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The usual meaning of “to work up from raw material, fabricate, manufacture (material objects)” is a reduction of the etymology of the Latin producere, which meant “to lead or bring forth”
(The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 2004).
Modern economists have tended to narrow the concept of production even more tightly around a notion of ‘the useful’. Thus, for Jean Baptiste Say the “production of wealth” was distinguished from any other form of creation as the reproduction of “existing materials under another form” where “there is a creation, not of matter, but of utility” (1821: 2).
Karl Marx argued that under capitalism, “production appears as the aim of mankind and wealth as the aim of production,” in deep contrast with previous social formations which, despite their limitations, viewed the human being “as the aim of production” (1993: 487f.). He also criticized the distinction between “productive” and “unproductive” activities (and between the “useful” and the “useless”) as a purely ideological judgment about the extent to which a specific activity contributes to the accumulation of capital (ibid 273).
Such a critique of the modern concept of production ran parallel to Marx’s own anthropology, which posited labour, production and self-production as defining the human condition. Whereas animals such as bees or ants “produces what it immediately needs ,” Marx described humans as able to produce unconstrained by physical need, for their goal was none other than “creating an world of objects by his practical activity, in his work upon inorganic nature” (Marx 2005:276). When Marx defined production as “the appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society” (1993: 87), he not only alluded to historical forms of property and social relations, but to the degree to which knowledge and technique become, in the industrial age, “direct” forces of production, because natural materials are “transformed into organs of the human will over nature” and “general social knowledge” (i.e., science and culture) become the “organs of social practice” (ibid 706).
In the early 1970s, Jean Baudrillard criticized Marxism (as well as thinkers like Gilles Deleuze) for being unable to escape “an unbridled romanticism of productivity” (1975: 19) and unwilling to “conceive of a mode of social wealth other than that founded on labour and production” (ibid 30). Yet, as Giorgio Agamben has pointed out, “Everywhere, even where Marx’s thought is condemned and refused, man today is the living being who produces and works” (1999: 74). In that sense, the modern age has split the ancient Greek concept of poiesis (ποίησις) in two, opposing products (derived from technical means) with poetic “works of art” identified with originality or authenticity (ibid 60f.). CM