Monday Night 07.26.04 -- Brecht / Lukacs / Benjamin -- MASS MoCA Series -- 07.23.04
Monday Night 07.26.04 -- Brecht/Lukacs/Benjamin -- MASS MoCA Series
1. About this Monday
2. Download the Reading
3. Excerpt from text on Cultural Marxism
4. About the MASS MoCA Series
1. About this Monday
What: A reading/discussion of Brecht/Benjamin
Who: Anyone interested is invited
When: 7.00 pm,
Where: 16 Beaver Street 5th floor
Before we begin with a short description of this week's discussion, we wanted to just thank all those who came to last week's discussion. And we hope to see many of you again this Monday.
We also wanted to call your attention to some supplemental material Greg Sholette sent which has links to additional writings of his which may be of interest. Please visit:
We have yet to draft up a "proper" introduction for Monday's discussion, but wanted to post the readings so that people had a chance to look them over this weekend.
What is included:
1. A short introduction situating the debates by Jameson
2. Brecht against Lukacs
3. Benjamin on Brecht.
These texts are a part of a collection assembled by Frederic Jameson in a book entitled, “Aesthetics and Politics” published by Verso and available at most bookstores.
2. Download the reading
We have two versions of the reading.
3. Excerpt from text on Cultural Marxism
For those who would like a brief overview of Cultural Marxism, there are a number of choices available online, ... as in most overviews, they miss all of the nuances which is precisely why we are reading the texts linked above, nevertheless, an overview like the one below may be helpful in situating the reading within a wider scope.
Please note: this is an excerpt, the entire text is available on Mr. Kellner's own website.
Cultural Marxism and Cultural Studies
by Douglas Kellner
Many different versions of cultural studies have emerged in the past decades. While during its dramatic period of global expansion in the 1980s and 1990s, cultural studies was often identified with the approach to culture and society developed by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England, their sociological, materialist, and political approaches to culture had predecessors in a number of currents of cultural Marxism. Many 20th century Marxian theorists ranging from Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and T.W. Adorno to Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton employed the Marxian theory to analyze cultural forms in relation to their production, their imbrications with society and history, and their impact and influences on audiences and social life. Traditions of cultural Marxism are thus important to the trajectory of cultural studies and to understanding its various types and forms in the present age.
The Rise of Cultural Marxism
Marx and Engels rarely wrote in much detail on the cultural phenomena that they tended to mention in passing. Marx's notebooks have some references to the novels of Eugene Sue and popular media, the English and foreign press, and in his 1857-1858 "outline of political economy," he refers to Homer's work as expressing the infancy of the human species, as if cultural texts were importantly related to social and historical development. The economic base of society for Marx and Engels consisted of the forces and relations of production in which culture and ideology are constructed to help secure the dominance of ruling social groups. This influential "base/superstructure" model considers the economy the base, or foundation, of society, and cultural, legal, political, and additional forms of life are conceived as "superstructures" which grow out of and serve to reproduce the economic base.
In general, for a Marxian approach, cultural forms always emerge in specific historical situations, serving particular socio-economic interests and carrying out important social functions. For Marx and Engels, the cultural ideas of an epoch serve the interests of the ruling class, providing ideologies that legitimate class domination. "Ideology" is a critical term for Marxian analysis that describes how dominant ideas of a given class promote the interests of that class and help cover over oppression, injustices, and negative aspects of a given society. On their analysis, during the feudal period, ideas of piety, honor, valor, and military chivalry were the ruling ideas of the hegemonic aristocratic classes. During the capitalist era, values of individualism, profit, competition, and the market became dominant, articulating the ideology of the new bourgeois class that was consolidating its class power. Ideologies appear natural, they seem to be common sense, and are thus often invisible and elude criticism.
Marx and Engels began a critique of ideology, attempting to show how ruling ideas reproduce dominant societal interests serving to naturalize, idealize, and legitimate the existing society and its institutions and values. In a competitive and atomistic capitalist society, it appears natural to assert that human beings are primarily self-interested and competitive by nature, just as in a communist society it is natural to assert that people are cooperative by nature. In fact, human beings and societies are extremely complex and contradictory, but ideology smoothes over contradictions, conflicts and negative features, idealizing human or social traits like individuality and competition which are elevated into governing conceptions and values.
Many later cultural Marxists would develop these ideas, although they tended to ascribe more autonomy and import to culture than in classical Marxism. While Marx's writings abound with literary reference and figures, he never developed sustained models of cultural analysis. Instead, Marx focused his intellectual and political energies on analyzing the capitalist mode of production, current economic developments and political struggles, and vicissitudes of the world market and modern societies now theorized as "globalization" and "modernity."
The second generation of classical Marxists ranging from German Social Democrats and radicals to Russian Marxists focused even more narrowly on economics and politics. Marxism became the official doctrine of many European working class movements and was thus tied to requirements of the political struggles of the day from Marx's death in 1883 and into the twentieth century.
A generation of Marxists, however, began turning concentrated attention to cultural phenomena in the 1920s. Perry Anderson (1976) interprets the turn from economic and political analysis to cultural theory as a symptom of the defeat of Western Marxism after the crushing of the European revolutionary movements of the 1920s and the rise of fascism. In addition, theorists like Lukacs, Benjamin, and Adorno, who instituted a mode of Marxist cultural analysis, were intellectuals who had deep and abiding interest in cultural phenomena.
The Hungarian cultural critic Georg Lukacs wrote important books like Soul and Form (1900) and Theory of the Novel (1910) before he converted to Marxism and briefly participated in the Hungarian revolution. The ultra-Marxist Lukacs of the early 1920s intently developed philosophical and political dimensions of Marxism before returning to cultural analysis later in the 1920s. In Russia, exile, he withdrew internally from Stalinism, while working on a series of literary texts that have underappreciated importance for cultural studies.
Lukacs' Theory of the Novel connects the rise of the European novel to the emergence and triumph of the bourgeoisie and capitalism. Its highly-delineated individual protagonists corresponded to the individualism promoted by bourgeois society and the lessons learned in the course of the characters' experiences often conveyed useful instruction, reproducing the ideology of bourgeois society. For Lukacs, literary forms, characters, and content must all be interpreted as articulations of historical contexts in which narrative itself takes on diverse forms and functions in dissimilar environments. His important contributions for cultural studies in this regard constitutes a resolute historicizing of the categories of cultural form and analysis, as well as reading cultural texts within a specific historical milieu and using the interpretations of texts to illuminate in turn their historical setting.
Lukacs' early historicist cultural studies were enriched in the 1920s in his turn to Marxism in which he used theories of the mode of production, class and class conflict, and Marx's analysis of capital to provide economic grounding for his socio-cultural analysis. History now was constructed by a mediation of economy and society and cultural forms are understood in their relation to socio-historical development within a mode of production, while cultural forms, properly interpreted, illuminate their historical circumstances. Thus, Lukacs' readings of Balzac, Zola, Thomas Mann, Kafka, and other writers provide models of how to read and analyze critical texts in specific socio-historical situations.
Lukacs' prescriptive aesthetic valorized critical (and socialist) realism as the model for progressive art and assaulted modernist aesthetics, a position that was strongly rejected by subsequent Western Marxists from the Frankfurt School through British cultural studies. The late Lukacs also turned to more dogmatic political forms of Marxian ideology critique and formally renounced his earlier utopianism that saw literature as a mode of reconciliation between individuals and the world and art as a way of overcoming alienation.
Ernst Bloch, by contrast, stressed the utopian dimensions of Western culture and the ways that cultural texts encoded yearnings for a better world and a transformed society. Bloch's hermeneutic approach to Western culture looked for visions of a better life in cultural artifacts from the texts of Homer and the Bible to modern advertising and department store show-case displays (1986). This utopian impulse contributes to cultural studies a challenge to articulate how culture provides alternatives to the existing world and images, ideas, and narratives that can promote individual emancipation and social transformation, perspectives that would deeply inform the Frankfurt School and contemporary theorists like Fredric Jameson.
For the Italian Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci, the ruling intellectual and cultural forces of the era constitute a form of hegemony, or domination by ideas and cultural forms that induce consent to the rule of the leading groups in a society. Gramsci argued that the unity of prevailing groups is usually created through the state (as in the American revolution, or unification of Italy in the 19th century), the institutions of "civil society" also play a role in establishing hegemony. Civil society, in this discourse, involves institutions of the church, schooling, the media and forms of popular culture, among others. It mediates between the private sphere of personal economic interests and the family and the public authority of the state, serving as the locus of what Habermas described as "the public sphere."
In Gramsci's conception, societies maintained their stability through a combination of "domination," or force, and "hegemony," defined as consent to "intellectual and moral leadership." Thus, social orders are founded and reproduced with some institutions and groups violently exerting power and domination to maintain social boundaries and rules (i.e. the police, military, vigilante groups, etc.), while other institutions (like religion, schooling, or the media) induce consent to the dominant order through establishing the hegemony, or ideological dominance, of a distinctive type of social order (i.e. market capitalism, fascism, communism, and so on). In addition, societies establish the hegemony of males and dominant races through the institutionalizing of male supremacy or the rule of a governing race or ethnicity over subordinate groups.
Gramsci's key example in his Prison Notebooks (1971) is Italian fascism that supplanted the previous liberal bourgeois regime in Italy through its control of the state and exerted, often repressive, influence over schooling, the media, and other cultural, social, and political institutions. Hegemony theory for Gramsci involves both analysis of constitutive forces of domination and the ways that particular political forces achieved hegemonic authority, and the delineation of counterhegemonic forces, groups, and ideas that could contest and overthrow the existing hegemony. An analysis, for instance, of how the regimes of Margaret Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s won power would dissect how conservative groups gained dominance through control of the state, and the use of media, new technologies, and cultural institutions such as think tanks and fund-raising and political action groups. Explaining the Thatcher-Reagan hegemony of the 1980s would require analysis of how rightist ideas became dominant in the media, schools, and culture at large. It would discuss how on a global level the market rather than the state was seen as the source of all wealth and solution to social problems, while the state was pictured as a source of excessive taxation, overregulation, and bureaucratic inertia.
Gramsci defined ideology as the ruling ideas which present the "social cement" that unifies and holds together the established social order. He described his own "philosophy of praxis" as a mode of thought opposed to ideology, which includes, among other things, a critical analysis of ruling ideas. In "Cultural Themes: Ideological Material" (1985), Gramsci notes that in his day the press was the dominant instrument of producing ideological legitimation of the existing institutions and social order, but that many other institutions such as the church, schools, and different associations and groups also played a role. He called for sustained critique of these institutions and the ideologies that legitimate them, accompanied by creation of counter institutions and ideas that would produce alternatives to the existing system.
Gramsci's critique of the dominant mode of culture and media would be taken up by the Frankfurt School and British cultural studies providing many valuable tools for cultural criticism. The concepts of ideology and utopia and historical-materialist cultural analysis developed by Lukacs and Bloch, influenced the trajectory of Frankfurt School cultural studies.
The work of the Frankfurt School provided what Paul Lazarsfeld (1942), one of the originators of modern communications studies, called a critical approach, which he distinguished from the "administrative research." The positions of Adorno, Lowenthal, and other members of the inner circle of the Institute for Social Research were contested by Walter Benjamin, an idiosyncratic theorist loosely affiliated with the Institute. Benjamin, writing in Paris during the 1930s, discerned progressive aspects in new technologies of cultural production such as photography, film, and radio. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1969), Benjamin noted how new mass media were supplanting older forms of culture whereby the mass reproduction of photography, film, recordings, and publications replaced the emphasis on the originality and "aura" of the work of art in an earlier era. Freed from the mystification of high culture, Benjamin believed that media culture could cultivate more critical individuals able to judge and analyze their culture, just as sports fans could dissect and evaluate athletic activities. In addition, processing the rush of images of cinema created, Benjamin believed, subjectivities better able to parry and comprehend the flux and turbulence of experience in industrialized, urbanized societies.
Himself a collaborator of the prolific German artist Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin worked with Brecht on films, created radio plays, and attempted to utilize the media as organs of social progress. In the essay "The Artist as Producer" (1999 ), Benjamin argued that progressive cultural creators should "refunction" the apparatus of cultural production, turning theater and film, for instance, into a forum of political enlightenment and discussion rather than a medium of "culinary" audience pleasure. Both Brecht and Benjamin wrote radio plays and were interested in film as an instrument of progressive social change. In an essay on radio theory, Brecht anticipated the Internet in his call for reconstructing the apparatus of broadcasting from one-way transmission to a more interactive form of two-way, or multiple, communication (in Silberman 2000: 41ff.)-- a form first realized in CB radio and then electronically-mediated computer communication.
Moreover, Benjamin wished to promote a radical cultural and media politics concerned with the creation of alternative oppositional cultures. Yet he recognized that media such as film could have conservative effects. While he thought it was progressive that mass-produced works were losing their "aura," their magical force, and were opening cultural artifacts for more critical and political discussion, he recognized that film could create a new kind of ideological magic through the cult of celebrity and techniques like the close-up that fetishized certain stars or images via the technology of the cinema. Benjamin was thus one of the first radical cultural critics to look carefully at the form and technology of media culture in appraising its complex nature and effects. Moreover, he developed a unique approach to cultural history that is one of his most enduring legacies, constituting a micrological history of Paris in the 18th century, an uncompleted project that contains a wealth of material for study and reflection (see Benjamin 2000 and the study in Buck-Morss 1989).
Max Horkheimer and T.W. Adorno answered Benjamin's optimism in a highly influential analysis of the culture industry published in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, which first appeared in 1948 and was translated into English in 1972. They argued that the system of cultural production dominated by film, radio broadcasting, newspapers, and magazines, was controlled by advertising and commercial imperatives, and served to create subservience to the system of consumer capitalism. While later critics pronounced their approach too manipulative, reductive, and elitist, it provides an important corrective to more populist approaches to media culture that downplay the way the media industries exert power over audiences and help produce thought and behavior that conforms to the existing society.
The Frankfurt School also provide useful historical perspectives on the transition from traditional culture and modernism in the arts to a mass-produced media and consumer society. In his path-breaking book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas further historicizes Adorno and Horkheimer's analysis of the culture industry. Providing historical background to the triumph of the culture industry, Habermas notes how bourgeois society in the late 18th and 19th century was distinguished by the rise of a public sphere that stood between civil society and the state and which mediated between public and private interests. For the first time in history, individuals and groups could shape public opinion, giving direct expression to their needs and interests while influencing political practice. The bourgeois public sphere made it possible to form a realm of public opinion that opposed state power and the powerful interests that were coming to shape bourgeois society.
Habermas notes a transition from the liberal public sphere which originated in the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolution to a media-dominated public sphere in the current stage of what he calls "welfare state capitalism and mass democracy." This historical transformation is grounded in Horkheimer and Adorno's analysis of the culture industry, in which giant corporations have taken over the public sphere and transformed it from a site of rational debate into one of manipulative consumption and passivity. In this transformation, "public opinion" shifts from rational consensus emerging from debate, discussion, and reflection to the manufactured opinion of polls or media experts. For Habermas, the interconnection between the sphere of public debate and individual participation has thus been fractured and transmuted into that of a realm of political manipulation and spectacle, in which citizen-consumers ingest and absorb passively entertainment and information. "Citizens" thus become spectators of media presentations and discourse which arbitrate public discussion and reduce its audiences to objects of news, information, and public affairs. In Habermas's words: "Inasmuch as the mass media today strip away the literary husks from the kind of bourgeois self-interpretation and utilize them as marketable forms for the public services provided in a culture of consumers, the original meaning is reversed" (1989: 171).
Habermas's critics, however, contend that he idealizes the earlier bourgeois public sphere by presenting it as a forum of rational discussion and debate when in fact many social groups and most women were excluded. Critics also contend that Habermas neglects various oppositional working class, plebeian, and women's public spheres developed alongside of the bourgeois public sphere to represent voices and interests excluded in this forum (see the studies in Calhoun 1992). Yet Habermas is right that in the period of the democratic revolutions a public sphere emerged in which for the first time in history ordinary citizens could participate in political discussion and debate, organize, and struggle against unjust authority. Habermas's account also points to the increasingly important role of the media in politics and everyday life and the ways that corporate interests have colonized this sphere, using the media and culture to promote their own interests.
Cultural Marxism was highly influential throughout Europe and the Western world, especially in the 1960s when Marxian thought was at its most prestigious and procreative. Theorists like Roland Barthes and the Tel Quel group in France, Galvano Della Volpe, Lucio Colletti, and others in Italy, Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and cohort of 1960s cultural radicals in the English-speaking world, and a large number of theorists throughout the globe used cultural Marxism to develop modes of cultural studies that analyzed the production, interpretation, and reception of cultural artifacts within concrete socio-historical conditions that had contested political and ideological effects and uses. One of the most famous and influential forms of cultural studies, initially under the influence of cultural Marxism, emerged within the Centre for contemporary cultural studies in Birmingham, England within a group often referred to as the Birmingham School.
Graduate School of Education
Moore Hall Mailbox 951521
Los Angeles, CA 90095
to continue with this text:
4. About the MASS MoCA Series
At the conclusion of May 2004, MASS MoCA opened its doors to "The
Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere - a brief survey of
interventionist political art practices of the 90s".
Since 1999, we have been organizing events, presentations, and activities which have among other things generated/addressed questions related to social/political engagement within cultural practice.
So rather than produce something outside our framework of ongoing activities for this exhibition, we will instead tie together our discussions/events which deal with the larger questions of art in the social sphere.
We will not only attempt to invite artists who are involved with the exhibition, but other projects, artists, practices which we find interesting and believe make an important contribution to the subject at hand. We also hope to organize some readings and open discussions that do not center on one particular artist or group.
Other events in the series have included: