Thought Control and Cynicism

It’s one of those glorious early spring days that England enacts so well. I have sat in the garden, drinking black tea, and reading Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. I’ve been preoccupied with this text for the past three years or so. This is the fourth time I’ve read this chapter of the book Dialectic of Enlightenment, which I’ve yet to read from cover to cover.

This particular chapter performs Morpheus’s red pill in The Matrix. “You take the red pill,” he says to Neo, “and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Jason Barker extends the same metaphor to his film Marx Reloaded, where Leon Trotsky, playing Morpheus, offers the choice of blue or red pill to Karl Marx as Neo.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s text is not without inadequacies. It is important to recall the socioeconomic context. Written in the early 1940s by two ethnically Jewish, German émigrés in the aftermath of the war, the dourness of their moral outrage is to be expected. In short (and I recommend you read the essay), Horkheimer and Adorno’s essay is trying to reawaken people from the mind-dulling consequences of the modern culture industry, an argument even more relevant today than in the 1940s.

Importantly, Adorno and Horkenheimer’s essay is not an attack on consumers but on the producers of banal, repetitive cultural goods – films, books, music, magazines – calibrated to obviate the necessity of mental effort and independent thought. The result is a passive audience caught up in a loop of endless consumption. For what end? Horkheimer and Adorno argue that this “entertainment” distracts us from the dehumanizing nature of most forms of modern work, and engenders a cynicism that deadens our political will to overcome a decadent and exploitative socioeconomic system.

Why do its consumers lap up the banal nonsense offered as art and entertainment? Instead of objecting they fetishize it. Witness the mindlessness of today’s fixation on celebrity. It would come as no surprise to Horkheimer and Adorno that a supposedly enlightened society has returned to the fetish. The brilliant part of their argument is that it is precisely the repeated exposure to forms of entertainment (they pick the American film industry) that repeatedly excite and manipulate the senses to deaden them (Deleuze, if I understand correctly, also writes of the dulling effect of “bare repetition”). Consumers are enrolled in their own pacification.

There is so much more I could ramble on about from this essay. The last point that I wish to extract from Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay is about cynicism, which like many “advanced” moderns is an attitude I once bore with pride, believing it an appropriate ethical choice. Horkheimer and Adorno demystify and denounce this cynicism, itself a manipulated effect of the culture industry:

In this age of universal publicity any invocation of an ideal appears suspect to us. We have learned how to identify abstract concepts as sales propaganda. Language based entirely on truth simply arouses impatience to get on with the business deal it is probably advancing.

Horkheimer and Adorno close their essay, noting that rampant cynicism about popular culture and commodification does not obstruct its consumption. Consumers acknowledge its manipulative intent and yet take part, which is the systematic “beauty” of the cultural model. But the cynicism that is engendered supports complacency, reducing expectations of the state, of media, of business, and diminishes political will to mobilise against injustices. As Horkheimer and Adorno saw only too well in the years leading up to this essay, cynicism-induced complacency plays into the hands of right-wing agendas.

(Images: a fragment from Ingres’s Oedipe et le sphinx, a screen grab from Marx Reloaded and Adorno and Horkheimer.)

Inequality and Objectification

Quote

Marx claimed that from the sexual relationship “one can . . .  judge man’s whole level of development  . . . the relationship of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It therefore reveals the extent to which man’s natural behaviour has become human.”

From Bertell Ollman’s introduction to Wilhelm Reich: Sex-Essays, 1929-1934

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

The term ‘mansplaining’ is genius and deserves to be listed in the OED. This is where I first came across the term.

Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, Essay on Abjection.

Martha Nussbaum – How to write about poverty.

The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society by Joan Bamberger.

Politics and the English Language an essay by George Orwell.

Charles Bukowski’s so you want to be a writer.

The David Lynch mixtape.

Franz Kafka: The Meaning of Life is that it Stops.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the surprising physical reality of this world as he sees it.

The ideal way to read Marx’s Kapital is with David Harvey.

One of my favourite Desert Island Discs with writer Al Alvarez (friend of Plath and Hughes).

On Fear – a wonderful essay by Mary Ruefle (the distinction between emotion and feeling is perfect)

Julia Kristeva’s essay – A Freudian Approach: The Pre-religious Need To Believe.

Adam Kirsch on The New World of William Carlos Williams.

Italo Calvino’s 14 Definitions of What Makes a Classic.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

The HTMLGiant Beginner’s Guide to Deleuze.

The TLS try to classify the ‘unclassifiable’ Clarice Lispector.

English translations of all 12 journals of the Situationists.

Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, Essay on Abjection.

Martha Nussbaum: How to write about poverty.

Joan Bamberger: “The myth of matriarchy is but the tool used to keep woman bound to her place.”

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language.

Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the surprising physical reality of this world as he sees it.

The ideal way to read Marx’s Kapital is with David Harvey.

One of my favourite Desert Island Discs with writer Al Alvarez (friend of Plath and Hughes).

Julia Kristeva’s essay – A Freudian Approach: The Pre-religious Need To Believe.

The first ten Penguin books – Treasures of the Bodleian.

Immanuel Wallerstein’s Historical Capitalism

Barbara Kruger: Untitled (I shop therefore I am), 1987

The two essays in Verso’s edition of Immanuel Wallerstein’s Historic Capitalism with Capitalist Civilization offer an accessible introduction to the multi-volume The Modern World-System (currently at four volumes with two more to come).

Heavily influenced by Marx and Fernand Braudel (see earlier post on Jamesons’ Postmodernism) Wallerstein espouses world-systems analysis to interpret long-term trends in sociology, economics and politics. Seeing the development of the capitalist system (beginning in the late fifteenth century) as damaging to the majority of the world’s population, Wallerstein argues that historical capitalism has inevitably reached a structural crisis and that its demise is inexorable. The following paragraph from a book published in 1983, seems prescient when read almost thirty years later.

Historical systems however are just that – historical. They come into existence and eventually go out of existence, the consequence of internal processes in which the exacerbation of the internal contradictions lead to a structural crisis. Structural crises are massive, not momentary. They take time to play themselves out. Historical capitalism entered into its structural crisis in the early twentieth century and will probably see its demise as a historical system in the next century.

Wallerstein does not posit that socialism (or anarchy) is an inevitable result of the death of capitalism:

Progress is not inevitable. We are struggling for it. And the form the struggle is taking is not that of socialism versus capitalism, but that of a transition to a relatively classless society versus a transition to some new class-based model of production (different from historical capitalism but not necessarily better).

The choice for the world bourgeoisie is not between maintaining historical capitalism and suicide. It is between on the one hand a ‘conservative’ stance, which would result in the continual disintegration of the system and its resultant transformation into an uncertain but probably more egalitarian world order; and, on the other hand, a bold attempt to seize control of the process of transition, in which the bourgeoisie itself would assume ‘socialist’ clothing, and seek to create thereby an alternative historical system which would leave intact the process of exploitation of the world’s work-force to the benefit of a minority.

The argument is compelling and I will, at some point, tackle Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System but intend to first read Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times. Arrighi, a collaborator with Wallerstein, also uses the world-systems analytical model.

Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

On this first reading of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, roughly a third of it whistled straight over my head-the seventh chapter is impenetrable without more grounding than I possess in theoretical discourse-and I don’t intend to write much about it on this occasion. This is partly because I wish to closely reread it section by section, but also because it covers so vast a terrain-encompassing several visual art forms (film and video in some depth), architecture, literature (Ballard, Berger, Brecht, Dick, Faulkner, Kafka, Norris, Robbe-Grillet, Simon), philosophy, theory, sociology and economics-that no single post could capture its depth and insight. Each chapter, and in some cases, individual paragraphs merit separate posts. Though I don’t plan that sort of undertaking I will certainly return to the book in future posts (perhaps I should begin another blog on this book alone).

Incidentally, Jameson explores in some depth the handful of writers detailed above (not a definitive listing) but strangely (to me) fails to mention Borges or Nabokov, both whose approach I consider irrefutably Postmodern. Fokkema argues in Literary History, Modernism and Postmodernism that Borges “contributed more than anyone else to the invention and acceptance” of Postmodernism. Though Jameson touches on literature he emphasises that it is the weakest art form of Postmodernism:

For some seventy years the cleverest prophets have warned us regularly that the dominant art form of the twentieth century was not literature at all-nor even painting or theatre or the symphony-but rather the one new and historically unique art invented in the contemporary period, namely film: that is to say the first distinctly mediatic art form. What is strange about this prognosis-whose unassailable validity has with time become a commonplace-is that it should have had so little practical effect.

As a framework for his treatment of Postmodernism, Jameson adopts Ernest Mandel’s interpretation of late capitalism:

[..] there have been three fundamental moments in capitalism, each one marking a dialectical expansion over the previous stage. These are market capitalism, the monopoly stage or the stage of imperialism, and our own, wrongly called postindustrial, but what might better be termed multinational capital. I have already pointed out that Mandel’s intervention in the postindustrial debate involves the proposition that late or multinational or consumer capitalism, far from being inconsistent with Marx’s great nineteenth-century analysis constitutes, on the contrary, the purest form of capital yet to have emerged, a prodigious expansion into hitherto uncommodified areas.

Using Mandel’s thesis, Jameson explores Postmodernism and the logic of its progression from Modernism, its historical apotheosis in the 1960s and 1970s and its implications as a cultural, intellectual and economic phenomenon. Suffice to say, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is a stunning work of intellectual pyrotechnics.

It has brought to light cavernous gaps in my reading that I plan to close in the years ahead. I’ve compiled below some plans for further reading around the themes of Postmodernity and Theory below. If you have suggestions of other titles or directions that might prove rewarding please comment and let me know. (I will write about Wallerstein’s Historical Capitalism, which I also read recently).

  • Fredric Jameson – The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act
  • David Harvey – The Condition of Postmodernity
  • Edward Soja – Postmodern Geographies
  • Steven Connor – Postmodernist Culture
  • Ernest Mandel – Late Capitalism
  • Hal Foster – The Anti-Aesthetic
  • Timothy Bewes – Cynicism and Postmodernity
  • Adorno – “The Stars Down to Earth”
  • Raymond Guess – The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School
  • Verso Books’ Radical Thinkers series
  • The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism
  • Giovanni Arrighi – The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times
  • Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida
  • Judith Ryan – The Novel After Theory
  • Nicholas Royle – Jacques Derrida
  • Jane Gallop – The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time
  • Viktor Shklovsky – Theory of Prose
  • Adorno – Aesthetic Theory
  • From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology
  • Samir Amin – A Life Looking Forward: Memoirs of an Independent Marxist
  • Wlad Godzich – The Culture of Literacy

Kafka’s Modernist Lineage

These excerpts below from Richard T. Gray’s A Franz Kafka Encyclopaedia. I’ve omitted the introductory parts about Freud and Marx’s influence on Kafka’s writings, as they do not require elucidation. I am interested in this idea that Kafka’s work could be located at the interstice of modernism and postmodernism.

[Finally], Kafka’s persistently self-reflexive questioning of the unstable role of the figurative language to metaphysical truth can be understood in light of Nietzsche’s theory of accepted truths as the ideological sedimentation of language whose metaphoric construction has been forgotten. Other modernist features are Kafka’s awareness of linguistic signification, his doubts about the mimetic ability of literary language to adequately reflect external reality, and his concept of art as a mere approximation, rather than a symbolic expression, of truth, essence, and other categories of traditional aesthetics. Kafka’s ironic disfiguration of the canonical icons of classical-humanistic education, such as Greek mythology, biblical parables, and classics of world literature, can also be related to the modernist critique of cultural tradition.

[…]

Others suggest that [Kafka] is a precursor of postmodernism. Among these features are his fascination with simulacra and facades, his preference for the playfulness of linguistic signification and the nonclosure of meaning, his sense of decenteredness and instability of human subjectivity, and his self-reflexive depiction of reality as a construct of language games, power relations, and cultural myths, rather than as a preexisting divine or social world. Thus the seemingly ahistorical nature of Kafka’s writings, often claimed to have a unique status in literary history, can be located at the intersection of classical modernism and the as yet incomplete project of postmodernity.