Saturday, January 17, 2009

Crisis of Unity


Around the time Lehman Brothers fell, and thinking about the topic--Crisis--chosen by graduate students for this year's Comp Lit Graduate Conference at Irvine, I figured I should look up what Marx had to say about crisis. In The Marx-Engels Reader, some pages from Theories of Surplus Value are gathered conveniently under the rubric "Crisis Theory." The occasion for Marx to bring up crisis, here, is his refutation of an assertion by Ricardo that there can be no such thing as "over-production." Very very loosely, their debate concerns whether markets are self-correcting, in this case by being mutually compensating (463). Marx argues that there being too much of something is not an absolute condition (one that we measure in relation to absolute needs) but one relative to ability to pay. And economic crises, crises in the ability to pay, he observes, are crises of syncopation: "if in the interval between [purchase and sale] the value has changed, if the commodity at the moment of its sale is not worth what it was worth at the moment when money was acting as a measure of value . . . the whole series of transactions which retrogressively depend on this one transaction, cannot be settled." Money functions within a given frame of time: "the crisis occurs not only because the commodity is unsaleable, but because it is not saleable within a particular period of time" (456). Last fall, some analysts similarly explained that crashes of the NYSE were occurring not when people were panicking for psychological reasons, but when people were forced to sell to pay bills that could be deferred no longer; they not only had to pay, they had to pay now.

Marx's idea about the temporal form of crisis is the most narratively resonant of his arguments here, but his most fundamental one is that crises are outbreaks of "unity." The passage is a great illustration of a dialecticized idea, of how thoroughly an idea can be dialecticized and self-differential for him:

If, for example, purchase and sale--or the metamorphosis of commodities--represent the unity of two processes, or rather the movement of one process through two opposite phases, and thus essentially the unity of the two phases, the movement is essentially just as much the separation of these two phases and their becoming independent of each other. Since, however, they belong together, the independence of the two correlated aspects can only show itself forcibly, as a destructive process. It is just the crises in which they assert their unity, the unity of the different aspects. The independence which these two linked and complementary phases assume in relation to each other is forcibly destroyed. Thus the crisis manifests the unity of the two phases that have become independent of each other. (444)

Purchase and sale, because they are two angles on the same event, form a unity. Although their coming apart for a while (as in the syncopated story above, when value abruptly changes) is necessary for crisis and is "the elementary form of the crisis" (445), the fact that they come apart is not itself the crisis, and disjuncture is not the meaning of crisis. The message of the crisis is that things that have come apart cannot stay apart; what cannot be deferred is their collapse back into a unity they can't escape.

Meanwhile, back in Irvine, Comp Lit 144, Politics of Crime, watched Ridley Scott's American Gangster. There's quite a bit to say about this not exactly "good" but interesting film, and I hope to come back to it and to many other things that happened in Politics of Crime, a wonderful undergraduate class that kept me going the last several months. For now I'll only recall the scene in which the two protagonists of the film, detective and criminal (Richie and Frank, Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington), set eyes on each other for the first time, just as various factors, including the end of the Vietnam War, have brought about a crisis in Frank's globalized business of cocaine distribution. (The cocaine industry and the war industry are explicitly aligned and, in the plot, materially connected.) Since the occasion of their meeting is Frank's arrest, it marks a break in the film; the logic of the film up to that point culminates in the scene and has to shift afterward. Shots of police raiding the sites of Frank's enterprise are intercut with views of Frank and his family emerging from church, and "Amazing Grace" plays over the sequence. Who was blind and now sees when the antagonists look at each other for the first time and with recognition? They are about to become allies, and in many ways were made to be so. The kind of seeing that is done here occurs when you step outside the church door, outside the fantasy of the enclosed family. Although there are redemptive overtones in the idea that losing everything could be the best thing that ever happened, the gain isn't because the psyches involved will now be different--they will prove to be markedly unchanged--but because of the sudden reconnection of worlds that thought they could live without relation to one another.

Image: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Fallen Sky (2006)

7 comments:

D(Jx3) said...

Long-time lurker fan here. Good to read you back. I want to say something smart, but I really have no response other than "crisis theory" is really, really relevant to teaching . . . central to Hardt and Negri's work, but today Marx seems more prescient than what the post-sovereignty bunch do with it. As someone who doesn't really understand today's economic dynamics, I just don't know what to think--reading you think aloud is a comfort.

laurix said...

Hi! I also loved this post but dumbly left me comments all the way down at the bottom of this volume's page.
L in Mexico.

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