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Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Thank you all, Tony Couture, Jim Westrich, and Jerry Fresia, for your advice on  how to proceed in my Marx course.  Tony, my problem with your suggestion [which I take to be itself a complicated joke!] is that I would need to color code certain passages with all three colors, which would produce one godawful blur.

Jim, Value, Price, and Profit is essential to my story, because it proves that Marx could have written like Ricardo had he wanted to [contrary to what I have elsewhere called the Childhood Polio theory of his writing style, which has it that he contracted a nearly fatal case of Hegelism as a child and hence cannot be expected to write like an Englishman.]  I am tempted to start with Smith and Ricardo [which I did in my book Understanding Marx] except that I would then be weeks into the course before the students read a word by Marx, which seems to me not a good idea.  But NO idea is a good idea!

Jerry, in Moneybags Must Be So Lucky I actually introduce the idea of ironic discourse by talking about a Donne sonnet and then some analysis of the discourse of a lapsed Catholic, before I tackle Marx.

But I have made a perhaps fateful decision:  For once in my entire sixty-year-long teaching career, I am not going to pander to the students and try to explain difficult concepts to them by making references to Lady Gaga and the Kardashians.  God damn it, I am for once going to show them what a real intellectual sounds like.  When I talk about the relation between language and reality, I will refer them to Auerbach's Mimesis, and on the very first day, when they can still drop the course, I am going to warn them that I am doing this, and ask them to decide whether they want the real thing for once rather than a watered down, warmed up, debased simulacrum of the real thing.  If only one of them remains, then he or she will get the best  course ever taught at UNC Chapel Hill, and the rest can eat their hearts out.

All of which reminds me of the old joke about the guy who has a flat tire out in the sticks and has to walk five miles to a gas station for a jack.  As he walks, he has an increasingly angry interior dialogue with the station attendant who, he imagines, will not allow him to borrow the jack.  By the time he actually gets to the gas station he is steaming.  As he walks up to the pump, the smiling owner says, "Good evening, sir.  May I help you?" to which the man responds, snarling, "You can keep your damned jack!"

I think I better go and have a glass of Cabernet.


David Auerbach said...

There's a great version of that joke in one of the greatest movies ever made. I'll give a hint while I rummage on youtube for it: X marks the spot, as in Marx.

David Auerbach said...

Here we go:

Tony Couture said...

It is philosophically interesting, by the way, that you cannot dumb down Marx (I do not think of the Manifesto as dumbed down, though it was meant for a popular audience), or present a "Marxism for Dummies" account because the theory of Capital, its composition, and digging it out of history so that living people can understand it, how it was written, and its layers is very complex. A dummy just could not do the job, it has to be real Marx (translated into the idioms of analytical Marxism perhaps).

I bought a used book recently (called The Poverty of Liberalism) that the previous reader had marked with a variety of colored markers in the margin to highlight. The colors appeared random, not coded however.

I am still hoping for a podcast of your last words on Marx, and to continue my campaign I have to tell you that Leo Strauss has been resurrected and his lectures at Chicago are now available free online (Brian Leiter had a link a few months ago)--here is the link:

If Leo Strauss is being broadcast again like this, wouldn't some free Marx lectures help future generations recover from this academic resurrection?

Chris said...

You're doing the right thing. Secondary sources never - ever! - capture what Marx is saying correctly. Primary sources only. Good job!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The thought of Leo Strauss returning, zombie like, is enough to encourage me. I am still brooding on it.

Tony Couture said...

Another bold suggestion: listen to Leo Strauss's 1960 lectures on Marx, and set out exactly what you would say differently about the exoteric vs esoteric (whatever his jargon is) reading of Marx, etc....this thought experiment might be a place to start:

Marx, spring quarter 1960.

"Seminar in Political Philosophy: Karl Marx" (with Joseph Cropsey) had 16 sessions for which there are audio files for 15 sessions. Readings include Capital, German Ideology, and Communist Manifesto.

How is your reading of Marx colored by the context of the (dominant?) Straussian reception (=cold, hostile, and dismissive) of Marx in America? How many Americans would say that Capital is the most important political philosophy book yet written. Less than 1%?

These Leo Strauss recordings sound like they were made in a church, not sure if Rorty was at the Marx lecture, but maybe that was what started Rorty off the path set for him by his socialist parents (James Rorty).

I must also say that you must start growing a wild prophet beard like Marx to act your part, and maybe Spike Lee could be asked to produce a short video version of your course for Public TV as a service to the oppressed TV watchers of America, but it would have to be low budget like that Blair witch project 1999 movie that went viral years ago, not Sandel on the gilded stage. Perhaps if Spike Lee watched Sandel's course on justice, he might get mad enough about what he does not talk about to say, fight the power once again, Michael Moore will not have the last word on Marx in America! I dream in technicolour but this is how r adical ideas go mainstream, through the new cheap technologies .

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Oh, I like the Spike Lee idea.

Btw, rereading your post on humming a few bars, I was wondering whether we have to worry about you going dialectical on us?

Chris said...

I don't understand the desire to have students read something other than Marx in order to 'get Marx'. Especially if someone is TEACHING the class (perhaps they would need other texts if it was an autodidact study, but it isn't). We wouldn't do this with Plato, Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, or even Kant (whose writing has to be as difficult as Marx's, no?). Moreover, many of the suggested supplementary readings are notoriously controversial and quite possibly outright bad (e.g., Berlin's book...). If there's so much contesting going on about passages in Marx, why have students read a secondary source that takes a side on an issue they don't yet understand, instead of having them read the actual passage, and make up their own minds?

I've had students read the essay on alienation, and while they struggle with it, they ultimately get it. And I conducted a reading group on Vol I of Capital, and again, while everyone struggled with it, with good guidance and teaching, everyone (mostly) got it. Secondary materials were not only not necessary, but could very well undermine 1) What Marx is trying to say, and 2) One's ability to wrestle with what Marx is trying to say.

(this post is not directed at anyone in particular).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I quite agree, Chris. Indeed, I feel that way about almost everything. Much better to read the original than someomne else's take on it, even if that someone is Aristotle writing about Plato! [But of course then you also want to know what Aristotle has to say, since it is a window on his thought, not Plato's.] I will assign my two books because that will enable students to get a second look at what I will be saying in class, but of course they will read all of Volume One [or at least I hope they will] and some other things as well -- the essay on alienated labor, the Manifesto, etc.

Chris said...

Sounds like a great course than.

And I don't mean to disparage all the secondary literature, I just happen to want to disparage most of it :)

I really loved Andrew Collier's book on Marx: A Beginner's Guide, but that's because we are agree on everything!