Martin Jay: Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations

Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations Book Cover Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations
Martin Jay
Verso
2020
Paperback £13.99
256

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Martin Jay is a distinguished cultural historian, a pioneer of the study of the Critical Theory of the “Frankfurt School” with his book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1973), and a scholar who wrote on different aspects of Critical Theory, on the concept of totality, and on the problematization of vision in modern French thought. Splinters in Your Eye, his most recent book, is made out of eleven essays, most if not all already published in some form.  They explore aspects of the work of the Frankfurt School’s main theorists, paying attention to the inner tensions and the wirkungsgeschichte of the theses formulated by Horkheimer and his band of merry theorists.

In an essay published in a previous book, Jay defended the honor of the kind of intellectual history that he displays in the book. Two aspects of his defense are relevant in this context. Jay calls himself a “synoptic intellectual historian,” namely, one that believes that “it seemed a sufficiently challenging task merely to reconstruct the demandingly difficult arguments of the Frankfurt School and relate them to some issues about the life histories of its members.” Synoptic cultural history came in recent years under attack because it abridges and reduces a complicated, heterogeneous mass to an abstract, homogenous form. (Jay, Two Cheers for Paraphrase, 52). This synopsis excludes normatively and hierarchically everything outside of a homogenized and consistent paraphrastic account. The observation that this kind of account may be a disservice for some texts is particularly acute when the subject matter is itself suspicious of premature totalization, as it is the case in Adorno’s thought.  To face this challenge, Jay assures us that “by turning it on Adorno’s intellectual production and isolating what I saw as the five main forces in his own field or starts in his constellation—Western Marxism, aesthetic modernism, mandarin cultural despair, Jewish theology and … proto-deconstructionism—I attempted … a methodological or formal paraphrase of his work in order to illuminate its substantive tension (op. cit., 61-2).  So, paraphrase and synoptic approach can be gentle enough to respect the nature of its subject-matter without incurring in mimetic repetition.  In the introduction to Splinters in Your Eye, Jay returns to this problem, using Adorno’s aphorism “the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass” (Adorno, Minima Moralia, 50). The splinter or the mote in question is an imaginative interpretation of the verse “why beholdest thou of the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”. This injunction is usually interpreted as a caution not to be judgmental. The “mote” is here converted, through the vicissitudes of translation, into a splinter. And the eye’s irritation, into a glimpse of truth (Jay, Splinters, xi).  It is through suffering, vicarious, or our own, that knowledge of society is possible, Adorno claims. In the same section, Adorno also refers positively to exaggeration. Jay will use this idea for the title of an essay on the Frankfurt School’s position regarding psychoanalysis.   Jay also refers to the provocative sentence that closes the section: “The whole is the false” (Minima Moralia, 50).  But if the whole is the false, what about critical theory? Adorno’s claim questions any attempt to bring the ideas of the different personalities involved in the Frankfurt School into a harmonic whole. Jay expounds further on the nature of the painful eye that it will avoid the illusion of a “panoptic vision.” This concept that Foucault borrowed from Jeremy Bentham’s speculations on a system of inescapable omniscient social control is the clearest counter-ideal to Critical Theory.  It is in recognition of the appropriateness of the fragmentary that Jay writes: “the exercises that follow are left in their unintegrated form, with no pretense to be a coherent narrative” (xvi).

What is a reviewer to do? To compound the fragmentations (from the subject-matter, the fragmentation of the intellectual historical account)? Or to try to suggest a synthesis that was already twice refused? Sometimes problems are best perceived by turning them around. In this case, by turning our gaze to a different approach, one which as hostile to Critical Theory as Jay’s is caring.

The last essay, “Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment,” places us on a different plane. In this chapter, Jay deals with a fringe movement whose members have made of the Frankfurt School, a scapegoat for the illnesses and rottenness of contemporary society. With a twist. Because what they perceive as negative is what many will call the positive signs of reparation of long due injustices: the fight against racism, against discrimination on the base of gender and sexual orientation, the inequality of opportunities for minorities of all kinds (see a complete list in p. 157).  This is more than ironic. As Jay comments in another essay, the Frankfurt School has been ofttimes criticized for its ineffectualness, for its failure to become practically engaged with mass social movements, for the lofty tone of its pronouncements, etc. These critics make the opposite claim.

Against the claim that castigates the Frankfurt School for its presumed role in the development of a counterculture which rejected and supposedly replaced the traditional American culture of the 40s and 50s, first in academia, then in the media and cultural industries,  and finally in society as a whole, the historian can proceed in two ways. The first will be to show that, maybe except Marcuse, the influence of the Frankfurt School in American academia and popular culture was, to say the least, limited.  The different “critical studies” and what is called in the humanities and social sciences “theory” borrows much more from French post-structuralist thinkers, and indirectly from Husserl, Heidegger, and Nietzsche than from Adorno and Horkheimer (Cusset, 2003).

Instead of following this road, Jay takes advantage of the opportunity to turn his regard into this distorted account in the hope that “something [be] revealed about the legacy of the Critical Theory—and, more importantly, about the current society that can turn it into a simplistic meme—” (161), a meme that under certain circumstances can turn deadly.  Jay refers here to the manifest written by the Norwegian neofascist Anders Behring Breivik before engaging in a terrorist attack that left 77 dead. Breivik, among other arguments to justify his acts, ranted against the influence of Cultural Marxism, referring even to Jay’s Dialectics of Enlightenment as proof for his claims.  Jay goes further to write that the situation calls for the kind of dialectical account that Adorno and Horkheimer devoted to the Enlightenment itself (166). If Jay does not offer us such an account, he lists references to different claims that distort and twist the legacy of the Frankfurt School. But he recognizes that to develop a critical theory of counter-enlightenment is beyond the scope of a single essay (167). Jay mentions a few attempts to apply the methodology devised by the Frankfurt School for their study of Authoritarian Personality (1950) to the current situation in the USA (168-9) but seems to have doubts on the merits of that methodology. Quoting a remark from Harvard’s historian Peter E. Gordon, he wonders about the appropriateness to assign individuals to personality types, as this mimics the reification of contemporary society (169). Maybe what this shows is that the Frankfurt School has many historians, but few disciples willing to follow in their path.  Only Habermas stands out as a continuation of sorts of the heritage of the Institute.

Was this fate foreshadowed in the early beginnings of the School?  Jay explores this question in the first two essays in the book. “Ungrounded” deals with the foundation of the Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research (ISR), which through the particular circumstances of its origins and independence from party or government, gives rise to the accusation of being suspended in an abyss (Abgrund). Jay refers here to Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist literature scholar and philosopher whose 1922 History and Class Consciousness influenced the group of young scholars that ultimately created the ISR, that gave origin to the Frankfurt School.  Lukács, as an orthodox Marxist, rejected the idea of a critical stance that is not anchored in a political party, which is itself the conscious will and vanguard of the working class. Instead of a privileged vantage point, Horkheimer and his comrades preferred a sort of “immanent critique,” which Jay describes quoting from one of Adorno’s translators: “immanent criticism turns the principle of identity…into the power for the presentation of the way in which  an object resists its subjective determination and finds itself lacking” (4).  Jay raises two potential objections to this approach. The first recasts Adorno’s objection that immanent critique cannot be fully grounded on itself as “the totality is never fully self-contained.” The second objection has to do with what Marcuse called “one-dimensionality” and Adorno “totally administered” society.  In such a society, apparent dissatisfaction becomes functionalized in the service of the status quo. Despite such doubts on the actual possibility of a critical regard into the society that is not immediately instrumentalized, the members of the School continued to elaborate their positions. What are, Jay wonders, the motivations for such an undertaking? Maybe, he wonders, that motivation reflects the particular circumstances of the establishment of the ISR?

Jay embarks in the already well-known stories of Felix Weil’s role as founder and financial benefactor of the Institute, and Horkheimer’s appointment as Director of the Institute. Toward the end of the essay, Jay turns to explore the possible debts of Critical Theory to the philosophy of Schelling (11). In particular, to Schelling’s early thinking. Horkheimer wrote on Schelling and Idealism in the 1920s, and also Adorno has a substantive debt to his thought (15). Jay observes that “Schelling’s critique of rationalist metaphysics was attractive to thinkers trying to extricate themselves from…[a] philosophy in which all contingency was absorbed into a relational system” (13).  Others have observed that Schelling’s philosophy seems to anticipate the Dialectic of Enlightenment (15).  And Adorno in Negative Dialectics quotes approvingly Schelling as an antidote to a rationalistic consciousness philosophy.  These considerations led Jay to affirm that the uncertainty of “Abgrund” (groundlessness) may be less damaging to critical theory and to emancipatory practice than one may initially suspect.

In “The hope that earthly horror does not possess the last word,” Jay reminisces on his early contacts with the leading members of the ISR during the research that led to his writing Dialectical Imagination.  Three points can be highlighted in this essay.  First, the degree to which the members of the Frankfurt School wanted to shape Jay’s narrative. Second, the different perspectives of the individual members. Finally, Jay’s interpretation of the feelings of the founders of the ISR about their Jewish origins, and about the influence of their background in the outlook and the public perception of the Institute.  One of many, the anecdote regarding the title of Jay’s book, is telling. Jay suggested the title “Permanent Exiles” (28-9).  Horkheimer and Weil criticized the title as not only unprecise but also dangerous because it lends justification to their many foes from the right.

The next chapter, “Max Horkheimer and the Family of Man,” explores the balancing act of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s return to Germany. Horkheimer understood their public role as “reeducator of Germans, especially Youth, in the democratic values he had learned in exile” (35).  This understanding, and the realities of the Cold War, led to de-emphasize the earlier, more radical approach to contemporary society.  Jay exemplifies this with a close reading of Horkheimer’s talk at the opening in 1958 of the photography exhibits “The Family of Man” in the US-funded Amerika-Haus in Frankfurt. Jay emphasizes Horkheimer’s references to Kant, Emerson, and Dewey and their firm belief that man should count as an end and never as a means (36).

Further, Horkheimer characterizes the exhibit as “representative of all the forces that are now counteracting the…regressive movements that have occurred in Europe in recent years” (36). Jay notes the distance between the endorsement of the humanistic agenda of the exhibits and Horkheimer’s previous pronouncements in his writings of the late ’40s.  Also, Jay finds puzzling Horkheimer’s valorization of the power of images to give unmediated access to abstract philosophical concepts. After his return to Germany, Horkheimer increasingly endorsed the Bilderverbot, the biblical prohibition of images, which constitutes a central component of the Jewish faith (also to be analyzed in an essay comparing Adorno’s and Blumenberg’s position).

“Family of Man” approached the family at two levels. On the one hand, it showed pictures of couples and happy families from different cultures. On the other, it implied that humanity should be seen as one big family.  Jay deals with both levels and compares the underlying presuppositions of the exhibit with Horkheimer’s and Frankfurt Schools’ analysis of the family.  Jay also confronts Horkheimer’s remarks with Roland Barthes’ criticism of the exhibit. Jay sees the differences in approach mainly as a reflection of a difference in context.  Barthes was reacting against the danger of abstract universalism, whereas Horkheimer was dealing cautiously with the heavy heritage of Nazism and the war (45).

The “marriage” between Freud and Marx is the subject of the fourth essay.  The relationship of the Frankfurt School to Freud and psychoanalysis was complicated and not limited to the realm of theory. Horkheimer helped create a psychoanalytic institute in the University of Frankfurt and even invited it to share space in the ISR’s newly built building on the university campus. Horkheimer also lobbied the city of Frankfurt to give Freud the Goethe Prize in 1930. Even a few members of the ISR, including Horkheimer, underwent analysis.

Jay states four overlapping motivations that presided this matrimony. First, the hope that psychoanalysis may answer why orthodox Marxism, despite the widespread discontent with the status quo, failed in the 1920s’ Germany to generate a revolutionary practice. Second, to explain the emergence of Fascism, a social movement that traditional Marxism did not foresee. Third, in the case of Marcuse in particular, Freudism was expected to be a way to envisage a different civilization, beyond the one-dimensional one.  Lastly, in the case of Adorno and of Horkheimer, to build a plausible materialism. But, except for Fromm, their interest in Freud stayed mostly limited to his philosophical anthropology, and the members of the ISR remained indifferent to psychoanalysis as a therapy (53).

Jay surveys the different receptions of Freud in the Institute, from Fromm’s attempts to a build a social psychology which could be empirically verified and a tool to explore socio-political events, Adorno’s integration of Freudian insights into his analysis of the “culture industry” via de concept of fetishism, and Marcuse’s most explicit use of Freud for utopian purposes in Eros and Civilization (1955) (60).  In his work, and in the magazine Dissent, Marcuse attacked Fromm’s humanistic version of Marxism and his dismissal of Freud’s Metapsychology and instincts theory. Jay quotes Marcuse’s re-interpretation of Oedipal longings as archetypical of freedom from want, and his rejection of its surplus repression in the name of the reality principle.  Jay’s assessment that Fromm “never recuperated” from Marcuse’s onslaught in Dissent seems a bit extreme. Not only Fromm had a successful and long carrier, not only Marcuse’s name only become widely known after the 1968 student’s revolt, but Marcuse contributed a chapter to Fromm’s 1965 edited collection Socialist Humanism, indicating some level of agreement between the two.

Jay’s use of the metaphor of marriage to describe the attempts to bring to a synthesis Freud’s theory with Marxism or parts thereof also allows us to think a less blissful relationship, at least in Adorno’s late work (63).  Adorno was skeptical of a full reconciliation between the social and the psychological, and between the cultural and the natural.  He writes in his characteristic fashion: “The separation of Sociology and Psychology is both correct and false…correct insofar as it registers more intransigently the split that has actually taken place in reality than does the premature unification at the level of theory” (Sociology and Psychology, quoted by Jay, 64). The rejection of the premature unification of the social and the individual is supposed to prefigure a potential emancipatory outcome. He concludes this essay referring to Horkheimer’s work in post-WWII Germany to reintroduce the teaching of psychoanalysis and to renew the association of the ISR.

The fifth essay tells an enthralling story about the young Leo Löwenthal and his participation in the “Jewish renewal movement” in the 1920s. Löwenthal was very close to Rabbi Nobel, the charismatic rabbi that played a central role in developing the Freie Jüdische Lehrhaus. Jay discusses Nobel’s contradictions and how these allowed Nobel to be a magnet for highly educated and conflicted youth living through the turmoil of the first years of the Weimar Republic. Nobel had a refined German education, was an orthodox rabbi, a friend of the leading Jewish intellectuals of his time, and a gifted speaker.  Additionally, he helped Löwenthal financially during a bout of conflict between Löwenthal and his family.  Jay examines Lowenthal’s “Jewish writings,” which consists of an essay published in Nobel’s Festschrift (“The Demonic: Draft of a Negative Philosophy of Religion”) and a series of short articles on leading Jewish thinkers of modern times (Mendelsohn, Maimon, Heine, Marx, Lassalle, Herman Cohen, and Freud).  But, as Jay notes, Lowenthal’s energies were soon directed elsewhere (74). While there may be several reasons for this change of heart, the fact remains that Löwenthal’s interest in Jewish subjects faded, although maybe not entirely, as he republished his early essay on Heine in a 1947 issue of the magazine Commentary.

The sixth essay sets up a dialogue between Adorno and Blumenberg around the notion of “non-conceptuality.”  There are similarities between Adorno’s position in Negative Dialectics and Blumenberg’s criticism of the privileged role of concepts in philosophy. According to Jay, Blumenberg seems to have acknowledged his debt to Adorno. So, for example, Blumenberg gave a seminar on Negative Dialectics a year after its publication. While no transcripts from the workshop survived, the fact itself is meaningful.  Blumenberg used the notion of “non-conceptuality” in his writings of 1970, in what Jay considers a salute to Adorno.  Jay speaks of an “overlap” between the intentions of both thinkers to present an alternative to philosophy’s traditional preference for conceptualization (84).  Adorno and Blumenberg were both critical of Heidegger in general and of Heidegger’s attempt to offer a solution to the tension between conceptualization and content in particular. The title of the essay refers to the biblical Bildersverbot (prohibition of images), a common trope for a residual Jewish sensibility. Both Adorno and Blumenberg were of Jewish descent. Adorno’s father was Jewish, and so was Blumenberg’s mother. In the context of the Frankfurt School, the “ban on images” metaphor was used in two primary contexts. One, a refusal to engage in utopian speculation about an emancipated future society. The second, an affirmation of the irrepresentability of the Holocaust, as in Adorno’s ban on poetry after the Holocaust (90). Non-withstanding those similarities between the two thinkers, Adorno’s position is very different from Blumenberg’s.  As Jay shows it nicely, for Adorno, the non-conceptuality was historically bound, and a claim to redemption to be fulfilled in a different society. He quotes Adorno on Identity:

“To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris; but the ideal of identity must not be simply discarded … hidden in [the supposition of identity] is also the truth moment of ideology, the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism” (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 149, quoted by Jay, 93).

Visual arts played no significant role in the work of the members of the Frankfurt School. Benjamin was the exception, and he was interested, among other things, in the “emancipation of color” in modern art. “Chromophilia: Der Blue Ritter, Walter Benjamin and the Emancipation of Color” brings together Jay’s interest in the history of visual arts in the early 20th century and his study of the Frankfurt School.

Using unpublished fragments from 1914-15, Jay presents Benjamin’s long-life interest in the color revolution. One opposes a child’s to an adult’s view of color. For the child, color is contour, but the adult sees objects only, abstracted from color fragment. Benjamin was, according to Jay, fascinated by the Blaue Ritter color experiments. In another fragment, Benjamin writes about the rainbow in contrast with graphic images, which with line and figure, separate the endless configuration of color.  Jay brings closer Benjamin’s reflection on color and his ideas about an Adamic language. WW I, which saw the death of two of the central figures of Der Blaue Reiter group, seem to have affected Benjamin’s hopes that the emancipation of color would foreshadow human freedom (111-12). In a following article devoted to Benjamin’s comments on stamps, Jay explores his own experiences in philately and its utopian dimensions.

The ninth essay expounds on the German American film theorist Miriam Hansen, the author of Cinema and Experience (2012). This one is the only essay in the book that deals with a thinker belonging to the younger generation of critical theorists.

As Jay puts it, Hansen’s problem is to develop a critical account of the film that goes beyond the blunt dismissal of the cultural industry characteristic of the first generation of critical theorists (including Krakauer). Hansen incorporated to her analysis the notion of a “counter-public sphere” in which technologically mediated distanced forms of interaction prevail. This notion elaborates on the ideas of Alexander Kluge and Oscar Negt (both associated with the Frankfurt School and with Habermas in particular) (125-6).  Hansen also rescues from the early Frankfurt theorist the idea of mimetic comportment and the ideal of the “renewal of experience” (126).  Hansen claims, according to Jay, for the existence of an alternative public sphere that can only realize itself through the destruction of the dominant, bourgeois public sphere. Jay is somewhat skeptical about the possibilities of such an alternative. Hansen showed an alternative public sphere realized through cinema only for a limited period, which corresponds to the early silent cinema.  Furthermore, Jay defends the rights of the public sphere in its Habermasian sense, as a place of rational discussion, even as an ideal for democracy (134). Paradoxically, the criticism of purposive rationality cannot make room for the straightforward enjoyment provided by imaginative identification.

Based on a paper presented at a Brandeis conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Marcuse’s One-dimensional Man, Jay explores the different ways in which this famous book can be said to be “ironic.”  First, there is the irony that this pessimist analysis of contemporary society, which forecloses all possibility of a challenge to the encroachments of instrumental rationality, is published at the very same moment when new avenues of resistance are opened.  That consideration leads to a review of the analysis of irony in Adorno, and eventually to the question in what sense the argument in One-dimensional Man is itself ironic.  In Minima Moralia, Adorno seems to deny that irony is still possible.  Irony for  Adorno “convicts its object by presenting it at what it purports to be” (quoted by Jay, 138). But, in our advanced industrial societies, “Irony’s medium, the difference between ideology and reality, has disappeared” (quoted by Jay, 139).  But, is this also Marcuse’s position? Jay probes different types of irony, with the object, ultimately, of examining if there is, in One-dimensional Man, a “more promising notion of irony” that avoids the flaws of the ones Jay already reviewed. Jay will look for an alternative in a notion of irony described by Christoph Menke, a member of the third generation of the School.  Discussing Oedipus Rex, Menke makes a difference between the “irony of the action” and the “the poets’ irony.” The first refers to the character Oedipus’ blind responsibility for his fate. The second, which we share as spectators, is our knowledge of the situation and our capability to foresee the outcome. Both irony positions are unified in Oedipus at the end of the play.

How are these insights important to evaluating Marcuse’s reflections on advanced capitalist society in a context which is quite different from the one we live today?  Taking stock of Marcuse’s work would require identifying what is living and what is dead. Marcuse himself, at the end of his book, offered a gloomy picture of, on the one hand, a critical theory unable to provide a bridge between the present and its future, and the other, the wretched of the earth, free of the encumbrance of theory but driven forward by their despair. Critical Theory need to remain solidary of those without hope, advises Marcuse, even though the system may be strong enough to defuse any confrontation: “The economic and technical capabilities of the established societies are sufficiently vast to allow for adjustments and concessions to the underdog.”  On his side, Jay concludes, “we can still find in…[Marcuse’s]  insistence on the superiority of a two-dimensional understanding of the human condition over its one-dimensional alternative something akin to … [a] committed pursuit of personal excellence … an ironic attitude that is neither cynical nor disengaged, … [that] resists accommodation to social pretense … It may not provide the reassurance of Socratic or dramatic irony at its most knowing, but in a world that will not grant us such knowledge, it keeps alive the negative power of two-dimensionality that Marcuse so eloquently defended.” (150)

Jay’s book carries the subtitle “Frankfurt School provocations,” asserting the longevity of the program of the early critical theory.  The attacks of the ultra-conservative factions add some credence to the luster of the ISR, and the blossoming of a third and fourth generation of thinkers who declare some degree of fidelity to the original vision of Weil, Horkheimer, Pollock, and others should at least provide a modicum of hope.

 

 

Bibliography:

Cusset, François. 2003. French Theory. Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et es mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux État Unis. Éditions La Découverte, Paris.

Jay, Martin. 1988. “Two Cheers for Paraphrase: The Confessions of a Synoptic Intellectual Historian.” In: Martin Jay, Fin-De-Siècle Socialism. Routledge, New York and London, pp. 52-63.

Bernard E. Harcourt: Critique and Praxis, Columbia University Press, 2020

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Bernard E. Harcourt
Columbia University Press
2020
Hardback $40.00 £34.00
696

Martin Jay: Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations, Verso Books, 2020

Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations Book Cover Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations
Martin Jay
Verso
2020
Paperback £19.99
256

Mikko Immanen: Toward a Concrete Philosophy, Cornell University Press, 2020

Toward a Concrete Philosophy: Heidegger and the Emergence of the Frankfurt School Book Cover Toward a Concrete Philosophy: Heidegger and the Emergence of the Frankfurt School
Signale: Modern German Letters, Cultures, and Thought
Mikko Immanen
Cornell University Press
2020
Paperback $27.95
312

Peter Schmitt: Medienkritik zwischen Anthropologie und Gesellschaftstheorie, Wilhelm Fink, 2020

Medienkritik zwischen Anthropologie und Gesellschaftstheorie: Zur Aktualität von Günther Anders und Theodor W. Adorno Book Cover Medienkritik zwischen Anthropologie und Gesellschaftstheorie: Zur Aktualität von Günther Anders und Theodor W. Adorno
Peter Schmitt
Wilhelm Fink
2020
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Noël Carroll, Laura Teresa Di Summa-Knoop, Shawn Loht (Eds.): The Palgrave Handbook of the Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures, Palgrave, 2019

The Palgrave Handbook of the Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures Book Cover The Palgrave Handbook of the Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures
Noël Carroll, Laura Teresa Di Summa-Knoop, Shawn Loht (Eds.)
Palgrave Macmillan
2019
Hardback $219.99
XXVI, 1061

Richard Westerman: Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism: Reification Revalued

Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism: Reification Revalued Book Cover Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism: Reification Revalued
Political Philosophy and Public Purpose
Richard Westerman
Palgrave Macmillan
2019
Hardback 80,24 €
XVII, 308

Reviewed by: Clémence Saintemarie
(University College Dublin)

By offering a reinterpretation of the Hungarian Marxist philosopher’s 1922 essays ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’, ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, and ‘Towards A Methodology of the Problem of Organization’, Richard Westerman’s first monograph sheds a welcome new light on György Lukács’s theory of reification in History and Class Consciousness. While Lukács’s ‘Reification’ essay characterizes reification as the distinct and totalizing form of alienation in modern and post-modern capitalist societies, in a close reading of Karl Marx’s theory of class consciousness, alienation, reification, and commodity fetishism, and through G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectical understanding of history, Westerman’s monograph stands out for exploring, and stressing the importance of, the under-acknowledged and multifarious influences of Lukács’s aesthetic manuscripts at Heidelberg (1912-1918), in the years leading to the redaction of his first explicitly Marxist opus. Among these influences, the reader gains deeper insight about and discovers Lukács’s early project of a phenomenological aesthetics and his engagement with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations via the neo-kantian formalist aesthetics of Emil Lask, the art history of Alois Riegl and Konrad Fiedler, not to mention Lukács’s uptake of the social theories of his mentors: Georg Simmel and Max Weber.

Westerman proceeds by way of a phenomenological reappraisal of reification and a historicization of Lukács’s understanding of the proletariat’s role, and indeed its failure, as the supposedly preeminent revolutionary agent for the overcoming of capitalist social reality. His addition to the scholarship on Lukács is timely since 2019 marks the centenary of the unsuccessful German Spartacist and Hungarian revolutions that took place in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War in 1918, both of which motivated his reflections in History and Class Consciousness. Most urgently, ours is a political and social context that witnesses the resurgence of fascism and authoritarianism in its populist guises in the US, Europe and Brazil; not least, it is Westerman’s contention, as well as that of many Marxian thinkers, due to the 2008 economic and financial crisis, which has undermined trust in the (neo)liberal policies pursued by Democrats and Conservatives, Tories and New Labor, alike. Chapters 5 and 6 specifically address the relevance of Lukács for these contemporary issues. Therefore Westerman’s original and minute reconstruction of the impact of Lukács’s Heidelberg philosophical aesthetics on his critique of capitalism contributes to, and supplements, the renewed contemporary interest in Lukács before and since 2008, from Frederic Jameson to Andrew Feenberg and regretted Mark Fischer. The relevance of, and contemporary engagement with, Lukács is furthermore manifested in recent or forthcoming conferences dedicated to his legacy: one held by Historical Materialism in June 2019, and an upcoming conference in Paris, in November 2019.

Beyond the fact that it comprises a welcome reappraisal of the philosophy of history and proletarian revolutionary consciousness developed in the ‘Reification’ essay, the originality and value of Westerman’s monograph lie in its meticulous historical and philosophical reconstitution of the influence of Lukács’s Heidelberg aesthetic manuscripts on his phenomenology of reification. The famously influential essay from History and Class Consciousness characterizes reification as the transformation, typical of the bourgeois capitalist model of production and exchange, of human and social features, actions and relations into independent and autonomous thing-like entities abstracted from their human and social origin, rationalized into their quantifiable exchange value. It is the aim of Westerman’s reinterpretation that reification is the very fact and mode of social and personal experience in capitalism, rather than an ideological camera obscura obfuscating an underlying social reality that would be truer or more authentic to it. Referring to the Werke and using his own translation of the ‘Reification’ essay and Heidelberg manuscripts, Westerman reformulates Lukács’s key concepts of social totality, reification, class consciousness, the proletariat, and the party. This allows him to convincingly respond to Lukács’s detractors and critics in the Marxist, Marxian and Critical Theoretical tradition via, by his own admission, more or less successful parallels and speculations drawn from his close reading and exegesis of Lukács’s Heidelberg years.

Within 300 pages, Westerman takes his readers on a journey that brings us back to Lukács’s aesthetic works at Heidelberg from 1912 until 1918 and his conversion to Bolshevism. As soon as the preface and the introductory first chapter, Westerman frames the terms of the ‘Lukács Debate’ in Critical Theory and lays out the main criticisms and misunderstanding of Lukács that his monograph aims at dispelling or nuancing, namely: the suspicion of neo-romantic anti-capitalism that allegedly permeates his earlier work and informs his concept of labor and the proletariat as mythical agents of historical development; his philosophy of reification which would relaunch a Fichtean philosophy of freedom and its bourgeois antinomy of the subject and object; last but not least, a theory of social totality and a theory of the party, qua the instance of representation of proletarian interests, which would lend itself to the accusation of Stalinism and totalitarianism.

The book comprises three parts, which progress from the precise and detailed historical presentation of Lukács’s works around those years and justifies the genealogical weight of his phenomenological aesthetics on the 1922 essays of History and Class Consciousness (chapters 2 and 3). The second part proposes a ‘phenomenology of capitalism’ from the ‘Forms of Social Reality’ (chapter 4), in which reified subjectivity is described as a ‘split consciousness’, and which poses the problem of the proletariat’s ‘interpellation’ as a subject and its historical agency (chapter 5), while requiring the re-evaluation of its self-understanding as a class and the party as its organizational form (chapter 6). The third and final part seeks to highlight the influence and relevance of a phenomenological reading of Lukács beyond the implications, for proletarian revolution, of the ‘Reification’ essay.

Part I takes us on ‘The Road to Reification’, offering an intellectual history of Lukács’s development at Heidelberg as well as a justification of Westerman’s phenomenological reading of History and Class Consciousness in Lukács’s own terms. Lukács’s aesthetics, Westerman tells us, was concerned with the artwork as a subject-independent and self-enclosed meaningful totality. In his Phänomenologische Skizze des schöpferischen und receptiven Verhaltens, or ‘Phenomenological Sketch of Creative and Receptive Attitudes,’ Lukács philosophically systematized the non-representational and depersonalized theories of Fiedler and Riegl through a neo-Kantian reading of Husserl’s concept of intentionality that was emulated by his friend and mentor Emil Lask.

Chapter 2 deals specifically with Lukács’s neo-Kantian and phenomenological systematization of Fiedler and Riegl towards his own theory of the autonomy of Art. Supplementing Fiedler with Riegl, the artwork is a non-representational social activity giving form and meaning to the shapeless and incoherent sensory reality of one socio-historical epoch’s relation to its environment. The artwork thus produces its own reality rather than representing and referring to an objective external world. In Lukács’s reading of Riegl’s art history, the meaningful coherence of the artwork is neither provided by the creator or the receiver’s external point of view, but from a depersonalized, non-psychological standpoint that is incorporated into the work’s formal organization, and which produces the disinterested aesthetic experience we have of it.

According to Westerman, Lukács supports this artwork-centered account of aesthetic experience with a phenomenological aesthetics largely influenced by Lask and his neo-Kantian reading of Husserl’s Logical Investigations and Ideas. Lask’s interest in Husserlian intentionality focused on the intended object, or noema, rather than the noesis, the subjective pole of mental acts. In his and Lukács’s idiosyncratic reading of Husserl, it is intentionality as sense-bestowing, and the meaning of the noema detached from any thesis of existence or reference to an external reality, which matters. Following the Logical Investigations, intendings are described and analyzed in their semantic and logical structure, and the meaning-validity of artworks stems from their own internal formal-semantic logic and the cohesive relations of parts and whole; not from their representational consistency with an external reality, nor from the universal validity-form of aesthetic judgments.

It is worth-noting that this noematic reading of Husserl does not eliminate the subject altogether, but gives it a minor and auxiliary role in the constitution of the artwork and in aesthetic experience. Having recourse to Husserl in Heidelberg and in the ‘Reification’ essay, Lukács also seeks to overcome the antinomic separations of form and content and of subject and object: artworks are a case in point where the formal meaning of the whole cannot be entirely detached from its parts and where the artwork’s inner formal standpoint invites the subject in its sphere of meaning. Because of this, Lukács argues that, grasped from this standpoint, not only artworks achieve utopian perfection, but they also offer a unique instance where subject and object are brought together. The artwork is thus not fully autonomous. Furthermore, by striving to account for artwork’s intrinsic meaningfulness, Lukács moves away from a subjective and neo-romantic conception of the artist as a genial creator and the main source of the artwork’s meaning.

Granted that Lukács’s theory of the autonomy of Art is at odds with his later historicization of artworks within socio-historical wholes, Westerman contends that Heidelberg manuscripts are concerned with aesthetic experience and the logical possibility of subject-independent artworks that are not entirely incompatible with socio-historical interpretations. Rather, they prefigure and form the basis of Lukács’s analysis of social relations and of social being as a realm unto itself, analogous to art insofar as it, too, is governed by its own immanent logic and types of subject-object relation. Furthermore, Lukács’s conception of the ‘artwork as totality’ does not exclude its being part of a larger whole. Totality and reality are here synonymous with one another and with logically valid coherent wholes which posit their own meaning, rather than with an all-including totality. Last but not least, reification operates precisely against the unity of form and content, and of subject and object, reducing particular, and thusly deemed irrational contents, to the rationalized form of the commodity.

Westerman convincingly shows how the Heidelberg drafts contextualize Lukács’s Marxist essays. To the extent that, in the former, Lukács progressively realizes the impossibility of the total autonomy and isolation of Art such that it could actualize its promise of utopian perfection, as a fully self-enclosed meaningful totality, the latter turns to practical social change in the aftermath of the 1919 revolutions. Chapter 3 expounds Lukács’s return to the 1912-1918 manuscripts in the three 1922 essays of History and Class Consciousness, which further justifies Westerman’s reappraisal of Lukács’s social theory and his concepts of social totality, (class) consciousness, and organization, in light of his Heidelberg phenomenological aesthetics.

Chapter 3 traces the intellectual and political evolution of Lukács from Heidelberg and his conversion to Bolshevism, in 1918, to 1923 and the publication of History and Class Consciousness. Lukács’s turn to Bolshevism is described as a leap-of-faith that can be explained by his earlier romantic anti-capitalism, as well as the critique, common among the intelligentsia, of modernity and bourgeois capitalist values. Westerman focuses on the Heidelberg drafts to locate the philosophical origin of this conversion, marked by a messianic eschatology inspired by Kierkegaard and his work on Dostoevsky (see chapter 5).

Most note-worthy, 1922 marks a significant return to Heidelberg as Lukács tries to explain why the proletariat did not join in the 1919 revolutions, and how a revolutionary consciousness can nonetheless arise in the future to overthrow capitalist domination. Here, consciousness does not amount to epistemological knowledge, but to a meaningfully structured realm of being. Fundamental to achieving this definition, notwithstanding his phenomenology of reification, is his critique of the antinomy of subject and object in bourgeois society. If subject-object relations define society as a totality, and if reification—as the single explanatory principle of capitalism—turns human activity into objects independent of it, not only does capitalist reality appear as fragmented, but consciousness itself is reified.

Reification is thus a total social phenomenon, extending beyond the economy to all social institutions and relations, which reduce subjects to an abstract universal form, and isolate them as passive spectators, granting them only limited participation in society. Philosophically, Lukács identifies the roots of the problem in German Idealism, which starts with the subject constituting the world around it and assumes its separation from the object from the outset, a separation in which the subject is isolated from the object and can only retrieve it by subsuming it under abstract universal categories, without remainder. For Lukács, however, the proletarian standpoint eschews this a priori separation: its situation in social totality and reality is not isolated and it can come together to change society by changing social relations and practices. Proletarian consciousness is not simply the ‘true’ or ‘false’ epistemological standpoint on its real social situation in the system of production: it is meaningful and appropriate, be it true or false, in relation to the reality of this coherent and self-validating social system.

Epistemological inaccuracy and ‘false consciousness’, therefore, are not primary to causally explaining the lack of proletarian participation in the 1919 revolutions. Consciousness is first and foremost a social activity, and the form of that activity depends on the organization of its practices, which only partially depend on a more or less accurate knowledge and understanding of capitalism. In Lukács’s view, the ‘Party’ is one such organization of proletarian social practices and one possible source of epistemological correction (see chapter 6). ‘Consciousness’ is used to describe society’s own immanent structure: reification is a structure of consciousness since capitalism’s total structuration of society produces the structure of consciousness. It follows that consciousness is reified and the subject is defined as a reified subject in terms of the structure of consciousness, which governs its orientation and relation to objects.

The second part proposes a ‘phenomenology of capitalism’ building on and refining the dense conceptual apparatus revisited in part I. Taking the later Lukács’s self-critique at face-value, Westerman repudiates the charges that Lukács’s ‘Reification’ essay upholds the proletariat as the transhistorical and preeminent agent of social change, able to overcome capitalism from without thanks to the free exercise of its subjective will.

Chapter 4 focuses on the ‘Forms of Social Reality’, which, on the contrary, locate the proletarian standpoint within the social totality, as immanent to it. Freely borrowing from Martin Heidegger’s terminology, Westerman identifies three levels at which, for Lukács, reification operates: phenomenological, ontic and ontological. Phenomenologically, the structure of consciousness mirrors that of the commodity: the latter divorces the object’s exchange-value from its origin in labor and its practical value; the former is a ‘split intentionality’ in which the forms of social reality are divorced from their content. The problem of capitalism lies not only in commodity fetishism’s reification of human labor but also in the reification of consciousness, and therefore of social reality as a whole. Ontically, the reified forms of social reality, determined by the relative value of commodities, separate the social existence of the subject, and its product’s, from its material existence. Since the commodity form governs social reality, holding together heterogeneous social elements only in formal rational and quantitative relations, the working subjects, and any social relations not subsumed under the commodity form, are excluded from this rational formal system.

Ontologically then, reification is the single organizing principle of the total social reality, it does not mask the social reality productive activity, it is its very form: commodity becomes the only imaginable form of being and reification the only imaginable coherently integrated whole, the only possible reality. Like the work of art, social reality is a totality organized by a standpoint, in this case: the ‘split intentionality’ of the proletariat; i.e., the self-enclosed social totality needs the rationalized labor of the proletariat for the production of commodities which in turn demand the exclusion of its personal, irrational, subjective, and practical input and needs. Social reality is made in the image of the commodity.

The immanence of the split standpoint to social reality crucially informs Lukács’s theory of inertia and social change, and chapter 5 poses the problem of the proletariat’s historical agency within this reified totality. Westerman responds to the skepticism of Critical Theorists Adorno and Horkheimer—who undermined Lukács’s alleged faith in the self-liberating action of the proletariat in the face its passivity towards Nazism and his totalitarian embrace of the Stalinist Communist Party—by reformulating his theory of subjectivity, the party, and history. First and foremost, Westerman dispels the accusation of ‘Fichteanism’, according to which social reality would be at once the projection, and what is overcome, by the proletariat as an omnipotent subject. Revisiting Lask and Lukács’s reading of the later Fichte, he aptly demonstrates that neither of them thinks of the subject outside of its relationship with particular objects, themselves recalcitrant to the superimposition of a universalizing category, be it labor.

In fact, Lukács expresses little concern with labor, and his analysis of the subject-object relationship is once again formal and informed by his reading of Husserl’s phenomenology at Heidelberg: if stances have both an objective and subjective pole, subject and object were never separated in the first place; rather, the formal structure of the objects organizes the type of stances that can be had on them and, in turn, various stances produce different noema. It follows that the relationship of the two poles depends neither on the knowledge of the object, nor on their intrinsic properties. Lukács’s subject is thus primordially relational and the standpoint in relation to which parts of the object are disclosed. In the same way that the formal structure (size, details…) of an artwork requires that the subject adopts an adequate standpoint towards it (taking a closer look, stepping back to embrace the whole…), the subject is interpellated by the forms of social reality.

Westerman’s description of this ‘interpellation of the subject’, a term controversially borrowed from Louis Althusser – a fervent opponent of Lukács, refers to the intentional attitudes that the subject is summoned to adopt by the formal structure of social reality, the commodity structure, if, as the organizing standpoint of that totality, social reality is to function as a valid, meaningful and coherent whole. Yet, if the ‘janus face’ of the commodity (i.e. its irrational and private use value versus its rational and public exchange value) produces the ‘split consciousness’ of the proletariat, such formal interpellation of the subject can misfire, and meet contradiction and dissatisfaction.

It is from this formal contradiction and fracture that the proletariat’s self-consciousness and self-awareness as an agent of social change arise, and not from the contradiction of antagonist class interests. Agency is thus thinkable as ‘a structural component of social forms’. This eventually leads Westerman to discuss Lukács’s theory of the party as a bottom up, inclusive social form which, against the commodity principle’s warranting of the internal cohesion of capitalist social reality, purports to dissolve the ‘split intentionality’ by producing an external cohesion, one which does not exclude the ‘irrational’, ‘personal’ or ‘subjective’ of social being. The party is thus not deemed exogenous to the proletariat, instructing it or commending its strategic actions from without. Westerman stresses that Lukács indeed warns against the bureaucratic or strategic tendencies of instances, such as the party, which focus on expertise and organization at the cost of the exclusion and consequent passivity of the proletariat. In this light, he offers a rapid but incisive explanatory comment on the defeat of the Democratic Party in the 2016 US elections.

Nonetheless, neither the proletariat’s contradicted position, nor its achievement of self-consciousness in its formal and practical organization as a party, provides the moral or historical grounds on which reification or capitalism should be overthrown. Westerman illuminates Kierkegaard’s influence on Lukács’s response, further highlighting the fact that the revolutionary situation opens unexpected future possibilities which compels revolutionary subjects to take responsibility for them. The necessity of a decision stems from the social configuration of the revolutionary moment, but also from the formal requirement, for the organizing standpoint, to transform it, in order to maintain a continuous meaningful, coherent social whole. Lukács’s philosophy of historical agency is thus attuned to the moment and accommodates the fluidity and plasticity of social norms that may command historical decisions towards emancipatory change. At the same time, he maintains that change is demanded and triggered by the formal requirement for a self-validating meaningful whole.

While Westerman does not find Lukács’s appeal to the above-outlined ‘imperatives of history’ convincing, these normative demands are further evaluated, in chapter 6, in terms of the concrete identity and self-understanding of the proletariat as a class and collective subjectivity; and in terms of the party as its shared consciousness and collective identity. The core normative issue of Lukács, hence perhaps his insistence on art and social reality having to be meaningful self-validating coherent wholes on their own terms, is the meaninglessness of experience under capitalism. Turning to Lukács’s view of the individual consciousness which, like the Husserlian Ego, transcends the momentary acts of consciousness in the temporal continuity of retentions (past), just now (present) and protensions (future), meaningfulness is approached from a personal perspective rather than that of a depersonalized standpoint. Personal experience is reified to the extent that it is divided in fragmented and discrete, isolated experiences. The structure of experience thus mirrors the fragmented reality of capitalism. The experiential alienation, in which the seamless temporal continuity of the Ego’s experience is divided and split, is crucially manifest in the rationalization of labor, where time itself is a measurable and monetizable standard.

Westerman thus re-introduces Lukács’s theory of the subject-object relationship from the individual’s perspective to make sense of the experience of alienation implicated by reification. The very cracks and fractures of individual identity induced by reification would be, still following Lukács, the site wherin reification as a structure itself starts to crack. However, if this important take is consistent with Lukács’s definition of consciousness as social reality, it appears less plausible, when scrutinizing individual consciousnesses. The fracture and disconnection experienced in wide-spread and all-too-common workplace depressions, burn-outs, bore-outs, or suicides, while they can certainly be construed as indirect and passive forms of sabotage of current productivism, hardly produce the impetus for strikes, or any potent forms of collective actions against it.

This is why Westerman reassesses the necessity, for Lukács, that individual discontent take shape in the ‘party’, neither as a formal requirement for organizational form, nor, with critical comparisons to Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘revolutionary spontaneity of masses’, as an organic process. Westerman reasserts that the party, contra the Marxist-Leninist ‘vanguard’, is not the extraneous cause of class consciousness but is that very consciousness, i.e. the collective manifestation, in practice and everyday experience, of “the situation and position of the proletariat” (226). The party is class consciousness to the extent that it is self-organization without representation, thus eschewing over-optimist reliance on the spontaneity of the masses.

One the most important lessons, drawn by Westerman, is that class, as a group identity, is fluid and open to revision. Moreover, thus reinterpreted, Lukács’s theory can and should encompass collective struggles intersecting class identity and other social forms that he over-looked—like gender, race, and religion—in his quest for a single governing principle of capitalism as a social totality. For this purpose, the third and final part of Westerman’s monograph seeks to highlight the influence and relevance of a phenomenological reading of Lukács beyond the ‘Reification’ essay and proletarian revolution.

Responding to Lukács’s critics within and outside Marxism and Critical Theory, chapter 7 reconsiders Lukács’s alleged neo-romantic divide between the social and the natural, and social and extra-social realities. The problem of the subject-object relationship is brought to its climax, in an analysis which spans Lukács’s entire oeuvre. In dialogue with Andrew Feenberg, Westerman contrasts History and Class Consciousness with The Ontology of Social Being, in which the category of labor is critically used against capitalist, and, incidentally, early Marxist tendencies, to see nature as an exploitable resource. Thus, the domination and exploitation of nature is problematized, not in line with a romantic and ‘Rousseauist’ celebration of its difference to social reality, but as one shaped by labor in its alienated and reified as well as reifying guise. This significantly echoes motifs in Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences, but also Heidegger’s critique of the techno-scientific Gestell in The Question Concerning Technology. In turn, Lukács is also concerned with how social phenomena are legitimized and reified as ‘natural’. Finally, and in agreement with Feenberg, Westerman accepts Lukács’s ‘consciousness’ as a conceptual avatar of ‘culture’ or ‘nurture’, that is not antinomic with ‘nature’, but, as in Art, stands in a non-coercive relation to it.’

In Chapter 8, Westerman concludes with self-critical remarks on his reassessment of Lukács’s fluid social and phenomenological categories and stresses the value of these revisited concepts for a better understanding of our postmodernist and late-capitalist condition. As for the latter, he gives credence to Jameson’s critical analysis of postmodernism in art and is consistent in his Lukácsian understanding of Postmodernism not only as the Kunstwollen of late capitalism, but also as one consistent with the vagueness of our social reality’s signifiers. Correspondingly, he provides further grounds for his interpretative recourse to, and focus on, the Heidelberg drafts—over and against a Hegelian or Marxian re-reading—for his revaluation of Lukács’s reification. Most importantly, he enthusiastically argues for the complementariness of Lukács’s social theory for political and social theorists and phenomenologists working with the important insights of Alfred Schütz, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, particularly as far as the study of habituation and the sedimentation of social meanings are concerned.

One should not shy away from characterizing Westerman’s monograph as a remarkable historical demonstration of and phenomenological reinterpretation of Lukács. His monograph displays the author’s sensitivity to the practice of closely reading Lukács’s texts and Critical Theoretical debates in their contexts of production and reception. Nonetheless, his pedagogical and scholarly attention to a progressive and methodological reinterpretation of Lukács’s 1922 Marxist essays—through the lens of his aesthetics—addresses audiences beyond the tradition of Critical Theory: from scholars with an interest in the complicated but complementary dialogue between phenomenology and Critical Theory, to anyone interested in the historical and philosophical relationship between aesthetics and politics, art theory and social theory.

Phenomenologists will find the progressive elaboration of Lukács’s engagement with Husserl—through an idiosyncratic neo-Kantian lens—particularly interesting, as well as its impact on the former’s theory of the artwork as a self-enclosed totality different but comparable to the self-enclosed and rational totality of capitalism. Moreover, phenomenologists and Critical Theorists alike should take heed in Westerman’s invitation to combine the insight of Lukács’s social theory with the social phenomenology of Schütz, Berger, and Luckmann.

Notwithstanding the virtuosity of Westerman’s reconstruction of Lukács’s phenomenological aesthetics and his novel approach to Lukács’s theory of reification, this monograph is also an invitation to relaunch a phenomenological inquiry into social alienation. It allows us to see phenomenology’s potential for understanding our contemporary situation, alongside, why not, contemporary Critical Theory.

Theodor W. Adorno: Notes to Literature (Combined Edition), Columbia University Press, 2019

Notes to Literature (Combined Edition) Book Cover Notes to Literature (Combined Edition)
European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism
Theodor W. Adorno. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. With a New Introduction by Paul Kottman
Columbia University Press
2019
Paperback $40.00 £34.00
544

Axel Honneth, Espen Hammer, Peter E. Gordon (Eds.): The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School, Routledge, 2018

The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School Book Cover The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School
Routledge Philosophy Companions
Axel Honneth, Espen Hammer, Peter E. Gordon (Eds.)
Routledge
2018
Hardback £175.00
533

Jean-Paul Sartre: What is Subjectivity?

What is Subjectivity? Book Cover What is Subjectivity?
Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by David Broder and Trista Selous
Verso Books
2016
Hardback £40.00
160

Reviewed by: Mariam Thalos (University of Utah)

Jean-Paul Sartre was an intellectual powerhouse, even in his own time.  He moved people, both scholars and non-scholars alike, by the power of his ideas and his tremendously powerful way of expressing them.  He blurred all category boundaries and violated conventional mores. He even turned down a Nobel prize on principle. This book documents a philosophical exchange over a topic as big as the very significance of Sartre’s work in light of Sartre’s own commitment to Marxism. How can his Marxism make sense in the light of his existential philosophy?

The subject of experience, and the experience of that subject, are the primary topics of Sartre’s existential phenomenology, especially in Being and Nothingness. But Sartre also professed allegiance to Marxism. Marxism is, at least to a first approximation, the view that the material conditions of life—what someone in an earlier point in time might have called its political economy—is the primary determinant of all of social, cultural and intellectual life, all of human life and knowledge. Marxism is a dialectical materialism.  How can there be room in it for an independent contribution made by human freedom, or even by the human subject as such? How, then, are Sartrean existentialism and Marxism both to be embraced simultaneously?How is it possibly to put the two together into a single anthropology—an objective study of the forces acting in human societies? It would seem to be a difficult balancing act to be a Marxist follower of Sartre. Perhaps he, best of all, is able to resolve the tensions, and thereby to explain the marriage between his existential phenomenology and a Marxist politics. That question is one theme in a very large opus published in 1960 as The Critique of Dialectical Reason.

In 1961 Sartre delivered a guest lecture to the Gramsci Institute in Rome, where he sought to address the issues surrounding the marriage of Marxism and existentialism. In attendance were some of Italy’s leading Marxist thinkers, many of them profound admirers of Sartre’s philosophy and all of them very conversant with it. This book comprises Sartre’s lecture and the conversations pursuant thereto, involving many of those Marxists in attendance, and including as well Sartre’s reactions and responses to their interventions. Because it attempts to capture the real-time interactions of the participants, this book makes for a coherent and fascinating read, bringing to life a very lively controversy that foreshadows (and indeed still survives in) the controversies inherent in the contemporary projects of Critical Theory.

Another existential phenomenologist might have managed very well in uniting a Marxist anthropology to an existential phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty, for example, because his phenomenology was very much attuned to the way the body contributes to experience as such, might have had recourse to the body as a channel through which the Marxist dialectic was realized and actualized in subjectivity. Many passages in Merleau-Ponty’s oeuvre speaks of the body as such a site and conduit for a potential dialectical materialism of which a Marxist might be proud. But Sartre is not Merleau-Ponty; indeed Sartre is on record as not concerned with the contributions of the body. For Sartre, the ego is decidedly, even suspiciously, transcendent.

Sartre’s own route to realizing the Marxist dialectic within his particular existentialist vision is via a sort of imperative. He speaks here, as in the Critique, of subjectivity as an obligation or necessity—the necessity to be in our consciousness what we are in and to the world at large—to others, and toward nature. (Surprisingly, it reads very much like a Kantian imperative, and one that will not be denied—that is in some sense inviolable.) It is in some sense another way of speaking of authenticity. For Sartre, to respond authentically to the existential imperative, is to perform in one’s own subjectivity what one is to others, in effect to perform one’s material reality. So perhaps one performs one’s proletariat-ness, or one’s capitalist-ness.  It is, in Sartre’s words, not merely an imperative but a drive: we are “obliged to be the mediation between [ourselves] of forms of exteriority such as, for example, class being.” We are obliged to create a “singularization”—a performance, if you will—of the universal of our class. This description of things he refers to as the practico-inert. Thus for Sartre, the social reality is not to do with the machines, or materials more generally, that make of the worker’s life what it is, the social reality is instead the worker who in his own person internalizes the material reality. Thus Sartre internalizes in consciousness —he relocates to consciousness—the material conditions of social life. (These are the themes drawn here from The Critique of Dialectical Reason.)  Unwilling to join Durkheim in the idea of a collective social life that includes the material conditions, Sartre instead insists upon subjectivity as the fundament even of collective, anthropological life.

Throughout the conversations, the interlocutors press Sartre on points of intersection between his existentialism and a variety of Hegelian doctrines, especially those on which Marxist theories draw. Sartre’s interlocutors reiterate many of the same questions: if there is a Marxist or Hegelian dialectic, how does it manifest in the consciousness of a given subject? Moreover, does one or the other disappear at the “level of the dialectic”—in the final “totalization”? The clearest answer we receive from Sartre is in the response he makes to Valentini: “For me, the dialectic […] is not totality, but the ensemble of structures of a totalization in process…We are ourselves the beings who make the dialectic” (50-51). For Sartre, then, the forces of history are made flesh, because huan subjectivities actualize the larger conflicts in which human lives are embedded.

Does a Sartrean Marxism require the Kantian move Sartre makes in the practico-inert? This is a question with which the exchange leaves us. And perhaps more poignantly, is Sartre’s existentialism able to accommodate such a move?