Friday, 31 July 2009

Branch Meeting: Art, Literature and Socialism

At Thursday night's branch meeting of Stoke Socialist Party, the talk by Brother C was something of a departure from our usual examination of past and present struggles. His lead off concentrated on socialism and culture via a discussion of literature. I reproduce his lead off below, followed by the branch discussion. I hope it will be of interest to readers.

"Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present ... the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world".

These are the ebullient concluding remarks of Percy Byshe Shelley in his Defence of Poetry. I include them here, at a gathering not of Romantics but of revolutionary socialists partly as a reminder of what we must not do with art, and more specifically with literature. This is not to say that Shelley should become some kind of idealist, Platonist whipping boy. After all, it was Shelley, who outraged upon hearing of the massacre of workers at St Peter's Field in Manchester, wrote in Mask of Anarchy:
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number;
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many, they are few
At a time when most former Etonians and sons of aristocracy were quite happy to endorse counterrevolutionary terror against the 'swinish multitude', Shelley's persistent radicalism and sympathy for those oppressed is to be commended.

Still, it is difficult to share Shelley's view of working people at the time as in any way 'slumbering'. After all, they had not discovered their chains innocently, upon waking from some indolent rest. On the contrary, years of poverty, persecution and political struggle had taugt them much anout their manacles - both real and 'mind forged'. And likewise, perhaps more problematically, the agitational emotionalism of Mask of Anarchy's ending hints at Shelley's aforementioned idea of himself (along with all true poets) as the visionary herald of futurity, the inspiring influence and the legislator of the world. It is, for sure, a mystification to propose that good literature (or art) should present us with an ideal model of what society should be like, regardless of what the proponents of socialist realism once argued. This is because, as Raymond Williams reminds us, "the making of a community [i.e. the society of the future] is always a work of exploration". This is not to deny that language and literature have powerful determining effects on consciousness, but to explain that they cannot change human beings and society as a whole.

It is interesting that Shelley chooses the mirror as a metaphor for the way in which art presents us with is ideal. Indeed, it is this problematic theory of art/literature as reflection, a theory against which socialists can hardly be said to have been immune that I will turn to next. Of course for Shelley, the poem, in Platonic fashion, was mirroring the perfection if the future, whereas subsequent uses of the metaphor (including by those on the left) have inherited a realist or naturalist framework - making literature the reflection of the present. As we are in Stoke-on-Trent, it might be best to draw on Arnold Bennett as one example of this latter tradition, attempting as he did to record with photographic precision the multifarious external details of life.

Hegelian Marxists like Georg Lukacs, however, would argue that Bennett's mirror to the world is impoverished, refusing as it does to penetrate beneath the accidental surfaces to the so-called 'essences', 'essentials' and historical forces beneath. In short, writing for Lukacs must be a process of ordering and not a faithful rendering of the imperfections and distortions of bourgeois life. There are certainly problems with Lukacs' position (influenced as it is by Lenin) and the debate about what really constitutes realism in art will probably go on for some time. Yet his attempt to problematise the cruder notion (so evident in Shelley) of literature as passive mirror of reality is invaluable.

Leon Trotsky's theory of literary practice rejects the reflectionist theory altogether, claiming that artistic creation is a work of "deflection, a changing and transformation of reality, in accordance with the peculiar laws of art". As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, this "excellent formulation" of deflection, as opposed to reflection, has influenced the work of many 20th century Marxists, most notably Pierre Macherey. His Theory of Literary Production helps us to see writing as a product of labour. There are no inspired geniuses or humanist legislators in communion with muses or other mystical beings. Art, for Macherey, "is not man's creation, it is a product (and the producer is not a subject centered in his creation, he is an element in a situation or a system)". In this rather inhuman (E.P. Thompson might say Stalinist) theory, doubtless influenced by Louis Althusser, there is no room left for individual agency. To use Terry Eagleton's analogy, literature rolls off the production line like a new car. Certain materials (i.e. words - what we might call the real) have been brought together to make a new product. A transformation, rather than a passive mirroring, has taken place.

For all Macherey's and Althusser's anti-humanist bluster, however, there are perhaps points of contact between their own theories of literature and those of men like Shelley. These points of contact can be found, for instance, in the idea of literature's redemptive qualities. Certainly, Macherey and Althusser do not think that the artist is going to shine a poetic light on the future and thus lead us to our utopian realisation. Yet they do believe that literature and the analysis of literature are integral to our 'liberation from oppression'. Likewise, as Macherey himself points out when positing the writer as an element in a system as opposed to a creator, Plato (and, so, subsequently Shelley too) had already disposed the author of his work by having him 'inspired' by other forces.

So just how can literature help liberate the oppressed from capitalist domination? For Macherey, the literary product puts ideology (and let us remember that language is shot through with ideological assumptions) on stage. Rather than spontaneous lived experience which we take for granted or take as given, our conditions (whether revolutionary France in Dickens' Tale of Two Cities or the Chicago of migrant Lithuanian workers in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle) are placed before us as an object. Because the conditions of our existence are forced into view, we can at least begin to interrogate them, have knowledge of them and no longer let reality slip by innocently as naturalised 'life'.

But Macherey also emphasises the way in which literary works are made up of contradictions and absences, a kind of intrinsic and necessary disorder and disarray which must then be related to the conflicts, fissures and silences of our real world capitalist conditions. If the text is a mirror, then, it is one which is cracked, fragmented and manipulative.

To demonstrate how Macherey's theories can be put into practice, we might observe the stylistic contradictions between the machines in the film Terminator 2. One the one hand we have Arnold Schwarzenegger, the epitome of masculinity complete with Harley Davidson, shotgun and the squarest of square jaws. His antagonist, on the other hand, is characterised by protean femininity and fluidity (it is worth pointing out that in later films the 'baddie' terminator is actually replaced by a woman). What we have, therefore, is a stylistic conflict which we can relate to the shifts within capitalism taking place in the 1980s. I am of course talking about the neoliberal attack (characterised by fluidity and a more emasculated economy) against the post war consensus.


Brother F started off the discussion with the observation that interpretation and appreciation of art will differ because social being differs to greater and lesser degrees from person to person. To understand this Marxist analysis and criticism of art must have dialectical foundations. He also noted the official art associated with high Stalinism and Nazism cannot really be described as such, if we go with Trotsky's idea of art as deflection. It did not rise organically out of artists' experience but was rather made to order according to the aesthetic diktats of those regimes. Socialist realism and Nazi neo-classicism had the appearance of art, but really they were exercises in propaganda.

P picked up on the theme of contradictory cultural products - because capitalism is bedeviled with contradictions these will find expression to varying extents in its cultural artifacts. In addition to this capitalism as an anarchic system cannot systematically produce culture to meet its ideological needs. The entertainment industry has to compete for markets as much as any other economic sector and will seek to make money wherever it can, even if the messages it puts out are satirical and critical.

Moving onto books, F said he found Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 a novel that helped his radicalisation, particularly the way how the protagonist gradually becomes aware of his real conditions. Sister M spoke about being the only person in her college class who read a critique of capitalism in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray while at the same time finding Morris' News from Nowhere too romantic and utopian. For R, Zola's Germinal was subversive because it demonstrated how the capitalist class would much rather see their assets go to wrack and ruin than have them handed over to the workers.

For Brother A all art, including popular pulp fiction all reflect class society to a degree. But also because the ruling ideas in any epoch are those of the ruling class, it's unsurprising to find those ideas exerting a dominant hegemonic influence. But art can be emancipatory too. A recommended Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don as a study in how revolutionary events can affect the consciousness and actions of even relatively privileged strata (the family featured in the story are Cossacks).

Summing up Brother C returned to F's point about dialectics. These lend themselves to an approach that brings out the produced over the reflective qualities of art. We should also reject approaches that unproblematically read culture as a byproduct of the economy. The relationship between economy and culture is one where the economy conditions and makes possible a whole host of social forms. To paraphrase Trotsky, in the beginning was not the word but the deed: the word is the deed's phonetic shadow. But we also need to be aware how art and literature can entrench the relationships that make them possible. C cited Said's Orientalism and the galvanising effect it had on stimulating work that exposed colonialist, racist and imperialist attitudes and ideas in received canonical work. It is also worth remembering that what often goes unsaid can be as significant as what is laid out on the page, for example in Austen's Mansfield Park the text casually observes the eponymous house was built from the proceeds of slavery - and leaves it at that.

But looking at the subversive qualities of literature we need to look at more than just the content. C highlighted Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. Content-wise it's nothing but a portrait of everyday bourgeois life, but as a work it was a revolutionary rupture with received formal styles. It junks the omniscient all-seeing author characteristic of 19th century novels for a narrative style that evokes the formless complexity of abstract ideological processes, and allow us a feel for them.

C's final point was the historical nature of interpretation. To illustrate, no one can read Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice after the Second World War and the Holocaust in the same way it was read before it. The dynamism of culture is such that the perceptibility and interpretation of contradictions in art are prey to vagaries of historical contexts. There is never one final interpretation, even if the text clearly tries to stamp itself with a favoured one. But this does not mean Marxist analyses of art and literature are not useful. By situating cultural products as historically bounded but socially produced artifacts we can not only unpick how hegemonic ideas are taken up and reproduced, but also how this changes over time.


Anonymous said...

Alexander Luria:I have always admired Lenin's observation that a glass, as an object of science, can be understood only when it is viewed from many perspectives. With respect to the material of which it is made, it becomes an object of physics; with respect to its value, an object of economics; and with respect to its form, an object of aesthetics. The more we single out important relations during our description, the closer we come to the essence of the object, to an understanding of its qualities and the rules of its existence. And the more we preserve the whole wealth of its qualities, the closer we come to the inner laws that determine its existence. It was this perspective which led Karl Marx to describe the process of scientific description with the strange-sounding expression, “ascending to the concrete.”

Brother S said...

Talking of Shelley, I agree with the Twitterer that the Rupert Everett tv programme on Byron was good. I can't help seeing Byron as a profligate, amoral, pox-ridden, hedonistic egotist albeit possibly with a radical soul.

I am sure if he was still alive he would speak equally highly of me. And to still have a hard-on in the 1930S, you have to give credit where it is due!

Phil BC said...

Byron has nothing on you, Brother S. Though one would hope you do not possess a "cock dripping in gonorrhea".

Seán said...

Missed that TV programme. Many Chartists were admirers of Byron. Love the fact they had banners with quotes from the poems from the likes of Burns, Shelley and Byron.

This one in particular appeals to me:

"I wish men to be free,
As much from mobs as kings, from you as me."

George Julian Harney noted that Byron was "the poet emphatically of Freedom ― freedom of thought, freedom political and social. He is not of that order of phrase-mongers who with the name of Liberty on the lips have tyranny in their hearts, and who aspire to overthrow ancient Privilege that they may on its ruins build up their own more intolerable despotism."

Sound good to me.

Really good post btw.