Against kitsch criticism

Not to be elit­ist or de­lib­er­ately “high brow,” but I feel like the ana­lys­is of pop cul­ture phe­nom­ena has more than run its course in left­ist circles. Or rather, be­ing op­tim­ist­ic, it’s be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to sep­ar­ate the wheat from the chaff, to sift genu­ine in­sights from a sea of banal­it­ies. Per­haps the real cri­terion is time, see­ing wheth­er or not a giv­en work or series stands up to re­valu­ation after a few years. At least then, once philo­sophy’s painted its gray on gray, there’s some sense of bal­ance and per­spect­ive. Did movie x or y truly cap­ture something of the cul­tur­al Zeit­geist? Is it still rel­ev­ant today? Hence the more qual­ity re­flec­tions tend to ar­rive only after the fact, like Agata Pyzik’s “Mauer Dream­story” (on An­drzej Żuławski’s 1981 film Pos­ses­sion) or Fre­dric Jameson’s “Real­ism and Uto­pia in The Wire (on the hit show by Dav­id Si­mon).

Writers for The New In­quiry and even Jac­obin would do well to re­vis­it an old es­say by Har­old Rosen­berg on “kitsch cri­ti­cism,” which ex­am­ines that odd situ­ation where a piece of writ­ing or com­ment­ary comes to re­semble the ob­ject it sup­posedly cri­tiques: dull, eph­em­er­al, and ul­ti­mately for­get­table. Ori­gin­ally pub­lished in Dis­sent back in 1958, and later re­pub­lished in Rosen­berg’s in­flu­en­tial col­lec­tion The Tra­di­tion of the New, it ob­serves that

[o]ne of the grot­esquer­ies of present-day Amer­ic­an life is the amount of reas­on­ing that goes in­to dis­play­ing the wis­dom secreted in bad movies while prov­ing that mod­ern art is mean­ing­less. Yet it is noth­ing else than the in­tel­lec­tu­al­iz­a­tion of kitsch.

Un­like his con­tem­por­ary, Clem­ent Green­berg, who would prob­ably agree with him that end­less in­quir­ies in­to mass cul­ture are a waste of time, Rosen­berg did not think that kitsch could be elim­in­ated by simply cham­pi­on­ing mod­ern art. “There is no coun­ter­concept to kitsch,” he main­tained. “Its ant­ag­on­ist is not an idea but real­ity. To do away with kitsch it is ne­ces­sary to change the land­scape, as it was ne­ces­sary to change the land­scape of Sardin­ia in or­der to get rid of the mal­ari­al mos­quito.” Neither by del­ic­ate de­mys­ti­fic­a­tion nor po­lem­ic­al an­ni­hil­a­tion can kitsch be re­moved.

So please, lay off the art­icles al­tern­ately de­clar­ing “Death to the Gamer” or stand­ing “In De­fense of Gamers,” or dreck about how Break­ing Bad is some­how ra­cist or the black fam­ily sit­com is in ter­min­al de­cline. Lana Del Rey is cool, and I even like some of her songs, but ded­ic­at­ing a whole is­sue of a magazine to the Kul­turkritik of her latest al­bum just seems to me like the­or­et­ic­al overkill.

I say this as someone who ap­pre­ci­ates many of the clas­sic stud­ies of film, tele­vi­sion, and mass me­dia con­duc­ted by Ben­jamin, Ad­orno, Barthes, and oc­ca­sion­ally some even today. For their sake, if not for mine, knock it off.

Just a brief up­date, Decem­ber 2016: For whatever reas­on, the amount of “cri­ti­cism” writ­ten in this vein has only in­creased. Sam Kriss is a very tal­en­ted writer, of­ten an in­sight­ful crit­ic. But his calls to “smash the force” (i.e., “[the latest Star Wars is] not just in­fant­ile bour­geois ul­traleft­ism; it’s Blan­quism in space”) and “res­ist Pokémon Go (i.e., “this form [of game] de­mands a par­tic­u­lar type of en­gage­ment, that of a vi­cious, sticky-fingered child”) fall flat. Kriss has done pop cul­tur­al cri­tique quite well in the past, one need only look at his bril­liant sen­dup of Hildebeast in “Just Plain Nasty” for proof of this fact. If you’re look­ing for a funny and un­ex­pec­tedly com­pel­ling in­ter­pret­a­tion of Star Wars, check out “The Rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion of Luke Sky­walk­er: One Jedi’s Path to Ji­had” in­stead.

The politics of work

Platypus Review
December 2013
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Robert Pollin, Stanley Aronowitz, Jason Wright

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On September 20 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion entitled The Politics of Work for the Rethinking Marxism conference at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The discussion was moderated by Reid Kotlas of Platypus. The panelists were asked to respond to a prompt of ten questions that included provocative quotations by Joan Robinson, Fredric Jameson, and André Gorz. This prompt asked each panelist to consider the adequacy of the Left’s historic and ongoing attempts to understand and transform social relations of work and unemployment.

What follows is the edited version of the ensuing conversation. A full recording of the event is available online.
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Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labour: it is a book about unemployment.

— Fredric Jameson, Representing
Capital: A Reading of Volume One

The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.

— Joan Robinson

The error consists in believing that labor, by which I mean heteronomous, salaried labor, can and must remain the essential matter. It’s just not so. According to American projections, within twenty years labor time will be less than half that of leisure time. I see the task of the left as directing and promoting this process of abolition of labor in a way that will not result in a mass of unemployed on one side, and aristocracy of labor on the other and between them a proletariat which carries out the most distasteful jobs for forty-five hours a week. Instead, let everyone work much less for his salary and thus be free to act in a much more autonomous manner.…Today “communism” is a real possibility and even a realistic proposition, for the abolition of salaried labor through automation saps both capitalist logic and the market economy.

— André Gorz

Opening remarks

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Robert Pollin:
 Since we are a Marxist conference I’m going to start with Karl Marx. I love the quote from Jameson, which I had never seen before: “Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labor: it is a book about unemployment.” I think there is a profound truth to that. Not only is chapter 25 of volume 1 about the reserve army of labor and, as far as I know, the first serious analysis of unemployment as a phenomenon, of the necessity for massive unemployment to exist in order for capitalism to function; but also, the arguments Marx makes in chapter 25 are not the only place in which he is talking about unemployment, which is why I love the Jameson quote. That chapter links up with the entire theory of the labor theory of value and extraction of surplus from labor because, in a full employment economy (in the absence of mass unemployment) the working class has more political power, which of course is what Marx explains. When the working class has more political power and has the capacity to bargain up their wages, that means their rate of surplus value declines. You could think of that as offering a fundamental challenge to the prerogatives of capital and its ability to extract surplus from workers. So Marx was the first great theorist of unemployment. Whether the whole book is about unemployment, as Jameson says, is a debate, but Jameson is certainly making a deep point, maybe the deepest insight in the whole of Capital.

If we take the great theorists of unemployment, we go from Marx, certainly, to Keynes. Keynes’ view on unemployment was, very briefly, that this is a solvable problem within capitalism and we need to understand the technical means to control aggregate demand and instability in the investment process due to the power of Wall Street and speculation. Once we can control those, we can tame worst excesses of capital, we can increase public investment and as such, we can organize capitalism around the idea of full employment. So that is obviously a direct challenge to Marx’s notion that unemployment is fundamental to the operations of capitalism. Continue reading

Notes on “critical regionalism”

An ideological critique

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Image: Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo
town hall in Finland (1952)
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Frampton’s appropriation of Frankfurt School critical theory in his writings on architectural history is fairly typical of its reception by liberals in the Anglophone West. Still, this is often to be preferred to the uses that have been made of it by many so-called “radicals” within contemporary continental philosophy. Even then, Frampton is exceptionally skilled at identifying some of the central issues and thematics that concerned the critical theorists, and conveys them with remarkable accuracy and lucidity. In the introduction to his landmark Modern Architecture: A Critical History, he writes:

Like many others of my generation I have been influenced by a Marxist interpretation of history, although even the most cursory reading of this text will reveal that none of the established methods of Marxist analysis have been applied. On the other hand, my affinity for the critical theory of the Frankfurt School has no doubt colored my view of the whole period and made me acutely aware of the dark side of the Enlightenment which, in the name of an unreasonable reason, has brought man to a situation where he begins to be as alienated from his own production has from the natural world.[1]

Nevertheless, despite Frampton’s adept deployment of these concepts in his historical inquiries, a number of critics have found his own, positive architectural program — “critical regionalism” — rather problematic. Beginning in the 1980s, Frampton began speaking of critical regionalist models as furnishing “an architecture of resistance.” This he defined as “a cultural density which under today’s conditions could be said to be potentially liberative in and of itself…”[2]

Alvar Aalto,  Säynätsalo town hall (1952)

Alvar Aalto, Säynätsalo town hall (1952)

While the main political signifier for Frampton was in this case clearly “resistance,” critical regionalists such as Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre (who originally coined the phrase) stressed “identity” as the center around which a counterweight to globalization could be organized.[3] To be sure, though, “identity” carried connotations of political resistance as well. Continue reading

An interview with Dean Whiteside on Marxian Musicology

Conducted by C. Derick Varn

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Image: Large bust of Lenin next to
a smaller bust of Beethoven

After listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, Lenin added sadly: “I’m often unable to listen to music, it gets on my nerves. I’d like to stroke my fellow beings and whisper sweet nothings in their ears for producing such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. However, today one shouldn’t caress anybody — for people will only bite off your hand.” Georg Lukács, Lenin: A study in the unity of his thought (1920)
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Originally posted on The (Dis)loyal Opposition to Modernity blog. Please follow and subscribe to it.

Dean Whiteside studies music theory as a conductor at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. He has an interest in reintegrating music theory with materialism.

C. Derick Varn: The debates on aesthetics and Marxism have often been framed in terms of visual arts and in terms of music. This, perhaps, is the legacy of Theodor Adorno. Do you see Adorno as a primary entry point to Marxist musicology?

Dean Whiteside: It is not enough to say that Adorno was partial to music. For Adorno, the mutual dependency between musical and critical thinking cuts both ways. For this reason, many of Adorno’s deepest thoughts work through the relation between music and conceptual thinking. Adorno claims that German music and philosophy constituted a single system since the time of Kant and Beethoven. Adorno has a critical take on this relationship. His method is deeply historical and sensitive to the ways in which music embodies the antagonisms of bourgeois capitalist society, especially its fissures and points of non-identity. Left at that, Adorno would be suggesting merely another way to think about the relationship between music and society. But his inquiry is deeper: he wants to interrogate the social truth content of music itself. Music does not lie outside of capital, nor does it provide a safe haven from instrumental reason, but it also isn’t reducible to them: it’s a mode of thinking about what is contradictory and unarticulated within the world. Through music we discover the possibility of thinking about thought insofar as thought finds itself sublated within musical form, often through the concepts and signs which have the most authority over us, especially basic ones like repetition and self-identity. Thought is saved from the fate of merely smashing its face repeatedly against a mirror: its redemption lies in the broken and bloody shards on the floor — music, if you will (certainly Neue Musik). Conceptual thinking then faces the burden of making sense of its own broken image. The anxiety which neue Musik causes us is that we don’t recognize ourselves in the fragments. Thought’s return to itself must overcome a moment of mis-recognition. Many listeners don’t get past the initial: “WTF, that’s not me!” Their reaction is wrong but understandable. Obversely, Adorno wants to problematize the moment of false recognition that bourgeois listeners experience while listening to Mozart or Beethoven. Adorno insists that Beethoven’s music is Hegelian philosophy in a truer form than Hegel’s philosophy itself could ever be. This is not an analogy. He maintains that although we can no longer write music like Beethoven, we should still think and act like Beethoven’s music. This amounts to an ideal of praxis which I think Adorno himself only occasionally lives up to. His failings are usually on the side of musical theory, namely a simplistic understanding of tonality and harmony. So to answer your question, yes and no. Continue reading

Reconstruction of Mies van der Rohe's monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt (1925-1926)

Architecture: A social and political history since 1848

Ross Wolfe & Sammy Medina

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Image: Reconstruction of Mies van der Rohe’s monument
to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt (1925-1926)

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What follows is an extended write-up of the Ruins of Modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the twentieth century event submitted to the German magazine Phase II for possible translation and publication.

Victor Hugo once proclaimed the death of architecture at the hands of the printing press. “Make no mistake about it,” he wrote in his Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Architecture is dead, dead beyond recall; killed by the printed book.”[1] In drawing this analogy, Hugo was trying to make a broader point about the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism in European history — traditions symbolized by the grandeur of the Gothic cathedral (“architecture”) and the vernacular of the delatinized Bible (“the printed book”), respectively. But Gutenberg’s invention carried a still-greater significance vis-à-vis architecture. It granted an almost infinite technical reproducibility to texts that had hitherto been manuscripts, copied out by hand. With the advent of lithography — and, shortly thereafter, photography — a similar process was set in motion in the proliferation of images. Music was conveyed through the grooves of the phonograph record, mediated and assembled from a hundred separate studio takes, and unmarred by the immediacy and accidence of live performances. Toward the fin-de-siècle, the Lumière brothers’ cinema reels captured the moving image, beaming light across the hushed theaters of Europe. More generally, the nineteenth century saw an across-the-board increase in the automation of industrial production, and a corresponding standardization and typification of the commercial articles (commodities) thereby produced. The arts, following the articles, were duly transformed along with them.

Architecture was a relative latecomer to this tendency toward standardization and industrialization. Both as a discipline and a profession, architecture lagged behind the other applied arts. But even when such modernizing measures were finally instituted, many of the field’s most innovative and technically reproducible designs were cordoned off from the realm of architecture proper, dismissed as works of mere “engineering.” With the opening of the twentieth century, however, fresh currents of thought arose to lend architecture a new lease on life. Avant-garde architects emulated developments that had been taking place in both the visual arts (Cubism, Futurism) and scientific management of labor (Taylorism, psychotechnics), advocating greater geometric simplicity and ergonomic efficiency in order to tear down the rigid barrier dividing art from life. “Art as model for action: this was the great guiding principle of the artistic uprising of the modern bourgeoisie, but at the same time it was the absolute that gave rise to new, irrepressible contradictions,” recounted the Italian Marxist Manfredo Tafuri, in his landmark 1969 essay “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology.” “Life and art having proved antithetical, one had to seek either instruments of mediation…or ways by which art might pass into life, even at the cost of realizing Hegel’s prophecy of the death of art.”[2] Most of the militant members of the architectural avant-garde sought to match in the realm of aesthetics the historical dynamism that the Industrial Revolution had introduced into society. Machine-art was born the moment that art pour l’art died. Aleksei Gan and the Bolshevik Constructivists declared uncompromising war on art (1922),[3] and the Dadaists George Grosz and John Heartfield enthusiastically announced in 1920: “Art is dead! Long live the machine-art of Tatlin!”[4]

The modernists’ historic project consisted in giving shape to an inseparable duality, wherein the role of architecture was deduced as simultaneously a reflection of modern society as well as an attempt to transform it. Amidst the tumult and chaos that shook European society from the Great War all the way up through the Great Depression, revolutionary architects of all countries united in opposition to the crumbling order of bourgeois civilization, attaching themselves to radical political movements. Many joined the camp of international communism — such as the second Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer, the French designer André Lurçat, and the Czech poet and architectural critic Karel Teige, as well as a whole host of Soviet architects and urbanists. Some fell into the more nondenominational Social-Democratic parties of Europe: planners like the Austrians Oskar Strnad, Josef Frank, and the anti-fascist Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who oversaw the construction of Rotes Wien between 1918 and 1934, the famed German architects Ernst May (mastermind of the Neues Frankfurt settlement) and Ludwig Hilberseimer, and the Belgian socialist Victor Bourgeois, vice-president of CIAM (Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne). Others joined an anti-bourgeois ideological tendency of a rather more barbaric political bent, like the modernist and ardent Mussolini supporter Giuseppe Terragni.

With the rising tide of fascism throughout Europe — first Italy, then Germany, Austria, and Spain — radical members of the international avant-garde were faced with the question of how (and, perhaps more importantly still, where) their architectural legacy might be preserved. A stark choice confronted them: Russia or America? “In the Old World — Europe — the words ‘America’ and ‘American’ conjure up ideas of something ultraperfect, rational, utilitarian, universal,” observed the Soviet artist El Lissitzky, in a 1925 article on “‘Americanism’ in European Architecture.” Despite America’s technological and economic superiority, however, Lissitzky suggested it lacked the revolutionary social and political base to adequately realize the modernists’ aims. He continued: “Architects are convinced that through the new design and planning of the house they are actively participating in the organizing of a new consciousness. They are surrounded by a chauvinistic, reactionary, individualistic society, to whom these men, with their international mental horizon, their revolutionary activity and their collective thinking, are alien and hostile…That is why they all follow the trend of events in [the Soviet Union] so attentively and all believe that the future belongs not to the USA but to the USSR.”[5] Indeed, not long thereafter, as if to confirm Lissitzky’s hunch, the celebrated German expressionist architect Erich Mendelsohn recorded in a letter: “[The Bolsheviks] make a basic revolution but they are bogged down by even more basic administration. They look to America but…all the possibilities are here, as you know. But this new structure needs a broad base on which to rest, from which to summon up its strength. Everywhere there are those knowledgeable and active people who have always given the hungry mass a new understanding of their freedom, of the goal of all freedom and of man himself.” Many of the proponents of modern architecture thus believed that the future lay somewhere between the glass and steel skyscrapers of New York and the revolutionary vanguardism of the Soviet project. Two years later, Mendelsohn exclaimed that “from buildings I deduce history, transition, revolution, synthesis. Synthesis: Russia and America — the future of Utopia!”[6] The foremost representative of European modernism, Le Corbusier, concurred with this view: “Poets, artists, sociologists, young people, and above all, those who have remained young among those who have experienced life — all have admitted that somewhere — in the USSR — destiny has allowed [universal harmony] to be. One day, the USSR will make a name for itself materially — through the effectuality of the five-year Plan. Yet the USSR has already illuminated the entire world with a glimmer of dawn, of a rising aurora.”[7] Corbusier did not at all exaggerate in making this claim. At the invitation of the Soviet government, European and American architects were drawn en masse to assist in the building of socialism.[8] Continue reading

Three models of “resistance”

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Image: Ferdinand Schmutzer,
Portrait of Sigmund Freud (1926)

2. The “resistance” of humanity to its own self-conscious transformation

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Go to Three models of “resistance” — Introduction
Go to Three models of “resistance” — 1. The “resistance” of the world to humanity’s conscious attempts to transform it

The second major historical conceptualization of “resistance” examined in this essay comes by way of psychoanalysis directly, rather than through the indirect affinity between Freud’s reality principle and Dilthey’s account of the reality of the external world.  Indeed, Freudian analysis largely hinges on the various forms of resistance the analyst encounters in trying to disembed layers of repressed experience buried in the patient’s unconscious: “[The] opposition…during psychoanalytic treatment…against our effort to transform what is unconscious into what is conscious…is what we perceive as resistance.  We…[name the] pathogenic process demonstrated by this resistance…repression.”[36]

Here the operative concept is the “resistance” — whether conscious or unconscious — of the subject (and more specifically the ego)[37] to the task of working through its own past, which has been systematically repressed.  Once again, this resistance expresses an extreme conservatism.  In part, the subject avoids revisiting its own history because it finds many of its experiences traumatic and disturbing.  But the patient is not simply afraid of its past.  It is also afraid of its future.  The subject is gripped by a primitive urge for self-preservation, and balks at the prospect that it might potentially become something other than what it already is.  Having fallen in love with the symptoms of its own unfreedom, the analysand stubbornly resists the idea of living without them.

This notion of “resistance,” I submit, corresponds to the work of figures like Karl Korsch, Georg Lukács, and above all Wilhelm Reich early in their careers.  Each of these thinkers sought to digest the legacy of the international workers’ movement in the aftermath of its defeat between 1917 and 1923.  Following the spectacular series of capitulations, conciliations, schisms, and betrayals that shook the Second International in the decades leading up to World War I, all three authors came to the conclusion that the greatest obstacle to the proletariat’s emancipation was the proletariat itself — or more precisely, its inability to “work through” its own reified forms of consciousness.  For the emancipation of the working class was to be self-emancipation.  The “resistance” thus encountered was no longer that of the world maintaining itself against the actions of humanity.  In this case, the “resistance” was instead that of humanity in preserving its present condition of unfreedom against the challenge of fulfilling its destiny. Continue reading