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The Philosophy and Ideology of Modern Literary Theory
By: Dr. Sunil Sharma
The 20 th century Western literary criticism is globally marked by three well-defined features: (1) For the first time, in the history of the entire Western aesthetics, literary criticism makes a transition from literary criticism to pure theory with a capital T. Literary criticism sheds its earlier historical insularity and evolves as a complex inter-disciplinary field where mutually competing theories displace each other faster than the fashion shows of New York, Paris or Milan: very much like a Versace fall collection superseded by Armani winter collection. In fact, the shelf life of these various theories is not more than a decade or so. Most such theories are constructs well irrigated by fields as diverse as psychoanalysis, linguistic structuralism, philosophy and sociology, and, cultural and anthropological structuralism. Literary Criticism lost its innocence in this century.
(2) The ideology of these theories is decidedly idealistic, agnostic, anti-foundational and anti-Marxist. The literary theory, as such, emphasizes the formal elements of literature, challenges the cognitive function of literary artifacts and the referential role of language. It subverts the received values like the author, intention, subject, reason, meaning and reality. In this sense, modern literary theory is decidedly anti-Enlightenment, anti-Romantic and anti-Realism. The highly eclectical theory raids, within this constellation, idealistic philosophic resources like Kantianism, Hegelianism and Nietzchean system for legitimacy and sanction for its avant-garde theoretical constructs. Derrida and Lyotard, for example, query those philosophers for erecting their own constructs. This mobilizing of the past epistemologies-the recruitment of older philosophers-for modern/ post-modern project is not new. Eighteenth-century England, as demonstrated by Terry Eagleton, discovers classical heritage of Reason, Order, Nature for the explicit ideological purpose of incorporating the emergent bourgeois class into the cultural value system of the declining aristocracy, and, prompting the emergent politically triumphant class to assume moral and intellectual leadership of the nation, and, thus, promoting a rapprochement between two antagonistic classes at that historical moment. Neo-Classical literature, thus, becomes an instrument of incorporation. In other words, two contending worldviews find resolution in the classical Age of Augustus and its literary principles and Order and Reason are restored to a turbulent period of the English history through the Neo-Classical literary phase of the English Literature.
(3) The literature theory of the 20th century is radical, innovative, avant-garde, and cosmopolitan. Its location is no longer a single nation. It has become a trans-national—both in origins and destination—in its transactions. Within this location, however, the dominant is the French-German axis. The traffic of ideas, originating in this axis, then move outward to England and America, and, then from Anglo-American axis to the Third World. The diffusion of the literary theory—in its variegated forms and locations—is achieved through the institution of the metropolitan university in metropolitan nations to non-metropolitan centers via academic journals, seminars, magazine interviews, and books. The age of the professional critic has finally arrived, so has a professional market for such a specialised discourse. Literature is no longer a solitary, enjoyable activity for the reader, critic or the author. Literature and criticism as distinct aesthetic categories are suddenly problematised by the proliferation of literary theories and made unstable. Nothing is certain any longer. Boundaries collapse and literature is everything other than a site of cognition of the world and of enlightenment. The reasons for this bewildering variety of critical discourses are, of course, sociological and historical. In the age of imperialism and mass society, the contradictions of the class society are exacerbated by the expansion and export of capital. Ideologies take on new meanings and get tailored to the emerging historical needs of the transnationals in a globalised borderless world. Two World Wars, the rise of the totalitarian political systems like Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism; the integration of the working classes into mass consumer society, the resultant de-radicalistion of this class as change agent, lead to political pessimism among liberal intelligentsia of the Western world.
Liberal humanism as a political philosophy is dead. So, are the other Meta-narratives. In such a fragmented, post-modern world, the hegemony of the transnational capital is supreme. Marxism, as an alternative, is challenged and called a discourse. Lyotard, a former Marxist, becomes an organic intellectual and advances an apology of late capitalism through his version of post- modernism. So does Frederic Jameson. Revolutionary art is unashamedly replaced by kitsch. The revolutionary hopes and aspirations of the 1930s, or, for that matter, 1960s West are displaced by the depthless, decathecated surfaces of post modern art and literature.
Modern literary theory is an assemblage of theoretical stances of the alienated and marginalized intellectuals’ utter despair at the commodification of art and its total commercialization in the pop culture. For Althusser and Adorno, the only radical hope was a Brecht or Beckett who, as avant- garde artists, could resist integration into the commercialized circuits of a mass society. However, by early 1980s, even that hope receded for intellectuals like Lyotard, or Jameson.
The plurality and eclecticism of the modern literary theory ideologically masks the inner fragmentation and splintering of the consciousness of the subject of a fragmented world. Its distrust of totalizing narratives and political systems is well known. Its suspicions of evolutionary history, progressive art and literature are equally self-evident. Be it Foucalt, Barthes or Derrida, Lyotard or Althusser or Adorno, the tenor of their theories is identical: political pessimism, retreat from politics, distrust of anything radical, and, impossibility of any meaningful and higher social synthesis or change.
It is a bleak dark theory of a bleak dark world. The following sections of this essay take up these themes in a somewhat detailed manner.
Modern literary theory is idealistic in its philosophical orientation, and hostile to a materialistic conception of art and literature. Formalism, structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalytic theory of Lacan, Phenomenology, Feminism, New Historicism, Post- Colonialism and Cultural Studies all derive their raison d’tr from the idealistic philosophical tradition of the German variety. Peter V. Zima, in his lucid account of the philosophical foundations of modern literary theory, convincingly shows the affinities existing between Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche on the one hand, and, influential theoreticians like Barthes, Derrida, Foucalt, Adorno, Althussar, Lyotard—to name but a few. (1) Commenting upon the influence of these German philosophers upon contemporary literary theory, Zima says that
It is perfectly possible to speak of Kantian and Hegelian positions within contemporary literary theory. In fact, it can be argued that it is impossible to understand the latter adequately as long as the Kantian, Hegelian or Nietzchean bias of its competing components is not perceived. (2)
According to Zima, the German idealist tradition has played a significant role in the formation of the 20 th century critical thought. Kant, for example, in his Critique of Judgment (1790) posits the idea of the autonomy of art and aesthetic experience vis-à-vis the social, political and economic factors. Art, Kant believes, cannot be reduced to the conceptual. A competent or ideal observer regards artistic objects with disinterested pleasure. This ideal nature of art and beautiful without a concept is very appealing to contemporary critical discourses:
This Kantian conception of artistic autonomy underlies the theories of Anglo- American New Criticism, Russian Formalism and Czech Structuralism. All these theories are Kantian aesthetics in so far as they emphasize the autonomy of art and are strongly opposed to all attempts to reduce literature to heteronomous factors as the author’s biography, the social context or the reactions of the reader.
(3) Hegel, on the other hand, inverts this Kantian position. In his critique of Kant, Hegel proposes that art is not autonomous but tied up with the historical consciousness of the World Spirit or Weltgeist. Hegel believes art is a product of artistic consciousness that is historical in nature, and as such, expresses this consciousness in its historical development. Symbolic, Classical and Romantic art are the stages of the historical development of artistic consciousness in its attempt to comprehend the Absolute Idea. Out of these three stages, it is the Classical Art that represents the perfect dialectics of content and form, the ideal synthesis that could not be achieved either in the first (Symbolic) or the last stage (Romantic). However, it is philosophy as the highest mode of comprehending Absolute Idea that is favoured by Hegel. Philosophy is supreme to artistic form because it comprehends the Absolute Idea not through sensuous forms but conceptually.
Thus, Hegelian critique of Kant shows that art without content, idea or concept has no validity and is nothing but a manifestation of ahistoric idealism.
Nietzsche questions the very metaphysical truth and totally subverts the certainties of this metaphysical truth. Nietzsche shows that the binaries like essence/ appearance, truth/ lie, and good/ evil are not as neat as they appear to be. He exposes the antithetical values of the European metaphysical truth by showing the vile side of the virtue, the Evil side of Good. Metaphysical truth, says Nietzsche, is nothing but “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymic, anthropomorphisms.” This assertion leads to the recognition that truth is not absolute but relative, not univocal but polysemic, not neat but contradictory, not clear but ambiguous in nature. Music, Nietzsche declares, is purest and highest form of art since its sounds negate and neutralize any conceptual content or boundaries. This Nietzschean philosophy of art, language and truth again inverts the Hegelian dialectics of form /content, appearance/ essence, subject/object and anticipates Barthes’ and Derrida deconstructionist discourse by demonstrating the polysemic character of language and all the truths expressed through such a language.
The philosophical and critical effects of this German triumvirate on some of the literary theories of the last century are now clearly established. The selective digging of the specific features of Kantian, Hegelian and Nietzschean systems of thought by Jacobson, Barthes, or Derrida for the ideological purposes for erecting their own theoretical constructs is equally clear. Their aim is simple: to show the theoretical continuities between their systems and the idealist philosophy of these three Germans. At this critical juncture of the 20 th century bourgeois art and literary criticism, two competing points emerge. One, the Kantian position that art can be conceptualized and is independent of the social context of its origins and production, and, second, that art is a conceptual entity not free of its historical context (Hegel). The modern literary theory of the 20th century oscillates between these two antipodes in its rejection or acceptance of the social context of art. Against this philosophical background, what exactly is role of the Marxist aesthetics? The following section considers Marxist theory of art in some detail and the impact of it upon the contemporary debates within modern literary theory.
Marxist conception of art and literature is primarily a materialist one. It is a dialectical and historical conception that emphasizes the social origins of the art. Marx, it is true, did not confine his attention exclusively on art as such or leave any separate treatise on it. He was simply concerned with the general laws of the social and historical development of humankind. In the course of his relentless investigation into the primary causes behind the motion of history, Marx came to develop a materialistic science and philosophy called historical and dialectical materialism. In short, this epistemology is a critique of Hegelian idealistic philosophy and a radical synthesis of German idealism, political economy of England, and the materialistic philosophy of Feurbach along with a radicalisation of the then French utopian socialism. (4). Marx and Engels, in a joint collaboration, formulated the structural homology of base and superstructure in order to explain the progressive, higher movement of history. Base constitutes the economic mode of production and production relations; superstructure contains the consciousness of these relations in the forms of legal, political, jurisprudence and artistic. The super structural formation is ideological and reflects the class origins of the given mode of economic production at a given historical moment. The prime mover in this materialist philosophy is economic mode of production. In other words, historical and material conditions, the objective real world, govern the progressive evolutionary character of human and social development. Marx, in his celebrated passage declares:
The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. (5)
It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness. (6)
Thus, it can be seen that Marxism achieves its breakthrough with the preceding philosophy and supersedes it by a higher, materialistic understanding of the laws of motion that govern social development. Art, like other superstructural forms, is ideological in nature. Besides that, art plays a cognitive function and remains somewhat autonomous vis-a-vis the economic base. This slightly schematized version of Marxism makes it abundantly clear Marxism’s sympathies towards critical and realistic art of the West that artistically, and not vulgarly, reflects the inner contradictions of a class society. Authentic art, believed Marx and Engels, is enlightening, spiritually elevating and shows realistically the progressive nature of historical logic of social development. Goethe, Shakespeare, Balzac were favorites of Marx in their true artistic vision and their greatness lies in their fidelity to truth. Lenin, in the subsequent exposition of the Marxist considerations on art, called Tolstoy as the mirror of the Russian society. The reflection theory of art of Marxism-Leninism is the cornerstone of the materialistic aesthetics along with partisanship and commitment in art.
Western World and Marxist Aesthetics:
The reception of the Marxist aesthetics has not been very warm in the West. Critics have repeatedly pointed out that there is no body of Marxist writings on art and literature that can merit the name aesthetics. Bourgeois critics have also been dismissive about the real contribution of Marxism-Leninism in the field of aesthetics. For example, Lyotard dismisses Marxism along with Christianity and Rationalism as exhausted meta- narratives of a fragmented and pluralistic post-modern western world. The tradition of Marxist thinkers like Plekhanov, Belinsky and Chernovsky or recent soviet aestheticians like Avner Zis is hardly acknowledged in the Western academia. On the other hand, the reception of the Frankfurt School of Marxism has been quite enthusiastic there. The reasons for this wide dispersal of the Western Marxism across the academia there is obvious. Western Marxism is basically Hegelian in its theoretical foundations. Also known as Critical Theory, it derives its sustenance from Georg Lukacs, especially the early period of the Hungarian philosopher, which is decidedly Hegelian in its roots. His History and Class Consciousness (1922) along with earlier Hegelian works Theory of the Novel (1920) and The Soul and the Form (1913) have exercisd a deep influence on the Western Marxism of Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Adorno, Louis Althussar and Walter Benjamin. Space constraints do not permit a long presentation of the nexus between Lukacsian Marxism and the Marxism of these theoreticians. It would be contextually relevant to examine the Hegelian Lukacs’ theory of art and its influence on the later development of Marxist aesthetics of Benjamin and Adorno, in brief.
Georg Lukacs’ conception of art is Hegelian in that it tries to seek art as a meaningful and harmonious totality. The classical bourgeois art appeals to Lukacs precisely because it reflects an artistic totality and harmony. The realistic novels of Scott, Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens, Tolstoy and Thomas Mann offer the best tradition of the liberal humanistic phase of the bourgeois art. Their works realistically reflect the society in all its contradictions and richness. The typical characters of the realistic novel reveal the essence of a society moving from feudalism to capitalism, (Balzac) from early capitalism to industrial capitalism (Dickens) or from industrial capitalism to imperialism (Thomas Mann). Coherence, totality and harmony , essence, rationalism and typical are the crucial categories of Hegelian Lukacs’ theory of art and literature. Modernist writers like Joyce, Kafka, Proust or Beckett are not welcome because these writers do not exhibit a rational totality and the typical in a realistic manner and thus fail to reveal the essence of their society. Such modernist works are elitist in nature and are disqualified as inauthentic by Lukacs. Incoherence, lack of totality and harmony, absence of the typical make the modernist avant-garde works of the latter an art that is not wholesome. Its decadent nature shows the hopelessness of the alienated artist. The pessimism of the social conditions of the marginalized and alienated subjectivity is not acceptable to the Hegelian Lukacs for whom art is an artistic form of revolutionary social consciousness. Modernist avant-garde phase of bourgeois art is, for him, altogether retrogressive. Two important motifs emerge here in the Lukacsian thought: (a) the concept of alienation and, (b) of reification. These two categories inform the early works of Lukacs up to History and Class Consciousness. In his later ‘Marxist’ phase of intellectual development, the Hungarian philosopher applies these crucial categories to an analysis of literary works, in books like The Historical Novel and The Meaning of Contemporary Realism. The survivals of Hegelianism are apparent in these works but they offer a radical critique of the development of art and literature as historical and social products. Both alienation and commodification of art and artist play a crucial role in the Marxist aesthetics of Adorno that has come to exercise a deep fascination on modern literary theory. Western Marxism takes up reification or commodification of art and everyday consciousness in capitalism as given that cannot be historically superseded. Before understanding Adorno, for the sake of intellectual continuity, it is important to deal with Benjamin’s theory of art under advanced capitalism.
Walter Benjamin, very much like Lukacs and Adorno, is concerned primarily with the specificity of art as an aesthetic category, and, of the nature of artistic experience in the capitalistic society. Writing in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1933), Benjamin assesses the impact of technology of mass society upon the very character of art as a product and the experience of this product as an aesthetic category. For Lukacs, the classical realist art provides a totalizing perspective on a fragmented fetishised world, a world of commodities ruled by extreme rationalization and exchange values by restoring a wholeness and organic unity of essence and appearance realized in the fictional worlds of Balzac or Tolstoy or Mann. This organic unity is not realizable in the everyday life of a reified world of late capitalism. Great realist art, thus, becomes the last refuge of the wholesome humanism and a corresponding revolutionary class-consciousness during the early progressive phase of the bourgeoisie.
Modernists just reflect, as did naturalists like Zola, the fetishised reality of late capitalism; the organic unity of appearance and essence is completely ruptured. The oppositional and progressive character of art is permanently lost in the 20 th century modernist and avant-garde art. Benjamin, however, evaluates the latter in a different way. He believes technological developments have brought art closer to the mass audiences in the Western World. The distinction between classical art and mass art is central to the materialistic theory of art of Benjamin. The technological advancements like photography, cinema have destroyed the aura tic distance and autonomy of classical art of last three centuries. The new innovative techniques of montage and collage, the easy mechanical reproducibility of works of art and their free circulation in the society have combined together to eliminate the earlier uniqueness and distance between, let us say, a Renaissance painting or a religious icon like Black Madonna of Vladimir. The reproduction and repetition of mass art, the circulation of the copies of a film or a Surrealist painting have also destroyed the originality of the art work of the previous centuries, an original available to the wealthy patron only. Classical art thus becomes mass art. Another notable feature of modern art is its shock value, as opposed to the harmony and totality of the classical and Romantic phases. A Baudelaire or a Brecht brings together disparate, heterogeneous elements in their art of poetry or theatre. Heterogeneous, mutually opposite, elements like tragic and comic, the holy and the profane are joined together, resulting in a shock at the collapse of these well- defined boundaries. Modernist experimental art produces the shock by this feature in the recipient’s consciousness. This shock value is reminiscent of Bakhtin’s concept of the carnival where official and popular, religious and mundane, sacred and profane meet and interact in the Rabelasian or Dostoevskian novel form and celebrate the polysemies, disjuncts and ruptures of very day life experience under capitalistic society. In a way, both Benjamin’s shock theory and Bakhtin’s concept of carnival anticipate the post-modernist literature and aesthetics as far as the mixing of the serious, hilarious, official and popular cultures is concerned. The heterogeneity and the ruptures, dislocations caused by such a disharmony of a work modern /post-modern announce the arrival of Lyotard’s version of the post- modern condition of the artist and the art, and, its reception in the age of the late capitalism. Theoder Adorno position about the modernist and avant grade is equally radical. A Beckett is no longer a decadent playwright in the Lukacsian sense but a bold subversive artist who, through his radical experiments and formalism, exposes the reified structures of art and its reception in a mass society. In a way, such innovative works of Kafka, or Joyce or Beckett resist the integration of artist into commercial culture. The artistic resistance, the only available option for the marginalized alienated artist, at the level of form and consciousness, makes such works truly revolutionary. For Adorno of the 1960s, art is the only enclave still uncorrupted by the totalitarian reason and the relentless logic of culture industry. Avant-garde art, in Adorno’s view is negative. It negates the false ideology of mass culture and refuses to be a part of ever sameness of this culture. Adorno’s analysis of pop music and TV shows is a pointer in this direction. The main task of these forms of popular, commercialized art is to adapt masses to the existing social reality and obtain consent to the highly regimented experience of artistic forms in a society that standardizes such an artistic experience by excluding the new. At this stage the dialectic of the particular and the general comes to the fore. The highly specific individualism, the particular subjectivity of the early laissez faire capitalism gets replaced by a “Pseudo-individualism” of modern mass culture, a culture where everything including aesthetic needs are mass produced for a mass market. Naturally, such a mass market operating for bigger profit suppresses the particular and reduces particularity to the general, the mass. Pop culture-be it pop music or pop art or cinema-operates on a set formula where the new, the innovative play an extremely limited minor role. In his paper on “Television and Patterns of Mass culture” (1954), Adorno lays bare the conservative nature of this new medium by claiming that TV shows aim at the suppression of individuality and encourages viewers to adapt an uncritical, un-oppositional status quoist attitude towards late capitalism’s anti- humanist nature: ‘ Society is always a winner and the individual is only a puppet manipulated through social rules.” (7). The “sham” conflicts shown in such TV programmes overtly convey a strong anti- authoritarian message celebrating the specificity of the particular but the overall covert aim is to reconcile the individual with the social norms, to encourage a desired personal adjustment with a totalitarian society and its set of norms. (8) The particular is subordinated to the ‘natural law of the general. Popular music, for example, performs this job of reconcilement perfectly well. Adorno points out that pop music oscillates between banality and novelty both in its theme and composition. Both the writer and composer cannot go beyond a certain thematic and harmonic range. American pop has the stock themes repeatedly explored: motherhood, bliss of domesticity, nonsense or novelty songs, or the lamentation about the loss of a girlfriend. American Jazz’s journey from authentic to the commercial is another example of the subordination of the individuality to the norm, of the spontaneous to the formulaic, of the new to the conventional and banal. However, serious modern music of Shoenberg for Adorno, represents the authentic art that truly captures the individual, the particular moment in a conservative tradition by highlighting the particular details, ‘the living interrelation of details’, in the overall musical composition. Shoenberg’s music style is able to retain the individuality of twelve-tone system and thus, effect a disjunct between the particular and the general series. Such music is also able to disorient the automatic response of the listener that mass culture produces in the audience. Adorno’s sympathetic attitude towards modernist literature of Kafka and Beckett, as distinct from Lukacs’ summary rejection of them, reiterates the same theme. Both Kafka and Beckett represent the aspirations of a fatally marginalized and alienated modern artist towards artistic formalism and experimental as a technical formal revolt against the traditional. The negative character of their works successfully challenges the hegemony of the earlier realistic traditions of art forms and their subversive role resides in the precisely negative nature of their works. The novels of Kafka or absurd plays of Beckett produce a negative aesthetics of modern society, a negative knowledge about it that undermines the ruling false ideology and exposes the real character of this type of social formation. In a way, it negates the prevalent views, the official version, the ruling value system of late capitalism through a new kind of artistic form. Beckett’s Endgame, argues Adorno, parodies the traditional drama that has been appropriated by culture industry.
Since a revolutionary consciousness is not historically possible for the proletariat now long assimilated into consumer culture of advanced capitalism, the only oppositional consciousness possible is in the field of the authentic art. The proletariat class, implicated in the culture of the late capitalism, cannot realize the full potential of its class position as a revolutionary agent of historical change and therefore, loses its species consciousness and becomes deradicalised. The masses, says Adorno, have no understanding of themselves as object of history. They have no awareness of Subject/ Object antimony. This limited understanding of their class position in the reified structures of late capitalism and promoted by the culture industry lead to passivity and fragmented world-view of a fragmented subjectivity. The changed historical realities of the 1930s and 1940s West make Marxist theory inadequate as far as its role as a change agent is concerned, and, therefore calls for a radical rethinking of Marxist categories of base/ superstructure, appearance/ essence, being/ consciousness, etc. Adorno’s Negative Dialectic (1966) is the answer. It is a radical reassessment of the Marxism as an ideology and science. As the very name suggests, it is negative dialectics that pleads for the anti-progressive, anti- evolutionary nature of history and class-consciousness. Marxism is not conceived as praxis but as a critical theory of history and development of society. Revolutionary consciousness is replaced by critical consciousness that is contemplative and passive, a critical consciousness available to a theorist (Marx, or later, Adorno) or to an artist (Valery or Kafka or Beckett) or an enlightened critic (Benjamin or Adorno or Horkheimer). On this view, authentic art, like Critical Theory, articulates the truth content of Society of modern times in a negative, critical manner purely in the realm of a contemplative consciousness of an artist, philosopher or critic. The knowledge produced by such a negative aesthetics or theory is critical of the totalitarian nature of a late capitalist mass society of our time, and, the only authentic mode of resistance to the crass commodification and reification of the culture industry. Since it is negative, such an art has no positive value for a mass culture. In fact, its negativity resists integration into the commercialization and commodification of art and therefore, leads to its marginalisation. In other word, claims Adorno, the social conditions of advanced capitalism prohibit the full flowering of the revolutionary potential of the working class and/ or artistic consciousness. It is an age of a deradicalised worker, poet and philosopher. Adorno’s a-historical and idealistic version of Marxism anticipates the Lyotard’s version of post-modern condition of the 1980s, in its celebration of the plurality, fragmentation of subjectivity, language and of the world.
Although Adorno offers some brilliant insights into the nature of contemporary society, his project suffers from an inherent idealism. His privileging the theory over praxis, consciousness over matter, is highly problematic. His denial of historical and materialistic conditions of social consciousness makes his Marxist theory of art and society highly unsatisfactory and ant- rational. The works that appeared avant-garde in the 40s, 50s, or 60s no longer appear like that mainstream academia have already appropriated them and institutionalized them. Beckett, the mainstay of many postgraduate courses on drama the world over now, has come to shed his shocking novelty and become as passé as an earlier Dali or Picasso.
The logic of market economy, it looks, spares nobody, not even the so-called greats of modernism or post-modernism. The casebook series can easily destroy the auratic distance between these innovative artists and a hungry mass audience.
Another important figure of western Marxist aesthetics is Louis Althusser whose views on the role of ideology in the celebrated essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs) of 1969 have come to exercise a strong influence upon both Marxist and bourgeois aesthetics. Ideology in general, according to this structuralist and materialist theory of society, plays the function of adapting individuals to the real conditions of existence. In that sense, it is an expression of the imaginary or lived experiences of the actual or the real. It becomes a relationship of the imaginary to the concrete. Second, ideology is a material practice, born out of the real social practices and social rituals. In this materialistic sense, Ideology is dispersed by the ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) like the school and the family. ISAs are more persuasive than RSAs (Repressive State Apparatuses) like police and military. Third, ideology interpellates (hails) individuals as subjects. Christian rituals, for example, hail the individual as a unique, free subject who willingly submits to the authority of the subject. Ideology has an unconscious character: a child is born into established ideological practices and thus realizes that he/ she is ‘ always- already’ a subject. Thus, says Althusser, the chief function of ideology in a society is to manufacture a suitable subjectivity for the sole purpose of adapting it and its appropriate consciousness to the existing production relations. Ideologies, in the final analysis, serve the conservative role of producing a consciousness that is necessary for the maintenance of production relations. Despite the relative autonomy of these superstructural forms, the main aim is to reconcile the subject to the existing infrastructure by reproducing the real in the imaginary. Art, for Althusser, is authentic only when it makes us ‘see’, ‘perceive’ and ‘feel’ by making the silences, the gaps in a work speak eloquently. At that precise moment an enlightened critic (‘us’) becomes aware of the ideology as an effect. This, in brief, is the materialistic conception of ideology in the structuralist version of Marxism of L. Althusser. For the first time in the history of Marxist aesthetics, Althusser is able to propound a theory of ideological practices that reproduce an appropriate consciousness of an interpellated subjectivity for the sole purpose of the maintenance of the given production relations. Althusserian Marxism is at odds with classical Marxist account of ideology. Marx emphasized the negative role of ideology and showed the class character of ideology in a class society. Marx always believed that false ideological consciousness can be superseded by the revolutionary and scientific consciousness of the class that becomes change agent at a given historical moment. (Revolutionary bourgeoisie at the beginning of the early capitalism, and, proletariat in the capitalistic mode). Despite its limitations, Althusser demonstrates the process by which individuals are incorporated into social systems through the subtle, unconscious mechanisms of ISAs, and now, after obtaining consent and adaptability, resistances are erased in society. Pierre Macherey and Terry Eagleton take up this Althusserian project in their works.
Any Marxist critique of the philosophy of the modern literary theory in all its plurality and polysemic forms has to proceed from a firm grounding in the Marxist-Leninist tradition. The classical Marxism is humanist in nature. Its account of the laws of social and historical development are both philosophical and scientific, in sharp contradiction, to the philosophy/science debates that characterize the general tenor of the intellectual development of Western Marxism and its aesthetics, Marx, Engels and Lenin have always emphasized the cognitive and spiritual value of the great art of humankind. Art not only cognizes the world in sensuous artistic images but also fulfills the spiritual needs of humankind; the needs for harmony and the beautiful, the moral attitude towards life, and, an aspiration towards life, and, ideal. Art is a fruit of the dialectics of theory and praxis, subject and object, and, form and content. Art is both historical and supra-historical: it is definitely a product of material, historical conditions of production as well as a transcendence of the immediacy of such a moment. In a way, art is autonomous and stable in relation to its base (production mode). Greek art is a fine example of the uneven development of great art across the centuries. Despite primitive development of production mode, Greeks could produce a very wholesome, organic, rich and beautiful art that still appeals to us, despite the intervening centuries between it and us. The same applies to Shakespeare or Tolstoy. Despite ultra-sophistication achieved in our age in terms of mode of production, the beauty and totality of their works is still unsurpassable and provides us with aesthetic joy and pleasure. The kind of unity of essence and appearance, form and content, subject (artist) and object (society), achieved in the art of the Greeks and greats like Balzac, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Goethe is superb and transcends time and space barriers. Art is a product of the human praxis: man, in the process of transforming nature, not only creates objects for his physical needs but also for his spiritual needs. Art, as an aesthetic object, enjoys universal appeal because it primarily deals with the moral and beautiful. It is also an aid in understanding social reality and also, progressive, as it clearly shows the future path, notwithstanding the class contradictions and class interests that get reflected artistically, objectively through the subjective personality of the artist and his/her world-view. In that sense, great art is both temporal/atemporal and ideological/non-ideological (it moves beyond the declared ideological and class position of the artist). By creating types, great art penetrates to the social essence and reflects a totalizing experience of society in all its contradictions to the recipient’s limited ideological view of reality. In that sense, it is a superstructural form of cognition and social consciousness, and, it has an enlightening capacity.
This slightly oversimplified and schematic view of Marxist theory of society and art, revolutionary in its import, clearly demonstrates the materialistic and dialectical foundations of this humanist and praxis-oriented epistemology that was a definite advance over the existing idealistic and mechanical materialistic philosophical systems of the West. Western Marxism of Benjamin, Adorno, Althusser and Marcuse does not subscribe to this materialistic and historical epistemology of Marx, Engels and Lenin. For Western Marxists, dialectics is negative and so is the modern avant-garde art. For these theoreticians, art is not revolutionary in its intent. Beckett, Joyce, Kafka celebrate passivity and reificational structures of society through a negative art. The cognitive oppositional role is no longer possible for a subjectivity that is being fragmented and marginalized. This negative conception of society and art makes their idiosyncratic versions of Marxism anti-progressive, anti-revolutionary and ahistorical.
There is always an in-built danger of oversimplification and reiteration in an essay of this kind. Despite limitations to the essayistic form, some points need reiteration. The foremost point is that modern literary theory of the 20 th century is idealistic in its philosophical orientation. It asserts the prime value of subjective consciousness at the cost of historical fact. The fragmentation, pluralism and polysemic characteristics of the modern literary theory—both bourgeois and Marxist—are idealistic in their denial of the social nature of artistic process, cognition, language and meaning. Formalism, Structuralism (Barthes), Deconstructionism (Derrida), post-Modernism—to name a few of the influential-theories—attempt to destabilize the received categories like meaning, totality, author, text, etc. by postulating that these are metaphysical concepts no longer valid to contemporary reality. Second point: despite the proliferation of various competing theories, as possible models of understanding the reality, they all fail to offer a convincing account of modern world and its lived reality. The reason is simple. They are not adequate rational accounts but partial and agnostic. The increasing unpopularity of Derridean deconstructionism in the late 1980s of the West is one example of the short-lived life of such theories. Third point: The suspicion of modern literary theory of Marxism is pervasive. Most French theoreticians (Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, Lyotard) develop positions that are anti-Marxist. This leads to the final conclusion that modern literary theory is anti-Enlightenment, anti-Realist and anti-evolutionary. And, most important, anti-humanist and anti-liberal. It is a theory of the disillusioned despairing intellectuals of a deradicalised age.
Despite their radical distrust of any overarching Meta narratives, the fact remains that their idealism is not the death knell of Marxism. The emergence of resistance to the expansion of capital via MNCs is a welcome change. Protest poetry, underground literature, subaltern literature and art of graffiti are some of the new forms of artistic resistance. The dialectics of history cannot be checked, notwithstanding the slogans like “End of History.”
Marxism is not obsolete.
Eagleton, surely, proves that.
- Peter Zima, The Philosophy of Modern Literary Theory(London, The Athlone Press, 1999). Part of the framework of the present essay derives its inspiration from this well-argued, lucid book.
- Ibid., p.3
- Ibid., p.5
- V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.19, (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1980) pp. 23.28
- Karl Marx, Prefaceto A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977) p.20.
- Karl Marx, and F. Engels, The German Ideology, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), pp. 36-37.
- Pauline Johnson, Marxist Aesthetics, (London: Rutledge and Kegan Paul), pp.90-91.
- Ibid., p.90
- Ibid., p.92
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