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Art and capital without contradiction? An interview with Jay Bernstein

Jensen Suther

 Platypus Review 95 | April 2017

On March 3, 2017, Jensen Suther interviewed Jay Bernstein, who teaches philosophy at the New School. Bernstein is the author of a number of books on art, ethics, and Critical Theory, which include The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno (1992), Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (2006), Against Voluptuous Bodies: Adorno’s Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting (2007), and most recently, Torture and Dignity: An Essay on Moral Injury (2016). What follows is an edited version of the interview.


Jensen Suther: You were a member of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in the sixties. Can you discuss your experience of the emergence of the New Left and the contexts of your own politicization? What role did Critical Theory play in that experience?

Jay Bernstein: Critical Theory played no role whatsoever in my political formation. I had been in high school, when, like everyone in my generation, I was taken by the Civil Rights Movement and, hence, politics. When I got to university, it was still about the Civil Rights Movement, as Vietnam had not yet become the dominant issue. But it really was Vietnam that politicized us. And as it happened, although we were just a few radicals on a college campus, we arranged one of the first anti-Vietnam rallies when Susan Sontag and Richard Wilbur came to speak to us at Trinity College. I do not have an answer as to why it was obvious to those of us there that this was deeply important to the country as a whole. Still we were certain: We were in a wrong war that was being wrongly fought.

And, if I want to say what politicized me most, or better, formed my political understanding, it was the Port Huron Statement. The Port Huron Statement laid out an account of the military industrial complex and an idea of participatory democracy. It put together a package of democratic self-control with a kind of Marxist critique. The Port Huron Statement was my beginning to be able to give political shape and context to what had been solely ethical objections. Sontag, when she gave that talk at Trinity, argued the problem with the Left in America was that it had been ethical and not political. And that transformation from the ethical to the political was what had already happened in the Civil Rights Movement. That is what Martin Luther King managed to find: a way of getting ethical content and political strategy into one package.

For me, the SDS was the breakthrough. I had read, which again seemed part of the moment, the 1844 Manuscripts. The serious people, the serious socialists had already read Das Kapital. That did not happen for me until years later. The 1844 Manuscripts were enough. With the Port Huron Statement, they gave me a vision of the modern world and a politics; that was the beginning. I was active in SDS; in 1968, I was arrested at Columbia; I was in jail with Tom Hayden; and I spent 1968 flying about from college campus to college campus trying to radicalize people on behalf of SDS, which was disastrous. Not because I was not a good political speaker, but because I would go to a college campus and the leftists would say to me “so what shall we revolt over?” The invasion of Cambodia kind of broke my heart. It felt like we had won the battle over Vietnam and, really, now you are going to invade Cambodia? That was at a moment when the Left, as a wider public political movement, had begun to shrink to the Weathermen and all that.

JS: You were close to the renowned Hegelian Gillian Rose in the seventies and wrote your first book on Georg Lukács’s Marxist aesthetics. What first drew you to Lukács and Theodor Adorno, specifically, and to the Marxist tradition in general?

JB: I did my PhD in Edinburgh under W.H. Walsh on Kant’s philosophy of science. I wanted to do a PhD on Hegel’s Phenomenology, but he said “I only do Hegel’s Logic,” so we compromised on Kant’s Third Critique. I met Gillian in 1976 at a conference at Oxford where David Wood was giving a Derridean critique of Hegel. I, in my fashion, gave my standard critique of Derrida and Deconstruction, and how he had got Hegel wrong. Gillian came up to me after the intervention and said to me, in her inimitable fashion, “you and I are going to be best friends.” We were friends and colleagues joined at the hip by Hegel. She was my closest friend until her death.

My turn to aesthetics was in part contingent. When I got to the University of Essex, there was no philosophy major. Philosophy was a service department only and I was asked to teach a course on the philosophy of literature. I concocted a course; I do not remember it exactly, but both Lukács and Northrop Frye were in there. Lukács had caught my imagination as a graduate student, again, as a Hegelian Marxist. The thing about Lukács’s thought that I found terribly moving and right and powerful was his image of revolution. Lukács rejected Marx’s philosophy of history on the grounds that, prior to capitalism, class interests were never fully articulated, were never dominant, and were always "inextricably joined to political and religious factors"—that is from the “Class Consciousness” essay.[i] The inextricability of the linking was what caught my imagination: Even if economic factors often pressure and determine historical life, it does not follow that history is about economic relations. As I read him, then and now, Lukács is arguing that every social formation, and by inference every revolution is a revolution about what it is to be a human being—a revolution in the meaning of being human. The idea of a revolution is not for determining an ultimate goal, but rather for instituting a new experiment in the very idea of what it is to be a human being; and that thought, which, the only thinker I know who has really embraced it is Castoriadis, that thought that what we are living through and what we want, again, are different experiments in the very idea of being a human being, seems to me powerful, important, and contrary to orthodoxy of every kind. I do not know of any vision that has that kind of historicism and that sense of historical potentiality. Without that thought, however, revolutionary ideas become forms of dogmatism.

JS: What is the relationship between philosophy, or, between politics and art? Throughout your career, you have often turned to art objects to work through moral and political questions, providing a powerful account of the meaning of art as a social practice and of the autonomous modernist artwork as a form of resistance to the dominance of instrumental reason under capitalism. In The Fate of Art from 1992, you take up Kant, Heidegger, Derrida, and Adorno in order to develop the subversive logic of the modernist sublime and to show how Adorno, specifically, is able to give up the philosophical search for transcendental conditions of experience and to perform the “ethical act of self-consciousness that brings the subject before and into his or her historical situation.” Did the turn to Deconstruction mark a shift in your thinking away from the concerns of a specifically Marxist aesthetics?

JB: There are various models of what it means to carry on left-wing thought. What interested me first in Lukács’s Theory of the Novel, and even more so as I got into Adorno, is equally what I should have already known but failed to learn from Schiller, which was that a great artistic culture is always a stand-in for an absent politics. So, if art is important, it is because politics is in some important aspect absent. In a way, then, to ask about the politics of art is a mistake, because the very existence of a thriving artistic culture is the site and sign of an absent radical politics. There is a scission in Adorno’s thought between the political and the aesthetic. That was Schiller’s lesson. Schiller said–his great insight–the French Revolution failed, but also succeeded; that is why we had further bourgeois revolutions. But Schiller then said, “okay, now we need art in order to educate us for a revolution that could succeed.” So that is the model of aesthetic education; in a way, all left aesthetic theories are versions of Schiller, including Marxian views. Schiller had the picture of a fragmented modernity together with the idea of the failure of revolution leading to the need for an aesthetic education; it was not yet a socialist revolution, but the failure of the bourgeois revolution that concerned Schiller. But the model of revolutionary failure and aesthetic education fit the 20th century failures of socialist revolutions to a T.

Aesthetic Theory is the great work of modernist aesthetics. It is the premier aesthetic work of the 20th century, and it is the premier work thinking through the meaning of modernism. Nothing comes even near it on either of those counts. So, the first answer is that the idea for me was to ask the question of how a certain kind of work could keep radical politics alive in the course of its absence.

I thought the meaning of Fate of Art was to displace Heidegger and Derrida. Heidegger thought that revolution and aesthetic interruption were the same thing and that aesthetic reception would be what might save us. He did not see art as the stand-in for an absent revolution. He thought, in a way like Benjamin, only conservatively, that art would itself presage or even be the revolution, right? So he really did have a version of the Sublime. Derrida was the purest of pure philosophers, a transcendental philosopher, and he was a decent, passionate liberal. But my goal there was not to reduce Marxian critical theory to another form of critical deconstruction but just the opposite, to give that the right historical context so that it could be more generally effective.

JS: Adorno says, in Aesthetic Theory, “[transformative] praxis is not the effect of works, rather it is encapsulated in their truth content.”[ii] Can an ethical understanding of his aesthetics, which is the way that you characterize it in The Fate of Art, account for Adorno’s insistence on the self-conscious collective project of emancipation with which art tasks us through its truth content?

JB: One thing Adorno has in mind when he says “[transformative] praxis is not the effect of works, rather it is encapsulated in their truth content,” is that every authentic work of art gives us the idea of a collective act of self-determination. Every work of art is already imagining a form of collective taking control of the world; and it seems to me that is what I meant in part by saying that, by removing the deconstructive transcendental, and demonstrating how artworks take the subject and bring her into her historical situation, namely, how an isolated individual who has yet to understand the possibility of collective activity of a transformative kind is tacitly and imaginatively confronted by that possibility when encountering a significant modernist work of art. By phrasing it in terms of the ethical, I did not mean to deny a collective political project, but to infuse it with a more than formal content.

JS: Adorno emphasizes art’s status not just as a form of protest, or a way of resisting the domination of nature by instrumental rationality, but as a form of social knowledge. He even remarks at several points in Aesthetic Theory that the practical effects of art are negligible and that it requires philosophy. He understands art as grasping the essence of social reality and giving form to its deepest and most pervasive contradictions. What does art’s capacity to tell the truth about social reality, to concretely embody social contradictions, have to do with aesthetic resistance as you understand it? Is there intersection or divergence of political and ethical concerns at this point? To put the question slightly differently, if the essence of art is grasping a contradiction intrinsic to capitalist reality, is art not the expression of the need for revolution?

JB: I am not sure that the last phrasing puts the same question differently. Of course, if art is already the stand-in for an absent politics, an absent transformative politics, then, even on Schiller’s account, art is about the need for revolution. Behind Schiller/Adorno is the thought that a revolutionized society would have nothing like art in our sense. Whatever a future society would have, whatever would fill that kind of place of art, would be of a very different character and play a very different role than art plays in our world. That is something that, for example, Benjamin tries to imagine with his idea of art as a practice of everyday learning—the surgical invasion of the body through the camera, that sort of thing. He is imagining what kind of other role it could play. And in a society that is politically constituted, it would be a directly political role. Conversely, here and now the existence of art speaks to the absence of a transformative praxis.

It is easy to imagine that we have the wrong kind of economy and political formation. It is easy to imagine that we have got the wrong institutions. But it seems contradictory to think that a radical Marxist theory should say that the deep problem concerning the structure of capitalist modernity is that it has the wrong form of cognition and the wrong form of rationality, because that makes it sound as if the wrongness is at the level of philosophy. How could it be the case that the wrongness of the world is the wrong form of reason? And it is not clear to me, by the way, that Marx understood this. Certainly, both Hegel and Nietzsche are obsessed by this issue. They both think that modernity is in the grip of a mistaken form of reason and rationality, and that that form of reason and rationality, which Adorno will call instrumental reason—what goes under the name Socratism in Nietzsche and of 'the understanding' in Hegel—holds in place the intelligibility and rationality of a wrong form of life.

So a wrong form of life turns out to be not just a social problem, e.g. we do not have the will to feed our poor or we have the wrong institutions. Rather, it turns out to be something deep in the foundations of what we think knowing is, what we think reason is, and what we think norms are. When Adorno turns to works of art, he is trying to unearth an alternative form of encountering, and a different structure of experience from that portrayed in our routine social practices of acting and knowing, in just the way that Nietzsche did, and in just the way that Hegel turns to dialectic against Kantian understanding. The magic of the argument is that everyone knows that aesthetic and artistic experience is not like everyday experience, that there is something intense about it or challenging about it that is of a different character. What Adorno wants to say is that a different structure of experience, a different relationship to the object, and a different rationality is hibernating in advanced artworks and needs to be elaborated. Because the truth of our world is that it is false, in that it has false forms of encounter, false, pseudo-conceptions of individuality, and a life that does not live. For this reason, aesthetics is always the return of the repressed, but what has been repressed is, along with first nature, a form of cognition and a form of reasoning. Now, putting it in those terms is, as I have come to think, overly narrow. The hegemony of instrumental reason is true—that is what it means to say that the work of art is the return of the repressed and embodies social contradiction.

JS: You do not see, then, capitalism itself as essentially contradictory in a way that finds expression in works of art? Rather, in your terms, the contradiction of art is not reducible to the contradiction of capital?

JB: I am not convinced that Marx thought that capital was essentially contradictory. There is a passage from Das Kapital, near the end of Volume One, where I think Marx gives an ethical critique. It is in the passage where he says “modern industry never views or treats the existing form of production process as the definitive one; its technical basis is therefore revolutionary, whereas all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative,” and then, after kind of elaborating this thought about machinery transforming itself all the time, he says, “we have seen how this form of contradiction does away with all repose, all fixity, and all security as far as the worker’s life situation is concerned, how it constantly threatens by taking away the instruments of labor to snatch from his hands the means of subsistence by suppressing his special functions to make him superfluous.”[iii] It sounds like the present, doesn’t it? It’s uncanny! He then goes on “we have seen too how this contradiction bursts forth without restraint in the ceaseless human sacrifices required from the working class, the reckless squandering of labor powers and the devastating effects of social anarchy–this is the negative side.” I want to emphasize the negative side here is presented in wholly ethical terms. And, if we thought that that was a mistake, he goes on to say in the same paragraph that the “monstrosity,” his word, the disposable working population held in reserve in misery for whatever are the needs of capital, need to be replaced, he says, by the individual man, the totally developed individual for whom different social functions are different modes of activity he takes up in turn. The only thing he cares about, and it’s always a big deal, is individuality. It is an ethical critique.

JS: Or an immanent critique of liberalism?

JB: All I am emphasizing here is that the Marxian critique of capital is ethical. Of course, he thinks there are internal tensions in capital. But what he cares about, I think, is an ethical critique.

JS: In your recent article on the moral necessity of modernism, you argue that Marxist materialism was not materialist enough, owing to its optimistic Enlightenment rationalism. Can you elaborate on this vision of an alternative materialism and the minor politics, as you say, of resistance? In your view, should we abandon as obsolete Marx’s notion of an immanent critique of capitalist social relations based on the contradiction between their pretensions to freedom and emancipation, and the practices that they shape?

JB: The second part of the question first: my hunch is that capital no longer has pretensions to freedom and emancipation. The turn to neoliberalism was designed to eliminate that pretension and that promise. Thatcher knew what she was about and the people around her knew it. Reagan did not know anything and the people around him did not know anything. Well, the economists did, they were Chicago School folks. But the people around Thatcher knew that we have to stop promising freedom and emancipation. We have to stop promising that society is going to deliver for you a better form of life. So what was Thatcher’s thing? “Society does not exist.” That was the end of the pretension, in my view. Her statement was not about freedom and emancipation; the market alone would be integral to any vision of freedom.

JS: So there is still an ideology of some sort?

JB: There is still an ideology of some sort, but an ideology based on the idea of not competing values, but on a thin conception of freedom. And the market as the only form of social organization compatible with this thin freedom. Neoliberalism believes in competition, with the attached thought that you undermine competition if you provide a safety net or imposed mechanisms of equalization. When you read Friedrich von Hayek, what he says is that any attempt to provide a form of equalization undoes the rule of law. For Hayek, even minimal regulation is just one step short of Stalinism. There is almost no gap between social regulation and outright totalitarian rule. Their notion of freedom is the freedom to be superfluous, the freedom to fail, and the freedom to lose. For them, unless that is there, then it is no freedom at all. So, sure, there is an ideology of freedom, but it is not integral to capital the way that it was in the original model, which was a vision of freedom, mainly free exchange in the marketplace, the freedom to lead your life, all of that, which felt like part of modernity itself; the right of subjectivity, as Hegel would call it, was embedded in the original capitalist idea, and it is just that that is dissolved by the neoliberal market.

So, the question that has to be asked is whether or not neoliberalism eats up even the notion of leading a life. In so far as you are an entrepreneur of yourself, if that is the fundamental category of subjectivity, then what it threatens is that, although the introduction of neoliberalism depends upon an ideology of freedom, its installation dissolves that basis into the sheer mechanisms of the market.

JS: But that is always the problem with any sort of ideology under capitalism, it undermines and fails to fulfill its own promise…

JB: No, I mean in the other direction. I mean neoliberalism undermines and cuts itself free from its grounding in freedom. If you read Foucault, in his hypnotic way, what he really thinks is that freedom is the wedge that allows neoliberal market rationality to appear, but once it appears, it can lose the original ballast of freedom, and just go for a wholly internally working system of market rationality. If any ideology appears internal to it, it is no more than an efflux of that internal rationality.

JS: If people continue to support and vote for neoliberal politicians and to support neoliberal policies, is this not an indication of the persistence of its promise as an ideology?

JB: I always think part of the answer that we always forget is we have lost the argument. That we have let the argument go, that the failures of the present are the failures of government, not capital.

What I mean is, the idea of immanent critique seems to me nicely powerful, but, politically speaking, is it the best form of critique? It seems to me that Sanders did as well as could be done in the contrast between government and the market in the campaign when he said “wait a minute, they keep telling you to trust the marketplace to deliver healthcare, and, really, are you going to trust Exxon Mobil?” And he went through all the cases where we actually distrust corporations, and he said “people always forget this, people always think social security is an entitlement, not a government program, because if they like it, it’s not government. It is only government when they don’t like it.” Sanders, rhetorically, was not doing immanent critique, he was just offering a series of reminders—which can be immensely powerful: politics is often about forgetting and ignoring and sidelining.

JS: In Towards a New Manifesto, based on a recorded conversation between Horkheimer and Adorno in 1956, Adorno endorses Horkheimer’s call “for the reestablishment of a socialist party,” adding that it should have a “strictly Leninist manifesto.”[iv] Later in the conversation, Adorno remarks that it is his ambition to “develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels, and Lenin, while keeping up with culture, at its most advanced.”[v] Do you find Adorno’s explicit avowal of Marxism consistent with the model of Critical Theory you have inherited from him?

JB: Maybe you need to help me out with why you think that is a question. Your question is opaque to me. I have always thought of Adorno as an orthodox Marxist. I never thought of him as anything else. May be a better question is: Who else might be an orthodox Marxist?

I do think that Adorno was a terrible political thinker or non-thinker of the political, and this infects and harms his other work. I do not think, “oh, it’s a shame he didn’t write about politics.” His inability to think politically shapes much of what he does. At the same time, of course, it is exactly this that allows him to put so much energy into the aesthetic sphere, where it can take on these tremendous resonances, but it is a deforming lack. And trying to think our way through political forms, non-instrumental forms of the political that are convergent with Marxism, is a challenge that has not yet been answered. That is, there is a great temptation on the Left to think of politics instrumentally, as a means of achieving socialism. Insofar as that is true, it is a repudiation of free self-determination, of what it means to live a human life.

JS: I take it your critique of Adorno’s point here about reestablishing a socialist party is that it is instrumentalizing, that politics is turned into a vehicle for achieving socialism, to be discarded after the revolution?

JB: I do not think that necessarily. Again, the question of a socialist party seems to me a question of labels rather than goals. I am, of course, interested in any party that will put an end to the domination of capital, and which is compatible with free human self-determination. We have come to use the label of socialism to stand for this. And that is all it does, stand for non-exploitative social relations of production, distribution, and consumption. It is the commitment and the content that matter. I am not opposed to having various experiments on non-capitalist forms of social living that are regional. Can we have, a workers’ cooperative garbage collection in New Haven? How would that work? That would be a beginning. So, again, I am in favor of a fluid, experimental, critical problem-solving way of engaging this, rather than with a fixed model and instrumentally thinking about how we can implement it. That is the version of politics that I thought we are trying to give up. So, blueprints… even the idea of where we are going has to continually be charged with immanent and critical content.

JS: Without something like a party, how can socialism be realized?

JB: I am all for political parties, but why just one that represents Socialism? Why not seven? I believe in political parties for exactly the reason that I believe in politics; parties are the bearers of political positions in a complex political world. The context of Adorno saying that is simply to make clear that, whatever Critical Theory is, it means to be a form of Marxism, it means to have Socialism as its goal, and probably, if it is going to realize that goal, it is going to require, he thinks, a vanguard party.

Of course, just to give the obvious examples, neither Habermas nor my friend Honneth would agree to those propositions, even in a shrunken form. They are liberal democrats with a bit of welfarism at the edges. Yet, they are not wobbly about those other commitments, those are powerful for them, but they have given up the question of property as the fundamental issue. In Gillian Rose’s Hegel Contra Sociology she says Hegel, in outlining "the rose in the cross" of the present, is doing politics in the "severe style." The cross of the present is bourgeois property relations—private ownership over the means of production and all that; hence the rationality of the present can only be released, the right of subjectivity recognized through a transformation of existing property relations. Champions of the welfare state see the rose but not the cross.

JS: In light of the current political climate, what with the rejection of neoliberalism demonstrated by Trump’s election, Brexit, and the popularity of a candidate like Bernie Sanders, do you think the Adorno we need is the Adorno that embraces socialism and a socialist party?

JB: Trump’s election, although in part a critique of neoliberalism, represents anger at internationalism. For all of his defense of economic nationalism, nonetheless, all of the actual policies are de-regulating, favoring the rich, so, it is really just more of the same. It’s an authoritarian, weird version of neoliberalism, contradictory in itself. It shows something of the failure of neoliberalism; but what is interesting to me, what the Left has not got a hold of at all, is that it is not just Trump or Brexit, it is everywhere in Europe. This is a North Atlantic civilization problem. There has been a return of authoritarianism and nationalism and this is perhaps even more urgent than the problem of socialism at the moment because it effects the location, formation, and direction of political action as such. What is the horizon of political will formation? How do we connect national politics with the international order? That we have got to think about answers to these questions in terms of what our overall political commitments are, including to socialism, is obvious. But this is a new phenomenon. And it is not going to pan out the way it did in the 1930s, that we can be sure of. This is a form of non-revolutionary authoritarianism, which means it wants to be able to go on and on and on. |P

[i] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1972), 55.

[ii] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 2002), 247.

[iii] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Trans. Ben Fowkes, vol. 1 (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 617-618.

[iv] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto?” New Left Review 65 (2010): 55.

[v] Ibid., 59.

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