Monday, 31 August 2009

Walking with Capital

I make myself go out walking for exercise but where I can walk round here I'm pretty bored with so the iPod helps. I mainly play not music but radio programmes and podcasts I've downloaded.

This morning I've been enjoying a rare academic pleasure, listening to a terrific university lecture, the first of David Harvey's course (not sure where he's giving it), called Reading Marx's Capital. It's the first of 13 lectures on just Volume 1 of Capital and it's a course Harvey's been giving every year but one for thirty years, and it reminds me how stimulating a good lecture can be.

It's here but I got it from iTunes.

Harvey exactly recognises my predicament as someone who read the first few chapters and got hopelessly bogged down. He explains why it's difficult: the foundation concepts that you need to understand the whole are introduced at the start but you can only understand them when you've read the lot; in some ways, he suggests, it might make more sense to start at the end.

The lecture's a good introduction and I particularly appreciated Harvey's explanation of Marx's method. First, his scientific method: talking three major existing blocks of concepts -- political economy, German philosophy and utopian socialism -- and banging them together 'to make revolutionary sparks'.

Second, his writing method: in making knowledge you start with experience and phenomena and one way and another arrive at the ideas that will allow the reality behind the surface to appear, but in 'writing it up' you present the understanding you've ended up with and in so doing are bound, misleadingly, to give the impression that those ideas were a priori, there before you started. Since the long and messy process of discovery is concealed, the reader is inclined to react, 'Where did that come from?'

So -- my gloss -- the reader almost has to reinvent the process of discovery for him/herself, to each statement saying, 'To what question was that the answer?' I think understanding that that's what you have to do is one of the main secrets of studying.

Harvey reminds me that I did enjoy reading Capital. Marx is a lively and witty writer; what stopped me was the conceptual difficulty. I needed perhaps to study it rather than just read it on trains and buses.

Not definitely promising to try again, though. Not yet, anyway.

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