Notes from ‘The Marxist Sublime’ – part 1

I just finished reading the chapter ‘The Marxist Sublime’ from Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic. It provides a pretty solid groundwork for an orthodox Marxist aesthetics of musical practice. Here’s some notes from it. In the next pile of notes, I’ll deal more specifically with the question of counterpoint. For now, it’s just the philosophical basics.

Human development, body, practice. Firstly, for Eagleton’s Marx, the goal of all human society is human development as such – the development of the ‘human species being’.

This is a fundamentally aesthetic proposition because it starts out “from the standpoint of the body itself” (p. 196). The goal of a good society is the development of the human faculties which are founded in the five senses, conceived as practical tools, and not contemplative receivers: “Sense perception for Marx is in the first place the constitutive structure of human practice, rather than a set of contemplative organs; indeed it can become the latter insofar as it is already the former” (p. 199).

Private property, estrangement, antinomy, fetishism. Unfortunately, our society is not fundamentally geared towards human development. Eagleton notes, “Private property is the ‘sensuous expression’ of humanity’s estrangement from its own body, the dismal displacement of our sensuous plenitude onto a single drive to possess” (p. 199).

In capitalist society – at least in Marx’s time – this means that there is a bifurcation of sensuous activity within humanity: for the worker or the poor, the basic need for sustenance means that objects are robbed of their aesthetic specificities, and for the rich, the rule of money has so distorted their consciousness that they tend towards a vulgar, disinterested and meaningless decadence.

If a brutal aesceticism is one aspect of capitalist society, its inverted mirror-image is a fantastic aestheticism. Sensory existence is stripped to skeletal need at one level only to be extravagantly inflated at another. (p. 200)

This may not be the same in the West in our time. The working class (particularly its upper layers) certainly are not simply going from fundamental need to fundamental need – some even have time for new music. But this does not mean that even in the relatively affluent West, the social order is ripe for human development and aesthetic practice. Although Eagleton doesn’t fully say so here (later on he touches on it), this is primarily due to commodity fetishisation. I have dealt with this in relation to Stewart Martin’s article, and intend to post about it in a summary of thoughts from Balibar’s The Philosophy of Marx. But to summarise, we could say that within capitalism, art becomes totally exchangeable (this is the condition of the commodity), losing its qualitative uniqueness as well as its relation to producer and place, and to compensate gets pumped up with lots of surface-level excitement in order to disguise this fundamental loss. Rather than using art as a means to further human development, most cultural consumption in the West has become capital using art as a means of achieving profit, to the detriment of both art and music (this is of course not an absolute, there are counter-tendencies). That’s not well explained… clearly I have some thinking to do to get my head around the concept of fetishism.

Ah! Here’s the quote from Eagleton re the antinomy embedded in the commodity:

Capitalist society is at once an orgy of such anarchic desire and the reign of a supremely bodiless reason. As with some strikingly ill-achieved artefact, its serious contents degenerate to sheer raw immediacy, while its governing forms grow rigidly abstract and autonomous. (p. 207)

And even better (I will type out the entire quote, because it is so good, and so I can return to it regarding counterpoint in a future post):

As the antithesis of the aesthetic object, a kind of artefact gone awry, the commodity’s material being is a mere random instantiation of the abstract law of exchange. Yet if this is a case of Hegel’s ‘bad’ universality, the commodity as fetish also exemplifies a ‘bad’ immediacy, negating the general social relations within which it was produced. As pure exchange-value, the commodity erases from itself every particle of matter; as alluring auratic object, it parades its own sensual being in a kind of spurious show of materiality. But this materiality is itself a form of abstraction, serving as it does to occlude the concrete social relations of its own production. One the one hand, the commodity spirits away the substance of those relations; on the other hand it invests its own abstractions with specious material density. In its esotericism, as well as in its rabid hostility to matter, the commodity is a parody of metaphysical idealism; but it is also, as fetish, the very type of degraded materiality. It thus forms a compact space in which the pervasive contradictions of bourgeois society converge. (p. 209)

The role of social revolution. So how then do we overcome these antinomies which signify a fetter on human development? Obviously this cannot be achieved within capitalism, since the cause of the antimonies are in the material relations of capital themselves (private property, commodity). Eagleton:

The goal of Marxism is to restore to the body its plundered powers; but only with the supersession of private property will the senses be able to come into their own. If communism is necessary, it is because we are unable to feel, taste, smell and touch as fully as we might. (p. 201)

But could practicing art itself bring about the new social relations? Marx – a realist – says no:

Marx is at his most profoundly ‘aesthetic’ in his belief that the exercise of human senses, powers and capacities is an absolute end in itself, without the need of utilitarian justification; but the unfolding of this sensuous richness for its own sake can be achieved, paradoxically only through the rigorously instrumental practice of overthrowing bourgeois social relations. (p. 202, emphasis added)

And further:

The scandalous originality of Marx is to harness this noble Schillerian vision of a symmetrical, many-sided humanity to highly partial, particular, one-sided political forces. (p. 206)

And finally, emphatically:

If the aesthetic is to realize itself it must pass over into the political, which is what it secretly always was. (p. 207)

So, if aesthetics are the end, politics are the means, and the two are the same (though only in ‘the final analysis’). Politics is the instrument by which bourgeois social relations are overthrown and replaced by fundamentally more human, democratic relations. Art is not the instrument for this. This is due to the obvious fact that you can’t art away the ruling class… They kinda run the show… and have entire state apparatuses at their disposal. No matter who good your counterpoint, they still run the prisons – and no cop is going to stop beating up a protestor if you sing a wicked fugue to him.

The autonomy of art. What then remains for art? Is it the case that art should be put on hold until the revolution is won and more favourable conditions for aesthetic practice are established? Eagleton suggests that art remains important in ‘pre-revolutionary’ times largely since it is a place-holder for a freer way of relating to labour, and thus a fuller mode of human development. In a sense it is a utopian image in the bleak present. This is because art is ‘autotelic’ and neither in the service of profit or base need:

If production is an end in itself for capitalism, so is it also, in a quite different sense, for Marx. The actualization of human powers is a pleasurable necessity of human nature, needing no more functional justification than the work of art. Indeed art figures for Marx as the ideal paradigm of material production precisely because it is so evidently autotelic. ‘A writer’, he comments, ‘does not regard his works as means to an end. They are an end in themselves; so little are they “means”, for himself and others, that he will, if necessary, sacrifice his own existence to their existence.’ (p. 204)

Holding on to this autotelic practice in times of generalised commodity production becomes itself a political act: “If art matters, it is as a type of that which has its end entirely in itself and thus is most politically charged in its very autonomy.” (p. 226)

Ok. So far so good. Outlining the basis of a Marxist aesthetics. But there’s much more to look into. In the next blog post on this article, I’ll look at the question of utopian relations in the work, particularly with regard to democracy and form and content – thus broaching the question of counterpoint. I’ll also raise some objections to these aesthetic conclusions, objections which are becoming more and more important for my practice.