Posts Tagged ‘karl marx’

“But unlike the novels of Stoker and Shelley, Marx’s account is not only gothic. His descriptions of a blood-drenched and gore-caked mode of production are prescient of horror as we see it in more recent cinema. Whatever these descriptions lack in the sense of morality shared by gothic novelists they make up for in cold rationality.

Marx’s horrors are irredeemable and absolute. When he insists that capitalism is the mode of production that “comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” he really commits himself, as a gifted writer and a master-stylist, to conveying specifically that kind of horror.

Elsewhere in Capital, when the vampire image returns, narrative emphasis shifts from the bourgeois predator to the exploited worker, and specifically to the worker’s obliterated body:

It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.”

The vampire reveals itself only when it is already too late, when the façade of legal niceties turns out to be an evil, Faustian pact, inescapable until the death of either party.

Stylistically important is that quoted material at the end, taken from a description made elsewhere by Friedrich Engels. The quotation from Engels confirms the organic substance of capital, its own expropriated lifeblood, is the insides of the worker.

While Marx frequently draws on the patently gothic imagery of vampires and werewolves, specters and gravediggers, here we can see that his accounts of capital also acquire a taste for human viscera, with sentences chewing their way through bodily gristle:

We may say that surplus value rests on a natural basis, but this is permissible only in the very general sense, that there is no natural obstacle absolutely preventing one man from disburdening himself of the labour requisite for his own existence, and burdening another with it, any more, for instance, than unconquerable natural obstacles prevent one man from eating the flesh of another.

Capitalist accumulation is, as Marx knows, a crime whose most obvious analogue is cannibalism. Born into the wage-relation we are not human subjects. We are only our capacity to work, which means serving up our variously muscular, nervous, and cerebral organs — and consuming those of our friends and families, as well as those of complete strangers.

Gothic descriptions like these are not merely decorative. Instead, they get to the very essence of life under capitalism. They remind us how bodies and brains are mutilated into commodities. Literally, we need only think of the deformations, injuries, and fatalities caused by strained working conditions at every level of capitalist industry, from neurological trauma through to heart attacks, right down to broken bones, amputated limbs, and mass deaths.

Figuratively, every minute and every hour spent in wage labor is another minute and another hour in which our bodies are wired to a vast machine that only lives by draining our life substances.

Life under capitalism is the experience of horror, the irreversible liquefying of human substance and its necrophagic consumption. Like the grim fate of the victims in any given horror film, whose bodies are obliterated beyond all recognition and so frequently ingested by other humans, once our labor succumbs to value that transformation is utterly irreparable. So reflects poet Keston Sutherland in a brilliantly nauseating essay on Marx’s jargon: “All that is meat melts into bone, and vice versa; and no effort of scrutiny, will or heated imagination, however powerfully analytic or moral, is capable of reversing the industrial process of that deliquescence.”

The lesson can be put this way: we all inhabit the same horror story and we should all be intensely revolted by this. But, even if we cannot undo what has already been done, that revulsion might still be a catalyst for revolution. Perhaps this is what Marx was trying to teach us all along with his unique brand of gothic horror.

– Mark Steven, “Reading Marx on Halloween.” Jacobin, October 31, 2018.

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“Capital that has such good reasons for denying the sufferings of the legions of workers that surround it, is in practice moved as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun. In every stockjobbing swindle every one knows that some time or other the crash must come, but every one hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Après moi le déluge! [After me, the flood] is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society. To the out-cry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits? But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.”

– Karl Marx, Capital. Volume 1, Chapter 10, “The Working-Day.” 1867. 
(via shituationist)

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“It is not in charity as such that the young marquise is to find the satisfaction of her essential human nature, a human content and purpose of her activity, and hence entertainment. Charity offers rather only the external occasion, only the pretext, only the material, for a kind of entertainment that could just as well use any other material as its content. Misery is exploited consciously to procure the charitable person “the piquancy of a novel, the satisfaction of curiosity, adventure, disguise, enjoyment of his or her own excellence, violent nervous excitement”, and the like.

Rudolph has thereby unconsciously expressed the mystery which was revealed long ago, that human misery itself, the infinite abjectness which is obliged to receive alms, must serve the aristocracy of money and education as a plaything to satisfy its self-love, tickle its arrogance and amuse it.

The numerous charitable associations in Germany, the numerous charitable societies in France and the great number of charitable quixotic societies in England, the concerts, balls, plays, meals for the poor, and even the public subscriptions for victims of accidents, have no other object. It seems then that along these lines charity, too, has long been organised as entertainment.

The sudden, unmotivated transformation of the marquise at the mere word “amusant” makes us doubt the durability of her cure; or rather this transformation is sudden and unmotivated only in appearance and is caused only in appearance by the description of charité as an amusement. The marquise loves Rudolph and Rudolph wants to disguise himself along with her, to intrigue and to indulge in charitable adventures. Later, when the marquise pays a charity visit to the prison of Saint-Lazare, her jealousy of Fleur de Marie becomes apparent and out of charity towards her jealousy she conceals from Rudolph the fact of Marie’s detention. At the best, Rudolph has succeeded in teaching an unhappy woman to play a silly comedy with unhappy beings. The mystery of the philanthropy he has hatched is betrayed by the Paris fop who invites his partner to supper after the dance in the following words:

“Ah, Madame, it is not enough to have danced for the benefit of these poor Poles…. Let us he philanthropy to the end…. Let us have supper now for the benefit of the poor!”

– Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Chapter VIII: 5) Revelation of The Mystery of the Utilisation of Human Impulses, Or Clémence D’Harville,” The Holy Family .1845.

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Feuerbach, we know, conceived the Christian ideas of the Incarnation, the Trinity, Immortality, etc., as
the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of Immortality. Herr Szeliga
conceives all present world conditions as mysteries. But whereas Feuerbach disclosed real mysteries,

Herr Szeliga makes mysteries out of real trivialities. His art is not that of disclosing what is hidden, but of
hiding what is disclosed. 

Thus he proclaims as mysteries degeneracy (criminals) within civilisation and rightlessness and
inequality in the state. This means that socialist literature, which has revealed these mysteries, is still a
mystery to Herr Szeliga, or that he wants to convert the best-known findings of that literature into a
private mystery of “Critical Criticism”. 

We therefore need not go more deeply into Herr Szeliga’s discourse on these mysteries; we shall merely
draw attention to a few of the most brilliant points.

“Before the law and the judge everything is equal, the high and the low, the rich and the
poor. This proposition stands at the head of the credo of the state.

Of the state? The credo of most states starts, on the contrary, by making the high and the low, the rich
and the poor unequal before the law

"The gem-cutter Morel in his naive probity most clearly expresses the mystery” (the mystery
of the antithesis of poor and rich) “when he says: If only the rich knew! If only the rich
knew! The misfortune is that they do not know what poverty is." 

Herr Szeliga does not know that Eugéne Sue commits an anachronism out of courtesy to the French
bourgeoisie when he puts the motto of the burghers of Louis XIV’s time ”Ah! si le roi le savait!“ in a
modified form: ”Ah! si le riche le savait!“ into the mouth of the working man Morel who lived at the
time of the Charte vérité.” In England and France, at least, this naive relation between rich and poor has
ceased to exist. There the scientific representatives of wealth, the economists, have spread a very detailed
understanding of the physical and moral misery of poverty. They have made up for that by proving that
misery must remain because the present state of things must remain. In their solicitude they have even
calculated the proportions in which the poor must be reduced in number by deaths for the good of the
rich and for their own welfare. 

If Eugene Sue depicts the taverns, hide-outs and language of criminals, Herr Szeliga discloses the
“mystery” that what the “author” wanted was not to depict that language or those hide-outs, but
“to teach us the mystery of the mainsprings of evil, etc." 

"It is precisely in the most crowded
places … that criminals feel at home." 

What would a natural scientist say if one were to prove to him that the bee’s cell does not interest him as
a bee’s cell, that it has no mystery for one who has not studied it, because the bee "feels at home
precisely” in the open air and on the flower? The hide-outs of the criminals and their language reflect the
character of the criminal, they are part of his existence, their description is part of his description just as
the description of the petite maison is part of the description of the femme galante

For Parisians in general and even for the Paris police the hide-outs of criminals are such a “mystery” that
at this very moment broad light streets are being laid out in the Cité to give the police access to them.

– Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Chapter V: ‘CRITICAL CRITICISM’ AS A MYSTERY-MONGER,

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“A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naïvité, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm? There are unruly children and precocious children. Many of the old peoples belong in this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. [It] is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up, rather, with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone arise, can never return.”

– Marx, Grundrisse, Introduction,

Late August – Mid-September 1857

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“I want to explore here the way in which his work articulates images of logistics and the logistics of images in terms of their specific effacements and distortions of the laboring body, and their iteration of the division between intellectual and manual labor. This involves an indispensable detour through the critique of abstraction, in the conviction that unless we attend to the way in which our artistic and visual practices are responsive to and embedded in capital’s real abstractions (Toscano, 2008), their constructions of really-abstract spaces, together with bodily and social dispositions, we may be lured into the repetition or reproduction of the very mechanisms we are seeking to depict or dismantle. A rapid glance over the now extensive archive of art about that most compellingly banal of object and devices, the container, suggests that the qualities of isomorphy, modularity, abstraction, indifference (or anaesthesia), standardization, mathematical or scalar sublimity that attach to logistical complexes fascinate the artistic gaze, drawing into a risky mimesis or replication of the very design and function of the abstract spaces of logistics. In his article ‘The Instrumental Image’ (Sekula, 1975), Sekula had shown how the relationship between, on the one hand, Edward Steichen’s instrumental images—aerial reconnaissance photographs which themselves speak volumes about logistics originally military meaning—and, on the other, the spiritualization of the instrumental under the sign of modernism and its abstractions, found their intimate bond in what we could call a mimesis of abstraction. A world rendered ‘concretely abstract’ by the geographic and temporal imperatives of capitalist accumulation seems to ‘reflect back’ onto the artistic gaze that very drive to spiritualized abstraction (itself grounded on the separation of intellectual and manual labor) which had been the political-economic content of its aesthetic forms. In contemporary visual practice, especially photographic and cinematic work oriented toward logistical complexes, the mimetic lure of real abstraction has several modalities, among which is the figure of logistics as a depopulated landscape of megastructures.

As Fredric Jameson observes in Representing Capital:

[T]he dead labor embodied in machinery suddenly swells to inhuman proportions (and is properly compared to a monster or a Cyclopean machine). It is as though the reservoir, or as Heidegger would call it, the “standing reserve” (Gestell), of past or dead labor was immensely increased and offered ever huger storage facilities for these quantities of dead hours, which the merely life-sized human machine-minder is nonetheless to bring back to life, on the pattern of the older production. The quantities of the past have been rendered invisible by the production process outlined above, and yet they now surround the worker in a proportion hitherto unthinkable. (Jameson, 2011: 102)

This annihilation of time by space, of the visibility of labor-time by the amplification of the physical infrastructures of dead labor, poses the problem of cognitive mapping in far more theoretically determinate matter than the mere problem of not being able to represent the vastness and complexity of a capitalist world-system, which shears perception away from production. Here, I want to complement this critical focus on the nexus of logistics, scale, and fixed capital, with an investigation into the relation between abstraction, circulation, labor, and visual representation, turning to Sekula to think the question of logistics as one of the forms taken by circulation, and the need to defetishize these forms while recognizing their efficacy. By thematizing abstraction, I also want to begin to think how logistics might be framed not only through its material apparatuses but also through its legal, operational, managerial and commodity forms.

We can draw from Sekula’s work a sustained and systematic critique of how capitalist abstraction—in its monetary, aesthetic, and scientific dimensions—permeates the relationship between photography and labor, repeating in a sui generis manner the subjection of work under capital. This critique of abstraction, which already transpires from Sekula’s earliest statements on the history of photography, is intimately linked, I want to suggest, to the question of logistics—an object of dogged and nuanced inquiry in Sekula’s maritime works. What follows is but a sketch, in view of a more patient, and systematic reconstruction. 

Sekula’s critical project in his historical essays is to provide “conceptual tools for unified understanding of the social workings of photography in an industrial environment” (Sekula, 1983: 202) and to struggle against the disappearance of labor in the photographically-mediated fetishism of the spaces of capital. It is this same drive that leads him from the deeps of the mines to the forgotten spaces of the sea. As he reflected: “The maritime world was interesting to me because it’s a world of gargantuan automation but also of persistent work, of isolated, anonymous, hidden work, of great loneliness, displacement and separation from the domestic sphere” (2002b: 582). In a world where “the cargo container has become the very emblem of capitalist disavowal,” labor is no longer accessible except through “some great imaginative geographical leap” (Sekula, 1999: 148). And that disavowal—which prolongs negations that shadow the entire history of labor’s representation and misrepresentation—is not countered but intensified by photography’s condition, itself based on a practice of abstraction, of “imaginary temporal and geographical mobility” (Sekula, 1983: 199)—which may be contrasted with the real mobility, animated by solidarity, that Sekula himself practised, and which is most evident in the political travelogue and video-work, Lottery of the Sea (2006). Such an endeavor is founded on the understanding that class conflict is a conflict of representations, and that an image critique of the rule of abstraction requires a partisan position: “[t]he archive has to be read from below, from a position of solidarity with those displaced, deformed, silenced, or made invisible by the machineries of profit and progress” (1983: 202). Such partisanship is resolutely incompatible with contemplation, be it of beauty or sublimity: “[t]he category of the awed spectator does not apply to those who live with the violence of machines and recalcitrant matter” (252).

Sekula’s credo is that:

in an age that denies the very existence of society, to insist on the scandal of the world’s increasingly grotesque ‘connectedness’, the hidden merciless grinding away beneath the slick superficial liquidity of markets, is akin to putting oneself in the position of the ocean swimmer, timing one’s strokes to the swell, turning one’s submerged ear with every breath to the deep rumble of stones rolling on the bottom far below. To insist on the social is simply to practice purposeful immersion (2002a: 7).

In Sekula’s essays and photoworks, I think we can discern two interlinked facets of the critique of abstraction, which have long and conflicting histories within Marxism: (1) a materialist and corporeal, as well as partisan, practice of photography, practicing ‘purposeful immersion’ into the social; (2) a ‘reduction’ of phenomena of artistic form to social form. One of the unique features of Sekula’s work is that he does both: unveiling the corporeal suffering and material inertness beneath the veneer of exchange, dragging form down into content, so to speak; but also moving from aesthetic form to social form…

But Sekula also undermines the bad, petty-bourgeois critique of abstraction, ever eager to pin its colors to the mast of some false immediacy. A case in point is Kurt Forster’s apologia for Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim: “[h]e does not think of the volumes of his buildings within the confines of abstract space (which is also the space of economics); rather he engages these volumes in intimate relationships with one another.” Sekula comments on this elaborate rhetoric of disavowal: “[t]he bad objects here are legion: abstraction, economics, and by implication, bureaucracy and modernism. The crypto-baroque promise of redemptive embodiment—‘corporeal qualities’ and ‘intimate relationships’—is not unlike that offered by the virtual world of the Internet” (Sekula, 2002a: 19-20).

In terms of the question of intellectual and manual labor, Forster’s paean is here a particularly egregious symptom, praising as it does the manner in which, in Gehry’s built structures, the “age-old distinction between the hands that design and the instruments that execute has been overcome” (20). Again, this disavows the reliance of this seemingly immaculate complex of finance-architectural design-computing-art with the activity of building and the entropy of materials, not to mention the social relations of the architectural site itself: the builders (from where?), the unions (are there any?), etc. In the end, Forster’s vision of the Bilbao Guggenheim as a monument to our productive capacities masks “a monument to the absolute hegemony of intellectual labor afforded by computer-based manufacturing” (20). 

The relentless critique of the supremacy of intellectual labor, and of how it is made possible by capitalism’s specific modes of abstraction is a leitmotiv in Sekula’s writing and practice. It is also an indispensable ingredient of his critical realism. What does realism mean if we sight it through the prism of universalized commodity exchange, of a society in which, as Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, individuals are ruled by abstractions? And how does photographic realism respond to the lived antinomies of bourgeois thought—of a humanist and individualist ideology of the subject of rights and equality in a world subsumed by the imperatives of capital accumulation? Sekula’s own formulation of these questions, voiced more than three decades ago in ‘The Traffic in Photographs (1981),’ still retains its urgency:

Perhaps the fundamental question to be asked is this: can traditional photographic representation, whether symbolist or realist in its dominant formal rhetoric, transcend the pervasive logic of the commodity form, the exchange abstraction that haunts the culture of capitalism? (1984: 80)

His own typology of realisms draws from the centrality of the exchange abstraction to capitalist culture. Sekula defines instrumental realism as “an ambitious attempt to link optical empiricism with abstract, statistical truth” (1984: 79; 1983: 201); this is the realism of the Gilbreths, and of all those practices that enlist photography in the scientific management of industrial labor, or in the attendant activity of identifying and policing those ‘dangerous individuals’ that either resist or are expelled from the labor market. The sentimental realism of the family photograph or the humanist portrait is instead conditioned by its repression of the prosaic violence of exchange, from which it abstracts in turn, idealistically. Bourgeois realism—present, exemplarily, in the portraiture of August Sander—is then caught in the antinomy between instrumental and sentimental, between knowing the world and feeling the world, as well as between scientific and political representation. As Sekula sums up this predicament: “One current defends science as the privileged representation of the real, as the ultimate source of social truth. The other current defends parliamentary politics as the representation of a pluralistic popular desire, as the ultimate source of social good” (1984: 87-88). Photography thus configured imagines itself as bridging the bourgeois diremption between art and science; it promotes the illusion of a humanized technology.”


Photograph is

Allan Sekula, Panorama. Mid-Atlantic, November 1993, from Fish Story 1989–95. Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica

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“According to the materialist conception of history, the
ultimately determining element in history is the production and
reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever
asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic
element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into
a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is
the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political
forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions
established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc.,
juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in
the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical
theories, religious views and their further development into systems of
dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical
struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.
There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the
endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner
interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can
regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally
asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to
any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple
equation of the first degree.


In the second place, however, history
is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts
between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what
it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are
innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of
forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event. This
may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a
whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills
is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no
one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a
natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion.
But from the fact that the wills of individuals — each of whom desires
what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the
last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal
circumstances or those of society in general) — do not attain what they
want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must
not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each
contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it.”

— Friedrich Engels letter to J. Bloch (1890). First published in Der sozialistische Akademiker, Berlin, October 1, 1895.

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