aesthetics and politics

Arshile Gorky, Argula, 1938.


Considerations on the dispute between supporters “Realism” and “Modernism”

It is not just political history that those who ignore it are doomed to repeat. The recent profusion of “post-Marxisms” proves the argument according to which attempts to go “beyond” Marxism end up, as a rule, by reinventing old pre-Marxist positions (from the various revivals of neo-Kantianism to the most recent “Nietzschean” returns pre-Socratics, passing through Hume and Hobbes).

Even in Marxism itself the terms in which problems, if not solutions, are posed are given in advance, and the old controversies – Marx versus Bakunin, Lenin versus Luxembourg, the national question, the agrarian question, the dictatorship of the proletariat – come back to haunt those who thought we could move towards something different and leave the past behind.

In no field was this “return of the repressed” more drastic than in the aesthetic conflict between “Realism” and “Modernism”, whose revisiting and rediscussion are still inevitable for us today; although we may feel that each of the positions is in some way correct, yet none of them remains entirely acceptable. The dispute is older than Marxism and, in a long-range perspective, is perhaps a contemporary political re-enactment of the Querelle des ancients et des modernes, in which for the first time aesthetics came face to face with the dilemmas of historicity.

In twentieth-century Marxism, the driving force behind the controversy over Realism and Modernism was the lively and persistent influence of expressionism among writers on the German left in the 1920s and 1930s. A relentless ideological denunciation by Lukács in 1934 opened the stage for a series of of debates and exchanges between Bloch, Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno, published in this volume. Much of the fascination of these clashes comes from the internal dynamism by which all logical possibilities are rapidly and successively generated, so that soon the debate extends beyond the localized phenomenon of Expressionism, and even beyond the ideal type of realism itself, outlining under its scope the problems of popular art, naturalism, socialist realism, avant-gardeism, the media and, finally, modernism in general – political and non-political.

Today, many of its fundamental themes and concerns were conveyed to students and the anti-war movement of the 1960s by the Frankfurt School, in particular by Herbert Marcuse, while Brecht's resurgence ensured its propagation among politically oriented modernisms such as that of Brecht. group As is.

The legacy of German expressionism, more than its contemporary French counterpart, surrealism, gave rise to the development of a great debate within the framework of Marxism. In the writings of the surrealists, and in particular those of Breton, the problem of realism does not even appear, in the first place due to the initial rejection of the novel as a form; while, for his main opponent, Jean-Paul Sartre – the only important writer of his generation who did not go through the tutelage of surrealism and whose notion of engagement (“engagement”) Adorno later understood himself to be the prototype of a political aesthetic – the dilemma between realism/modernism was also not on the agenda, although for the opposite reason: because of the prior exclusion of poetry and lyric poetry from his conception of nature and function. of literature (in What is literature?).

Thus, in France until the second modernist (or postmodernist) wave, represented by new Roman and new wave, fur As is and by 'structuralism', the terrain over which realism and modernism were to fight so bitterly elsewhere – that of narrative – was divided up between them in advance, as if it were an amicable division. If the problem of narrative does not occupy a preponderant place in the texts collected in this book, this is partly due to the fact that Lukács was mainly interested in novels, while Brecht's most important field of activity was the theater.

In turn, the growing importance of cinema in artistic production since the time of these debates (as evidenced by the frequent approximations between Brecht and Godard) suggests, in this sense, that the structural differences between the means of production and genres may play a more important role. significantly in compounding the dilemmas of the controversy between Realism and Modernism than its early protagonists were willing to admit.

More than that, the history of aesthetics itself suggests that some of the most paradoxical turns that have taken place in the Marxist debate within German culture spring from internal contradictions in the very concept of realism, much more frequently than in debates involving traditional aesthetic categories. , such as comedy and tragedy, lyric, epic and drama. The latter – whatever social function is invoked for them in this or that philosophical system – are purely aesthetic concepts, which can be analyzed and evaluated without reference to anything other than the phenomenon of beauty or the activity of artistic play (terms in which “aesthetics” has traditionally been isolated and constituted as a separate domain or function in its own right).

The originality of the concept of realism, however, lies in its claim to knowledge as well as aesthetic distinction. As a new value, contemporary with the secularization of the world under capitalism, the ideal of realism presupposes a form of aesthetic experience that still claims a close bond with the real itself, that is, with the spheres of knowledge and practice that traditionally had been separated from the domain of the aesthetic, with its disinterested judgments and its constitution as pure appearance.

But it is extremely difficult to do justice to both properties of realism simultaneously. In practice, the excessive emphasis on the cognitive function often leads to a naive refusal of the necessarily fictitious character of artistic discourse, or even to iconoclastic calls for the “end of art” in the name of political militancy. At the other pole of this conceptual tension, the emphasis of theorists such as Gombrich or Barthes on "techniques" by which an "illusion" of reality or a "feedback effect” is achieved, tends surreptitiously to transform the “reality” of realism into appearance, and to undermine the assertion of its own truth value – or referential value – by which it differentiates itself from other types of literature. (Among the many secret dramas of Lukács' last work, account must certainly be taken of the skill with which he walks that tightrope, from which he never falls, not even in the most ideological or "formalist" moments.)

This does not mean that the concept of modernism, the historical counterpart of realism and its dialectical mirror image, is not equally contradictory, and in such a way that it will be instructive to juxtapose its contradictions with those of realism itself. For the moment, it suffices to note that none of these contradictions can be fully understood if they are not placed in the broader context of the crisis of historicity itself, and if they are not enumerated among the dilemmas that dialectical criticism confronts when it tries to make ordinary language work simultaneously in two ways. excluding registers: the absolute (in which case realism and modernism become timeless abstractions, as much as the lyrical or the comic), and the relative (in which case they inexorably return to the narrow limits of an antiquarian nomenclature, reduced to the designation of literary movements from past). Language, however, does not peacefully submit to the attempt to use its terms dialectically – that is, as relative and sometimes even extinct concepts of an archaeological past, which nevertheless continue to transmit their tenuous but absolute appeals to us.

Meanwhile, poststructuralism added yet another kind of parameter to the controversy between Realism and Modernism, one that – like the question of narrative or the problem of historicity – was implicit in the original debate, though little articulated or thematized. The assimilation of realism to the old philosophical concept of mimesis by writers such as Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard or Deleuze recast the debate between Realism and Modernism in terms of a Platonic attack on the ideological effects of representation.

In this new (and old) philosophical polemic, the reference points of the original discussion are unexpectedly elevated, and its controversies – previously concerning a strongly political point of view – gain metaphysical (or anti-metaphysical) implications. to increase the defensiveness of defenders of realism; yet I feel that we will not be able to appreciate the consequences of the attack on representation, and of poststructuralism more generally, until we can situate his work in the field of ideology.

Be that as it may, it is clear that the controversy between Realism and Modernism loses its interest if, in advance, we decide for the victory of one of the parties. The debate between Brecht and Lukács alone is one of the rare confrontations in which both opponents are of equal stature, both of incomparable importance for the development of contemporary Marxism; the first, a great artist and probably the greatest literary figure produced by the communist movement; the second, a philosopher central to his time and heir to the entire German philosophical tradition, who singularly emphasized aesthetics as a discipline.

It is true that in recent expositions of this controversy Brecht has tended to win the battle; the old “plebeian” style and Schweikian identifications have proved to be more attractive nowadays than the cultural “mandarinism” to which Lukács appealed. In them, Lukács is usually treated as a professor, a revisionist, a Stalinist – or, in general, “in the same way that Moses Mendelssohn treated Spinoza at the time of Lessing, like a 'dead dog'”, in the words with which Marx described the standardized view of Hegel that circulated among his radical contemporaries.

The way in which Lukács single-handedly managed to turn the debate over Expressionism into a discussion over Realism, forcing defenders of the former to fight in this field and on its terms, explains their exasperation with Lukács (Brecht's own animosity is shown particularly vividly in these pages). On the other hand, such interference in alien terrain is compatible with everything that made Lukács the leading figure of Marxism in the twentieth century – in particular, his lifelong insistence on the crucial importance of literature and culture to all revolutionary politics.

His fundamental contribution on this point consisted of the development of a theory of mediations capable of revealing the political and ideological content of what until then seemed to be purely formal aesthetic phenomena. One of the most famous examples was his "decoding" of static descriptions of naturalism in terms of reification. At the same time, it was precisely this line of investigation – itself an implicit critique and denial of traditional content analysis – that was responsible for Brechtian characterization of Lukács's method as formalist: with the term, Brecht pointed to Lukács's blind trust in the possibility to deduce political and ideological positions from a protocol of purely formal properties of artistic work.

The reprimand was born out of Brecht's experience as a man of the theater, terrain on which he built an aesthetic of performance and a vision of artistic work in a situation, which was in diametric contrast with the solitary reading and the bourgeois public supposed by Lukács' privileged object of study, the novel. Could Brecht then be enlisted in current campaigns against the notion of mediation? It is probably more productive to take Brecht's attack on Lukacsian formalism (along with the Brechtian password "plumpes denken” [rough thinking]) on a less philosophical and more practical level, as a therapeutic warning against the permanent temptation of idealism, present in all ideological analysis as such, or against the professional inclination of intellectuals towards methods that need no external verification .

There would then be two idealisms: one, the current variety found in religion, metaphysics or literalism, the other, the repressed and unconscious danger of idealism applied to Marxism itself, inherent in the very ideal of science in a world deeply marked by the division between manual and mental work. Against this danger the intellectual and the scientist will never be sufficiently alert. At the same time, Lukács' work with mediation, however rudimentary it may be at times, can be inscribed among the forerunners of the most interesting work being done today in the field of ideological analysis – one that, assimilating the discoveries of psychoanalysis and semiotics, seeks to build a model of text as a symbolic and complex ideological act. The accusation of “formalism”, whose relevance for Lukács' own practice is evident, could, as a result, be extended more widely to research and reflection in our time.

But such an accusation constituted only one of the points of Brecht's attack on Lukács' position; its corollary and counterpart it was indignation at the ideological judgments that Lukács sustained by making use of his method. The first manifestation at that moment was Lukács's denunciation of the alleged connections between expressionism and some trends within social democracy (in particular the USPD), not to mention fascism, which raised the debate on Realism in the group of exiles and which the essay by Ernest Bloch intended to refute in detail. Indeed, nothing discredited Marxism more than the practice of attaching instantaneous class labels (usually that of "petty bourgeois") to textual or intellectual objects; not even the most committed of Lukács's apologists will deny that, of the many Lukács one can think of, this one in particular – maximally represented in the strident and scandalous epilogue to Die Zerstörung der Vernunft [The destruction of reason] – is what least deserves to be rehabilitated. However, abuse of class attribution should not lead to an overreaction that translates into mere abandonment of the category.

Indeed, ideological analysis is unthinkable without a conception of social class as “ultimately determinant”. What is really wrong with Lukacsian analyzes is not their overly frequent and over-the-top reference to social classes, but rather their overly incomplete and intermittent perception of the link between class and ideology. A relevant example is one of Lukács' most well-known fundamental concepts, that of “decadence” – often associated by him with fascism, but even more insistently with art and modern literature in general. The concept of decadence is the equivalent, in the field of aesthetics, to that of “false consciousness” in the domain of traditional analysis of ideology.

Both suffer from the same defect – the assumption that in the world of culture and society it is possible for there to be such a thing as pure error. They imply, in other words, that works of art or philosophical systems are conceivable without content, which must be denounced for failing in the task of dealing with the “serious” issues of today, diverting our attention. In the iconography of political art in the 1920s and 1930s, the “indices” of such an objectionable and empty decadence were the champagne flute and the top hat of the idle rich, revolving around the eternal circuit of nightclubs.

However, even Scott Fitzgerald and Drieu la Rochelle are more complicated than that, and from the vantage point of the present, where we have the most complex psychoanalytic instruments at our disposal (in particular the concepts of repression and denial, or Verneinung), even those who might want to support the hostile Lukacsian verdict on modernism should necessarily insist on the existence of a repressed social content, present even in modern works that seem naive.

Modernism would not be so much a way of avoiding social content – ​​something impossible anyway for beings like us, condemned to history and the relentless sociability of even our most apparently private experiences – as of dealing with and containing it. , taking it from the surface and incorporating it into the form, through framing and displacement techniques, which it is possible to identify with some precision. If so, Lukács' summary dismissal of “decadent” works of art should yield to an interrogation of their buried social and political content.

The fundamental weakness of Lukács' view of the relationship between art and ideology certainly finds its ultimate explanation in the author's political horizon. On closer examination, what is usually called his Stalinist position can be divided into two quite distinct problems. The accusation that he was complicit in a bureaucratic apparatus and that he exercised a kind of literary terrorism (particularly against political modernists, for example, those of the Proletkult) is contradicted by his resistance in Moscow, during the 1930s and 1940s, to what later became known as Zhdanovism – that form of socialist realism which he disliked as much as Western modernism but which he, for obvious reasons, had less freedom to attack openly. “Naturalism” was the keyword that Lukács used to name it pejoratively at that time.

Indeed, the structural and historical identification between the symbolic techniques of modernism and the “bad immediacy” of the naturalist snapshot was one of its most profound insights dialectic. With regard to his continued membership in the party, which he called his “entrance ticket to history”, the tragic fate and wasted talent of so many oppositional Marxists of his generation, such as Korsch and Reich, are powerful arguments in favor of relative rationality of the choice made by Lukács – an option he shared with Brecht. A more serious problem arises in relation to the “popular front” of his aesthetic theory.

Situated at a formal midpoint between a modernist subjectivism and a naturalist ultra-objectivism, like most Aristotelian strategies of moderation, it never aroused much intellectual spirit. Even the most devoted supporters of Lukács could not show much enthusiasm for her. At the moment when the political alliance between the revolutionary forces and the progressive sections of the bourgeoisie broke down, it was Stalin who belatedly authorized a version of the policy that Lukács had defended in the “Blum Theses” of 19281929-XNUMX, which envisaged a first stage, the democratic revolution against the fascist dictatorship in Hungary, prior to any socialist revolution.

However, it is precisely this distinction between an anti-fascist and an anti-capitalist strategy that seems more difficult to sustain today and the political program with less immediate appeal to wide areas of a “free world” in which military dictatorships and “regimes of exception ” are the order of the day – even multiplying to such an extent that genuine social revolutions become a real possibility. From our current perspective, Nazism itself, with its charismatic leader and its peculiar use of a nascent communication technology in the broadest sense of the term (including transportation and highways as well as radio and television), now seems to represent a special and transient combination of historical circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated; while routine torture and the institutionalization of counterinsurgency techniques have proved perfectly consistent with the kind of parliamentary democracy that used to be distinguished from fascism. Under the hegemony of multinational corporations and their “global system”, the very possibility of a progressive bourgeois culture is problematic – a difficulty that clearly strikes at the very foundation of Lukács's aesthetic.

Finally, the concerns of our time projected over Lukács' work the shadow of a literary dictatorship that was somehow different from the attempt – as denounced by Brecht – to prescribe a certain type of production. The Lukács who is now the focus of new polemics is less the defender of a specific artistic style than of a particular critical method, while his work is considered, by admirers and opponents alike, a monument of old-fashioned content analysis.

There is some irony in this transformation of the name of the author of History and class consciousness into a symbol not dissimilar to what resonates with names like Belinsky and Chernyshevsky in an earlier period of Marxist aesthetics. Lukács's critical practice is indeed strongly oriented towards genres and committed to the mediation of different forms of literary discourse. Thus, it would be a mistake to link it to the cause of a naive mimetic position that urges us to discuss events and characters in a novel in the same way that we would look at “real” facts and people. On the other hand, as its critical practice implies the ultimate possibility of a complete and a-problematic “representation of reality”, it can be said that Lukacsian realism lends support to a documental and sociological approach to literature correctly perceived as an antagonist of more recent methods of constructing the narrative text as a free game of signifiers.

However, these apparently irreconcilable positions may turn out to be two distinct and equally indispensable moments of the hermeneutic process – a first naive “faith” in the density or presence of novelistic representation, and a later suspension of this experience, “put in parentheses”, with the exploration of the necessary distance of all language in relation to what it intends to represent, that is, its constant substitutions and displacements. In any case, it is clear that, while Lukács is used as a “war cry” (or as a boogeyman) in this particular methodological conflict, there is not great possibility that a careful evaluation of his work as a whole will emerge.

Brecht, on the other hand, is most easily reread in terms of contemporary concerns, where he seems to address us in an unmediated tone. His attack on Lukács's formalism is only one aspect of a much more complex and interesting position towards realism in general, which certainly will not be undermined by the observance of some of the features that seem dated to us today. Brechtian aesthetics, in particular, and its way of focusing on the problems of realism, are closely linked to a conception of science that it would be wrong to identify with the more scientistic currents of contemporary Marxism (for example, the work of Althusser or Colletti).

For the latter, science is an epistemological concept and a form of abstract knowledge, and the quest to achieve a Marxist “science” is directly linked to recent developments in the historiography of science – for example, the discoveries of “scholars” such as Koyré, Bachelard and Kuhn. For Brecht, however, “science” is much less a matter of knowledge and epistemology than a pure experiment and an activity closely related to practice. His ideal is more focused on popular mechanics, technology, the box of homemade chemicals and the careless improvisation of a Galileo, than on the “epistems” or “paradigms” of scientific discourse. Brecht's specific view of science was for him the means of annulling the separation between physical and mental activity and the fundamental division of labor (that between worker and intellectual) that resulted from this division: his point of view replaces knowledge of the world together with the transformation of the world, at the same time unifying an ideal of praxis with a conception of production.

The rapprochement of “science” and practical activity aimed at transformation – not without influence on the analysis that Brecht and Benjamin make of the media, as we will see below – thus transforms the process of “knowing” the world into a source of delight and pleasure in itself; this is the fundamental step in the construction of a properly Brechtian aesthetic. It restores to “realistic” art that principle of playfulness and genuine aesthetic pleasure which Lukács' more passive and cognitive aesthetics seemed to substitute for the austere duty of an adequate reflection of the world. The old dilemmas of a theory of didactic art (teaching ou delight?) are thus also outdated and – in a world where science is experiment and play, where knowing and doing are equally modes of production, stimulating in themselves – one can now think of a didactic art in which pleasure and learning are not are more separated from each other.

In fact, the idea of ​​realism, in Brechtian aesthetics, is not a purely artistic and formal category, but rather governs the relationship of the work of art with reality, characterizing a particular position towards it. This spirit of realism designates an active, curious, experimental, subversive attitude – in a word, scientific – in relation to social institutions and the material world; and the “realistic” work of art, therefore, is the one that encourages and disseminates this attitude, not, however, in a superficial and mimetic way or following paths only of imitation.

The “realistic” work of art is one in which “realistic” and experimental attitudes are attempted not only between the characters and their fictional realities, but also between the audience and the work itself and – not least – between the writer and the artist. their own materials and techniques. The three-dimensionality of such a practice of “realism” clearly explodes the purely representative categories of traditional mimetic work.

What Brecht called science is thus in a broader sense an image for non-alienated production in general. It is what Bloch would call a utopian emblem of the satisfying, reunifying praxis of a world that has left alienation and the division of labor behind. The originality of the Brechtian way of seeing can be evaluated juxtaposing its image of science to the more conventional image of art and the artist who, especially in bourgeois literature, traditionally had this utopian function. At the same time, one must also ask whether Brecht's view of science is available to us as an image today, or whether it itself does not reflect a relatively early stage within what has come to be known as the second industrial revolution. Viewed from this perspective, Brecht's enthusiasm for "science" is more like Lenin's definition of communism as "the soviets plus electrification" or Diego Rivera's grand mural at the Rockefeller Center (repainted for Fine Arts), in which , at the intersection of the macro and the microcosm, the massive hands of the New Soviet Man take hold of the very levers of creation, steering them.

Along with the condemnation of Lukacsian formalism and his conception of a union of science and aesthetics in the didactic work of art, there is still a third point of tension in Brecht's thought – in many ways the most influential – that deserves attention. This is, of course, the fundamental concept of alienation, the so-called estrangement effect, most often evoked to sanction theories of a political modernism today, such as those of the group As is.

The practice of estrangement – ​​giving such figuration to phenomena on stage that what seemed natural and immutable in them reveals itself to be tangibly historical and, therefore, the object of revolutionary change –, for a long time seemed to offer a way out of the aporia of agitational didacticism, in which too much political art of the past remains confined. At the same time, the practice of estrangement makes possible a triumphant reappropriation and materialist refoundation of the dominant ideology of modernism (the "making strange" of Russian formalism, the "making new" of Pound, the emphasis of all the historical varieties of modernism on the art's vocation to change and renew perception as such) from the objectives of a revolutionary policy.

Today, traditional realism – the canon defended by Lukács, but also old-fashioned political art such as that of “socialist realism” – is often assimilated to classical ideologies of representation and the practice of “closed form”; while even bourgeois modernism (Kristeva's models are Lautréamont and Mallarmé) is held to be revolutionary for questioning old formal practices and values ​​and producing itself as an open “text”. Whatever objections one might raise to this aesthetic of a political modernism – and we'll reserve one, fundamental, for our discussion of similar views in Adorno – it would be very difficult to associate Brecht with them.

the author of On Abstract Painting [“On abstract painting”] was not only as hostile to pure formal experimentation as Lukács himself was: it could be argued that such a conviction was a historical or generational accident, and that it simply expressed the limits of Brecht's personal tastes. More importantly, his attack on the formalism of Lukács's literary analysis remains tied to the quite different attempts by political modernists to make ideological (revolutionary/bourgeois) judgments based on purely formal features such as: closed or open forms, "naturalness" ”, annulment of production traces in the work, and so on.

For example: there is no doubt that the belief in the natural is ideological and that much of bourgeois art has worked to perpetuate this belief, not only in its content but also through experience with its form. However, in different historical circumstances, the idea of ​​nature was a subversive concept, with a genuinely revolutionary function, and only an analysis of the concrete historical and cultural conjuncture can tell us whether, in the post-natural world of late capitalism, the categories of nature they will not have acquired such a critical charge again.

It is time to take stock of the fundamental changes that have taken place in capitalism and its culture since the moment when Brecht and Lukács presented their options for a “Marxist aesthetic” and for a Marxist conception of realism. What has already been said about the transitory nature of Nazism – which contributed significantly to dating many of Lukács' basic positions – is also having an effect on Brecht's positions. It is necessary here to emphasize the inextricable link between Brecht's aesthetics and the analysis of the media and its revolutionary possibilities, as elaborated jointly by him and Walter Benjamin, and more comprehensively accessible in the latter's well-known essay, "The Work of Art in the era of its technical reproducibility”.

Brecht and Benjamin had not yet begun to feel the full force and oppression of the inflexible alternative between mass audience (or media culture) and a modernist minority 'elite', into which our thinking about the aesthetic is now inevitably locked. Rather, they envisioned a revolutionary use of communication technology in such a way that the most notable advances in artistic technique - effects such as "montage", for example, which today we tend to associate almost exclusively with modernism as such - could readily be be used for didactic and politicizing purposes.

Thus, the Brechtian conception of “realism” is not complete without this perspective, through which the artist is able to use the most complex and modern technology to address the widest popular audience. However, if Nazism itself corresponds to an early and still relatively primitive stage in the emergence of the media, then the same can be said of Benjamin's cultural strategy to attack it and, especially, of his conception of an art that would be revolutionary precisely to the point where it was technically (and technologically) "advanced". In the growing “total system” of media societies today, we can unfortunately no longer share this optimism. Without it, however, the project of a specifically political modernism becomes indistinguishable from all others – modernism being characterized, among other things, by its awareness of an absent public.

In other words, the fundamental difference between our own situation and that of the 30s is the appearance, in definitive and fully developed form, of the final transformation of late monopoly capitalism, variously known as consumer society or as a post-industrial society. This is the historical stage reflected by Adorno's two postwar essays, so different in emphasis from the prewar texts also contained in this volume. It would be all too easy, in retrospect, to identify his dismissal of Lukács as well as Brecht, on the basis of their political praxis, as a characteristic example of an anti-communism now out of fashion with the cold war.

More relevant in the current context is the Frankfurt School's premise of a "total system", expressing Adorno and Horkheimer's sense of an increasingly closed organization of the world into a seamless web of media technology, multinational corporations and international bureaucratic control. Whatever the theoretical merits of the idea of ​​a "total system" - and it seems to me that, if it does not lead entirely out of politics, it encourages the revival of anarchist opposition to Marxism itself, it can also be used as a justification for terrorism – it is at least possible to agree with Adorno that, in the cultural sphere, the total penetration of the system, with its “cultural industry” or (in a variation of Enzensberger) its “industry-of-consciousness”, creates an unfavorable climate for any of the older and simpler forms of oppositional art, whether that proposed by Lukács, that produced by Brecht, or that celebrated in various ways by Benjamin and Bloch.

The system has the power to co-opt and neutralize even the potentially most dangerous forms of political art, transforming them into a commodity (pay attention, if proof is needed, to the terrible example of Brechtian bourgeois industry itself). On the other hand, it cannot be said that the somewhat surprising Adornian “resolution” of the problem – the proposal to see the classical stage of high modernism proper as the prototype par excellence of the most “genuine” political art (“this is not a time for political art, but politics has migrated to autonomous art, and nowhere is this more accurate than where it appears to be politically dead”) and his suggestion that it is Beckett who is the most truly revolutionary artist of our time – be more satisfactory. Certainly, some of Adorno's most notable analyzes - for example, his discussion of Schoenbeg and the twelve-note system in Philosophy of New Music – attest to his claim that the most important modern art, even the most a-political or anti-political, actually presents itself as a mirror of the “total system” of late capitalism.

In retrospect, however, this now seems like a rather unexpected resumption of an aesthetic in the manner of Lukács's “theory of reflection”, under the influx of a political and historical despair that befalls both traditions and confronts praxis as something henceforth unimaginable. What is ultimately fatal to this anti-political resumption of the ideology of modernism is less the misguided rhetoric of Adorno's attack on Lukács or the one-sidedness of his reading of Brecht than, quite precisely, the fate of modernism in history. consumer society proper.

Because what was already an antisocial and oppositional phenomenon in the early years of the century has now become the dominant style in commodity production and an indispensable component in the machinery for its reproduction, which is ever faster and more demanding. That Schoenberg's students used his advanced techniques in Hollywood to write music for films, that the works of art from the most recent schools of American painting are now sought after to adorn the splendid new structures of great insurance companies and multinational banks. (which, in turn, are the work of the most talented and “advanced” modern architects), is but the outward symptom of a situation in which a “perceptive art” [“perceptual art”] previously scandalous found a social and economic function in providing the necessary style changes to the consumer society of the present.

The final aspect of the contemporary situation relevant to our subject has to do with the changes that have taken place within socialism proper since the publication of the debate on expressionism in The word, about forty years ago. If the central problem of a political art under capitalism is that of co-option, one of the central questions of culture in a socialist structure must certainly remain what Ernst Bloch called “inheritance” [heritage]: the question of how the world's cultural past will be used in what will increasingly become a single international culture of the future, and the question of the place and effects of different heritages in a society that intends to build socialism.

Bloch's formulation of the problem is clearly a strategy to transform Lukács's narrow polemics – which were limited to realist writers in the European bourgeois tradition of the novel – by widening the focus of the debate to include the immense variety of popular or peasant arts. , pre-capitalist or “primitive”. This formulation should be seen in terms of his monumental attempt to reinvent the concept of utopia for Marxism, ridding it of the objections rightly made by Marx and Engels to the “utopian socialism” of Saint-Simon, Owen or Fourier.

Bloch's utopian principle aims to displace and free socialist thought from its narrow self-definition in terms that essentially extend the categories of capitalism itself, by negation or adoption (terms like industrialization, centralization, progress, technology, and even production itself, which tend to to impose their own social limitation and their options on who works with them). If Lukacsian thinking about culture emphasizes the continuities between the bourgeois order and the one that should develop from it, Bloch's priorities suggest the need to think about the “transition to socialism” in terms of a radical difference, of an absolute break with that specific past, perhaps of a renewal or recovery of the truth of older social forms.

More recent Marxist anthropology indeed reminds us – from within our “total system” – how different the most ancient pre-capitalist and tribal societies are. At a historical moment when interest in a more remote past seems less inclined to stir up the sentimentality and myth-populism that Marxism had to combat in the late XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries, the memory of pre-capitalist societies may now become a vital element of Bloch's principle of utopia and the invention of the future. Politically, the classic Marxist concept of the need for a “dictatorship of the proletariat” during the transition to socialism – that is, the cancellation of power from those who had an interest in restoring the old order – is certainly not out of the question. It can emerge conceptually transformed, if we think about it together with the need for a cultural revolution that involves the collective re-education of all classes.

This is the perspective from which Lukács' emphasis on the great bourgeois novelists seems most inadequate; Relative to this point of view, however, also the anti-bourgeois thrust of grand modernism seems inappropriate. It is at this moment that Bloch's reflection on the Heritage, about the repressed cultural difference of the past and the utopian principle of the invention of a radically different future, will have its right for the first time, at a time when the conflict between Realism and Modernism recedes into the past.

In the West, however, and perhaps elsewhere as well, we have not yet reached that point. In our present cultural situation, both alternatives – realism and modernism – seem intolerable to us: realism, because its forms revive ancient experiences of a type of social life (the classic country town, the traditional opposition of town and country) that it no longer belongs to our world in the already decadent future of the consumer society; modernism, because its contradictions proved in practice even more acute than those of realism. An aesthetics of innovation, today – already enthroned as the dominant critical and formal ideology – must desperately renew itself through ever-faster rotations around its own axis: modernism, seeking to become postmodernism, without stop being modern.

In this way, we witness the spectacle of a predictable return to figurative art, after abstraction itself has become a worn-out convention, but this time to a figurative art – the so-called hyperrealism or photorealism – that comes to be the representation, not of things themselves, but of the photograph of these things: a representative art that is, in fact, representative of itself! In literature, on the other hand, amidst the fatigue resulting from a poetic or plotless fiction, a return to intrigue is achieved, not through the rediscovery of the latter, but rather through the pastiche of older narratives and the depersonalized imitation of traditional voices, in a similar way to the pastiche of the classics carried out by Stravinsky and criticized by Adorno in Philosophy of New Music.

In these circumstances, one has to ask whether the ultimate renewal of modernism, the final, dialectical subversion of the automated conventions of an aesthetic of perceptual revolution, might not simply be... realism itself. For if modernism and its attendant techniques of estrangement have become the dominant style through which the consumer reconciles with capitalism, the very habit of fragmentation needs to be converted into estrangement and corrected by a more totalizing way of seeing the phenomenon.

In an unexpected outcome, it is possible that it is Lukács – wrong as perhaps he was in the 1930s – who has a tentative last word for us today. This singular Lukács, if it is possible to imagine him, would be someone for whom the concept of realism was rewritten in terms of the categories of History and class consciousness, particularly those concerning reification and wholeness. Unlike the more well-known concept of alienation, a process that concerns activity and especially work (disassociating the worker from his work, from his product, from other workers and, finally, from humanity), reification is a process that affects the our cognitive relationship to the social totality. It is a pathology of that mapping function through which the individual subject projects and shapes his insertion in the collectivity.

The reification of late capitalism – the transformation of human relations into an appearance of relationships between things – makes society opaque: it is the very origin of the mystifications on which ideology is based and through which domination and exploitation are legitimized. Since the fundamental structure of the social "totality" is a set of class relations - an antagonistic structure such that the different social classes define themselves in terms of that antagonism and by opposition to one another - reification necessarily obscures the class aspect of that structure and is accompanied not only by anomie, but also by a growing confusion regarding the nature or even the existence of social classes, which can be observed on a large scale in all “advanced” capitalist countries today. .

If the diagnosis is correct, the heightening of class consciousness will be less a question of populist and working-class exaltation of a specific class for its own sake, than a question of energetically reopening access to a sense of society as a whole and of reinventing cognitive and perceptive possibilities that allow the social phenomenon to become evident once more, as moments of a struggle between classes.

In these circumstances, the function of a new realism would be clear: resist the power of reification in consumer society and reinvent that category of totality which, systematically weakened by existential fragmentation at all levels of life and social organization today, can only project relationships structures between classes, as well as class struggles in other countries, in what has increasingly become a world system. Such a conception of realism would embody what has always been very concrete in modernism's dialectical counterconcept - its emphasis on the violent renewal of perception in a world where experience has solidified into a mass of habits and automatisms. However, the habit that the new aesthetics was supposed to break would no longer be thematized in the conventional terms of modernism – namely, a desacralized or dehumanized reason, mass society and the industrial city, technology in general –, but rather in terms of a function of the commodity system and reifying structure of late capitalism.

Other conceptions of realism, other kinds of political aesthetics obviously remain conceivable. The Realism/Modernism debate teaches us the need to judge them in terms of the historical and social conjuncture in which they are called upon to operate. Having an engaged attitude towards central struggles of the past does not mean taking sides, or seeking to reconcile irreconcilable differences. In such extinct and, however, still virulent intellectual conflicts, the fundamental contradiction takes place between history itself and the conceptual apparatus which, seeking to understand its realities, ends up merely reproducing its internal disagreement in the form of an enigma of thought, an aporia.

It is this aporia that we must retain; it contains in its structure the crux of a history beyond which we have not yet passed. It cannot, of course, tell us what our concept of realism should be; when studying it, however, we feel that it is impossible not to feel the obligation to reinvent one.

* Fredric Jameson is director of the Center for Critical Theory at Duke University (USA). Author, among other books, of Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (Verse).

Translation: Ana Paula Pacheco and Betina Bischof for the magazine Literature and Society.

This text was originally published as an afterword to the book aesthetics and politics (London, Verso, 1977), which brings intervention texts by T. Adorno, W. Benjamin, E. Bloch, B. Brecht and G. Lukács in the debate on realism.

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