Friday, November 15, 2019

Gyorgy Lukacs "The Ideology of Modernism" and everyday aesthetics

This work, first published in 1962, is often anthologized in books about continental aesthetics.  I will be working from the version in Continental Aesthetics:  Romanticism to Postmodernism:  An Anthology.  ed. Richard Kearney and David Rasmussen.  This piece could just be seen as a rant against the modernist novel, particularly Joyce, Beckett, Musil, Faulkner, and Kafka.  It might seem simply a matter of taste:  Lukács preferring "realist writers" such as Mann to these others.  But of course there are deeper issues of competing ideologies here.  And then there are issues of competing Marxist ideologies too! Lukács' Marxism is very different from that of Marcuse and Adorno.  As I do not label myself a Marxist I see no need to determine who among the Marxist aestheticians are truly Marxist.  What really interests me about Lukács is relevance to my leitmotif of everyday aesthetics. 

The issue of everyday aesthetics for Marxists is pretty straightforward.  In capitalist conditions everyday life is alienated.  This alienation is based, of course, on exploitation both in the workplace and via manipulation of needs through advertising and marketing.  Everyday life, especially for the working class, is aesthetically deprived.  In an ideal, communist, society everyone would produce in a non-alienated way according to "laws of beauty" as Marx put it in the 1844 Manuscripts.  

For Lukács the issue of the everyday comes up in two contexts, first in reference to life in a capitalist society and second in relation to Freud's notion of the psychopathology of everyday life.  Although he is mainly interested in criticizing a certain type of novel he is also interested in the main problems of Marxism, i.e. in how to explain the world in materialist terms and how to promote socialist revolution, and he situates his critique within that other interest.  

So the modernist text is based, he argues, on an ideology that stresses a static notion of human nature over a dynamic one.  It does not allow for a portrayal of human development in conditions of a dialectic between the subjective self and objective conditions.  In particular, Modernism (the name I will use here for the ideology of modernist literature) argues, implicitly, that humans have an unchanging human nature, and this human nature is that which is described as thrownness or being "thrown-into-being" by Heidegger.  It is the experience of being ontologically alone:  our essential and existential solitariness.  Of course the view is not only that one is alone in relation to others but also that one is abandoned by God (since there is no God).   (I would note that although I often enjoy modernist literature and find Heidegger intriguing, I join Lukács in rejecting this view of human nature.)

This view is also combined with a view of the nature of possibility.  For the Modernist, possibility is only abstract:  it is never concrete.  But the realist novelist (and also Lukács) wishes to stress the need for both abstract possibility and concrete possibility.  Concrete possibility is based on the historical conditions of our being.  Abstract possibility seems infinite, concrete possibility much more limited.  So, for the Realist (we will use this term here as referring to the theory that competes with the Modernist:  interestingly, the Realist does not have to be a Marxist), man and human culture are both historically situated.  The realist novel then stresses not subjective time alone (unlike the Modernist) but a dialectic of subjective and objective time.  Similarly the Realist stresses a dialectic of the subjective and the objective in general.  We should avoid the mistake, a form of vulgar Marxism, that would reduce the subjective to the objective.  Retaining subjectivity allows for the possibility of human choice:  Lukács is no determinist.  

One of the problems Lukács finds with Modernism is that it offers as a solution to alienation a retreat into psychopathology.  Psychopathology is no solution to the problems posed by capitalist society.  For a Modernist like Musil, if you do not "run with the pack," i.e. join in the capitalist rat race, your only alternative is becoming a neurotic.  Modernism, Lukács thinks, naturally leads to naturalism, i.e. a literary style that stresses sordid details of everyday life.  As Alfred Kerr put it, "what is poetic in everyday life?  Neurotic aberration, escape from life's dreary routing." And, as Lukács observes, this implies "the poetic necessity of the pathological [deriving] from the prosaic quality of life under capitalism."  Lukács sees a continuity between this older naturalism and contemporary modernism: "Kerr's description suggests that in naturalism the interest in psychopathology sprang from an esthetic need, it was an attempt to escape from the dreariness of life under capitalism."  (227)  Lukács sees this as evolving from "merely decorative function, bringing color into the greyness of reality" into a "moral protest of capitalism."  (227)  

The second point of contact with the everyday comes up a couple paragraphs later.  There, Lukács turns to Freud, whose psychoanalysis he sees as an obvious expression of this obsession with the pathological.  He sees Modernism and psychoanalysis as essentially the same.  And Freud's starting point was 'everyday life.'  Freud explains slips of the tongue, daydreams (and dreams as well) in terms of psychopathology.  Lukács thinks rather that one should see mental abnormality as a "deviation from a norm."  

So, on his view, "this is not strictly a scientific or literary-critical problem.  It is an ideological problem, deriving from the ontological dogma of the solitariness of man." (228)  Lukács contrasts Modernism to Realism which is based on Aristotle's idea of man as a political animal, and which produces a new typology of humans "for each new phase in the evolution of society."  The value of Realism is that it sees contradictions both within society and within the individual in terms of dialectic.  In the realist literature of Shakespeare, Balzac, and Stendhal "the average man is simply a dimmer reflection of the contradictions always existing in man and society."  (228)  And this is made impossible if you believe man is thrown into Being. 

In talking about traditional realists Lukács is not necessarily talking about the kind of novel he would like to see today or the kind of ideology he most favors. (Isn't it odd that someone who considers himself part of the wave of the future is going to hold up much older writers as his ideal?  Wouldn't those writers, from a Marxist perspective, reflect Bourgeois ideology of their own time?)  Indeed he sees these writers as producing an "abstract polarity of the eccentric and the socially average" and he believes that this "leads in modernism to a fascination with morbid eccentricity" which becomes "the necessary complement of the average." Further, this polarity "is held to exhaust human potentiality," which of course he would reject.  What is puzzling is how a realism he favors can lead into the modernism he does not.  

Another issue is one of competing approaches to sensuous details.  Although, in discussing naturalism, Lukács tends to focus on the ugly details of daily life under capitalism (especially for the worker), the naturalist can also be concerned about the aesthetics of everyday life in a positive way.   Tom Huhn quotes from Zola's Nana in connection with this issue:  "The company went upstairs to take coffee in the little drawing room, where a couple of lamps shed a soft glow over the pink hangings and the lacquer and old gold of the knick-knacks.  At that hour of the evening the light played discreetly over coffers, bronzes and china..." and so forth.  Huhn, Tom (2000), "A Modern Critique of Modernism: Lukács, Greenberg, and Ideology." Constellations, 7: 178-196.  

Huhn suggests that for Lukács what is absent is cohesion, whicyh  is compensated by a "surfeit of stimulation...a smorgasbord of sensation"   (Huhn's essay is excellent on Lukács's Hegelianism:  I cannot do justice to that here.)  Huhn interprets Lukács as seeing naturalism in terms of mere sensation as opposed to rich experience.  But it seems to me that there is something redemptive in a positive everyday aesthetic as found in this naturalist description.

At the end of his essay Lukács says of Kafka (as paradigmatic modernist) that "He has emptied everyday life of meaning by using the allegorical method; he has allowed detail to be annihilated by his transcendental nothingness" and this "prevents him from investing observed detail with typical significance."  In short, Kafka cannot "achieve that fusion of the particular and the general which is the essence of realistic art" since his aim is to raise the individual detail to the level of abstraction.  (234)

What are the implications of this for an aesthetics of everyday life.  Consider Modernism and Realism as competing approaches to that aesthetics (and not just towards the aesthetic valuation of novels that portray life).  Much of what Lukács says is true and yet one cannot follow him in outright condemning Modernist approaches to the everyday.  Modernism does seem to shed light on experience by focusing even more on the details of the everyday (only thinking in terms of the "typical" can blind us to the sensuousness of the particular).  If, as Huhn suggests, Lukács would reject the passage from Zola, it is because he would reject an approach to everyday life that is sometimes light, sometimes legitimately concerned with sensuous surfaces.  

Ultimately Lukács distinction between abstract and concrete possibility hides something more fundamental. Lukács is, finally, a moralist and a moralist requires that the concrete possibility be understood in a moralist way, and thus label any other approach to concrete possibility as "abstract."  There is a sense in Lukács that a novel cannot be good unless it in some way promotes a socialist revolution, and this seems severely limiting to the novel.  Similarly, he would no doubt require that we approach everyday life in a moralistic way as well.  I cannot join him there.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The god and its relation to Heidegger's theory of art

I have posted before on The Origin of the Work of Art here and here.  So this can be taken as an addendum.  I am mainly interested in this quote:  "We believe we are at home in the immediate circle of beings.  That which is, is familiar, reliable, ordinary.  Nevertheless, the clearing is pervaded by a constant concealment in the double form of refusal and dissembling.  At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary, uncanny." (197 in Richard Kearney and David Rasmussen  Continental Aesthetics:  An Antology, 2001)  So it seems, for what it is worth, that Heidegger is on my side in the debate between the what I have called those who stress the ordinariness of the ordinary and those who do not.  But I do not want to appeal to authority here.  I just find Heidegger useful.

A key issue is the role of "the god."  Here is my admittedly crude take on this.  For the world/earth dynamic to work a god must be projected.  The god provides a center for the holy precinct.  But the god does not have to be an ancient Greek god.  The god is whatever makes Being shine.  I hypothesize that the god in the Van Gogh shoes example is the peasant woman, although a case could be made for the shoes as belonging to a peasant woman.   "The god" on this account is very much like what Kant calls an "aesthetic idea."  The shoes in Van Gogh's painting are an aesthetic idea.  The god also plays a similar role to Nietzsche's description of Dionysus on stage in ancient Greek tragedy. 

Something like this can happen in everyday life.  In everyday life sometimes a thing makes the surrounding world uncanny.  If that happens, the thing is "the god." 

This happens in thinking too. A concept that symbolizes everything and seems to focus one's ideas:  that can be the god for a thinker. 

Of course this analysis is not inconsistent with atheism.  "God" can be replaced by some other term and does not imply literal belief.  If you are somewhat successful in finding "the god" you make the world shine again in the same way that the surroundings of the temple when it is set up takes on Being.  When Heidegger says we have not been listening to Being.

Note how also Heidegger and Danto are opposed.  Danto's Artworld is cut off from the world.  The main disadvantage of that is that there is no earth/world dynamic.  There is no wonder that beauty is lost since beauty arises along with Truth and Being in the earth/world dynamic.  I side with Heidegger on this one.


Thursday, November 7, 2019

Marcuse's The Aesthetic Dimension, and everyday aesthetics

The key passage in Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension (originally 1977 in German, 1978 in English…Marcuse’s first work in aesthetics, a response to Adorno and Benjamin) for everyday aesthetics is:  “In  this sense art is ‘art for art’s sake’ inasmuch as the aesthetic form reveals tabooed and repressed dimensions of reality:  aspects of liberation.  The poetry of Mallarmé is an extreme example; his poems conjure up modes of perception, imagination, gestures – a feast of sensuousness which shatters everyday experience and anticipates a different reality principle.”  (239)   Mallarmé of course represents Modernism and he is precisely the person attacked by Lukacs.  The passage for me is key in that art for art’s sake becomes something a bit different from what we might see in Clive Bell.  It is a liberation, a new reality principle, and also a feast of sensuousness.  So the shattering of the everyday is directed to a new liberated sensuous everyday.  I am not so much interested here in fine art as in what the art does to life:  it reveals something repressed and points to a new reality principle.  This is the bohemian revolt, the hippie revolt which was formed in the early seventies.  (1977 is really 1969-74 here.)   So, “a pleasure in decay, in destruction, in the beauty of evil; a celebration of the asocial, of the anomic” is itself the “secret revolution of the bourgeois against his own class.”  This is Kerouac's On the Road, Ginsberg, Burroughs.   Marcuse also describes this as “ingression of the primary erotic-destructive forces which explode the normal universe of communication and behavior.”  (240)  This “rebellion against the social order” reveals Eros and Thanatos as “beyond all social control” and “invokes needs and gratifications which are essentially destructive….even death and the devil are enlisted as allies in the refusal to abide by the law and order of repression.”  And Marcuse believes this is “one of the historical forms of critical aesthetic transcendence.”  If we grant some of the Marxist fundamentals, i.e. that our capitalist system is one of exploitation and repression as well as alienation and false consciousness, then it is absurd to construct a theory of everyday aesthetics where the dominant model of the everyday is simply accepted.  Avant-garde art shows the way, i.e. material (not spiritual) transcendence.  What is the everyday?  It is the experience of what is conditioned by the social.  So if art transcends the specific social content and form it does so by breaking the ordinary everyday.  The ordinary everyday tells us (i.e. those in my culture) that driving a car is inevitable:  but at the same time we need to be broken out of this to survive the onslaught of global warming.  Art can help by revealing libidinous energies that are repressed by a culture of conformity.  “Art is committed to that perception of the world which alienates individuals from their functional existence and performance in society – it is committed to an emancipation of sensibility, imagination, and reason in all spheres of subjectivity and objectivity.”  (237)  So art is committed to transformation of the everyday.   

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Walter Benjamin The Everyday in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin's famous "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is mainly about art.  But it can also relate to everyday aesthetics.  After all, if perception changes with historical conditions so too will perception of the everyday.  There seem to be the following changes on his account.  First, the authenticity of the landscape changes.  The aura of landscape may be reduced as film takes over our representation of landscape.  Second, magazine illustrations and advertisements, common objects in everyday experience, change not only our perception of artworks but also our lived phenomenological space.  In the age of mechanical reproduction these things take more prominence.   They also influence the way we perceive the things they represent.  In the subsequent age of digital reproduction the images we see on our screens play an important new role in our everyday experience.  Third, the very reduction of cult, ritual and aura in the age of mechanical reproduction means that this also plays less a role in everyday experience.  Fourth, Benjamin's account of the architectural, taken as a matter not of contemplation but of distraction, changes (or describes a change in) our perception of architectural space on an everyday basis.

However these are almost random matters:  perhaps the most significant is just the reduction of aura generally speaking (and not just the aura of art).  Of course aura is mainly associated with cult experience or experience in an artworld context.  But let's say that aura occurs in everyday life outside of cult experience.  Benjamin himself discusses what he calls natural aura, i.e. "the unique phenomenon of a distance" which happens for example when you follow a mountain range with your eyes.  So, if there is less contemplation, less aura, and less distance, then this is true not simply in the art gallery or museum but in everyday life.  Benjamin speaks of the urge of the masses to get hold of things at close range, including picture magazines and newsreels.  (He seems to revel in this, finding it a good thing.) If there is now a "sense of the universal equality of things" and aura is destroyed everywhere then even the natural aura is destroyed.  Uniqueness and permanence are abandoned for the transitory.  Tradition is "liquidated."  Ritual is going to be replaced by politics, although there is a deep ambiguity here since later in the essay it is clear that fascism as much as socialism is the politics that replaces ritual....and fascism really just introduces another sort of ritual...and isn't there a fascism of socialism as well?  The emancipation of the everyday from aura, cult and ritual into politics seems dubious in this regard.  

There are other points in the essay that glance off of the everyday but which are worth considering.  In section VII the dispute of painting vs. photography is discussed as also the question of whether film is art.  Benjamin stresses that various theorists who have tried to make film out to be art have done so in a forced way, for example in holding it to be a kind of hieroglyph or a kind of prayer.  Most interesting for our purposes, at the end of the section Werfel is mentioned as saying that (in Benjamin's words) "it was the sterile copying of the external world with its streets, interiors, stations, restaurants, motorcars, and beaches which until now had obstructed the elevation of the film to the realm of art."  Werfel then says that the true meaning of film is to express "all that is fairylike, marvelous, supernatural."  Benjamin mocks this.  But perhaps what film does in such a meaningful way (take Badlands as an example) is to film the everyday in such a way as to make it marvelous and supernatural-like.  This is what Benjamin misses, that mechanical reproduction can actually assist in the aestheticization of the everyday.  Heidegger speaks of us with disapproval as no longer listening to Being and not allowing the reliability of equipment to shine through in truth, something that great art helps us to remedy.  Perhaps a way out of our current alienation (an alienation that is markedly of the 21st century sort) is to open ourselves up to the aura in the everyday.  

One place where the everyday is explicitly mentioned in in section XIII where Benjamin takes an interested in Freud, especially in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, a book which he sees as isolating and making analyzable "things which had heretofore floated along unnoticed in the broad stream of perception."  Benjamin observes that this kind of analysis leads to a "deepening of apperception."  Through Freud we see the everyday differently.  And film does something similar on Benjamin's account:  "behavior items shown in a movie can be analyzed much more precisely and from more points of view..." Further, "[b]y close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film... extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives..."  And then, "[o]ur taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly" until film burst this prison-world open. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended and new forms are revealed with photographic enlargement.  Thus, "an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man."  And then we get a different view even of walking or of reaching for a lighter:  "[t]he act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal..."   Film reveals this.  In short, "the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses" and we see the world differently. 

We also learn in section X that film can break down the distinction between art and life:  "Some of the players whom we meet in Russian films are not actors in our sense but people who portray themselves - and primarily in their work process."  I want to return however to a strange thing in Section VI.  First we see that there is some cult value in photography, it is in the photograph of the human face:  there is an aura which emanates from early photographs, and these have "an incomparable beauty."  Benjamin insist that exhibition value is superior to such ritual value, although this seems strange since exhibition value is value of a commodity, exhibitions being capitalist market places mainly.  There is no surprise that aura is lost in such a market-place, but is this an improvement over the aura of the photograph.  Benjamin speaks of the "incomparable significance of Atget."  But I think he gets Atget wrong.  He likens Atget's photographs of deserted city streets to crime scene photographs.  But there are no dead bodies in these photographs.  This is not Weegee.  "With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance."  They demand not "free-floating contemplation" but stir the viewer in a new way.  I frankly do not see the crime scene or the politics.  Atget gives us something for contemplation, the deserted city streets.  Now, so many years later, they are also nostalgic...a Paris that no longer exists.  They have an aura.  They do challenge the viewer in a unique way but not a way so different from the way we look at early photographs of human faces, which Benjamin takes to have cult value.   More importantly, they train us for experiencing the everyday.  

The last section is about architecture, but in a way that brings in the everyday.  Benjamin wants to make the complaint that the masses demand distraction (whereas art demands concentration) into something more positive.  Whereas the man who concentrates is absorbed by a work of art the "distracted mass absorbs the work of art" and this happens in architecture whose reception "is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction."  This seems, at least on the face of it obviously false.  If you are distracted you are not paying attention, and yet to enjoy the fine aspects of a work of architecture even if you are a member of "the masses" you still need to pay attention.  No one will appreciate a work of Frank Lloyd Wright if they are all the time distracted by their Facebook activity.  But Benjamin goes on to say that "[b]uildings are appropriated in a twofold manner:  by use and by perception - or rather, by touch and sight.  Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building."  There may be some truth in this;  the tourist experience is only one way to appreciate architecture.  "On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side.  Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit" and in architecture habit also determines optical reception, i.e. "less through rapt attention than by noticing the object in incidental fashion."  To bring back in distraction:  the distracted person can also form habits.  His conclusion is that this also happens in film where the "public is an examiner, but an absent minded one." 

I find nothing helpful in this idea:  perhaps the English word "distraction" is a hindrance here.  However it is certainly the case that our experience is architecture is just one of rapt attention but also in the incidental and habitual may only be in the back of our consciousness that this building we walk by is well proportioned.  There are in between states as well:  today I noticed an architectural element on my campus, a winding pathway, I had never noticed before, and this was delightful even though neither a matter for rapt attention or for incidental and habitual awareness.  Indeed, I think that this sort of awareness is more important architecturally in terms of everyday life than the other two.