All the right notes

Eric words up Previn

Andre Previn: "But... But... You're playing... You're playing all the wrong notes."
Eric Morecambe: [Grabs Previn by the lapels] "I'm playing all the right notes. But not necessarily in the right order"

This post is about the immaterial product, using the concept of use-shape, the occasional translation of Marx's Gebrauchgestalt, to explore this sometimes confusing concept. We explore the concept of the pattern form, a type of non-subjective, i.e. "really-existing", yet immaterial shape, which is the concrete form of the immaterial product.

What is it that makes Grieg's piano concerto, Grieg's piano concerto? Clearly it is not so much the individual notes that make it up (the right notes), but their sequential arrangement (the right order) the intensity of their sounding and the timing of their duration and the space between them. It is the arrangement of the "right" notes, that constitutes Grieg's piano concerto in its encoded form - whether written on paper or encoded in an mp3. Actually there is a distinction between these two forms of encoding. The first is an encoding of the pattern itself. The second is a recording of the labour of musicians transforming the written pattern into a musical performance. It is the first instance we want to look at here.

To do so, we need to take a linguistic detour first.

object n. & v.
- n.
1. a material thing that can be seen or touched.
2. (foll. by of) a person or thing to which action or feeling is directed (the object of attention; the object of our study).
3. a thing sought or aimed at; a purpose.
4. Gram [...]
5. Philos. a thing external to the thinking mind or subject.
6. derog. [...]
7. Computing [...]
- v. [...]

objective adj. & n.
1. external to the mind; actually existing; real.
2. (of a person, writing, art, etc.) dealing with outward things or exhibiting facts uncoloured by feelings or opinions;  not subjective.
3. Gram. [...]
4. aimed at (objective point).
5 (of symptoms) observed by another and not only felt by the patient.
- n.
1. something sought or aimed at; an objective point.
2. Gram [...]
3. = object-glass

So, ignoring the grammatical, derogatory and computing meanings, we can still see there are a number of distinct meanings in both object and objective. Object(1) and object(5) are not the same thing. The sounds of Grieg's piano concerto can neither be seen (synaesthesia or machine-enhanced viewing aside) or touched, but they nonetheless exist externally to the thinking mind or subject, that is they are as equally objective(1) as tangible things (object(1)). For rough equivalents, lets say object(1) = tangible things; object(2) = target; object(3) = goal; object(5) = "really-existing". objects (1) & (5) are both objective(1). Object(3) is not - a goal is necessarily the goal of some subjective consciousness, it cannot be said to be external to the mind. Objective(4) is simply the adjectival form of object(3), hence objective(4) != objective(1). Surprisingly, despite its definition as "not subjective", objective(2) is the attitude of a subjectivity attempting to deal with outward things in a way that transcends or denies their peculiar biases - it is the ideal of a "non-subjective" subjectivity, but it is not external to the mind (in the sense of object(5) or objective(1)). Hence objective(2) != objective(1), also. The same applies to the medical sense, objective(5), there still has to be an observer independant from the patient. Objective(5) is inter-subjective, it is relational. Whereas a rock on Mars, so far unobserved by any NASA explorer bots, is objective(1) in a non-relational sense.

Now to apply this, to Marx, Capital 1, chapter 7.

We pre-suppose labour in a form in which it is and exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many an architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour-process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally.
The land (and this, economically speaking, includes water) in its original state in which it supplies [1] man with necessaries or the means of subsistence ready to hand is available without any effort on his part as the universal material of human labour. All those things which labour merely separates from immediate connexion with their environment are objects of labour [Arbeitsgegendstand] spontaneously provided by nature, such as fish caught and separated from their natural element, namely water, timber felled in virgin forests, and ores extracted from their veins. If, on the other hand, the object of labour has, so to speak, been filtered through previous labour, we call it raw material. For eaxmple, ore already extracted and ready for washing. All raw material is an object of labour, but not every object of labour is raw material; the object of labour counts as raw material only when it has already undergone some alteration by means of labour.
In the labour-process, therefore, man's activity, via the instruments of labour, effects an alteration, in the object of labour which was intended from the outset. The processis extinguished in the product. The product of the process is a use-value, a piece of natural material adapted to human needs by means of a change in form. Labour has become bound up in its object: labour has been objectified, the object has been worked on. What on the side of the worker appeared in the form of unrest [Unruhe] now appears, on in side of the product, in the form of being [Sein], as a fixed, immobile characteristic. The worker has spun, and the product is a spinning.

First of all it should be pointed out that the translation of Arbeitsgegenstand by "object of labour" above is the Penguin Edition translation by Ben Fowkes. The original English translation by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (1887, as reproduced in the Progress Publishers Edition and Collected Works on actually rendered this as "subjects of labour" - i.e. those things that were subjected to labour (presumably). Nonetheless, the Penguin edition is the one most anglophone readers now use, so we'll stick with the Fowkes translation.

Marx, as we know, is fond of word-play and punning on the different co-existing senses of words. However, in the above, IMO, he comes a cropper in playing around with the different senses of object in "object of labour" in a way that leads to non-sequiteurs that are obstructive to a proper examination of the nature of immaterial use-values.

Although he does not use the term use-value in the first selection, there is here the clear idea that the result of the labour-process - the use-value - is conceived first in the imagination. This is the territory we have already looked at in the Production of Use Values and the Four Levels of Use Value Production.

In the next selection, Marx uses the "object of labour" in the sense of object(2), the uncaught fish (or skipping stone) which is not a product of any prior labour, but the bounty of nature itself. Then, in the third selection, he is talking of the "object of labour" as "a piece of natural material", i.e. object(1). As we will see later, the equation of a use value with "a piece of natural material" (a constriction that was already made in chapter 1, in fact) is itself questionable. But here we need to concentrate on the slippage that occurs in this idea of "Labour has become bound up in its object". Here object is serving in both the object(2) sense of the fish and the object(1) sense of material thing. Then we move to "labour has been objectified". Here we have clearly moved away from object(2) - the goal or purpose towards which the labour-process was directed - but there remains an ambiguity. Having removed the possibility of object(2) (target), is it object(1) (tangible thing) we are referring to, or object(5) ("really-existing")?

Lets return to Grieg and his piano concerto. So long as the concerto exists only in his imagination, then no matter what pleasure it may give him, it cannot be considered a social use-value as it has no social nature - no one but Grieg can "hear" all the right notes. But when Grieg sits down at his piano with pen in hand and writes all the right notes in the right order onto his manuscript, he is engaged in labour producing a use value. The written form of his piano concerto is not a tangible material thing (object(1)) - yes the manuscript is a tangible thing, but it is not the written encoding of the music itself, but merely its bearer - but it is indisputably a thing now external to Grieg's mind (object(5)) such that his death does not affect the continuing existence of his written concerto. It is not object(1) but it is objective(1). It may not be dinglich, but it is a Gestaltung, it is gegendständlich.

But what is the nature of this objective thing that is not a material object? Here Eric Morecambe's genius can show us the light. It is an arrangement of notes - not merely the right notes, but the right order (and intensity and duration) as well. This is the nature of the pattern-form. It is compositional in the sense that if you take its written encoding on a piece of paper and chop it up with scissors, Gysin-style, and then pass the remnants to a person who does not know the original and ask them to re-assemble it, they will find it nigh on impossible. Similarly a digital encoding of this post, subjected to a randomisation of the order of its letters or even the digital bits that encode it, will cease to be this post, this object(5), immaterial object. Similarly a painting, or even a pop-art collage, is defined by its composition. The sky is up here, the sea is down there, the castle is to the left, the horse is to the right and so on. Jigsaw puzzles make a game of reconstructing an image from its randomised parts compared to an image of the desired final product combined with the hints provided by the unique combinations of the interlocking shapes of the pieces. Similarly the digital revolution has meant the possibility of encoding all pattern-form immaterial objects into sequences of ones and zeros.

This pattern-form use-value, we can think of as a use-shape - the occasional translation used for Marx's Gebrauchsgestalt which is more often translated as object of utility - i.e. the objective form of the use-value. When the pattern-form loses it's shape it loses itself. Unlike a material object which may, through impact, crushing, etc, lose its original shape (and perhaps thus its use-value, i.e. become broken) where a loss of shape does not imply the material destruction of the object itself, the shape of the pattern form is the thing itself rather than being merely one of its properties. For the pattern form to lose its shape completely is an entropic event subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics - it cannot be undone, any more than the broken egg dropped on the kitchen floor can magically reconstitute itself into and egg and fly back up to the table top. All the right notes but not necessarily in the right order, will never make Grieg's piano concerto.

However if the pattern-form object is a product of labour, it is one that in which the relationship between its creation and its reproduction is practically unique. That is that the reproduction of a pattern, once created, is almost infintesimally small compared to the labour required for its production. That is the labour of origination is incommensureable with the labour of reproduction. This causes a significant breakdown of the normal economic calculation of average social labour necessary for the production of these products. Normally "socially necessary labour time" is averaged out by the competitive comparison of the time taken for reproducing similar pattern objects. But when we divide the number of reproductions of an already created pattern form object by the time taken to produce them, to get this average, we end up with a division by zero error - singularity. Yet an ever-increasing amount of the social devision of labour is taken up in the production of these pattern-form use-values, labour that requires means of consumption that are material as well as immaterial. How to overcome this problematic will be the subject of future posts in this series.




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