Steve Shaviro, brilliant as usual, on Marxism vs Latour’s actor-network theory:
I am sympathetic to Latour’s insistence that networked social processes cannot be explained in terms of global categories like “capital,” or “the social” – because these categories themselves are what most urgently need to be explained. And the only way to explain these categories is precisely by working through the network, and mapping the many ways in which these categories function, the processes through which they get constructed, and the encounters in the course of which they transform, and are in turn transformed by, the other forces that they come into contact with. But — and this is an extremely crucial “but” — explaining how categories like “capital” and “society” are constructed (and in many cases, auto-constructed) is not the same thing as denying the very validity of these categories – as Latour and his disciples are often wont to do. It is simply disingenuous when (as Nick describes it) ” Latour and the main ANT economist, Michel Callon, argue that capitalism does not exist.”
The problem is not that capitalism – or capital accumulation as systematic imperative – doesn’t really exist, so we should look to the real complexity of the situation, etc. The problem is that we act as if this imperative is valid, we affirm its existence in practice even while denying its theoretical dexterity. The crucial point that such anti-Marxism misses is that capital is a real abstraction, a fiction that engenders its own reality. Capital’s imperative, and the tangible organizational force it exerts, may not be objectively necessary, but they are nonetheless objectively valid by virtue of their contingent effectuation in practice.
The question is not whether the concept is adequate to reality, but in what ways the concept already contaminates the reality it allegedly explains from a neutral prerogative, installing itself in praxical constellations bound up with humanity as an obligatory passage point. It is not the theory that is too ‘totalizing’ to grasp the subtle complexities on the ground. Rather, capital is increasingly totalizing in practice, and a simple shift in theory is not enough to change this practice. No, we should concern ourselves with de-totalizing reality in practice, not merely its theoretical representations.
This amounts to a sort of alien hand syndrome: one cannot simply wish the strange behavior of the limb away, it has a ‘mind of its own’, refusing to obey the expected determining power of the subject. Unfortunately, changing the way one thinks is not enough to change one’s behavior, which ‘thinks for itself’. One has to intervene in this thought in the thing itself, what Saint Paul refers to as ‘the law of my members’. In this sense, I don’t think Shaviro is right to throw out the infrastructure/superstructure distinction just yet. The infrastructure is the survival of the concept in practice, in my members, as a technology within me, whereas the superstructure is composed of the superficial changes that can be equally supported by the invarying praxical technology. We need to crawl back into the infrastructure, relinquishing the fantasy of sentience – it is the hand that makes up its mind, not the mind which makes up its hand.