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Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism

Whatever previous ages might have fancied, we are wise enough to know that the work of art is a commodity like any other. Chances are that we don’t have any very clear idea what we mean by that. Marx, however, does.

Autonomy names the fact not that artworks are free from external circumstances, but that precisely those external circumstances are actively taken up by works of art in ways that are irreducibly normative.


Action Time

Helen Petrovsky

Although I most certainly belong to the unfortunate category of “other Spinozists” that are cheerfully dismissed in the Introduction of Autonomy as those whom the book does not address, I will venture nonetheless to sketch out some of my doubts concerning the concept of autonomy as applied to contemporary works of art. Autonomy is indeed the central issue of the book. And its author, Nicholas Brown, appears to be a Jamesonian. I do not see how and why, all of a sudden, art that has long since lost its autonomy in every possible sense (Fredric Jameson writes about the lost autonomy of culture) can reclaim that status once again. The problem with autonomy, the way I see it, is not that it allows to seek and perhaps to finally obtain freedom from the market, but that it is a nickname for a conceptual frame and a perceptual practice that do not do justice to the changes taking place in contemporary mass societies. For let’s be absolutely clear: the subject—or rather the agent—of such societies is nothing other than the mass, whose dynamic (including what has been liberally called its aesthetics) should be examined in terms other than those of the individual. And autonomy is always about individuality.

So here is my first doubt regarding autonomy. Autonomy is on the side of individuals, whereas we, as citizens and cultural critics, belong to mass societies. Our functioning and intellectual well-being is mediated through the masses. I think that here, at this point, there would not be much disagreement between myself and the author of Autonomy who is undoubtedly a Marxist. I may not be one in the technical sense (although Capital was on our high school curriculum), but I do respect Marx’s vision of society as a dynamic of social relations. And it is precisely this vision that I would like to emphasize, including the ways in which it impacts his understanding of commodity exchange and circulation. Albeit I am not an expert in the field, I think that with the advent of financial capital in particular and corporate capitalism in general the old schemas, such as Commodity—Money—Commodity or even Money—Commodity—Money, undergo an essential transformation. Which is to say that the functioning of money is no longer tied to commodities per se, but demonstrates a logic of its own. And works of art are turned into forms of investment rather than remaining good old luxurious objects. I appreciate the ambiguity and/or candidness of the following remark by Damien Hirst, one of the richest living artists: “I really believe art is the most powerful currency in the world.”

But again, here Nicholas Brown and I seem to be in accord with each other about the market becoming something that the work of art cannot bypass. And I do agree with Nicholas when he states that “the concept of medium or material support must be expanded to include the commodity character of the work” (pp. 22–23). However, when he reintroduces the definition of a work of art on the basis of its immanent purposiveness, which is a direct reference to Kant’s third Critique, the following question arises: where is the place of the transcendental subject in today’s reality? The aesthetic judgment is not just any judgment, to be sure, but one that is integrated into an elaborately complex philosophical system. But how precisely does it meet our current needs (and here I return to the book), besides providing us with the happy thought that art is made with no extraneous purpose in mind, that it is, so to speak, disinterested? Another way of saying the same thing is that art is made for the pure enjoyment of making (which is reflected in Duchamp’s pun on the “impossibilité du fer,” the impossibility of making, that is, of art serving instrumental goals). Yes, we can certainly retain this definition, but, with the transcendental subject removed from the picture, how can it account for the present state of affairs? More generally speaking, I don’t see a place for such an isolated, prescribing, and ultimately condescending position in the society we live in today.

Which brings us back to the masses. How does autonomy correlate with the masses? If it is backed up with categories such as intention, normative meaning (the meaning of a work of art to be gained through its interpretation – the privilege of a chosen few), and, finally, a “restricted field” of the work’s application, in what way then does it translate the needs and desires of those masses? I’m afraid that reaffirming autonomy under the present conditions is not unlike insisting on the comeback of the Benjaminian aura, which, to follow Benjamin’s own logic, is apprehended by us only at the moment of its historical disappearance. It would seem that both of these moves point to a certain nostalgia, the nostalgia for something that has disappeared for good. The lost object is nothing other than the value of a work of art. Works of art (yes, the definition itself is problematic and outdated) have lost their value in contemporary culture, and we have to learn to live with that. They are marketable commodities, no doubt. But economic circulation is at the same time communication: the mass societies we are a part of are also highly technological (although the distribution of wealth, technological wealth included, is becoming rampantly unequal). So once again: who is the subject of perception? Apparently not a contemplating subject, one that would nicely fit into Kant’s definition of art. It is not an “I” but a “we,” something that Benjamin recognized in the early days of technical reproducibility. And as such this “we,” the new subject of aesthetic judgment (this is where Jameson’s cognitive mapping steps in), calls for revised methods of analysis. Indeed, the transcendental perspective—transcendence itself—no longer holds for the masses.

This is not the place to develop an alternative approach. Suffice it to mention the crisis of representation on both the political and purely philosophical levels, which has immediate implications for the work of art. In this perspective, which is essentially that of the masses, a work of art is no longer object but process. Not a self-legislating entity where “the logic of the whole subsumes the logic of its parts” (p. 112), but what I would call a dynamic sign, for lack of a better definition. This sign is a configuration of various forces, including those that transform or even deform the artwork itself. Going back to Marx, we might think of a work as a set of relations. In other words, there has to be a way of doing justice to what Raymond Williams defines as “structures of feeling,” regarding them as an expression of the social dynamic itself. (I will only briefly mention that for him they are “pre-formations,” indicating social experiences “in solution,” that is, in a nascent or vibrating state. The feeling and thinking that he is implying is both social and material, however each being “in an embryonic phase” and thus preceding what he calls “fully articulate and defined exchange.” But exchange is already in place, and neither “world-view” nor “ideology,” these overarching Marxian concepts, can account for the social as it is actually practiced and lived.) The problem with representation then – and also with the work of art as an internally balanced object – is that it always comes too late: we tend to concentrate on the shell, endowing it with value in whatever sense, instead of unraveling the social energies—but not yet meanings!—which it imperfectly conveys.

So, I will repeat: the work of art is an echo of a process, the movement of social matter itself. Social movements in general are about equality and justice, whereas autonomy is not. I would even daresay that autonomy produces inequality. The days of the vanguard are gone, be it the historical avant-garde or the party as the vanguard of the proletariat (I well remember, again from high school, Lenin’s idea of inculcating consciousness in the workers from the outside, a tribute to the Party’s and/or intelligentsia’s supremacy). Today’s social movements display an obvious lack of leadership—they are acephalic—as well as discernible patterns of action. They teach us to be distrustful of each and every value, including those that are most dear to us politically. Indeed, the Kiev Maidan (2013–2014) is often referred to as a Revolution of Dignity, and yet dignity in this case is not an individual virtue, but an irreducibly collective gain. It is the ethos of action itself, action that is necessarily collective. This may sound rather far-fetched, however it is my deep conviction that art today cannot be viewed independently from the global movements that we witness in different parts of the world. And when I mention the masses, I am insisting on this very dynamic which escapes the logic of closure and representation, which, in other words, is relational. Even photography is not a representation, but a network of relations, something that is very difficult to grasp (no wonder: we are used to dealing with images and to reading them as texts). Photography is just a graphic example of the concrete universal. But if Jeff Wall cannot be understood without Heidegger (a suggestion that initially comes from Michael Fried), well, then I am really sorry for Jeff Wall. For photography itself is no less instructive than Heidegger’s philosophy.

But, of course, Wall is full of allusions and that’s why he tricks the critic into entering the stuffy world of intertextuality. Cindy Sherman, on the other hand, is much more democratic. I will not expand on my own interpretation of her work (I have had a chance to analyze it in terms of a dynamic fetish and its displacements), but I will point out one specific detail: her series are not only untitled (which invites but also rules out various interpretations), they are likewise always addressed to a broad, i.e., non-professional, audience. And the response that they elicit from such viewers is a long way from the ascription of any kind of meaning to her works. Which is to say that before any meaning takes shape, the response is already there (again a “pre-formation”): viewers of her “Untitled Film Stills” responded right away with recognition (a fact that was mentioned by Rosalind Krauss). They recognized something that they had never seen before, namely, stills from non-existent movies. So what is all this about? Recognition of this kind points to the existence of a shared affective space, that of fantasies and dreams (in Sherman’s case they are fantasies of recent history). Its fabric is illusory and fuzzy. But dreams, just like ideas, can well be material forces, implying a dimension of social being that is nothing other than being-together which actualizes itself in this or that specific mode. This space has nothing to do with the true and the false (to be more exact, it is always about the workings of the false), yet somehow it has to do with Kant’s aesthetic judgment, if we remember that it is “universality in abeyance” (universalité en souffrance), to use Jean-François Lyotard’s definition. Indeed, the aesthetic judgment (in its capacity of sensus communis) remains an indeterminate norm, but one that takes account of the mode of representation of all the other men and women. In short, communication as opposed to meaning or, rather, meaning that arises from connectedness itself.

Predictably enough, I would like to support popular entertainment that Nicholas Brown is so scornful of. What the endless TV shows tell us (irrespective of their artistic quality) is that we as viewers belong to a certain environment, and this environment has largely been created by the cinema. In order to understand this new situation, where the viewer—any viewer—completely loses his or her autonomy, it is worthwhile recollecting the French entomologist Roger Caillois and his concept of fascination, i.e., an obsession with space. Analyzing mimicry in the natural world, Caillois makes the following rather stunning observation: some living organisms are tempted by space to such an extent that they lose their individuality, becoming an integral part of their environment. What occurs, in other words, is the obliteration of boundaries between the self and its surroundings. This is just a helpful tip that makes us better understand how cinema produces a new form of sensibility that cannot be overlooked if we still choose to speak of aesthetics. In the same way, sampling in contemporary music, a technological offshoot of bricolage, invites one to consider samples, these specific building blocks, as units of a collective sensibility. (Which, by the way, allows us to apply the conception of the ready-made to a wide gamut of cultural practices.) Generally speaking, the most powerful forms of culture industry (photography, film, popular literature, music, etc.) can be used as instruments for analyzing the present state of affairs, namely, our place and functioning in the global technological community. Provided we give up transcendence, of course.

So, to finish my remarks. I am grateful to Brown for initiating this debate, even if it wasn’t his explicit aim to do so. Here is how I would briefly summarize the differences in our approaches: relationality versus autonomy; collectivity versus individuality; equality versus inequality; action versus contemplation (or interpretation). Today is the time of action. And you, on your side of the globe, certainly know it better than anybody else.

Marina Vishmidt

The Compulsion of Sedimented Form: Aesthetic Autonomy and Culture Industry

Marina Vishmidt

For Adorno, the market existence of an artwork was extraneous; it always came second, analytically speaking. For Nicholas Brown, it is simply an unavoidable parameter, forming its condition of legibility as an artwork; thus, institutional definitions cease to have traction. This is why Brown can pursue an inquiry wholly indebted to Adorno, Kant and Hegel and discuss figures such as Ben Lerner, The Wire, and the White Stripes, a trajectory he has been working on for several years through essays published in this journal and elsewhere. As with those philosophies of the aesthetic, for Brown the stakes of autonomy as a social ontology of art lies nearly exclusively on the side of reception, not production; or, perhaps more to the point, in the nature of the artwork that mediates reception and production. Thus the book juxtaposes one form of immanence with another: the historically unprecedented immanence of the market to artworks may be confronted or suspended when works succeed in realizing an immanent purposiveness, and thereby make their claims to aesthetic autonomy. One of the primary vehicles for this claim, in Brown’s account, is genre, and the significant discussion on this is found in the chapters cited above.

Brown may not be talking about visual art as his referent for “art,” but this is not only to demonstrate that autonomy can extend to artefacts of popular culture, but so can the category of “art,” underlining Burger’s thesis that art and autonomy in modernity are different names for the same thing. Autonomy is the ideological (de-historicized and essentialised) social fact of an exemption from the relations of capitalist production. Precisely because it is a social fact, or, more strongly, a social ontology, it cannot be transcended ethically, strategically or through any variant of “critical practice.” This is a state of affairs whose disavowal has become consensual in contemporary art. But if the modernist commitment to autonomy is revealed as aesthetic ideology, i.e. an imaginary relationship to the real conditions of existence, that doesn’t bring a contemporary commitment to heteronomy any closer to truth. Like modernist autonomy, it’s a productive ideology, with autonomy ever ritually slain by those constituencies of the institution of art that are committed to extending art’s capacities beyond its walls, or re-situating it as yet another managerial “competence” useful in any manner of predicaments. In this regard, it’s to be noted that the emphasis on experience and interaction in art that tends towards “social practice,” as has been critiqued by Claire Bishop and others in recent years, as well as the spectacle economy of “mirror rooms” and ice cream museums, is taken up by Brown as an equation of experience with the heteronomy of the market, with “external contingent compulsion” rather than internally generated meaning – a meaning which is excess to the medium or the institutions that condition it.

One of the more fascinating turns in the argument is its foray into a value-form theory spin on the determination of the artwork’s autonomy as internal law vs external demand. This is sketched out early on in the introduction although not developed elsewhere. Specifically, it is intended as the response to a question that paraphrases, as it were, the question of autonomy: why is the social ontology of art different from the social ontology of all other commodities? The difference is surprisingly simple. Using Marx’s circuits of c-m-c’ and m-c-m’, Brown shows us that in the first circuit, the commodity is an end in itself and its exchange is mediated by money; this corresponds to use-value. In the second, the telos is money, mediated by the commodity, and this corresponds to exchange-value. The difference, however, is set out in affective terms: “What we have arrived at is an entity that embodies, and must seek to compel, conviction and an entity that seeks to provoke interest in its beholder—or, perhaps, all kinds of different interest from different beholders.” (p. 6) Although the gulf here is seen to be an ontological one, the two circuits can also be seen, as they are in Marx, as different moments of the same process, or, as Brown puts it, the same process considered from different standpoints. Such dialectical agility shows the mediating hand of the “systematic dialectic” and the return to Hegel that has pervaded some corners of Anglophone Marxist theory since discussion and translation of the wertkritik publications started to emerge in roughly the past decade, a project that Brown has also been dedicated to (Brown, Larsen, Nilges, Robinson, 2014). What it also does is give a potentially solid Marxist theoretical footing to the book’s orthodoxy vis-à-vis the thinkers of aesthetic autonomy, which is to say, the insistence that the question transpires purely on the side of circulation.

The close readings that comprise the substantive part of the book are each persuasive exercises in “reading for autonomy” as the tracking of internal coherence in art works, whether in the visual arts, novels, television series, or albums, with respect to their participation in the social, historical and formal conditions of their “genre.” The innovativeness of the approach, at heart a classical one, is in the possibilities thrown up by bringing the autonomy thesis out from the hothouse of high modernist art into a much wider field and into the present. Autonomy is thus concerned to show there much life yet in the category and the problems it identifies. At the same time, there is a moment in the epilogue, which vies with the introduction in density and abundance of conceptual energy, where an opening towards a differently articulated notion of autonomy is made. This is the discussion of “purposiveness without purpose” as it reflects on Roberto Schwarz’s renowned essay on Kafka’s Cares of a Family Man, and its uncanny homunculus, the spool-person Odradek. While the character may represent the impossible, phantom underside of the “bourgeois order,” what is more interesting, according to Brown, is its evacuation of the punitive structures of that order: “a lumpenproletariat without hunger and without fear of the police.” (p. 181) As such, the figure of Odradek is an analogue to the “internal, unemphatic other” (Brown) of the artwork, in its purposelessness and its vague menace to all right-thinking. But what if its excess, its negativity were to be followed as worklessness, as the negativity of labour? Neither the dimension of labour as internal negativity to capitalist valorisation, nor the art-adjacent psychology of “human capital” formation, are broached in the version of autonomy as strictly artwork-immanent here. But neither the immanence of the contemporary artwork to the cultural market nor its institutionally underwritten internal coherence can really be grasped when neither producers or consumers—the subjects for such objects—come into the picture. Can an object be autonomous when autonomy as a disposition or a relation becomes unavailable to its viewers, to take up Brown’s contention that market saturation has now engulfed pretty much everything? As Catherine Rottenberg notes, “Human beings are remade as specks of capital so that our relationship to ourselves and others becomes one of capital appreciation. Our relationships are perceived as forms of capital that need to be invested wisely in order to enhance the self’s overall value.” It could be argued that if there is no space left for an autonomy of the subject, the autonomy of the object becomes something akin to a Zen koan. The internal, unemphatic other to capitalist values becomes a talisman of another civilization or spacetime, not ours.


Positioning Autonomy

Fabio Akcelrud Durão

The publication of Autonomy is more important than it may seem at a first sight. Even a superficial reading of it can discern at least two merits, which in and by themselves would already justify attention. The way the book combines theoretical sophistication (at last a literary critic who understands Hegel!) with inventive and rigorous textual analyses is a rarity indeed in our critical climate, marked as it is by that curious division of labor which separates those who theorize but can’t read and those who read but can’t theorize. To this, one should add Nicholas Brown’s astonishing dexterity in not only handling different artistic genres according to their own peculiarities by utilizing the metalanguage they require, but also in putting them in dialogue with each other as they respond to the same interpretative questions; in fact, one of the achievements of the text waiting for further development is to outline a contemporary mini-system of the arts.1 Impressive as they are, however, these qualities don’t touch what is really crucial about the work, namely that autonomy here is not just a topic, theme or subject, but rather something which allows us to delimit a determinate position in the current debate in literary and aesthetic theory. As such it paves the way for promising future elaborations, at the same time that it invites a reconstruction of the recent past as we search for filiations and precursors. In order to avoid any misunderstanding, let’s call this position, not Marxist aesthetics, but Marxist aestheticism: a concern not with what artworks contain, but with what (and how) they are.

When affirmed bluntly, Marxist aestheticism’s main tenet surely sounds like a truism; as an isolated statement, to say that artworks are intransitive entities, that they should be dealt with as objects on their own right and as a result should be considered on their own terms, according to the internal laws they themselves propose—to say all this seems irrefutable enough, but when one goes in the other direction and tries to extract the underlying premises from the sea of contemporary criticism nothing could appear more remote. Without emphasizing it, Brown stages a fight against the whole heritage of structuralism in what it has of most basic, as can be seen in his association of intention with meaning. Each concept deserves to be taken separately: intention has become a swearword and a straw man in literary theory since the New Critics on; it is commonly regarded as a vehicle of presence and metaphysics, but it may very well be that metaphysics actually resides in the eye of the beholder as she situates intention in some impalpable and ethereal real. As Brown observes, “[i]ntention as an event in the mind is inaccessible even to the mind in which it ostensibly occurs. Intention in the current sense, as we shall see in a moment, can be ascribed only by means of close attention to the matter in hand.” (p. 12) It is in the object (as is the attention needed for reading); it need not refer to a preexisting immaterial plan, but can designate the process whereby the author witnesses her work acquiring a life of its own. It is the opposite of imposing signification on the material: a fundamental thrust of intention is to perceive where the work wants to go and allow for it.

As for meaning, it logically derives from the claim to self-legislation. Autonomy as a theoretical position can only make sense in relation to artifacts intended to stand on their own; for those products directed to the market, aiming to sell, interpretation on aesthetics grounds is futile; as Brown points out, they can be studied sociologically or anthropologically, but not as artworks.2 The insistence in the opening chapter of Autonomy that cultural items produced for the market are devoid of meaning will certainly meet fierce opposition from several quarters, for it goes against one of the strongest commonplaces both in academia and the culture sphere at large today, that meaning is itself something available and abundant. Meaning may be hard to be attained, or it may even resist signification in the ineffable etc., but never be simply lacking, just nothing to find there: the frustration is the same as when the consumer feels cheated of a product she acquired. Again, this is a case of de te fabula narrator, because the belief in the ubiquity of meaning, deriving as it does from a semiotic model, either dual as in Saussure or tripartite as in Peirce, not only degrades the concept, levelling down what meaning is and thus foreclosing the differentiation between emphatic and redundant meaning; it also places the interpreter in a quantitative realm (the more meaning the better), inserting her in capitalist mindset of accumulation. In Autonomy, the word “meaning” carries some of the weight of the German Sinn and is reserved for special cases where there is the appearance of something qualitatively different, something unexpected and which is capable of generating new knowledge. Short of that, it’s business as usual.

Another point that goes very much against today’s critical doxa and which is likely to surprise readers is Brown’s defense of the institutions of art in general, but first and foremost of museums. In Autonomy, they are not believed to be neutral or transparent entities, but they are not simply repressive places either. In them one can surely find all kinds of injustice, personal favoring, veiled group discrimination etc., but for all that they represent in the present the only alternative to the logic of the market, notwithstanding all the pressure it exerts. Even for the most questionable decisions concrete grounds must be furnished, at least a relative consensus in the interpretative community must be reached, a minimum of accountability can be expected. As for the obvious role money plays in the art world, an a priori suspicion against institutions helps blur the struggle between public access and privatization forces underlying institutions’ policies. Foucault and Althusser have had harmful influence in this regard, indirectly promoting the market by fostering a general skepticism vis-à-vis institutions.

As an original way of characterizing literature and the arts Marxist aestheticism can be distinguished from current trends in theory today. Let’s take four of them into consideration. The first one, Autonomy’s main target, is expressed by the belief that artworks are commodities like any other. Sometime ago this may have had the flavor of ideological unveiling, but now it is just a commonplace that occasions embarrassing contradictions. If really defended, it would probably result in the closing down of museums and other art institutions, including literature departments, which would lose any basis for legitimation; the fact that this doesn’t happen shows that the equation of the world of art to that of commodities tends to be expressed through an impure belief, an uncomfortable position of “yes, but” or “even so.” The alternative to this—if one doesn’t want to appeal to something external and contingent, as one’s identity traits or traumatic experiences—would be for critics to fully acknowledge art’s commodification and to champion it as cultural or symbolic capital. Again, while the concept might have had some use in the past as it was imported from French sociology, in our current situation it just legitimizes social privilege. In this regard Brown turns the question around and offers an important argument that is useful for the perennial debates on cultural capital, the canon etc.: “The claim of elitism, for example—the class stratification of aesthetic response—accrues to the claim of universal heteronomy rather than to autonomous art. If nothing essential distinguishes between art and nonart, the only distinction left—and some distinction is necessary for the word “art” to have any referent, not mention to populate the institutions that still exist to preserve, transmit and consecrate it—is between expensive art and cheap art, or art whose means of appropriation are expensive or cheap to acquire.” (p. 32) In other words, assuming that art is just cultural capital already situates the person espousing this view in the non- or anti-aesthetic field. De te fabula narratur again: it may very well be that you are more obsessed with money than (with) the work.

The second and third positions can be approached together, for in their contradictoriness they ironically support each other. Politicizers of art need conservative humanists to provide the kind of resistance allowing them to justify their fight, while the latter take advantage of the attacks they suffer as a smoke screen so as not to contrast the values the arts are supposed to embody to what the world has become in reality. The belief that all art is political can also be considered commonplace today, but the perspective of autonomy not only asks if this is the best arena for mobilization and agitation (the revolution starting at the Guggenheim), also maintains that the focus on the message or content of a given artifact necessarily and unavoidably reduces its artifactual character. It is undeniable that works produce all kinds of effects, and that political ones are among the most relevant, but any imputation of finality already establishes a particular kind of reading lenses that subtracts from the work what it can be. Brown’s self-discipline in not taking such potential political effects into consideration (even mentioning that he shouldn’t address them) is remarkable. On the other hand, against conservative humanists, today clearly residual but available for resurrection at any moment, Marxist aestheticism argues that the perspective of autonomy does not refer to a world of values ahistorical or not, but rather is only tenable on the background of the universalization of the commodity form. The same argument can be used to distinguish Marxist aestheticism from North-American deconstruction, which espouses the view that literature and art in the end are only about themselves and about their own impossibility of being understood. Again, autonomy in Brown’s book is firmly grounded in the historical predicament of the total universalization and imposition of the commodity form.3 There is nothing ontological about this: in the past, art’s only imperfect subsumption to the market affected its relation to institutions and the public; in a more equitable world its communicability would change drastically. In sum, now we can see how truly dialectical is Brown’s definition of art as the non-emphatic other of capital: for those considering it sheer merchandise, you have the “other,” while for those demanding political effectiveness, the “non-emphatic.”

As Autonomy points out in its very last page, “[a]rt that wishes to confront capitalism directly, as an opposing force, turns instead into a consumable sign of opposition” (p. 182); this doesn’t mean, however, that art evades politics, only that it has its own peculiar one. Discussing Kafka’s “Worries of a family man” and spurred by Roberto Schwarz’s reading of it, Brown remarks that “[t]he work of art is only a work of art; its self-determination only holds within its own boundaries. It has no emphatic form. But when Kafka brings purposiveness without purpose, the Kantian schema for the work of art, into emphatic non-artistic experience—as can happen only in a work of art—it begins to look like something that threatens the entire edifice on which the family man stands. Odradek threatens not through violence, but through its mere existence: a lumpenproletariat without hunger and without fear of the police.” (p. 181) This passage is exemplary by the way it shows how starting with the assumption of autonomy politics manifests itself in unforeseen manner. It’s an oblique logic, which can already be detected in the claim for art’s “mere existence”: by insisting in being for-itself it calls attention indirectly to the fact that under capitalism the right to exist seems to be dependent on the for-other of the market. Much of the discomfort and the projective effects generated by the assertion of autonomy come from this.

The book presents and develops several interpretative gestures based on the assumption of autonomy. In the first chapter, which treats photography and film, we find “the thematization of narrative as a site of struggle” through “successful attempts to fold the appropriative line from artwork to audience into the immanent structure of the work.” (p. 45) This then is transformed into a question of standpoints, of class positions which a work like Morning Cleaning subsumes into its own form. The second chapter handles the question of experience in literature as it is subjected to a defensive kind of irony, “a structure, in giving experience meaning, undercuts its character as experience”; the novels interpreted “producing the market internally as a risk to be courted, understand the problem of experience as a version of the problem of the market.” (p. 82) Dealing with music, the third chapter discusses the figure of “citation or framing a preexisting text to create a unit of meaning that will be relativized by the ‘objective dynamic of the whole’” (p. 122), for “[c]ited, forms assume meaning as gestures.” (p. 127) Finally, Autonomy closes with an analysis of how genres can be aestheticized on TV; the series The Wire, for instance, “understands genre as a certain structure within which one can move, not as a kind of surface that can be simulated.” (p. 169) These brilliant interpretations are indeed successful inasmuch as they cogently expose and describe compositional procedures whereby artifacts appear as self-determining entities. Yet some questions emerge in the process, which would be worth pursuing:

  1. in this framework, what is the status of critical discourse in the construction of autonomy? What is the character of discovery, does interpretation just unveil forms or does it help produce them?
  2. are there historical constraints regarding the compositional strategies which yield autonomy? Can one speak of a direction for formal development? To take music’s case, how effective can citation be, if the tonal system is not challenged?
  3. in a similar vein, could categories such as genre be obsolete and unusable?
  4. is there a cognitive potential imbedded in these gestures of autonomy? In other words, can only extrapolate them beyond the aesthetic realm and help our understanding of society? Is there a social content to these forms?

And to conclude, a few words on filiation. The three most important precursors to Autonomy are Adorno, Jameson and Roberto Schwarz. The book profits from the work of each of them, while at the same time adding some new and fresh element. From Adorno, who himself draws on a long Marxist tradition, Brown adapts the opposition of art and the commodity; his writing may be not so dialectically dense as Adorno’s, but his malleability, his capacity to speak from the objects is invigorating vis-à-vis a certain Adornian tendency to utilize the same concepts for the reading of different artefacts. From Jameson, Brown inherits an openness to art in a broad horizon, which disdains the separation between high and mass culture as a priori categories, as labels. Some of the insights offered in Autonomy may not be as inventive as Jameson’s, but Brown’s reasoning is more direct and his attachment to an idea of form, more rigorous. This he may have learned from Schwarz, who reads a work as a dog gnaws a bone, but unlike the Brazilian critic Brown is willing to engage in metacommentary and metatheory, contrasting Marxist aestheticism with other critical approaches. At stake in this quite tentative map of influences is less a matter of who does what than how such authors interact in such a way as to make visible a field of thinking, one capable of empowering art in an age when the limits to commodification seem to have disappeared.


1.The flipside of this, however, is that the corpus interpreted is so wide and idiosyncratically chosen, that the reader may have trouble following closely all analyses if she is not familiar with the references.
2.One can also invert the vectors and connect the prevailing anti-autonomy critical climate to the pressure exerted by the proliferation of non-intentional objects, of cultural products on critical thinking.
3. Autonomy here reminds one of Christoph Menken’s discussion of the contradiction between autonomy and sovereignty in his Souveranität der Kunst (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1991), which tries to bridge Adorno and deconstruction. Brown’s grounding of the question of autonomy in the commodity form provides a fruitful adjustment to Menke’s approach.


Things Recognized Without Having Been Seen

Nicholas Brown

In 1894, after Stephen Crane self-published the first version of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (but before publishing the 1896 revised version, preceded by an “Appreciation” by William Dean Howells), and after he published the serialized version (but not yet the book form) of The Red Badge of Courage, there appeared in the New York Times, under Crane’s byline, a peculiar “Interesting Talk with William Dean Howells,” in which Howells’s interlocutor, who cannot be other than Crane if the piece is to be understood as nonfiction, is named simply as “the other man”—which nudges the piece into the register of fiction, and which introduces a degree of ironic distance between Crane and this “other man”’s literary opinions, or perhaps between Crane and this other man’s ambivalent but clearly subaltern relationship to Howells.1 The kinds of questions Crane provokes and means to provoke with this simple shift, questions about why certain words are on the page and not others—the kinds of questions that art has always provoked and despite routine claims to the contrary continues to provoke—cannot arise in the universe that Helen Petrovsky so energetically, and almost coherently, proposes in her critique of Autonomy.

In the ensuing brief dialogue, Crane sets up a series of tactical oppositions between “Howells” and the “other man,” which generates a tension among four terms, one of whose significance is largely implicit. On one side stands Howells’s “realism.” “It is the business of the novel to picture the daily life in the most exact terms possible, with an absolute and clear sense of proportion.” The emphasis is on this last phrase, which insists it is the artist’s duty to “preserve the balances,” to introduce a sense of proportion into lives that lack the proper perspective. On the other side stand genre and the art market. For Howells, genre (in this case, the love story) destroys proportion: “Life began when the hero saw a certain girl, and it ended abruptly when he married her. Love and courtship was not an incident, a part of life—it was the whole of it. […] Do you see the false proportion?” Meanwhile, for the other man but not for Howells, the market is understood to be hostile to Howellsian “realism.” “’I suppose that when a man tries to write “what the people want”—when he tries to reflect the popular desire, it is a bad quarter of an hour for the laws of proportion.’” Finally, Crane’s own writing stands in tension with both sides of this opposition. The market, hospitable to genre, is explicitly where, for the other man, new ambitious work, always dependent on a “man of business” for its circulation, fails to provide “a profitable investment” owing to culture-capitalists’ “divine misapprehension of art” as a commodity. But the alternative involves gatekeepers like Howells, whose hygienic “realism” is directly but implicitly opposed by Crane’s own literary practice, which programmatically dispenses with Howells’s stable, authorial “sense of proportion.” The “other man” appears to worry about a predicted “counter-wave, a flood of [realism’s] other.” But in the terms offered in the dialogue, the counter-wave is Crane.

It is significant, then, that Crane’s next full-length work is a love story, The Third Violet. In it love and courtship form almost the whole of life, but not quite, because the protagonist is a painter on the verge of acquiring a reputation, and in this way vignettes involving his less-successful colleagues and competitors can be interspersed among the chapters. In one of them, as the protagonist conducts some romantico-artistic business down the hall, a colleague known as Grief lampoons the scene he imagines is taking place in the protagonist’s studio. Adopting

a descriptive manner, … with his forefinger [he] indicated various spaces of the wall. “Here is a little thing I did in Brittany. Peasant woman in sabots. This brown spot here is the peasant woman, and those two white things are the sabots. Peasant woman in sabots, don’t you see? Women in Brittany, of course, all wear sabots, you understand. Convenience of the painters. I see you are looking at that little thing I did in Morocco. Ah, you admire it? Well, not so bad—not so bad. Arab smoking pipe, squatting in doorway. This long streak here is the pipe. Clever, you say? Oh, thanks! You are too kind. Well, all Arabs do that, you know. Sole occupation. Convenience of the painters. Now, this little thing here I did in Venice. Grand Canal, you now. Gondolier leaning on his oar. Convenience of the painters.”2

This is what Petrovsky’s “communication as opposed to meaning” looks like: an ideological closed circuit or representational echo chamber, beyond true and false—the painter painting what the beholder expects to see, the beholder understanding the painting because what is depicted there is what was expected. It is an obsessive theme of Crane’s. The Red Badge of Courage is an account of war written entirely out of other accounts of war, and in that sense a version of Grief’s imaginary paintings. But unlike Grief’s imaginary paintings, Red Badge of Courage relentlessly thematizes precisely this fact, and once you become aware that the protagonist is not so much making his way around a theater of war as bouncing around a series of tableaux, Red Badge is surely one of the strangest and anti-realist narratives in the English language. It is not so much beyond true and false as, again in Petrovsky’s words, “about the workings of the false.” This, as we shall see, is something altogether different.

Grief’s ideological closed circuit perfectly describes art that is, once again in Petrovsky’s words, an “echo”—I take it she means her metaphor seriously—of “the movement of social matter itself.3 In societies like ours, what it means to be fully immanent to the movement of social matter itself is to be a commodity; what it means to be a commodity is to respond to a real or imagined demand; what it means to respond to a demand is to produce a pseudo-meaning that is, in Fabio Durão’s terms, “redundant” to, an echo of, the social order itself. “The work of art,” says Petrovsky, “is the echo of a process” or “the configuration of various forces.” So is literally everything else, from tennis balls to sports cars. (It is one of the early insights of the first volume of Capital that a commodity is not a self-evident thing but “a network of relations.”) If a qualitative difference is ruled out, there is perhaps a quantitative difference between Cindy Sherman photographs and tennis balls. But that doesn’t hold water either: commodities that need (like sports cars) to activate existing semiological pathways in order to sell themselves are in that regard no different than cultural commodities, and are probably richer in terms of what they reveal of the “social energies” in play than artworks, which, in trying to produce a meaning that is, however manifold and ambiguous, determinate, are generally less promiscuous in this regard. Crane understood, perhaps not explicitly but perfectly well, the dynamic relating semiotic redundancy to the market. The protagonist’s artist cronies in The Third Violet have colorful names like Grief and Wrinkles. The protagonist himself doesn’t need a nickname, because his name is Hawker.

This detour through Crane suggests that a certain “crisis of representation” pertaining to an understanding of the commodity-character of the artwork is not a new thing associated only with the end of modernist illusions. The ambitious literature that preceded modernism was, as Michael Fried has recently shown, obsessed with the dumb, material aspects of writing, its immanence to “the movement of social matter itself.”4 The explicit awareness of the problem posed by the commodity-character of the artwork is rather the exception than the rule—which does not exclude the possibility of its being the determining instance. But the point I wish to make here is that while the postmodern era clearly registers shifts in both aesthetic and political ideologies of the market—the market and the commodity-form have achieved a hegemony they certainly did not have at the turn of the twentieth century—the end of modernism appears more like the end of a special, brief period when modernist institutions lent artistic production limited protection from the anonymous market, than the world-historical end of art. In The Third Violet, Crane bypasses “realist” gatekeepers like Howells by risking the market. But we have seen that Crane is aware that the market poses its own problems, which he attempts to turn aside by making the love-story genre over into a solution to its own problem in a way that may not have been wholly successful, but will be familiar to readers of Autonomy.

No sensible person would deny that art is immanent “to the movement of social matter itself.” This is what Adorno means by his insistent references to art as a “fait social.”5 But for Adorno (and for me), art has a dual character [Doppelcharakter]: at once brute social fact, and autonomous from all social facts. How can Adorno (or I) sustain this extravagant paradox? It is not difficult. For Adorno, but not for Petrovsky, the work of art is not only a fragment of empirical society, but also “takes up as its object its own relation, as an object, to empirical society.”6 This is not astonishing. To assert “I am a mere speck of capital” is manifestly different from simply being a mere speck of capital. This is what Adorno means (and what I mean) by autonomy. Autonomy is best thought of then as the translation into the aesthetic domain of what Hegel originally meant by “negativity”: the fact not that artworks are free from external circumstances, but that precisely those external circumstances are actively taken up by works of art in ways that are irreducibly normative: in ways, that is, that can be adequate to the matter in hand, or not: right or wrong, just or unjust, plausible or implausible, coherent or incoherent, but not usefully understood as immanent effects of external circumstances, which cannot be subject to judgment.

And I suspect that when push comes to shove—that is, when confronted with an actual work of art—Petrovsky is, like every sensible person, as committed to autonomy as I am. In a particularly dense passage, one in which the categories of truth and falsity appear to be both in play and not, she suggests that people respond to Cindy Sherman’s untitled film stills because in them they “recognize something they had never seen.” This is absolutely right. (I should say briefly that as I was reading Helen’s response I suddenly realized I owed her an unacknowledged, until then forgotten, debt of gratitude: Helen introduced me to Cindy Sherman’s film stills, and convinced me of their greatness, when we taught together twenty years ago). But to recognize something one has never seen is just as much an intentional state as to recognize something that one has seen. It is precisely what happens in aesthetic judgment: it is what the great Brazilian critic Antonio Candido called the “feeling of reality” that sometimes accompanies works of art that are not of an obviously realist type: a recognition of something never before seen that Robert Pippin calls a “sensible-affective marker of truth.”7 Petrovsky would likely disagree strongly with Pippin’s characterization of aesthetic intuition, preferring that the sensible-affective domain remain quarantined from cognitive, intentional operations. But this quarantine cannot be maintained, not even by Petrovsky. Of this sensible-affective space in which things can be recognized without having been seen, Petrovsky remarks, “it is always about the workings of the false.” What could she mean by “about”? An echo is not about what it echoes. To be about something is to take it up in a particular way: to produce a meaning. Crane’s painters’-scene and Cindy Sherman’s untitled film stills are both about the workings of the false, and therein lies their dual character, their moment of autonomy from the false.

At one point Petrovsky claims flatly, as though it were self-evident, that “autonomy is always about individuality.” But autonomy is always, on the contrary, immediately social. Again: merely being a speck of capital is not subject to judgment, but the claim “I am a speck of capital” solicits judgment about whether the claim is true or false, and this distinction is a paraphrase of what is meant by autonomy. When circumstances are actively taken up by consciousness (as they always are), this taking-up becomes subject to judgment. Because such taking-up is active, not a mere registration of circumstances, it could be wrong; because autonomy means an active taking-up, it directly implies a normative field.

What does this look like? Consider a musician studying a page of music. That single page presents hundreds of decisions: subtle shifts in tempo; volume; tone; attack; decay; articulation; intonation; depth, speed, and intensity of vibrato; relation to preceding and succeeding notes; where phrases begin and end and how to make this apparent to a listener; and so on. Many of these her training will make for her so that they aren’t experienced as decisions. Other decisions will be made more or less spontaneously given her prior understanding of the composer, the period, the genre, and the piece. More interesting ones will be resolved after reflection—architectural relationships, for example, might be recognized and means found to emphasize them. Some options, perhaps more interesting still, will simply have to be tested against each other: some will work better than others for reasons that are difficult to express—recognized without having been heard. Some of them won’t work with others that seem more essential, and will have to be considered all over again. All of these look, at a certain purely immediate level, “individual”: our performer is, let’s say, alone with her instrument and a sheet of music in a practice room. But they are at no level individual. Every decision made is an assertion of the rightness of a particular way of playing the piece; every decision rejects other options that are, for reasons that are understood more or less clearly, wrong, or less right. Right and wrong are terms that only have any meaning within a normative field; every decision, then, already posits, as its ground, a normative field. The musician alone in her studio is already a social universe, and that is true of every artist. (And everyone else, too). The claim to autonomy is not the assertion of individuality, but almost the opposite. What looks like “individuality” only has any meaning on the basis of a normative ground, and is therefore always already social.

In the world that Autonomy describes—the one we live in—the accusation of elitism or condescension can get no traction. I don’t know what Petrovsky means by mass society unless it is a euphemism for the market, but the societies we live in are stratified by class, and the reception of artworks—like the reception of everything else—is likewise stratified. But the value of art is no more disqualified by its stratified reception than the value of science is disqualified by its stratified reception. (It is rather class society itself that is disqualified by the stratified reception of art, of science, and of everything else). Insofar as a work of art is just a social fact (the aspect of the artwork’s dual character that Petrovsky acknowledges) then to judge not the stratification itself, but where a work falls on it—what level of cultural commodity it represents, who might buy it or aspire to buying it—is simple snobbery, which can work in any direction but is nothing more than an impotent expression of class hatred. I imagine Petrovsky and I agree on this. But since no work of art can escape its status as a social fact, there can be no prior division of the waters into cultural commodities and artworks. Kitsch, says Adorno, is “a poison that contaminates all art”: no art is immune to a cynical, deflationary interpretation, its reduction to the mere fait social that it also undoubtedly is.8 This being the case, it is the work of interpretation, not class, to uncover the forms by which cultural commodities take up their social world in a substantial way. Condescension lies rather in the idea, counterintuitive to say the least, that interpretation is “the privilege of a chosen few.” Interpretation is simply one of the many things that people do with artworks—and the only of those things that pertains specifically to art. Does Petrovsky really believe, with Schoenberg, that if a work of art is popular it cannot have been understood?

There is much else that I would take issue with in Petrovsky’s characterization of my argument. My scorn for popular culture is clearly nonexistent, and my point was not that you need to understand Heidegger to appreciate Jeff Wall, it was rather that for those who are, contingently but not implausibly for readers of books like Autonomy, familiar with Heidegger and Marx, Wall’s representation of labor looks more Marxist than Heideggerian. (Meanwhile even Heidegger has more to say about absorption and rapture than do bats and crickets). I hope the Crane example makes clear that there was never a question of autonomy’s sudden historical return. Rather, what is at issue is art’s continuing ability, under ever more adverse conditions, to contest the theoretical and ideological assertion of total immanence to commodity culture that is a hallmark of contemporary market absolutism and the source of its hidden identity with post-1968 theory generally—a contestation that recent scholarship is beginning to discover in high postmodernism itself. (This discovery complicates, but does not contradict, the Jamesonian thesis about postmodernism as an aesthetic ideology). But since nobody but me cares about how my book is read, I will conclude my discussion of Petrovsky by turning to the idea that frames her essay, namely the idea that “today is the time of action.”

Petrovksy is surely referring to the nationwide paroxysm of despair, anger, resistance, and reaction that followed the killing at the hands of the police of George Floyd, yet another black man who had committed no crime. The acephalous nature of the protests has not been a strength, as the genuine militants among the protesters quickly came to lament their loss of control over a narrative that by design they never controlled in the first place.9 On the cultural front, the attraction of directly political art was almost too great to resist. Certainly the cultural pages of the mainstream press—and this should already give us pause—could talk of nothing else, even if some of this talk was in bad faith and almost immediately began to hedge its bets. But the urgency of the political moment does not give us permission to stop thinking. The thousands of column-inches in the mainstream and liberal press dutifully explaining to us that the art we need now is the art that pats us on the back for dutifully attending to the art we need now are the precise analog of Grief’s imaginary paintings.10 If the work of art is a commodity like any other—and once again, in societies like ours this claim is entailed in any version of the deflation of art’s “double character”—then there is strictly no difference between a piece of art that decries white privilege and an ad for soap that does the same. They both exist to move product. No doubt consumers of these products feel that their political convictions are ratified in them, but this feeling is just the product being sold. This is not to suggest that works of art can’t take up race in ways that produce new insights into the “workings of the false.” They can and do. But these, by actively taking up the given, conform to the definition of autonomy defended here. The work would have to hold up as a taking-up of the matter of race, and this will be a matter of judgment and therefore disagreement. (Mongane Serote’s Gods of Our Time and Zöe Wicomb’s David’s Story, both brilliant novels, do just this, in the context of the last days of apartheid. But their accounts of the relationship between race and politics don’t just differ; however genially, they contradict each other). The autonomy that art insists on is, in its own realm, the capacity to convert external conditions into matters subject to antagonistic judgments. The autonomy that art insists on is, in the last instance, the same autonomy that makes politics possible: the capacity to take up the present as a field of struggle.

It is on precisely this point that Marina Vischmidt and I perhaps disagree. Vischmidt’s response is admirably lucid about the argument of Autonomy. Whether or not we disagree, other than over quibbles that for the most part will be of no interest to others, is less clear. If her final “if” is meant as a conditional, then there is no disagreement, since the logic she sets out is not only correct but precisely the logic that governs my reading of Ben Lerner’s 10:04. If there is “no space left for an autonomy of the subject,” then the work of art only “becomes a talisman of another civilization or spacetime, not ours.” In that chapter I call this logic “postmodern stoicism,” and suggest that its primary ideological attraction, the rejection of the present—of actually existing interests, constituencies, and institutions—as a field of struggle, characterizes a great deal of contemporary leftish discourse. But Vischmidt’s is a big “if,” and if she intends it to set a boundary condition that pertains to the world we live in, then we disagree. I would then find the origin of our disagreement earlier, in what is otherwise a mere quibble about Vischmidt’s reading of Adorno. Vischmidt suggests that for Adorno “the market existence of an artwork was extraneous; it always came second, analytically speaking.” This suggests that my difference from Adorno is conceptual rather than historical, that for me the commodity character of the artwork is an “unavoidable parameter” rather than a secondary aspect. But as far as the ontology of the artwork is concerned, I think there is very little space between Autonomy and Aesthetic Theory. For both, the work of art is the “determinate negation” of a society saturated with the commodity form.11 For Adorno the autonomous work, “formed according to its own immanent law… silently denounces… a state of affairs that tends toward a society characterized entirely by exchange, in which everything serves some heteronomous purpose [literally, ‘everything is merely for another’: in ihr ist alles nur für anderes].”12 In this regard, Adorno is prescient: the “total exchange-society” that Adorno saw as the secret tendency of societies like ours is, today, the openly avowed ideology of the now-teetering center-right consensus.13 Unlike party activity or union organizing or even voting, the tacit opposition to commodity society represented by the claim to aesthetic autonomy is unemphatic: artworks solicit our judgment as manifold truth claims, but they cannot claim any direct political effect; that is, they cannot claim any political effect that bypasses their submission to our judgment as manifold truth claims. Nevertheless, artworks’ tacit otherness to the commodity has, in societies remade in the image of market absolutism, a far more definite political valence than it did in Adorno’s time. The point of (possible) disagreement with Vischmidt would then be that while I think we agree that the remaking of the subject as a site of capital accumulation is the ideological core of neoliberalism, I think capital accumulation is not a plausible substitution for consciousness, and that as long as something recognizable as consciousness exists, negativity or autonomy will be the basis of whatever meaning, art, and politics there is. This is not to say that claims to total heteronomy don’t make a certain sense in a world where a declining rate of profit forces capital to search out opportunities for exploitation in every nook and cranny of human experience; it is rather to say that as an ideological adjustment to such a world, claims to total heteronomy make sense only as an alibi for complacency, resignation, or for a conformism peculiar to our historical moment: a triumphant defeatism that recasts total capitulation to the logic of capital as the leading edge of enlightened thought.

Fabio Durão’s essay is broadly sympathetic, but perhaps for that reason the most challenging of the three responses. His second, third, and first questions—having to do with aesthetic development, genre, and interpretation—I will regretfully set aside after giving only the briefest sketch of possible answers before trying to respond to his fourth question at more length.

As was suggested above in my response to Petrovsky, the claim to autonomy involves the claim that the ground of judgment is normative. Artworks are not contingently judged and interpreted; they rather solicit judgment and interpretation. That is, they presume a normative field. But this goes all the way down. Normative fields themselves are not reified, fully institutionalized forms, unitary or static facts. Major artistic interventions can render existing modes of judgment obsolete and call for entirely new ones; major critical interventions can reorient a normative field (and less exalted exchanges like this one are, because the participants agree or disagree rather than being similar or different, just as much struggles over what kinds of norms and judgments apply); technical and social developments play a role as well, though one that is always mediated by critical and artistic judgments. As long as (but only as long as) there is relative stability in the kinds of norms and judgments that apply, we can speak of a direction for formal development.

One of my favorite examples, coincidentally arising in Durão’s hometown of Rio de Janeiro, was the neoconcretist movement in Brazil. Its brief, explosive development is understood by its principals to be a proving ground for a set of questions playing out among competing movements in constructivist art about what kind of aesthetic developments count. It is precisely because neoconcretism begins from a stable sense of the questions it responds to that its answers assume, over the course of a decade or so, elegantly dialectical form. The investigation and elaboration of the tonal system obviously takes place not over a decade but over hundreds of years, a period over which momentous changes in the normative grounds on which those developments come to count as significant take place. My sense, however—but Durão is better placed to say than I am—is that there is not even a partial consensus among contemporary composers and critics of erudite music that the tonal system is currently an urgent problem, or even that music is or should be characterized by urgent problems. This ought to be liberating, but my sense is that it is stultifying.

With popular music things stand differently. Genre is relevant to popular music considered as a fait social because popular music is unavoidably mediated by the market, and the market is subdivided by genre. But genre is relevant artistically only because artists have made it so. Let me put it in a deliberately extravagant way. Mahler’s greatest works are, in one way or another, about the antagonism between music as a social, physical, and biological fact—the fact that music is more literally than the other arts a movement of social matter—and music as a source of meaning. Mahler’s setting of “About Beauty,” for example, forces the alto to stumble over her consonants, reminding us that like the inarticulate ape from “The Drinking Song of Earthly Misery,” she is just making noise with her body, earth speaking to earth; that is, not really speaking at all, merely being a speck of earth rather than claiming to be a speck of earth. But this is just what The Song of the Earth is about: by producing a meaning from an impediment to meaning, Mahler turns an admission of physical limitation into the overcoming of it. Mahler’s means are extraordinary, the pinnacle of a certain sequence of historical and musical development. The White Stripes’ means are deliberately ordinary. But what the White Stripes and Mahler share is a certain cunning that is perhaps the better part of genius. You can’t do away with the material determinations of music any more than you can do away with gravity. But you can use gravity to secure a keystone: as Hegel says somewhere in his preliminary attempts at a systematic work, “the broadside of force is turned back by the fine point of cunning.” For the White Stripes, the material determination of music is represented by genre. The White Stripes’ most successful music is inescapably about genre, and in asserting its aboutness abolishes genre as a determining instance, just as through the ruse of the keystone the fact of gravity, which determines the shape of a pile of stones, ceases to determine the cathedral. The availability of genre as a resource for popular music anxious to turn aside the pressure of the commodity-form is contingent on the cunning of artistically ambitious musicians and what they encounter, also contingently, in their exploration of the state of their art—not a fact that is necessarily given in the ontology of music itself.

Now I think I may be in a position to make a useful gesture toward Durão’s first question, about the role of the critic in producing meaning. Strictly speaking, interpretation cannot produce forms, it can only unveil them. But practically speaking this hardly limits the critic at all. If normativity goes all the way down, then there’s not a standard to measure interpretation against, not even when we have supposedly authoritative statements by the artist herself. All we have to measure the interpretation against is what is interpreted, namely the work. It is more or less obvious that authoritative statements are themselves interpretations and can’t be used as a standard for other interpretations. But that’s not the main point, which is that meaning doesn’t lie in the artist, but in the artwork. This gets into thorny questions in the philosophy of action, and I can refer readers elsewhere in this journal for a thorough exploration of the intricacies involved. Stanley Cavell’s solution in “A Matter of Meaning It” is to endorse a picture of intentional action in which intention (and therefore meaning) is immanent to the action; it is a way of describing what the action is, not something that exists outside or prior to the action. So when, as occasionally happens, a really powerful interpretation comes along and revives interest in a work that has been ignored or misunderstood for a hundred years or more, in a certain sense the critic has produced those forms, since nobody else had noticed them before—maybe, in the limit case, not even the artist. (We would have to say then that the artist intended them without noticing them, which seems paradoxical but is in fact completely ordinary—our musician interpreting a page of music will not register every decision as a decision, and neither do we as we go about our lives). But if we are convinced by the critic’s interpretation, what we are convinced of is precisely that she did not produce the forms she outlines, but rather discovered them. We can only agree that an interpretation is powerful (or not) because we have come to see (or have not come to see) what the critic has tried to show us in the work.

This brings us to Durão’s most difficult and interesting question, which bears directly on Petrovsky’s category of what can be recognized without having been seen. This question is underthematized in Autonomy, which is keyed to the Adornian question of the relation of art as such to capitalism. But the Lukácsian side of the question of the being of art—what is it that interpretation reveals?—is just as important, though I only realized it late in the writing of the book. (Here I owe another debt, not only to Fabio but also to his students, including Tauan Tinti, Mariana Toledo, Erivoneide Barros, Elisa Pagan, and Camila Peruchi, who have pressed me on this question and others).

When Hegel proclaimed “end of art,” he meant by it two specific but slightly different things. One is a version of the Hegelian enabling fantasy that emerging bourgeois institutions would, tendentially, render society transparent to itself, and thereby render art superfluous. This didn’t happen and cannot happen in capitalist societies, for which exploitation is not a contingent problem but a constitutive feature. On this level it is clear that Hegel’s end of art falls to the ground along with the fantasy that sustains it. Robert Pippin’s After the Beautiful makes a forceful version of this argument.

But Hegel simultaneously presents a second version of this argument, less emphatically thematized by Pippin, that is also more difficult to dismiss. “If a truth is to be an appropriate matter for art, its own specific character must allow it to be sensuously expressible, and moreover to be, in sensuous form, adequate to itself.”14 The second demand is more stringent than the first. Some mathematical truths can be expressed in sensuous form, but in that form they are not, strictly speaking, mathematical; they are not, in sensuous form, “adequate to themselves” as mathematical truths. For art to have a vocation at all, in other words, it must correspond to some form of knowledge that is not expressed more adequately otherwise. This is why “for artistic interest as much as for artistic production itself, we generally require a kind of liveliness wherein the universal is not available as law and maxim, but rather gives the impression of being inseparable from feeling and sensuous experience.”15

The sentiment is virtually the same one that Lukács expresses a century later, wherein a work “becomes compelling… when it appears… as something not invented [by the artist], but merely discovered”: not, in other words, as an illustration of something already existing in the mind of the artist, but as revealing something present but not yet seen in sensuous experience itself.16 We don’t have Hegel’s exact words, but the closer we look at the words we have, the less certain we are precisely what Hegel means. For example, what I translated as “gives the impression” is the verb wirken, maybe more literally something like “works as,” “does for,” or “passes as.” But is this impression merely an impression, or are certain meanings indeed inseparable from feeling and sensuous experience? Are we dealing with a rhetoric or a form of truth? The whole sense of these pages is that art is for Hegel a mode of presentation, but does not correspond to a mode of truth. The impression of being bound up with sensuous appearances is only, on one hand, an artistic effect or, on the other, a deficit in explicit knowledge. There is, I think, an implicit “yet” in Hegel’s criterion: art has a place where “the universal is not [yet] available as law and maxim.” That is, artistic meaning only attains its highest vocation when, for whatever reason, systematic knowledge of the material has not been attained. Otherwise, the artist merely produces the impression that a certain kind of truth claim emerges from her material rather than from outside it. (Certainly artists strive for this effect, but Hegel’s suggestion seems to be that in the modern period such effects are merely effects and not, as Pippin has it, potentially “sensible-affective markers of truth”). On one hand, systematic knowledge has not yet been achieved, and the aesthetically acquired knowledge will be, eventually if not today, rendered obsolete and merely illustrative by some systematic discipline. On the other, already existing systematic knowledge will have been bypassed in favor of sensuous representation, and we are left with something like a propaedeutic. Neither of these possibilities is, from the standpoint of art’s cognitive dignity, satisfactory.

The problem Hegel alerts us to, one that clearly remains germane today, is that of the normative form taken by knowledge in societies like ours. There is a family resemblance here to the fantasy of Absolute Spirit, but I think not an identity with it. It is not that, in an age that rightly prizes systematic knowledge, the artist is thereby “tempted to bring more thoughts into his work.”

Rather, our whole spiritual formation is such that the artist himself stands within a world thus characterized by reflection, with all that entails. No artist could, merely by resoluteness and force of will, abstract himself from it.17

Art will no doubt continue as decoration, stimulant, soporific, timewaster, and so on; that was never in doubt and was never of any interest. More than this, it will continue to preserve some cognitive dignity as propaedeutic and prolegomenon to systematic knowledge. But as long as systematic knowledge remains our horizon—and let’s hope it does—art’s “highest vocation” would appear to be at an end.

But certain kinds of knowledge are, without being mysteriously untranslatable into systematic knowledge, only directly accessible to us in embodied form. Musical intervals are all simply ratios—expressible as simple, mathematical relationships. When you hear an octave, you might know you are hearing the ratio 2:1, but you do not hear the ratio 2:1. Someone who knows how to recognize an octave can train someone who doesn’t in a minute or two. Neither of them needs to know that they are hearing the ratio 2:1. Crucially: such knowledge is not even helpful to their project of teaching and learning what an octave sounds like.

Beethoven’s violin concerto in D begins with the tympani announcing the key—five beats on D—and the next eight measures center emphatically on D major. But in the tenth measure (about twenty seconds in) the first violins, quiet but exposed, play four beats on D-sharp, echoing the rhythm of the tympani but, apparently, in a completely unrelated key.18 In short order (measure twelve), the violas join the violins in their insistence on D-sharp. The first time you hear the passage (and the later times too) the effect is astonishing; it takes nothing more than the habitual training we all have from living in a world saturated with the western tonal system to recognize that the D-sharp “doesn’t fit,” that it “comes out of nowhere,” or at least from another century—that it seems very distant from the key of D major. After this enigmatic presentation of D-sharp, the orchestra settles comfortably into D, passing dramatically but briefly into D minor (m. 28-42), returning to D major to repeat the theme, then subjecting the theme itself to a parallel modulation into D minor (m. 51-56), with a lovely deceptive cadence that leads, twice, briefly to F (the relative major of D minor) before returning quickly both times to D minor (57-63). In other words, we are for the next emphatically related to the key of D. But in measure 65 (something over two minutes in), the D-sharp pattern returns unexpectedly though not without anticipation in the violins, with the rest of the strings supplying part of a diminished chord underneath it and emerging from the D-sharp pattern to form a chord (an inverted and therefore somewhat veiled A7) that is strongly related to D major—effectively hinting at a place for D-sharp in D major. Over the next five bars, in a dramatic crescendo, Beethoven teaches us where D-sharp fits into D major, first hammering on the D-sharp—the violins literally spelling out the diminished chord it anchors—and then leading us climactically and naturally through an inverted E minor to A7 to D major.19

Now, one can sit down with the score and puzzle all this out, as I have just done, to arrive at a technical understanding of how Beethoven ties D-sharp to D major. But what I want to suggest is that this technical explanation is true, but not—as people who have read the previous paragraph are bound to agree—convincing. “You can bring D-sharp into D major by passing through the related key of E minor” is, on the evidence, true. You can put it in a textbook and use it in other compositions. But the evidence is what you hear, and no amount of technical elaboration would render its translation into propositional language plausible (or for that matter implausible), even though this translation is faithful and in its own way complete. By the time we hear the D-sharp pattern again, accompanying the soloist in measure 111, it sounds almost natural: not because our ears have gotten used to it (the D-sharps in measure ten will sound audacious on subsequent listenings) but because by measure 111 we have been shown what it means and have a sense of where it might be going, even if that knowledge and that sense are things that, in the listening, we do not and perhaps cannot pose explicitly to ourselves. The relationship Beethoven produces between D-sharp and the key of D is of the order of truth that can be, for Petrovsky, recognized without having been seen or heard, or, for Hegel, “in sensuous form, adequate to itself”: the order of truth that pertains to art. Such truths are illegible to a conventionally Spinozist world-view. But not to people who think they subscribe to it—luckily for them.20

Demonstrations of such truth—artworks—call on our knowledge as embodied, worlded, self-positing, social, linguistic, temporal (and so on ad infinitum—in this case, habitually tonal) beings. Such truth claims cannot be made persuasive in propositional form, even though their translation into propositional form need not pose any tremendous problems. Of Romeo and Juliet, Adorno claims that the longing to lose oneself in relation to another stands opposed to social rigidities, a truth “over which to this day the centuries have been powerless.”21 But in propositional form, it is kitsch. Sensuous presentation is in such cases neither prolegomenon nor propaedeutic. Hegel is wrong that, as a universal proposition, “thought and reflection have soared beyond fine art.”22 The “poetry of sensuous representation [Vorstellung]” cannot be universally superseded by “the prose of thinking.”23

Deflationary accounts of art, from the sociology of culture to conventional Spinozism, can only tell us in ever minuter detail or ever more grandiose rhetoric what we knew already, which is that art is a fait social. But what pertains specifically to art is not its social facticity but its active taking-up of social facticity, an activity that stands implicitly against the contemporary ideology of total heteronomy, of the supposed immanence of art to the movement of social matter. Only on the basis of its autonomy can a work of art hold up as presenting something adequate to itself in sensuous form; only on the basis of its autonomy can a work of art bring us to recognize what we have never seen or heard. What is vital in the study of the arts today is “a sort of a counter-wave, a flood of [Spinozism’s] other”: namely the inseparable moments of interpretation and judgment.


4. Stephen Crane, “Fears Realists Must Wait: An Interesting Talk with William Dean Howells,” New York Times (October 28, 1894): 20.
5. Stephen Crane, The Third Violet (New York: Appleton, 1897), 185.
6. Since my use of the word “genre” has caused confusion elsewhere, I will clarify briefly that I am not talking here about genre in the robust, Lukácsian sense of an aesthetic solution to a historical-representational problem. I am speaking of genre as a marketing category. The one may devolve into the other, but they are distinct concepts.
7. See Michael Fried, What Was Literary Impressionism? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2018).
8. Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie [1970] (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003) 351.
9. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, 335.
10. Antonio Candido, “Dialética da malandragem,” Revista do Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros 8 (June 1970), 76. Robert Pippin, After the Beautiful (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 135.
11. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, 239.
12. See Cedric Johnson’s powerful analyses of the current conjuncture, e.g.
13. As Ken Warren puts it elsewhere in this journal, the genre most appropriate to the current cultural climate is personal testimony, which “confer[s] authority on anyone who can attest to certain experiences to speak on behalf of a collectivity presumed to feel exactly the same way.” Kenneth Warren, “The Poetics and Politics of Black Lives Matter,” nonsite (July 21, 2020),
14. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, 335.
15. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, 335.
16. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, 335.
17. G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, vol. 1, Werke vol. 13 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970), 23; Hegel’s Aesthetics, vol. 1, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 9.
18. Hegel, Vorlesungen,25; Aesthetics, 10.
19. Georg Lukács, “Erzählen oder beschreiben?,” in Georg Lukács Werke vol. 4, Essays über Realismus (Neuwied and Berlin: Luchterhand, 1971) 207.
20. Hegel, Vorlesungen, 25; Aesthetics, 11.
21. Ludwig van Beethoven, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 61, in Great Romantic Violin Concertos in Full Score (New York: Dover, 1985), 1-6, reprint from Ludwig van Beethovens Werke, Serie 4: Violine mit Orchester, Nr. 29 (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Hartel, 1862-1865).
23. An example of an unconventional Spinozism would be Donald Davidson’s, which understands the two sides of Spinoza’s dualism not to be reducible to each other, and therefore would be compatible with the dual character of the Adornian artwork.
24. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, 367.
25. Hegel, Vorlesungen, 24; Aesthetics, 10.
26. Hegel, Vorlesungen, 123; Aesthetics, 89.