Covid-19 has made me — a confirmed dyslexic — into an avid reader. Not only am I unemployed (and in all likelihood unemployable), but I have days uncluttered by anything more than the hours of prayer. Which has meant that I am authorized to read everything I have wanted to read.
In particular, I am preoccupied with 1324, the year the abbot of St-Pierre instructed the fullers to install a bell in the workhouse recently built by them in the parish of church of St John. Why?
1324 is a meme. Whether Jacques Le Goff was correct in this date, or whether his sources, Henri Pirenne and Georges Espinas, the amazing nineteenth century french archivists missed a document, is besides the point. What is important is that we do not confuse the pathologies of capitalism with other kinds of pathologies, historically, and that we do not therefore mistake for fundamental ontology our own. Let me explain.
A common reading of social ontology holds that the shape of our knowledge is the vantage point from which knowledge, generally, needs to be judged. This reading is Hegelian. It rests upon an iterative, progressive understanding of knowledge. Against such an iterative understanding, some scholars advance an arbitrary understanding of knowledge. Knowledge is, by its nature, fragmented, partial, incomplete, constructed.
Both views, in my view, are self- and other-referential. Both take the capitalist social formation and its two-fold commodity for their points of departure. 1324 is a meme because it identifies a point, practically, when what human beings value begins to pull free from the bodies human beings had formerly valued. 1324 invites a discussion about the practices that give rise, practically, to different value orientations. 1324 invites us to think determinately about capitalism.
If capitalism is a matter of willfulness, if it is a matter of bad people doing bad things, of powerful people doing powerful things, then we can neither think nor act our way out of this paper bag. But, let me propose that capitalism practically constitutes a new way of experiencing and determining value. And let me propose that this new way of experiencing and determining value reshapes our social being. But let me also propose that it does so determinately.
That is, it proposes a breach between abstract value and its surface forms of appearance. Most of the time, the two seem to coordinate with one another, more or less. At the moments when they do not, however, this generates a social crisis. What do we know? What is real? What is value?
These crises point nowhere in particular. They do strongly suggest that the coordination we make between abstract value and surface forms of appearance is social: socially objective, socially real, socially true, but social — structured, shaped, constructed, not arbitrary, but willful. It strongly suggests that we could shape ourselves differently.
1324 is a meme because it marks the moment when we began to experience our world through ΔQ/ΔL, through the change in some quantity divided by the change in labor (or capital) required to produce that quantity. It marks the birth the the uniquely capitalist fetish.
When scholars blur this boundary between capitalist and non-capitalist, they, perhaps unintentionally, establish an ontologically fundamental human being. 1324 denies this. It does not establish ante-1324 as its own ontologically fundamental point of departure. Rather does it equate post-1324 as an instance of the practical regimes constituted socially that we need to grasp and understand.
But, why do WE need to grasp and understand these regimes? In order to grasp the socially and historically specific form of domination under which we live, AND in order to grasp why we need not be gods (transhistorical beings with transhistorical knowledge) in order to grasp our own specific form of domination and its possible overcoming. We need to grasp this immanently, not transcendentally.