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New Literary History 33.1 (2002) 1-20

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Promises, Promises:
Speech Act Theory, Literary Theory, and Politico-Economic Theory in Marx and de Man

J. Hillis Miller

The term "Marxist aesthetics" might mean Marx's own aesthetic theories. The term may most often be taken, however, to name an aesthetic theory derived from Marxism. This would be a secondary construction based on Marx's critique of political economy, that is, his ideas about labor, production, commodities, value, circulation, money, capital, surplus value, fetishism, class struggle, ideology, the superstructure, the coming dictatorship of the proletariat, and so on. Marx did not, except here and there, for example in his celebrated references to Shakespeare's Timon of Athens and Hamlet, have all that much to say about literature, art, music, or aesthetics, though he often makes easy, and usually ironic, citations from Shakespeare and other writers of literature to reinforce his own argument. It has been left, scholars tend to assume, to subsequent Marxists, Lukács for example, or Adorno, or Benjamin, or Eagleton (to stick with European theorists), or many others around the world, for example Fredric Jameson or Michael Sprinker in the United States, to construct a Marxist aesthetics. What is striking about these theories is their somewhat dismaying diversity and heterogeneity. I am not a Marxist aestheticist, but when Jacques Derrida in Spectres de Marx makes a similar assertion and says "I am not a Marxist," he follows it by asking "Are there any?" If there are any, they certainly do not hew closely to any single line of filiation with Marx. It might be better to return to Marx's own writings, as I propose to do here, to see if they might contain already Marx's own aesthetics or might even be, essentially and fundamentally, an aesthetic theory.

It may seem implausible to claim, as Jennifer Bajorek does in a recent brilliant dissertation prospectus, that Capital is itself through and through a work of literary theory, that is, exemplifies a subset of aesthetic theory. It may seem even more implausible to claim, as Bajorek also does, that Capital, understood as a work of literary theory, is congruent with Paul de Man's literary theory or that de Man's literary theory is also, like Capital, a critique of political economy. Marx a literary theorist! De Man a political theorist in resonance with Marx! Nevertheless, [End Page 1] Bajorek's claim is on the mark. Her claim builds on recent important readings of Marx by Jacques Derrida, Werner Hamacher, Andrzej Warminski, and others. 1

Political economy is, for Marx, a sign system, a language. Marx at one point in Capital makes this explicit by calling the value system a "hieroglyphic" and making it parallel to human language. "Es steht daher," says Marx, "dem Werte nicht auf der Stirn geschrieben, was er ist. Der Wert verwandelt vielmehr jedes Arbeitsprodukt in eine gesellschaftliche Hieroglyphe. Später suchen die Menschen den Sinn der Hieroglyphe zu entziffern, hinter das Geheimnis ihres eignen gesellschaftlichen Produkts zu kommen, denn die Bestimmung der Gebrauchsgegenstände als Werte ist ihr gesellschaftliches Produkt so gut wie die Sprache" ("Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labor into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product: for the characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men's social product as is their language"). 2

This hieroglyphic text works just as de Man says all "texts" do, among them literary texts, that is, as a "figure (or system of figures) and its deconstruction." 3 The relations of substitution, equivalence, and exchange among commodities within capitalism as Marx describes them in the first volume of Capital, are, it is easy to see, a tropology or "system of figures." So many yards of linen can be substituted for one coat, and so on, just as one word can be substituted for another in...


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