Marx at 193

11.52, Monday 2 Apr 2012

Some choice quotes from Marx at 193 by John Lanchester.

Empiricism, because it takes its evidence from the existing order of things, is inherently prone to accepting as realities things that are merely evidence of underlying biases and ideological pressures. Empiricism, for Marx, will always confirm the status quo. He would have particularly disliked the modern tendency to argue from ‘facts’, as if those facts were neutral chunks of reality, free of the watermarks of history and interpretation and ideological bias and of the circumstances of their own production.

On the origin of value, In Marx’s judgment surplus value is the entire basis of capitalism: all value in capitalism is the surplus value created by labour. And so Marx creates a model which allows us to see deeply into the structure of the world, and see the labour hidden in the things all around us. He makes labour legible in objects and relationships.

Lanchester digs into Facebook and into airport check-in:

This idea of labour being hidden in things, and the value of things arising from the labour congealed inside them, is an unexpectedly powerful explanatory tool in the digital world. … When you start looking for this mechanism at work in the contemporary world you see it everywhere, often in the form of surplus value being created by you, the customer or client of a company. Online check-in and bag drop at airports, for example. … They’re transferring their inefficiency to the customer, but what they’re also doing is transferring the labour to you and accumulating the surplus value themselves. It happens over and over again. Every time you deal with a phone menu or interactive voicemail service, you’re donating your surplus value to the people you’re dealing with. Marx’s model is constantly asking us to see the labour encoded in the things and transactions all around us.

Sidenote: I have an objection to the Dyson Airblade in that previous generations of hand-driers encouraged me to move and play with my hands, attempting to find for myself some kind of expertise or intelligence in drying, but the Airblade, in order to achieve its own efficiency forces all of its users to adopt identical movements, removing autonomy from millions to save money for the owners of the establishments in which it is installed. I have been roboticised.

Back to Lanchester: the rest of Marx at 193 covers the variety of capitalisms developed since his work, the limits of natural resources, China and Mass Group Incidents, basically anti-authority riots which occur regularly all over China and seem never to be reported in the Western mainstream media, and this nugget about life expectancy:

UK life expectancy is now over eighty and rising so sharply that buried in the statistics is a truly strange fact: a woman who is eighty today has a 9.2 per cent chance of living to be a hundred, whereas a woman of twenty has a 26.6 per cent chance. It may seem weird that the person sixty years younger has a three times better chance of making it to a century, but what it shows is just how fast progress is being made.

Read the whole thing.

Lanchester’s article is in the current issue of the London Review of Books which is a total treat. Another joy is Thomas Jones’ review of two biographies of David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust, So Ordinary, So Glamorous, which is a must-read for the whole story but also for this simultaneous smack-down and correction: Trynka doesn’t often go into details about the music, which is perhaps just as well. In his discussion of ‘Starman’ he talks about its ‘opening minor chords’ when they’re nothing of the kind, and says that ‘the key changes from minor to major’ at the chorus. But there’s no key change, and it’s important that there isn’t: the effect Trynka’s hearing, the sense of ‘release’ and ‘climax’ he gets when the chorus kicks in, would be lost if there were. What happens is that for the first time, the melody hits the tonic; Bowie gets through 15 bars in F major without singing an F, and then on the word ‘starman’ he hits two of them, an octave apart. BANG!

Here’s Starman, live in 1972, and listen out for that avoidance of the F and then suddenly when you hear it. Wow.

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