I’ve been reading, with a combination of exasperation and illumination — but alas, more of the former — the discussion of Gayatri Spivak’s “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value” that has been going on at Long Sunday and other places. The discussion led me to reread Spivak’s article itself, which I hadn’t looked at for many years, but which touches on, in various ways, the project on commodity fetishism and aesthetics in which I am currently engaged. I don’t have the energy or focus to write a full-fledged discussion of the essay the way that the folks at Long Sunday have done, but I’d like to make a few comments provoked by reading all that commentary in the light of rereading the essay itself.
The thing that exasperates me the most about much of the discussion is the emphasis on Spivak’s alleged difficulty or incomprehensibility (I am not singling out any of the postings in particular here, just recording a general impression). The level of objection seems to me to be excessive, out of proportion with the actual challengingness of Spivak’s essay, and hence is probably symptomatic. Spivak writes in a theoretical shorthand; that is to say, she assumes a lot of background knowledge on the part of the reader — something which is unavoidable, given the fact that you cannot make a sophisticated argument at all if you have to spell out your points of reference in beginners’ terms every time you try to write anything. Now admittedly, Spivak’s particular presupposed knowledge is stuff I have a reasonable grasp upon — certain strains in Marxist economic theorizing, as well as Derridean deconstruction and its general philosophical-historical background. But I don’t see that Spivak is somehow intrinsically impenetrable. If you lack the requisite backgrounds, you will have the same difficulties that I have in reading Badiou’s Being and Event (because I lack any familiarity with or understanding of set theory), or most recent American analytic philosophy (because I lack the proper comprehension of propositional logic), of for that matter articles discussing the Federal Reserve Bank’s monetary policy or the intricacies of narrative theory. Spivak’s writing is in fact much more engaging and interesting than most of these other sorts of writing — because of the way it makes connections across disciplinary boundaries and contextualizes together things that are usually left apart (like, literary canonization on the one hand and the international division of labor on the other) in ways that few of the other examples I have cited ever dare to do. And I don’t think that Spivak is obscurantist or unnecessarily diffficult in any of the ways these other sorts of writing aren’t.
Putting the bogeyman of “difficulty” aside, it seems to me that “Scattered Speculations” is useful precisely for the way that it reaffirms the importance of Marx’s insights (or theoretical formulations, if you prefer) about exploitation and surplus value for any understanding of culture and society — including but not limited to the discourses of literary studies and interdisciplinary “theory” — today. Among the crucial points Spivak makes (without trying to give a complete account, or putting into more rigid order what we are told right at the start are “scattered” — and provisional — “speculations”) are the following. Cultural studies gets too comfortable and complacent when it considers questions of domination, and power, without also considering the specific importance of exploitation. Marx’s sense of “the labor theory of value,” and thereby of the functioning of exploitation in a specifically economic sense, needs to be defended against both the old-fashioned marxist fundamentalists who would read the theory in an essentialist or “continuist” manner, and the up-to-date theorists (including many so-called deconstructionists) who reject the theory outright on the grounds that it is (supposedly) essentialist or continuist.
Against this, Spivak emphasizes the “textual” indeterminacy of the relations of (the socially necessary) labor embodied in a commodity to the exchange-value of that commodity, to the money form in a capitalist economy, to capital as an object of quantitative accumulation. Labor-power, the commodity that workers must sell to capitalists in order to survive, is defined by Spivak as a materialist predication of the subject (i.e. a definition of what constitutes the human subject — one that is made in “materialist” terms in contrast to the “idealist” definition of subjectivity in terms of consciousness or intentionality) that relies on a fundamental non-identity, “the irreducible possibility that the subject be more than adequate — super-adequate — to itself.” This non-identity is precisely the basis on which exploitation (the extraction of surplus value) is possible; and it indicates how surplus value has to do with a basic incommensurability between the identity (defined via exchange value) of a subject, and the productive labor-power that such a subject is able to deploy. The latter is the use value of the worker’s labor power for the capitalist employer. To see this incommensurability is also to see that use value itself cannot be defined in essentialist terms as some sort of fixable need. (Cf. my previous post on the non-essentialist definition of use value).
So Spivak uses the concept of use-value as a “deconstructive lever” to unsettle any normalization of the hierarchies of value. This means continuing to insist upon the inequities of (worldwide) exploitation, as a process that gets left out of “radical” critiques that only consider systems of domination. Spivak cites as examples both the self-mystifying language of business schools and corporations, and the uncritical celebration of(supposed) empowerment via new computing and telecommunications technologies that has been so prevalent in some “postmodern” quarters. While criticisms like Spivak’s are often read as “politically correct” handwringing, or as what Spivak herself calls a stance “that the ‘disinterested’ academy dismisses as ‘pathos’,” Spivak is careful to spell out the links between the ideology of empowerment that pomo and business academics (unbeknownst to each other) share, and the ‘objective’ way these groups benefit from exploitation via the international division of labor.
I could go on with this, which would seem to me to be just a fairly banal and obvious reading of Spivak’s essay, were it not that so many readers/commentators find it impenetrable. Other aspects of Spivak’s argument are also worth citing, including the way Marxist/economic notions of value are necessarily entwined with other sorts of declarations of Value (such as aesthetic and moral specifications of value). Many of the commentators on the article have in fact moved their focus from economic value to these other sorts of value, without noticing that Spivak is explicitly objecting to such a (economics-effacing) refocusing. But I lack the patience to continue with this close reading, so I will close with a few questions.
If there is one area where I would (mildly) dissent from Spivak’s formulations, it is on the question of whether the “textualist” (or deconstructionist) reading/metaphor/angle of approach is really the best one for raising the issues Spivak wants to raise. I tend to doubt that it is, for reasons that are not unrelated to the ones that Jodi raises. Jodi asks: “what makes the subject materialist or, to use Spivak’s language, why are we working with a materialist predication of the subject or why is a materialist predication of the subject necessarily a predication linked to labor power?” And, following Zizek, she proposes “a different account of the subject, perhaps in terms of the lack, gap, or irreducibility between the idealist and materialist predications.” Now, I am not willing to follow Jodi in making such a move; it seems to me that positing a subject in terms of Lack or negativity is precisely moving in the wrong direction, back to the “idealist” predication that Spivak both wants to get away from, and (as a good deconstructionist) admits we can never eliminate altogether. I think that Spivak’s deconstructionist posing of the idealist/materialist alternative is more destabilizing, and more nuanced, than the Zizekian parallax Jodi proposes. So I’d want to return to Jodi’s cogent question, but give it a different suggestion for the answer. The materialist predication in terms of labor power is important precisely because of the “super-adequation” it entails — and this sort of formulation is preferable to one in terms of lack. But I’d like to say that this predication, although a necessary one for defining the subject, is not a sufficient one. (I take this distinction from Isabelle Stengers’ discussion of Whitehead, in a forthcoming, but as yet unpublished, article. Stengers shows how Whitehead transfers this initially mathematical distinction into metaphysics and ontology). “Super-adequation” itself embodies such a distinction (as a term, it implies a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition, which is precisely why it resists “continuist” or properly representational coding). But the weakness of deconstructive, textualist approaches, to my mind, is precisely that it relocates the gap between necessary and sufficient (a gap which is not a “negativity” or a “lack”, but a space open to other movements, other predications) back into language, into the super-adequate term itself, rather than allowing for the proliferation of other (continuingly disjunctive or non-adequate) terms and entities. So I agree with Jodi that (as she puts it) “materialism, properly conceived, can emphasize both economic determination and openness,” but not quite with the way she proposes doing this; and I agree with Spivak on insisting on the insurpassibility of the economic, and on recognizing “the complicity between cultural and economic value-systems,” but without necessarily following her textualist drift.
Doubtless all this is as abstract-theoretical and jargon-clotted as Spivak’s critics have found her work to be, but without her stylistic elegance and philosophical penetration. Nonetheless I will post it now, since too many other (pragmatic and economic) matters are pressing on me to devote more time to it.