This paper proposes and develops a theoretical approach, supported by a creative illustration, to a political aesthetics. It is proposed that, in the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the project of a Marxist or radical Left aesthetic theory may be revived to investigate and also potentially inspire cultural production opposed to capitalist ideology. I draw on the theories of thinkers Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Jacques Ranicère and Alain Badiou to outline one possible development of such a prism. Benjamin, Adorno, Ranicère and Badiou are in many ways very dissimilar thinkers, and their perspectives on art are at times at odds with one another. It is precisely due to their disagreements that I have chosen to combine a number of the key themes of these thinkers’ aesthetics, to advance a more comprehensive, inclusive approach. In the spirit of Marxism’s dialectical Hegelian foundations, it is the aim of this paper to produce an overview of a possible radical aesthetic theory and poetics through juxtaposing and pressurising counterposing perspectives which share an oppositional stance apropos of capitalist cultural hegemony.
Keywords: materialist – dialectical – commodity – sensible – subtraction – universal – poetry
A Historically Inevitable Aesthetics?
The series of financial crises resulting from the bursting of the American real estate economic bubble—often referred to as the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC)—have had profound economic and political consequences. In addition to plunging the United States into the nation’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the GFC is also the main cause of the so-called Eurozone Crisis, which has entailed the crippling of debt-ridden economic systems, accompanied by political and social unrest, in a number of countries in Europe; and it may also be seen as a factor contributing to the explosive upheavals of the so-called Arab Spring.
One of the most obvious and perhaps inevitable cultural and intellectual outcomes of the crises has been the revival of interest in modern capitalist economic systems’ foremost critic and opponent, the 19th century German philosopher and socialist Karl Marx. According to the Guardian newspaper, ‘sales of Das kapital, Marx's masterpiece of political economy, have soared ever since 2008, as have those of The communist manifesto and the Grundrisse’ (Jeffries 2012). Marx’s crisis theories have been viewed as amongst the most effective frameworks for elucidating the causes and implications of the GFC. According to Richard D. Wolff, Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst:
Marxian analyses are now resurfacing in public dialogues about economy and society. A generation of marginalisation is fading as a new generation discovers the diverse richness of the Marxian tradition’s insights. Just as an economic crisis in 1848 helped to provoke and shape Marx’s original insights, today’s crisis helps to renew interest in Marxism. (Wolf 2010: n.p.)
Marx’s concept of immiseration, for example, may be seen as a cogent explanation of the decline in real incomes and the rise in debt precipitating the bursting of the US housing bubble; a concept explicated with force and clarity in The communist manifesto, Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels’ ground-breaking 1848 publication:
The modern labourer … instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of his existing class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. (Marx & Engels 1992: 32)
This paper is a contemplation on the possibility of an artistic perspective that breaks with the ‘over-riding law’ of capitalist culture. It is my view that, concurrent with the renewed interest in Marx’s economic theories, there exists the contingency and perhaps the necessity for renewing the project of a Marxist aesthetic theory to account for and inform artistic practices that aim to radically resist and rupture the cultural dimension of the capitalist system. Although Marx did not produce a sustained or clearly identifiable poetics or aesthetic theory, his views have been crucial in instigating the aesthetic thought of the thinkers of the Left inspired by Marx’s radical critique of bourgeois capitalism. From the many prominent figures of this grouping of thinkers, I have chosen to consider the theories of the German Marxists Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, and contemporary French philosophers Jacques Ranicère and Alain Badiou, a choice inspired by my observation that these thinker’s ideas apropos of aesthetics are amongst the most influential and succinct articulations of a Marxist perspective on art. Drawing on some of the key tenets of these thinkers’ aesthetic perspectives, this article proposes an approach to art that breaks with the dominant artistic logic of capitalist culture. In the spirit of a dialectical method, it is hoped that the divergences and disagreements between these thinkers contribute towards a considerate and compelling view which is inclusive of these thinkers’ differences and attentive to their insights.
Benjamin and Adorno: Poetry as Commodity
My selection of theoretical perspectives in this paper is informed by my past and ongoing engagements with the writings of the abovementioned thinkers, and also by Robert Kaufman’s (2012) insightful entry on the ‘Frankfurt School’ in the current edition of The Princeton encyclopaedia of poetry and poetics. As Kaufman has noted, as two of the central figures of the group of Marxist intellectuals associated with Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research,
Benjamin and Adorno especially underscore that not only literature but precisely literature’s ostensibly most subjective, individualist, ephemeral, fragile literary phenomenon–modern lyric poetry–illuminates human beings’ historical and existential experience of (and capacity to judge and thus challenge) capitalist society. (Kaufman 2012: 519)
As Kaufman has noted, one of Benjamin’s key works on poetics is the thinker’s 1938 essay, ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’. In this essay, Benjamin develops a view of the 19th century French poet according to Marx’s theory of commodification. Benjamin sees Charles Baudelaire as a poet whose ‘abrupt break with l’art pour l’art was of value to him only as an attitude. It permitted him with the latitude which was at his disposal as a man of letters’ (Benjamin 2006: 59). This attitude has a fundamentally material genesis, situated in the social and economic materiality of the city of Paris:
The assimilation of a man of letters to the society in which he lived took place on the boulevard ... On the boulevard he spent his hours of idleness, which he displayed before people as part of his working hours. He behaved as if he had learned from Marx that the value of commodity is determined by worktime needed from society to produce it. (61)
This view of the poet as a producer of a commodity is in strong agreement with Marx’s theses, as explicated in Capital, according to which ‘that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour-time socially necessary for its production’ (Marx 2008: 16); and ‘the value of commodities has a purely social reality, and that they acquire this reality only in so far as they are expressions or embodiments of one identical social substance, viz., human labour’ (23). Furthermore, according to Benjamin, the poet ‘knew the true situation of the man of letters: he goes to the marketplace as a flâneur—ostensibly to look around, but in truth to find a buyer’ (2006: 66).
This materialist view of the poet as the producer of a commodity with a definable exchange-value radically demystifies the aura of ‘the man of letters’ as the creator of something with an indeterminable worth, and reintroduces the work of art as a fragment of a social—as opposed to classical or poetic–scene. According to this work of Benjamin’s, against dominant bourgeois perspectives which falsely and insincerely posit artistic production with ideologically motivated cultural evaluation (such as l’art pour l’art or the common view of Baudelaire as a cryptic, decadent obscurantist), the poem is first and foremost a matter of material production—a composition of linguistic signs and their immediate, socially determined referents—and an object with a material designation. This conception of art presents the work as that which names, and by so doing unmasks, its own process of commodification and enables the artist to directly address and engage with the material and social reality of a culture.
As Kaufman has noted, Benjamin’s ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’ was famously criticised by the thinker’s fellow Frankfurt School philosopher and friend, Theodor Adorno. Adorno critiqued Benjamin’s view as overly materialistic and devoid of a dialectical, contrarian or critical explanation of art. According to Adorno, Benjamin’s focus on the social materiality of the poem as an exchange commodity is bereft of what Marx saw as any commodity’s immaterial, fetish dimension. Key to Marx’s view of commodity is ‘the whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities’ (Marx 2008: 47)—a magic which is unavoidable when, under capitalism, people ‘reduce their individual private labour [use-value] to the standard of homogeneous human labour [exchange-value]’ (2008: 49).
In other words, Benjamin’s presentation of Baudelaire as a socially engaged ‘man of letters’ (a man who uses the raw material of existing letters to produce new letters to be read/consumed in the ‘marketplace’ of literary transaction) stops at what Marx has described as the commodity’s initial appearance. According to Marx, ‘a commodity appears, at the first sight, a very trivial thing and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ (2008: 42). According to Adorno, Benjamin’s thesis precludes an account of the poem’s ineradicable ‘metaphysical’ and ‘theological’ dimensions which accompany the materialisation of any product, which Marx calls a ‘Fetishism which attaches itself to the product of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities’ (2008: 44).
For Adorno, the lack of an account of a work of art’s metaphysical, negative or dialectical relationship with its physical actuality, reduces the work to a mere signifier or replication of capitalist superstructures, and deprives the poem of a truly critical or antagonistic possibility. He writes in a 1935 letter to Benjamin:
The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather, it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness. This means, however, that consciousness or unconsciousness cannot simply depict it as a dream, but respond to it in equal measures with desire and fear. But it is precisely this dialectical power of the fetish character that is lost in the replica realism (sit vernia verbo) of your present immanent version of the dialectical image. (Adorno et al 2007: 111)
It is perhaps, as Kaufman has suggested, as a consequence of Adorno’s critique that Benjamin’s later writings on Baudelaire take account of the ‘desire and fear’ of the poet’s ‘attitude’. Whereas in the 1938 essay the poet is seen as more or less a person producing linguistic objects from the linguistic materiality of his/her environment, in Benjamin’s 1939 essay ‘On some motifs in Baudelaire’, the poet is portrayed as someone whose work has a clearly emotional—or, in Marx’s terms, ‘very queer’ and ‘necromantic’—approach to their linguistic immanence:
Baudelaire has portrayed [his] condition in a harsh image. He speaks of a duel in which the artist, just before being beaten, screams in fright. This duel is the creative process itself. Thus Baudelaire placed the shock experience at the very centre of his artistic work. (Benjamin 1992: 159)
‘Fright’ and ‘shock’ turn the poem’s nomination and application of sociolinguistic signs from—in Adorno’s sense—a ‘simple depiction’ to a ‘duel’ between the poet and his/her condition. This means that the poem is both material and dialectical: it both presents capitalist ideology which aims to obfuscate the reality of commodification and exploitation, and contradicts and challenges this obfuscation. One may find a similar theme in Adorno’s own view of the poet Paul Celan, whose ‘poetry is permeated by the shame of art in the face of suffering that escapes both experience and sublimation. Celan’s poems want to speak out of the most extreme horror through silence’ (Adorno 1970: 322).
The combination of Benjamin’s and Adorno’s perspectives would call for an art that is situated in the materiality of communication and of language in the modern, capitalist society; an art which also negates the fetishistic or awed dimension of this immanence. This negation, while termed as a kind of silence by Adorno, is not literally wordless: it is silent in that it rejects a certain affect and reverential attitude produced by the noise of economic and cultural transactions. This rejection takes the form of a contradictory, negative attitude, one that is shameful and harsh. The voice of the radical poet, while speaking in the language of life under the tutelage of capitalism, is not inflected with delight and pride in the ability to speak. It is instead characterised by bleakness and screams in fright.
Rancière and Badiou: the Universality of a People
I believe the theoretical perspective that results from my combining Benjamin’s and Adorno’s ideas and arguments from the first part of the 20th century—which I would term as a properly dialectical materialist poetics—advocates an aesthetics of immanence and contradiction. (This combination will be demonstrated in the example of creative practice at the end of this article). Seen as a poetics, this prism would encourage a radicalised art which directly engages with the world through its materiality and immediacy and yet at the same time challenges the world through its ‘harsh’ or antagonistic attitude towards its condition.
Such an aesthetic may be seen as compelling as a reading strategy for a number of iconoclastic works of literature—particularly those produced by the Leftist avant-gardes of early 20th century—and also possibly effective as an aspect of a poetics for producing new, anti-capitalist work. I would, however, like to supplement this dialectical materialist aesthetics with the ideas of two living philosophers whose works not only update but also enhance the thoughts of earlier Marxist thinkers.
While the Benjaminian view of the poet as a social producer does promote the possibility of an art conversant with the non-artistic lives of the people in a given society, Adorno’s emphasis on antagonism may be viewed as too heavily invested in an audience’s/readership’s thorough familiarity with the artistic practices which the works oppose. In my opinion, a truly radical art must be opposed to the populism of culture industries, but it should not result in a praxis that may be viewed as mere formal innovation and experimentalism by the members of society who have not been adequately situated—indeed, privileged and aesthetically educated—to immediately discern the potentially negative aesthetics of an innovative work. Such a work runs the risk of, among other things, appearing as primarily inaccessible and sophistic to many members of the society. It is for this reason that I would like to include Jacques Ranicère in this proposal for an effective anti-capitalist art.
In his 2004 book Aesthetics and its discontents, Jacques Ranicère objects to Adorno’s excessively dialectical, oppositional view:
In [Adorno’s] logic, the promise of emancipation is retained, but the cost of doing so entails refusing every form of reconciliation, or maintaining the gap between the dissensual form of the work and the forms of ordinary experience. (Ranicère 2011: 41)
A purely dialectical practice may, in other words, result in an art—and in a view of art—which, while striving for emancipation from a dominant capitalist cultural logic, could result in an alienated autonomy from ‘the forms of ordinary experience’ that constitute day-to-day lives of a people. The subject of such an aesthetic may foment an overly unapproachable or ‘dissensual’ formalism, divorced from what is sensible or perceptible to people who do not possess the aesthetic education necessary for appreciating the dialectical enterprise. ‘The people’ is a central theme in both Ranicère’s political theory and his aesthetic ideas, and the political and artistic unite in a concept termed by the philosopher as ‘the distribution of the sensible’:
Politics occurs when those who ‘have no’ time take the time necessary to front up as inhabitants of a common space and demonstrate that their mouths really do emit speech capable of making pronouncements on the common which cannot be reduced to voice signalling pain. This distribution and redistribution of places and identities, this apportioning and reapportioning of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, and of noise and speech constitutes what I call the distribution of the sensible. (Ranicère 2011: 25)
Illustrations of this sharing or distribution of speech and pronouncements across the political and artistic spaces and times are included in much detail in the philosopher’s recent work, Aisthesis: scenes from the aesthetic regime of art (2013). These examples elucidate the theme of the mundane, vulgar life of a people—such as the picaresque motifs of popular entertainment and other objects from non-artistic sites—entering literary and artistic modalities which were, prior to Romanticism, viewed as strictly poetic or fine arts. Such a new, fundamentally democratic condition—which Ranicère has termed the aesthetic regime of art—has transformed literature and produced radically inclusive and anti-elitist works, such as Walt Whitman’s poetry, which Ranicère describes as ‘the expression of a poeticity immanent to the ways of life of a people’ (Ranicère 2013: 60). Such a poetry does not alienate and instead engages the non-artistic subjects of a society as its aim is not to indulge in aesthetic negation for the sake of promoting artistic newness and originality, but to include and manifest the people as such.
I believe a revolutionary, anti-capitalist poetics should also be the pluralist ‘expression’ of the aesthetics of society, to avoid the unintended insensibility or impenetrability of a purely dialectical method. I feel, however, that one must also be critical of what may strike one as the excessive sensibility or openness of Ranicère’s proposal. As Matthew MacLellan has observed:
While there are many benefits to working from [Ranicère’s] broad conception of political aesthetics, it is not without its shortcomings. For example it becomes unclear how exactly art exerts political agency once the links that previously permitted one to endow artistic production with political meaning have been completely severed. How can art make competent political decisions without any solid ground on which to stand? (MacLellan 2012: 434)
This concern is somewhat similar to Adorno’s objections to Benjamin’s depiction of Baudelaire: if art, in its most radically egalitarian formulations, is simply expressing ‘the poeticity’ of a common space, then how can it avoid the dialectical, confrontational task of opposing inequalities and exclusions of this space? In other words, is there a danger of passivity (if not collusion) in Ranicère’s call for an art that includes the people but does not intervene in dominant ideologies and does not challenge modes of cultural domination that favour the ruling classes?
It is to address this perceived problematic that I draw on the final philosopher to be included in this essay, Alain Badiou. If the problem with Ranicère’s view is that he may be seen to resort to ‘reciting the postulates of poststructuralism’ (MacLellan 2012: 435) in his defence of an art that includes but does not disrupt ‘the distribution of the sensible’, Badiou’s opposition to ‘the postmodern’ and its ‘spectacular exhibition of desires’, its ‘abolishing of the universal, that is, the total exhibition of particularisms’ (Badiou 2007: 134) may offer a suitable supplement to activate—by which I mean, make active—Ranicère’s powerful thesis for a profoundly egalitarian art.
According to the third version of Badiou’s ‘Manifesto of Affirmationist Art’—the first version of which was presented in 2001—much of today’s postmodern, supposedly subversive artistic productions are instances of ‘egoistic and communitarian expressiveness’ (Badiou 2007: 136); and their logical destination is a fusion of ‘mysticism and pornography’ (136). In opposition to such an aesthetics, he calls for ‘an art that is just as allergic to obscurantist hypnosis as it is to the pornographic stupidity of festive performances’ (142); the art of ‘monumental construction, projects, the creative force of the weak, the overthrow of established powers’ (133). Such an art addresses the risk of passively expressing the modern condition, since its key ingredient is a radical, monumental intervention in rupturing the aesthetic norms of a community.
This manifesto is a response to what Badiou (2005) described as the necessity to propose an alternative to the ‘saturation’ of previous artistic schemata in the 20th century. Key in Badiou’s proposed new modality is a rejection of aesthetic particularity and a revival of artistic universalism:
We should recreate artistic desire in its incorporeal rigour, in its anti-romantic coldness, in the subtractive operations by which it holds most tightly to the imageless real, which is the only cause of art. In subtraction art destines the real it encounters to all people, negating the influence of particularity. Subtraction is the modern method for integrally affirming the universal. [Such an axiomatic sets out] conditions under which art remains rebellious to imperial power, at the same time as it overcomes the romantic duplicity of the funereal and the playful. (Badiou 2007: 142-3)
As it may be seen, ‘people’ are also a thematic of Badiou’s aesthetic theory; but in place of Ranicère’s view of art as the expression of a people, Badiou recommends ‘subtraction’ as a method to negate the particularity of a people in the interest of ‘affirming the universal’. This subtraction consists of an artistic instigation and apprehension of an ‘incorporeal’ and ‘imageless’ (Lacanian) real that breaks with existing symbolic knowledge and results in the work’s radical removal or subtraction from dominant aesthetic doxa. This idea is, in my view, somewhat consonant with the negativity of Adorno’s dialectical aesthetics, but its objective is not only to be ‘rebellious’ or contradictory but also to affirm a positive, the universal, the possibility for an oppositional art for all people.
The ideas of the thinkers briefly mentioned in this paper are not congruous and are, in many ways, in dispute. Nevertheless, I believe it is possible to find commonalities between the theories of these key Marxist thinkers that unite their powerful perspectives, and to use their differences to address perceived and potential problematics in the others’ works. By so doing, I believe it is possible to theorise for an anti-capitalist aesthetics which is, after Benjamin, materialist; after Adorno, dialectical; after Ranicère, sensible; and, after Badiou, universal.
To avoid labelling this approach with an exceedingly wordy descriptor—i.e. materialist-dialectical-sensible-universal!—I would like to coin a term, polisthetics, that signifies the approach which I wish to further develop in the future, based on the theoretical foundation alluded to in this paper, in exploring explosive interventions and interactions of arts and politics. It is my aim to use this prism for not only engaging with a number of potent examples of truly radical works of anti-capitalist art and literature, but to also create new literary works of my own that attempt to counter the cultural logic of capitalism to the best of my artistic ability.
I would like to conclude this article by including a new poem which I have written according to my proposed poetic framework of a polisthetics. The aim of this inclusion is not at all to celebrate my own artistic practice and to make a claim apropos of the merits or efficacy of my poem ‘Australia Day’, but to illustrate the kind of poetic production which may result from the theoretical considerations of this article. This poem materialises, after Benjamin, direct instances of linguistic production from my social milieu (e.g. in the form of quotations of newspaper headlines); negates, after Adorno, the objectivity or reality of these statements (e.g. through paratactic, disruptive shifts in affect and syntax); sensitises, after Ranicère, these negations by incorporating the structures of a social activity (i.e. Australia Day citizenship ceremony, parties and so on); and universalises, after Badiou, the particularity of these referents by operating them along a discourse on the idea of love.
Barbeque and cricket
and now you’re a citizen. I punch
my own ungrateful
subject’s face. Successful
Australian of the Year. Separated
single parent delivers child
to the other parent, returns
to an empty flat. Revellers
the exchange-value of a week’s wages
for a night’s supply
of overpriced booze. I kick
for its failure
to attract another. Prime Minister says
about Indigenous rights. I’ve baked
my lungs, fried
my eyes on the grill
of the computer screen. What
remains? A date
for celebration or mourning? In the emptiness
of this house, more
than memories of companionship. It’s called
for an encounter, a place
in the universe
of the loved.
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