It’s been like a week of nonstop gross weather and I am starting to feel the burn, of Covid life I guess. The burn of the onrushing online semester I deeply dread; the burn of isolation from humanity; the burn of constant low-grade anxiety and all that. I haven’t been sleeping well. When you become middle aged “not getting a full night’s sleep” is like “drinking poison” or “letting a man hit you with a novelty fairgrounds hammer for ten straight minutes” or something. I saw a tweet where someone said once you’re over 30 pulling an all nighter would mean your certain death and I definitely think that is factually true.
Anyway but, I have been having such a great reading journey these recent months. I actually set myself the task of using this time to read Capital Vol. 1 cover to cover, and I am doing it! I just got to Part 7 (709 pages in) and this is now truly the home stretch (only 240 pages left to go). It’s been really exhilarating. One tries to read Capital periodically but it presents so many barriers. Its fantastical length of course is intimidating–you can’t really imagine casually carrying it around and cracking it open at a bar or something, it’s more like a Torah you study in a dedicated space–but also it’s so complex and layered, by intention, but then also the intervening couple hundred years-ish since he wrote it have added more layers you have to first identify and learn about, like about history and stuff, and about his method.
It’s just an outrageous book. I’m also reading David Harvey’s companion book which is really fun because you read a chapter in Marx, then you go read the companion chapter in Harvey, and sometimes Harvey literally is like “chapters 19-22 are boring and the writing is bad” and you’re like great I’ll skim those, thanks for the tip. He also says you can’t understand Capital without understanding Marx’s critical-theoretical method, but Marx never wrote anything explaining his method, and in fact the best explanation of his method is simply the entirety of Capital, which you can’t read without understanding his method. Then Harvey is like “sorry!” He’s also great because he points out all the ramifications of this or that theory given what we’ve seen happen since the 1860s in the world, like what would Marx have said about this or that facet of today’s world, and see how this or that aspect of his theory is borne out or disproven given what’s actually happened since he wrote this crazy book.
Harvey also notes that “Marx himself would never have gotten tenure at a university in any discipline,” which makes the whole thing so much more compelling and interesting to me. The point being, this is a VERY STRANGE BOOK. I never understood how unusual it is until just now, actually reading it straight through. It incorporates everything into this deeply entangled and nuanced and complex web in an effort to understand not just how capitalism literally works but also its effects on/in life, history, the family, how we think and feel. So he interweaves long critical exegeses of political economists’ work with what we might call “primary source” material–reports from factory inspectors and doctors, reports from people who wrote factual descriptions of the condition of the working class in 1830s London, reports from Engels on how factories function etc.–but then also interspersed with extremely enlightening and apropos quotes from Goethe, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Benjamin Franklin etc. You can’t know it completely if you approach it only with your own disciplinary perspective and I LOVE THAT. Harvey: “you have, in short, to struggle mightily to determine what he is saying beyond what you can easily understand by way of your particular disciplinary apparatus, your own intellectual formation and, even more important, your own experiential history.” So reading it isn’t just like “learning what Marx thought about x or y,” it’s also like, “struggling to clearly see what *I* think about x or y and how the shapes of those thoughts create a frame within which I slot everything I learn” and then “trying to break out of that frame a little bit in various ways.” You read Capital to learn about capitalism but also to learn about the dialectical method itself, which you can only learn by experiencing it. And after awhile all the crazy shit people have said to you in explaining dialectical materialism start clicking and you are like oh, so it really is just taking opposites and smushing them together over and over. To see how and why the world has developed in this or that particular way; to see what problems and contradictions new things have arisen to (seemingly) resolve.
It feels more like a spiritual process or a journey than like reading a book. Not because you feel reverent or whatever but just because it’s like this process of grappling and that’s what the book is–the process of grappling itself. It’s a book about grappling and also the book IS a grappling. It’s so awesome. Once you get past the harrowing first three chapters where he just relentlessly goes through the various mathematics of how a commodity becomes a commodity and all that, it gets so good. He’s so angry and his anger is so cleansing. The other thing that makes Marx hard I think for contemporary readers is I think a lot of people don’t give historical authors the benefit of the doubt when it comes to humor and irony. We take them at face value, like they were all just stuffy-ass humorless caricatures of old-time prissy assholes. I have actually published an academic article about this, I just realized, haha. But anyway Marx is constantly sarcastic and hilarious. If you take him at face value he seems to be saying many offensive things–so don’t do that! Give people some fucking credit! There’s long sections where he’s basically like “yes, the amazing factory! What a gift to the world, what astounding feats of mankind” etc. etc. but actually he’s just BLISTERINGLY trolling the classical liberals who “proved” that the free market guarantees political freedom or whatever. He’s being funny! I don’t think anyone ever told me how funny this book is, and I think that is very wrong. It should be a selling point. So it’s been delightful to experience that aspect as well. My margins are filled with “LOL”s. There is this super long footnote where he quotes some political economist he hates, and he keeps interspersing “(!)” and “(?!)” in the text and the insertions get more and more intense and constant (like after every word) as the quotation goes on. Hahaha he put that in a book!
It’s incredible to see how little has changed since he wrote it, in a certain way. All the fatuous insipid shit that liberals say to justify market capitalism–which he dismantles with the most scathing scorn you could imagine–are, like, almost word for word the same shit people say today. 160 years of constantly being assured that capitalism isn’t bad, just our current version of it needs some tweaking. You start to see that this will go on forever. 1,000 years from now when all of earth is a wasteland and one man owns literally every inch of the planet and we all live in dormitories eating regulation sludge out of a tube these people will still be like, yes, there have been some abuses of the system, but progressive tax reform will fix it all this time! Also the way liberals use rationality to address moral issues and how soul-killing it is. There’s this long chapter about child labor and it’s so infuriating. He quotes from all these reports and articles and parliamentary proceedings to demonstrate that questions like “is it wrong to work a child to death” become formulated as like quibbling over “what is the legal definition of ‘child'” or of “day” or “hour” or “work” or whatever. It’s ok to work a 13 year old to death but not a 12 year old, it says so on this piece of legislation! All set. And the way the poor are blamed for their own sufferings–he documents this in excruciating detail. Article after article decrying the selfishness of working mothers, drugging their babies with opiates so they can leave them home alone while they go to the factory. They value their own selfish gain over the lives of their children! Marx describes capitalists as vampires and werewolves but also as automatons, almost, he describes them as “capital personified” and given motivations and ideas. So the book moves around back and forth, from long mathematical equations to werewolves baying at the moon to imagined dialogues between Worker and Capitalist to long sarcastic screeds about the classical liberals’ “Crusoe fantasies” to long excerpts from Aristotle demonstrating that he couldn’t quite get to the answer of what creates profit because he lived in a slave society. And then, like, the perfect quote from Faust demonstrating all of this in one sentence, somehow.
It’s very demoralizing to see how nothing has changed, ideologically, over all these years. But one must press on!
I am also halfway through a biography of Marx that is very fun/upsetting. His marriage sounds so wild and incredible, suffering together so epically and staying in love the whole time (their daughter in her memoir wrote in irritation about how her mom and dad had so many inside jokes that they would roar with laughter together until tears ran down their cheeks and it was SO EMBARRASSING MOM GOD). Jenny never blamed her husband for their life of travail and poverty, “rather she blamed the Prussian government, and capitalism.” I love hearing about these people’s teen years in particular, the worry they cause their long-suffering parents. His dad just wanted him to be a lawyer! But now his son isn’t going to class and is instead reading philosophy and sending home long rambling letters about his sexual longings for his girlfriend Jenny and how he wants to be a poet? And enclosing his poems, which are VERY bad? And then suddenly the Prussian secret police are knocking on the door??? Son, please, your mother is worried
Worried Parents Of History
THE OTHER THING I AM READING is this astonishing history of textiles and/as “women’s work.” It is called “WOMEN’S WORK: THE FIRST 20,000 YEARS,” which is a hilarious title but she is dead serious. It’s about cavemen and shit. It’s interesting thinking of this book in the context of all that stuff I just said about Marx, because it also entails a certain degree of interdisciplinary revelation. It opens with this great origin story–this author grew up weaving, like on looms and such, because her mother was a weaving nerd, a full-on weaving expert who studied the ancient ways in Denmark and stuff. So this girl grew up weaving and knowing all about cloth. But then she became an archeologist. And one day in archeology school they were looking at a bunch of old-ass pots and she was like “look, there’s an impression of a textile on one of these,” and the professor told her that wasn’t possible because they didn’t have looms at that point in history. But the girl was like, I KNOW that is a textile impression!!! What does it mean? And she started doing all this weird research, and found all this amazing information that just hadn’t been put together yet, and it ended up becoming her dissertation and then also a book. I love that so much!!! The way knowledge accumulates in different ways / can be put together in different ways. Those pots existed and were studied for ages, but it took someone with such a specific background and life journey to have that realization: a woman who grew up weaving, which is very ancient and describes millions of women who have lived on this earth; but also a woman who grew up weaving but who also lived at a time when women who grew up weaving could also go to archeology school; and then also a woman who grew up weaving who had access to archeology school and who WANTED to go to archeology school. All these things had to be in place for this particular revelation to happen. Think about all the other revelations out there waiting to happen! Wonderful.
I am learning so much amazing wild stuff from this book. Here is a small selection:
– hieroglyphics in tombs were painted without perspective because the idea was that the objects they depicted would somehow mystically accompany the dead person into the afterlife, and so they had to be depicted in their entirety in order for that transubstantiation to occur. So you get stuff depicted both sideways and in birds-eye view, really weird perspectival stuff that now makes sense when you know this is why
– the dramatic ancient Egyptian eye makeup was actually a fashion that was based on a necessity–the makeup was made out of a mineral that was an insecticide for a specific insect that gave them eye diseases
– the Venus de Milo, what was she doing with her missing arms? SPINNING WOOL (long tradition of associating spinning/weaving with women/fertility (making something out of nothing))
– most flags until the late 19th century used only red, white, and blue because until the invention of synthetic dyes, red and blue were the only organic dye colors that were colorfast when they got wet. LITERALLY THESE COLORS DON’T RUN
– King Tut was actually a boring short-lived king nobody cared about, and his tomb was embarrassingly small and shoddily furnished, compared with other pharaohs, and the reason he’s a big deal to us is simply that unlike all the other tombs we’ve studied in modern times his tomb made it through thousands of years of history INTACT, and the only reason it made it through history intact is that a later, cooler, fancier, richer king built his own tomb in the hillside above King Tut’s, and the debris from that huge construction project covered up Tut’s tomb so completely that nobody found it again for 6,000 years
– There’s this site in Eastern Europe where they’ve found tons of artifacts from 10,000 years ago, specifically ORGANIC MATERIAL like wood and cloth (which normally cannot last that long, it rots/degrades/goes away), because these ancient people decided to build a little town right on top of a horrible-sounding mud bog, even though it makes no sense, apparently they had to constantly pound wooden pylons down into the mud to keep their houses from sinking, etc., and anyway the mud is this really specific thick-ass deep mud with specific chemical properties that mean anything dropped into it is swallowed up immediately and totally preserved essentially indefinitely. And so it’s now this trove of amazing info about ancient cultures, because so much shit got dropped into it from this weird town. So I love thinking about that so much. For example she talks about a hank of spun dyed yarn that is one of the artifacts. She talks about how much work went into spinning and dyeing that hank of yarn–shearing a sheep, carding the wool, spinning and spinning for hours until you had a useable hank, then dyeing it (pounding berries, creating the dye, etc. etc.), and then the person fucking DROPPED it in this STUPID FUCKING MUD and I picture them being like OH GODDAMNIT, like what a total disaster…..and then somehow there’s a connection between that person and the archeologist 10,000 years later who found the yarn and was like HOLY SHIT GUYS LOOK AT THIS!!!!!!!!!!! Like both people at either end of that connection are so invested in the yarn but for different reasons
– she has an entire chapter about the invention of string. She’s like, everybody talks about the wheel, the internal combustion engine–but fuck all that. Humanity literally could not have progressed if we hadn’t invented string. And then you read the whole chapter and you’re like, damn she’s right, string RULES
This book is also so interesting to read alongside Marx, and it’s incredible I just happened to read them both at the same time, because of course Marx’s main example of “labor” he returns to throughout the book is WEAVING. And his insights would have been even stronger had he considered weaving specifically in light of the ancient and longstanding gendered quality of that labor! But he didn’t, and so that’s a great example of how even the most fantastically brilliant among us are still only able to think and see what our historical context allows us to think and see. The great thing about Marx is that he’s aware of this and indeed it’s sort of the whole point: trying to analyze your own brain (probably this is not a good description of the dialectical method but whatever)–his big criticism of Darwin and the classical liberals is that they didn’t take THEIR OWN BRAINS into consideration in formulating their analyses. He’s like, huh it’s pretty crazy that Darwin identified modern English society in the workings of “nature” (meaning: survival of the fittest and competition and progress–all the stuff in the 19th century theory of evolution is just capitalism, and evolutionary scientists in other non-capitalist countries didn’t come to the same conclusions as the English ones. AND then isn’t it interesting that the English version of the theory was the one that won, and that we all learn in school as the only theory of evolution that exists? And not, say, the Russian version, which emphasized cooperation and collaboration as the engine driving evolution? Huh neat). Like if you can’t at least acknowledge that there COULD BE angles you aren’t seeing because your own brain is inevitably conditioned by who/where/what/when you are using it to think things, you are a dangerous person to be weighing in on things like “human nature” or “how great capitalism is for everyone on earth.”
David Harvey tells a charming anecdote about how he was involved one time in the planning of a new city, and so it was a group of architects and engineers and stuff, and then him, as a geographer, and he started talking about what cities are for and how to think about what goes on in them and how constructions of cities tell us a lot about the values and ideas of the people who built them, and everyone is sort of flummoxed and astonished, and somebody says “where can we read more about all that stuff you just said” and he goes “oh, footnote 4 of chapter 15 of volume 1 of Marx’s Capital!” and then he says he was an “idiot” to say this, because immediately everyone was like……[fart sound] and it made him sad
“Capital, which has such ‘good reasons’ for denying the sufferings of the legions of workers surrounding it, allows its actual movement to be determined as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun…Après mois les déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation.”
Damn, dude, tell us what you really think