Why Time is Utterly “Out of Joint”

In her essay published in The South Atlantic Quarterly, “Why Time Is Out of Joint: Marx’s Political Economy without the Subject,” Teresa Brennan argues that Marx did not apply his analysis of Capital and the labour that constitutes it closely enough. In particular, Marx only sees human labour-power as capable of producing surplus value. She invokes Marx’s own contrast of variable capital and constant capital. Only living labour-power falls into the former category by Marx’s original analysis, while natural resources and technology fall into the latter category: “We can even say that variable capital is the source of surplus-value while constant capital is not” (on page 268, for those of you fortunate enough to have access to the article). Human labour-power is the only source of energy in Marx’s view, while everything else is merely a conduit for it.

Brennan does not agree with this, and argues that “all natural sources of energy [i.e. substances that can be converted into energy] entering production should be treated as variable capital and sources of surplus-value” (268). She gets this by extending Marx’s explanation of labour power as energy transfered to a person by means of nourishment. It relies on a basic law of thermodynamics called the law of conservation of energy. Energy is coming from not just humans, but the non-living means of production themselves, in the form of various kinds of fuel– be it bread or oil.

Later she argues that by extending the ability to materialize energy, in the sense that Marx formerly only saw human labour-power as capable of, to agricultural production Capitalism comes up against an old barrier. There is no special name for that barrier, but it is scaled by the development of technology. What formerly required lots of human labour-power to accomplish could now be done with less energy and maintenance costs, as a piece of machinery only costs what is needed to do its specific task. In other words, to use the contrast between living and dead labour Brennan also employs on the same page, Capitalism maximizes its short-term profits by converting living energy (natural resources) into dead(er) commodities, which last longer for the sake of finding a buyer. This bodes well for short-term profits, but leaves less energy to be sown back into the system necessary for sustaining the living energy of humans, plants and animals– and ultimately Capital. Herein lies the “out of joint”-ness of time, because the reproduction of living energy is thrown out of whack as the pace of producing itself outstrips that reproduction.

Brennan admits that with agricultural production this was a more difficult barrier to scale, as plant and animal life is wont to stick to its inherited patterns and natures–unless one considers selective breeding, and invasion of life by genetic technologies. A more common, though I think quintessential, example of this murderous process is diary products, though particularly milk, in the United States. Arguably, that could be extended to food in general too.

Milk, before it is pasteurized, is in a certain sense alive; or at least it is biologically rich. It has enzymes and bacteria that are essential to the nutritive function it serves for those who drink it. In this way milk is potentially dangerous, though not unacceptably so, evidenced by the millenia of world-wide dairy consumption that obviously hasn’t wiped us out yet. Despite that we have pasteurization, effectively a process of killing the milk by boiling it.

Ordinarily, milk will last a day or two before it starts to go bad. This is not so good for the business man who may not have the regular business to consume the milk quick enough. So, on top of serving an ostensible technomedical imperative, pasteurizing milk makes it more portable—it will last longer. The process has become so effective at killing the milk that through a process of ultra-pasteurization, which involves intensely pressure-boiling the milk at temperatures exceeding the normal boiling point, refrigeration is on the verge of being practically unnecessary.

This is a serious boon to the milk-industry, because it allows them to centralize and maximize their production while not running the same (economic) risk of the milk spoiling because of the added time to distribute it. What is lost, however, is what is most essential to the milk: its nutritive value. It is no surprise that the sale of raw milk in the United States has been made illegal: more than constituting a public health-threat, raw-milk in all of its perfectly healthy character as a living source of human energy points directly to the violent economic interest involved. By violent, I mean the at once physical killing of the milk and the direct link this process has to the abstraction of its use-value as it becomes more exchangeable, or rather, by becoming more portable. This has a way of constituting a form of social violence against humans too, in that what is being killed for reasons that go beyond the medical is a staple part of our diet—and you know what they say, “you are what you eat.”

3 thoughts on “Why Time is Utterly “Out of Joint”

  1. Your argument that raw milk is a biologically rich product, made dead by pasteurization, is correct. Your underlying facts are off–key one being that raw milk goes bad after a day or two. If kept refrigerated, raw milk will keep for two weeks or more. At that point, it can be made into kefir, which will last another few weeks. The real reasons milk is pasteurized have more to do with the fact that people used to get sick from it because farmers didn’t apply proper sanitation or watered it down. Pasteurization was a way to allow for poor production techniques. It’s same argument being used for irradiating all our food. Good book is “The History of Milk”.

  2. Yeah, but what you aren’t admitting is that refrigeration is as much a part of the process of converting the milk into constant (i.e. dead) capital as pasteurization. Refrigeration is not out-right killing the milk as in pasteurization, but it is slowing down the fact that the milk is alive to the bare minimum.

    So, you only take my point to a place I didn’t think to in the original post. I took pasteurization as my example, because it is the most obvious industrial process where we seek to convert the milk from living to dead. Refrigeration and any other processes that extends the shelf-life of milk by negating or otherwise compromising for the fact that it is alive are making the same gesture that I claim pasteurization does. Perhaps it’s not as violent as pasteurization, but on its own refrigeration would only make sense if people were still getting their milk locally. However, on its own, refrigeration wouldn’t make sense, because if you are collecting it locally anyway, you shouldn’t ever be collecting any more than you need in the time you can consume it. For the long-haul to markets far and wide, pasteurization would become necessary in tandem with refrigeration.

    As for whether pasteurization was really done for humanistic, medically-concerned reasons, you have to consider the very comment you make: “Pasteurization was a way to allow for poor production techniques.” “Poor production techniques” is going to mean not just the poor quality of the product, but the very cost to business owner (because we can’t speak of the person as producer unless we’re talking about human milk). In other words, you say it yourself that pasteurization was developed (you say to a lesser and I say to a greater degree) as a way to reduce the costs of bringing milk to the market, which is my whole point.

  3. All raw milk is not illegal. Here in Pennsylvania, we have some of the most progressive raw milk regulations in the country. Currently, there are 86 licensed dairies throughout the state permitted to sell fluid raw milk and raw milk cheese which has been aged for 60 days (http://www.agriculture.state.pa.us/agriculture/lib/agriculture/foodsafetyfiles/raw_milk_producers_09-28-07.pdf). The legislation is also in the process of changing the laws to allow legal sales of raw milk cream and raw milk butter. Unfortunately, there are a few non-profit organizations and individuals who are urging unlicensed dairy farmers to break the law and sell non-permitted dairy items to the public. They particularly prey on the Amish and Mennonite farmers who are trying to maintain their agrarian way of life in our society. There is also another facet–those with a few milk cows selling underground raw milk devoid of any testing whatsoever. Many of these individuals have little understanding of raw milk sanitation and parrot the “it’s my constitutional right” crap that has been hoisted upon them by unscrupulous raw milk proponents. I’m a huge fan of raw milk and raw milk products, but if you are going to consume raw milk, purchase it from a licensed producer who has the proper oversight and testing in place that ensures a safe and healthy product.

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