As one of several summer projects I’m slowly reading Capital Volume 1 while listening to David Harvey’s lectures on my commute. So if you are wondering why there are random notes about Marx littered on the blog, that’s why.
Reading Marx may seem like a bit of an odd project, given that I really ought to be reading about memory practices and the web. But much of the reading I have liked in this area has led me to focus on the material practices of computing, infrastructure and how they relate to knowledge generation (science)…and it has seemed to me that much of this work draws on Marx (at least a little bit) for their mode of analysis.
Marx’s keen interest in understanding how something as pervasive as our monetary system actually operates ontologically is useful to read first hand–especially for its sheer audacity. I’m only two chapters in, but I already like his attention to the details of how social practices shape our concepts about the world, rather than the other way around. Here’s an example that comes at the end of chapter 2, after he has spent much of chapter 1 detailing how it is that the concept of commodity developed:
We have already seen, from the simplest expression of value, x commodity A == y commodity B, that the thing in which the magnitude of the value of another thing is represented appears to have the equivalent form independently of this relation, as a social property inherent in its nature. We followed the process by which this false semblance became firmly established, a process which was completed when the universal equivalent form became identified with the natural form of a particular commodity, and thus crystallized into the money-form. What appears to happen is not that a particular commodity becomes money because all other commodities express their values in it, but, on the contrary, that all other commodities universally express their values in a particular commodity because it is money. The movement through which this process has been mediated vanishes in its own result, leaving no trace behind.
Marx (1990), p. 187
I like the movement here: how social practices create a concept, and how that concept then erases its own provenance, and seems to stand as a free floating idea. I think this connects to ideas of community of practice where participation in practices leads to the reification of those practices as abstract concepts. For Marx the process and practices seem to be what’s important, not the concepts and their essentialist meanings. This orientation recalls what I’ve enjoyed reading from folks like Wittgenstein, and the pragmatists (Rorty, Dewey), and the ethnographic approach more generally.
Marx, K. (1990). Capital: A critigue of political economy (Vol. 1). London: Penguin.