Monday, March 10, 2014

Art/Power Episode 1: On Being a Marxist and Hating Romanticism

Discussant: Kurt Newman is a graduate student in History at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He blogs at and the S-USIH blog.

Optional reference works:

  • Jean Beaudrillard, The Mirror of Production
  • Nancy L. Rosenblum, Another Liberalism: Romanticism and the Reconstruction of Liberal Thought
JT: The title you proposed is, "On Being a Marxist and Hating Romanticism". Each of the words in that have had various, almost opposite meanings loaded on them. So rather than me assuming I know what you mean, can you start by giving some sense of what they mean to you. What, for example, does "being a Marxist" mean to you?

KN: Being a Marxist, for me, means being a "historical materialist." That involves a certain fidelity to the notion that societies are organized around property relations, formalized in law, backed by violence, expressed in class divisions, and having to do, finally, with control of surplus production (in the first instance, food produced above subsistence)

JT: On that much we agree, though I may have a quibble around the phrase "property relations"--let's see if we need to get back to that later. So how, then, does romanticism, and hatred thereof, come into it?

KN: Romanticism, either with a small or raised "R," is the spirit that animates Marx's critique. It is inherited from Hegel, but it is more than just that... it is the ideological coloration of modernity, or as Rosenblum suggests, one blade of modernity's scissors, with liberalism as the other blade. What does it mean? It means an affective investment in the magic of poiesis, the erotic charge of building things, the glorification of productive work, and the passion for individual and collective experiences of transcendence of the vulgar and mundane.

JT: OK, and here I think is where we may get into some more areas of disagreement, since I doubt I would agree that romanticism "animates Marx's critique."

KN: Oh, interesting: What do you see as animating Marx's critique?

JT: On the other hand, I am not necessarily interested, any more, in coming to Marx's defense. But I do think, to get useful data out of the Marxist experiment, we have to have a clear sense of what it was.

KN: I'm not sure, on these terms, that Marx himself would disagree with my characterization of him as a Romantic. Almost all radicals and revolutionaries were.

JT: I see it as being preoccupied with an attempt to return always to the real, understood in the sense developed in Hegel's Science of Logic as the motion of essence and appearance.

KN: Isn't Hegel's "passion for the real"--and Marx's also--romantic?

JT: If we consider for example the kind of German Romantic poetry from which Marx and Engels took inspiration, there's little patience for the heroic flights of Novalis or Hölderlin. Heine--still romantic, but with a sardonic edge--serves as more of an admired figure.

KN: Stylistically, the case could be made that earlier Romantics, as well as Goethe and the grotesque writers, as well as Hegel, of course--the case could be made that these are Marx's literary influences, much more than a Heine.

JT: There's a hazard of stretching the term "romantic" so far that it ends up meaning nothing. Hegel's passion for the "real"--conceived in idealist terms--means reconciliation with the state, anathema to the romantic consciousness. When the real is conceived as the set of material interactions, the potential for reconciliation is reduced, but there's a certain responsibility--to the material welfare of the struggling class--that imposes a necessary restraint as well, also anathema to revolutionary romanticism.

KN: Okay, right. I see where we are disagreeing. I think we are agreeing.

JT: How Hegelian!

KN: Let's shift from semantics, and from Hegel's limitations, to the question of the erotic investment in poesis... the Promethean... you don't see that as central to Marx's project?

JT: No, I don't. And now I think I am understanding why you recommended the Baudrillard as an orienting text. Could you expand a bit on what you take out of The Mirror of Production?

KN: Sure. It's a very fascinating book, of course, part of the early Baudrillard of the political economy of the sign, where Marx is subjected to a pretty sophisticated psychoanalytic/linguistic interrogation, under the presiding spirit of Georges Bataille. My kind of book. In the first instance, I like it as an anti-work/anti-work ethic book, which is how Kathi Weeks uses it. In the second instance, I like its proposition of a pure anti-production instead of a romantic productive force as the generative stuff of experience. It is a way of integrating Freud of the "death drive"--a philosopher who I think is proposing something true about capitalism, and maybe about political economy more generally, when he proposes that productivity (and desire) is a problem for humans; repetition is our destiny. I have recently found out that this is, basically, the position of the Japanese Marxist Kojin Karitani. So, not at all original.

JT: I had a very different experience in reading it. There are books where, once one accepts certain premises, one is pulled along ineluctably to further conclusions, regardless of how repulsive one finds them. Digesting that sort of book requires either that one accept the conclusions, psychoanalyzing one's resistance to them, or re-examine the elements of one's thought that led you to accept the premises. For me, this book was... whatever the opposite of that is. Its premises struck me as false at first blush, but only as I read through it could I begin to analyze why that was so.

KN: What struck you as false?

JT: The fundamental identification of "productivity" with poiesis (i.e., the physical reshaping of matter).

KN: But that's Marx's position

JT: On the contrary. Consider the passage in Capital where Marx defines "productive labor". The example given is not a coal miner, or a Silesian weaver, or even a railroad engineer. It is a teacher in a private school.

KN: Right--Marx thinks that there is an authentic form of poetic labor that still exists in the form of intellectual work. Mining might have once been that, but capitalism has robbed it of its poetic authenticity. In this, Marx is very close to Carlyle, Ruskin, Morris (all of whom were Romantics).

JT: But what does the private schoolteacher produce? Blockheads. Even if he resorts from time to time to the disciplinary rod, his "productive process" is fundamentally "intellectual" or "spiritual" in nature. His job, to which that productive process is subordinated, is to produce profits for the capitalist who owns his school, and in so doing to produce blockheads qualified to do much the same. To the extent that a student emerges from that productive process capable of engaging in a critique of political economy, he is a defective product.

KN: Right--this is the irony of the "negation of the negation". But Marx sees "productivity for capital" as a form of "productivity" (for capital!) which is only legible as against some other notion of productivity for something else. Baudrillard says: let's get past thinking about labor as the source of all value; that's just the starting rule of a particular language game.

JT: But that is not the language that Marx uses in Capital. You--and, to be fair, most readers of Marx--are overlaying the armature of Cartesianism and Hegelianism on the plain sense of the passage.

KN: Well, I haven't conceded to only talk about Capital, or to pretend that Capital is not a Hegelian whole (with some missing books). Marx says a lot of things. What Marx is up to in Capital is to map barriers and limits.

JT: "Productivity" exists as such only in the context of the emergence of generalized commodity production and the possibility of measuring distinct physical entities and social relations according to the same measure: that of value.

KN: We do not disagree about this. I just think that Marx thinks there is some primal Promethean force that is connected to human labor, the prehensile, etc. That is the common source, he says. But he says another thing--value is measured against the necessaries required to reproduce the worker. So there are two measures--labor-power worked up in commodities, and the hunger of the worker. This is the "transformation problem," and I don't think it can be solved

JT: Prior to capital (and Capital), there are various productions, in the plural, of materially distinct things. And if communism means the demise of value as a method of organizing society, then it makes little sense to presume that the abstraction of productivity will survive.

KN: Right, I agree. I don't have a dog in this fight. I think "productivity" as a thing measured by the CBO, etc., is a fiction, a chimera. I think Marx, and Marxists, think that labor is connected to productive power which becomes a fetish around which certain investments are made. That's the Romanticism I want to decline, and yet remain a Marxist.

JT: Even Baudrillard acknowledges, however, that Marx polemicizes against the notion of labor as the source-of-all. He makes a big deal about the unfortunate, sexist language that Marx uses to make that point, but I think it does more to undermine Baudrillard's argument than he realizes. Baudrillard's argument works, at best, as a polemic against a certain type of Marxism--what passed for Marxism in the hegemonic penumbra of the PCF.

KN: Sure, yes. But let's return to JB's central claim--radicals of all sorts are obsessed with production. There is no reason for this: it is an arbitrary inheritance. This is a sort of crazy claim. Of course, we need to think a little bit about production, to eat, to have houses, etc. But what if we bracketed that, and embraced the deconstructive challenge--are we sure that there are good foundations for our productivism?

JT: I want to go back to the "transformation problem". Certainly it's proved "insoluble" enough to keep several generations of political economists making abstruse presentations at Historical Materialism conferences.

KN: Yes, to everyone's eternal embarrassment.

JT: I'm not sure that it is insoluble. Or rather, I'm not sure that it was insoluble. For one thing, Rosa Luxemburg did a more than passable job in The Accumulation of Capital, in part by disproving some of Marx's subsidiary claims. (Baudrillard's statement that Luxemburg analyzed imperialism "according to the principle of least theoretical effort" is one of his more embarrassing boners.)

KN: Okay, I am not so into the slice and dice stuff. I don't think Luxemburg squared the circle.

JT: But the stronger claim that I would make is that it, like any of the subsidiary problems of Marx's Critique of Political Economy, is soluble only through proof of the central hypothesis of Marxism: the necessity of communism.

KN: Sure, I agree with that.

JT: The "transformation problem" is a problem in much the way that "expanded reproduction" (i.e. accumulation) is a problem, in that the solution is not mathematical, but political.

KN: I think this is Michael Lebowitz's take on things. Yes, totally co-sign, absolutely. This appeals to me.

JT: It would theoretically be possible to work up a mathematical solution for the transformation problem if one hypothesized a certain constant value for "the needs of the working class," by establishing the biological minimum required for generational reproduction. What blows it all up is the introduction of "new needs”…

KN: yes. that's one of capitalism's core contradictions, a real, Hegelian contradiction. But even the "old needs" are a problem because the rate of domination is variable.

JT: i.e., the concessions made in improvement of working-class living standards in response to class struggle. The novel problem that we have to begin to address is, if the end point of that proliferation of new needs is not their realization through a communism of abundance, then what political steps have to be taken to assure even the "old needs."

KN: But always combined and uneven. And this is where ideologies of race and gender become really crucial.

JT: Where I think we may part ways is that an emphasis on poiesis is not necessarily romantic. In the case of Marx, I think it comes from--not turning the Cartesian/Hegelian thinking subject on his head, but showing that this subject exists only because someone built him a warm house, harvested his food, cooked it, knit him clothes, etc.

KN: Yes, I can see that. I would be happy to concede, even, that my problem is less with Marx's Romanticism (which I would not, for example, write a polemic about) as with Romantic Marxists in the Left, the current Left, including, emphatically, the academic Left. Lee Edelman wrote No Future because he hates Annie. I want to write something because I hate Les Miserables, the musical.

JT: Somehow this is turning my thoughts toward the Rosenblum book. In some ways I found it a more thought-provoking book than the Baudrillard, perhaps because its point of view is so far distant from mine. I'm not particularly interested in "recasting liberal thought"--in the long run, I don't think it has much future, and in the near term, I find it annoying. Yet by analyzing liberalism and romanticism in dynamic interaction with each other I saw some uncomfortable similarities to the Left as it stands.

KN: Yes. Rosenblum's project is annoying. That's why I chose it. I really like the book, though. It's useful. I have none of her commitments to liberalism, and I find the horizon of "social peace" to be odd and off-putting. But I think her style of doing political theory and her presentation of liberalism and romanticism as dialectical is immensely helpful.

JT: One thing that struck me, as I was reading it, is that my view of Marxism is premised on the inescapability of politics. Yet more than 30 years of neo-liberalism have had the effect of mass depoliticization. In the absence of mass politics, what brings scattered individuals into the orbit of the Left is usually some combination of liberal and/or romantic impulses.

KN: Yes. Which makes the new discussions of the Party something other than ghoulish nostalgia. It can be that, too, of course.

JT: So what are some particular examples of left romanticism that you find especially off-putting?

KN: It's worst in labor studies: a certain veneration of work and working, straightforwardly metaphysical. It's there in a lot of hatred of popular culture. It's there in the cult of experience that stands at the center of a certain activism-ism, as Doug Henwood puts it. And it's particularly palpable, lately, in a certain resurgent Leninist masochism--paeans to discipline, sacrifice, transcendence of the self for the noble cause. There can be honorable iterations of these positions (all of which I hold, at least part of the time)--but I think they are always about something else...

JT: And I'm not going to come right out and defend any of that. But there are some semi-rhetorical questions that need to be asked. Such as: Are there types of work that are more socially necessary than others, and that even in alienated, exploited form point to things that will still be necessary in the future?

KN: Yes.

JT: Are there aspects of popular culture that merit hatred?

KN: Yes.

JT: Are certain types of experience necessary for the transformation of mass consciousness?

KN: Not sure--maybe I don't know if this is the proper formulation

JT: And are there times when discipline and sacrifice are necessary, or at least more honorable and effective than the available alternatives?

KN: Yes.

KN: So that begs the question--you say, "I think they are always about something else"--what else?

KN: Fantasy, anxiety, magical thinking, in some cases, blessedly few, but I think there are some, paranoid desire for power over others.

JT: Are fantasy, anxiety and magical thinking necessarily, always counterproductive? Pardon the accidental pun.

KN: No--they might be constitutive of every political imagination. The point isn't to "not do them" but to think carefully about their effectivity. Dreaming about milk doesn't feed the infant. But there is no "don't dream about milk" option.

JT: Do you have kids?

KN: No. A dog. I like kids!

JT: When my daughter was an infant, in her sleep, she would make sucking motions. My wife and I would say, "she's dreaming of milk." So your metaphor was unintentionally evocative. The infant is never not going to dream of milk. It's practically all the infant knows how to dream about. The infant is not taking in nutrition when she's dreaming of milk. But suckling is only partly instinctive. As the child grows and gets more control over its physiology, it has to keep learning how to do it better, and keep re-learning how to do it in a new physical configuration.

KN: Ah, right. That's why I am never a fan of just saying "get real!" The point is to de-stigmatize the language of fantasy.

JT: So dreaming of milk can serve a practical purpose. But if when the kid wakes up hungry there's no nipple, all she can do about it is scream.

KN: Right. And children become intelligent about that very quickly. So it's weird that many Western Marxists leap to fantasy as "false consciousness". If we were to say: our access to political hope is mediated via fantasy, and that this has structural consequences and implications, we would be in much better shape, I think. It's actually a simple point. It's not even a very smart point. But I think it's politically vital.

JT: On the other hand, the metaphor is in some ways representative of one of the most prevalent fantasies in Western politics: the state as parent, either the stern disciplinarian Father or the nurturing Mother. The former at least is a bit closer to the real functions of the state.

KN: Yes... that old Oedipal politics, very hard to escape.

JT: Many years ago--I'm pretty sure it was in 2004--I wrote an essay that may no longer be online. I've lost track of it. Anyway, it talked about how both "false hope" and "false hopelessness" were necessary preservatives of the existing system.

KN: Very interesting. I think that's correct. They work hand in glove.

JT: "Ideology critique" is very good at unmasking false hope, but often at the cost of creating or reinforcing false hopelessness. To your mind, is there a way of distinguishing false hopes from hopes that have some sort of "truth content," or is this not the right approach?

KN: Well, the false is no longer false as a moment of the true.

Coming soon: Art/Power Episode 2, "The Inevitability of Art," with Nick Mamatas.

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