1 letter on Das Kapital

The Republic of Letters

Dear Members of the Tomorrow,

It’s been nearly a year since I received your invitation letter to contribute to your project, The Republic of Letters. At that time you were contemplating the idea of Europe, or rather the state of Europe as a community of fragmented national states seeking cohesive form in the face of irresolvable differences amongst its component parts. I was immediately attracted to the suggestiveness of your deployment and reanimation of Voltaire’s 18th century discursive project: “The Republic of Letters,” founded as an intellectual community of correspondents across national and international frontiers who came together to debate key questions and concepts of their time. That time was the period of the European Enlightenment, that bequeathed us many of the issues and questions we are still debating today. Through their letters, discussions and disputes arose, ideas were telegraphed in ways that defied both conventions of translation and transposition. By engaging in wide ranging discussions and debates across great distances, with differences of language, culture, politics, economic conditions, intellectual traditions, temporality, and vastness of spatial separation, “The Republic of Letters” in many ways anticipated what we would call today “a virtual community” by means of an analog social media.

Nearly thirty years ago, as her conservative government was on the verge of completely dismantling the British welfare state that developed in the wake of the industrial revolution, Margaret Thatcher, the late British prime minister, had famously declared in an interview that “there is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women.” Is the human community really composed only of “individual men and women” as the late prime minister claimed? If we follow her reasoning, what can we say then about your idea of a community of correspondents? And what constitutes for you the idea of a “community?” If The Republic of Letters, like your idea of Europe, imagines broader sets of social, political, and cultural affiliations, beyond the standard articulations of stable homogenous national borders that currently characterize the xenophobic tendencies and asymmetric economic relations of Europe’s rightwing politics, the question is how might we think of the current state of global social relations in the current crisis.

Our correspondence from a year ago has since shifted from these discussions to issues of economic relations, in fact, to Karl Marx’s analysis and dissection of Capital. When I invited you to contribute to All the World’s Futures the international exhibition of the 56th Biennale di Venezia, I was especially interested in how, through your project “Republic of Letters” you might conceive of a project of annotation on Marx’s Das Kapital. You accepted the challenge, but with a justifiably skeptical position on the social existence of those you referred to as the key protagonists of Das Kapital. You wanted to base your inquiry into Capital by constructing a kind of dramatis personae of Das Kapital extracting characters from the book in order to dramatize the dissolution of the kind of society Marx imagined in the current state of neo-liberal capitalism. You rightly asked whether such characters of Das Kapital, such as the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, the worker, etc. exist as they did in Marx’s time.

You have proposed a project on the figuration of Capital, to construct a Republic of Letters in order to not only engage in the annotation, but to think through Capital. You want to begin by reconstructing, or shall we say resurrecting “figures of Capital.” Who in your view are the figures of Capital today? Like many complex concepts, Capital remains elusive especially when its analysis runs up against the old conservatism of the wisdom of markets and of the economic freedom of Thatcher’s “individual men and women.” Against this resistance, can current conditions of Capital be represented? You are trying to imagine new figures of capital, in doing so, how do you imagine them to be “pictured,” to use a term closer to art? Problems of representation of capital have been a serious issue amongst radical thinkers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Bertholt Brecht, each of whom presented us two sets of illuminating aporias with regards to “picturing” conditions of capital. Eisenstein in his critique of Fritz Lang’s film Dr. Mabuse, suggested that a stock exchange cannot be represented with an image or photograph of the stock exchange because a picture of the scene tells you nothing of the movements and conditions of capital. To capture the true image of capital and its function within the stock exchange he proposed the concept of “dialectical montage” constituted by thousands of little details.

Brecht pretty much summarized this skepticism, by stating that a photograph of the interior of Krupp or AEG factory expresses nothing about what goes on inside the factory. His precise articulation is stated below: “The situation has become so complicated because the simple ‘reproduction of reality’ says less than ever about that reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or AEG reveals almost nothing about these institutions. Reality as such has slipped into the domain of the functional. The reification of human relations, the factory, for example, no longer discloses those relations. So there is indeed ‘something to construct’, something ‘artificial’, ‘invented’. But the old concept of art, derived from experience, is obsolete. For those who show only the experiential aspect of reality do not reproduce reality itself. It is simply no longer experienced as a totality. But speaking in this way, we speak about an art with a completely different function in social life–that of depicting reality.”

This impossibility of representation weighs like a burden on our project. Between you and me, we are facing a series of contradictions with regards to representing Capital; and finding in that representation an expressive instrument that can point us towards the possibility of the emancipation of the figures of Capital. This preoccupation is a central concern of the exhibition I have conceived in Venice. It is my hope that the opening of the Tomorrow’s far flung Republic of Letters will somehow reanimate Eisenstein’s concept of “dialectical montage” as a way to enable us to Reread Capital in the face of current economic, cultural, ideological, and political tendencies.

I look forward to hearing from you and I await the beginning of our correspondence.

Yours, as ever
Okwui