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Tag: critical theory

Capitalist Realism

Mark Fisher, 1968-2017

It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism

In one of the key scenes in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men, Clive Owen’s character, Theo, visits a friend at Battersea Power Station, which is now some combination of government building and private collection. Cultural treasures – Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig – are preserved in a building that is itself a refurbished heritage artifact. This is our only glimpse into the lives of the elite, holed up against the effects of a catastrophe which has caused mass sterility: no children have been born for a generation.

Theo asks the question, ‘how all this can matter if there will be no-one to see it?’ The alibi can no longer be future generations, since there will be none. The response is nihilistic hedonism:

‘I try not to think about it’.

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Cured Quail

With What Must a Journal That Will Not Be Read Begin?

A fundraising appeal

Cured Quail is a journal of critical theory that takes seriously the aesthetic, social and conceptual problems of literacy. By literacy we don’t mean simply the ability to read and write. Rather, Cured Quail poses the question of illiteracy as a historically specific hindrance to fully experiencing the words on a page, the patience of an idea, or the particulars of a work of art. Cured Quail is concerned with discussions on culture, philosophy, political economy and modern and contemporary art, featuring critical essays, reviews, polemics, interviews, and other formats.

However, as our commencing editorial describes, the redundancy of already existing publications devoted to the nomenclature society-art-culture presents us with a challenge; foremost derived from the experiential chasm nourished by the refreshing content of curated feeds that in its rapid-fire shots of interest prepares any but the most recondite reader for a diet of distraction.

We thereby ask ourselves: what does it take to be convincingly exceptional? While shouting toward a mural depicting a cave we’d like to assure the potential reader we haven’t expected an echo. This suits the editorial board of Cured Quail and the crux from which we will write and our writers will write, and from which we now entreat your support for the necessary funding to print our inaugural volume.

For the thought and readership of Cured Quail—like everything else today—money stands as the transcendental condition for the possibility of experience. Your support will help finance a first run of Cured Quail Volume 1.   Contribute here through KICKSTARTER

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Needless Necessity: Sameness and Dynamic in Capitalist Society

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Marcel Stoetzler, Bangor University, UK (via Fast Capitalism)

In capitalist modernity, all that is fluid is frozen fast, and vice versa. Everything is at the same time solid and not. We need to do something. One must always produce.[1] But then, one must always produce the same. Production is always reproduction, no more, no less, albeit on an extended scale. Capitalist society is a treadmill:[2] “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that,” as the Red Queen asserted.[3] Society (re-)produces itself, using humans as its principal agents, as ever new and ever the same. Humans (re-)produce society as ever the same by making a fresh start every morning when the alarm bell tolls: a new morning promises gold – the matter of eternity – every single day anew. My consciousness is split on this matter: it tells me, on the one hand, that I have places to go (hooray!), I have some inner growing to do, but at the same time, I am proudly identical to myself (disregarding some metabolism-related corporeal change that one tries to keep separate from one’s sense of selfhood). I who took out the student loan yesterday will have to pay up tomorrow, although the intervening time – not least ‘the student experience’, as they say – will have made me a whole new person (with places to go, hooray!). Growing up, experience – going-beyond-and-through: ex-per-ire – or not, contracts are to be fulfilled. This is a rule society will enforce.

This article explores the dialectic of a twofold compulsion characteristic of modern bourgeois society: on the one hand the dynamism grounded in the compulsion to expand production, to never stand still, relax and enjoy, always to increase the labors of self-preservation, on the other hand the static, sameness and identity that are produced by the ‘real-abstracting’ processes equally central to the capitalist mode of production, the locking down of humans in their identities, including those of sex and race. The article examines these matters through the prism of Adorno’s late essay on the concepts of ‘static and dynamic’ that is taken as a vantage point for a reading of ‘The concept of enlightenment’ in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. The last part of the essay argues that capitalist society’s needless necessities impose themselves on society through abstracting practices in everyday life but also produce an equally contradictory set of social movements that have now opened up a fragile prospect for the revolutionary overcoming of capitalist society. The key point of the argument is that Horkheimer and Adorno’s unique emphasis on the critique of ‘the economic’ beyond that of ‘the economy’ is crucial to this radical perspective.

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From the Frankfurt School to Value-Form Analysis (Reichelt)

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The preoccupation with problems of capital-analysis began relatively early. We wanted to know in the first place what ‘reification’ (Verdinglichung) really is. At that time in the mid-sixties we systematically plagued Horkheimer with these things. We wanted to know how they are interpreted in the framework of the Frankfurt Theory since the Frankfurt Theory built explicitly on them – and discovered after all, that after three sentences long silences set in, and that basically there was very little to learn from these theoreticians. Finally, we decided to think these questions through ourselves and – this can now be said in the present company – had to conclude that the omission of these moments itself had to be conceived as to a certain extent symptomatic with regard to the critique of this ‘Critical Theory’. This becomes evident when one pursues it further, if one may extrapolate, with Habermas. One could perhaps put forward the thesis that the Habermasian theory, which after all arose in a close connection with the Frankfurt theory, is to be designated as dialectical theory which can only develop dialectical theory formally, since it falls back to the standpoint of the bourgeois subject.

Precisely that, however, is already implicitly criticised, I would suggest, in Marx’s form-analysis, i.e. in the value-form analysis, money-form analysis and in the dialectical presentation of the categories of political economy. This implies that something like ‘dialectical theory’ as method extracted from these contents cannot be explicated. This, however, has always been the thesis of the Frankfurt theory. When one for example reads the writings of Alfred Schmidt, it is striking that he says that the dialectical method cannot be explicated in isolation from the contents. When one ties him down, however: Tell us, why don’t you, what is so special about these contents, show us the dialectical method with these contents themselves, e.g. with certain dialectical transitions in Capital: normally he gives it a miss, or at least to date that has been the case. He was not in the position to develop the dialectical method in Capital himself. To date, no one (1) in Frankfurt has tried this, as far as I can see. To Habermas, these matters are totally alien, today more than ever, one would have to say. (2)

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“Where No X-Man Has Gone Before!”

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Mutant Superheroes and the Cultural Politics of Popular Fantasy in Postwar America

by Ramzi Fawaz

The single best-selling superhero comic book of the late twentieth century, the X-Men tells the story of an international cadre of superpowered beings known as “mutants,” genetically evolved humans outcast by a bigoted and fearful humanity. Circulating in the mid-1970s at the zenith of post–Civil Rights left social movements including liberal and radical feminisms, environmentalism, black nationalism, and gay liberation, the comic book’s transnational cast and visual and narrative articulation of “mutation” to social and cultural difference more broadly underscored the tie between expressions of popular fantasy and the ideals of radical politics in the postwar period.

With the proliferation of identity movements that emerged out of the internal conflicts of the New Left, the comic-book industry, long committed to the antiracist and antifascist ideals of democratic politics, used visual culture as a space for modeling new modes of radical critique that offered alternatives to direct-action politics and the discourse of civil liberties. Creators used the biologically unstable body of the superhero to explore, and potentially bring into being, the states of bodily and psychic liberation espoused by a variety of countercultural movements in this period. Whether in the “getting loose” philosophy of the hippie generation or the consciousness-raising projects of liberal feminism, the ecstatic physical states of disco culture or the spiritual communion with nature celebrated by popular ecology, the call for a countercultural politics grounded in felt experience was visually manifested in superhuman figures whose powers literally materialized these ways of being as physical extensions of the self. Like the figure of the superhero, these forms of elevated consciousness circulated through a variety of cultural genres including science fiction, fantasy, and myth; understanding the productive link between the seemingly disparate worlds of superhero comic books and left political world-making projects requires a reassessment of the political uses of fantasy outside of these discrete categories.

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Capitalism, Temporality, and the Crisis of Labor (Postone)

The current crisis has laid bare the contradictory and shaky character of contemporary capitalism. Yet the essentially inchoate responses to the crisis have dramatically revealed the absence of a robust conceptualization of post-capitalist society and, by implication, of a robust critique of capital. One result has been the continued hegemony of neoliberal discourses and policies. Moishe Postone seeks to fundamentally rethink the core categories of Marx’s critique of political economy in the fall 2015 Ellen Maria Gorrissen lecture. He argues that Marx’s mature critique of political economy, as elaborated in the Grundrisse and Kapital, provides the basis for a different critical theory of modernity with contemporary significance.

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A Communist Life

by Felix Baum

Along with the return of economic crisis and social struggles around the world, the term “communism”—supposedly discredited once and for all by the experience of Russia and its satellite states in the 20th century—seems to be enjoying a certain comeback in recent years. Conferences on “the idea of communism” attract significant crowds, books by professed communists like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek find readers and grab media attention. However, more often than not this (surely limited) comeback does not seem to be driven by a genuine desire to retrieve the emancipatory content the term carried in the writings of Karl Marx and like-minded critics, as well as in practical movements from the 19th century onwards. Rather, maîtres-penseurs like Badiou and Žižek prefer to pose as enfants terribles, defending Maoism and flirting with Bolshevik terror, hence reaffirming precisely the unholy traditions with which a “communism” for the 21st century would have to break.

Paul mattick

In his new biography of Paul Mattick, a German-born worker who immigrated to the United States in 1926 and later emerged as one of the most important radical critics of his time, Gary Roth tells the story of a largely forgotten current in the 20th century that early on made a rupture with the statist caricatures of communism to which today’s media-savvy leftist intellectuals are still holding fast.1 Noting that this story is about “bygone eras in which a radicalized working class still constituted a hope for the future,” Roth steers clear of melancholy and nostalgia, instead seeking a justification for his work in the more recent reconfiguration “of the world’s population into a vast working class that extends into the middle classes in the industrialized countries and the pools of underemployed agricultural workers everywhere else.” In fact, though far from constituting a sustained, consistent assault on existing conditions, some recent struggles of parts of this class, most notably the “square movements” that spread from North Africa via Europe to Istanbul, exhibit certain traits—horizontal self-organization (or “leaderlessness), direct mass action against state forces, a focus on occupations—that point much less to the Bolshevik-Leninist tradition than to the one Roth describes, commonly referred to as council communism, though the resemblances should certainly not be exaggerated.

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A Conversation with Theodor W. Adorno (Spiegel, 1969)

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Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Gerhard Richter 

“Philosophy, which once seemed passe,” Theodor W. Adorno’s Negative Dia­lectic begins, “remains alive because the moment of its realization was missed” (“Philosophie, die einmal überholt schien, erhält sich am Leben, weil der Augenblick ihrer Verwirklichung versäumt ward“). (1) This perspective encrypts the double movement of a simultaneous resignation or lament and a productive, enabling force. It is only because the philosophy of which Adorno speaks— negative dialectics—was not realized that its actualization is yet to come. That it once existed without becoming an actuality means that it still remains to be thought, as both a failure and a promise. The erratic traces of this double movement not only name but also enact Adorno’s notion of a negative dialec­tic. The movement of the negative dialectic of failure and promise has strongly marked the reception of the English translations of his writings. After all, Adorno’s German, and the thought that it enacts, is rigorously and infamously resistant to translation. His writing is both strange and foreign—fremd—even in its “original” German.

To acknowledge this strangeness is also to acknowledge that what Adorno says cannot be separated from how he says it. As Samuel Weber, one of Adorno’s earliest translators so apodictieally and incontrovertibly puts it in his 1967 “Translating the Untranslatable,” the “specificity of Adorno’s thought is inseparable from its articulation,” so that “conceptual concreteness may be measured by the density with which thought and articulation perme­ate each other.” (2) For this reason, any translator who, in spite of these difficul­ties, attempts to translate Adorno’s sentences runs the risk of constructing an Adorno who. in the words of one of his most astute American translators, Rob­ert Hullot-Kentor, appears “dubbed rather than translated.” (3) Thus, as Hullot- Kentor points out, while many admirable English translations of Adorno’s texts exist, others deserve to be retranslated. (4) The process is now well under way, with, for instance, Hullot-Kentor’s responsible retranslation of Aesthetic Theory which replaces the problematic British version of 1984. (5)

The following interview with Adorno has not received the attention that it deserves. It originally appeared on 5 May 1969, three months before the phi­losopher’s death, under the title “Keine Angst vor dem Elfenbeinturm” in the widely circulating German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel (6) Shortly after it appeared in Germany, an English translation, which has been virtually ig­nored in the American context, was published in a British journal. (7) In a very real sense, then, the “moment of its realization was missed.” To present this important document today in an entirely new translation, in agreement with Der Spiegel, means to take seriously—with a bit of Blochian non-syncronic- ity—the critical potential that it still may hold for readers interested in the relation between aesthetics and politics. But the re-presentation of the docu­ment today also requires an explanation of historical contexts and political ref­erences, glosses that culturally aware readers in 1969 may not have required and that were provided neither in the British translation nor by Adorno’s Ger­man editors, who later included the text in his collected writings (Gesammelte Schriften). (8) I have therefore provided explanatory footnotes to clarify histori­cal references for today’s readers.

To appropriate the conceptual content of the discussion with Adorno for our time also requires some contextualization in the tensions of its own time. The immediate occasion for the highly visible interview was Adorno’s can­cellation of his University of Frankfurt lecture course “Introduction to Dialec­tical Thinking” during the summer semester of 1969, following confrontations with student activists who disrupted his lectures with heckling. During the pre­vious semester, Adorno’s decision to involve the police in clearing student oc­cupiers from the Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School’s depart­mental unit at the University of Frankfurt) had caused controversy. While some regarded Adorno’s reliance on the authorities as a betrayal—a siding with the enemy against the common cause of social progress—others tended to agree with Adorno’s assessment of the radical activism of some students as misguided or even, in the words of his former research assistant, Jurgen Habermas, as a form of “left-wing fascism.” (9) On the day that the Spiegel in­terview appeared, Adorno writes to his friend and Frankfurt School colleague Herbert Marcuse: “One should refrain from |… | demonizing the police whole­sale. 1 can only repeal that they treated the students much more gingerly than the students treated me. That was beyond description.” He continues: “The other day I was told by Mr. Cohn-Bendit during a departmental town meeting that I only had the right to call in the police if people actually wanted to beat me up with metal rods. I answered that then it would be too late.” (10)

The irony of the tensions between Adorno and some student activists are legible enough. On the one hand, his theories had contributed to the es­tablishment of the first general wave of political activism in Germany after Word War II and to a general critical engagement with the legacies of Ger­man fascism, a subject that had largely remained taboo after 1945. Examples of Adorno’s theoretical interventions that were especially significant in this regard included his and Horkheimer’s analysis of the culture industry, his dis­section ol’the authoritarian personality, his subversive reflections on what it means to be German, his meditations on education “after Auschwitz,” and his anti-fascist reflections, among many others. But on the other hand, more con­crete signs of solidarity were expected of Adorno after December 1966, es­pecially on the part of the “APO.” “APO” stands for “Außerparlamentarische Opposition” (“Extraparliamentary opposition”), the collective name of the German student and New Left movements, along with a variety of smaller op­positional groups that were not presented in the German parliament. The APO came into existence in 1967, in response to the “Grand Coalition” formed between Kurt Georg Kiesinger’s conservative CDU/CSU and Willy Brandt’s social-democratic SPD on 1 December 1966. that is. when almost no opposi­tion remained within the German parliament itself. Many in the APO now- looked to Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt .School for practical po­litical leadership, often in vein.

In a patricidal reversal that pitted parts of the Student Protest Movement and the New Left against one of their theoretical fathers, Adorno was sub­jected to a series of institutional and personal attacks at least since 1967. and leaflets proclaiming that “Adorno as an institution is dead” (“Adorno als In­stitution ist tot“) were circulated during his lectures. For instance, when he was invited by Peter Szondi and Wilhelm Emrich on behalf of the Depart­ments of German and Comparative Literature at the Free University of Berlin to deliver a lecture in July 1967 on “The Classicism of Goethe’sIphigenie,” a meditation that was later included as an essay in his Notes to Literature, Adorno was greeted with heckles on the part of some. Adorno had earlier re­fused to write a letter of support exculpating the activist Fritz Teufel, whose controversial hand-outs and leaflets had been read by his accusers not as a sat­ire but as a concrete incitement to arson and violence. Because Adorno refused to conduct a political discussion instead of delivering his lecture as planned, his detractors regarded his decision to speak on Goethe as a retreat from po­litical intervention into classicist aesthetics.

But the most notorious incident was yet to come. During an April 1969 assault, an instance of “planned tenderness” which has come to be known as the “breast action” (Busenaktion), three female sociology students wearing long leather jackets invaded the lecturer’s podium, sprinkled rose and tulip petals over Adorno’s head, attempted to plant lipstick kisses on his cheeks, ex­posed their naked breasts to him, and provoked him with erotic pantomimes. Adorno, attempting to protect himself with his briefcase, proceeded to exit “Hörsaal V” (“Lecture Hall V”). This attempt to embarrass Adorno publicly was a sign of the larger structure of misunderstanding between Adorno and those student activists who had grown increasingly impatient with their theoretically-minded teacher’s reluctance to engage in street interventions and other forms of political activism.

The tension and misunderstanding between Adorno and some of the student activists was by no means universal. Indeed, many found the public provocations of Adorno by a minority of students misplaced and embarassing. Those critical of the activities to which Adorno was subjected must have re­called not only their indebtness to the theoretical apparatus for a critical analy­sis of society and culture that he had supplied, but also Adorno’s general in­terest in being a public intellectual open to discussion and to a sustained engagement in concrete political causes. For instance, after the so-called German-American friendship week had been marred by severe street violence and clashes between protesters and the police in May 1967, Adorno, along with his colleague Max Horkheimer and others, on 12 June 1967 engaged in a pub­lic discussion with students and activists regarding the relationship between Critical Theory and political praxis. Similarly. Adorno spoke out publicly against the German Notstandsgesetze (Emergency Laws). Hessischer Rundfunk (Hessian Broad­cast Service). (11) And as Adorno reveals in a November 1968 letter to the writer Günter Grass, he maintained friendly relations with the Social Democratic politician Gustav Heinemann—then West Germany’s Minister of Justice and later, from 1969 through 1974, President of the Federal Republic—whom he closely advised regarding West Germany’s progressive criminal law reform. Similarly, Adorno was instrumental in helping to work out a compromise agreement between the “IG Metall.” West Germany’s Metal Workers’ Union, and their companies. But while he supported these and other political causes, such as then Foreign Minister and Vice Chancelor Willy Brandt’s concrete at­tempts to loosen the iron collar of Cold War ideologies through a new politi­cal relationship with countries to West Germany’s East, he remained suspicious of certain “aporias of the politics of reconciliation” (“Aporien der Versöh­nungspolitik’’).

These included the politics that he feared would disguise the ways in which the Soviet Union’s gestures of political reconciliation with its satellite states could also be read as attempts at even greater domination of these slates. Here, he feared, the questionable and deeply problematic politi­cal interests represented by both Washington and Moscow found a possible way of supplementing one another in their expansivist quests for world domi­nation. Rejecting what he often denounced as “erpreßte Versöhnung” (“forced reconciliation”), Adorno confesses to Grass his “mounting aversion to any kind of praxis in which my natural disposition and the objective hopelessness of praxis in this historical moment may meet each other.” (12) Between the writ­ing of these lines and his death some ten months later, this aversion may have grown ever more pronounced in light of the heightening intensity with which the personal attacks against him were carried out.

These Emergency Laws were to enable the German government to suspend certain basic demo­cratic citiziens’ rights when protests and concrete opposition threatened to destabilize the basic order of the state. The proposed bill that would make Emergency Laws legal in Germany was passed on 30 May 1968. Two days earlier, Adorno had made a last-minute effort to derail the passing of these laws, formulating a firm rejection of these curtailments of civil liberties in an address entitled “Gegen die Notstandsgesetze” (“Against the Emergency Laws”) in the “Große Sendesaal” of the

In the interview reproduced below, Adorno explains, in more lucid and conversational terms than is characteristic of his formal writings, his concep­tualization of the political relevance that his theoretical work may have. For Adorno, the political impact of his work is not to be measured by the extent to which it enables unmediated social praxis but rather by the extent to which it effects a broad change in consciousness. Here, the oppositional pair of thought and action itself is suspended. The text belongs in the general orbit of similar meditations that Adorno devoted to this subject in the late 1960s, such as his texts “Resignation” and “Marginalia on Theory and Praxis,” and his conversation regarding Critical Theory and the Protest Movement with the Südeutsche Zeitung. (13) Indeed, there is no sentence in Adorno’s mature work that is not touched by the political implications of the thoughts that he expresses in the Spiegel interview.

In my English translation, I have attempted to capture some of the in­formal conversational tone of Adorno’s sentences, a tone that may strike some readers as belonging to a surprisingly different register than that found in the formal and rigorous precision of his written works, where his German prose, in its persistent self-reflexivity and performativity, often appears, quite strate­gically, to resemble no living language. The sinewy lucidity of Adorno’s spo­ken and improvised language in this interview cannot be explained fully by Der Spiegel’s editorial practices, as listeners to the recently published collec­tion of five compact disks containing a variety of his speeches and interviews can attest. (14) Adorno’s fluid style as a live interlocutor and public speaker—es­pecially as he developed it for his various radio, television, and mass print ap­pearances soon following his return to Germany from American exile in 1949 —should be placed into a dynamic constellation with his written language to assess the shifting contours of his imagined relationship to the audience.

I wish to thank Der Spiegel for kindly granting me permission to trans­late and reprint this interview.

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