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The Problem of Temporality for a Materialist Concept of History

“Modern political thought has concentrated its attention on history, and has not elaborated a corresponding concept of time. Even historical materialism has until now neglected to elaborate a concept of time that compares with its concept of history.”[1]

What is the future of Marx’s materialist concept of history? It is evident that this concept historicizes the ‘practice’ and ‘social relations’ of the new materialism set forth in the 1845 theses ‘On Feuerbach’, but the full philosophical scope of this historicization is far from being realized. In part, this is because Marx provides no analysis of the relationship between time, temporality and this concept of history. There is nothing approximating a philosophy of time within the concept, which would suggest that time and temporality constitute a distinct philosophical problem for it. We are largely familiar with the broad contours of this concept, but it is unclear what temporalities structure complex practices and phenomena such as the social production of the means of life [Lebensmittel], the creation of new needs, the conflict between the forces and relations of production, and the division of labour. The question of how the terrain of antagonism and revolutionary practice is temporally comprehensible is left indefinite. The relationship between class struggle and historical time, how class struggle is both conceivable through and constitutive of historical time, requires elucidation. For Marx, the human is a fundamentally economic and historical being, but how might it also be a fundamentally temporal being? What sort of materialist anthropology would this be? While The German Ideology introduces us to the complex interrelations between the natural, social and historical aspects of this anthropology, a more ontologically basic relationship between materiality and temporality begs development. Barring this, the full philosophical scope of expressions such as the ‘materiality of time’ and the ‘temporality of material’ remains unrealized in this concept of history, and Marx’s philosophy more broadly. Simply put, temporality and materiality are philosophically and politically indissociable questions in Marx.

Étienne Balibar reminds us that in its expansion upon the new materialism of the 1845 theses ‘On Feuerbach’, its transformation of an ‘ontology of praxis’ into an ‘ontology of production’, The German Ideology affects a new relationship between praxis and poiêsis. This relationship is, to be precise, doubly new. It is new to the history of philosophy, because it breaks with a tradition of strict separation between praxis and poiêsis dating back to Plato and Aristotle and extending through Kant’s critiques. Of greater consequence, it is also new to the philosophy of history. This new materialism, collapsing the barrier between self-transformative action by ‘free’ humans and the ‘necessary’ production of objects for use, concretized by the social production of the means of life, is also the basis from which history becomes a speculative and experimental concept in Marx. The methodological implications of this are diverse, if largely unknown. Generally speaking, what must be acknowledged is that any historical logic fundamentally driven by human practice cannot but have an unpredictable future, which in turn irrevocably alters the meaning and temporality of concepts such as ‘historical progress’, ‘historical evolution’, ‘historical rationality’ and so forth. This becomes particularly clear when we consider the essential role that class struggle plays in this new materialism. The foundational importance of conflict (not just class struggle but more broadly the contradiction between the forces and relations of production) to this concept of history is not merely a political matter: its temporal dynamic (marked by conflict between disjunctive, disjointed and discordant temporalities) philosophically registers the concept of history as necessarily open and incomplete.

The ‘material content’ of this new materialism, this new ontology of production, is the social activity of labour per se, economic practice inseparable from and yet irreducible to the natural (organic and inorganic alike) matter that this labour works upon. As the social production of the means of life, labour ontologically grounds the historical movement between praxis and poiêsis, between the realms of freedom and necessity. In other words, labour historicizes. The consequences of this are far-reaching. If labour historicizes, it also temporalizes. In Marx, labour must be an indelibly temporal concept: any concept of history, materialist or otherwise, is unthinkable apart from the philosophy of time. We can thus supplement Marx’s 1859 remark that “as useful activity directed to the appropriation of natural factors in one form or another, labour is a natural condition of human existence, a condition of metabolism [Stoffwechsel] between humanity and nature, quite independent of the form of society” with the following formulation: labour produces and exists as, quite independent of the form of society, time and temporality. This means that if The German Ideology replaces practice with production, and if the concept of labour is a condition of thinking a mode of production, then temporality must be a condition of thinking ontology in Marx. Temporality confirms the philosophical status of ontology in Marx: ‘mode of production’ and ‘ontology’ cannot be conceived of as synonymous terms, and cannot be internalized to the philosophy of history, without first grasping the relationship between labour and temporality. At a basic level, then, this conceptual identity between labour and temporality grounds Marx’s new materialism. And yet, critically elaborating upon the fact that labour temporalizes is a task which remains far from complete, particularly in relation to the temporality of history. Such a task was certainly never done by Marx himself, and it is unclear, given the textual evidence, to what extent – if any – he saw his intervention in the philosophy and politics of materialism in these terms. To be sure, Marx exhaustively analyzes relationships between labour and temporality, although such temporality, notably that in the hyphenated concept ‘labour-time’, is already figured as a temporality of capital: in this case, the quantifiable, durational time of abstract labour.  There are highly suggestive passages in the Grundrisse, from broadly Aristotelian positions (“since labour is motion, time is its natural measure”) to critical extensions of Hegel (“labour is the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time,”) but the fact remains that these passages once again assume a temporality of capital, a temporality which cannot be conflated with that of history, despite, and in fact precisely because, the temporality of capital is the very condition of thinking the temporality of history, and, ultimately, the concept of historical time. But that’s for another paper. This much is clear: if labour historicizes, then any attempt to historicize the relationship between time and history, and thus any attempt to establish the philosophical priority of the problem of historical time, must explore the manifold implications of the complex relationship between labour and temporality.

The German Ideology is premised upon the idea that the removal of any distinction between praxis and poiêsis is only sustainable at the level of the philosophy of history: “There is never any effective freedom which is not also a material transformation, which is not registered historically in exteriority. But nor is there any work which is not a transformation of self, as though human beings could change their conditions of existence while maintaining an invariant ‘essence’.”[2] In Marx, after 1845, ‘materialism’ must already always be a historical materialism if it is to have any meaning as a practical and social materialism. Given that labour temporalizes, we can now critically expand upon Balibar’s equation of practice = production with the following corollary: materiality = temporality. Materiality and temporality must be read as not just indissociable, but, more radically, equivalent terms in Marx’s philosophy. They infer one another, and are two different expressions of the same thing. What’s ‘new’ about the new materialism in The German Ideology, as opposed to the new materialism in the theses on Feuerbach, is that The German Ideology not only enables but in fact demands such equivalence between materiality and temporality. And yet, far from clearing up, as Althusser once put it, “the confusion that surrounds the concept of history,” this new, to adapt Marx, conceptual interchange or reciprocity [Austausch] between materiality and temporality does little else but exacerbate the need to address the following questions: what are the philosophical implications of reading materiality as temporality in Marx? What new interpretive possibilities are introduced? If Marx’s materialism is in fact a new materialism, is it also a new temporality? Does this materialism affect a new configuration between the three dimensions of human time; that is, between the past, present and future? And if it is a historical materialism, how might it also be figured as a historical temporality? What light do these questions shed on the relationship between time and history, if indeed each poses a problem for the philosophy of the other? How do we critically reconstruct Marx’s materialist concept of history as a concept of historical time?

By George


[1] Agamben, Giorgio, “Time and History: Critique of the Instant and the Continuum,” in his Infancy & History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience [1978], trans. Liz Heron (London and New York: Verso, 1993), p. 91.

[2] Balibar, Étienne, The Philosophy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner (London and New York: Verso, 1995), p. 40.

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One comment on “The Problem of Temporality for a Materialist Concept of History

  1. Tokyo Witch
    March 15, 2013

    Very well written paper. This is more of a question than a comment. Is it possible that by not considering what Marx means by time in something like labour time we’re producing a concept of materiality that is not aware of it’s transience, it’s destruction and it’s finitude, a materiality that is not material enough?

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This entry was posted on January 28, 2013 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .
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