The individual is not anyone

The discussion on Marx, Deleuze and desire continues…my own thoughts seep out of side…

In Video Veritas responds to Larvalsubjects question ‘Where’s Marx?’ with the claim that he is a ghostlike omnipresence – “Marx is all over the academy, but in a fragmented, ’spectral’ fashion”.  IVV suggests that within disciplines like economics there is a kind of latent Marxism because “what could be more Marxist – in the base-superstructure sense – than a rigorous theory of economic interaction that purports to reduce individual agents to pseudorational little machines of desire and satisfaction?”  I think this is an interesting point, though I think it also may reveal something almost against itself.  In particular the word ‘individual’ here is what, for me, shows the a-Marxist nature of economics.

A year or two ago I attended a seminar at Sussex University run by the SCIS at which Ben Fine gave an interesting paper called ‘The general impossibility of methodological individualism’.  He discussed the centrality of ‘methodological individualism’ (MI) to economics as a discipline, the way in which it has attempted to impose this presupposition on social sciences and argued that there was a reproduction of the set paradoxes latent within its methodology which made this reliance on MI untenable.  Without going into details about this (not least because I have still to get round to really having a good read of Fine’s book on social capital), the point is that Fine’s argument was intended to show that any reliance by a theory upon a concept of atomistic elements such as individuals always collapses because it also relies upon relational properties to actually explain any dynamics in which those elements might be caught up.

Fine’s argument – which I may well be butchering, so bear that in mind – was not that there is nothing but a crude choice between either an elemental or relational methodology, but rather a sophisticated and political choice.  I’ll try to outline the argument.

He suggested that the problem of sets within mathematics is rooted in the fact that there are 2 ways in which they can be defined either through their elements or through their relations, their properties.  The first definition (elemental) constructs sets from members, such as the set of ‘those who are green’.  The second mode of definition is relational, such that a set is defined by the properties its members share.  Fine goes on to argue that Russell’s paradox argument is directed against this double definition, showing that it is inconsistent.

I’ll try and outline briefly the Russellian paradox, which derives from the following: assume a set, the elements of which are defined relationally – The set M contains as its elements all sets that have the relational property {sets that don’t contain themselves}.  Given this set, we ask the question ‘does this set M contain itself’?’  The paradox then cashes out in a traditional aporia – if M is not a member of itself then it is a member of itself and by definition it cannot be a member of itself.  Set theory, according to paradox, thus contains within itself a fundamental incoherence or inconsistency.  Of course the ‘set theory’ Russell was problematising was that of Frege, and it was his problematisation which prompts the mathematical move to focus on definition by element rather than property.  It is this that produces the notion of axiomatic set theory, which is what Badiou, for example, relies upon.  Axiomatic set theory places restrictions on properties.

To return to Fine, he was questioned as to whether the result of his argument against MI was to pose a stark choice between either MI or ‘methodological holism’, which the questioner posed in terms of a choice between Friedman or Althusser.  Fine then clarified that it was not the case that elements and relations were contradictory and so you had to either choose one of the other, only that there was an inconsistency if the two regimes (to interpolate a Deleuzian concept into Fine’s argument) were left unrestricted.  In other words, Russells’ set paradox arises from the unrestricted capacity to define sets both relationally and elementally.  The choice was not between either elements or relations but which we should restrict?  He then made the interesting claim that the reason maths restricted properties was that it needed an unrestricted elemental definition in order to allow sets to extend to infinity.  In contrast with this, he suggested, social sciences needed to restrict elements in order to leave the relational unrestricted.

This choice over which to restrict, element or relation, seems to me to be very productive.  The role of the infinite underlies this – that is, where is the concept of infinity to be allowed its force?  Deleuze seems to offer one clear answer, which is in terms of relations rather than elements, differential relations are to be thought in an unrestricted manner and thus, by implication, it would seem the restriction must fall on the side of the elements.  Quite how do you ‘restrict the elements’ however?  Restriction of relations is produced by axiomatisation (‘you can’t just begin from anywhere’) whereas any restriction of the element is going to have to impinge, it seems, on something like the ‘individual’, on some capacity or power of the individual.  One way of formulating this might be something like ‘the individual is not anyone’, or more traditionally perhaps, there is no universality to the individual.

To return to IVV’s points then, if there is no universality to the individual there is no capacity to reduce it.  It is not that an economics ( in the broad sense of an analysis of differential relations) can eliminate the individual because in the strict sense there is no individual – the individual is not anyone.  There are, rather, what Deleuze wants to call ‘individuations’.  To the extent that we think Marx speaks of anything resembling the individual he and Deleuze would thus part company and he would fall back into the ‘traditional mode of economics’.  I think, however, that this would be too hasty, that in fact Deleuze and Marx both share this notion that there are no individuals merely individuations.

Marx’s economics is not an Economics, in the sense of a Milton Friedman, but an ‘economics’ in the sense of analysis based on the methodology of differential relations and to that extent fully in line with both Nietzsche and Deleuze.  In Theses 9 Marx claims that “The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is contemplation of single individuals and of civil society” and that it is the category of ‘social humanity’ that is to be developed.  There we might find the outline of the move that is necessary, something like the claim both that ‘the individual is never anyone’ and ‘social humanity is always individuated’.   It is not a reduction of the element of the individual that is required but a restriction which results from an unrestricted relational sociality.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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