Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

On old and new
in modern times


Image: Umberto Boccioni,
Charge of the Lancers (1913)


What follows are just a few quotations I’ve assembled from various authors on the peculiar way time operates in modern society, or “modernity” considered as the temporal index of capitalism. They’re here presented more or less in fragmentary outline, without much commentary or exegesis. Nevertheless, I feel like they all revolve around a common theme, and that they have a certain cumulative effect when grouped together. Please pardon me, however, if they don’t possess the kind of self-evidence I impute to them. It may just be me.

In January 1849, only six months after “the first great battle was fought between the two classes that split modern society” — that is, the proletariat and bourgeoisie — just blocks from his apartment, the Parisian journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr unwittingly stumbled upon the temporality that characterizes the capitalist mode of production in a casual quip:

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, epigram (1849)

Ten years later, the French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire, another participant in the 1848 revolutions, defined modernity along its more variable axis:

By “modernity” I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable… This transitory, fugitive element, whose  metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with.

Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1859)

But the very ephemerality of modern society masks a deeper constancy. Theodor Adorno explained this in a seldom-read essay from 1944:

From the most recent form of injustice, a steady light reflects back on history as a whole. Only in this way can theory enable us to use the full weight of history to gain an insight into the present without succumbing in resignation to the burden of the past. Members of the bourgeoisie and their supporters have been loud in their praise of Marxism on account of its dynamism in which they detect the same industrious mimicry of history that characterizes their own efforts. According to the appreciative comments of Ernst Troeltsch in his book on historicism, Marxist dialectic has “preserved its constructive power and its ability to adapt to the fundamental mobility of the real.” This praise of the constructive ability to adapt arouses our distrust of that fundamental mobility. Dynamism is merely one side of dialectic: it is the side preferred by the belief in practicality, masterful action, the indefatigable “can-do” attitude, because constant change is the best way to conceal the old untruth.

The other, less popular aspect of dialectic is its static side. The self-movement of the concept, the conception of history as a syllogism, as it is to be found in Hegel’s philosophy, is no developmental doctrine. It was only turned into one by the collusive misunderstanding of the humanities. The law that, according to the Hegelian dialectic, governs the restlessly destructive unfolding of the ever-new consists in the fact that at every moment the ever-new is also the old lying close at hand. The new does not add itself to the old but remains the old in distress, in its hour of need, as it becomes topical as an immanent contradiction through its act of reflection, its indispensable confrontation with the universal in the old.

Theodor Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory” (1944)

Henri Lefebvre took up some of the same issues raised by Baudelaire in a lecture he delivered in 1959, setting “modernity” in specific relation to revolution. Or rather, to “thwarted revolution”:

[M]odernity is like a shell to hide the absence of praxis in the Marxist sense, and its failure…Modernity reveals this lack. Modernity will be the shadow cast on bourgeois society by the thwarted possibility of revolution, a parody of revolution…Like the ghost of the Revolution which never happened over here [the West], like the ghost of the Revolution which was never completed over there [the East], modernity is in permanent crisis. It is riven with contradictions, and in the absence of the radically revolutionary negativity which — according to the initial Marxist project — would have transformed life, these contradictions are wreaking havoc.

Henri Lefebvre, “What is Modernity?” (1959)

Later, in his subsequent book, Survival of Capitalism, Lefebvre highlighted both the linear and cyclical aspects of capitalist temporality, which might be roughly equated with the dynamic and static sides of the dialectic discussed by Adorno:

The problem of the relations of production and of their reproduction coincides neither with Marx’s “reproduction of the means of production” (labor power, the instruments of labor), nor with his “enlarged reproduction” (growth of production). For Marx, of course, the reproduction of the means of production and the continuity of material production do not take place without the reproduction of social relations, any more than life itself takes place without the repetition of everyday motions and actions. They are inseparable aspects of a process which simultaneously includes the linear and the cyclical: namely, chains of cause and effect (linearities) as well as results which re-create their own conditions (cycles).

Henri Lefebvre, Survival of Capitalism (1973)

Even more explicitly, a few pages later, Lefebvre makes an argument that is almost identical to Adorno’s in its thrust, though he again specifies the relationship as belonging to “modernity”:

The concept and theory of reproduction brings out one of the most prominent but least noticed features of “modernity”, which is the prevalence of repetition in all spheres. This poor little world of wealth is condemned not only to reproduce in order to reproduce itself, together with its constitutive relations, but also to present what is repeated as new, and as all the more new (neo) the more archaic it actually is.

Underneath its pretended and pretentious newness, modernity conceals the tedium of the repetitive, its self-satisfied cud-chewing and regurgitation, the redundancy which would have us believe in the intelligibility of this world. The redundant brilliance and the appearance of newness in everyday cultural repetition conceals total reproduction. Conversely, the reproduction of the old in the modern conceals the current society which is renewing and re-producing itself

Henri Lefebvre, Survival of Capitalism (1973)

And here are my own thoughts on the matter, from an unpublished essay that was set to be released by Theory & Event, but which seems to have been pulled for reasons of my former membership in the Platypus Affiliated Society:

[T]he present (at least, the present of the last two hundred or so years) is never fully present. It’s always getting ahead of itself, lunging headlong into the future, outstripping every prognosis and expectation. But no sooner has its velocity increased than it finds itself right back where it started. Just as swiftly as the present speeds itself up, it feels the ground beneath it begin to shift: a cyclolinear running in place, as it were. The ceaseless proliferation of the new now presents itself as the eternal return of the same old, same old. Novelty today has become quotidian, if not wholly antique. It should thus hardly come as a shock that Marxian theorists like Moishe Postone have described a peculiar “treadmill effect” that occurs under capitalism. History of late may be going nowhere, but it’s going nowhere faster.

If anybody knows of a journal or periodical that might be interested in publishing this piece, please let me know.

5 thoughts on “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

  1. Il faut être absolument moderne, Saisons d’enfer. Rimbaud.

    Without being rude I would have thought you knew that one.

  2. The problem with Lefebvre’s quotes become evident when place alongside Adorno’s, which makes clear that the “new is the old in *distress*,” that is, it makes clear that capital’s own spatialized temporality also create the conditions for its abolition. Lefebvre isn’t a particularly dialectical thinker, and thus I think Adorno’s point is much better, and ultimately more Marxist.

    Despicable theorists like Jameson – who has made a career out of stealing, and misunderstanding, Adorno’s ideas, while simultaneously denying Adorno’s relevance no less! – such theorists miss the dialectical subtlety of arguments like Adorno’s or Postone’s. They’ll moan about the ‘loss of historical consciousness,’ but they won’t recognize the possibilities that develop immanently alongside such loss. This is the result of a basic failure to understand the Marxist tradition at all.

  3. Pingback: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose | Research Material

  4. Pingback: The missing category of totality | The Charnel-House

Leave a Reply