Mar 11, 2013

A materialist account of historical possibility

A materialist account of historical possibility is interested not in motives for action but in the conditions that produce and contour such motives, the conditions in which our actions are iterated, and the conditions with which our actions interact to produce certain effects.... A materialist understanding of history does not imply that economic imperatives 'cause' or directly 'determine' human experience; rather, within a certain order of economic and attendant social relations, there are many possibilities for belief and action. But there are not infinite possibilities.
-- Wendy Brown, "The Sacred, the Secular, and the Profane: Charles Taylor and Karl Marx"


  1. This is news to me, especially with regards to Marx. Though what seems to be going on here is that the author is adapting much older language about a historical dialectic to newer language about scientific indeterminacy and chaotic systems.

    Actually, it's difficult to imagine Marx drawing a distinction between context and actor in quite this way. In the Hegelian account, the individual actor is merely an appendage to the context. Marx doesn't alter that fundamental relation.

    I suppose I should ask you for a bit of context. What point is Brown trying to make, and with respect to what to whom?

  2. My impression, from reading Marxists recently, is that a Marxist understanding of history is not nearly so deterministic as it's commonly made out to be. Taylor's critique of materialism, in particular, which is what Brown is responding to here, particularly obscures the nuances, and misses the way that ideas and ideologies (or superstructures) are efficacious for Marx, but that ideas are historically conditioned and limited and determined by material conditions.

    In Engels' phrase, the material conditions determine ideas in "the last instance," but the relationship between base and superstructure is dialectical, and the "last instance" is only theoretical.

    David Harvey, in his book on Capital, points out a number of times how individual capitalists are understood to have a variety of options at each point, a number of choices they can make to respond to problems that present themselves. Certainly Marxists such as Gramsci and Althusser and Williams are critical of "economism" that sees humans as entirely determined by their contexts, unable, for example, to attain class consciousness and critique the ideological structures within which they live.

    I don't get the sense that Brown needs to defend her fealty to any Marxist orthodoxy, but I think she's also defending Marx and Marxism against some unfair slams. She's suggesting that Taylor's account of secularity could be helpfully expanded by considerations of material conditions (something I am attempting to do with my dissertation).

    I'm not sure how clear this is. I'm really in the middle of wrestling with Marxist conceptions of history.