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T J Clarke, although not widely known to the general public, has been one of the most influential critics and analysts of modern art.
His work has concentrated upon the deformation of art within the context of capitalism and the market and he has uncompromisingly attacked the dehumanisation of capitalism and held out the possibility of a socialist alternative.
It is therefore of some significance that this leading art intellectual now argues that the socialist project has failed and there is no longer an alternative to capitalism.
Below Gerry Fitzpatrick offers a review of the work of Clark and a critique of his dismissal of a socialist future.
T J Clark’s No Future of The Left
A review by Gerry Fitzpatrick
27 March 2013
Part I: Towards Catastrophe
T. J. Clark studied art history at the Courtold Institute in London in the 1960s. His continuing influences are Marxist-Syndicalist and Guy DeBord’s Situationist International. Other influences are Weberian sociology and the later work of the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin. Clark has also been quite successful in putting the language of structuralism to work for his own purposes in discussing the meaning of modern art.
Following the publication of his important essay on Manet and the origins of Modernism (published in Screen in 1977), he worked on several video lectures for the Open University. In those lectures the influence of feminism can also be seen. It has been through his public working through of the history of modernism and his engagement with what Clark understands to be its social and ideological dynamics that a broader public have come to know him. Where his contemporary Robert Hughes used television to give his own radical materialist view of modern culture, Clark is seen more often in on-line video form promoting his ideas. However, if his books are consulted such as, The Image of The People on Courbet and The Absolute Bourgeois (both 1973), - there is very little difference between his writing and his films.
In each medium Clark uses a high degree
of skill in engaging the reader and the viewer to suggest that the artists
problems of deconstructing and reconstructing the world can be seen as
a political metaphor for the problem of trying to maintain Enlightenment
values under modern capitalism. In The Image of The People he shows how
one artist – Courbet changed his practice during the revolution of 1848.
Clark shows us how Courbet’s socialism and realist ideas were actually
translated by the artist on to canvas and that that process involved Courbet
engaging ideologically with his artistic and political contemporaries.
It was Clark’s stress on these relationships that recast Courbet as playing
a decisive role in the history of modern art as an artist who depicted
the working class and the bourgeoisie. That job, Clark tells us, involved
allegory, irony and a process of constantly updating his political and
ethical judgments and that it was through doing this and not seeing art
as a purely formal problem that Courbet’s aesthetic was realized:
In The Absolute Bourgeois Clark showed
how the art of 1848 – an art of protest during the revolution, became an
art after the revolution of barely tolerated political caricature.
The Bourgeoisie having established its dominance had no longer any need for an art of political protest. Following Napoleon III coup in 1851 that which had been tolerated during the republic of 1848 was heavily censored.
In these works from the early part of his
career Clark makes a distinction that would later become important.
On the one hand – as Clark tells us, Courbet realized that his skill
was simply not enough to enable him to produce the political aesthetic
he wanted; on the other hand, the art of the post-revolutionary process
had the meaning of revolution, as it’s starting point. This meant that
reaching its political target or goal was more difficult as the language
and the form had constantly updated to produce the intended outcome. Clark’s
account of Daummer’s post-revolutionary art and his success of the radical
caricaturist is masterly:
Forms of consciousness and experience had changed and so must art. Critically evaluating how this was realized is Clark’s master narrative. In both book and film Clark uses carefully selected materials in his interpretations and succeeds in bringing his audience closer to knowing more about the difficulties of the production of modern art under capitalism.
The Experience of Defeat
Following 9/11 a shift took place in Clark’s ideas about what is now happening politically in the “image world” of art and media. Three years earlier in Farewell to an Idea (1999) a book that strongly registered his view of the end of modernism, he was still accepting the possibility that to go beyond modernism was a political task that involved going beyond the bourgeoisie itself. After 9/11 in a collective manifesto Afflicted Powers (2005) he expressed the view that the world is so destructively polarized that the political project of finding a way through may not now be possible. Clark still maintains this view even after the Arab Revolutions that began in 2011.
In a recent New Left Review article (NLR
74) and on-line lecture:
Clark gave an account of his presentation For A Left Without a Future subtitled: ‘The Experience of Defeat’. Having retired form academic life and returned to Britain he wished to express his shock at the general state of the Left (both reformist and revolutionary) in the, “advanced capitalist countries”. This he indicates directly by describing the response of the Greek left as not a response, but a “collapse”. But this collapse he says is in fact general:
“If the past decade isn’t proof of that there are no circumstances capable of reviving the Left in its 19th and 20th century form. Then what would proof be like?”
In attempting to answer Clark’s question I will be going further than the reply to Clark published by Susan Watkin’s in the same issue of New Left Review. http://newleftreview.org/II/74/susan-watkins-presentism
For it is clear that Clark should be answered
in terms of what his own work has achieved and still can achieve (see below).
That said Clark does himself no favours in setting out his presentation
about the Left in terms of a grieving, fragmented appeal rather than an
evaluation or investigation. Watkins’s response, although correct in political
detail, is in fact objectively inadequate to the huge cultural and political
task that occasioned Clark’s petition –a revolutionary Marxist reformation
of the opposition to the war-bank-bond state.
It is difficult to think historically about the present crisis” he says, “even in general terms—comparisons with 1929 seem not to help—and therefore to get the measure of its mixture of chaos and rappel à l’ordre. Tear gas refreshes the army of bondholders; the Greek for General Strike is on everyone’s lips; Goldman Sachs rules the world. Maybe the years since 1989 could be likened to the moment after Waterloo in Europe—the moment of Restoration and Holy Alliance, of apparent world-historical immobility (though vigorous reconstellation of the productive forces) in the interim between 1815 and 1848. In terms of a thinking of the project of Enlightenment—my subject remains the response of political thought to wholesale change in circumstances. (Clark The Experience of Defeat NLR 74 p.55)
In the quote above Clark does try to give us an overview of what the current collapse of the Left is comparable to. The point of Clark’s early display of a photograph of the police confronting Occupy demonstrators in Oakland and his comment about the “collapse” of the Greek Left, is that the state and the ruling class are now well practiced in simply sweeping protests off the streets and replacing elected politicians with technocrats who will intensify the states’ and capital’s attrition on those who attempt to stand in its way. After this, Clark then asks, “How deep does [the Left’s] reconstruction of the project of Enlightenment have to go”, and he replies, “so of us think seven levels of the world”.
Instead of re-defining what “the Left’s project of enlightenment” could or should be. Clark then announces, “The book that we should be reading – as opposed to The Coming Insurrection – is Christopher Hill’s great study [of] Puritanism in England…”The Experience of Defeat.” That is some switch! This Clark claims to be appropriate because Hill’s work tells us of how the Puritans came, “face to face with the failure of their project of a godly republic.” Clark then tells us of the witnesses that he will be calling those who have shaped “these notes” are “unlikely and – dangerous” Nietzsche, “in spite of everything”, Bradley on tragedy, Hazlet on hating in history, Walter Benjamin, “in his hour of darkness”. I will return to the witnesses and themes that Clark calls on in his presentation. For the moment a brief overview of what Clark’s presentation actually contains is in order.
Clark’s presentation is a gallery of images and ideas from a wide range of human history that seeks to provoke a response Clark images range from the dubious (a classical Tower of Bebel is placed next to Tatlin’s monument to the Third International), to the poignant (a harrowing photograph depicting Stalin’s murderous collectivization of agriculture), to the contemporary (riot police confronting the Occupy movement in Oakland California), to the blackly comic (Bruegel’s The Land of Cockaigne showing medieval peasants indulging themselves to the point of stupor on an endless supply of food). These accompany some unacknowledged themes from Benjamin in Clark’s presentation (a) the deep disaster of Stalinism (b) the shallow gradualist notion that the Left and reformist social democrats will reach a world of plenty in the future – all these themes are present in Benjamin’s Thesis on The Philosophy of history (1940) which is one of Clark’s background sources.
But as we will see these themes although present in Clark’s presentation is not its aim – its aim is to have an effect – to jolt us out of what Clark believes to be the security of our beliefs.
Clark offers two possible historical parallels, 1815-1848 and the defeat of the English Puritan Republic for the following reasons. First in the period 1815-1848 Clark tells that as far as the history of ideas were concerned Europe today is closer to the Europe of Lord Castlereagh, because, “after the age of revolutions the arch of intellectual development”, that ranged from “Hobbes to Descartes to Diderot to Jefferson to Kant” — had ended. This meant that:
“[I]n the shadow of Metternich”, [it was] “extremely difficult to see, Ingres [the artist], the later Coleridge for what they were, let alone as capable of coalescing into a form of opposition—a fresh conception of what it was that had to be opposed, and an intuition of a new standpoint from which opposition might go forward. This is the way Castlereagh’s Europe resembles our own: in its sense that a previous language and set of presuppositions for emancipation have run into the sand, and its realistic uncertainty as to whether the elements of a different language are to be found at all in the general spectacle of frozen politics, [and] ruthless economy […].(p.56)After the above paragraph Clark positions his phrase on the “seven levels” that the lefts project of reconstructing the Enlightenment needs to go down to before it becomes effective again. Those he calls upon, as witnesses “come up as resources for the left only at a moment of true historical failure.” “We read them,” (Nietzsche, The defeated Puritan’s, Bradley and Hazlet), Clark says, “only when events oblige us to ask ourselves what it was, in our previous staging’s of transfiguration, that led to the present debacle.”
One can see right away that Clark’s presentation is both descriptive and general. Those of us who are now on what he describes as “the margins”, do recognize some features that we have been struggling to alleviate for at least fifteen years if not more. Clark’s presentation gives us the sackcloth and ashes that needs to be worn but little else – no death for rebirth. That some cynics would say should be clear from Clark’s unashamedly ‘culturalist’ approach. A talk on the crisis of the left set out as a cultural presentation may have been enough to put some “marginal’s” off – or so he seems to have reasoned. After all as Clark says he is not interested in “the fantasy world of Marxist conferences”. Instead of attending Marxist conferences we should be reading Nietzsche. Here is Clark’s quote from Nietzsche that he uses to instruct us in the tragedy of politics today:
To put it briefly . . . What will never again be built any more, cannot be built any more, is—a society, in the old sense of that word; to build such, everything is lacking, above all the material. All of us [Nietzsche means us ‘moderns’] are no longer material for a society; this is a truth for which the time has come! (Nietzsche The Will To Power)Nietzsche’s writing gives the appearance here of a perpetual rhetoric on modern iniquities; its seductive declarative mode belies it self confident resistance to criticism. Its polemical nihilism was directed in the above instance at those who see modernity and capitalist modernization as Progress. It was also directed against those who saw reform as a political project that could be progressed to “socialism”. Susan Watkins in her reply in the same issue of NLR agrees with the Michael Bull of Anti-Nietzsche (2011) – pointing out that what drives Nietzsche’s works are their persistent opposition to equality and socialism (see link above). But she does not attempt to show why Nietzsche’s rhetoric has an attraction for Clark.
Just before Clark’s Nietzschian deposition, which neatly blocks off his account on the current possibilities of modern bourgeois society, Clark goes further and reveals the depths of his despair by quoting another passage from Nietzsche on how the Greeks perfected the means of warfare and enslavement (which I will spare the reader). To which he then adds observations from modern ethnography on the violent nature of humans. Accompanying his words are images of a tribal dispute and aboriginals performing rights for the sprits of the dead – a direct challenge to any materialist understanding of the production of human nature. But it is one that can and must be answered.
Clark’s Nietzsche: The Lord of Disorder
Clark is a little vein glorious if he expects his readers to be shocked at his use of Nietzsche. When a cursory look at his work shows that the later Nietzsche’s writing has been used by him to show the destructive force of (capitalist) modernity – its effects on politics and culture and the general perception of those effects in his Afflicted Powers (2005) and his Nietzsche’s Negative Ecologies (2011). It is one of the classic symptoms of Cultural Despair to which Clark himself admits to having succumbed, to see modernity as a perpetually violent and relentless force of destruction. This he then uses to shape his account of the present. With regards to learning something about human history from Nietzsche’s view of the ancient Athenians and proceeding to connect this to life as it was lived before human settlement, Clark should be the first to realize that this forever “violent” history of humans itself became an ideological discourse of the Cold War - used to “prove” that selfishness and violence will always preclude any notion of reform or socialism, or Enlightenment. Clark does not appear to be concerned for those significant connections. There has of course recently been a renewed interest in Nietzsche. The previous high water mark of his influence was in the hands of academic cultural theorists, Foucault, Loytard and now Zizek, which has been accompanied by a willingness to see Nietzsche’s agitated mental state of theoretical volitization of reality (the “transvaluation of all values”), as a true picture of modern life under capitalism in which life is purely an experience of the devastating duplicity of Modernity.
After Nietzsche’s exulted rhetoric does
not connect to anything, the next state of consciousness is the predictable,
collapse down to anomie and isolation. The account given by Clark of the
dynamic between history and culture illustrates that danger and the trap
of taking Nietzchian ideas as a method of understanding. An account of
the relationship between history, the present and consciousness must have
some degree of accuracy to be effective as critique. It is also clear from
Clark’s presentation that it is not just an indictment of the Left but
of humanity itself – where the only historical force worth the name is
the persistent destructive power of modernity:
Those who can’t join modernity are seen
as losing all substance:
In terms of Marxist theory, we have been here before in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) by Horkheimer and Adorno. In that work modern cultural and political history is described in general terms as a catastrophic experience and the dynamic and interchange of phenomenon is simply commented on, the productive forces simply build up, then devastate society and consciousness in a one sided negative dialectic. Enlightenment’s only task and goal in their account, is to enable humanity to travel down the royal road to fascism and barbarism, from which there can be no escape. Clark’s conception of modern popular culture is not dissimilar to Adorno’s where modern technology (the internet and twitter) simply locks its consumers into capitalist consumption. Clark’s says at one point that the words for “general strike” are on everyone’s lips in Greece. However, if we were to accept Clark’s view of the role of the Internet and technology in modern society, it would be impossible to explain how and why the word “strike” is also being used by tens of thousands of activists from Athens to Johannesburg using the new communications technology. If Clark is calling for a reconstruction of the Left’s project of Enlightenment there will be no reaching down to “seven levels of the world” if reality can not be expressed in essence and not in terms of its evanescent surface. But there are other ideas driving Clark’s approach.
What Guy debord (the French Adrono), called the ‘society of the spectacle’, has not helped Clark break the illusions of this general approach – not least its reductive conception of an unbroken circle of passivity –in which modern humans are simply consumers and where ruling class politics and culture are driven by an unknowable historical process, where assets are liquidated as well as oppositional consciousness. But as we will see the process of pacification and eradication of class-consciousness has clearly not been total.
For Clark 9/11 is where image and condition meet – Clark wants to give us its trauma as not just the nadir of bourgeois modernity, but also of the Left. It is also important to stress contra Clark, that too many have viewed this event vicariously and then carelessly. Previous to 9/11 according to Clark bourgeois society believed itself to be benefiting from capitalist Modernity as a force of “progress” and reform – it has now abandoned this set of values. The extremes of the image world that we now experience through the media are now the reality whose only opposition is Al Qaeda who are, according to Clark, similarly obsessed with their actions as media driven “events” – a bitter observation that can only foster more not less political and Cultural Despair (I use the term advisedly to denote a social and historical time when the working class movement has been forced to retreat by state regulation of union activity and state de-regulation of the management of capital). A time when the re-imaging of oppositional cultural and political form cannot be dominant because the politically active component – an effective labour movement is only just re-emerging after thirty years of retreat. For it is important then to distinguish what is meant by the term “defeat” (see below). Which does not to imply that our political tasks are not informed by what Gore Vidal called America’s, “endless war for an endless peace”. As the Syrian civil war leads on to wider war in the Middle East unlike the inhabitants of Clark’s image world, we are wrenched back again and again to the “dead weighing heavily on the minds of the living”. Culture and politics were united by Marx and Joyce when they described this weight as the “nightmare of history”. What theoretical guide to practice then can undercut the necromancy of the market and Nietzsche’s Übermench of war?
Before I give an answer I think it only right to draw a veil over Clark’s quote from Christopher Hill about the lessons to be learned from the failure of Cromwell’s and the Puritans “Godly republic”, using it to instruct an Irish audience in its lost virtues would be perverse. Similarly, his presentation on Hazlet “on hating” as part of human nature has something sublime about it, but after several readings I still could not see its particular relevance to Clark’s purpose. For if Clark’s Hazlet is right about what drives humanity, then any attempt at Enlightenment would be impossible. Other exhumations, such as those currently being conducted in Spain and in Sarajevo are more germane to his text (Clark’s reference to the Gulag Archipelago notwithstanding). Susan Watkins gives a number of reasons why we should not follow Clark’s recommendation and take Bradley’s council – not least because he advocated the total destruction of Germany in 1915 as “morally progressive”. What I understand to be Clark’s point here in referring to Bradley is that the radical-liberal bourgeoisie no longer has any effective social advocates and that the Left must take on this job as well. After the death of Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes this is a laudable aim.
The Problem of Agency
Which brings me to the problem in Clark’s presentation of agency – who is to do what on behalf of whom? This was pointed up in London when a young Palestinian woman commented after his talk that what Clark had said was relevant as a description of defeat, but that he “had given no analysis”. All we must do is, “accept the defeat” only after this will insight be available. This observation – on defeat – has in fact been a long running part of a small minority’s (including Socialist Democracy’s) opposition to imperial Peace settlements – namely that these peace settlements, unmistakably have given us the products of defeat: the unremitting ideological fog of self-perpetuating, yet lucrative bureaucracy. Failing to deliver reform or modernization the new “moderates” are now attacking and destroying the very means of the state that once performed in delivering those functions.
Therefore for the PLO, Sinn Fein and the ANC - no matter how many elections they win – they will not accept that they are part of the polity of defeat and are now part of the problem and not the solution. True, those who opposed imperialism’s settlements are small enough to be ignored but it is shameful that the only comment Clark makes about that minority is to dismiss them as lauding their own “marginalization”. But that is nothing compared to the effect of the arrogance and the willful ignorance of those who were once opposed to imperialism who are now administer - the defeat, the bailouts and the austerity.
Part II: Beyond Catastrophe
The implication of Clark’s presentation that all his political time periods: 1660 (the collapse of the Puritan Republic), 1815-48 (Castlereagh’s conformist Europe) 1937 (Stalinist Collectivization) and 1940 (Benjamin’s “hour of darkness”), are all equally relevant – is therefore difficult to sustain. But Clark has indicated elsewhere what lays behind his stress on history as a series of catastrophes. There is in fact a key catastrophe for Clark that can help explain his political dislocation.
(1) 1891 The Left After Fourmies
In Farewell To an Idea (1999) Clark argues that part of the disaster of 1914-1918 of War and the rise of Bolshevism was the harmful division and separation of the substantial anarchist movement from the wider socialist movement (both reformist and revolutionary). Because as Clark says it was the accuracy of the catastrophist anarchist vision of the future some twenty years before 1914 that distinguished it from the gradualist and reformist programmers of the Marxist social democrat’s of the Second International.
The key event that occasioned that catastrophist vision was Fourmies. In May 1891 in France the word “Fourmies” was on everyone’s lips after nine workers were killed there by troops when they opened fire on a Mayday demonstration. It led to the French socialist party joining the Workers International. Clark’s interpretation of the reaction to Fourmies was that it distinguished the anarchists from the gradualism of Second International and the ‘progressive’ gradualism of Social Democracy. If the gradualism of Lenin and Kautsky was wrong (so Clark reasons) then the anarchist vision of future catastrophe came closer to the truth. Anarchism, writes Clark:
In its very bombast and naivety, has the measure of the bourgeois beast in the late nineteenth century: its rhetoric of horror and denunciation was the only one adequate to the color of events. To Fourmies, Tonkin, Panama, Dreyfus. To the whole escalating vileness of patriotism and Empire that ended (but did not end) in 1914.[…] But there are moments in history when the very nature of class power, and the forms taken by its manufacture of the future, makes questions of ethics and rhetoric [and] representation primary – unavoidable. […] In closing against anarchism, socialism robbed itself of far more than fire. It deprived itself of an imagination adequate to the horror confronting it, and the worse to come. (Clark, Farewell to an Idea p.102-103).But let us be clear, the anarchist vision of the future catastrophe of capitalism in 1891 was just that, it could not be described as a theory or anything like a theory of imperialism – in the way that Liebknecht and Luxemburg’s was.
By the time Liebknecht and Luxemburg had developed their analysis in the early 20th Century opposition to the arms race was taking place all over Europe (after 1905 Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership were in exile). Clark’s view is that the political collapse of the European left in 1914 would have been different if the anarchists had not been excluded. But of course an analysis has to do more than derive the fullness of its vision of the future from the failure of the pre-1914 reformist politicians of Social Democracy. Their failure cannot imply anarchist political success and Clark provides no alterative history to show otherwise. Which is not to say there was no other option available but to accept things as they were. The confrontation and opposition to imperialism in Ireland in 1912-1919 lead to a different outcome – the defensive arming of the working class and the establishment of a republican government.
(2) The Left After Marikana
One hundred and twenty one years after
Fourmies another historic turning point has been reached, this time at
a mine in South Africa (Azania). The turning point occurred when
the ANC and SACP led government massacred four times the number of miners
killed at Fourmies. In the opposite way to how the vision of the future
catastrophe came into view for the anarchists of 1891 the killings demonstrated
beyond any doubt that the party of Stalinism and of the “historic compromise”
is an enemy to be fought and defeated if we are to have a Left worthy of
the name. That task has now begun in earnest by the working class of South
Similarly, with regards to National Liberation Clark’s account of Al Qaeda as the only real “opposition” to imperialism that aspires to match imperialism’s deadly media spectacle of destruction – could be opened out on to the substantive political problem namely; that there appeared, (up on till early last year), no independent proletarian political force between the now institutionalized PLO, Sinn Fein and the ANC on the one hand and Hamas, and Iranian inspired counter-revolution on the other.
However, one can see right away that the problem with Clark’s acceptance of the correctness of the anarchist vision in 1891. For it is a fact of today’s “anti-capitalist movement” that anarchists and Marxist parties have been co-operating (for better or for worse) in opposing the consequences of the collapse of Social Democracy and the reversing of reforms and the drive to war. This reality of political practice completely undermines the underlying reasons for Clark’s political pessimism (that anarchism in Clark’s view has been wrongly excluded from the Marxist politics of opposition). Not that the prospects are improving greatly at this time, but that the search for a larger stronger Left between socialism and barbarism is no small task that can’t be taken seriously if our guides are to be the Puritans, Nietzsche, Bradley and Hazlet. After the Arab revolutions and Marikana there is a new urgency to rebuild independent working class organizations, which will infuse and strengthen the opposition to the current threat of fascism and war.
Part 3: The Retreat From Benjamin
Key to understanding Clark’s retrenchment is his revised attitude to Benjamin. Benjamin is the only Marxist witness that Clark uses to support his current view of human history. The quote he chooses from Benjamin is one where Benjamin quoting Turgot stresses the importance of “foreseeing the present” amidst an ever-changing contemporary reality. This relates to Clark’s theme of the difficultly of not being able to perceive the significance of intellectual conformism in the pre-1848 period, that it was, “difficult to see, Ingres [the artist], the later Coleridge for what they were, let alone as capable of coalescing into a form of opposition—a fresh conception of what it was that had to be opposed, and an intuition of a new standpoint from which opposition might go forward.” I will take up the problem of identifying an artistic “opposition” below. But if we accept that we are in fact living through an historical period that is closer to a new “1848” instead of a time before it, then the particular relevance of Benjamin’s work changes.
This is not the place to evaluate the continuing
relevance of Benjamin’s work for activists today. Clark in his books, articles
and lectures has done more than anybody to show how Benjamin’s approach
has become indispensible for a Marxist view of modern society and culture.
However, some general remarks are in order. Clark, like many independent
Marxist writers values the work of Benjamin as it is neither a complete
“program” nor is it one that endorses optimism or nihilism. While containing
no method as such, it manages to report and evaluate the actuality of consciousness,
experience, idealism, religion and materialism, libertarianism and revolutionary
resolve. In short it is a dynamic configuration that is activated by the
radical reader. It is no accident that his work has been continually attacked
by liberals and the right as of no use to the Left – that has been going
on ever since the late 1960s when Benjamin’s works began to be published.
His work since that time influenced the New Left and radical critics. From
John Berger (Ways of Seeing), Charles Jencks (architecture) and Robert
Hughes (The Shock of The New). In keeping with his general approach
in his “no future” for the Left article, Clark gives a very narrow account
of Benjamin’s On The Concept of History:
Clark saw Benjamin’s work rightly as a way through the reductionism of Stalinist art criticism and bourgeois modernist anti-political connoisseurship. Benjamin, for Clark, made the right connections between the experience of modernity and the realities of class society. He is the missing term between Joyce and Marx. Clark places great emphasis on the ideal of Socialism not being a movement of gradual progress. In Benjamin’s “hour of darkness” was first and foremost motivated by his anger following the Hitler-Stalin Pack and the collapse of the Popular Front. Having spent over ten years in working relationship with Berthold Brecht the communist playwright, who later became Stalin’s ideological prisoner, Benjamin was expected, like many jews associated with the KPD to endorse Stalin’s pact with Hitler. The Theses on The Philosophy of History was Benjamin’s response:
The conformism which has dwelt within social democracy from the very beginning rests not merely on its political tactics, but also on its economic conceptions. It is a fundamental cause of the later collapse. There is nothing which has corrupted the German working-class so much as the opinion that they were swimming with the tide. (Benjamin, On The Concept of History Thesis XI)Given this direct connection made by Benjamin – between defeat and the disaster of reformist gradualism it is very strange Clark does not refer to it. One can speculate as to why the above quote and others referring to the disasters of the conformism of Social Democracy are not quoted. Apart from the fact that these thesis are “too close for comfort” for Clark to claim originality, it is highly likely that Clark was determined to refuse the known effect of the thesis on any radical reading them. For example Benjamin gives us “dialectical images” to articulate the experience of history and the job of Marxism. Here at “midnight of the century” he uses one of Paul Klee’s images from the 1923 German revolution to explain the general distortion of the ambiguous experience of “progress” as opposed to actual radical social development:
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm. (Benjamin, On The Concept of History Thesis IX)
One of the underling themes of Benjamin’s later work is a materialization of his Judaic philosophy. Here his inner Hegel is always becoming Marx:
It is well-known that an automaton once existed, which was so constructed that it could counter any move of a chess-player with a counter-move, and thereby assure itself of victory in the match. A puppet in Turkish attire, water-pipe in mouth, sat before the chessboard, which rested on a broad table. Through a system of mirrors, the illusion was created that this table was transparent from all sides. In truth, a hunchbacked dwarf who was a master chess-player sat inside, controlling the hands of the puppet with strings. One can envision a corresponding object to this apparatus in philosophy. The puppet called “historical materialism” is to win. It can do this with no further ado against any opponent, so long as it employs the services of theology, which as everyone knows is small and ugly and must be kept out of sight.But we must, contra Clark, keep all aspects of Benjamin’s work in play deploying them while we study history and belief, culture and politics.
How Should Modern Art Respond To The Present?
Apart from the revival of protest art:
Clark states in Modernism, Postmodernism and Steam – a journal article from 2002 that part of the task of producing a modern art worthy of its time is that it must recognize the political pressure that modern capitalism has put us and culture under and that that energy can best put to work in Marx’s famous phrase, by teaching, “the petrified forms how to dance by singing them their own song”:
Any artist with the smarts is going to see that the dream life that matters currently is the one promoted by the World Wide Web. But how isthat dream life going to be put under real pressure? We are back to the problem implied by Marx's "Teach the petrified forms how to dance by singing them their own song." Mimicry is not enough. Nor is hectoring from the outside. It has to be singing. But singing involves hitting the right note, being exactly on key. It involves not an approximate knowledge of what the age of the digital believes about itself, but an intuition (of the kind that Manet and de Chirico managed) of precisely the central knot in the dream life-the founding assumption, the true structure of dream-visualization. It is easy to fake modernity's uncanny. Modernity, as Benjamin reminds us, has thrived from the very beginning on a cheap spectacle of the strange, the new, the phantasmagoric. But modernity also truly dreams. The art that survives is the art that lays hold of the primary process, not the surface image-flow (Clark, October Spring 2002)
What then would a modern work of art need to do, to provide an effective answer to Clark and Beuys monumental pessimism? First the new reality of activist communication would necessarily be part of such a work – something that did not just illustrate the action and sound of the frantic production of electronic political organization second-to-second, city-to-city, country-to-country in opposition to reaction and dictatorship, but was able to replace the atomization of life in bad times with the energy of transformation. Something in which, at every waking second, liberation is being thought about, written about argued for and organized! If this were done in one work of art it would be both maddening and liberating. What would that sound like? Such a work has been identified by the Occupy movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUXI3O8SAaQ
Glass’s Satyagraha (insistence on truth)
written in 1980 is a musical theatre work. It comprises a series of tableau
whose activators are Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr Cape Town, Selma Alabama,
Verdi’s chorus of the Babylonian slaves from Nabbuco (1842) and the Ode
to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The time of Satyagraha is the beginning
of the twentieth century; the subject is Gandhi’s struggle against the
race laws in South Africa. It begins with Gandhi trying to imagine the
great battle to come between good and evil:
The work then intensively unfolds scenes
of protest and organization. The penultimate scene is the police and state
trooper attack on Martin Luther King’s march at Selma in 1965. It embodies
the basic ethics of the modern social movements against racism and oppression:
In this scene Indian Opinion 1906,
Gandhi organizes a printing press to make propaganda against the race laws,
we can hear the wurring printing press spurring on the activists to evermore
determined and intense liberated song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYEp2a-oGvE&list=FLh0Q7k4ff9VWFZou_2Rtpjg&feature=mh_lolz
Walter Benjamin called this, a “tiger’s leap into the past” something we must do to rediscover and renew the struggle. The connections that were made between Glass’s Satyagraha by The Occupy movement today are obvious. Satyagraha shows how from small beginnings, a movement against racism and injustice grew to a movement of millions against colonialism leading on to the modern Civil Rights Movement and the revival of the revolutionary Left.
Conclusion: Summing up The International Political Situation
Following the bank collapse and the ensuing “sovereign debt” crisis the (revolutionary) Left took full advantage to press home the point that they were right about capitalism all long and that after thirty years of wages being held down the working class cannot be blamed for the crisis of profitability. When the series of bailouts of European banks took place, the ruling class did not waste any time in lamenting the loss of the “growth” economy. Now that the boom was dead the task was to pair down what remained of the welfare state and restructure the economy to the bank-debt-bond-holder model. It is now one year on from this new regime and Clark wishes to tell us that in his opinion the Left has not only failed in its task of opposition it has completely lost the battle. In order for the Left to be effective again, so Clark reasons, we should accept that marginalization is the result of a historical defeat. In the last ten years we have witnessed millions protest on an international level against the invasion of Iraq 2003 and the 2008 bail-out of the banks - a movement that involved all Left traditions including anarchism. The movement is now a diverse mass whose politics could be defined as broadly anti-imperialist and anti-finance capital, anti-austerity. This is the wider activist backdrop to the central and crucial struggles that are taking place now in Africa and the Middle East.
The Left may not have yet moved on politically from the tactic of the one day General Strike, but this cannot be made to add up to Clark’s notion of complete defeat – simply because the working class movements and Left’s in the advanced capitalist countries have not been destroyed by the states “final solution”: fascist takeover and military dictatorship. Which is not to say that complacency should reign or be encouraged in the face of the threat from the Right. Rather it is the case that dictatorships are beginning to weaken due to capitalism’s systemic instability. In this situation the Left have not or is unable to maximize its advantage and take full benefit. But after Marikana an historic turning point has been reached this time in the revolutionary left’s favor.
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