EAGLETON AND AESTHETICS
pad at iol.ie
Fri Nov 17 14:47:45 MST 1995
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FROM THE POLIS TO POSTMODERNISM
by Karl Carlile
The following is a discussion of the last chapter of Terry Eagleton's book, The Ideology of the Aesthetic. It is a book that needs to be subjected to serious examination because it represents a more sinister attempt by postmodernist ideology to undermine marxist theory from within. Its distinction is that it is a work that is presented as marxist through the nominal use of key concepts of Marx. The concept of the commodity is one that comes principally to mind in this regard. This is a central concept of the book yet it is not the same concept that Marx uses in Das Kapital.
THE COMMODITY AND AESTHETICS
For Eagleton art is to be vulgarly reduced to economics. Let me show this with a quotation from his book:
When art becomes a commodity, it is released from its traditional social functions within church, court and state into the anonymous freedom of the market place
But the point is that art can never become a commodity just as economics or indeed capitalism, itself, cannot. It would be a mistake to suggest that all social phenomena can be commodified. To claim that all phenomena can be commodified is to miss the use-value side of things. It is to mistakenly believe that all can be reduced to pure value: value fetishism. The superstructural dimension of social life can never be reduced to that of the commodity form otherwise it would be an integral part of the economic system and therefore no longer superstructural. It also indicates a misconception as to the nature of the commodity. Things are only commodities under certain conditions. Things are not naturally but only socially commodities. Art works can assume the form of commodities but they are not inherently commodities. They only exist as commodities while in the circulation process. The art work's existence as use-value is the material condition of its social existence as commodi!
. Its useful condition transcends its commodity existence. If we want to discuss an art work from the standpoint of its quality as art (as use-value) we discuss it in the context of aesthetics. On the other hand, if we want to discuss it from the standpoint of commodity we discuss from the standpoint of political economy. In the latter case we are engaged in an economic discussion and not in a discussion concerning art. Involved here are two distinctly different discourses. Works of art as commodities are no different to any other commodities in that they are all exchange-values. Valorisation makes no specific distinctions since its concerns are abstract.
To say that art is a commodity is similar to claiming that toothbrushes are commodities. It is to impart to the commodity form a natural quality which would imply that art undergoes a qualitative change in its aesthetic nature by simply assuming the commodity form. Just as technology changes radically under the social form of capital while preserving its identity as technology art's form may change but not its substance. Now to reduce the art work to that of a commodity is to deny this differentiation. Art, quite clearly, cannot be confined to the sphere of commodity circulation otherwise it would not be art. It is the specific role it plays outside the circulation process (its use-value) that defines its character as art. Although art may be increasingly drawn into the exchange process it can never be merely reduced to the status of a commodity.
Although individual works of art can appear in the commodity form art, itself, is not a commodity. Even an individual work of art in the form of a commodity is still not simply an exchange-value. It is also a use-value and as use-value it transcends the exchange process, the market, only to take on a new and differentiated role about which the market is unconcerned. Outside of circulation things are no longer commodities and are differentiated into diversity as use-values thereby demonstrating the absurdity of the view that capitalism is one unified process. Once the objects step outside of circulation their unity as commodity is sloughed off and differentiation prevails. What is not appreciated by Eagleton is that the commodity form and thereby the market are ultimately merely the forms through which use-values are produced and distributed. Consequently the power of the commodity is strictly circumscribed. To attach to commodity production more than this is to promote the v!
y commodity fetishism discovered by Marx. It is to mystify the commodity just as Heidegger mystified "Being." The point is that art from the past and into the present still shares the common quality of being art. Just as a toothbrush remains a toothbrush whether it is a 19th century or 20th century one.
The nature and identity of art has not changed over the years despite the greater role that capital is said to play in the production and distribution of art works. Commodity capital can change the form of art but not its substance. It does not determine what is and is not art just as it does not dictate what is and is not a toothbrush.
But for Eagleton art is a production process, and perhaps even a valorisation process, regulated by the law of value and both by individual artistic creativity. Consequently the market determines what objects are art as well as their price. The value of art then is not to be aesthetically determined but instead determined by labour time, by it's value as a commodity. This deaestheticizes art taking it out of the world of aesthetics to slip it into the world of capitalist industry, into the world of economics. Eagleton proves the very opposite of what he intends. Instead of establishing the universalisation of aesthetics he suggests its dissolution into economics
Despite this Eagleton stresses the independence of contemporary art:
Now it exists, not for any specific audience, but just for anybody with the taste to appreciate it and the money to buy it. And in so far as it exists for nothing and nobody in particular, it can be said to exist for itself. It is independent because it has been swallowed up by commodity production.
But art cannot be independent if it has been sucked up by commodity production. He seems to think that art becomes more independent, more aesthetic, by becoming economic. He mistakes the appearance for the essence of reality. In other words appearances (images) are all that Is. anything it is the economic system, if we are to believe Eagleton, that becomes more independent by virtue of consuming art. Capital now has art completely within its economic power so that it is no longer art. But again, even in this context, Eagleton fails to understand the nature of commodity production. He does not seem to grasp that under capitalist commodity production the production process as a valorisation process is also an industrial process. In other words he fails to draw any distinction between simple commodity production and capitalist commodity production together with art's relation to those different forms of commodity production. Art cannot be seriously discussed with regard to the !
ity in the absence of any treatment of capitalist commodity production which is distinct from simple (non-capitalist) commodity production
AESTHETICS AND CAPITALIST SOCIETY
In a sense, Eagleton supports the view that art is a form of alienation when he states that the avant garde proclaims that "the problem of art is art itself so let's have an art which isn't art." The primary distinction between this view of the avant garde and my view is that for me only capitalism's overthrowal can lead to art's abolition while they believe art can be abolished within capitalism. For me the withering away means the instatement of the beautiful as a social universal while for them it means the instatement of the banal as universal. The latter is a reformist programme. But unlike the avant garde, Eagleton believes, however contradictorily, that capitalism has already turned art into non-art by economic activity gobbling it up.
Ironically Eagleton claims that what we now have is the wholesale aestheticization of society so that the entire culture of society is saturated by the aestheticization process. Eagleton again reveals his close affinity with the avant garde since to say that the whole of society is aestheticized must mean that it is non-art. That capitalist society has succeeded in so vulgarizing and trivialising art that all is art including the most banal banalities of capitalist life. Capitalism has succeeded in turning art into kitsch. The avant gard's dream has been turned into a reality without artistic struggle. Eagleton's commodity had done that work while the artist is relegated to that of passive bystander.
In support of his argument Eagleton now introduces us to another current within postmodernist discourse. As the following will show it is semiology:
In the early stages capitalism had sharply severed the symbolic from the economic; now the two spheres are incongruously reunited, as the economic penetrates deeply into the symbolic realm itself,...
On the basis of what Eagleton has said earlier he cannot justifiably claim that aesthetics has been universally absorbed by economics while at the same time remaining critical of economic reductionism. If, as he says, the economic system has absorbed art then it has been transformed into economics and relieved of its aesthetic character so that there can be no talk of unity obtaining between the symbolic and the economic. This is reductionism at its most absolute. The avant gardists' artistic praxis would then have reliably reflected the unifying development Eagleton claims to have happened. It would follow logically from Eagleton's account that if art has been swallowed up by capitalist circulation then there is no authentic art. Art has been made venal; secularized and turned into anti-art. Having made this claim he cannot logically turn about to claim for art the opposite: arguing that art has gobbled up capitalist society so that the economic system is regulated by the l!
s of art.
This is the realization of a completely aesthetic society: utopia. Under this aesthetic utopia the laws of economics are subordinate, if they are to obtain at all, to the requisites of this aesthetic society. He is overpowered by images to such a degree that he sees the entire social landscape as one of images, an entirely aestheticized landscape. Have unemployment and exploitation been aestheticized too: turned into images?
Because of his irrationalist outlook he cannot offer an explanation as to the procedure by which the economic system penetrates the world of art and is consequently transformed into an aesthetic system. Marx has been crudely distorted in order to make Nietzsche's philosophy more appealing.
Eagleton claims that in its earlier days capitalism "had sharply severed the symbolic from the economic". But this is not true. Paper money as a medium of exchange constituted symbolic money. Here in the early days of liberal capitalism was a central symbol indispensable for the reproduction of material wealth. Marx indicates this when he states that
The names of coins become detached from the substance of money and exist apart from it in the shape of worthless scraps of paper. In the same way as the exchange-value of commodities is crystallized into gold money as a result of exchange, so gold money in circulation is sublimated into its own symbol, first in the shape of world coin, then in the shape of subsidiary metal coin, and finally in the shape of worthless counters, scraps of paper, mere tokens of value.
Similarly bills of exchange etc. were symbols. The stock exchange and the joint stock company were, through and through, sustained by economic symbols. Indeed language and economic relations have always been inseparable. Textuality and economics are linked together inseparably. Without economics there would be no text; no language.
In one of his unsuccessful attempts to integrate art and commodity Eagleton makes the following statement concerning The nature of the commodity:
The commodity, as we have seen in the work of Marx, is transgressive, promiscuous, polymorphous; in its sublime self-expansiveness, its levelling passion to exchange with another of its kind, it offers paradoxically to bring low the very finely nuanced superstructure -call it culture- which serves in part to promote and protect it.
Again Eagleton misrepresents the situation. He fails to understand that the capitalist economic system is in one sense the best protector of the superstructure. It creates differentiations and instabilities that provide the conditions whereby the ruling class can promote its class interests. In other words differentiations and instabilities are thrown up in order to protect the identity and stability of the capitalist class and system. The so-called subversive nature of the commodity does not undermine the ruling class as such. The class divisions remain while commodity capitalism remains. Capitalism does not as such subvert its own capitalist class. Neither is it the ruin of the distinctive identity of the proletariat. Commodity capital's qualified subversiveness perpetuates and stabilizes 'the foundationalism' of contemporary society: its ultimate identities.
For Eagleton, it is part of the emancipatory dynamic of bourgeois society to dismantle all sacred spaces. This being so capitalism must dismantle the sacred space of the capitalist class. So the working class is no longer to be the class conscious agent of change. Capitalism undermines Dionysian-like its own capitalist class. The proletariat passively awaits the inevitable advent of socialism. But this has its reverse side since it must also mean that the proletariat is in effect extinct.
If we are to believe Eagleton, the commodity's subversive activity transcends the laws of value. In fact his concept of the commodity has nothing to do with the real commodity of the capitalist process of reproduction and is instead just another name for Nietzsche's will to power:
Traversing with superb indifference the divisions of class, sex and race, of high and low, past and present, the commodity appears as an anarchic, iconclastic force which mocks the obsessive rankings of traditional culture, the commodity integrates high and low;...
If ever there was an eulogy to capitalism and postmodernity then this is it. the commodity, according to the above quotation, promotes democracy, freedom equality and is indifferent to class division! Tell that to the factory workers! It was capital in the form of commodity circulation that helped in the establishment of fascism in Germany. He does not seem to understand that rather than manifesting indifference to class divisions the commodity actually promotes them.
The legitimating forms of high bourgeois culture, the versions and definitions of subjectivity which they have to offer, appear less and less adequate to the experience of late capitalism, but on the other hand cannot merely be abandoned...It is indispensable partly because the subject as unique, autonomous, self-identical and self-determining remains a political and ideological requirement of the system, but partly because the commodity is incapable of generating a sufficiently legitimating ideology of its own.
Given Eagleton's view of the power of the commodity it is surprising that he claims that the commodity is incapable of generating a sufficient legitimating ideology. And if this is the case then it cannot be as Eagleton would have it, that contemporary western society has been, universally aestheticized. Illogically he fails to explain why the commodity "is incapable of generating a sufficiently legitimating ideology of its own" and how the ideology of the subject can be preserved. It is conveniently left vague to what extent the commodity is subversively anarchic. If the ideology of the subject cannot be abandoned because of its indispensability as a legitimating force then it follows that it is not decreasingly adequate to the experience of capitalism. Its indispensability lends it a legitimating force. If the subject remains a political and an ideological requirement of the system then it must correspond to the needs of capital and reflect the nature of capitalism. Conseq!
ntly it is a social reality. Eagleton's Nietzschean irrationalism allows him to argue that it remains a political, juridical and ideological requirement of the system while being a contingent phenomenon. What we experience here is an eclecticism in Eagleton's views whereby he wants to have it both ways which then leaves him with lots of irrationalist manoeuvring room.
Eagleton believes that the commodity, like Sartre's nothingness, is purely subversive, a negativity, and that it simply dissolves all stable identities:
Ulysses commodifies discourse itself, reducing the bourgeois ideology of 'unique style' to a ceaseless, aimless circulation of packaged codes without metalinguistic privilege, a polyphony of scrupulously 'faked' verbal formulae implacably hostile to the 'personal voice'.
He forgets that capitalist production is ultimately concerned with the reproduction of use-value. He stresses the value aspect of the commodity while ignoring its use-value aspect. He ignores the fact that capitalism is a reified social form through which use-values are produced and reproduced and that its justification depends on its ability to achieve this. And he does not seem to understand that capitalism has not dissolved this identity or meaning. In other words capitalism at bottom is a materialist system through which a specific kind of matter is produced, circulated and reproduced on an expanded scale. And this is the ultimate meaning of commodity capitalism: its stable foundation and the context for foundationalism. It is the difficulties it encounters in achieving this that lead to change. It is not something that develops anarchically and contingently, powered by some hedonistic (Dionysian) momentum that defies all definition and description, mystically beyond lan!
age and unrepresentable by it, depending on intuition for its apprehension.
Ulysses marks the historic point at which capital begins to penetrate into the very structure of the symbolic order itself, reorganizing this sacrosanct terrain in accordance with its own degraded emancipatory logic. It is as though Ulysses and the Wake lift a protean dissolution of all stable identity from base to superstructure, passing that great circuit of desire which is capitalist productivity through the domains of language, meaning and value.
Eagleton seems to mistakenly think that capitalism revolutionizes itself because it is inescapably lodged in some non-stop bacchanalian riot: a perverse hedonism that is informed by contingency. No! Capitalism transforms itself in the context of the reproduction of material wealth. It is its periodic difficulties in achieving this that generate the revolutionizing of the forces of production, social relations of production and ideology. All this change is based on a very firm footing: a solid materialist footing. Late imperialist society does have foundation. It is underpinned by meaning. For Eagleton it almost seems as if Ulysses is the new Das Kapital.
Words and images are artificially substituted for reality thereby making the contemporary world appear more appealing. Eagleton in The Ideology of the Aesthetic does not systematically use logic, concepts nor reason.
Eagleton proceeds to explain how postmodernism has been eager to discredit the concept of totality. He then points out some of the problems that emerge if an attempt is made to abandon the concept of totality.
It is as though any thought can be made to appear as an illicit totalization from the standpoint of some other, and so on in a potentially infinite regress.
But he fails to see that he has already precluded the validity of the kind of comments on offer here. If the commodity in its subversive capacity undermines totalities and stable identities so that there are no foundations then he cannot justifiably retain the concept of totality. Given these views there is no way that Eagleton can logically and theoretically justify certain notions of totality. He hopelessly tries to get around these dilemmas by conveniently making reference to good old English common sense. But he cannot slip from theory to "the empirical" simply when convenient to do so. He must offer us a methodology.
In the following quotation Eagleton is at his best in contradicting what he has already said:
Post-marxism and postmodernism are by no means responses to a system which has eased up, disarticulated, pluralized its operations, but to precisely the opposite: to a power-structure which, being in a sense more 'total' than ever, is capable for the moment of disarming and demoralising many of its antagonists. In such a situation, it is sometimes comforting and convenient to imagine that there is not after all, as Foucault might have said, anything 'total' to be broken.
If, as he argues, the commodity is so anarchic and destabilising how can he claim that the system has never been so total, so solid and stable. Here is a complete contradiction. Again this is a demonstration of his lack of logic, of his postmodernist irrationalism. Furthermore if he argues against the conception that fails to draw distinctions between capital as fascist and capital as democratic reducing them all to that of the one totalizing system then he cannot claim that contemporary capitalism is more totalizing than any specific capitalism that preceded it. Is he now saying that contemporary Western capitalism is even more totalising than Hitler's Germany?
In his discussion of values Eagleton continues to persist with the view that the commodity is non-totalizing:
Aesthetics, as we have seen, arises in part as a response to a new situation in early bourgeois society, in which values now appear to be alarmingly, mysteriously underivable. Once the actualities of social life suffer reification, they would no longer seem to offer an adequate starting-point for discourses of value, which accordingly float loose into their own idealist space. Value must now either be self-grounding, or founded in intuition; and the aesthetic, as we have seen, serves as a model for both of these strategies. Sprung from some affective or metaphysical space, values can no longer be submitted to rational enquiry and argumentation; it is difficult now, for example, to say of my desires that they are 'unreasonable', in the sense, perhaps, of illicitly impeding the just desires of others.
If anything, it is under socialist civilisation that values will be liberated from stable identities and have a free floating character. In contrast, Eagleton is convinced that under capitalism utopian conditions are realized in which there obtains the freedom to choose different values. If there has been a reification of social life then the commodity or capital does not undermine identities but creates stable reified identities: totalizes. Consequently the commodity also generates corresponding reified thought and values. This being so, the commodity generates formal rational structures that are totalizing. Because of this generalised reification, which means the creation of stable identities by commodification values (according to Eagleton's thinking) become detached and "float loose into their own idealist space." Consequently the source of stable identities is also the source of non-reified, freely floating values. This is indeed irony! It is the anarchic character of t!
modity that has led to this plethora of values in random movement (Brownian motion!) with no internal connections to each other while simultaneously sustaining stable non-arbitrary identities. How it achieves both is never explained.
Clearly there is no logic to Eagleton's commodity. What he does not understand when he talks about free floating values is that such values promote the interests of capitalism. Their free floating character is the form assumed by reification. Free floating values are the appearance through which bourgeois interests manifest themselves, through which oppression and exploitation manifest themselves. Consequently they are only free floating in a reified and very restricted sense. They merely manifest the appearance of freedom. They are fetishised values. It is their existence in a detached idealized space that is the form assumed by reification so that there is no genuinely free floating values which multiply value choice.
These random values are according to Eagleton beyond reason. However there is no explanation offered as to why these values cannot be subjected to dialectical reason. It cannot be because of their apparent arbitrary character since this trait cannot carry any special authority. If these values are in fact derived from the reification of social life then surely they are subject to rational inquiry and can be shown to be derived from this base. It is not a matter of what seems. Because they don't seem to offer an adequate starting point is just not the point. It is a matter of what is the reality. Seems does not logically entail a must. Values are social phenomena that emerge historically. Their emergence is not simply due to pure contingency. Values are anchored within a specific community. Eagleton does not understand the materialist conception of history. He confuses ideology with concrete reality. so that fantasy is substituted for reality. When he discusses the way contem!
values are understood he is referring to the arguments of ideologues, their ideological constructs, and not to history. He gets entangled in their ideas or images mistaking these for objective reality. Ideas become more significant than things.
Overall it can be said that Eagleton operates with two concepts that are central to his study; the concept of the commodity and the concept of the aesthetic.
His concept of the commodity is both overstretched and metaphysical so as to more plausibly explain a multitude of diverse phenomena. It is not the materialist commodity of Marx with its strictly defined characteristics that Eagleton entertains. His metaphysical concept of the commodity is used in an extremely contradictory and speculative fashion to explain diverse and conflicting phenomena. Indeed his concept of the commodity is just another label for Nietzsche's will to power. It is left in an undecided state lacking in any defined identity.
His concept of the aesthetic is quixotic since his notion as to what is subsumed under the concept of the aesthetic covers a vast multitude of diverse phenomena. His definition of the aesthetic is so broad and overextended that it looses all real meaning as a concept of the aesthetic.
The real problem is that Eagleton basically does not see any distinction between capitalism and art. For him capitalism is art and art is capitalism. Commodities are images and images are commodities. Indeed he does not see concrete things since for him such concrete things are merely images (appearances). Reality is a postmodernist fantasy filled with an endless proliferation of floating signifiers. Consequently in accordance with semiology he can see in the most banal of commodities semiological or symbolic significance which is why he can conclude that the most banal of commodities is aesthetic. For semiology it is the symbolic significance of a thing which matters not its utility. This being so it is not the modern weaponry that matters in terms of its massive destructive capacity but its symbolic significance (its phallic significance). All is symbolic! Life is fantasy or illusion. This illusion is a symptom of the pervasiveness of symbolism in capitalist economics: cre!
d plastic money etc.
These two unduly vague concepts are employed to produce a vast mishmash which presents itself in a very plausible form so that his study appears to be more insightful than it actually is. His stylism plays a prominent role in selling the "package." Eagleton is inherently postmodern but wants to convince both himself and his readers that his conception is marxist.
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