Thursday, February 23, 2012


Two essays in the January 2012 issue of PMLA share the same title, "Value | Theory | Crisis," the first by Christopher Nealon and the second by Joshua Clover. Beginning with a passage from Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Nealon offers a reasonably unforgiving, two-fold critique identifying recent developments in critical theory (i.e. Badiou and the turn toward set theory, mathematics, etc) with developments in economic and finance theory. Both, according to Nealon, are future-oriented, each grounded in a teleological endgame of expectations, rational or otherwise. But the argument Nealon advances in this brilliantly, beautifully constructed essay is complex and hazarding a crude summary here would be something of a disservice to it. As with The Matter of Capital (Harvard UP 2011), Nealon moves from a decidedly Marxist position that presupposes the necessity of thinking totality and, in addressing Benjamin, Nealon is quick to remind us that, against whatever distractions Benjamin's grossly misread mysticism might present, Benjamin was writing with a materialist eye toward history and the economic, i.e., "In the last decade, beautiful and detailed readings of Benjamin's 'messianism' have obscured the fact that, as a Marxist, Benjamin was interested in the critique of political economy."

In philosophical inquiry on one hand and economic theory on the other, Nealon insists we're at an impasse correctly named, however implausibly, by Nassim Taleb, who asserts in Black Swan that what mathematicians, economists and others fail to recognize is the extent to which the whole of the world itself, like the financial sector, functions stochastically — that is, in a non-deterministic manner, a manner given to randomness and contingency rather than forms of (narrativizable) determination. If I am in fact reading Nealon correctly, I find it difficult to fully accept this aspect of the argument (viz. no small number of theorists saw the financial collapse in the making well before the nightmare decisively announced itself through the foreclosure crisis and, moreover, this critique of narrative comes perilously close to participaing in the same post-structuralist thinking I sense Nealon is seeking to challenge), but against this insistence on thinking contingency over determination (in the end, a re-valorization of undecidability as determinate), Nealon hits on more than a few pressure points and sore spots. Commenting on the "impasse" Taleb names in Black Swan, Nealon writes:

In the literary humanities, we have tended to experience this impasse as a question of what comes after the linguistic turn of the last third of the twentieth century; if the post-Saussurean analogy between literary reading and linguistic science begins to fray, how can we articulate the value of reading? I have suggested elsewhere that one reason for the fraying of the literature-linguistics analogy has been the intensifying economic volatility of the neoliberal era. So far, unfortunately, the strongest responses to this problem have rejected the linguistic and the literary as the grounds for theory, only to replace them with ideas drawn from precisely a mathematics trapped between its theoretical ambitions and its practical application. 

I love this moment in Nealon's essay. Here he takes aim at Badiou, Žižek and Bruno Latour, but indirectly, through their praise for Quentin Meillassoux's After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (Continuum 2008). What they are all wanting is, as Latour says in his blurb for After Finitude, to "escape from the prison of discourse." But according to Nealon the results of this particular desire for escape only underscore the inadequacy of theoretical models predicated on mathematical logics incapable of accounting for contingency:  

In After Finitude Meillassoux offers an elegant, compact account of the set theory of Georg Cantor, whose most famous theorem laid the groundwork for key developments in financial mathematics, not least the theory of general market equilibrium — the mathematical underpinning of a model of financial markets that are infinitely self-adjusting and therefore, for the purposes of the model, immune to crashes. Meillassoux's gloss on Cantor offers a summary of important principles in speculative realism, but it also gives itself away as part of a postwar French resistance to the idea of the dialectic, and part of a concomitant equation of Hegelian thought with philosophical rigidity and political authoritarianism — especially the authoritarianism of the French Communist Party but also, implicitly, the authoritarianism of Stalin. 

Nealon, however, points out, "The means by which Meillassoux launches his revolutionary departure from 'the prison of discourse' turns out to be identical to the means by which the poststructuralists staged their assault on what they took to be the failures of Marxism: a critique of 'totalizing' thought." Drawing on Simon During's Exit Capitalism (Routledge 2010), Nealon concludes: 

For the set theoriticians and the economists who adapted their math, however, economic volatility is extrinsic to the economy; and crises, from within the "homogenous and empty time" of the models, are therefore the result of mere greed, or poor regulation, or bad market information. In this context, theory is the imagination of the conditions that would correspond to the market fantasy: pure philosophy, or, as Badiou puts it [in his foreword to After Finitude], "thought destined ... towards the absolute." For the rest of us, the volatility born of the contradictions in capital might better point to a different, earlier understanding of theory; not the pursuit of a transcendental vantage point or the critique of that pursuit but the relentless surveying of possible grounds for solidarity among those for whom the regime of capital spells only suffering.  

Joshua Clover's essay, again under the same title as Nealon's, covers some of the same territory, taking aim at the continuities that cut across financial logics from the collapse of Fordism and critical theory after the linguistic turn. Together the two essays really are powerful, essential work, now more than ever. And if Nealon and Clover imagine the work of structuralism and post-structuralism as somehow complicit with or symptomatic of transformations in capital, their critiques are clearly distinct from the earlier distaste for "French theory" that characterized an American academy dominated by cheap historicism through the last decades of the twentieth century.

More than Nealon, Clover focuses rigorously on the question of value, taking up the distinction between real and fictitious capital and, unlike, say, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri or, more recently, Christain Marazzi, Clover seems unwilling to so easily discard this distinction between the real (productive / industrial) and fictitious (finance / distribution / circulation): 

The imagination of an economic reality in which value moves only in circulation finds its compliment in a linguistic understanding that discovers that all is production -- albeit production of a changed character. This is the post-Fordist shift from manufacture toward what has been referred to as "financialization," the "service economy," "flexible labor," and not a few other designations culminating in the "New Economy," which coalesced shortly after the Cold War's conclusion. These developments have been understood as aspects of a regime of immaterial labor, conceptualized most seriously by the thinkers associated with the Italian autonomia movement, a post-Marxist reformation of the operaismo tradition that first theorized "the communism of capital" and the power of workers in the modern era. The works of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri ... have proved singularly influential in the humanities.  

After addressing Hardt and Negri's re-theorization of value, Clover continues: 

Their argument for a new theory of value accords at least in part with Jacques Derrida's proposition that Marx's "ontology of value" -- his purported insistence that value derives from the laborer's presence in the factory -- has been superseded. One sees immediately the kinship between Derrida's now familiar critique of the metaphysics of presence and Negri's discovery of immaterial labor. 

And still a little further on: 

It is critical to recognize the intuitions and advances associated with this position. In countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), there has been a measurable shift away from manufacture and agriculture and into the service-sector jobs designated as immaterial labor, and this asks for reconceptions of labor organizing. Moreover, this shift has been accompanied by a decreasing distinction between work and nonwork (a contemporary sign of which is the unpaid microlabor of Web 2.0). The subjective life-world of labor has in this regard mutated. 

Clover appears to agree with this need for a retheorization of labor capable of accounting for the collapse of boundaries between work and not-work, living and dead labor, production and circulation, as well as the relation of productive labor to "non-productive" and reproductive labor. But what Clover sees instead is a theorization of value and accumulation built on a Saussurean linguistic model which situates value as a differential component cutting up and down a chain of signification that renders value completely arbitrary and reasonably independent of the binary distinction between real and fictitious capital, production and circulation. But for Clover such thinking prevents us from responsibly grasping how real and fictitious capital, productive economy and finance economy, dynamically play against one another through a mutual dependence that precludes the subsuming of one by the other. Here Clover concludes: 

... the era associated with financialization in the United States is coterminous with the linguistic turn. One is in a literal sense the thought form of the other; they are in each other's debt. But this entanglement has of late and catastrophically provided an opportunity often elusive in the humanities: one of falsifiability.  
In short, there was no new economy. At least, there was no renewed systematic accumulation, no new kind of production. Fictitious capital was just that. Facts were not "created by speaking them"; neither was value. There were myriad new ways to paper over this reality; "paper" says it all. The propositions that [Marx's theory of] value transformation was out of date were left embarassed as the law of value reasserted itself with savage clarity, fictitious capital was destroyed, jobs were annihilated, exported immiseration refluxing toward the economic cores. Production and accumulation became increasingly misaligned, much as value theory predicts. Unused capacity piled up alongside unused labor. The inability to think value in terms adequate to the critique of political economy — to grasp the moving contradiction of the value form, of use and exchange, production and circulation — proved a near-absolute limit to understanding the historical situation.         
Although I find myself on board with most of Clover's analysis, particularly his comments on the continuities that cut across post-structuralist theory and financial logics, there seems at times some confusion here, as though theorists like Hardt and Negri or, more recently, Christian Marazzi — or even the humanities and social sciences at large — somehow had the power to preempt global economic crises if only their analyses maintained a greater fidelity to Marx's theory of value. There also seems to be the suggestion that if the productive and financial spheres were better aligned, life under capital would somehow be less miserable. But I'm fairly convinced this is not at all what Clover is driving at and to read his essay in these ways would be to elide its most useful contribution, which is incidentally what the essay has most in common with Nealon's critique: the identification of post-structuralist thinking (including and especially recent currents in post-Marxist theory) with the deep logic of financialization.