I’m currently working on revising the HM paper on Ranciere I posted here several months ago. What began with a simple plan to touch up and expand a few bits that quickly compare Ranciere’s contribution to Reading Capital to Backhaus and Reichelt has typically led to rewriting and massively expanding the whole paper. Now instead of something that discusses Ranceiere with reference to Backhaus and Reichelt, I am properly comparing them. I am roughly framing this comparison by arguing that each group took up their respective teacher’s — Althusser and Adorno — Capital-centric criticisms of Marxist Humanism in order to develop a New Reading of Capital that stressed the methodological and social theoretical advances that Capital marks over the early Marx.
In the course of writing, in addition to struggling with said material, I have found myself struggling once again with the issue of Marx’s humanism, particularly my sympathies with both Ranciere’s anti-humanism and what I am terming Backhaus and Reichelt’s negative humanism. This has lead me to wrestle with the heretical question of their possible compatibility. I invite denouncement in what follows by jotting down some thoughts that try to work this through.
In the first place, I am in total agreement with the points of similarity these respective new readings of Marx and their targets of criticism. Although neither reading refers to the particular instances of Marxist Humanism they criticise, it might be assumed that it was the sort that was hegemonic in those days that read Capital from the perspective of the Manuscripts and used the theory of alienation as a sort of blanket social theory to espouse notions of dehumanisation and ennui. As each new reading argues, Capital marks important methodological and social theoretical advances over the Manuscripts.
In the second place, neither of the respective new readings have any time for the other aspects of alienation Marx mentions in the Manuscripts or the social theory linked to it. Even the negative humanism of Reichelt conceives of these aspects, not as the normative grounds of Marx’s critique, but as ‘negative mirror images’ that ‘to a certain extent [are] the counter-concepts to the existing forms of an inverted society, including its forms of consciousness and surrogates of community.’
This brings us to the crux of their disagreement; Ranciere insists that the late Marx’s critique has replaced the anthropological standpoint with a scientific one; Backhaus and Reichelt insist that this anthropological standpoint persists. These respective positions would seem to be irreconcilable. However, I wonder to what extent they are talking past each other.
In Ranciere’s case his characterisation of the difference between the Early and Late Marx concerns his characterisation of the differences between an anthropological and scientific critique. For Ranciere, the Early Marx’s concept of critique proceeds from an anthropological standpoint to identify the content of social institutions as separated and hence alienated human essence. The late Marx’s scientific concept of critique proceeds from the scientific standpoint of metonymic causality to methodologically present how the internal relations of capitalist society are realized in inverted forms that constitute subjects as bearers of these processes.
In Backhaus and Reichelt’s case, while they argue that the anthropological standpoint of Marx’s critique is persistent they seem to have a thinner notion of what this anthropological standpoint consists in as well as different notion of the theory of social reality related to it. The former can be seen in how Backhaus characterised Feuerbach’s influence on Marx’s notion of critique as ‘the conception of essence as a process of human constitution that appears in ‘alienated’ and contradictory forms’. In other words, it seems to me that the notion of essence here is minimal and negative. All Backhaus seems to be saying is that humans possess the generic capacity to collectively constitute something alien to them. Moreover, in another point of differentiation with Ranciere’s analysis of the Early Marx, this essence appears in an inverted form that dominates and compels the respective bearers of these relations.
This raises the question — are Ranciere and Backhaus and Reichelt’s characterisations of the early Marx effectively different enough that they are discussing entirely different breaks and continuities in conceptions, and perhaps aspects, of Marx’s theory? Conversely, given that Backhaus and Reichelt’s notion of continuity contains Ranciere’s stress on the importance of the relations between processes and forms, and their minimal anthropology essentially holds that the anthropological standpoint provides an explanation for the social constitution of these forms, could such a conception of continuity provide a basis for Ranciere’s later misgivings about the anti-humanism in his reading without falling into an avowed humanist position? Moreover, could Ranciere’s stress on science as a theory of internal causality that has different explanations of political economy than Marx’s early work and which is methodologically presented across different levels of concretion in Capital prove complimentary to the issue of method in the New German Reading of Marx?
I do not have answers to the questions I pose, nor in the last instance do either really seem to rest on an anti-humanist or negative-humanist position since they are more properly concerned with compatibility in terms of method and society theory. However, it seems to me that at the very least this train of thought provides an interesting perspective from which to read the work of Heinrich and Milios whom might be said to incorporate points from both of these readings in their important interpretations of Marx. In addition they might be worth thinking through to a greater extent in order to deal with a number of contemporary Marxological or social theoretical issues.