Let’s All Write a Dissertation, Part 3

(Part the third, in which I delve deeper into the theoretical agenda suggested by my topic and plan for archival research).

I am a Marxist, it’s true; can’t seem to do anything to fix that. Nevertheless, my prior attempts to write the “Marxism section” of the prospectus have been abject failures. In a funny way, that’s been a fortunate development, forcing me to clarify what I mean when I say that I want to do Marxist history, or history in a Marxist way. It certainly cannot mean the “application” of Marxist ideas to history, whatever that would look like, nor the search for Marxist historical “context.” It also just won’t work as a “verification” of Marxist premises. By and large, I think that such exercises in hypothesis testing are conducted in bad faith: most scholars look until they find the evidence that accords with their priorities, and then typically (and conspicuously) stop looking for counter-evidence shortly thereafter. This kind of “science-y” Marxist history makes much less sense to me than a Marxist history conceived of as a literary practice within the tradition of the humanities. Following from such premises, I think that the best way to proceed is to read Marx closely and carefully with an eye to generating intelligent Marxist questions. As relates to my project, such questions derive from thinking with Marx about the dialectical interrelation of the conceptual categories “labor” and “value.”

While Marxist concerns drive this project, I have been inspired above all by the interventions of thinkers whose work reflects a complex and conflicted relationship with orthodox historical materialism: the French philosopher Jacques Rancière, and the work of feminist legal and labor scholars (including Patricia Williams and Margaret Jane Radin’s work on the gendered character of legal constructions property and personhood, and Italian feminist interventions into debates on the value of reproductive labor, such as those of Maria Dalla Costa and Leopoldina Fortunati, distilled and amplified in the recent work of Kathi Weeks).

In this post, I will try to lay out my debts to Rancière; in the next, to take up some themes from the feminist literature on work and value.


We begin with the observation that in our culture, for some reason, labor that contributes towards the creation of “texts” and “works of art”– those strange categories of made things– is treated differently than all other labor. Why is this so? What are the historical origins of this difference, and how has it changed over time? Why is cultural labor so often at the forefront of conflicts over the introduction of new technologies? What can this story of the evolution of cultural labor tell us more generally about the history of labor and capitalism in the US, and particularly about the changing cognitive and value structures that govern why some set of human actions (such as the effective toss of a football, the expert application of bow to violin, or the cogitation of a Wall Street consultant) are worth so much, and why most other human actions are worth so little.

Rancière’s work suggests that to make sense of these questions, we should first ask: what were the “conditions of intelligibility” that allowed this separation of arts from the rest of the world of objects and gestures? Tracking these “conditions of intelligibility,” Ranciere comes to a new definition of “aesthetics”: a “specific regime for identifying and reflecting on the arts: a mode of articulation between ways of doing and making, their corresponding forms of visibility, and possible ways of thinking about their relationships” (Politics of Aesthetics, 10). Aesthetics, in other words, can be understood as a “system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience; a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience.” Incidentally, this also describes politics: “Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and possibilities of time” (Politics of Aesthetics, 13)

Beginning with The Philosopher and his Poor (1983), Rancière has emphasized the extent to which the Western philosophical tradition has sought to “distinguish people capable of genuine thought from others who, entirely defined by their economic occupation, are presumed to lack the ability, time, and leisure required for thought.”  Identifying Plato’s division of society into functional orders (such that slaves, or shoemakers, for instance, are forever banished from the domain of philosophy) as paradigmatic, Rancière insists upon the central significance of the (usually unthematized) philosophical tendency to declare: “to each type of person, one alloted task: labour, war, or thought” [1].

Rancière observes that the same philosophers who try to distinguish the beautiful from the ordinary also tend to be engaged in efforts to sort out who belongs and who is excluded from political communities, and that from this reflection derives a brutally stark naturalization of class difference. This turns out to hinge on a politics of time that generalizes from the ascription of certain capacities and incapacities to different members of society: the production and appreciation of beautiful objects is reserved with those members of the community with enough free time (i.e., freedom from the obligation to work) to devote themselves to efforts beyond their immediate reproduction.

Correlatively,  the arts come to be seen as the forum for presenting the stories and representations of the noble and highly born, such that the presence of workers and those of humble origins within a cultural work immediately signals its status as inferior, non-, or anti-art. Rancière writes in Dissensus,

Poetry, Aristotle said, is more ‘philosophical’ than history, because poetry builds causal plots binding events together in a whole, while history only tells the events, as they evolve. The privilege of action over life distinguished noble poetry from base history, to the extent that it distinguished those who act from those who do nothing but ‘live,’ who are enclosed in the sphere of reproductive and meaningless life. As a consequence, fiction was divided into different genres of imitations. There were high genres, devoted to the imitation of noble actions and characters, and low genres devoted to common people and base subject matters. The hierarchy of genres also submitted style to a principle of hierarchical convenience: kings had to act and speak as kings do, and common people as common people do. The convention was not simply an academic constraint. There was a homology between the rationality of poetic fiction and the intelligibility of human actions, conceived of as an adequation between ways of being, ways of doing, and ways of speaking (156).

Here, we see content and form converge. For my project, this connection is crucial, as intellectual property law is constantly conjugating the nature of the cultural production process with the perceived worth of works of popular culture. Rancière’s helps us make sense of the way that the history of cultural labor exposes, in a particularly acute way, both the arbitrariness of cultural constructions of artistic merit, and the arbitrariness of capitalism’s drive to differentially evaluate labor, to rank different kinds of exertions of energy on a scale from “genius” to “unskilled.” The connection of art and politics in the “partition of the sensible” means that the valuation of cultural labor, and of labor more generally, and of cultural commodities, are not three separate stories, but rather interconnected dimensions of the same  phenomenon.

Such questions resonate with Rancière’s effort to map the history of class struggle as the consequence of a “presupposition of a certain kind of body, of the capacities and incapacities of that body,” which first found expression first in  The Nights of Labor (1981).

Rancière later reflected upon The Nights of Labor:  

I showed that at the core of the emancipation of the workers was an aesthetic revolution. And the core of that revolution was the issue of time. The Platonic statement, affirming that the workers had no time to do two things at the same time, had to be taken as a definition of the worker in terms of distribution of the sensible: the worker is he who has no time to do anything but his own work. Consequently the heart of the ‘revolution’ was the partition of time. In order to reframe the space-time of their ‘occupation’, the workers had to invalidate the most common partition of time: the partition according to which workers would work during the day and sleep during the night. It was the conquest of the night for doing something else than sleeping. That basic overturning involved a whole reconfiguration of the partition of experience.

In my own work, the “partition of time” operates differently: I am dealing not with laborers also making culture in their spare hours, but with the conflation or collapse of the categories “worker” and “artist.” Nevertheless, I have found this discussion to be extremely helpful in sorting out my own analytical priorities, and to be strangely sui generis in its willingness to dissolve those arbitrary boundaries that we so often see as “actually existing.”

[1] Peter Hallward, “Introduction,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities Volume 8, Number 2, August 2003, 192.

[2] Jacques Rancière, “From Politics to Aesthetics?” Paragraph, Volume 28, Number 1, March 2005, 14. 

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