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Nature as Surplus The Work of the Text in Marx

Phyllis Zuckerman

Minnesota Review, Number 20, Spring 1983 (New Series), pp. 103-111 (Article) Published by Duke University Press

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l'un ni l'autre et les deux la fois, indcidable, reste comme text,
irrductible aucun de ses deux sens.

Le pli est la fois la virginit, ce qui la viole, et le pli qui n'tant ni

Jacques Derrida, "La Double Sance"

Marx's entire theory of surplus-value is based on a conception of nature as identical to itself, outside the production of value which characterizes a human economic system: "A thing can be a use-value without being value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not mediated through labour. Air, virgin soil, natural meadows, unplanted

forests, etc., fall into this categoy."1 It is man's transformation of nature

within the classical oppositions of the Western metaphysical traditionopposing history, economy, production, and value to nature, identity, presence, and the virgin he displaces the premises ofthat tradition,

through labor that creates value, surplus-value, and the system of exchange that forms the basis for an economy. Yet even as Marx remains

suggesting ways in which nature is always in a relation of surplus with

respect to itself, that nature is governed by an "original" structure of "supplementarity" for which we derive the quantities we refer to as value and surplus-value.

Marx partially recognizes the contribution of nature to an economic

system. Yet he does so in terms of an analogy which assimilates the family to nature. Labor is the father of material wealth, nature its mother. Thus the term which appears to be identical to itself, prior to the differentiations that form the basis for the production of value, is already marked by a family structure which seems to organize the other oppositions in the system, between economy and nature, form and matter, value and virgin soil, surplus and its absence. Nature is like a virgin, untouched, intact, yet this very notion of intactness implies that a system of exchange is already in operation at the place where it seems not yet to have come into existence. On the one hand, we find the earth, nature, matter, bodies, the virgin, and the mother; on the other, value, surplusvalue, cloth, clothing, labor, form, and the father. The labor of women is recognized then erased from calculations of the production of value just as the surplus already inherent in nature it capacity to engender the difference between the sexes is passed in silence:

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Use-value like coats, linen, etc., in short, the physical bodies of commodities, are combinations of two elements, the material provided by nature and labour. If we sub-

(ract the total amount of useful labour of different kinds which is contained in the

coat, the linen, etc., a material substratum is always left. The substratum furnished by nature without human intervention. When man engages in production, he can only proceed as nature does herself, i.e. he can only change the form of the materials. Furthermore, even in this work of modification he is constantly helped by natural forces. Labour is therefore not the only source of material wealth, i.e. of the use-values it produces. As William Petty says, labour is the father of material wealth, the earth is its

Nature seems to be like the virgin and the mother, outside of the production of value, yet nature is that which, different from itself from the very beginning, allows value to be "engendered." Nature does not pro-

duce value because it is the possibility of distinguishing between value

and its absence that sets an economy of exchange in motion. Nature functions as a plenitude in contrast to which useful labor can create a system of value, but it fulfills this function within a cultural tradition, a system of exchange and prohibitions that has been passed on for so long that it has come to seem necessary and thus "natural." Implied in the analogy between the woman and nature is another comparison, between nature and the body. It is the difference between the sexes, situated at the articulation of nature and culture, which makes it possible for Marx to assimilate the woman's place in production to nature, and to fail to see the necessity for interrogating the ambivalence toward the body inherent in the formation of capital. Marx illustrates the idea that nature lies outside of the production of value in a joke about a virgin which appears in a note, as if it were extraneous to the main body of the argument. Yet it is his very exclusion of

a statement which makes explicit the problematic nature of the body that
gives the note its interest. The analysis of capitalist production, the body of the text, the principal argument, cannot bear the intrusion of the do-

main of reproduction, particularly when it is a question of a surplus that

is engendered in the absence of the father. Yet this other domain, mirroring that to which Marx attributes the creation of value, returns whenever

it is a question of re-asserting the fundamental premises of Capital. Marx presents the joke about the virgin as a means of mastering the opposition between labor and nature, and yet the joke has the opposite effect from the one intended, for it turns around on itself and provides an ironic commentary on the "body" of Marx's text itself. By reading Marx
too literally, and re-reading him in the light of Freud's analysis of

fetishism, we might regard nature as the absence of the phallus, or as the

by a simple logical opposition between presence and absence, man and woman. Nature is and is not a source of surplus-value just as the virgin of the joke is and is not a virgin. Nature is like the body, already marked by prohibitions from the beginning, necessarily "improper," unable to

emergence into an economy of a surplus which refuses to be "mastered"

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account for the surplus it engenders within any given structure, sense, or system of value:
This shows the absurdity and triviality of the view adopted by J. B. Say, who derive surplus-value (interest, profit, rent 'services productifs' rendered by the means of production (land, instruments of labour, raw material) in the labour
process via their use-values. Mr. Wilhelm Rscher, who seldom loses the oppor-

tunity of rushing into print with ingenious apologetic fantasies, records the following example: 'J.B. Say (Trait, vol. I, Ch. 4) very truly remarks: the value produced by an oil mill, after deduction of all costs, is something new, something quite different from the labour by which the oil mill itself was erected' (op. cit., p. 82, note). Very true! The oil produced by the oil mill is indeed something very different from the labour expended in constructing the mill! By 'value' Mr Roscher means such stuff as 'oil', because oil has value, despite the fact that Hn nature' petroleum is to be found, although in relatively 'small quantities', which is what be appears to refer to when he says 'It (nature!) produces scarcely any exchangevalue' [ibid., p. 79] Mr Roscher's 'nature' and the exchange-value it produces are rather like the foolish virgin who admitted that she had had a child, but 'only a
very little one.

The virgin and nature resemble one another in that each is an identity which can never be identical to itself, a term "outside" of the system without which the system itself would not be able to function. Nature appears to be the most transparent space in Marx's discussion of capital,

one which scarcely bears mentioning, the least likely to produce complications. Yet the analogy between nature and the virgin tends to bring his reasoning. The illustration suggests that nature is itself a cloth, a garment, an analogy or illustration, a fetish which has no referent beyond its own contradictory gesture of affirmation and negation. Nature is present
as a brief moment of lifting of repression, as a suggestion of impropriety at the very place where Marx appears to have arrived at a sens propre, free from figures. For Marx the claim that nature is the source of surplus-value is merely a disguised apology for aristocratic privilege. Yet in 7"Ae Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Engels, continuing work begun in collaboration with Marx, indicates another way in which nature is a text or garment, folded over upon itself: nature is defined within a cultural tradition, the patriarchal family, within which the land and its products are appropriated as private property, subsumed by the name of the father. Nature is a mother and a virgin only within a patriarchal into focus the system of metaphysical oppositions on which Marx bases

tradition where property (value, exchange, surplus-value, capital)

belongs to the father. Marx's argument against the physiocrats takes place within the context of land that has long since been transformed from communal territories occupied by matriarchal societies to the private property of feudal domains. Thus the virgin's inability to speak for the child she engenders in her own name takes place within the context of a cultural tradition within which the woman has already been transformed herself into a commodity, an object of exchange:

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In the twelfth century, so renowned for its piety, very delicate things often appear among these commodities. Thus a French poet of the period enumerates among the commodities to be found in the fair Lendit, alongside clothing, shoes, leather, implements of cultivation, skins, etc., also "femmesfolles de leurcorp .

Throughout his discussion of the exchange of commodities, Marx defers allusions to woman and sexuality terms that are themselves interchangeableto the marginal and segregated space of a note Marx would like to sustain the clear opposition between nature and its opposites culture, economy, society, technology that characterizes the Western metaphysical, that is, the patriarchal tradition. Yet his analogies reveal the work of a text where there appear to be transparence and vision, the writing and erasure of a tradition which can never remain intact, identical to itself, which is always on the verge of turning without warning into its opposite.

The structure of "supplementarity" that governs man's relationship to nature appears whenever Marx defines the basic elements of an economic systems, elements such as value and surplus-value. We find that wherever we turn to begin our economic analysis, identities are fictions created by a system of differences and relations which can never be made entirely explicit. Labor, for example, seems to be based on a simple process of imitation, where nature is the original and the product of human labor the copy. Man can change the form of matter "only as Nature does," by imitating the work of nature. In a similar manner, man can know his own value only by imitation. Other men act as a mirror in which he sees
his own value reflected: In a certain sense, a man is in the same situation as a commodity. As he neither enters into the world in possession of a mirror, nor as a Fichtean philosopher who can say "I am I", a man first sees and recognizes himself in another man. Peter only relates to himself as a man through his relation to another man, Paul, in whom he recognizes his likeness. With this, however, Paul also becomes from head to toe, in his physical form as Paul, the form of appearance of the species man for Peter.

established the most classical oppositions of the Western metaphysical tradition that he displaces and undermines them, creating difference where there seemed to be identity, a contradictory gesture of affirmation and denial where there seemed to be a simple process of imitation and identification. While Marx opposes a materialist view of history to Hegel's idealism, he nontheless insists upon the fantastic nature of the
social relations that constitute the "material conditions" of existence. It is

This imitation of nature by man, and of man by man, seems to open up the space in which identities can be created and relationships of value established among products of human labor. But this opening up of mirroring, identity, and exchange is fundamentally rooted in illuion. An economy is a collective hallucination. It is just when Marx seems to have

his introduction of the problem of fetishism into the domain which

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claims to be material, physical, and objective, that makes it impossible

for us to hold on to the metaphysical distinctions which seem to have

been in operation from the beginning, between form and matter, imaginary and real, culture and nature, sign and substance. The classical opposition between materialism and idealism proves inadequate; in its place we find a circular movement where the sign seems to create the objective
reality which it represents:
The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists thereforesimply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men's own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social. In the same way, the impression made by a thing on the optic nerve is perceived not as a subjective excitation of that nerve but as the objective form of a thing outside the eye. In the act of seeing, of course, light is really transmitted form one thing, the external object, to another thing, the eye. It is a physical relation between physical things. As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human
brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of comtherefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

modities with the products of men's hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is

economic relations are inherently deviations, perversions: ". . . this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces IhCm."7 Fetishism then has a positive value as it is this illusion which makes it possible for there to be a
system of values and an exchange of the products of human labor.

In general, Marx attaches to fetishism a negative value. Yet he emphasizes that there are no social or economic relations outside of it. All

A commodity is an object which is more (or less) than its physical nature. Like a fetish, its sense, use, and value are produced by the imaginary web of human relations within which the object is exchanged. And if we "read back" into Marx the problematic of fetishism described by of merely neutral value. It discloses and disguises a surplus that inexplicably turns itself into a lack, a perpetual movement of erasure and retion and denial of the difference between the sexes. There is at work in an

psychoanalysis, we might surmise that this process of exchange is never

marking, the desire always in excess of itself that emerges in the recognieconomy not only the positive exchange of material objects but the blank

space from which something problematic has been erased. The difference

between the sexes, prior to the identity seized in the mirror image must be

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displaced. Mirroring, identity, and value are possible only because there

transformed, just as the form of matter is changed in the product,

already exists in nature the possibility, the necessity, of differentiation, yet a system of exchange and production is able to function only insofar las this moment of (unproductive) differentiation is denied or erased. (We must take care, in pursuing this line of argument, not to pose Freud as an explanatory system outside of the questions raised by Marx. Instead, by articulating these two quite different notions of fetishism on
one another, we seek to suggest that there is in an economy a doubling in which each term tends to deny the work of the other. In Freud's analysis of fetishism in relation to castration, the relationship between the analysis of the fetishism of commodities, the contradictory symbolic force of the difference between the sexes at work within the symbolic regardless of whether the proper name "belongs" to the mother or the father is shifted aside.)

patriarchal tradition and private property is denied, while in Marx's

It is not surprising that Marx gives clothing, cloth, and the work of the
tailor and the weaver as examples of the production of value. For value is itself like a garment with respect to the material body of the thing. Value implies signification, for a coat of one kind will give more value to its
wearer than a coat of another:

A coat as such no more expresses value than does the first piece of linen we come across. This proves only, within its value-relation to the linen, the coat signifies more
than it does outside of it, just as some men count for more when inside a gold-braided uniform than they do otherwise.

Value seems to be a garment which adds significance to the material body of the thing, yet at the same time, value is a system of differences and relations, a syntax rather than a semantics, within which the thing itself has no sense whatsoever. Value is a sign pointing beyond itself to a material substance existing prior to the process of signification, and yet value is also the articulation of the world into signs and objects, the space in which the terms of this articulation become objectified as realities for man. Value appears only insofar as the object is inscribed within a cultural and economic context, not as an attribute of the thing taken in isolation. Marx's analysis of value can be read as an indication of a metaphysical desire to decipher a mystery, to penetrate a secret, to see what is hidden, to move beyond the sign to the immediately present reality which it represents. But value is not a transpararent sign. It is a hieroglyphic behind which no meaning can be discerned, a disguise which refers only to the process of disguising, rather than to an identity behind the mask. Value engenders a metaphysical desire for the essential

(material) reality of the thing, yet leads us back to the systems of dif-

ferences, substitutions, and exchange that creates the illusion of meaning:

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characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men's social products as is their language.

Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social products: for the

Classical economists have often mistakenly believed that money had value or that money was merely a symbol. But Marx views money as the expression of social relations, that is, of the relations of commodities to one another, which in turn represent different quantities of human labor. Money is a symbol only insofar as it makes it possible to exchange commodities which are themselves not material objects but systems of social
relations: The fact that money can, in certain functions, be replaced by mere symbols of itself, gave rise to another mistaken notion, that it is itself a mere symbol. Nevertheless, this error did contain the suspicion that the money-form of the thing is external to the thing itself, being simply the form of apperance of human relations hidden behind it. In this sense every commodity is a symbol, since, as value, it is only the material shell of the human labour expended on it. ?? TURE AS EXCESS

Production follows upon reproduction; sense upon senseless repetition; the fetishism of commodities upon another fetishism hardly worth mentioning. Capital emerges from the possibility of decapitation. Two kinds of labor are at work in the production of value, two kinds of doubling in man's sense of himself as an identity. Consciously, man sees
himself and his own value reflected in his social relations with other men.

Yet this doubling plays upon a partially recognized similarity between the
labor of men and that of women. In both there is a process of erasure and remarking, mastery and castration, affirmation and denial, a work of condensation and displacement like the work of the dream, an economy which knows no contradictions and where each term can turn
value. And if the work of women is excluded from calculations of the

into its opposite. Each form of work would then be a parody of the other, without it ever being possible to determine which is the origin of

origin of value, it is nontheless like this other economy, prior to the production of sense, yet erased by this very moment of production. We might see in the movement by which reproduction effaces itself and
presents production as the origin of value the same gesture as that by which writing erases itself and allows the voice of the logos to present itself as an undifferentiated presence prior to writing. And this move-

ment, this gesture, would suggest an "original" fetishism at work from the beginning in Western metaphysics, a contradictory desire, the affirmation and denial of the difference between the sexes, in relation to ing itself invisible, transforming culture into nature instead of the op-

which capital would be an illustration. But if the work of women is like writing, prior to production and necessary to it, yet all the while render-

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as a fixed economic function, but as the marking which makes it possible

posite, then we might understand the role of women in production, not

for each term of an opposition to reverse itself, as the marked term which cannot help but turn itself into what it is not, that is, into an unmarked space, nature, or presence, outside of the system of differences that constitutes value and sense. Her place is not a position, a fixed role within a given set of elements, but the play which makes the system inevitably in
contradiction with itself. Then we might see in this doubling, of one kind of work in another, neither of which entirely succeeds in erasing the modities in circulation, the excess of signifiers in relation to the signified, the "overdetermination" of the transcendental signifier which is not in

other, the production of a surplus of value with respect to the com-

fact a sign (in the classical sense), capital." This surplus, already at work

in "nature," would then prevent either term (nature/culture, mother/father, reproduction/producton, matter/form) from assuming, once and for all, a position of presence, mastery, identity, or authority. Marx seems to sustain a clear distinction between reproduction and

production, yet displaces it when he illustrates his major thesis, as if the

illustrations, like negation in psychoanalysis, were the most significant moments in the argument which otherwise appears to be entirely objec-

tive. Valu is undermined by that which cannot ever be made to reduce

itself to a logic of identity, or to assume an unambivalent meaning. Capital would seem to be a first term, yet it can never assume its assigned

place in the system, for it can never remain intact, untouched by that
from which it seems to have been so carefully distinguished the mother, the virgin, the body, nature, the absence of value. It is just when caplital seems to be on the side of the proper name, the name of the father, the phallus, that it reveals its ability to become that which it is not. The term
which functions as the sublimation of all value turns out to be like the

wholeness of that which it is supposed to replace, making this possibility

fetish which pretends to supplement a lack but which in fact parodies the

of lack or substitution a source of surplus energy (libido) the term which is entirely empty of meaning, the play of exchange, dispersal as well as accumulation, never simple or whole, but like the body, always

marked with prohibitions from the beginning which prevent it from ever

becoming identical to itself. And then it would be impossible to hold on to value, in the same way that it is impossible to "possess" a fetish, since the value of the fetish lies in its ability to create a surplus which can only be lost at the very moment when it is the most "immediately" present.

But if the woman's role in production is to be the play which can never coincide with itself, and if capital is also the culminating dispersal rather than the accumulation of value, then the two kinds of play collapse into one another. The difference between the sexes emerges into the logic of economics just at the point when this difference can no longer be sustained as a difference grounded in "nature." Thus Capital works within the

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outside of fetishism, from which to describe the illusions of the system. Our own discourse remains within the displacements and substitutions

presuppositions of the logocentric tradition, yet re-works the tradition, making it impossible for us to assume a position of innocence or purity

evoked by the fetish, a voice inherently doubled over on itself, both a mirror image and a collective hallucination, a text which refuses to see itself as such and which instead continually seeks to present itself as a transparent language with only occasional excursions into metaphor. *

Marx," in Sociocritique, Fernand Nathan, diteur (Paris: 1979), pp. 111-121. , NOTES
York: Random House, 1977), p. 131.

Originally published in French as "Le supplment de nature. Le travail du texte chez

Karl Marx, Capital, introduced by Ernest Mandel, translated by Ben Fowkes (New
Ibid., pp. 133-134.

\lbid., p.314,n. 3. Ibid., p. 178, n.

the premises of this cultural tradition when he speaks of the exchange of women as the basis for prohibitions and other forms of exchange in Elementary Structures ofKinship.

1. Lvi-Strauss, returning to pre-Marxian anthropology, exemplifies

cultures not historical modes of production but universels of "human nature," such as "exchange" and systems of classification. It might be argued that anthropology is necessarily pre-Marxian to the extent that it treats pre-industrial societies. Too, Marx derives his notions of nature and history from an anthropology whose premises lie in the Western metaphysical tradition. In the much-discussed Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, for example, we find: Nature, as it develops in human history, in the act of genesis of human society, is the actual nature of man; thus nature, as it develops through industry, though in an alienated form, is truly anthropological nature. Cited by Erich Fromm, Marx's Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar,

Lvi-Strauss's anthropology is pre-Marxian insofar as he seeks to isolate in non-Western

Thus it remains open to question whether the claim that Lvi-Strauss's anthropology, is pre-Marxian makes sense unless we at the same time put into question the basic premises of Marx's anthropology, whether implied or explicit. Karl Marx, Capital, op. cit., p. 144, n. 19. Jbid., pp. 164-165. Ibid., p. 165.

bid., p. 143.

Ibid., p. 167. It would be productive to analyze the parallel between the reading of Marx proposed here and the economy of the texts of Mallarm insofar as the "themes" of money, language, and exchange are concerned. Derrida's reading of Mallarm in La Dou-

ble Sance," La dissmination (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972), p. 291 , suggest a dialectical
economic system:

movement similar to that by which Marx attempts to describe the symbolic basis for an

dj, qu'un secret), elle perd la simplicit lisse de sa surface.

virginit. Plie sur son secret (rien n'est plus vierge mais rien plus vol et viol, en soi-mme Karl Marx, Capital, op. cit., p. 185. Althusser has used the notion of "overdetermination" to explain the difference between

Mais du mme coup, si l'on peut dire, le pli interrompt la virginit qu'il marque comme

Hegel's concept of contradiction and Marx's in "Contradiction and Overdetermination,"

For Marx, trans, by Ben Brewster (New York: Random House, 1969). My intention is to
exaggerate this distance between the two notions of contradiction.