A reading group recently began in London with the aim of reading through Marx’s Capital (Vol.1), Monday nights 7pm at the Red Lion in Hoxton. It’s part of what seems to be a contemporary revival of interest in Marx’s work driven not by the academy but by a mixture of political activists and people who want to try and find some understanding of the contemporary crisis in capitalism. (This Facebook group, for example, has links to groups in Liverpool and Sheffield as well as the London group).
The first thing I note was about the inaugural meeting and this was the number of people attending. I am used to reading groups being small in the academic world, quite often only half a dozen people, maybe a dozen or so for larger groups. In this instance, however, some 40 people turned up to the first meeting and after four sessions the numbers are still around 25 or so. A number of people expressed their reason for coming in terms of the practical goal of attempting to understand the world around them, the crisis in capitalism that is the contemporary horizon we all live in. That they have turned to Marx is indicative perhaps of the centrality that he has to any criticism of capitalism. Even if the name is not mentioned the spectre of Marx nevertheless lurks in the background every time a Banker attracts criticism for being greedy. There’s a curious logic at work here because there’s no reason to assume Marx will ever simply disappear, anymore than there’s a reason to assume Nietzsche or Freud will disappear. At times, no doubt, they will inform thought, culture and life in greater or lesser depth but their presence, the possibility of their return, haunts thinking, discourse. dialogue. These three figures are mentioned because they are gathered together by Ricouer under the title ‘Masters of Suspicion’ and it is the suspicion of belief that Ricouer refers to. Now whilst this is a problem for faith, as Ricouer himself notes, it is also a problem for trust. Each time the system of capitalism enters one of its periodic crisis the implicit trust we that we must have in capitalism, almost of necessity, slips sideways. The world can often seem a little screwy, off-kilter and badly organised but even then we still live as though it were capable of being less so, this active living of our lives relying upon a trust, in this case a trust that the form of life we are in has the capacity to be improved. The trust that the masters of suspicion displace is a trust in the future within the world as it is now. Of all the three Marx is perhaps the most radical in this displacement because he radically disrupts the role of the individual, more radically than either of the other two who remain wedded to some sort of future the individual can achieve with their own effort. If Marx ‘works’ it is in describing the machinic operation of a system that positions the individual as a place within the machine. It is not without reason that he was fascinated by the story of Faust. Capitalism is not the result of individuals but results in a type of individual. Our actions are not just unconscious and perhaps capable of becoming more conscious, or filled with resentiment and capable of becoming less so, instead they are the result of some event that occurred behind our backs and which we might be able to understand but which we will not change merely through understanding. The machine is real in the sense that Philip K Dick gave to the term ‘reality’. For Dick the real is what remains when we stop believing in it. Capitalism is entirely real in this sense, perhaps the epitome of reality. An anti-capitalism that is more than a mere intellectual dislike or dismissal faces the rather daunting task of both destroying one reality and constructing a new one. No greater adventure can be imagined than the task facing the anti-capitalist.
The second thing I note was the way the group reads, which is slowly. By slowly I mean two to three paragraphs a session at the moment – though this is in part because the starting point for Capital contains a whole range of difficult and curious notions that need quite a lot of attention. Slow reading is a curious thing, something I’ve mainly come across in academic situations, often with a nod to Nietzsche who is perhaps the first to make explicit the resistance to dominant culture that is involved in slow reading. For many it’s a difficult thing because it disrupts the common focus of consuming a text, turning it into a tool or resource. Instead slow reading draws the reader into a process that refuses to allow the reader to simply ‘understand’ the text. The process combines the attempt to understand a text with an increasing awareness of the resistance and mis-reading we bring to a text, whereby we tend to read into the text. In the case of most works of philosophy it is a danger to ‘read into’ a text because what happens is that the reader merely reproduces their own pre-existing concepts, overlaying them onto the text rather than reading out of the text the arrangements that exist within it. The implicit assumption that we all speak the same language is fundamentally what is challenged by slow reading. The arrangements of concepts within each individual have both particular idiosyncrasies but also cultural and ideological determinations. For practically orientated work this is not necessarily a problem but for any type of critical activity it is the central difficulty in any act of actual learning. Too often a student responds not to the text they’re reading but from the position they’re within, one that they live as though it were their own but which is more than likely part of their cultural ‘common sense’. The resistance to slow reading appears in the need to understand, which often arises in amusing ways. When faced with a difficult line, a strange phrase or a curious concept what is often used is the strategy of buttressing. We grab hold of concepts that lie to hand, either from our ‘developed’ understanding or from the ‘common sense’ referred to and we buttress the difficult passage with these other concepts, stabilising it in our minds so we can move on. What this does, however, is to buttress the difficulty within our own understanding which sounds on the face of it like a reasonable thing to do. However if the concept we’re trying to understand is in essence hostile to our existing understanding then all we have done is, in effect, to neutralise it and assimilate it. We de-fang difficult concepts by making them part of our everyday world. The task is not always to assimilate but to allow the possibility that the concept will destroy our everyday world, change our understanding – what else is actual learning than to undergo a process of change. If the change that is sought is radical – as I would suggest it is with all the masters of suspicion – then this means that the understanding will undergo some radical change, root and branch destruction to clear the land for new growth. One of the problems of ‘understanding’ is that it tends to make us passive, it tends to make us feel like we understand rather than give us anything actual, concrete and real. When we feel like we understand we stop learning, we begin to use words and phrases as though we knew what they meant and what they did, in the process losing the radical experimentation that can offer us new discoveries, radically new discoveries of new worlds that are possible.