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Archive for the ‘modernism’ Category

those who live in (and lock down) glass houses…

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Unfortunately, this is all of the Maison de Verre that most of us will ever be able to see….

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See the tiny little bit of verre there in back, through the window? It was a bit consoling to know that in standing before the locked front door, I was standing where some of my heroes, like Benjamin, once stood. But a building as important as this one really shouldn’t be in private hands…

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June 3, 2007 at 11:03 pm

a miracle!

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For the first time ever, I agree with a Brad Delong post.

I should have bought a lottery ticket tonight.

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May 9, 2007 at 12:22 pm

Posted in modernism

the other modernism

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So you end up broken in half, as a student of modernism, by the split in the period and in its emblematic works. On the one hand, the hyper-psychologized dystopias of individual complexity and political ineffability. On the other, the union of form and function under a banner of progress (even real progress). The former is the reflexive stance of the modernist literary text; the later, of modernist architecture and design. Think Joyce vs. Corbusier. Woolf vs. Niemeyer, Kafka vs. Tiege. You find the architectural / progressive motif more attractive – more potentially useful today – as a seed for revivification. But, on the other hand, you work with literature – this is what you do for a living.

It is tough to mine the latter from the former, the simple from the complex, the beautiful utility from the gratingly indifferent. It is tough to find, in short, the other modernism in literary texts. After all, literature doesn’t love hopeful contentment, and work (vs. dark dreamlife) toward that end – and most of all, it does not love utopia, whether actual or anticipated, whether exuberant or fadedly just OK.

Or maybe it’s just you, er, that is, me, as Owen Hatherley has found it hiding in plain sight in a J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands.

[T]here is only one instance of a speculative community approaching a Ballardian ideal – a site where we definitively leave the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the cautionary, anti-Modernist dystopia – and that is in Vermilion Sands. This is a 1971 collection of stories spanning his first published story, ‘Prima Belladonna’ (1956) to 1970, all set in the same community: a dead or dying desert resort, populated entirely by the elegantly, wanly idle, most of whom are involved in strangely calm psychodramas. Vermilion Sands is a synthetic and synaesthetic landscape of psychotropic houses that respond to their inhabitants’ desires and fears, singing sculptures, and a place where everything in sight seems to glitter, to take on the qualities of crystal, a flickering chromaticism suffusing everything from stairways to hair colour and eye pigments. It is, as Ballard writes in the 1971 introduction, a picture of an ideal he wanted and expected to see realised. The dystopian tradition is refuted in this introduction: ‘very few attempts (in SF) have been made to visualise a unique and self-contained future that contains no warnings to us. Perhaps because of this cautionary tone, so many of science fiction’s notional futures are zones of unrelieved grimness.’ So could there be here a sort of affirmative retort to the insistence that all Modernist or utopian communities inevitably end up in dystopia?

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May 9, 2007 at 12:14 am

“this hobble of being alive is rather serious”

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1.

A paragraph from Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess has just read a letter that her mother has written her in response to a request for advice on how to deal with her imminent marriage to Angel and the nasty event in her past:

She was recognizing how light was the touch of events the most oppressive upon Mrs Durbeyfield’s elastic spirit. Her mother did not see life as Tess saw it. That haunting episode of bygone days was to her mother but a passing accident. But perhaps her mother was right as to the course to be followed, whatever she might be in her reasons. Silence seemed, on the face of it, best for her adored one’s happiness: silence it should be.

The difference between Tess and her mother in terms of the significance that they find in this event is not simply a question – for Hardy or for Tess – of simple psychological makeup. Rather, it is a historical question. Hardy takes great pains to establish the vast generational difference between the mother and daughter as no mere matter of the conflictual divergence of child from parent. They are rendered as members of different species, very nearly, sundered from each other by the enormous acceleration of the rate of historical change.

Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised Code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.

This second paragraph is easy enough to understand. There is a very real gap between the two in terms of education and, it follows, discourse, knowledge. But the first paragraph suggests something more, something that rings very true while it, in a sense, defies explanation. The first paragraph – which registers the fact that what was a “haunting episode” for Tess is nothing more than a “passing accident” for her mother – emblematizes the pervasive modern sense that “today” “we” feel things more deeply than those that came before. That life – and the experiences that fill it – are more vivid, pressing, and real than they once were. That our lives matter to us in a way that theirs do not.

I would argue that this is a fundamental experience of modernity. Not the fact that things matter more to us than to others, but simply the sense that they do. We cannot truly know what it felt like to starve, to be raped, to lose a child at birth back then (or – as I’ll explain – over there) – we only know or think we know that we feel equivalent experiences more now than they did then. For a sixteenth-century peasant farmer to starve must have been hard, for sure; but for “us” to starve today would be unbearable, would cut to our exquisitely developed nerves.

Is it simply that life is improving, and with life, expectations? For Tess’s mother and her generational cohort, was being raped by the son of the Good Family nearby a rite of passage of sorts, an fact of life trivial enough to be universal and thus unworthy of excessive contemplation? There is no sign in Hardy that this in fact is the case. No, it has to be something that’s changed in us… a heightened sensitivity, a doubling-up of feeling that comes of consciousness itself?

Is it in a fact the sense that we are more fully-conscious than they were. The injury would cut the skin, and hurt, but today, bathed in consciousness, we not only feel the cut but feel ourselves feeling the cut. We don’t doubt that the women and the men of the past were conscious… to some degree. Perhaps only minimally-conscious, or so weathered by pain and lack that a sort of callus developed over their sensitive parts, a callus that never has a chance to form today. No, let’s stick with the minimal-consciousness idea, as it jives with so much else that we know – or can assume – about the men and women of the past, who knew no future, could anticipate no change, and filled the hole between birth and death, if they bothered to fill it at all, with the mind-evactuating hum of religious dogma, another anaesthetic – an “opiate” in fact.

2.

My parents, for instance, do not whine about the place that they live. To me my life will have been lived in vain if I do not ultimately and for the most part live just where I want to iive. My father didn’t require fulfillment from his work as I do from mine, just money. I also require if not an ideal marriage at least one grounded in a sort of soul-to-soul contact, a deeper sympathy – ultimately, “real love.” My parents, clearly, did not require this. While I love my child dearly, at time I rage inside for my lost youth, freedom that has disappeared never to return. My wife does as well, but I am fairly certain that my mother did not. The suffocation of childrearing seemed perfectly natural, the only thing for her, right?

And just imagine for a second the simplicity and happy austerity of grandparents… Like children, even when they were in the prime of life.

Sometimes, when the pressures and dissatisfactions mount up, when I very nearly can’t take it anymore because I literally can’t think about anything but what it wrong with everything and everything that is still to be done – I am overworked and undersatisfied, things were better back then and might never be good, really good, again – I put myself in my place by thinking “Just how shitty would it be, really, if you were elsewhere and in other conditions – the conditions of perhaps most people in the world. If it wasn’t just taken for granted that you would eat and stay warm and that this child you have would survive and prosper. If there were bombs falling or strangers in uniform at the door. Or were diseased and dying young. Imagine that – and then complain!”

It works for awhile, but it is not in any way a permanent fix.

3.

Is this – all this – what Hardy / Angel Clare means by the “ache of modernism” that they find in Tess? That despite her meagre origins, she somehow feels it too?

Angel, however, saw her light summer gown, and he spoke; his low tones reaching her, though he was some distance off.

“What makes you draw off in that way, Tess?” said he. “Are you afraid?”

“Oh no, sir … not of outdoor things; especially just now when the apple-blooth is falling, and everything is so green.”

“But you have your indoor fears–eh?”

“Well–yes, sir.”

“What of?”

“I couldn’t quite say.”

“The milk turning sour?”

“No.”

“Life in general?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ah–so have I, very often. This hobble of being alive is rather serious, don’t you think so?”

“It is–now you put it that way.”

“All the same, I shouldn’t have expected a young girl like you to see it so just yet. How is it you do?”

She maintained a hesitating silence.

“Come, Tess, tell me in confidence.”

She thought that he meant what were the aspects of things to her, and replied shyly —

“The trees have inquisitive eyes, haven’t they?–that is, seem as if they had. And the river says,–‘Why do ye trouble me with your looks?’ And you seem to see numbers of tomorrows just all in a line, the first of them the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel and as if they said, ‘I’m coming! Beware of me! Beware of me!’ … But you, sir, can raise up dreams with your music, and drive all such horrid fancies away!”

He was surprised to find this young woman–who though but a milkmaid had just that touch of rarity about her which might make her the envied of her housemates–shaping such sad imaginings. She was expressing in her own native phrases–assisted a little by her Sixth Standard training–feelings which might almost have been called those of the age–the ache of modernism. The perception arrested him less when he reflected that what are called advanced ideas are really in great part but the latest fashion in definition–a more accurate expression, by words in logy and ism, of sensations which men and women have vaguely grasped for centuries.

Still, it was strange that they should have come to her while yet so young; more than strange; it was impressive, interesting, pathetic. Not guessing the cause, there was nothing to remind him that experience is as to intensity, and not as to duration. Tess’s passing corporeal blight had been her mental harvest.

They are perfect for each other, these two. A love story not unlike my own. They take everything very seriously, too seriously. The fact is that the world exists for them – what happens happens because they are there, at the summation point of history, to feel it, to suffer from it.

Only now does the strange paragraph before Angel’s assignment of the “ache” to his soon-to-be wife start to make sense….

4.

One way the “ache of modernism” become political is Oscar Wilde’s way in the “Soul of Man Under Socialism”:

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes.

Now and then, in the course of the century, a great man of science, like Darwin; a great poet, like Keats; a fine critical spirit, like M. Renan; a supreme artist, like Flaubert, has been able to isolate himself, to keep himself out of reach of the clamorous claims of others, to stand ‘under the shelter of the wall,’ as Plato puts it, and so to realise the perfection of what was in him, to his own incomparable gain, and to the incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world. These, however, are exceptions. The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.

Another way – a more recent way – the ache becomes political informs the novels of Michel Houellebecq, in which each moment of discomfort, each disappointment, generally erotic but also drawn from other categories of experience, adds another wire, another sprocket, to the edifice called “post-humanity” that he is steadily building, fantasizing into existence. When it is built, we will be able – so Houellebecq claims – to retreat back into the slumber of the ages, the quiescence of mindless and well-oiled simplicity.

5.

But of course, as we have heard, “modernity” is not just a temporal field, but also a geographical determination. We are not only more modern that those that came before, but also those who live elsewhere. We cannot stop telling ourselves this, as it is the story that explains everything at once, why things are the way they are, and why we are permitted to do the things that we do. It permits the equal sign to stand where ordinarily it could not. And it enables us to explain certain psycho-sociological aporia that otherwise would stick in the craw.

We cannot stop telling ourselves this.

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January 26, 2007 at 1:55 am

decadent, inhuman…

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Wow. A roundtable on the “Condition of the Novel” from a 1965 issue of NLR. I’ve only read the Robbe-Grillet contribution so far. He’s getting, here, a bit testy with the commies:

The comparison which has been made during this conference between the novelist and the airline pilot is no more than a joke. The novel is not a means of transport, it is not even a means of expression—by which I mean that it knows in advance the truths or the questions which it sets out to express. The novel, for us, means search which does not even know what it is searching. The pilot of course must know where his passengers are bound, and the shortest route; The writer by definition does not know where he is going. And so, if I had absolutely to answer the question of why I write, I would simply say: ‘I write to try to understand why I feel the desire to write.’

But what seems most scandalous to us, is to find the socialist camp sharing the illusions of the bourgeois world, about the political power of art, sharing the same cult of obsolete artistic forms, the same language in which to couch its criticism, and in the end the same values.

‘Decadent’ you say? In relation to what? ‘Inhuman’? Isn’t it rather your conception of man which needs revivifying? It is understandable that bourgeois critics in the West persist (although more timidly than you) in defending literary forms which embody for them the golden age of the novel and of the propertied class. But what we find bizarre is that you are fighting the same cause, and that you can talk about innocent and natural writing when Gustave Flaubert began to have doubts about this in 1848.

You accuse us of ‘formalism’, but it is the literary form that expresses a work’s true meaning; and we know precisely that the forms which you advocate are representative of a world which you are supposed to be fighting.

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December 14, 2006 at 8:25 am

roundup

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Just as I was getting a bit tired of this whole blog phenomenon, some good posts pull be back in:

K-punk eloquently sends us back to Virilio and his predictions that have come true.

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And a note to publishers: were Owen Hatherley given the opportunity to write and publish a book expanding on his series on modernism, I would wait by the mailbox for my copy to arrive. Here’s the start of his newest:

Of all the anti-modernist critiques that these pieces have been mocking and picking apart, there was one that stood out, not necessarily for its originality or surprise, but in eloquently putting across an old politico-aesthetic rivalry. The piece is by J.G Ballard, but states an objection that was made implicitly and explicitly by Dada’s mutation into the Surrealist International, regardless of the fact Tristan Tzara got Adolf Loos to design his house. The reassertion of the irrational by the dreaming wing of the artistic left, essentially, or more generally the psychoanalytic objection. Though Ballard isn’t as scathing as say, his hero Dali- who, on learning of Le Corbusier’s death in 1967 wrote derisively of a man who ‘wanted us to live in reinforced concrete when we’re sending men into space, who wants to build in reinforced concrete on the moon’ but nonetheless, amid some fairly pointless digressions on German military architecture, hits a few nails on the head.

Specifically- ‘I have always admired modernism and wish the whole of London could be rebuilt in the style of Michael Manser’s brilliant Heathrow Hilton. But I know that most people, myself included, find it difficult to be clear-eyed at all times and rise to the demands of a pure and unadorned geometry. Architecture supplies us with camoflage, and I regret that no-one could fall in love inside the Heathrow Hilton. By contrast, people are forever falling in love inside the Louvre and the National Gallery. All of us have our dreams to reassure us. Architecture is a stage set where we need to be at ease in order to perform. Fearing ourselves, we need our illusions to protect us, even if the protection takes the form of finials and cartouches, Corinthian columns and acanthus leaves. Modernism lacked mystery and emotion, was a little too frank about the limits of human nature.’

This last part will, then, try and imagine what happens to the libidinal imaginary when all this is stripped away, what happens without camoflage, and try to argue against this profoundly depressing suggestion that one can only fall in love in buildings of the 18th century- try to imagine instead love among the Siedlungen.

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August 3, 2006 at 1:02 am

Posted in blogs, modernism, war

disabusal

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I’m too tired (softball, in this heat, can you imagine?) tonight to do the following justice – an excerpt from the end of T.J. Clark’s response to Perry Anderson’s The Origins of Postmodernity and Jameson’s The Cultural Turn and in particular the distinction that they forge between modernism and postmodernism. Originally appeared in the New Left Review in 2000:

Once or twice in his recent essays Fredric Jameson has turned specifically to defining modernism, and not surprisingly he has gone back to Adorno for help—to Adorno and Hegel. ‘For us,’ he quotes Hegel’s great dictum, ‘art no longer counts as the highest mode in which truth fashions an existence for itself.’ The task of the critic, Jameson says, is to understand why the prediction about art practice that seemed to follow from the dictum—that art, as a significant form of life, would end, or decline into mere decorative accompaniment—did not prove to be true. Something called modernism happened instead. ‘What did not conform to Hegel’s prognosis was the supersession of art by philosophy itself: rather, a new and different kind of art appeared to take philosophy’s place after the end of the old one, and to usurp all of philosophy’s claims to the Absolute, to being “the highest mode in which truth manages to come into being”. This was the art we call modernism.’ [7] Or again, in ‘Transformations of the Image’,

what distinguishes modernism in general is not the experimentation with inherited forms or the invention of new ones . . . Modernism constitutes, above all, the feeling that the aesthetic can only fully be realized and embodied where it is something more than the aesthetic . . . [It is] an art that in its very inner movement seeks to transcend itself as art (as Adorno thought, and without it being particularly important to determine the direction of that self-transcendence, whether religious or political). [8]

These are key episodes in Jameson’s text. Very often the moments at which he returns specifically to Adorno are those where the stakes of his whole analysis come clear. And these recent ones are clarifying. They allow me to state my basic disagreement with Jameson’s picture of modernism and whatever happened to it in the last thirty years—with Jameson’s picture, and, I think, Anderson’s. For the stress here on modernism as turning on a repeated claim, or effort, to transcend itself as art—its belief, to quote Jameson again, ‘that in order to be art at all, art must be something beyond art’ [9]—seems to me exactly half the story. It is, if you like, a stress out of Adorno’s dialectic, which leaves unspoken—and therefore in the end demotes—the other, equally essential moment to Adorno’s account. For surely transcendence in modernism can only be achieved—is not this central to our whole sense of the movement’s wager?—by way of absolute immanence and contingency, through a deep and ruthless materialism, by a secularization (a ‘realization’) of transcendence—an absorption in the logic of form. Jameson’s modernism, that is to say, seems to me posited as a movement of transcendence always awaiting another, a distinct, movement (indeed, moment) at which there will take place, punctually, ‘the dissolution of art’s vocation to reach the Absolute’. [10] And this great, ultra-Enlightenment imagining of disabusal, of the stars coming down to earth, is of course what gives Jameson’s vision its force. But supposing (as I think Adorno supposed) that modernism was already that dissolution and disabusal—but exactly a dissolution held in dialectical tension with the idea or urge to totality, which idea or impulsion alone gave the notion of dissolution (or emptying, or ascesis, or fragment, or mere manufacture, or reduction, or deadpan, or non-identity) sense.

From this picture of modernism there would follow, I feel, a different appraisal of the last thirty years. I guess it would turn on the question of whether, or to what extent, the figures of dissolution and disabusal in art practice—the familiar figures I have just listed—became themselves a form of transcendence; and, as always within modernism, a transcendence doomed to collapse. Or rather, not so much ‘doomed to collapse’ as simply to be confronted again with the pathos lying at the heart of disabusal—disabusal (true secularization) as one more aesthetic mirage among others, always looming ahead of modernism in the commodity desert, as a form of lucidity it never quite reaches. Warhol, inevitably, is for me increasingly the figure of this. How handmade and petty-bourgeois his bright world of consumer durables now looks! How haunted still by a dream of freedom! So that his Campbell’s Soup Can appears, thirty years on, transparently an amalgam—an unresolved, but naively serious dialectical mapping—of De Stijl-type abstraction onto a founding, consoling, redemptive country-store solidity. How like a Stuart Davis or a Ralston Crawford it looks, or an entry from the Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues! ‘History has many cunning passages,’ to quote Gerontion, ‘contrived corridors / And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions.’ Does Warhol come to seem more and more a modernist because it turns out that what he inaugurated was another of modernism’s cycles? Or because what happened next was truly an ending, an exit, from which we inevitably look back on the pioneers and see them as touching primitives, still half in love with the art they are putting to death? I suspect the former. It could be the latter. Neither conclusion is comforting. Thirty years is not enough time to tell.

Do yourself a favor and read the entire essay – it’s short, but full. What Clark ultimately means to say, particularly in the last paragraph, is a bit hard to parse out. And this is probably a good thing. What to make of this “disabusal (true secularization)”? Perhaps he’s there already, but I think it would be valuable to scroll back up my page and take a look at the epigraph that lies underneath my title. That’s where I am headed – or where I’m coming from – on this topic.

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July 17, 2006 at 11:32 pm

pêcheur

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deep-drop-fishing-2lg.jpg

Marx claimed that with the accomplishment of socialism, a typical day might consists of fishing in the morning, tending sheep in the afternoon, and writing literary criticism at night. But we are left to wonder: what sort of literature would such a world produce for criticism to attend to? On what terms would such a criticism proceed? Surely, the years of refining bourgeois recidivism out of the novel would have long ended by this time… Surely it is easier to purge bourgeois recidivism from the novel than to overthrow the division of labor in real life?

Speaking of Marx, Francis Wheen (unfortunately a Eustonite) had a rather nice piece in the Guardian this weekend on Marx and literature, Marx as modernist.

Like Frenhofer, Marx was a modernist avant la lettre. His famous account of dislocation in the Communist Manifesto – “all that is solid melts into air” – prefigures the hollow men and the unreal city depicted by TS Eliot, or Yeats’s “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. By the time he wrote Das Kapital, he was pushing out beyond conventional prose into radical literary collage – juxtaposing voices and quotations from mythology and literature, from factory inspectors’ reports and fairy tales, in the manner of Ezra Pound’s Cantos or Eliot’s The Waste Land. Das Kapital is as discordant as Schoenberg, as nightmarish as Kafka.

Marx saw himself as a creative artist, a poet of dialectic. “Now, regarding my work, I will tell you the plain truth about it,” he wrote to Engels in July 1865. “Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole.” It was to poets and novelists, far more than to philosophers or political essayists, that he looked for insights into people’s material motives and interests: in a letter of December 1868 he copied out a passage from another work by Balzac, The Village Priest, and asked if Engels could confirm the picture from his own knowledge of practical economics. Had he wished to write a conventional economic treatise he would have done so, but his ambition was far more audacious. Berman describes the author of Das Kapital as “one of the great tormented giants of the 19th century – alongside Beethoven, Goya, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Van Gogh – who drive us crazy, as they drove themselves, but whose agony generated so much of the spiritual capital on which we still live”.

Yet how many people would think of including Marx in a list of great writers and artists? Even in our postmodern era, the fractured narrative and radical discontinuity of Das Kapital are mistaken by many readers for formlessness and incomprehensibility. Anyone willing to grapple with Beethoven, Goya or Tolstoy should be able to “learn something new” from a reading of Das Kapital – not least because its subject still governs our lives. As Berman asks: how can Das Kapital end while capital lives on? It is fitting that Marx never finished his masterpiece. The first volume was the only one to appear in his lifetime, and the subsequent volumes were assembled by others after his death, based on notes and drafts found in his study. Marx’s work is as open-ended – and thus as resilient – as the capitalist system itself.

Although Das Kapital is usually categorised as a work of economics, Marx turned to the study of political economy only after many years of spadework in philosophy and literature. It is these intellectual foundations that underpin the project, and it is his personal experience of alienation that gives such intensity to the analysis of an economic system which estranges people from one another and from the world they inhabit – a world in which humans are enslaved by the monstrous power of capital and commodities.

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Written by adswithoutproducts

July 11, 2006 at 10:30 am

en-lightenment

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In addition to wanting to develop my work into the shape of a giant wiki, complete with multimedia links and a three-plus-dimensional structure vs. the linear mode of the traditional book, I have a much more mundane and realistic request: I’d like to teach in classrooms with projectors that I can connect my laptop too. I’m at an underfunded state u – at my grad institution this would be fully doable, but not necessarily here.

I need it to show my students stuff like this:

Fantastic, no? Spike Jonze directed it, and yes, I know what it’s in service of so shush. But what an absolutely stunning performance of multiple logics of modernism. “Make it new,” of course – the “you will become your parents if you don’t chuck your parents’ furniture” meme that is always operative withe Ikea, not to mention a very true psycho-genealogical finding about Americans. But then, also, there is the mimed perspectival shift – we “see” the ad from the perspective of an entity which has no perspective – and the perspectivelessness of the lamp is the point. (This is the old Portrait of the Artist trick, where we identify with Stephen only to find him emptied out by the end, full only of trope, a machine that makes bad poetry and false epiphanies…)

It’s all there: the pastiche of obsolete forms, the opening in medias res, the minimally marked “everydayness” of the setting. And of course the shocking turn at the end which, true to form, is not immanent but comes from an interruption from without, and brings not peripeic catharsis but Brechtian estrangement and consciousness. All in the service of selling you a new lamp, encouraging you to fill the landfills with the old one…

So many of the dangers, so much of the promise, of modernism, right here in a thirty second ad. It’s not an ad without products, for we see the new lamp, if only through a wet window brightly. And we see it only, after the change of perspective, in order to laugh at the misery of the passé, the obsolescent, the nostalgically outmoded. An anti-fetishistic solicitation for anti-fetishistic fetishism.

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June 27, 2006 at 10:59 pm