Articles Issue #35
BY Nicholas BrownMay 10, 2021
BY Nicholas BrownMay 10, 2021
It is obviously tempting to begin with Berger’s Bitch-Goddess. Not to snicker at the appalling metaphor, but to note what is revealed in resorting to metaphor. Marx personified the commodity not to evade characterizing it but to let it speak, and what it had to say was nothing more than the common sense of bourgeois economics: “we only relate to each other as exchange values.”1 Marx recognized that the market is not just a mode of social metabolic exchange but also an ideology: a relationship among people that takes on the fantastic appearance of a relationship among things. That is, capitalism presupposes a peculiar form of normativity, one that is paradoxically free of normative judgments. A commodity is “socially recognized” as having value only when it is exchanged for money; but a purchase is not understood to represent a judgment binding on anyone but the purchaser. One may question the wisdom of a purchase, but that has no relevance to the value of the thing purchased, which is socially recognized at the point of sale.
The value of an artwork is, on the other hand, evidently inherently, subject to dispute. A judgment regarding the quality or importance of an artwork is something about which we can disagree, rather than simply differ, because it is understood as binding on everyone. Insofar as artworks produce disagreement about their value, they solicit a discourse, not a market. But as long as they make their way in a society that appears as an “enormous collection of commodities”—a society in which social recognition takes place by way of exchange—artworks also seek a market.2 Since artworks are, in societies like ours, commodities as well as artworks—since they seek a market as well as solicit a discourse—these two forms of normativity are necessarily in conflict in a way that should be legible in the artworks themselves. Since we are dealing with an inherently antagonistic relationship and therefore a relationship with a history, the history of the arts should bear some determinate and legible relationship to the history of capitalism. What is evaded in the hysterical invocation of the Bitch-Goddess is, then, just what ought to be one of the specific contributions of Marxist criticism.
But what is surprising about “Marxism and Criticism” is not what Fried regards as bad Marxist criticism, but what he regards as good Marxist criticism: specifically, Lukács. Fried has remarked elsewhere that he regards essays written for Arts in 1961–1962, like “Marxism and Criticism,” “as apprentice work.”3 But Lukács is mentioned in a similarly approving way in a more clearly pivotal essay, “Three American Painters,” from 1965: “I am arguing … that something like a dialectic of modernism has in effect been at work in the visual arts for roughly a century now; and by dialectic I mean what is essential in Hegel’s conception of historical progression, as well as that of the young Marx, as expounded in this century by the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács in his great work History and Class Consciousness and by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in numerous books and essays” (AO 217). In Fried’s retrospective account of this period, this conception of a dramatic modernist dialectic is, in turn, ambivalently disavowed: “My invocation of the dialectic and of an ideal of perpetual radical self-criticism implies too simplistic or abstract a model of the evolution of modernist painting as a whole. What excited me at the time was the seeming theoretical sophistication of such a model, which in effect gave dramatic form to certain Hegelian assumptions. … But the sophistication, such as it was, came at too high a price,” and the difficulties associated with it “disappear from my work” after 1965 (AO 17–18).
The disavowal is ambivalent because phrases like “nonreductive modernist dialectic” do not disappear from Fried’s work—indeed, that one comes from the same retrospective essay as the disavowal, in the context of explaining how such a dialectic was an “overall insistence” of the standpoint, not disavowed, elaborated in 1967’s “Art and Objecthood” (AO 45). It is true that Merleau-Ponty’s dialectical value-criterion—“fecundity,” or the availability of a successful navigation of a theoretical or aesthetic tension for the production of new problems and new solutions—appears to present a difficulty when the modernist dialectic is understood to have run aground. But if it is literalism rather than modernism, objecthood rather than art, that represents a dead end—each new work illustrating the spurious infinity of old wine in new bottles rather than producing a new and definite relation among artworks—a space opens for the dialectic to make an unanticipated reappearance. Hegel might have said that in minimalist objecthood, the dialectic according to which artistic meaning is both maintained and threatened by its contingent material support has “forgotten and lost itself” as art. But because it also claims to be art, such literalism remains “inwardly set against itself,” inertly preparing the ground for the reappearance of the dialectic where it is least expected.4 “Well grubbed, old mole!”5 As Fried puts it in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, “issues of the sort … that might have seemed (that did seem, to me as much as to anyone else) quite possibly forever invalidated by the eclipse of high modernism … have returned, may I say dialectically, to the very center of advanced photographic practice.”6 Indeed, a medium-specific auto-critical dialectic is invoked as operating between Thomas Struth and Thomas Demand as lately as the most recent issue of this journal.7
It is likely that what came at too high a price for Fried was not the “seeming theoretical sophistication” of the idea of a self-relating dialectical field, but rather its “dramatic form.” (Grammatically, it is a “model of the evolution of modernist painting” that is abandoned, not the “Hegelian assumptions” to which it gives “dramatic form.”) When I first encountered Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, I worried about what seemed to me to be an evasion of dialectical form. Why not, I thought, put Bernd and Hilla Becher at the beginning, Thomas Demand perhaps at the end, and figure out how each succeeding artist implicitly presents a critique (or fecund use) of the preceding ones? The same worry would apply equally to Fried’s less celebrated What Was Literary Impressionism?, which I will return to in what follows. But what is sidestepped in those two books is not the dialectic itself but its dramatic form: the pressure, sometimes acutely felt in the more unwieldy transitions in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, to convert the basic Hegelian presupposition of the self-critical treatment of some unresolved or unresolvable matter in hand into a (complex, manifold, but for all that formally linear) narrative form.
The fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is dominated by an unmistakable two-bar motto introduced in the third measure and encountered seven more times over the course of the movement: a hymn-like melody (reminiscent of “Abide with Me”) over a mostly hymn-like harmonic structure in Db major that would be functional and straightforward but for the striking substitution, halfway through the first measure, of A major for an expected chord like Bb minor or Gb, a substitution that has no apparent functional relationship to the key of Db.8 In the opening bars this contradiction is felt most intensely on the fourth beat of the third measure, where the tonic Db returns but appears, due to the relation between A major and Db’s parallel minor, as both a resolution into Db minor and the reassertion of Db major, producing an acute dissonance in the cellos. (If the description is opaque what it describes is easy to hear.) Each time the motto appears the movement presents a novel and delightful way of navigating the melodic idea across the contradiction between Db major and A major. But it would be just as true to say that the melody, in finding a way to navigate and thus in a sense resolve the contradiction, has in fact converted a mere difference between two tonalities into a contradiction or tension to be navigated or resolved in the first place. In other words, the same contradiction is, each time, both preserved and overcome.
We are not dealing in this movement with the bad infinity of a theme and variations, but neither are we presented with a relentless forward development. There is, instead, dramatic form. When, after a long interruption, the motto returns three times in relatively quick succession to end the movement, the sense of arrival is palpable. There is even at least an apparent dialectical reversal, as the elaborate pre-climactic sixth iteration is answered by the radical simplification of the final version. When the horns bring A major into the original melody at the motto’s final appearance, there is a sense that the contradiction is resolved and the movement will have said what it has to say about it, bringing the entire symphony to a close. But again, resolving the contradiction can only take place by way of activating the contradiction: the restlessness of the A major substitution has been brought into the melody, not eliminated from it. It is evident, though it would take a far longer analysis to demonstrate it, that a tremendous amount of compositional effort has gone into producing the narrative form of the movement, that the dramatic relationship among the eight iterations is largely (but not entirely) the effect of insistent framing rather than inner development. The originary contradiction is activated from numerous standpoints and moods, but subsequent ones need not be in themselves determinate negations of antecedent ones. This is not to say that the fecundity of the contradiction cannot be exhausted. Or, to exhibit the same possibility in a more positive light: if the tension cannot be resolved once and for all, it can be rendered intelligible to us in a way that seems locally or provisionally sufficient.
The two dialectical modes—call them determinate and indeterminate negation—are unevenly distributed throughout Fried’s work. (There is probably more to be said about that.) From the standpoint of Jacques-Louis David’s Intervention of the Sabine Women, the approach he had taken in Oath of the Horatii just over a decade earlier appears as superseded. But while Rineke Dijkstra’s bathers mobilize facingness and an awareness of the camera, there is no sense in Fried’s interpretation of them that they supersede, negate, or critique Andreas Gursky’s preference for figures that are oblivious to the camera or viewed from behind. One can imagine formulating a claim that Dijkstra’s bathers do in fact represent an advance over some of Gursky’s pictures—a deepening or reduplication of the photographic tension between automatism and intention—but that would be an additional claim, beyond the essentially dialectical one that the two photographers are working in the context of a self-critical normative or institutional field; that both artists are engaged in confronting a problem or contradiction that is understood to be constitutive of photography itself, a “hidden motor” of dialectical development (AO 50). Dialectical movement can be expansive or lateral—even rhizomatic (“well-grubbed”)—as well as determinately directional.9
But if, after a certain point, determinate negation is not to be the dominant dialectical mode in Fried’s work, the unavoidable fact of beginnings and endings poses an unanswered question. Mahler decided his eight iterations were sufficient, and set up his musical narrative so that the last would be understood to answer a question posed by the first. But who decides when literary impressionism has run its course, and why does literary modernism supplant it seemingly from one day to the next? Why does the modernist dialectic in the plastic arts appear for a time to have fizzled out into minimalist heat-death? And what could have prompted the “hidden motor” of the pictorial dialectic to sputter back to life in contemporary art photography? These are historical questions, and Marxist criticism ought to have some answers to them.
But before we look too quickly to Lukács for such answers, we should acknowledge the mild scandal provoked by trying to think Fried, champion of modernism, and Lukács, critic of modernism, together. The most convenient way to do this might be to turn to a work on which they have diametrically opposed judgments, namely Flaubert’s Salammbô. Nobody familiar with Lukács will need to be reminded that he finds in Salammbô “all the tendencies of decline in the historical novel … in concentrated form.”10 Fried’s essay on the novel describes it meanwhile in terms that are for Fried highly admiring: as a “sustained attempt to produce a work of literature … that would be exclusively the product of conscious intention.”11
Despite the opposing valences of the two judgments, it is not clear that they are, as factual claims, contradictory. Both Fried’s and Lukács’s accounts rely on Sainte-Beuve’s contemporary criticisms to provide a kind of baseline of relevant critical observations, the most salient of which is the peculiarity of Flaubert’s choice for his subject a war between Carthage and Tunis. “What do I care,” asks Sainte-Beuve, “about the duel between Tunis and Carthage? Speak to me of the duel between Carthage and Rome, … [in which] the whole of future civilization is at stake …”12 That Flaubert has deliberately set an historical novel in a city that was erased from history in the third Punic War—in a city that, as the critic Albert Thibaudet put it, “figures in classical antiquity as an isolated block, an aerolite”—is apparently viewed by Sainte-Beuve as a kind of inexplicable blunder.13 On Fried’s account, the choice of Carthage allows Flaubert to exercise arbitrarily exact control over each element of the setting, “without regard for the reader’s prior knowledge or habitual assumptions”—an indifference to the reader whose point is emphasized by Fried’s approving citation of Sainte-Beuve’s observation that “All the pain that was involved in writing it, [Flaubert] passes on to us” (FG 122, 132–33). But the edge pivoted toward the reader turns out to be even sharper, as Sainte-Beuve’s concern over the extreme violence of the text is shown to be evidence of “the writer’s determination to subject the reader to his will even to the extent of shocking or disgusting or otherwise disconcerting him or her with his words” (FG 140). This determination is, finally, made all but explicit in the depiction of a besieging army lobbing missiles engraved with letters that “imprinted themselves on the victim’s body; and [of] corpses [on which] insults could be read, like swine, jackal, vermin, and sometimes jokes: ‘catch!’ or ‘I deserved it!”’ “Does it go too far,” asks Fried, “to find in this last sentence an … image of a relation of text to reader that Flaubert in the more sadistic passages in Salammbô aspired to make his own” (FG 141)?
Lukács’s account does not contradict any of this. “It was precisely because of his deep hatred for modern society that [Flaubert] sought, passionately and paradoxically, a world which would in no way resemble it, which would have no connection with it, direct or indirect” (HN 185). The novel’s violence is seen in relation to this hatred on one hand, and to a version of Fried’s liberated artistic will—a “liberation from the fetters” of having to deal with bourgeois reality in its “monotonous flatness” on the other (HN 194). For Fried the “sadistic” relation to the audience is a function of authorial autonomy; for Lukács the assertion of autonomy is of a piece with hatred of the audience. Since a complex intention need not be clearly articulated and internally hierarchized, the two interpretations are versions of one another. Indeed, the only place Lukács and Fried strongly differ in their understanding of the way the novel actually works concerns false notes that Sainte-Beuve finds in the novel’s characterization of its central figures. Fried reads the “psychological ‘unreality’ of the leading characters” as a kind of allegory of the dialectic of will and automatism that the novel itself embodies (FG 124). Lukács finds in it an example of the cardinal sin of the historical novel in its decadent phase, namely “modernization.” Salammbô herself, for example, is said to transpose into ancient Carthage “a heightened image … of the hysterical longings and torments of middle-class girls in large cities” (HN 189). It would take closer analysis than space permits to develop a strong case for one account over the other, but what is striking is that if Lukács is right about the character Salammbô, such unconscious or at least unconsidered or habitual transposition would be an instance of automatism rather than artistic will. That is, it would also be a flaw in Fried’s account. And if Fried is right about the character Salammbô, it would not be evidence of the flaw of “modernization” in Lukács’s account, but rather a sui generis formal decision, if a peculiar one.
My own feeling is that Lukács, who almost always has acute things to say about the failures and flaws of historical novels, has, for reasons we will come to shortly, missed the fact that Salammbô is not an historical novel in any pertinent sense. Flaubert was already aware that in his time the historical novel had become what Lukács calls a “special genre” or “genre in its own right” as opposed to the elevated sense of genre as Lukács generally uses that word to describe a form that arises as adequate to some unprecedented representational project (HN 230, 242). That is, Flaubert encountered the historical novel as a set of preexisting conventions rather than as formal choices arising “organically, by themselves as it were” from the treatment of a particular matter in hand (HN 230–31). Flaubert takes these conventions and fills them with content entirely of his own device, rather as Thomas Demand replaces the indexical trace of the photograph with content of his own facture. The generally salutary critique of “modernization”—a crucial feature of every rotten “historical novel” and pseudo-historical entertainment up to our own time—does not apply to Salammbô.14 Nor does the charge of “exoticism,” which is again usually salutary but here misses Flaubert’s attempt to make the unfamiliar milieu, essentially a genre requirement in the privative sense of Lukács’s “special” genres, into something alive with intention. But the point here is that in this instance where Fried’s and Lukács’s characterizations come into conflict, their criteria do not. What is a flaw on Lukács’s account would also be a flaw on Fried’s, and while Lukács would have been unlikely to have been enthusiastic about Flaubert’s accomplishment in Salammbô had he been alert to it, the “Hegelian assumptions” underlying both Flaubert’s achievement and Fried’s account of it are, as we shall see, closer to Lukács’s than they might appear.
The novelist Anna Seghers, who had known Lukács for many years and was familiar with his essays on realism, continued a dinner conversation with him in a letter in 1938: “At this point I’d like to pose a few straightforward questions. Please reformulate in a precise way just what you understand by the term ‘realism.’”15 Lukács’s reply is long and responds to many of her specific queries and objections, but rather than answering her direct request to define “realism” precisely, he reprises arguments in “Reportage or Portrayal” with which Seghers was apparently already familiar. Readers of Lukács will know, as Seghers does, that while the opposite pole to “realism” is concrete and manifold—including such apparent opposites as symbolism and naturalism, “archaism” and “modernization,” expressionism as a “decadent” form and the existing proletarian novel as a merely “correct” form—what precisely “realism” stands for conceptually is maddeningly difficult to pin down. Realism evidently involves getting something right, but getting something right is not enough to make a novel successful as realism: hence Lukács’s criticism of “correctly conceived” but “rigid” proletarian novels like Willi Bredel’s Maschinenfabrik N&K and Rosenhofstraße (ER 14). Considerable attention should be afforded these criticisms, because—as can be seen from the response to them in Die Linkskurve as well as Anna Seghers’s letters—there is evidently considerable pressure from Lukács’s comrades to approve of these novels. “No,” insists Lukács,
form and content are much more closely related. Their dialectical interplay is—the prominence of class content notwithstanding—much more intimate, complex, and mutually mediating than would allow such a mechanically simple answer to the question [of composition]. (ER 16)
Keeping in mind that Lukács in general intended his criticism not to consign particular artworks to the dustbin, but to correct tendencies that he saw as counterproductive to what he believed was the development of a new revolutionary literature—see, for example, in his response to Seghers, how he defends Lessing’s “unjust” criticism of Corneille—I would suggest that what is essentially defended under the word “realism” is nothing other than the mutual mediation of form and content as comprising the essential immanent criterion of representational integrity (ER 362). What is essentially defended against, in the various tendencies Lukács opposes to “realism,” is any suggestion of an immediate relationship of author or reader to form or content. Such immediacy would always be a kind of performance, in the context of the historical novel a presentation of “special” generic attractions or effects. When Lukács values, for example, “organic” form as we saw above, what he values in the classical historical novel is that new themes appear “by themselves, as it were”—but not, obviously, actually by themselves—from the emergence of a new “feeling” for the motors of history. What is contained in the “as it were” is the value of a generative encounter with a “limiting or productive resistance” in the material itself; in other words, an achieved unity of form and content; in yet other words, an anti-theatricality that is both a rhetoric and the formal precondition for the form of “subjective but universal” judgment that Robert Pippin calls a “sensible-affective marker of truth.”16
As Lukács wrote in “Narrate or Describe”: “A work becomes compelling and universal … not when it appears as an ingenious product of the artist’s virtuosity, but as a natural development; as something not invented, but simply discovered” (ER 213). That is, a work becomes “compelling” when form and content do not legibly resist each other, when the author has produced a form that allows the content to appear as something simply discovered. (The fact that Flaubert insisted that a particular formal choice in Salammbô was made in the name of denying himself “a contrast, that is true; but a facile contrast, a willed and facile contrast”17 shows that Flaubert aims at producing something that, while insistently the product of the artist’s virtuosity and nothing else, would yet not be of interest on account of being the product of some particular will; it would, in a very peculiar way, be compelling because, despite insisting on its own invention, it would still be encountered as though discovered. This is, indeed, the challenge of Salammbô.) One can see how, given Lukács’s restricted idea of appropriate novelistic content—or, more interestingly for us, given an expanded idea of realism—satisfying such a criterion, as a sensible-affective marker of getting something right, could be understood to index something called “realism.” It is precisely when we don’t feel the mutual resistance of form and content that we do feel as though a matter in hand has been encountered as though its presentation was responding to purely immanent demands. As we have seen, what convicts the proletarian realism of Willi Bredel of mere “correctness” just as much as, in Lukács’s view, Flaubert’s Salammbô of “modernization,” is the lack of “intimate, complex, and mutually mediating dialectical interplay” between form and content (ER 16). (The judgment that such interplay is at work in an artwork is, like all aesthetic judgments, normative but not verifiable by comparison with external criteria—it is “subjective but universal.” Such unity is also not properly understood as either identity or harmony. It is nothing other than the judgment that the form is, in some sense, felt to be binding, right.) Beneath Lukács’s varied judgments is a commitment to formal integrity, to the unity of form and content as the artwork’s essential immanent criterion. This is the central thesis of Hegel’s theory of fine art, and I have argued elsewhere that it underlies most of what can consequently be said about works of art as a distinct category of things.18 Establishing exactly in what this unity consists in any particular case, or how it fails, is the work of criticism—which means that agreement on general principles does not necessarily entail unanimity of judgment.
In order to understand what really separates Lukács from Flaubert (and from Fried), we must take care not to modernize Lukács himself. Lukács hoped, in 1931, 1936, or 1938, that his own relation to what he believed was the literature of the future would be analogous to Lessing’s relation to classical realism in Germany. Lukács wanted to clear the way for the great proletarian continuation of bourgeois realism that never quite materialized in the way that he had hoped. No doubt this desire leads to a severe constriction of viewpoint: most cripplingly, a blindness to other than epic content, such that the kinds of unity that pertain to a Kafka or a Joyce were all but invisible to him. When Lukács’s judgment is distorted by this prescriptive desire, it has little to say to us. But it is his own thesis on “the crisis of bourgeois realism” that explains why the epic content he sought was no longer available to writers like Flaubert. In the context of Salammbô, Lukács writes: “while [Flaubert] sincerely hates the capitalist present, his hatred has no roots in the great popular and democratic traditions either of the past or present and therefore has no future perspective” (HN 194). On Lukács’s own account, after 1848, the bourgeois novelist critical of bourgeois culture would, in however mediated a fashion, be acutely and generatively aware of just this lack.
In the section of The Historical Novel titled “The Crisis of Bourgeois Realism,” Lukács argues that European history takes a decisive turn with the defeat of the revolutions of 1848, when, for the first time, the bourgeoisie and proletariat had decisively confronted one another in a battle for hegemony. “For the countries of Western and Central Europe the Revolution of 1848 means a decisive alteration in class groupings and in class attitudes to all important questions of social life” (HN 171). The process is more or less diffuse in different national contexts. “Nonetheless, it is the June battle of the Paris proletariat that produces a decisive change in the bourgeois camp, accelerating to an extraordinary degree the inner process of differentiation which is to transform revolutionary democracy into compromising liberalism.”19 Previously, bourgeois thought had been able to confront its own contradictions in the name of overcoming them as the vanguard class. Henceforth, on Lukács’s account, bourgeois European thought, from philosophy to history to economics to the novel, turns away from confronting historical contradictions—in short, turns away from the dialectic—in favor of an apologetic appropriation of historical data. The fatal flaws Lukács finds in the henceforth “decadent” phase of the historical novel derive from the fundamentally apologetic attitude.
But Lukács’s prime example, Salammbô, does not quite fit the bill. Though written under “historically necessary” conditions of “loss of contact with the not-so-distant classical period of the historical novel,” its attitude toward the bourgeois public is, Lukács and Fried agree, anything but apologetic or accommodating.20 And, as we have seen, the primary exhibit in Lukács’s case for the prosecution—the “modernization” of its central characters—is at best subject to dispute, while the other exhibits (discomfiting violence, hermetic setting, and others) submit readily to other, Friedian interpretations. In short, putting a little more emphasis on the “inner process of differentiation” in the “bourgeois camp,” we can say that there is a bifurcation between, on one hand, the decadence of bourgeois realism and of historical fiction—a decadence that has been continuously in fashion for nearly two centuries—and, on the other, writers like Flaubert. In short, what Lukács identifies as the end of bourgeois realism is also the beginning of modernism.
Lukács was of course aware of this identity: he sees modernism as essentially the same phenomenon as decadent realism, in the hands of writers of a certain integrity and “literary greatness” like Flaubert (HN 185). But we have seen that in Lukács’s own argument, there is a lack of fit between the two, in that the accommodation of art to the new apologetics, the very source of the decadence of the historical novel, is equally inimical to the ambitions of writers like Flaubert. The “historically necessary” loss of contact with the historical novel is not only an ideological weakness, but also the product of a real realignment and hardening of class interests and attitudes. If it is impossible for Flaubert’s politics to have “roots in the great popular and democratic traditions either of the past or present,” we should understand every word of that phrase as important: the “democratic traditions of the past” are those of his own class in its hegemonic-democratic period, from which he has been severed by the events of 1848, and those of the present are of another class and its partisans (HN 194). For Lukács, the “fecundity” of the conquest of reality by the bourgeois novel would only be realized by the proletarian camp. But between the “compromising” attitude of the historical novel in its decadent phase and its hoped-for renewal in a new historical era, there emerges in Lukács’s account an unnamed third term not assimilable to either of these.
Despite his dismissive attitude, then, Lukács touches in these pages on something crucial to the development of modernism. After 1848, just as the standpoint of the bourgeoisie loses its grip on the destiny of the whole, the audience becomes a problem for bourgeois art. A “compelling and universal” unity of form and content is, at that moment and as a consequence of it, qualitatively more difficult to achieve. Why? Anti-theatricality is not a guarantee of formal integrity. Rather, the suggestion of theatricality short-circuits formal integrity and with it the artwork’s immanent criterion, its ability to compel conviction, a “sensible-affective marker of truth.” A work can appeal to me or manipulate me or provoke my interest in any number of ways, but if I am alert to the appeal or the manipulation or the provocation then any possibility of conviction goes out the window. In just what ways I am vigilant about the possibility of being appealed to or manipulated or provoked is a normative matter and historical through and through; what appears successfully anti-theatrical at one moment can appear ludicrously theatrical a decade later. But as long as the beholder is understood as an abstract universal, the artwork need not confront or particularly worry about the facticity of the empirical, literal beholder. The whole point of aesthetic judgment as “subjective but universal” is that it is isolated from the idiosyncrasies of particular beholders. As long as the bourgeoisie can understand itself as standing in for the universal, the class status of the beholder does not insist as a problem or even as relevant to the matter of beholding. After 1848 (so goes Lukács’s argument, though I am drawing out implications he did not and would not have drawn) the bourgeoisie cannot and no longer does understand itself as standing in for the universal—for the suppression of particular interests, represented by the ancien régime, in the name of the general interest. Rather, it is suddenly faced with itself as having particular interests related antagonistically to other interests. Suddenly any coziness or “fit” between work and audience begins to seem theatrical, an appeal to particular interests, assumptions, and prejudices. If the appeal to “subjective but universal” judgment, constitutive of art as such, is to be preserved, then the threat posed to that mode of judgment by the newly insistent particularity of the literal, empirical bourgeois audience becomes a problem to be—sometimes literally—confronted.
Robert Pippin’s After the Beautiful, which does not mention Lukács or the revolutions of 1848, nonetheless concerns just the phenomenon Lukács is grappling with. Pippin’s account of the origins of modernism refers to “new, rapidly changing historical conditions” that pertain to “urban French culture in mid-nineteenth-century Paris,” under which “the possibility of some public, shareable meaning” and therefore also “the possibility of mutuality … between the subject of painting and the beholder” “begin to break down internally and lose their grip.”21 In Lukács, “June 1848” stands for the newly unavoidable fact that the empirical, bourgeois public can no longer plausibly stand in for the universal, and is henceforth a problem for presuppositions about art’s universal address that Hegel had made explicit, and that underlie both Lukács’s and Fried’s criticism. If immanent purposiveness is to function as a non-arbitrary, universal criterion, the potential short-circuit represented by the historically new insistence of arbitrary, particular criteria has to be attended to. This is a direct consequence of Lukács’s characterization of the ideological cleavage that takes place in the European mid-nineteenth century. Lukács’s tragedy—ours too—is that he looked forward to a new era of public intelligibility under the hegemony of a new universal class, an era that did not come to pass in the way he envisioned.
Having neatly assigned a correlation between a world-historical inflection-point and the art-historical rift that separates Manet from his predecessors, or Salammbô from the tradition of Waverly, we now come to the unfortunate fact that this is the only such neat correlation we can expect to find.22 For what is at stake in the newly confrontational relationship between art and its beholders is the autonomy of art from its beholder. As the literary impressionists will shortly discover, the empirical, bourgeois public is best thought of as a market of potential buyers, and the effort to maintain the basic Hegelian presuppositions of art as its own specific domain against the onslaught of the market becomes a new, reduced site of struggle. Henceforth—on my account, not Fried’s—the Friedian beginnings and endings will be immediately related to this antagonism, and an artwork’s relation to the subtending, world-historical struggle between labor and capital will be mediated by this conflict.
This is an ambitious claim, and I will support it here only by setting out a few markers or waypoints.
Fried’s recent, eye-opening What Was Literary Impressionism? reveals the representational dynamic at the heart of the project of literary impressionism—discovers, indeed, that there really was a project of literary impressionism beyond a few rich but contradictory essays by Ford Madox Ford.23 Fried characterizes that dynamic, summarized too briefly here, as involving an acute and discomfiting awareness of the text’s literal support, evidenced particularly by an obsessive thematization of the scene of writing. The awareness is discomfiting because the more insistently the literal support—ink on the page, the manuscript’s indexical trace of the author’s “hand”—asserts itself, the more meaning appears as an epiphenomenon of meaningless processes. What level of explicit consciousness each author maintains toward this tension or contradiction is something Fried leaves open, but it is evidently a source of anxiety, since awareness of it is as emphatically dissimulated as it is relentlessly thematized. Nowhere is this clearer than in Fried’s sublime interpretation of Stephen Crane’s “The Veteran.”24 By the time we get to this climactic reading (from an earlier essay, but investigating the same phenomenon) Fried no longer even has to perform the interpretation for us: we see the hero’s “spirit” swarming upward in a funnel of smoke that rises from a burning barn as the material, downward-facing nib of a pen, dipped in the “little bottle” of the man’s body and “tinted” from the flames. It can be seen readily enough that as soon as the story is seen as emanating from the tip of Crane’s pen the official (and blatant) “meaning” of the story comes under almost unbearable pressure—the events of the story just deliver the arbitrary “meaning” that Crane, for whatever reason, saw fit to put there. But nowhere does this awareness quite breach the narrative surface as such, where we are dealing only with a man dying heroically in a barn fire.25
On Fried’s account literary impressionism extends roughly from 1890 to 1914, but he is nearly silent on the question of its relation to “broader cultural or sociohistorical considerations” that might explain its appearance and disappearance (LI 25). Any direct correlation—Fried mentions advertising and typewriters—would be of limited interest, and that goes equally for something like “the rise of a market … for short fiction” as long as we are still talking about immediate correlations (LI 25). But if Crane thought of the market in literary goods as a problem—if, that is, the relationship of art to market is taken on as a problem by works of art themselves, as an unavoidable threat to meaning that had to be confronted and overcome in the work itself—then we are on more substantial critical terrain altogether. And in fact Crane was obsessed by the ideological closed circuit he evidently understood to be entailed in the fact of a market in cultural goods: audience expectations determining what artists produce, reinforcing in turn what audiences expect: “Here is a little thing I did in Brittany. Peasant woman in sabots. … [T]hose two white things are the sabots. … Women in Brittany, of course, all wear sabots, you understand. Convenience of the painters.”26
The unavoidable fact of a market for works of art, the scandalous mode of their literal circulation in societies like ours—also clearly thematized in The Inheritors, a collaboration of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad—is the instance of literality that fuels the “hidden motor” of impressionist thematization and suppression of the artwork’s literal support. Flaubert’s problematization of the novel’s audience is an early version of Crane’s and Ford’s/Conrad’s concern with the circulation of artworks, the essence of which is no longer the historical “hatred” of bourgeois culture, but an anxiety attaching to literalness itself, which can however only be a problem on Flaubertian grounds: that is, if the circulation of artworks is understood in its literal aspect, involving individuals with special interests, prejudices, and expectations, and who cannot therefore take the place of the universal. The problem of genre—using that word to signify Lukács’s “special genre”—occupies the impressionists generally, perhaps Conrad more than any. This too is a version of the problem of the market: publishing in Maga requires attentiveness to genre in a way that must also be emphatically set aside as determining the meaning of the work. (For those already on board with Fried’s heterodox interpretation of literary impressionism, it is worth noting Ford Madox Ford’s probably exaggerated claim that between them he and Conrad had Madame Bovary by heart. Crucially, Ford claimed that he and Conrad would take turns reciting it—suggesting that they were alive to just the issues that Fried highlights in his essay on Madame Bovary, and further suggesting that at some level they were aware that the formal problems they confronted were versions of the ones Flaubert had contended with.)
Fried’s What Was Literary Impressionism? ends twice, both times in modernism. Most dramatically, Fried cites Ford Madox Ford’s recollection of a confrontation with Wyndham Lewis, who, on Ford’s account, understood impressionism perfectly and was perfectly assured that his journal BLAST would, in 1914, put an end to it. Ford himself had found it necessary to found The English Review six years earlier, so the emergence of the modernist independent journals and small presses cannot be simply understood as a causal factor in the eclipse of literary impressionism. But it is clear that publishing in an independent literary journal controlled by himself mattered for Lewis as it did not for Ford—and that meant that the artwork’s literal circulation presented a problem for Ford in a way that it did not for Lewis. The attraction of BLAST for Lewis has almost nothing to do, in other words, with what in other contexts would be described as ownership of the means of production. BLAST was not meant to, and certainly did not, make a profit for its editor-owner, and the artistic labor of the artists we are talking about was never alienated in the Marxian sense. Rather, what is at stake is the construction of what Pierre Bourdieu called a “restricted field,” a semi-institutionalized public of practitioners, critics, experts, and insiders. This public is, by design, yet more particular than the anonymous market of particulars that it replaces. The anonymous market represents the aggregate of multiple interests, but the restricted field represents just a single interest, namely a stake in the state of the art. The whole point of this substitution is that because membership in this restricted public is constituted on the basis of the one interest that is pertinent, its judgment can stand in for universal judgment. The contradiction embodied in audience expectations and especially in the market for art—particular, non-normative judgments confronting an object that calls for universal or normative judgment—disappears at a stroke.
Fried shows how thoroughly and gleefully the first generation of modernist writers in English put paid to the impressionist dynamic. Virginia Woolf begins Jacob’s Room—the first novel she published, in 1922, with Hogarth Press, owned by herself and Leonard Woolf—with a bravura staging of the scene of writing. Betty Flanders is writing a letter. Pale blue ink mingles on the page with tears and with the pale blue shadow of her son. A period turns into a “horrid blot” of ink, and then is ignored and a sentence continued: in other words, a period that is also a horrid blot is turned into simply a literal blot.27 But these impressionist effects are brutally quarantined: they pertain only to the scene of writing letters, which circulate between people and which one way or another contain the indexical traces of their writers—perfume on one, bad spelling in another.28 But all this—“the sheet that perishes” while circulating among particulars—has nothing to do with the book in our hands, “the sheet that endures” by soliciting the judgment of the universal.29 (It is worth noting how precisely this division corresponds to Gertrude Stein’s distinction, native to a later moment in which impressionist effects were no longer a live concern, between “masterpieces” on one hand and “letter writing” on the other.30 Conversation, letter-writing, oratory, even “writing for strangers,” in other words for the anonymous market, are all communication among particulars, “you as your little dog knows you,” and “the second you are you because your little dog knows you cannot make a masterpiece and that is all of that.”31 )
Joyce’s Ulysses, too—published in book form, also in 1922, by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company—begins with a panoply of impressionist effects thematizing and suppressing the scene of writing. The suppressed awareness of James Joyce as the writer who is in some sense also the character Stephen Dedalus pervades the early episodes. To take just one example: Stephen walks on a presumably gravel or marl pathway, “trailing his ashplant by his side. Its ferrule followed lightly on the path, squealing at his heels. My familiar, after me, calling Steeeeeeeeeeeephen. A wavering line along the path.”32 A clearer identification of Stephen with the literal writer of the “wavering line” of the text of the passage would be hard to make, and yet it is also, except perhaps for the otherwise unexplained wavering, absorbed transparently into the texture of the story. This is in line with what Conrad’s procedure had been in Victory. As Fried remarks of a bullet wound that closes that book’s plotline, “A little black hole—a period or full stop is all Jones’s writing comes to. But it’s enough to bring the book almost to its conclusion” (LI 311). On one hand, for those attentive to impressionist procedures, the bullet wound is a period, a sign of the literal author’s agency. But the wound is, in the narrative, also just a bullet wound: from that standpoint, the audacity of the gesture simply disappears. The “Ithaca” episode that brings Bloom’s narrative in Ulysses to a close ends, famously, with an oversized period. (The serialization of Ulysses ended partway through the “Oxen of the Sun” episode—in other words, the entire “Ithaca” episode belongs to the final interval of intense writing and revision before the novel’s publication in book form.) Even on a first approach, the unproblematic emphasis on the literalness of the black dot is of a completely different character than the thematized and suppressed period in Victory. (Joyce’s instructions to the printer ask for a “point bien visible” and later insist that “le point doit être plus visible.”33 ) A great deal of interpretive energy has gone into re-integrating the oversized period into the narrative: the dot represents Bloom’s loss of consciousness, or Molly’s anus, or something. But Ulysses asks us—literally—to do exactly the opposite. In terms of the logic of the episode, which consists of a series of questions and answers, the dot is the answer to a question. And the question is “Where?”34 The answer: an oversized dot, a literal point: right here. As Joyce puts it, again in instructions to the printer, “La réponse à la dernière demande est un point.”35 Everything that takes place takes place only as a depiction, in this literal object you are holding in your hands.36
The point is not at all that literary modernism imagines that it does away with its literal support: Woolf quarantines its relevance to letters, Joyce makes it a central feature of the final version of Ulysses, and Stein dismisses it as unavoidable but simply irrelevant to the question of masterpieces. The point is rather that modernism does away with literalness as a source of anxiety: all of these modernist thematizations of the literal are accomplished in plain sight. Given what immediately precedes it in literary history, the sudden confidence with which the literal support is acknowledged is astonishing, and I am suggesting that this is in large part because, for those artists for whom writing for a restricted field matters, it matters because the literal circulation of the work no longer activates an antagonism between incompatible modes of judgment, between the particularity of market pseudo-judgments and the call for universal judgment that makes an artwork an artwork.
Modernism ends where restricted fields end—again, not as an empirical matter, as though you could say on or around December 1967, restricted fields ceased to exist—but as a normative presupposition. Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” describes this moment from the interior of the development of modernist painting, as a war between modernism and a theatrical development arising from an interpretation of that same modernism. It is characteristic of such crisis moments that one and the same development can be described equally well as responding to pressures internal to the aesthetic field or external to it. The aspiration “not to defeat or suspend its own objecthood, but on the contrary to discover and project objecthood as such” is, at the same time, an insistence on the part of the literalist work that it does not attempt to compel conviction but rather solicits interest (AO 151). It is, therefore, at the same time, an insistence that the mode of judgment appropriate to it is the mode of judgment we bring to goods at market rather than the mode of judgment we bring to works of art. Fried writes:
What has compelled modernist painting to defeat or suspend its own objecthood is not just developments internal to itself, but the same general, enveloping, infectious theatricality that corrupted literalist sensibility in the first place and in the grip of which … modernist painting in general [is] seen as nothing more than an uncompelling and presenceless kind of theater. (AO 161)
All that remains to be said is that this “general, enveloping, infectious theatricality” is nothing other than the ever-encroaching hegemony of the commodity form, the appeal to particular interests that Flaubertian modernism, literary impressionism, and high modernism had all sought in different ways and under different historical circumstances to defeat.
The advance of the commodity-form cannot, on the left at mid-century, be championed by name: but it is championed nonetheless by way of its complement, namely the critique of institutions that had spoken in the name of the universal. Doubtless institutions do speak in the name of the universal while hiding particular interests. That is what some of us mean when we speak of “white institutions” even when that designation makes no literal sense. But in societies like ours, outside of institutions there are only markets. It is as a response to this situation that the metafictional and autofictional aspects of postmodernism in literature are to be understood, hiding as they do an essentially literary-impressionist problematic and, in the context of a hypertrophied repetition of the pre-modernist exposure to the market, a kind of dialectical inversion of impressionism’s solution to it. The literal character of narrative is openly acknowledged, sometimes with a hysterical kind of pleasure; it is its power to compel conviction, to hold as narrative, that is both desired and repressed. Be that as it may, I think it is clear that the last drop of intellectual energy and genuine political engagement has long been squeezed from the anti-institutional position. Whether it is found on the right or on the “left,” all that remains of the spirit of 1968 is narcissism, mimetic contagion, and bad faith. Outside of institutions, there is only theater.
It is no coincidence that the bankruptcy of anti-institutional theatricality becomes apparent to all at the very moment that it becomes ubiquitous and virtually without structured opposition. We might call this moment of unstable equilibrium “late postmodernity,” and it is at this moment, the very moment when the pictorial dynamic makes a dramatic return in art photography, that the radical origins of the idealist philosophy of fine art become—may I say dialectically—relevant in a new way.
The production of the concept of art as we know it—the sequence that runs from Kant’s Critique of Judgment to Hegel’s lectures on fine art—is intimately related to the invention of politics as we know it in the French Revolution. The Idealist understanding of consciousness as an active principle in a world not of its own choosing is both an attempt to account for the irruption of mass politics—of the appearance in history of the latently democratic power of consciousness—and a partisan endorsement of it within the field of philosophy. Hegel’s theory of art as a manifold truth claim addressed to all, whose immanent criterion is the absolute intermediation of form and content, arises directly from this conception, and from the revolutionary moment that engendered it. It is reasonable in 1931, 1936, or 1938 to see the retreat of the utopian aspirations of the revolutionary bourgeoisie into the limited and powerless liberated territory of art at the middle of the nineteenth century as a tragic, pathetic, or even culpable capitulation, a version of Hegel’s “beautiful soul”: as Lukács saw it in Flaubert, as a decadent and futile dissent. (It is also reasonable to regard Illusions Perdues as a greater accomplishment than Salammbô or even Madame Bovary.) Flaubert’s impotent “hatred” of bourgeois culture is, in its moment, separated from Lukács’s Marxism by an historical and political gulf.
But the historical sequence on which Lukács wagered everything did not play out the way he had hoped, and the closing of that sequence resulted in a capitalist offensive fought, by its end, against all forms of universality and organized solidarity. Market absolutism and its loyal opposition have shown us that an organized working class and the Hegelian concept of art—the core of any new political Marxism, the core of any new artistic modernism—maintain, almost two hundred years after their separation, something essential in common. Both are redoubts of futurity; the former a bulwark against the violence of the labor market, the latter a bulwark against the violence of the culture market. Well grubbed, old mole!