Melting Away

Insofar as Reformation theology relies on this principle in interpreting Scripture, it remains bound to a postulate that is itself based on a dogma, namely that the Bible is itself a unity.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method

I have recently begun to read Jacobin Magazine, as a scout might enter the boundaries of an enemy encampment. A few days ago they posted a review of Marx’s Inferno, a book I had seen mentioned in my web community a few times. The central conceit of the book, apparently, is that Marx used the basic structure of Dante’s Inferno in the way he unfolded his arguments in the first volume of Capital.

The critic is charmed by this analysis, and thinks it’s pretty compelling, but believes the author makes a fundamental mistake:

My most serious objection is that Roberts isolates Volume 1 of Capital as a standalone text and seeks to interpret it by ignoring its relation to Marx’s other works. He does so on the shallow but convenient grounds that these other works were not prepared for publication and therefore not definitive. I suspect that the isolation of Volume 1 rests on the fact that the Inferno analogy simply doesn’t work with the content of the other two volumes of Capital.

The author responds:

[I]t is strange to say that you miss the point of Volume One if you read it on its own. Marx did, after all, publish Volume One, on its own. In fact, he did so three times – twice in German and once in French! He was preparing to publish it again – on its own – when he died. And he approved a Russian translation of Volume One – on its own – in 1872. Whatever aspiration he had for Volumes Two and Three, he clearly thought that Volume One could be read and understood “as a standalone treatise.”

He locates their difference of interpretation in their model of Marx. The critic views Marx as an “explainer” who is distilling his findings to a broader audience.

My Marx, by contrast, is an arguer. He doesn’t have a fully-worked out theory in his back pocket. Instead, he is oriented by a set of disagreements with the classical political economists, and with his fellow socialists, and is working out, in Capital, as full-fledged a response to those disagreements as he can. The literary form of his intervention is not a costume he dresses his theory up in; it is the form of the theory itself. His audience knows very well what he is talking about, because he is not descending upon them from the mountaintop, but responding to on-going arguments and controversies within the socialist and workers’ movements. The metaphorics of Marx’s text – the vampires and werewolves, Lazarus and Moses and the prophets, machine-gods and automata – are commonplaces. They show up again and again in socialist tracts from both sides of the Channel. What is unique to Marx is the use to which these commonplaces are put, and the elaborate interconnections among them.

One of the crucial questions in phenomenology and hermeneutics is what the relevant horizon of meaning is, within which some specific text is given its sense. The critic argues that Marx’s entire body of work, published and unpublished, trumps any one work standing on its own. The author, by contrast, argues that the public field into which volume 1 was published provides the most appropriate context.

“Horizon” refers to boundaries, but like the horizons of vision they do not bound all that could be seen. Marx’s other works are connected to yet others; ones that are directly mentioned in the texts as well as ones that were influential but did not get mentioned. And those texts, of course, were influenced by yet others, many of which Marx never read himself. And out and out.

The same holds for the disagreements and controversies he was responding to. If you had asked Marx to set out and draw a circle around the participants in these scholarly and political conversations, he could not have. He may have drawn it around the people he himself had read, or at some arbitrary point beyond them. But any participant would form a link to others, who formed links to others, going back to before any of the current participants were alive. If you look too hard, the “conversation” disappears into history itself.

The speech act theorist J. L. Austin described how the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife” have, beyond their locutionary effect or semantic meaning, a perlocutionary effect; they are “doing something” rather than just “saying something.” They are effecting a change in status, from single to married, with all that entails within the specific speech act community. But it can go wrong—what if it turns out the officiant was lying about being licensed? Or if the couple never filed for a wedding license? In order to know whether the speech act took effect, “it is important to take the speech-situation as a whole.”

But how can we do this? What is the whole speech-situation? Jacques Derrida replied that because context is boundless, we cannot possibly know enough of it to determine if we have learned all of the relevant context. The speech-situation is too large, the relevant details too hidden behind the horde of irrelevant ones. If you stare at the speech-situation too long, it too melts away, deconstructed without mercy.

What are we to do? If we need the whole to interpret the part, and the whole is either infinite or in any case too large for human comprehension, then can we interpret anything?

We can, but in doing so we are walking on air. Like Marx we do not have a “fully-worked out” framework in our “back pocket.” Nor is our horizon of meaning made up solely of the specific texts we have read and conversations we have had. The authors of the texts we have read, the interlocutors in the conversations we have had, and we ourselves, have what Gadamer referred to as “historically-effected consciousness.”

We bring our prejudices to the texts we read and the conversations we have. These prejudices are shaped most directly by “our place within a historical series of persons” with whom we have already interacted. But these people are, as mentioned, influenced in turn, and under scrutiny the influence ultimately melts into the many currents of history. The currents are fluid, but we, with our prejudices in this moment, are concrete. We take concrete actions, come to concrete understandings and establish concrete relations. We engage in concrete practices that form the basis of concrete communities.

Or so it feels to us, and so it must for us to carry on. We’re aware that there are peripheries to these communities, we may even be aware how vague and porous they are. But many imagine they could find reasonable boundaries, if they had the time and inclination to perform a systematic study of the matter. They are wrong, but that hardly matters. They recognize the game, they recognize and are recognized by the players, and that is enough—enough for books to be written and read and understood, enough for men and women to marry, “putting to rest all anxieties with respect to legitimacy, and ushering in new anxieties.” Enough to be active in the community of scholars, of gamers, of young mothers in the neighborhood.

Except for when people do attempt a systematic study. Our understanding of social space is implicit, similar to our understanding of how to navigate a familiar neighborhood without a map. But unlike physical geography, attempts to map our implicit social space influence the very thing under study. And so those theorists who approach the study of community with the prejudice that there is an essential, rational meaning of the word, and that each community is discrete and can be mapped, may end up doing a lot of damage along the way. That, in any case, is the story of the 20th century’s great tragedies, perpetuated by men who imagined themselves to be social engineers and scientists.

When you approach the question of community as an engineer or scientist, the experience of community melts away entirely. Cold, logical axioms are all that remain, taking the place of authentic understanding.

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