A Cup of Tea, Bad Infinity, and the Process of Production

I am working through some tensions that I've sensed in the field of political economy; even the field of the critique of political economy. One such tension pertains to how it is that we define the quality of social value. That is, how do we understand what we value, why we value what we value, and how these determinations are formed and how they affect social relations. 

For example, I value a good cup of tea. Each cup of tea has a price attached to it. But it also has a complex web of meanings attached to it. These meanings are themselves complex bundles of meanings that open us up to the history of tea production, shipping, acquisition, sharing over biscuits with friends, colonial exploits, commercial and advertising sentiment, etc. But price is only one very tiny expression of value. It is purported to be an accurate determinant of value. But how can we quantify the value of the Queen of England drinking a cuppa, that is exported as a commercial image to the US, to drives sales of Tetley whenever there's a royal wedding, in simple money terms? 

This banal example introduces a much more complex set of concerns that has dominated my thought of late. That is, what are the limits of thinking of value in the terms dictated by a market logic? How can we understand the complex webs of meaning that make up social history (both long-term and in our daily interactions) in ways that aren't reducible to those determinations established by the logic of value per se (either exchange value or even use-value)? How can we attune ourselves to the 'value' (if we should even be content with this term) of a cup of tea that is sensitive to the multitude of meanings contained within? And, what is more difficult, what would a socio-economic system look like that valued the values beyond simply the value of values?

Recently, a group of us in Sydney have been reading through Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space. It is a sprawling text that seeks to illuminate and validate the logic of spatial production itself (for philosophy nerds: he does not mean outer space, the scientific understanding of objective spatiality, nor the Kantian transcendental aesthetic). In super short CliffsNotes, what he is exploring is how it is that spatiality is constructed (i.e. produced) under the logic of capitalism as determined by the abstract law of value. So, think of an urban environment filled with skyscrapers. This site of spatiality has been constructed not just on a blank canvas, but the canvas itself has been created in the creation of the skyscrapers according to the larger logic of the system that sought the creation of said skyscrapers: capitalists secured finance, plans were drawn up, contractors were hired, permits were acquired (perhaps by entirely legal means and perhaps by some finagling of the law), workers were employed, lunch trucks served food on site, mice were killed, bees stung workers, dust was kicked into the air, etc etc etc. All of these activities took place in the construction of the space itself. They didn't merely take place in a pre-constituted space. In fact, the "pre-constituted" space in which this complex process of spatial production took place was constituted, partly at least, in conjunction with the production of the more common and concrete process that we tend to attribute to skyscraper construction. But we must not presume that this pre-constituted space was an autonomous or meaning-free site. For it too is the product of previous complex processes of spatial production. And all of this according to the dictates of the logic of capitalism – which necessarily implies class struggle. 

With me?

This is the logic that he wants to work through in this text. And I'm finding it very fascinating for many reasons, one of which is that it is helping me think through the tension I noted above pertaining to value, meaning, and the production process. Bear with me here.

What I've been considering is precisely how it is that the logic of production is an insufficient and restrictive social logic of value. That is, in what ways is even the Marxian project not radical enough to break from the stranglehold of the logic of the capitalist mode of production? And perhaps what is more condemning: in what ways does the Marxian critique of political economy reproduce the very logic of capitalism that it seeks to overcome? This is a much larger, long-term project than can't be covered in a thousand blog posts, let alone one. But what Lefebvre is helping me think through (along with Sartre, Baudrillard, Huey Newton, etc) is my foray into such a project. Call it a prolegomena to the "Prolegomena." 

Today's reading through chapter 2 of the text provided me with some concepts to express this sensed tension that I'm working through. In it, Lefebvre suggests that Humanity is killing both God and Nature (and perhaps committing suicide in the process). It is doing so through the exponential production of spatiality according to the logic of capitalism. Abstract space, constructed according to the law of value, is increasing rapidly as spatiality is being produced under the demands of capitalism. In theoretical terms, there is a tendential colonization or enclosure of being (little 'b'). The plane of material reality (what Prozorov as we saw in our book club would refer to as the "phenomenological," "intra-worldly" order) is perpetually being coded, enframed, delineated, mapped, territorialized, etc. The production process "imposes a temporal and spatial order" (p. 71) upon any given intra-worldly order. And this process of production is infinite. 

However, it is not a true infinite. The production process can only operate according to the logic of phenomenological existence, which is quantifiably infinite. This is the linear, bad infinite that Hegel wrote about. It is the sequential and spatial notion of an increase without end but that can never reach the Absolute. It is always ever expanding, receding, increasing, etc. It is a phenomenological infinite.

So, there is a sense in which the production process as a process of bad infinity can only ever enclose (through production and reproduction) resources into its web of symbolization. This is how Humanity is killing God and Nature. The latter are being further and further enclosed into the process of production itself. Or, if we don't want to speak of God and Nature, we can simply refer to it as "being" (small 'b'). Regardless, the point remains: the production process can only operate according to the bad infinite. 

And perhaps this is where the fundamental contradiction appears: between the production process of bad infinity and the looming spectre of true infinity that beckons but that is always excessive. Perhaps it is precisely in that contradiction between the two infinities that the crisis of humanity emerges. Which then could imply that the crisis of political economy fundamentally is its failure, its intrinsic inability, to value the beyond of true infinity that is in our midst. Insofar as political economy and the critique of political economy rely on production, they can only ever inscribe those elements of life that are incorporable at the level of phenomenological, intra-worldly experience. And even then they can only do so partly – according to the limits of the bad infinite.

This is why killing God and Nature (or being) is suicidal: the more we become invested into this logic of bad infinity, the more we become embedded into the logic of production. The logic of the superego is apt here to explain this spiraling embrace that smothers: the more innocent you are, the guiltier you are. That is, the more libidinal investment infused into the logic of the production process, the greater its potency becomes and so too its demands and the limits it imposes. Like a plume of smoke accumulating over a perpetually burning fire, its pollution increases and the shadow it casts becomes more ominous over the territory it hovers. 

So, what would a "true infinite" conception of social value look like? It would have to be explicitly metaphysical. It could not rest in the logic of production. Perhaps it would have to be something non-human (as we have come to define humanity thus far anyway). Or perhaps, this speculative musing shows an impasse that humanity simply cannot transcend. Maybe this is really just the human condition – the consequence of The Fall.