What follows is an excerpt (the Conclusion) of Daniel A. Novak‘s article “Labors of Likeness: Photography and Labor in Marx’s Capital“, published in Criticism, 2007, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 125 – 150.
Reading Marx alongside the discourse of nineteenth-century photography demonstrates that Marx’s theory of the fragmented and abstract laboring body — a body of value rendered “like” all other bodies — was part of a larger cultural conversation about technology and the body, “likeness” and individuality, identity and exchange. This conversation was not only carried out by philosophers and theorists but also by a wide variety of people and in a variety of formats — from the street to the studio. Along the same lines, it also becomes clear that photography is not simply a “secretion,” symptom, or even agent of capitalist practices. Instead, those in the business of photographic production (many of those who wrote on photography were photographers themselves) were responsible for theorizing how visual technology produced forms of alienation and abstraction. In this context, while Marx uses the tropes of this conversation for a far-reaching and consciously radical critique, his reading of the body in the age of mechanical reproduction is not in itself radical.
At the same time, Marx’s theory of a laboring body that seemingly exists beyond the contingencies and limits of the biological is best understood in the context of photographic discourse and technology. This body seems out of place in Scarry’s, Cvetkovich’s, and even Marx’s own narrative of physical pain and economic exploitation. Yet the laborer’s status as a laborer in the first place is based on what I have argued is a form of photographic reproducibility in three ways. First, Marx conceives of labor power as at once a form of “objective” visual reproduction, produced in advance of the laboring process (as a form of advertising) and at the end (as an abstract body of value). In other words, labor can only be sold in the first place as a reproduction and as an embodiment of reproducibility. Second, both the laborer’s body and the reproduction of that body have value only if the reproduction is an abstract “likeness” — a “homogeneous” or “congealed” set of exchangeable values. In this sense, “objectivity” (in terms of quantification) and abstraction are aligned. Finally, Marx makes clear that the laborer’s reproduction of himself or herself as “labor power” is not impaired by the deterioration of the laborer’s “real” body. In terms of commodity production, he or she exists as both a virtual and a reproducible body. That is, Marx posits an impossible or “sublime” body as the foundation of the economic system he analyzes.
By reading Capital in the context of photography, we can see that Marx does not simply critique bourgeois, objective, or “empirical” forms of vision. Instead, his critique of commodity production is surprisingly aligned with a medium that many view as the embodiment of bourgeois vision and empiricism. Yet in the nineteenth century, photography and its “objectivity” were already being theorized in terms that both anticipate and help to explain Marx. In both photography and Capital, “objectivity” is already associated with what appears to be its opposite — effacement of individuality and abstraction. Moreover, Marx’s seemingly invincible laborer most closely resembles the infinitely reproducible photographic “subject.” One can read the laborer’s ability to reproduce himself or herself indefinitely and without return as a photographic talent — a negative capability. In order to sell his or her labor, the laborer has to visually represent the image of labor power he or she would produce. And in order to participate in the economy, in order to reproduce labor power, the worker must be capable of an infinite and abstract self-reproduction. Like the photographic negative, the laborer must be able to produce an infinite number of self-portraits in perfect condition, despite the increasingly imperfect condition of the “original” laboring body. To put it another way, unsightly laboring bodies reproduce a body of value that always remains productively photogenic. In this sense (to borrow a phrase from Stanley Cavell), “what photography calls thinking” is essential for fully understanding Marx’s own “thinking” in Capital.