Thursday, April 09, 2015

The picture writes the concepts which are then used to describe the picture

The picture writes the concepts which are then used to describe the picture. The categories used to describe society are a dynamic part of a concrete, organic, living whole.

The categories (forms, manifestations, aspects) of bourgeois society are not neutral definitions but are determined by that society dynamically. The story (big picture) dynamically informs the concepts that make up the narrative.

Start with society. That is given from a materialist perspective. The society determines the categories. But society is enormously complex so with which aspects of society do we start? The dictionary gives us words and meanings but doesn't give us a starting point.

Human minds have struggled over the years to formulate categories which describe society. This requires research, study, practice.

We then use those categories to perceive society and describe it to ourselves and others. Perception is not neutral, we perceive through our categories which influence or condition our senses, we see what our minds tell us to see. Inevitably those categories, despite our best intentions, are one sided, incomplete. We are brainwashed by our environment, our upbringing, our parents, our media etc. as to what we perceive, what is important and what is less important.

Society is more complicated and nuanced than our ability to describe it. The best we can do is approach a comprehensive description from our particular point of view. The way a modern atheist perceives society is vastly different from a religious person from the Middle Ages who believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe and those who challenged that view ought to be burnt at the stake.

It would be a mistake to think we have finished this process. Furthermore, society keeps changing so the categories have to be modified as we go along. We have to change too in order to catch up and keep up with social change. The whole process of formulating categories and using them to perceive and describe society is dynamic, changing, not static.

Different humans come to widely different understandings of our society and how it should function and develop: libertarians, social contract, dictatorship, liberal democracy, socialists, communists, Islamic State, Green politics. These labels demonstrate a variety of possible trajectories of different human understandings.

Hence, I am very interested in Marx's method since from my current perspective his method did result in an insightful understanding of the internal dynamics of capitalism, how it works, its problems and its limited future.

Current reading:
Marx, Karl. The Method of Political Economy

Ollman, Bertell. Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method (2003)

Ollman, Bertell. Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (1971)


Leigh Blackall said...

Society forming or categories is too general, from what I know of Marx, he didn't mention much about art as a category shifting element. Probably because it's a constructed element within the 20th century according to some critics (Wolfe) it's influence probably wasn't known or as strong in the mid 19th century as it would become in the 20th century. I found the 1999 book Art, Class and Cleavage useful in this regard:

Bill Kerr said...

Thanks Leigh,

You have me thinking more about how art fits into Marx's picture of a capitalist society dominated by commodity exchange.

What do Wolfe and Watson say about that?

There is a review of Watson's book here

I've just dipped into a book by Ben Fine, The World of Consumption: the material and cultural revisited, which does discuss these question. I need to read more before replying in detail.