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Saturday, April 25, 2015

ICELAND, TRANSPARENCY, AND LANGUAGE [reposted from June 9, 2007]

Last Sunday, Susie and I arrived in Iceland, en route to Paris, for a three day visit with Pall Skulason and Ardur Birgitsdottir. Pall is a philosopher, and the former Rector of the University of Iceland. He and I met through a common interest in the philosophy of education, and Susie and I have spent time with Pall and Ardur in Paris and in Metz. The stopover in Iceland was arranged so that I could give a talk at the University on "The Completion of Kant's Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre." [don't ask.]

Tuesday was devoted to a sightseeing ride across the Icelandic countryside -- very bleak, very beautiful, enlivened by a visit t0 an extraordinary waterfall. It rained on and off, and the wind was at gale force, so we spent a good deal of time in the car rather than wandering about on foot.

During one drive, Pall said a series of things about the difficulty but also the virtue of trying to write philosophy in Icelandic -- things that connected up with remarks he had made about the history of Iceland and his experience of it. These remarks triggered in me a series of thoughts related to the [as yet unwritten] third volume of the trilogy I planned long ago on the thought of Karl Marx. The first two volumes have been published -- Understanding Marx, an exposition of the mathematical foundations of Marx's economic theories, and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, a reflection on the literary and philosophical significance of the first ten chapters of Das Kapital. The third volume, tentatively titled The Mystification of the Capitalist World, is intended to unite the mathematical economics and the literary analysis of the first two volumes with a socological and philosophical explication of capitalism, in order to illuminate the way in which capitalism's mystifications defeat our efforts to create a more humane and just society.

The purpose of this post is to try to put down in coherent form the thoughts triggered by Pall's extrordinarily interesting observations about Icelandic history, the Icelandic language, and the unique experience of trying to do philosophy in Icelandic. Whatever there is of interest in these remarks is owed directly to him.

All of this began the day before, during a visit to Iceland's national museum. Pall observed that Icelandic is a very ancient language pretty much unchanged by time -- a fact that he demonstrated by reading without difficulty a 9th or 10th century text exhibited at the museum. He observed that Iceland's history is transparent [his term]. Its founding can be traced to a known date in the 10th century [I may have some of this wrong, for which I ask Pall's forgiveness, but the details are not important], and since the population is very homogeneous, most Icelanders can trace their lineage back many centuries. The origins of the country do not recede into the mists of legend, as do those of France, England, or Germany. I remarked that Americans make the same claim, but that their inability to confront the fact of slavery makes their story of origins mythical and mystified. [I have explored all of this at length in Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, the book I published several years ago about my experiences as a White man in an Afro-American Studies department.]

The next day, as we drove, Pall talked about the challenges posed by his attempt to write philosophy in Icelandic. The problem is that Icelandic lacks the words for many of the key philosophical terms that play so large a role in European philosophy, especially of the past two centuries. One solution to this, which he rejects, even though most of his colleagues adopt it, is simply to bring a number of loan words into Icelandic, taking them for the most part from the German, but also from the French. Now, Icelandic, as Pall explained, is a transparent language. Because it is pure, exhibiting very little in the way of influences from other langages, and really tracing itself back to a proto-Indo-European, when a native Icelandic speaker uses an Icelandic word, he or she can see immediately and without any obscurity exactly what its roots are, and what their original meanings are [since they continue to have those meanings in modern Icelandic.]

This is, when you think about it, an extraordinary fact. If a word used for philosopical purposes is derived via a metaphor from some common root, then the Icelandic ear hears that fact immediately. Since I am the world's worst linguist, I cannot give very good examples of this, but here is one. The German word for "object" is "gegenstand." Now, gegenstand literally means "standing [over] against," which, if I am not totally mistaken, is not far from the root meanings of the Latin words from which "object" is derived.

Imagine, if you will, trying to write philosophy using only words that carry their metaphorical origins, as it were, on their sleeves. I observed that the effort, which was essentially what Pall was attempting by writing philosophy using only Icelandic words, would force you to think through exactly what you were trying to say, and it would stop you from writing something that realy was meaningless but sounded good, because it was expressed in words whose origins were obscured both from the writer and from the reader. [Something like "In the Post-Modern world, the de-centered self interogates meaning by (dis)joining ego and other."]

What does all this have to do with capitalism, exploitation, and the price of gas? Well, if Marx is right [see Moneybags], the exploitative nature of capitalist economic relations is concealed from us, for the most part, by the opacity of the wage-labor relationship and the misrepresentation of commodities as quanta of objective value. Seeing through that mystification to what is really going on, Marx thought, requires not only a critique of economic theory and an unillusioned description of the sphere of production [pace Capital chapter 10] but also a clear-eyed examination of the language with which we talk about our work, commodities, profit, and a society that rests on them.

Perhaps it requires that we try to talk about our own world, as Pall is trying to do philosophy in Icelandic, in a way that makes all the metaphors manifest, all the dissimulations apparent, and all the ideological rationalizations so transparent that they immediately lose their force. The central task, for a radical critic like me, is to speak as much as possible in that fashion, as a way of combating the dominant mystifications of the public discourse of our society.

Just a thought.


classtruggle said...

"Perhaps it requires that we try to talk about our own world, as Pall is trying to do philosophy in Icelandic, in a way that makes all the metaphors manifest, all the dissimulations apparent, and all the ideological rationalizations so transparent that they immediately lose their force."

Through the use of language we can make certain things more manifest, transparent, etc. but not sure if this will result in them ‘losing their force’. Depends on what you mean by that. The distinction between reality and ideology is a bit blurry, I feel. But it’s probably helpful to define ideology here. I don’t mean false consciousness when I say ideology. I would define ideology as the presentation of the appearance of phenomena as if it were essential or true phenomena.

‘They are categories for the forms of appearance of essential relations...that in their appearance things are often presented in an inverted way is something fairly familiar in every science apart from political economy” (Vol I, Fowkes ed., p.677).

'The forms of appearance are reproduced directly and spontaneously, as current and usual modes of thought; the essential relation must first be discovered by science. Classical political economy stumbles approximately onto the true state of affairs, but without consciously formulating it. It is unable to do this as long as it stays within its bourgeois skin.’ (p.682)

The fetishism that ‘attaches itself’ to commodities, for example, expresses an actual situation i.e. in a capitalist mode of production it is really only through the exchange of commodities that social relations between people and producers exists. So having knowledge of Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism does give one insight into the essential relation behind economic transactions but doesn’t mean fetishism is purely a mistake or a product of the imagination or that other people falsely assign properties to the products of labour and fail to see that in ‘reality’ social relations lie behind the relationship between things. Because if this was the case then this ideology/phenomenon must disappear once the real conditions behind commodity fetishism have been explained.

Marx did, however, try to point that the objectivity of value appears to be a ‘self evident and nature imposed necessity’ under capitalism (Capital Vol. I, p.175 Fowkes ed) and more importantly, his critique makes it clear that a society without the rule of value operating over human beings is possible.

Great post Professor Wolff!

classtruggle said...

In case you're interested, Nicole Pepperell (whose blog 'uncomfortable science' I used to follow) wrote a dissertation that touches on some of the literary devices and features found within Capital.

Here's the abstract:

"In this work, I present a new interpretation of the first six chapters of the first volume of Marx’s Capital, relying on four major interpretive strategies. First, I foreground the anthropological character of Marx’s argument, arguing that Marx’s goal is to grasp the complex array of historically specific practices through which particular dimensions of our
social experience are produced. Second, I translate some of Marx’s Hegelian language into the more contemporary vocabulary of emergence, in order to make more visible why
Marx believes that the same set of social practices are capable of generating divergent – and even contradictory – potentials for future social development. Third, I pay close attention to “literary” features within Capital – voice and tone, character, dramatic structure, and plot – in order to bring to light the often-parodic, self deconstructing character of the text. Finally, I explore how Marx’s pervasive theatrical metaphors enable him to link forms of subjectivity to forms of objectivity in a distinctively non-reductive way, by understanding forms of subjectivity in terms of performative stances that arise in the course of carrying out practical activities that also generate specific kinds of impacts on other people and on nonhuman nature.

In a narrow sense, this work is written as an intervention in Marxology, aimed at providing a fresh interpretation of Marx’s major published work. On this level, the most important argumentative thread is the one that demonstrates how Capital can be read as
a self-deconstructing text, which initially deploys positions that should be understood as
parodic re-enactments of political economic discourses, rather than as forms of argument Marx endorses. Where this parodic, self-deconstructive character is not recognised, interpreters take at face value, and therefore attribute to Marx, positions he is attempting to criticise. By unpacking Capital’s complex textual strategy in some detail in this work, I attempt to show how Capital holds up for critique a number of such
positions, including the notions that commodities are “external objects”, that value is a substantialist category, and that capital possesses, in reality, “ideal” qualities similar to those Hegel attributes to the Geist.

In a broader sense, this work operates as an intervention into critical social theory, aimed at leveraging the analysis of Marx’s work to suggest new ways to think nonreductively about capitalism and possibilities for its transformation, the relationship between social forms of subjectivity and objectivity, and how to capture the complex and
multifaceted character of social experience in our theoretical categories. On this level, the
most important argumentative threads are those centred on the anthropological emphasis of Marx’s argument, the emergent character of “supersensible” categories like
value, abstract labour, and capital, and the “theatrical” character of social practices, understood to include both performative stances (forms of subjectivity) and consequences for other humans and for nonhuman nature (forms of objectivity). Each of these layers of Marx’s argument, as I explore below, offers productive possibilities for
creative appropriation and adaptation by critical social theory today."

And here's a link to a good review of her dissertation by Chris Wright on his blog how sickly seem all growing things: