Daniel A. Novak, 2007. Labors of Likeness: Photography and Labor in Marx’s “Capital.” Criticism 49, 125–150.
This essay provides a new technological and discursive context for Karl Marx’s
theory of the laboring body and reproduction, and in doing so, seeks to change
the way we read Marx’s relationship to visuality, photographic reproduction, and
In the most general sense, critics have distanced Marx and Marxist theory from the camera—variously defined as a product of (and having produced) a form of naïve realism and empiricism, bourgeois ideology, or faith in the machine rather than the human. Marx’s famous description of ideology as offering a picture of social relations “upside-down as in a camera obscura” serves as a common and useful starting point for such an argument.
From this point of view, photography, with its claims to “empirical” and “objective” representation would only embody what Marx seems to reject.
To intervene in this conversation, in which Marx seems to both correct the way we see the world under capitalism and critique the reliance on vision itself, // this essay offers a simple but important proposition; namely, that Marx’s critique of commodity production and bourgeois ways of seeing is actually aligned with, rather than in opposition to, the discourse of photography—a seemingly “empirical” and technological vision.
Responding to the new medium, both consumers and producers used tropes of alienation, anonymity, fragmentation, and abstraction to describe the effect of being captured by the photographic lens.
In this way, we can read photography not merely as a “secretion” or product of capitalist practices, but rather as a medium for analyzing such practices. And as I will show, Marx’s reading of the laboring body is not a repudiation of mechanical reproduction or “empirical” vision, but rather an engagement with a wider nineteenth-century conversation about the impact of visual technology on the body and identity.
Moreover, reading Marx through such an engagement with the discourse of photography complicates how we read the conceptual and economic climate in which Marx wrote his critique, as well as how we read that critique itself. That is, if Marxist discourse is anticipated by the language of photography itself, how does this change how we read Marx?
In order to begin to answer this question, my focus will be fairly narrow—
resting on two specific and interrelated tropes that we find both in photographic
discourse and in Marxist analysis. The first of these is bodily fragmentation and
Marx describes the process of production as a form of artistic bodybuilding—one that mechanically “takes” pieces of bodies and puts them together. Given the mechanical or technological character of both taking and “binding” these bodies, Marx’s description recalls the art of photography more so than other visual mediums. [Capital vol 1]
[…] the photographic body and its private identity were torn apart: made abstract, anonymous, exchangeable, and endlessly divisible. Using the technology of “realism,” these photographers produced new and fictional bodies that existed only in a photographic space. In other words, the technology of realism produced what appears to be its opposite: the nonexistent, the fictional, and the abstract.
Even without using photographic technology to move and remove subjects, for many Victorian writers the photographic body was always already “cut up” because it lacked any organic “unity.” Thus, photography provided a way of visualizing some of the same issues Marx will take up—namely, the relationship between laborer and product, part and whole.
The second trope I focus on here is that of “abstraction.” To be clear, throughout this essay I use the words “abstract,” “homogeneous,” and “anonymous” interchangeably, and I do so with Marx’s description of labor power as “human labour in the abstract” (Capital 166) specifically in mind. In my reading, Marx’s “abstract” body is infinitely divisible and reproducible, always faceless and necessarily interchangeable—both with other forms of value and with other bodies.
And it is through these characteristics that I link Marx’s image of the laboring body to the // body that emerges in nineteenth-century photographic practice and photographic discourse.
In focusing on the link between photographic and industrial reproduction—both of which are expected to reproduce in standardized, exact, and “objective” forms—what is most important to understand is that what is reproduced in both cases is not individuality/specificity, but rather abstract value.
The worker reproduces not “him/herself,” but rather an abstract and interchangeable quantity of labor power. For many Victorian writers, the photograph reproduces not an individual body, but rather an abstract one.
Understanding technological reproduction in these terms also helps bring together the two tropes I have just discussed: bodily fragmentation and abstraction. At first these may seem to be opposing terms. Yet the laborer cuts himself into pieces (“human brains, muscles, nerves, [and] hands”), not as identifiable parts, but as both abstract values and reproducible values. More important, it is the abstraction of the body in the first place that renders its parts divisible and interchangeable.
As photographers, critics, and consumers argue, what makes a photographic body photographic is that it is already both divided and interchangeable—both abstract (not really you) and reproducible (its parts can be moved and removed without injury). In other words, it survives because it embodies not an individual body but a reproduced and reproducible one.
As I will go on to show, it is the language of photography—the photographic imaginary—that offers the closest analogue to Marx’s indestructible laborer, both in the nineteenth century and now. Moreover, in pointing out such links, my purpose is not merely to suggest that photography “illustrates” Marx’s theory. Not only did the conversation around photography constitute a theory of the body, exchange, and reproduction in its own right, but Marx’s theory of the laboring body can be read in terms of photographic reproducibility.
The division of labor makes men into “monsters” in order to collect them and
their embodied labor more efficiently. It at once “cripples” a body by transforming
a whole body into a single part and multiplies the uses of an individual body
by dividing it up into parts, each of which can be used for specialization.
Blurring the distinction between embodied commodities and commodified bodies—between components that look like body parts and body parts that look like components—Marx figures production as a form of artistic and mechanical labor, an artful composition of the “membra disjecta” of labor. Turning imperfect monsters into perfect products becomes the aesthetic labor of commodity fetishism.
In order to become a “body of value [Wertkörper],” an exchangeable body, an
economic body that matters, the commodity must be composed of bodies that
Labor itself seems to act as a mechanical practice, a technology (technê) for taking “likenesses.” If making every-body the same seems hardly “photographic,” this same rhetoric of “likeness” as sameness, as the effacement of difference, was associated with photography throughout the nineteenth century.
However, as we have seen, abstraction both reduces laboring bodies to “homogeneous human labor” (Capital, 202) and transforms them into an abstract raw material. Moreover, while Cvetkovich criticizes Marx for a “gender-blindness” in representing “a labor force that is for the most part either ungendered or implicitly male” while not representing women at all, it is precisely the work of capitalism’s habitual abstractions to efface such bodily inscriptions of gender and identity.
Caught in an invisible temporal position between process and product, part
and whole, the laboring body seldom sees the light of history. Even the laborer’s
home falls into both a historical shadow and a literal obscurity.
Working and living, eating and sleeping in a dark room, labor is safely closeted in history’s darkroom. But labor disappears from history not once, but twice. In a second form and different connotation of abstraction, consumers can only buy and sell commodities as wholes if they forget that they are composed from fragments of labor. They can only re-member the patchwork commodity by forgetting its composition from so many pieces of // men.
Already an embodiment of the “value of labour-power,” already an image both of labor power and of the capacity for reproduction, the worker produces an exact reproduction of himself or herself as an abstract body of value. In the contract between labor and capital, this form of self-portraiture is the only labor that counts.
Labor power can only become // a commodity to be bought, sold, and reproduced if it is only a reproduction in the first place. In order to fully distinguish the laborer from the slave, the worker loans the use of his or her capacity to labor, the capacity for reproduction, for only limited amounts of time.
The laborer’s body “photographically” represents the body of (abstract) value that will appear again at the end of the laboring process. To put it another way, the laborer appears on the market as a photograph of a photograph that has not yet been taken.
For Marx, the laborer is responsible for two forms of reproduction in order to survive: a production of labor power and the production of a body with the power to labor. The worker must reproduce his or her body as the commodity of labor power in order to earn the means of subsistence and must reproduce his or her body as a worker capable of continuing the process of reproduction.
The failure to accurately compensate the expenditure of laboring bodies only results in the production of “stunted” laborers who produce “stunted” labor power—the production of monsters who reproduce themselves as monstrous products. Marx insists that labor power cannot be thought outside of a laboring body and the means of subsistence necessary to that body’s survival.
Unfortunately, not living on bread alone, laborers must find a way to reproduce an increasingly deficient body as a full body of labor power while receiving an insufficient replacement for the body they have now promised to reproduce a second time: first, when they sold their labor power on credit to the capitalist, and second, when they bought the insubstantial means of subsistence on credit. Caught in a cycle of insufficient and diminishing returns, it seems that the worker can never have enough bodily wealth to cover his or her growing expenses.
But if Marx’s concern that the laborer loses in this waiting game of credit is “no mere fiction,” the strict bodily economy that he insists must be maintained is both a theoretical fiction and an impractical fantasy. It becomes obvious that in order to participate in the economy of labor power, in order to become a laborer in the first place, the worker must be able to repeatedly reproduce his or her body without directly receiving a replacement for the expenditure of bodily material.
Despite Marx’s insistence that the value of labor power is unaccountable outside of a specific laboring body, its health and its necessities, the worker survives and reproduces labor power each day even at wages below the means of subsistence—even in an apparent condition of impossibility for the performance of labor. Rather than having to be “withdrawn from the market by wear and tear” like metallic currency (Capital 275), or producing products in a “crippled state” of value (277), labor power continues to reproduce itself as a well-rounded, full, and healthy body even if the body producing that value is // worn.
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.
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.
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.”
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.