A Dark Precursor

Provisional Thoughts on Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Universities

Month: March, 2012

The Early Marx on Gender and Sexuality

From the ‘Private Property and Communism’ in the Economic and Political Manuscripts (Milligan, trans., New York: International Publishers, 1964) :

The direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person is the relation of man to woman. In this natural species relations man’s elation to nature is immediately his relation to man, just as his relation to man is immediately his relation to nature–his own natural destination. In this relationship, therefore, is sensuously manifested, reduced to an observable fact, the extent to which the human essence has become nature to man, or to which nature to him has become the human essence of man. From this relationship one can therefore judge man’s whole level of development (134).

Leaving aside the persistence of Hegelianism (or Feuerbachianism, if you prefer), there’s a lot to say.

On the one hand, we have the recognition that gender-based exploitation is a problem, and a prototype for pretty much any other form.  He will repeat this in The German Ideology. There are surely no Marxist grounds for ignoring, minimizing, or treating as secondary and derivative the question of the status of women.

On the other hand, and especially if we treat “the relation of man to woman” as a cipher for sexuality, which is precisely what Marx has been discussing above (“general prostitution” (133), “the approach to woman as the spoil and handmaid of communal lust” (134)), we have one of those moments when it’s difficult not to feel as if Foucault was right about everything. Can we not say that sexuality appears as the secret essence, the obscure principle which gives intelligibility to the rest?

Remarkably, however, this is precisely the reverse of what Marx is saying. Sexuality is not at all hidden. It is, on the contrary, the sensuous, visible element that allows something else to appear:  species being, the essence.

This leads to more questions. First, is what is at stake here really sexuality in the sense of Focuault’s dispositif? Marx’s focus on visible acts suggests that it may not be, at least if we take the ‘secret essence’ to be essential to sexuality in Foucault’s sense. Second, if sex makes visible a set of relations that are otherwise more difficult to see, can we say that sexuality, with its postulate of an obscure essence, complicates this signal value of sex, making it more likely to function as a screen?


Taking as read, for the moment, Althusser’s analysis of the ways in which the educational system functions as the core of the Ideological State Apparatus of capitalism, one can still wonder at the extent to which this system, and especially its key employees — teachers and professors —  have become the target of increasingly intense scrutiny and criticisms in the past several years.

We are, it seems, overpaid. Well maybe not, since this has in fact drawn one or two notable objections. But at very least, we seem to be woefully inefficient. Objections? Nothing too serious, it seems, as long as you don’t count the derisive howls of many academics I know when this was posted by several of us to various social networking sites. There, people felt no compunction about eviscerating Yglesias’ argument — a treatment which, indeed, it roundly deserves.

Nevertheless, let’s consider the symptomatic value of the fact that Yglesias was taken by many outside the academy to have made a fairly obvious point — one that he, himself, didn’t feel the need to research in any depth or supply evidence for. This seems to reflect a shift that is occurring within the educational ISA — and indeed within the State Apparatuses more generally, ideological or not. Under the guise of “privatization” in many instances, these institutions are being conceived of more and more as if they were businesses in the ordinary sense. This has a wide range of consequences, not the least of which is that worker-productivity or ‘efficiency’ appears to be an increasingly serious concern. Additionally, it may come to seem as if ‘technology’ — which, as an article of faith, is taken to increase efficiency in other realms — might well offer a way of improving matters.

But one objects: colleges and universities are not businesses, teaching is not a form of production, it is highly unclear whether educational technology improves efficiency or diminishes workloads, and so on. Of course.

So what is the function of this rhetoric? Broadly, its major use appears to be the same in both Levy’s and Yglesias’s pieces: to argue for spending less money on faculty, who are, it is claimed, the source of the rising cost of education. This, too, is false — as has been demonstrated repeatedly. It is also widely believed. And as a consequence, no one considers a much more likely source of many of the cost increases in higher ed over the past several decades: increases in spending on administration, and technology.