Monthly Archives: September 2011

Mistranslating Marx: The “idiocy of rural life”

Given the concern with changing conditions in rural society in much of this issue (as represented by the work of Amin and William Hinton) we thought that readers would be interested in the origin of a misunderstanding that surrounds Marx’s thoughts on rural life. One often hears the criticism that Marxism was from the beginning an extreme modernizing philosophy that looked with complete disdain on rural existence. Did not Marx himself in The Communist Manifesto, it is frequently asked, refer to “the idiocy of rural life”? Here a misconception has arisen through the mistranslation of a single word in the authorized English translation of the Manifesto. This issue is addressed in Hal Draper’s definitive, though little known work, The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto (Berkeley: Center for Socialist History, 1998)an expanded version of his earlier work, The Annotated Communist Manifesto. Draper’s Adventures includes a new English translation of the Manifesto, together with paragraph-by-paragraph annotations, and the most detailed history currently available of the various editions of the Manifesto in major European languages.

In Draper’s translation the phrase “the idiocy of rural life” in paragraph 28 of the Manifesto is replaced with “the isolation of rural life.” His explanation for this correction is worth quoting at length:

IDIOCY OF RURAL LIFE. This oft-quoted A.ET. [authorized English translation] expression is a mistranslation. The German word Idiotismus did not, and does not, mean “idiocy” (Idiotie); it usually means idiom, like its French cognate idiotisme. But here [in paragraph 28 of The Communist Manifesto] it means neither. In the nineteenth century, German still retained the original Greek meaning of forms based on the word idiotes: a private person, withdrawn from public (communal) concerns, apolitical in the original sense of isolation from the larger community. In the Manifesto, it was being used by a scholar who had recently written his doctoral dissertation on Greek philosophy and liked to read Aeschylus in the original. (For a more detailed account of the philological background and evidence, see [Hal Draper], KMTR [Karl Marxs Theory of Revolution, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1978] 2:344f.) What the rural population had to be saved from, then, was the privatized apartness of a life-style isolated from the larger society: the classic stasis of peasant life. To inject the English idiocy into this thought is to muddle everything. The original Greek meaning (which in the 19th century was still alive in German alongside the idiom meaning) had been lost in English centuries ago. Moore [the translator of the authorized English translation] was probably not aware of this problem; Engels had probably known it forty years before. He was certainly familiar with the thought behind it: in his Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), he had written about the rural weavers as a class “which had remained sunk in apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind.” (MECW [Marx and Engels, Collected Works] 4:309.) In 1873 he made exactly the Manifesto’s point without using the word “idiocy”: the abolition of the town-country antithesis “will be able to deliver the rural population from the isolation and stupor in which it has vegetated almost unchanged for thousands of years” (Housing Question, Pt. III, Chapter 3).

Marx’s criticism of the isolation of rural life then had to do with the antithesis of town and country under capitalism as expressed throughout his work. See also John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press), pp. 137-38.

Monthly Review, October 2003, vol. 55 # 5: Notes from the Editors

This is fascinating. This point serves as an excellent support of Exchange Value‘s essay regarding misquotations of Marx by prominent business magazines in order to make him seem like he celebrates the bourgeoisie. As well, this quotation is apparently “often used by Greens to mischaracterize [Marx & Engels] as relentless modernizers.” Retranslating the sentence gives it an intriguingly collectivist resonance, making it worthwhile for Marxists and non-Marxists alike to readjust their views of Marx accordingly.

Polyphonic Metamodelization

Chaos and instability, concepts only beginning to acquire formal definitions, were not the same at all. A chaotic system could be stable if its particular brand of irregularity persisted in the face of small disturbances. [Edward] Lorenz’s system was an example… The chaos Lorenz discovered, with all its unpredictability, was as stable as a marble in a bowl. You could add noise to this system, jiggle it, stir it up, interfere with its motion, and then when everything settled down, the transients dying away like echoes in a canyon, the system would return to the same peculiar pattern of irregularity as before. It was locally unpredictable, globally stable. Real dynamical systems played by a more complicated set of rules than anyone had imagined. The example described in the letter from Smale’s colleague was another simple system, discovered more than a generation earlier and all but forgotten. As it happened, it was a pendulum in disguise: an oscillating electronic circuit. It was nonlinear and it was periodically forced, just like a child on a swing.

It was just a vacuum tube, really, investigated in the twenties by a Dutch electrical engineer named Balthasar van der Pol. A modern physics student would explore the behavior of such an oscillator by looking at the line traced on the screen of an oscilloscope. Van der Pol did not have an oscilloscope, so he had to monitor his circuit by listening to changing tones in a telephone handset. He was pleased to discover regularities in the behavior as he changed the current that fed it. The tone would leap from frequency to frequency as if climbing a staircase, leaving one frequency and then locking solidly onto the next. Yet once in a while van der Pol noted something strange. The behavior sounded irregular, in a way that he could not explain. Under the circumstances he was not worried. “Often an irregular noise is heard in the telephone receivers before the frequency jumps to the next lower value,” he wrote in a letter to Nature. “However, this is a subsidiary phenomenon.” He was one of many scientists who got a glimpse of chaos but had no language to understand it. For people trying to build vacuum tubes, the frequency-locking was important. But for people trying to understand the nature of complexity, the truly interesting behavior would turn out to be the “irregular noise” created by the conflicting pulls of a higher and lower frequency.

~Gleick – Chaos: Making A New Science, pp. 48-9

My question: what if van der Pol could not have noticed the patterns he did if he had simply used a graph? What if the structures of music (e.g. chord progressions, key, octaves) can allow insight into patterns that cannot be fully conveyed via visual media, i.e. graphs?

There’s a flash game related to this topic here. Though I normally avoid such frivolous things, this one is quite simple, yet allows for a great amount of creativity. If Noam Chomsky could develop syntax out of a little grammar game he would play between sessions of ‘serious’ linguistic work, so, perhaps, one might be able to eventually come up with some practical application for playthings like this…

People’s seemingly inherent attraction to games is something that I still don’t understand, but it is nonetheless quite fascinating, not to mention (potentially) useful, as in this case.

Richard Webster on Intellectuals

The tragic predicament of such intellectuals [as Lacan] is that, driven by terrifying feelings of emotional emptiness and insecurity, they mistakenly conclude that intellectual truths can be an adequate substitute for emotional warmth. Convinced that difficult or abstract intellectual formulations can alone fill the void they feel within them, they develop a voracious appetite for such formulations, anorexically judging their goodness by the degree of difficulty or abstraction they possess. Believing that what they have devoured is intrinsically nourishing and failing to grasp the poverty of the diet they have adopted through their own self-denying ordinances, they now feel impelled to share their ‘truths’ with others. Indeed they are driven by their own generosity to do so. Like a starving man who compels others to eat the diet of stones he believes has saved him, they give abundantly of their poverty out of a genuine conviction that they are enriching others. Because their own most generous impulses have become inextricably entwined with their impulse to self-denial they are unable to discriminate between generosity and cruelty and unable to understand that by compulsively sharing with others (or compelling others to share) their own chosen form of intellectual or spiritual wealth they are merely disseminating their poverty.

~Webster, R. “The Cult of Lacan

[The above is the only thought-provoking paragraph of an otherwise worthless essay.]

The Tragedy of The Tragedy of the Commons

Question: In his essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin assumes that a commons will inevitably be degraded. Is this so?

Garrett Hardin, in his essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” offers a brand new metaphor (‘the tragedy’) by which to interpret the politics of allocating natural resources, as well as a useful concept (‘the commons’) to label those resources which resist the delineations of private property. However, Hardin’s actual arguments behind this concept are quite weak. I will argue that Hardin’s argument was based on a misinterpretation of Bentham; that his plea for governments to restrict births was based on holding a variable as a constant; and that the true importance of his argument comes from its refutation of the laissez-faire subject.

To summarize Garrett Hardin’s argument: using an example of shepherds sharing a common grazing field, he shows that if each shepherd follows their own interests by allowing as many of their goats to feed as they can, the pasture will eventually become overgrazed, leading to adverse consequences for all of the shepherds. Hardin uses this example as a metaphor for all environmental resources. He notes various resources which are ‘commons’, i.e. owned by no one and shared by all, and argues that state control is necessary to distribute resources in amounts that are optimal for all while preventing overuse. In particular, he condemns the UN’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” for stating that no person or institution has any right to control the size of a family, i.e. to limit the amount of births in order to prevent overpopulation.

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McLuhan on Structuralism

Before looking at the English evidence for the same concern with regularity and uniformity among printers and print users alike, it is well to remind ourselves of the rise of structural linguistics in our day. Structuralism in art and criticism stemmed, like non-Euclidean geometrics, from Russia. Structuralism as a term does not much convey its idea of inclusive synesthesia, an interplay of many levels and factors in a two-dimensional mosaic. But it is a mode of awareness in art language and literature which the West took great pains to eliminate by means of Gutenberg technology. It has returned in out time, for good or ill, as this opening paragraph of a recent book84 indicates:

Language gives evidence of its reality through three categories of human experience. The first may be considered as the meaning of words; the second, as those meanings enshrined in grammatical forms; and the third and, in the view of this author, the most significant, as those meanings which lies beyond grammatical forms, with those meanings mysteriously and miraculously revealed to man. It is with this last category that this chapter will endeavor to deal, for its thesis is that thought itself must be accompanied by a critical understanding of the relations of linguistic expression to the deepest and most persistent intuitions of man. An effort will further will further be made to show that language becomes imperfect and inadequate when it depends exclusively upon mere words & forms and when there is an uncritical trust in the adequacy of these words and forms as constituting the ultimate content and extent of language. For man is that being on earth who does not have language. Man is language.

~McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, pp. 230-1

84: R.N. Anshen, Language: An Enquiry into its Meaning & Function, vol. VIII, p. 3.

Works Cited by Deleuze & Guattari in Capitalism & Schizophrenia

One of my goals this year is to start reading Deleuze & Guattari’s two-volume Capitalism & Schizophrenia series. I’m familiar with the work of Guattari thanks to Gary Genosko’s excellent (though at times mind-bogglingly recondite) introduction to his work, though I admit that all my current knowledge about Deleuze has been accumulated solely through blogs and discussions. I decided to peek at the endnotes of both texts with an eye out for ‘pre-readings’, since I not only want to know what they are saying, but how they came to their conclusions. Not that I intend to postpone reading D&G until I finish all of these, but at the very least, I think that one should be somewhat familiar with the works’ antecedents, even if that just means reading their Wiki pages. These, then, are the authors and works they cite for each respective text; multiple works by the same author are separated by plus signs.

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A Shout-out to Je Est Un Autre

I recently went through the archives of Je Est Un Autre in full, and was quite impressed. Alex Andrews (now affiliated with AUFS) wrote the blog while in graduate school for theology, interweaving portions of his thesis (on John Ruskin’s theological economics), conference papers, and his side job as a DJ. Especially near the latter portion of his blog’s lifespan, he provided some very clear and perceptive essays on political economy.

His blog is named after a quotation by Antonin Artaud: “Je est un autre, évidemment. La difficulté consiste à savoir de quel autre” [‘I is an other, obviously. The difficulty consists in knowing which other.’]. Artaud said this in his letter on the 13th of May 1871 to Georges Izambard and then again on the 15th May to Paul Demeny: his famous “lettres du voyant.” Alex explains it thus: “my I is formed by another, that which is outside myself.”

It always interests me when people are interested in economics enough to research it in their own free time; Alex reflexively takes into account his non-specialization in economics, analyzing the place of heterodox economics in relation to canonical schools, and finding that this supposed division is absent from actual practice, though this false division is nevertheless retained due to hegemonic neoclassicism in academia. Alex attacks the mathematization of economics (as well as its scientific status), revealing the immense ontological presumptions of the neoclassicists, econometrics in particular. He possesses an admirable knowledge of the history of economics, which, he emphasizes, is not as linear a path from Adam Smith to contemporary neoclassicists as the latter would like us to believe. As well, he clarifies many oversimplifications in David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism, and in his philosophical writings draws parallels among various disparate intellectual figures (e.g. Brassier & Bataille).

My complaints about Je Est Un Autre are as follows. First, it seems to me that his theological approach motivates him to utilize a somewhat facile moral view (i.e. ‘sermon on the mount’ principles). As he is a theologian by training and not an economist, this is forgivable; on the contrary, his willingness to leave the cloistered confines of theological canon is very impressive. I am disappointed, however, that he does not try to deal with more contemporary economic lines of thought in detail (e.g. chaos theory, game theory, analyzing the Hands-Mirowski thesis in terms of contemporary physics, etc.); Alex contents himself at most with describing how such movements fit into the historical development of neoliberalism.

Nevertheless, many of Alex’s essays are eminently worth reading, in particular:

**Note: For those who are interested, Alex also has a magnificent presentation available on mp3 here.  It’s the only one in the collection worth listening to.