Thursday, February 16, 2006

politicizing aesthetics

[T]he hidden haunts of production (Konvolut X Marx 662).

Such high ideals of bourgeois society as that of the free, self-determining individual, freedom and equality of all citizens in the exercise of their political rights, and equality of all in the eyes of the law are now seen to be nothing but correlative concepts of the fetishism of the commodity….Only by keeping the people unconscious of the real contents of those basic relations of the existing social order…only through the fetishistic transformation of the social relations between the class of capitalists and the class of wage laborers, resulting in the ‘free and unhampered’ sale of the ‘commodity labor-power’ to the owner of ‘capital’, is it possible in this society to speak of freedom and equality (Konvolut X Marx 663).

I’d like to pick through some passages from Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer,” as I think it sets up a pretty clear rubric for situating not only Benjamin’s own work, but what we might think of as the political efficacy of the avant garde in general.

Of crucial importance to me at this stage are three issues: 1.the class position of the artist and how that intersects with other subject positions she or he might occupy; 2. the aesthetic/formal value of the work as political, but not merely determined by its political correctness and; 3. the particular (site) space and (historical moment) time the work arises out of and the available discourses it thus engages in. To judge the work against this set of criteria provides limits to what we can consider avant garde art since Social Realism let’s say, or “political” bands in our present day like Rage Against the Machine are not exemplary in this instance as they are too overtly and didactically political (and these two examples, across time and space prove this is still an issue). The relationship between political and aesthetic modes of representation available at particular times and how they intersect is of crucial significance as formal possibilities. Objectively, that is, we can examine different forms of art available in relation to democracy as opposed to totalitarian dictatorships and question how or whether they are “successful” aesthetically and politically. Another question that follows: what modes of response are available during times of crisis and how do these modes of representation differ depending on the crises they respond to or derive from? Benjamin’s work serves as an exemplary response to a particular moment in German history where the cultural tradition of Romantic idealism and the bourgeois Jewish intellectual are on the historical ropes. Where Benjamin looks for answers (i.e. in the relation between mass commodities and avant garde forms) is significant. How he conceives of his work - as a non-totalizable form of (intellectual) labor—even more so. Furthermore, the relation between the labor congealed in the commodity object is thought through non-mimetic or non-representational art, which means that the horizon of the work is not reducible to a “Mass culture Benjamin” or an “avant garde Benjamin;” these are false oppositions, oppositions which hold up, I would argue, false barriers between the avant garde and mass culture as a whole.

What should be examined is what this bringing together of the commodity as a hidden receptacle of human value and the formal experiments of the avant garde has to say about those social/cultural forms available to people as political subjects. Benjamin’s dialectical methodology and aesthetic/political/philosophic practice offers a series of approaches for rethinking the base superstructure relation that is non-reductive, or not limited to a strictly causal relationship. Benjamin himself offers a clear directive in “Author as Producer” by delineating the relation of literary work to political agency by asking: where does the work stand, or what position does it occupy in relation to the larger social forces of which it is inevitably a part? Benjamin, like Shklovsky, provides a non-reductive way to see art as both autonomous and in that very autonomy, socially engaged. So we have to look at practices in the work, (and perhaps focus less on the figures that we romantically worry about as having or not having play or agency). Rethinking the narrative of exclusion means, for me, focusing on how works are produced – what methods are available – as well as the subjects who make them, which means that this narrative of exclusion is also not reducible to a straight cause and effect schema. As Cohen points out, Benjamin’s theoretical importance should be thought of along the lines of reformulating the vulgar Marxist theoretical apparatus in ways similar to Althusser’s focus on structural possibilities and limits.

The issue of who is/was neglected/excluded might then be more effectively approached by examining how the work does or does not fit into the parameters of acceptable bourgeois culture and/or avant garde forms and genres. What gets neglected might give us a critical purchase on what’s at stake in new forms; by looking at what kind of work is not classifiable in any particular category, we can wonder: what buttons does it push, what symptom of denial and repression does it trigger, and what happens to its efficacy if it is eventually canonized and accepted, how is that narrated? The narrative we might construct out of that debate around canon formation and avant garde exclusions is then perhaps symptomatic of how political exclusions function as well.

So Sarah’s “Why Benjamin anyway” gets a little different twist here. Why Benjamin now? Why is he such hot shit? Who’s capitalizing on it and why? What does an avant garde critic do for academia? There seems to be a lot of resistance to thinking of and working with Benjamin as affiliated with the avant garde. Why?

Frankly, I found the pounding out of an extremely nuanced and exegetical reading of Benjamin in Miriam Hansen (although we didn’t read her for this class I’m still traumatized by last semester’s reading of her analysis of Benjamin) and Cohen, while useful at times, veered into the terrain of terribly boring and frustrating. I bring this up to ask: are we missing the forest for the trees here? I don’t want to suggest that Benjamin is simple, far from it, I merely want to ask what the production of scholarship and the plethora of incredibly dense readings around him has to do with how we might be able to use him? It seems to become a question of alignments – which Benjamin do you want: philosophical Benjamin, political Benjamin, aesthetic/literary Benjamin, Marxist Benjamin, Jewish/mystic Benjamin, affective/tactile Benjamin? What the heck is going on here? Serious question. I don’t have a Benjamin position (yet), so I’m just going to present one issue and some scattered ideas I think are important among hundreds of others. Finally, I want to say that I find it somewhat ironic, though perhaps historically inevitable and symptomatic that – taking Benjamin at his word – analyses of his work might preclude it from doing what it was ostensibly created to do: bring the intellectual into the service of the proletariat revolution. This is a critique that can be leveled at the avant garde in general and needs to be taken seriously, and I’m not just playing devil’s advocate here. Benjamin defends the avant garde because it participates in something, it does something. But what? And more importantly, how? Ok….


I should like to show you that the tendency of a literary work can only be politically correct if it is also literarily correct. That is to say that the politically correct tendency includes a literary tendency. And I would add straight away: this literary tendency, which is implicitly or explicitly contained in every correct political tendency, alone constitutes the quality of the work. The correct political tendency of a work includes its literary quality because it includes its literary tendency (Author as Producer 69).

Question: is the literary tendency the formal qualities of the work? The immediate question for a materialist, dialectical criticism is not only to ask if the work is revolutionary or reactionary, rather, for Benjamin, it is crucial what the relation of the work offers in terms of its mode of production. As Benjamin clearly states: “what is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time? I should like to ask: what is its position in them? This question directly concerns the function the work has within the literary relations of production of its time” (70). The role of the intellectual/artist is thus of great significance to the rethinking of attitudes and the modes of consciousness available at a given time. Benjamin takes the left intelligentsia to task for not revising their own methods of thinking and producing work in light of their political desires. “It has been one of the decisive processes of the last ten years in Germany that a considerable proportion of its productive minds, under the pressure of economic conditions, have passed through a revolutionary development in their attitudes, without being able simultaneously to rethink their own work, their relation to the means of production, their technique, in a really revolutionary way” (72 emphasis added). Focusing on the technique of the work in relation to the means of production in the service of class struggle, does not, for Benjamin, mean that the work is obviously (either explicitly or implicitly as he says) political, i.e. that it represents its politics or its object in any direct way. Like Shklovsky’s defamilarization, aesthetic production returns the alienated world of labor relations to the perceiver as an experience and as an example of what can be done. Furthermore, it works in the now, with old forms that are mythologized as eternal, and new forms that are cut off from historical continuity. This is a transformative process. Benjamin explains:

For the transformation of the forms and instruments of production in the way desired by a progressive intelligentsia – that is, one interested in freeing the means of production and serving the class struggle – Brecht coined the term Umfunktionierung (functional transformation).…I should like to content myself here with a reference to the decisive difference between the mere supplying of a productive apparatus and its transformation (74 emphases added).

Benjamin goes on to critique photography that can return even depictions of abject poverty to the enjoying capacity of the bourgeois. In other words, it can be incorporated and recuperated as self-righteous pleasure. Benjamin’s point is simple here I think: it is not the object depicted; it is the method of depiction that counts. Photographic technique fails when it divides the world into types and scenes that merely reproduce the apparatus as it stands. What Benjamin calls for in his positioning of the work of art in relation to the means of production is an example of how to overcome fragmentation and alienation exactly through methods that highlight fragmentation consciously and deliberately i.e., montage, found objects, commodity culture, city streets. The meshing and blurring of boundaries is thus a method of exemplifying to the proletariat devices for overcoming their alienation, their status as objects, through the very objects and apparatuses that have replaced them as value.

One point of interest in terms of my own work is that he points to the juxtaposition of word and image as a technique or correct literary/political tendency. This is a “refunctioning”of the relationship between separate spheres of aesthetic production. In a Marxist vein, it is a method that critiques the form and seeming historical necessity of specialized labor, which separates and alienates people not only from the objects they produce, but from their own identity and from their neighbors, their fellow humans -- a human alienation that serves to limit their agency as political, collective subjects:

What we require of the photographer is the ability to give his picture that caption which wrenches it from modish commerce and gives it revolutionary use-value. But we shall make this demand most emphatically when we – the writers – take up photography. Here, too, therefore, technical progress is for the author as producer the foundation of his political progress. In other words: only by transcending the specialization in the process of production which, in the bourgeois view, constitutes order, is this production made politically valuable; and the limits imposed by specialization must be breached jointly by both the productive forces that they were set up to divide. The author as producer discovers – in discovering his solidarity with the proletariat – that simultaneity with certain other producers who earlier seemed scarcely to concern him…. The task therefore of the Umfunktionierung…: to eliminate the antithesis first between performers and listeners and second between technique and content (76).

But it is not enough to have correct political tendency; this would equal mere propaganda. “What matters therefore is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce others to produce, and second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better the more consumers it is able to turn into producers, that is readers or spectators into collaborators” (78). The role of the intellectual is not merely a destructive one (a betrayal of class and a turning away from intellectual and aesthetic pursuits), but a move towards a refunctioning or reengineering of those apparatuses already available to him or her, turning his methods into “promoting the socialization of the intellectual means of production” (81).

Thus the form of the Passagen-Werk project takes the detritus and fragments of history and discussions of material production and juxtaposes them with observations of the city and intellectual texts and commentaries (Korsch, Simmel, Marx). Forms of labor separated by bourgeois modes of production are brought into proximity at a new historical moment as an exemplary technique, a new mode of production. The work transforms and refunctions the scraps of concrete and intellectual history -- Marxist theory, city street planning, and iron construction -- available to Benjamin and juxtaposes them alongside everyday commodified objects of bourgeois consumption and proletarian labor. The consciousness of the intellectual as a labor process and the labor consciousness of the proletariat meet in the work. “Author as Producer” and the Passagen-Werk both open up a critical space where Laborer equals Producer or Producer equals Author. Images, language, and methods are (ostensibly) available to anyone, through fragments found anywhere. Moreover, the works non-originary method of production eschews notions of individual genius. Rather, it points to methods already available, lying dormant in the very spaces, objects, and images that alienate us. This process of transforming the functions and uses of commodity capital is the dialectical method as a form of agency and action. Dada, Surrealism, Situationist detournement, Punk DIY, all could be said to have Benjamin’s “Author as Producer” and the Passagen-Werk as their genealogical sister.

Finally then: In crucial material/conceptual/epistemological/embodied ways avant garde practices stand at the nexus between revolutionary practice and utopian (messianic) hope. The avant garde offers a set of praxes, or exemplary forms of agency, which re-conceptualize the dialectical relationship between the transitory and the eternal as historical forces, by offering methods of action in the present. These are not mere aesthetic institutional practices, they are more integral -- ways one can live, everyday activities that are always available because history doesn't end. What is interesting to me are the (marginalized) spaces in which these practices operate and come to fruition, i.e., Detroit for example, or the Soviet Union. This is also why the avant garde has a crucial relationship to trauma: the practices are forms of traumatic repetition, but repetition always morphs across space and time, i.e., repetition with a difference, ringing the changes of history so to speak. What John Loewy in his book Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’ calls Benjamin’s “revolutionary melancholia” is one particular traumatic response to the loss of history and the fear of and desire for change. Other representations of loss and cultural fragmentation obtain in other locations and times. We might say then (and this is probably quite oversimplified) that new historical traumas call for new aesthetic responses, which in turn call for and symbolize the desire for new forms of political action.
So, as I argued in my paper on Robert Smithson's photographs of the industrial factory site of Oberhausen, Germany for example, Smithson was able to locate the functional position of a figure like Adolf Eichmann and the trauma of the Holocaust and historically document it because his photos point to its material location – the site specificity of history – reclaiming both the material site and the experience of trauma for future constructions, but he could only do that because history as trauma is available as both a ghostly presence and material fact. The nature of Smithson’s work, why it is important to my mind, is due to, in Benjaminian terms, its correct literary/political tendency. That is, its correct tendency is, in part, the result of its formally oblique method: we are given history in a pile of fragments, rubble, in a series of non-representational images. The method and the perspective is avant garde – historical loss isn’t fetishized as an object for guilty (bourgeois) contemplation. Smithson works the empty spaces of history in a non-specialized way – that is as artist, engineer, anthropologist, writer, archeologist. The aesthetic is expanded as a plethora of methods. This is akin to Benjamin's bringing together the ghostly/material presence in the object/commodity in relation to his intellectual labor, which, joined together, have transformative potential. Benjamin meets Smithson at the level where material modes of production, intellectual consciousness (methods of thinking), and individual/collective unconscious desires are brought into new productive relationships. That, my friends, is a politics.

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