In 1871, Parisian workers famously brought down the Vendome Column in the city’s first arondissement. It was an iconic event – in more way than one – for the Paris Commune. The Column, erected sixty years previously in commemoration of Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, was torn down at the initial suggestion of the legendary artist Gustave Courbet. Courbet called the Column “a monument devoid of all artistic value, tending to perpetuate by its expression the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation's sentiment.”
“After one has enjoyed the first taste of Marxist criticism, one will never again be able to stand ideological hogwash.” – Ernst Bloch, Spirit of Utopia, 1918
The relationship between art and society has always been a central question for artists, thinkers and activists on the Left. In the twentieth century, it was commonplace to believe that art has the power to change the world. It was this conviction that motivated Georg Lukács to defend the literary realism of writers like Thomas Mann over the stylistic innovations of a James Joyce. For Lukács (1977: 33), literature was “a particular form by means of which objective reality is reflected,” and as such it was “of crucial importance for it to grasp that reality as it truly is.” By displaying social reality in all its contradictory complexity, Lukács believed, art could serve the interests of class struggle and social emancipation.
In 2015 it became clear that Viktor Shklovsky’s imperative to “make the stone stony” is a much simpler task than “making the corpse corpsely.” I am thinking of the use of autopsy transcript as poem, Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriation of the shooting death of Michael Brown.  While this particular text was said to be uniquely parasitical and vampiric, likely as much for its arrogance as its form, it should be understood as the logical product of an aberration in American documentary poetics that has recently adopted the brand name “Conceptualism.” Goldsmith’s personal framing of Conceptualism holds that all that must be written has been written and must merely be re-packaged
In the Spring of 1940, as the Nazis conquered France and were the dominant power on the European continent, the exiled German Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote his final work, Theses on the Philosophy of History. In a moment of political defeat, with fascism triumphant, the parties of the far left lying prostrate and subjugated, Benjamin penned the following words...
China Mieville’s novels are genre fiction at their best. They can be largely grouped into two broad categories: Twisted takes on British and European urban life (The City & The City, King Rat, Kraken) and kaleidoscopic, imaginative, and often Marxist fantasy and sci-fi adventures (The Bas-Lag trilogy, Embassytown). This changes rather drastically with This Census-Taker, Mieville's latest, which combines trace elements of magical realism and fantasy with the minimalism of authors like Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. This odd mashup works to produce a narrative that is engrossing, thought-provoking, and perhaps excessively ambiguous.
The robots have arrived – sort of. It’s only a matter of where one looks. If one were paying attention to the Oscars this year, it would have been hard to miss the most famous robot trio of all time as they arrived on the opulent stage of the Dolby Theater. Ahead strutted in the pleasingly neurotic, bronze figure of the linguist, C-3PO, with his short, stout, and sassy mechanic mate R2-D2 close behind, and bringing up the rear the white-orange ball of a droid named BB-8, who made its debut in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, released this past December. When R2-D2 beeps that C-3PO forgot the tickets to the ceremony, the latter retorts: “The ticket was your job, nitwit.” When told that he looked somewhat like the Oscar statue behind them, C-3PO declared that it looked like him. “How do you think we made it this far?”
We have reached the Hegelian endgame; the fusion of art and philosophy. Not quite, as Arthur Danto notes, a negation of art by philosophy but the fusion of both. The art object has become, it is claimed, a philosophical argument in itself. But it is a pyrrhic victory – a Twilight Zone ending for art history, modernism and the avant-garde.
Anything can be made into art. But there is a small army of theorists dedicated to parsing out what is and isn’t art. Anyone can be an artist – if they aren’t too attached to the idea of eating dinner. Art and philosophy have fused but in the absence of the social revolution that was meant to accompany that fusion. The result is a philosophical-art object that is profoundly weak. If the present model of serious contemporary art is a weak avant-garde, the solution is a popular avant-garde: a rapprochement between artistic experimentation (as art) and mass emancipatory politics.
Ta-Nehisi Coates' sharp criticism of Bernie Sanders on racial justice generally, and the issue of reparations in particular, has kicked up some interesting discussion and heated debate. Left responses to Coates piece – and Coates’ subsequent responses to his critics – have foregrounded once more the importance of thinking through the relationship between “race” and “class” in the imagination and the political strategy of an emancipatory social movement. The importance of such discussions, though clearly relevant to the current Presidential campaign, extends well beyond it, revealing and potentially informing the state of the radical imagination, as expressed in artistic works, critical discourse, as well as social movement culture, tactics, and strategy.
Since appearing last summer, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me has sparked enthusiastic discussion, from Democracy Now! to the Daily Show, from The Atlantic to Facebook, from classrooms and hallways to street corners and barbershops. The text has become a NYT #1 best-seller, has now won the National Book Award for non-fiction, and has no doubt been largely responsible for earning its author a prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant.
Among the many questions being widely discussed is one of literary lineage: Is Ta-Nehisi Coates the new James Baldwin?
Toni Morrison prompted this question with an exuberant back cover blurb, perhaps singlehandedly guaranteeing that Between the World And Me would climb the best-sellers list...
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
Go back and read that opening line. Try, if you can, to de-familiarize yourself with it. Picture it in your head. Allow yourself to be surprised by the imagery. Wake up, in your bed, after a dream you wish to never revisit, only come to and realize that something is very wrong.
Make the realization that you are now, and without explanation, a massive crawling creature reminiscent of a cockroach, a beetle or a bed bug. Let the truth of this realization sink in: the confusion, the panic, the powerlessness, the utter abject terror. The knowledge that when your nearest and dearest see you they will now recoil in disgust and potentially try to destroy you. That you are now decisively outside of humanity.