Marxism and cultural criticism Essay
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`It is to works of art that has fallen the burden of wordlessly asserting what is barred to politics` (Adorno) - Marxism and cultural criticism Essay introduction. (1)
This essay presents an initial, provisional attempt to outline some of the complex, differing currents in the cultural dynamics of ‘multi-racist Britain’ at their point of juncture with contemporary British performance practice. It cautiously seeks to engage with the specific temporalities and geographies that mark its subject out as ‘a little local difficulty’ – to resituate a favorite colonialist trope – without shying away from more ‘global’ issues. Particularly, it is concerned to pursue the links connecting white racial fantasies and racist identities with psychoanalytic conceptions of prejudice. Following the innovative work of Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, the essay argues that the historical combination of colonial relations of power and psychoanalysis’s theorization of unconscious aspiration invests the latter with particular significance in the analysis of the psychic and social identifications produced within this radicalized ‘regime of representation’.(2) At the same time, it attempts to propose that as these formations are historicized – or are in the procedure of being historicized – alternate frameworks for understanding and undertaking inter-subjective relations are called for. By tracing the interaction of dominant, residual and evolving discursive currents in a precise historical event cum ‘moment’, the paper endeavors to plan an image of this process in process. It is in this activist territory that it seeks to situate the work of performance: as an economy in which fantasies socialize, histories exchange and ethics revaluate. Although the claims it makes and the tone it takes can be politically ‘risky’, the essay stems from an assurance to try to speak from within the belly of the beast, against disavowal, and throughout the logic of responsibility. It addresses itself mostly, therefore, to the place I’m compelled to acknowledge as ‘home’.
Adorno was clearly responsive of the dangers. He spoke out against research that tries to place the artwork by concentrating on its reception; likewise, he criticized readings that would just impose social categories on the text. He did not, however, give up the concepts of society and history as essential co-determinants for the aesthetic realm (3, 4). His criticism is filled with a strong sense of social history as the condition under which artworks are produced and consumed. This is not a matter of the artwork reflecting social conditions but somewhat a matter of human labor. Though it would be hard to find a critic who insisted more on the autonomy of the genuine artwork, Adorno consistently argued supportive of human labor as the source of literature and music. In this respect he stood in clear antagonism to Heidegger’s assumptions about the origins of poetry (Dichtung). Adorno was prepared to argue that the artwork is not simply expressive but has truth content as well, but he resisted any claims for a transcendental grounding. This brings me back to the early question of Adorno’s allegiance to Marxist theory, in which the idea of human labor is, certainly, an indispensable element. How does Adorno’s theory relate to Marx’s understanding of this concept? Is his concept of society identical to or compatible with the Marxist concept? (5, 6)
The usual Marxist approach to the discussion of human nature also centers on the types of needs that are characteristic of human life, which appear with varying degrees of motivational power depending on the extremely variable actualizations of these other basic human capabilities. Surely some needs that have arisen in human history have been more continuing and pervasive than others, but within the chronological materialist theoretical framework the limitations of generalizing concerning human needs also are recognized, as even needs that have appeared in all historical eras and geographical regions have often taken such fundamentally different forms that their definite effects on human existence have differed radically as well. Actually, the diversity of human socio-cultural organization itself can be viewed to quite a degree as a reflection of the context-specific sets of real and imagined needs with which diverse peoples have had to contend, while all of those needs, however, are either unusually human or expressed in distinctively human ways. From this viewpoint we thus can argue constantly both that there are some comparatively universal human needs, and that human needs change historically (sometimes in form, sometimes in content.). And, this stance consequently puts us in a better position to determine (1) the way in which human beings in particular times and places can and do contribute, intentionally and unintentionally, to changes in their own needs or those of subsequent generations, and to what ends; (2) contextually defensible distinctions between “need” and “want,” or between “true needs” and “false needs”; (3) evaluative criterion for distinguishing between “good” and “bad” needs; and (4) what constitutes the sufficient satisfaction of needs, given the situational inconsistency that must be taken into account therein.
In Aesthetic Theory that Adorno came to a thoroughly argued solution of this problem, after trial runs in the essay ‘Theses on the Sociology of Art’ and in the chapter ‘Mediation’ in his 1962 work Introduction to the Sociology of Music (7). The reason for the earlier lack of clarity can have been his uncertainty in the field of social theory, particularly his ambivalence toward Marxist theory. While his theory of art, I believe, did not undergo major changes after his return to Germany, his social theory seemed to have changed in more considerable ways. Helmut Dubiel and others have shown that the members of the Frankfurt School turned away from a more politically conventional Marxist position during the 1940s– a shift mainly motivated by the political configuration in Europe and North America: the rise of fascism in Germany, the rise of Stalin in the Soviet Union, and the fate of mass democracy in the United States. They lost faith in the revolutionary force of the plebs and found it ever more difficult to discover a social agent for chronological change. Hence the idea of progress, as Benjamin’s theses argued emphatically, had lost its meaning. Still, this cynicism, which Adorno certainly shared (and expressed most clearly in Minima Moralia), did not mechanically cancel the Marxian concepts on which the Frankfurt School had relied in its analysis throughout the 1930s and early 1940s.
One can see that during the early 1940s not only much of the Marxist terminology was still integral for Adorno but also fundamental aspects of Marxist theory. The opening statement of his essay ‘Reflexionen zur Klassentheorie’ (Reflections on the theory of class) makes this clear: ‘According to theory, history is the history of class conflicts’ (8). He is barely interested in the conventional view, however, according to which class struggle will eventually secure the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie and thereby open the future for social progress. Rather, following Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,’ he underlined the continued suffering — ultimately self-inflicted, of course — of the human species. History has become a replication of the same; it is no more than Vorgeschichte (prehistory) (9). The essay tries to rescue the notion of the dialectic in history from a notion of history that relies on ‘evolution’ somewhat than a Hegelian syllogism. ‘The system of history that is, the fixation of the temporal as a totality of meaning — through its methodical nature sublates time and reduces it to an abstract negation’ (10). Adorno extends his argument to the Marxian dialectic as well with the significant difference that Marx turns Hegel upside down “by demarcating prehistory as the identical’ (11). Unlike Hegel, so Adorno argues, a truly Marxian theory of history stresses the negative element, the force of expropriation and violence. In this context, the appropriate metaphor for the historical situation of the forties is the maze — a place seemingly without an exit.
This position anticipates the conjecture of history developed in Dialectic of Enlightenment, yet it is quite evident that Adorno’s essay relies on the basic concepts of Marxian theory. Although Adorno overtly drops, as hopelessly outdated, the notion of the radical proletariat and suggests that the traditional concept of class antagonism has to be modified (12), he still uses the Marxist analysis of capitalism based on such sorts as forces of production, relations of production, use and exchange value. Similarly, he holds on to a customary notion of the development of the economy from the phase of liberal capitalism to a monopoly capitalism in which competition has been mostly eliminated. Finally, he links the stage of advanced capitalism with European fascism.
It is through a Marxist analysis that Adorno undermines a position that would valorize the prospect of social and political progress. He tries, precisely with the help of Marxian theory, to fend off new versions of social theory that discredit the concept of class and class conflict. Adorno argues that advanced Marxist theory has to go beyond its own custom in order to oppose the apologetic versions of bourgeois sociology. This is a strategy that Adorno positively continued during the 1950s and 1960s when he faced the West German sociologists in the positivism dispute Adorno suggests that certain parts of Marxist theory particularly Verelendungstheorie (theory of immiserization) must be revised but persists at the same time on the validity of Marxian social theory. Advanced capitalist society, monopoly capitalism, pursues the logic of Marx’s analysis beyond the horizon of its author. The dividing line is not so much between riches and poverty as between power and impotence: ‘the site of the secret, you might say censured, poverty is political and social helplessness (13). It is noteworthy that in 1942 Adorno emphatically calls for the removal (Sturz) of the power elite. As much as it may surprise anyone who is recognizable with Adorno’s later work, the essay ‘Reflexionen zur Klassentheorie’ offers a radical perspective: the author anticipates the moment of the break when social suffering has become total. ‘Only when the victims completely adopt the features of the dominant civilization do they become capable of stripping that civilization of dominance (14). This sentence reflects Adorno’s adamant refusal to accept the confirmation of the status quo in mainstream American sociology.
Adorno was at a 180 degree angle from Benjamin and Brecht on the subject of commitment and autonomy. He was fanatical of it. Benjamin and Brecht thought it had social prospective. Yet, in spite of their differences, all were agreed that aesthetic form, rather than content, was the basis of art’s political significance. Nonetheless, a supposition to this effect is already present in this earlier generation of aesthetic theory we are looking at now. In this literature, art is believed competent of puncturing presumptions by making people responsive of their underlying structures. It is conceived of as an ground of competing formal practices where the public is taken out of its usual way of seeing the world and brought to new recognitions. On this point, there is no argument. Dissension arises simply when the three men describe which existing art accomplishes this perceptual rejuvenation, why and how.
By studying which types of art Adorno believed kept alive a challenge to the capitalist system and which helped protracted it; several things promise to be accomplished. Our understanding of the means aesthetic form’s relationship to political ideology was traditionally conceptualized will grow.
Adorno considered it a repudiation of Benjamin “Work of Art” essay. In it, he discusses the commodification of music and its effects on individual and shared listening conduct. Commodification vague the substance of the work, its use value. Use value in what affords contentment to the art lover. Exchange value is what makes him buy it. “Regressive listening” is listening that centers on the second, the selling points, and not the subtle interplays which convey enjoyment.
Benjamin says that a dialectical approach to the dilemma of political art will first of all rid itself of passé assumptions about genre. The novel, the book or the commercially mountable work of art present obstructions to our thinking about, and recognition of, initial forms of expression, forms which, being incident to political praxis, have not yet gelled into specifiable categories.
The technique of the work is the key issue to be well thought-out in answering this question. This is in keeping with his formalist approach to the art of perfunctory reproduction. Here, though, the author focuses on the attack points of the artist/intellectual toward the aesthetic industrial multifarious.
In “The Author as Producer,” Benjamin suggests there is a way to adapt the problems which brink on art (its acceptance, distribution, commercialization, and so forth) into art. Progressive art must not only attempt to change attitudes. It should seek to change institutions. Technique influences awareness and it also influences the way the cultural establishment is run. There is a approach forthcoming for the production of a definite kind of art that causes the profit-making system of capitalist culture to pulverize its wheels. Something concerning the fragment, for instance, makes it harder to merchandise than the novel. What is new here is a broadening of the essential structural argument we have been following so far, to consist the external situation in which art finds it. Technique can make aesthetic problems “reachable to materialist analysis” only in the age of perfunctory reproduction. The latter’s equipment exhaustive art acquires a technical and social flexibility and social significance lacking in the individually oriented art of the past. The optimistic side of popular art being cheaply made is that the means to make it oneself and thereby reinterpret its functions are enthusiastically available.
Benjamin begins with the instance of what he calls the “operating,” as opposed to the “informing,” writer of Russian descent, Sergei Tretiakov. Considerably, he conceives of Tretiakov’s activism in the area of agricultural communism calling mass meetings, creating wall posters, collecting money for tractors, editing newspapers as artistic ventures. Benjamin understanding these acts as art accords with what he said earlier about promising forms. It also assumes that in any revolutionary situation, the formal properties of depiction are indivisible from their practical functions, or which is to say the same thing, revolutionary movements call forth innovative modes of expression and are augmented by them, in turn. Ideas should have aesthetically redeeming qualities.
“The Author as Producer,” Benjamin keep that the relationship of the academic to the masses is no longer a tutorial one as of the propensity of mechanical culture to encourage the distinctive person to the position of expert. The revolt of the ordinary person into an expert flows from the audience’s involvement in mechanical art. The Soviet practice of casting workers in the role of themselves (producer as author) best recognized how the average person could be made into a licensed spokesman. In Russia, Benjamin noticed, social labor was becoming associated to diction (15).
When Benjamin says that the author must struggle as a producer, he means he should effect change in the “literary relations of production.” He borrows a neologism from Brecht to illustrate such a generic intervention: Umfunktionierung, meaning “functional transformation.” (16).
Certainly, the danger here is that because the actually transformative work tampers with deeply implied structures of representation, it can appear, on first exposure, to be gratuitously meaningless. Chaos is good while it leads to a rethinking of normal responses. It is bad while it is copied as an end in itself, because it has become the symbol of the avant-garde. As Adorno put it so well in 1962, “Such works drift to the brink of unconcern, degenerate insensibly into mere hobbies, into idle repetition of formulas now deserted in other art-forms, into insignificant patterns. . . . Formal structures which face the lying positivism of meaning can easily slide into a different sort of vacuity, positivistic arrangements, empty juggling with elements”(17).
Benjamin is quite clear concerning the fact that a functional transformation catalyzes audiences in new, socially significant ways. For instance, at the time of Benjamin’s writing, the escalating rationalization of the methods of musical manufacture or reproduction was polarizing the particular producer/technician and the amateur, increasingly listless listener. It was as well creating a gap between studio and stage work, for what could be performed in an auditorium was ashen compared to what could be fused in the engineering room. As these gaps began to widen, traditional forms like the commercial orchestral concert sustained as before, doing nothing to offset the increasing segregation of the audience from the art-making process.
Then, according to Benjamin, along came Brecht and established political lyrics into what had formerly been the conserve of the musical instrument. Their instructive play form used words and adjunct to engage the audience, to stay their drift. The aesthetic and political were thus put in tandem with one another (as were technique and content). Through verbal involvement, audiences were skilled not to expect a canned product. The performance ceased to be a faded substitute for the record. Responsive reading exposed the audience to politics through the content of the lyrics. On the whole, the introduction of the word into a form that had formerly disallowed it put the technology at the disposal of the audience (through amplification and the like) to a certain extent employing it in such a way as to eliminate them.
Brecht’s art is not about Truth, but concerning the fitful pursuit of ambiguity. Ambiguity discomfits. It generates a vacuum in the place where there used to be easy answers. Fragmentation, similarly, convinces people that their truths are all conditional. It forces them to supply the missing pieces of a puzzle. Multiplicity assures that there will be something to puzzle over; that the natural, the obvious, and the expedient will be haunted by their opposites.
Benjamin and Brecht understood that the commercial utilization of what were, at the date of their writing, the new instruments of publication would astound people with technical wizardry, replacing consequence for substance, apolitical intemperance for political commitment. Brecht’s persistence that an art that entertains but fails to initiate ultimately leaves its recipients empty-handed was an recognition of that danger. His critique of motiveless emotionalism was a warning. Today, popular art those efforts to be critical of mainstream culture often affect a lack of affect, or, alternately, an idealistically exaggerated amount of emotion. Both ploys are in the Brechtian tradition. The opportunities for functional transformation might have become more involved since Brecht’s writing, but they have not essentially changed.
That is why Brecht’s art should be understood an alternate plan for the completion of the technology of perfunctory reproduction at its headwater. It advanced a kind of art that would use the technology to upset ideas from their support of existing power relations. Several of his innovations were absorbed into non-Brechtian forms of popular culture. Others were forgotten. Yet his resistance of the prospective behind technological art was as positive as Adorno’s was denigrating. Thus controversy exists over the ultimate nature and status of Brecht’s contribution to twentieth-century essential culture. Adorno, for example, claiming him to be a Soviet apologist whose bad politics “stain” his aesthetics), the whole issue of commitment can be evaded by admitting the following (18). Teaching audiences that a better use of the technology subsisted than what was allowed into mass circulation fulfilled part of the agenda outlined by Benjamin in “The Author as Producer.”
A social theory as Adorno envisaged in the essay of `commitment` and `autonomy` would be closer to Max Weber than to Emile Durkheim; it would be a hermeneutically grounded theory, yet it would be — and this is crucial for Adorno — a theory of nonidentity. Social theory after World War II must understand the unimaginable, ‘the advance of human beings into the inhuman’ (19) — a test for which, Adorno rightly observes, traditional hermeneutics is not equipped.
However, Adornos essay tries to define contemporary society. This sketch describes the world of the 1960s as a global system in which advanced capitalist and postcolonial Third World countries are interconnected through an economic system that is (still) constructed as a global market network. Adorno suggests that this society is as much motivated by profit as was nineteenth-century capitalism. Similarly, he defines it as a class society determined by class conflicts and structural antagonisms. indeed, he assumes that the differences between the classes (in objective terms) have increased rather than decreased throughout the ongoing process of economic concentration. As a result, society as a global social order moves toward a system with increasingly totalitarian tendencies, in both the First and Second Worlds.
Obviously, Adorno’s analysis of contemporary society still owes its concepts largely to Marxist theory, without, though, affirming the socialist regimes of the Second World or the socialist movements of the Third. Thus Adorno finds it more hard, if not impossible, to find out actual trends that would lead to a free society. ‘A rational and genuinely free society could do without direction as little as it could do without division of labor itself. But all over the globe, administrations have leaned under constraint towards a greater self-sufficiency and autonomy from their administered subjects, reducing the latter to objects of conceptually normed behavior’ (20). As a result, the situation of the individual has become independently worse, although the masses may find the social conditions rather pleasant as they have become more dependent on the system and respond to its demands by a higher degree of submission (Anpassung).
A comparison between the 1942 and 1965 essays reveals a considerable shift in Adorno’s position but, at the same time, an astonishing amount of continuity. Although Adorno’s social theory rarely unequivocally invokes the authority of Marx, it continues to use central categories from Marxist theory. This does not mean that Adorno is inclined to subscribe to the letter of Marx’s analyses and prognoses; he gives in that much of that is no longer relevant for modern society. What he underlines, however — for example, in the essay ‘Spätkapitalismus oder Industriegesellschaft’ (Late capitalism or industrial society) — is the relevance of the central Marxian concepts for a critical appraisal. In his last address to the German Soziologentag (annual convention of sociologists) in 1968, Adorno stated this principle with great force: ‘A dialectical theory of society focuses on structural laws, which establish the facts, as they manifest these facts and are modified by them. By structural laws such a theory understands tendencies that pursue more or less stringently from the chronological constituents of the total system’ (21).
The evaluation of Adorno could either stress and denounce the distance between the political vanguard and the philosopher or underscore those elements in Adorno’s writing that might, when used in a diverse context, be revitalized. The first strategy would tend to call for a more orthodox Marxist position (with a possible emphasis on the Feuerbach theses); the latter strategy would problematize the Marxist heritage in the work of Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Here the argument would point in the opposite direction: it would underscore the orthodox moments in Adorno’s writing as the real reason for his shortcomings in the political ground. In this reading, the Frankfurt School failed not because its members abandoned the safe ground of Marxist theory but because they were impeded by the orthodox baggage they carried along. The call for a greater distance between the New Left and Adorno, in this instance, also stressed the need for a more decisive approach to Critical Theory, the need for revisions that might safeguard the political project. This position is summarized succinctly in Paul Piccone’s remark of 1977:
In Adorno, particularly, the dialectic becomes dehistoricized to cover the whole of Western civilization as the genesis of the dominion of the concept. Consequently, critical theory does not even attempt to anticipate the future by elaborating the mediations necessary to bring it about, and becomes entirely defensive; it ultimately retreats to defend particularity, independence and non-identity against an allegedly totally administered society where thinking itself disappears as a expendable luxury. (22)
The point of the political critique is Adorno’s cynicism and the lack of an emancipatory desire in his writings beyond the moment of individual opposition. Similar concerns, though couched in a more academic style, can be found in Fredric Jameson’s Adorno chapter of Marxism and Form ( 1971), which describes the late work, especially Negative Dialectics, as a immense failure’ insofar as negative dialectics tries, against all odds, to save philosophy itself. (23) Jameson makes this attempt responsible for a lack of political commitment. Interestingly enough, though, he equally insists on the incomparable quality of Adorno’s work as a model of the dialectical thought process, thereby balancing the lack of political commitment (generally abhorred by the New Left) with the erudition of negative dialectics.
What Jameson alluded to in the early seventies namely, the involvedness of Adorno’s thought, particularly of his conception of negative dialectics became the focal point of the poststructuralist rereading of Adorno’s writings during the eighties. This reorientation followed a similar shift in the misappropriation of Walter Benjamin’s work by deconstructive critics to whom the Marxist tradition and the Frankfurt School, as a part of this tradition, meant less (if anything at all) than Adorno’s epistemological critique of phenomenology and the ontological project. (24) What typifies the poststructuralist approach to Adorno is its intentional attempt to distinguish his work from the body of Marxist theory and to underscore the distinction between his thought and the conceptual apparatus of Marxist theory. This strategy can be directed either against other members of the Frankfurt School (such as Horkheimer or Marcuse) or at the post-Adornian turn of Critical Theory in the work of Jürgen Habermas and his students (for instance, Thomas McCarthy). In other words, the question of reason and sagacity becomes the touchstone for the poststructuralist reading. Hence, the poststructuralist appropriation leans to deny the assertive unity of Critical Theory; it seeks to foreground epistemological problems and shows little interest in the question of social praxis and political significance.
Theodor Adorno ‘On Commitment’, in the Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. A. Arato and E. Gebhardt, New York: Continuum, 1982:318.
Stuart Hall, ‘Old and New Ethnicities’, in Culture, Globalization and the World System, ed. A. King, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1997.
Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. G. Adorno and R. Tiedeman, trans. C. Lenhardt, London: Routledge, 1984:455.
Bertolt Brecht, ‘Against Lukacs’ (in Adorno et al., Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Ronald Taylor, Verso, 1977)
Adorno, “‘Theses on the Sociology of Art,'” Working Papers in Cultural Studies 2 (spring 1972):121-28 (GS 10 : 367-74).
Karl Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’ (or ‘Alienated Labour’) in The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (most readily available in Early Writings, ed. Colletti, Penguin, 1975)
Benjamin, “Author as Producer,” pp. 225-26.
Benjamin, “Author as Producer,” pp. 228
Adorno, “Commitment,” p. 191.
Adorno, “Commitment,” p. 186.
Adorno, “‘Society,'” in The Legacy of the German Refugee Intellectuals, ed. Robert Beyers (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), 147 (GS 8:12).
Paul Piccone, General Introduction to the Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York. Urizen Books, 1977), xviii.
Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 58.
Rainer Nägele, ed., Benjamin’s Ground: New Readings of Walter Benjamin (Detroit MI: Wayne State University Press, 1988).