History

Nineteenth-Century Cognitive Capitalism?

Some of my research lately has been focusing on 19th-century technologies and economies and their relationship to the 19th-century birth of composition studies. I’m particularly interested in the ways that the economic transformations of the Industrial Revolution and American slavery intersected with composition pedagogies and the progression and development of higher education. I’ve also been teaching about the history of the digital and its relation to labor, and participating in a reading group working our way through Marx’s Capital volumes 2 and 3, and so there are a number of ideas coming together for me right now. I’ll share more on the topic of the economics of slavery later as I read further in that domain, but tonight I’m thinking about Marx’s concept of the “general intellect” from the Grundrisse and what 19th-century cognitive capitalism might have looked like, depended upon, and made possible. Already, of course, I’m anticipating the objection that I’m dehistoricizing and decontextualizing a 21st-century concept and thereby making a foolish category error. Well, fair enough. I’ll at least think through that category error. The first objection might be that there wasn’t enough of a “general intellect” (though Marx was imagining it) for there to be a cognitive capitalism in the days when capitalism itself was still young. (I date capitalism’s broad emergence and supercession of mercantilism from 1776, the year Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published.) The idea of cognitive capitalism and a general intellect rely both upon a widespread system (network?) of capital and a widespread system of educating a workforce or populace (the two are necessarily distinct in the 19th century).

So we have this intersection I’m imagining coming into being that for me comes out of the passage from Marx’s 1858 “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse where he writes,

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it; to what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.

Machines are “the power of knowledge, objectified.” Elsewhere I’ve talked about imagining the classical economic factors of production—land, labor, and capital—transformed under cognitive capitalism (or, I think more precisely, under our present system of intellectual and affective economic activity) into material-technological capital (computers and algorithms and networks replacing land as the new sites of production), intellectual and affective labor (the work humans perform at those sites), and intellectual and affective capital (the relations and building blocks and books and documents and programs that humans work with and on at those sites). So Marx’s “Fragment” is where I imagine those transformations emerging from.

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