Sunday, December 29, 2013


After reading various reports on the unveiling of the Volker Rule, a terse Keynesian adjunct to the 848-page Dodd-Frank financial oversight act introduced in 2010, I found myself returning to Danny Hayward's People (Mountain Press 2013), particularly his piece "The Consumption of Extremes," an exceptionally long text subtitled "A Family Drama." Ed Dorn once said the social formation that most intrigued him was the family. In Being a Human Being (Object Permanence 2006), Tom Leonard usefully reminds us "not to put friends and family before the rest of the world." Leonard dedicates the book to his family. "The Consumption of Extremes" is dedicated to no one. It is a proper family drama. Dramatis personae, or the extremes, the family, include: X / X1, Y / Y1, XA / XA1, YA / YA1, XB / XB1, YB / YB1. Each of these paired characters would appear, on one hand, to stand in for an undisclosed or indeterminate value (i.e. X) and, on the other, this same value and its supplement (i.e. X1). Possibly. But probably not. But also. These are paired extremes. They resemble algebraic variables whose values remain unknown if not fluid, components drawn perhaps from the context of a differential calculus.

Linked to his work on Capital, Marx devoted a considerable amount of time to exploring differential and integral calculus, believing this work could be articulated with his larger inquiry into political economy. Although he never came round to collating and publishing the work, Engels considered Marx's mathematical manuscripts vital. He even mentions this work in his introduction to the second edition of his Anti-Dühring. But Marx's mathematical manuscripts, an enigmatic critique of Newton and Leibnitz, are completely mystifying, an all but grotesque wonder to behold. In order to proceed with his work on Capital, Marx felt obliged to get a firm handle on higher forms of algebra. In an 11 January 1858 letter to Engels he writes: "I am so damnedly held up by mistakes in calculation in the working out of the economic principles that out of despair I intend to master algebra promptly. Arithmetic remains foreign to me." Several years later, and still several years before the first volume of Capital would appear, Marx notes in a 6 July 1863 letter to Engels, "In my free time I do differential and integral calculus." Differential calculus deals in determining the rate at which quantities change. It is the process of finding a derivative, an instrument that measures the sensitivity to change of one object (a dependent variable, i.e. an object in space) through its relation to another (an independent variable, i.e. time).

In Being and Event there is one brief instance, more than two thirds of the way into the work, when Badiou addresses the distinction between differential and integral calculus: "[T]he complete language is the integral calculus of multiple-presentation, whilst a local approximation already authorizes its differential calculus." Integral calculus is the inverse of differential calculus and "The Consumption of Extremes" has nothing to do with either beyond dealing with extremes, with the maxima and minima within a set—within, that is, a totality—per set theory. Calculating the values of extremes is the focus of mathematical optimization, a practice that falls under the rubric of differential calculus. Determining a value is the first step on the way to its consumption. Demand does not determine value. It goes the other way round. And at the center of "The Consumption of Extremes," which itself sits at the center of the book like an all-consuming vacuum, we find "A Pedagogical Interlude," a moment of pause presumably intended to redirect our attention back toward the primary concern of the work:
[...] is not 'bad' because it exploits the labour
of workers, or because it determines how
fast and under what conditions they work,
though both of these practices are requisite to it:
       capital is destructive because it produces
                            both inside and outside of
the wage relation manifold forms of compulsory,
damaging and miserable activity;
and while from the perspective of capital the activity of
wage labourers is the most immediately important (and also the
most controllable) activity,
the requirements of capitalist production,
including its most intractable contradictions,
must shape other forms of activity right
down to their
winnowing toner.
Capitalist production is objectionable because it
demands a capitalist society: capitalist
society is only very partially defined
by the literal process of exploitation.
No admittance accept on business.    

Mathematical values are purely quantitative, all business. All is mired in interlinked matrices of exchange, the codification and circulation of values, and so back to basics, this distance between quantitative and qualitative value that Prynne marks out in his 1968 Note on Metal: "For a long time the magical implications of transfer in any shape must have given a muted and perhaps not initially debased sacrality to objects of currency-status ... But gradually the item-form becomes iconized, in transitions like that from aes rude (irregular bits of bronze), through aes signatum (cast ingots or bars) to aes grave (the circular stamped coin). The metonymic unit is established, and number replaces strength or power as the chief assertion of presence." Currency, cash value or the value of cash, stands in for us as the promise of a presence it eventually supersedes in priority. Presently burning money, the destruction of currency, is forbidden by law. The function and flow of value is a hinge. "[C]apitalist | society is only very partially defined | by the literal process of exploitation." Nor is mediation (abstraction) the crux of the problem since, as Prynne remarks, stone was always already the abstraction of standing, of balance. Or we can turn to Simon Jarvis's commentary on the capitalist grammar of commensurability in his critique of Note on Metal: "The way in which the qualities of concept and object are suppressed in a predicative proposition reflects and assists the way in which the different qualities of commodities (including commodified human labour) are regarded as irrelevant to their expression as exchange-value. The limitations of the predicative judgment, that is, are not merely contingent limitations of this particular mode of expression, but are representative of the limitation upon thought as such within a society in which all qualitative difference is increasingly required to become commensurable and exchangeable."

The basics. Or the simplest things last. The final sentence from the closing piece in People, a short essay titled "By Impossibly Popular Demand," reads: "Learn the basics." We are told in the opening sentence of the essay that this directive is the first line of Bertolt Brecht's poem "Lob Des Lernen" ("In Praise of Learning"). Later in the essay Hayward insists, "The very simplest thing is in the strongest sense the popularisation of anti-capitalist beliefs, ideas, and moral attitudes." But for Hayward the popularization of such beliefs, the various modes of their dissemination, cannot be wrenched from these beliefs as such. Dissemination, popularization, is predicated on the largely impossible task of simplifying, or reducing, incomprehensibly complex ideas:

The sublime sense of auto-obliviation felt by radicals as they ponder the deeply metaphysical problem of the correct slogan is only the conscious content of the deeper and for the most part unconscious acknowledgement that the work of popularising ideas opposed to the present state of things is a work for which no individual slogan will suffice, because the popularisation is not a matter of the single best conceptual simplification but of a thousand tones of voice and a thousand accents and temperaments: of modes of expression more various and more constitutionally unmanageable that those contained in any novel by Joyce or app by cliq consulting. 

The despair and frustration the difficulty of simplification yields displaces, according to Hayward, analyses of the "complex social work of simplification"—that is, if I understand the passage correctly, the affectivities that the impossible task of simplification generate among radicals eventually comes to stand in as the primary object of their critical attentions. Rather than engaging in an analysis of the task of simplification in the interest of popularizing anti-capitalist ideas, Hayward suggests that radicals instead devote their attention to the despair and frustration produced by the overwhelming pressure of such a task. The problem, for Hayward, is not a conceptual or epistemological one but a problem of labor:

Just as capitalist theories of value assume that the value received by capitalists is equal to their 'contribution,' and so effectively attribute to individuals the 'creation' of value which is in fact the work of innumerable people, the aesthetic thinking of bourgeois writers, including those who consider themselves to be opposed to present social relations, perpetually distorts into an aporetics of individual obligation a task whose true domain is collective human existence. The complexity of simplification is constantly annulled and reproposed as the simple work of 'understanding' a single complication , along the lines of, how do we make our ideas reach the audience which might use them? This single complication is the labyrinth in which bourgeois aesthetics and vanguardist revolutionary politics together perform the preparatory workouts for a social insurgency the deferral of which is in part their own responsibility.  

The question of labor can never be disarticulated from that of value. As such it is perhaps value and not labor (and thus not exploitation) which remains the primary—and possibly in this instance an a priori—hinge. Value can be produced and determined apart from labor. The recent economic collapse demonstrates this convincingly well. So, more than a problem of labor, the problem Hayward points toward may in fact be one of value. Further, although the affective detritus any species of difficulty yields (i.e., frustration, despair and so forth) may be the result of labor, affect does not necessarily presuppose labor. Nor are difficulty and labor one and the same, and while all labor, even the most demoralizingly mind-numbing labor, must necessarily involve some measure of thought, not all thinking should be mistaken for labor. Here I think Hayward's commentary slips frighteningly close to the easy transposition of labor into a philosophical register, an intellectual sleight of hand extending back to Hegel which Christopher Nealon critiques, albeit for markedly different reasons, in The Matter of Capital. Or perhaps I am wrong and the problem actually is, as Hayward asserts, one of labor, of work, rather than value, though the pervasive ease with which recent theorists have deployed imaginings of cognitive capital, cultural work and poetic labor—often to the further devaluation of manual labor by way of a contradictory identification with manual labor—leaves me feeling skeptical. But more than signaling any kind of dismissive challenge to this particular essay, or People as a whole, I should hope my skepticism stands as an index of my desire to further engage this astounding work. Bluntly put, the book would indeed appear to be, as one friend recently remarked, the revolutionary wedge we've all been waiting for.
§ The cover of People, front and back, features a picture by Icelandic artist Erró, known among other things for collaborating in 1963 with Carolee Schneemann on the series of photographs titled "Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions" (the reproduction of social relations begins at home, with the family, "whose true domain is collective human existence"); cf. Joan Robinson, "The Cultural Revolution in China" (1968): "In the arts, the dominance of politics produces a dreary philistinism and in literature a stupid black and white morality, smothering the subtlety and grace of Chinese traditions under what even Mao deprecates as the 'slogan and poster style." What even Mao deprecates.

Back cover of People | "Art and Industryscape," Erró, 1984