Lefebvre and Sohn-Rethel.

It has occurred to me that there are a number of interesting parallels, and possible points of productive synthesis, between Henri Lefebvre and Alfred Sohn-Rethel.

In the first place, it is interesting to note that Lefebvre and Sohn-Rethel both conceived of projects in their youths, in the 1920s and 1930s, that they took up, reformulated and revised for the remainder of their lives. Moreover, these respective projects — the critique of everyday life and intellectual and manual labour — can both be said to conceive of capitalist society as characterized by a number of divisions. Finally, each thinker can also be said to have attempted to substantiate and embody these divisions in the realm of lived experience on the basis of theories of abstraction. This raises the question if Lefebvre’s notion of ‘concrete abstraction’, which focused on how abstraction was embodied in the lived experience of everyday life, and Sohn-Rethel’s idea of real abstraction, which focused on how conceptual abstraction was derived from the former in addition to the separation of head and hand, might be brought together; possibly providing Lefebvre with a more rigorous account of conceptuality and Sohn-Rethel with the dimensions of how conceptuality and division exist in everyday life.

These similarities also raise the possibilities of more technical comparisons of how they conceived of their theories of abstraction on a Marxian basis as well as looking at their respective Marxist uses of Heidegger.


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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3 Responses to Lefebvre and Sohn-Rethel.

  1. Have you read Andrew Feenberg? His work seems to cover some of the themes you regularly mention – not sure if his forthcoming book is going to be worth it, or not. In a talk he gave recently, he made it clear that he feels Lukacs’ work was an advancement over Marx on the question of technology. I’m not so sure.

    • HR says:

      I have read a few Feenberg articles and seen him talk a few times. I have to admit I am generally rather unimpressed with his work, which I see as emblematic of the dated, limited, yet paradigmatic reception of the FS in the Anglophone world. This is especially the case with his treatment of the relationship between Lukacs and Marx. I plan on writing about this in more detail in an article, but it seems to me that what he terms the ‘paleo marxist’ aspects of Lukacs’s thought are based on an antiquated interpretation of Marx. His interpretation of Lukacs, on the other hand, seems to rely on a notion of the subject that I just don’t see in Lukacs’ work in which technology is tied to a type of instrumentalisation that is completely divorced from the admittedly shaky Marxist account of valorisation which Lukacs ties it to, leading Feenberg to treat technology simply in terms of a de-contextualized political issue with the unsatisfying answer that it should be democratized, whatever that means.

    • HR says:

      Whereas someone like Bahr, who has a far more sophisticated reading of Marx and technology than Feenberg, argues the following:

      The reason why the surface appearance of the means of production is dominated by the semblance of indifference is to be found in the fact that in industrial production the living dialectic of the material interaction with nature is no longer experienced, if for no other reason than that, as far as the workers are concerned, the means used to work upon nature-given material are simply the conditions for their abstract activity. The construction of particular ploughs and looms revealed both the social existence of the peasant and handicraft workers of a particular historical epoch as class-specific occupations, as well as the basis and degree of societation of this agrarian and handicraft form of production. The class, as an occupational estate, existed simultaneously in the natural form of its means of labour. It was only with the separation of the worker from the means of production, and the mediation of this development of the (constantly evolving) means of production of the worker via the activity of the intellect, that the means of labour assumed a historical form which no longer corresponded to the individual’s activity. The paradox is that although machinery and technology where created as the purposive basis of bourgeois class rule, they appear as their opposite in the social mediation of individual capitals through the market: that is, they appear as a neutral, indifferent basis for the societation of the production process through the division of labour. They appear specifically ‘class neutral’, particularly in comparison to objects from the sphere of consumption, where cars, home furnishing, fancy packaging and buildings still directly exhibit both forms of their social nature, namely, utility and domination. By contrast, the highest stage of the developmental forms of the means of production, as ‘rationality of the inner value-form’, produces the opposite appearance: the melancholic sameness of proletarian working conditions vaunts itself as the ‘transcendence of class society’, for the simple reason that capital, as ‘inner social value-form of the means of production’, presents itself abstractly as the latter’s societal nature and universal validity: in fact, as society-in-itself, taking on material shape as the universally valid coercion characterizing labour conditions.


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