Traditional Marxism and intellectual production, Part 2

(A continuation of part 1.)

If we look only at recent Marxist research on intellectuals, we essentially find two bodies of theory, neither of which is entirely satisfactory. On one hand, we have studies that consider the class position of intellectual workers (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1976, Meisenhelder 1986) or that look at labor relations within academic institutions (Bousquet 2008). Such studies are often quite informative, as far as they go, but generally fail to investigate the form or content of intellectual knowledge. A second much more ambitious project, that of Italian “workerist” Marxism, tries to retheorize knowledge at the very center of capitalist production, arguing that we are in a new era of “cognitive capitalism” in which the main objects of production are “knowledge, information, communication and affect” (Hardt 1999:91), rather than industrial commodities as such. This project draws attention to shifts towards a service economy, to an increasing emphasis on commodified knowledge, to an “informatization” of the production process, and to an emphasis on producing subjectivity and “affect” (or “feelings”) for consumers. Unfortunately, it is a body of thought characterized by hyperbole, by claims to have diagnosed a new epoch of capitalism, and by insistent allegations that most past categories are obsolete. Maurizio Lazzarato, for instance, dismisses Marx’s classical distinction between mental and manual labor (1996:133), arguing that “the fact that immaterial labor produces subjectivity and economic value at the same time demonstrates how capitalist production has invaded our lives and has broken down all the oppositions among economy, power, and knowledge” (142). This entails the view that intellectual labor has been almost completely generalized around the globe. Indeed, Lazzarato argues that as capitalism has figured out new ways to reappropriate and refunctionalize mass struggles against work, as capitalism has taken advantage of the masses’ desires to be cultural producers, “a new ‘mass intellectuality’ has come into being” (133).

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Traditional Marxism and intellectual production, Part 1

(I thought it might be useful to someone to post here some cursory notes from a paper I wrote last year about how intellectuals get theorized within Marxism.)

There corresponds to the capitalist mode of production a type of intellectual production quite different from that which corresponded to the medieval mode of production. Unless material production itself is understood in its specific historical form. it is impossible to grasp the characteristics of the intellectual production which corresponds to it or the reciprocal action between the two.” (Marx, in Williams 1977:81)

A cursory look back at “traditional” Marxism gives us two broad theoretical traditions dealing with intellectual production. On one hand, there is a tradition of thinking in terms of “base” and “superstructure” that distinguishes, with more or less theoretical subtlety, between economics and production on one hand and culture or ideology on the other. Such a theory has notoriously been critiqued for its potential for conceptual errors; in 1921, Lukacs was already endorsing Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of “Marxist vulgar economics,” and arguing instead for a dialectical theory of social totality which would let “‘ideological’ and ‘economic’ problems lose their mutual exclusiveness and merge into one another” while still not equating the two (1967:34). Even in the 70s, theorists like Raymond Williams felt obliged to point out that reifying the “base” and “superstructure” as separate entities—as if the two terms captured something more than dynamically interrelated moments of a total social process—is both analytically unhelpful and untrue to Marx’s original intention (1977:75-82). Hence we find that more recent Marxist theory seldom speaks of “base” and “superstructure” as such; the terms themselves have been superceded by a post-Althusserian concern with “structural causality,” implying a more flexible relation between economy and culture (Jameson 1981), and by a feminist interest in theorizing how economic production relates to social reproduction (Firestone 1970). But granted that this tradition has been significantly reformulated over time, it seems to me that this point of departure nonetheless still has something to recommend it, inasmuch it encourages us to think structurally about how not-directly-economic activities relate to the sphere of production as such. It encourages us to think about the functional role of the unproductive. And in the case of the intellectuals, it encourages us to ponder the fact that mental labor has to be understood in opposition to physical labor, that the intellectual class gets defined not just through free-floating self-definition but also in opposition to other social groups.

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Gratitude absolved of responsibility

Lately I’ve gotten interested in reading Clyde Barrow‘s Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate liberalism and the reconstruction of higher education, 1894-1928. It’s out of print, but I found it used and had it delivered. When I cracked the cover open after a couple of weeks, I was interested to find this note on the inside cover, written in a nice cursive script in what looks like blue ballpoint:

barrow inscription

To Kent,

Thanks for all of your help. I won’t hold you responsible for its content, but it couldn’t have been written without your assistance many years ago.

Clyde W Barrow

It’s always curious to encounter the traces of strangers’ personal relationships to each other. One gets the sense that these two people didn’t know each other all that well, that they had encountered each other “years ago” when Barrow was working on his dissertation, and that when the book finally appeared in print, the author, still then near the start of his career, was delighted to finally be able to show people what he had produced. There’s a nice sense of self injected into the professionally cordial tone of this note; while the author signs his full name instead of just his first name, he signals that the project was dependent on this other person, that it “couldn’t have been written without your help.”

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Academic and religious boredom

I’ve written before about the curious state of academic boredom. Lately, I’ve been reading Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, and was struck by his comments on boredom in traditional French church services:

The rhythm is slow. The audience is bored to tears by the respectful abstraction of it all. Religion will end in boredom, and to offer boredom to the Lord is hardly a living sacrifice. (Yet as I write these lines, I wonder if I’m not making a crude mistake. Magic has always gone hand in hand with emotion, hope and terror, and still does. But are there such things as religious ’emotions’? Probably no more than there is a ‘psychological state’ – consciousness or thought without an object – that could be called ‘faith’. These are ideological fictions. Surely religion, like theology, metaphysics, ceremonies, academic literature and official poets, has always been boring. This has never been a hindrance, because one of the aims of ‘spiritual’ discipline and asceticism has always been precisely to disguise and to transfigure this living boredom…)

(Vol. 1, p. 220-21. English translation by John Moore, Verso, 1991.)

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