08 February, 2010

Aflame with Frankfurt School Marxism

Siegfried Kracauer. Something feels right about his analysis of capitalist mass culture within his book, "Mass Ornament." The question is whether he's actually a Marxist.

He begins a historical study of capitalist society, like Marx, in terms of history. Kracauer, however, thinks that the best indicators of a cultural epoch are not the self-conscious judgments a given culture makes (or would make) about itself, but rather "its inconspicuous surface-level expressions." By this, I understand him to mean pop culture--or what would have passed for pop culture in the early 1900's. Pulp, may be a better word for it. His project, then, is distinct from Marx in that he looks at the superstructure of a culture that is an unconscious expression of itself, and sees it as the logical conclusion of the basis of that society. Marx, on the other hand, looks at the base (the means of production) and builds up.

Of course, nothing that Marx predicted or desired has happened, so what was he missing?

I think Kracauer may have a solid critique of Marxism going. He talks specifically about ornament, and Mass Ornament, in the example of the Tiller Girls. Synchronized body movements, not even really dancing, in which large masses of girls form their bodies--all identically dressed and made up--into simple geometric patterns. There is nothing individualized about this spectacle, for if one person would assert an individual presence it would destroy the effect of the show. Human elements are abstracted out of the spectacle; meaning is abstracted out of the spectacle. There is no greater truth to be sought within the ornament, it is an end in itself. It is reasoned, to the extent that the bodies are rationally ordered along mathematical lines and the natural body involved doesn't help you more clearly understand the spectacle. However, this rationality is illusory, or incomplete at best.

Reason is a human endeavor, and is employed to serve human ends (needs). This is in Kracauer's estimation, as I gather. There is no consideration for the human element in the Mass Ornament. Ultimately then, the ornament is a type of myth, an expression of "natural" force, versus reason.

At this point, Kracauer asserts that in these aspects the Mass Ornament is reflexive of the capitalist culture of which it is the product. Capitalist culture, essentially, removes the human elements from it's largest population. Profit is as autotelic as the ornament, it is it's own purpose. The masses of working people are externally determined in their actions and manner of life--they are not essentially free. Still, the production process which is so glorified is rational to the extent that is quiets the human urge for order and control.

So what is needed to complete the socialist revolution that seems to have been stymied somewhere along the line?

Kracauer is essentially an idealist, in that he asserts that reason alone will redeem the promise of the Marxist project. The fault of capitalism is not that it is rational, but that it is not rational enough. Aha! My old friend Immanuel Kant enters the scene. We are most free when we are most determined by reason, Kracauer seems to say--an essentially Kantian assertion. Reason would not foget to care for or abstract the human elements from culture. Kracauer desires some revived form of Enlightenment for the project to come to fruition.

And yet, nearly 100 years later, here we still are. My question now is why this Enlightenment of the masses has also failed. From this point I descend into depression considering the state of consumerism and thriving capitalism.

4 comments:

spencer said...

Maybe the reason we haven't leapt into a socialist utopia is that it doesn't work particularly well?

Or perhaps I am misunderstanding your point.

Cassady said...

Well, the point of the critique is that an enlightenment of the masses is needed to complete the process of realization which would cause them to revolt and seize the means of production.

My quesion for the so-called Marxist, then, is why hasn't it happened? With the levels of education widely available in our country, at least, you would think rational human beings are capable of self-consciousness.

Instead we have a county (maybe a world) in which capitalism is less understood, but more lauded. Communism is barely understood, but loathed with a history of emotion behind it. People are generally able to point out the iniquities in the system as they apply to them at a personal level, and yet are content with the system and all it's exploitations.

Indeed, the humanity is missing from capitalism, but it looks like we're ok with that.

Or, is the humanity really all that gone? We're not a perfect capitalism, but any means, and the regulation of the system, the social welfare state, these seem like beacons of hope, almost.

spencer said...

I'm not sure how the so-called Marxist would respond but it doesn't seem at all surprising to me that "capitalism is less understood, but more lauded. Communism is barely understood, but loathed with a history of emotion behind it."

After all, communism failed tragically in practice, capitalism mostly succeeded, and Marx's key economic prediction--that the wages of the working class would never exceed subsistence--turned out to be completely wrong.

Cassady said...

Right, but that's because no society has formed itself as a pure capitalism or even a real communism. It's like Marx was dealing in absolutes about the functioning of the two, and then the Frankfurt school thinkers tried to figure out why things didn't work out that way, and all of them missed the point that people's governments interfere in those aspects of either system that are most prone to degenerate into the foreseen revolutions.