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Tuesday, February 19, 2013


I have now carried my exposition, analysis, and reconstruction of Marx's economic theories as far as I shall in this narrative.  Needless to say, there is a vast amount more to say, and about some of it I have comments, observations, and mathematical reconstructions that are of some interest, but I cannot go into all of that here, so those of you who wish to follow along may consult my book, Understanding Marx.
I began with a puzzle:  Why does Marx write in a style utterly unlike that of any other economist, historian, or sociologist who has ever lived?  I suggested that he chose his unorthodox literary style because he thought that it was required in order for him to capture successfully on the page his extraordinarily complex and many-layered understanding of the reality of capitalist society.  After thirteen Parts of this narration, I still have not explained what I mean by that claim.  My thesis is, to put it as simply as possible, that in order to describe some reality successfully, an author must have syntactical and rhetorical devices complex enough to mirror the complexity of the reality he or she seeks to describe.  For those of you who cannot get enough of my writing [Lord, let there be at least one person who fits this description!], you can find some of these ideas expanded in a different context in my essay, Narrative Time, available at

Let me illustrate this idea of the relation between language and reality, which is central to my reading of Marx, with a single example from the poetry of John Donne.  Here is Donne's famous poem, "Good-Friday, 1613, Riding Westward." 

Let man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th' intelligence that moves, devotion is;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl'd by it.
Hence is't, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul's form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul's, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg'd and torn?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God's partner here, and furnish'd thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom'd us?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They're present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and Thou look'st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face.
Look at lines eleven through fourteen, which I have highlighted.  Donne here draws the parallel, familiar to his audience, between the sun, which rises each day in the east, and God's Son, who was crucified in the east on this day, Good Friday.  As the sun, by going down, plunges the world into night, so God's Son went down -- died -- but then rose again in the Resurrection.  His going down did endless day beget, for it gave to us the hope of salvation and eternal life, an endless day with no night to bring it to a close.

Donne's metaphors and similes are no mere poet's tricks to decorate a line, acutezze, as the Renaissance rhetorician Emanuele Tesauro called them,  They are intended as a representation of the objective structure of the universe.  For, as Donne says in his Devotions on Emergent Occasions, "My God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say, a  literall God ... but thou art also a figurative God, a metaphoricall God too ...Neither art thou thus a figurative, a Metaphoricall God, in thy word only, but in thy workes too."  According to Donne, God built metaphors into His creation.  The poet may invent a parallel between the moon, which shines by the reflected light of the sun, and the lover, who glows in the reflected light of his beloved's beauty.  But the poet does not invent the proportionality between the rising of the sun in the east and the Resurrection of God's Son in Jerusalem.  That parallel has been built into the universe by the Creator God.  Hence, Donne must use metaphor in his poems if he is to capture the true structure of creation.  The rhetorical tropes at his disposal are the subjective correlate of the object of his poem.

Marx was an atheist, and hence he would have rejected the suggestion that there are metaphorical relationships between the sun and the moon, day and night.  But his object was society, not nature, and capitalist society, he believed, is objectively mystified.  Any effort by him to represent social reality accurately would therefore have to employ a language adequate to the complexity of that reality.  That is to say, a literal description of capitalist society cannot possibly capture its true structure, because capitalist society has built into it mystifications -- analogous to the metaphors that Donne's God has built into the solar system -- that are essential to what it is.  Capitalism is an economic system built on, and having built into it, misrepresentations, falsifications, mysteries, without which it could not exist as capitalism.  Hence the mathematical models used by the Sraffians and mathematical Marxists cannot correctly represent capitalism as it really is.

It is useful here to remind ourselves of Erich Auerbach's great classic work, Mimesis.  In the middle chapters, Auerbach, who was a specialist in medieval Romance languages and literatures, shows us the stark simplicity of the motivations of the actors in the Chanson de Roland, which is all that the early French can capture with its relative paucity of syntactic devices.  But by the time of the writing of the Decameron, Auerbach teaches us, the rich supple syntactic devices of Renaissance Italian permitted Boccaccio to capture two or even three points of view in a single sentence, thus making possible some of the great comic scenes of that classic.

Now, the literary trope central to Marx's undertaking is irony.  Irony is a mode of discourse that employs an utterance with a double meaning, to which correspond two audiences.  The first, or superficial, audience understands only the apparent or superficial meaning, and thinks, wrongly, that it has understood the communication entire.  The second, or real, audience understands both meanings [irony is thus distinct from ambiguity] and understands as well that the first audience has misunderstood the utterance.  Subjectively, irony is thus a private joke between the speaker and the real audience at the expense of the superficial audience, which explains the feeling of shared superiority engendered by the irony.  Objectively, irony is the appropriate trope to capture the distinction between social appearance and reality.

One silly example, taken from an early edition of my textbook, About Philosophy, will illustrate the nature of ironic communication.  A young woman from a strait-laced proper family with old-fashioned views about unmarried women and sexuality is asked out on a date by a young man with whom she is secretly having an affair.  When the young man comes to pick up the young woman at her home, he finds her mother at the door, looking rather forbidding.  The mother tells her daughter that she is to be home by ten, not a moment later.  As the couple are leaving, the mother calls after the daughter, "You be a good girl, do you hear?", meaning, of course, no hanky-panky.  The couple go not to the movie they have said they will be attending but to the young man's apartment, where they make love.  Promptly at ten, the young man brings the young woman home, and sure enough, finds the mother waiting, arms crossed and face set in a grim stare.  "Were you a good girl?" she asks her daughter.  The young man answers for her, saying, "Oh yes, she was good.  She was very good."

The young man has engaged in ironic communication.  The apparent audience is the mother, the real audience is the young woman.  The apparent meaning is "Your daughter did not engage in any activity that you would consider inappropriate."  The real meaning is, "You were really hot tonight."  The mother hears only the apparent meaning, which she mistakenly thinks is the real meaning.  The daughter hears both meanings, and is both flattered by the compliment and amused by the joke that she and her young man are sharing, unbeknownst to the mother.

Tomorrow, I shall turn a trifle more serious.


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