Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

A Marxist conference in San Francisco Nov. 1987

While I was in San Francisco, there was held at Berkeley a huge Marxist conference about literary criticism on 12.11.1987. I suppose in America if you wish to become famous, the Left makes no exception: the precondition for you to speak at such a conference is that you have to pay. This kind of self-exploitation, based on payment to hear yourself speak, I have never accepted as organisational principle. It creates not only an absurd situation, but poses a deep dilemma for the American Left movement in its relationship to money. For consumption or culture based strictly on money produces all kinds of mythologies which allow for a rationalization i.e. putting away the problem, and reproduces ongoing mechanisms under which everyone suffers. The political question needs to be reformulated in view of that. For there is a need to understand how deep the 'principle of exchange' has entered already the minds and perverted, if not corrupted thinking altogether? A follow-up question would be if it is possible to step outside these petty preconditions and entanglements with the system, in order to make a life based on an ethical vision of man possible?

The possibility of stepping outside the system is a true question of freedom as opposed to mere submissiveness to the supposing 'laws of necessity' installed to make things work. The latter is justified by a primitive mind bent on thinking that one can deal with literature in the same way as one would with 'capitalist society'. Here a clarification of the Marxist viewpoint would be helpful if it has the capacity to encourage and to support criticism which can only be derived out of standing in the tension field created by being both inside and outside the system.

What follows is not so much a criticism of literature which differs from that of the economy, but of the preconditions for criticism. It is linked to the question how the money question is being handled. Even though one can imagine that in Europe the Budapest school around George Lukacs would argue that literature is determined by the economic structure, the Frankfurt School with Adorno and Horkheimer hold here quite a different view. The 'critical theory' entails quite another form of criticism of consumer society which equals to bourgeoisie society with all its fault lines. In epistemological terms, this amounts to observing the difference in what kind of system has been installed, for instance, in East Germany, for aside from its economic base, there is the ideological superstructure. It reflects itself in the conceptual evolvement just for purpose of ideological justification as to what is being strived for. At first was used a term like 'socialist Realism' but then replaced in more recent times by the so called 'real Socialism'. Philosophically speaking, it matters how terms are used and what they mean when wishing to discuss literature and society. All that and more was at the back of my mind when attending this Marxist conference in San Francisco at that time.

There are as well those determining factors which have a negative impact upon our own thoughts. They mislead especially if based on false assumptions. At the same time, one needs to stay clear of certain relationships, if they are not conducive to any kind of creative work patterns in relationship to people. To this has to be added Klaus Heinrich's difficulty to say 'no' to any destructive (and self deconstructive) tendency. In the absence of courage it lead to succumbing to mere appearances and/or belief-systems which use dogmatic images to replace perception of reality and those involved will speak what Ernst Bloch experienced himself in East Germany the 'slave language'. Consequently no contribution shall come from that side to the wish to terminate this tendency towards 'self exploitation' and/or 'personal sacrifices' (which amount to self victimizations). As this is made possible always in the name of some higher goal, it dislocates simply the means-end relationship. Most of the time such negative practices are met in forms and places where one tends to suspect it the least such as at a Marxist conference.

In terms of Adorno's 'critical theory', negative dialectics means really avoiding the affirmation of the negative. Affirmation would mean ruling out anything which appears to be the opposite to something positive. Relentlessly more thoughts ought to be given as well to day dreams according to Ernst Bloch, in order to escape the negative of the work place. This is especially the case when people feel trapped and work by necessity under conditions which are determined in an one sided manner by having entered only employer/employee relationships. The owner or manager of the work place can set the terms. Hegel has described this in his master/slave model and which Hölderlin made into a critical theme in his Empedocles fragments. In the United States this has reached the absurd level that management can demand that its sale personell displays a kind of purposeful optimism. It implies a 'keep smiling' as demanded of any salesclerk once that has become the credo. In short, enforced artificial behaviour is deemed to be good for business which likes to see only smiling faces, even if these people live in misery and therefore have not a good life. To uncover that difference between appearance and reality requires, therefore, being in tune with what people experience daily.

However, positivist criticism (deduced from Marx to become Marxism) overlooks that the negative has also to do with a lack of identity. This is the case when people have to face conditions of survival without being able to take recourse to a humane language, in order to uphold their dignity. Karl Marx had described the latter in the introduction to his dissertation as being a combination of the categories of creativity and productivity, and which can only be fulfilled by overcoming the fictitious separation of art and work. That is reproduced as well by economic theory which shuts out cultural reflections. Horkheimer and Adorno describe this division as having started already with Odyssey when passing the sirens in 'Dialectic of Enlightenment': he heard the beauty of the songs of the sirens while his crew, the workers, had wax in their ears and therefore needed to row without any pleasure. Till today it has remained a key problem for how to create and produce the conditions for human self-consciousness when the human voice is very rarely heard?

Moreover, to overcome that division and the forces which benefit from it, there has to be developed a subtle form of argumentation if problems are to be resolved. They cannot be if practicing merely overt opposition to everything what the system does, but not able to offer solutions on how to overcome, for instance, alienation. Ther is as well an even greater risk to fall victim to manipulative strategies which translate human dignity into collective goals such as making America great or what Hölderlin expressed in his fatherland poem when stating that he does not wish to die an ordinary death, but he does not mind if so when fighting for the freedom of the fatherland. Communism is full of examples of this readiness for self sacrifice if only to serve a greater cause but which in reality meant not to question the party as having the monopoly of truth (see here Arthur Koestlers, Darkness at Noon) or what a dictator like Stalin was doing when killing millions of people.

While searching for solutions, it is all the more difficult to resist the lure of 'money'. Even the most critical minds need to take refugee in the system somewhere. Many Marxists seek to establish themselves as professor at the university. Naturally the need to have money is linked to the right to be someone and not just a nobody in society, even if this illusion of having then an identity in society holds only during the brief moments when standing in front of the mirror. As this does remind of Hegel's dictum only those who possess property have identity, it implies any worker has only his productive energy which he has to sell on the labour market in exchange for money with which he can eventually buy property, and thereby gain in identity. Thatcher applied this notion by converting social housing into private ownership and thereby destroyed the community of the miners.

Identity politics has drifted far off and consequently neglects the need to develop ta humane language as precondition for human self-consciousness. Rather it has become something like looking at oneself after having bought 'new clothes' to judge the gain in new identity, even though the clothes are mass produced and as a result almost everyone wears the same Jeans. These typical clothes have become something like an ideological shell for the entire body with only the face excluded, provided it has not become likewise a mere mask to hide real motives and feelings. The use of the mirror reflects the use in a manipulative sense of the different facets of desire for the sake of a certain appearance. It is driven almost exclusively by a cultivation of the 'ego'. That cultivation is needed especially by those who are not 'famous', but who want to become it one day. Therefore, they wish to move up the social ladder and join those who are already famous. That it endorses a social hierarchy which ranks everything and everyone else, is overlooked. Also climbing up the social ladder presupposes the following of a set of values which contradict human equality and determine in turn what supposedly needs to be fulfilled, in order to gain in social status. The latter presupposes once in the possession of something, then recognition will follow. That assumption turns out to be usually but another illusion. Included in this ranking of priorities is the need to buy a house, to have a car and to maintain a certain life style. It means an uncritical embrace of the social status as key to success.

The mysterious nature of that kind of consumption accompanied by the cultivation of style is that the real customers are never seen. Although they are critical in their choices and do not over consume but ensure at the same time quality and a real sense of economy, they are overlooked by those tending to totalize alienation, in order to have a positive critique of Capitalist society. Positive means here conformity to the Marxist ideology.

Interestingly enough, the kind of advertisement which has been developed and refined over the years in support of sales pitches confirms this factor of life that not everyone succumbs blindly to the ideology of consumption. Otherwise not so much money would be needed to advertise the product. It would be simply consumed.

By missing out on a crucial difference between real needs and those which are artificially induced, it can also be said in reference to the thesis of Marcuse in his book 'the one dimensional human being', that he ended up overstating the case to make merely his point. Late in his life he wished to correct that. According to Carol Becker, his Ph.D. student, he turned like Adorno to aesthetical theory, so as to have a much more nuanced approach to things being available in a consumer society. Again like Adorno he died before being able to complete this work and yet left behind at least a set of very valuable questions.

A factor of life is a very simple fact which contradicts any totalization of social reality. If everyone would be present when trying on new clothes, there would be no longer any real enjoyment. Instead Capitalism is clever enough to realize that there has to be created a special situation for the person to try on new clothes, and therefore there is created an illusionary environment as if this customer is the only one who desires this commodity. But once encompassed by this illusion of freedom of choice, anything can be affirmed whatever he or she chooses to purchase. It is this kind of fake individualization which ends being a blind act of affirmation and which the 'critical Frankfurt School' wishes to address. For it entails as well an affirmation of the 'ego' and, therefore, of a fictitious identity. The latter would be conceivable within the fold of Fichte's dictum 'I am I' as an act of consumption which seeks to gain in status. Thus gain in possession of something specific equals presumably recognition. However, this includes as well recognition of the state in an uncritical manner since it means upholding acts of consumption in the supposed free market and hence embraces blindly the highest, indeed absolute authority. Such a presumption is not only a tautology, but installs through consumption even more so the power of money.

If something is not in accordance with ongoing changes, it would mean not to go conform with the system. The criticism of Adorno is that even while exchange laws are forever forbidding the articulation of something positive in terms of being 'self understood', there prevails the counter dictum that 'nothing is done free of the exchange principle' and that means precisely in America everyone has a price. It rules out any ethical resistance. For even the devil wishes something in return by giving Faust or Mephisto knowledge, namely a grasp of the 'human soul'. In literature, that is best demonstrated in Thomas Mann's 'Dr. Faustus', and which entails to the chagrin of Schönberg a direct reference to him in the figure of Leverkühn.

Behind all of these literary attempts to overcome the exchange principle, there is noticeable a restless spirit which differs from Hegel's 'absolute spirit' or 'world spirit'. This modern spirit works within the never fully defined concept of the whole in relation to the particular as indicated by the probability principle of Heisenberg. In the case of Adorno, it becomes in 'minima moralia' a philosophical manifestation that “the whole is not the truth.” He formulated that in opposition to Hegel's presumption that "the whole is the truth." For Adorno, it means the medium of reflection offered by literature cannot be derived from forms of consumption which attest to the immediacy of the Capitalist society. That becomes most explicit in the exchange of letters between Adorno and Walter Benjamin after Horkheimer has rejected already the publication of Passagen Werk. The main critical point was that the figure of the flaneur does not allow a full grasp of the contradictions inherent in the present.

Adorno maintains that culture is much more of an affinity not to this immediate, but to something else, not given, whereas consumption tends to reduce everything to what can exist in terms hunger in relation as to what is made available by agriculture, fisheries and the food industry in general as to what can be eaten within certain safety standards. The latter do depend upon what regulations exist or not. This reduction reminds of Brecht's famous saying, “first comes eating, then morality.”

If everything is reduced to having only then value if of use, then the intellectual horizon and interest in other forms of life is minimal. Levy-Strauss made the interesting observation that the Indians were interested in nature and in their surrounding environment over and beyond mere categories of sheer necessity. In other words, they had an intellectual curiosity in what nature entails even if they did not understand everything and thus gave nature metaphysical qualities just as the Greeks gave human attributes to their Gods.

Adorno saw in Beckett's plays how ridiculous is a philosophy based on knowledge as if the essence of things can be derived from “coming into being”. What is usually omitted is that the coming into existence cannot take place in outer space, but has to take place within bourgeoisie society. Thus the consumer seeks to integrate him- or herself, in order to be able to claim “to have it made.” It comes exactly at a time when there is no longer any society which deserves to be respected, so that it makes this success meaningless. Beckett demonstrates that in his play 'Understanding the final play'.

Societies come into being, that is existence, under certain circumstances and they lose their substance, that is honesty as an expression of the human spirit, once they succumb completely to the principle of exchange. Adorno wanted this to be reflected upon in a self critical way and become in turn a conceptual analysis of how people perceive things. For he felt two most important matters when it comes to reflecting the 'being in existence' were either being ignored or misunderstood. For working with 'knowledge' has many, indeed multiple implications. Adorno had warned already his students wishing to transform theory into action not to pick out of a complex relationship reflecting upon by theory just one thing and act upon it, for it will lead to reactionary developments. Hence the possibility of becoming in reality reactionary while thinking of oneself as being progressive is largely overlooked within the Left movement. The second problem entails a dimension of understanding which stresses the difference between 'practical judgements' and predictions. The latter can be logically deduced from 'theoretical knowledge' as to what are possible or future outcomes under given assumptions. Adorno meant here that while we can believe theoretically that a person is completely determined by the 'laws of exchange', that does not cover the full knowledge of the negative impact of 'exchange laws'. For one step outside this law by treating no longer a person just as a customer who has to pay in exchange for a commodity or service, means other human relationships do exist. For instance, the person can be treated as a guest and be offered a free drink or something else free of charge. The latter signifies the importance of retaining a sense of freedom. By allowing oneself the freedom to do things outside the system of exchange, the totalization of one's own pre-conception and indeed image of the other(s) can be avoided.

The danger of such a loss of freedom by not stepping outside the law of exchange would be to become completely negative. The inability to trust anyone else to be different would perpetuate the negative totalization. It would manifest itself in a false generalization about all others as if everyone is only interested in money, that is without human compassion and a readiness to take the other as a human being into consideration. The hyperinflation of the egoistical self is the common assumption of Capitalist society. Horkheimer identified it as the biggest threat to freedom. It would give rise to much speculation as to what everyone else seems to be greedy about. For this reason, Adorno criticizes the 'false universalisation' tendency within Capitalist society because it installs at political level the 'laws of exchange' while generalizating about everyone else in a negative sense at the economic level.

While Marxists love to refer to 'false consciousness', it has led within Socialist states to a disastrous form of non-emancipation, for everything ends up denying completely equity while political power over the means of the state organises a 'freedom of exchange' as if it fulfils the principle of equality. Practically it means gain in privileges within the nomenclature of the system while everyone below that system is treated equally as consumers as to what the state production manages to offer.

Orwell said in his book '1984', the kind of power obtainable over the distribution of privileges presupposes not the production of abundance, but that of scarcity. Only then privileges can be distributed e.g. not everyone can have a free ticket. Thus a fictitious competition is created around these scarce privileges. It begins with obtaining a passport or not which allows travel to the West, itself an enormous privilege when compared to those who do not enjoy any freedom of travel. Here there is no need to remind about the reason for having build the Berlin Wall. Something similar happens when it is decided in an apparently arbitrary way who can speak at the Marxist conference without having to pay, and who has to pay.

Yes, the most common lie is that while acting in the name of freedom for everyone even more rigid hierarchies are installed, in order to justify the inequality prevailing that apparently some people are famous and therefore deserve special privileges, while others have to share with all others the imposed hardships. This drives many to desire a linkage to those who are privileged, in order to enjoy sooner or later similar privileges. It makes any kind of solidarity senseless and makes room for full self-exploitation.

Back in the Capitalist society, the lure of consumption cannot become more absurd than on Rodeo Drive. Stairs going nowhere are built into the shops just to create the impression for someone important descending and in so doing showing off shoes, legs, fur coat, in short, the works. More important to become famous and be recognized as such, the person has not only to consume expensive commodities like fur coats, but even more so he has to show how money can be used to consume even more money. Only then will you be exempted from the exchange law and can enter the universe of mirrors which manages to expand infinitely the universe of self reflection. There is no longer in such a world possible to talk about the existence of human reality.

When Pier Paolo Pasolini was still alive, he criticized Andreotti as being a master of words, since he managed to make people believe that they were engaged in a real struggle, when in fact they were entangled in a fight with themselves. This fight was reflected in endless reproductions of mirrowed 'I's'. How difficult it is for anyone to get rid of that 'tyranny of not knowing', that can be sensed by everybody. It becomes explicit in a situation when loving someone else, one asks that person as to what he or she has to offer in return for the love offered? It is not a reciprocal relationship created out of mutual love, but reduces the relationship to a kind of business deal which is going to be kept only under limited and very strict conditions. Moreover, the game of not knowing will be continued the moment the question 'do you love me' is answered by the other saying 'answer that question yourself!' That heightens the guessing game about the motives of the other and becomes a game which follows very strict ritual rules. The moment one of them is broken, that person loses and realizes only when in pain due to the loss of human contact that he or she has become a victim of seduction. (see here the theories of Baudrillard in his work about the other 'self').

What then are some of the real problems the Left wing movement has with itself? Horkheimer spoke of a real difference between living and working. If the Left wishes to be a movement of freedom, then it must be for the freedom of the others and not allow any kind of egoism destroy freedom. That is best done by creating a formidable linkage between living and working as this entails an overcoming of a false separation of complementary activities needed to sustain life.

Before was cited the example of Rodeo Drive where the possibility to consume exists only if one has the money to pay for it. But this has been taken to a further, even more extreme level called the consumption of money itself. Based this time not on the production of scarcity so that privileges can be distributed, it is based on waste (Bataille) by which the highest price is secured. In effect, it introduces another kind of scarcity for who can afford to waste money? In brief, it makes attaining an identity in such a context into a 'sacred privilege' as it shall lead to the belief that one has worked hard for the money and therefore can disregard all the rules of the economy, and even more so, socially speaking, those who seem unable to earn their own living and therefore depend on social welfare. Practically those who assume that they have achieved a sacred privilege, they believe that those on welfare do not accept the principle of exchange while attempting to retain a sense of identity outside the system, even if they depend upon the welfare state for survival. While this contradiction is being played out in what is definitely not a welfare state, those left out are trapped by limited choices available to exist at all. It leads to 'clochard'-like thinking which reflects a romantic spirit in the belief only outside the system can be found freedom. This kind of philosophy is not recommendable at all in the light of so many homeless people, who suffer precisely under the given 'law of exchange'. They have apparently nothing to give, hence are of no value and therefore do not receive from society anything in return.

The dilemma or paradox begins when still a child without money, but due to many possible failures they have ended up with a status of being worthless to society as a whole. The underlying danger of that negative 'valorization'-process is that, in the final end, 'life itself seems to be worthless either because these people and their way of life does not matter to ongoing social processes, or else life is determined by the fear of becoming like the others: worthless even after having secured a job and able to bring home some income.' The killing of children by children in Detroit can be explained by this fact: life does not mean nearly so much, as killing of life since it has become a means of escape from this meaningless, worthless life.


Hatto Fischer

San Francisco 12.11.1987

Re-written in Berlin 25.2.2017


Note: in 1987 more children were killed by other children in Detroit then there are days in one year. Grace and James Boggs have founded SOSAD – Save our Sons and Daughters – by bringing together parents whose child has been killed with parents of a son who has done the killing.




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