Jia Zhang-ke’s Platform is a difficult, but ultimately powerful and haunting film. It’s two and a half hours long (the director’s original cut, apparently, went to over three hours). The film follows the members of a performance troupe (musicians, singers, and dancers) in a provincial Chinese town over the period from 1979 to 1990. It’s challenging, and often hard to follow, because the narrative is so elliptical. The style is mostly long takes and static long shots, beautiful in a kind of spare way. It is hard to get intimate with the characters, because they are so often distant from the camera, and dwarfed by their alienating surroundings (towns with crumbling old buildings or ugly new ones; and in between, as they wander from town to town, there are lots of dusty or desert landscapes). Also, characters appear and disappear without much explanation, over the course of the decade that the film follows. Often we get cuts from one situation to another, seemingly continuous because the same music is playing over the cut, and without any explicit indication of how much time has passed — only gradually do we realize that the new scene is months, or even years, after the previous one, and that important events have happened in the interim, which are not shown but only alluded to. The characters’ lives are desultory and ineffectual — nobody really achieves anything or gets anywhere, either personally or professionally. All their relationships fall apart, more from disinterest than acrimoniousness. They never make it to the big cities, which was their goal from the very beginning. Indeed, they are never successful as performers: nobody has much use for their Maoist morality plays in 1979, and nobody has much use for their lame simulations of hard rocking and disco dancing in 1990. The real drama of the film is precisely this change, or rather the social change of which their stylistic changes are an example: China’s movement from Maoist isolation and totalitarian purism to full-fledged capitalism and international connections. At the start of the film, the small town the troupe comes from has crumbling ruins and only a few Party-owned motor vehicles. In the middle, the troupe is privatized — along with just about everything else we see. By the end, there are traffic jams and all sorts of new construction; money is being made, and society has new groups of winners and losers. The film’s subtlety is that these changes are never directly called attention to; it remains in the background (or literally, as the scenic background). The characters remain too mired in their small personal dilemmas to ever explicitly register how much their own lives have changed, together with the world around them. Everything is conveyed by small references: in the opening sequences, for instance, they flub a performance of a train ride to Chairman Mao’s birthplace, because (it turns out) none of them has ever even seen, much less ridden a train. Years later, and halfway through the movie, they are mired in the middle of nowhere when their truck has broken down; they hear a train coming and run wildly toward the tracks, in the hope that it will stop and pick them up — but they make it to the tracks just too late. (It’s a gorgeous scene, because of the hilly scenery, and because of the pop song “Platform” that gives the film its name — apparently it was a big Chinese hit in the 1980s — it is playing on the truck’s radio for the entire scene). We similarly see the characters’ wardrobes change over the course of the film; they stop wearing Maoist uniforms and gradually discover fashions arriving in their small town from the rest of the world. And we move from scenes where Maoist propaganda music is already playing on the town’s public loudspeakers, to ones where people are casually watching Bollywood films on TV in their own homes. And so, for a large portion of the film, I watched the scenes pass, only vaguely being able to parse what was going on; the film’s larger themes and social commentary sneaked up on me, as it were, and only towards the end did I retrospectively realize how brilliant and meaningful was so much of what had come before. All in all, Platform is a rather depressing film; the characters’ lives, as I’ve already said, go nowhere despite the immense social change that is happening within them as well as all around them. And Jia doesn’t see free-wheeling capitalism as much of an improvement over totalitarian Maoism: a few people get rich, but most of them remain downtrodden victims; and the new freedom they have is mostly just the freedom to be a consumer — to the extent that one’s means allow — and to sample the wares from a larger world which thereby penetrates their village, but which otherwise they will never see. This is what happens, Jia suggests, when his country moves from insularity to globalization, and from socialist poverty (both material and spiritual) to capitalist inequality. At the end of the film, I was left with an immense sense of sadness and loss — despite the fact that nothing tragic has happened, and that the film doesn’t accord its characters anything that they could have lost. It’s just a tale of ordinary depression and oppression, in both socialist and capitalist varieties.
Archive for November, 2005
“Damn, the human mind doesn’t really work the way humans like to think. It’s much more crazed and folded. Backward, switchbacking, switchbladed. Freaked. You humans can’t handle your own heads…” (316).
Tricia Sullivan’s new novel Double Vision (only available in the UK) is her first book since Maul. Like Maul, Double Vision has a double plot, with one strand set in a science-fiction future world, and the other set in (near-)present New Jersey. Karen ‘Cookie” Orbach is an overweight, socially dysfunctional, generally passive young black woman, living in New Jersey in 1984, who hallucinates when she watches TV: instead of seeing the shows everyone else sees, she has visions. Specifically, she becomes a silent eyewitness to a war on another planet. All-woman squadrons of (apparently American) soldiers are attacking, not exactly an enemy army, nor even another species, but a sort of sentient landscape/dreamscape called The Grid, which seems to cover most of the planet. Back in New Jersey, Cookie works for the Dataplex Corporation, which pays her well to report to them what she sees in the war.
The New Jersey narrative is more or less about Cookie learning to affirm herself and take control of her life. The Grid narrative is about… well, it isn’t easy to say. The grid is a hallucinatory, ever-changing labyrinth of pulsing light, and pollen and pheromones, and tree-like branches, all emanating from a thick, viscous, organic liquid called the Well. The Grid is a kind of simulacral mirror: it mimics any organic object or artifact that comes into contact with it, returning it back to you in multiple copies, in a form that is sometimes sinister, and other times just seems like a cruel parody, or a cheap-horror-movie version of the original. The Grid does not recognize the distinctions of cause and effect, subject and object; “it operates according to an acausal connecting principle” (287). The Grid “refus[es] to be nailed down in object form”; it marks a border “between the possible and the actual” (183). The Grid seems to be made of information, yet it is also highly emotional, and somehow “feminine… like anything subject to change, like any body that yields and sacrifices its nature and transforms itself” (99).
The Grid is ontological, in short. It seems to be the matrix of all potentialities and all appearances. It’s dangerous because it messes with your mind, altering you even as it allows itself to be altered by you. But still, it’s unclear why (aside from the usual stupidity of our imperium) American or Earth forces are attacking it, trying to control it or exterminate it, rather than seeking a less violent (more collaborative or dialogic) approach.
But there’s one other thing about the Grid, and it provides the link between the SF story of which Cookie is the observer, and the humdrum reality of her everyday life. The reason that the Dataplex Corporation wants Cookie’s reports from the Grid is that these reports contain, unbeknownst to her, references to advertisements and product placements in the TV shows that Cookie cannot see. Every visual detail, every plot twist, in the war stories that Cookie experiences has its analogue in a very different sort of war: the war of advertising strategies. Analyzing Cookie’s reports, Dataplex is able to inform its corporate clients as to which advertising campaigns will succeed and which will fail. Information about how to penetrate and destroy the Grid is transformed into information about which approaches will penetrate TV viewers’ psychological defenses and influence their purchasing behavior.
Sullivan leaves the relation between these two dimensions of the Grid enigmatic. We live in a world where everything is penetrated by — or better, imbricated with — the flows of capital. Yet of course there is something parasitic about capital. It can’t really create, without hitching a ride, as it were, on forces (nature, bodies, emotions, human labor and pain and passion) that it is unable to originate by and for itself. The Grid is not the power of capital — which is perhaps why the military has been enlisted to destroy it — but it is something that this power cannot do without — which is why the military campaign seems endless, and even why it is in process of being deserted (towards the end of the novel, all the human forces are evacuated from the planet, leaving behind machines to continue the work of destruction… but also leaving behind the disturbingly quasi-human remnants of the Grid’s own mimicries).
For that matter, it’s not entirely clear, either, how the lessons of the Grid help Cookie to pull things more together in her everyday life, to come to terms with being an outsider, a freak, a possible schizophrenic, to overcome her pathological passivity, to deal with the everyday actuality of sexism and boredom and lack of opportunity. But these very uncertainties are what make the novel so compelling. And by the end of the novel, Cookie is able to turn the tables, and — perhaps — channel the powers of the Grid for the here and now of New Jersey, rather than just travel to the Grid as an escape from New Jersey. And that might just mean turning the tables on the culture of advertising and commodities, as well.
What happens when Kojin Karatani reads Marx’s “critique of political economy” through the lens of Kant’s Critiques? This is the big question of the second part of Transcritique. Excuse me for once more dipping into the murky (and not very elegantly written) world of Marxist theory, and moving through the issues somewhat ploddingly, repetitiously, and overly academically, with a lot of Philosophy 101-style paraphrasing of basics. Unfortunately, this is the only way I can make these matters clear to myself.
In Karatani’s account, Marx delineates the “transcendental conditions” of a capitalist economy. But these conditions involve Antinomies, which can only be traversed (since they are never definitively resolved) by a process of continual “parallax,” or shifting of focus between one position and another. A Kantian “transcendental deduction” occurs in the form of what Karatani calls “transcritique,” a shuttling back and forth between the disparities generated by the shifts in perspective. Karatani discusses at great length the various parallax shifts in Marx’s argument; as Marx moved from Germany to France to England, he also moves from the critique of German idealism (Hegel and the young Hegelians), to the critique of French “utopian” socialism and political theory, to the critique of British empiricism and political economy. (I will pass over the interesting way that Karatani reads Marx’s essay on The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte as a “critique of national politics” (151), putting forward a theory of the State that, according to Karatani, the later Marxist tradition has failed to take the full measure of).
Marx, in a certain sense, repeats the Kantian Antinomy between idealism and empiricism, by working through the parallax between Hegelian dialectics, on the one hand, and British empiricism and utilitarianism, on the other. But more specifically, Marx examines such an Antinomy within the tradition of British empirical political economy itself. On one side, there’s the political economy of Ricardo, grounded in the labor theory of value: Marx is commonly regarded as the great inheritor of this tradition. But on the other hand, there is the political economy of Samuel Bailey, who criticizes Ricardo (in 1825) on the grounds that there is no intrinsic substance of value, neither “labor time” nor anything else. Bailey argues instead that value is a purely relational (today we would say “structural”) phenomenon: it exists only as a marker of the way that commodities are related to other commodities for which they can be exchanged. Karatani suggests that Bailey is the forgotten precursor of the neoclassical economics that was developed in the later 19th century and still holds sway in “bourgeois economics” today. The neoclassicists, like Bailey, reject the labor theory of value, or any other theory of intrinsic value; they claim that values are only formed “on the margin,” in the process of sale and purchase, as affected by shifts in supply and demand. From the point of view of neoclassical economics, Marx is simply dismissed as irrelevant, on the grounds that he still holds to the essentialism of the labor theory of value. Of course, this serves as a perfect alibi for neoclassical economics to ignore all the issues that Marx brings up: questions of the ownership and distribution of capital, of exploitation, in short, of class. Instead, neoclassical economics only considers questions of “efficiency” and “utility”: it takes the politics out of “political economy,” and becomes just plain “economics” instead.
Karatani claims that Marx’s reading of Bailey shook him out of his previously unquestioned Ricardianism, in the same way that Kant’s reading of Hume shook him out of the “dogmatic slumber” of idealist rationalism. Karatani doesn’t give any evidence for this claim; nor could I discern any special importance given to Bailey when I took a cursory glance at Marx’s discussion of Bailey in Theories of Surplus Value. But whether or not Marx actually got important insights from Bailey, I do find Karatani’s overall account of Marx’s thought plausible and convincing. Some Marxist economists (such as Stephen Resnick and RIchard Wolff) have long argued that Marx rejects Ricardian essentialism. Karatani argues that Marx’s “critique of political economy” operates precisely in the Antinomy, or parallax, between the labor theory of value, on the one hand, and Bailey’s (and the neoclassical economists’) positivistic dismissal of value theory altogether on the other. Karatani notes, first, that even the theory of surplus value was not original to Marx; left-wing Ricardians had already developed it as an explanation for profit and exploitation, in much the same way that the leftist Young Hegelians, like Feuerbach, had already developed a theory of alienation, and a critique of religion, upon which the young Marx originally drew, but which he later rejected as inadequate. As for the other half of the antinomy, Karatani notes that “Bailey’s skepticism [regarding the labor theory of value] is similar to Hume’s criticism that there is nothing like a Cartesian ego cogito” (5). And just as Kant responds to Hume by saying that Hume is right, in the sense that the Cartesian ego does not substantively exist, but also that Hume is wrong, in that the unifying form of the ego must nonetheless be posited as a transcendental condition of apperception — so similarly, according to Karatani, Marx rejects Ricardian essentialism (the labor theory of value in its classical form), but also insists, against Bailey’s (and later, neoclassical) nominalism, that a “transcendental reflection on value” (6) is necessary in order to make sense of capitalism as a system.
In other words: just as what Kant calls “apperception” would break down entirely, if it were truly as atomized as Hume maintains it is, so the capitalist order would cease to function altogether, if it were truly as atomized and relativistic as Bailey and, after him, the neoclassical marginalists, claim. What keeps perceptual experience together, Kant says — what allows it to maintain some sort of identity through time — is indeed an “I”; but this “I” is not substantial as the Cartesian tradition claims, for it is merely an empty form, “a transcendental subject of thoughts = x” (First Critique, A346/B404). (This could bring us to a consideration of Marx in terms of Kant’s Paralogisms as well as his Antinomies. I won’t pursue this here, as Karatani does not mention it; but it is something I want to think about further, and write about at some later point. Deleuze and Guattari describe the “paralogisms” of psychoanalysis in terms that derive from Kant’s critique of the paralogisms of Rational Psychology). In a parallel way to how the empty, transcendental form of the “I” keeps subjectivity together through time, so the transcendental category that Marx calls the “value-form” keeps the capitalist economy together, allowing it to replicate itself through time, impelling and indeed compelling it to expand through time. Marx is making a Kantian “transcendental” argument, when he posits the double value-form of the commodity (use-value and exchange-value) against both Ricardo’s essentialist (substantive) labor theory of value, and against the nominalist, positivist and ultimately neoclassical rejection of the very category of “value.”
This kind of reading leads directly to the so-called “transformation problem,” one of the most vexing questions in Marxist political economy. Basically, in Volume 1 of Capital Marx uncovers the structure of exploitation in terms of “surplus value”: roughly, the incommensurability between the value of labor-power itself as a commodity (i.e. what the workers are paid) and the value of the commodities produced by labor. The excess of the latter over the former is abstracted and extracted from the labor process by the capitalist; it is the source of the accumulation of capital. In Volume I, Marx is writing on a very high level of abstraction, describing the structure of capitalist society as a whole. In Volume III of Capital, however, Marx is trying to write about individual capitalist enterprises, and about the actual mechanism of prices, and the actual distribution of profit. How does one get from the abstraction of “value” to the actual prices of individual commodities, and from the abstraction of “surplus value” to actual profits? It’s well known that Marx’s mathematical model for making this “transformation” is flawed; and that indeed the problem is mathematically intractable — the equations can only be solved under very special, limited, and unrealistic conditions — which is why Marx, like Ricardo before him, was unable to solve them. Many critics have seen this impasse as a fatal contradiction within Marx’s own thought; neoclassical economists argue that, in light of the impossibility of any transformation, “value,” “surplus value,” and “exploitation” are irrelevant concepts altogether, and that the economy can be best understood by looking only at prices and profits.
Now, I’m not competent to discuss the whole history of the transformation problem, and the various attempts Marxist political economists have made to move between value/surplus value and price/profit, rather than throwing out the former and only retaining the latter. (There’s also the neo-Ricardianism of Piero Sraffa, which I don’t understand very well, but which at the very least reinstates the project of looking at the entire national or world economy as a system, as against the atomism of microeconomic, marginalist approaches). The basic point is not to correct Marx’s mathematics — which cannot be done, given the presuppositions of the problem — but to question those presuppositions themselves. The whole problem of transforming values into prices itself seems to depend on the idea of capitalism as a closed, synchronic system in a state of equilibrium — which is what most economists, classical and neoclassical alike, in fact presuppose — but elsewhere in Capital Marx argues that such a view is entirely inadequate, since capitalism is a process that necessarily unfolds in time, and that it is never in a state of equilibrium. Crises, Marx argues, are endemic to capitalism. They are not (as neoclassical economists assume even today) mere aberrations or temporary departures from the norm of equilibrium. Rather, crises are intrinsic to the movement of capital, they are even what pushes it forward. Crises are unavoidable because of the temporal factor. If anything, crises and business cycles are the norm; equilibrium is a fictive idealization, an abstraction: and not even a very useful one. There is no good reason to prefer the mathematical abstractions of neoclassical economics (which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, arise really from misunderstandings of 19th century, pre-quantum and pre-relativity physics) to the “transcendental” abstractions worked out by Marx.
When you consider the process of capitalist production and circulation temporally — when you look at capitalism diachronically instead of synchronically — then the transformation problem simply becomes irrelevant instead of insoluble. With an open future and its contingencies, goods can go unsold, equilibrium can no longer be presupposed, and what Karatani, following Marxist tradition, calls “trade cycles” — the boom-and-bust patterns we are so familiar with today — are always present as tendencies (that is to say, they are what Marx calls “tendential” processes: they are not predictable or inevitable, and countervailing factors can always dampen or even reverse them, but the tendency for them to happen is immanent to the whole capitalist process). Karatani therefore argues that value and surplus value, as posited in volume 1 of Capital, are the transcendental conditions of possibility of capitalism. Value and surplus value are the preconditions that make it possible, empirically, for capitalists to extract profit. But value and surplus value are themselves never encountered empirically. Empirically, we only encounter prices and profits. “Thus,” Karatani writes, “the insistence of neoclassical economists that the concepts of value and surplus value are false is in total accord with the everyday consciousness of the agents” (242). (This doesn’t mean that capitalist subjects suffer from “false consciousness”; but rather, that — as Zizek might say — the “ideology” of prices and profits is itself an objective part of social reality: as I discuss below).
Karatani suggests, therefore, that the often-alleged “discrepancy” between Volumes 1 and 3 of Capital is actually quite similar to what happens in Kant, “whose first critique tackles the issue of subject in general, but whose third critique engages in the issue of plural subjects” (243). Similarly, Marx deals with capital in general in Volume 1, and with the perspectives and actions of individual capitals in Volume 3. Volume 1, like the First Critique, is about universal structure: the transcendental conditions of possibility for all experience. Volume 3, like the Third Critique, is about singular experiences, and how you get from these multiple singularities to the transcendental conditions that they both generate and presuppose. In Volume 3, “Marx deals with plural capitals, while at the same time transcendentally asking how it is empirically possible that they realize profit or the rate of profit” (243).
Just as the Third Critique involves an Antinomy between 1)the universal nature of aesthetic judgment (the fact that it demands to be accepted universally) and 2)the ungrounded singularity of any individual aesthetic judgment (the fact that it cannot appeal to any preexisting concepts for justification), so Marx’s Volume 3 involves an Antinomy between 1)the grounding of price in value, and of profit in surplus value (Thesis: Ricardo); and 2)the independence of price from value and of profit from surplus value (Antithesis: Bailey). In this Antithesis, price is determined relationally, and independently of any notion of value, by supply and demand; while profit, from the point of view of the individual consciousness, is simply “price of production minus cost price” (241), and labor-power (sometimes today renamed, in neoclassical theory, “human capital”: quite a wonderful catachresis, since — by a mere shift of terminology — it simply spirits away the entire difference between capitalist investment, and workers selling their labor-power as a commodity) is just another input into production costs. Anybody who has read Capital knows how much time Marx spends criticizing the latter set of assumptions. But the criticism is necessary, precisely because these “ideological” assumptions do necessarily exist as “objective illusions”: for they constitute the actual manner in which individuals confront the market as buyers and sellers, consumers and owners. As for the other side of the Antinomy, the Thesis: the Ricardian labor theory of value is also an objective illusion, insofar as it is understood as an empirical actuality (something we encounter within experience) rather than as a transcendental condition of experience. We only encounter “surplus value” in and for itself in the way that we encounter time, space, and causality in and for themselves. They are conditions of experience, rather than things that we encounter within experience.This is why, Karatani says, “Marx’s labor theory of value and Ricardo’s are fundamentally different”; for Marx, “it is not that input labor time determines the value, but conversely that the value form (system) determines the social[ly necessary] labor time” (244). And, “while for the classical economists, labor value is just a replacement of the equilibrium price that is established within a unitary system, Marx began his whole analysis from manifold systems, and hence came to need the concepts of social and abstract labor value” (227-228).
These considerations lead Karatani to emphasize the importance of circulation, and of money, within Marx’s analysis of capitalism. There’s long been controversy as to why Marx begins Capital Volume 1 with a discussion of the commodity form and of money (and of commodity fetishism), before he gets to the theory of surplus value. Louis Althusser even advises readers to skip these chapters when reading Capital; Althusser sees them as a Hegelian throwback, and as a distraction from Marx’s main argument. Karatani, to the contrary, argues for the centrality of these chapters to Marx’s entire project. Indeed, for Karatani these chapters are the site of a rupture (what Althusser calls an epistemological break) with Marx’s earlier, more tentative theories: because they are the place where Marx develops the crucial notion of the value-form: “all the enigmas of capital’s drive are inscribed in the theory of value form… Value form is a kind of form that people are not aware of when they are placed within the monetary economy; this is the form that is discovered only transcendentally” (9).
The theory of value-form turns on the dual nature of commodities: that they are at once both use-value and exchange-value. This sundering is only possible because of the role of money. Money is a universal equivalent, a special commodity that stands in for all other commodities. As a result, there is a radical “asymmetricity… inherent in the form of value” (200) between money and all other commodities. The use-value of money, unlike the use-value of all other commodities, has nothing to do with its sensuous properties. Marx contrasts money as a transcendental form with “the substantial aspect of money such as gold or silver. To take it substantially is, to Marx, fetishism” (196). SInce its use-value is purely formal or transcendental, money doesn’t have to take the form of precious metals; it can be made of paper, or even (as is generally the case in transnational finance today) be entirely virtual. “Anything — anything — that is exculsively placed in the general equivalent form becomes money; that is, it achieves the right to attain anything in exchange” (7). Nonetheless, the fetishism of money — the confusion of the transcendental with the empirical — is impossible to get rid of, since such a reification or fetishization of money is intrinsic to the functioning of the capitalist economy as such. Money, Karatani says, “is like a Kantian transcendental apperception X, as it were… money as substance is an illusion, but more correctly, it is a transcendental illusion, in the sense that it is hardly possible to discard it” (6).
The core problem in Marx’s Antinomy of value is that both sides ignore the actuality of money as universal equivalent. For Ricardo and the classical political economists on one side, and for Bailey and the neoclassical school, down to the present day, on the other, money itself is considered to be of no importance. For Ricardo, money simply measures the labor inscribed in commodities as their value; for Bailey, value is relational, but he pays no attention to money as the medium in which these relations are expressed and worked out. “Bailey overlooked a simple fact — that commodities cannot be exchanged directly” (194). Both Ricardo and Bailey see money as transparent, in the same way that traditional metaphysics sees language as transparent. Even today, as Doug Henwood puts it in his fine book Wall Street, “in (neo)classical economics, money is held to be neutral – a mere lubricant to trade, but not a force in itself”; economics builds “paradigms that often ignore money and finance completely, or treat it as an afterthought.” Marx, to the contrary, insists on the opacity of money and finance. As a universal equivalent or transcendental form, money does not merely put external terms (objects sold as commodities) into relation; it molds and alters those terms by the very fact of equating them (money as universal equivalent is what transforms things into commodities in the first place). Similarly, financial speculation — such as is overwhelmingly present in global markets today — is not just an illusion distracting us from the “real” economic activity that takes place in production. Or better, financial speculation is an illusion, but a transcendental one: its illusoriness is itself an objective force, one that drives the entire process of production and circulation. It is not Marxist political economy, but neoclassical economics, that reduces everything to production and to utility, and thereby ignores the structural and material importance of the delirious, ungrounded flows of finance capital that constitute the largest part of economic activity today.
Karatani even sees the central role of money in the capitalist world economy as a kind of return of the repressed. The classical economics of Smith and Ricardo was a reaction against the mercantilists, who “naively” imagined that money itself, in the form of of gold and silver bullion, was the source of national prosperity. But Marx, in his transcritique, plays off the mercantilists against the classicists. Karatani notes that Marx begins his discussion of money with the figure of the miser, who hoards monetary wealth instead of spending or investing it. The miser is the equivalent on an individual level of mercantilism on a national level. But the opposition between mercantilism and classicism returns at the heart of capitalism itself, in the difference between Marx’s two formulas of circulation: C-M-C (commodities are sold for money, which in turn is expended to acquire other commodities) and M-C-M’ (money is expended for commodities, which in turn are used to acquire more money). The first formula corresponds to the experience of individuals as workers, selling their labor-power as a commodity in order to obtain (through the mediation of money) those commodities that they need to survive, subsist, and reproduce. The second formula corresponds to what Marx calls the “self-valorization of capital,” its reproduction on an expanded scale, i.e. capital accumulation. Capitalism at its most “advanced” actually returns to a sublated (as Hegel would say) version of miserliness/mercantilism, in that its ultimate goal is money itself, rather than the things that can be acquired through the medium of money. This is why “capital’s movement has to continue endlessly. Indeed this is interminable and without telos” (209). This endless accumulation for its own sake is the return of the repressed, the re-emergence of (mercantilist) money (money as fetish) after the classical economists, and the neoclassical ones as well, have denied its significance.
Paying attention to money also means paying attention to circulation. Karatani points out that, even if surplus value is extracted in production, it needs to be realized in circulation, i.e. the commodities have to be sold. This has several consequences. For one thing, the success of circulation is contingent; it is always possible that given commodities will not be sold, and that surplus value therefore will not be realized, and capital will not be accumulated. Second, circulation takes time; the “turnover” of capital is never instantaneous, though there is continual pressure to make it happen faster and faster. Third, surplus value itself, as a transcendental form, is predicated on a discontinuity, or incommensurability, between heterogeneous registers of value. In Marx’s most direct formulation of the theory, there is a discontinuity in the realm of production between the value of the worker’s labot-power as a commodity, and the value of the commodities produced by that labor power. But when surplus value is realized in the realm of circulation, the incommensurability is one between the two circuits C-M-C and M-C-M’. These registers are discontinuous with one another, because the first is about simple self-reproduction (I sell my labor power in order to be able to buy the commodities that allow me to survive and sell my labor-power again tomorrow), while the second is about expansion and accumulation, a process that is free from day-to-day urgency. Karatani might well have quoted Deleuze and Guattari here, who note that “it is not the same money that goes into the pocket of the wage earner and is entered on the balance sheet of a commercial enterprise” (Anti-Oedipus 228).
One can think here also of the role of credit. Money and finance/credit allow the separation of acts of exchange (purchase and sale) in time and space. “C-M (selling) and M-C (buying) are separate, and precisely for this reason, the sphere of exchange is infinitely expandable in both space and time” (207). But this separation too occurs in different, incompatible ways. Consumer debt has been at the center of the expansion of the American economy in the last severalo decades. But consumer credit is ultimately finite; individuals are enslaved to debt, since they need constant inflows of money just to pay for daily necessities. If I were to quit my job, I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage and my credit card balances. Business and financial credit, on the other hand, is for all intents and purposes infinite. Business credit allows for the indefinite deferral of any final reckoning. As Karatani says, “credit enforces capital’s movement endlessly at the same time that it hastens capital’s self-reproduction and eliminates the danger involved in selling” (219).Note that, in America today, bankruptcy laws for individuals have just been made far more rigorous, to the benefit of banks and credit card companies. On the other hand, for corporations, bankruptcy is most often just a formal procedure, allowing the corporations to cut wages and benefits as part of their “reorganization.”
Marx of course frequently attacks the fetishistic illusion that sees money as magically self-valorizing, as if no exploitation were needed to get from M, through C, to the larger quantity of M’. But Karatani notes that capitalist ideology in fact tends to elide what really happens in circulation, as much as it does what really happens in production: “the ideologues of industrial capital avoid the word ‘capitalism,’ preferring ‘market economy,’ which conveniently represents capital’s movement as people’s free exchange of things via money in the marketplace. This veils the fact that market exchange is at the same time the place for capital’s accumulation” (208). The difference between Marxist and neoclassical economics is not that the former emphasizes production and the latter looks instead to circulation; but rather that, in production and circulation alike, Marxist political economy focuses on the centrality of the process of capital accumulation, whereas neoclassical economics sees capital accumulation as merely a side-effect of an aggregate of equal exchanges between separate individuals.
Transcritique is not without flaws. Actually, I find some of the same limitations to the book as Zizek does, even though I resist Zizek’s attempt to turn Karatani’s Kantianism into a Hegelianism. For one thing, Karatani overemphasizes the idea that surplus value can only be realized in circulation; he seems to ignore its role in production altogether, and at times even to assimilate the profits of industrial and finance capital to those of merchant’s capital, which essentially depend upon arbitrage (profiting from the differences in pricing in two markets that are separate from another, a gap that the merchant alone bridges). But as I’ve already suggested, this “strange lacuna” (as Zizek calls it) is not fatal. For Karatani’s argument about the incommensurability between different economic registers applies as well to production as to circulation, even though Karatani only spells it out in the latter. Again, the key to all this is money (including credit) in its role as universal equivalent. Money is that which paradoxically gives a common measure to things that, in all other respects, remain incommensurable. Oppression takes place in other, and indeed often in harsher, forms in non-capitalist economies (feudalism, slavery). But it is only in a regime of money and commodity production that oppression takes the specific form of exploitation. And because of money’s universalizing power, because it works as a transcendental condition, capitalism tends to incorporate all other “modes of production” within its circle: this is what Marx calls the “formal” and “real” subsumption of all social forms under capital.
Karatani is also not very good at explaining how an alternative to capitalism, under present conditions, might arise. He puts his faith almost exclusively in LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems), a form of association in which individuals and groups can exchange goods and services outside of the circuits of capital. While David Harvey, in his most recent book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, does indeed suggest that LETS may be one of the more fruitful forms that contemporary resistance to capitalism can take, I find it scarcely credible that LETS by itself could somehow lead to the replacement of capitalism all by itself. But then, I find the other recent Marxist or quasi-Marxist proposals for overcoming capitalism — Hardt and Negri’s spontaneous uprising of the multitude, and Zizek and Badiou’s hyperromantic fantasy of a Leninist Event of radical rupture — to be just as unconvincing. We just don’t know what to do, and for now I will leave it at that.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, one of the most talked-about films of the new Thai cinema, is a beautifully opaque film. The first half is a low-key love story between two young men, one a soldier and the other not. The camerawork here seems almost documentary-like (restlessly moving handheld camera, ambient sound that often drowns out the dialogue, naturalistic shots that often seem carelessly framed and composed), until you notice all the strange discordancies (jump cuts; extreme jumps in time over a continuing soundtrack, so that it seems as if the same scene is continuing although the actors are wearing different clothes and it has changed from day to night, or it has clearly become the next day; extreme long shots when a fairly intimate scene is in progress). The result is less to distance us from the characters and their feelings, than to emphasize, rather sweetly, how the feelings themselves are tentative and uncertain, as these lovers are still just starting to get to know one another.
But around the middle of the film, everything suddenly changes. Now we have very self-consciously artful cinematography, with continuity rules mostly observed. A soldier (I couldn’t tell for sure if it was the same actor as in the first half), in the jungle and mostly at night, is tracking some sort of ghost or spirit. There is almost no dialogue. We have titles, superimposed on what looks like an ancient painting, telling us of a shaman who takes on the form of a tiger; there are also ghosts and other apparitions, not to mention a talking monkey (who tells the soldier that he must either kill the shaman/tiger, or be devoured by him). The screen is mostly dark; we barely see shapes emerging out of the shadows, it feels like we are on the edge of hallucination. The sound is ambient noises of the jungle. The pace is slow; there’s a lot of waiting. (Also, the soldier often pauses to peel off leeches from his legs and arms). The ending is ambiguous: the soldier confronts the tiger/shaman, and the scene turns back into the ancient painting.
Can we take this second part of the film as an allegory of desire? of its delays, its intense demands, its engulfing depths? That’s the best idea I have for understanding how the second part might relate to the first. But I think it’s more a matter of rhythms of affect, than it is of making literal sense of the narrative. Love starts in the everyday; but at some point it turns into an abyss (or, more accurately, it has already turned into an abyss: for the point at which it metamorphoses is something that we can only apprehend retrospectively). (Also, “abyss” is not precisely the word I want here; for what I am conceiving as the “abyss” of passion is something that, in Tropical Malady at least, unfolds horizontally, in the jungle at night: a slow movement through a menacing and marvelous labyrinth, perhaps, rather than a descent into the depths). In any case, we move from the everyday to a kind of giving, or willed loss, that can only be represented obliquely (that is only obliquely). It’s sort of like melodrama without any of the twists and turns, or ups and downs, that usually make up melodrama: a plotless and incidentless melodrama, which is of course an oxymoron, but in this case a necessary one.
Kojin Karatani‘s Transcritique is the most useful and important book of philosophy/theory that I have read in some time. (Thanks, Jodi, for pointing me to the book, and to Zizek’s review of it). I mean useful and important to me; it might be too narrow and specialized in focus for people who don’t share my particular preoccupations. For years I have been struggling to find ways to articulate Marx together with Kant: and that is precisely what Karatani accomplishes here. Karatani’s rereading of Marx’s Capital for the twenty-first century is not as sweeping as that of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; nor does it have the vivacity and seductive wit of Zizek’s recent Marxist speculations. But perhaps it offers a more lucid account than either of what it really means to be encompassed on all sides, as we are today, by the flows of Capital, and by the supposed “rationality” of the Market.
In what follows, in order to explain Karatani I am going to move very slowly, and throw in a bit of Philosophy 101, just so that I can pin things down, and clarify them for myself, as carefully as possible. So please be patient, and bear with me.
Karatani’s basic move is to read Marx’s “critique of political economy” (the subtitle of Capital) as a “critique” in precisely the sense of Kant’s three Critiques. But what does Kant himself mean by critique — in contrast to the multifarious meanings the word has taken on in the two-hundred-odd years since? Most obviously, Kant asks the “transcendental” question: “what are the conditions of our experience?” For Kant, “all cognition begins with experience”; there are no supernatural or transcendent sources of knowledge. But experience (sensory data, perception, etc) does not itself come to us raw: it is always already structured in some way. Sense perceptions and other experiences already have a certain framework or structure. And this framework is (not transcendent, but) transcendental, which means that it does not “transcend” or go beyond experience, but it is also not itself given to us in experience (since it is always already presupposed by whatever experience we do have). Put this way, it might sound like we are stuck in a vicious circle: if all knowledge comes from experience, then how can we know about something that cannot itself be experienced, because it precedes and conditions any experience? Kant’s answer is to make a self-reflexive move (one that, after him, becomes characteristic of nearly all modern, or modernist, philosophy/theory): to have thought reflect back upon itself, to question itself, to scrutinize its own powers and limits. This is what he means by “critique.”
So far so good. But the particular way in which Kant does critique is not necessarily followed by his successors. Michel Foucault (in “A Preface to Transgression,” one of his best and most underrated articles) refers to “that opening made by Kant in Western philosophy when he articulated, in a manner that is still enigmatic, metaphysical discourse and reflection on the limits of our reason.” But Foucault goes on to say that Kant failed to sustain this “opening”; and that the two opposed lines of thought that followed Kant — “anthropology” (by which I think Foucault means positivistic scientific examination of Man as just another empirical object: which goes from 19th century positivism to so-called “evolutionary psychology” today) and “dialectics” (by which Foucault means Hegel and all the speculative thought that follows in his wake, thought that is overly subject-centered, that replaces Man, or his Reason, as the foundational point of speculation, and that concentrates on “the play of contradiction and totality” instead of upon Kant’s enigmatic self-questioning) — both repressed Kant’s “opening” and thereby returned to the overweening rationalism that Kant had rejected. The double bind of these two kinds of thought constructs “Man” as what Foucault, in The Order of Things, calls an “empirico-transcendental doublet.” In Foucault’s account, Kant is responsible for instituting this double bind — it is his solution to the conflicting claims of rationalism and empiricism — but Kant also offers a way out of it, a step back from it, a practice of “contestation” that avoids the dogmatisms of both positivism and dialectics.
This is where Karatani comes in and takes a fresh look at Kant. Karatani reads Kant’s “transcendental deduction” (his establishment of space, time, and causality as the transcendental preconditions of experience, in the first half of the First Critique) in the light of two other sections of the Critiques that are usually considered entirely separately: 1)the “Transcendental Dialectic” that forms the second half of the First Critique, and particularly Kant’s discussion of the Antinomies of Reason, cosmological ideas that come in contradictory pairs, which ultimately have to be judged as either both true (in different senses) or both false; and 2)Kant’s discussion of the problem of aesthetic taste, in his “Analytic of the Beautiful” in the Third Critique. (These are in fact the two sections of Kant’s works that I have been trying to work with, and work through, for over a decade; which in part explains why I found Karatani’s book such a revelation).
Kant’s Preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason begins with a discussion of the “peculiar fate” of human reason, “troubled by questions that it cannot dismiss… but also cannot answer.” This already suggests that the concerns of the “Transcendental Dialectic” are crucial to Kant from the beginning; and Karatani thereby reads the first half of the First Critique in the light of the second half. That is to say, you can’t separate Kant’s establishment of the actual conditions of our understanding from his concern to elucidate our unavoidable drive to always push beyond these conditions. One common way to read Kant is to say that he is a legislator, dictatorially setting forth the boundaries beyond which we must not push. But Karatani reverses this, suggesting that Kant’s experience of the discordances that come from pushing too far (in the second half of the First Critique) are themselves the positive basis of the limits that he sets up in the first half. The Antinomies of Reason are contradictory propositions (“the world is bounded in time and in space” vs. “the world is infinite as regards both time and space”) both of which seem valid from their own perspectives, but which cannot be true simultaneously. Kant’s “resolution” of these Antinomies is emphatically NOT to play them off each other as mutual negations, and thereby to “sublate” them into a higher formulation that self-reflexively incorporates both (which is the “dialectical” procedure later adopted by Hegel); rather, Kant shuttles back and forth between the perspectives of the two contradictory arguments, and establishes what he calls a “parallax” between them. That is to say, it is the unresolvable disjunction between the two perspectives, their otherness with regard to one another, so that they cannot be reconciled or made adequate to one another — it is this disjunction that opens up Kant’s “transcendental” reflection, and that provides the positive basis for the conditions presupposed by all experience.
Another way to put this is that the “resolution” to the Antinomies never happens all at once; each perspective can be addressed by “bracketing” the other one; but then we need to invert the procedure, and bracket what we previously privileged. This shunting back and forth is what Karatani means by “parallax.” And there is no higher synthesis of these contrasting bracketings, which is why, for Karatani, Kant’s critique is always a “transcritique,” a transversal movement from one perspective, or realm of experience, to another, without ever coming to a definitive fixity, or even a meta-level, a higher point of self-reflection. This lack of any fixity is why Kant’s transcendental conditions are always purely formal, rather than having any positive content (this holds true, of course, for Kant’s elucidation of morality in the Second Critique, as well as his elucidation of empirical understanding in the First); and it is why Kant insists that the Ideas of Reason can only have a “regulative” rather than a “constitutive” role — that is to say, why they can be used heuristically as a guide to our investigations, but not substantively as the actual inner principle of what we discover.
Now, Zizek actually gives a pretty good account of Karatani’s logic of the parallax, in his review of the book that Jodi cites (and provides a pdf for). And, after quoting Zizek’s paraphrase at length, Jodi is acute enough to remark: “Everybody is probably freaking out at this point, jumping up and down and screaming, BUT HOW DOES THIS WORK WITH HEGEL?” — My answer would be, precisely, that it doesn’t work with Hegel. Kant refuses to turn the Antinomies into negations; his reciprocal “bracketings” of the opposed perspectives do not interact with one another in the way that negations do in Hegel; there is no “labor of the negative” here. Rather, the basis of parallax is the stubborn positivity of both of its terms. This is precisely where Kant refuses (in Foucault’s term) to transform the “limit” into negativity, or into “the play of contradiction and totality.” This parallax is thereby the point at which Kant absolutely resists being subsumed into Hegel’s system, in the way that Hegel and Zizek want him to. Jodi answers her own question by saying, along with Zizek, that “the movement of negativity through Hegel is a kind of parallax, an account of the way ‘reality’ itself is caught in the movement of our knowing of it (and vice versa).” But this seems to me to be exactly wrong. To say that ‘reality’ itself is caught in the movement of our knowing of it is equivalent to saying that the Ideas of Reason can be used constitutively, and not just regulatively. Kant’s and Karatani’s parallax refuses such a move, and thus operates according to an entirely different logic than that of negativity. (Another way to put this: parallax doesn’t equate with negativity, but it also doesn’t negate negativity either — which would be a way of reinserting it into the Hegelian dialectic after all. Rather, it is radically other — oblique or orthogonal — to the movement of negativity).
(I should also note, given Zizek’s interest in Karatani, that although I think Kant/Karatani cannot be recuperated in Hegelian terms, it can be brought into a useful connection with Lacan. The trick is to read Lacan in a more Kantian way, instead of a Hegelian one. Karatani himself suggests that Freud and Lacan offer a kind of “transcendental psychology,” and that their criticisms of other sorts of psychology, like Lacan’s denunciation of “ego psychology,” is very much akin to Kant’s deconsruction of rationalist psychology in the Transcendental Dialectic. Karatani even equates “Kantian illusion/Lacanian Imaginary; the form/the Symbolic; the thing-in-itself/the Real” (34). This seems to me to be right, especially seeing Kant’s noumenon or thing-in-itself as equivalent to the unattainable Real in Lacan. But Karatani goes on to say, and I concur, that he finds it more useful to read Freud and Lacan through Kant, than Kant through Freud and Lacan).
The other section of Kant that is especially important to Karatani is the “Analytic of the Beautiful” in the Third Critique. I find this especially important because critical fashion, for the last thirty years at least, has emphasized the Sublime as the crucial moment in Kant’s aesthetics, and has seen his discussion of the Beautiful as uninteresting, old-fashioned, and even as a kind of throwback to pre-critical and pre-Enlightenment thought, as opposed to the supposedly radical concerns of the Sublime. As far as I know (and my reading isn’t deep enough here, so I may well be missing some important recent work) Karatani is the only recent commentator, aside from Melissa McMahon and myself to find critical importance in Kant’s discussion of the Beautiful (for both Melissa’s article and mine, see the volume A Shock To Thought, edited by Brian Massumi). Basically, the Analytic of the Beautiful poses the question of singularity and universality. A judgment that something is beautiful is, according to Kant, completely ungrounded. It cannot be verified or falsified in the way that an empirical judgment of fact can be; nor can it claim absolute, “categorical” validity in the way that moral commandments do. Yet despite being ungrounded, an aesthetic judgment makes an implicit demand for universal assent. This is what separates aesthetic judgments from mere personal preferences. I love coffee ice cream, but that doesn’t mean that I expect (or want) coffee to be everybody else’s favorite flavor. But when I say that Proust is the greatest writer of all time, I am doing a lot more than just expressing a personal preference. Even if I say that this is just my own personal taste, and even if I know very well that Proust is not everybody’s favorite author, the very act of stating that “A la recherche du temps perdu is the greatest novel ever written” implies a claim going beyond the statement that it things are this way “for me.” Aesthetic judgments have no objective basis, but neither are they merely subjective. They are entirely singular — each case of judgment is unique, there are no broader rules under which aesthetic judgments can be subsumed, in the way that both empirical judgments and moral commands get subsumed under rules. And yet these aesthetic judgments claim universality, if only by the very way in which they are uttered.
Aesthetic judgment is crucial for Kant, Karatani argues, because it is the very place where the question of the “transcendental” first becomes problematic. In aesthetic judgment, singularity communicates with universality without any intermediate terms. There are no hierarchies of particulars and generalities, of species and genus; there is also no process of dialectical “mediation.” An aesthetic judgment can neither be generalized, nor mediated. Instead, each aesthetic judgment is a uniuqe; each one makes a claim upon others, upon the Other, without being able to appeal to any prior justification in order to back up or enforce this claim.
The problem of aesthetic taste in the Third Critique thus leads to an Antinomy, formally parallel to the Antinomies of the First Critique. Karatani suggests that these Antinomies, in their perpetual tension, are in fact the ungrounded “grounds” of the positive transcendental conditions derived in the first half of the First Critique. Though epistemology, the problem of cognition, comes first in the overt development of Kant’s system, and aesthetics comes in only much later, Karatani argues in effect that aesthetics is logically and ontologically prior to epistemology and cognition. For aesthetics is the place where questions of singularity and universality, and of the Other, are initially posed; and these are all necessary to the development of positive “transcendental” arguments.
In the “Analytic of the Beautiful,” as well, Kant distinguishes the claimed universality of singular aesthetic judgments from the general agreement that is the result of what he calls a sensus communis, that is to say of “common sense.” For Kant, the existence of the sensus communis is important in that it makes processes of communication and recognition possible. But the important thing about aesthetic judgment is that, although it relies upon the sensus communis, it cannot be reduced to sensus communis. “Common sense” is entirely empirical; it denotes something like the commonly accepted presuppositions, the consensus, of a given society or community. That is to say, it is something like “ideology.” But transcendental conditions can never be reduced to merely empirical ones, therefore they cannot come in the form of consensus. Transcendental reflection, as “transcritique,” must to the contrary move between incompatible and irreconcilable positions or “common senses.” Which is why all judgment, or all transcendental reflection, ultimately refers back to the paradoxes of aesthetic judgment.
I will stop here, and reserve the second half of my summary, Karatani’s reading of Marx, for another post.
Another snippet from The Age of Aesthetics. This time, a little excursion into Marxist theory.
It is fashionable in certain strains of “postmodern” theory to denounce Marx as a metaphysician. Thus Mark C. Taylor discovers a “latent idealism” in Marx: he berates Marx for being unwilling to celebrate “the endless rustle of desire,” as manifested in the ungrounded flows of money and financial markets. Jean-François Lyotard similarly presents a Marx “offended by the perversity of the polymorphous body of capital,” and therefore demanding that this body be “put to death.” More prosaically, Jean Baudrillard describes Marx’s concept of use-value as old-fashioned humanist nostalgia, “the hypothesis of a concrete value beyond the abstraction of exchange-value, a human purpose of the commodity in the moment of its direct relation of utility for a subject.” Just as Derrida convicts metaphysics of trying to preserve presence from the myriad mediations and perversions of writing, so Baudrillard and the others (though not Derrida himself) accuse Marx of trying to preserve use-value — an ostensibly natural, transparent, and proper or literal term — from the dreaded perversions of exchange-value.
I think, however, that it takes a certain ill will to read Marx in this manner. For it is only in the context of commodity production that Marx introduces the idea of use-value in the first place. Things that are not commodities may be “useful in various ways,” but that does not make them use-values. Marx defines ‘usefulness’ pragmatically. Nothing is intrinsically useful in itself. The only indication that a thing is “useful” is the fact that it is actually being used by somebody. Usefulness is socially contingent; it’s a matter of ever-shifting human needs and desires. “The discovery of. . . the manifold uses of things is the work of history.” Marx offers no grounds for making a division between those uses that would be productive, natural and proper, and those that would be wasteful, artificial, and perverse.
It is only when things are commodities, produced for exchange rather than direct consumption — that is to say, when they have exchange-values — that they can be said to have use-values as well. This means that use-value is itself a feature of commodity production, rather than some more authentic state that would get lost or deferred in the course of that production. Though use-value has something to do with “the physical body of the commodity itself,” it is not immediately present in that body. For “use-values are only realized [verwirklicht] in use or in consumption,” just as exchange-values are only realized in sale and purchase. In other words, use-values, like exchange-values, are irreducibly contingent. The “realization” of a value is never guaranteed; there is always the chance that something will go wrong. Goods may languish in a warehouse unsold; or they may fail to satisfy the consumer in the expected manner (a machine breaks down, a piece of fruit goes rotten). This ever-present possibility of failure is what makes crisis endemic to capitalism. The commodity form is intrinsically defined by the gap between these two dimensions of value, by the fact that they never coincide. The duality of use-value and exchange-value drives the whole process of production and circulation.
The difference between use-value and exchange-value is much like that between the aura and technological reproducibility. Just as the aura is a retrospective effect of the mass production that it seems to oppose, so use-value is a retrospective back-projection from the exchange-value that it seems to contradict. It is only in an age of technological reproducibility that it can occur to us to worry about the authenticity of a unique, irreplaceable object; and it is only in an age of ubiquitous commodification that it occurs to us to worry about an object’s usefulness. Thus when Baudrillard writes that use-value “is only the effect of the system of exchange-value, a concept produced and developed by it,” he is not deconstructing Marx as he imagines, but simply repeating Marx’s own argument.
In short, use-value for Marx is not a proper “human purpose” for the object, in contrast to the cold, inhuman abstraction of exchange-value. Rather, use-value is also a kind of reductive abstraction. Use-value is best understood as being something like the ob jective correlative of those “revealed preferences” or “decisions on the margin” so beloved of free-market economists. The use-value of a commodity is the way it embodies “my way, for today” – so that I feel impelled to buy it. Far from seeking to recall us from exchange-value to use-value, then, Marx suggests that use-value is itself a crucial part of the mystique of the commodity-as-fetish. And it’s not Marx, but the neoliberal, free-market economists, who make the mistake of hypostatizing use-value, of endowing it with fundamental meaning, of attributing to it a transparent, “direct relation of utility for a subject.”