Saturday, September 22, 2012

Better Homes and Gardens Consumerist Utopia: WWII

      For my research into structures of domesticity, I've been reading a number of domestic and women's magazines from the period of 1942-1950, notably Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens.  Within that context, I came across a remarkable set  of articles written in the latter publication during 1942-1943 that purport to offer a glance into the future home of the country, along with the future of medicine, technology, and other aspects of life pertinent to the domestic sphere.  Linked in with the publications push to sell war bonds, each of the articles offers a possible glimpse into the world of possibilities that will be available to families when the war is over.  Bonds are offered as the vehicle to invest in this future, to, in effect, buy a share of that future.  It's important to note that bonds are advertised throughout the publication, pushed primarily from a nationalist frame of security and contributing to the war effort.  However, the series of articles does something substantially different than the work to sell bonds in the rest of the magazine.  It links that process to the horizon of the future, a future that both can be understood as progressive, but beyond that, utopian in its most traditional meaning.  Within this context, it can be understood as part of a greater narrative of futurity, along with the figure of the child and nuclear war, which is technologically oriented without falling fully into a technocratic structure, not through a political framework, but through anti-politics of domestic sentimentality and individuation.

      The post war future produced by bonds is constructed at a multiplicity of levels.  At the most immediate level, it is created through the possibility of owning a refrigerator, a larger house, or saving for a child's education.  The publication reinforces these possibilities through select letters from readers, discussing their plans for the money they will receive from bonds.  Readers are called to recognize themselves within the monthly column of letters discussing the possible post-war uses of war bonds.  These letters continually reference and frame the larger articles written to discuss the future.  As noted, these articles focus on three basic issues, personal commodities that add convenience to domestic labor, new forms of technology developed in the war to help home construction, and new possibilities of health care.  The articles frame these possibilities in a discourse that both personalizes and individualizes the audience, drawing heavily on the second person, and often writing from that perspective.  In ideological terms, the magazine is constantly 'hailing' its audience of readers, using the forms of intimacy and the participatory structures of the magazine to identify with and feel a part of the future horizon produced through the war.  We are offered a future that is focused on the household, but one that offers the promise of resolution of not only the problems of war time restriction, but the larger issues of poverty, toil, and disease.

     At the most immediate level, the magazine discusses a number of commodities that will either be invented or be improved through the war effort.  The most significant of those discussions are the discussions of the upcoming invention of television, and the future improvement of the automobile.  Both are heavily constructed in the second person format, inviting them to imagine the future when these these home technologies would be available to its readers.  Within a Blochian framework, we can see the linkage between this sort of work and the functions of wish fulfillment contained in the daydream.  We are invited as readers to participate in a collective daydream, one structured by technological improvement, rather than political transformation.  Just as significantly, the articles bear the mark of the intersection of the federal government, advertisers, and the publications.  The article on the new automobile is a report on the activities of the American auto industry, produced through a series of conversations between the owners of the auto industry and the magazine.  It also reflects some of the shifts in expertise in the domestic sphere.  As Nancy Walker notes in her text on mid-century women's magazines, Shaping Our Mother's World: American Women's Magazines,  the forms of domestic expertise found in women's magazines originated more from the corporate world, rather than the academic world that previously defined the field of home economics.

     That shift is even more evident in the sort of enthusiastic utopian vision of the household of the future.  The possibilities of which are discussed in the February 1943 issue of the magazine.  The article immediately frames the promise in relationship to bonds,

    “Come victory you’ll find these products mean a far better house than you ever had before. We, personally, are going to be ready for it with War Savings Bonds, bought now and put away in the sock to buy this better home of tomorrow when it’s available.”

    At this point, the War Savings Bond literally becomes a sort of investment in the future, a type of savings, but also a kind of pledge to participate in that future, and a social contract to that future horizon.  The reader is invited to join the we of the magazine, an imagined audience of primarily middle class house wives, in committing to the larger structure of the nation state, one that will lead to prosperity.  That future promise is quickly linked to the corporate industries building the equipment for the war, and profiting from it.

      “Today we’re building houses much as Henry Kaiser builds ships and Boeing builds planes—by slipping mass produced, scientifically engineered panels together at the site. One type of panel consists of two thin metal or plywood sheets welded or glued to a light material, as in an airplane wing. Tho they use little material, their strength is immense, and to assemble a house from them you need no studs, no other framing.”

    The technological promise of the war is immediately linked to the corporate names of Henry Kaiser and Boeing.  They become the sites at which the future promise of home technology is invented and produced.  That production is tied to the promise of mass production, science, and engineering.  The future home is literally being produced out the wings of a bomber, or in another article, the technologies developed in the context of tank warfare in Africa.  The home is not only protected by the war effort through a discourse of security; it is reconstructed by it, rebuilt on a rationalized and accessible foundation.  In his later lectures, Michel Foucault notes that World War II was unique in the sort of social contract offered to the primarily working class participants who made up the rank and file of the military, offering financial stability and security in exchange for the risks and sacrifices made in the war.   We can see the work of the magazine in that light, both offering the social contract through the popular form of the journal, and linking it to the larger structure of the developing structure of Fordist state capitalism, linking its promise to the commodity form and the corporate state.

    We can see a mildly science fictional and even utopian investment in the future in the material discussed above, but those promises are magnified when the magazine begins to discuss the future of medicine and health care in the March 1943 issue of the magazine, in an article entitled, "Coming Miracles in Family Health."  The editors frame the article in a lengthy introductory statement.

    "You have everything.  The world’s at peace again, and your son or your husband is back from overseas.  Your home’s the way you want it, bright and cheerful with comfort and color.  Outside the growing things you’ve set out, waiting for spring’s touch.  You settle back in your chair.

                And then comes a sound from the children’s room—the tight, hacking cough of a child in pain, a child whose strength is burning out in a fever that routs sleep.
                Everything you own is suddenly drab and meaningless.  The gray finger of illness is pressing down on your home.
                In that picture lies the reason for this article, and its place in our stories of your home world of tomorrow.  We’ve talked about your car of tomorrow, and what television and lighting have in store for you.  We’ve laid before you some of the marvels that can be part of the postwar home your War Savings Bonds will buy—and we’re going to tell you much more about that home in coming issues.
                But none of it can mean anything while there’s sickness in your family.  This article will tell you about the wonderfully fascinating things that are being done to destroy the power of many illnesses to touch you and  yours.”—Editor

     Without going through the entire introduction, 'you' are once again offered to imagine the promised future of the post-war era, defined by domestic peace, happiness, and economic security.  That promise is interrupted by illness, which threatens to destroy that happiness and security, literally draining the color from the many bright commodities of the home.  Illness becomes the last remaining threat to the new world created by savings bonds and the technologies developed by the war.  We're quickly told that these threats too will be removed.  Author Donald Cooley notes just above the Editor's introduction, “You and your family will escape tomorrow from many of the ailments, great and small, which plague you today. From colds to cancer, illnesses are yielding their secrets to the men who are bent on destroying them.”  Technology, often linked to war production, will once again solve the problems of the current situation.  The article then lists the future maladies to be resolved through these new inventions, from cures of the common cold and cancer, to child birth without pain.  The connection to the war is made through a number of rhetorical choices of the publication, "light that blitzes germs," for instance.  If the war effort will translate into a new physical home, it will also translate into new techniques and technologies developed to combat and destroy the diseases that threaten it.

     We can see a series of domestic, commercial, and national discourses being created and enforced through a narrative that can only be called 'science fictional' in its emphasis on the future promise of social investment and new technology.  Even more than that, the very structure of the home and of domesticity is being constructed within that narrative, one that makes the extraordinary promises and demands that create the feminine mystique in the post war years.  We can see the construction of a post-war consensus that is built of the combination of domestic expertise, technology, and the labor of the housewife.  Is it terribly surprising that science fiction becomes a major literary form to challenge and re-imagine these structures?  After all, the codes of the domestic discourse they challenge and rewrite has its origins, in part, in the futurity of science fiction, and its promise linked to the forms of wish fulfillment offered in the utopian form.

Friday, September 21, 2012

On School Privatization: Daily Life

     I've been thinking about the current crisis and privatization of the University of California system.  We've gotten a lot of useful analysis on the process from a number of significant figures, from Christopher Newfield to Bob Meister and Wendy Brown, and others.  I don't think that I can contribute a lot more to that intellectual project, either from the reformist or from the radical or revolutionary positions.  What I might be able to contribute is some thoughts on the everyday aspects of the process, the often unperceived changes that have occurred through the process, the things that the university administration has sought to paper over with lies, propaganda, and deception.  A curious passage in the second two last chapter of the first volume of Henri Lefebvre's Critique of Everyday Life strikes me as a useful entrance into this conversation.  "Notes Written One Sunday in the French Countryside" is curiously impressionist chapter, exploring the structure of the church, along with questions of religion, community, and their expression in day to day life.  Within that context, Lefebvre makes a curious but useful comment about the duplicity contained in the ideological structure of the church.

      "The mystifying skill of this 'movement' can be measured by the fact that it has been able to disguise itself as a rigid dogmatism.  In fact it is exactly the opposite (like a crafty child who slides along while insisting he is sitting still).  and this disguise is a cover for its press-gang tactics.  Anyone who criticizes 'Catholic dogmatism' in the name of free-thinking and independent individuality is being ridiculously naive." (Lefebvre  225)

     This contradiction, between the static image of the institution and the dynamic reality of its behavior is a useful framework to understand the university within the context of the financial crisis.  I've reached a point of assuming that any time I'm told that a certain action by the university has a long precedence the reality is the opposite, that its a new policy.  A good example of this is the policies around funding PhD's in English and Comparative Literature.  When I first entered in to our program, we had grad students in their tenth year still receiving teaching funding.  By my third or fourth year, we were being told something significantly different, receiving instructions that we needed to finish quickly, because of the 18 quarter policy and Doc 2 status.  Instead of admitting that policy had changed due to financial considerations, we were told that these were policies that had always been in place.  They refused to admit the reality of the shifts in their policy.  We've seen the same behavior on the part of housing, with less financial reasoning, as I pointed out in an earlier posting.  This left all of us as graduate students in the lurch, but it particularly hit those students who had structured their education on the ability to receive that additional funding, an issue that the departments and schools largely left unaddressed.

     The same process has been evident in the funding structures of the School of Humanities.  Last year, a document was released under the title, Needs Attention.  Within that document, the school divided the school between healthy departments and those who were not living up to expectations.  Ironically, those departments labelled 'Needs Attention' were not to be given attention, but lose any ability to replace faculty or receive additional funding.  It was immediately apparent that the criteria that the school used these decisions, primarily student to faculty ratios, problematic in itself, was inconsistently applied.  Traditional departments such as History were given a pass despite the fact that they fell below the vaguely defined criteria because of their status as just that, traditional, while other departments such as East Asian Studies was labeled  a 'Needs Attention' department, despite the fact that they met and exceeded all criteria set up by the document.  In effect, the document became a way of attacking interdisciplinary and non-traditional programs, particularly ethnic studies, but also critical theory, in order to transform Irvine into a more traditional humanities program.

      In that context, a small group of graduate and undergraduate students, primarily involved in Comparative Literature attempted to interpret the data contained in the document.  It quickly became clear that the information contained in the memo itself didn't allow an analysis of the metrics used to create the data.  Those students began a fairly long and arduous process of attempting to get the broader context of that data, talking to student representatives, professors, and administrators, and even going to the office of public records.  In each of these cases, the people involved either were themselves excluded from the information or refused to give the students the spreadsheets that made these decisions.  One of the students even had the police called on him for simply visiting the department of public records in the administration building.  Once again, the structures of the university systemically erased the opportunity to understand the transformations it was considering enacting, leaving those who used the institution with no real way of understanding the logic behind a set of draconian cuts, or the means to challenge those cuts on the terms that were set up by those enacting the cuts.

     All forms of activism on the campus have been met by a line of armed police officers, whether in the form of informal peaceful pickets or rallies.  Students have been repeatedly detained for chalking.  Throughout these practices, the university and its police force have simply denied the existence of the rights held by protestors, obfuscating them, and setting up a forest of regulations, regulations that often conflict with the rights of protest.  We are currently facing such an issue with our administration and labor relations right now, as they attempt to limit interactions with students in public spaces.  However, it's an issue that I'll discuss in a later posting.   These are only a couple examples to draw out the way the university is enacting austerity in the university.  It's important to note that despite the fact that departments such as History are receiving glowing bureaucratic reports, the students are in the same precarious position as the students in the departments that 'need attention.'  We should avoid the game of divide an conquer that the administration is clearly trying to introduce.  The larger point is that austerity is being enabled through this politics of erasure, the transformation of new policies into old policies and the mystification of the quickly transforming university, a university that is only a public university in name only

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Random Record Review: Electronic--Electronic

      In my first review, I had initially promised to write about one random record review a week, but clearly I have not lived up to that expectation.  Although I'm still interested in following through on the project, my suspicion is that I'll probably produce one of these columns every month, rather than every week, so that I can focus on other political and cultural events.

     The random review for this posting is the debut, self-titled album by the duo, Electronic.  For lack of a better term, Electronic was a sort of super group, a collaboration between New Order vocalist, Bernard Sumner and Smiths guitarist, Johnny Marr, and contained collaborations with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys.  The group was formed after the collapse of The Smiths, and during a brief hiatus of New Order.  The album's initial single, "Getting Away With It", featuring Tennant, was quite successful, and the album received a fair amount of both critical success and sales, although it's not a record that has survived in the memory of fans in the same way that the work of the constitutive parts of the band have survived.  Although I picked this record out randomly, it does seem like a decent time to reevaluate it, given the recent indifference.

     For folks who know me, it shouldn't surprise them that I had interest in the band, having been a fan of each of the groups that made up the project. If one compares Electronic to its constituent parts, the band certainly sounds nothing like The Smiths, and links more closely with the records made by New Order in the period.  However, it would be a mistake to think of the project as simply a continuation of the work that Sumner produced in New Order, Technique and Republic.  Rather than drawing primarily on that sound, the record shows a strong influence from the 'Baggy' scene that arose in Manchester in the late 1980's, work that actively tried to fuse popular forms of dance music with rock music.  While the vast majority of Marr's guitar work doesn't match his work in The Smiths, neither does it match the sounds produced by New Order, particularly the last two albums.  While it's difficult to deny that there is some interesting experimentation on the album, it certainly also dates the record badly in some ways, reflecting some of the cul de sac's of sound produced within the subgenre.

      To move into the songs of the album, the initial track provides a good reflection of many of the qualities already discussed above.  The song opens with a strong guitar riff, and engages with the "Baggy" tradition of mixing rock guitar riffs with dance rhythms and synthesizers.  It would be hard to deny that the song's positive qualities; it's pretty catching, and the oscillation between the rock oriented guitar riff and the more traditionally New Order sounding synth lines work pretty well.  The lyrics are fairly consistent with Sumner's work, and while not spectacular, do a pretty good job of building on the insulated and paranoid mood of the song.  However, the attempt and bringing a hip-hop influence on the vocals through the awkward and semi-rapped sections of the song, don't particularly work well, and badly date the song.  However, the positive aspects of the track outweigh its more problematic aspects of the song, marking it as an artifact of the era, but one worth looking back at.

     The next two tracks move away from the "Baggy" sound of the initial track, taking on a sound that links up with the classic sound of New Order, rather than sounding like the New Order of the late 1980's.  The first of the tracks, "Reality" is the weaker of the two tracks, sounding like a weaker track from Brotherhood or Low-Life.  "Tighten Up" shows even more fidelity to the New Order sound, sounding like the best work of the band.  Additionally, Marr's guitar work constitutes some of the stronger work on the novel.  It avoids the awkward rhythmic influence of the "Baggy" movement.  The fourth track of the album, "A Patience of a Saint", is one of two collaborations with the Pet Shop Boys and sounds a lot like a Pet Shop Boys song.  The hit single, "Getting away with it," uses the semi-spoken vocal approach found in the initial song with a greater degree of success, but these four songs gesture towards a significant issue with the album, which is its lack of cohesion.  There are moments that Electronic doesn't sound like a single band let alone a band producing a single album. 

      The second half of the album contains a greater degree of consistency than the first half of the album, with the notable exception of the instrumental, "Soviet" and the hip-hop oriented final track, "Feel Every Beat."  The dominant tracks on the album produce some of the most consistent moments on the album, although they don't show the consistency of the later albums.  The tracks avoid the awkward inconsistencies of the early tracks and gesture towards a band that isn't merely its constituent parts, although the New Order influence is still significant on them.  The two exceptional tracks constitute some of the weakest tracks on the album.  "Soviet" is a fairly innocuous ambient track.  It's not bad, but it's extraordinarily forgettable, while "Feel Every Beat" stands out as the worse track on the album, drawing on the more mechanical sound of hip-hop influenced, "Baggy" sound.  It's probably the most dated song on the track, and is pretty tedious, rhythmically and lyrically.  It's probably the only song on the album that would make the album better with its absence. 

     Despite the fact that later albums have a great deal more sonic consistency, this is still the Electronic album that I am most likely to listen to.  I don't know if it's because I heard it at a particular time in my life or that I kind of like the weird mix-tape quality it has.  Other than that, the album takes on the intense, paranoiac inferiority that is reflected in a lot of the work of New Order, but isn't quite the same.  It's a music that gestures towards the alienation and conflicts of the burgeoning neo-liberalism of the time period, but without ever expressing the political dimension of the crisis.  Although there's no particular reason for this album needs to be remembered as a lost classic, but it includes five or six really good songs, along with a few decent songs, and a couple real clunkers.  At very least, you can probably find it really cheap in some sort of used form.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Aesthetic and Crisis: Brecht's Approach to the Construction of the Popular

     I recently discovered this paper.  It's an earlier draft of a paper that I gave at the University of California-Irvine, as well at the Marxist Reading Group in Florida.  Unfortunately, that later, revised draft has long since disappeared into the ether.  To be honest, I wasn't sure if any version of this paper still existed until about a half hour ago, when I discovered it in my sent emails.  Guess there is some value in saving that stuff, after all.  I'm tempted to try to revise this for publication, but it would have to appear significantly different than this to get published.  I encourage folks to make suggestions of sources and revisions for the paper.  It would be greatly appreciated.

            In order to understand Bertolt Brecht’s concept of the aesthetic, one must bring in a second important and linked concept, crisis.  Despite the arguments of Marxist revisionists such as Edward Bernstein, the capitalist world system had arrested its conflicts on neither the inter-state level, nor the level of class conflict.  The inception of the Weimar Republic was marked by crisis, the global crisis of capital, inter-imperialist rivalries, and even the very definition of the German nation-state.  This, in turn, was preceded by the crisis of the First World War, which in turn was preceded by a crisis in both art and language, the sprachkrise.  This turns us to a form of art that depends on the form of the experiment in order to negotiate this relationship to that crisis.  We must first define the experiment within the context of modernity, then we need to understand Brecht’s particular take on that process in relationship to the construction of a new social function of art.  The works of the Lehrstucke then become a way to exam how he produce the practices he would later theorize.

To understand the relationship between experimentation and art, we need to take a brief detour into Adorno’s theorization of this relationship in Aesthetic Theory.  Adorno offers a sort of developmental narrative of these practices, moving from a more traditional instrumental and scientific definition of experimentation to a definition that moves into the realm of the unknown and the non-identical.  The initial approach to the experiment looks much more like the classical experiment of the enlightenment.  The experimental occurs when the artist consciously thinks about the artistic process, as opposed to taking in the process unconsciously, transferring a set of practices from science.  As Adorno notes, “even as late as 1930 experimentation referred to efforts filtered through critical consciousness in opposition to the continuation of unreflected aesthetic practices.”[1] Within this definition, the experimental act becomes the critical weighing of effects of a particular aesthetic practice, a concept that is intimately linked to a mode of instrumentality that is, of means and ends.  The experiment then still can hold onto the goals of the enlightenment, a sort of predictability and repeatability.
          But this concept of the experiment is also linked to risk.  Risk becomes necessary because of the continually threatened status of art.  Adorno posed this threat within the following terms. “Art, socially dispossessed, is in no way sure that it has any binding force of its own.”[2]  This falls back into a familiar narrative about art.  Art is born out of its own dispossession from its social function.  The question which is then continually posed is, what does it take to return to this function and position within society?  For Adorno, this question drives this process, while at the same time, it is an impossibility.  However, the experiment becomes the manner in which art flails towards this impossibility.  This failure gestures towards a futurity that is both contingent and, to some degree, unpredictable.  The possibility of creating something new is dependent on the possibility of that new form not succeeding.   As Adorno notes, “experimentation takes shape as the testing of possibilities, usually of types and species; it therefore tends to degrade the concrete to a mere example.”  The experiment moves in the direction of constant testing, of focusing on the means of production, rather than the ends.  Often the product itself is irrelevant.

            However, this conceptualization of the experimental is transformed into a far more aleatory concept.  As Adorno notes, the experimental process is focused on the unexpected.  The experiment begins to point to a form of art that could not have been predicted at the beginning of it production.  This breaks the art form out of the subjective control of its producer, reversing the initial formulation of the experiment itself.  The effort to consciously control the production of the art form to move it into a new productive realm reverses itself and becomes a way that the work of art is thrown into the unknown of the future.  For Adorno, this reveals something inherent about the artistic process.  As he puts it, “art becomes conscious of something that was always present in it.”[3]  What it becomes conscious of is the fact that as long as the art form remains in a stable form, it can continually fall back into the form of a thing, or mere commodity, losing its ability to critique the current social system or meaningfully contribute to the creation of its social relations.  Instead, it enters the disposable commodity flow of capital.

            So for Adorno, the drive to experimentation becomes a way of trying to escape the reification of capital, which is inescapable as long as that system of social relations exists.  And once more, the concept of art as an autonomous realm comes precisely out of that system of relations.  The constant drive for novelty, or what Ernst Bloch refers to as the novum of global capitalism is both the driving force of global capitalism and is also the form that the resistances to global capital take.  Capital is constantly driven by the desire for the new, new markets, new forms of labor to exploit, new commodities.  This drive for novelty creates a different conception of time that allows for this sort of openness that allows for one to shift from certainties to predictabilities. With the question of temporality, capitalism shifts from a form of time that is both cyclical and full of meaning, to one that is empty and homogenous.

In addition to the question of futurity, empty and homogenous time can be linked to the concept of exchange value and the universalization of the money form.  To understand this, we need to return to the first chapter of Capital.  Marx starts off by defining two opposing concepts, use and exchange value.  Use operates qualitatively.  An object has use value insomuch as it fulfills a particular function.  To an explicate this, a Bible might act as family keepsake in one situation, a form of edification in another, and as a door prop in still another.  Use is singular and cannot be put into a relation of equivalence.  Exchange, on the other hand, can.  It does this by draining of all particularities.  It, the commodity, becomes an expression of the congealed, socially necessary labor time needed to produce it.  It is this transformation that allows for the commodity to be entered into a series of relations of equivalence.  The money form becomes the expression of this empty mode of equivalence, par excellence.  It operates as a mode of potential, able to transform itself from C to M to C, or from M to C to M’.

            Although Marx is hesitant to make the analogy, the emptiness of the word form can be linked to the emptiness of the money form.  The sign, as an assemblage of letters, can be shuffled into another arbitrary formation and can be linked to another assemblage, which is then linked to another signifier.  Nietzsche sees, in the gap between signifier and signified, a kind of abyss that can only be filled in by a sort of social contract of language.  In this sense, socially necessary labor time acts as an analogue to this social contract, being defined by both the constructions of socially necessary labor time in the past (in the form of constant capital) and by the demands of the working class within its development in the class struggle.  This dimension of the signifier plays a central role within modernism, the absence of stability in the signifier leading to an experimental fecundity in the language, producing new forms and processes.      

            At this point, the perspectives of Adorno and Brecht shift considerably on how art factors into this structure of capitalism.  For Adorno, this process is defined by negativity. He noted that "the artwork is not only the echo of suffering, it diminishes it.”[4]  Art, which is constructed under the domination and exploitation of capital, the experience of primitive accumulation, whether in the form of the enclosure of the commons or colonialism, can never fully capture or understand this experience.  However, that lack of ability to capture that experience, that alienation from that experience gestures to something that is essential in the structure of capitalism, the inability to close the dialectical process with a form of synthesis, the inability to end the process of critique.  However, we will drop this dimension of the discussion to turn to the aspect of Adorno’s work that relates to Brecht.

            However, we’ll see some distinct differences with Brecht’s work, although there is a profound connection around this question of the experiment.   To begin with this question of the experiment, it may seem that Bertolt Brecht’s goal in the process of this experimentation, the production of a new people, would go against this aleatory concept of experimentation that we find in Adorno.  This temptation is most apparent when Brecht himself poses a concept of experimentation in his polemics with Lukacs.  Brecht argues that “in art there is the fact of failure, and the fact of partial success.”[5]  We’re returned to the logic of instrumentality that describes the initial mode of experimentalization.  Brecht notes this dimension through an exploration of the failure in various experiments.  “Experimental phases can then be noted, in which an often almost unbearable narrowing of perspective occurs, one-sided or rather few sided emerge, and applicability of results becomes problematic.  There are experiments which come to nothing and experiments which bear late fruits or paltry fruits.”[6]  The experiment then again is linked to a narrative of failure, but there are some distinct differences in that narrative.  For Brecht, there is the notion that there can be some sort of success, a gesture towards the new form of collective aesthetic engagement.  But perhaps more significantly, Brecht grants that failure puts the very notion of the experiment under question in a manner that Adorno would not consider, holding onto a utility of literature. 

However, Brecht’s concept of experimentation takes on greater traction when the concept of the people is introduced.   This concept is developed in a knot of concerns within his contribution to the debates over expressionism with Lukacs.  The concept of the people is the implicit third term, linked up with the aesthetic category of realism and the notion of the popular.  These three add up to a form of art that both focuses on process and cannot be determined in advance.  In short, we return to a form of the experiment that Adorno identifies with the later form of aleatory art.  However, this experimental form gestures towards the possibility of a new social function for art and, in turn, a radically new structure of society.  The initial forms of the experiment may invariably fail, but these failures allow for other experiments to occur, which may lead to some form of revolutionary transformation.  The experiment is the working through of this process, the testing of new social formations, projects, and structures.

The question of the definition of realism becomes the first term that must be defined to engage with this process.  After all, it is Lukacs’ definition of this term in opposition to the experimental form of expressionism that defines this debate.  For Lukacs, the definition of realism comes out of the creation of the novel during the first half of the 19th century, in particular, the historical novel.  The realism of the historical novel is dependent on both recognizing the complex structures of the society and the dynamics that define those structures.  Lukacs notes, “A total historical picture depends upon a rich and graded interaction between different levels of response to any major disturbance of life.  It must disclose artistically the connection between the spontaneous reaction of the masses and the historical consciousness of the leading personalities.”[7]  The historical picture can be produced through a complex structure of social mediations, mediations between social classes, between the mediocre protagonist of the novel and the world historical personalities.  The novel presents a synthetic view of the antagonistic totality.

The ability of the novel to produce this kind of understanding of society declines after the revolution of 1848 and the increasing insurgency of the proletariat.  With this transformation, the novel can no longer hold together the structures of synthesis found in the earlier novel.  For Lukacs, this represents the decline and eventual failure of the bourgeois novel, which is simultaneously linked up to the decline of the bourgeoisie as a progressive force in history.  Lukacs then spends the final section of the text trying to discover where the new forms of critical and historical realism are occurring within the literature of his time, primarily the literature of the popular front.  He argues that one can find a number of successful projects that begin to accomplish this task once again in the fight against fascism, although he is far less sanguine about this possibility in the 1960 introduction.

Brecht is highly critical of this narrative of realism, primarily on the grounds that he saw this as a formalistic definition of the term realism.  The accusation of formalism is primarily dependant on the fact that Lukacs’ definition of realism is both completely dependent on the form of the novel, and even more specifically, a set of 19th century European novels.  He notes, “We shall take care not to describe one particular, historical form of novel of a particular epoch as realistic—say that of Balzac or Tolstoy—and thereby erect merely formal, literary criteria for realism.”[8]  Lukac’s fault is that he defines realism trans-historically based on the particular dynamics of a specific time period.  The dimension of formalism places an expectation that social relations will remain static, at least at the structural level.  It profoundly denies the profound dynamism of capitalism that defines Marx’s conceptualization of that social system.  The novel is caught up in the dynamism of that social system, and if one judges it based on earlier formal criteria, it must necessarily fail.  In this situation, Brecht argues for a sort of aesthetic eclecticism in understanding the concept of realism.  He notes, “Our concept of realism must be wide and political, sovereign over all conventions.”[9]  Realism then moves from a commitment to a particular generic verisimilitude to a political commitment.

This commitment is linked to the particular form of Marxism that Brecht took on in the late 1920’s, a form of Marxism that blurred the lines between structures of the representation of reality and attempts to transform that reality.  We can see this when we see Brecht’s definition of realism. 

“Realistic means: discovering the causal complexes of society/unmasking the prevailing view of things as the view of those who are in power/writing from the standpoint of the class which offers the broadest solutions for the pressing difficulties in which human society is caught up/emphasizing the element of development/making possible the concrete, and making possible abstraction from it.”[10]

            Realism then is always linked to particularity.  It relates to a particular mode of society and it is related to particular class relations.  At the same time, it is also perspective on that particularity that is defined through perspective.  The realistic view comes from a particular ‘standpoint’, a ‘standpoint’ that is defined by one that ‘offers the broadest solutions for the pressing difficulties’ of a particular society.  Therefore, realism must be dynamic in two senses.  In the first sense, realism must be defined by particularity, because reality is in constant motion.  One never steps into the same reality twice, so to speak.  At the same time, realism must be a part of that movement that defines reality, to understand the world, it must act in that world, in a manner that contributes to the class struggle.  Brecht puts this need in strong polemical terms.

“If we wish to have a living and combative literature, which is fully engaged with reality and fully grasps reality, a truly popular literature, we must keep step with the rapid development of reality.  The great working masses are already on the move.  The industry and brutality of their enemies is proof of it.”[11]

            The perspective that we have alluded to is now given a very particular identity, the proletariat, which is defined by its rapidity and by its movement.  It is created through the particular movement of capitalism itself, the movement from the countryside to the city, the construction of the factory, etc.  The construction of the proletariat mirrors the construction of capitalism as a whole.  In effect, the proletariat as a collective identity becomes the subjective face of the social reality of global capitalism itself.  To understand capitalism, the defining structure of the world, must necessarily link up to the movement of the proletariat, its goals, dreams and projects, and the only way to accomplish that is to merge with those projects.
   To understand this project, we need to introduce a second term, one that Brecht brings up in the previous passage, the popular.  He notes that ‘a truly popular literature’ is the only literature that “fully grasps reality.”  In effect, the popular links art and literature to the dynamic structure of reality.  It accomplishes this through its own production, which is defined by non-continuity that is by gaps, setbacks, and destruction.  The popular is far better defined by Adorno’s term the non-identical, than it is by the static concepts of realism as set up by Lukacs.  Brecht defines this process in the following enigmatic terms.  “There is not only such a thing as being popular, there is also the process of becoming popular.”[12]  It is this second term that is far more important to the work of Brecht as it defines the goal of the author in a society defined by class struggle.  The term ‘becoming’ becomes central in understanding this process as that it points to the fact that the popular is neither static, nor is it always already in existence.  It is a term that comes up in moments of revolt, but disappears into the domination of capital.

             Brecht emphasizes the forms of mystification and obfuscation that enter into the process of neutralizing the popular.

It is precisely in the so-called poetical forms that ‘the people’ are represented in a superstitious fashion, or, better, in a fashion that encourages superstition.  They endow the people with unchanging characteristics, hallowed traditions, art forms, habits and customs, religiosity, hereditary enemies, invincible power and so on.  A remarkable unity appears between tormenters and tormented, exploiters and exploited, deceivers and deceived; it is by no means a question of the masses of ‘little’ working people in opposition to those above them.[13]

            Art then has the possibility of suppressing the production of this active and resistant sense of the popular through a form of ‘superstition’.  The ‘poetical form’ can do this through the presentation of a people that is unchanging in nature, defined in classically ethnographic terms, customs, traditions, and religion.  Just as this mode of representation allows for the neutralization of a colonized people, the static image of the people of the metropole allows for a similar control.  At the same time, this static image neutralizes the class antagonisms that define these societies.  A false unity is presented between the figure of the exploited and the figure of the exploited, those who lie and those who are lied to.  An image of the whole is produced through this deception that allows for the perpetuation of this inequity.  It is precisely this which becomes the superstition mystifying and covering up the structure of the system.

            It would be worth returning to the question of Lukacs, if briefly.  It is this possibility of mystification that seems to be driving Brecht’s animosity towards his understanding of aesthetics, because an earlier, authentic vision of reality can slip into this ‘superstition’ or mystification of reality.  Furthermore, Lukacs’ synthetic concept of totality has the ability to contribute to this process of mystification, by suppressing the antagonisms of the social structure.  If one goes back to the literature that Lukacs thinks of as literature in decline, one sees a literature that gestures to a destruction of the synthesis that defines the hegemony of the earlier era.  For all the problems of this literature, it is a genuine attempt to understand the non-synthetic dimensions of the structure, the very things that are suppressed by Lukacs’ demand for synthesis.

            So then what does it mean to produce a genuinely popular form of art?  Brecht links it up to popular movements.

            “Popular means: intelligible to the broad masses, adopting and enriching their forms of expression/assuming their standpoint, confirming and correcting it/representing the most progressive section of the people so that it can assume leadership, and therefore intelligible to other sections of the people as well/relating to traditions and developing them/communicating to that portion of the people which strives for the leadership the achievements of the section that rules the nation.”[14]

            A genuinely popular form of art resists those forms of mystification that define the neutralization of a people.  This is accomplished first and foremost by recognizing the qualities and abilities that exist in latent form in that people, putting those qualities and abilities in a conscious form and allowing for their development.  At the same time, it offers the ability to correct forms of mystification that have come into being.  The popular does this by linking it back to the history of a people through its traditions, although in a manner that doesn’t present those traditions as static.  Those traditions can be redeveloped and rethought, and transformed to deal with contemporary reality.  All of these dimensions are directed towards producing modes of revolutionary organization and the overthrow of the ruling class.

            However, this project must be understood in terms of its lack of predictability.  The project needs to be linked back to the contingency of the process itself.  Brecht asks,     

“Is there no solution then?  There is.  The new ascendant class shows it.  It is not a way back.  It is not linked to the good old days but the bad new ones.  It does not involve undoing techniques but developing them.  Man does not become man again by stepping out of the masses but by stepping back into them.  The masses shed their dehumanization and thereby men become men again—but not the same men as before.”[15]

            The solution occurs by stepping into the daily practices of the masses, that is to say, the ascendant class of the proletariat.  Furthermore, the solution is defined by futurity, rather than some form of the golden age.  Instead, it is defined by the everyday conditions of exploitation of that insurgent class, the techniques that define its domination.  The possibility of solution exists in a scattered form, in the everyday forms of cooperation that define the very possibility of the work day, the forms of common sense that are mutated, the dimensions of everyday practice that are not within social synthesis.

            However, one cannot predict how these elements come together in order to end the practices of ‘dehumanization.’  As Brecht notes, ‘men become men again—but not the same men as before.’ It is precisely this new man, which becomes the unknown quality of the process, the aleatory element that cannot be predicted, but is nonetheless the goal of the whole process.  This then turns the emphasis of the project to the process of production itself, returning us to the question of the experiment, which provides the quality of surprise and the non-subjective to the artistic process.

            For Brecht, he links this aleatory dimension of the experiment with his acts of collaboration with workers, who break him out of the traditional space of the theater.  It adds a dimension to the production that “was never literary or stated in terms of theatrical aesthetics.”  This non-aesthetic dimension of class conscious workers links the project back to an attempt to create a socially useful form of art, but not one that is either conservative or predictable.  Instead, the workers were willing to consider the validity of the most non-conventional forms of artistic production and representation if it contributed to the process of collective critical consciousness.  As Brecht notes,

     “The workers judged everything according to the truth of its content; they welcomed every innovation which helped the representation of truth, of the real mechanism of society; they rejected everything that seemed theatrical, technical equipment that merely worked for its own sake—that is to say, that did not yet fulfill, or no longer fulfilled, its purpose.”[16]

            The process becomes linked to this truth function, that is, to the critical understanding of the ‘real mechanism of society.’  The experimental process is directed to finding this social mechanism within the dross of the purely ‘theatrical, technical.’  This process of discovering social reality can never stop, as that the very nature of that reality is constantly in flux.  Hence, the innovation becomes welcome, the unfamiliar a way of reorienting one’s self with the crisis of representation.  At the same time, this process allows for the honing of skills and new forms of intersubjective relations that Brecht insists are crucial to transforming the society.  The workers leave with a new set of tools for creating the new, if unknown future society, as well as contributing to an artistic process.  At points, when he had the time and money, Brecht was willing to stretch this out indefinitely.  During a DDR, state sponsored production of Galileo, Brecht responded to the criticism that if the practices continued at this rate, the production would come into being in four years, by agreeing and stating that this would be a productive framework. 

            But this is getting us away from the focus of the crisis that put these artistic practices into focus, that is, during the crisis and collapse of the Weimar republic during the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s.  Brecht wrote a set of plays known as the Lehrstucke during this period that focused on the very artistic practices of experimentation and working with non-actors, which were later defended in the expressionism debates, and were used as an example against Lukacs’ conceptualization of realism.  Of these plays, the most useful to look at are three short plays, Der Jasager, Der Neinsager, and Die Massnahme.  All three are reworkings of a tradition No played known as Taniko or The Valley-Hurling, and each of the revisions were produced in non-traditional theatrical spaces, and with the collaboration of non-actors.  The first two plays were written for a school opera, while Die Massnahme was written worker’s theatrical groups.  None of the productions ever got the extensive production schedules that they were intended for, and could be considered only ‘partial successes at best if one uses the terms that Brecht sets up for the concept of the experiment.

            At the same time, it is precisely the partial nature of the work that makes it interesting for the conversation at hand.  The plays take an older, popular literary form and repeatedly work through that material in order to produce a new form of art that is relevant to the present of its production.  Each of those productions went through extensive revisions and processing with collectives, generally linked up with the worker’s movement.  This constant reworking of the material transforms the play from a traditional affirmation of a social symbolic to a much more unstable and dynamic sense of that symbolic.  Each of these revisions takes us farther away from the original production, and into a new artistic form, although it’s a question whether that process is ever entirely successful.

            The first two forms of the play, attempts that were intended to be presented in tandem, although never were, hold onto the more traditional form of the play.  They are both simple two act plays defined by the same narrative arc.  A boy, whose mother is sick, goes on a journey with his master to obtain knowledge from beyond the mountain.  The boy goes on this journey in order to get medicine to cure his mother, medicine apparently only available in this distant village.  The boy is told of the danger on the voyage, but he insists on going on the voyage.  While on this journey, the boy becomes sick and the party tells him that he must be thrown into the valley and killed in order to continue the journey by the traditions of the society.

           The difference in the narrative occurs in the decision itself.  In the first version of the play, the young boy accepts the decision, and affirms the tradition of the society.  The tradition of the society demands this voluntary affirmation of the custom, which is acceded to by the boy. The play ends with the following speech on the part of the boy.  “I knew quite well that if I made this journey/ I might forfeit my life to make it./ I was thinking of/ My dear mother/ That drove me on to join you./ Take then my jug/ Fill it with a healing draught/ Bring it to my mother/ When you return home.”[17]  This acceptance is slightly modified because of the son’s relationship to the mother, and the ability to obtain medicine to cure the mother at the end of the journey, but the boy accepts the nature of the society, and states that he should be treated the same as others.

            The second version of the play reverses this decision.  Instead of accepting the custom as it was created, the boy responds to the question with the following statement, “My answer was wrong, but your question was more so.  Whoever says A does not have to say B.  He can recognize that A was wrong.  I wanted to fetch medicine for my mother, but now I have become ill myself and it is no longer possible.  And I want immediately to turn back, as the new situation demands.  I am asking you too to turn back and take me home.  Your research can surely wait.”[18]  The group accepts this decision after some discussion, and returns to the village to install a “new custom”, a “new law” in the village.  The decision then becomes transformation of the law, a revision based on the revelation that occurred because of the refusal.

            Both plays then center on the nature of the decision, and focus on the importance of the individual’s decision to either confirm or deny the necessity for sacrifice in the social symbolic.  In the first, this act is of simple acceptance.  It follows in the tradition of the old No play, which ritualizes the need to uphold rituals and traditions.  While the second refuses that, pointing to the possibility of a new social symbolic.  This second version of the play innovates on the first version by introducing contingency of the act itself, but it keeps within the logic of the first version in that it stays focused on the single act, keeping the lesson focused on the morality of the single decision.  One either affirms the old symbolic or, in turn, affirms a new order.

            The next version of the play, Die Massnahme, however is a considerable revision of the earlier versions of the play.  The narrative is moved from the timelessness of the original and is set in the relatively contemporary class struggle of the present.  It also expands that narrative, moving it from two acts to eight acts.  The play also introduces several new characters, including the control chorus, the four agitators, along with other characters that define each of the other scenarios.  At the same time, the figure of the master disappears.  The actors switch positions throughout the play, performing different roles throughout the narrative.  The idea, evidently, is to allow each individual to play the figure of the young comrade.

            The role of the social symbolic also becomes much more contingent.  As The Control Chorus notes,

“All those who fight for Communism must know how to fight and how not to fight; to tell the truth and not to tell the truth; to be servile and also how not to be servile; to keep one’s promises and also not keep them; how to confront a danger, how to avoid danger; to be known by sight and unknown.  All those who fight for Communism have just this to be said in their favor: that they are fighting for communism.”[19]

            Two important transformations occur within this narrative.  First, the narrative shifts from the perspective of those who want to maintain a certain social order to one that wants to overthrow that moment.  Second, and more importantly, the narrative is no longer focused on a single and definite decision.  The figure of the individual who fights for Communism is continually involved in a process of contingent decision-making, each moment possibly calling for radically different actions.  The narrative has moved from a position of ethical commitment to critical instrumentality, a position defined by constant critical engagement and decision making.  Each decision exists only in the conjuncture of its own production, only contingently defining other decisions.

            The following acts of the play follow a series of critical errors made by the figure of the young comrade, each being defined by a commitment to an abstract moral code, rather than the instrumental needs of the situation.  This begins with the decision to act as the advocate for the coolies, rather than create a situation where they advocate for themselves.  The second focuses on the failure of the organizer to continue organizing strike breakers to hold the picket line, instead getting caught up in a single incident of injustice.  He then refuses to do the necessary work to form a necessary alliance, and also produces a premature insurrection.  Each of these moments, the young comrade tries to switch his role from the critical facilitator of other’s actions to becoming the actor himself, to move from a critical and instrumental position to an inflexible and moral position.

           Against this singular position, defined by error created through inflexibility, the narrative offers a second position, defined by a cohesive collectivity, the party apparatus, which is defined in the following terms when challenged by the young comrade.

            “We are it./ You and I and them—all of us./ Comrade, the clothes it’s dressed in are your clothes, the head/ that it thinks with is yours/ Where I’m lodging, there is its house, and where you suffer an/ assault it fights back.”[20]

            This links the figure of the party to the intimate inter-personal relations of the young comrade and the agitators that he is leading.  The party literally is dressed in those individuals clothing.  It thinks their thoughts and fights in defense of assaults of its members.  This collectivity allows for a critical decision making process, a process that is not marked by transcendence, but rather is marked by an immanent decision-making process.  It allows for the wisdom of each of its constitutive parts to contribute to a project.

            The definition of this collectivity is expanded on by The Control Chorus, who produces a much more cohesive image of the party.

            “ One man may have two eyes/ But the Party had a thousand./ One man may see a town/ But the Party sees six countries./ One man can spare a moment/ The party has several moments./ One single man can be annihilated/ But the party can’t be annihilated.”[21]

            The understanding of the party then shifts from one that emphasizes inter-subjectivity to one that produces a metaphor of a composite body, multi-eyed, far seeing, and eternal.  The body of the party then can allow for the process of critical instrumentality to go forwards, through its ability to understand each particular event within larger social settings.  It is able to do this through its collective construction, a construction that is defined by the continual discussion that defines the very artistic production that Brecht privileges in his own work.

           The narrative ends with the same need for sacrifice that comes up in the first two narratives, and it follows the first narrative in affirming that sacrifice.  This affirmation of the sacrifice then reverses the emphasis on critical instrumentality that defines the rest of the narrative.  In the end, the young comrade’s ethical decision to die becomes the moment in which the decision to tell the truth, to confront the danger, becomes the correct ethical decision.  The critical instrumentality of the other decisions is then ultimately founded on a need for commitment, and for sacrifice.  This sacrifice allows for the entire critical operation to continue, and for the success of the revolution, however, this moment can only be recognized at its need.  It remains out of the realm of prediction.

            However, even this more fully realized version of the play remains, in its own way, partial and incomplete.  It was shown only a few times and was extensively criticized by the communist press, for it abstraction, and for its emphasis on the ethical.  It can also be asked if the sacrifice at the end of the play returns the play to the original religious and transcendental structure.  A second and just as obvious point could be made that the play did not translate into the revolutionary transformation of German society, a project that Brecht had intended it to contribute to.  At the same time, it gestured to the collective forms of artistic production that marked the revolutionary avant-garde of the next world revolution, that of 1968, whose final results remain undetermined.

[1] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, Trans and Ed, Robert Huillot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 37.
[2] Ibid., 38.
[3] Ibid., 38.
[4] Ibid., 39
[5] Bertolt Brecht, “On the Formalistic Character of the Theory of Realism”, Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Frederic Jameson (London: Verso Books, 2007), 74.
[6] Ibid., 74.
[7] Georg Lukacs, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 44.
[8] Bertolt Brecht, “Popularity and Reason”, Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Frederic Jameson (London: Verso Books, 2007), 81-82.
[9] Bertolt Brecht, “Popularity and Reason”, Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Frederic Jameson (London: Verso Books, 2007), 82.
[10] Bertolt Brecht, “Popularity and Reason”, Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Frederic Jameson (London: Verso Books, 2007), 82.
[11] Bertolt Brecht, “Popularity and Reason”, Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Frederic Jameson (London: Verso Books, 2007), 85.
[12] Bertolt Brecht, “Popularity and Reason”, Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Frederic Jameson (London: Verso Books, 2007), 85.
[13] Bertolt Brecht, “Popularity and Reason”, Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Frederic Jameson (London: Verso Books, 2007), 80.
[14] Bertolt Brecht, “Popularity and Reason”, Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Frederic Jameson (London: Verso Books, 2007), 81.
[15] Bertolt Brecht, “[The Essays of Georg Lukacs]”, Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Frederic Jameson (London: Verso Books, 2007), 69.
[16] Bertolt Brecht, “Popularity and Reason”, Aesthetics and Politics, ed. Frederic Jameson (London: Verso Books, 2007), 83.
[17] Bertolt Brecht, “He Said Yes/ He Said No”, Plays 3ii, Ed. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1997), 54.
[18] Bertolt Brecht, “He Said Yes/ He Said No”, Plays 3ii, Ed. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1997), 59.
[19] Bertolt Brecht, “The Decision”, Plays 3ii, Ed. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1997), 67.
[20] Bertolt Brecht, “The Decision”, Plays 3ii, Ed. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1997), 82.
[21] Bertolt Brecht, “The Decision”, Plays 3ii, Ed. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1997), 83.