Tag Archives: Marxism

László Krasznahorkai’s ‘The World Goes On’

I sometimes wonder if developing an interest in Marxism ruined novels for me. Treating contemporary fiction as part of a broader totality of commodity production rather than a generational turnover of competing styles or dispositions means that when reading recently published novels, I become frustrated and rarely make it much further beyond the halfway point. Some of the reasons for this include i) valorising individual action, ii) making the point that nothing essential ever changes iii) not in some way emphasising that we’re twenty years into a century we won’t be coming out of. I can sometimes give a bit longer to writing which is more wry or playful because I can fool myself into thinking the elision of fundamentals might be self-conscious or deliberate, but even then it begins to grate more intensely, playing games with a failure to clarify is one of those devices I’ve seen operationalised so many, so many times times it’s become impossible for me to care about a novel postulating that there is no ultimate truth without even having the decency to be funny. To come to the point, László Krasznahorkai’s The World Goes On was the most recent book that annoyed me.  

The World Goes On is a collection of short stories, but it contains within it a certain number of tropes and recurring voices that had me thinking at first that it was a fragmentary novel, even though the blurb had told me it was a collection of short stories and I had read this blurb many times. Someone said to me recently that all short story writers are very good at doing one thing and do that same thing over and over again and I think that Krasznahorkai in fact does up to two and a half things over and over again. I’m not going to itemise those things, so much as talk about the deeper tropes or attitudes that I think they point towards, though I did skip a few of them, one in particular was an especially egregious instance of that tweetthe precise wording and authorship of which escapes me at the moment about how male writers are prone to representing women ‘her enormous breasts bounced boobily’ etc.  

Krasznahorkai is perhaps especially irritating in this respect because he intuits that there are things about modern life which are bad and that there are persisting remnants within it which have the potential of being good. There is a stable basis for proceeding here. Unfortunately, what has the potential of being good is a languid Paterian awe in the face of Art and The World. Of course this would all be a bit naff in the present conjuncture, so Krasznahorkai has it taking on a slightly sharper edge or valency, where it partakes more of a disaffection with yearning characteristics. ‘Bankers’ is one story which consists of a man named Fortinbras meeting Paul and his friend in Kiev and overhearing their conversations regarding financial transactions/their co-workers. The stories these men share are purposefully aimless and either impossible to, or not worth, following. Fortinbras spends some time in a hotel room and groans internally about the incongruous and irregularly laid out buildings in the area. A friend of mine complained to me recently of the persistence with which irregularly laid out architecture will be criticised in contemporary fiction, as if the aesthetics were the foremost problem and not that no-one can afford to live in them. I would agree with this critique, and locate its origins in the works of J.G. Ballard. I think much of Ballard’s persisting influence resides in the fungibility of his analysis and its capacity to encompass critiques of the Soviet model, the British welfare state and private capital, as if the problem with post-modernity was that it’s a bit weirdly laid out. 

The title of the collection originates in a short story of the same name which, along with ‘Universal Theseus’, presents the thesis that effectively nothing ever changes, to exist in the world is to exist in a state of slavery and what change there is can never be understood let alone challenged because everything is too complex. The former story also contains a rather bizarre digression on 9/11 and how it was without precedent, shattered all our illusions about the world that existed before, created a wholly new one and all other kinds of cod-analysis which denies its material and historical origins, consequencies. In line with this, the aforementioned ‘Bankers’ contains a paragraph which lists names of banks, ruminates on the interminable and inscrutable nature of their internal structures and the oligarchic fiefdoms they ultimately generate, variously attributed to or associated with the old communist regime, #Putin, anything other than globalised capital. In this way, Krasznahorkai abides by a very nineties understanding of politics, where the loss of older modes of kinship or cohesion in favour of a vacuous private consumption comes to be regarded as the primary issue rather than a symptom. Fortinbras then visits St. Sophia’s Cathedral and mourns that the spiritual values that the saints used to represent no longer do so. Rather than going to visit the Bulgakov house, Fortinbras’ hosts insists they sit in a kitschy café and gossip, and how Kiev is the only place where someone without a university degree can get a management job, all of which Paul, his name taking on at that stage an increasingly symbolic valency, to what end I’m not sure, insists is ‘much more interesting’. There is an acute sense of ‘the horror, the horror’ overlying all this, as if it makes a jot of difference to anything if we were all to sit around in tasteful cafés taking turns to swoon over Bulgakov or St. Sofia’s Cathedral. Fortinbras is then brought to a brothel where sex workers ply him with a drug that brings him into touch with the cosmos and I can only agree with Krasznahorkai that the problem with modern life these days is that sex workers in luxury hotels are always trying to give me drugs that allow me to experience a universal and fundamental happiness, albeit one slightly compromised and undergirded by a banal ennui. 

There’s another story about Yuri Gagarin unable to express the wonder of the cosmos in a Soviet system, which is not treated in any historical specificity, rather used interchangeably with a rationalised bureaucracy of ultimate and inhuman evil because it cannot accommodate Gagarin’s visionary religiosity and contentless humanism. In the story ‘György Fehér’s Henrik Molnar’, we read an extensive excerpt from a screenplay the narrator wrote, which effectively re-enacts Kafka’s The Trial. The screenplay’s apparent moral is that the worst thing about a man being prosecuted for no reason and no recourse is that his judges do not ‘understand’ him. What we see in Krasznahorkai then is a long and remorseful howl right from the confused heart of the weltanschauung of a liberal literatus. No wonder it was shortlisted for the booker. 

Signal: A Zine on the state, state media and reaction

 

Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 20.41.01I’ve been working on a longer bit of writing for the past while based on an interest I have in old (Irish) radio broadcasts, the politics of (Irish) state-formation and (Irish) hegemony and all that. To this end I’ve been writing a sequence of monologues which are the result of transcriptions from primary sources, cut-ups, cutting togethers and outright fabrications. The result is Signal, and because I have no notion where something like this would be published, I’ve decided to print a few hundred of them off myself and distribute them to interested parties. Where these interested parties are, I’ve no idea, so I’m just going to leave them around the place in Dublin and here in .pdf form. If you would like a print copy, email me your address at cbeausan@tcd.ie and I can get it to you

signal

Ellen Mieksins Wood and Marxist historiography 

I wanted to throw a few words into a post on the themes identified in the title because I’ve had a few problems with Wood’s various works on the fallacies of vulgar stagism in Marxian historiography that I’ve not seen flagged in any of the usual places. Even with only the smattering of Marx and Engels I’ve been picking through over the past while, there’s a fair bit that doesn’t quite wash for me, and I’d like to thrash it out over the course of the next few paragraphs. I do so in the hopes that someone more invested in the factional disputes between various schools of Marxian historiography, the Swezys, Hiltons and Polyanis, will take a more systematic and lengthy perspective.

The terms of Wood’s argument, as I see it in The Origin of Capitalism, as well as the essays collected in both Democracy Against Capitalism andThe Pristine Culture of Capitalism,is to challenge the idea that capitalism’s emergence is related to cities, the bourgeoisie, the expansion of markets and industrialisation. This vision, whereby feudal modes of production are swept away by a rising, urban-based bourgeois class, did not, from the perspective of Perry Anderson, happen as extensively in England and it did not therefore pave the way for the sort of purging of feudal remnants that one can see in other jurisdictions, such as France. Wood reverses the schema, revising the centrality ascribed to the industrial revolution, arguing the changes which the first stage of the industrial revolution were ‘in any case modest’ (what about the second one?) and that in identifying capitalism’s starting point, we need to begin with agrarian workers in England, whose unique relationship to the means of subsistence, enclosure and landlords inculcated what she refers to as capitalism’s ‘laws of motion’. In this sense, both Marx, and his subsequent readers, have attributed too much centrality to the power of capitalism to eradicate feudalism and construct something wholly new. Wood argues that the writings in which Marx describes this process are ‘heavily dependent upon the mechanical materialism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and contrasts sharply with Marx’s mature critiques of political economy’. What this older materialism looked like, where the new materialism originated from in respect to the old, the social function these played, or how it all relates to the polemics Marx was then directing against the idealism of the young Hegelians, is passed over, and in so doing I think Wood abides by a reading of Marx that one finds in a lot of literary criticism, wherein there is disproportionate emphasis given to disparate, metaphorically charged passages in The Communist Manifesto which allow for allow for the free elaboration of idealistic concepts.

Capitalism’s ‘laws of motion’, from Wood’s perspective, represent a movement away from coercive methods of surplus value extraction under feudalism, to a sequence of market incentives, whereby landlords could begin to depend on the expanding productive capacities of their tenants. With regard to the definition of capitalism, I am a bit more convinced by Marx’s writings on surplus value, and the idea that markets are non-coercive or can incentivise people to be more productive via competition seems to me to cede ground to right-wing notions of markets as egalitarian technologies, I certainly wouldn’t attribute an expanding productive capacity to capitalism in itself. In citing evidence of pre-capitalistic markets, Wood refers to the processes of ‘buying cheap and selling dear’ in fragmented markets, as if this was somehow a neutral undertaking, as if fragmentary markets doesn’t often act as a means of augmenting the extraction of surplus value. On a final literary-critical note, ‘laws of motion’ seems to me to be a peculiar metaphor to utilise, since its a naturalising one, comparing capitalism to the laws of physics, which capitalism does not have, becuase its an historical configuration.

Wood’s project therefore seems to orientate itself around the extraction of an essentialised capitalism from its associations with the bourgeoisie and the city. This tendency to take capitalism apart from historical phenomena it was, in fairness coterminous with, such as landlords extracting rent, leads to Wood talking about international trade, shipping, trading posts, settlements, monopolies, militaries and trading privileges as ‘extra-economic’. For Wood, capitalist economies are particular to their national and domestic contexts and therefore the plundering of South American silver is not ‘capitalist’. I do sort of wonder about the worth of trying to find a category to give a name to exploitation which can be isolated from the fact of imperial dispossession.

I hope that the limitations of this perspective would be obvious, but in case they aren’t, I’ve placed an extended quotation from a letter Marx wrote to the Russian magazine Otecestvenniye Zapisky 1877below, wherein Marx talks about someone who has generalised his theory of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe to a broader context. I base my scepticism with regard to broad sweeping accounts of historical development which seek to isolate phenomena primarily on these two paragraphs:

The chapter on primitive accumulation does not pretend to do more than trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist order of economy emerged from the womb of the feudal order of economy. It therefore describes the historic movement which by divorcing the producers from their means of production converts them into wage earners (proletarians in the modern sense of the word) while it converts into capitalists those who hold the means of production in possession. In that history, “all revolutions are epoch-making which serve as levers for the advancement of the capitalist class in course of formation; above all those which, after stripping great masses of men of their traditional means of production and subsistence, suddenly fling them on to the labour market. But the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the cultivators.

He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much.)

Given Wood’s focus on Britain, it is perhaps not surprising that Wood doensn’t have much time for Marxists who criticise the Eurocentric nature of Marxist historiography. These historians, who are unnamed, receieve cursory dismissals along the lines of ‘they think we’re all racist’ and are then being accused of themselves being responsible for the phenomenon they wish to critique. There’s a bit more of this Spiked-type reasoning in her texts whereby a lack of sourcing means ‘the Left’ is being said a lot, and thereby encompassing, as it usually does, the far left, revisionists,bourgeois academics, and Blairites, which means you get sentiments along the lines of ‘Marxists don’t understand that public services are actually good’, and I think a bit more attention to context would be required here. This tendency to not name names means that in general the provocativeness of Wood’s ideas seem to exist in an inverse relationship to the amount of evidence she seems to be able to marshall in support of them, in for instance arguing that the plantation projects were market endeavours (they were state subsidised to varying degrees), that Ireland took on an empirical ideal in the British imagination, that revolutionary movements of the twentieth century are far less revolutionary than the French revolution was, or inverting the polarity of nineteenth/twentieth century cultural production, whereby the former is outward looking futurism, while the second is a nostalgic medievalism. This last one I’m writing part of my thesis on, and I would’ve liked a bit more discussion on how Wood situates this perspective relative to anyone notable who has written on it. Sleights of hand will crop up whereby ‘some Marxist historians associate capitalism with cities’, will suddenly become all Marxist historians have very fervently argued that all cities are fundamentally capitalist, and one begins to get the sense that the text is a lengthy buffetting around of various orders of strawmen.

In the final chapter of The Origin of Capitalism we have some more amorphous critics who have all told us that capitalism is bringing an end to the nation state. The state’s continued existence, Wood argues, lies in capitalism’s dependence on ‘supports’. Uniquely, as a mode of production we are told, capitalism requires stability, and it finds this support in the nation state. This is also why militarism is dying out, because coercive measures are no longer used anymore because bombs can’t create the sort of stability capitalism needs in order to exist. This is I think symptomatic of the difficulties with Wood’s approach, in locating capitalism as something which has ‘gone wrong’, rather than something integral to the coercive nature of private property. Compare the centrality the philosopher John Locke recieves in justifying landlordism, without just considering landlordism as a fairly substantial force for itself. For a text so concerned with Marxian historiography, it is oddly short on actual class-based analysis.

Literary Style and the dialectic

The notion of literary style is a fraught matter for critics. This is not just since the cultural and textualist ‘turn’ of the sixties and seventies, when post-structuralist methodologies became commonplace in university departments. Rather, the origin of style brings us to the origin of the individual and it is for this reason that Frederic Jameson believes ‘style’ to be a bourgeois concept. In an account which accords with Hans Georg-Gadamer’s, which locates the word’s origin in the context of jurisprudence, Jameson argues that style owes its existence to the classical notion of rhetoric, as interpreted in nineteenth-century pedagogy, the means by which an orator might speak in a form which is appropriately ‘high’. In both of these accounts, style’s interconnectedness with the rise of bourgeoisie or liberal state-capitalist formations of the age of Enlightenment is emphasised.

Here, we see a socio-historical account of style, one which might have taken Barthes’ theory as its foundation; that it is impossible to have a theory of pure style, as it is fundamentally an historical phenomenon. Jameson is similarly sceptical, but writes also that any literary criticism worthy of the name is obligated to consider ‘sentences themselves’. How these two methods could be productively fused is as something of a fissure in literary studies, between those who would treat literary texts in formal terms, the stylistic reductionists, and others, who would read it according to a sociological or Marxist schema. We might refer to this latter category as culturalists for the sake of ease. Of course, dialectical methods of reading are so ingrained into how we are trained to think about texts as scholars, whether we happen to be constructing a dialogue between a text and its context, or interrogating our own biases, it can be difficult to conceive of what a purely formalist literary criticism might look like. Despite conventional wisdom holding there were plenty around Cambridge in the thirties who were invested solely in words on the page, one cannot help but find indications of their broader and more wide-ranging interests in their actual writings. Likewise, culturalist critics might well concede that stylistic components, such as particular words, lengths of sentences, play a role in forming the style of a literary text, but there is a difficulty in deciding at which point a sufficient number of these discrete linguistic signals aggregate to achieve a structural significance or scale. It is for its treatment of style as an abstract system which cannot be rationalised down to its concrete manifestations that Jameson charges Anglo-American literary criticism as being undialectical.

In parsing this particular issue, we might turn to Adorno’s writings in Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which he theorises the distance between the individual stylistic marker and the entire work, in the context of a socio-economic and cultural totality. Adorno’s analysis is mostly concerned with the cultural changes which have been wrought by the existence of the cultural industry within late-stage capitalism, the ‘iron system’ in which

the maintenance of forms and the preservation of individuals coincide only by chance.

By Adorno’s account, the technologies of commercialised society have so irreparably transformed all social and cultural institutions to the extent that art now serves a solely industrial function. There can be no such thing as amusement under late-stage capitalism; we have leisure only so that we can be more productive. These changes have come about, of course, due to the higher-order industries on which the culture industry depends, as well as the actions of individual managers within these industries, ‘the people at the top’ whose behaviours reproduce these higher-order systemic changes. The subject no longer has thoughts but rather is thought herself by the system, she registers signals in the form of physical, psychic automatisms, but continues to assume as though her own autonomy exists; that this is beyond the reach of the external network of circumstances, economic, historical, social, which in fact radically proscribe the remit of her behaviours.

This loss of freedom in society finds its corollary in the degree to which the culture of industrial society has been homogenised: ‘Under monopoly all mass culture is identical…Every detail is so firmly stamped with sameness that nothing can appear which is not marked at birth, or does not meet with approval at first sight’. This determinism is one of the defining features of Adorno’s thought; even that which violates the tenets of cultural industry will merely replicate this same homogeneity overall. If for example, Orson Welles was to violate the terms of the industry,

he is forgiven because his departures from the norm are regarded as a calculated mutation which serve all the more strongly to confirm the validity of the system.

These innovators are co-opted once again by the same system, and Adorno witheringly compares them to state-capitalist land-reformers. So repetitive are most films produced by the Hollywood studio system of Adorno’s time, he claims the attentive film-goer will know the ending of the film within the first few minutes, but, as before, if the attentive film-goer is wrong-footed by a surprise twist, this just confirms the banality of the enterprise.

Many have argued that Adorno’s undialectical anglophone readers have, in their eagerness to claim popular culture as an object worthy of scholarly attention, over-emphasised and caricatured his curmudgeonly tendencies. A charitable reading might present Adorno as being concerned predominantly with the superstructure, but there is, I think, a little too much of the grumpy old man to his claim that a perfection of formal technique be it in the context of Hollywood film or jazz, may be claimed as just another symptom of the cultural industry’s failure to create truly great art, because these perfections of technique are buttressed by deliberate ‘blunders’. I think Adorno is sufficiently correct for his work to be analytically useful, but it rather ironically lacks the ability to tolerate contradiction, and such a view runs the risk of lapsing into non-dialectical territory. Adorno is, after all, presumably referring to actual films he’s seen, actual jazz renditions of classical compositions, and treating these within his analyses as socially/historically embedded would do greater justice to his schema. Examples of how apparently individual agents incline towards producing the interests of capital without abandoning Adorno’s analytical pessimism are plentiful, but I’ll single out Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream, or this podcast here.

Treating the history of literature in dialectical terms would be less invested in the individual stylistic innovations perpetuated by writers, and heed ‘the sheer quantity of words with which a given historical period is saturated’ to a greater extent. In a commercial society, for instance, in which the subject is bombarded constantly with advertisements, newspapers, articles, tweets, the author of literature is obliged to administer to the reader a sequence of shocks in order to gain their attention, and it is this which serves to colour our literary culture and why modern poetry maintains an interest with density in language rather than transparency. This might go some distance to accounting for the disappearance of organised novelistic form, but such claims would benefit from an awareness of popular trends of consumption, those which undermine theories constructed by scholars operating in a relative vacuum, in order to avoid falling into Adorno’s conservatism, and in maintaining one’s pursuit of the dialectic (however defined).