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Posts Tagged ‘Aesthetics’

Marxist theory has always had a strangely intimate relationship with the arts. As Hal Draper has pointed out, Marx’s criticisms of Eugene Sue’s novel Les Mystères de Paris formed a key moment in his development of the theory of proletarian self-emancipation. Lenin famously refused to listen to Beethoven during the Russian Civil War, claiming its beauty would sap him of the necessary resolve. EP Thompson, known for his virtual invention of ‘history from below,’ wrote his first and last books on William Morris and William Blake, respectively. Indeed, the closeness of this relationship, combined with its durability throughout the long trek of Marxist theory across the twentieth century, has served to obscure its strangeness. To appreciate the incongruity of the relationship, it’s helpful to try and imagine schools of literary study springing from Marxism’s intellectual or political rivals. Is an anarchist literary theory even conceivable? Who would be interested in a Weberian reading of Ulysses? Yet Marxist theorists have founded entire schools of criticism with scarcely a hint of embarrassment over the apparent mismatch between their intellectual pursuits.

Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form is, among other things, an attempt to explain this relationship. Jameson argues that even though Marxist criticism in the English speaking world has focused overwhelmingly on content, for dialectical thinkers the privileged moment in the form-content opposition is in fact form. To illustrate this point, Jameson takes the reader on a tour of the most important works of Western Marxism. Through an examination of theorists from Adorno to Sartre, Jameson shows how the work of each has been an attempt to locate in the form of various texts the traces and deformations of society as a whole.

If today that thesis appears original, but not earth shattering, it must have appeared as a jolt from the blue in the intellectual landscape of American literary theory in the early 1970s. While today any reasonably clever liberal arts student can tell you the thesis of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in 1971 Marxists were only beginning their re-entry into the academy after the McCarthyite purges. Indeed, at the time the hegemonic theory was still New Criticism, whose explicit rejection of historical categories in criticism was as far from Jameson’s Marxism as can be.

For this reason, there is a third vital layer of Marxism and Form, beyond the argument for privileging form and the tour of Western Marxism. This is the layer of pedagogy. Marxism and Form is, perhaps first and foremost, a manual for dialectical thinking. This layer explains, I believe, most of the noteworthy aspects of the text. For while Jameson’s insistence on the primacy of form is an interesting argument, it hardly seems suitable to the conjuncture in which he intervened. Such a novel argument seems directed towards a field which is filled with Marxist critics who focus only on content, not the formalist and technocratic field of American criticism. Looked at from this perspective, Jameson’s argument can only appear misplaced. But judged according to the criteria of pedagogical potential, the argument about form fulfills its purpose beautifully, providing ample opportunity to illustrate the power of dialectical thought.

For Jameson, the argument that form is the privileged object of dialectical theories of literature does not stem from Marx, but from Hegel. For it was Hegel who first formulated the opposition between form and content in its modern guise. Prior to Hegel, the Aristotelian pairing of form and matter, in which the latter was but the passive raw stuff of the former, had dominated philosophical thinking about form. Hegel’s insistence that content itself carried its own logic, which in turn determined the form. In his system, this insight meant that the progress of the Absolute Spirit could only be expressed in certain forms along the way. His ranking of types of knowledge, from art to theology to philosophy, is a history of forms which themselves are determined by the progress of human knowledge.

In Marx’s hands, the opposition of form and content becomes not a means to understand the history of knowledge, but to understand history itself. Marx’s iconic images of historical transformation, the integuments bursting asunder, the throwing off of fetters of production, are precisely images of a content seeking an appropriate form. Without Hegel’s redefinition of the problem of form, Jameson argues, the key Marxist distinction between forces and relations of production is impossible. It is this parallelism between the key Marxist concepts and the key concepts of aesthetics that, for Jameson, explains the affinity between Marxism and art.

Hegel’s animation of content is also the driving force behind Jameson’s argument that form holds primacy in dialectical analysis. For it is precisely form’s determination by content which makes it such a valuable optic into our society. As Jameson argues, “inasmuch as the cultural is far less complex than the economic, it may serve as a useful introduction to the real on a reduced, simplified scale” (10). This formulation hints that for Jameson, the content of literary form is not so much the abstract story as society itself. Thus it is precisely because of form’s determination by content that the former holds the privileged place in dialectical criticism. For it is by reading form that we may come to see the material traces of content, which is to say society as a whole.

With this as Jameson’s central argument, it is not difficult to see why he argues that “[t]he basic story which the dialectic has to tell is no doubt that of the dialectical reversal, that paradoxical turning around of a phenomenon into its opposite” (309). The way Hegel’s subordination of form to content allows the former to stand as the privileged category of analysis is Jameson’s central example of this reversal. From this, we can begin to see its suitability not only as a worthwhile line of investigation in its own right, but also as a an example of how dialectical analysis works.

Jameson’s privileging of form carries with it some baggage, however, in his relative laxity when it comes to addressing content, or history, itself. On one level this makes an appearance with his rather loose acceptance of theories of “postindustrial society,” which often posit the disappearance of the working class (it must be said that Jameson was undoubtedly aided along this route by his endorsement of certain Maoist theorists who argued for the non-revolutionary character of the Western working classes). Forty years later, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it is as clear as ever that the proletariat has not been absorbed into the bourgeoisie on any level.

At another point in the text, Jameson argues that Lukács faced a contradiction in his diagnosis of modernism as a symptom of a morbid capitalism, and his strident condemnations of modernist writers. Jameson reads this conflict between objective and subjective modes of analysis as internal to Marxism itself, as illustrated by Lenin’s voluntarism in attempting revolution in a more or less pre-capitalist country. As elegant as this symmetry may be, it is essentially dependent upon a Menshevik analysis of October. In endorsing this analysis, Jameson gives credence to the grossest voluntarism of all, that of bourgeois liberalism, which held that force of good ideals could create a third way between the revolution of the Bolsheviks and the barbarism of the White generals.

Unfortunately, it is this kind of disregard for history which has come to dominate literary studies today, not Jameson’s call for a Marxism of form. Indeed, his approach of reading texts as symptomatic solutions to the problems of society has not spread in the way he undoubtedly hoped. Although figures like Benjamin and Adorno (though not Sartre and Lukács) are now firmly part of the cultural studies pantheon, they now bare little resemblance the Hegelian figures Jameson presents. Indeed, the vision of totality which animates Jameson’s entire book is often the polemical target of textual readings today. In the ideologies of textualism, a work is not determined by the problems of society which it attempts to answer, but instead appears as an unstable congeries of criss-crossing discourses, none of which attains primacy.

The hostility of today’s academy to Jameson’s totalizing Marxism helps explain why even forty years later Marxism and Form remains, above all, an exciting read. In a final dialectical reversal, Jameson’s failure (and of course it is not his alone) to organize a generation of American dialectical critics has ensured that his manual for dialectical thinking retains all the urgency with which it was originally written.

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When Georg Lukács was arrested for his participation in the Hungarian rebellion of 1956, a KGB official asked him if he had a weapon. Lukács calmly reached into his pocket and handed over his pen.

It is no small irony that the legacy of Georg Lukács, genealogist of the antimonies of bourgeois thought, has come to rest upon two supposedly divergent concepts: that of totality and that of realism.  Fredric Jameson has ably condensed the biographical narrative which underlies this bifurcation: the strident Hegelianism and workerist militance of the young Lukács, which culminated in the essays collected in History and Class Consciousness, gave way under criticism from the Comintern to an aesthetic focus that represented a retreat from politics and an accommodation with Stalinism.  The key texts of this narrative are essays which are often reduced to slogans: “orthodoxy refers exclusively to method,” the proletariat as the “identical subject-object of history,” or “modernism means not the enrichment, but the negation of art.”  One reads “What is Orthodox Marxism,” then “The Ideology of Modernism,” and meditates on the gulf that separates them.

It is perhaps because The Historical Novel does not fit neatly into this categorization that it has suffered a relative neglect when compared with Lukács’ more well known texts.  This obscurity has unfortunately led to the Marxist tradition’s under-utilization of an exceptionally wide-ranging work.  Indeed, the sheer breath of topics covered in this work, which significantly opens up our picture of Lukács as a Marxist thinker, should mark it as a resource for a whole host of streams of Marxist thought.

For example, the book opens with a discussion of the formation of modern historical consciousness.  For Lukács,  modern historical inquiry began with the struggle against absolutism.  Enlightenment thinkers, particularly in France, endeavored to portray the unreasonableness of absolutist rule, its arbitrary and capricious nature.  Historical inquiry became a weapon in this battle, as ‘the lessons of history provide the principles with whose help a “reasonable” society, a “reasonable” state may be created’ (Lukács 20).  This was the role played by historical works such as Voltaire’s Henriade.

In Germany, the situation was much different.  Living in a land fractured into competing princedoms, the philosophers of the German Enlightenment found need not only for a historical explanation of their current state, but also a “national past greatness” which could “giv[e] strength to hopes of national rebirth” (22).  While Lukács is vague as to whether this past national greatness refers to some real past state or, in the mode of present studies, something imagined, he is clear that the invention of the modern nation was an act of tremendous intellectual labor, and not some inevitable form of social existence.  There is thus an intimate relationship between the emergence of nationalism as a modern structure of feeling and the emergence of historical consciousness.

The French Revolution transformed this process in two ways.  First, the rise of a reactionary historical tradition (de Maistre, Burke) forced progressive Enlightenment thinkers to deepen their historical method.  The reactionary historians countered the critique of absolutism by arguing that history evinced a slow logic of change, a gradual accumulation of shifts in tradition which were beyond the control of any one generation.  The great sin of the French Revolution, for these thinkers, was its dramatic severing of the traditions  holding the nation together.  To respond to this critique, Enlightenment historians were forced to move beyond a story of history as reason versus unreason, and instead comprehend the historical necessity of various forms of seemingly unreasonable society (this is the historical consciousness which reaches its apogee, in idealist form, in the philosophy of Hegel).  Here the French Revolution appears not as some catastrophic break from previous history, but instead as the rational form of a society which had outgrown the constraints of feudal rule.

The second transformation was of a more material nature.  The wars which followed the French Revolution resulted in the creation, for the first time, of mass armies on a European scale.  The involvement of broader layers of the population in the making of history “enormously strengthens the feeling first there there is such a thing as history, that it is an uninterrupted process of changes and finally that it has a direct effect upon the life of every individual” (23).  Later, Lukács argues that this popular involvement in history was a vital precondition of the historical novel, insofar as it furnished a means of narrating world-historical changes.

The preceding summary only covers the first twenty pages or so of The Historical Novel.  Yet I hope it is clear that Lukács’ discussion of nationalism and historical consciousness, despite its brevity, constitutes a real resource for Marxist discussions of the topic.  Its neglect is obvious in the fact that two excellent (relatively) recent articles on nationalism, both from writers sympathetic to Lukács, ignore his contributions in this area[1].

If The Historical Novel broadens our picture of what Lukács was a philosopher of, it also transforms our received image of his method.  For  example, the Althusserian concept of overdetermination has oven been deployed against Lukács as a critique of his supposed “expressive totality,” in which every level of reality is nothing but the expression a single, primary contradiction.  But compare Lukács discussion of social upheaval (in the context of a discussion of historical drama) with Althusser’s own:

Lukács: “A real popular revolution never breaks out as a result of a single, isolated social contradiction.  The objective-historical period preparatory to revolution is filled with a whole number of tragic contradictions in life itself.  The maturing of the revolution then shows with increasing clarity the objective connection between these isolatedly occurring contradictions and gathers them into several central and decisive issues affecting the activity of the masses.  And, in the same way, certain social contradictions can continue unresolved even after a revolution or, indeed, emerge strengthened and heightened as a result of the revolution” (98).[2]

Althusser: “How else should we summarise these practical experiences and their theoretical commentaries other than by saying that the whole Marxist revolutionary experience shows that if the general contradiction (it has already been specified: the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. essentially embodied in the contradiction between two antagonistic classes) is sufficient to define the situation when revolution is the ‘task of the day’, it cannot of its own simple, direct power induce a ‘revolutionary situation’, nor a fortiori a situation of revolutionary rupture and the triumph of the revolution. If this contradiction is to become ‘active’ in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ so that whatever their origin and sense (and many of them will necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its ‘direct opponents’), they ‘fuse’ into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on a regime which its ruling classes are unable to defend. Such a situation presupposes not only the ‘fusion’ of the two basic conditions into a ‘single national crisis ‘, but each condition considered (abstractly) by itself presupposes the ‘fusion’ of an ‘accumulation’ of contradictions.”

It is only the relative neglect of texts such as The Historical Novel that has allowed homologies such as this between Lukács and Althusser to go unnoticed in most discussions of Marxist theory.

One could go on in describing how The Historical Novel upsets our image of  Lukács (the extended discussion of drama, which complicates the image of the critic concerned only with novels, or the concluding section on the anti-fascist novel, which surely clashes with the narrative of a critic who has retreated from politics), but the main argument of the book also deserves considerable attention.  Lukács’ task is to anatomize the historical novel as a genre, trace its evolution, and explain its decline.

Lukács locates the emergence of the historical novel in the ideological matrix described above.  While authors of the eighteenth century and before had produced works which took place in historical settings, Lukács argues that these texts contained no true historical consciousness, but merely a projection of contemporary attitudes back in time.  The true historical novel emerges with the work of Sir Walter Scott, whose novels of the Scottish clans portray the disintegration of archaic social forms in the face of capitalist transformation.  Scott went beyond dressing modern characters in kilts, and instead drew his characters in such a fashion that the various details of their personalities were linked with the basic conditions of their existence.

This change in the content of the novel necessitated changes in form as well.  While the historical dramas often focused on ‘world-historical individuals’ (think of Shakespeare’s histories), Scott’s protagonists were often persons rather removed from the centers of historical conflict.  Lukács argues that this choice allowed Scott to investigate all sides of historical change with detail, where choosing a figure closely linked with any faction of the struggle necessitated a reduction in depth of portrayal of the opposing factions.  Scott’s average protagonists, unburdened by historical responsibility, could plausibly interact with different sides, and thus allow the novel to attain a fuller representation of social totality.

This choice of protagonist also allowed world-historical individuals to appear in the novels with proper mediation.  The varied  experiences of the protagonist across the social landscape creates a portrait of social forces so that, by the time major figures such as kings and the like appear, it is clear that their importance arises not from their extraordinary personal characteristics in abstract, but from the way they represent the important social forces of the day.  Lukács combines this critique of a great man theory of literature with a critique of attempts to write “literature from below” which ignore the goings on of the higher levels of society.  In a critique of anarchist mistrust of official politics, he argues that “[t]he appeal to the immediate, material existence of the people, which had been the starting-point of a really enriched picture of the social world, is transformed into its opposite, if it remains in this immediacy” (210).  For Lukács, the best novels narrate neither from above nor below, but with an aspiration towards totality.

Though Scott was the first to articulate the historical novel, he is joined by a host of other novelists who Lukács sees as upholding its classic tradition.  Among these are Alesandro Manzoni, James Fenimore Cooper, Leo Tolstoy, and above all, Honore de Balzac.  These authors all wrote during the ‘heroic’ period of the bourgeoisie, when representatives of that class fought against absolutism and were compelled to defend themselves against reactionary romanticism.

After 1848, however, the situation changed dramatically.  Confronted by the insurgent proletariat in the revolutions of that year, the bourgeoisie began its long retreat from the modes of thought which gave rise to the historical novel.  For Lukács, that retreat would mark the aesthetic of the historical novel with two key tendencies: archaeologization and modernization.  As capitalist reification and alienation became more intense, writers turned to the past not in order to explore it, but as a means of escape from the brutalities and banalities of modern life.  To fulfill this ideological function, history had to become a zone decisively severed from modern life.  Such a conception of the past resulted in a historical portrait which was essentially static, bereft of its own dynamics of change.  Lukács named this tendency archaeologization.

Lifeless portraits of the past do not make for good reading, however, and as such, novelists turned to other means to inject life into their novels.  The subjects of these novels contain the psychology of the present, regardless of whether the mode of life of the past implied anything resembling present subjectivities.  For writers in this mode, “it is really quite immaterial  whether one attributes to Hannibal’s sister the psychology of a French petit bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century or of a Spanish nun of the seventeenth” (188).  Modernization is the dialectical other of archaeologization.

A further means of enlivening the archaeologized past is the explicit portrayal of brutality and pathology.  Lukács argues that this attempt to achieve the aesthetic effects of true historical novels without their methods ends up short-circuiting: instead of producing outrage in the reader over the tortures and executions of the past, their explicit narration only numbs the reader, further reproducing the anesthetized past (one thinks of the ubiquitous torture scenes in New Historicist texts when reading Lukács’ argument here.)

These ideological tendencies are combined with a tendency in modern life for the further development of the division of labor to isolate writers more and more from what Lukács, in good Popular Front fashion, refers to as ‘the popular classes.’  This isolation from the progressive classes of the day further impoverishes the historical imagination, as writers are further separated from the lived experience of contemporary historical forces.

While there is something to this, Lukács’ consistent use of Popular Front terminology is one of the weakest points of the book.  In describing the popular classes, Lukács too frequently blurs the line between different subaltern classes, from peasants to wage workers to artisans.  Indeed, the working class as such is by and large absent from the book.  While the presence of concepts like reification and totality point towards convergences between History and Class Consciousness and the aesthetic works, the absence of the proletariat does form a key difference.

Overall, however, the similarities clearly outweigh the differences.  The Historical Novel displays a striking degree of continuity with Lukács’ early work, especially in light of a narrative which has, to use a favorite phrase from the work, placed a Chinese wall between the two.  These links are even more significant when one considers that Western Marxism has often been characterized by its focus on aesthetic questions and its relative distance from direct political matters.  Given that Lukács is something of a progenitor of this tradition, The Historical Novel, as a text which closely combines his political and aesthetic philosophies, provides a touchstone for rethinking Western Marxism with an eye towards the key political questions of the day which Lukács, for all his faults, always kept at the center of his work.


[1] See Chris Harman “The Return of the National Question,” International Socialism 56, 1992. (http://www.marxists.de/theory/harman/natquest.htm) and Neil Davidson “Reimagined Communities” International Socialism 117, 2007. (http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=401&issue=117#117davidson_35)

[2] This last sentence also puts in doubt the picture of Lukacs as a mouthpiece of Stalinism.

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