Routine Maintenance: Forming, Reforming, and Transforming Social Formations

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Johns Hopkins University
This dissertation describes four routine activities—seeing, working, touching, and eating—in order to develop the concept of a social formation. An effort to elucidate the concept of a social formation, and, in particular, to articulate the relationship between politics and social formations, connects each of the chapters. Following the theorists of social formations, I construe as political any process that actively forms, reforms, or transforms a given social formation. This thesis does not imply that everything is politics, but, rather, that every process has the potential to become political. The concept of a social formation connects politics with any of the processes—small or large, micro or macro, individual or collective—that structure, reproduce, and alter the world containing them. Politics within social formations is a common, diffuse process rather than a rare moment or event. The present study therefore focuses on continuously repeated activities rather than on occasional, delimited events such as voting, legislating, or the founding of new states. The first chapter describes how new forms of seeing in the late-seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries made it possible to observe, measure, and represent first, “the market system,” and later, “the economy.” The second chapter analyzes the politics of working; building on historical scholarship documenting the influence of thermodynamics on Marx’s thought, it demonstrates that, for Marx, the peculiar ability of human labor-power to create value is the result of politics, and not, as many Marxists assert, of nature. The third chapter explores the notion of a “politics of touching” by analyzing Walt Whitman’s poems that envision a new political order founded on comradeship—a distinct kind of friendship characterized by physical intimacy. The final chapter discusses the politics of eating and contends that a new discourse of “eco- dietetics” emerged in the mid-twentieth century out of social movements promoting seasonal, local, organic, and “Slow” food. The conclusion considers the surprising role of the nineteenth-century German chemist Justus von Liebig in each of the main chapters.
social formations, politics, bodily routines, "the economy", Karl Marx, Walt Whitman, eco-dietetics