Reading Social Reproduction into Reading Capital

Louise Bour­geois, Femme Mai­son


One of the main prob­lems with the dis­ci­pli­nary qual­i­ty of con­tem­po­rary acad­e­mia is the way in which the frag­men­ta­tion of dis­ci­plines car­ries over into a frag­men­ta­tion of analy­sis. Despite the best efforts of well-inten­tioned intel­lec­tu­al labor­ers every­where, “inter­dis­ci­pli­nar­i­ty” rarely suc­ceeds in its aims, often remain­ing lit­tle­more than the sum of its parts. Large­ly for­bid­den from the stand­point of today’s acad­e­mia is an approach that total­izes and synthesizes,that address­es the glob­al hid­den domains of con­tem­po­rary knowl­edge pro­duc­tion and con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal action. While a the­o­ry of read­ing may not imme­di­ate­ly seem to be the most obvi­ous solu­tion to the frag­men­ta­tion of dis­ci­plines, it is clear that the con­cept of read­ing pro­posed by Althuss­er in Read­ing Cap­i­tal is of enor­mous impor­tance in the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of “over­sight” as a con­sti­tu­tive fea­ture of intel­lec­tu­al practice—the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the process through which “one sees,” or under­stands as such. Any such attempt to iden­ti­fy what might be usu­al­ly passed over in silence or sim­ply missed is nec­es­sar­i­ly more open to crit­i­cisms along the same vein—this the­o­ry claims to iden­ti­fy the uncon­scious of the text but is itself uncon­scious of some­thing else.

Yet for all the impor­tance of Read­ing Cap­i­tal in its attempt to iden­ti­fy the very way in which “incor­rect” the­o­ries of read­ing have been uncon­scious­ly pre­sup­posed in ear­li­er ways of approach­ing Marx’s Cap­i­tal, it can cer­tain­ly be said of the authors of Read­ing Cap­i­tal that they too neglect, as Marx him­self did, cer­tain cru­cial con­cepts that in fact alter com­plete­ly the way in which we might under­stand cap­i­tal­ism itself. While we might accept with Althuss­er that all read­ings are “guilty,” and not least guilty in the over­sights of their own his­tor­i­cal con­tin­gency, we might say that the time has come for a read­ing of Read­ing Cap­i­tal that explic­it­ly draws out the “absent” ques­tion of fem­i­nism. This is of course not to sug­gest that much work hasn’t already been done, both in terms of a fem­i­nist read­ing of Marx and a fem­i­nist cri­tique or, more pos­i­tive­ly, use of the work of the var­i­ous authors of Read­ing Cap­i­tal. But there is much, pos­i­tive­ly, that can be done with the the­o­ry of read­ing pre­sent­ed in the text that allows for a more inter­est­ing dou­ble-read­ing of both Marx and Read­ing Cap­i­tal. In this sense, then, the work of Ellen Rooney, which takes a polem­i­cal approach to the ques­tion of ide­ol­o­gy, pro­vides us with a use­ful mod­el to ulti­mate­ly move beyond the sta­sis of guilt. My brief chap­ter will attempt to adhere to Rooney’s descrip­tion of “the irre­ducible dif­fer­ence of view, of ter­rain, that is read­ing,” an approach that “dis­clos­es dou­ble-read­ing as a hope­less­ly polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal process, one that no text can escape, fore­close, or defend itself against.”1 Rooney’s empha­sis on the pol­i­tics of read­ing informs here the sug­ges­tion that it is pos­si­ble to read the gaps of Read­ing Cap­i­tal as full gaps, rather than emp­ty spaces.

This essay, while sid­ing with the posi­tion that empha­sizes the impor­tance of Althusser’s the­o­ry of read­ing, seeks to exam­ine both the pos­si­bil­i­ties the text opens up for a fem­i­nist read­ing of Marx via the use it has been made by fem­i­nist the­o­rists since its pub­li­ca­tion, but also to point to over­sights of the text itself, par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cern­ing the con­cept of social repro­duc­tion. This lat­ter point will be made of both Althuss­er and, to a less­er extent, Marx him­self, based on a reex­am­i­na­tion of fem­i­nist respons­es to Read­ing Cap­i­tal and of my own argu­ment in direct response to the text. The chap­ter will be divid­ed into two sec­tions. The first will exam­ine pre­vi­ous fem­i­nist respons­es to Althuss­er and Read­ing Cap­i­tal, par­tic­u­lar­ly the work of Rooney, the sec­ond to iden­ti­fy­ing the con­cep­tu­al areas neglect­ed by the text direct­ly. It is a short inter­ven­tion into think­ing about the lim­i­ta­tions of the mod­el of read­ing and the mod­el of repro­duc­tion pro­posed by Read­ing Cap­i­tal, but hope­ful­ly some­thing minor will have been opened up here.

Fem­i­nist Respons­es to Read­ing Cap­i­tal

The rel­a­tive (or rather com­plete lack) of ref­er­ences to fem­i­nism, gen­der, or women in Read­ing Cap­i­tal has nev­er­the­less not pre­vent­ed some fem­i­nists tak­ing up ideas from the text, par­tic­u­lar­ly regard­ing a the­o­ry of read­ing. Nev­er­the­less, as Rooney notes, by far the dom­i­nant use of Althuss­er stems from a fem­i­nist reread­ing of his the­o­ry of ide­ol­o­gy, neglect­ing the frame­work and resources of Read­ing Cap­i­tal: “The recep­tion of Louis Althusser’s work has fetishized his the­o­ry of ide­ol­o­gy and vir­tu­al­ly over­looked, left unread, his the­o­ry and his prac­tice of read­ing.”2 It is this the­o­ry of read­ing that Rooney (and I too here) wish to res­ur­rect, with cer­tain fem­i­nist caveats. We can cer­tain­ly find much evi­dence of Rooney’s claim as regards the use of ide­ol­o­gy. Hennessy’s work in the ear­ly 1990s for exam­ple, makes a pos­i­tive case for under­stand­ing Althusser’s ideas in rela­tion to fem­i­nist stand­point the­o­ry, avoid­ing the pit­falls of a trans­par­ent appeal to expe­ri­ence with­out under­stand­ing the con­struct­ed aspects of sub­ject posi­tions: By “fore­ground­ing the mate­r­i­al and pro­duc­tive role of ide­ol­o­gy in social arrange­ments, Althusser’s the­o­ry of ide­ol­o­gy stim­u­lat­ed devel­op­ments in post­mod­ern Marx­ist and fem­i­nist for­mu­la­tions of the dis­cur­sive con­struc­tion of the sub­ject.”3 Gimenez in the 2000s gets clos­er to Read­ing Cap­i­tal than oth­er fem­i­nist read­ings, point­ing to the use­ful­ness of the method­olog­i­cal insights of this col­lec­tive work for a soci­o­log­i­cal under­stand­ing of Marx’s method­ol­o­gy: “I have explored the rel­e­vance of Marx’s method as devel­oped by Marx and elab­o­rat­ed by Althuss­er and Gode­lier, to iden­ti­fy the non-observ­able struc­tures and social rela­tions under­ly­ing the invis­i­ble pat­terns of inter­ac­tion between men and women that place the lat­ter in a sub­or­di­nate posi­tion.”4 The work on ide­ol­o­gy and the project of Read­ing Cap­i­tal is thus seen as a use­ful sup­ple­ment to a fem­i­nist approach that seeks to approach social inter­ac­tions in a mate­ri­al­ist way. But how might a return to the claims about read­ing be put in the ser­vice of a con­tem­po­rary Marx­ist-fem­i­nist project?

Rooney’s work pro­vides a high­ly fruit­ful way of under­stand­ing both how Althusser’s the­o­ry of read­ing is use­ful on its own terms (par­tic­u­lar­ly for avoid­ing ide­o­log­i­cal con­cep­tions of his own the­o­ry of ide­ol­o­gy as she sug­gests hap­pened in the recep­tion of his work), but also how the the­o­ry can be turned against itself, not mere­ly for the sake of some of sort of twist-in-the-tale game, but as a gen­uine attempt to rein­sert, to revive, a par­tic­u­lar con­cept, name­ly repro­duc­tion, back into a Marx­ist and mate­ri­al­ist con­cep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism itself. She is, along the way, crit­i­cal of oth­er types of fem­i­nist attempts to “use” Althuss­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly if their focus is pri­mar­i­ly on the prob­lem of ide­ol­o­gy (she iden­ti­fies “those ele­ments with­in fem­i­nist and Marx­ist-fem­i­nist dis­course that have found ide­ol­o­gy a use­ful way to speak about gen­der and the Althusser­ian sub­ject of ide­ol­o­gy a plau­si­ble fig­ure for woman.”6 We must under­stand read­ing here as a broad­er polit­i­cal process, not the bour­geois mod­el of the indi­vid­u­at­ed read­er, sit­ting alone with a book. It is read­ing that per­mits access to knowl­edge, because it allows access to its own effect, how­ev­er open-end­ed and his­tor­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic that process is:

Knowl­edge is pro­duced only as an effect of read­ing prac­tices, and this most emphat­i­cal­ly includes knowl­edge of ide­ol­o­gy. Althusser’s the­o­ry (and his own prac­tice) of read­ing makes it painful­ly clear that this is a task that we may very well fail (will repeat­ed­ly fail) to com­plete.7

Read­ing is a “guilty, dynam­ic, flawed, open-end­ed, his­tor­i­cal­ly con­tin­gent, and whol­ly polit­i­cal prac­tice of dis­place­ments read­ing as antifetishism.”8 What is clear about the Read­ing Cap­i­tal project for all its con­fes­sion­als, is its neglect, even rel­a­tive to Marx, of the con­cept of social repro­duc­tion. Rooney touch­es on this when she notes that the stress on ide­ol­o­gy as form, as eter­nal, serves to obscure the mate­ri­al­ist empha­sis on actu­al repro­duc­tion (in the broad­est sense—everything it takes to keep cap­i­tal­ism going, from the repro­duc­tion of the species, to feed­ing, cloth­ing, and health­care, all the work that forms the back­drop to waged labor). By speak­ing pure­ly of the repro­duc­tion of ide­ol­o­gy we run the risk of neglect­ing the major process­es that sus­tain cap­i­tal­ism: “The era­sure of the fem­i­nine con­tri­bu­tion to this process [the repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er as such] is far from triv­ial; the his­to­ry of Marx­ist fem­i­nist dis­course on the fam­i­ly wage, domes­tic labor, and class itself is the ardu­ous his­to­ry of rethink­ing [the] pro­le­tar­i­an and his chil­dren to the nth pow­er.”9 Rooney argues that Althuss­er “iron­i­cal­ly” was indeed pre­cise­ly attempt­ing to move away from such empir­i­cal ques­tions in his dis­cus­sion of ide­ol­o­gy as a more psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal­ly inflect­ed frame­work for under­stand­ing the impos­si­bil­i­ty of get­ting beyond cer­tain struc­tures. But we can argue that the empha­sis on ide­ol­o­gy alone goes too far—a return to read­ing at least leaves open the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we are read­ing from with­in antag­o­nism, guilti­ly, prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly:

The artic­u­la­tion of an “unposed” or “absent” ques­tion, the ques­tion that the read­ing (the read­er) estab­lish­es as unthink­able with­in the text’s own prob­lem­at­ic. “Symp­to­matic” read­ing is pre­cise­ly the pro­duc­tion of this absent ques­tion, which fig­ures the polit­i­cal and rhetor­i­cal relation—or more accu­rate­ly, conflict—between a text and its read­er, between read­ers, between posi­tions. To read is to give form to this con­flict, to pose the ques­tion that gives the prob­lem­at­ic its struc­ture. But the symp­tom is not some­thing that afflicts only the texts of our oppo­nents; our own symp­tom is vis­i­ble as our guilt, the guilt that our read­ing will expose rather than con­ceal, the guilt that opens the text. There­in lies the very pos­si­bil­i­ty of a pol­i­tics of read­ing.10

Read­ing in this sense is unnat­ur­al. It cuts against Hegelian and bib­li­cal wholes, tele­ol­o­gy, expres­sion­ist ker­nels. A fem­i­nist “read­ing” of cap­i­tal­ism is unnat­ur­al because it iden­ti­fies both its own posi­tion as one tak­en against usu­al accounts of repro­duc­tion, but also because it artic­u­lates what is not said: the absent ques­tion of cap­i­tal­ism in this sense is the ques­tion of repro­duc­tion. It is read­ing con­ceived in the broad sense that, as Rooney con­cludes: “read­ing is risky because it is always a rela­tion among read­ings and read­ers, a pro­duc­tive and polit­i­cal rela­tion, but pro­duc­tive pre­cise­ly in that it inter­venes in the process of repro­duc­tion and thus can­not be guar­an­teed.”11 While Rooney pre­cise­ly iden­ti­fies that it is on the ques­tion of repro­duc­tion that the rela­tion­ship between read­ing and ide­ol­o­gy turns, there is much more to be said about what Althuss­er and indeed much of Marx­ism itself doesn’t say about the role of women and gen­der in the for­ma­tion and per­pet­u­a­tion of cap­i­tal. This requires a dou­bling, maybe even tripling of the read­ing (the absence with­in an absence with­in an absence), of rethink­ing coun­ter­tra­di­tions that have them­selves become tra­di­tions.

The Ghosts of Read­ing Cap­i­tal

So, guilty read­ing in mind, what unposed and absent ques­tion are we ask­ing of Read­ing Cap­i­tal here? We are per­haps deal­ing here with ques­tions that are semi­posed and bare­ly answered on mul­ti­ple lev­els. Althuss­er asks, in a dis­cus­sion of the clas­si­cal econ­o­mists and Marx on the val­ue of labor the fol­low­ing: “what is the main­te­nance of labour? What is the repro­duc­tion of labour?”12 Althuss­er argues that Marx pre­cise­ly sees what the clas­si­cal econ­o­mists do not see, name­ly that the entire terms of the ques­tion need to be altered: “Marx can pose the unut­tered ques­tion, sim­ply by utter­ing the con­cept present in an unut­tered form in the empti­ness in the answer, suf­fi­cient­ly present in this answer to repro­duce and reveal these empti­ness­es as the empti­ness of a pres­ence.”13 Marx’s reposed ques­tion, based on a com­plete restruc­tur­ing of the entire frame­work, is, accord­ing to Althuss­er, “what is the val­ue of labour-pow­er?”14 But while it is true that the clas­si­cal econ­o­mists obscured the ques­tion of labor, they at least raised in the abstract the ques­tion of repro­duc­tion itself, out­side of the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal con­cept of pro­duc­tion (the pro­duc­tion of knowl­edge by dif­fer­ent domains) that Althuss­er wants to inter­ro­gate. Odd­ly then, the vaguer ques­tion about how labor is main­tained and repro­duced might in fact be the hard­er one to answer, not because it is mis­posed, but because the lev­el on which it is asked is fre­quent­ly misiden­ti­fied. Repro­duc­tion is a ques­tion often unseen pre­cise­ly because it suf­fers from an over­abun­dance of mean­ings. As Lise Vogel puts it in Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women:

Prob­lems in defin­ing the con­cept of repro­duc­tion derive from its wide range of poten­tial mean­ings. Felic­i­ty Edholm, Olivia Har­ris and Kate Young sug­gest that three lev­els of analy­sis might be dis­tin­guished: social repro­duc­tion, or the repro­duc­tion of the con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion; repro­duc­tion of the labour-force; and human or bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion. While the sug­ges­tion has been help­ful, the issue of the rela­tion­ship among the dif­fer­ent aspects remains.15

A Marx­ist answer to the ques­tion of repro­duc­tion has to attempt clar­i­ty on this ques­tion. Althusser’s repos­ing of the ground of the clas­si­cal econ­o­mists arguably restricts the ques­tion of repro­duc­tion to the sec­ond of these aspects, repro­duc­tion of the labor force. But this is pre­cise­ly to ignore all the work that exists in order to keep life going, waged and unwaged. The era­sure and under­min­ing of women’s role in this is a cen­tral fea­ture of cap­i­tal­ism. As Sil­via Fed­eri­ci puts it: “Through my involve­ment in the women’s move­ment I real­ized that the repro­duc­tion of human beings is the foun­da­tion of every eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal sys­tem.”16 “Repro­duc­tion” here should be read in the broad­est pos­si­ble sense as the “com­plex of activ­i­ties and rela­tions by which our life and labour are dai­ly recon­sti­tut­ed,”17 that is to say, every­thing that makes life pos­si­ble in the first place and every­thing that con­tin­ues to sus­tain it. Repro­duc­tion in this broad sense is where the con­tra­dic­tions inher­ent in alien­at­ed labor are “most explo­sive,” accord­ing to Fed­eri­ci.

In Lise Vogel’s Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women, she describes the con­vo­lut­ed and intense strug­gles over deter­min­ing whether unwaged or domes­tic labor pro­duced val­ue, and could there­fore be con­sid­ered “pro­duc­tive” or “unpro­duc­tive.”18 The wages for house­work debates raised the broad­er ques­tion of social repro­duc­tion and ques­tioned Marx’s posi­tion on the estab­lish­ment of the wage lev­el. It seems that today at least two of the posi­tions that were staked in this debate have some kind of strange genealog­i­cal res­o­nance today. On the one hand, the auton­o­mist Marx­ist idea that domes­tic labor cre­ates sur­plus val­ue, either “direct­ly or indi­rect­ly” as Kathi Weeks puts it in her recent The Prob­lem with Work, and the relat­ed claim that there should be eco­nom­ic recog­ni­tion of the val­ue this work pro­duces, not in order to val­orize house­work as such, but to make a broad­er point about how the wage rela­tion oper­ates with­in cap­i­tal­ism, and how it depends on vast quan­ti­ties of unpaid female labor.19 As Fed­eri­ci puts it in Cal­iban and the Witch, sum­ming up the ear­li­er debates:

A social sys­tem of pro­duc­tion that does not recog­nise the pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of the work­er as a social-eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty, and a source of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, but mys­ti­fies it instead as a nat­ur­al resource or a per­son­al ser­vice, while prof­it­ing from the wage­less con­di­tion of the labour involved.20

But how might we put Fed­eri­ci and oth­ers’ insights regard­ing the def­i­n­i­tion of repro­duc­tion in a Marx­ist-fem­i­nist way back in con­tact with the Althusser­ian project? A use­ful clue comes from a review of one of Althusser’s books, Mon­tesquieu, la poli­tique et la his­toire, by Fed­eri­ci. The review is from 1969, slight­ly before we posi­tion many of the debates around social repro­duc­tion, but already Fed­eri­ci is very clear. She writes: “The ques­tion here is: how do we han­dle the past? If it is true, as Althuss­er reit­er­ates, that pri­or to Marx every ‘pro­duc­tion’ is mere­ly ide­o­log­i­cal, why should we study it at all?”21 Federici’s crit­i­cism of Althusser’s reluc­tance to his­tori­cize repro­duc­tion is cru­cial to the fem­i­nist attempt to move away from the kind of analy­sis pre­sent­ed in Read­ing Cap­i­tal, and Fed­eri­ci makes it very clear that Althusser’s attempt to make Marx­ism a “sci­ence,” by appeal­ing to fore­run­ners in the shape of Mon­tesquieu and oth­ers, is pred­i­cat­ed on false, gen­er­al­iz­ing asser­tions: “Althuss­er fails first and fore­most because he choos­es only a part of Montesquieu’s asser­tions to con­sti­tute his the­o­ret­i­cal ‘prax­is.’”22 What impact do these gen­er­al­iz­ing, non-or-ahis­tor­i­cal claims mean for any under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, labor and sex? Fed­eri­ci claims that Althusser’s inabil­i­ty to deter­mine what the motor of the dialec­tic might be for Mon­tesquieu (for exam­ple, does law pre­cede jus­tice or vice ver­sa?) leads to a curi­ous­ly non-Marx­ist approach to the prob­lem, and thus Althuss­er wastes “valu­able space and ink on a prob­lem which, for a Marx­ist, could eas­i­ly find its solu­tion in the 3rd the­sis of Feuer­bach.”23 “Struc­tural­ist-Marx­ists,” of which Althuss­er is the lead­ing light, suf­fer, thinks Fed­eri­ci, from read­ing every­thing “with­in their own con­text.”24 This closed read­ing is very clear­ly in ten­sion with the mod­el of read­ing com­pli­cat­ed in the dis­cus­sion of the top­ic in Read­ing Cap­i­tal. Are there resources in yet anoth­er the­o­ry of read­ing that could rec­on­cile the struc­tural­ist-Marx­ist and Marx­ist-fem­i­nist read­ings?

In the mean­time, I am sug­gest­ing, via Fed­eri­ci and Federici’s read­ing of Althuss­er, that the ques­tion of repro­duc­tion, reposed by Althuss­er via Marx, does not solve the com­plex inter­ac­tion between social repro­duc­tion, the repro­duc­tion of labor pow­er and bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion, and indeed, per­haps fur­ther con­fus­es the ques­tion. In Read­ing Cap­i­tal, Eti­enne Bal­ibar devotes an entire sec­tion to repro­duc­tion, but remains strange­ly opaque on the rela­tion­ship between these kinds of repro­duc­tion, all cru­cial to the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal. In his analy­sis, there are three ways in which a the­o­ry of repro­duc­tion ensures a triple con­ti­nu­ity: first­ly, the link between dif­fer­ent eco­nom­ic sub­jects, which in fact move togeth­er and are inter­twined, where the parts of the whole are more than their sum; sec­ond­ly, “the per­ma­nence of the non-eco­nom­ic con­di­tions of the pro­duc­tion process,” where law is espe­cial­ly sin­gled out, and third­ly, repro­duc­tion that ensures the “suc­ces­sive con­ti­nu­ity of pro­duc­tion itself”25, which is the basis for all the rest. It is on the third point that Bal­ibar slight­ly mys­ti­fies the ques­tion, although uncon­scious­ly refer­ring to it on anoth­er lev­el:

Pro­duc­tion can­not be stopped… it is the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the ele­ments which sup­ports the con­ti­nu­ity, but it is the con­cept of repro­duc­tion which express­es its spe­cif­ic form, because it envelops the dif­fer­ent (dif­fer­en­tial) deter­mi­na­tions of the mate­r­i­al. Through each of the aspects that I have invoked, the con­cept express­es mere­ly one and the same preg­nan­cy of the struc­ture which presents a “well-bound” his­to­ry.26

Tak­ing a quote from Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accu­mu­la­tion of Cap­i­tal, Bal­ibar agrees that “repro­duc­tion appears to be the gen­er­al form of per­ma­nence of the gen­er­al con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion, which in the last analy­sis englobe the whole social struc­ture.” What Marx­ist fem­i­nists strove to do was to begin from this ques­tion of the “whole social struc­ture,” but here Bal­ibar points to this as a poten­tial site of analy­sis before retreat­ing back toward a more nar­row­ly eco­nom­ic read­ing. Even in the sec­tion “The Repro­duc­tion of the Social Rela­tions,” Bal­ibar avoids the pos­si­bil­i­ty of begin­ning with the dis­cus­sion of what is at stake in the “per­pet­u­a­tion” of the work­er, that “absolute­ly nec­es­sary con­di­tion,” as Marx puts it, for the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion to func­tion:

The con­cept of repro­duc­tion is thus not only the con­cept of the “con­sis­ten­cy” of the struc­ture, but also the con­cept of the nec­es­sary deter­mi­na­tion of the move­ment of pro­duc­tion by the per­ma­nence of that struc­ture; it is the con­cept of the per­ma­nence of the ini­tial ele­ments in the very func­tion­ing of the sys­tem, hence the con­cept of the nec­es­sary con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion, con­di­tions which are pre­cise­ly not cre­at­ed by it. This is what Marx calls the eter­ni­ty of the mode of pro­duc­tion: “This inces­sant repro­duc­tion, this per­pet­u­a­tion (Verewi­gung) of the work­er, is the absolute­ly nec­es­sary con­di­tion for cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion.”27

Per­haps what is ulti­mate­ly miss­ing in the entire approach or read­ing in Read­ing Cap­i­tal is an open­ness to the ques­tion of what “comes first” and what is and is not “eter­nal.” Marx­ist-fem­i­nism, by open­ing up the ques­tion of sex his­tor­i­cal­ly and point­ing out that repro­duc­tion can be under­stood “in the last instance” not only in an eco­nom­ic way, but in a way that takes into account the entire con­di­tions for the “per­pet­u­a­tion of the work­er.”


The con­cept of read­ing that Read­ing Cap­i­tal announces is an enor­mous­ly pro­duc­tive one for fem­i­nist read­ings of Marx that seek to sup­ple­ment and expand on Marx’s analy­sis while not remain­ing hide­bound by its gaps and absences. The close­ness of Read­ing Cap­i­tal’s “guilty” read­ing dis­guis­es what is per­haps most pro­duc­tive about its mod­el of read­ing. As Vogel puts it: “Scat­tered through­out the pages of Cap­i­tal, Marx’s com­ments on women’s sit­u­a­tion, on the fam­i­ly, on divi­sions of labour accord­ing to sex and age, and on the repro­duc­tion of the work­ing class have nev­er been suf­fi­cient­ly appre­ci­at­ed by stu­dents of the so-called woman-ques­tion.”28 What the dis­cus­sion of social repro­duc­tion does is open up the pos­si­bil­i­ty, once again, of a true meet­ing of Marx­ism and fem­i­nism to begin again to answer the com­plex ques­tions of sex and val­ue, and the rela­tion­ship between struc­ture and his­to­ry, in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry.

This essay first appeared in Nick Nesbitt’s anthol­o­gy, The Con­cept in Cri­sis © 2017 Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

  1. Ellen Rooney, “Bet­ter Read Than Dead: Althuss­er and the Fetish of Ide­ol­o­gy,” in “Depo­si­tions: Althuss­er, Bal­ibar, Macherey, and the Labor of Read­ing,” spe­cial issue, Yale French Stud­ies, no. 88 (1995): 183–200. 

  2. Rooney, 183. 

  3. Rose­mary Hen­nessy, “Women’s Lives/Feminist Knowl­edge: Fem­i­nist Stand­point as Ide­ol­o­gy Cri­tique,” Hypa­tia 8, no. 1 (win­ter 1993): 14–34, quo­ta­tion on 21. 

  4. Martha E. Gimenez, “Cap­i­tal­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women: Marx Revis­it­ed,” in “Marx­ist Fem­i­nist Thought Today,” spe­cial issue, Sci­ence and Soci­ety 69, no. 1 (Jan­u­ary 2005): 11–32, quo­ta­tion on 13n5. 

  5. Rooney, “Bet­ter Read Than Dead,” 183: “His the­o­ry of read­ing actu­al­ly helps to resolve some of the very the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties that many com­men­ta­tors on his the­o­ry of ide­ol­o­gy find so trou­bling.” 

  6. Rooney, 192n12. 

  7. Rooney, 186. 

  8. Rooney, 185 

  9. Rooney, 190. 

  10. Rooney, 187 

  11. 194. 

  12. Louis Althuss­er, Éti­enne Bal­ibar, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey, and Jacques Ran­cière, Read­ing Cap­i­tal: The Com­plete Edi­tion, trans. Ben Brew­ster and David Fern­bach (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2016), 20 

  13. Althuss­er, 21. 

  14. Althuss­er, 22. 

  15. Lise Vogel, Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women: Toward a Uni­tary The­o­ry (Lei­den: Brill, 2013 [1983]), 28. 

  16. Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, Pref­ace, Rev­o­lu­tion at Point Zero: House­work, Repro­duc­tion, and Fem­i­nist Strug­gle (Oak­land, CA: pm Press, 2012), 2. 

  17. Fed­eri­ci, Rev­o­lu­tion at Point Zero, 5. 

  18. Vogel, Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women, 22. 

  19. Kathi Weeks, The Prob­lem with Work: Fem­i­nism, Marx­ism, Anti­work Pol­i­tics, and Post­work Imag­i­nar­ies (Durham, NC: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011), 97. 

  20. Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, Cal­iban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Prim­i­tive Accu­mu­la­tion (New York: Autono­me­dia, 2004), 8. 

  21. Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, “Review of Louis Althuss­er, Mon­tesquieu, la poli­tique et la his­toire,” Telos, no. 4 (fall 1969): 236–40, quo­ta­tion on 237. 

  22. Fed­eri­ci, “Review of Mon­tesquieu, la poli­tique et la his­toire,” 238. 

  23. Fed­eri­ci, “Review of Mon­tesquieu, la poli­tique et la his­toire,” 239. 

  24. Fed­eri­ci, “Review of Mon­tesquieu, la poli­tique et la his­toire,” 239. 

  25. Althuss­er, 426–27. 

  26. Bal­ibar, 425. 

  27. Bal­ibar 440, cit­ing Cap­i­tal vol. 1, 716. 

  28. Vogel, Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of Women, 62. 

Author of the article

teaches Philosophy at the University of Roehampton and is the author of many articles on philosophy, culture and politics.