The theoretical point of departure of this paper is the notion of ‘real subsumption’ as developed by the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri (1989; 1991; 2003; 2009). Although originally found in Marx’s ‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production’ (1990), in Negri’s writings since the late 1970s this phrase refers to the radically accelerating process of integration and subordination of all areas of society to the dynamics of capitalist valorization. Historically, real subsumption ‘commences’ with the gradual displacement of labour’s use-value by capital’s exchange-value and culminates in a general confusion between the domains of production, reproduction, circulation and consumption. This latter confusion, which, according to Negri, characterizes the passage from modern to postmodern capitalism, brings about the demise of time as the measuring and mediating function on which the law of value was founded. As labour becomes independent of the factory and increasingly diffuse across society (in other words, as labour ceases to be primarily industrial and becomes ‘immaterial’), the temporal definition of the production of value loses its centrality and time itself becomes indefinite and abstract, an existential milieu rather than a measuring tool. This ontological shift in the temporality of capitalist production leads to the re-presentation of work as a social problem whose ‘quality’ (or use-value) appears to be increasingly elusive and undefinable. If the temporality of work in postmodernity is essentially abstract and immeasurable, then its social effects will be inevitably coercive. Yet this ‘immeasurability’ is fundamentally at odds – Negri reasons – with any form of immediate social or productive discipline (as had been the case in industrial capitalism) and thus permanently points to a political logic of liberation and revolt against the expropriating dynamics of capital.
My main hypothesis in this paper is that the Scottish writer James Kelman directly engages this set of shifts and transformations in the realm of postmodern labour. If Kelman’s fictions deviate from traditional (modern) representations of work and working-class lives, focusing instead on implosive subjective universes narratively defined by a high degree of formal abstraction, this is primarily because his writing acknowledges the structural transformations identified by Negri with the term ‘real subsumption’. I will argue that labour emerges in these texts as a socially abstract and ‘immeasurable’ category which confutes conventional distinctions between production and reproduction, work and life. I will further explore the forms that resistance adopts in this context, paying particular attention to his fictional rehearsal of the notion of ‘exodus’ also developed by Negri (2003) and his theoretical tradition (Virno 2008).
Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Negri, Antonio. 1989. The Politics of Subversion. London: Polity Press.
Negri, Antonio. 1991. Marx Beyond Marx. New York: Autonomedia.
Negri, Antonio. 2003. Time for Revolution. London: Continuum.
Negri, Antonio. 2009. The Labor of Job. Durham: Duke University Press.
Virno, Paolo. 2008. Multitude Between Innovation and Negation. New York: Semiotext(e)
38th Conference of the Spanish Association for English and American Studies