Keston Sutherland | Free Dissociation/Logic




pladd. (you who say either)

nothing can be clear when knowing the associations
are read by unread people, exposées, exposures.
new poems for old. groovy. associations
and world societies of interactive growth.
groan. a place full of untrained actors
absorbing dimensions of cradling pain
securing test periods of temperature change.
sewing elbes to harare, scratch luck.
nothing matches the theoretical tuck.
nutmeg. primus stove. raised eyebrows.
work sharing. retreat into the forest.
the silver conifers. the crumbs. chums.
biceps & musical hairs. plaesthetics.
planna vanne. plin plor plon pladverbially
plodding along with a net in sturdy
boots, add a few bulletins, patrol.
centuries. narrowly missing. pointed
drop. matches stove. matches museum.
curves around a few hundred unsent
letters, all impassioned, no, perfectly
spelt, satirical tirades. benjamin constant
adolph who? painting his face whiter—
interview. tripping around in a chanterelle.
pulled. puppet. placed directly opposite.1

‘Free association’, writes psychoanalyst Deborah Britzman,

is a rule that stretches language to its farthest outpost of meanings. It means to relax language from the grip of censorship and criticism and unmoor it from the entanglement of endless clarifications, justifications, projections, intellectualization, and the rationalizations that conscious intentions call upon to keep meaning still. Free association is an encouragement to the waking subject to experience the dreamlike qualities of having language, to associate with one’s discarded content, to encounter again the strange trancelike sensation experienced when trying to narrate a dream.2

This characteristically wild stretch of language by Anna Mendelssohn might seem at first glance, or on a first hearing, to be a good example of the practice that Britzman describes. The poem is a theatre of unmoorings, a stretch of language repetitively disentangling itself from endless clarifications, keep- ing meaning moving, unstuck because adrift. It refuses entry to rationalization; it is made up of segments rather than sentences, truncated syntagms and syntagmatic truncations, so that the passage across the lines feels like a work of irrational linking whose aim is to liberate an association between one segment and the next. The point of reading seems to be to affirm the state of incoherence that is both sounded and iconized in a line like ‘nutmeg. primus stove. raised eyebrows’. Packing together these bits of ‘discarded content’ (Britzman’s idiom makes an allusion to shit inevitable in this phrase) into a ‘still meaning’ in the form of a paraphrase would re-entangle the free drift in the rational nets of egotistic narrative. The drift is free because there is no paraphrase to catch it. The poem mounts up its motions in segments too insequential for the still order of a paragraph. If the motions add up to movement, it will not be movement toward a point or event of clarification at which thought (invited or gatecrashing) is clinched so that lyric will arrive. It is difficult to say whether the poem could usefully be called lyric at all. What would it mean? Particles of lyric proliferate in overt clusters, with stretches of explicit and consciously unsubtle phonetic patterning, here and there an outright rhyme, next to isolated or specimen strips of metrical or half-metrical language that alternate with the otherwise neither metrical nor prosaic rows of unmoored segments. All this (granulated lyric and discarded content, both ends plus the difference) is both showcased and withheld. The sound of that alternation is somehow both obvious and easy to miss: the pseudo-distich ‘absorbing dimensions of cradling pain / securing test periods of temperature change’ is at once a conspicuous jump from meter in the form of a tetrameter of amphibrachs to a scrap of prosaic jargon with no manifest metrical value (or anyhow none but the bargain of the botched metrical repetition of the line before), and no jump but just whatever happens next in the continuous dilatory, incoherent movement through language relaxed from the grip of narrative censorship. If a moral idea comes into view, it is probably that if the poem is free association then it is good for us, because if things go well (like they do in the ‘analytic space’ or clinic) then it will help us to a more conscious knowledge of how our minds work. This idea is anyhow not out of reach from the lookout of the poem, even if the poem does nothing to insist on it. The poem would be for its readers the gift of a real passage of free association with its own specific gravity, which previously was the same gift to the poet who not only wrote it, but also, in Britzman’s sense, encountered it and experienced it.

There are reasons why it might be problematic to treat Mendelssohn’s poem as a passage of free association, despite how closely the poem can be fitted to a good description of that practice like the one by Britzman. A more accurate conception of the poem might be as free dissociation, by which I mean not an inversion or negative equivalent of free association, but a separate activity of language, a different way to drift out of range of paralytic clarification. The distinction is a way of staging a question about the concept of freedom in language, which I call poetic freedom. Is freedom in language experienced when language is ‘relaxed from the grip of censorship and criticism’, or is this requirement to relax the grip so that the associations can be free not already a legislative interference with poetic freedom, an obligation to motive dilatoriness? Might poetry not be movement of a different kind, and might it be differently gripped from other language right at the root, and might ‘the grip of censorship and criticism’ be subject to poetry, manipulable in the poet’s language, and even inherent in poetic freedom?

Mendelssohn was a poet for whom freedom was a more damaged and intensely complex experience than it ever could be for most poets. The freedom she regained after her imprisonment was essential to her survival and to her life. Her poems are often obliquely talismanic art works, incantations against the paralysis of meaning and the confinement of syntax. Freedom with words is overt and manifest in the poem ‘pladd. (you who say either)’, extending to the freedom to invent nonsense words or swap words for phonetic blobs, right up to infantile pleasure in the sheer plosive plurality of non-meaning: ‘plin plor plon.’ But poetic freedom is deeper and more substantial than mere freedom with words. Rhyme—half, stretched, internal, consciously bathetic, deliberately accidental—lends the poem a semblance of continuity and conjunction, a playful intimation of ‘the fundamental rule’. ‘The fundamental rule’ was Freud’s subtitle for free association, and Britzman refers to Freud’s idea when she calls free association ‘a rule that stretches language’. The bits and glimmers of rhyme that break out in the poem—‘a few hundred unsent letters’, ‘adolph who’ (a hint at Hitler), ‘interview’; ‘scratch luck’, ‘theoretical tuck’; ‘crumbs’, ‘chums’—are powerless to bind up the dissociated fractions of syntax into a persuasive associative fluency: no narrative or history emerges from the pile-up of matched sounds. Instead, sonority becomes dissociative, asserting its power to preserve incoherence without containing or binding it, to keep words wild. More than simply non-narrative, the movement is anti-testimonial: it is not going to tell you what happened. Neither is the poem anxious to be good. In some ways, it is really not good. The sound-patterning seems to add up to a banal sonority that the ambivalent or non-existent versification is too scrappy and piecemeal to amplify, so that the whole sound could easily look altogether gestural or empty, not really meant to be heard as poetic music but only to be mouthed along with, as if following the rules of a childish party game: ‘the silver conifers. the crumbs. chums. / biceps & musical hairs.’ The incoherent pun on musical chairs might seem to token nothing but pleasure to be had from the use of verbal resemblance not to mean anything. The lines of the poem might begin to look like add-on segments that fail to really add up to anything but the passage of additions: ‘centuries. narrowly missing. pointed / drop. matches stove. matches museum.’ The poem seems less randomly unsequenced than predictably inconsequential. Its end is not the end of a poem but just where the passage happened to get to this time. The consistent use of lower case initial letters to begin fractions of syntax starts to look like an artifice of pretend disjunction, a way of making linking not work by never trying it; it may incidentally refer to a similar practice in post-war German poetry, where the initial capitals of proper nouns are cut down to lower case in a gesture of repudiation of the pomposity—and abomination of the historic hatefulness—of German orthography. Altogether the poem might indifferently resemble either free association or what François Roustaing has called ‘Un-speech’ [déparole], which ‘is similar to delirium, in that it is speech that has been undone, a drifting speech that is no longer concerned with being directed at someone or inscribed in a social relationship in anticipation of an action or plan.’3 Because ‘the associations / are read by unread people’, people totally inexperienced in reading (the opposite of well-read people) and therefore incapable of the kind of reading that would be sensitive to the meaning and value of associations and mindful of their fragile contingency, the poem can be ‘un-speech’ for an unreadership.

Another possibility is that the poem is neither free association nor un- speech, but free dissociation that keeps alive the possibility of poetic free- dom. In her article ‘Being in Life Without Wanting the World: Living in Ellipsis’, Lauren Berlant writes:

[D]issociation under structural hazard often involves an overwhelmed sub- jectivity vibrating with extreme defensive hypervigilance, a multiplicity of speculations and thoughts about blaming, and a veering among states from the numb to the acute, the heavy to the frenzied. So to call dissociation a structure of discontinuity would be to underassess its noncoherence as the name for a continuous state and to disregard its profoundly social and his- torical character.4

(The passage is characteristic of Berlant’s singular power of precision. The proliferation of conceptually inflected phrases conspicuously still in the process of becoming concepts (‘overwhelmed subjectivity’, ‘extreme defensive hypervigilance’, ‘the heavy’, ‘the frenzied’, ‘underassessment of noncoherence’) creates a conceptual density that is right away virtually manifest Dichtung: the sheer pressure on thought is also a sound that makes original demands on feeling and thought. This is not to treat the argument as though it only had to be listened to. It is recognition of the poetics of Berlant’s particular way of getting to a formulation of an idea: by thinking as much as possible at every next specification, making conceptual language do the most work it can, holding together as much as possible, and constantly refusing to simplify. This thinking has a sound—the sound of thought really getting somewhere, always picking things up on the way.)

Mendelssohn’s poetry cannot simply be deposited in this more complex concept, and her individual subjectivity cannot be conjured out of the general idea of overwhelmed subjectivity. But Berlant’s description of ‘dissociation under structural hazard’ presents a striking counterpoint to the description of free association by Britzman and the concept of un-speech or déparole in Roustaing. The particles of lyric that proliferate in clusters in Mendelssohn’s poem may seem toyish as acts of free associating, perhaps in the affirmative sense that they are valuable as object-like, evanescent constellations of meaning that can feel transitional in Winnicott’s sense. The poem is pleasurable at this level and in this way, as freedom with words treated as objects. But as dissociative freedom the same constellations become more potently ‘noncoherent’ in Berlant’s sense: the rhymes are not merely aleatory, or done at random for nothing but pleasure, or simply to fend off the paralysis of meaning, but they are pointed disjunctions, active mismatches, defenses against the relaxation of censorship, grips on language that parody paralysis with cancelled flights of lyric inertia. The poem is hostile to the idea of a fundamental rule, and vigilant against the predatory power of that rule to bind together or contain all its segments and dissolve its disjunctions in associative fluency. The poem would be arrested in fluency. It instead ‘veers among states’, in Berlant’s phrase, by going out of its way to dissociate the act of linking from the drift of meaning, and its dream of poetic freedom is not dreamlike, it does not have the consistency of dream, but is like the syncopation of lots of waking instants of untried inconsistency. Syncopation is not a poor substitute for a musical whole but the sound of why there is not one. To hear the pain even of a poem like this one, even of this very poem, means more than finding in it the phrase that most plainly indicates the politics of its author, and then treating the rest of its language as therefore further evidence, albeit more oblique or distorted, of the politics that in any case was assumed to be active in the poem before it was so much as read. To hear its pain means tracking its individual acts of defiantly anti-testimonial free dissociation and feeling acutely the pressure of their defensive grip on language as the material of individual survival. Mendelssohn was emphatic that her writing is art: not playful and at peace with its meaning, but implacable in pursuit of its own movement, to the point of dissociation from every unreadership that gets on with ‘knowing the associations’. ‘[S]ewing elbes to harare, scratch luck’ tells me precisely nothing about the relation of several of the Elbe river to the capital of Zimbabwe: the nothing that I do already know. Dissociative freedom is not exemplified in this act of inconsequential disjunction, but sounded in it and iconized by it: here is what it feels like from elsewhere, you who say either.


Marx was ambivalent about logic. On the one hand, he was in love with it. He wanted to be, and probably was, the best at it. It is impossible to read anything he wrote and not be struck hard or even beaten down by his often aggressively overdriven rational style of argument. Marx detested the polite, Augustan conduct of Ricardo’s logic (‘the natural price of labour is that price which is necessary to enable the labourers, one with another, to subsist and to perpetuate their race’) as much as he despised the sycophantic lyricism of lesser bourgeois apologists for torture like Frédéric Bastiat (‘Of all recent economists, Monsieur Bastiat with his Harmonies économiques represents the very dregs of fatuity at their most concentrated. Only a crapaud could have concocted an harmonious pot-au-feu of this kind.’)5 Marx loved to win arguments and not merely to best his opponents, but to destroy them. The thousands of pages of manuscripts that Marx wrote toward Capital—which can either be the Grundrisse through the ‘Economic Manuscripts’ of 1861–3 and 1863–5, if only the notes consciously written in preparation for the final book are included, or else everything he wrote from the early 1840s to the end of his life—overflow with relentless excoriations of bad logic. Marx was not merely systematic, but feverish in the pursuit of perfect logical formulations of highly complex ideas. He was constantly dissatisfied with what he had already thought. ‘No sooner does one set about finally disposing of subjects to which one had devoted years of study than they start revealing new aspects and demand to be thought out further’, he told Lassalle in a letter on 22 February 1858.6 Right from the start and for his whole life, Marx was strictly intolerant of mystification and undisciplined, lazy or unfocused thinking (except when he wrote poems as a teenager). He was consistently masterful, imperative, and commanding in his definition, use, and logical articulation of categories. There had never before been a good enough logic, and Capital could not have been written if there had been. Marx’s spotlighting of the logical inconsistencies of his adversaries was jubilantly piercing, and his criticism of their abuses of logic and their predictable drifts was unremittingly ruthless. The ruthless treatment of bad logic and loose thinking was, famously, a matter of explicit principle for Marx, a ‘categorical imperative’ actually worth observing, and indispensable to the logic of revolutionary critique, as the famous letter to Ruge published among the ‘Briefwechsel von 1843’ sets out.7 The letter says that the task of the ‘new direction’ represented by Marx and his friends must be the ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.’8 Logic put to work in the form of ‘ruthless criticism’ was more than clarity, rationalism or unsentimental perception; it was courage, determination not to give up, intrepidity, the opposite of fear. It was a use of thought that not only gave evidence that the thinker was afraid neither of conflict with power nor of the most difficult ‘results’, but positively proved that he was not. By the most difficult results, Marx meant the conclusions that promise to make life hardest to live, by making the indignity, pain, emptiness, and paralysis of life inexorably explicit. Logic meant seeing life for what it is—which meant seeing the full extent of its desolation, or its ‘Inhaltlosigkeit’ or contentlessness. Marx restated this imperative again and again in the drafts of Capital and in the final book itself. ‘The life-situation in which capital places the working class’, Marx wrote, is ‘the contentlessness of their entire life’.9 The idea of ruthless logic as revolutionary courage, and the challenge issued to his contemporaries to press this logic forward past the university feedback loop of professional philosophical controversy to the point of actual conflict with state power, was characteristic of the young, dramatic Marx’s passionately consistent, bullying writing of the 1840s; but it was an idea of logic, and a challenge to make proper critical use of it, that Marx never forgot, recanted, ironized, or toned down. Logic as it ought to be practiced meant seeing emptiness wherever capital sees plenitude, seeing eternally contentless life where capital sees a quick fix of surplus value. Thirty-four years after his original statement of the imperative about ruthlessness in the letter to Ruge (and ten years after the publication of the first volume of Das Kapital), Marx recited it again, virtually word for word, in a letter to Engels, as if nothing had changed: ‘ruthlessness’, Marx repeats, is ‘the first condition of all criticism’.10

Marx delighted in paradox and reveled in what he memorably called the ‘exquisite irony’ characteristic of the logical feat of turning the stupid beliefs of powerful individuals on their heads.11 Marx’s favorite writer, he said, was Diderot, the great satirist of logic. Marx especially loved Rameau’s Nephew, Diderot’s most sustained performance in twisting up flaccid pieties into logical knots, a spectacular torture of thought. ‘You get richer every minute. One day less to live or one crown more, it all comes to the same’, explained Diderot’s most notorious character, the nephew of the great composer, to his ingenuous interlocutor the ‘philosopher’.12 The logic is exquisite: you get richer every instant (On s’enrichit à chaque instant) because with every passing instant you have one less instant left to live, which means that the money you have will go further in the shorter time left.13 Rameau’s nephew freely admits that he has given lessons in musical accompaniment and composition ‘knowing nothing whatever about it’, and insists that this was an honest and benevolent service to his pupils, since ‘having learned nothing they had nothing to unlearn, and that was so much time and money saved.’14 The philosopher’s mechanical protest that this reasoning is ‘more specious than logical’ is simply skipped over by the nephew, who goes on to explain that he can rob his rich pupils cheerfully and ‘without remorse’ since by this means he is ‘helping them to make a restitution’ to society.15 The nephew is a sparkling perverter of the dull moral apothegm. ‘Gratitude is a burden, and all burdens are meant to be shaken off.’ ‘Virtue commands respect, and respect is a liability.’16 Marx called this satire a ‘unique masterpiece’ in a letter to Engels in 1869, and copied out into the letter Hegel’s agitated commentary on it from The Phenomenology of Spirit, where Diderot is disgustedly acclaimed for having demonstrated the reversibility of ‘all conceptions and realities.’17

The pleasures of logic, similar for Marx to the pleasures of fluency in a foreign language or of facility on the piano, brought his writing to life, no less than the insatiable desire for mastery not just of the operations of logical categories, but of the entire idiom of rationality. Marx would make a good ‘one rational being in the universe’, as imagined by John Stuart Mill in his System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive in 1843:

If there were but one rational being in the universe, that being might be a perfect logician; and the science and art of logic would be the same for that one person as for the whole human race.18

Yet the sentences just before this one in the System are these:

The sole object of logic is the guidance of one’s own thoughts: the communication of those thoughts to others falls under the consideration of Rhetoric, in the large sense in which that art was conceived by the ancients; or of the still more extensive art of Education. Logic takes cognizance of our intellectual operations, only as they conduce to our own knowledge, and to our command over that knowledge for our own uses.19

Logic is private, whereas community is rhetoric, albeit ‘in the large sense in which that art was conceived by the ancients’. Much of Marx’s best and most important writing was done principally or only for the guidance of his own thought, and was either not published during his life or not even prepared for publication. Marx was solidly vigilant, even obstreperous, in defense of his own intellectual freedom and autonomy. His constant predisposition was to accept nothing at second hand but to learn everything for himself, metallurgy to Aeschylus, so that (to suppose for a moment it were possible to make do with Mill’s terms) his ‘own knowledge’ would always be the product of his own ‘intellectual operations’, and so that he could exercise ‘command over that knowledge’ for his own use, which was the most urgent and also the most original use of knowledge possible. (‘To be independent of public opinion is the first formal condition of achieving anything great or rational whether in life or in science’, ruled Hegel, in a text that Marx studied until he knew it better than its author could have).20 What Marx, for a time really the ‘one rational being in the universe’, had discovered would in time be ‘the same for the whole human race’ as it now was, at the point of discovery, for him alone. Having a singular task and being single-minded meant being intolerant of lazy or unconscious ambiguity. The Critique of the Gotha Programme is an irritable unpicking of every last unwitting obfuscation or sloppy phrase in Lassalle’s logical formulation of the ‘equal right’ of ‘all members of society’ to the ‘undiminished proceeds of labour’: ‘a socialist programme cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to cause the conditions to be ignored that alone give them meaning’, Marx instructed. ‘One sees that such hollow phrases can be twisted and turned as desired.’ Marx would give to the world not hollow phrases but language full of meaning that cannot be ‘twisted and turned as desired’. Nothing else that could be done with logic could be of such massive consequence for the future of human life as this work. The pressure of this work on Marx was absolute and enormous. ‘I had to use every moment in which I was capable of work in order that I might finish the task to which I have sacrificed my health, my happiness in life and my family’, Marx told Siegfried Meyer in April 1867, now at last with only a few months to go before the fruit of all that sacrifice, the first volume of Capital, would be given to the world.

Marx also despised logic. The very operability of categories, their capacity for logical content, was risible and offensive to him. In 1858, when he was starting to write Capital, Marx sent Ferdinand Lassalle a carefully specific description of the work he was doing. ‘The work I am presently concerned with’, Marx wrote, ‘is a Critique of Economic Categories’.21 Capital would not merely be a critique of political economy, historically understood as (in Engels’s words) ‘a science of enrichment born of […] envy and greed’ which ‘bears on its brow the mark of the most detestable selfishness’, but specifically ‘a Critique of Economic Categories’, that is, a critique both of the particular categories invented by so-called economists (labour, value, rent, etc.) and also of the very form of the category itself, such as it always is whenever political economists make use of it.22 The form of the category that could be put to use to defend the persistence of slavery, justify the crushing of life out of the majority of human beings, and explain the necessity of the systematic transformation of free activity into compulsory monotonous and empty repetition was not merely a form of logical predication but an instrument of torture. Marx knew this use of the category well, not only because he piercingly exposed how his adversaries depended on it, but also because he tried it himself, to see how it felt. Several hundred pages into the ‘Economic Manuscript 1861–3’ that was the first draft of Capital, as if in sudden exasperation, Marx breaks off, draws a line under his logical analysis of Adam Smith’s theory of the division of labour, and writes:

Digression: (On productive labour)

A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor compendia, and so on. A criminal produces crimes. If we take a closer look at the connection between this latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable compendium in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as ‘commodities’. This brings with it augmentation of national wealth, quite apart from the personal enjoyment which […] the manuscript of the compendium brings to the originator himself. The criminal moreover produces the whole of the police and of the criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries, etc.; and all these different lines of business, which form just as many categories of the social division of labour, develop different capacities of the human mind, create new needs and new ways of satisfying them. Torture alone has given rise to the most ingenious mechanical inventions, and employed many honourable craftsmen in the production of its instruments. The criminal produces an impression, partly moral and partly tragic, as the case may be, and in this way renders a ‘service’ by arousing the moral and aesthetic feelings of the public. He produces not only compendia on Criminal Law, not only penal codes and along with them legislators in this field, but also art, belles-lettres, novels, and even tragedies […] The criminal breaks the monotony and everyday security of bourgeois life. In this way he keeps it from stagnation, and gives rise to that uneasy tension and agility without which even the spur of competition would get blunted. Thus he gives a stimulus to the productive forces.23

The passage goes on further, continuing to inexhaustibly roil. Everything that it says is—in the Diderot spirit—true, both because life really is like this and because the categories do manifestly all link up. A cause is as good as an effect. Everything serves capital because capital is in everything, and determines everywhere the meaning of what humans in their roles do. Being really alive in effect means keeping competition healthy by preventing the stagnation of agility, etc. Marx is virtuosic in the use of categories like this, to show off their intrinsic pliability and how easily they can be twisted. For that reason too he despises logic, even as he loves actually doing it. It is too easy.

Marx’s writings of the early 1840s are forever picking at categories, like scabs over wounds, and pointing out, from a step away, outside of logic looking in, the ways that categories end up being used. Hegel, in particular, used categories in a way that Marx found intolerably monotonous. ‘It is always the same categories offered as the animating principle now of one sphere, now of another’, Marx wrote in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Hegel is too easily satisfied: he ‘contents himself with finding an empirical existent which can be dissolved into this logical category’. The category is just a pot for catching whatever solution the philosopher wants to tip into it. ‘The employment of these logical categories deserves altogether special attention’, Marx advised.24 What began in the early writings as displeasure, irritability, boredom and skepticism about categories—their universally equivalent abstract character, their unresisting disposability for the purposes of the logical formulation of any idea whatever, and ultimately their indifferent formal emptiness— became in Marx’s late work a complex and ironic repugnance, a hatred, even, that was in effect the precondition for the invention of a communist critical logic whose categories could be full of life, resistant to formulation, and even in some cases cognitively intractable and incapable (to this day) of being explained to the general satisfaction of their readers.

Marx’s repugnance for logic is not so easy either to see or to understand as his love of logic or his mastery of it, but it is just as important, and in the end perhaps more important, if not for the conduct of his critical thought in argument, then for the power and meaning of that thought and of the conclusions to which it leads. Marx sometimes seemed compulsive in his attacks on the operation of categories in the writings and public utterances of his adversaries, almost as though the very presence of categories in thought were prima facie evidence of its corruption. As a young man, Marx loved Feuerbach’s conceptually messy assault on logic in the name of passion, feeling, love, and really being alive. In a text that Marx knew well and admired fervently, Feuerbach wrote that

logical being is in direct, unmediated, and abhorrent contradiction with the being of the intellect’s empirical and concrete perception. In addition, logical being is only an indulgence, a condescension on the part of the Idea, and consequently, already that which it must prove itself to be. This means that I enter the Logic as well as intellectual perception only through a violent act, through a transcendent act, or through an immediate break with real perception.25

There could be no worse fate for being than to be ‘already that which it must prove itself to be’, since then being would have nothing to prove, which for Feuerbach would be as good as having nothing to live for. ‘Logical being’ is this dead end of always already having got there, the idea already being what it is and doing what it does, whereas love, Feuerbach believed, is always about having to do and be more than what you are. Hence, real philosophy is not logic, but love. Feuerbach’s thoughts were more impressive than logic. ‘You love only because you are deeper and more than a person.’26 They felt more important and more demanding than the endless run of logical predicates and syllogisms that anyone with half a mind for intellectual labour could defend; real philosophy is whatever love does to stop thought spiraling off into ‘sophistry’ or ‘scholasticism’. ‘Being is as varied as the objects that exist.’27 ‘The community of man with man is the first principle and criterion of truth and generality.’ ‘Only he who excludes himself from nothing essentially human is man.’28 ‘You live only as long as you have something to communicate, only as long as there still remains in you something that is not yet communicated, and, therefore, only as long as there exists a boundary between you and others which is still to be torn down.’29 Feuerbach’s writing is packed full of thoughts like these. At every turn they overrun the limits of reason. Their wild proliferation enlarged the space of criticism, stretching the form of the predicative proposition wider than logic could handle, and lifting up the subject of the proposition to pitches of desire and wonderment too high for logic to work itself up to, except in flashes and by a studied salto mortale as demonstratively reckless as anything religious faith could ask for (Marx’s ‘ruthless critique’, ‘rücksichtslose Kritik’, can also mean ‘reckless critique’: ‘Recklessness—the first condition of all criticism.’) Feuerbach’s Thoughts on Death and Immortality are ultimately not logical thoughts, but acts of defiance against the ‘abhorrent’ power of logic to annul life. They are thoughts insisted on in the name of a finite life that logic cannot empty.

The German attack on logic was well underway by the time that Feuerbach commenced his ‘theoretical revolution’.30 The distinction between the logic of categories and real philosophy capable of saying the truth about life dates back at least to Fichte, the original so-called Idealist and the author of the first great attack on Kant’s category of the ‘thing in itself’. Fichte derided mere ‘logical virtuosi’ and asserted that the fundamental ‘principle’ for real philosophers was ‘that of the difference between logic, as a purely formal science, and real philosophy, or metaphysics.’ ‘Dogmatists’, said Fichte, spend their lives ‘sheltering behind ordinary logic’.31 Marx quoted approvingly, in a witty footnote in Capital, Hegel’s verdict on corrupt logic, that in an age so ‘devoted to raisonnement as our own’, a logical justification is always sure to be found for anything whatever.32 Marx was irascible around feeble reasoning, the art of thinking in philosophy, and bored of logic disconnected from social reality. In Capital, in particular in the chapter on ‘The Working Day’, where the greasy raisonnement of factory owners is swilled and spat out in frequent ejaculations of disgust and incredulity, the necessity of a hearty and violent repugnance for actually existing logic and its intrinsic pliancy in the service of capital is all but explicitly asserted as a principle of critique. In the space of a single page the aghast reader is subjected to one after another example of the good logical grounds advanced by capitalists for the most crushing possible exploitation of child labour, with exclamations by Marx in parentheses to follow, like acid for mouthwash: ‘(What cynical naïveté!)’, ‘(What mealymouthed phraseology!)’, ‘(how wrong-headed these people are!)’.33 The practice of commentary by means of a disgusted exclamation in comical, rib-nudging parentheses every other line is conspicuously Shakespearean. Faced with the very text of capitalist logic, words that sit like vomit in the mouth, the ruthless critic of political economy is at once delighted and disgusted, like Fabian crouching in the box-tree, vociferating out of earshot between the dot-joining titivations of his quarry, Malvolio: ‘Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him: how he jets under his advanced plumes!’, ‘now he’s deeply in: look how imagination blows him.’34 This overtly dramatic negativity about corrupt logic, though obviously defensive of the singularity of Marx’s own, ruthlessly critical logical achievement, was not at root a self-defense, but a bid for self-exposure, and in a difficult sense. Marx wanted the power of his logic, the revolutionary logic of categories developed in Capital, the Critique of Political Economy, to be manifest to the world, and more importantly, to change it. But he could only set about making the power of his own logic manifest—that is, he could only do the work of critique, explain why the political economists are wrong, and show the capitalists for what they really are—by exceeding logic, going too far for logic, by coming back to the Ausgangspunkt of what simply has to be, no matter what: the point outside logic that everything is ultimately really about.

The Ausgangspunkt of Capital is outside logic: outside both the corrupt logic of political economy and Marx’s own logic, the logic of Capital itself. ‘Ausgangspunkt’ has several different meanings for Marx. Most importantly, it is the word in Capital for the point at which the circuit of the valorization of value commences. ‘The circulation of commodities is the starting-point [Ausgangspunkt] of capital.’35 It is also the word for the starting-point of critique. The ‘Ausgangspunkt’ of the critique, Capital, is ‘the individual commodity’ that is ‘the elementary form’ of the ‘wealth of society’: ‘our investigation begins with the analysis of the commodity.’ Recent commentators on Marx have tended to treat this remark in the opening paragraph of Capital as the assertion of a logical necessity. ‘The first section of book 1, “The Commodity and Money”, has as its object the commercial relations of production in general, in their specific logic, insofar as these constitute the superior level of abstraction through which the exposition of the theory of the capitalist mode of production must commence’, writes Jacques Bidet. ‘Such a commencement is not only legitimate: it is necessary.’36 ‘The commodity is Marx’s a priori beginning point’, says David Harvey.37 The most extensive commentary on the starting-point in Capital is Pierre Macherey’s contribution to Reading Capital, the collectively written book normally attributed to Louis Althusser. ‘The process of exposition is the arrangement of discourse following the rigorous movement of a knowledge [‘le movement rigoureux d’un savoir’]’, writes Macherey.38 But this is simply not true of Capital, in which the movement of knowledge is not narrowly rigorous, but agitated, unpredictable, spontaneous, and improvisatory. Reading Capital must begin, says Macherey, with ‘the reading of the beginning’.39 For Macherey, there is no question where the beginning is, or whether there is only one; the beginning that must be read as such is understood straightforwardly as the first bit of the book. According to the disciple of Althusser, the very existence of an important beginning was proof that critique must be science, in Althusser’s sense. ‘Marx gave a determining importance to the starting-point [point de départ] […] this distinction implies a certain conception and a certain practice of the nature of scientific exposition [l’exposé scientifique].’40 He goes on:

The difficulty of putting an end to the beginning is not in any way due to the fact that everything has to be given in the beginning (so that the exposition then unfolds as if from a seed): an organic conception of discourse of this kind is completely foreign to the idea that Marx has of the establishing of knowledge [l’institution du savoir]. The beginning has the value of a setting [la valeur d’une mise en place]: an arrangement [disposition] of concepts and of method (analysis). This beginning has a two-fold inaugural value: it breaks with what precedes it (by bringing new concepts and new methods); but it differs also from what follows: the problem of the starting point is completely original; it illuminates for us the overall structure of the discourse, precisely because of its privileged position, thanks to which certain problems of method will be posed in a particular light [dans un éclairage particulier].41

An ‘organic conception’ is corrupt, sophisticated, Hegelian; a ‘disposition of concepts (analysis)’ is rigorous, inaugural, and different from everything before and after it. Macherey’s ‘scientific’ fantasy of a ‘problem of the starting point [that] is completely original’ is not allowed to be a philological, or a poetic, problem, because it has been determined in advance that ‘what follows’ [ce qui suit] the commencement will be science, done by a scientist, for an audience of scientific revolutionaries, for now at least concentrated in the philosophy department of the superior university. The ‘completely original’ problem of the starting-point of critique is completely derivative of the logic of the epistemological break developed by Althusser. Because unexcoriated speculative ambiguity or unnecessary expressive color would only interfere with or even block the transfer of science, the ‘point du départ’ problematized in Reading Capital is never linked up with Marx’s many, multifaceted, complex, sometimes ironic other uses of the idea of a starting-point besides the one on the first page of Capital. In other words, the very word ‘Ausgangspunkt’, Marx’s word for the ‘starting-point’, is not one of the things that has to be ‘read’ when we ‘read’ Capital. When we ‘read’ Capital we are not supposed to ‘read’ its language. We have to read not only as if the ‘scientific text’ were completely empty of poetry, but as if it were positively the annihilation of the very possibility of the poetic, or as Hegel might ideologically put it, the absolute negation of poetry. Althusser’s students repeat the master’s lesson. ‘The choice to explain the beginning is also commanded by a certain idea of science: this explanation of chapter 1, section 1 will be an epistemological explanation.’42 The fantasy of a ‘problem of the starting point’ that is ‘completely original’ was interrogated by Kierkegaard in The Concept of Anxiety; here it is merely decided (by scientific arbitration) that one exists. ‘Speculative philosophy’, according to Macherey, ‘is in the end nothing more than a paradoxical travesty of science into ideology and technique’; ‘theory’, on the other hand, ‘is an arrangement of concepts into propositions, and of propositions into chains of propositions in a form of demonstration.’43 In other words, theory is an anti-poetics: arrangement and chains, not paradox or travesty; demonstration, not technique. Only the anti-poetic is not ideology; anti-ideological theory must also be anti-poetic.

But the Ausgangspunkt of Capital is outside logic. ‘The circulation of commodities’, Marx carefully specifies, ‘is the starting-point [Ausgangspunkt] of capital.’44 The starting-point of the valorization of values called capital is not, of course, the starting-point of the critique of categories called Capital. The starting-point of capital is the starting-point of the logic that Capital will twist up and destroy, the logic of the so-called capital-relation. The Ausgangspunkt of the logic of the ‘capital-relation’ is ‘the individual commodity’ that is ‘the elementary form’ of the ‘wealth of society’; the ‘investigation’ of that logic therefore ‘begins with the analysis of the commodity.’ But Capital is already more than simply an investigation [Untersuchung] of the wealth of society. Before the starting-point of ‘chapter 1, section 1’ of Capital that Macherey says is the first thing that must be explained (in ‘an epistemological explanation’), comes this passage in the Grundrisse:

The social relation of individuals to one another as a power over the individuals which has become autonomous, whether conceived as a natural force, as chance or in whatever other form, is a necessary result of the fact that the point of departure is not the free social individual [daß der Ausgangspunkt nicht das freie gesellschaftliche Individuum ist.]45

The Ausgangspunkt that is ‘not the free social individual’ is one end of the circuit of valorization in Capital. The other end Marx called the ‘Rückkehrpunkt’. Capital is always in motion, and its movement is always circular, and over time becomes a spiral. Circulation begins at one point and ends at another. The point at which it ends turns out to be the point at which it began. ‘The circulation of money began at an infinite number of points’, Marx wrote in Notebook 5 of the Grundrisse, referring to the exposition already completed in a previous notebook,

and returned to an infinite number of points. The point of return was in no way posited as the point of departure. In the circulation of capital, the point of departure [Ausgangspunkt] is posited as the terminal point [Rückkehrpunkt] and the terminal point as the point of departure.46

Under capital, the point that is ‘not the free social individual’ is a complete circle. The translator of the English text of the Grundrisse, Martin Nicolaus, is inconsistent in his translation of ‘Rückkehrpunkt’. ‘Terminal point’, though accurate in the sense that it describes the point furthest from the start, is liable to be misleading, since nothing has stopped moving; elsewhere Nicolaus translates Marx’s word more literally, and with more conceptual accuracy, as ‘point of return’. A better translation yet would be ‘point of reversion’ or ‘point of turning back’ (in poetics, this point is the versus). The two points, the point of starting out and the point of turning back, define the circuit of capital and its difference from the ‘infinite’ proliferation of beginnings and ends, the innumerable, irreversible, individual exchanges of commodities for money, that make up the socially inexorable but conceptually unenclosed wilderness of the market. The ‘infinite number of points’ at both ends of the circulation of money in effect represent the coordinates of individuality, value-objectively ‘posited as’ [‘gesetzt als’] nothing but speck-like instants of completed exchange. These ‘points’ are like ‘the hairs on your head’ that Feuerbach said philosophy would ultimately be able to ‘count’, if it could only do away with ‘abstract thought.’47 Until that day, everything singular about you is not counted, just as the coordinates of individuality represented by the ‘infinite number of points’ at which money starts and ends are not the real point, and not really the end of anything either, but just the endless, pointless scatter of dots or pinholes lived at random between the dead ends of the point of departure of value and its point of turning back. Capital’s infinity is different from money’s ‘infinite number of points’: not illimitably prolific, but endlessly circular; not impossible to count, but impossible to escape.

This temporary formulation in the Grundrisse of the identity of the starting-point and the point of turning back was still too cautious for Marx. The prepositional phrase ‘posited as’ [‘gesetzt als’], the description of a conscious logical act, quickly becomes (in a more reckless formulation later on in the same notebook) simply ‘is’: ‘The point of return is at the same time the point of departure [Ausgangspunkt] and vice versa.’48 The shift up from logic to being, ‘posited as’ to ‘is’, is a logical determination in the form of a prelude to communist satire. The point of establishing the identity of starting out and turning back is that they will turn out to be the same person: ‘namely the capitalist’ [‘nämlich der Kapitalist’].49 ‘The capitalist himself is the point of departure and return’ [‘Der Kapitalist selbst ist der Ausgangs- und Rückkehrpunkt’].50 Logic trips up a gear into satire on logic: concrete categories go up in the smoke of abstract human beings. The capitalist himself is the identity of the point of setting out and the point of turning back, in other words, of the whole essentially static runaround of value, the movement going nowhere because it is everywhere already. In Capital, this person is characterized as the eternally impenetrable opposite of experience. ‘However long a series of periodic reproductions and preceding accumulations the capital functioning today may have passed through, it always preserves its original virginity.’51 Marx added this sentence, originally in French, to the first French edition of Le Capital in 1872 (in his own words: ‘Si longue donc que soit la filière de reproductions périodiques et d’accumulations antérieures par laquelle le capital actuellement en fonction ait passé, il co serve toujours sa virginité primitive’).52 Engels inserted his own German translation of this addition to the French text into the fourth German edition, and Marx’s virginity acquired a gender: ‘virginité primitive’ became ‘ursprungliche Jungfräulichkeit’: ‘primitive virginity’ prettified into ‘original maidenhead’. The endless setting out that is always at the same time turning back is the opposite of experience: infinite inviolability, never being together and never splitting up. Money and capital, despite their formal and syllogistic intimacy in the logic of the capital-relation, are nonetheless virtually incommensurable. Money fucks with whomever it touches, turns away, moves on, fucks with the next person and turns away again; capital doesn’t need to get close to anybody because everybody under it is already fucked. Whereas ‘we must consider each act of exchange [of money for commodities] by itself, apart from any connection with the act of exchange preceding it and that following it’; and whereas ‘relations between [buyer and seller] cease on the day when the term stipulated in the contract they concluded expires’, so that ‘if the transaction is repeated, it is repeated as the result of a new agreement which has nothing to do with the previous one and in which it is only an accident that brings the same seller together again with the same buyer’, capital can never be apart from its object, it never moves on but only moves away, turns back, breaks up, never leaves, starts again.53

Money is syncopated, it stops and starts, but capital is forever legato, ‘a perpetuum mobile’ [‘ein Perpetuum mobile’].54 The Ausgangspunkt of capital is the Rückkehrpunkt of capital. Capital is the mere infinite multiplication of the indifferent moments of valorization, and the critical analysis of capital is therefore only the game of using categories to divide these indifferent moments back up into ‘different moments’.55

Marx was figuring out the category of ‘surplus labour’ at the same time, in the same fevered pages, as the category of the ‘starting-point.’ The concurrence of these two parts of his conceptual labour is important: it was consequential for how ‘surplus labour’ ended up being defined. The category of the ‘starting-point’ was developed under the pressure of that more fundamental work of conceptualization. The meaning, or logical determination, of the category ‘surplus labour’ as it would finally appear in Capital—its point of origin in the production process, its relation to ‘necessary’ labour, its ownership by the capitalist and its necessity as the basis of the valorization of value—had been figured out already before Notebook 5; but Marx had not yet decided on the word for it. He was still trialing the deutsch-englisch ‘Surplusarbeit’. In Capital, this hybridism and its possibly too overt sibilance was dropped for a simpler, squarer-jawed word, easier on the tongue and fairer on the ear: ‘Mehrarbeit’. ‘Mehrarbeit’, literally ‘more-work’, is the activity that, in the logic of the capital-relation, makes ‘Mehrwert’, or ‘surplus value.’ The switchover was not quick and easy. Throughout the ‘Economic Manuscript of 1861–3’ that was the first draft of Capital, Marx used the two words interchangeably, in a variety of improvised configurations. Sometimes they appear side by side, as perfect synonyms, one simply the second thought of the other, leading the English translator to make a diligent attempt to preserve the collapsible verbal distinction by in effect inventing what can only be mistaken for a new category, or a new variation on the category: Marx’s ‘die Aneignung fremder Mehrarbeit, Surplusarbeit’ becomes ‘the appropriation of alien excess labour, of surplus labour’, despite how throughout the rest of his text both words are consistently translated as ‘surplus labour’.56 At other times in the same manuscript the two words, or anyhow their prefixes, seem to belong together more like phrases in a restrictive appositive relation, less synonyms than clarifications of each other: ‘The value is present in a use value. The surplus value [Mehrwerth] is therefore present in a surplus product [Surplusproduct]. The surplus labour [Mehrarbeit] is present in surplus production [Surplusproduction].’57 There are extensive passages of argument, some half a dozen pages or more, in which Surplusarbeit never appears and it begins to look as though Marx has settled on Mehrarbeit. But then suddenly he will switch back, sometimes right at the point where a proposition ends and a logical relation is conclusively formulated, or where critique climaxes in an axiom, as in the final sentence of this excerpt:

To put it more definitely: the surplus labour time worked by the mass of workers over and above the quantity necessary for the reproduction of their own labour capacity, their own existence, over and above the necessary labour, this surplus labour time, which presents itself as surplus value, is simultaneously materialized in extra product, surplus product [materialisirt sich im Mehrproduct, Surplusproduct: with ‘extra product’, Fowkes has again in effect invented a new category], and this surplus product is the material basis for the existence of all the classes apart from the working classes, of the whole superstructure of society. It simultaneously provides free time, gives them disposable time for the development of their other capacities. Thus the production of surplus labour time [Surplusarbeitszeit] on one side is at once the production of free time [freier Zeit] on the other.58

It is worth noting that unlike ‘surplus labour’, which Marx in his manuscripts indecisively designated now in one way, now in another, ‘necessary labour’ was never a problem for expression: it was always ‘notwendige Arbeit’. Necessary labour was not a category, or a social fact, that Marx found repulsive in the way that ‘surplus labour’ was repulsive; hence, his satisfaction with the predicate simply for its good logical fit. Just after this passage, Marx gave the full, expanded definition of ‘surplus labour’, as if anticipating a query about the compression of the predicate. Surplus labour is ‘über die zu ihrer eignen Subsistenz erforderten Arbeitszeit hinaus verlängerten Arbeitszeit der Arbeiter’: if we try to carry over into English at least the sound of this grammar, to get a twisted sense of how Marx’s German expands a single predicate into a complete paraphrase by stretching it to breaking point, we get: ‘the prolonged-beyond-what-is- required-for-their-own-subsistence labour-time of the worker.’59 Mehr and Surplus both name this detestable fact.

Unlike the Ausgangspunkt of capital, the Ausgangspunkt of Marx’s ruthless critique of political economy cannot also be its Rückkehrpunkt. This is not only a truth about communist revolutionary history, which is the struggle for termination of the perpetuum mobile for good and with no going back, but a fact about how Marx thinks. The Ausgangspunkt of Marx’s critique, literally the point of departure or setting out (‘Ausgang’ is also ‘exit’), is outside logic. It is not merely outside corrupt logic, the logic of dogmatists or bad philosophers who have no interest in life, or Hegel’s logic, or the logic of political economy; it is outside Marx’s own logic.60 The logic of categories developed in Capital is exceeded in advance by the vision of communism that is its necessary starting-point.

Communism could not be envisioned from inside the lookout of a logic of categories, but could only appear at the point where that logic breaks down and stops working. This point is not prolific like the point of exchange, or circular like the starting and turning back point of capital, but a real end. The logic of Capital, the articulation of its categories (the commodity, labour-power, production, value, primitive accumulation, etc.) into a critical syntax, is necessary not until vision takes over and the future is made to appear, but because it will, and in expectation of that moment. The excess comes first, before the container. Vision is the Ausgangspunkt of critique. Logic follows. In the language of Macherey, logic as a whole is ‘ce qui suit’.

In Marx’s early writings, this excess that comes before logic is explicit. The pages of passionately consistent, closely reasoned logical spotlighting of inconsistencies in the ‘Comments on James Mill’ abruptly climax in a vision of communist production as absolute knowledge of love that could almost be a parody of the syllogism and its power to evacuate thought of all content, a mockery of the lyrical tendency of the idiom of speculative logic in courageous pursuit of the most difficult conclusion, but for the unmistakable fact that Marx really means it. The trajectory of logic is from the syntactic articulation of categories toward a visionary taking flight— from the following on the first page of the ‘Comments’:

There is always only a momentary equilibrium of demand and supply owing to the previous fluctuation of demand and supply, owing to the disproportion between cost of production and exchange value, just as this fluctuation and this disproportion likewise again follow the momentary state of equilibrium.61

To the following on the last:

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses [gegenständliche, sinnlich anschaubare] and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use [Gebrauch] of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified the human being’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another human being’s essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life [Lebensäußerung] I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature [mein Gemeinwesen]62

The pedagogical idiomatic formality that unblocks the way out to a different world altogether, ‘Let us suppose’, might (given what follows) sound to a suspectingly cupped English ear like an ironic half-echo of the traditional rendering of the Latin invitation oremus in Catholic or Lutheran liturgy, ‘let us pray.’ To be clear, Marx’s German sounds nothing like that: ‘Gesetzt, wir hätten als Menschen produziert’ is, on the face of it, a simple invitation to consider a logical possibility, without any audible ventriloquism or other ecclesiastical resonance. The individual who in Capital will be boiled down to the logical entity ‘labour-power’, and who has no other existence within the capital-relation but the entirely logical ‘value-objective’ existence of the ‘sensory-supersensory’ commodity, his own life, is still at this point, back where the ‘Comments on Mill’ climax in visionary flight, what no individual has ever yet been, yet every one alive really is: ‘objective, visible to the senses’. That means gegenständlich (objective) and sinnlich anschaubar (visible to the senses) and not, as the commodity is described in Capital, wertgegenständlich (value-objective) and sinnlich-übersinnlich (‘sensory-supersensory’).

In some passages of the 1844 Manuscripts, this moment of flight from or uplift out of logic is almost as prolific as logic itself. Stupefying, dumbfounding thoughts about both devastation and love are never far away even from the most scholastic or hairsplitting point of regular logical tension. When in the 1844 Manuscripts Marx started ruthlessly, recklessly criticizing political economists rather than philosophers, he confirmed the necessity of this trajectory of flight for communism, where the Ausgangspunkt is visionary excess, by showing how bourgeois thought was the exact reverse. ‘Since, according to Smith’, Marx begins,

a society is not happy, of which the greater part suffers—yet even the wealthiest state of society leads to this suffering of the majority—and since the economic system (and in general a society based on private interest) leads to this wealthiest condition, it follows that the goal of the economic system is the unhappiness of society.63

The operations of logic, the overfamiliar little instruments of predication like ‘since’ [da aber] and ‘it follows’ [also], are transparently plastic, ‘ready-made’ to be twisted, as Marx said in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. What looks like the most straightforward possible exercise in dot-joining, bent from the start on ending up at the last conclusion Smith could ever have wanted for his logic, really is: that is the point of logic. And therefore also, obscenely, it is the truth. It is like a play, or what Marx called, in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, a ‘bloße formelle Spielerei’, ‘a mere playing around with formalities’.64

Logic: ‘It follows that—’
The most stupefying thought: ‘—the goal of the economic system is the unhappiness of society’

Among the early writings, the abortive Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, whose imminent appearance in public was advertised in the one issue that was ever published of the radical newspaper the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher in 1844, has the most things to say about logic. It made sense for Marx to ruthlessly criticize logic in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right rather than in his Logic, because it was in the Philosophy of Right that the truly vapid character of Hegel’s logic had most fully exposed itself. There was no question for Marx that Hegel’s logic was the greatest that had yet been conceived. In the ‘preface’ to the 1844 Manuscripts, both Hegel’s Logic and his Phenomenology are affirmed as ‘real theoretical revolutions’.65 Marx reread the Logic while working on Capital and recorded in a letter to Engels that it had helped him to figure out his own critique (the copy of the Logic that he read was lent to him by Freiligrath, a poet whose work he despised, and had previously been owned by Bakunin, the grand figure of anarchism and Marx’s adversary within the First International). In the Logic, Hegel’s logic is doing what it is meant to do: it is ‘conceptual thinking’ that ‘cannot say what it is in advance, rather does this knowledge of itself only emerge as the final result and completion of its whole treatment.’66 But in the Philosophy of Right, logic is merely doing what it always does. Marx decides close to the start of the ultimately abortive Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right that

Hegel’s true interest is not the philosophy of right but logic. The philosophical task is not the embodiment of thought in determinate political realities, but the evaporation of these realities in abstract thought. The philosophical moment is not the logic of fact but the fact of logic. Logic is not used to prove the nature of the state, but the state is used to prove the logic.67

Hegel had deceived himself. He was not really interested in what he was writing about. He was never doing anything but logic. The philosophical account of ethics, property, marriage, elections, government, and the law never happened: it was all a mere semblance of social philosophy; what was really going on was logic. Because Hegel could not, or would not, see what he was doing, and could not stop doing it either, it was in effect an obsession. Logic was obsessional and its practice was fundamentally possessive: it took hold of everything within reach and would never let anything go. ‘The gist of this science’, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, ‘belongs to logic’, wrote Marx, which meant being ‘ready-made prior to the philosophy of right.’68 This obsessional and possessive logic whose incessant action was to evaporate realities in abstract thought might have been merely grotesque, but for the gravity of its consequences for communism and the starting-point of visionary flight. Marx was furious with Hegel, because Hegel had betrayed communism in advance, by imposing a vapid logical caricature of perfected togetherness in the form of the abstract concept ‘unity’ over the real possibility of perfected togetherness, which might not yet have a concept but in any case was certainly not unity. Like Descartes, whose game in the Meditations was rigged from the start because God couldn’t turn out to be a sadist (there could be no twist), Hegel had bound himself to the discovery of ‘unity’ at the end of every logical conflict, fundamentally for the reason that he couldn’t deny ‘the established illusion of the internal unity of the political state’, that is, the illusion that currently existing social harmony (however earsplittingly dissonant it may actually be—harmony is after all only a metaphor) is rational and necessary. ‘Hegel’s chief mistake’, Marx decides in the unfinished manuscript of the Critique,

consists in the fact that he conceives of the contradiction in appearance as being a unity in essence, i.e., in the Idea; whereas it certainly has something more profound in its essence, namely, an essential contradiction.69

The insistence on essential contradiction is meant to make unity in Hegel’s sense impossible, like a fetish: ‘unity in essence’ is only superficial, because there is ‘something more profound’, a contradiction stuck at or blocking the point where unity is supposed to arrive, which Marx mimics Hegel by calling ‘essential’. Hegel thinks that the idea, let alone the feeling, that life is wrong and that society is not meant to be the way it is must always be a step toward the more advanced knowledge that wrong life is right too and that not yet being how we are meant to be must be how we are meant to be. This is always the right and only way for reason to go, for Hegel, because it always leads to unity, and through dissonance to harmony. Breaking up is always movement toward getting back together again, which means that people who really are broken up and who cannot be put back together are either stuck in the past or they do not exist. Marx detested this conclusion and rejected it. It meant never getting to the point of visionary flight out of logic, because there would be no end to conceptual thinking: the incessant evaporation of realities formed a logical perpetuum mobile, ‘an act without an end’ that in essence is ‘an endless, senseless act’.70 Logic that is itself the real point and meaning of the philosophy of social existence that it ought merely to serve or underwrite—in other words, logic that is inexorable, or always what is really going on whenever anything is thought—is a betrayal in advance of communism: it blocks the way out into vision, substituting the endless breaking up and getting back together again of the concept, the Ausgangspunkt ultimately incapable of abandoning the Rückkehrpunkt, for its actual explosion by individuals who are really broken up and cannot be put back together, which is the only way to get rid of the block. With the thought of ‘essential contradiction’, the ‘something more profound’ than unity, Marx means a contradiction that is never overcome by thought because it is not mental, or not a contradiction in and for the mind; yet this contradiction that is not for the mind is still disastrously logical, despite how it is meant to inhere only in reality, where it has the power to bind and separate individuals.

The ‘essential contradiction’ has two ends, just like the ‘contradiction in appearance’ that is really ‘a unity in essence’; but unlike the two ends of the ‘contradiction in appearance’, the two ends of the ‘essential contradiction’ are absolutely incapable of being stuck together in unity. The life of the individual and the inherence of state power in a monarch constitute together a ‘contradiction in appearance’ for Hegel. For Marx, they are an essential contradiction: the possibility of the first depends on the total extermination (with no life-saving paramedical recourse to Aufhebung) of the second. The essential contradiction is the basic form of the most difficult ‘result’ of logic, the point of no return that gives proof of the courage of logic and the imperative character of its categories, and ultimately determines its revolutionary character. The essential contradiction reached at the ‘more profound’ point of revolutionary logic resembles and really might be the essentially violent, point-blank, non-logical dilemma of either-A-or-B-right-now: do or die, yes or no. It is almost, or always might yet be, the bathos of what passes for logic.

The idea of an ‘essential contradiction’ that logic was powerless to resolve into ‘unity’ was necessary for Marx’s vision of communism. By blocking logic at a point of no return—synthesis stops here, no more Aufhebung—the ‘essential contradiction’ holds open a point outside of logic, a point of vision and thought that is not used to fill in the blanks with categories but to reach for a life after the categories have ceased to work. When critique reaches this point, it faces being poetic.

Essential contradiction is both logical and not logical at once. It is the logic at the dead end of logic, the moment where reality appears as the real futility of reasoning any further. Marx’s thought is less dialectical than unparalyzable. Marx wanted a critique that was violent, first of all in the sense that it would demonstrate the inexorability of real conflict with state power (later, and ultimately, with capital), and in that way keep open a point of logical death, or absolute mortification of logic, or explosive irreconcilability from which the perpetually mobile category and its ‘endless, senseless act’ could be repulsed. The essential contradiction is a point of pure obstruction that logic cannot pass. Its forms are not internal to logic, but climaxes of form reached when logic is ‘carried to its highest expression’ and then recklessly pushed an extra separation further. That phrase is from the crescendo of The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx’s ruthless criticism of Proudhon published in 1847:

The struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class, a struggle which carried to its highest expression is a total revolution. Indeed, is it at all surprising that a society founded on the opposition of classes should culminate in brutal contradiction, the shock of body against body, as its final denouement?71

After this climax, resounding in Marx’s original French in the explicitly alliterative alexandrine ‘un choc de corps à corps comme dernier dénouement’, there is no more continuity, no syntax of categories, only the block of abolished Rückkehrpunkt:

Does this mean that after the fall of the old society there will be a new class domination culminating in a new political power? No.72





1.Anna Mendelssohn, Implacable Art (Cambridge: Salt, 2000), 17.
2.Deborah P. Britzman, Novel Education: Psychoanalytic Studies of Learning and Not Learning (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), 29.
3.François Roustang, How to make a paranoid laugh, or, What is psychoanalysis?, trans. Anne C. Vila, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, 26.
4.Unpublished draft of an article. With grateful thanks to Lauren Berlant for permission to quote.
5.David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy, and Taxation, The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa, vol.1, Cambridge: CUP, 1951, 93;
6.Marx to Engels, 16 January 1858, MECW, 40, 249.
Marx to Lassalle, 22 February 1858, MECW, 40, 268.
7.The ‘Briefwechsel von 1843’ [‘Correspondencefrom 1843’]is a collection of letters exchanged between Marx, Ruge, Bakunin, and Feuerbach and printed in the first (and only) issue of the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher in 1844. The same issue also contained Marx’s ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction’, in which Marx uses the famous phrase of Kant’s, ‘categorical imperative’, not ironically, or as leftovers from a philosophy long ago surpassed, but as an unblunted ‘weapon of criticism’ fully assimilated into his own materialist arsenal: ‘The critique of religion ends in the doctrine that man is the supreme being for man; thus it ends with the categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, enslaved, neglected, contemptible being—conditions which cannot be better described than by the Frenchman’s exclamation about a proposed tax on dogs: ‘Poor dogs! They want to treat you like men!’ Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, trans. Arnette John and Joseph O’Malley, ed. Joseph O’Malley, Cambridge: CUP, 1970, 137.
8.‘[…] die rücksichtslose Kritik alles Bestehenden, rücksichtslos sowohl in dem Sinne, dass die Kritik sich nicht vor ihren Resultaten fürchtet und eben so wenig vor dem Conflikte mit den vorhandenen Mächten.’
9.Marx, ‘Economic Manuscript of 1861–3’, MECW, 30, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988, 302, translation revised (‘contentlessness’ for Fowkes’s ‘vacuity’); MEGA, II, vol.3, book 1, 276.
10.Marx to Engels, 18 July 1877, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Correspondence 1846–1895, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1943, 346. ‘Rücksichtlosigkeit—erste Bedingung aller Kritik’, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Der Briefwechsel, Band 4, München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1983, 458–9.
11.Marx used this phrase in one of the notebooks that comprise the Economic Manuscript of 1861–3, the second rough draft of volume one of Das Kapital. Marx records his admiration for what he calls, in a mixture of English in German, the ‘exquisite Ironie’ of a paradoxical remark found in William Petty’s A treatise of taxes and contributions, a work of ‘classical political economy’ published in 1662. Among a number of passages Marx copied out from the Treatise is the following sentence: ‘Religion best flour- ishes when the priests are most mortified, as…the law…best flourishes when lawyers have least to do.’ ‘Die Pfaffen behandelt Petty mit exquisite Ironie’, comments Marx: ‘Petty handles the clergy with exquisite irony.’ Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, 34, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1994, 171; MEGA II 3.62208.
12. Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream, trans. Leonard Tancock, London: Penguin, 1966, 52.
13. Diderot, Œuvres, ed. André Billy, Paris: Gallimard, 1951, 411.
14. Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream, 58.
15. Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream, 63.
16. Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream, 65, 69. ‘La recon-
naissance est un fardeau, et tout fardeau est fait pour être secoué.’ ‘La vertu
se fait respecter, et le respect est incommode.’ Diderot, Œuvres, 421, 426.
17. Marx to Engels, 15 April 1869, Selected Correspondence 1846–1895, 260.
18. John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive, ed.
J.M. Robson, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973, 6. On Marx’s treatment of Mill, see Bela A. Balassa, ‘Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill’, Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv, Bd. 83 (1959), 147–165. ‘Whenever Marx mentions Mill’s name (which does not happen very frequently) he never forgets to add some derogatory comment.’
19. Mill, A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive, 6.
20. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox, Oxford: Clarendon, 1985,
section 318, 205.
21. Marx to Lassalle, 22 February 1858, MECW, 40, 270.
22. Engels, ‘Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy’, MECW, 3, 418.
23. Marx, MECW, 30, 306–10.
24. Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 10, 64, 15. Cf. Capital, 497:
‘The human being is a very imperfect instrument for producing uniform
and continuous motion.’ Fowkes’s ‘Man’ emended to ‘human being’.
25. Ludwig Feuerbach, Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy (1839), in The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings, trans. Zawar Hanfi, London: Verso, 2012, 76. Cf. 95: ‘What we normally call thought is only the translation into an idiom comprehensible to us of a highly gifted but more or less unknown
author who is difficult to understand.’
26. Ludwig Feuerbach, Thoughts on Death and Immortality from the Papers of
a Thinker, Along with an Appendix of Theological-Satirical Epigrams, Edited by One of His Friends (1830), trans. James A. Massey, Berkeley: U of California P, 1980, 29.
27. Ludwig Feuerbach, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, trans. Manfred H. Vogel, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986, 41.
28. Feuerbach, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, 70.
29. Feuerbach, Thoughts on Death and Immortality, 121. Translation emended.
30. This is Marx’s description of Feuerbach’s philosophy, from the preface to
the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, MECW, 3, 232.
31. J.G. Fichte, Science of Knowledge, ed. and trans. Peter Heath and John
Lachs, Cambridge: CUP, 1991, 67, 70.
32. Capital, vol.1, 373, fn.70: ‘In a time so rich in reflection and so devoted
to raisonnement as our own, he must be a poor creature who cannot advance a good ground for everything, even for what is worst and most depraved. Everything in the world that has become corrupt, has had good ground for its corruption.’
33. Capital, vol.1, 372. In the original German the last of these exclamations is ‘welch querköpfig Volk!’: literally, ‘what queer-headed people!’ On Marx’s relation to the page, see Pierre Macherey, ‘On the Process of Exposition Capital (The Work of Concepts)’, in Althusser et al., Reading Capital. The Complete Edition, trans. Ben Brewster and David Fernbach, London: Verso, 2015, 185: ‘In fact, if we study the successive corrections, from the first sketch of A Contribution through to the last state of the text of Capital, we perceive that Marx, constantly resuming the exposition to give it a form that would never be definitive (since it was always capable of being resumed), did the work of a scientific writer, with the page of writing as his perspective.’
34. Twelfth Night, II, v, ll.30–1, 42–3.
35. Capital, vol.1, 247.
36. Jacques Bidet, Explication et reconstruction du Capital, Paris, Presses
Universitaires de France, 2004, 45. My translation.
37. David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, London: Verso, 2010, 15.
38. Pierre Macherey, ‘On the Process of Exposition of Capital (The Work of
Concepts)’, Reading Capital. The Complete Edition, Althusser et al., trans. Ben Brewster and David Fernbach, London: Verso, 2015, 177. Translation emended: Brewster and Fernbach leadingly translate Macherey’s ‘un savoir’ as ‘a scientific knowledge’, prejudging the outcome in favor of Althusser’s interpretation of Capital as ‘science’. The prejudgment is cor- rect, but Macherey has not yet said as much. Lire Le Capital, Althusser et al., Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996, 203.
39. Macherey, Reading Capital, 177; ‘La lecture du commencement’, Lire Le Capital, 204.
40. Macherey, Reading Capital, 177; Lire Le Capital, 204.
41. Macherey, Reading Capital, 178; Lire Le Capital, 204–5.
42. Macherey, Reading Capital, 178.
43. Macherey, Reading Capital, 181, 182.
44. Capital, vol.1, 247.
45. Grundrisse, 197; 111.
46. Grundrisse, 516.
47. Ludwig Feuerbach, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, trans. Manfred
H. Vogel, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986, 52: ‘Only in feeling and love has the demonstrative this—this person, this thing, that is, the particular— absolute value […] In this and this alone does the infinite depth, divinity, and truth of love consist. […] And since the demonstrative this owes its absolute value to love alone, it is only in love—not in abstract thought— that the secret of being is revealed.’ The image is from Luke 12:7: ‘But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.’ Philosophy rather than God is this power that counts and recognizes every last human singularity. The attribution of ‘absolute value’ to ‘the demonstrative this’ of feeling and love is a reply to Hegel’s account of ‘sense-certainty: or the ‘this’ and ‘meaning” in Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977, 58ff. The frequent reappearance of this style of insistent determination—‘this, this, this’—elsewhere in Feuerbach’s writing makes it a characteristic prosody of his thought. Cf. for example ‘Provisional Theses for the Reformation of Philosophy’, The Young Hegelians, ed. Lawrence S. Stepelevich, Cambridge: CUP, 1983, 157: ‘Historically considered, [the absolute] is nothing other than the old theological-metaphysical entity or non-entity which is not finite, not human, not material, not determined and not created.’
48. Grundrisse 536.
49. Grundrisse 536.
50. Grundrisse 516/415.
51. Capital, vol.1, 733.
52. MEGA, II, 7, 509.
53. Capital, vol.1, 733.
54. Grundrisse 516. Rosa Luxemburg comments on the choppy circulation of
money and its difference from the smooth flow of capital in The Accumulation of Capital (1913), trans. Agnes Schwarzschild, London: Routledge, 2010, 68: ‘commodity and money continually change places—possession of the commodity excluding the possession of money, as money constantly usurps the place which the commodity has given up, and vice versa.’
55. Cf. István Mészáros, Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition, London: Merlin, 1995, 106: ‘The unalterable temporality of capital is a posteriori and retrospective. There can be no future ahead in a meaningful sense of the term, since the only admissible ‘future’ has already arrived in the form of the existing parameters of the established order well before the question of ‘what is to be done’ is allowed to be raised. […] In reality nothing is allowed to create a genuine opening. […] Everything that can be in a sense already has been.’ Mészáros here effectively sweeps aside David Harvey’s inexplicable claim that Marx ‘was practicing what we now call deconstruction.’ A Companion to Marx’s Capital, London: Verso, 2010, 5.
56. MECW, 30, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988, 180; MEGA, II, Vol.3, Book 1, 158.
57. MECW, 30, 191; MEGA, II, Vol.3, Book 1, 168.
58. MECW, 30, 191; MEGA, II, Vol.3, Book 1, 168.
59. MEGA, II, Vol.3, Book 1, 168–9. Fowkes’s more reasonable English is
‘the labour time of workers prolonged beyond that required for their own
subsistence’. MECW, 30, 191.
60. In Capital, ‘living labour’ likewise exists outside the logic of value.
61. MECW, vol.3, 211.
62. MECW, vol.3, 227–8; Karl Marx Friedrich Engels, Werke, vol.1, Berlin:
Dietz Verlag, 1968, 462.
63. MECW, vol.3, 239.
64. Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 126.
65. MECW, 3, 232.
66. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George Di Giovanni, Cambridge: CUP,
2010, 23.
67. Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 18.
68. Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 18. ‘Das Wesen gehört der
Logik und ist vor der Rechtsphilosophie fertig.’
69. Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 91.
70. Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 35.
71. MECW, 6, 212.
72. MECW, 6, 212.



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