WAS MARX A POSTMODERNIST?

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Comedy After Postmodernism: rereading comedy from Edward Lear to Charles Willeford by Kirby Olson (Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock 2001).

Walter Benjamin: overpowering conformism by Esther Leslie (Pluto Press, London 2000).

Due to the differing perspectives of their authors, Leslie’s book on Benjamin which is written from an explicitly Marxist perspective, can be read very productively alongside and against Olson’s avowedly anti-Marxist text on comedy. Both writers combine political and aesthetic positions that would be viewed by many as incompatible. Olson is in many way an old-fashioned liberal with vague anarchist leanings who is attempting to retrench the ways in which the humanities have traditionally been taught by adapting the theories of the post-68 French left figures Deleuze and Lyotard to somewhat unlikely ends. Leslie is an activist in the British Socialist Workers Party who hopes to reclaim Benjamin not just for Marxism, but quite explicitly for Trotskyism too. While Leslie correctly identifies certain similarities between Benjamin’s and Trotsky’s aesthetic positions – a state of affairs that is not entirely surprising to anyone familiar with Trotsky’s writings on art and literature – she certainly faces an uphill struggle if she hopes to make Benjamin a respected figure among the SWP rank-and-file.

Leslie has to defend Benjamin on a number of fronts, both from those who would rewrite him into philosophy, postmodernism and/or cultural studies, and others who claim there are similarities between his thought and that of German revolutionary conservatives (i.e. the strand of German fascism that disdained the Nazi Party as being too plebeian for its aristocratic tastes). Likewise, Leslie sharply criticises the cult that has grown up around Benjamin including the inappropriate use of his image on book jackets. Ironically, the cover of Leslie’s text is a paradigmatic example of what she is attacking. I suspect that Leslie used her inside knowledge of the almost total separation between the editing and packaging of books to slip into the text a critique of how she suspected her tome would be marketed, an extremely practical example of how the contradictions of capitalism can be exploited by a wily activist.

Leslie readily admits that there are similarities between Benjamin’s thought and that of revolutionary conservatives, but argues: “Fascists do not historicize destructivity. No intellectual critic is in a position to realise the essence of technology, but, in Benjamin’s view, critics critical of the status quo must recognize and assert technology’s latent essence, its possibilities” (page 37). Prior to this, and specifically with regard to Benjamin and Jünger, Leslie states: “their dissimilarities became increasingly apparent in the subsequent political paths of the two writers” (page 27). While Benjamin patently was not a fascist, for him a materialist treatment of a writer must deal with that writer’s influence and not their biography. Parts of Leslie’s defence might be criticised on these grounds. Likewise, Benjamin’s influence belongs to a history that includes fascism and modernism, and this history is not simply Benjamin’s – but ours too. Obviously, to claim that Benjamin’s writing is unproblematically fascist is obnoxious and stupid, but that does not preclude taking a longer and harder look at those elements in Benjamin’s thinking that bear at least superficial similarities to elements of fascist ideology.

Leslie’s arguments about Benjamin’s views on technology and how these are distinct from the positions of revolutionary conservatives are persuasive, at least on an initial reading. The discussion of the difference between image and metaphor which precedes them is more problematic: “Metaphor is a technique attuned to the moral and spiritual realm, and in some sense, part of the world of the stand in, the ‘as if” realm. Marxist materialism and correct conduct with images both propagate, instead, a doctrine in which ‘an action puts forth its own image and exists, absorbing and consuming it’. …Image…. has something tangible, graspable. It is a material force. Image, Benjamin notes, is a ‘world of many-sided and integral actuality’, and resides at the heart of political action…” (page 24-25). Leslie mentions on three fleeting occasions Benjamin’s interest in Georges Sorel’s conception of the image. Admittedly, Sorel has at times been interpreted as an almost orthodox Marxist (a position that I do not find entirely convincing), but he was also a key theorist for fascism and fascist conceptions of the image. Likewise he had a major influence on futurism, and the relationship between that movement’s aesthetics and its fascist politics remains a matter of ongoing debate. What I’m talking about here isn’t simply some “other” modernism, it is modernism – or at least a part of modernism – and despite the anti-modernist rhetoric adopted by some fascist demagogues, fascism itself was a modernist movement too. I am not saying that modernism taken en bloc is unproblematically fascist, but rather that it cannot be separated from fascism (or, indeed, the black Atlantic culture Paul Gilroy depicts in his books on modernity). An examination of the relationship between Benjamin’s positions on image and those of, say, the imagist poet and fascist activist Ezra Pound, might have provided Leslie with a more challenging approach to defending Benjamin.

Olson’s book is considerably more diffuse than Leslie’s and this is not simply because he is dealing with six writers rather than just one; it is also a matter of his attraction to what he describes as oddness. However, it is not simply that eccentricity enchants Olson, he has some very peculiar views of his own, and the framing device he erects around his enthusiasms is extremely dubious. Olson claims he is interested in writers who are uncanonical and resist solemnity, and he defines this group as comic. That said, to conjure up his “anti-canon”, Olson delineates a shift from a classical liberal canon based on “greatness” to a “neoMarxist” canon based on “justice”. By page 2 of his book Olson is opining: “Writers who have suffered triple discrimination, such as Zora Neale Hurston – female, African American and poor – have benefited the most from this new notion of criteria. Many others, such as Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, would no doubt have been overlooked, or not even published, if their work had been considered solely on the basis of complexity and coherence, or ‘greatness’. “

Here, Olson singularly fails to take on board the matter of institutional racism and the fact that WASP academics almost invariably find the white subjects conjured up by so called “great” literature more complex and coherent than the subjectivities of non-WASP characters and authors. Likewise, Olson’s suggestion that Morrison and Kingston wouldn’t have been published if their books had been considered on the basis of “greatness” is not only gratuitously dismissive but patently ridiculous. Most, if not all, books are published because those running the capitalist firms that place them on the market believe doing so will generate a profit. Potential sales rather than “greatness” is the criterion on which editorial decisions are generally made. Olson’s grasp of Marx is no better than his understanding of the publishing industry. For example, he claims, “Marx… tended to turn people into things” (page 103), when Marx’s unflagging opposition to capitalism was actively grounded in a critique of the way commodity production turns people into things. To ascribe to Marx something he spent his entire life combating, is – to say the least – disingenuous. Likewise, Olson baldly asserts: “Marx… sees essentially two classes in society… one good and one bad” (page 106). This comment completely misses the historical dimension in Marx’s thought. Although Marx fulminated against the bourgeoisie, he simultaneously recognised that they were once a revolutionary class. In accomplishing its historic mission of overthrowing feudalism, the bourgeoisie brought into being its own gravedigger – the proletariat, the class that will abolish all classes (including itself). Because Olson omits this crucial historical dimension, he deforms rather than summarises Marx.

Given Olson’s taste for oddness and the singular, he might have done better to prise Marx away from Marxism and enlist both the man and his carbuncles as paradigmatic examples of postmodern comedy. This could have been accomplished by explaining that: a) many of the texts ascribed to Marx, with the Communist Manifesto simply being the most notable among them, are actually compendiums of slogans lifted from earlier revolutionary writers – a method that is in complete accord with both communist theory and pomo notions of appropriation; and b) Marx is side-splittingly funny. This latter claim might be substantiated by any number of citations from Marx’s oeuvre, I will restrict myself to one personal favourite, the first four of the five sentences that make up the forward to The Poverty Of Philosophy: “M. Proudhon has the misfortune of being peculiarly misunderstood in Europe. In France, he has the right to be a bad economist, because he is reputed to be a good German philosopher. In Germany he has the right to be a bad philosopher because he is reputed to be one of the ablest of French economists. Being both a German and an economist at the same time, I desire to protest against this double error.” Proudhon was, of course, the racist dimwit who founded modern anarchism.

For all his failings (and it would be tiresome to exhaustively list them), there are passages of smart commentary in Olson. Edward Lear is effectively used to illustrate differences between the sublime, the beautiful, the picturesque and the comic picturesque. While I don’t share Olson’s taste for Gregory Corso, both Philippe Soupault and Charles Willeford make interesting subjects for his criticism.(1) Likewise, Olson’s attacks on the tragic sublime for being grounded in an aesthetic of sacrifice might be used to counterbalance the messianic and apocalyptic tendencies in Benjamin. While Olson’s book lacks the rigor of Leslie’s, read side by side they have peculiar corrective effects on each other. Judged on its own terms, as part of a series introducing “Modern European Thinkers”, Leslie’s book cannot be faulted – better than this, Leslie is able to sneakily subvert the form she was commissioned to replicate (and against all the odds, she may yet get the SWP to stop standing on its head and make this zombie lurch leftwards on its feet). Olson illustrates the limitations of liberalism, and the disastrous consequences of privileging feeling over reason – rather than seeking an equitable balance of these qualities. If Olson learnt to appreciate Marx and Benjamin as “oddballs” (and reading Leslie’s book might help him do just that), he may yet begin to think dialectically and historically – instead of creating a bad infinity by obnoxiously universalising the perspectives of centred white male subjects.

1. There is also a chapter about my fiction in which I am praised perhaps a little too highly given the differences of perspective between “author” and “critic”, so I have a personal interest to declare here. This section of Olson’s book has been revised since it was first published in Performing Gender & Comedy edited by Shannon Hengen. I informed Olson of my objections to this earlier version of his work about me, and to a degree he has listened to and engaged with what I said. Unfortunately, it proved considerably easier to convince him that I am not an anarchist than to get him to confront some of his more entrenched blind spots (and these latter matters are of considerably more consequence than the former). To clarify my own position, I am totally opposed to tendency literature and believe that within “fiction” a certain amount of irresponsibility is desirable. Through the use of humour and other rhetorical techniques I aim at a dialectical overflowing in my “novels” – or what I, only half-jokingly, call proletarian postmodernism. While the material I work up is consciously shaped, I do not seek to completely master or control its meaning. That said, I also feel it is desirable to place limits on one’s own irresponsibility, and when what I’ve been doing has been badly misunderstood (by, for example, being written about as “anarchist” when I believe not only that “anarchism is stupid”, but also that it is a form of white identity politics), then I feel it is incumbent upon me to fall back into critique and explain my views (views, which it must be said, have been at least partially developed through “fictional” irresponsibility) somewhat more pedantically than I might otherwise chose. “I” might thus be seen as being blessed with double-consciousness – and while “I” reject “whiteness”, this is not because “I” am incapable of constituting myself as a centred subject.

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