Posted below are two videos from the day-long symposium, What is Critique?, held on November 20th, 2010, at Parsons, the New School for Design, New York. The first video is from the afternoon panel,Â The Art Critique: Its History, Theories, and Practices. This panel consisted of Tom Butter, Simone Douglas, and James Elkins; it was moderated by Laurie Rojas. The second video is documentation of the evening panel, The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today. The panel consisted of J.M. Bernstein, Chris Cutrone, Lydia Goehr, and Gregg Horowitz; it was moderated by Chris Mansour. Both videos can also be found at http://streamingculture.parsons.edu/the-art-critique-its-history-theories-and-practices/.
The Art Critique: Its History, Theories, and Practices
The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today
What is Critique? was a day-long symposium that consisted of two panel discussions with artists, critics, teachers, and students and investigated the role that art critiques and criticism play in art production. The first half of the day focused on the nature and function of art critiques as a form of criticism and pedagogy. The latter part of the day was a panel discussion addressing the relationship between critical theory, art production and reception. More information can be found at http://newyork.platypus1917.org/critique/.
I am writing with some very brief notes on Adorno's last writings from 1968-69, the "Marginalia to Theory and Praxis," "Resignation," "Late Capitalism or Industrial Society? (AKA "Is Marx Obsolete?")," and the Adorno-Marcuse correspondence of 1969.
The center of Adorno's critique of the 1960s New Left was their romantic opposition to capitalism, found, for example, in their desideratum of the unity of theory and practice. Rather, Adorno asserted the progressive-emancipatory aspect of the separation of theory and practice.
As Adorno put it, in the "Marginalia,"
"If, to make an exception for once, one risks what is called a grand perspective, beyond the historical differences in which the concepts of theory and praxis have their life, one discovers the infinitely progressive aspect of the separation of theory and praxis, which was deplored by the Romantics and denounced by the Socialists in their wake -- except for the mature Marx."
As Korsch put it in our earlier reading, "Marxism and Philosophy" (1923),
"As scientific socialism, the Marxism of Marx and Engels remains the inclusive whole of a theory of social revolution . . . a materialism whose theory comprehended the totality of society and history, and whose practice overthrew it. . . . The difference [now] is that the various components of [what for Marx and Engels was] the unbreakable interconnection of theory and practice are further separated out. . . . The umbilical cord has been broken."
What is important to note in the above passage from Korsch is that the unity of theory and practice is not being asserted as the norm, but rather their interrelation/interconnection, something quite different. The "umbilical cord" becoming "broken" means not that theory and practice have become separated, merely, but that they are no longer being interrelated properly. Theory and practice remain different things.
The following passage from Adorno's Negative Dialectics (1966), from a section titled "Relation to Left-Wing Hegelianism," describes well Adorno's conception of the theory-practice problem as a historical one, in which past moments (in modern history/the history of the Left) have a non-linear relation to the present:
"The objection has been raised that, because of its immanently critical and theoretical character, the turn to [the] nonidentity [of social being and consciousness] is an insignificant nuance of Neo-Hegelianism or of the historically obsolete Hegelian Left -- as if Marxian criticism of philosophy were a dispensation from it. . . . Yet whereas theory succumbed . . . practice became non-conceptual, a piece of the politics it was supposed to lead out of; it became the prey of power. . . . The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. They thus endorse the course of the world -- defying which is the idea of theory alone. . . . If [one] resists oblivion -- if he resists the universally demanded sacrifice of a once-gained freedom of consciousness -- he will not preach a Restoration in the field of intellectual history. The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth content only by those who agree with Schiller that 'world history is the world tribunal'. What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations."
Korsch's "Marxism and Philosophy" also poses this complex, non-linear historical temporality of the problem of theory and practice:
"'[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence' [Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)]. This dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch."
Adorno's point, following Korsch, is that earlier formulations of the problem of emancipatory theory and practice could and indeed did "supersede present relations," or, as Adorno put it elsewhere (in "Sexual Taboos and the Law Today," 1962),
"The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he might contribute were expressed long ago -- and usually better the first time around."
Adorno is, in his late writings, continuing the ruminations of Korsch and Lukacs on what Korsch called the "crisis of Marxism" in which the crisis of capital necessarily expressed itself by the time of world war and revolution 1914-19. Precisely what Lukacs and Korsch subsequently forgot, after their seminal writings of 1923 we read, Adorno remembered, that the Marxian project was characterized fundamentally by awareness of the problem of theory and practice. Instead, Korsch and Lukacs later fell victim to what Adorno calls "identity [or "reconciliation"] thinking;" like other "vulgar Marxists" they assumed the coincidence of social being and consciousness, rather than the dialectic of the two.
Adorno's problem is somewhat different from what Korsch and Lukacs sought to address. Whereas they had to contemplate the self-contradictory character of both social being and consciousness under capital, expressed precisely in the attempt to overcome capital in theory and practice, Adorno had to try to address the degradation -- the regression -- of both critical theory and social-political practice.
The dual, simultaneously linear and recursive temporality of capital means that, as Korsch had put it, the development and transformation of the Marxian point of departure necessarily takes the form of a "return to Marx," the attempt to get back to an "original, pure Marxism" (of Marx and Engels themselves). Such "return" is both actual and illusory.
Adorno seeks to address his own return to Marx in ways that are self-conscious of this paradox. Hence, in "Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?," also known as "Is Marx Obsolete?" (1968), Adorno answers that Marx is both permanently relevant this side of emancipation from capital, and obsolete in the sense that the problem of capital necessarily appears differently than it did to Marx. Adorno's point is that it is only via Marx that one can overcome the obsolescence of Marx.
Lukacs had already broached this paradox when he offered that one could potentially disagree with all of Marx's conclusions and still return Marx's "method." But this is a dialectical conception in Lukacs and Adorno because of course method and conclusion cannot really be separated. But they can appear to be separated and opposed, and necessarily so. Means and ends can appear to be at odds. The point is to work through this separation -- not only this, but worked through on the very basis of this separation.
The paradox is that, as Lukacs put it, a "radical change in perspective is not possible on the soil of bourgeois society," or, that, with Marxism, "it would appear that nothing has changed."
All that can be done is to advance the dialectic -- and crisis -- of capital, the degree to which this has been critically recognized. And this must necessarily take the form of advancing the dialectical crisis of Marxism, in both theory and practice.
As Adorno put it, 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. . . . [P]erfection of the commodity character in a Hegelian self-consciousness inaugurates the explosion of its phantasmagoria."
It was precisely this advancement through crisis, through bringing forms of necessary misrecognition to critical self-awareness while advancing their practical problems, that had been taken up by Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky (in the revisionist dispute and the subsequent crisis of war and revolution 1914-19, i.e., in that Luxemburg et al. recognized the revisionist reformism of Bernstein et al. as a necessary outcome of the growth of Marxism as a political movement), that was abdicated and abandoned in the early 20th Century, with social democratic reformism (i.e., the succumbing to the essence of reformist Marxist revisionism even by the stalwarts of "orthodoxy" such as Kautsky), Stalinism (the degeneration of "Leninism" into a variety of the same) and the disintegration of "Trotskyism" in the wake of Trotsky. (Trotsky's "Leninism" amounts to his recognition of the necessity of a split in Marxism as the result of -- as bound up with -- the advancement of Marxism in practical politics and theoretical consciousness.)
Adorno recognized this degradation and disintegration, aborting and avoiding the crisis and potential advancement of Marxism in theory and practice, as a problem of regression.
The crisis of capital has been expressed as the crisis in Marxism. The problem is that the significance of the crisis of Marxism has not been recognized as the necessary form of appearance of the crisis of capital. Instead, Marxism has been either abandoned/rejected -- or "upheld" and banalized -- as if Marxism itself had not become (had not always been) self-contradictory. Marxism, whether as critical theory or practical politics, necessarily becomes "vulgarized" (ceases to be itself) if it is experienced as naÃ¯ve consciousness rather than being recognized with at least some reflexive self-awareness as a dialectical problem of consciousness.
Adorno ends his final essay, on "Resignation" (1969), with rumination on "thinking." On the one hand, Adorno recognizes that what is thought can be forgotten and lost, and, on the other hand, Adorno recognizes that what was once thought can be thought again, that thought has as its medium the universal, but only in a critical sense. The universal -- capital -- remains to be critically recognized. Hence the thought of its critical recognition remains possible. We can recognize the thought that was once thought. We can read Adorno -- and Benjamin, Lukacs, Korsch, Trotsky, Lenin, Luxemburg and Marx -- and still recognize the problems of our own thinking about the issue of capital. The question is how we explain this continued recognition to ourselves. This prompts the further thought of theory and practice.
But this thought of the relation of theory and practice threatens to fall short if it does not take the form of how Adorno closes his "Marginalia," that "[practice] appears in theory merely, and indeed necessarily, as a blind spot, as an obsession with what it being criticized. . . . This admixture of delusion, however, warns of the excesses in which it incessantly grows."
Marxism is both true and untrue; the question is how one recognizes its truth and untruth, and the necessity of its being both.
Platypus seeks both to refound and continue and to transform Marxian critical theory and political practice through the self-consciousness of the limits and necessity of Marxism as the limits and necessity of capital. We seek, theoretically, to make out the crisis of Marxism as the crisis of capital, in consciousness of capital's emancipatory possibilities, as it was recognized once before, in the revolutionary moment of 1917-19, and, conversely, practically, to make the crisis of capital take the form of the crisis of proletarian socialism, in the social-political practice of capital's emancipatory possibilities, as it had been, however abortively, once or twice before, what Adorno, following Benjamin, Lukacs and Korsch, contemplated about the limits and failure of the revolution of 1917-19, following what Marx had spent the rest of his life -- in theory and practice -- contemplating about 1848.
I am writing with some brief notes on Adorno's 1942 essay "Reflections on Class Theory."
Another writing by Adorno we read in the group, "Imaginative Excesses," the final section of the aphorisms orphaned from Minima Moralia (1944-47), published in New Left Review as "Messages in a Bottle," Adorno addresses the division and necessary unity of "workers and intellectuals."
One passage in particular should be emphasized, that
"Those schooled in dialectical theory are reluctant to indulge in positive images of the proper society, of its members, even of those who would accomplish it. Past traces deter them; in retrospect, all social utopias since Plato's merge in a dismal resemblance to what they were devised against. The leap into the future, clean over the conditions of the present, lands in the past. In other words: ends and means cannot be formulated in isolation from each other. Dialectics will have no truck with the maxim that the former justify the latter, no matter how close it seems to come to the doctrine of the ruse of reason or, for that matter, the subordination of individual spontaneity to party discipline. The belief that the blind play of means could be summarily displaced by the sovereignty of rational ends was bourgeois utopianism. It is the antithesis of means and ends itself that should be criticized. Both are reified in bourgeois thinking, the ends as 'ideas' the sterility of which lies in their powerlessness to be externalized, such unrealizability being craftily passed off as implicit in absoluteness; means as 'data' of mere, meaningless existence, to be sorted out, according to their effectiveness or lack of it, into anything whatever, but devoid of reason in themselves. This petrified antithesis holds good for the world that produced it, but not for the effort to change it. Solidarity can call on us to subordinate not only individual interests but even our better insight. Conversely, violence, manipulation and devious tactics compromise the end they claim to serve, and thereby dwindle to no more than means. Hence the precariousness of any statement about those on whom the transformation depends. Because means and ends are actually divided, the subjects of the breakthrough cannot be thought of as an unmediated unity of the two. No more, however, can the division be perpetuated in theory by the expectation that they might be either simply bearers of the end or else unmitigated means. The dissident wholly governed by the end is today in any case so thoroughly despised by friend and foe as an 'idealist' and daydreamer, that one is more inclined to impute redemptive powers to his eccentricity than to reaffirm his impotence as impotent. Certainly, however, no more faith can be placed in those equated with the means; the subjectless beings whom historical wrong has robbed of the strength to right it, adapted to technology and unemployment, conforming and squalid, hard to distinguish from the wind-jackets of fascism: their actual state disclaims the idea that puts its trust in them."
In "Reflections on Class Theory," which is in extended dialogue with Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History," and related to Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-written with Horkheimer, Adorno uses the categories "old" and "new" vs. the "different" to express the critique of "progress" that is the hallmark of bourgeois thinking about history. But precisely this "bourgeois" character needs to be explicated.
When Adorno states, for example, that the "new is the old in distress or state of need" and that the "new is the same old thing," but contrasts this with the possibility of the "new and different," as opposed to the "new and the same," Adorno is expressing the dialectic of capital.
The era of the modern society of capital or "bourgeois society" can be subdivided into two broad periods, that of its "bourgeois" emergence, and that of its "proletarian" crisis and potential overcoming. So the proletarian is the bourgeois, but in "distress" and in "need" of self-overcoming.
The supplemental reading, Marx and Engels's 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party, has 3 key catch-phrases to be borne in mind: "History is the history of class struggle;" "All that is solid melts into air;" and "Workers of the world unite!" How these three tropes are articulated determines (whether and) how one understands the coherence of the Marxian point of departure.
The footnote added later by Engels, that "history is the history of class struggle" is only true in terms of "recorded/[written] history," i.e., the history of civilization, should be taken as the frame in which "history" is understood, i.e., not archaeological history. This casts the question of "pre-history" in a specific light: the ambivalent way in which the entire history of civilization is rendered "pre-historical" by capital. If the bourgeois thinkers are correct that capital is the "end of history," then all of history will have become pre-history in the sense of being proto-bourgeois. As Adorno put it (elsewhere), history may not be the story of progress in freedom, but there is a straight line between the slingshot and the H-bomb.
Marx asks the question of whether capital could be transitional to a higher form of freedom that would render all of history "pre-historical" in the reverse sense, that capital would be the culmination and end of humanity's prehistory, and overcoming capital would initiate humanity's real history. Marx's point -- the project of his politics -- is to render capital pre-historical.
Adorno's question, posed in the darkest hour of the 20th Century, is whether the regression of capitalism has rendered history, not the history of class struggle, but of monopolies, gangs and rackets. This is because he sees the failure of the proletarian socialist revolution as entailing the regression of "bourgeois" subjectivity, or, as he puts it elsewhere, the failure of socialism undermines liberalism as well. The stakes of the proletarian struggle for socialism encompass the historical significance of the entire bourgeois epoch, whether capital represented emancipation at all or not, whether it was something new -- a new potential for humanity -- or turned out to be the "same old thing."
This is where the importance of the Platypus history of the Left finds its purchase, why the entire modern period can only be understood coherently, in what Hegel would call history that can be raised to a philosophical level, can only be told as the history of (potential) emancipation, can only be told as the history of the emergence -- and crisis -- of the Left. The unresolved crisis of the Left, which finds itself expressed in terms of the relation between the proletariat and communism, is the source of humanity's suffering. This is because communism expresses the problematic of the revolt of the Third Estate in its highest (and what Adorno calls "distressed") form. Was the bourgeois revolution an act of usurpation by a new exploiting class, or was it an emancipatory act? This is the question posed in the bourgeois era that Marx seeks to answer in the "proletarian" period of the bourgeois era that follows the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the politics of the workers' movement as the "class struggle" of the proletariat for the simultaneous fulfillment and abolition of bourgeois society.
The question is whether the proletariat can make itself into the last exploited class in history, whether the proletariat can allow the potential of capital to overcome and transcend the history of civilization as one of class exploitation. Marx's conception of class struggle in history is a utopian and not empirical one.
Adorno, following Benjamin, asks the question of what the 20th Century "mass society" simultaneous phenomena of the "bourgeoisification of the proletariat" and "proletarianization of the bourgeoisie" signifies in terms of the Marxian prognosis, which was formulated in the 19th Century "liberal" era of capitalism. Benjamin and Adorno emphasized the continuity in the change from capitalism's 19th-20th Century forms. -- Benjamin, in the Arcades Project, for instance, finds the roots of the 20th Century forms already in the 19th Century, especially after 1848.
Adorno's question relates to whether 20th Century capitalism made obsolete Marx's conception in the sense of being "post-bourgeois." Adorno's response to this problem, posed by anti-Marxist "sociology," is that 20th Century society remained "bourgeois" by virtue of its being "proletarian." Adorno, following Benjamin, recovered Marx's historical understanding of class, that "bourgeois" and "proletarian" referred not to sociological but historical realities. "Proletarian" society (of the late 19th and 20th Centuries) was "bourgeois" society in distress and need of self-overcoming.
In this sense, the "particular" interest that falsely "universalizes" itself in bourgeois thought, refers to the historical problematic of capital, the projection of the self-understanding of bourgeois subjectivity onto all prior history and as a historical limit.
The divided nature of workers' subjectivity, between "bourgeois" and "proletarian" interest, which Lukacs had already noted, following Marx, points to the problem of "bourgeois" subjectivity overcoming itself through the political project of proletarian socialism, which would be mounted on the basis of "bourgeois right," i.e., the rights of labor, posed at both the individual and collective level.
The problem is that the "bourgeois consciousness" within which the workers remain ensnared threaten to always make their class struggles merely reconstitutive and never transcending of capital. The proletarian revolution remains a bourgeois revolution, or revolution within capital, it remains the recurrence of the "old" in the "new," and the foreclosure of the possibility of "different," of transcending capital.
This is the source of the necessity of the Marxian point of departure of historical consciousness -- why Adorno's "Reflections on Class Theory" becomes a rumination on history rather than empirical "sociological" realities. For the possibility of an adequate historical consciousness in critical theory and emancipatory political practice seems to have become divided between intellectuals and workers as divided aspects of bourgeois subjectivity in extremis. As Adorno put it in "Imaginative Excesses,"
"The class division of society is also maintained by those who oppose class society: following the schematic division of physical and mental labour, they split themselves up into workers and intellectuals. This division cripples the practice which is called for. It cannot be arbitrarily set aside. But while those professionally concerned with things of the mind are themselves turned more and more into technicians, the growing opacity of capitalist mass society makes an association between intellectuals who still are such, with workers who still know themselves to be such, more timely than thirty years ago. At that time such unity was compromised by free-wheeling bourgeois of the liberal professions, who were shut out by industry and tried to gain influence by left-wing bustlings. The community of workers of head and hand had a soothing sound, and the proletariat rightly sniffed out, in the spiritual leadership commended . . . a subterfuge to bring the class struggle under control by just such spiritualization. Today, when the concept of the proletariat, unshaken in its economic essence, is so occluded by technology that in the greatest industrial country [the U.S.] there can be no question of proletarian class-consciousness, the role of intellectuals would no longer be to alert the torpid to their most obvious interests, but to strip the veil from the eyes of the wise-guys, the illusion that capitalism, which makes them its temporary beneficiaries, is based on anything other than their exploitation and oppression. The deluded workers are directly dependent on those who can still just see and tell of their delusion. Their hatred of intellectuals has changed accordingly. It has aligned itself to the prevailing commonsense views. The masses no longer mistrust intellectuals because they betray the revolution, but because they might want it, and thereby reveal how great is their own need of intellectuals. Only if the extremes come together will humanity survive."