Week 3: the social hieroglyphic

Marx and Engels, in “Idealism and Materialism”, put into stark relief the difference between an idealist and materialist conceptions of history. Or, articulated differently, between transcendence and immanence. Instead of viewing history in terms of epochs that are each ruled by an overarching conceptual scheme, which influences the actions of individuals; Marx and Engels begin with the individual: “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals” (115; emphasis added). Idealist conceptions of social history render the individual inert [or “dead facts” (118)]; whereas, M&E focus on the ways in which individuals “produc[e] their means of subsistence” (116) by which they “are indirectly producing their actual material life” (116). Living and life are terms that appear time and time again in their work and, consequently, evidences a real concern for the “mode of life” of individuals (116; emphasis original). The individual is thus defined by their relationship to the natural world and how they produce their mode of life.

Consciousness, for M&E, is not a transcendental or “pure” (120) but comes from “need” or the “necessity of intercourse with other men” (120). Here we can see the emergence of the social relation and social force as a means for understanding the subject. Moreover, M&E introduce the importance of not situating the subject within a “world-historical” (125; emphasis original) frame but focusing on local interactions as determining the subject. It seems that M&E’s historical method can easily be transported into an anthropological frame, one that focuses on the local (exchange) relations between individuals and seeks to study society in terms of its material reality.

Keeping an ethnographic practice in mind, I want to turn the second Marx piece we read this week. In this section of Capital, Mark introduces the idea that once materials, through the process of production, become commodities, they “change into a thing which transcends sensousness” (163). Marx explains that there is something “mystical” (164) in commodities that exceed its use-value or the value accorded to them as a measure of “human labour-power” (164). The fetishistic nature of the commodity thus arises when individuals believe that commodities “are worth something in themselves” (Layton,11) which appear as “autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race” (Marx, 165). As a result, commodities become removed from the labour-power and labour-time that went into producing them; value as it is understood as some mystical force, “transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic” (167; emphasis added). It is seems that, if I turn to Malinowski, it becomes evident that the ethnographer seeks to increasingly study and decipher the local relations that construction the social hieroglyphic as opposed to using an overarching social framework (as we have seen with some of the earlier readings) to determine individual relations. This is particularly clear when, as with Malinowski, what is being studied is a local form of exchange.

This week I would like to discuss “life” and “modes of living”: what kind of life are Marx and Engels referring to? Also, there are some connections between life, labour and power that I think will become important for our later discussions on bio-power.

On a side note: I also want to pick up some threads from last week, specifically: time. This week, I discuss history but I do not really discuss time, the only mention of it is the concept of ‘labour-time’, which indicates time is understood in relation to production and as a unit. Last week, we talked about anachronistic time and multiple overlapping temporalities in relation to the Morgan and the Qureshi pieces. The first question I want to address is: what role does time play in the Malinoski text (if any role at all) and, also, how can we think about material history and temporalit(ies)?

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One Response to Week 3: the social hieroglyphic

  1. juliagw says:

    Awesome!!! Can’t wait to discuss this tomorrow. Sorry I posted so late tonight.

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