Blog Post

The Trouble with Marx

...oh God I'm going to catch some heat for this. When I used the phrase “as a recovering Marxist” at Johns Hopkins a few months ago, I was met with a constant barrage of “critique” for the rest of the conference. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

The trouble is, I had just come back from China, and had been growing increasingly convinced that something was wrong with the manual. I mean how many eff ups does a system need before you realize it's screwy?

Spanish InquisitionBut the real problem is that Marx is an idealist. Or at best a correlationist. Whoops!  How the heck can I justify such a fanciful notion?

Now there are plenty of ways to do this. For instance we could look at Marx's antiquated anthropocentrism, which his beloved Darwin had blown sky high by the time he put pen to paper. But my argument here is more technical. 

Focus in on chapter 15 of Capital 1. There Marx outlines his theory of machines. The basic argument is that when you have enough machines that make other machines, you get a qualitative leap into full-on industrial capitalism. 

Now Marx never specifies how many machines this takes. You know it when you see it. If it looks like industrial capitalism, and quacks like industrial capitalism, then...

So what this boils down to is a theory of emergence. Capitalism proper emerges from its commercial phase when there are enough machines going ker-plunk or whatever. 

What does this remind you of? Why the Turing Test, of course. Intelligence is an emergent property of enough algorithms doing their thing, runs the theory. The point is, emergent for whom? If I'm sitting on the other side of the two rooms, and I receive some printouts from each room that look fairly similar, and make me think that an intelligent person is behind the door, then an intelligent person is behind the door. 

That's the trouble with emergentism. Any system requires 1+n entities external to it for it to exist and to be measured, and so on. This is Derrida's wonderful conclusion about structuralism. Deconstruction is often confused with structuralism—but it's the latter that says that nothing really means anything, it's all relational. What deconstruction argues is that for any system of meaning, there is at least one opaque entity that the system can't assimilate, which it must simultaneously include and exclude in order to exist. So, for instance, in order for there to be a mark, there has to be an inscribable surface. This is what is meant by re-mark or arche-writing (and other synonyms). 

Emergence requires 1+n entities that it can't explain. Like me, sitting outside the rooms, the observer doing the Turing Test. 

For whom or for what is the emergence of industrial capitalism staged? There is at least one entity that Marx's account can't explain—the observer or measuring apparatus (I'm not claiming it has to be a human), that validates the emergence. 

For a theory that tries to explain the whole of social space, this is a big big problem.

Timothy Morton's picture

Timothy Morton is Professor of English (Literature and Environment) at the University of California, Davis. Professor Morton's interests include literature and the environment, ecotheory, philosophy, biology, physical sciences, literary theory, food studies, sound and music, materialism, poetics, Romanticism, Buddhism, and the eighteenth century. He teaches literature and ecology, Romantic-period literature, and literary theory. He has published nine books and sixty essays, including The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010) and Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007).