In today’s English, ‘pig’ refers to the animals with which farmers deal, while ‘pork’ is the meat we consume. The class dimension is clear here: ‘pig’ is the old Saxon word, since Saxons were the underprivileged farmers, while ‘pork’ comes from the French porque, used by the privileged Norman conquerors who mostly consumed the pigs raised by farmers. This duality, signalling the gap that separates production from consumption, is a case of what, in his formidable Transcritique. On Kant and Marx, Kojin Karatani refers to as the ‘parallax’ dimension.footnote1 Best known as the most striking Japanese literary critic of his generation—his Origins of Japanese Literature presented to the English-speaking world by Fredric Jameson—Karatani has moved from subsequent reflections on Architecture as Metaphor to one of the most original attempts to recast the philosophical and political bases of opposition to the empire of capital of the current period.footnote2 In its heterodox theoretical ambition and concern with alternative revolutionary traditions—here principally anarchist—Transcritique might be compared with Roberto Unger’s trilogy Politics, a work out of Brazil. But Karatani’s thought-world is closer to that of Marx, and behind him to the heritage of classical German philosophy.

Karatani starts with the question: what is the appropriate response when we are confronted with an antinomy in the precise Kantian sense of the term? His answer is that we should renounce all attempts to reduce one aspect of it to the other (or, even more, to enact a kind of ‘dialectical synthesis’ of the opposites). One should, on the contrary, assert antinomy as irreducible, and conceive the point of radical critique not as a determinate position as opposed to another position, but as the irreducible gap between the positions—the purely structural interstice between them. Kant’s stance is thus to see things ‘neither from his own viewpoint, nor from the viewpoint of others, but to face the reality that is exposed through difference (parallax)’.footnote3 Karatani reads the Kantian notion of the Ding an sich (the Thing-in-itself, beyond phenomena) not so much as a transcendental entity beyond our grasp, but as what is discernible only via the irreducibly antinomic character of our experience of reality.

According to Karatani, when Marx was faced with the opposition between classical political economy (Ricardo and his labour theory of value—the counterpart to philosophical rationalism) and the neo-classical reduction of value to a purely relational entity without substance (Bailey—the counterpart to philosophical empiricism), his ‘critique of political economy’ accomplished exactly the same breakthrough towards the parallax view. Marx treated this opposition as a Kantian antinomy—that is, value has to originate both outside circulation, in production, and within circulation. ‘Marxism’ after Marx—in both its Social Democratic and Communist versions—lost this parallax perspective and regressed to a unilateral elevation of production as the site of truth, as against the ‘illusory’ spheres of exchange and consumption. As Karatani emphasizes, even the most sophisticated theory of reification—that of commodity fetishism—falls into this trap, from the young Lukács through Adorno up to Jameson. The way these thinkers accounted for the lack of a revolutionary movement was to argue that the consciousness of workers was obfuscated by the seductions of consumerist society and/or manipulation by the ideological forces of cultural hegemony. Hence the shift in the focus of their critical work to cultural criticism (the so-called ‘cultural turn’)—in others, the disclosure of the ideological (or libidinal: here lies the key role of psychoanalysis in Western Marxism) mechanisms that keep workers under the spell of bourgeois ideology. In a close reading of Marx’s analysis of the commodity-form, Karatani grounds the insurmountable persistence of the parallax gap in the salto mortale that a product has to accomplish in order to assert itself as a commodity:

The price [of iron expressed in gold], while on the one hand indicating the amount of labour-time contained in the iron, namely its value, at the same time signifies the pious wish to convert the iron into gold, that is to give the labour-time contained in the iron the form of universal social labour-time. If this transformation fails to take place, then the ton of iron ceases to be not only a commodity but also a product; since it is a commodity only because it is not a use-value for its owner, that is to say his labour is only really labour if it is useful labour for others, and it is useful for him only if it is abstract general labour. It is therefore the task of the iron or of its owner to find that location in the world of commodities where iron attracts gold. But if the sale actually takes place, as we assume in this analysis of simple circulation, then this difficulty, the salto mortale of the commodity, is surmounted. As a result of this alienation—that is its transfer from the person for whom it is a non-use-value to the person for whom it is a use-value—the ton of iron proves to be in fact a use-value and its price is simultaneously realized, and merely imaginary gold is converted into real gold.footnote4

This jump by means of which a commodity is sold and thus effectively constituted as a commodity is not the result of an immanent self-development of (the concept of) Value, but a salto mortale comparable to a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, a temporary and fragile ‘synthesis’ between use-value and exchange-value comparable to the Kantian synthesis between sensibility and understanding: in both cases, two levels irreducibly external to each other are brought together. For this precise reason, Marx abandoned his original project (discernible in the Grundrisse manuscripts) of ‘deducing’ in a Hegelian way the split between exchange-value and use-value from the very concept of Value. In Capital, the split of these two dimensions, the ‘dual character of a merchandise’, is the starting point. The synthesis has to rely on an irreducibly external element, as in Kant where being is not a predicate (i.e., cannot be reduced to a conceptual predicate of an entity), or as in Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, in which the reference of a name to an object cannot be grounded in the content of this name, in the properties it designates.