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  • Bringing Capital to Its SensesFrench Iterations of Marxist Themes
  • Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. (bio)

An unobjective being is a nullity—an un-being.…

But a nonobjective being is an unreal, nonsensical thing—a product of mere thought (hence of mere imagination)—a creature of abstraction. To be sensuous is to be an object of sense, to be a sensuous object, and thus to have sensuous objects outside oneself—objects of one's sensuousness. To be sensuous is to suffer.

Man as an objective, sensuous being is therefore a suffering being—and because he feels what he suffers, a passionate being. Passion is the essential force of man energetically bent on its object.

(Marx 1964, 182)

In the acknowledgments to his 1988 bestseller, A Brief History of Time, the late Steven Hawking reported that "someone told me that each equation I included in this book would halve the sales" (Hawking 1988, vi). Despite his best efforts, he was ultimately unable to resist including one of [End Page 97] them: Einstein's seismic scientific aphorism, E=mc2. That book is relevant to this discussion for various reasons I hope to elucidate, but one observation is pertinent at the outset: Hawking may have been steered off mathematical equations, but he was not so chary about using graphs, charts, and visual images to help shore up his hypotheses. In this, A Brief History of Time participates in a peculiar genre of scientific and social scientific popular writing that links Karl Marx's Kapital (Marx 1967) and perhaps even the 1844 Manuscripts (Marx 1964), to David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Harvey 2005), and now, to Thomas Pikketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Pikkety 2014). For my purposes, one of the most salient features of this genre is the intense and explicit normative commitments voiced by such modern scientists: an academic version of what Marx refers to as "passion."

We are very far from Weber's appeal to value-neutrality in the name of the vocation of the modern social sciences—itself a rather odd appeal, given the prophetic quality of the final pages of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.1 Nonetheless, this is scientific hypothesis placed in the service of social and cultural revolution: religious revolution in Hawking's case2 (and perhaps Weber's too, however "religiously unmusical" he claimed his work to be); economic revolution in the case of the other three. We might wonder what kind of science such morally oriented and normatively committed scholarship intends itself to be. Wherever we are placed as readers, we are not reading in the realm of testable hypotheses. Rather, we are being invited to expand our mental horizons, and so to engage in a revolutionary imaginative practice.

Marx's crux word for comprehending this type of social science is passion. His 1844 Manuscripts attempted to articulate a philosophical anthropology that views the human being as a passionate, social, and historical subject. Both the Communist Manifesto and his magnum opus, Kapital attempted to generate passion, a passion for radical social change. There is a rhetoric suited to such radicalism. To that end, Marx made heavy use of exclamation points in the Manifesto and of italics in the 1844 Manuscripts. Hawking attempted to generate passion also through the extensive use of exclamation points and the careful deployment of his wry, quirky humor. David Harvey utilizes visual images to generate a passionate response to his "brief history": the crucial point of nearly every graph in the book is to focus the reader's attention on the [End Page 98] crux year of 1979–80, thereby providing a visual confirmation of his hypothesis that this was the crucial moment, the Reagan–Thatcher moment, when the global economy veered in a decidedly oppressive and illiberal direction.

What strikes the reader upon picking up Thomas Pikkety's deliberately Kapital-like tome (at 577 pages, with 108 pages of apparatus, it has the heft) is its studied lack of passion. Pikkety's is an attempt to deliver a scientific, dispassionate case (and perhaps even a cooly value-neutral Weberian example) for radical social and political change. The rhetorical question...


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