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4.0 out of 5 stars Oddly Enjoyable, 28 Feb 2014
This review is from: Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (Paperback)
Fredric Jameson's Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One is an oddly enjoyable book. This in itself feels a strange formulation to make. Why? Well, because I usually find Jameson both illuminating and trying at the same time, his flair as a stylist destroyed by his penchant for theoretical gobbledygook and insanely convoluted sentences. Such an approach can leave his readership feeling dazed and depressed, as the boring job of untangling the sentences falls on the reader, who, after doing all the legwork, finds little to get excited about. Nevertheless, despite a torturously dense first chapter, that kind of opacity is rarely displayed in this short book. In fact, it is an invigorating experience, and the book is stacked with Jameson's signature erudition and unflagging enthusiasm for all things Marx. So while we may grumble about Jameson taking his whole career to write a treatise on Capital, it's certainly been worth the wait.

Jameson opens the book by stating that 'It should not be surprising that Marx remains as inexhaustible as capital itself, and that with every adaptation or mutation of the latter his texts and his thought resonate in new with new meanings'. He then goes on to make 'a scandalous assertion' (and one that he doesn't really tackle), because he wishes to prove that Capital is about 'unemployment' rather than politics or labour. But the only way to get to this conclusion, he assures us, is by viewing Marx's book as 'a series of interlinked problems or paradoxes, which...give rise to new and unexpected ones, of greater scope'. Each denouement is a new departure, and although this may seem like a never-ending task, 'the successive resolutions of the linked riddles...lay in place the architecture of a whole construct or system', i.e. capital itself. And it's this need to view capitalism as a totality that Jameson wholly endorses. He knows each attempt will be a 'mixture of success and failure', and that every representation will be a 'combination of diverse and heterogeneous modes of construction', but 'one must redouble one's efforts to express the inexpressible in this respect'. For Jameson, this is the only way to understand capitalism, and he trumpets the need to move away from the idea of it being an 'ineffable...mystery beyond language or thought'.

To support this aim, Jameson relies on the trusty old dialectic. (He even devotes an entire chapter - albeit ten pages - to 'Capital and the Dialectic'.) Because capitalism is such a vast and mutating beast, and a beast that has been interpreted in myriad ways, Jameson feels that the dialectic 'exists to coordinate incompatible modes of thought without reducing them'. Like David Harvey, Jameson views the dialectic as paramount to understanding Capital and Marx's work as a whole, and he also mirrors his contemporary by voicing scepticism for the analytic school of Marxism. Jameson has written extensively on the dialectic, but he once again gives us a brief synopsis of his own application of the tool, for Jameson looks to build his arguments on the 'fundamental notion of contradiction itself, about which we must affirm that it is identical with the unity of opposites, opposites which no longer need to be identified with and labelled as positive and negative, inasmuch as the dialectic means a perpetual changing of places between them and a perpetual transformation of one into the other'. This explanation, however, comes twenty pages from the end of the book (p.131), so it may be worthwhile reading this passage first, if only to illuminate all that precedes it (although this all depends on your conversance with Jameson's take on dialectics).

Representing Capital takes a while to get going, because in the opening chapter, 'The Play of Categories', Jameson goes all out to baffle the reader. Having acknowledged that the first three chapters of Capital are the 'most widely read and studied' part of the book, he also acknowledges that 'The concentrated dialectical language...has been deplored by those who feel that it renders these chapters inaccessible to...working class people'. In a sense, those people are right, because the language is difficult, and the concepts are hard, but that is why it needs constant rereading. So you'd think that a Marxist writer, and one presumably looking to spread the Word, would make things easier for his proletarian students. Not so. Jameson's exposition of Part One of Capital only muddies the waters. Whereas Marx unfurls his argument in a calm and logical manner, ensuring that all the concepts are grasped and stored, Jameson dumps even more freight on to the overloaded terminology. We know from Marx that use-value always carries around a trio of simultaneous characteristics (it is concrete labour, it is measured qualitatively, and it functions as a relative form of value), and that exchange-value also has a trio of hangers-on (it is viewed as abstract labour, it is measured quantitatively, and it functions as an equivalent form of value); Jameson, however, now brings in a further qualification, albeit a 'more suspicious one', which has him equating Quality (i.e. use-value) with Body, and Quantity (i.e. exchange-value) with Mind or Soul. (He later goes on to argue that time should be tied to Quantity and space with Quality.) Now these are clearly important arguments for Jameson, but their revolutionary potential is nil. The toiling masses - those whom Jameson has spent his career looking to politicise - couldn't care less for such theoretical minutiae. This isn't to say that it's nonsense, and that it's not worthwhile, only that it is the kind of argument that puts people off the idea of reading Marx. And while he may not be the only Marxist guilty of such indulgence, his abstract endeavours are certainly not helping the cause to which he has dedicated his life's work.

Anyhow, once this sometimes impenetrable (and boring) chapter is out of the way, Jameson moves on from the particular to the general, and the reader whimpers thanks to the Gods. Jameson thereafter delivers intriguing arguments about the dialectical oddities of the capitalist mode of production. For instance, co-operation (and it's this part of Capital that Jameson labels its 'philosophical centre') may lead to spatiotemporal savings in the production process, but it also creates a high concentration of workers who can organise and agitate against their capitalist overseers, who, in Marx's (in)famous words, are busy producing their own 'grave-diggers'. He also wheels out the standard line about how 'the alienated power wielded by humanly produced systems [is being used] against the human beings who have produced them', because it was, lest we forget, the 'worker who built capitalism in the first place'. Jameson goes through all the various kinks in the system, although they are far too many to enumerate here. Yet some do stick out. He supports Marx's 'absolute general law of capitalist accumulation', i.e. the increasing immiseration of the proletariat, and stoutly defends it against its detractors; he notes the systemic need for expansion and constant appropriation, because it is only by the 'dynamic of inevitable expansion' that 'capitalism solves its immediate problems and postpones its contradictions', which follows hot on the heels of David Harvey's arguments concerning 'accumulation by dispossession'; and he also declares that those who call for stronger regulation on the left are only looking to gain 'efficient control of the economic system itself, in order to forestall or prevent its collapse'. For Jameson, such a view is misplaced, because there is no chance of reform - only a truly revolutionary overhaul will do.

In his Introduction, Jameson writes that he doesn't want the 'following pages...[to be] construed as a literary reading' of Capital. And this is a shame, for Jameson is a multitalented literary critic, and one of the most perceptive we have. He remarks, quite correctly, that 'Nowhere has the Marxian doctrine of base and superstructure been more damaging than in Marxism itself', where the 'specialists of the base' - the 'commentators on capitalism, the strategists of revolution' - feel little more than contempt for the 'culture workers of the superstructures'. And he's right, for this is a pointless divide, and one that creates questions of ownership over Marx's work, which is pure idiocy. Anyhow, Jameson, as you'd expect, pays particularly close attention to the language, and he highlights the moments when Marx's 'modulation into the figurative' signals that his prose 'has risen to a certain consciousness of itself', thereby announcing that the text is soon 'to solve one of its riddles'. And it is when dealing with the supposed '''eternal laws''' of capitalism, and the 'myths and fictions of its ideologists', that Marx's anger breaks through that 'self-control which normally gives his observations their tension and their power'. All this is true, and Jameson covers these angles well, which only proves the validity of a literary reading of Capital. As a literary man, and a painstaking stylist to boot, Marx would have loved the idea of his work being touted as a totem of great literature.

But he wouldn't have liked the idea of his work being misrepresented. And this is what I feel Jameson is doing when he begins to tackle the role of politics in Capital. Early on in the book, Jameson opines that 'Capital is not a political book and has very little to do with politics'. For Jameson, when Marx speaks of revolution, he is talking about technological rather than proletarian revolution. Fair enough. But the book is driven by politics (both implicit and explicit), its whole exposition geared towards enlightening the working classes as to the shape and size of their fetters. We've all heard Marx ringing the 'knell of capitalist private property', its aftermath ensuring that the bourgeois 'expropriators are expropriated', but clearly Jameson hasn't; well, he has, but he rather sidesteps this famous passage. And what about the Marx who, in Chapter 31 ('The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist'), states that 'Force is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power'? Or when Marx writes of the 'inevitable conquest of political power by the working class'? With these quotes in mind, it feels rather odd that Jameson continues in this way and posits Marx as a man whose 'political genius lay in his lucid opportunism' rather than his ability to guide 'present-day political strategies or solutions'. So why, to quote the blurb, the sudden 'resurgence of interest in the grandfather of all leftwing critiques: Karl Marx's Capital'? Because Marx has an enduring relevance, and his humanitarian work continues to expose and predict the aggressive impulses that drive contemporary economies. Are we not currently witnessing a regression into an era of Victorian-like exploitation? And if that's the case, then Marx is about as reliable a guide as we can have, because his world is once again becoming our world.

But Jameson is right in other respects. Capital may be an 'infernal machine', and a 'machine [that is] constantly breaking down, and repairing itself only by the laborious convulsions of expansion', but where is the alternative and where will it come from? Will anything come at all, or will it just be more of the same? As Jameson rightly shows, capital's 'evolution is (dialectically) at one with its breakdown, its expansion at one with its malfunction, its growth with its collapse'. Will it collapse? Who knows? But it can only expand so far, and as the world's resources continue to be plundered, an alternative to endless expansion needs to be found soon. Marx himself made these same points in 1867, but the system is still alive and functioning, albeit haphazardly. Who can outfox the endless metamorphoses of capitalism? Can it be outfoxed? Again, who knows? But one thing is certain: Marx's Capital is the best overview of the peculiar system we all inhabit. Whether you actually agree with him or not is a personal decision, but the book is an education in itself. And that, for all his tiny faults, is the line Jameson takes - Capital needs to be read.
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Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One
Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One by Fredric Jameson (Paperback - 7 Jan 2014)
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