Thursday, September 25, 2008

Abstraction and Concept Creation, Part I

The following excerpts, from Antonio Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx, are relevant to Enlightenment Underground’s dual projects of reactivating a philosophical ethos and creating concepts—and even more to the point: the combination of these two projects into one—namely, the reactivation of a philosophical ethos through concept creation:

“ 'The object before us,to begin with,material production.'
(Grundrisse, p. 83; [5]).

But what is the concept of production? There is no more classically philosophical a question than that: for centuries the philosophers have litigated over real and nominal definitions. But every name always possesses some sort of reality: the problem is that the referent not be mystified. In this search for a mediation between name and reality, the latest “philosophers,” for example, seem to have fallen into the trap of the “merely aesthetic semblance, of the Robinsonades, great and small”: in reality, they only mystify production by introducing an anticipation, “by inventing” production as a political function of bourgeois society in the process of becoming. How to harmonize name and reality correctly? Avoiding mystification does not imply avoiding a political project, but simply linking this political project to reality. Reality is political: but no less true because political. Reality must thus serve as a target for politics: there is only one true and real politics. The 18th-century “philosophers” mystify reality because they plaster individualism over the concept of production, thus making themselves into an echo of the political project of bourgeois society: and it is false. One can only broach the concept of production by leaving behind the organic, general element which is its basis, by leaving behind the 18th century. But once that is done, once this general impulse is accomplished, this collective link which defines the human mode of producing, one still has not concluded anything: reality and name still remain distant from each other, and one runs the risk of making only a generic name of production. Of course, “all epochs of production have certain common traits, common characteristics.” But this “characterization of historical processes of production” doesn’t help us much. If “production in general is an abstraction,” it is nevertheless

a rational abstraction in so far as it really brings out and fixes the common element and this saves us repetition. Still, this general category, this common element sifted out by comparison, is itself segmented many times over and splits into different determinations. Some determinations belong to all epochs, others only to a few. [Some] determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient. No production will be thinkable without them: however, even though the most developed languages have laws and characteristics in common with the least developed, nevertheless, just those things which determine their development, i.e. the elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity—which arises already from the identity of the subject, humanity, and of the object, nature—their essential difference is not forgotten. The whole profundity of those modern economists who demonstrate the eternity and harmoniousness of the existing social relations lies in this forgetting. [Grundrisse, p. 85; (7)].

This passage contains almost everything: the construction of general conceptual abstraction, its particular determination on the basis of difference, the polemic against all those conceptions which try to make the conceptual in general eternal by basing themselves on materialism(against the economists, as before, against the philosophers and their lucid ideology).

Up to this point, nonetheless, one cannot say that this constitutes great originality in terms of a definition of the concept. Any realist or materialist writer (even of the 18th Century) could have said the same thing. It is necessary therefore to pursue the matter further. Dialectically? But for there to be a dialectic, there have to be subjects. Therefore, this is the question we must go into thoroughly.

If there is no production in general, then there is also no general production. Production is always a particular branch of production—e.g. agriculture, cattle-raising, manufactures, etc.—or it is a totality. But political economy is not technology. The relation of the general characteristics of production at a given stage of social development to the particular forms of production to be developed elsewhere (later). Lastly, production also is not only a particular production. Rather, it is always a certain social body, a social subject, which is active in a greater or sparser totality of branches of production [Grundrisse, p. 86; (7-8)].

Here emerges the concept of totality as a relation and a unity of differences. It would be necessary to open here a parenthesis (but we can only indicate it now) on the relationship totality-subjectivity. Too many writers gargle with this concept of totality, which they reduce to the intensity which would emanate from a knot of idealist determination, although, to the contrary, totality is here, very clearly, the subjective structure, the structure of a carrying subject. Within Marx’s methodic horizon, the concept of totality is never intensive. It is extensive, organized, finalized, by the determination of abstraction. Marx’s methodic horizon is never invested with the concept of totality; rather it is characterized by the materialist discontinuity of real processes. This passage too nevertheless resolves nothing. Certainly, subjectivity confers on the dialectic of the material structure an extremely important dynamism, and it enlarges its dimensions. The example which Marx gives (taking up one of his old but absolutely appropriate ideas) is that of the immediate reduction of property and of the juridical forms of social organization in general to that social structure. In sum, materialism here subordinates the dialectic to itself, makes use of it to characterize the subjective (capitalist) totality of the structure. But that is not enough: the dialectic is as impotent as simple materialism to define the revolutionary method. Materialism and dialectics have given us totality and difference, as well as the structural link which subjectively unites them. But that is not enough. It remains insufficient as long as this structure, this totality is not internally split, as long as we do not succeed in grasping not the structural (capitalist) subjectivity but the subjectivities which dialectically constitute the structure (the classes in struggle). “Thus production, distribution, exchange and consumption form a regular syllogism; production is the generality, distribution and exchange the particularity, and consumption the singularity, in which the whole is joined together” (Grundrisse, p. 89; [11]). But if these elements form a syllogism, it is necessary then to define the concreteness, the singularity, the difference of the elements of the syllogism. The category of production, in the essential terms which distinguish it, and with the totality which characterizes it—a veritable social articulation of reality—can only be constituted as a category of difference, as a totality of subjects, of differences, of antagonism. This is the path we should follow. To accept the totality without insisting on the antagonisms which compose it is “to not conceive [these moments] in their unity. As if this rupture had made its way not from reality into the textbooks, but rather from the textbooks into reality, and as if the task were the dialectic balancing of concepts, and not the grasping of real relations” (Grundrisse, p. 90; [11]).

In this discussion of the formation of a category (that of production in this particular case), one has thus arrived at establishing its materialist (against 18th-century ideology) and its dialectical (against the economists) bases and insisted on the subjectivity of its determinate moments (against the reformists and the jurists). The base is solid, but still insufficient. Let us therefore deepen still further the differences of production by latching onto the production-consumption relation, which is the same thing as saying the relation of universality and individuality. This relation is formally circular: “No production without a need. But consumption reproduces the need”; the object is not an object in general, but a specific object which must be consumed in a specific manner, to be mediated in its turn by production itself”; “Production not only supplies a material for the need, but it also supplies a need for the material”(Grundrisse, p. 92;[13-14]). But the circularity of the relation must be broken. “Nothing simpler for a Hegelian than to posit production and consumption as identical” (Grundrisse, p. 93; [15]). But one knows that Marx is not a Hegelian; he readily leaves this qualifier to the socialist leterateur or to the vulgar economists. Marx is a Marxist: that is to say, a materialist and a dialectician (we have seen how), but, above all else, a revolutionary. The relation must contain the possibility of scission; there is no category which can be defined outside the possibility of scission. “In society, however, the producer’s relation to the product, once the latter is finished, is an external one, and its return to the subject depends on his relations to other individuals”(Grundrisse,p. 94; [15].)

The relations and modes of distribution thus appear merely as the obverse of the agents of production. An individual who participates in production in the form of wage labor shares in the products, in the results of production, in the form of wages. The structure of distribution is completely determine by the structure of production. Distribution is itself a product of production, not only in its object, in that only the results of production can be distributed, but also in its form, in that the specific kind of participation in production determines the specific forms of distribution, i.e., the pattern of production in distribution. It is altogether an illusion to posit land in production, ground rent in distribution, etc. [Grundrisse, p. 95;(16-17)].

The “agents of production”: here we are from all evidence at the central point of the analysis. The general concept of production breaks the limits of its materialist and dialectical definition in order to exalt the subjectivity of its elements and their antagonistic relation. This antagonistic relation invests the totality of the concept.

But before distribution can be the distribution of products, it is (1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and (2), which is a further specification of the same relation, the distribution of the members of the society among different kinds of production. (Subsumption of the individuals under specific relations of production.) The distribution of products is evidently only a result of this distribution, which is comprised within the process of production itself and determines the structure of production. To examine production while disregarding this internal distribution within it is obviously an empty abstraction; while conversely, the distribution of products follows by itself from this distribution which forms an original moment of production [Grundrisse, p. 96; (17-18)].

Therefore: “The question of the relation between this production-determining distribution, and production, belongs evidently within production itself”, which means inside “the general-historical relations in production and their relation to the movement of history generally” (Grundrisse, p. 97; [18]). We obtain the same result to which the other relation (of the economists’ syllogism): the relation between production and circulation. In this case equally, identity is split into difference, and difference is acknowledged as antagonism. “The conclusion we reach is not that production, distribution, exchange and consumption are identical, but that they all form the members of a totality, distinctions within a unity” (Grundrisse, p. 99;[20]}.

Difference, difference, antagonisms. We do not see how to read Marx’s passages otherwise. The category of production—like that of value—in its generality and its abstraction carries living within it the constitutive possibility of separation. The dialectical approach is added to the materialist approach not in order to furnish the key to a totalitarian solution to determinacy, but in order to recognize the structural toality as the possibility of scission. The agglomeration of dialectics and of materialism is operated in the Introduction, from the outset, under the particular form of scission. One must not, among other things, underestimate the importance of the category chosen as an example of the method: the category of production. Is it possible to think that, no matter what the terminological precautions, Marx does not stand, when it has to do with production and the factory, on one side? The side of the workers? Can one not see production as scission, exploitation, and crisis? Unless one wants to accuse him of being Proudhonian!

The discourse here takes a further step forward: “the method of political economy,” that is, the method of the critique of political economy. On this point, Marx establishes certain fundamental criteria. The first principle is that of “determinate abstraction.” It consists in the methodic assertion that one cannot found the categories beginning naively with the “real” or the “concrete,” but only on the basis of the development of a “process of synthesis” of the givens of intuition and of representation. The naïve methodology begins with the concrete as a presupposition; Marx’s methodology takes the concrete as a result. “The scientifically correct method [takes] the concerete as concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse (Grundrisse, p. 101; [21-22]). In this way, rather than make the concrete representation evaporate into an abstract determination, one succeeds, on the contrary, in constructing “abstract determinations [which] lead toward a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.” Therefore, from the abstraction to the concrete, to the determination. The cognitive process interrupts the vain avatars of a scientific behavior which fetishizes the object: it knows on the contrary that determination is the product of a theoretical approximation which utilizes general abstractions, polarities, and dimensions for this end. Truth is an objective. There is no epistemological skepticism in this: “The real subject retains its autonomous existence outside the head just as before; namely as long as the head’s conduct is merely speculative, merely theoretical. Hence, in the theoretical method, too, the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition”(Grundrisse,p. 102; [22]). No epistmelogical skepticism but on the contrary, a destruction of every sort of fetishism of the concrete. The theoretical agglomeration of materialism and of dialectics here becomes operative. We are well within that reality whose concrete and multiple determinations we attempt, we try, we risk approximating through abstractions. There is will and intelligence, that is, a daily, human practice, in this first principle of the method. But that does not satisfy me: There is as well the relation between the use value of abstract knowledge and the need for a transformation of knowledge. In sum, this method of determining abstractions, which throws me into the water in a very Cartesian manner, indicates to me “the path of abstract knowledge, rising from the simple to the combined,” and in so doing helps us to discover, to invent reality. But, mind well—and I think that this element has not been sufficiently worked out in the history of the interpretation and methodology of Marxism: the process of determinate abstraction, of the approximation and of the abstract conquest of the concrete is a collective process, of collective knowledge. “In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colors and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it”(Grundrisse, pp. 106-7); [27]). Well, the process of determinate abstraction is entirely given inside this collective proletarian illumination: it is therefore an element of critique and a form of struggle.”

All excerpts from Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundisse, by Antonio Negri, Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc., Massachusetts, 1984, chapter " The Method of the Antagonistic Tendency."


Blogger Christoffer said...

It would be great if you did a short ABSTRACT on what you intention is with your essay, and what the primary concepts are and where you take them. This would make it more easy for your reader to engange your text especially if unfamiliar with A. Negri's work.

When you write 18th century I believe you really mean the 19th century?

3:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Christoffer,

That's a fair suggestion, and so thank you.

I want to write another 10 to 15 parts on "Abstraction and Concept Creation." Hopefully in the other parts I will not be transcribing any more long excerpts. I may have to transcribe one more long excerpt, however.

I thought the excerpt very rich, and I sort of had the impression it would stand up on its own as a coherent, independent piece. I liked the idea of giving it in full so everyone could be on board with what I was talking about before I attempted to talk about it.

In the work this comes from, Marx Beyond Marx, Negri considers Marx's Grundrisse, which precedes Capital chronologically, and which had historically been considered preparatory to Capital, of lesser importance and representing a less sophisticated Marx, to be the superior work and showing a more revolutionary, philosophical Marx.

I am very struck by the way Negri's revolutionary, philosophical Marx of the Grundrisse sounds so much like Deleuze. Reading this has helped me to much better understand what Deleuze was driving at vis a vis such concepts as "openness"--I hope to pass these insights on and get your input on their value.

I checked for typographical errors-- "18th century" is not a typographical error.


11:48 AM  
Blogger Christoffer said...

I think I will be looking forward to this thread.

Marx was a 19th century philosopher.

2:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "18th century philosophers" referenced in the excerpt are those who Marx critiques in the Grundrisse, not Marx himself.

Thanks for mentioning the ambiguity-- the excerpt really does require explanations to make sense, as you earlier pointed out.


12:41 PM  

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