The Marx of the Avant-Gardes



by McKenzie Wark

So much for an academic #Marx21c. What about the avant-gardes? Perhaps there is something to be said for the total and bracing critique of Manfredo Tafuri, for whom all of the avant-gardes were stalking horses for capital, all diverting social struggle into formal “solutionism,” all merely delaying the advent of total revolution. But there is a way that such an absolute perspective lends itself to quietism as much as activism. The avant-gardes necessarily fail, but more to the point, they never give up.

Here there are some competing methods to choose from and think about developing in the twenty-first century. The practice of quotation, the standard academic method, becomes optional. The one I know the most about is détournement, but there are others. This comes down to a question of what one considers form.

Twentieth-century Marxist aesthetics was obsessed with formal methods. They took the means of production of art to be more or less given. Within the work that such a process produced, they sought to transform the experience of the work by attention to its formal properties.

The dominant idea here is that an audience can be brought to the point of a radical cognition by a formal procedure. It could be one that interrupts an expectation. It could in this sense be negative. Or it could affirm another formal principle altogether, one that refuses those which simply mirror the dominant ideological forms congruent with the commodity.

What I will here call the style of interruption or negation might be thought of as the school of Adorno. The task of the work here is to refuse the extorted reconciliation of the culture industry, where every song begins and ends on the same note, where every story is a happy ever after. The aesthetic, as Jay Bernstein maintains, in the spirit of Adorno, is the domain of the qualitative, of that which is excluded in advance from the calculus of exchange value.

But there are other aesthetics with which Marxism has had a dalliance. The epic theater of Brecht ends up in the alienation-effect produced in later Godard films. The historical novel, which for Lukacs narrates the totality of historical action as seen from the margins by minor characters, becomes the historical cinema of Visconti.

A particularly interesting case is the art of the popular front, of the counter-hegemonic struggle for cultural leadership, in Gramsci’s terms. Here one might locate some but certainly not all of Pasolini. His books and films combine an historical axis with a kind of theological one. His work, unlike that of bourgeois novels and films, does not exclude the heavens as the locus of a popular affect of justice and redemption. There is of course something backward-looking here. It is not pre-bourgeois elite art that is the source of the non-commodifed culture, as in Adorno, but the pre-capitalist underclass.

In his later work, Pasolini despairs for the disappearance of these popular sources of another way of life. His last work, the unfinished queer-Marxist masterpiece Petrolio, pointed to a path beyond this. Interestingly enough, it also concerns the oil and gas industry, and gave a convincing answer for the involution of the state into its concentrated spectacle form, as described by Debord. In Petrolio it is clear that the state monopoly industries such as oil and gas are producing a new form of state-capital monopoly formation, in which—contrary to the neoliberal proposition—state and capital are inextricably entwined.

Pasolini’s genius was to become at one and the same time a marginal and a popular figure, a one-man dialectic of the singular and the universal. But his work still inhabited the confines of the culture industry, which is decidedly in retreat. The culture industry is giving way to what I call the vulture industry. The latter no longer even feels the need to make spectacle for us to consume. We are supposed to make it for each other—unpaid—while it collects the rent. To understand this trajectory, the school of détournement, which asked formal questions in a more basic way, might have its merits.

One can start here with a vulgar and reductionist reading of Benjamin, particularly the infamous text on mechanical reproducibility. Here Benjamin began to grasp the potential of the cinema as a means of production of perception. The mass-produced image is partway to an organization of the senses through which the people really could make history, at least with the perceptions of their own choosing, if not quite the means. The elasticity of tempo and scale and the capacity to edit perceptions into narrative, metaphoric, and conceptual patterns; all point to a non-rationalist means by which labor could be self-organized into a totality able to perceive itself making its own history, in and against nature, and through all these senses and sense-making forms of cognition. Benjamin grasped the potential, and what is essential, about technological prosthesis for forward movement in history. Tragically, of course, none of this came to pass.

Interestingly, Platonov had similar ideas, and like Benjamin drew on short-lived experiments in the Soviet ‘20s. His factory of literature anticipates the collaborative filtering of the Nettime era, and is still a bold plan for balancing a distributed with a hierarchical means of discovering and filtering images, stories, moods, and ideas out of everyday discourse, and organizing them into synthetic, multi-authored perceptions of the state of historical development.

It was Debord who articulated the concept of these practices as détournement. His model was the great late-romantic poetry of Lautréamont—one of the patron saints of the Francophone avant-gardes. Debord and his comrades quite correctly saw how the copying of cultural material, its correction in the direction of hope, and the combining of different materials, were all components of a practice as yet to be invented, via which the people could make, if not history, then the precondition for it: the history of their own culture as a collective and collaborative project.

Détournement as practiced by the avant-gardes is no respecter of authorship or copyrights. It treats the past not as an apostolic succession but as a literary communism, or in today’s terms, a commons. It breaks down the Chinese firewalls of information recuperated by intellectual property. From Kathy Acker to Vanessa Place, Kenneth Goldsmith and Stewart Home, this avant-garde has evolved as a counter-economy of practices which grasp through their actions what the abstraction of information has made of the cultural archive.

What these more recent practices highlight is the transformation, from the era of the culture industry to the vulture industry, of the whole space of culture as détournement. It became a social movement in all but name in the late twentieth century. Not too far into the twenty-first, détournement was recuperated into commodity production, with the capture of the energies of the gift culture of information into higher-order forms of capture. Here the more subtle techniques of latter-day practitioners are instructive. Goldsmith’s, for example, an invaluable compendium of avant-garde audio and video, is simply not visible with certain search engines, to prevent them from recuperating access to this material as a basis for its ad-based business model.

There are of course other avant-garde strategies. Reaching back to the hyperbolic language of the futurists are the Accelerationists. This has its roots in a school that appropriated Marx not into a Hegelian or a Spinozist register, but a Nietzschean one: Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard. After the failure of May ‘68 as a negation of capital, they sought other means of thinking its supersession. Deleuzian desiring-machines, Lyotardian libidinal economy, Baudrillard’s fatal strategies were all procedures that affirm and push forward the dynamics of capital.

The first wave of Accelerationist thought and art pushes these strategies even further. A second wave interestingly reacts against the Nietzschean note, and tries to reconstruct a rationalist and non-populist project that still seeks the reconciliation of reason and the real, but no longer in the guise of human reason. For the rational to meet the real is to shed the fleshy impediments of the human and integrate it into machine cognition. (Although the Accelerationists appear not to know it, this was J.D. Bernal’s program of the ‘20s.)

This is still an interesting project, if somewhat limited in scope. It usefully abandons the now rather vain hope in an agent of negation, and bets the farm on the forward momentum of what it still largely imagines to be an eternal capitalism. The focus on a hyper-rationalism seems at one and the same time a useful corrective to the Nietzschean excesses of the late twentieth century, although one which seems curiously resistant to thinking its own will to power.

There is a promise of a re-engagement with the natural sciences here, but conceived in rationalist fashion, and making something of a fetish of mathematics. It moves in quite the opposite direction to that line that runs from Marx and Ernst Mach to Bogdanov to Haraway, which calls for a rather more empirical engagement with the means of production of the natural sciences, not to mention with science studies, which over the last thirty years has produced a convincing body of work that fatally compromises any attempt to impose a philosophical rationality on the sciences. (Of that work, Donald MacKenzie seems least hostile to Marxism.)

Strangely enough, the irrationalist strand of Accelerationism held out one possible set of concepts which has been all but erased. One might think that of all the avant-gardes, nobody belongs more in the dustbin of history than the Surrealists. Yet they were one of the conditions of possibility for Bataille’s general economy. The brilliance of this was grasping the centrality of the unreturnable gift of sunlight to the biosphere. The beginnings of a general theory of the Anthropocene reside in that insight. Alan Stoeckl, in his book Bataille’s Gift, and Reza Negarestani, in Cyclonopedia, independently opened up a useful line of thought on this, one which the latter appears unfortunately to have abandoned.

The Surrealist note lives on too in various attempts to construct a mytho-poetics for the times. The followers of Benjamin might fall into this camp; these include Susan Buck-Morss and Esther Leslie, whose work on Soviet utopias and German romantic science, respectively, open up new perspectives. Meanwhile, Michael Lowy, Franklin Rosemont, Penelope Rosemont, and Robin D. G. Kelley have kept the flame of those who connected a non-Stalinist Marxism to the surrealist project of the revolution of desire. To this Edward Soja adds the thirdspace of urban hybridity, and Andy Merrifield his own flavor of magical-Marxism.

In a strange way, the surrealist impulse became, of all things, analytic rather than mythic, in the hands of the Lacanians. The Lacanian approach used to be in dialogue with cultural Marxism, but lately seems to have become independent of it. Castoriadis bent this back toward a creative rather than analytic project, in his concept of the imaginary institution of society. Chiara Bottici refines this in her studies of the imaginal, and Stephen Duncombe’s work contains a wealth of examples of attempts to work the affective and mythic terrain of American culture in progressive directions. What remains to be done here perhaps is to connect the practices of liberation in content of the surrealists with the liberation of form that descends from the Situationists and others under the sign of détournement.

The legacy of the Situationists points in at least two directions. One is a theory and practice of détournement. The other is a radical critique of capital and spectacle that points toward total revolution. The latter strand is advanced by groups advocating communization. This entails a trenchant critique of all popular front strategies, a refusal of the party form, a rejection of the working class as itself a compromised product of capital, and an analysis which insists on an immanent communism.

One version of this has Heideggerian overtones—the Tiqqun group, already mentioned. The Endnotes collective, and the French groups it draws upon, do not.  Endnotes No. 1 begins with a root and branch rejection of the politics of the popular front. It is an interesting analysis, but if these are indeed times of neofascism, then tactically I think what needs more development are ideas and sentiments that can scale, rather than such incendiary analyses, bracing though they are. There is, however, a lively poetics growing out of this strand at Commune Editions.

Needless to say, such avant-gardes, when not collapsing into academia, now collapse towards the art-world. The Bernadette Corporation, Reena Spaulings, and Claire Fontaine would be representatives of that tendency. We all have to make a living, I guess. As Chris Kraus has argued, the art-world, for all its problems, might be more open as a space in which to do critical work than the academy.

It does not seem inappropriate to me to consider the now forty year old project of Semiotext(e) as an avant-garde. Besides being a key port of entry for French and Italian (post)Marxist thought into the Anglophone world, Sylvère Lotringer’s selection, translation, editing, and presentation of that work seems to me an advanced work of détournement in its own right. It gathered momentum by selecting elements of Foucault, Baudrillard, Guattari, Lyotard, and others that might serve as tools for articulating a radicalism not of labor but of desire.

This gave rise to a second moment of this avant-garde, which absorbed the conceptual force of that work, but took issue with the universal and masculinist master-speakers who presumed to speak in the place of what was supposed to be a horizontal and plural field of radical or resistant desiring-machines. Kathy Acker was a parallel development here, but it was Chris Kraus, both as Semiotext(e) editor and author, who took this turn. Her work connected both to a distinctive, non-academic kind of feminism, and also to questions about the art-work as work, and hence of labor. As seen on the ground, this labor attempts to create aesthetic practices which no longer make art, but aim higher than that, at forms of survival.

Failure is a keynote of Krausian avant-garde practice. Here it echoes a note from the queer avant-gardes of the early twenty-first century. Judith (aka Jack) Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure transmutes Stuart Hall’s cultural Marxist low theory into a queer one. José Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopia repurposes the theo-Marxism of Ernst Bloch, and Kevin Floyd does the same for Lukács in the Reification of Desire. While these are academic works, they draw on the twenty-first-century spaces that took the place of bohemias, and the avant-gardes of sexual politics that have endured, survived, and sometimes even managed to flourish there in dim times.

A certain sensibility that might be called Marxist has also had a role in creating an African diasporic avant-garde that has some independence from forms of both Black nationalism and also more potentially essentialist forms of Negritude. Cedric Robinson made race rather than class a central dimension of a global analytic of struggle. Paul Gilroy elaborated this into a workable concept of the Black Atlantic. Isaac Julien, building like Gilroy in part on Stuart Hall, is just one of a number of artists who have been able then to work in a transnational, diasporic space outside of both national and Black nationalist formations. This might be just one instance of the internationalist commitment of Marxism and its interesting and productive after-effects.

The poetics journal Lana Turner has been conducting a very interesting dialogue about the avant-garde, including many crucial voices which decenter or reject such a construct. There is as yet no synthesis of those avant-gardes whose locus is the perceptual, the technical, the rational, and the corporeal. Perhaps there never will be. And yet perhaps one role that Marxism(s) might find here is in negotiating between the fragments of practice. It is a question of seeing in this a Marxism which can be in-between various positions rather than above them.

Marxism may not work any more as a Jamesonian high theory, as a kind of master-code that always rises above other critical and constructive practices. Rather than specialize in being a meta-discourse, perhaps it might instead specialize in being a translation practice. Here Emily Apter’s insistence on the limits to world literature and the nuances of translation practice might be a good model. This of course calls for a quite different kind of capacity with language. In relation to the avant-gardes, it might mean a Marxism that tries to grasp each in turn as certain kinds of worker or hacker practices, in and against certain particular means of production of aesthetic form and value.

Essay part 5 of a 6-part series. First published at Arcade | Creative Commons License
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About the Author:

McKenzie Wark is Professor of Culture and Media at The New School. He is the author, most recently, of The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso 2013). His book, Molecular Red is out in April 2015.