Kojin Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Mon Jul 12 2004 - 20:36:05 EDT


Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2004.06.07

Kojin Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, trans. Sabu Koshu,
MIT, 2003, 336pp, $35.00 (hbk), ISBN 0262112744
Reviewed by:

Hans-Herbert Kögler
University of North Florida, Jacksonville/Universität Klagenfurt

In Transcritique: On Kant and Marx Kojin Karatani undertakes the
ambitious project of actualizing Marxism-both in the sense of
'updating' it and bringing out its full potential-by reading Kant
with Marx and Marx with Kant. The idea behind such
cross-fertilization of thinkers seemingly radically opposed is to
give Marxism its badly needed ethical orientation, while similarly
presenting Kant's 'transcendental critique' as a methodological
ground for Marx's critique of capitalism. Indeed, the bulk of the
book attempts a close reading of both Kant and Marx to show that an
adequate understanding of each brings out hidden, usually invisible
dimensions of both. Such cross-reading not only pushes both toward a
'common ground'-the space of what Karatani calls 'transcritique'-but
furthermore suggests a viable alternative to purely normative or
purely socio-economic criticisms of global capitalism. Radical
theoretical alternatives to the capitalist model of economy, with
perhaps the exception of Hardt's and Negri's Empire, are currently
hard to come by. This project presents thus a timely and highly
inspiring attempt to point to a space 'beyond capitalism', a space
sketched realistically as it is grounded in a disillusioned
acceptance of the world-disclosing power of the capitalist economy as
much as it is fine-tuned to its inner workings. It is fascinating,
indeed, to see how an academically rich and well-informed
reconstruction of thinkers like Kant and Marx can be made to speak to
pressing current issues, namely the development of alternatives to
global exploitation and the unjust distribution of wealth. The book´s
major achievements are, first, a compelling cross-reading of ethical
and social-theoretical (precisely: socio-economic) perspectives, and,
second, a beginning of an answer to the question of how we can
effectively challenge the capitalist system from within by means of
an alternative understanding of 'economics.' The few questions we are
going to raise in the following more detailed discussion should thus
by no means curtail the basic endorsement that this project deserves.
Karatani´s book makes an important contribution to the reconstruction
of current systems of economic power as a necessary presupposition
for ethically motivated paths toward their 'immanent transcendence.'

To begin with, the forging of a new position from Kant/Marx is
presented as 'transcritique.' The term designates a methodological
approach, inasmuch as the perspective Kant/Marx evolves from the
reflexive movement in-between their positions. Similarly, each
thinker is taken to exemplify this approach on his own. Kant and Marx
are interpreted as creating perspectives that refuse fusion or arrest
into new 'systems,' existing rather in the oscillation between
opposed or contradictory perspectives. For Karatani, such
'trans-critique' is made possible by, and exercised through, the
reflexive movement in-between cultures, communities, and cognitive
perspectives. In this vein, Kant and Marx become anti-foundational
master-thinkers of unearthing presuppositions, which in turn is
explained by their outsider-position vis-ā-vis their subject matter
and context. Karatani illustrates this by Kant's refusal to become a
state philosopher by remaining in Königsberg, and through Marx's
outsider-position vis-ā-vis the German, the French, and the British
cultures respectively. More importantly, he suggests that Kant
oscillates between, rather than 'sublates,' rationalism and
empiricism, while Marx is taken to stand in between Ricardo
(emphasizing the production sphere of capitalism) and the unjustly
forgotten Bailey (emphasizing the circulation sphere as
value-generating). For Marx, stepping outside of Germany and
experiencing economic crisis brought about an "awakening, accompanied
by a certain shock. This was to see things neither from his own
viewpoint, nor from the viewpoint of others, but to face reality that
is exposed through difference (parallax)" (3). Kant, in turn,
"continuously confronted the dominant rationalism with empiricism,
and the dominant empiricism with rationalism. The Kantian critique
exists within this movement itself" (4) Such a methodological
outsider- or in-between position allows both thinkers to radically
question the existing presuppositions shared by their contemporaries.
Moreover, Karatani (if implicitly) applies this approach
self-reflexively, as he moves between Kant and Marx from the
'interstice' of a Japanese-Western context.

The second major similarity between Kant and Marx, as I read
Karatani, consists in their understanding of reality as mediated by
forms. What appears in Kant as categorial and intuitive forms of
experience, and in Marx as value form, finds a common source in a
conception of experience-and thus of subjective thought and
individuality-as pre-constructed by media. I would consider this
claim toward a mediation of experience-whether in the symbolic form
of cognitive categories or in the economico-symbolic form of money-as
the essential move toward relating Kant and Marx. This is because
this step allows for a complex, and for the author central, analysis
of reality as a 'necessary illusion.' With Kant, we can establish
that experience is mediated, and as such constitutes a categorial
construction of objects that appear as necessary, while being
nonetheless constructed through a symbolic medium that remains
implicit. The experience is illusion, but at the same time (perceived
as) necessary. This insight is applied to Marx's analysis of
capitalism, inasmuch as the true mechanism that produces value is
both illusionary, necessary, and implicit. In compelling passages of
rereading Marx, we are told about the intrinsically religious, since
projective and illusionary character of capitalist economy, which
entails its own metaphysics and religion in commodity fetishism.

Third, the reconstruction of the mediated nature of capitalist
economy enables a subtle position in-between a determinism cementing
the status quo and a revolutionary project of a wholesale overthrow
of capitalism (a position admittedly not much defended today). The
source of capitalism's possible demise can be seen, again, most
clearly with Kant (!) who, while giving us tools to see how something
constructed can appear as necessary, nonetheless shies away from
mistaking the constructed appearance (phenomenon) for the
thing-in-itself (noumenon). In this gap between appearance and the
thing-in-itself resides an essential possibility to challenge,
revise, and transcend the current order. Moreover, Kant addresses the
need to go beyond the mere experience of appearances in the ethical
domain, where his categorical imperative gives immediate proof of the
law of reason. The Kantian path to ethical transcendence is crucial,
first, since it suggests the content of the categorical imperative
(in the famous third formulation), i.e. never to treat another merely
as a means, but always also as an end. Moreover, Karatani maintains
that this shows that Kant situates this ethical demand squarely in
the emerging capitalistic order, as the imperative to treat another
never merely as a means is clearly taking into account the
capitalistic mode of instrumental action, in which others are
economically reduced to mere means. For Karatani (here similar to
Frankfurt School Marxism), the Marxian enterprise makes sense only
against the backdrop of a normative vision, which is implicitly
entailed in concepts such as exploitation, alienation, revolution,
and, of course, communism, and which can be explicated with reference
to Kant. Kant's moral imperative, combined with his
appearance/thing-in-itself distinction, allows us to conceptualize
the possibility of projecting alternative orders and practices, while
accounting, still, for the capitalistic order as a necessary
experiential frame for social life.

So far, so good. We might now be more willing to accept Kant and Marx
as possible companions in the (trans-) critique of capitalism. But
this big picture needs a lot of filling in, which is precisely what
the interpretive analyses of the book are about. Perhaps the true
originality of the approach consists not even in the just outlined
broad 'fusion,' but rather in the specific moves and models that are
employed as the picture is painted in the text. Yet here we also
encounter difficulties which, in part, arise from the interpretive
decision to make this a 'trans-critical' text between Kant and Marx
alone, that is, to be almost fixated on fitting each and every move
into a scheme that allows as true parameters only Kant or Marx.

We already explained how the 'common ground' for moving from Kant to
Marx and back again is provided through an account of symbolic
mediation. Indeed, both Kant and Marx are explicated with regard to
frequently invoked structuralist or holistic models of language
(references range from Cassirer to Saussure, Jakobson, and
Wittgenstein). Karatani does not only read Kant or Marx closely, but
fills this reading with numerous, indeed at times exuberant
references to other theorists and ideas, either to support or to
contrast the idea at stake. Again, what is most important here seems
to be the symbolico-holistic reading of media such as Kant's
synthetic a priori as a necessary illusion to constitute reality, and
the subsequent interpretation of the capitalist medium of money as
the dominating value form for capitalism. But the fact that such a
crucial dimension-the theory of symbolic mediation-is merely invoked
whenever suitable in order to support Kant/Marx means also that it is
never explicated as such. Perhaps the transcritical space between
Karatani and this reviewer reveals that the true movement in this
text is not between Kant and Marx, but between Kant/Marx and the
linguistic turn, which would have required a more full-blown
explication. Perhaps, then, certain questions concerning the specific
and doubtlessly original readings of Kant and Marx could have been
addressed better.

With regard to Kant, it is not clear how Karatani's re-reading
succeeds in grounding the notion of objectivity he wants to derive
from Kant. The problem arises because Karatani's Kant is taken to
base 'objectivity' on the relation to the other: "Kant has been
criticized for his subjective method. But in fact, his thought is
always haunted by the perspective of the other" (2). For Karatani's
Kant, only the other can unleash the critical potential inherent in
the concept of the thing-in-itself: "It is not the thing that negates
(falsifies) a scientific hypothesis; it is not the thing but the
future others who speakŠ What Kant implied by the thing-in-itself was
the alterity of the other that we can never take for granted and
internalize just on our whim or at our convenience" (51). But if it
is the perspective-of-the-other that allows for critical
transcendence of subjective viewpoints, and if, in line with
'transcritique,' the other's truly challenging viewpoint derives from
being situated differently, the source of a shared 'objective' view
is, instead of being grounded, radically thrown into doubt. Karatani
suggests that "(d)ialogueŠ is that which occurs between others who do
not share a common set of rulesŠ (73). But if the rules defining my
own and the other's background understanding are different, and if
this is a necessary condition for true criticism, the notion of
'objectivity' cannot be the one that Kant, by reconstructing a
transcendental ground of enabling empirical knowledge, had in mind.
Whether Karatani wants to suggest a Wittgensteinian open-endedness of
language-game perspectives, a counterfactual 'regulative ideal' at
which all different perspectives are ultimately aiming at vis-ā-vis
the thing-in-itself, or whether some real fusion of different
perspectives in dialogue can even be an option-the notion of
objectivity is in need of further explication, especially in light of
Karatani's categorical dismissal of 'public consensus' conceptions of

With regard to Marx, I have doubts that Karatani's theoretical reform
of orthodox and structuralist Marxism goes far enough, or differently
put, whether his rejection of economic reductionism suffices to
capture the relative autonomy of culture. Karatani's analysis
culminates in the claim that capital, state, and nation form an
intrinsically connected amalgam, so that any critique of capital in
the name of state (social democracy) or nation ('third world'
independence movements) is doomed to fail. Most important, however,
is the fact that "capital, state, and nation should be seen as
different forms of human exchange, and not structured like the
architectonic metaphor: base/superstructure"(204). Capital creates
human relations through commodity exchange via money, the state is
based on the principle of plunder and redistribution, and the nation
is grounded in the principle of gift and return. Even though
analytically independent, the value form of money allowed the forging
of the synthesis of the modern capitalistic nation-state. At the same
time, capitalism always remains parasitic on lifeworld backgrounds.
Along those lines, Karatani develops an intra-Marxian critique that
emphasizes the importance of the circulation sphere (market) over
against the production sphere (labor), employing a relational
conception of value as created through a commodity's place in the
system of circulation. He thus arrives at a reevaluation of the
source of anti-capitalistic action, inasmuch as the true power of the
worker resides in his role as consumer, on which capital essentially
depends for the creation of surplus value. Workers must realize their
power as consumers, and vice versa: "The opposition to a capitalist
nation-state should neither be a worker's movement nor a consumer's
movement; this should be a movement of workers qua consumers, and
consumers qua workers. The movement has to be a transnational
association of consumers/workers" (295). The goal is the creation of
global ethico-economic associations, "association" being a fourth and
quasi-utopian form of human exchange. The ethico-economic model
combines moments from the state (equality), where strangers encounter
one another, and the nation (fraternity), where subjects are
empathetically concerned with one another (while thereby, I presume,
allowing for free self-realization). This is the vision of a new,
ethical mode of interaction where others are not reduced
instrumentally, are not 'mere means' (Kant), while the complex,
anonymous, and economic organization of modern societies is taken
into account. Karatani finds a realization of this model in LETS
(Local Exchange Trading System), based on an interest-free conception
of money.

Accordingly, Karatani argues that the exchange mode of money is but
one of four forms of human interaction. Capitalism thus involves more
than a narrowly defined economic infrastructure. Yet what we would
need, then, is a more broadly conceived model of symbolic and
cultural exchange, both to explain (economic) power and to point to a
path of possible resistance. If capitalism is, indeed, "a certain
force that regulates humanity beyond its intentionality, a force that
divides and recombines human beings" which Marx attempted to "decode
for the whole of human life" (5), than the Gandhian move toward
alternative modes of economic exchange can be but a small beginning
toward escape or transformation. If we take seriously that economic
life is but one form of human exchange, needing to be theorized
alongside other forms of symbolic mediation, we should accept that
capitalism's grip (or that of modern power in general) extends in
different forms, including symbolic, psychological, and economic
modes of oppression. The so-called postmodern theorists including
Michel Foucault (on power) and Pierre Bourdieu (on symbolic capital
and habitus), which Karatani ignores, could have taught valuable
lessons in this regard. Thus, while Karatani's Marxian self-critique
contributes to our understanding of capitalism via the symbolic form
of money, its true potential might only be realized if applied
(trans-critically?) to more fine-grained theories of symbolic and
cultural power.

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ISSN: 1538 - 1617

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