Merrion House Leeds, 1964

Small is Beautiful, but Big is Sublime

Kant, Le Corbusier, Koolhaas
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Analytic of the Sublime

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The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in limitation; the sublime, by contrast, is to be found in a formless object insofar as limitlessness is represented in it, or at its instance, and yet it is also thought as a totality.

— Immanuel Kant, 1793
Critique of Judgment

Bolshevism means big

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“Bolshoi!”

It is a word (a magnificent one) and not a mere matter of party membership.

In 1928, I was called to Moscow to discuss the construction of the Tsentrosoiuz there. I was taken to the office of Mr. Lubinov (now the People’s Commissar, once mayor of Moscow, before that a peasant, and at this particular time President of the Tsentrosoiuz). There was an interpreter there. The President delivered himself of a long speech in which the word ‘bolshoi,’ always delivered with great force, recurred again and again. The interpreter passed on the substance of this speech to me as follows:

The construction of this palace [The Palace of the Soviets] must prove itself an outstanding event in Russian architectural history, a history that only began with the Revolution itself. It is essential that there should be a visible quality of bigness in all the aspects of its design, a bigness achieved not simply by means of physical dimensions, nor by emphasis, but by a judicious regard to proportions. It is essential that this non-military building, the biggest that has so far been envisaged by our regime, should constitute a model: strict expression of function and dignity. All our projects must come into the world under this sign: BIG, bolshoi…

I questioned the interpreter: “That word, ‘bolshoi,’ which Mr. Lubinov kept hammering out, what does it mean?”

“Big!”

“So, Bolshevism…?”

“Bolshevism means: everything as big as possible, the biggest theory, the biggest projects. Maximum. Going to the heart of any question. Examining it in depth. Envisaging the whole. Breadth and size.”

Up to then, I had understood from our newspapers that Bolshevik meant a man with a red beard and a knife between his teeth.

— Le Corbusier, 1930
The Radiant City

Manhattan

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The skyscrapers here are much too small.

— Le Corbusier arriving
in Manhattan, 1935 Continue reading

ParisCafeDiscussion1

Comradeship, criticism, and collegiality

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When did “comradely” come to mean “collegial”?

Part of the academicization of Marxism, I’d contend, has involved the gradual replacement of frank, unsparing polemic with chummy, backscratching collegiality. This can be seen in all the gentle nudges and polite asides, with authors practically tripping over themselves in order to point out how “thought-provoking” and “insightful” their critics are. Flattery of one’s peers is now almost as institutionalized as the periodic paradigm shift — the cynical, cyclical revolt against the old guard.

Academics’ egos bruise easily, you see, and they’re all chasing tenure and book deals in an increasingly dried-up market. So they need to be mollified from time to time, reassured of how much they’re enriching the “discourse,” lest they become demoralized and drop out. “Keep at it, son. You’re doing good work. Just a few more asses to kiss and gushing reviews to write; then you’ll have it made.” Ball-washing cajolery has been elevated into a principle, becoming for all intents and purposes de rigueur.

I miss the days when Marx would inveigh against the Young Hegelians (Saint Max, Saint Bruno, the Rabbi Moses Hess) for their “theoretical bubble-blowing,” accusing Malthus of plagiarizing James Steuart and calling Herr Vogt a fat bastard. Or Engels declaring that Herr Dühring’s contributions to theory “haven’t even the weight of a fart.” Radicals had thicker skin and more bile in their bellies back then.

Nor it end with the founders, Marx and Engels. Luxemburg wasn’t mollycoddled at all in the Second International; she was simply more bloodthirsty than the boys, calling for Bernstein’s head and ruling the Polish section with an iron fist. Even Feliks Dzherzhinskii — founder of the Cheka, certainly no shrinking violet — was terrified of her. And he worshipped the ground she walked on.

Don’t you think it’d be great to go to an academic conference where a panelist says she supports her critics “in the same way a rope supports a hanged man,” as Lenin did?

Hintere Reihe- Zweiter von links- Friedrich Pollock, Mitte- Georg Lukács, Zweiter von rechts- Felix Weil. Vordere Reihe- Erster von links- Karl August Wittfogel, Mitte- Karl Korsch, rechts vor ihm Käthe Weil

The science that wasn’t: The orthodox Marxism of the early Frankfurt School and the turn to critical theory

Marco A. Torres
Platypus Review 5
May-July 2008
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NOTE: I’m republishing this piece by Marco Torres from 2008 because it underscores the shift away from revolutionary optimism toward critical pessimism that took place among more perceptive Marxists during the 1920s and 1930s. The Frankfurt School, as it’s come to be known, is exemplary of this turn. Nevertheless, this does not mean they ceased to be Marxists. Rather, they represented an attempt to grasp the failure of revolutionary Marxism using the tools of historical materialism itself.

As the economist Alfred Sohn-Rethel explained, this critical reappraisal “began towards the end of the First World War and in its aftermath, at a time when the German proletarian revolution should have occurred and tragically failed. This period led me into personal contact with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor Adorno and the writings of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse. Strange though it may sound I do not hesitate to say that the new development of Marxist thought which these people represent evolved as the theoretical and ideological superstructure of the revolution that never happened. In it re-echo the thunder of the gun battle for the Marstall in Berlin at Christmas 1918, and the shooting of the Spartacus rising in the following winter. The paradoxical condition of this ideological movement may help to explain its almost exclusive preoccupation with superstructural questions, and the conspicuous lack of concern for the material and economic base that should have been underlying it.”

Enjoy.

AdornoHorkheimerHabermasbyJeremyJShapiro2 (1) Marcuse copy

From their canonization in the 1960s through to their appropriation by postmodernism in the 1980s, the writings of the Frankfurt School have had their Marxian dimension minimized, vulgarized, and ultimately ignored. Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer — the only names of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory’s roster that seem to be remembered today — have instead been characterized as anything from old-timey liberals to mystical eclectics, Left Hegelian hippies to ivory tower elitists. According to the standard narrative, these thinkers abandoned Marxism in the 1940s, when the continued atrocities and political unviability of the Soviet Union turned them into Cold War liberals of varied stripes.

Such narratives, which tend to claim that the deepest insights of these thinkers were accomplished in spite of their Marxism or even in the process of overcoming it, are just plain wrong. From the beginning of Horkheimer’s directorship of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory in 1930 through to Adorno’s death in 1969, the goal of the Frankfurt school was to maintain the critical purchase of a Marxian social critique as it was threatened by the accelerated process of decay that the Left began in the 1920s. A look at the Institute’s early history allows us to see how the necessity of this approach came to be. In the early 1920s, the original members of the Frankfurt Institute — half forgotten names such as Carl Grünberg, Henryk Grossman, and Karl August Wittfogel — were social scientists of an orthodox Marxist conviction. They understood their task as an advancement of the sciences that would prove useful in solving the problems of a Europe-wide transition into socialism, which they saw, if not as inevitable, at least as highly likely. But as fascism reared its head in Germany and throughout Europe, the younger members of the Institute saw the necessity for a different kind of Marxist Scholarship. Beyond accumulating knowledge relevant to an orthodox Marxist line, they felt the need to take the more critical and negative approach that is required for the maintenance of an integral and penetrating understanding of society during a moment of reaction. This could be described as the politically necessary transition from Marxist positive science to critical theory.

1919_Liebknecht+Sparticists bundesarchiv_bild_102-00539_berlin_revolution_standrechtlich_erschossene

After the German worker’s revolution of 1918-1919 had been betrayed and crushed by the Social Democrats (SPD), the early 1920s saw a period of relative stability slowly settle upon Germany. Despite the fact that further attempts by the German Communist Party (KPD) to challenge the SPD’s rule were weak and ineffective, the possibility of Europe-wide socialist revolution continued to be a topic of conversation among Leftist intelligentsia in postwar Germany. This sense of possibility seemed justified: the Soviet Union had succeeded in surviving its civil war and from a distance seemed to be on a path to successful stabilization; the KPD’s membership continued to grow in the permissive atmosphere of the Weimar Republic; and, with the exception of Italy, Fascism did not yet appear to be an immediate threat. In spite of their deep conservatism, the Social Democrats continued to hold up Marxism as their ideology, legitimizing it and thus making it into an open, officially sanctioned field of discussion.

It was in this environment that Felix Weil, a young graduate of the Frankfurt University who, at age 20, had fought with the workers during the revolution of 1919, began to use his great inherited wealth to finance initiatives for Marxist theoretical discussion. Having written his dissertation on “the essence and methods of socialization,” financially supported left-wing artists such as George Grosz and taken part in the social circle around KPD members Klara Zetkin and Paul Frölich, his joking self-description as a “Salon Bolshevik” was not far from the truth. One of the initiatives he financially supported was the First Marxist Workweek [Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche] a retreat at a hotel on the edge of the Thuringian Forest in which more than two dozen Marxist intellectuals, most of them affiliated with the KPD, gathered to discuss the latest works by Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, respectively “Marxism and Philosophy” and the seminal History and Class Consciousness. Among the attendants were Korsch and Lukács themselves, Horkheimer, Zetkin, and economist Friedrich Pollock. As it turned out, thanks to Weil’s efforts, this gathering could retrospectively be seen as the first “seminar” of what would become the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory, since throughout the next decade most of its participants would become affiliated with the Institute in some function or another.

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Wir sehen von links, Max Horkheimer, Maidon Horkheimer, Felix Weil, eine schöne Unbekannte (Lucille?), Friedrich Pollock1d

On the work of Friedrich Pollock

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Jake Bellone, a comrade currently living in Canadian exile, has scanned the early Frankfurt School economist Friedrich Pollock’s 1956 work
 Automation: A Study of Its Social and Economic Consequences. I’ve digitized and uploaded it here for anyone who’s interested. You can download it by clicking on the link in the title above.

As far as I know, this book has been virtually forgotten in terms of the history of economic literature. It’s not the most thrilling read, but it’s a workmanlike survey of a number of studies and publications on the subject of automation. Counter to the prevailing optimism of the period, riding the long postwar boom, Pollock foresaw increasing technological unemployment ahead in the field of industry as automation became further generalized. Here he distinguished full-scale automation from the earlier phenomenon of mechanization, a process well known to political economists since Ricardo.

Pollock’s book has perhaps had a subterranean influence that has generally gone unnoticed. Ernest Mandel, the Belgian Trotskyist economist, cites it repeatedly in his celebrated book on Late Capitalism. An online acquaintance of mine, Elliot Eisenberg, who is close friends with Moishe Postone and studied with the brilliant Soviet Marxist economist Karl H. Niebyl back in 1961, went so far as to claim that “one cannot understand Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization without Pollock’s Automation.” This would seem to accord with Postone’s own estimation of Pollock’s significance:

Pollock’s work in the 1930s provided the implicit political-economic presuppositions of the pessimistic turn in Horkheimer’s theory and the changes in his conception of social critique. More generally, on the basis of an examination of Pollock’s investigations, I shall discuss the intrinsic relation of the political-economic dimension of Critical Theory to its social, political, and epistemological dimensions.

Here Postone mostly has in mind Pollock’s seminal 1941 essay on “State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations,” as well as his consideration of the question “Is National Socialism a New Order?” later that same year. But I see no reason not to extend this observation to the Institute’s work during the 1950s.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno dedicated their jointly-written Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) to Pollock. Now that I think of it, this work was translated and made available just a year after it was first published in German, in 1956, when Horkheimer and Adorno were still virtually unknown in the Anglophone world. (Outside of the few works they wrote in English, that is). Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Pollock is rather coy when it comes to openly expressing his Marxism. He never mentions Marx by name, but talks about “relative surplus population,” fixed vs. circulating capital, and other concepts clearly derived from the critique of classical political economy. Similarly, early members of the Frankfurt School used “critical theory” as a kind of codeword for Marxist theory, both in order to disguise their communist sympathies and to emphasize a critical dimension that had been lost in the dogmatization of DiaMat in Moscow during the 1930s.

What follows is Rolf Wiggerhaus’ brief biographical sketch of Pollock, taken from his monumental study of The Frankfurt School. My only comment is that Wiggerhaus misleadingly suggests that Pollock and Horkheimer came to agree with SDP’s position on organized “state capitalism,” as if Hilferding had anything original to say on the matter. The Bolsheviks would have readily agreed with Hilferding’s remarks — at least prior to 1928, when Stalin combined Preobrazhenskii’s position on collectivization from the Left with Bukharin’s theory of “socialism in one country” from the Right.

Friedrich Pollock

Friedrich Pollock

Rolf Wiggerhaus
The Frankfurt School
Munich, 1986 (1995)
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The frank, limitless enthusiasm which the thirty-two-year-old Friedrich Pollock had for Karl Marx was somewhat artless, although it did have its own appeal. Marx, when he was thirty, had `worked out his philosophical, sociological and political views so clearly that, right to the end of his life, there was never anything he had to retract’, according to Pollock. Marx had “struggled untiringly right up to his death for the proletariat, regardless of obstacles.” This homage to Marx was published in 1926 in a discussion of a pamphlet on Proletarian Socialism [Der proletarische Sozialismus] by Werner Sombart, a former supporter of Marxism and correspondent of Engels. During the 1920s, Sombart had begun to support a “German” form of socialism, and had become an anti-Semite with intellectual links to Oswald Spengler, Johann Plenge, and Othmar Spann. Pollock objected to Sombart’s reference to the phenomenological “intuiting of general essences [Wesensschau],” demanding empirical research instead. He rejected Sombart’s claim that Marx and Engels subscribed to “plebeianism” as a “basic value,” asserting that scientific socialism had the character of a natural science. And he rejected the accusation that materialist dialectics was part of an exclusively proletarian metaphysics of history, mainly by appealing to references in Engels’s Anti-Dühring showing that Marx and Engels had been convinced that dialectics had universal validity.

All of this was characteristic of Pollock. He was born in Freiburg in 1894, and it had originally been intended that he should take over his father’s business, as in Horkheimer’s case. With his indifference towards Judaism and certain conventions — qualities instilled by his upbringing and reinforced by his simple, phlegmatic manner — Pollock made a lasting impression on the sixteen-year-old Horkheimer, and they began a peculiar, but lifelong, friendship. Pollock was less horrified by social injustices than Horkheimer was, but he was also less apprehensive than Horkheimer about committing himself openly to Marxism and communism: when the Munich Soviet Republic was crushed in May 1919, he gave his passport to a Russian who was hoping to escape abroad; the refugee was caught, and Pollock got into trouble with the police. Although Pollock, like the others, studied philosophy, it was only a minor subject alongside his principal interest, economics, in which he took his doctorate in 1923 with a thesis on Marx’s monetary theory. In an article “On Marx’s Monetary Theory” published in 1928 in [Carl] Grünberg’s Archiv, he complained about the “unhappy division between the economic and philosophical elements in Marx’s system.”  But he had a lifelong, philistine contempt for philosophical theory, and held to a pre-Leninist form of Marxist orthodoxy.

At the invitation of David Riazanov, Pollock travelled to the Soviet Union in 1927 to take part in the celebrations on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. One of the results of the visit was his book on Experiments in the Planned Economy in the Soviet Union, 1917-1927, with which he took his Habilitation in 1928. The book was published as the second volume in the Institute’s publications series, the Schriften des Instituts für Sozialforschung, and was written in a style similar to that of Carl Grünberg, the “master of historical realism in the investigation of social existence,” as Max Adler described him in 1932 in the Festschrift published on Grünberg’s seventieth birthday. In the preface to his book, Pollock acknowledged his debt to his “friend, teacher, and father-figure, Professor Carl Grünberg.” The reader was informed in the first sentence of the preface that “a theoretical analysis of the material will follow in a later work,” but this was never published. Pollock described the particularly unfavorable conditions which the Russian revolutionaries had faced at the outset, their tremendous, continuing difficulties, the often glaring mistakes they had made, and their constant changes of direction and frequent reorganizations. In the penultimate and longest chapter of the book, `The State Planning Commission [Gosplan] and its Work,” he used all of this to show how plans had been formulated in an absurdly inadequate way from the start, and had only gradually become more realistic. The book’s style was soberly informative, but it nevertheless clearly indicated the sympathy, patience, fascination, and even admiration which Pollock had for the “heroes and martyrs of the planned economy” and their tireless efforts to construct “a complete whole” out of various different plans, one which would, “at its fullest stage of development, consciously and totally incorporate the entire economic process” and gradually guarantee “the conscious structuring of the entire economic process and all of its parts.”

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LEF № 3 (1923)

LEF — the Soviet “left front” of art (1923-1930)

 

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Introduction excerpted from Sybil Gordon Kantor’s recent book on Alfred H. Barr and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art (2002).

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Alfred Barr, future founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, took a trip to Russia as part of his modernist tour of Europe in 1928. According to the architect Philip Johnson, “the Constructivists were on his mind all the time. Malevich was to him, and later to me, the greatest artist of the period. And you see, the Constructivists were cross disciplinary, and I’m sure that influenced Alfred Barr, both that and the Bauhaus.”

Three kinds of documents survive to record the bold perspective Barr was framing for modernism: his journal, the letters he wrote during his stay, and the articles he wrote (substantiated by the journal and letters). The significant differences between the articles and the more subjective journal and letters were the latter’s tone of wonder and breathless, unabashed enthusiasm for the revolutionary spirit of the Russians. “Apparently there is no place where talent of an artistic or literary sort is so carefully nurtured as in Moscow…We’d rather be here than any place on earth.” As he made whirlwind visits around the USSR, he wrote:

We feel as if this were the most important place in the world for us to be. Such abundance, so much to see: people, theaters, films, churches, pictures, music and only a month to do it in for we must attempt Leningrad and perhaps Kiev. It is impossible to describe the feeling of exhilaration; perhaps it is the air (after Berlin); perhaps the cordiality of our new friends, perhaps the extraordinary spirit of forward-looking, the gay hopefulness, of the Russians, their awareness that Russia has at least a century of greatness before her, that she will wax while France and England wane.

Many people were helpful as Barr and Abbott made their way through the cornucopia of culture in Moscow: from Cambridge, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, who was doing research on the Russian theater, stayed at their hotel and at times accompanied the two young students; Diego Rivera, “the famous Mexican painter,” showed Barr a complete set of his Mexico City frescoes and Barr bought a watercolor from him. Barr wrote to Sachs that he thought “a friend of yours” (Dana) and May O’Callahan would be most helpful in introducing him and Abbott to the Russian cultural set.

Two days after Barr arrived, O’Callahan took him to visit Sergei Tretiakov, a member of the futurist movement and the founder of the magazine Lef 1923–1925 and Novyi Lef 1927–1928, who lived in an apartment in the Dom Gosstrakh building, an example by Moisei Ginzburg of the new constructivist architecture — ”an apartment house built in the severely functional style of Gropius and Le Corbusier.” Ginzburg, part of the group OSA (Society of Contemporary Architects), which he helped found, developed constructivist architecture, “which functionally arises from the purpose of a given building, its material construction and production conditions, answering the specific task and promoting the socialist construction of the country.” Barr wrote that Ginzburg was a “brilliant young architect” who had written “an interesting book on the theory of architecture (illustrations are good)…Though his work lacks the boldness of Lissitzky or Tatlin, it is certainly more concerned with actual problems.” Clarifying his estimation of Ginzburg’s apartment building, Barr remarked that “only the superficials are modern, for the plumbing, heating, etc. are technically very crude and cheap, a comedy of the strong modern inclination without any technical tradition to satisfy it.” Writing in his diary, Abbott concurred:

Their apartment is in one of the new apartment houses which, in its architecture comes quite directly from the prevalent International Style in Europe, that is, it is a combination of Bauhaus and certain elements of the French manner as represented by Le Corbusier and Lurçat, or in this country by Neutra…The apartment house of the Tretiakovs is excellent as architecture but poor as a piece of construction. The Russian is not used to the materials of modern building. Cement and steel confuse him…in the medium of modern construction he shows an absolute lack of feeling. Poor joints, badly matched sections, and in general a sloppiness marks much of the newer work, the design for which is nevertheless, frequently concise and in the main, excellent.

Barr exchanged information with Ginzburg, who gave him back numbers of Soviet magazines of contemporary architecture. Barr, in turn, gave him the addresses of Peter Smith and Henry-Russell Hitchcock as sources for articles on American architecture. He told Ginzburg that American architects were “reactionary,” to which Ginzburg’s wife’s responded: “Russian architects and American engineers should combine.”

At Tretiakov’s place Barr met members of the LEF, a loosely banded group of constructivist artists. Heavily involved with this group on his visit to Moscow, Barr wrote an article about them that mentioned Tretiakov, Aleskandr Rodchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova, and Vladimir Maiakovskii, as well as two articles about their most celebrated member, Sergei Eisenstein. Both Tretyakov and Rodchenko wanted to be régisseurs and Barr noted that “to distort Pater, all the arts in Russia, including music, tend constantly toward the condition of the cinema.” Barr recognized that both he and this group were attracted to the same modes of art — architecture and film — but for very different reasons. “Their spirit,” he said, “is rational, materialistic, their program aggressively utilitarian. They despise the word aesthetic, they shun the bohemian implications of the word ‘artistic.’ For them, theoretically, romantic individualism is abhorrent. They are communists.” Barr’s political responses were characteristically liberal, their source an innate humaneness rather than an ideological stance. His notion of “purity” as a criterion of a modern aesthetic led him to proclaim Eisenstein, the Russian Communist régisseur — the artist who embodied the metaphor of the machine for Barr — as the artistic genius of the twentieth century.

What follows below is Barr’s dispatch on the LEF, first published in the international modernist mag transition in 1928. Following that are several high-quality PDF journal scans and images from the publication LEF, all of which can be downloaded.

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The LEF and Soviet art

Alfred Barr
transition № 14
Autumn 1928

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The word LEF is formed from two Russian words meaning left front.

In Russia the left front is no longer revolutionary. The Third International is now inconspicuous, its program for the time being abandoned. Most of the strenuous effort is concentrated upon political stabilization and the economic organization of that vast and disparate sixth part of the world, the Soviet Union.

The LEF is a group of individuals who would be described by any but themselves as artists, literary, dramatic, pictorial, critical, cinematographic. Their spirit is rational, materialistic; their program aggressively utilitarian. They despise the word aesthetic, and shun the bohemian implications of the word artistic.” For them, theoretically, romantic individualism is abhorrent. They are communists. Among the group are the poets [Vladimir] Maiakovskii and [Nikolai] Aseev, the scientific journalist [Sergei] Tretiakov, the kino regisseur [Sergei] Eisenstein, the critics [Osip] Brik and [Viktor] Shklovskii, and the artists [Varvara] Stepanova and [Aleksandr] Rodchenko (who work in many mediums). [Vsevolod] Meierkhol’d is also affiliated with, if not actually a member of, the LEF.

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Tretiakov incarnates more completely than any other the ideal of the group. His personal appearance is significant. He is very tall, clad in khaki shirt and whipcord riding breeches with leather puttees. Through his horn-rimmed spectacles his eyes are owl-like. His face and scalp are clean shaven. He lives in an apartment house built in the severely functional style of Gropius and Le Corbusier. His study is filled with books and periodicals on China, modern  architecture, and the cinema. In this laboratory atmosphere, behind this mask of what seems ostentatious efficiency, there is profound seriousness and very real sensibility.

Tretiakov was once a futurist poet. For a period after the revolution he was professor of Russian literature in Beijing. In addition to his poetry he has written a very remarkable play — Roar, China! — which has been running in Meierkhol’d’s theatre for two years with the greatest success. Roar, China! is being translated for the Piskator theater in Berlin and will doubtless be produced if [Oskar] Piskator survives his recent bankruptcy. The play, which is, of course, propaganda, shows the peaceful sobriety of the Chinese coolie outraged by truculent Anglo-American “big business”-cum-gunboat. Unfortunately, the Meierkhol’d production of the play considerably weakens its dramatic force by introducing a childish caricature of the English antagonists who are represented as idiots in whom it is impossible to believe. Tretiakov’s intention was otherwise. Continue reading

'Piet Mondrian, painter, New York 1942

Mondrian, and on and on

Obituary of Mondrian

Clement Greenberg
The Nation, NYC
March 4, 1944
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Piet Mondrian, the great Dutch painter, died in New York on February 1 at the age of seventy-one. He came to this country two years ago from London, where he had been living since 1939, after twenty years spent in France.

Mondrian was the only artist to carry to their ultimate and inevitable conclusions those basic tendencies of recent Western painting which cubism defined and isolated. His art has influenced design and architecture more immediately than painting but remains easel painting nevertheless, with all the concentrated force and drama the form requires. At the same time it designates the farthest limit of easel painting. Those whose point of departure is where Mondrian left off will no longer be easel painters. Excluding everything but flat, unmodulated areas of primary color and rectilinear and rectangular forms, his art returns painting to the mural — the mural as a living, modern form, to the archaeological reconstruction of Puvis de Chavannes, [Diego] Rivera, and the WPA projects. I am not sure whether Mondrian himself recognized it, but the final intention of his work is to expand painting into the décor of the manmade world — what of it we see, move in, and handle. This means imposing a style on industry, and thus adumbrates the most ambitious program a single art has ever ventured upon.

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Mondrian’s own explicit intentions were somewhat different. There is no need to take his metaphysics on its own terms, but it certainly helps us to understand the creation of his masterpieces. He said that his art was concerned with mans deliverance from “time and subjective vision which veil the true reality.” — I quote from his essay “Toward the True Vision of Reality”:

Plastic art affirms that equilibrium can only be established through the balance of unequal but equivalent oppositions. The clarification of equilibrium through plastic art is of great importance for humanity. It reveals that although human life in time is doomed to disequilibrium, notwithstanding this, it is based on equilibrium…If we cannot free ourselves, we can free our vision.

Mondrian’s pictures attempt to balance unequal forces: for example, one area, smaller than another, is made equivalent by shape and spatial relations. Further:

At the moment, there is no need for art to create a reality of imagination based on appearances, events, or traditions. Art should not follow the intuitions relating to our life in time, but only those intuitions relating to true reality.

In other words, the vision of space granted by plastic art is a refuge from the tragic vicissitudes of time. Abstract painting and sculpture are set over against music, the abstract art of time in which we take refuge from the resistance of space.

Mondrian’s painting, however, takes its place beside the greatest art through virtues not involved in his metaphysics. His pictures, with their white grounds, straight black lines, and opposed rectangles of pure color, are no longer windows in the wall but islands radiating clarity, harmony, and grandeur — passion mastered and cooled, a difficult struggle resolved, unity imposed on diversity. Space outside them is transformed by their presence. Continue reading

The Coming Insurrection

Formaldehyde embalming the corpse: Looking back at The Coming Insurrection

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Right now the insurrectionary ultraleft is abuzz at the release of a new document by the so-called “Invisible Committee,” entitled A Nous Amis [To Our Friends]. For now it’s only available in French, but a translation is expected to appear under the Semiotext(e) brand as early as January 2015. I’ll probably read it once it comes out. Apropos its publication, however, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the enthusiasm and criticism generated by the group’s 2009 title, The Coming Insurrection.

Let’s start with the enthusiasm. John Cunningham wrote an appreciative piece over at Mute that explains the history and context behind the Invisible Committee’s weirdly anti-social politics — their various perversions and inversions. Cunningham situates them within the emerging “communization” milieu (an appellation that seems to have stuck, given their inclusion in Benjamin Noys’ collection Communization and Its Discontents). Predictably, Geoff Bailey of the International Socialist Review, a Cliffite theory rag, took a much more negative stance in his article “Searching for the New, Resurrecting the Old.”  Bailey sees The Coming Insurrection as tragically out of touch with the return of familiar patterns, conditions conducive to normal soft-Trot recruitment drives: “[T]he authors have overlooked some of the very real changes — the globalization of production, the expansion of access to communication technology, and the onset of new a systemic crisis — that open up new possibilities for rebuilding a revolutionary movement, even as they present new challenges.”

The following article by my friend Ashley Weger takes a different path. Weger, unlike Bailey, readily acknowledges the deep discontinuity of the present with the revolutionary movements of the past. Unlike Cunningham, however, she does not find the Invisible Committee’s reworking of traditional problematics all that promising. Some might dismiss Weger’s simply because it first ran in the Platypus Review, but such prejudices are silly. (I’m not even sure whether Platypus is still publishing; their last issue was the combined August-September issue, appeared late, and only had one mammoth panel transcript. October has no new issue yet, unsurprising considering the pitiful turnout at their inaugural European convention and ongoing boycott of their events).

A couple of Weger’s allusions to pop culture are a bit too clever or cute for my taste, but other lines are devastating. Regardless, this is a great piece.

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The coming insurrection? A reflection on resistance at the Toronto G20

Ashley Weger
Platypus Review 27
September 1, 2010

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One of the results of these recent movements is the understanding that henceforth a real demonstration has to be “wild,” not declared in advance to the police. Having the choice of terrain, we can, like the Black Bloc of Genoa in 2001, bypass the red zones and avoid direct confrontation. By choosing our own trajectory, we can lead the cops, including unionist and pacifist ones, rather than being herded by them. In Genoa we saw a thousand determined people push back entire buses full of Caribinieri, then set their vehicles on fire. The important thing is not to be better armed but to take the initiative. Courage is nothing, confidence in your own courage is everything.[1]

— The Invisible Committee,
The Coming Insurrection

These few sentences prescribe the Invisible Committee’s advice for today’s budding radical. Concurrently serving as agitator and guidance counselor, their pamphlet’s understanding of the path towards overcoming capitalism is woven through with the demand to abandon the fear and inhibition taming one’s revolutionary, insurrectionary potential. As a theoretical justification for tactics of subversion, violence, and destruction in the name of anti-capitalism, The Coming Insurrection was without a doubt in the minds, hearts, and backpacks of the black-clad protesters who converged on, collided with, and combusted cop cars in protest of the Toronto G20 Summit in June [2010]. Perhaps less apparent is the manner in which the emphasis on the propaganda of the deed, à la the insurrectionists and those participating in Black Bloc actions, is hardly restricted to the usual, sable-appareled suspects. Rather, this lust for radical change rooted in “real struggle” represents the culture of the contemporary anti-capitalist Left en masse, and is reflective of a politics whose fervent affirmation of action expresses a non-critical, reified understanding of society.

Despite seemingly great differences between “mainstream” protest and “extremist” tactics, Black Bloc methods and the theory of the insurrectionists are in reality only more acute expressions of a political outlook shared by the contemporary activist Left as a whole: a naïve, ahistorical asseveration of action, despite the Left’s continued downward descent into the abyss of meaninglessness. Marx once described the predicament of emancipation being fettered by a gulf between thought and action, famously concluding that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The mantra of the 21st century left seems to have amended this evaluation, posing that the point is to resist it. This fixation on resistance, contrary to popular imagination, does not reveal the Left’s strength, but rather its consensual degradation into pure symbolism. The actions, antics, and aftermath of the G20 protests underscore the current crisis of the Left: not a rain of rubber bullets aimed at it, but the perverse, perennial celebration of its own comatose state.

Global gatherings of the G20 have been celebrated for bringing together all flavors of left activism: religious social justice types pleading for peace, eco-warriors distraught over the destruction of Mother Earth, dozens of infinitesimal sectarian groups ironically endorsing the power of the masses, Fosteresque entryist union organizers championing any cause that gives their local more street cred, anarchists equipped with tear-gas-ready bandanas, hoards of protestors decked out in “Fuck the G20” shirts and marching to chants of equal chutzpah, and enough Tibetan flags to make one think he or she is jamming at a Beastie Boys concert circa 1994. The uncomfortable, odd couple dynamic of this conglomeration is a decades-long tradition, for these unlikely comrades share the streets time and time again, as they did in 1999 while battling in Seattle and in the host of protests against corporate criminals, global hegemony, and world capital that populate the landscape of the Left, post-collapse. Protest, it has been decided, is the least common denominator amongst what constitutes itself as the Left today, the arena in which divides are bridged in the name of unity against the enemy of all.

While constantly conceptualized as unprecedented, this form of politics is in reality formulaic, and the storyline of the G20 in Toronto has only reproduced the equation. Thousands gather for state-sanctioned, peaceful demonstrations seeking to inform those in power what democracy looks and sounds like — apparently, like hundreds of people mechanically shouting in unison. As the demonstration unfurls, a small militant population destroys property as a gesture of their “autonomy” and fearlessness to resist the intimidating batons and tear gas of police officers outfitted in riot gear. This is followed by intense retaliation from the police officers, chiefly against persons who committed no crime. Indeed, the G20 resulted in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. To the embarrassment of police officers and the city of Toronto, nearly all these arrests and detainments, whether the result of the frenzy of the moment or an intentional abuse of power, were without merit. Continue reading

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A. Laptev, We build from cardboard [Строим из картона] (1932)

Rad Borislavov

One of the lofty goals of Communist Party and education officials was to create “harmonious human beings” by instilling Soviet morals and work habits into the minds of young children. While literacy rates in the first decade after the October Revolution were remarkably low, reading was soon to become the single most important way of socializing and educating children in the Soviet Union. An important but lesser-known aspect of Soviet 1930s education involved do-it-yourself books. These were conceived as an interactive medium that invited children not only to enjoy reading, absorb information and reflect, but also to develop practical skills needed for the construction of a Communist society.

Compared to other children’s books, do-it-yourself books often encouraged young children to view themselves as responsible adults and engaged citizens. Their topics were numerous and wide-ranging and yet overwhelmingly geared toward the achievement of practical goals at hand and the learning of useful skills for the future. Their themes range from the application of technology in the context of Stalinist industrialization, military preparedness, the importance of voting, and understanding how machines work, to arithmetic, drawing, printing, and making figures of cardboard and wood. Published during the First Five-Year Plan, these books were clearly unified by the particular urgency attributed to the cultivation of practical technical skills and knowledge during that period of accelerated industrialization.

Do-it-yourself books are invariably multicolored, engaging and include easy and simple instructions. They often start with a list of required materials and tools and end with an exhortation to their young readers to build on what they have already learned. Some of the books have a simple plot with characters that walk the reader through the steps of assembling an object. Most lack a plot but sometimes go well beyond the construction of toys. For example, Kak my delali Avroru [How We Made the Cruiser Aurora] asks children to model various objects associated with the historic events on the eve of the October Revolution and then to use these toys and re-enact them in groups. These re-enactments hearken back to the massive theatrical commemorative events of the October Revolution organized on a huge scale during the early 1920s by avant-garde theater directors. Continue reading

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Chronopolis

J.G. Ballard
New Worlds
August 1960
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His trial had been fixed for the next day. Exactly when, of course, neither Newman nor anyone else knew. Probably it would be during the afternoon, when the principals concerned — judge, jury, and prosecutor — managed to converge on the same courtroom at the same time. With luck his defense attorney might also appear at the right moment, though the case was such an open and shut one that Newman hardly expected him to bother — besides, transport to and from the old penal complex was notoriously difficult, involved endless waiting in the grimy depot below the prison walls.

Newman had passed the time usefully. Luckily, his cell faced south and sunlight traversed it for most of the day. He divided its arc into ten equal segments, the effective daylight hours, marking the intervals with a wedge of mortar prized from the window ledge. Each segment he further subdivided into twelve smaller units.

Immediately he had a working timepiece, accurate to within virtually a minute (the final subdivision into fifths he made mentally). The sweep of white notches, curving down one wall, across the floor and metal bedstead, and up the other wall, would have been recognizable to anyone who stood with his back to the window, but no one ever did. Anyway, the guards were too stupid to understand, and the sundial had given Newman a tremendous advantage over them. Most of the time, when he wasn’t recalibrating the dial, he would press against the grille, keeping an eye on the orderly room.

“Brocken!” he would shout at 7:15 as the shadow line hit the first interval. “Morning inspection! On your feet, man!” The sergeant would come stumbling out of his bunk in a sweat, rising the other warders as the reveille bell split the air.

Later, Newman sang out the other events on the daily roster: roll call, cell fatigues, breakfast, exercise, and so on around to the evening roll just before dusk. Brocken regularly won the block merit for the best-run cell deck and he relied on Newman to program the day for him, anticipate the next item on the roster, and warn him if anything went on for too long-in some of the other blocks fatigues were usually over in three minutes while breakfast or exercise could go on for hours, none of the warders knowing when to stop, the prisoners insisting that they had only just begun.

Brocken never inquired how Newman organized everything so exactly; once or twice a week, when it rained or was overcast, Newman would be strangely silent, and the resulting confusion reminded the sergeant forcefully of the merits of cooperation. Newman was kept in cell privileges and all the cigarettes he needed. It was a shame that a date for the trial had finally been named. Newman, too, was sorry. Most of his research so far had been inconclusive. Primarily his problem was that, given a northward-facing cell for the bulk of his sentence, the task of estimating the time might become impossible. The inclination of the shadows in the exercise yards or across the towers and walls provided too blunt a reading. Calibration would have to be visual; an optical instrument would soon be discovered.

What he needed was an internal timepiece, an unconsciously operating psychic mechanism regulated, say, by his pulse or respiratory rhythms. He had tried to train his time sense, running an elaborate series of tests to estimate its minimum in-built error, and this had been disappointingly large. The chances of conditioning an accurate reflex seemed slim.

However, unless he could tell the exact time at any given moment, he knew he would go mad.

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His obsession, which now faced him with a charge of murder, had revealed itself innocently enough.

As a child, like all children, he had noticed the occasional ancient clock tower, bearing the same white circle with its twelve intervals. In the seedier areas of the city the round characteristic dials often hung over cheap jewelry stores, rusting and derelict.

“Just signs,” his mother explained. “They don’t mean anything, like stars or rings. “

Pointless embellishment, he had thought.

Once, in an old furniture shop, they ha d seen a clock with hands, upside down in a box full of fire irons and miscellaneous rubbish. Continue reading