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Something better than the nation?

Blair Taylor
Platypus Review
July 14th, 2014
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Book Review:

Rob Ogman, Against the Nation:
Anti-National Politics in Germany
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(Porsgrunn, Norway: NCP, 2013).
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In the wake of the fall of the Wall and reunification the German left confronted a resurgent nationalism. One section of the Left’s response was an “anti-national” tendency whose answer to questions posed by historical developments challenged received political categories by rejecting not only nationalism but, ultimately, traditional left attitudes towards both the nation-state and “the people.” In Against the Nation, Rob Ogman charts the emergence of this “anti-national” tendency by examining two activist campaigns of the 1990s, “Never Again Germany” and “Something Better than the Nation,” to show how “the encounter with nationalism resulted in a fundamental reorientation of a broad set of political assumptions, and produced a deep restructuring in the content and contours of left politics and practice” (11). However, more than an interesting window into radical movements in Germany, the book’s real strength is that it uses these cases to reflect upon left discourse on nationalism and nation-states everywhere, but with particular emphasis on the post-9/11 United States.

The book’s opening chapter, “The Left and the Nation,” begins by tracing the evolution of left positions on nation-states and nationalism in the U.S. since the 1990s, examining discursive continuities and breaks between the alter-globalization movement, the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements of the Bush years, up to Occupy Wall Street in the recent past. This overview describes how a “binary worldview” in the alter-globalization movement often pitted presumably benign nation-states and cultures against the ravages of global capital, which later during the War on Terror morphed easily into a similarly uncritical understanding of “oppressed nations” dominated by imperialist states, the latter primarily represented by the United States and Israel. The result was a simplistic and flawed conceptualization of both global capitalism and state power which demonized foreign capital and imperialist states while ignoring or downplaying domestic forms of exploitation and oppression. Valorizing the people, nation, or “culture” as sources of resistance, the discourse of anti-imperialism turned a blind eye to local state and capitalist elites, as well as popular forms of domination in traditional societies. It also made for strange political bedfellows, translating into tolerance and support for reactionary movements and parties, especially Islamist ones like Hamas and Hezbollah, in some cases even defending oppressive theocratic regimes like Iran. Ogman describes how this political frame obscured a more complicated political reality shaped by the deeper structural logic of state and capitalist power relations, one that undermines simple inside/outside distinctions. It also reinforced the nation-state and “the people” as the logical alternatives and unproblematic bases of resistance to the ills of capitalism and empire. By tracing “the failure of the Left to develop an emancipatory perspective opposed to nationalism, the nation, and the nation-state” (33) within the U.S. Left, Ogman provides a political context for understanding the German case that follows.

The following chapter, “German Nationalism after Reunification,” lays out the specific historical context the anti-national left emerged from. Primarily, this meant German reunification, a process that saw an immediate spike in nationalist sentiment as postwar Germany’s discourse of postnational citizenship was eroded by a revived ethno-nationalist one, accompanied by a wave of right-wing extremism that often received tacit popular and governmental support. The Left was not immune to this nationalist turn. Even the main East German opposition group subtly shifted their previously democratic slogan, “we are the people,” into the nationalist articulation, “we are one people” (40). German identity was increasingly being defined in opposition to outsiders. At precisely the moment the German state was reconstituting itself, “foreigners” became the number one stated concern in opinion polls. As Ogman notes, “as soon as the division separating East and West Germany came down, new boundaries were drawn” (44). Reunification exposed the brutal underbelly of nation-state formation, with chilling historical continuities. It was followed by an explosive rise in violent racist attacks, culminating in what the anti-nationalists did not shrink from terming “pogroms” in Rostock and Hoyerswerda in 1991 and 1992. In what became watershed events for the anti-national left, neo-Nazis in these East German towns violently evicted local guest workers and asylum seekers, setting fire to their residence house and running them out of town. The neo-Nazis had been unhindered by police and local officials, and were cheered on by crowds of locals.

Contesting nationalism:
“Never again Deutschland!” and
“something better than the nation”

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These developments prompted the formation of an oppositional coalition called The Radical Left, which organized the “Never again Germany!” mobilization to protest reunification and draw attention to its negative effects, such as the “Aliens Act” that restricted immigration and asylum. Aware that political reunification was basically inescapable, they mounted a principled symbolic opposition that sought to problematize and disrupt tendencies toward consensus and integration through “the power of negation.” This included militant protests and interventions into both public and left debates, developing and pushing an anti-national position. After reunification, the “Never again Germany” coalition was superseded by the campaign “Something better than the nation.” This network of musicians, artists, and intellectuals organized concerts, public fora, and blockades aimed at hindering the spread of both right-wing and centrist forms of nationalism. Their major campaign was a traveling caravan through the country, especially the East where neo-Nazism had taken root most virulently. The campaign aimed at fighting extreme right and nationalist sentiment by articulating an anti-racist and anti-national alternative culture embedded in music and youth subculture.

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Ogman devotes a chapter to each of these early anti-national campaigns, drawing extensively on movement documents and media coverage to capture the aims and motivations of the mobilizations. In his narrative, their importance was less their direct impact on political events, which was marginal, but rather their articulation of a novel left approach to nationalism. Drawing on Frankfurt School critical theory, this milieu understood nationalism as structural rather than simply ideological. It was not an aberration derived from outmoded or irrational notions of communal identification, but was instead a radical expression of basic features of the dominant society: a competitive and hierarchical social order with clear winners and losers. Therefore solely attacking the extreme nationalism and explicit racism of neo-Nazis was insufficient: One had to address racism’s much deeper social roots. Indeed, the anti-national turn was in part a realization that traditional anti-fascist and anti-racist politics were too limited, and that nationalism must be fought on a broader scale. In particular, nationalism was another expression of the competitive logic of capitalism, wherein the winners and losers of class struggle within states are in turn reproduced between them in the international arena. The result of this recognition was a specifically anti-national critique that addressed an expanded range of concerns including Germany’s geopolitical normalization and return to the global stage; the complex relationship between capitalism, nationalism, and nation states; as well as racist and essentialist notions of identity and citizenship.

While also deploying more familiar concepts like “negative patriotism” that describe how “national unity” ideologically conceals underlying class cleavages and obscured the self-interest of workers, anti-national politics also understood nationalism as simultaneously an elite and a popular phenomenon. Unlike traditional left theories which primarily understand nationalism as an ideological ruse by elites to preserve their power by obscuring class interest, anti-national discourse viewed it as a populist impulse wherein the working class also appealed to “the nation” to gain material and symbolic benefits by excluding those at the bottom of national and international hierarchies. Thus nationalism was not simply a top-down project, but also an endeavor from below, part and parcel of an interlocking social totality. The result was a form of leftism deeply skeptical of its traditional target audience: “the people.”

By looking at the early historical emergence of a broad anti-national left in Germany, Against the Nation is a useful corrective to caricatures that reduce this milieu to its most visible and controversial tendency, the “anti-Germans” who only later emerge as a distinct and differentiated political tendency. Clustered around journals like Bahamas and Konkret, the anti-Germans are communists who espouse steadfast support of Israel and, in some cases, support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is often the only form of anti-national critique known outside Germany, often causing bewildered leftists abroad to over-generalize and dismiss it as a case of extreme national guilt. Yet this pop-psychologization misses the concrete historical conditions that fostered the initial emergence of the anti-national left in Germany. Rather than a guilt-induced obsession with National Socialism, anti-Semitism, and Israel, Ogman shows how German anti-nationalism developed out of specific anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles against racial violence and its tacit popular support. Although later in the specifically anti-German milieu, fear of the potentially fascist nature of populism translated into distrust of social movements generally, the early anti-national movement was a strongly activist as well as theoretical endeavor addressing concrete political problems confronting the German left. As a rather small tendency, this manifested primarily in provocative texts and symbolic demonstrations. Yet rather than an abdication of politics, this intervention was, at least initially, an attempt to force a certain conversation within the Left and build an alternative political base. Continue reading

Проект объединенного клуба фабрик %22Ява%22, %22Дукат%22 и %22Большевик%22 Архитектор- А. Буров Москва Год создания проекта- 1928 z1

Andrei Burov

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Burov was a member of the Society of Modern Architects (OSA) and an avowed disciple of Le Corbusier living in Moscow. He designed a number of workers’ clubs during the 1920s, none of which were ever realized.

What he did become known for, albeit somewhat obliquely, was a brilliant bit of Corbusian architecture which appeared in the Eisenstein film The General Line (1927, though released in 1930 after some delays). Some stills from the film are reproduced below, along with some text by the architect and historian Vladimir Paperny.

Recently Owen Hatherley wrote up a piece for Calvert Journal called “Block Party,” in which he touched briefly on Burov’s later work.

From the late Thirties, some architects tried to devise ways of industrializing the creation of individualist, anti-modernist apartment blocks. The earliest is probably a 1938 block on Leningradsky Prospekt by Andrei Burov, who was once such a disciple of Le Corbusier that he even copied his fashion choices (those little round spectacles). Here, the ceramic ornaments of leaves and suchlike are made from prefabricated panels, as are the balustrades and cornices.

By this point, of course, Burov had remade himself as a model Stalinist in architecture. Paperny recalls:

In 1938 the interiors of the Slate Historical Museum were redesigned. This is the very same Historical Museum that Le Corbusier dreamed of demolishing. It had been constructed by V. Sherwood and A. Semenov…The renovations were done by the architect Andrei Burov, “a tall blond man, speaking fluent French” — that was how he was seen in 1935 in Athens, where he had stopped off upon returning from an architectural congress in Rome — a decade after his construction of the model constructivist dairy farm for Eisenstein’s film Generalnaia linia (The General Line) [a.k.a. Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New)]. Here in the Historical Museum design he made a 180° turn from the design philosophy of his former friend Le Corbusier. The interiors created by Burov, in the words of one scholar of art, “express profound principles, inherent in ancient Russian architecture, particularly in the “classical” models of the architecture of Kiev, Vladimir, and Moscow, and whim are undoubtedly related to the traditions of antique, primarily Greek, art.” In Burov’s design, continues the scholar, Russian art ceases to be “an exotic, provincial curiosity” and becomes “the original force with which the folk genius creates, on the basis of antique tradition, a new architecture, unsevered from and connected to, but in no way ceding to, the architecture of the Byzantine era, the proto-Renaissance or the Renaissance.”

There’s a broader thesis at work in these lines, which will become clearer in the following passages. In his excellent thesis, Culture Two: Architecture in the Age of Stalin, Paperny describes two main cultural forces at work in Russian history. Culture One corresponds to a destructive, youthful tendency and lines up with the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s. Culture Two, by contrast, covers a more monumental, venerable tendency and lines up with Stalinist architecture. You can read my review of Paperny’s book for more details.

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When Andrei Burov, in 1927, was set designer for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Generalnaia linia (The General Line) [a.k.a. Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New)], his basic idea was that he “works in film not as a decorator but as an architect.” He considered that he should construct a real building, one that would continue to function after the shooting. (It was only because of technicalities that he did not succeed in this.) Film critics of the 1920s rated very highly the idea of such a collaboration of the architect with film, since even feature (non-documentary) films had to show “life as it should be.” Burov shared this position: “film must…show that which is and that which should be” — a position quite similar to the idea of zhiznestroenie. Continue reading

against austerity

Against Richard Seymour

Daniel Harvey
Weekly Worker
June 12, 2014
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Richard Seymour

Against austerity: How we can fix the crisis they made?
Pluto Press, 2014, pp198, £11.50

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Some readers are going to need to have their memories jogged. There was this bloke who used to hang around the left a while ago called Richard Seymour, who cuts a lonely political figure now. Having left the Socialist Workers Party, he then left the International Socialist Network he had helped set up because he made a comment about race and sexual bondage that was considered non-PC. Then even a group as boring as Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century rejected his membership application out of sheer prudishness.

Now he has written up some thoughts about where we have been going wrong in his book, Against Austerity, which some commentators have been absolutely raving about. Alan Sears from Canada calls it a “crucial reference point for the left,” an “unflinching and insightful analysis of the current situation in which the radical left finds itself.”[1] Mark Perryman sees the book as continuing “the important line of thinking” of the late Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea in the Kilburn Manifesto.[2] Louis Proyect over on Counterpunch says: “At the risk of inflating the young man’s ego, I regard him as the most compelling prose stylist on the left since Alexander Cockburn in his heyday and Christopher Hitchens before he turned into Mr Hyde.”[3]

It seems like high praise from some quarters for a book that must have the dullest title the leftwing publisher, Pluto Press, could have chosen. A bit like a headline in The Socialist. So what is the author’s main line of reasoning? Well, after five to six years of the great recession that began in 2008, Seymour has noticed that the left has not advanced very far.

He is disappointed, and we can see why if we look back at his oeuvre from before his split with the SWP. Back then, as James Heartfield has pointed out on Sp!ked, he had higher expectations.[4] He was heaping praise on the “wave of radical leaderships” in the unions in 2006[5] — he said on his blog: “The picket lines are out, and more than a million workers will not be crossing them today. I had a sneaking suspicion that the atmosphere of the Winter of Discontent would be evoked.”[6]

It is worth quoting the feelings that were stirred in comrade Seymour in 2011 by the March 26 march called by the TUC. I remember us all trudging to Hyde Park to listen to Ed Miliband, but for Seymour this was a profoundly transformative moment:

It was something that I haven’t really seen en masse before. It was something that some people had written off. They said was a bit old hat, doomed to a slow, dwindling death, if it even really existed. It was the working class. Not the working class in the shitty, nostalgic, culturally regressive sense that people invoke, not the deus ex machina mobilised to berate black people and gays for being too assertive of their legitimate rights. It was the working class as an agent of its own interests; it was a class for itself. It was the labour movement, every bit the multicultural entity that Cameron reviles. And that movement, comprising several millions of people, having lain dormant for years, is now looking decidedly up for a fight. If you’re a socialist in one of those workplaces on Monday morning, you should have an easier job arguing for militant strike action now, because people now know what they could not be sure of before: that we are many, and they are few.[7]

Yes! So what happened? Where did it all go wrong? I think it is safe to say that the fact he left the SWP had something to do with it. Not being in that perpetually optimistic echo chamber has had something of a come-down effect for him. In any case, the fact that comrade Seymour has started to use his own eyes again is great news for the rest of us. That means he is now looking at austerity in a whole new light. It is a class project, he says, which is just the latest part in a decades-long strategy by our political elites. He has been reading Foucault, and he has now decided that austerity is a project to redesign western capitalism at a cellular level. But it will take a generation to rebuild the left to a point where it can have any real clout again. Continue reading

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The future of Enlightenment

Thoughts on
“Universalism and
its discontents”
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Last Thursday an online discussion of “Universalism and Its Discontents” took place at noon via livestream. It was the first in what is projected to be a series of conversations on the theme of Fixing the Future, related to some of the problems raised by the accelerationist current. Anthony Paul Smith of the online collective An und für sich and Pete Wolfendale of the blog Deontologistics were the primary discussants, with Deneb Kozikoski playing the role of moderator. Mohammed Salemy was responsible for setting up the event. Video footage of the proceedings can be found here.

What follows are some scattered thoughts in response to it.

Kozikoski’s introduction to the speakers’ opening remarks was, on the whole, extremely helpful. She provided a serviceable overview of debate up to this point, the main issues involved, etc. (and did so in a compact enough manner that even a beginner could follow). I hadn’t kept up with all the literature pertaining to accelerationism myself, so the primer was welcome. Her own editorializing was fairly minimal. She remained evenhanded throughout the subsequent exchange.

To briefly recapitulate her summary: Accelerationism poses a challenge to the prevailing negativity of the contemporary Left, the default logic of both its academic and activist wings. Namely, accelerationists reject the defensive posture of “resistance” struck by leftists when new modes of domination emerge from capitalism’s evolving matrix of creative destruction. By extension, this critique also takes aim at the ideological tendency to simply propose the inverse of whatever deleterious effects are associated with capitalist development — a procedure that could well be called abstract negation. Capitalism is a global phenomenon? If so, anticapitalism must of course counterpose local solutions. Universal, alienating, and abstract? Surely leftists are duty-bound to offer particular, disalienating, and concrete alternatives. Rather than delirious Prometheanism, ruminative Epimetheanism. One could go on.

Against the “folk politics” of localism, direct action, and horizontality that dominate the Left today,[1] accelerationists set out to recover the quintessentially modern vision of a global emancipation, working toward “a completion of the Enlightenment project of self-​criticism and self-​mastery, rather than its elimination.”[2] They thus reaffirm the emancipatory potential of science and technology, repudiating the dire predictions of Malthusian doomsayers and primitivists. Kozikoski explained that this broader accelerationist drive to embrace forms of universality discarded by poststructuralists and postcolonial theorists in recent decades puts the fledgling movement at odds with these more established discourses.

“Universalism and Its Discontents” staged this specific antagonism, providing a platform for accelerationism and postcolonialism to debate. Wolfendale represented the former of these two schools, while Smith — a postcolonial theologian skeptical of calls for a renewed universalism — represented the latter.

Smith spoke first. He began by announcing his sympathy with much of the accelerationist program, especially as laid out in Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s jointly-written article “Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” Quoting the Marxian scholar Alberto Toscano, Smith agreed with the accelerationist argument that forces of production can be effectively decoupled from relations of production and made to serve different ends. “[U]se can [still] be drawn from the dead labors which crowd the earth’s crust,” Toscano asserted, “in a world no longer dominated by value.”[3] Overcoming capitalism needn’t entail scrapping the productive implements it brought into being, as these can potentially be repurposed or reconfigured. Nor is the manifesto’s emphasis on climate change misplaced, in Smith’s judgment. Indeed, he would appear amenable to many of its theses. Continue reading

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By analogy with capitalism itself

Spencer Leonard
Marx & Philosophy
January 1, 2013
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Jairus Banaji Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2011. 408pp., $28 / £20 pb ISBN 9781608461431

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Prosecuting a sustained critique of Stalinism as conceptual “formalism” or “metaphysics,” Jairus Banaji’s writings merit a place among the more substantial works to issue out of the terminal phase of the left’s decline in the 1970s. However, as the recently published Theory as History testifies, resisting the intellectual disintegration of our post-leftist moment proves well-nigh impossible even when the attempt maintains a high level of conceptual rigor. Indeed, that rigor itself can serve as a means of fending off recognition of present circumstances. Whereas others have retreated into academic Marxology, activist tailism, or sectarian sub-culturalism, Banaji’s refuge is the retooling of Marxism as a historical sociology. Historical materialism is presented in Theory as an approach to the study of history that promises greater explanatory power than do the existing alternatives. As Banaji writes in his Introduction,

The essays published in this collection span a period of just over thirty years and set out first to map a general conception of modes of production as historical characterizations of whole epochs, in other words, to restore a sense of historical complexity to them, and then to illustrate/explore some of that complexity in detailed studies based as far as possible on primary source material. 1

For Banaji Marxism makes for a more rigorous, more systematic approach to the past, including the remote, precapitalist past. But if this is true it is not because Marxism has a specific method or superior sociological insight, but simply that Marxism was the last form of bourgeois thought. But as a work chiefly preoccupied with reconceiving pre-capitalist modes of production, the book rejects its own true interest as a record of a decades-long and partial attempt to resist Marxism’s demise. Consequently, Banaji threatens to diminish his own most interesting essays from the 1970s, whether by exclusion or by shoehorning them into the largely alien preoccupations of more recent work.

When Banaji began to write, he and his generation faced the collapse of both the Old Left and of the ’60s New Left’s initial response to it. An echo of his early ambitions as a Trotskyist in the 1970s remains faintly audible in the hopes he expresses for the project of the book. As he writes,

The renewal of historical materialism and of theory more generally will…require a transformation of attitudes in the first instance, a vigorous iconoclasm that can prise Marxists away from their obsessions with orthodoxy, so that a left that was never attached to Stalinism…can finally break with the residues of…conservatism. (xiii)

Banaji sought in the 1970s to renew the New Left project, the attempt was explicitly to bring the legacies of Marx and Lenin (and also of Trotsky) to bear upon a palpably inadequate left politics. Though emerging largely out of Naxalite tendencies with which Banaji has little sympathy, the Subalternists share with him a similar moment and a similar orientation toward a New Left canon — Althusser, Colletti, Gramsci, Sartre, etc. But it was Banaji’s Trostkyism that prompted him to try to develop tools to gauge the scale of the historical defeats and political regression that his generation inherited. His concerns were, therefore, deeply historical even when he was not writing as a historian. In this sense the historical aspect of Banaji’s critique of the semi-feudal thesis was of greater significance than its immediate programmatic implications (implying as it did, for instance, a critique of both the Naxalites and the CPI(M) on both the general “revolutionary situation” and the strategy that flowed from that estimation). It is unsurprising, then, that what one reviewer terms Banaji’s “breakthrough … for Marxist theory” in the Mode of Production Debate was conceived both more and less modestly at the time by Banaji himself. He thought he was recovering the original positions of Marx and Lenin. This is what falls away in the more recent essays with which the 1970s essays are here combined. Continue reading

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The failure of Reason: Adorno and the non-identical

Haseeb Ahmed
Platypus Review
October 2009
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Book Review:

D. Claussen. Theodor Adorno: One Last Genius
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008

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For years Theodor Adorno’s theoretical work has suffered from either neglect or semi-hostile “interpretation.” It is therefore refreshing to see Detlev Claussen, who studied under Adorno at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt from 1966 to 1971, take a more sympathetic approach to the study of Adorno’s philosophy and intellectual life. In Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius, Claussen attempts to track the historical and biographical factors that influenced Adorno’s critical theory and, in doing so, strives to carefully reconstruct both the changing context and the abiding problematic that Adorno was attempting to grasp in and through his work.

The late 1960s witnessed an upsurge of student activism that culminated in massive strikes and demonstrations worldwide beginning in 1968 and extending into 1969, the year of Adorno’s death. Though they had learned much from him, the student New Left in this period strongly counter-identified against their teacher, Adorno, who typified for them the old and impotent Left they sought to supersede. Following the lead of Herbert Marcuse, who said just after Adorno’s death that “there is no one who can represent Adorno or speak for him,” Claussen does not engage in a critique of Adorno’s students and contemporaries on behalf of his former teacher, but attempts instead to allow Adorno to speak for himself by drawing from a huge array of intimate correspondence, diary entries, and assorted works, many of them previously unpublished. Claussen makes the point straight away that Adorno’s criticism of the New Left and the parting of ways between Adorno and Marcuse over the latter’s support for it was not exceptional but consistent with Adorno’s lifelong history of remaining true to the Left by criticizing it. Claussen notes that Adorno’s lectures around this time attempted to clarify how “the new is the longing for the new itself: that is what everything new suffers from” (327). It is for this reason that there must be an unrelenting differentiation between “representation for the purposes of agitation and practical reality” (336), something that the students failed to realize as the situation in 1968 escalated, and to which both Adorno and the student movement ultimately fell victim.

The young Theodor Adorno with his 'two mothers' in the garden pavilion

For Claussen, Adorno’s childhood growing up in a Jewish bourgeois household in Frankfurt is crucial for understanding him, and Claussen returns to it throughout the book. Adorno is portrayed as the last generation to know the “broken promises of happiness” of the long Bourgeois era, which, at “the end of the nineteenth century denie[d] tradition by inventing it” (52), specifically through the cultivation of individual interests. For Adorno this meant chiefly musical pursuits. Claussen contrasts the relationship that Adorno and his family had to their Jewish origins with that of his colleague Leo Lowenthal and mentor Siegfried Kracauer. While Kracauer and Lowenthal would describe themselves as “hybrids,” unable to reconcile tradition and secularized life, Adorno appeared to be relatively untouched by this dilemma. However, this tension between the lived Jewish experience and enlightened liberalism was not entirely arbitrary since, on Claussen’s reading of Adorno, bourgeois ideology found its necessary conclusion with the rise of National Socialism. Claussen makes the point that this attitude towards “bourgeois” culture and society conditioned Adorno’s work throughout his life; after his return to Germany in 1953 Adorno wrote, “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more of a threat than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy” (335).

Before the Nazis took power, Adorno studied in Vienna under Arnold Schoenberg, the radical modernist composer, during which time Adorno had to reconcile his growing interests in philosophy and sociology with the pursuit of music. Claussen tracks how this tension remained constant and informed his work throughout his life. Adorno was repeatedly “forced to insist that social categories could not simply be applied to musical material from the outside but had to be generated from the material itself” (113). In this way, issues of technique in musical production could be potentially critical of the social situation that produced it, albeit never in a direct, unmediated way. The failure to recognize this capacity in art left it to the mere pathological function of “veiling” social reality. Furthermore, Claussen points out that the project of the institute was to query the character of a culture whose task “is to conceal the regression into barbarism” without having recourse to the tradition of Marxist categories that functioned also as signals for Stalinist and McCarthyite suppression (202). Claussen notes that, even today, much of the critique of Adorno internalizes the apparent contradistinction between theory and practice, by which Adorno is made to appear as a failed musician turned theorist. Claussen then goes on to quote Adorno as saying, “because of biographical destiny and assuredly also because of certain psychological mechanisms I have not achieved nearly as much as a composer as I believe I could have achieved” (133). But this was not merely a lament on Adorno’s part. Rather, it is the attempt to register the damage inflicted on individual life by a form of social organization that is not adequate to itself.

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Beyond Adorno’s childhood and musical upbringing, Claussen illuminates the personal and professional difficulties that constantly confronted the intellectuals, grouped around Max Horkheimer, known as the Frankfurt School. Of Adorno’s exile in the United States during World War II, Claussen reports that Adorno found himself isolated and “out of the firing line” (the title of an essay he wrote), along with other Jewish intellectuals, as the systematic murder of Jews in Europe remained distant, if ever-present. Continue reading

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Mauer dreamstory

Agata Pyzik
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The following is an early draft from Agata Pyzik’s excellent book-length debut, Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes between East and West. I’m about halfway through writing a review of it, which I’ll probably pitch to Radical Philosophy or Art Margins. Everyone reading this should pick up a copy immediately. Pyzik’s interpretation of Possession and other films, reproduced below, is one of my favorite sections.
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(Cross-posted from Faces on Posters as well as
nuits sans nuit et quelques jours sans jour)


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I didnt want that to happen, but it did.

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“A woman who fucks an octopus” — that was the way Andrzej Żuławski pitched his 1980 film Possession to the producer, fresh after the success of his French film L’Important C’est D’aimer, about a fallen actress, played by a sad-eyed Romy Schneider, who is made to act in pornographic movies, surrounded by other failed artists, including an unusually melancholic, tender performance from Klaus Kinski. He was also right after the fiasco of his three-hour long monumental metaphysical SF On a Silver Globe (1978) — an adaptation of a futurological fin-de-siècle novel by his great-uncle, Jerzy Żuławski — pulled before completion by the hostile communist authorities and shelved until 1987, when only Żuławski had a chance to “finish” the film. Around that time, he was abandoned by his wife Malgorzata Braunek, actress in his Third Part of the Night and The Devil, due to his famously domineering and possessive personality as a partner and a director. Left in shock and depression, he started plotting a misogynist fairy tale about a monster…

The sleep of reason produces demons, and one of them materialized when Anna, living in West Berlin with her functionary nice husband and child in a neat, three-storey block estate, realized she despised her husband. She confesses that to him. The rest is what happens after that confession.

Possession was made in the golden era of the genre of exploitation, and it must be due to the communal genius that things conceived as forgettable schlock to this day shine with a magnificent mixture of the visceral and the metaphysical, with cinematography, colors, costumes and set design taken from a masterpiece. Argento and the lesser gialli creators, Jean Rollin with his erotic horror, the expansion of an intellectual SF, started and inspired Tarkovsky, all paved the way for Possession, a still unrivaled study of a marital break-up, thrown in the middle of political turmoil in divided cold war Berlin. Still, Possession had a special “career” in the UK, if by career we understand horrible reception, extremely negative reviews and eventually putting it to the “video nasties” list of banned films. “Film nobody likes,” it was deemed too arty for the flea pits and too trashy for the art house.*

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Today perhaps we can’t imagine what it was like to live in a city surrounded by barbed wire and under a constant look of armed guards. When we first see Anna, played by a disturbingly pale, un-Holy Mary-like Isabelle Adjani and Mark (Sam Neill), we instantly see something is terribly wrong: their windows are under constant scrutiny, and surrounded by wire — the symbol of political oppression just as of the marital prison, of conventional life. Continue reading

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Object lessons from the Bauhaus

Joan Ockman
Art in America
Dec. 1, 2009
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Bauhaus is the name of an artistic inspiration.

— Asger Jorn, letter to Max Bill, January 1954
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Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, but the meaning of a movement that represents a well-defined doctrine.

— Max Bill, letter to Asger Jorn, January 1954
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If Bauhaus is not the name of an artistic inspiration, it is the name of a doctrine without inspiration — that is to say, dead.

— Asger Jorn, letter to Max Bill, February 1954
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What was the Bauhaus really? The question has been raised repeatedly ever since Nazi agents raided the school in April 1933, precipitating its closure by the faculty a few months later. On the 90th anniversary of its founding, and the 20th of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, a major exhibition organized by three institutions in Germany,1 and now another at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have relaunched the debate. The answer proffered in MoMA’s “Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity,” assembled by Barry Bergdoll, curator of architecture and design, and Leah Dickerman, curator in the department of painting and sculpture, is that the Bauhaus was, above all, a new form of art education: a radically innovative and progressive school for artists and designers in the modern epoch. This is hardly revelatory, but it’s a valuable frame for rethinking the Bauhaus’ lessons for today. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue advance the argument that under each of its successive architect-directors — Walter Gropius (1919-28), Hannes Meyer (1928-30) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1930-33) — and in three locations — Weimar (1919-25), Dessau (1925-32) and Berlin (1932-33) — the Bauhaus brought together a diverse group of international artists, designers and architects in “a kind of cultural think tank for the times.”2

But if the Bauhaus may be said to have been the ultimate decantation chamber for early 20th-century modernity, it didn’t just emerge from Gropius’ head after World War I as a full-fledged idea. Nor did its afterlife in the various institutions and schools that carried forward its legacy over the remainder of the century play out neatly. The curators have made the decision not only to leave out its often messy pre- and post-history, but also to circumscribe most of the surrounding context, focusing narrowly on the school’s 14-year existence and its leading pedagogical figures and students. (The catalogue does a better job of situating the school’s development as well as some of its exemplary objects in relation to the cultural background, with many fine essays.) As Bauhaus scholars have amply documented, the roots of the school’s design reformism lay in the British Arts and Crafts Movement (especially as filtered into Germany in the first decade of the century by the architect, author and cultural ambassador Hermann Muthesius), the European Werkstätten and Werkbund movements, and the school’s immediate predecessor in Weimar, Henry van de Velde’s Kunstgewerbeschule, whose building also housed the Bauhaus during its initial phase. Pedagogically, the school’s anti-academic, experiential philosophy of learning, variously imparted by its different masters, also had well-established antecedents in 19th-century and early 20th-century progressive education movements, including those of Europeans Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, and Georg Kerchensteiner, as well as John Dewey in the United States. Arguably, what was unprecedented at the Bauhaus was neither the effort to forge a new unity between the fine and applied arts, nor even, subsequently, between esthetic practice and commercial production, but rather the school’s extraordinary gathering of creative talents in the service of these objectives. That it sustained this project for nearly a decade and a half with a total of 33 faculty and 1,250 students over the course of its life, all the while being threatened by reactionary political forces and destabilizing economic ones, is all the more remarkable. Even if the school’s efforts to bring its designs to the marketplace had checkered success, the widespread diffusion of its intellectual and pedagogical program remains a phenomenon. Apropos of the show’s title, it is worth emphasizing that the workshop per se is hardly a modern form of organization. It harks back to the medieval craft guilds or Bauhütten — brotherhoods of masons and other tradesmen that existed all over Europe from Gothic times, typically bound together by arcane social rituals and unified spiritually around architecture, or more precisely Baukunst, a monumental synthesis of the building arts. The instructors in the Bauhaus workshops, initially split up into formal and practical training, were known as masters rather than professors; students progressed from Lehrlinge (apprentices or trainees) to Gesellen (journeymen) to Jungmeister (young masters).

The transmission of knowledge on the model of the guild workshop also parallels the hieratic relationship between master and acolyte in a religious sect. That the Bauhaus was steeped in both these atmospheres—of craft and cult—in the immediate aftermath of World War I is richly conveyed in the exhibition, which opens with Lyonel Feininger’s famous woodcut made to accompany the school’s founding program. The crystalline image of a Gothic cathedral is charged with the same romantic-utopian afflatus that inspired the revolutionary socialism of several other cultural-political groups formed in the early months of the Weimar Republic, including the Workers Council for Art, the November Group and the circle of architectural fantasists brought together by Bruno Taut and known as the Glass Chain. Handcrafted products by the school’s bookbinding and pottery workshops, including a series of superb vessels by the future monk Theodor Bogler, as well as curious totems like a coffin designed by Lothar Schreyer and Marcel Breuer’s long-lost “African” Chair — a student project created in collaboration with Gunta Stölzl in the weaving workshop — likewise reflect an early Bauhaus whose metaphysical-material concerns were remote from the machine. Similarly, the Sommerfeld House, a log dwelling for a rich timber merchant and Bauhaus patron, realized in 1920-21 by Gropius with his partner Adolf Meyer, belongs to this late Expressionist mood. Represented in the exhibition by a series of original photographs and a colored drawing, the house was based on a system of wood prefabrication, and its construction was solemnized by a ritualistic topping-out ceremony (regrettably documented only by the invitation produced in the Bauhaus printing workshop). Inside, it was fitted with elaborately carved wall decorations, stained-glass windows and furnishings crafted by Joost Schmidt, Josef Albers, Breuer and other Bauhaus students in a Gesamtkunstwerk collaboration among all the workshops. The first of a series of “worksites,” the house inaugurated the on-site approach to teaching architecture that prevailed until the subject was finally integrated into the curriculum under department head Hannes Meyer in 1927. Along with his Märzgefallenen-Denkmal (Monument to the March Dead), 1921-22 — a cantilevered concrete “thunderbolt,” displayed in an early plaster model — the Sommerfeld House reveals a wholly different Gropius from the one associated with both the sachlich Fagus Factory of 1914, which made his early reputation as a functionalist architect, and the Bauhaus building to come in 1925-26 in Dessau.

The most visually arresting image from this period is an abstract painting by Johannes Itten titled Aufstieg und Ruhepunkt (Ascent and Resting Point), 1919. The canvas unexpectedly evokes the Parisian Orphism of the Delaunays or František Kupka, attesting to more complex cross-pollination across the modernist map than conventional narratives (and this show) suggest. The charismatic Itten, whose sacerdotal persona and haptic teaching methods made him the school’s most distinctive figure in these years, also inaugurated the famous Vorkurs in 1919. Subsequently modified under his successors, the half-year-long preliminary course was the portal to the workshops and would serve for most of the next decade as a fundamental initiation rite for every student entering the school. Continue reading

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Architecture in cultural strife: Russian and Soviet architecture in drawings, 1900-1953

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Originally published over at Metropolis magazine’s online edition. A longer, slightly more comprehensive version of the review appears below.

The exhibition “Architecture in Cultural Strife: Russian and Soviet Architecture in Drawings, 1900-1953” opened two weeks ago at the Tchoban Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Bringing together a total of 79 unique architectural delineations from this period, the show spans the twilight years of the Romanov dynasty up to Stalin’s death in 1953.

Pavel Siuzor, Dom Zinger (1902-1904) K.N. Rouchefort and V.A. Linskii, 1906-1907

One is immediately struck by the periodization, bookended as it is by the death of a major political figure on one side and the turn of the century on the other. In terms of historical events, the latter of these seems fairly arbitrary. Stylistically, however, the date makes a bit more sense. Around 1900, Russian architects began to emulate non-academic design movements originating abroad. What Jugendstil had been to Germany, Art Nouveau to France, Sezessionstil to Austria — so stil’ modern [стиль модерн] was to Russia. Modernist architecture (sovremennaia arkhitektura [современная архитектура], not to be confused with stil’ modern) was still a couple decades away, but Pavel Siuzor and Gavriil Baranovskii introduced the style to Petrograd with some success.

Not much happened in the fifteen years from 1905 to 1920, at least as far as architecture is concerned. Of course this was largely due to the turbulence of the time. Two wars, a string of social and military crises, and multiple political revolutions interrupted ordinary construction cycles, preventing anything like normality from taking shape. Meanwhile, the widespread destruction of the country’s built infrastructure wrought by years of bloody civil war created a demand for new projects to replace what had been lost.

Nikolai Ladovskii Communal House Experimental project for Zhivskulptarkh Moscow, USSR 1920 Pencil, colored pencil, and colored ink on tracing paper 40 x 21 cmIl'ia Golosov, Lenin House 1924

After conditions finally stabilized in 1922, an experimental phase set in. Inspired by revolutionary tendencies in the visual arts — by abstract painting and sculptural constructs — an architectural avant-garde began to take shape. Highly innovative research was conducted at schools like INKhUK and VKhUTEMAS/VKhUTEIN in Moscow, as well as the Academy of Arts and RABFAK in Leningrad. Students of architecture were encouraged to explore the possibilities of new materials and forms. The emerging Soviet avant-garde was hardly monolithic, however, despite certain popular depictions that represent the modernists as one homogenous bloc. While such simplifications are often expedient, even necessary, some nuance is inevitably lost along the way.

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The artist at work

Robin Treadwell
Platypus Review
February 1, 2014
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Book review:

Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013

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On a May night in 2012, Sotheby’s sold a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for 119.9 million dollars, setting a new record for the price paid for a single work of art. Meanwhile, union art handlers, locked out in a months-long dispute over a new contract, picketed the auction house along with Occupy Museums activists. While this sad little snapshot of art world disparity is not exactly new, the past few years have seen this type of excess thrown into sharp relief — against the background of the 2008 financial crisis and, to a lesser extent, the Occupy movement. Niche art blogs, art magazines, and more mainstream outlets are increasingly scandalized by the intersection of art and money, perhaps because it has become so glaring. For instance, last year Reuters’ finance blogger, Felix Salmon, wrote an outraged piece chiding a Citibank “research report” on the artist Gerhard Richter, complete with a graph tracking his auction prices and those of other blue-chip artists in comparison to the S&P 500.[1] In 2011, the New York Times published a lengthy expose of Ronald Lauder’s strategic donations of art to his own museum, the Neue Galerie, as a sophisticated tax evasion strategy.[2] Prominent art writer Jerry Saltz periodically chimes in on the subject, lately with complaints about the dominance and corrupting influence of “mega-galleries” such as Gagosian, a franchise with fourteen locations worldwide, calling them “too big not to fail.”[3] The legendary art critic Dave Hickey has opted out of the game altogether, preferring not to continue on as a member of the “courtier class”: “All we [art editors and critics] do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time,” he told the Observer.[4] Additionally, museums and other art institutions host a seemingly endless series of public forums, talks and panel discussions with titles such as “Materials, Money & Crisis” and “Art Against Reification.”

Artists, too, have long voiced concerns. The artist Andrea Fraser has made a career of institutional critique; her inclusion in the 2012 Whitney Biennial may be a sign of this particular genre’s renewed cachet. The Biennial is traditionally viewed as an indicator of the art world’s general mood, and in 2012 this mood was introspective art-about-art. The New York Times’ Roberta Smith praised the show for its avoidance of “usual suspects and blue-chip galleries,” going on to write that it “separates art objects from the market and moves them closer to where they come from, artists.”[5] Fraser’s contribution, an incisive essay titled “There’s No Place Like Home,” argues that art discourse, her own brand of institutional critique included, has itself become co-opted; moreover, it often serves as a way to avoid actually dealing with issues in a meaningful way — critique as a form of inoculation.

Despite all the hand-wringing over the economics of the art world, one rarely finds class mentioned, much less Marxism. This despite the fact that art theory still employs the language of (Marxist) cultural theory via the Frankfurt school — as Andrea Fraser puts it in the above-mentioned essay, the “broad and often unquestioned claim” is that “art in some way critiques, negates, questions, challenges, confronts, contests, subverts, or transgresses norms, conventions, hierarchies, relations of power and domination, or other social structures.”[6] One gets the sense, however, that the contemporary art world considers itself much too (post-)postmodern and sophisticated to seriously give credence to anything as reductive as Marxism. Yet there is clearly a yearning, at least in some quarters, for a more systematic way of addressing the situation art finds itself in at present.

Lucas the Elder, Luther as Professor, (1529)

Lucas the Elder, Luther as Professor, (1529)

This is the somewhat fraught atmosphere into which Ben Davis’ new book of essays, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, emerges. Davis, a self-identified Marxist and activist who was until recently the executive editor of Artinfo.com, wrote the title essay as a contribution to a show at Winkleman Gallery in Chelsea. The show, “#class,” was a response to yet another art world controversy, over a show at the New Museum devoted to the collection of a wealthy trustee, Dakis Joannou, and curated not by one of the museum’s staff, but by an art-star friend of Joannou, the much-loathed Jeff Koons. A numbered, cross-indexed series of declarative statements, which Davis originally taped to the gallery door a la Martin Luther, the essay stands out as the book’s boldest and most rigorous chapter:

Thesis 1.0: Class is an issue of fundamental importance for art.

1.1: Inasmuch as art is part of and not independent of society, and society is marked by class divisions, these will also affect the functioning and character of the sphere of the visual arts.

1.7: …a critique of the art market is not the same as a critique of class in the sphere of the visual arts. Class is more fundamental and determinate than the market. (27)

The essay’s central argument is that “the predominant character of this sphere [of the visual arts] is middle-class” (28). By this, Davis means that artists have a degree of authority over the conditions and, to some extent, products of their own work that wage-laborers, no matter how well-paid, do not; but that, unlike the ruling class, they are not “capital personified,” i.e., they pursue their work for more than simply profit. Continue reading