A tribute to Vladimir Mayakovsky

I present to you a Mayakovsky mega-post, for your delectation. Not only was V-Mak kind of a hunk; he was also the consummate poet. All too often he is remembered as a prettyboy, not a serious lyricist. Contemporary critics tended to rank him quite highly, however. Shklovsky called him “a poet’s poet.” Roman Jakobson’s admiration, as will be seen, ran even deeper. Trotsky identified him as “a colossal talent,” even if he criticized some of his poems.

Bengt Jangfeldt wrote a detailed biography of Mayakovsky back in 2007, which was translated last year and published by University of Chicago press. You can download it below, along with a volume he edited of recollections by Jakobson of his youthful involvement with the avant-garde movement in Russia titled My Futurist Years. Jakobson is particularly excellent, but both are great reads.

Moreover, I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a number of high-quality images of the great poet, as is my wont. These were scattered across the web, made all the more disparate by the varied ways his name is transliterated into Latin in different European languages. Following the images, Jakobson’s excellent 1931 essay “On a Generation that Squandered Its Poets” appears. Here are the books for download.

  1. Bengt Jangfeldt, Mayakovsky: A Biography (2007)
  2. Roman Jakobson, My Futurist Years
  3. Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature

On a generation that squandered its poets

Roman Jakobson
Mayakovsky’s Death
Berlin, Germany: 1931

Killed; —
Little matter
Whether I or he
Killed them.

Mayakovsky’s poetry — his imagery, his lyrical composition — I have written about these things and published some of my remarks. The idea of writing a monograph has never left me. Mayakovsky’s poetry is qualitatively different from everything in Russian verse before him, however intent one may be on establishing genetic links. This is what makes the subject particularly intriguing. The structure of his poetry is profoundly original and revolutionary. But how it is possible to write about Mayakovsky’s poetry now, when the paramount subject is not the rhythm but the death of the poet, when (if I may resort to Mayakovsky’s own poetic phrase) “sudden grief” is not yet ready to give in to “a clearly realized pain”?

During one of our meetings, Mayakovsky, as was his custom, read me his latest poems. Considering his creative potential I could not help comparing them with what he might have produced. “Very good,” I said, “but not as good as Mayakovsky.” Yet now the creative powers are canceled out, the inimitable stanzas can no longer be compared to anything else, the words “Mayakovsky’s last poems” have suddenly taken on a tragic meaning. Sheer grief at his absence has overshadowed the absent one. Now it is more painful, but still easier, to write not about the one we have lost but rather about our own loss and those of us who have suffered it.

It is our generation that has suffered the loss. Roughly, those of us who are now between thirty and forty-five years old. Those who, already fully matured, entered into the years of the Revolution not as unmolded clay but still not hardened, still capable of adapting to experience and change, still capable of taking a dynamic rather than a static view of our lives.

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Hannes Meyer, The new world [Die neue Welt] (1926)

The flight of the “Norge” to the North pole, the Zeiss planetarium at Jena and Flettner’s rotor ship represent the latest stages to be reported in the mechanization of our planet. Being the outcome of extreme precision of thought, they all provide striking evidence of the way in which science continues to permeate our environment. Thus in the diagram to the present age we find everywhere amidst sinuous lines of its social and economic fields of force straight lines which are mechanical and scientific in origin. They are cogent evidence of the victory of man the thinker over amorphous nature. This new knowledge undermines and transforms existing values. It gives our new world its shape.

Motor cars dash along our streets. On a traffic island in the Champs Elysées from 6 to 8 p.m. there rages round one metropolitan dynamism at its most strident. “Ford” and “Rolls Royce” have burst open the core of the town, obliterating distance and effacing the boundaries between town and country. Aircraft slip through the air: “Fokker” and “Farman” widen our range of movement and the distance between us and the earth; they disregard national frontiers and bring nation closer to nation. Illuminated signs twinkle, loud-speakers screech, posters advertise, display windows shine forth. The simultaneity of events enormously extends our concept of “space and time,” it enriches our life. We live faster and therefore longer. We have a keener sense of speed than ever before, and speed records are a direct gain for all. Gliding, parachute descents and music hall acrobatics refine our desire for balance. The precise division into hours of the time we spend working in office and factory and the split-minute timing of railway timetables make us live more consciously. With swimming pools, sanatoria, and public lavatories, hygiene appears on the local scene and its water closets, faience washbowls and baths usher in the new line of sanitary fittings in earthenware. Fordson tractors and v. Meyenburg cultivators have resulted in a shift of emphasis in land development and sped up the tilling of the earth and intensive cultivation of crops. Borrough’s calculating machine sets free our brain, the Dictaphone our hand, Ford’s motor our place-bound senses and Handley Page our earthbound spirits. Radio, marconigram, and phototelegraphy liberate us from our national seclusion and make us part of a world community. The gramophone, microphone, orchestrion, and pianola accustom our ears to the sound of impersonal-mechanized rhythms: “His Master’s Voice,” “Vox,” and “Brunswick” see to the musical needs of millions. Psychoanalysis has burst open the all too narrow dwelling of the soul and graphology has laid bare the character of the individual. “Mazdaism,” “Coué” and “Die Schönheit” are signs of the desire for reform breaking out everywhere. National costume is giving way to fashion and the external masculinization of woman shows that inwardly the two sexes have equal rights. Biology, psychoanalysis, relativity, and entomology are common intellectual property: France, Einstein, Freud, and Fabre are the saints of this latterday. Our homes are more mobile than ever. Large blocks of flats, sleeping cars, house yachts, and transatlantic liners undermine the local concept of the “homeland.” The fatherland goes into a decline. We learn Esperanto. We become cosmopolitan.


The steadily increasing perfection attained in printing, photographic, and cinematographic processes enables the real world to be reproduced with an ever greater degree of accuracy. The picture the landscape presents to the eye today is more diversified than ever before; hangars and power houses are the cathedrals of the spirit of the age. This picture has the power to influence through the specific shapes, colors, and lights of its modern elements: the wireless aerials, the dams, the lattice girders: through the parabola of the airship, the triangle of the traffic signs, the circle of the railway signal, the rectangle of the billboard; through the linear element of transmission lines: telephone wires, overhead tram wires, high-tension cables; through radio towers, concrete posts, flashing lights, and filling stations. Our children do not deign to look at a snorting steam locomotive but entrust themselves with cool confidence to the miracle of electric traction. G. Palucca’s dances, von Laban’s movement choirs, and D. Mesendieck’s functional gymnastics are driving out the aesthetic eroticism of the nude painting. The stadium has carried the day against the art museum, and physical reality has taken the place of beautiful illusion. Sport merges the individual into the mass. Sport is becoming the university of collective feeling. Suzanne Lenglen’s cancellation of a match disappoints hundreds of thousands, Breitensträter’s defeat sends a shiver through hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands follow Nurmi’s race over 10,000 meters on the running track. The standardization of our requirements is shown by: the bowler hat, bobbed hair, the tango, jazz, the Co-op product, the DIN standard size, and Liebig’s meat extract. The standardization of mental fare is illustrated by the crowds going to see Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, and Jackie Coogan. Grock and the three Fratellini weld the masses — irrespective of class and racial differences — into a community with a common fate. Trade union, co-operative, Lt., Inc., cartel, trust, and the League of Nations are the forms in which today’s social conglomerations find expression, and the radio and the rotary press are their media of communication. Co-operation rules the world. The community rules the individual.

Each age demands its own form. It is our mission to give our new world a new shape with the means of today. But our knowledge of the past is a burden that weighs upon us, and inherent in our advanced education are impediments tragically barring our new paths. The unqualified affirmation of the present age presupposes the ruthless denial of the past. The ancient institutions of the old — the classical grammar schools and the academies — are growing obsolete. The municipal theaters and the museums are deserted. The jittery helplessness of the applied arts is proverbial. In their place, unburdened by classical airs and graces, by an artistic confusion of ideas or the trimmings of applied art, the witnesses of a new era are arising: industrial fairs, grain silos, music halls, airports, office chairs, standard goods. All these things are the product of a formula: function multiplied by economics. They are not works of art. Art is composition, purpose is function. The composition of a dock seems to us a nonsensical idea, but the composition of a town plan, a block of flats…?? Building is a technical not an aesthetic process, artistic composition does not rhyme with the function of a house matched to its purpose. Ideally and in its elementary design our house is a living machine. Retention of heat, insolation, natural and artificial lighting, hygiene, weather protection, car maintenance, cooking, radio, maximum possible relief for the housewife, sexual and family life, etc. are the determining lines of force. The house is their component. (Snugness and prestige are not leitmotifs of the dwelling house: the first resides in the human heart and not in the Persian carpet, the second in the attitude of the house-owner and not on the wall of a room!) Today we have new building materials at our disposal for building a house: aluminium and duralumin in plates, rods, and bars, Euboölith, Ruberoid, Forfoleum, Eternit, rolled glass, Triplex sheets, reinforced concrete, glass bricks, faience, steel frames, concrete frame slabs and pillars, Trolith, Galalith, Cellon, Goudron, Ripoliin, indanthrene paints, etc. We organize these building elements into a constructive unity in accordance with the purpose of the building and economic principles. Architecture has ceased to be an agency continuing the growth of tradition or an embodiment of emotion. Individual form, building mass, natural color of material, and surface texture come into being automatically and this functional conception of building in all its aspects leads to pure construction [Konstruktion]. Pure construction is the characteristic feature of the new world of forms. Constructive form is not peculiar to any country; it is cosmopolitan and the expression of an international philosophy of building. Internationalism is the prerogative of our time.

Today every phase of our culture of expression is predominantly constructive. Human inertia being what it is, it is not surprising that such an approach is to be found most clearly at first where the Greeks and Louis XIV have never set foot: in advertising, in typographical mechanical composition, in the cinema, in photographic processes. The modern poster presents lettering and product or trademark conspicuously arranged. It is not a poster work of art but a piece of visual sensationalism. In the display window of today psychological capital is made of the tensions between modern materials with the aid of lighting. It is display window organization rather than window dressing. It appeals to the finely distinguishing sense of materials found in modern man and covers the gamut of its expressive power: fortissimo = tennis shoes to Havana cigarettes to scouring soap to nut chocolate! Mezzo-forte = glass (as a bottle) to wood (as a packing case) to pasteboard (as packing) to tin (as a can)! Pianissimo = silk pajamas to cambric shirts to Valenciennes lace to “L’Origan de Coty”! Continue reading

January 13, 1979


The first issue of the neo-Cliffite webzine Salvage approvingly quotes the renowned Iranian Marxist revolutionary Ali Shariati, to the effect that humanity is located somewhere “between mud and providence.” Shariati is the author of such timeless classics as Marxism and Other Western Fallacies. Promising indeed.

Because supposedly between salvation and garbage there is salvage.

Or, better yet: Because between garbage and salvation there is garbation.

mek_demo1979shariatikhomeiniposters copy 2

Noreaga explains:

All our whips got navigation
While your whips is just garbation
Is you knowing what you facing?

Got to love any Marxist publication whose primary sources of inspiration seem to be Judith Butler, Ali Shariati, and Naomi Klein. Read Ritual instead.

Still better: between Socialist Worker and garbage there is SeWa☭e.



cover jacket reason

The missing category of totality

Feminist Fightback
, an activist collective based in the UK, published an article several months back which asks: “Is intersectionality just another form of identity politics?” Recently the piece was featured on the LibCom website, receiving renewed attention through broader circulation. The authors critically examine two of the better pieces to emerge from the Vampires’ Castle debacle a couple years ago, both of which have been reposted on this blog. Eve Mitchell’s Marxist-feminist critique of intersectionality and Michael Rectenwald’s theoretical reflections responded to the ire of those who felt intersectional analysis offered a much-needed corrective to Marxism’s obsessive focus on class — i.e., its supposed “class reductionism.” Some prominent Marxist bloggers had already begun to reorient their politics around what Richard Seymour called “the point of intersection.”

While the authors from Feminist Fightback right to point out that the concept of “intersectionality” started out as a critique of various forms of identity politics operating in isolation from one another, it is not as if Mitchell or Rectenwald overlooked this fact. Mitchell explicitly acknowledges that “[i]ntersectionality theorists correctly identified and critiqued [the narrowness of] identity politics.” But she immediately adds that “while intersectionality theory seems to overcome the limitations of identity politics, it falls short,” diagnosing it as a form of bourgeois ideology. Rectenwald likewise recognizes that intersectionality originated as part of a polemic against identity politics, but concurs with Mitchell that the former shares many weaknesses with the latter:

[O]perating under the same schema as a more simplified identity politics, intersectionality theory serves to isolate multiple and seemingly endless identity standpoints, without sufficiently articulating them with each other, or the forms of domination. The upshot in political practice is a static pluralism of reified social categories, each vying for more-subaltern-than-thou status on a field of one-downsmanship.

Perhaps the Feminist Fightback members who wrote this article felt that Mitchell and Rectenwald did not take intersectionality’s challenge to identity politics seriously enough. Still, it cannot be said that either was simply unaware that intersectionality first arose in opposition to earlier movements based on identity. Moreover, it is unclear whether intersectional politics is ever able to fully escape the horizon of identity politics. Instead, it simply ends up multiplying or overlaying various identities to in order to form a more comprehensive perspective. This perspective alone, claim its adherents, is adequate to the unevenness and complexity of contemporary reality. What they fail to grasp, however, is that identity is precisely the problem. Marxism aims at the abolition of class, race, and gender, and the forms of group identity associated with them. Feminist Fightback insists that the analysis of intersecting axes of oppression emphasized structural rather than individual aspects of identity-formation, especially in its earliest iterations. “Early proponents of intersectionality clearly stated that this theory was about how oppressions were inextricably intertwined at a structural level,” they write.

How exactly are these structures articulated, though? In my view, what is missing from all these political perspectives based on group identification is a concept of the social totality, as well as an historical pivot from which to critique and transform it. Totality here refers to a unified whole comprised of “conceptually distinct but interrelated parts,” as Marx put it in Capital, a singular process divisible into objective and subjective moments: “the objective conditions of labor (the means of production) and its subjective conditions, purposively active capacity for labor.” Revolutionary criticism must take into account “the total labor process as such, with the totality of its objective and subjective interactions” [Capital, pg. 981]. Georg Lukács expanded on this line of thought, stressing that “only the dialectical conception of totality enables us to understand reality as a social process. For only this conception dissolves the fetishistic forms necessarily produced by the capitalist mode of production and allows us to see them as mere illusions which are not less illusory for being seen to be necessary” [History and Class Consciousness, pg. 13].

A standpoint is required from which to view this totality, however, in order to see how structures or configurations of race or gender “interpenetrate” and “overlap.” Without such a standpoint, and a unitary approach by which to arrive at it, the historically transient character of race and gender is lost. Race and gender appear frozen, like class, as permanent features of all social organization throughout time. Once again, I would suggest that the standpoint of the proletariat alone allows us to glimpse this socially dynamic, if historically static, totality of relations under capitalism. In this, I follow the arguments of Lukács nearly a century ago. Elsewhere I have elaborated why this is the case, refusing to subsume gender and race under the rubric of class while nevertheless still upholding Marx’s contention that the proletariat is uniquely positioned within the system of productive relations to overturn the existing social order.


Mondrian: Order and randomness in abstract painting

Meyer Schapiro
Modern Art
(Nov. 1978)


Mondrian’s abstract paintings appeared to certain of his contemporaries extremely rigid, more a product of theory than of feeling. One thought of the painter as narrow, doctrinaire, in his inflexible commitment to the right angle and the unmixed primary colors. We learn that he broke with a fellow-artist and friend who had ventured to insert a diagonal in that fixed system of vertical and horizontal lines. “After your arbitrary correction of Neo-Plasticism,” he wrote to van Doesburg, “any collaboration, of no matter what kind, has become impossible for me,” and withdrew from the board of the magazine De Stijl, the organ of their advanced ideas.1

Yet in the large comprehensive shows of his art one discovers an astonishing range of qualities, a continuous growth from his twenties to his last years in fertile response to the new art of others and to a new milieu. Even while holding strictly to the horizontal and vertical in the painted lines, Mondrian brought back the abhorred diagonal in the frequent diamond shape of a square canvas. Diagonal axes are implicit too in his placing of paired colors. And in his late work he deviated from his long-held principle of the single plane by interlacing the lines to suggest a layered grid in depth. If his abstract paintings of the 1920s and 1930s seem dogmatically limited in their straight forms, these constant elements, through carefully pondered variation of length, thickness, and interval, compose a scale of forces that he deploys in always individual combinations. When studied closely, the barest works, with only a few units, reveal his canny finesse in shaping a balanced order; that variety in the sparse and straight is a ground of their continuing fascination. One need not analyze that structure, however, to sense its precision and strength. These qualities come to the eye directly like the harmony of a Greek temple. His gravely serious art unites in its forms the large regularities of architecture as a canonical constructed order with a complexity of relations inherited from the painting of nature and the city scene. The persisting white field, in heightened contrast to the black lines, is a luminous ground — it has what may be called after Keats: “the power of white Simplicity” — and, in its division by those lines, provides a measure of the rhythm of the enclosing rectangles.

Like Picasso’s art, Mondrian’s would have to be characterized very differently according to one’s choice of a particular phase as typical. Before the constructive abstract art by which he is best known, his works had been in turn impressionistic, romantic, lyrical, visionary, and symbolic; and in his last years, at seventy, after that severely intellectual style, his paintings became surprisingly sensuous and elated. In assimilating before 1914 the most advanced art of his time, he stood out unmistakably as a painter with his own qualities and powers. Moving from Holland to Paris and later to London and New York, this ascetic artist reacted to each new environment with a quiet enthusiasm, inventing new features that transformed the face of his art. When he worked in the style of Picasso and Braque in 1911 to 1913, he was not far behind them, having absorbed the most recent stage of their rapidly evolving art, and was soon able to move on to more strictly abstract forms of his own invention. Mondrian’s warm embrace of Cubism was the more surprising since he was forty then, with a long-matured practice that would have seemed to discourage the change to a style so different in principle from his own. Even more remarkable is that in adopting this challenging art from painters younger than himself, he derived from it conclusions still more radical, which were to stimulate and guide painters in Europe and America in the following decades. His later work was an outcome of reflection and a firm will to rigor, in keeping with a philosophizing habit and long meditated ideals. Few artists in our century have displayed so ardent a growth.


Mondrian wrote in more than one article that his goal was to achieve an art of “pure relations.” These, he believed, had been “veiled” in older painting by the particulars of nature which could only distract the viewer from the universal and absolute in art, the true ground of aesthetic harmony.

I wish in this essay to explore closely several of his abstract works in order to bring into clearer sight the character of those “pure relations” and to show their continuity with structures of representation in the preceding art. For this a minute analysis is necessary. It may be tedious or seem superfluous to one who grasps with feeling the order of a work of Mondrian on immediate view. I shall risk it in the belief that it will also bring us nearer to his sensibility and thought.

In a painting of 1926 in the Museum of Modern Art labeled Composition in White and Black, what seems at first glance a square set within a diamond square — a banal motif of decorators and doodlers — becomes to the probing eye a complex design with a subtly balanced asymmetry of unequal lines. We see the square as partly covered and extending into an imaginary field beyond the diamond canvas. If modeling and perspective have been given up, another cue for depth comes into play in this flat painting on the impenetrable plane of the canvas: the overlapping of forms. The intercepting edge advances and the intercepted square recedes as if passing underneath the edge. The whole appears then as a cropped representation of an object in a three-dimensional space. The missing parts are cut off from view at the limits of the diamond field. Only at the upper left corner of the square is the angle closed; but its vertical and horizontal lines cross at that point and are prolonged just enough for us to suppose that what we first perceived as a partly masked square belongs to a larger whole, a lattice or grid formed by bars of varied thickness.2 We are induced by that single crossing to imagine a similar completion of the other bars and their continuity beyond the square. The black grid seems to exist in a space between the plane of the diamond and the white voids enclosed by the painted bars.

Even if we fix our attention on the canvas as a limited plane surface with a painted set of flat marks complete in themselves as a balanced asymmetric design, another mode of spatial intuition is soon aroused: our habitual response to recognizably incomplete forms. The black bars are envisioned unreflectively as parts of a whole continuing beyond the limits of the overlapping diamond field, although no familiar object has been depicted (unless we regard the thick lines of the “abstract” square as a concrete object like the surface of the canvas itself). Each black line is seen then as an intercepted side of a complete square, just as in a perspective view we identify a partly covered object with its whole. The diamond form of Mondrian’s canvas reinforces this effect by the strong contrast of its diagonal edges with the painted lines of the square and by providing between the angles, and especially those above and below, a much greater span than between the parallel lines of the inscribed form. The latter stands out even more decidedly from a larger field in which two lines of the square cross and four triangles are marked as opposing shapes.

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