Universal Translator

Friday, December 2, 2011

Reading Marx - Part I

I have a very good friend, for whom I care very much.  She left me about fifteen years ago.  Okay, that’s not exactly accurate . . . she left Miami, where I just happened to be living at the time, and moved to California, and I unjustifiably decided to take her move personally.  But we kept in touch after she left and she shared with me the new passion she was discovering for Tibetan Buddhism, which she encountered for the very first time when she moved Out West. 

Lest you think she is a dilettante, Tibetan Buddhism turned out to have been the very key for which she always had been looking.  In the years since she left me Miami, she has immersed herself in the Dharma, and because she is meticulous and because nothing less than a perfect understanding will do for her, she has learned to read, write and speak Tibetan so that she may better understand the sutras she studies.  She has studied in India and Nepal, and has lived for months in Eastern monasteries practicing the Dharma.  She has met and once got to introduce on stage His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a Teaching in San Francisco.  And she is extremely happy.

And, of course . . . because she was learning about Tibetan Buddhism, shortly after she moved to California I decided I needed to learn about it too.  (My friend is very important to me.)

Or, at least, I read a lot of books about it, attended a few presentations given by visiting monks, and – once – I flew out to California to join her in a weekend-long meditation retreat in the Northern California mountains.  It really was a very interesting, fascinating weekend and directly led to me trekking around the Himalayas about a year and a half later in what turned out to be – so far at least – the best foreign travel/adventure of my life.

But more than anything else, reading about and thinking about and taking seriously a new way of understanding myself and my relationship with The World opened me up to making connections and to new ideas that I would not have been able to conceive of before.

Probably none of them are terribly original ideas.  I remember once speaking with my friend and telling her that the more I examined my past, thought of my future, and looked at the world around me and my connection to it, the more I realized that the “I” examining all of this is very much a confluence of events, a particular node in a pattern of relationships.  “We all insist on thinking of ourselves as nouns,” I told her, “but we’re not.  We’re verbs.”

Years later I would discover that decades earlier Buckminster Fuller had expressed very much the same thought in almost identical language – in fact, I believe it was the title of one of his books.  So, y’know . . . nobody should ever look to me for any truly original insight.

And for the record . . . I am not a Tibetan Buddhist, nor any kind of Buddhist, nor a subscriber to any particular kind of belief system at all.  If I believe in anything I believe in not believing.  My conception of God, the Universe and Everything – of Reality – is of a thing so vast that even to attempt to describe, define or nail it down is to run a fool’s errand.  I approach every belief system with the understanding that it is necessarily incomplete, but that if approached with a light heart it should also be relatively harmless and might possibly even shine a ray of illumination on a very, very tiny piece of whatever the Really Big Picture could actually be.

* * *

That, at least, is how I’m approaching David Harvey’s on-line lecture series Reading Marx’s Capital.  I sat through the first lecture (1:51 hours long) yesterday and today, and my plan is to watch a lecture, read the material, and then watch the lecture again.  So now I’ve got about 80 pages of Das Kapital to get through (and even Harvey admits that the first three chapters are the worst), and then I’ve got to watch the lecture all over again.

But, for me, I think this is how it has to be.  I need a guide to lead me through this stuff, so I want Harvey out in front of me, blazing the trail and telling me where to mind my step.  On the other hand, I want to walk the course myself.  And then again I want to hear described – after I’ve gone through it – the same trail, but now with the experience of having hiked it once before.

Already I can see that there is a lot about the book that I naturally find appealing.  In the first lecture, Harvey makes clear his decades-long love affair with the tome, stressing that it is not an economic polemic or even necessarily a challenge to capitalism, but more an examination of what the capitalist system is and how it works and why it works.  Harvey alludes to the fact that Marx was thrilled with the gothic horror of his day – that he was a fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example – and Harvey points out where Marx speaks of “phantoms” and warns us that we might meet “werewolves” in the reading.

And Harvey points out that Marx wrote the damned thing with the understanding that a great deal of what he had to say would not need to have been spelled out because – as a f’rinstance – readers would already be familiar with Ricardo, and Goethe, and Balzac, and a host of other European writers with whom I am stunningly unfamiliar.

Harvey does his best to make Kapital sound interesting and intriguing, and it obviously pains him to have to admit to his class that the first three chapters are going to be a difficult slog.  Great.  But having done no more than watch the first lecture, and without having cracked open the book yet myself, I already have two observations – one positive, one negative.

The Positive Observation – as Harvey acknowledges, Marx could have begun his prizing open of capitalism from any of a number of different points, but he chose to begin by discussing “commodities” in Chapter 1.  The term “commodity” as used by Marx simply means a good to be bought or sold.  Marx uses the idea of the commodity to introduce “use value” (the value owning and using the commodity gives one), “exchange value” (the value of the commodity measured in exchange for something else), and “Value” (the inherent value of the commodity, of which use value is only its representation). 

“Value,” in turn, relies to a certain extent upon “use value,” but the two concepts are not identical.  Harvey makes a point of stressing that whereas most formal systems of thought created to understand how things work presuppose causal relationships (A causes B causes C, etc.), Marx’s differing concepts of “value” are not causally connected.  Rather, they arise together, in concert, and cannot exist one without the other.

I’ll admit, I don’t really understand yet what Marx means by his differing ideas of “value,” but the imagining of different conceptual measurements that do not exist without each other, that arise together or not at all, did strike me as a fairly Buddhist understanding of how things in the Real World actually come into being.  I’m looking forward, actually, to slogging through this stuff and then re-watching this first lecture to get a better handle on exactly what it is Marx and Harvey are talking about.

The Negative Observation – Remember how I said that I believe in disbelief?  One of the things that annoys me about a lot of belief systems is that they promise revelation but purposefully make themselves vague and opaque.  Novitiates are invited to participate in the “learning of Mysteries” and then, when these novitiates finally “understand” these Mysteries, they all think they’ve achieved Truth.

I’m sorry, but that has always struck me nothing more than a trick of psychology – and I already got a whiff of it listening to that first lecture.  I understand that Marx is presenting a way of thinking that is different than what one normally experiences, and that this may make what it is he has to say difficult to understand.   But I am a little dubious of somebody who could not be bothered to clearly differentiate his terms.  Already there are way too many different “values” being discussed, and it is easy to get lost.

And I’ll admit, I’m as susceptible to this stuff as anybody else.  While I was listening to Harvey speak and trying to follow along, once or twice I was getting a glimmer of what I think it is he was trying to get across about Marx, and when that happened I experienced a little frisson of satisfaction, like I was accomplishing something.

And then I realized what I was doing, and pulled myself up short.

I think it is all too easy to present a puzzle to people and promise them that they will know The Truth if only they can solve the puzzle.  If the puzzle is complicated enough, by the time the puzzler solves it he will have conflated the puzzle’s solution with “The Truth” and believe that he has achieved an actual revelation.  But he hasn’t . . . he’s just solved the puzzle.

I kind of already feel that this is what Marx might be doing.  I worry that if I can manage to piece together what it is he is trying to say then I will feel so satisfied with myself for having figured out his message that I might neglect to wonder whether that message makes any sense.

One should always beware of truth-tellers who need to be interpreted.  The Oracle of Delphi almost never gave useful advice.

* * *

But, what the hell, this whole thing should be interesting.  I’m hoping to keep a running commentary on the lectures as I go through them, and I’ll be posting those commentaries here.  I guess we’ll see how it goes.

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