Abstraction and Representation in Marx(ism)

The Marxist historian Mike Davis recently suggested that the current economic collapse hastened by the coronavirus pandemic will be the terminal crisis of the Reagan era. If this is true, the termination is at least in part the product of a failure of representation; a dissembling of the fantasies of market autonomy, infinite growth, etc. As both prospective critics of representational forms and political subjects in a time of crisis, it behooves us to think the determinations of representation under capitalism both in the present and as a historical problem. How does capitalism produce the representations –– or “forms of appearance” –– that mediate the social world and conceal the machinations of capital itself?  How, for example, does capital turn material wealth into the value form? How are such abstractions also at work in cultural objects –– in art and literature as much as in airline safety videos and even toilets? How in turn does a critical approach to those objects inform our thinking about the nature of abstraction?

The objective of this reading group will be to try to address some of these questions, first through the works of Karl Marx and subsequently in more contemporary Marxism(s). In starting with Marx, we want first of all to emphasize a (re)reading that explores how Marxian thought (through Marx’s own texts) can be mobile and plastic, as opposed to merely a rigid and instrumental empirical history of nineteenth century industrial capitalism. A number of late twentieth and twenty-first century reorientations of Marx(ism) are instructive in this regard, including the German neue Marx-Lektüre (new reading of Marx, most famously by Michael Heinrich) and Wertkritik (value critique); in Japan Kojin Karatani’s focus on the double enigma of “labor-power” and the “money-form.”); and the more widely known (if not well understood) concept of “real abstraction” which has circulated from the more obscure work of the Frankfurt School into Italian autonomist theory. Putatively Marxist Anglophone criticism of art and literature has addressed these aspects of Marx’s thought unevenly if at all, largely preferring sociological or historicist approaches. Our hope is that attentiveness to what is enigmatic in Marx might enrich our understanding of the current political situation as well as our own scholarly commitments.

We envision this reading group as an ongoing and adaptive attempt to think the present conjuncture together, rather than as a set course. To that end, while we will begin our discussions with some orienting questions and readings in Marx (over the Summer of 2020), as well as some ideas about future directions and texts in more contemporary Marxist thought, the horizon of the group’s activity should be flexible and collectively determined. Neither do we presuppose any particular level of familiarity with Marx or Marxism (hence the Summer reading). Anyone interested in these problems and willing to engage closely with the texts in hand can and should join the group. We would like to maintain consistent participation as much as possible, but we are keenly aware that these are difficult and unprecedented times. Know that this will be a comradely space as much as an intellectual endeavor.

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