Day 11 – Marx, Material Agency, and Albina and Her Sisters

The big question for today was “agency.” How can nonhuman materials be said to have it, and how can humans be said to have it? When posthumanism gives agency to the former, it tends to leave it intact in humans; when it takes agency away from humans, it tends to believe that it’s “reducing” humans to the supposedly dull status of material.

To start, we spent perhaps an hour on a few pages from Marx’s German Ideology, observing how his purported materialism fell prey to his humanism, and, to a lesser extent, to his inability to rethink gender. Overall, Marx’s project is to enable humans to take control of the train of history, though it often seems that he’s merely enabling us to be aware of its destination. In such a case, where nothing really can be changed, what does awareness matter?

The passages in question were:

“Man can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals a soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their own material life.” (Man kann die Menschen durch das Bewußtsein, durch die Religion, durch was man sonst will, von den Tieren unterscheiden. Sie selbst fangen an, sich von den Tieren zu unterscheiden, sobald sie anfangen, ihre Lebensmittel zu produzieren, ein Schritt, der durch ihre körperliche Organisation bedingt ist. Indem die Menschen ihre Lebensmittel produzieren, produzieren sie indirekt ihr materielles Leben selbst.)

Marx might justly have added “and by extension, their mental life, only delusionally distinguishable from their material life.”

We observed that the “distinguish” changes its meaning from one sentence to the next: in the first, it’s arbitrary (“man can be distinguished”); in the second, it’s a self-distinguishing, which is either a conscious classification, or a fully material classification, whereby humans emerge as the one animal that produces “its own means of subsistence.” We immediately argued Marx into the ground on this point: what about bees? What about the animals in Kohn’s //How Forests Think//, which move about the Amazon rain forest as various trees fruit in sequence, followed in turn by their predators? And where does this leave room, if any, for consciousness? Marx seems to be in line with Gregory of Nyssa/William of St Thierry/Aquinas on the physical/material foundation of humanity (i.e., as they argue, if humans had no hands, they would become indistinguishable from any other animal).

We also looked at the beginning of human consciousness/society in relation to nature. At first, “it is mere herd-consciousness, and at this point man is only distinguished from sheep by the fact that with him consciousness takes the place of instinct or that his instinct is a conscious one. This sheep-like or tribal consciousness receives its further development and extension through increased productivity, the increase of needs, and, what is fundamental to both of these, the increase of population.” (Dieser Anfang ist so tierisch wie das gesellschaftliche Leben dieser Stufe selbst, er ist bloßes Herdenbewußtsein, und der Mensch unterscheidet sich hier vom Hammel nur dadurch, daß sein Bewußtsein ihm die Stelle des Instinkts vertritt, oder daß sein Instinkt ein bewußter ist. Dieses Hammel- oder Stammbewußtsein erhält seine weitere Entwicklung und Ausbildung durch die gesteigerte Produktivität, die Vermehrung der Bedürfnisse und die Beiden zum Grunde liegende Vermehrung der Bevölkerung.)

What is a “conscious instinct”? In what sense can this be called “conscious”? Is consciousness, we suggested, like the doubling back on material production that sees humans producing their own subsistence? That is, consciousness is the production of new or continued thought out of the material of sensation? Even so, how can Marx, if he can at all, distinguish consciousness from this material productivity? Then, of course, there’s theHammel- oder Stammbewußtsein (wether [rather than “sheep,” I think] or tribal consciousness).

Marx here is trying to find the beginning of humans, because he’s committed to tracking human history. This fundamental idealist position of humans, which causes him to single humans out among other species, is his fundamental error. It also leads him, interestingly, to keep offering new “real” beginnings of the human. This self-aware instinct, perhaps, or perhaps in the division of labor, which either follows from “the division of labor in the sexual act” (die ursprünglich nichts war als die Teilung der Arbeit im Geschlechtsakt), or from “that division of labor which then develops spontaneously or ‘naturally’ by virtue of natural predisposition (e.g., physical strength)” (dann Teilung der Arbeit, die sich vermöge der natürlichenAnlage (z.B. Körperkraft)…von selbst oder “naturwüchsig” macht), which then leads to the “true” division of labor “when a division of material and mental labor appears” (Die Teilung der Arbeit wird erst wirklich Teilung von dem Augenblicke an, wo eine Teilung der materiellen und geistigen Arbeit eintritt). But remember Marx’s key argument against the German Idealists: this division is only delusional.

In another sense, human difference is nothing but a delusion of consciousness’s independence of the material relations that produce it. At least on the basis of these passages, a thoroughgoing Marxism, far more thorough than his own, is a fully material nonhumanism. The only questions are how any kind of agency remains possible and whether, by extension, anything could be said to be autonomous.

The last passage was on the question of nature of consciousness, unique to humans because of their relation to other humans through language, which is, however, nothing but one expression of practical material consciousness. Animals, he says, has no relations (because they have no language?? no need for language?): Für das Tier existiert sein Verhältnis zu andern nicht als Verhältnis (“For the animal, its relation to others does not exist as a relation”). This is pure nonsense, a difference without a difference except for its shaky position atop Marx’s unexamined humanism. It reads, as we observed, like Levinas’s unfortunate statements about Bobby the Dog, the “Last Kantean in Nazi Germany,” but unconscious for all that.
Then there’s the origin of consciousness, which is “from the very beginning a social product” or, wait, no, it is “at first, of course, merely consciousness concerning the immediate sensuous environment,” which is, AT THE SAME TIME, “consciousness of nature,” apprehended as “completely alien, all-powerful, and unassailable,” to which we relate (!) in a “purely animal” way, “overawed like beasts,” a “purely animal consciousness of nature (natural religion)” (Das Bewußtsein ist natürlich zuerst bloß Bewußtsein über die nächste sinnliche Umgebung und Bewußtsein des bornierten Zusammenhanges mit andern Personen und Dingen außer dem sich bewußt werdenden Individuum; es ist zu gleicher Zeit Bewußtsein der Natur, die den Menschen anfangs als eine durchaus fremde, allmächtige und unangreifbare Macht gegenübertritt, zu der sich die Menschen rein tierisch verhalten, von der sie sich imponieren lassen wie das Vieh; und also ein rein tierisches Bewußtsein der Natur (Naturreligion).)

This is of course absolute nonsense, pure symptomatic humanism, but still interesting because of its inherent materialism, present here almost despite Marx. It’s also interesting because of the multiple (false?) starts. I also advised my students to look for their wallets whenever they read “of course” or, for that matter, “complex” (and as one of them quipped, “see also ‘radical'”).

More tomorrow on Albina and Her Sisters, and also on Serpil Oppermann! have to run! If you’d like to read ahead, in French, start here; or, in English, here.

Jeffrey Cohen’s reading of Albina and her sisters is deservedly the standard one. To establish a normative origin for Britain, Brutus arrives to put down the disruptive and excessive energies of queer female rule. He literally overwrites Albina’s name: Albion becomes Britain, and the island’s proper history begins.

I’ve argued otherwise: not that the Albina story is so excessively unnormal, but rather that’s it’s PERFECTLY normative and somehow weirder for all that.
After all, Albina lays claim to the island, bestows her name on it, and declares that these actions will memorialize the sisters forever in Albion. Her speech is a charter identifying the land with a noble and self-perpetuating lineage…; nothing, barring of course the gender and gianthood of Albina and her children, is abnormal about eponymous identification with a land or claims that attempt to undercut other claims by declaring temporal priority. The sisters’ reproduction is also normative (or the normative in drag), because its outcome is a lineage, of sorts, one traceable directly to a founder and connected via that founder to a particular piece of land.
And we see that Jean de Wavrin intensifies this “monstrous normativity” of the Albina story by having not only Albina breed incestuously, but also her father, who produces Albina by marrying his first cousin. Here is this aristocratic desire to resist dilutive, exogamous pressures by keeping the lineage “in the family,” and here it is, undisguised and monstrous, when Albina and her sisters kill their husbands rather than let their preeminent nobility be corrupted by breeding with a lesser line. We can connect this, of course, to the various aristocratic stories of magical or animal origins for lineages (classically, the Lusignans and the Melusine and Swan Knight stories), which frees this line from having to be mingled with other, merely mundane families.

Of course, the Jean de Wavrin needs to be read and taught more because of its queer fantasy of an Amazonian empire, which I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered anywhere else. It does remind me, however, of Aelred of Rievaulx and Jean de Meun’s fantasies of what would happen if animals had reason, that is, we have in both cases the dominant group knowing that if it relaxed its dominance for a moment, it would be dead. In other words, It’s a recognition of what’s normally implicit, that normative gender is gender war.

But we also can work with the Albina story on the question of agency and materialism. After all, it’s MEAT that makes them lusty. And it’s perhaps Albina’s own large size that suits her — or compels her — to be such a leader. Or killer. And then we have a meditation on precisely this point in Jean de Wavrin, where Albina’s father explains that thought the stars might have influenced Albina to be a certain way, she could still resist it because she has “free will” (“vous possessez franche liberte“); and yet the father weeps forever at having lost nearly all his daughters. With affect like this, and with nobility seemingly rooted in the body, and with the body so medicalized, which is surely an ecocritical insight, where is the room for free will? The Albina story may offer no more room for free will than Marx.