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?