“Identity” — the bane of the contemporary Left

From a brief exchange

The following is taken from a recent exchange that took place on Facebook between Michael Rectenwald and myself, and constitutes a reflection on the baleful effect of “identity politics” on contemporary left-wing movements. In a subsequent post, I’ll further specify what “identity” means in this context, because the term “identitarian” as used by Michael, me, and for example Adolph Reed is not identical to the term “identitarian” as used by Theodor Adorno. Both uses are valid, I will contend, but they address different problems.

Michael Rectenwald

Identity is the bane of the contemporary Left. Should the forces of revolution rise up tomorrow, “leftists” will spot-check them, making sure they are comprised of the “right” identity groups. If they are not properly composed, the Left will call off the revolution, suggesting that more “marginalized” people need to be involved in the leadership, in speaking roles, and so on. It wouldn’t matter that the revolution would’ve benefited everyone, made life bearable and indeed even exhilarating for the entirety of the marginalized, inclusive of all the working class, the overwhelming majority of the social order.

Carole Brémaud, Le ruban blanc  (54 x 72 cm, acrylique)

Carole Brémaud, Le ruban blanc (54 x 72 cm, acrylic)

Nothing impresses the Left unless all of the proper identitarian symbolics are observed and lip-service is paid. The Left today does not offer universal human emancipation. All it offers is tokenism, and merely linguistic emancipation for token groups. Anything that promises more — the Left will check, stop-and-frisk, and put an end to. Continue reading


The tragic failure of Adorno’s emancipatory modernism

Bret Schneider
Platypus Review 21
March 1, 2010

Book review:
Theodor Adorno
Philosophy of New Music (1947)

Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor.

University of Minnesota Press.
Minneapolis, MN: 2006..

The new translation and republication of Theodor Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music is a further clarification of modernism, necessitated by the latest discontents with postmodernism’s vulgarization, which keeps it at a fictitious distance. Perhaps as his remedy for the most fragmented part of the whole of the arts, namely music, translator Robert Hullot-Kentor has in recent years been steadily reintroducing Adorno’s aesthetic philosophy to English readers.[1] Philosophy of New Music continues this process, further introducing readers to Adorno’s complex aesthetic theory, also elaborated recently in Current of Music, which embodies Adorno’s aesthetic hopes for the early emergence of radio transmission. Republishing Philosophy of New Music serves the purpose of clarifying a nexus of art history where the relationship between aesthetics and theory could have been drastically reformulated.

Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), whose works Adorno considers at length in Philosophy of New Music.

Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951), whose
works Adorno considers at length in Philosophy of New Music

Philosophy of New Music is one of Adorno’s more obscure, niche analyses. Split into two sections comprising intricate dissections of Schönberg and Stravinsky, it is tighter and less ambitious than Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-written with Max Horkheimer around the same time. However, New Music can be understood as Dialectic’s complement, its object being entangled with that of the culture industry critiqued generally in the more famous volume from the same period. Operating in an inverse way, Philosophy of New Music seeks to exacerbate and expose the same symptoms from within modernist music itself. American readers may have a difficult entry into the text, not only because the writing styles itself on Schönberg’s esoteric manner of composition, but also because of Adorno’s object of critique, the historical complications provoking the European modernist avant-garde. The text pays strict attention to Schönberg’s music technique, while delving into historical comparisons to previous composers like Richard Wagner and the regressive, constrictive trajectory implied by their music styles. The volume also incorporates some of Adorno’s most sustained ruminations on the changed significance of the musical “material,” one of Adorno’s most pivotal and least understood concepts for approaching new music as a response to rapidly changing social conditions. As a concept, it seeks to articulate possibilities emanating from the split in idealization and materialization in art — possibilities we now identify as reaching a climax with the music of the mid-century avant-garde that Adorno anticipated. Continue reading

Peter Brueghel, Adulatori

Deleuzeans of grandeur

Image: Pieter Brueghel
“The Flatterers” (1592)

Earlier today, I tried to make my way through this rather long, theory-heavy Facebook thread. It popped up on my feed and some of the first few comments seemed pretty interesting. You know: it concerned concepts and authors like totality, status quo ante, the proletariat, Jameson. Figured I could maybe dig some of the Deleuze and communization stuff, even if I agreed with it less. Then all of a sudden all these theoretical accretions and academic encrustations began to glom onto the original topics under discussion at this crazy, exponential rate — sometimes as backstory or context, but more often as just syncretistic add-ons and meaningless whirligigs, an intellectually promiscuous process of addition, lunatical topsy-turvydom, etc.

Maybe I just didn’t know enough of these theories or theorists, but I don’t think that’s it. Really, I’m not anti-theory at all; I’m good at it. I have a lot more patience for dense theoretical discourse than many people I know. (That much should be obvious to anyone who reads or even glances passingly through this blog). But there’s some massive leveling our generation needs to do. Most of what’s been written recently or being written right now needs to be mercilessly torn down, without remorse or concern about hurt feelings. The elbow-rubbing and chummy collegiality needs to go. We must separate the wheat from the chaff, the Hearts—Stars—Clovers—Blue-Moons from the ordinary cereal. Honestly, we’re far too easily impressed with ourselves and each other. Most of what we produce is total garbage, and we should have no problem owning up to that. No more compliments or gentle “critiques” that just mildly “complicate” or “problematize” whatever bullshit we’re on about lately. Could be way off but who knows.

Anyway, I communicated these sentiments more or less exactly as I just presented them here to the posters in this thread. It was probably ill-advised decision to do so, bound to piss off everyone involved. People tend to get really touchy and insecure whenever their intellectual credentials are challenged. Of course, I wasn’t looking to call anyone out or target anybody in particular, though I could have, but leave things at this fairly generalized level. Still, most in the thread had enough of a sense of humor about themselves to move on quickly and not take it very personally. Except for one person: Louis-Georges Schwartz. Continue reading

George Tooker_Landscape with Figures_tooker

Alienation, reification, and the fetish form: Traces of the Hegelian legacy in Marx and Marxism

Everyone remembers Althusser’s numerous objections to the overemphasis placed on the concept of “alienation” amongst Marxists, and in general the fascination with the young, “humanistic” Marx at the expense of the old, “scientific” Marx. What is less often remembered, however, is that even many who stressed the Hegelian underpinnings of Marxism had grown tired of the all the talk of “alienation” by the 1960s. In his Introduction to Sociology lecture series delivered in 1961, no less a dialectician than Theodor Adorno remarked:

One hears much talk about the concept of alienation — so much that I myself have put a kind of moratorium on it, as I believe that the emphasis it places on a spiritual feeling of strangeness and isolation conceals something that is really founded on material conditions. (Introduction to Sociology, pg. 3).

Since the word “alienation” is used ad nauseum today, I try to dispense with it as far as I can. Nevertheless, it does impinge on the subject under discussion, and I shall mention it at least as a general heading for what I mean. We live within a totality which binds people together only by virtue of their alienation from each other. (Ibid., pg. 43)

Clearly, Adorno is not objecting to the concept of alienation as such, but rather a pernicious effect resulting from its overuse. Two years later, he linked this tendentious usage of the young Marx’s terminology to a rekindled communitarianism enchanted by the memory of “community” [Gemeinschaft] and distraught over the reality of “society” [Gesellschaft]. In one of his lectures on History and Freedom (1963), he maintained:

Infected by an irrational cult of community, the term “alienation” has recently become fashionable in both East and West, thanks to the veneration of the young Marx at the expense of the old one, and thanks to the regression of objective dialectics to anthropology. This term takes an ambivalent view of a repressive society; it is as ambivalent as genuine suffering under the rule of alienation itself. (History and Freedom, pg. 265)

As has already been mentioned above, the French Marxist Louis Althusser was likewise exhausted with the jargon of “alienation” being bandied about in the universities. Unlike Adorno, however, this led him to reject the entire philosophical apparatus of the young Marx root and branch. Furthermore, adopting the rather hazy distinction made by the humanist Marxists — he had in mind here Jean-Paul Sartre, Erich Fromm, and Roger Garaudy rather than Raya Dunayevskaya — Althusser posited a decisive, unequivocal “epistemic break” between the young Marx and the old Marx supposedly taking place around 1845. (Though, for the curious, Dunayevskaya had this to say about Althusser: “Althusser really goes backward. Compared to him, [Eduard] Bernstein was practically a revolutionary. Althusser wants to ‘drive Hegel back into the night’.”)

George Tooker, Lunch

Rejecting the earlier category of “alienation,” Althusser now railed against the theory of “reification” proposed by Marxist Hegelians influenced by Georg Lukács and Isaak Rubin during the 1920s. Continue reading

marx_3 (1)

Alienation in Karl Marx’s early writing

Daniel Lopez

[Daniel Lopez’s essay on “Alienation in Karl Marx’s early writing” was recently republished on Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. In my opinion, it’s an excellent and fairly self-explanatory piece. As such, it doesn’t require much commentary on my end. Still, I’d like to note just a few things about the essay as well as the subject it concerns, not only to personalize it for my blog, but to set it in broader context. These won’t be included here, however, but will have to wait for a subsequent post. Just one thing, really: I find the notion of a Marxist “ontology,” like an “epistemology,” quite problematic, and characteristic of the later Lukács, and not the early one.

Please do, if you’re interested, check out Bertell Ollman’s classic Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (1971). Long before he started announcing every economic upheaval as “the terminal crisis of capitalism,” and talking about robotization, Ollman wrote what was probably the definitive text on the subject of alienation.]

As Karl Korsch noted in Marxism and Philosophy, the philosophical foundation of Marx’s works has often been neglected. The Second International had, in Korsch’s view, pushed aside philosophy as an ideology, preferring “science.” This, he charged, tended to reduce Marxism to a positivistic sociology, and in so doing, it internalized and replicated the theoretical logic of capitalism. [1] In place of this, Korsch called for a revitalization of Marxism that would view philosophy not simply as false consciousness but as a necessary part of the social totality.[2]

Following Marx, we should understand that philosophy could be, at best, its own period comprehended in thought, and that “philosophy cannot be abolished without being realised”.[3] Korsch was not alone in this. Georg Lukács’ major work, History and Class Consciousness, appeared almost simultaneously. Lukács, too, sought to lead a renewal of Marxism via a return to its philosophical roots, specifically in Hegel.[4] Unknown to them at the time, there was a greater basis for this in Marx’s writing than they could have imagined. In 1927, Marx’s The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was released; this was followed in 1932 by The German Ideology. These two texts joined other works by Marx, including The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), On the Jewish Question (1843), The Holy Family (1845, co-authored with Engels), Theses on Feuerbach (1845) and The Poverty of Philosophy(1847). Together, these illustrate a vast and penetrating critical engagement with Hegelian philosophy.

This essay will engage with this body of work in order to shed light on Marx’s early period and specifically, the concept of alienation.[5] The central contention here is that alienation is vital to the ontological bedrock of Marx’s early viewpoint. This will help to elucidate a number of related issues. Specifically, his concept of labor as species-being, his argument that material reality is always formed by and through social relations and his application of alienation to the critique of philosophy and history will be explored. In order to do this, this essay will be divided into four subsections which deal with the concept of alienation as Marx developed it. It will begin with his Hegelian inheritance and will then move to his political critique of Hegel. Following the development of Marx’s thought, the essay will discuss the economic production of alienation. Marx’s theory of the overcoming of alienation will then be considered, with reference to the Young Hegelian movement, against which he formulated his views. This will necessitate a short discussion of alienation in history and Marx’s theory of revolution. It is hoped that out of this, an understanding of Marx’s early period will be reached that emphasizes his radical humanism and his basic affinity with thinkers like Korsch, Lukács, and Rubin. Finally, this essay seeks to present a Marx who is simultaneously deeply indebted to and critical of Hegel.


German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1772-1831)

Marx’s Hegelian roots

Alienation is a theme fundamental to Hegel’s thought. To give an in-depth account of this would be a vast undertaking. This essay will therefore limit itself to one clear example — the emergence of Reason out of Self-Consciousness in Section B of The Phenomenology of Spirit.[6] Continue reading

Лесная улица. Клуб профсоюза коммунальников имени С.М.Зуева Мы думаем, что снимок сделан между 1930−1935 годами1

Zuev workers’ club in Moscow (1928-1931), by Il’ia Golosov

The famed glass cylinder encasing the stairs, bisected by a right angle as its belt.

Cover for website HIRES_o (1)

On publishing practice: Architecture, history, politics

The Charnel-House
interviewed by Kerb

The following interview is taken from Kerb 21: Uncharted Territories (2013), a yearly publication put out by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. A few months back, some of its editors contacted me for an interview on my rationales and routines for publishing. I was quite flattered, especially given that all of the other publications that were chosen by Kerb (such as Log, Topos, ScapegoatTerragrams306090) have a much, much wider pull than The Charnel-House. To be quite honest, I was surprised they found space for any of us considering the room it takes to house Marina Abramović’s ego, whom they also interviewed. — Just kidding!

Anyway, the physical journal is gorgeous and available for purchase online. I encourage all of you who have the means to pick up a copy. Below is a slightly more expansive series of responses to the questionnaire they asked me to fill out

The Charnel-House: From Bauhaus to Beinhaus

The Charnel-House: From Bauhaus to Beinhaus

EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION: Kerb: A Journal of Landscape Architecture approaches blogs, journals, magazines online and in print because it is interested to know how publishing practices operate and contribute to disciplines. Platforms of design and cultural discussion hosted by individuals and collectives offer varying insights and perspectives into the state of design. The ways in which the subject matter is curated and represented outlines one’s practice.

KERB: Describe a regular day in your “office.”

Ross Wolfe: A regular day blogging for The Charnel-House is hardly ever regular. Rather, it consists in a cluster of tightly-knit irregularities. Since there’s no strict timeline according to which updates are set to appear, the factors determining the generation of new content tend to emerge more or less by accident. Here and there (now and then), something will pique my interest, spark my imagination, or move me to issue a response. Such are the moments in which I write. (Of course, to be sure, there is a loose imperative to keep restocking the site with fresh supplies of images and information. Apart from this minimum, periodic upkeep, there’s very little in the way of discipline to maintain a regimented schedule.)

No matter when it comes, however, inspiration for new material on the blog usually doesn’t have anything to do with the environment in which writing takes place. Or if it does, it’s indirect. More often than not, the cues for what to write come from the virtual world rather than my immediate surroundings (which generally remain static throughout). The objects that lie about almost never change; at most they are rearranged. Constants like this can thus sink seamlessly into the background, a kind of visual “white noise,” and function by their total absence from my attention. As such, they create a sense of comfort and familiarity while I peruse the web in search of more direct engagements.

They say Sartre thrived on the hustle-and-bustle, penning some of his most famous tracts and novellas in the middle of packed, hectic, noisy Parisian cafés. It doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to me, really. When a topic is sufficiently engrossing, I’m able to tune out just about anything. Yet for the most part, I stick to a routine of place. Sometimes a change of scenery is warranted, but not always.

KERB: We have defined “practice” as the ongoing accumulation of knowledge that test ideas through research and application. Upon reflection, do you have your own mode of practice as an editor? What is it, what is it based on?

Ross Wolfe: Practically speaking, there is very little in the way of “testing” that goes on in blogging for The Charnel-House. That is to say, there is nothing that would approximate a “trial-and-error” method. However, it would be false to suggest that there is no empirical basis to the selection and curation of material for publication. Some programs are built into the blog service I use that allow me to see what kind of content attracts the most visitors, which posts draw the most comments, and which tend to get “liked.” Continue reading

Aleksandr Vesnin Proposal for a monument for the Third International1

Internationalism fails

Chris Cutrone

This article is reposted from Platypus Review no. 60. Generally, I agree with its assertions about “anti-imperialist” politics in the present. Nevertheless, this should not be taken to mean that I support US military aggression overseas (not that I have any say in the matter). On Facebook, a heated exchange between James Heartfield, Chris Cutrone, Spencer Leonard, and Reid Kotlas followed. If they don’t mind, I might repost snippets of that argument as a supplement.

The “anti-imperialist Left” considers itself opposed to all U.S. government action as “imperialist” on principle. But, as Trotsky wrote to his followers in 1938, “Learn to think!” while one may oppose the government politically, to oppose the government putting out a fire, especially when there is no alternative agency for doing so, is nonsense. But the “Left” today is not the inheritor of Trotsky, but rather of what he pitilessly assailed, the policy of the Stalinist “Popular Front Against War and Fascism” of the 1930s, for which the shibboleth was, “Which side are you on?”

The idea is that the defeat of imperialist policy creates possibility for an alternative, and therefore one must always be against imperialism to be on the side of an alternative to it. Historically, Marxists have understood such a strategy in terms of either “revolutionary defeatism” or “revolutionary defensism.” Simply put, the defeat of an imperialist power is seen as providing the possibility for a political alternative to the government of the imperialist country; whereas the defense of a country against imperialist attack is seen as providing the possibility for a political alternative in the subaltern country. Importantly, these are not pacifist positions against war, but rather political military strategies in time of war, moreover with the aim of revolution.

Pivertistes, Mai 1938: Royan, Daniel Guérin

Pivertistes, Mai 1938: Royan, Daniel Guérin

Historically, there are two examples of success of these strategies of revolutionary defeatism and revolutionary defensism: the role of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution is regarded as a success of revolutionary defeatism, in which the defeat of the Tsarist Russian Empire undermined the government and gave rise to political and social revolution; and Mao’s Communists in the Chinese Revolution, in which the defense of China against Japanese imperialist attack undermined the nationalist Kuomintang and allowed for Communist-led revolution. Continue reading

Archival newsreel footage of a Soviet parade with a wooden model of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) carried through the streets

They still radiate the future


Last night I went to see a preliminary screening of Isabella Willinger’s newly-released documentary Away from all suns. Sammy Medina of FastCo, with whom I frequently collaborate, and Anna Kats of ArtInfo were also in attendance. 
The movie was being shown as part of  Tribeca Cinema’s “Architecture and Design Week,” an event sponsored by Archtober and a host of other companies/publications (far too numerous to name). Her film focuses on three contemporary individuals whose lives are somehow connected to utopian modernist buildings slowly decaying in Moscow. One building, Ivan Nikolaev’s student commune (1929), is currently being renovated. Another, El Lissitzky’s printing factory, is in danger of being torn down. Yet another, Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis’ Dom Narkomfin, is left in a general state of disrepair. Stunning archival footage is mobilized to juxtapose these buildings’ original state against their current dilapidation.

Hopefully I’ll be writing up a review of the film and pitching it to Art Margins or Calvert Journal, so I’ll spare the reader any further thoughts of my own. What follows is an interview with the director Isa Willinger conducted by Boris Schumatsky. It’s being reposted here from the film’s official website. Willinger expresses some sentiments in this exchange that more or less approximate statements that writers like Owen Hatherley, Douglas Murphy, Agata Pyzik, and myself have voiced in the past, independently of or in close dialogue with one another — nostalgia for an age we never knew, awe before the ruins of a past seemingly more futuristic than our own, hope against hope that radical transformation might yet be possible. The line from Willinger I paraphrased for the title of this entry runs as follows: “Many of [these Constructivist buildings in Moscow] are quite run down today, yet they still radiate their futuristic visions.” It recalls, consciously or not, something Owen Hatherley wrote about Il’ia Golosov’s Zuev Club nearby:

The windows might be infilled, the balconies long since disappeared ⎯ what all this damage proves is that buildings with this much power and conviction can still carry you away with them. Or it carries me, anyway. I look at this and I can still feel radiating off the bloody thing the promise of a better society.

Below you can watch a trailer of the film, followed by the edited transcript of the interview.

Away from all suns (2013)

Isa Willinger interviewed
by Boris Schumatsky

Boris Schumatsky:
 Your film is about people living in buildings of the Russian avant-garde and about the buildings themselves. You seem to be just as fascinated by the buildings as by your protagonists. What is it that struck you about the Constructivist buildings?

Isa Willinger: To me the buildings seem like ruins from another future. I spent some time in Moscow some years ago and on my walks through the city I discovered these exceptional buildings. They really stick out from the rest of Moscow’s city landscape. Many of them are quite run down today, yet they still radiate their futuristic visions. This, of course, is a stunning paradox: Something is from the past and at the same time it seems from the future.

Boris Schumatsky: Can you tell us about the background of Constructivism?

Isa Willinger: The term was first applied to the abstract works of art by Tatlin, Malevich, Popova, Stepanova, El Lissitzky, and others in the 1910s and 1920s. Soon, the artists’ works transgressed the boundary between geometrical shapes on paper or canvas and architectural drawings toying with those shapes. The first Constructivist buildings were built in the mid 20s only, due to a lack of resources in early Soviet Russia. The Constructivist movement was infused with the hopes of socialist revolution, overcoming a repressive tsarist regime, and building a better, more modern society. Continue reading

Lenin grave

Burying Lenin

The revolution entombed

The Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow was first designed by the architect Aleksei Shchusev in 1924. Even outside of Russia, its image is fairly familiar: some kind of cross between geometric modernism and a primeval ziggurat. What is seldom remembered today, however, is that Shchusev had to design and redesign the building more than once. Of course, the public display of Ulianov’s corpse was originally intended to only last a few weeks.

An exceptionally cold winter (Lenin died in January) helped preserve the Bolshevik leader’s remains longer than expected. Despite Lenin’s explicit request that his body be cremated and buried next to that of his mother, the new Soviet administration began making more permanent arrangements.

Soviet architect Aleksei Shchusev

Vladimir Paperny offered a fairly memorable explanation for this fact in his book Culture Two: Architecture in the Age of Stalin. He suggested that a transition was then underway between the two dominant cultural attitudes that define Russian-Soviet history:

Culture One [Bolshevik, avant-garde culture] wanted to burn its limbs [Shklovskii (1919)], wash memory from its soul, kill its old [Maiakovskii (1915)], and eat its children — all this as an attempt to free itself from the ballast that was interfering with its surge into the future. In Culture Two [Stalinist, realist culture], the future was postponed indefinitely. The future became even more beautiful and desirable [the architect Krasin (1937)], and the movement forward was even more joyous [state prosecutor Vyshinskii (1938)], but there did not seem to be an end in sight to that movement — the movement had become an end in itself.

[Stalinism’s] movement “forward, ever forward” changed nothing: The…goal was still the same; therefore, there was no way to determine whether this was movement or rest…Movement in Culture Two became tantamount to immobility, and the future to eternity…The history of the building of the Lenin Mausoleum is a good example of how culture’s idea of the longevity…changed. In Culture One, the idea of a mausoleum evoked a temporary structure, one that was needed “in order to grant all those who wish to, and who cannot come to Moscow for the day of the funeral, a chance to bid farewell to their beloved leader.” Culture Two had no intention of bidding farewell to the beloved leader. The temporary wooden mausoleum erected in 1924 was replaced first by a more solid wooden structure [six months later], and then, in 1930, by one of stone built to last.

Clearly, the different materials implemented in the construction of each version reflect different anticipated durations. The first was to be fleeting, the second durable, the third eternal. While the second is still, like the first, only made of wood, its form already appealed to eternity. Planks and crossbeams combined into regular geometric slabs, beyond real space and time. The upper half meanwhile ascends in pyramidal fashion, evoking that same mute permanence one feels before the ancient pharaohs’ tombs.

Lenin’s memory still haunts today’s Left. Just as the post-1991 Restoration in Moscow could not bring itself to finally lay his corpse to rest, neither can the contemporary Left bring itself to discard the legacy of October 1917. Even in rejecting Lenin or Leninism — whatever this might be thought to entail, be it democratic centralism, vanguardism, totalitarianism — it is forced to confront such associations. This is to say nothing of those who seek to take up Lenin’s mantle, with all the competing interpretations and conflicting points of emphasis. Continue reading