Capital as Noun, Capital as Entity

Heard joke once:

Entity goes to doctor. Says it’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says it feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain.

Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great economic system Capitalism is in town tonight. Go and see it. That should pick you up.”

Entity bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor…I am Capitalism.”

It’s been a while since we’ve had a blog post chronicling a Twitter hellthread but this was a good one.

After S.C. Hickman tweeted (and I retweeted) a quote from Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie in which he writes that capital “is at every level an eerie entity: conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity”, an all too familiar argument started.

@brightabyss weighed in:

Gigantic yawn. Reification turned subconscious glorification does absolutely nothing for an ontography of power and influence. [1]

Skipping over the Twitter vitriol, I argued that “Fisher, throughout that whole book, is implicitly pointing to the ways in which the human subject’s struggle with Marxist reification can be seen as emerging through cultural production”, but this isn’t what has got Michael’s goat. It’s that age-old annoyance over people saying capital is a thing. He says later:

Capital is not an entity. Capital exists as a relation between valuating agents & normative systems of distinction. Reifying those systems & relations is poor ontology. [1]

Many around the Twittersphere may be aware of @brightabyss and his frequent dismissal of a tendency some people apparently have to give too much agency to capitalism. This is a pet peeve shared by many others also. Making capital a “thing” — a concrete, reified object — or, worse still, a subject with its own agency — is a misstep brought about by too much exposure to Lovecraftian sci-fi and a tendency towards the theological.

I’ll skip ahead to a tweet that seems to encapsulate the overall argument:

The word entity denotes a thing. A fucking noun. Calling it eery is just like calling it a hyperobject. But should Capital be considered a noun? I don’t thing so. It’s more of a power relation instantiated by other systems. Real nouns. [1]

Now, I don’t want to recount the argument that took place around all of this in too much details, because it’s not that interesting. @brightabyss’s analysis has always been really lacking in this area as far as I’m concerned and it seems to come from a misunderstanding of what “entity” means, specifically in this context, as an explicit product of Fisher’s Spinozism. This article is a really good summary of this in Spinoza’s thought I think, which quotes Spinoza as saying, in describing his use of the word ‘entity’: “I think it is such a thing, its essence contains existence, or its nature can only be imagined as being.”

Admittedly, this may not be the clearest definition but it is worth pointing to as the implicit context from which Fisher is getting his sense of “entity”.

Capital itself is already a noun of course and even this basic function of language is something that BA has a problem with as well, arguing that Marx’s use of the definitive article, in naming his book Das Kapital, is

where this shit show of a (cognitive) reification party started. Karl started a tendency that had plagued Marxists for decades and truly fucked our ability to create arguments for the augmentation of the function of monetary exchange. [1]

At this point, in wanders @enkiv2 with the clearest exploration of this point, its history and its increasing relevance throughout the process of technological development that I’ve seen on Twitter — and that’s saying something considering just how many times this has been debated — so I felt like it was worth saving here for posterity:

Capital makes sense as a noun, in a marxist context: it’s a system (in the cybernetics sense), and therefore amplifies certain behaviors while damping others by its own internal logic. [1]

Marx, performing arguably the first thoroughly systematic analysis of economics decades before the terminology around cybernetics was invented, needed to take advantage of anthropomorphism to get his point across & avoid individual-centered analysis. [2]

An anthropomorphic view is lossier than a cybernetic one, but it’s way better than an individualistic view (where systemic bias contrary to individual desire is literally unthinkable). [3]

[…] If you come to Marx with a cybernetic POV it becomes a better model for the social-economic complex.

Some Marxists get misled by the absence of typical cybernetic terminology & lean into an anthropomorphism that isn’t justified. [4]

How many marxists do this these days, though? Not so many, because of the popularization of systems thinking. Folks are used to thinking through feedback loops these days, so it becomes more clear that Marx isn’t portraying Capital as an animal but as a self-regulating machine. [5]

Ed Berger also makes a good point on this in the thread too, pointing out:

It’s self-regulating because human social life is structured via the law of value and its reproduction. The analysis of reification presupposes this, not the other way around (material -> consciousness, not the idealist movement consciousness -> material) [1]

“…this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them”. [2]

@enkiv2 continues:

It’s a machine made of people. Like any large-scale persistent system, it contains error-correcting logic to render irrelevant whatever components do not correctly follow its mode of operation. (That is what defines its mode of operation: what direction deviations are pushed.) [1]

“The function of a system is what it does”

The anthropomorphic error is to assume design. Really, even the capitalist class is a victim of capitalism — simply a more comfortable victim. Capital organizes itself because it is a stable spot in possibility space. [2]

Now, sure: capital is not a physical object. It’s a social construct. That makes it no more real than money (something else we refer to as a noun & do a lot of math to understand), or government (something we anthropomorphize all the time). [3]

To bring this full circle:

Something every social construct has in common is that, because its rules are enforced by people instead of physics, how things seem has more influence on behavior than how they are. This means rapid thrashing as illusions appear & disappear. [4]

In other words, social constructs are eldritch (in the sense of ‘pertaining to elves’: all money has the characteristic of faery gold, disappearing suddenly as some representation of value elsewhere in the system changes). [5]

I haven’t read Fischer’s essay here so I’m not sure if this is the same as what he means by eerie, but from that quote it sure sounds like there’s overlap. [6]

I think this is absolutely true and there is considerable overlap. Capital is eerie for Fisher in the sense that it is not “real” (as @enkiv2 describes) but you can see its effects everywhere — it is a “failure of absence” and a “failure of presence”. In seeing those effects but not seeing its “form”, just like in the case of Fisher’s exemplary “eerie cry”, we have a tendency to imagine its “vocalic” — or perhaps, more accurately, in this case, “affective” — body which may only exist in the imagination but nonetheless assists us in thinking this process of “operative abstraction” (to borrow from Ed again) as it unfolds around us.

This thread continued on at length from this point and went in various directions that I ultimately lost track of so I’d rather not excavate those. It’s far too knotted. It was a good chat though if you want to explore it for yourself.

For more of Spinoza’s relevance to The Weird and the Eerie I’d recommend this old post of mine called “Weird Immanence“.

Update: @cyberpyre rightly adds:

I think the Deleuzian concept of virtuality clears most of this up; Capital is not an actual entity, but by means of material (non-virtual) relations, a space of difference is created which produces actuality. [1]

“[…] a nonnumcrical multiplicity […] plunges into another dimension, which is no longer spatial and is purely temporal: lt moves from the virtual to its actualization, it actualizes itself by creating lines of differentiation that correspond to its differences in kind.” [2]

There’s lots of different ways of saying it. The point is that people so rarely get it, it’s great to have an accessible breakdown.

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