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You are here: Platypus /“Rehabilitating the aesthetic”: An interview with Michael Wayne

“Rehabilitating the aesthetic”: An interview with Michael Wayne

D. L. Jacobs and Justin Spiegel

Platypus Review 145 | April 2022


Platypus Affiliated Society members D. L. Jacobs and Justin Spiegel interviewed Michael Wayne, author of Red Kant: Aesthetics, Marxism and the Third Critique (2014) in two parts: email and in-person conversation on December 2, 2021. What follows is an edited transcription of their discussions.

D. L. Jacobs and Justin Spiegel: What led you to study Kant? What is its relevance for the Left today?

Michael Wayne: I started writing Red Kant around ten years ago so I cannot remember exactly what the route was to Kant. It became clear to me that Kant is part of the philosophical heritage of the Left as much as he is part of the philosophical heritage of bourgeois culture. Up to and including key figures in the Third International (1917 and its aftermath), revolutionaries were influenced by Kant’s language on aesthetics. Was that entirely a bad thing? It is a little over-confident to suggest that a scientific Marxist aesthetics only really begins in the 1960s, and this aesthetic, which was grounded in structuralism, was not a particularly philosophical language about aesthetics specifically (as opposed to language in general). There is something in Kant that is part of the Left’s history and not in an unfortunate way. Kant’s language about the aesthetic is to be found in popular ideas today about what “art” does for people. Cutting ourselves off from that language because it does not sound “scientific” or because it sounds old fashioned or worse, “humanist,” is a mistake. Marxists should engage and reconstruct that philosophical heritage, unpicking its sticky attachments to bourgeois culture and making it instead useful for radical change.

DJ & JS: You note that Marx had little to say about Kant during his time, but Theodor Adorno had a much more “dialectical view.” What do you take as the reasons for this? What changed historically? How is this related to the history of the Left?

MW: There’s no doubt that Hegel was the biggest single influence on Marx, and that Marxism comes out of Marx’s struggle to transform the Hegelian dialectic into a historical and materialist philosophy. So it is entirely understandable that Kant plays a very minor role in Marx’s reflections on his own precursors. Hegel’s dialectic was infinitely more developed than Kant’s version and is characterized by an explosive generative power that connects with Marxism’s revolutionary politics. But there are at least two aspects of Hegel’s dialectic as it is popularly interpreted that people have misgivings about, to which Kant becomes a kind of correction. Firstly, Hegel is interpreted as arguing that the parts of a system contain the essence of the whole and that can leave little room for parts to have any specificity or autonomy. The Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce instead drew on Kant to talk about a “dialectic of distincts.” Kant’s whole philosophical architecture, with his systems of cognitive, moral, and aesthetic judgment, might be seen as a dialectic of distincts (a structure also influential on Jürgen Habermas). It has the merit of preserving the distinctive operational activity of a region within an overall unity of sorts, or perhaps less favorably, as compartmentalized non-dialectical sections. Antonio Gramsci adopted this phrase “dialectic of distincts” to think about politics as a specific relatively autonomous practice.

The other aspect of the Hegelian dialectic that people have been concerned about is the temptation to resolve contradictions in the vulgarized version of the dialectic, where thesis is confronted with antithesis, which leads to synthesis. In the 20th century, after the rise of Stalinism, where the progressive dialectic of history looked to have stalled and turned into something else, this was a problem, especially because that something else claimed to be the culmination of the progressive dialectic of history. Thus Adorno was attracted to the structure of Kant’s dialectic, which Kojin Karatani describes as a restless oscillation between distincts or poles. Kant’s dialectic does not have that quality of breaking through (revolution) that Hegel’s dialectic has, but also then it has less chance of being commandeered by the closure of dictatorship as a progressive synthesis. Hence Adorno’s interest in developing a “negative dialectic” rather than a positive one. Kant has a different version of the dialectic, one less developed than Hegel but one that is still serviceable for certain tasks. At the same time we can give a Hegelian dialectical reading of Kant’s limits and contradictions, which point to breakthroughs to come or had to come if there were to be advances.

DJ & JS: You make several mentions, throughout your book, of the “bourgeois” vs. the “anti-bourgeois” Kant. What do you take to be the substance of this distinction between bourgeois and anti-bourgeois? What does it mean to recover those aspects of Kant that are anti-bourgeois, and in what way would a project of emancipation from capitalism be characterized as bourgeois and/or anti-bourgeois?

MW: I used the term “bourgeois” as a little bit of a provocation, a way of reminding those who want the aesthetic to transcend the social of just how ingrained their version of the aesthetic is with the social. The term “bourgeois” may be useful to sketch in certain parameters within which various currents of thought and practice move. One of those parameters is a certain allergy to thinking of philosophy as historically and socially conditioned. For Georg Lukács, bourgeois culture is characterized by a set of structuring antinomies such as subject and object, structure and agency, necessity and freedom, fact and value, etc. Of course the term “bourgeois” will not tell you much that is specific and unique to the bewildering array of bourgeois currents of thought that have developed within the history of capitalism. For that you have to engage with those currents, but the limits implied by the term “bourgeois” also suggest how one might usefully engage with those currents in ways that are genuinely different, that are attuned to their historical and social conditions. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

It is worth noting that I divide the bourgeois currents between the liberal and conservative strands on the one hand and what I call, provocatively, the “Left-wing” of the bourgeoisie. Here I include those thinkers who have passed through the linguistic turn of structuralism, post structuralism, postmodernism and so forth and return to Kant with that trajectory still imprinted on their thinking, but who also end up with quite conventional readings and uses of Kant. I am thinking of Gilles Deleuze, Steven Shaviro, and Jacques Rancière in particular. They are Left-wing to the extent that their positions are marked by an engagement with Marxism and in contrast to the traditional bourgeois aesthetics that has come out of analytic philosophy, with its rationalism, empiricism, and psychologism. The Left-wing bourgeois critics come out of continental philosophy, but they end up displaying a similar allergy to historical and social relations and conditions. They promulgate a different version of the bourgeois subject than analytic philosophy, one much more attuned to some of the needs and currents of advanced capitalism, which has less and less need for a subject that is stable and coherent or even one that has much investment in reason. Here the term “bourgeois” usefully suggests that, across the chasm that is analytic and continental philosophy, there are certain shared connections with capitalism that we might not otherwise see. But I never use the term “bourgeois” as a way of dismissing a body of thought; it is only an initial orientation.

It also helps us define how Marxists might produce anti-bourgeois philosophy. An anti-bourgeois reading of Kant is the subject of my book. I would say that it involves at least two things: firstly approaching a thinker or body of thought as a production and a productive response to fundamental problems in the social and historical situation surrounding it. Secondly, following the hermeneutic strategy of Marxist literary giants such as Pierre Macherey, Fredric Jameson, and Terry Eagleton, we have to see this production as contradictory because the social and historical situation is contradictory; we have to read it “against the grain.” Each work of philosophy or art has an element of uniqueness about it — at least if it has any interest to us — in the way it tries to work through these contradictions. A Marxist reading of any text has not completed its job until it has brought out that singular element of a work. I am alluding here to the notion of immanent critique, working within the terms that a body of work itself is using, discovering the tensions and contradictions of the language as it internalizes the pressure of the historical and social situation it confronts, and then, in a Hegelian sublation, reconfiguring those terms in ways that may point beyond the horizon of capitalism. This allows us to avoid simply submitting a work to a set of standards that are foreign to it. It also means that a future philosophy and society can carry forth all that it needs from the past, from its historical inheritance. Marx practices immanent critique of classical political economy in Capital.

Immanent critique suggests a reading practice where you help a work elaborate solutions that were perhaps there in embryonic form but which could not, for various reasons, be worked through at the time, because it cannot escape its “bourgeois skin,” as Marx said of political economy. With Kant it is clear that his work was structured by the antinomies of bourgeois thought that Lukács identified, such as between rationalism, with its pure form allergic to specific content, and empiricism, with its sensuous registering of the experiential, but unable to think the a priori conditions of the individual experiencing subject. But, whereas Lukács tended to regard Kant’s work as set in a series of frozen antinomies, Lucien Goldmann and Adorno recognized the incipient dialectic that was at work within the philosophical architecture. For me, Kant’s aesthetic turn was his attempt to work through the problems within his philosophy, and I think that it is interesting that the aesthetic is something to which philosophers turn, to help them because the aesthetic is good to think with. It helps us think against the pressures and limits which capitalism imposes on us. The aesthetic, when it is working well, that is to say when it puts in a challenge to commodification and class stratification, helps us think dialectically.

DJ & JS: Does “Red Kant” then only apply with the addition of his Third Critique (Critique of Judgment)? What do you see as the necessity of the Third Critique for Marxism and for future politics?

MW: No, I think the First Critique (Critique of Pure Reason) is also an incredible philosophical drama, and it is this drama which standard Marxist critics of Kant seem to miss. You have to read the First Critique to understand the Third Critique and see what elements in the First anticipate Kant’s later aesthetic turn. For example, the First Critique asks, what makes experience intelligible, how is it decoded and processed? Here the transcendental subject (the a priori universal template that all individual empirical subjects must operate within) that is doing all this processing of experience is split between transcendental logic, which is the core of Kant’s system, and a transcendental aesthetic, which is responsible for presenting experience in space and time. This is also, interestingly, where Kant talks about the “imagination,” although it is what he calls the “reproductive imagination,” that is subordinate to doing the manual labor of synthesizing phenomena in space and time, readying it to be stamped by the universal concepts of the understanding according to the principles of logic. But, it turns out that the universal concepts of the understanding are dependent on space and time. While they are still understood as ahistorical pure forms of intuition, the fact that causality for example, a key concept for Kant, cannot be intelligible unless it is imbued with a sense of temporality (for cause implies a before and after), gives space and time a certain potential. Space and time are central to the aesthetic and to figuration. Follow a curved or straight line and that is a temporal and spatial experience. What if the imagination has a modality where it no longer has to be merely “reproductive” of the concepts of the understanding? What if the imagination could be productive on its own account? Now figuration in space and time becomes a form of play. That might be particularly attractive when the philosophical model you have labored to produce turns out to leave little room for play, for freedom. The transcendental logic, the transcendental understanding of Kant’s First Critique does two things: it maps out the means by which experience becomes structured and determinate according to the transcendental subject, and that has the great merit of going beyond empiricism and suggesting that yes, life is structured by certain “laws.” But the First Critique also produces a very deterministic vision. Marx talks about Value, the great operations of capital in its movements of accumulation and competition stamping down on life, and Kant’s First Critique also produces a great stamping machine; this is not coincidental.

But if in the Third Critique the aesthetic opens up a space for play, for creativity, for agency eliminated by the First Critique, that also has consequences for the world of “concepts.” Here is where my reading of Kant differs from most other readings, which tend to accept that the Kantian aesthetic is non-conceptual. But, if you look at the architecture of Kant’s philosophy, that reading, almost universally accepted, is not that secure. Because, in the First Critique he says that the operations of pure concepts depend on the operations of the pure Transcendental aesthetic. So if the aesthetic is doing something different in the Third Critique, moving from everyday experience to a mode of perception that we associate with the aesthetic experience, with “art,” surely something is also happening to “concepts” as well. Yes, something is! Hopefully, if the aesthetic is working well, those concepts of the understanding, reinterpreted now as the dominant conceptual world of capitalism rather than some transcendental subject, are being de-reified to some degree. Kant moves back and forth around this throughout the Third Critique, but finally moves towards calling these new concepts, “aesthetic ideas.” With aesthetic ideas, Kant anticipates the later German Marxist cultural tradition of dialectical images. The answer to the first part of your question is that the Red Kant has to be discovered in its germs in the First Critique.

This reading of the Third Critique is useful to Marxism and “future politics,” because it rehabilitates the aesthetic in general and not just Kant’s version of it. Marxism is nothing if not an example of critical thinking, thinking primarily with concepts, as befits any social science. But the aesthetic is a form of perceptual critical thinking and so it has a close affinity with the project and ambitions of Marxism. As a form of perceptual thinking, the aesthetic is less burdened with the restrictive circles in which conceptual thinking is typically developed; although the aesthetic does have its elitist institutions and practices, the popular aesthetic is a democratic space that Marxism must be interested in, not least because it will find there, in popular and often intuitive forms, sentiments and ideas that connect with its analysis. The aesthetic is important to Marxism because play, imagination, pleasure, agency, and discussion ought to be important to Marxism, and expanding the possibilities for such modes of sociality ought to be the goal of any redistribution of wealth and transformation of production. Finally, given our current impasse in history, where there does not seem to be a collective subject that can form to challenge capitalism, it is vital that we keep alive the imaginative possibility of doing so, and here too the aesthetic is a friend to Marxism and any transformative politics. For example, aesthetics always harbors a utopian strand to it, a pronounced dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire for change. We have to keep that desire flickering and fan it in a direction that capitalism cannot co-opt and channel to revivify itself as it so often does, e.g., with all those utopian hopes of change that emerged in the 1960s.

DJ & JS: You mention that Kant's turn to labor in paragraph 43 of the Third Critique is his “materialist turn.” Can you say more about that and why it is important for the Left?

MW: It seems that in the Third Critique, out of nowhere, Kant makes a materialist turn towards craft production. This is hugely significant because he is here, for the first time, translating his philosophy into explicitly materialist terms. In fact he has already laid the groundwork for this earlier on, in the introductions (there are two). Kant offers us a philosophy of natural science, where he says that in order to explore nature, scientists have to perform certain mental tricks of the mind and assume that nature is purposeful. This then branches off into a philosophy of aesthetics, because once he has introduced this notion of adopting an imaginative relation to what was in the First Critique a purely deterministic vision of all nature (including the human being), he expands his thought about what that imaginative relation to nature implies. But then there is a third philosophy emerging, very latent and only available to us retrospectively: the philosophy of historical materialism, which is also founded on our species having a creative relationship to nature via human labor. Just how anticipatory Kant is of historical materialism at this point is evidenced by his passage on the honeycomb that bees make. We may call this a “work of art,” but this is wrong because only the human being builds with rational deliberation not instinct. Marx takes this passage over into Capital in his own famous analogy between bees and architects, except he is even more “romantic” than Kant at this point, and talks not about rational deliberation, but the imagination! We have it, bees don’t. It's extraordinary how little recognized it is that Marx was here completely in Kant’s debt. The importance of Kant’s materialist turn to labor, to production is not only that it begins to ground his philosophy of the aesthetic in ways that bourgeois appropriations of Kant have thoroughly disavowed, but it also brings the language of the aesthetic into the language of production, of labor. This is why it is important that Marx talks about the imagination in the discussion of bees and architects. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that Marx had an instrumentalist view of human labor as Habermas thought. Human labor is creative for Marx. That does not mean there is no difference between the kind of labor we need, without which things would get sticky pretty quickly, and cultural production, but they are not to be opposed to each other as yet another antinomy. Craft labor is important because it is a form of labor that precedes capitalism; it is a form of labor that continues within capitalism, especially around aesthetic work (such as film or music making or visual arts); and it is a model of labor for a future socialist society. Aesthetic labor can and has put up some intrinsic resistance to its abstraction. It remains stubbornly concrete and the struggle between concrete and abstract labor was the centerpiece of Marx’s critique of capitalist political economy.

DJ & JS: You write that the Marx of Capital takes more seriously the mystifying power of the cash nexus, or money relation, whereas the Marx of the Communist Manifesto still saw in “the development of the cash nexus a laying bare of the new more clearly defined class relations of capitalism.” Could you describe in more detail Marx’s apparently changed view of this cash nexus, from the Manifesto to Capital? Further, how is this change in Marx’s view anticipated by Kant’s Third Critique? How, if at all, is Marx’s changing relationship to bourgeois society and categories anticipated within the trajectory of bourgeois thought itself?

MW: The Marx of The Communist Manifesto was still to develop a theory of fetishism, which is to say that he had still to develop an account of how the very practices of capitalism make it difficult to penetrate to its essential qualities. This is because in 1848 his theory was still in development and because the political context was hopeful as revolutions and insurrections were breaking out across Europe. By the time Marx is writing Capital, capitalism has consolidated itself. Part of that consolidation was how, in its very DNA, its very operations at a day-to-day level, it produces phenomenal forms, the kind of empirically based cognitions which Kant’s First Critique sets out to describe, that conceal fundamental aspects of how it operates, a noumenon that is the social unconscious. Hence the famous section on the “Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof” in Capital. Here the cash nexus does not lay anything bare. Quite the contrary. The commodity is “a mysterious thing” because “a definite social relation between men [...] assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”

Kant’s perspective is very interesting here, because for Kant, the world of things is always mediated by the subject, although it was the transcendental subject; and this subject became “thingified” because it could not alter anything, but could only obey laws of the transcendental subject. It was a very strange subject and mediation that Kant was proposing — an agency that was also not an agency. The inability to rescue a moral-political dimension from this cognitive model (and that is precisely a sign of fetishism: things, impervious to moral-political standards, dominate the subject) was deeply troubling to Kant.

It is extraordinary that in his turn towards the aesthetic Kant anticipates Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, and so as you say, in a nice formulation, Marx’s changing relationship to bourgeois society is anticipated within the trajectory of bourgeois thought itself. In the Third Critique Kant talks about “subreption,” which means a “secret seizure.” For Kant, it refers to the way the subject, when confronted with the sublime, in the form of immense power and/or size, feels that their awe is the product of what the object is doing to them. But for Kant, this brackets off what the transcendental subject is doing to the object, which, in the Third Critique, is much closer to a historical and social subject than the First Critique. Kant comes close to saying that our ability to respond aesthetically to nature is the result of our humanization of it. Thus an emergent sense of social relations is evident here, although capitalism will, as it consolidates, force that emergent sense back: as awareness of social relations retracts into the thingified object world of commodities. That is one form of fetishism, but Kant is still working within another form of fetishism and that is the fetishism of the subject. Marx, building on Hegel, will transform the transcendental subject into a historical subject of material relations in which labor is a central feature. This too is a condition of beauty, which starts with developing standards inherent in the usefulness of our productions.

DJ: How did you come to be interested in Marxism? And as well as Kant along the way?

MW: I was not a great student in what we call comprehensive education in the UK. I was a very average student, not that interested in learning and education. Going to University was not something I had actually thought about until someone mentioned it to me as a possibility. It's not something that my family would have thought about pushing me towards. I ended up going to the Polytechnic of North London (at a time when we had a Polytechnic and University ‘two-tier’ sector). It was a complete transformation for me. I was introduced there to ways of thinking that don’t exist at Secondary School level. I found it incredibly stimulating and it was mind-expanding, personality transforming: my relationship to education changed. I became a very good student, thinking about maybe having a career in Academia. That is where I was introduced to Marxism by the faculty and students. It was a very politicized moment in 1985 as when I started at the Polytechnic: there had just been (the year before) a big scandal around a fascist provocateur: a student had just outed himself as a member of the National Front. The students had big campaigns, trying to shut the university down, trying to get him pushed out. So it was a very militant politicized student body. The atmosphere was conducive to a kind of politicization. That's where I was really introduced to Marxism.

DJ: Were there some Left groups or revolutionary organizations or professors in particular that really showed you Marxism?

MW: Both of those. There was the Socialist Workers student society, which is linked to the Socialist Workers Party, who were very active and militant and had quite a strong leading role in at least two or three student occupations while I was there. There were a few faculty members that were influential but one that was clearly Marxist was my film studies lecturer. He had come from a background from which you wouldn't probably get into the university sector now, because he was a librarian of some kind then he went into higher education. He didn't publish or do much research. So he wouldn't survive now, but he was a fantastic teacher, and very inspiring for not just me, but many other students in my cohort.

DJ: You mentioned in one of your responses that you don’t quite know when you came to Kant; he just seemed to be part of the philosophical heritage of the Left. But we thought it was interesting that you said, “up to and including key figures in the Third International and its aftermath, revolutionaries were influenced by Kant’s language on aesthetics.” We are obviously living in an era that is much below the revolutionary potential and organization of the Internationals. Can you explain both what Kant’s aesthetics meant to them, and also, how you see a study of Kant as potentially pointing towards the reconstitution of revolutionary politics?

MW: A good figure to think about in terms of the Third International and the influence of Kant would be A. K. Voronskyand his book Art as Cognition of Life, especially the chapter of the same title. If you read Voronsky, I don't think there's any real explicit reflection on Kant, but you can see Kantian themes, e.g., the idea that the aesthetic is a special kind of experience that is different from natural science and critical social science and Marxism. That's a language that was there in Kant and subsequently developed in the Romantic tradition.

Interestingly though, Voronsky says that it is still a form of cognition. If he is representative, it is interesting that for them, there was not this antinomy between sensuousness and feelings and cognition. Rather, it’s just differentially cognitive. That is anticipating my argument. It is tacit there, but unlike the bourgeois version of Kant, which insists on the non-conceptuality of the aesthetic, he was quite happy to talk about it as some kind of cognition. That is what connects the aesthetic to Marxism.

DJ: you write in your book, “in short, Kant wants to use the aesthetic not to propose a non-conceptual mode of Consciousness.” This is part of your criticism, of what you call the dominant tendency or the dominant interpretation of Critique of Judgment: “but a new and different type of relationship between sensuousness and conceptuality, which would later come to be known within Marxism as praxis.” Can you elaborate on that theme of how you see what Kant is articulating in the Third Critique as what is understood as praxis and Marxism? How does that relate to the more general Marxist question of theory and practice?

MW: You have to go back to the First Critique, which is asking how experience is intelligible. Kant comes up with this philosophical apparatus, the transcendental subject, which makes the subject lawful in a universal way, which is different from Hume. For Hume, it’s convention, habit, and custom that regulate experience. That's far too empirical for Kant, who constructs a determinate transcendental subject that obeys certain laws. The problem with it is that it is also very reified. It is not only determinate; it is also very deterministic. It’s a reified philosophical structure that we construct, and that means that the subject does not have much capacity to intervene in this world of cognitive sensuous experience using moral political reasoning, because there just isn't the freedom to do that. Everything is already predetermined, determined by these laws. That cannot be changed.

So one was one of the antinomies in his philosophy (a priori “laws” vs. moral-political freedom) that he's trying to overcome and one form that takes is this reified concept of the world and the sensuous content of experience. So you've got a transcendental form versus empirical, sensuous content. That's one antinomy. Another antinomy looks like a kind of emerging sense of a social structure in philosophy, which is what makes it attractive to Marxists. But, there's no space for the individual either. You actually can't really see where the individual as an individual can be there. It's a very abstract place and of course that is what the Third Critique is trying to also bring back into play: both a sense of moral reason and an individuated consciousness that makes judgments, as opposed to the judgments of this kind of transcendental machine.

DJ: A stamping machine, I think you are referring to.

MW: Yes. Overcoming those antinomies is the project of Marxism and it has been described as a kind of praxis. What that involves would be a moral reason or theory able to interact with empirical experience, the sensory world, and to change it. This theory would have to go beneath the phenomenal sensory world and understand the deeper structures; what Kant calls the supersensible world.

JS: I want to ask a follow-up question, relating to the antinomies and specifically Kant’s First Critique. For Kant, the antinomies demonstrate the necessity of this distinction between the phenomenon and the noumenon. At the end of his lectures on Kant’s First Critique, Adorno identifies the noumenon or the thing-in-itself as being Kant’s materialist motif.[1] To paraphrase, the noumenon is inexhaustible in terms of mediation by the transcendental subject so it will never be completely subsumed under the rubric of the forms that enable objectively valid experience. In turn, Kant’s First Critique could be seen as an attempt, Adorno says, “to master through mere concepts, all that cannot be mastered by concepts.”[2] How does this motif stay with Kant? Or is it somehow dropped or transformed by his Third Critique?

MW: The noumenon is an interesting intellectual move. Kant points to all this stuff his system cannot explain, and he puts it into this category, this “X,” the noumenon, and this includes things that would have been a concern to him that are less interesting to us: the soul, God, immortality. But it also includes something very interesting to ask questions about, such as moral-political freedom and even hints of realities which exist independently of the transcendental subject. Because the transcendental subject is a weird thing that assimilates everything that it gets to know into its own structures — a giant tautology that never goes outside itself by definition. It is this model of identity thinking that Adorno is talking about. What happens to the noumenon in the Third Critique is that it becomes the supersensible world, beyond the phenomenal appearances, which is what the First Critique is all about. Kant’s core concept that begins to access the supersensible world is the concept of reflective judgment.

The reflective judgment is interesting because he says very explicitly, in the reflected judgment, that the universal is not given. He is saying, “this whole philosophical architecture, which I constructed in the First Critique — I've now come up with a mode of judgment where all of that is not given; it’s kind of suspended.”

Well, what's happening is he defines reflective judgment as the comparison of presentations, which generates an idea in order to distinguish it from the concept. But he says reflective judgment generates an idea that is not possible or was not able to be thought before the presentations. That is essentially an early definition of the dialectical image: this clash of presentations generates thought, opens up horizons, escapes the merely empirical phenomenal world of appearances and generates something beyond that. For Marx and Marxism that “something” will be deeper structures that are structuring phenomenal appearances — the social unconscious.

DJ: This leads into my next question and came up in the first set of questions about Hegel, but also concerns Engels and the Third International. Marxists usually took Hegel’s critique of Kant’s noumenon, right? Hegel says this is a vacuous abstraction, and Engels also has a critique of it in Ludwig Feuerbach. Lenin agrees with Hegel against Kant, and Lukács does as well. This is another figure that comes up in your text. Do you think there have been certain problems in adapting that view in terms of Kant? As you put it in your text, “Kant’s concept of the noumena lays the foundations for just this sort of breakthrough.”[3]

MW: I can’t pretend to be well-versed in neo-Kantianism. My sense is that — and this might have influenced some of the Marxist readings that you’re talking about — the noumenon was an embarrassment; it’s an odd thing. Can you imagine an academic writing a book: “There’s a lot of stuff I can’t explain; here’s my self critique.” They didn’t know what to do with it. So they just say, “well, it’s metaphysical. Let’s tidy Kant up and get rid of the noumenon.” But, by tidying Kant up and getting rid of the noumenon you’re actually removing something interesting, and you’re performing a reading of Kant that is not useful. We should approach Kant in the same way that the giants of Marxist literary criticism approach a literary text: it is the contradictions that make it interesting, which is also something that Adorno says as well, he’s reading the first Critique with Siegfried Kracauer. In his published lectures from 1959, which I’m very indebted to, Adorno says this: philosophy is interesting or great to the extent to which it flaunts and displays its contradictions and doesn’t try to tidy them up. You can see why that would have obviously appealed to the author of Negative Dialectics. That’s why you get these Marxist readings to some extent. It could also be that Kant is so securely part of bourgeois culture, and that Kant is used as an anti-Hegelian weapon. But, the intellectual currents and life are more complicated than that.

DJ: I think that’s what Adorno tries to do: play a kind of dialectic of Kant and Hegel. This leads into another question I had. You have these two great quotes at the beginning of the book: one is from The German Ideology, where Kant is relegated to a time when there’s not yet classes, but no longer Estates. However, Adorno has a bit more of a sympathetic reading of Kant on a threshold, and you end your text by saying that what Kant was doing in the Critique of Pure Reason is providing “a priori grounds for experience which an increasing awareness of social structure demanded,” that there was a need.[4] Hegel characterizes Kant in the same way — that he’s part of the revolution of this new society: “In the philosophy of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, the revolution to which in Germany mind has in these latter days advanced, was formally thought out and expressed [...].”[5] Do you think this also applies to the Critique of Judgment, that there was a need in modern bourgeois society? What has become of these Critiques historically? You said that the First Critique has a tendency towards reification. Do you think that capitalist production is also able to use what's articulated in the Third Critique, or do you think that resistance against reification remains?

MW: Both. Typically the Third Critique is linked to the birth of Romanticism, which was very often seen as and was a part of a revolutionary tradition and culture in which human agency and well-being were to the fore against various degradations of the human being. It was part of the bourgeois revolution, which in some ways was against capitalism, as well as laying the foundations for capitalism. You see that in the French Revolution: it is establishing bourgeois relations, clearing out the feudal aristocracy, and generating debates and perspectives that are going to be taken up by the Left against capitalism and against the bourgeoisie. It is a deeply ambivalent moment.

The aesthetic generally can be both appropriated by capitalism and used in different ways. There are two big institutions. Under mass culture it can be either commodified, in which case it is inclusive and popular, but degraded and standardized as a tendency, although obviously that’s a massive generalization. Or the other big institution is the art institutions, in which case you’ve got deep class stratification as the key sign of integration into capitalism despite the wider scope for cultural freedom. Both institutions are sites of struggle. The formulation I use is that when the aesthetic is working well it is a form of critical perceptual thinking. That is important for Marxism and important for the Left.

DJ: In your text, you say when the aesthetic is working well, it could serve as a strategy for de-reification. I wanted to bring up the second part of Lukács’s “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” (1923), “The Antinomies of Bourgeois Thought,” which appears to be a criticism of using the aesthetic as a form of de-reification, because he sees that it could, as he puts it, intensify the fetish. That is, if you treat the commodity world as nature in the way that Kant says we treat nature like art, then it can also be a means of giving a veil to the commodity fetish. Could you elaborate more on what you mean by the aesthetic working well as a means of de-reification?

MW: Adorno says the same thing about nature: its merging with the aesthetic can work to intensify capitalist commodification by tapping into desires we have to escape it and then trapping us within it even more firmly. A lot of the tourism industry would fall into that, but then also a lot of spectacles of nature, through those various regimes of representation, would fall into that. That they are real needs goes back to Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s “Constituents of a Theory of the Media,” which notes how utopian longings get appropriated.[6] The utopian longings are authentic, but the way they get captured is problematic.

There’s a whole range of ways in which the aesthetic works well. It is quite regular. Film is my area of interest and I think it’s quite routine for the aesthetic to raise interesting and challenging questions about the society that we live in. There are many conversations that recognize both specialized critical discourses, but also everyday conversations. Lots of popular cinema is very paradoxically alive to some of the negative consequences of capitalism, even though it is produced by a capitalist industry.

JS: These changed conditions are massified consumption and massified politics, right? I wanted to ask how those possibly transform this possibility of a critical and universally communicable aesthetic experience, specifically even through film or any other sort of mass media.

MW: One obvious example would be a whole stream of films that are responding to Black Lives Matter. Gillo Pontecorvo once said, “the capitalist entrepreneur would sell their mother if they could make a buck out of it.” So if you can sell them revolutionary politics because it is popular, they’ll do it. If there is something in the culture that is generating sizable discontents, that constitutes an audience, a market. For us, it constitutes a public. That is why two quite opposing value systems and interests might meet and converge in a film. With film in particular, as the scriptwriter William Goldman famously said, “nobody knows anything.” The producers don’t know what is going to be a hit; that puts them into the hands of creatives a bit more. This relates to what Kant might call the singularity of the aesthetic. Although there are all sorts of ways to try to standardize film with various templates, there are limits to that. Thus there is an area around the nature of cultural production, being a little bit more resistant to interchangeability and standardization than other forms of production. That’s difficult to do with craft labor.

Concerning the singularity of cultural products in a mass context, producers don’t know what’s going to be successful. So you can get something like Get Out (2017), which was a low-budget film. They had no idea that it was going to be a runaway success. Then, in capitalist fashion, they all jump on the bandwagon, and that opens up more opportunities at least for a period of time before that market collapses and they move on to something else. But it is quite a chaotic system in which people can work the system.

DJ: You have some discussion about this in your text on paragraph 43 (“Of art in general”) of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Do you think craft labor is more free than labor under capitalism? I bring that up because of Marx’s critique of people like Proudhon, who see such labor as more free. But we have to realize the potential of industrial production; we can’t go back to what Proudhon wants. With respect to art, this is a question that Walter Benjamin has in “The Author as Producer” and “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” — of the dialectic of industrial production and art. How do you realize that potential? In terms of what you’re talking about here, it would seem like the point is still not to have just simply more craft labor, but rather to find the potential for art in the deskilling aspect.

MW: It depends on what you mean by deskilling. I would not call deskilling the progressive side of industrial production. The progressive side would be actually the dissemination of skills to a much wider group of people. We see that with film, in terms of increased access to shoot on cameras and edit, compared to a cinematographer 60-70 years ago — the amount of knowledge that they would have had to have to perform their job. It means that a lot of other people can also participate in this without a high level of knowledge. That’s a democratic process that I would not describe as deskilling. The skilled cinematographers, editors, etc. still exist, but those skills have also been simplified by technology so that wide layers of people can participate in cultural production at a level that is watchable. Filmmaking is a craft product and an industrial product. Hollywood production, industrial production, is also craft production. It has an ineliminable craft component. Set-designers, makeup artists, special-effects directors, camera people — they are craft workers.

DJ: Going back to Justin’s question and returning to the question I mentioned earlier when I read Kant, it seems he can talk about his three critiques as a system and that it doesn’t seem to bother him as much. In Kant’s letter to his friend Reinhold, he notes that the Critique of Judgment will complete his system.[7] Whereas in our conversation, there seems to be the need to go beyond merely making an aesthetic judgment and theoretically cognizing it. Then there is this moral and political question. Above you mentioned our current historical impasse and the lack of a collective subject that could challenge capitalism. How does Kant point towards the reconstitution of a collective subject and what would it recapture? You were talking about the democratization of art, but what about Kant could potentially help? Is it the realization of art under capitalism? In other words, art under capitalism is going to require the political transformation and social transformation to truly realize its desiderata.

MW: I would formulate it differently. I wouldn’t say Kant is going to help us reconstitute radical politics. There is a whole series of mediations between Kant and that and the big mediation is Marxism. Someone said to me, “ we need Kantian-Marxism.” I thought, no, that is not what I’m doing. There is Marxism that has reconstructed and seized Kant as an important philosophical resource. It gives us a language that the three founding philosophies of Marxism don’t. Neither Political economy nor politics gives us a language to talk about art. Philosophy is a little bit closer, but it’s not specifically about art. There is a gap which explains why Kant was still influential for Marxists up until World War II.

In terms of the relationship between art and cultural production and revolutionary politics. Art seeds stuff that may or may not get taken up by the political situation. Another way of thinking about this is Raymond Williams’s notion of structure of feeling: below the radar of what society acknowledges, there’s all this other stuff bubbling away, which can become converted into political and institutional realities. At some point, these aesthetic seeds have to be turned into something else, into political movements and practices.

If you think about British politics and culture in the 1930s, you see a seeding of this social democratic state that would emerge, in cultural projects like Mass Observation and the documentary film movement. Already bits of it were starting to be built, as far back as the liberal Lloyd George governments, but what we came to know as the social democratic state happened after 1945. If the situation in history had gone a different way those seeds would never have sprouted. But here the aesthetic played its part by nudging people in certain directions that then politics could take up and institutionalize. Another way of thinking about it is the relationship between civil society and the state in Gramscian terms. The state or the revolutionary founding of a new state is educated by civil society and by what’s going on in civil society, including cultural practices.

JS: Do you take up the temporal dimension in relating the usefulness of art for politics? Could art be immediately useful for the reconstitution of socialist politics, or rather is its utility something that might become operative in the future when the past can be reactivated in a certain sense? How does our past relate to the present, and how might one politically register this relationship of past and present art?

MW: It could be both. Cultural traditions and even radical new forms are always dependent upon or recycling stuff from the past. There’s never a blank slate, is there? That would be very anti-historical thinking and that is a problem with the avant-garde, isn’t it? This attitude of “it all starts from today” found in the Russian avant-garde was a problem that the Bolsheviks rightly critiqued. Trotsky said, “we Marxists, we live in tradition,” including cultural traditions. There’s a long-temporal as well as immediate-temporal dimension.

DJ: With regard to historical impasses, while reading your text, I was reminded of Platypus’s slogan, which has an aesthetic dimension: “The Left is dead, long live, the Left!” This points to an attempt to take history as it has come down to us in order to transform it in a new way. We try to take the failures of the past Left, the defeats of Marxism, and try to turn these liabilities into assets. How do you see Kant’s aesthetic interacting with the question of history?

MW: One of the big failures of the Left is the failure of not combining revolutionary politics with democracy sufficiently. Many of the Marxist regimes that established themselves were regressions compared to the achievements of bourgeois democratic politics of the 20th century. The link there to the aesthetic and Kant, is that the aesthetic is a democratic space. This comes back to that word judgment in the end, which is another weakness of the Left: a wariness about the individual as a category, conflating the individual with bourgeois individualism’s possessive ethos. But if you read Marx, especially the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, there is a hymn to the individual. He’s trying to overcome the antinomy between individual and collective or social, which cannot be overcome by subsuming the individual into a collective. You have to work it through. The individual, the individuated Judgment, which Kant tries to rescue in the Third Critique, is valuable.

Where is the capacity for critical reason? The individual is not an isolated atom. We all rely on the collective resources, but it is the individual that has to operate those collective resources. I’m thinking about the transcendental subject and perception: it is the individual that has to make those judgments. What is your position on this or that question, should we have mandatory vaccinations? Should there be an apartheid system for those who don’t get vaccinations?

The Left really needs to embrace critical judgment and criticize everything, as Marx said, ruthlessly. Everything should in principle be up for debate. On COVID and vaccination — the Left is very uncritical of Big Pharma, because it is science, isn’t it? It’s got to be “pure.” Every other big corporation gets critiqued, but not Big Pharma for some reason. That’s an important lesson about individuated judgment, which is a commitment to the democratic ethos. The aesthetic helps with that. |P


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).

[2] Ibid., 234.

[3] Michael Wayne, Red Kant: Aesthetics, Marxism and the Third Critique (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 52.

[4] Ibid., 195.

[5] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson, M. A. (London: Kagan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1896), 409, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hp/hpconten.htm>.

[6] Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “Constituents of a Theory of the Media,” New Left Review 64 (Nov/Dec 1970).

[7] Letter from Kant to Carl Leonard Reinhold, December 28 and 31, 1787.