Fredric Jameson after the postmodern

Jameson’s style invites derision. Russell Jacoby once described his manner of writing as “a peculiar American baroque” — i.e., “a gray mash of half-written sentences punctuated by tooting horns and waving pennants,” “confounding rigor mortis with rigor.” Essays by Jameson are frequently ponderous, convoluted, and opaque. No other writer is so emblematic of contemporary Marxism’s professorial bent. Densely allusive, with many meandering asides, what Jonathan Arac called “the deliberate scandal of Jameson’s method” consists in its casual comparisons of a whole range of thinkers from across the European philosophical tradition.

Alberto Toscano might be seen as the legitimate successor to this method, along with Benjamin Noys and the late Mark Fisher (though these latter two are much more fluid writers). The theoreticism of their texts often leads readers far afield of the topic at hand, but by and large returns from these divagations enriched by the journey. One of the most brutal send-ups of Jameson’s work came from Robert Hullot-Kentor, whose approach to translation was praised at the outset of Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (1990). In a polemical review of this same book, “Suggested Reading: Jameson on Adorno,” Hullot-Kentor painted a very unflattering portrait of its author:

Fredric Jameson is one of the great tattooed men of our times. Every inch of flesh is covered: that web of cat’s cradles coiling up the right calf are Greimas and Levi-Strauss; dripping over the right shoulder, under the sign of the Cimabue Christ — the inverted crucifixion — hangs Derrida. And hardly recognizable in those many other overlapping splotches of color is just about everybody else: Lyotard, Sartre, Habermas, et al. “All One, All Different” scrolls across the panoramic chest. In Late Marxism Jameson scouts carefully before setting portentious digit on a densely engraved quadrate of his left hip, Adorno! and falls into a roll: “Adorno you will notice is like Althusser, only more like Sartre, except the idea of totality, in my opinion, as I’ll say again later, differs from Rorty, coming back to Luhmann, like Marxism, late, very late, minus Hegel’s concept of time. Perhaps, maybe, almost… Take another look, another look, just not too close, please, ladies and gentleman, give the man room to breathe!”

Still, if one can get past all the offhand references Jameson makes, the experience can be quite rewarding. Late Marxism was perhaps an unfortunate target for such ire, however — yes, “perhaps.” Hullot-Kentor’s caustic criticism of this work, though doubtless deserved, could have just as easily applied to Postmodernism or The Political Unconscious, released a few years before. And while it is understandable that Hullot-Kentor, the celebrated translator and interpreter of Adorno, would take Jameson to task on this subject, it was nevertheless bold for anyone to publish a defense of Adorno’s Marxist credentials in 1990. Whatever its other shortcomings may be, and they are many, Late Marxism is noteworthy at least in this respect. Especially given the Anglophone reception of Adorno up to that point, which apart from Susan Buck-Morss and Gillian Rose either ignored his Marxism or exaggerated its heterodoxy.

Regarding the rest of Jameson’s vast corpus, the stuff on periodization is probably what interests me the most. Modernity, postmodernity, and everything that comes in between. Aijaz Ahmad was right, of course, to scold Jameson for his overreach when it came to Third World literature, and Adorno was right to be skeptical of so-called “revolutions” taking place in the Third World. The sheer scope of his theoretical reading — not to mention his focus on film, literature, and architecture — is astounding. You can download a number of his works by clicking on the links below. Full-text PDFs only, since I don’t like E-books (for whatever reason):

  1. Fredric Jameson, Sartre: The Origins of a Style (1961)
  2. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971)
  3. Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (1972)
  4. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981)
  5. Fredric Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory (1988, 2008)
  6. Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (1990)
  7. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)
  8. Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (1992)
  9. Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (1994)
  10. Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (1998)
  11. Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998 (1998)
  12. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (2002)
  13. Fredric Jameson, “Dialectics of Disaster” (2002)
  14. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005)
  15. Fredric Jameson, Conversations on Cultural Marxism (2007)
  16. Fredric Jameson, The Modernist Papers (2007)
  17. Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (2009)
  18. Fredric Jameson, The Hegel Variations: On the Phenomenology of the Spirit (2010)
  19. Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (2011)
  20. Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (2015)
  21. Fredric Jameson, The Ancients and the Postmoderns (2015)
  22. Fredric Jameson, “The Aesthetics of Singularity” (2016)
  23. Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (2016)
  24. Fredric Jameson, “Badiou and the French Tradition” (2016)
  25. Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality (2016)

Below you can read an excellent review of Valences of the Dialectic by Benjamin Kunkel, originally published by the London Review of Books (and subsequently included in the Jacobin collection Utopia or Bust). Kunkel’s reviews of individual books tend to be skillful, if sweeping, overviews of a thinker’s entire oeuvre, and this one delivers well as far as that goes. He’s correct, in any case, that Jameson is more of an essayist than anything else. Enjoy!

Into the big tent

Benjamin Kunkel
London Review
April 22, 2010

Fredric Jameson’s preeminence, over the last generation, among critics writing in English would be hard to dispute. Part of the tribute has been exacted by his majestic style, one distinctive feature of which is the way that the convoy of long sentences freighted and balanced with subordinate clauses will dock here and there to unload a pithy slogan. “Always historicize!is one of these, and Jameson has also insisted, under the banner of “One cannot not periodize,” on the related necessity (as well as the semi-arbitrariness) of dividing history into periods. With that in mind, it’s tempting to propose a period, coincident with Jameson’s career as the main theorist of postmodernism, stretching from about 1983 (when Thatcher, having won a war, and Reagan, having survived a recession, consolidated their popularity) to 2008 (when the neoliberal program launched by Reagan and Thatcher was set back by the worst economic crisis since the Depression). During this period of neoliberal ascendancy — an era of deregulation, financialization, industrial decline, demoralization of the working class, the collapse of Communism and so on — it often seemed easier to spot the contradictions of Marxism than the more famous contradictions of capitalism, and no figure seemed to embody more than Fredric Jameson the peculiar condition of an economic theory that had turned out to flourish above all as a mode of cultural analysis, a mass movement that had become the province of an academic “elite,” and an intellectual tradition that had arrived at some sort of culmination right at the point of apparent extinction.

Over the last quarter-century, Jameson has been at once the timeliest and most untimely of American critics and writers. Not only did he develop interests in film, science fiction, or the work of Walter Benjamin, say, earlier than most of his colleagues in the humanities, he was also a pioneer of that enlargement of literary criticism (Jameson received a PhD in French literature from Yale in 1959) into all-purpose theory which made the discussion of all these things in the same breath established academic practice. More than this, he succeeded better than anyone else at defining the term, “postmodernism,” that sought to catch the historical specificity of the present age.

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Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

Jac­obin pub­lished an art­icle just over a week ago en­titled “Ali­ens, An­ti­semit­ism, and Aca­de­mia,” writ­ten by Landon Frim and Har­ris­on Fluss. “Alt-right con­spir­acy the­or­ists have em­braced post­mod­ern philo­sophy,” the au­thors ob­serve, and re­com­mend that “the Left should re­turn to the En­light­en­ment to op­pose their ir­ra­tion­al and hate­ful polit­ics.” While the ar­gu­ment in the body of the text is a bit more nu­anced, re­fer­ring to the uni­ver­sal­ist­ic egal­it­ari­an “roots of En­light­en­ment ra­tion­al­ity,” the two-sen­tence con­dens­a­tion above the byline at least has the vir­tue of blunt­ness. The rest of the piece is fairly me­dio­cre, as per usu­al, a rather un­ob­jec­tion­able point de­livered in a flat pop­u­lar style. Fluss and Frim strike me as ly­ing some­where between Do­men­ico Los­urdo and Zer­stö­rung der Ver­nun­ft-vin­tage Georg Lukács, minus the Stal­in­oid polit­ics. But the gen­er­al thrust of their art­icle is sound, draw­ing at­ten­tion to an­oth­er, more ori­gin­al cur­rent of thought that arises from the same source as the ir­ra­tion­al­ist ideo­lo­gies which op­pose it — i.e., from cap­it­al­ist mod­ern­ity. Plus it in­cludes some amus­ing tid­bits about this Jason Reza Jor­jani char­ac­ter they went to school with, whose ideas eli­cit a certain mor­bid fas­cin­a­tion in me. Gos­sip is al­ways fun.

Is it pos­sible to “re­turn to the En­light­en­ment,” however? Some say the past is nev­er dead, of course, that it isn’t even past. Even if by­gone modes of thought sur­vive in­to the present, em­bed­ded in its un­con­scious or en­shrined in prom­in­ent con­sti­tu­tions and leg­al codes, this hardly means that the so­cial con­di­tions which brought them in­to ex­ist­en­ce still ob­tain. One may in­sist on un­timely med­it­a­tions that cut against the grain of one’s own epoch, chal­len­ging its thought-ta­boos and re­ceived wis­dom, but no one ever en­tirely es­capes it. So it is with the En­light­en­ment, which now must seem a dis­tant memory to most. Karl Marx already by the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury was seen by many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies as a com­pos­ite of thinkers is­su­ing from the Auf­klä­rung. Moses Hess wrote en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally to Ber­thold Auerbach about the young re­volu­tion­ary from Tri­er: “You will meet in him the greatest — per­haps the only genu­ine — philo­soph­er of our gen­er­a­tion, who’ll give schol­asti­cism and me­di­ev­al theo­logy their coup de grâce; he com­bines the deep­est in­tel­lec­tu­al ser­i­ous­ness with the most bit­ing wit. Ima­gine Rousseau, Voltaire, Hol­bach, Less­ing, Heine, and Hegel fused in­to one per­son (I say fused, not jux­ta­posed) and you have Marx.” Though steeped in the an­cients, he was also a great ad­mirer of mod­ern po­ets and play­wrights like Shakespeare and Goethe. Denis Di­derot was Marx’s fa­vor­ite polit­ic­al writer.

Cer­tainly, Marx and his fol­low­ers were heirs to the En­light­en­ment project of eman­cip­a­tion. Louis Men­and has stressed the qual­it­at­ive break­through he achieved, however, along with En­gels and sub­se­quent Marx­ists. Ac­cord­ing to Men­and, “Marx and En­gels were phi­lo­sophes of a second En­light­en­ment.” What was it they dis­covered? Noth­ing less than His­tory, in the em­phat­ic sense:

In pre­mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life: people do things in their gen­er­a­tion so that the same things will con­tin­ue to be done in the next gen­er­a­tion. Mean­ing is im­man­ent in all the or­din­ary cus­toms and prac­tices of ex­ist­en­ce, since these are in­her­ited from the past, and are there­fore worth re­pro­du­cing. The idea is to make the world go not for­ward, only around. In mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are not giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life; they are thought to be cre­ated or dis­covered. The re­pro­duc­tion of the cus­toms and prac­tices of the group is no longer the chief pur­pose of ex­ist­en­ce; the idea is not to re­peat, but to change, to move the world for­ward. Mean­ing is no longer im­man­ent in the prac­tices of or­din­ary life, since those prac­tices are un­der­stood by every­one to be con­tin­gent and time­bound. This is why death in mod­ern so­ci­et­ies is the great ta­boo, an ab­surdity, the worst thing one can ima­gine. For at the close of life people can­not look back and know that they have ac­com­plished the task set for them at birth. This know­ledge al­ways lies up ahead, some­where over his­tory’s ho­ri­zon. Mod­ern so­ci­et­ies don’t know what will count as valu­able in the con­duct of life in the long run, be­cause they have no way of know­ing what con­duct the long run will find it­self in a po­s­i­tion to re­spect. The only cer­tain know­ledge death comes with is the know­ledge that the val­ues of one’s own time, the val­ues one has tried to live by, are ex­pun­ge­able. Marx­ism gave a mean­ing to mod­ern­ity. It said that, wit­tingly or not, the in­di­vidu­al per­forms a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a tra­ject­ory, and that mod­ern­ity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. His­tor­ic­al change is not ar­bit­rary. It is gen­er­ated by class con­flict; it is faith­ful to an in­ner lo­gic; it points to­ward an end, which is the es­tab­lish­ment of the class­less so­ci­ety.

Ed­mund Wilson like­wise saw this drama in nar­rat­ive terms. That is to say, he un­der­stood it as hav­ing a be­gin­ning, middle, and end. Wilson gave an ac­count of this dra­mat­ic se­quence in his 1940 mas­ter­piece To the Fin­land Sta­tion, for which Men­and wrote the above pas­sage as a pre­face. It began in Par­is in the last dec­ade of the eight­eenth cen­tury. (Per­haps a long pro­logue could also be in­cluded, in­volving murky sub­ter­ranean forces that took shape un­der feud­al­ism only to open up fis­sures that sw­al­lowed it whole). After this first act, though, a fresh set of dramatis per­sonae take the stage. Loren Gold­ner ex­plains that “it was not in France but rather in Ger­many over the next sev­er­al dec­ades that philo­soph­ers, above all Hegel, would the­or­ize the ac­tions of the Par­isi­an masses in­to a new polit­ics which went bey­ond the En­light­en­ment and laid the found­a­tions for the com­mun­ist move­ment later ar­tic­u­lated by Marx… This real­iz­a­tion of the En­light­en­ment, as the re­volu­tion ebbed, was at the same time the end of the En­light­en­ment. It could only be salvaged by fig­ures such as Hegel and Marx.” Bur­ied be­neath re­ac­tion, the lu­min­ous dream of bour­geois so­ci­ety would have to en­dure the night­mare of in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion be­fore ar­riv­ing with Len­in in Pet­ro­grad. Among Len­in’s first ex­ec­ut­ive acts after the Bolshev­ik seizure of power in Oc­to­ber 1917 was to or­gan­ize a Com­mis­sari­at of En­light­en­ment [Ко­мис­са­ри­ат про­све­ще­ния], where his sis­ter Maria would work un­der his long­time friend and com­rade Anato­ly Lun­acharsky.

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From James Joyce to Howdy Doody: Deconstruction and deindustrialization after 1968

Loren Gold­ner was an angry is­land of Marxi­an cri­tique sur­roun­ded in the 1980s and 1990s by a sea of post­struc­tur­al­ist and post­co­lo­ni­al hogshit. Even os­tens­ibly Marx­ist parties like the ISO in­tern­al­ized a lot of the re­lat­iv­ist garbage of this peri­od, however much they might claim to re­ject it.

I think Gold­ner is a bit un­fair in lump­ing the Frank­furt School in with all the oth­er stuff he dis­cusses in this es­say, but in terms of its re­cep­tion by the Anglo­phone academy he has a point. One might quibble with Gold­ner’s char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of this or that thinker, or some of his gen­er­al­iz­a­tions, but this is de­lib­er­ate and cal­cu­lated for po­lem­ic­al ef­fect.

This es­say was ori­gin­ally pub­lished in 2001, and can be read over at his web­site. I’ve taken the liberty of cor­rect­ing the vari­ous mis­spellings that ap­pear in it, and ad­ded first names of au­thors who might oth­er­wise seem a bit ob­scure. You should also check out his es­say on “The Uni­ver­sal­ity of Marx” re­pos­ted by Com­in Situ a few months back, an in­cis­ive cri­tique of Ed­ward Said and Samir Amin.

Foucault Deleuze SartreDeconstruction and deindustrialization
Ontological “difference” and the neoliberal war
on the social

Loren Goldner
Queequeg Press
January 2001

Art without know­ledge is noth­ing.
[Ars sine sci­en­tia ni­hil.

— Jean Mignot

It was 1971. We were in our early twen­ties and we were mad. After the seem­ing pre­lude to apo­ca­lypse we had just lived through, who, at the time, would have be­lieved that we were at the be­gin­ning of three dec­ades (and count­ing) in which, in the U.S. at least, mass move­ments would all but dis­ap­pear from the streets? Even today, the evan­es­cence of the world-wide mood of 1968 seems slightly in­cred­ible. The funk of 1971 turned Wordsworth on his head: “Ter­rible in that sun­set to be alive, but to be young was hell it­self.”

The “six­ties,” in their pos­it­ive im­pulse, were over. In the U.S., the mass move­ment in the streets of 1965 to 1969 was quickly turn­ing co­matose. The ul­tra-Sta­lin­ist Pro­gress­ive Labor Party cap­tured SDS (Stu­dents for a Demo­crat­ic So­ci­ety), but cap­tured only a corpse made up only of its own rap­idly-dwind­ling mem­bers. The stock mar­ket crashed, Penn Cent­ral went bank­rupt, and the fin­an­cial mar­kets seized up in a gen­er­al li­quid­ity crisis (it would not be the last). Not many people of the 1960s New Left paid much at­ten­tion to these eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ments at the time, and few­er still un­der­stood that they signaled the end of the post­war boom. But a sense of the end of something was in the air. The Decem­ber 1969 Alta­mont con­cert of the Rolling Stones had turned ugly, as the Hell’s An­gels guard­ing the band­stand had beaten a young black man to death with pool cues. The Chica­go po­lice murdered Black Pan­ther Fred Hamp­ton in his sleep. Charles Man­son’s col­lect­ive had earli­er murdered preg­nant act­ress Shar­on Tate and oth­er party­go­ers in the Hol­ly­wood hills, leav­ing a fork in Tate’s stom­ach, and the Weather­men made the fork in­to a sym­bol of struggle at their next con­fer­ence. Some Weather­men, in turn, blew them­selves up in a Green­wich Vil­lage pent­house, though Ber­nad­ine Dohrn and the oth­ers would con­tin­ue to plant more bombs and to put out their de­men­ted mani­fes­tos for some time af­ter­ward. The postal work­ers struck mil­it­antly and the gov­ern­ment sent the Na­tion­al Guard — fu­tilely — to de­liv­er the mail be­fore cav­ing to the strike. Nix­on and the U.S. mil­it­ary in­vaded Cam­bod­ia; the Team­sters wild­cat­ted in Clev­e­land and else­where; the Na­tion­al Guard unit which had con­fron­ted the Team­sters went on to Kent State with little sleep and killed four anti-war stu­dents. A na­tion­al stu­dent strike fol­lowed, but it was (sig­ni­fic­antly) taken over in many places, for the first time in years, by left-lib­er­als who tried to turn its en­ergy to lib­er­al Demo­crat­ic polit­ics for the fall 1970 elec­tions. Huey New­ton, head of the Black Pan­ther Party (BPP), was re­leased from jail in sum­mer 1970, an­noun­cing at the en­su­ing press con­fer­ence his in­ten­tion to “lead the struggle of the people to a vic­tori­ous con­clu­sion,” ap­par­ently un­aware (after serving 2½ years on man­slaughter charges for killing an Oak­land cop) that the “struggle of the people” in the U.S. was, for the fore­see­able fu­ture, fold­ing up the tent. The sleaze and rot of the end of the six­ties were not a pretty sight: Tim Leary, the former P.T. Barnum of LSD, held pris­on­er by the break­away Eldridge Cleav­er fac­tion of the BPP in Al­gi­ers; the burnt-out meth freaks scroun­ging spare change; the grim de­term­in­a­tion, in dour New Left mi­lieus, to “smash” everything bour­geois.

More dif­fusely but with more of a fu­ture, at least in the pro­fes­sion­al middle classes, the “new so­cial move­ments” were gath­er­ing mo­mentum: wo­men re­jec­ted their second-class roles every­where in so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing in the 1960s New Left; gays rode the mo­mentum of the 1969 Stone­wall ri­ots; an im­port­ant minor­ity of blacks and Lati­nos moved in­to the middle class through af­firm­at­ive ac­tion pro­grams, the Club of Rome re­port on Lim­its to Growth and the Rock­e­feller-backed Zero Pop­u­la­tion Growth gave the eco­logy and en­vir­on­ment­al move­ments (and more dif­fusely, a good part of so­ci­ety) the Malthu­s­i­an agenda they have nev­er really shaken off.

The fol­low­ing es­says were writ­ten over more than two dec­ades, yet they form a con­tinu­ous whole, even if it is one that only fully emerged over time. They were writ­ten “against the grain” of much of the ideo­logy of the past fifty years, above all in its left and far left guises, that might be sum­mar­ized with the term “middle-class rad­ic­al­ism.” While much of middle-class rad­ic­al­ism may have seemed, over the course of the 20th cen­tury, to over­lap with the Marxi­an project of com­mun­ism, they are as ul­ti­mately op­posed as Max Stirner and Mikhail Bak­un­in on one hand and Karl Marx and Rosa Lux­em­burg on the oth­er. One might use the Hegel­i­an term “neg­a­tion of the neg­a­tion” to de­scribe the former and the Feuerba­chi­an term “self-sub­sist­ing pos­it­ive” to de­scribe the lat­ter. The “fault line” between one and the oth­er is pre­cisely Marx’s re­lo­ca­tion of the “cre­at­ive act of trans­form­a­tion” with­in man’s re­la­tion­ship to nature, what the “Theses on Feuerbach” call sinn­liche umwälzende Tätigkeit or “sen­su­ous trans­form­at­ive activ­ity.” The fault line is moreover between Hegel’s view of nature as the realm of “re­pe­ti­tion,” as “bor­ing,” and Marx’s view of hu­man his­tory, and man’s his­tory in the trans­form­a­tion of nature, as the trans­form­a­tion of the laws of nature them­selves in his cri­tique of Malthus’ the­ory of pop­u­la­tion. In the lat­ter view, nature and nat­ur­al laws them­selves be­come his­tor­ic­al. “An an­im­al only pro­duces its own nature,” Marx wrote in 1844, “but hu­man­ity re­pro­duces all of nature.” An an­im­al is a tool; a hu­man be­ing uses tools. Hegel epi­tom­ized the “state civil ser­vant” view of his­tory, with his idea that the Prus­si­an mon­arch and his bur­eau­crats per­formed uni­ver­sal labor, where­as Marx pre­cisely trans­poses the idea of uni­ver­sal labor, i.e. cre­ativ­ity, to man’s sen­su­ous activ­ity with­in nature, an ex­ten­sion of nat­ur­al his­tory. This “uni­ver­sal labor” of course ex­ists only frag­ment­ar­ily and ab­stractly with­in cap­it­al­ism, scattered among the dif­fer­ent parts of the (pro­duct­ive) work­ing class, and some parts of the sci­entif­ic and tech­nic­al strata. But these frag­ments, along with oth­ers from in­tel­lec­tu­al and cul­tur­al life, are in­dis­pens­able fu­ture parts of a fu­ture activ­ity “as all-sided in its pro­duc­tion as in its con­sump­tion” which Marx, in the Grundrisse, sees as the su­per­ses­sion of the cap­it­al­ist work/ leis­ure an­ti­nomy in com­mun­ism.

Fol­low­ing in the same vein, one might just as suc­cinctly coun­ter­pose middle-class rad­ic­al­ism and Marxi­an so­cial­ism as fol­lows: middle-class rad­ic­al­ism con­ceives of free­dom as “trans­gres­sion,” as the break­ing of laws, the “re­fus­al of all con­straints,” as the Situ­ation­ist In­ter­na­tion­al put it more than thirty years ago, where­as the Marxi­an project of com­mun­ism con­ceives of free­dom as the prac­tic­al solu­tion of a prob­lem­at­ic which evolved the­or­et­ic­ally from Spinoza and Leib­n­iz to Kant, Hegel, and Feuerbach as the trans­form­a­tion of laws, up to and in­clud­ing the phys­ic­al laws of the uni­verse, man’s unique “Pro­methean” ca­pa­city. More than 150 years ago, Marx, in his cri­tique of the middle-class rad­ic­al­ism of the Young Hegel­i­ans, said that for Bauer, Hess, and Stirner the sci­ence, tech­no­logy, and hu­man his­tory of prac­tic­al activ­ity in nature was only “mass, mere mass,” to use the jar­gon of the day. For most of the West­ern left, far left, and ul­traleft which emerged from the 1960s, these phe­nom­ena are shown the door with the up­dated (and es­sen­tially Weberi­an) Frank­furt School man­tra “dom­in­a­tion, mere dom­in­a­tion.” For the middle-class rad­ic­al, “neg­a­tion of the neg­a­tion” view, the prob­lems are “hier­archy,” “au­thor­ity,” “dom­in­a­tion,” and “power”; for the Marxi­an com­mun­ist view, the prob­lems are the project of the ab­ol­i­tion of value, com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, wage labor, and the pro­let­ari­at (the lat­ter be­ing the com­mod­ity form of labor power with­in cap­it­al­ism). From these lat­ter the “neg­a­tion of the neg­a­tion” prob­lem­at­ic is en­tirely re­cast, re­formed and su­per­seded, and its heavy over­lay of bour­geois ideo­logy — free­dom con­ceived without the trans­form­a­tion of ne­ces­sity — dis­carded.

What is truly ap­palling today in large swaths of the left and far-left in the West is the will­ful il­lit­er­acy in the cri­tique of polit­ic­al eco­nomy. Per­haps even more ap­palling, and closely re­lated, is the will­ful il­lit­er­acy, bore­dom and hos­til­ity where sci­ence and nature are con­cerned. It is cer­tainly true that the “cri­tique of polit­ic­al eco­nomy” can some­times be al­most as bor­ing as polit­ic­al eco­nomy it­self, bet­ter known today un­der its still more ideo­lo­gic­ally con­tem­por­ary name of “eco­nom­ics.” We re­call Marx writ­ing to En­gels (in 1857!) say­ing that he hoped to have done with the “eco­nom­ic shit” with­in a year or two. I my­self have stud­ied “eco­nom­ic ques­tions” for years, and have also spent years in re­cov­ery from the no­vo­cained, ashes-in-the mouth feel­ing brought on by ex­cess­ive ex­pos­ure to the “dis­mal sci­ence” — or even to its cri­tique.

But this is something rather dif­fer­ent than a cer­tain mood of the past thirty-five years, a mood whose cul­min­a­tion to date is the post­mod­ern, “cul­tur­al stud­ies” scene that has filled up book­stores with its ni­hil­ist pun­ning, its “white males nev­er did any­thing but rape, pil­lage, and loot” the­ory of his­tory, and its ig­nor­ant “everything and every­one is tain­ted” pro­jec­tions onto everything and every­one in some pot­ted no­tion of the West­ern “tra­di­tion.” This is the world view of de­mor­al­ized up­per middle-class people en­sconced in fash­ion­able uni­versit­ies, largely ig­nor­ant of the real his­tory of the fail­ure (to date) of the com­mun­ist project for a high­er or­gan­iz­a­tion of so­ci­ety, as­sum­ing that the his­tor­ic­al and in­tel­lec­tu­al back­wa­ter en­gulf­ing them is the fi­nal product of hu­man his­tory.

All this can be cri­tiqued and re­jec­ted on its own terms. It goes hand-in-hand with an ever-linger­ing “mood” which as­serts that there was nev­er any­thing his­tor­ic­ally pro­gress­ive about cap­it­al­ism, a mood so per­vas­ive that it does not even both­er to ar­gue the case, since it re­jects out of hand the idea of pro­gress — lin­ear, non-lin­ear, or oth­er­wise — and there­fore the ques­tion is fore­closed be­fore it even comes up. Once the idea of an or­gan­iz­a­tion of so­ci­ety su­per­i­or to cap­it­al­ism is re­pu­di­ated, cap­it­al­ism it­self ap­pears to the post­mod­ern­ists as un­prob­lem­at­ic, just as it is to the rest of bour­geois ideo­logy. While some post­mod­ern­ists might stop short (though God knows why) of one French Heide­g­geri­an’s call to “bring the in­hu­man in­to the com­mons” [don­ner droit de cit(c) a l’in­hu­main], their un­der­ly­ing world out­look eas­ily moves to­ward the same re­pu­di­ation of the tired word “hu­man­ism.” This coun­ter­pos­i­tion sur­faced in the 1987-1988 Heide­g­ger and De Man con­tro­ver­sies in such for­mu­la­tions as “Is Nazism a Hu­man­ism?” [Le Nazisme est-il un Hu­man­isme?] The ar­gu­ment was as fol­lows. Hu­man­ism was the West­ern meta­phys­ic of the “sub­ject,” cul­min­at­ing in Hegel and re­shaped by Marx. Trapped in and con­sti­tuted by the meta­phys­ics of “pres­ence,” the re­duc­tion of everything to a “rep­res­ent­a­tion” (im­age), hu­man­ism was the ideo­logy of the sub­jec­tion — the PoMos would of course write (sub­ject)ion — of the en­tire earth to “rep­res­ent­a­tion,” in what Heide­g­ger called the world­wide dom­in­a­tion of “tech­no­lo­gic­al ni­hil­ism.” Ni­et­z­sche had already ar­rived at im­port­ant an­ti­cip­a­tions of this ana­lys­is. For a cer­tain, “post-1945” (!) Heide­g­ger, Nazism had cul­min­ated this drive to “tech­no­lo­gic­al ni­hil­ism.” (When he was a Nazi, up to 1945, Heide­g­ger had gamely ar­gued that lib­er­al cap­it­al­ism was the cul­min­a­tion of “tech­no­lo­gic­al ni­hil­ism.”) The French Heide­g­geri­ans thus ar­gued that Nazism was a hu­man­ism in its drive to com­plete West­ern “tech­no­lo­gic­al ni­hil­ism,” and that the ap­par­ently Nazi Heide­g­ger, by at­tempt­ing to “de­con­struct” hu­man­ism, was thereby “sub­vert­ing” Nazism. Mean­while, of course, the op­pon­ents of Nazism, of whatever polit­ic­al stripe, were trapped in “hu­man­ism” and there­fore trapped on Nazism’s ter­rain, sim­il­arly fa­cil­it­at­ing the world­wide vic­tory of “tech­no­lo­gic­al ni­hil­ism.” One could pre­sum­ably count an old hu­man­ist such as Lux­em­burg (had she not been murdered in 1919 by proto-Nazis, abet­ted by So­cial Demo­crats) as someone else con­fusedly trapped in “tech­no­lo­gic­al ni­hil­ism,” hav­ing died a bit too early to ap­pre­ci­ate Heide­g­ger as the real op­pon­ent of Nazism. Continue reading

Reform and revolution in the age of online “social justice” campaigns

I’ve been trying to lay off pop culture political commentary these past few weeks, fearing that writing yet another article about the poverty of intersectionality theory or Flavia Dzodan and the narcissism of “identity” might distract me from more worthy ventures. But sometimes History itself intervenes and moves one to respond — that is,  if History can still be said to be happening (which it isn’t). Twitter activist Suey Park’s half-baked reflections on “reform and revolution” were bound to strike a chord with me. As an admirer of Rosa Luxemburg and her contribution to Marxist discourse on this subject, I couldn’t help but feel dismayed at the way these terms were being thoughtlessly bandied about, emptied both of content and relevant context. (Parks insists that “context” isn’t important, but that’s really besides the point).

Maybe I should be more forgiving, and regard Park’s political and historical illiteracy as the result of mere ignorance rather than deliberate effrontery, a cynical ploy to raise her profile as a leading voice for the oppressed. She did manage to land an interview conducted by the mainstream leftish media outlet Salon, after all. Enough equivocation, though. Here are her thoughts on the perennial dichotomy of reform versus revolution, from the viral marketing genius who brought us #notyourasiansidekick:

SALON: What is the best way to work with white people, to get them on our side?

SUEY PARK: I don’t want them on our side.

SALON: You don’t?

SUEY PARK: This is not reform, this is revolution.

SALON: So what do you want to see happen in your revolution?

SUEY PARK: I mean it’s already happening I think. The revolution will not be an apocalypse, it’s gonna be a series of shifts in consciousness that result in actions that come about, and I think that like, at this point is really like, ride or die, in terms who’s in and who is out. I don’t play by appeasement politics, it is not about getting my oppressors to humanize me. And in that sense I reject the respectability politics, I reject being tone-policed, I think we need to do away with this idea that these structures are…that the prisons can undergo reform and somehow do less violence as a structure.

Without claiming to be an authority on the matter, this is something I’ve actually written a lot about. So I hope the reader will excuse me if I share my perspective, fully aware that my arguments might fall short or fail to convince.

One doesn’t need to insist upon rigid designation or fixed points of reference to demonstrate that Park’s interpretation of “revolution” evacuates the word of any meaning it might have once possessed. This isn’t about positing some changeless synchronic language where words always just mean one thing and nothing else irrespective of shifting usage and convention. It’s about a specific (conservative) adaptation to changed political circumstances, a rationalization of defeat. For Park’s redefinition of revolution as “a series of shifts in consciousness resulting in actions that come about” is not simply an attempt to bring the concept up to date, to show what “revolution” might mean in the 21st century. Rather, it expresses deeper misgivings about the pervasive helplessness felt throughout contemporary politics, but in a way which occludes the possibility of its overcoming. Because radical social transformation no longer seems imaginable, Park’s rebrands revolution as something that’s already happening anyway. Much like Chávez’s “21st century socialism,” this basks in fresh air of postmodern ahistoricity, reassuring everyone that they’re remaining faithful to the good old cause while abdicating any real responsibility to the immense practical tasks set by that revolutionary socialism in the past. Continue reading

The artist at work

Robin Treadwell
Platypus Review
February 1, 2014

Book review:

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

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, 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

“…the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject” — Stuart Hall, 1932-2014

Stuart Hall, the British Marxist and cultural theorist, died today. He was the author of numerous articles on Marxism, cultural identity, Thatcherism, and the politics of difference. Below is posted an extract of his brief 1989 article on “New Ethnicities,” in which he discusses “the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject.” This was, as my friend Dakota Brown pointed out, a provocation that has largely gone unanswered since it was first announced (indeed, largely unanswered by Hall himself). While I don’t share Hall’s predilection for Gramscian notions of “hegemony” and the “war of maneuver,” having long since been assimilated into the mainstream of cultural politics, he at least recognized the potential danger of such concepts leading to “a sort of endlessly sliding discursive liberal-pluralism.” Moreover, Hall discusses the often problematic encounter between “black politics” and postmodernism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. All these have been discussed recently on this blog, and so I’m here republishing this excerpt.

[The politics of representation] is a complex issue. First, it is the effect of a theoretical encounter between black cultural politics and the discourses of a Eurocentric, largely white, critical cultural theory which in recent years, has focused so much analysis of the politics of representation. This is always an extremely difficult, if not dangerous encounter. (I think particularly of black people encountering the discourses of poststructuralism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, and feminism). Secondly, it marks what I can only call “the end of innocence,” or the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject. Here again, the end of the essential black subject is something which people are increasingly debating, but they may not have fully reckoned with its political consequences. What is at issue here is the recognition of the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences and cultural identities which compose the category “black”; that is, the recognition that “black” is essentially a politically and culturally constructed category, which cannot be grounded in a set of fixed transcultural or transcendental racial categories and which therefore has no guarantees in Nature. What this brings into play is the recognition of the immense diversity and differentiation of the historical and cultural experience of black subjects. This inevitably entails a weakening or fading of the notion that “race” or some composite notion of race around the term black will either guarantee the effectivity of any cultural practice or determine in any final sense its aesthetic value.

We should put this as plainly as possible. Films are not necessarily good because black people make them. They are not necessarily “right-on” by virtue of the fact that they deal with black experience. Once you enter the politics of the end of the essential black subject you are plunged headlong into the maelstrom of a continuously contingent, unguaranteed, political argument and debate: a critical politics, a politics of criticism. You can no longer conduct black politics through the strategy of a simple set of reversals, putting in the place of the bad old essential white subject, the new essentially good black subject. Now, that formulation may seem to threaten the collapse of an entire political world. Alternatively, it may be greeted with extraordinary relief at the passing away of what at one time seemed to be a necessary fiction. Namely, either that all black people are good or indeed that all black people are the same. After all, it is one of the predicates of racism that “you can’t tell the difference because they all look the same.” This does not make it any easier to conceive of how a politics can be constructed which works with and through difference, which is able to build those forms of solidarity and identification which make common struggle and resistance possible but without suppressing the real heterogeneity of interests and identities, and which can effectively draw the political boundary lines without which political contestation is impossible, without fixing those boundaries for eternity. It entails the movement in black politics, from what Gramsci called the “war of maneuver” to the “war of position” — the struggle around positionalities. But the difficulty of conceptualizing such a politics (and the temptation to slip into a sort of endlessly sliding discursive liberal-pluralism) does not absolve us of the task of developing such a politics.

Persecutedness euphemized as “difference”

Elif Batuman, from “Get
a real degree” (9.23.2010)
London Review of Books

The law of “find your voice” and “write what you know” [in creative writing programs] originates in a phenomenon perhaps most clearly documented by the blog and book Stuff White People Like: the loss of cultural capital associated with whiteness, and the attempts of White People to compensate for this loss by displaying knowledge of non-white cultures. Hence Stuff White People Like #20, “Being an Expert on Your Culture,” and #116, “Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore.” Non-white, non-college-educated or non-middle or upper-class people may write what they know, but White People have to find the voice of a Vietnamese woman impregnated by a member of the American army that killed her only true love.

The situation is summed up in [Mark] McGurl’s construct of the “World Pluribus of Letters” (a play on the critic Pascale Casanova’s “World Republic of Letters”):

While the citizen of the Republic of Letters disaffiliates from the nation in order to affiliate with art, the citizen of the World Pluribus of Letters disaffiliates from…the super-nation, in order to reaffiliate with a utopian sub-nation, whether that be African or Asian or Mexican or…Native American…The expression of formerly enslaved, immigrant or indigenous populations, these subnational cultural interventions…forge symbolic links to an international literary space which is not, however, the space of universal literary values but a pluralized…space of decolonized global cultural difference.

The World Pluribus of Letters has replaced a primary standard of “universal literary value” with a primary standard of persecutedness, euphemized as “difference.” It seems strange to me that McGurl, who sees the situation so clearly, seems not to view it as a problem. Perhaps his status as a White Person prevents him from objecting to the ideals of the Pluribus. But my hardworking immigrant parents didn’t give me a funny name and send me to Harvard for nothing, so I’m going to go ahead and say how damaging I think this all is. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing about persecution, for either the persecuted or the non-persecuted, there is a genuine problem when young people are taught to believe that they can be writers only in the presence of real or invented sociopolitical grievances.

This really is the message that some young people take from the [creative writing] program, as we learn in a quotation from the Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street, 1984):

Until Iowa I had never felt my home, family and neighborhood unique or worthy of writing about. I took for granted…the strange speech of my neighbors, the extraordinary lives of my family and relatives which was nothing like the family in Father Knows Best…What could I write about that my classmates, cultivated in the finest schools in the country like hothouse orchids, could not? …What did I know that they didn’t? …What did I know except third-floor flats…that’s precisely what I chose to write: about third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands throwing rocks through windows…anything as far from the poetic as possible.

There is nothing objectionable in a young writer plumbing her childhood and family for literary material. It isn’t even a huge problem that poor people have been a “poetic” subject since at least Romanticism. But I was deeply depressed to learn from McGurl that Cisneros here is making “canny use of an operational paradox involved in…the ‘wound culture’ of the contemporary US: a paradoxically enabling disablement.” Continue reading

The oppression ouroboros: Intersectionality eats itself

Jason Walsh

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

— Macbeth, Act V, Scene V

For those of you lucky enough to live the real world, which is to say having no connection to academia, the Left, or Twitter, what follows may seem obscure to the point of being obtuse. Sadly it is neither.

Richard Seymour, a former junior intellectual in the Socialist Workers’ Party turned majordomo of the International Socialist Network, has been censured by his own organization. His crime? Defending “race play,” a form of racialized and sadistic sexual role playing. That he would even mount such a defense, according to his fellow intersectionalists, means Mr Seymour is racist. Anyone who pays attention to such things cannot but find it darkly comic. Mr Seymour himself has shown little mercy in the past, denouncing many of his opponents as beyond the pale. As the intersectionalists themselves might well say: “Wow. Such schadenfreude. Very gloating.” But the anathematizing of one ex-Marxist is just one short chapter in the development of an ideology so toxic that it threatens to drive a wedge into mainstream political discourse.

Intersectionality, devised in the late 1980s by UCLA law scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is a theory of justice that’s been embraced by the radical left since the 2008 financial crisis. Though initially the theory was mostly influential in post-Apartheid South Africa, intersectionality proposes, modestly enough, that disadvantage — which its proponents call oppression — comes in many forms, forms that intersect with one another, not only compounding each other but dividing the interests of the oppressed. So, a black woman may be oppressed by white feminists, a black feminist herself may be oppressing gay women and all of them may be oppressing transsexual women. Since then it has taken up residence in university departments, particularly though far from exclusively, in the United States. Popular in social science and cultural studies, it has spread to disciplines as seemingly unrelated as literature, and, of course, is rapidly becoming dominant in gender studies.

So far, so what? Well, were this simply another academic fashion or cranky far left displacement activity it wouldn’t matter a jot. Its importance lies in the fact that not only does it specialize in the application of guilt and silencing through deploying epithets such as racist, misogynist, and homophobe, thus going some way toward making sincere debate impossible, but also because it fits so perfectly, not into radical politics, but into US-style social liberalism.

There are a number of factors that differentiate intersectionality from previous far left identity politics, such as the radical feminism of the 1970s or Eurocommunism of the 1980s. For a start the liberals, for want of a better word, got there first. Leaving aside the Gramsciite/Eurocommunist (in the UK) and New Left (in the US) antecedents of the theory, the core of intersectionality isn’t much more than multicultural babble, arranging pyramids of oppression, complaining of privilege, and clamoring for “recognition.” It’s for this very reason that it took off so rapidly: liberal-minded people were already receptive to the core idea. It thrives in academia for similar reasons: the dominance of “theory,” particularly postcolonial, critical, and Gramsciite, et al, and the thoroughgoing destruction of truth performed by the now passé postmodernists (who seem mild by comparison). Intersectionality is the tyranny of good intentions, bent badly out of shape. Continue reading

Architecture and social structure

Originally published as part of MAS Context‘s “In Context” section. You can read the full piece over at Iker Gil’s elegantly designed website for the journal, including some pieces I curated from its back issues along new narrative lines.

Architecture today is, first and foremost, a social product. Not just in the sense that it’s constructed by means of a complex, global division of labor (though this also), but at an even more basic level — it both embodies and envisions certain relations between men, as well. Make no mistake of it, however. In no way should this be taken to imply that architecture is produced for the sake of society. Quite the opposite. Like any other commodity, a building comes about socially, through the productive agency of groups and individuals working together. But this work is directed toward ends fundamentally alien to itself; its purpose is not to benefit society or edify mankind but rather serve as a site for the accumulation of capital. Either that, or the built object merely rematerializes that which already floated up from the base, ideological figments and fragments that have outlived the historical conditions from which they arose. These now nestle into mortar, stone, and brick. All that melted into air is made solid once more.

Of course, none of this is to say that great architecture can’t be produced under capitalism. Hardly anything could be further from the truth. The architectural legacy of the modern age is at least as impressive as that which preceded it — whether one begins, as Kaufmann did, with the French revolutionary architects of the eighteenth century, or reaches further back, like Tafuri, to the city-states of the Italian Renaissance. Modernism itself was nothing but the self-conscious attempt to take hold of the forms and forces unleashed by modernity, as the spirit of the times comprehended in concrete. Continue reading

Stalinism in art and architecture, or, the first postmodern style

Book Review:

Boris Groys’ The Total Art of Stalinism

Vladimir Paperny’s Architecture in
the Age of Stalin: Culture Two


Originally published by Situations: Project for the Radical Imagination (Vol. V, No. 1). You can view a free PDF of the document here.

Last year, the English translations of two major works of art and architectural criticism from the late Soviet period were rereleased with apparently unplanned synchronicity. A fresh printing of Vladimir Paperny’s Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two (2002, [Культура Два, 1985]) was made available in June 2011 by Cambridge University Press. Verso Books, having bought the rights to the Princeton University Press translation of Boris Groys Total Art of Stalinism (1993 [Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, 1988]), republished the work in a new edition. This hit the shelves shortly thereafter, only two months after Paperny’s book was reissued.

Each book represents an attempt, just prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse, to come to grips with the legacy of its artistic and architectural avant-garde of the 1920s, as well as the problematic character of the transition to Socialist Realism and neoclassicism in the mid-1930s, lasting up until Stalin’s death in 1953. Not only do Paperny’s and Groys’ writings follow a similar trajectory, however: they intersect biographically as well. The two authors knew each other prior to their emigration from the USSR and still maintain a close personal friendship. But their arguments should not for that reason be thought identical. Paperny began his research much earlier, in the mid-1970s, and Groys’ own argument is clearly framed in part as a polemical response to his colleague’s claims.

Left: Vladimir Paperny, painted by Diana Vouba;
Right: Boris Groys painted by Luca Debaldo

Both can be seen to constitute a reaction, moreover, to the dull intellectual climate of official academic discourse on the subject during the Brezhnev era. In his introduction to the English version of Paperny’s book, Groys recalls the “background of almost total theoretical paralysis” against which it first appeared in 1979. “[I]t felt like breathing fresh air in the stale intellectual atmosphere [of Moscow] at the time,” he wrote.1 Indeed, Eastern Marxism’s most talented aesthetic theorists after the expulsion of Trotskii were by and large conservatives — the repentant Georg Lukács or his equally repentant protégé Mikhail Lifshits, each an apologist for the Zhdanovshchina and hostile to modernism. After destalinization commenced in 1956, following Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” the tables were turned. Socialist realism and neoclassicism were out; the heroic avant-garde movements of the 1920s were back in (albeit in the diluted, vulgarized form typical of Khrushchev). With the rise of Brezhnev in the mid-1960s, the thaw came to a close. But full-fledged Stalinism was not reinstated, at least not in the realms of art or architecture. Now neither alternative — modernism nor Stalinism — appeared in a particularly favorable light. That they had existed was accepted on a purely factual basis, as part of the historical record. Expressing an opinion on either, however, much less an interpretation, was generally considered unwise. Continue reading