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Sami Khatib: “Sensuous Supra-Sensuous”: The Aesthetics of Real Abstraction

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

Study Group/Workshop With Sami Khatib

Saturday and Sunday, February 27-28, 9am Pacific Time

Link to Reading and videos:



  • Real Abstraction

  • Economic and Linguistic Value

  • The Spectral Materiality of Wertgegenständlichkeit

  • Commodity-Language and its Secret

  • Capitalism as Religion

Reading/Discussion Focus:

  • Real Abstraction

  • Economic and Linguistic Value

  • The Spectral Materiality of Wertgegenständlichkeit


Explaining the peculiarities of the value form, in the original 1867 edition of Das Kapital, vol. I, Marx deploys a compelling image:

It is as if alongside and external to lions, tigers, rabbits, and all other actual animals, which form when grouped together the various kinds, species, subspecies, families etc. of the animal kingdom, there existed also in addition the animal , the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom. MEGA II .5.1, 37 2

Marx’s project of the critique of political economy could be summed up as the science of this animal and its spectral mode of existence. In “societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails” (C I, 125) it is as if the abstract dimension of value acquires a life of its own. The dual character of the commodity, pertaining to both use-value and exchange-value, creates a seemingly autonomous sphere of value relations which have cut themselves loose from the sensual world of concrete commodities and the dimension of their use- value. This autonomy, however, is not merely intellectual or ideal as in the sphere of religion where “the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own” (C I, 165). Rather, it is as if the mode of abstraction, namely value, has a real material existence of its own independent of the human mind. As one real existing animal encounters another existing animal within the animal kingdom, in capitalism it is as if concrete sensuous objects encounter their mode of abstraction in real life. Following the logic of this image, the incarnation of such abstraction is in fact real ; it is not the result of a subjective intellectual operation but rather the effect of an objective and actually existing relation.



  • The Form of the Commodity (real abstraction in Marx)

  • From Abstraction to Concretion (reading Marx’s Grundrisse with/against Hegel)

  • Real Abstraction, or the Unconscious of the Commodity Form (reading Zizek’s take on Sohn-Rethel and real abstraction with Marx)


In the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, originally published in 1867, Marx summarizes the research question of his ongoing project:

“Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product.”

The project of the Critique of Political Economy, which is also the subtitle of Capital 1 and its preceding studies, is thus the question of form. The categorical unfolding and presentation of form—the commodity form—is the main challenge of the first chapter of Capital 1, which otherwise might be mistaken for a merely linear account of how capitalism and its major social relations came historically into being. This mode of presentation cannot rely on the presupposition of an already given content, but needs to develop its historical object through a logical construction of form. The presentation [Darstellung] of the constitutive intertwinement of logic and history is central to Marx’s critical project. Here, form does not designate an ahistorical realm of pure logic; likewise, content is not related to the domain of a given history. This historico-logical intertwinement comes into perspective only by virtue of a critical practice of reading. The question of how to theoretically present the value form of the commodity (and particularly the commodity form of labor power) defines the scope and stakes of Marx’s entire critical project. As Michael Heinrich rightly comments, “Marx is not predominantly criticizing the conclusions of political economy, but rather the manner in which it poses questions […].” Changing the questions and research perspective, Marx does not only engage in an immanent critique of previous (classical liberal) theories of political economy; rather, his critique seeks “to break down the theoretical field (meaning the self-evident views and spontaneously arising notions) to which the categories of political economy owe their apparent plausibility.” Marx’s “epistemological break”6 with the categories, research questions, perspectives and findings of traditional political economy, ranging from Adam Smith to David Ricardo, defines critique as a practice of transformative reading that changes the criticized content on the level of the constitution of its scientific objects. In other words, the object and subject matter of the critique of political economy is not simply “out there,” but has to be produced by way of a critical method. By exposing the epistemic blind spots of the criticized theoretical field, Marx presents his own dialectical method and constitutes the scientific objects of his inquiry. But what, then, is the subject matter of the critique of political economy, if it is not only an immanent critique of given classical liberal theories of political economy? If the object of the critique of political economy is not given without its form, how can we construct this form and what could be a knowledge of this form? As we shall see, in the case of Marx, form is not an intellectual product of the mind that could be opposed to empirical objects. The ontological status of form escapes epistemologies and ontologies, which operate by way of non-dialectical, binary doublets like appearance vs. essence, or imagination vs. existence.

About the author:

Sami Khatib is a researcher and lecturer in critical theory. Currently, he is a visiting researcher at Leuphana Universität Lüneburg. Earlier appointments include (visiting) professorships at the American University of Beirut, Vienna’s Fine Art Academy and the American University in Cairo. For recent publications see:

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