Sunday, December 02, 2018

Alan Jacobs has a post called "enough with the `cultural Marxism' already" and it's hard to fault him at the moment, featuring a riff on how anti-Marxist cultural conservatives somehow end up using polemics that were ironically used by Adorno

Alexander Zubatov tries to rescue the term “Cultural Marxism” in this post, and I don’t think he succeeds. Now, he might succeed in defending some users of the term from some of the charges Samuel Moyn makes here, but that’s a different matter (and one I won’t take up here). I simply want to argue that the term ought to be abandoned.

Here’s Zubatov’s definition:

So what is cultural Marxism? In brief, it is a belief that cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures, so we must scrutinize and judge all culture and ideas based on their relation to power.

The problem here, put as succinctly as I can put it, is that you can take this view of culture without being a Marxist, and you can be a Marxist without taking this view of culture.
Jacobs goes to the trouble of actually quoting Marx to demonstrate that Marx did not see some kind of one-to-one correlation between art works and the cultures that produced them.  Now the habit of reading some kind of statements or inferences about a culture off of the "text" of a musical or artistic work is something I've seen made as a complaint about the American new musicology after the fashion of Susan McClary, for instance, but it's not necessarily how Marx seems to have dealt with art.  It's not even really the way that Adorno, often and widely held in conservative circles as having somehow paved the way for "cultural Marxism" dealt with artworks.  Adorno could claim that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was "true" and participated in truth and signaled sympathy with a revolutionary desire for freedom and universal humanity but that his work was later co-opted by bourgeois ambition and self-regard and retroactively transformed into a kind of falsehood by the class that co-opted Beethoven's art as the standard by which middle class individualism could be signified.  Adorno venerated Beethoven's work without necessarily regarding the society that "produced" Beethoven's music as anything close to a just society.  

To be sure, many later Marxists would get highly agitated by Marx and Engels’s use of the word “determined” in the passage just quoted. But a decade after The German Ideology, in an appendix to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx would clarify this point:

As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society, nor do they therefore to the material substructure, the skeleton as it were of its organisation. For example the Greeks compared with modern [nations] …. It is even acknowledged that certain branches of art, e.g., the epic, can no longer be produced in their epoch-making classic form after artistic production as such has begun; in other words that certain important artistic formations are only possible at an early stage in the development of art itself.

Marx believed that capitalism was an advance over feudalism, which was in turn an advance over more primitive forms of political organization; that did not mean that he thought Benjamin Disraeli a superior writer to Homer — or that you could explain Homer’s greatness by invoking the politics of his world. But if you want to understand a given work of art you need to pay attention to what Marx and Engels habitually called its “material conditions.”

So, if we grant that Marx and Engels are Marxists, we must then conclude that Marxists do not necessarily believe that “cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures.” [emphasis added] And many later Marxists, including some of the ones Zubatov quotes, go even further in separating the superstructure of cultural production from the economic base. (Georg Lukács, for instance, was taken to task by Bertolt Brecht for writing criticism insufficiently attentive to the base and therefore to the revolutionary imperative: “It is the element of capitulation, of withdrawal, of utopian idealism which still lurks in Lukács’s essays and which he will undoubtedly overcome, that makes his work, which otherwise contains so much of value, unsatisfactory; for it gives the impression that what concerns him is enjoyment alone, not struggle, a way of escape, rather than a march forward.”)

Moreover, the one figure who did the most to consolidate the idea that all culture is deeply implicated in the “underlying power structures,” the power-knowledge regime, is Michel Foucault, and there has always been the suspicion on the academic Left that Foucault is actually a conservative.

It is equally clear that one can believe that an advocate “for the persecuted and oppressed must attack forms of culture that reinscribe the values of the ruling class, and disseminate culture and ideas that support ‘oppressed’ groups and ‘progressive’ causes,” without endorsing any of the core principles of Marx’s system. (There are forms of conservatism and Christianity that are as fiercely critical of the ruling class as any Marxist, while having no time for dialectical materialism or communism.) [emphasis added]

I am not convinced by Moyn’s claim that there is something strongly antisemitic about the contemporary use of the term “Cultural Marxism” — though I’d be interested to hear him develop that argument at greater length. I tend to see there term deployed in the classic Red Scare mode of the McCarthy era: in some circles, now as then, there’s no quicker and easier way to discredit an idea than to call its proponents Commies. And that’s the work that the “Marxism” half of “cultural Marxism” does.

So that's a good chunk of what Alan Jacobs had to say in his post about `cultural Marxism'.  

Whatever 'cultural Marxism' is, it seems that far too many of the people who wield the term have never read anything by authors associated with the Frankfurt school, whether Adorno or even the technically not formally affiliated Walter Benjamin.  A lot of what passes for 'cultural Marxism' seems to be an objection to a kind of multiculturalism that, if anything, might replicate identitarian essentialist stances.  The identity politics of the newer left and the new right don't always seem that different to me.  Or as John Halle has blogged, there's a kind of blue state neoliberalism that holds that so long as the rainbow gets fuller representation the last forty years of deregulated globalist internationalist finance is basically all good.  In other words, merely not being some kind of Republican or a neo-conservative doesn't by any means get people off the hook from being what some call neoliberal.  

Since one of my hobbies is reading about Soviet era music and composers who lived through that period, it's been interesting that culturally conservative traditionalists who are apt to invoke 'cultural Marxism" every once in a while, can have a paradoxical nostalgia for all of the Western fine arts traditions that were thought to be preserved or saved from a post-Adorno-style Western avant garde.  But there are a couple of potential levels of irony in that sort of bromide against "cultural Marxism".  

The first is that Westerners who would say musical art was better preserved in terms of the Western European legacy of classical music by way of the Soviet system are basically saying that the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union did a better job of preserving traditional Western musical arts than the Western European nations did.  Well if that's the case then Western liberal traditions don't seem to have been the reason the art forms were preserved.  At another level, since so many of the fine arts traditions of Western European vintage emerged over centuries of medieval Catholic feudalism and monarchic empires it's possible to suggest that there's actually nothing necessarily inherent in the Western tradition of liberalism that necessarily "deserves" any credit for the Western fine arts as such.  If the ideological system that ensured the preservation of Western musical arts in the classical tradition was socialist realism ... the liberal Enlightenment Western values are perhaps superfluous to the preservation of the musical art.  The same apparently can also go for Western feudal Christendom. 

The second level of potential irony besides the matter of how the Soviets, in some tellings by traditionalists of Western fine art traditions, preserved the classical musical heritage that was cast off by acolytes of Adorno is that Adorno had damning remarks about the post-World War II avant garde for which he tends to be blamed in these narratives about "cultural Marxism".  Because it's the weekend and I've felt better I don't feel like diving into the lengthy Adorno quotes from the mid-1960s essays he wrote where he blasted the Boulez/Stockhausen pedigree as specializing in arid and inhuman music bereft of the "subject" or how the post John Cage style aleatoric approach removes the subject by dint of a Zen posture that vitiates the art of musical composition, decision-making.  

The people most apt to inveigh against "cultural Marxism" and the legacy of the Frankfurt school can ironically do nothing better than parrot the arguments against the post-war European avant garde that Adorno himself articulated half a century ago, and often the conservative/traditionalist polemics can seem to recycle Adorno's points in a way that suggests a complete lack of awareness that Adorno made these same points half a century ago ... it's almost as if some accepted conservative/traditionalist master narrative has been accepted in which Adorno is simply blamed for things he was castigating in his actual life and writings because people who bloviate about "cultural Marxism" too often have other things they want to do with their time than actually read the primary source works.  

Suppose it be said that the new avant garde that emerged in the wake of World War 2 in Europe has led to the creation of a musical subculture in which no one has to have any traditional musical competencies and can get by on literally formulaic systems that can be passed off as an indication of musical competency.  That is a relatively common complaint that is registered by writers like John Borstlap and Roger Scruton.  It's worth noting that if you never master the traditional Western tonal musical skill sets then breaking the "rules" when you never mastered them or understood them to begin with can't even mean anything because if you couldn't understand the traditional rules to begin with rebelling against them on the basis of the codification of a new set of alternative rules is pointless and will lead at length to the observation that many of these new would-be avant garde composers and musicians are just incompetent by the measure of both old and new ... but that's not necessarily a conservative or traditionalist argument if a "cultural Marxist" of the Frankfurt school has to be considered a "cultural Marxist".

Why?  Because I was just summarizing Adorno in his essay "Difficulties" wherein he outlined how post-tonal avant garde composers who couldn't write Palestrina following exercises in voice-leading were not rebelling against tonality in writing in total serialist systems, they were just displaying their omni-incompetence for music in general.  That's been one of the more ironic discoveries I've made reading Adorno in the wake of reading John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution, that Borstlap pins some blame on Adorno for the postwar European avant garde when Adorno damned the post-tonal postwar avant garde in even more vitriolic terms in essays called "On the Aging of the New Music" and "Difficulties" half a century ago.

So if the best that writers like John Borstlap or Roger Scruton can manage is to echo Adorno's condemnations of the postwar European avant garde in less incisive language then Alan Jacobs may be more right than he knows suggesting "enough with the `cultural Marxism' already".

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