Infernal Machines, Unnatural Miracles
By David Winters
Even the title of the work gets put to work; gets worked out at several levels. Jameson’s book represents Marx’s book, Capital, itself written to represent capital, the thing in itself (a thing that also ‘represents’ itself). Both books, then, are chiefly concerned with representation – a problem that, as Jameson says, ‘today eats away at all the established disciplines like a virus.’ Nor will the virus ever be stopped; instead, its spread will be accelerated. Jameson wants to walk us through a hall of mirrors; to train our eyes on what makes Capital (and capital) ‘unrepresentable’ and, accordingly, ‘inexhaustible.’
To do so will be to read Capital as if it were ‘a series of riddles, of mysteries or paradoxes,’ of problems not simply solved but ‘preserved’ within their solutions. In other words, the book will be read on literary terms, which turn out to be the terms it proposes. It’s a matter of tracing its figures and tropes, tragic and comic turns, chained metamorphoses. Literary critics investigate ambiguities, which for now aren’t tied up but prised open, moved into, inhabited. That’s what it takes to mock up a working model of capital. In short, Jameson has to uphold what one could call, after Blanchot, the ‘open violence of the work’ – or rather its concurrent closure and openness, which are also those of its object.
So, the drama of capital is played out at the level of form throughout Marx’s text. The book then gets read as an attempt to render a concept. If you listen to the logic of the work, you learn of the system the work represents. One way that Capital echoes its namesake is its style of staying forever in process, ‘finished and unfinished all at once.’ It is, as someone said of Musil’s masterpiece, ‘interminable.’ Like any great novel, it reveals new readings of itself over time, changes alongside the world it describes. Capitalism, as Jameson points out, was itself what enabled the book to be written. True to form, capital ‘grounds the truth claims of Marxism.’ This is why the book’s horizons fall in line with those of the thing it critiques. It needs to achieve an identical resonance.
If Capital carries this off, what does it tell us of capital? The latter, says Jameson, is an ‘unnatural miracle,’ something impossible, falsely fixed up as the only thing possible. The paradox is how and why the system thrives on failure, cashing out its contradictions in rounds of uprooted renewal. (For those in the know, Marshall Berman remains the best expositor of poetic ‘creative destruction.’) For Jameson, it’s ‘an infernal machine, constantly breaking down, repairing itself only by the laborious convulsions of expansion.’ What’s worse, it rests on a bedrock of real experience rendered invalid, annulled: the unlived life of ‘labour, fatigue, absorption of human time, perpetual exclusion from a space that is never mine.’
That is to say, commodities cancel out the life of what went into them. What’s at stake here is history, repackaged for workers in terms of ‘their helplessness in the face of what they have made.’ This is the peak of Jameson’s reading – his suggestion that ‘each mode of production secretes its own temporality,’ and that capital conjures up a kind of timeless time. Specifically, production ‘extinguishes’ (from Marx’s auslöchen) not only the time of labour, but time as such. ‘Capitalist temporality’ proceeds through a play of negation and extinction, its repressions of the past too soon overwritten even to count as amnesia. Just as objects bought and sold slough off the signs of what gave rise to them, so a lifetime can’t amount to what a life once was.
More specifically still, lifetimes are lost in the ceaseless repeat of working days and weeks. Here, Jameson pinpoints a temporal paradox: the worker is paid at the end of his week, thus producing ‘the fund out of which he himself is paid.’ Week after week, this is the way that capital covers its tracks, erasing its previous life as labour – foreclosing its origins; standing apart from what made it possible. Soon there’s no end, no beginning, only an ‘eternal virginity’ in which repetition is everything. Beckett: ‘habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.’ The age has erased what remains of a past that doesn’t bear out what it says of itself. In front of us, nothing but ‘blocked futurity.’ Behind: a history spent as its own remainder; the lengthening shadow of something that should have been.
What can we learn from a reading of Capital? In a way, Jameson claims, it’s a book that ‘has no political conclusions.’ What then can we make of it? The genius of Jameson’s account is its reading of Marx through the lens of the current conjuncture. Lapsing neither into falsely optimistic voluntarism, nor overdetermined fatalism, it stakes out a Marxism closely committed to untying the knots of our time. In this respect, its central message is simple: ‘Capital is not a book about politics: it is a book about unemployment.’ Production produces ‘an ever enlarging reserve of the unemployed, now on a global scale.’ The current crisis thus confirms the law of ‘the identity of productivity and misery,’ or of immiseration – the creation of global poverty as an inevitable yet unrecoverable result of systemic expansion. Those broken byproducts of globalisation – the lost populations of fragile or ‘failed’ states – are to be redescribed, represented again in the terms of their exploitation. For Jameson, all of this points to a newly emergent form of world unemployment. To grasp this, gauge it, represent it, will be the measure of Marxism’s power today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Winters writes fiction and criticism. He is a co-editor at 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 24th, 2011.