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10

Cultural Revolution

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terms
4
notes

on cultural studies. can't remember the point but i liked it

, n. (2013). Cultural Revolution. n+1, 16, pp. 10-18

11

[...] all new left-wing cultural-political analyses share an old question: is this or that cultural object shoring up an unjust society, or undermining it? The question applies not just to novels, TV shows, new diets, and social media platforms, but also, more uncomfortably, to the essays and books that we left intellectuals write about these things.

The best general formulation of the problem may still be Herbert Marcuse’s essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture” (1937). For Marcuse, even when art or entertainment didn’t flatter power outright, culture as such tended to affirm, rather than negate, the existing social order: the very foretaste of a happier life offered by one kind of art, or the commiseration over present-day reality offered by another kind, helped people to endure the way things were. A dialectician, Marcuse did allow that culture could also, sometimes, negate, and seduce or incite you toward revolution — but his emphasis fell on culture as accommodation to the status quo. And this dominant pessimism about the capacity of culture to do the work of politics, occasionally relieved by a hesitant optimism, could be said to characterize the whole tradition of so-called Western Marxism to which Marcuse and the rest of the Frankfurt School belonged, many of whose unfinished projects and unresolved questions came to be inherited, knowingly or not, by French critical sociology and American cultural studies. Western Marxism (not just Marcuse, Adorno, and Benjamin but Lukács, Sartre, Althusser, et cetera) paid special attention to culture and ideology and correspondingly neglected the issues of political strategy and economic analysis that so preoccupied earlier generations of Marxist thinkers. As Perry Anderson pointed out in Considerations on Western Marxism, this cultural turn, beginning in the ’20s and in full swing by the ’30s, took place amid political disappointment: the defeat of working-class revolt in Germany, the hardening of the Soviet Union into Stalinist deformity, fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War, and so on.

Cultural considerations wax as political hopes wane. [...]

—p.11 by n+1 4 years, 10 months ago

[...] all new left-wing cultural-political analyses share an old question: is this or that cultural object shoring up an unjust society, or undermining it? The question applies not just to novels, TV shows, new diets, and social media platforms, but also, more uncomfortably, to the essays and books that we left intellectuals write about these things.

The best general formulation of the problem may still be Herbert Marcuse’s essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture” (1937). For Marcuse, even when art or entertainment didn’t flatter power outright, culture as such tended to affirm, rather than negate, the existing social order: the very foretaste of a happier life offered by one kind of art, or the commiseration over present-day reality offered by another kind, helped people to endure the way things were. A dialectician, Marcuse did allow that culture could also, sometimes, negate, and seduce or incite you toward revolution — but his emphasis fell on culture as accommodation to the status quo. And this dominant pessimism about the capacity of culture to do the work of politics, occasionally relieved by a hesitant optimism, could be said to characterize the whole tradition of so-called Western Marxism to which Marcuse and the rest of the Frankfurt School belonged, many of whose unfinished projects and unresolved questions came to be inherited, knowingly or not, by French critical sociology and American cultural studies. Western Marxism (not just Marcuse, Adorno, and Benjamin but Lukács, Sartre, Althusser, et cetera) paid special attention to culture and ideology and correspondingly neglected the issues of political strategy and economic analysis that so preoccupied earlier generations of Marxist thinkers. As Perry Anderson pointed out in Considerations on Western Marxism, this cultural turn, beginning in the ’20s and in full swing by the ’30s, took place amid political disappointment: the defeat of working-class revolt in Germany, the hardening of the Soviet Union into Stalinist deformity, fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War, and so on.

Cultural considerations wax as political hopes wane. [...]

—p.11 by n+1 4 years, 10 months ago
12

[...] it doesn’t seem too great a stretch to see the American reception of Bourdieu, over the last dozen years or so, as the darkening into starless despair of the gloomy mood typical of Western Marxism: has complaining about the effects of American capitalism merely been our way of amassing cultural capital, meanwhile bolstering capitalism itself?

i like "the darkening into starless despair"

—p.12 by n+1 4 years, 10 months ago

[...] it doesn’t seem too great a stretch to see the American reception of Bourdieu, over the last dozen years or so, as the darkening into starless despair of the gloomy mood typical of Western Marxism: has complaining about the effects of American capitalism merely been our way of amassing cultural capital, meanwhile bolstering capitalism itself?

i like "the darkening into starless despair"

—p.12 by n+1 4 years, 10 months ago
15

Is there a way to make toward these summits from the neoliberal foothills of today?

We are witnessing and sometimes personally experiencing a sharp de-classing of intellectuals. Our precious credentials are increasingly useless for generating income and — let us hope — social prestige, too. This should mean that most intellectuals view ourselves as sinking, economically, into the lower-middle or working class, and that “meritocratic” markers — the contents of our bookshelves and iPods; our degrees — accord us less and less social status in our own and others’ eyes. Not to say there won’t remain a self-protective cultural elite hoarding its prestige: the hostility to criticism among mutually appreciative writers, artists, and academics — an aversion to meaningful disputes — is contemporary evidence of such a siege mentality. But we can also hope for something else: perhaps intellectuals’ increasing exposure to socioeconomic danger will give a new political dangerousness and reality to what some of us produce. Might the continuing commitment of de-classed left intellectuals and radical artists to their vocations, in spite of withered prospects and eroding prestige, give our work an antisystemic force, and credibility, it has lacked?

"neoliberal foothills" is great

—p.15 by n+1 4 years, 10 months ago

Is there a way to make toward these summits from the neoliberal foothills of today?

We are witnessing and sometimes personally experiencing a sharp de-classing of intellectuals. Our precious credentials are increasingly useless for generating income and — let us hope — social prestige, too. This should mean that most intellectuals view ourselves as sinking, economically, into the lower-middle or working class, and that “meritocratic” markers — the contents of our bookshelves and iPods; our degrees — accord us less and less social status in our own and others’ eyes. Not to say there won’t remain a self-protective cultural elite hoarding its prestige: the hostility to criticism among mutually appreciative writers, artists, and academics — an aversion to meaningful disputes — is contemporary evidence of such a siege mentality. But we can also hope for something else: perhaps intellectuals’ increasing exposure to socioeconomic danger will give a new political dangerousness and reality to what some of us produce. Might the continuing commitment of de-classed left intellectuals and radical artists to their vocations, in spite of withered prospects and eroding prestige, give our work an antisystemic force, and credibility, it has lacked?

"neoliberal foothills" is great

—p.15 by n+1 4 years, 10 months ago
16

The ongoing proletarianization of intellectuals prompts any number of further questions. Should we abandon the corporate publishers before they abandon us? So far we haven’t done so, but we’ve tried — as have many others — to fill the gaps left by the industry’s consolidation and caution. In our own work, should we tend toward more “accessible” language and popular forms — or take the increasing hopelessness of making a living from writing as license to experiment? In search of cheaper rents and fertile ground for new institutions, should we leave Brooklyn and make for the provinces? (Will we cross our displaced academic friends fleeing the other way?) Or do we stay and fight for rent control and the right to the city? And how to reply to the familiar reproach: If you want to change and not just interpret the world, why not give up writing and become an organizer or activist? Part of the answer, at least, is that learning to organize, like learning to write, takes years, and you can’t just substitute one job for the other — we will have to be amateur activists. Another part is that if activists are indispensable, so are intellectuals. The words of Adorno in “Sociology and Empirical Research” (1957), arguing for the Frankfurt School’s own version of critical sociology, come to mind: “Not only theory but also its absence becomes a material force when it seizes the masses.” Just this — for theorists and the masses alike — has been our problem.

These tentative answers to the whole perplex of culture and politics can also be taxed with vagueness and no doubt confusion. We’re trying to figure what to do from an unstable position amid crumbling institutions and generalized crisis. More than one variety of brave and honest, necessarily incomplete response to the dilemma can surely be offered, and still more varieties of evasive bullshit: a good ear will know the difference. We can’t bring ourselves to cheer the failure of institutions that have sustained us — but we can at least be grateful that the collapsing structures are carrying out a sort of structural rescue of meaningful individual choice, in politics and culture. Bobo or ProBo? Siege mentality (“We writers are in this together!”) or sorties beyond the walls: “We’re in this with almost everyone!”? Reform existing institutions, or replace them, or cultivate your own garden, or retire to your Unabomber cabin? Join the traditional intellectuals and seek patronage among think tanks, foundations, rich individuals, and multinational corporations, or do something for cultural revolution? Not that the old Marxist jargon matters too much, adopted or abandoned. What counts is history asking us a question — about our content or purpose in a society of accelerating insecurity, including our own — that one way or another we need to formulate as sharply as possible, since we answer it with our lives.

ahhhhhhh

—p.16 by n+1 4 years, 10 months ago

The ongoing proletarianization of intellectuals prompts any number of further questions. Should we abandon the corporate publishers before they abandon us? So far we haven’t done so, but we’ve tried — as have many others — to fill the gaps left by the industry’s consolidation and caution. In our own work, should we tend toward more “accessible” language and popular forms — or take the increasing hopelessness of making a living from writing as license to experiment? In search of cheaper rents and fertile ground for new institutions, should we leave Brooklyn and make for the provinces? (Will we cross our displaced academic friends fleeing the other way?) Or do we stay and fight for rent control and the right to the city? And how to reply to the familiar reproach: If you want to change and not just interpret the world, why not give up writing and become an organizer or activist? Part of the answer, at least, is that learning to organize, like learning to write, takes years, and you can’t just substitute one job for the other — we will have to be amateur activists. Another part is that if activists are indispensable, so are intellectuals. The words of Adorno in “Sociology and Empirical Research” (1957), arguing for the Frankfurt School’s own version of critical sociology, come to mind: “Not only theory but also its absence becomes a material force when it seizes the masses.” Just this — for theorists and the masses alike — has been our problem.

These tentative answers to the whole perplex of culture and politics can also be taxed with vagueness and no doubt confusion. We’re trying to figure what to do from an unstable position amid crumbling institutions and generalized crisis. More than one variety of brave and honest, necessarily incomplete response to the dilemma can surely be offered, and still more varieties of evasive bullshit: a good ear will know the difference. We can’t bring ourselves to cheer the failure of institutions that have sustained us — but we can at least be grateful that the collapsing structures are carrying out a sort of structural rescue of meaningful individual choice, in politics and culture. Bobo or ProBo? Siege mentality (“We writers are in this together!”) or sorties beyond the walls: “We’re in this with almost everyone!”? Reform existing institutions, or replace them, or cultivate your own garden, or retire to your Unabomber cabin? Join the traditional intellectuals and seek patronage among think tanks, foundations, rich individuals, and multinational corporations, or do something for cultural revolution? Not that the old Marxist jargon matters too much, adopted or abandoned. What counts is history asking us a question — about our content or purpose in a society of accelerating insecurity, including our own — that one way or another we need to formulate as sharply as possible, since we answer it with our lives.

ahhhhhhh

—p.16 by n+1 4 years, 10 months ago