Phantasmagoria

Chris Cutrone

rowlandsonthomas_phantasmagoriasatire1810
(Thomas Rowlandson, political satire with phantasmagoria show [c. 1810])

Letter in Weekly Worker 1075 (September 24, 2015). [PDF] Rex Dunn replied in Weekly Worker 1076 on (October 1, 2015). [PDF]

Rex Dunn (‘No to “Marxist art”,’ September 17) replies to my letter on ‘Marxism and art’ (September 3) to invoke Adorno, but only partially and critically. And undialectically.

I think it is a mistake to try to adjudicate Marxism on the basis of postmodernist categories, such as ‘essentialism’ versus ‘anti-essentialism’ and ‘structuralism’ or ‘post-structuralism’. Marxism is none of these. They are too beholden to the New Left’s concerns, and neglect the older, deeper history. Such antinomies of postmodernism are nonetheless potentially related to what Marx called the “phantasmagoria” of capitalism, in which cause and effect and means and ends become confused and reversed.

As Adorno wrote to Benjamin about capitalism, “The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness … perfection of the commodity character in a Hegelian self-consciousness inaugurates the explosion of its phantasmagoria.”

While this may seem terribly abstract, it does say something about art and capitalism, as well as the struggle for socialism. Socialism is a symptom of capitalism, as is modern art. It is capitalism’s unrealised potential, necessarily distorted as it is constrained. But to regard that potential properly means returning to the bourgeois-emancipatory character of art in the modern world. It will appear ‘inhuman’.

While humans may have always made art, they did not always make art as an ‘end in itself’. Like production for its own sake, art for art’s sake is a bourgeois value, but one perverted by capitalism. Its ideal remains – as Dunn himself acknowledges with his vision of a socialist homo aestheticus.

So this is why it becomes necessary to follow modern art, as Adorno did, in an “immanently dialectical” method of “critique”. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory seems general and unsatisfactory because it remains a meta-theoretical statement that should have been unnecessary from the standpoint of his concrete critical essays on art and literature. Yet it was still necessary for him (to try) to write. Why?

Adorno’s concrete essays have apparently sometimes given the mistaken impression that he was a partisan for some art over others. Dialectical critique was mistaken for polemic. That’s why Adorno also sometimes appears to equivocate: the dialectic is lost.

That is the problem with the apparent oppositions of postmodernism that actually share something in common that is unacknowledged: that the antinomies of society in capitalism point beyond themselves. So does art.

Socialism will not mean returning to pre-bourgeois ‘art’, but fulfilling the freedom of art, announced, but betrayed and mocked, by bourgeois society in capitalism. That will mean going beyond art in capitalism, but in ways neither Aristotle nor Adorno nor Kant nor Hegel nor Marx himself – nor we ourselves – would quite recognise.

Adorno, like Trotsky, whose Literature and Revolution (1924) and other writings on art and culture were profoundly inspirational for him, did not prescribe what a true – free – ‘human culture’ would be, but recognised the need to struggle in, through and beyond capitalism – beyond art – on the basis of capitalism, to make it possible. | §

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