Marx never discusses things as “causes” of other things as well.  Form and determination are not the same as causal relations. 
Also, posing value and abstract labour as “emergent results of a complex social process” may be right insofar as they are not “structures” with all the a-historicity which that implies, but they are also forms which are determinate.  There seems to be some confusion here similar to that between accumulation and primitive or originary accumulation.  The originary moment is contained and reproduced in the fully developed form, hence while primitive accumulation was the historical process of the separation of the producers from the means of producing, the product and each other in organic social relations, normalized accumulation must constantly reproduce this separation in order to reproduce the relation itself, and just as with “primitive” accumulation, the bringing back together of the producers with the means of production, the product, and each other must be done in a way that reproduces capital as a whole.
To say that value and abstract labour are “aggregate trends” implies that they are not determinate.  This would seem to force us into the “There have to be some “real” relations between people” somehow behind this “trend” and/or “result” and/or “patterns”.
Marx also never discusses “the social division of labour” as determinate.  This is actually quite close to a technicist argument, since the social division of labor has to be constituted by something, which is clearly not the determinate social forms based on the above, then it has to be on something else: “real” social relations (as yet unspecified), or “simple” social practices (also lacking form) or changes in the technical means of production which generate changed social relations.

The end point, however, about Marx’s view not being substantialist is really to the point.

Well, here’s the rub. 
“…essences” are emergent patterns of social behaviour, and “appearances” are the everyday social practices whose combined effect is to generate those patterns.”

Really?  So essence is just patterns (results, outcomes, but nothing actually essential, that is, also contingent but complex, “aggregates” or “assemblages”) and appearances are practices (contingent, simple) that generate essences.  I have never, ever heard either of these terms used in this manner.  What is the point of referring to something as an essence if it is inessential?  What is the point of Marx’s own statement that essences must appear?  The phrase “these two dimensions of social experience must be related to each other”, but now we just have a rank dualism.  Essence really is something separate from appearance and it is hard to say how this goes along with the idea that essences must appear or that appearances are the mode of existence of essences, their forms of appearance.  If anything, it would seem to indicate that the practices in that case would be the mode of existence of the results of their own activity.  This would seem to be the viciously circular logic typical of sheerly first-order thought as it claims that there is nothing behind the curtain.  The chicken and the egg problem is here settled crudely by asserting that “everyday social practices” are generative and “pattern of social behavior”, as emergent, are necessarily derivative.

Is this the necessary concomitant of wanting to banish consciousness?  Is the constant claiming of Marx’s critique of idealist categories like essence and appearance really just a way to lay claim to notions and categories without risking them being taken as ideal?

She is entirely wrong that the first passage she quotes on money is substantialist.  The first sentence states that “The price or money-form of commodities, is like their form of value generally, quite distinct from their palpable and real bodily form; it is a purely ideal or notional form.”  Yes, he then say that the value exists in these articles, but clearly only ideally or notionally, that is, not substantially.  The value exists in them in their relation to gold, which also only exists in “their heads”.

Her suggestion that value has a noumenal quality is good. As she notes in fn137, it would definitely seem to provide a stronger way to account for Kant’s noumenal-phenomenal distinction than say Sohn-Rethel’s.  The noumenal-phenomenal distinction thus has an objectivity in capitalist society because the relation of price and value really is like that.  This of course does not imply that all reality is like that, and so Kant mystifies the matter.

Idealism: “as if value as a concept generates its own forms of actualization.”

“For Marx, appearance and essence are necessarily related because “appearances” are everyday social practices that, among many other direct consequences that are easier to pin down to a specific individual practice, also operate in tandem to generate “essences” as unintended emergent effects.”

She is speaking the words again, but I’m not sure what she is saying.  Appearances generate essences?  Is this really what you want to say?  Or that social practices generate emergent effects?  Taken by itself, the latter is not a problem, but the attempt to map it to appearance and essence seems very strained.

Of course value needs to give rise to money, or rather, value can only express itself in money because it has no direct expression.  In a way, capital does create an essence.

“Value must necessarily “develop into this form” because our practical engagement with prices and other such forms is, in Marx’s argument, how we unintentionally generate value.”


I think this is pretty interesting:
“Seen in this light, “socially average labour-time” takes on a new aspect. In the opening chapter of Capital, this category seemed to refer to socially-average levels of productivity: thus, as Capital’s first chapter claims, the value of the product produced by hand loom weavers fell when the introduction of the power loom reset social standards for productivity (129). By chapter three, it seems clearer that “socially average labour-time” encompasses more than just the average level of productivity: it also captures the aggregate amount of social labour that, on average, should be dedicated to a particular activity. In this system of material production where engagement in productive activities is governed neither by custom nor by a plan, where no individual or group possesses advance knowledge of the productive activities that will be able to serve as use-values via the hurdle of market exchange, production still does not take on a purely random form: long-term aggregate patterns can still be discerned. Price is one of the mechanisms through which such patterns are enacted, without any conscious intention by social actors to effect such patterns. By deviating from “value” as this might be synchronically defined – from the socially average labour-time that would be required to
reproduce a given synchronic slice of productive activities – prices can, over time, provide incentives for – or compel – the reorganisation of production, so that production gradually tacks to the changing winds of unconscious aggregate demand for social labour to be apportioned in particular ways.”

“In Marx’s framework, essence does not precede the existence of its own forms of appearance. Instead, essence is the essence of its forms of appearance. The vocabulary of “expression” is thus ironic – presenting an “inverted” image of the social processes being analysed – mimicking the articulations of a dialectical analysis that claims to unfold an inherent essence, as a performative expression being enacted in the main text, while a very different sort of analysis operates in the background, seeking to show how that essence is contingently produced.”

I feel like the first two sentences are quite good, but I don’t much care for the further development.  How is that essence “contingently produced”?  And do we have a dualism of analysis? One of the surface and one of the background?

Key points:
“…Marx suggests we enact, as a peculiar sort of social phenomenon, practical opportunities to experience dimensions of our world as though their properties
manifest an absence of social determinations.”

“For present purposes, it suffices to be aware that one of Marx’s central analytical strategies in Capital involves re-situating what presents itself as given, immediate, “material” results – results like use-value, the process of social metabolism, the labour process, and other categories that are often misread as “transhistorical” categories in Capital – back into the context of the practices that produce those results in their current form.”

“Rather than deriving social relations from a material base that is understood as contingently related to social practices and as somehow more ontologically fundamental, the analysis instead proceeds by demonstrating how specific material and social results are generated through determinate forms of practical activity. This is the type of analysis Marx is carrying out in this chapter, as he asks his readers not to leap directly to the material result, but to follow him as he breaks down how this result has been produced. Marx’s analysis then proceeds through a kind of analytical fission: starting with an apparently stable, solid, given phenomenon, it splits that phenomenon into constituent moments, and then splits those moments in turn, gradually unpacking a complex multiplicity whose combined effect was to generate the original “unity” with which the analysis began – a unity that now stands revealed as the emergent aggregate effect of a much more complex and
dynamic underlying assemblage.”

The Bertell Ollman quote is crap.  A long way away from the dialectic of Adorno, Rose, or Hegel or Marx.  Instead it reads like a kind of holistic dynamics.

“This practical distinction is most direct in suggesting the contingency of social roles associated with material production – the contingency, for example, of which person steps onto the economic stage as an owner of money, or as the owner of an ordinary commodity.”

Slightly odd as we are not yet discussing material production whatsoever, only exchange.

“The practical experience of alternating between transpersonalised roles in one dimension of everyday life can thus constitute an experiential reservoir of critical insights, attuned to the possibility of the contingency of economic and social institutions.”

The experience which gives rise to the possibility of critique, practical and theoretical.

“To explore these issues adequately, Marx needs at his disposal the category of capital and the associated performative stance of the capitalist.”

He does not per se need “the capitalist” in the sense of an individual.  I think this is implied but might be clearer because so many Marxists read capitalists and capitalist class as individuals and aggregates of individuals, rather than capitalist as “a performative stance” or a role which might be fulfilled by supra-individual bodies such as the state, because class is properly the capital-labor relation and constituted classes are fluid and blurry at the boundaries.

This opening paragraph is hugely important.  It is essential to understanding why everyone experiences the capital-labor relation in a mystifying manner, why, in effect, the fetish character of the commodity extends to everyone, not merely to personifications of capital.

Her comment on the quote seems a little dualistic.  Yes, it is only in the world market that “money first functions to its full extent”, but when he says that “Its mode of existence becomes adequate to its concept”, the concept was already laid out within the terms of local/national capital as universal, but only as global is it also thereby universal, not merely in principle, but in practice.  Thus, “in concept” money is already (in capitalist society) the universal form of value and commodity and abstract labor, but only once money exists as “world money” is it also universal in actuality.  There is no inherent idealism in the expression “its mode of existence becomes adequate to its concept”, but rather a recognition that something’s concept might precede its actualization, and this would only be idealism if the concept was considered adequate regardless of the realization of that which it conceptualizes.  This is the problem, ever present in Marx’s work, of potential and actual.

The last sentence is nonetheless relatively correct because political economy takes the concept Platonically as already actual, when in fact neither concept nor object can be truly actual separately and neither quite so clearly precedes the other, which is key to Marx’s comment on Aristotle earlier in Capital.
“…earlier perspectives have all along been describing moments of an overarching social assemblage that possesses a global scope that these perspectives do not explicitly articulate.”
Of course, one might wonder what an “overarching social assemblage” is.  Is this not akin to Althusser’s “overdetermination” which situates a “contradiction” in a complex whole?

“When competing forms of popular opinion or formal theory are criticised in the text, this criticism takes the form of demonstrating the small aspect of the overarching assemblage on which those competing forms of thought confer a disproportionate reality. This criticism has the effect of situating the dimensions of social experience privileged by other forms of theory back into the network of relations within which their distinctive qualitative character becomes manifest. This strategy aims to undermine attempts to interpret the privileged dimension as a self-sufficient, independent, or foundational entity – one that intrinsically and ahistorically possesses a particular qualitative character. At the same time, it opens the possibility to examine other nodes in the network of social practices, to expose the potential for conflicting implications and potentials for social development.”

Marx, like Hegel, always takes up less the untruth of something, though that is in play, but how an untrue perspective is untrue because they confer a “disproportionate reality” on a small aspect of the Totality.  This is well said.  Pepperell’s “overarching assemblage”, does not have the same implications as Totality, since as Postone makes clear, Totality is only a concept valid for a totalizing society, whereas “overarching assemblage” in too quickly attempting to get away from a determinate Totality, also naturalizes a kind of whole, which has an uncritical effect.

Succinct statement of how she sees the movement of the first chapter:
“The opening chapter thus criticises empiricist sensibilities for focusing only on what is immediately, synchronically accessible to the senses, denying reality to anything that cannot be perceived in this specific way. It likewise criticises transcendental sensibilities for looking through appearances in order to grasp an essential social or material reality that purportedly subsists behind such appearances, bearing no necessary relation to them. Finally, it criticises an idealist dialectical method for claiming to derive its categories through an unfolding of immanent potentials of the categories themselves.”

Critical discussion of how forms of subjectivity are generated in her reading of Marx.  Not as external, ideal entities that are caused by practical relations, but as aspects of enactments of those practices.

What is always weird in this is the sense that somehow practices are enacted which lead to the emergence of a structure, but the practices then themselves seem rather unstructured.  So how would we get to those practices in the first place?

Takes up the idea of Capital as Geist and argues that it is a moment, a way that capital appears in the flow M-C-M’.  She notes the criticisms of this, but also moves to defend it as valid within certain limits, and this has been her approach all along, and according to her, Marx’s.  This seems reasonable.

Interesting aspect of social roles in capitalist society is that production relations as social relations are fluid and therefore hard to see as roles: buyer, seller, owner of a commodity, bearer of money are all roles each person plays day in and day out.  This seems much more fluid than gender roles, racial roles or pre-capitalist social roles like Lord-Vassal or Master-Slave.

The effect of this fluid role swapping when compared to other roles would seem to raise corrosive questions as to their fixity as well.

And here is where we get into a reductionist notion, with assemblages which can be broken down into smaller assemblages and therein repurposed.  There is no necessity to these relations, and no mediation in which each moment of the assemblage can only exist in its relation to the other moment(s), that is, there are no self-subsisting parts of which something could be assembled.  The failure to grasp this is the main weakness of the text and her appeal to Pragmatism, which hopes to evade this situation by dismissing mediation in effect as Idealist.

Very good!  Likens opening of the section on labor power to that beginning of Ch. 1.

Labor power only exists as something for sale when the producer is separated from the means of producing.

Marx’s discussion of labor power is reminiscent of Locke’s idea that man has property in himself, that this is what makes him free.  Marx would also be aware that being a “person” in Hegel is a very specific, very empty moment, a kind of legal existence that is also an insult insofar as such an individual is exactly no longer an individual.

Makes the huge point that the sale of labor power as a commodity is what separates capitalism from earlier social forms of production.  I find it funny that what all of the value-form theorists seem to miss, and maybe it is because they stay in Chapters 1-3, is that the commodity par excellence which Marx is concerned with is labor power.  This commodity does walk itself to the market.  Labor is already split because it is already bought and sold.  There is no pristine Labor in capital.

The assemblage language is so ugly and awkward.  It reeks of reductionism, like society took a block here and a hexagon there, etc. and suddenly some new, hitherto unimagined outcome takes place.  It lacks cohesion and its continuance, its necessity, is lost.

The abolition of capitalism does require the abolition of money, but it isn’t reducible to that aspect.  Abolishing money without abolishing capital per se is disastrous.  See Kurz on Cambodia and abolishing money.

The note (274n4) referenced by Pepperell exactly marks why the wage-laborer is no less subject to the fetish character of the commodity because they too own a commodity: their capacity to labor.  We are all commodity owners.

“It is of course possible to appropriate the potentials of this distinctive enactment of self, exploring the possibility to extend this potential beyond the contingent historical circumstances that gave rise to it – in order, for example, to examine scientifically the principles of human physiology. The genesis of these potentials, however, is practical – and socially specific. The category of labour-power becomes more than a conceptual abstraction for the first time in capitalism, where this category becomes intuitively plausible because it articulates a practical reality that is grounded in a distinctive collective performance of self.”


“The intuitive appearance of “physiological labour”, as a category that seems to transcend any specific social form, arises because of a peculiar, socially-specific, practical enactment of self that splits off social characteristics first discovered in the interactions of material objects, from characteristics associated with the uncoerced mutual recognition of subjects, and treats only one of these sets of characteristics as “social”. The apparent absence of social determinations in the physiological understanding of the category of labour-power therefore is its distinctive social determination in capitalism: the appearance of disenchantment is capitalism’s distinctive form of mystification – one that comes cloaked in a secular, enlightened disguise.”


“Instead, the goal is to demonstrate that capitalist societies necessarily generate specific kinds of raw materials that can be appropriated for emancipatory ends. It is precisely because such materials can be appropriated from the conditions in which they arose, that Marx’s detailed analysis of the production of capital can provide the foundation for an immanent critical theory.”

This is her most interesting claim.  The question certainly would rub against primitivist notions or any kind of conservative Romanticism.

“From this seemingly gestural observation, Marx will eventually unspool one of the emancipatory possibilities generated as a side effect of capitalist production: the lower the percentage of the total social labour that is required to reproduce the labourer’s means of subsistence, the greater the potential for leisure and free self-development if production were to be re-organised into a form actually driven by the production of the means of subsistence – rather than driven by the production of surplus-value.”

“Chapter 6 of Capital brings to a close one of the major dramatic arcs that structure Capital’s narrative, rendering explicit a pivotal determination that ricochets back through the text, profoundly transforming our understanding of the opening categories. This chapter reveals, first, that Capital’s categories have always been more than conceptual abstractions applied externally to dimensions of social or material experience: these categories have, from the beginning, articulated forms of embodiment and perception, dispositions and habits of thought, affects and experiences of self. The commodity – the elementary form of the wealth of capitalist society – is us – or at least something that we experience as a component part of ourselves. Hegel’s challenge, which was deftly sidestepped in Capital’s opening chapter, has here finally been met: we can now see ourselves in our object, the commodity. At this point, everything previously said about the commodity, can now be understood as also having been said about us – all the descriptions of the characteristics of external objects are here refigured as also simultaneously describing subjective forms of being in the world.” 

The part in italics is very good.

“When Marx opens the second chapter of Capital with a discussion of how the juridical relations characteristic of commodity exchange are “determined” by the economic ones (178), we can now understand more clearly how this claim can be made in a non-reductive way: the claim is not that the economic base sits outside the juridical superstructure and causes the latter to assume a particular form. The claim, instead, is that the “economic” categories from the opening chapter are always already categories of the “superstructure”: forms of subjectivity as well as forms of objectivity – enactments of self alongside enactments of other sorts of objects – and thus the same categories “determine” or describe phenomena that might at first glance seem unrelated or opposed to one another.”


Amazing, great stuff.  Too bad "assemblage" once again has to stand in for the lack of an adequate concept of abstraction and its efficacy.


  1. Thanks you - at last I have found a learned annotation of Nicole's great work. Hope her book gets published soon - we have been waiting for so long!

    p.s. was it a deliberate decision by you to start the annotations on page 91?

    1. I was originally not taking notes in the beginning, and then I was enthralled with her discussion and finally started taking close notes. I will possibly go back at some point and re-read the first 90 pages and put in notes, but I have not been able to.

      I really do think that her book is singularly the most important re-thinking of how to read Capital since Moishe Postone's Time, Labor, and Social Domination and, despite her criticisms of Postone, I feel that her work actually reatly strengthens the lines of analysis in Postone's work.