Focusing on a crucial moment in the emergence of the modern distinction between the realms of politics and culture, my talk will explore the implications of a critical rupture in Marx’s life and work-not the distinction championed by Althusser between Marx’s early “humanist” writings and the “scientific” texts of his maturity, but a much earlier if largely unappreciated break separating all of these canonical writings from the literary juvenilia that preceded it. Though by age twenty Marx had written two volumes of poetry, a tragic drama inspired by Faust, and a fragment of a novel after Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, these works are seldom acknowledged let alone taken seriously today, their very existence comprising something of a secret.
If these works deserve our attention today, it is neither for their intrinsic merit nor for the possibility (as a few critics have suggested) that they contain in nucleus the full range of Marx’s subsequent concerns. I argue, rather, that these works are significant precisely because they never have counted as part of Marx’s official corpus but were consigned from the start to the supplementary volumes. Anthologies of Marx’s writings similarly do not begin with samples of his early poetry, drama, or fiction; indeed, several open with an 1837 letter in which Marx, writing from college to his father following a period of emotional distress, announces his decision to abandon the practice of literature. Functioning canonically for Marx’s editors as the frame separating the poetry of youth from the prose of adulthood, Marx’s letter also addresses these distinctions in explaining why, from this point in its author’s life onwards, “poetry could be and had to be only an accompaniment.” All the rest, as it were, would be History: the canon now officially opens as Marx, coming into his own as an adult male subject, leaves Dichtung for Wissenschaft, youth for maturity, mystification and fantasy for politics and truth.
My talk will focus on this moment, which, I argue, remains crucial not only for Marx and his legacy but for our own efforts to discern the limits between politics and culture. To find Marx consigning literature to a past defined as immature, irreal, and inauthentic is, among other things, to wonder whether it can possibly remain there-whether, indeed, the predicates Marx ascribes to literature belong to the pre-history of politics or rather to the latter’s future. I will be asking, in short, what politics might mean, after Marx, if its conditions of possibility include what, in theory, should have remained alien to itself.