‘Aesthetic Marx’ by Samir Gandesha & Johan Hartle (ed) reviewed by Jared Bly

Aesthetic Marx

Bloomsbury, London, 2017. 283 pp., $25.28 pb.
ISBN 9781350024229

Reviewed by Jared Bly

About the reviewer

Jared C Bly is a translator and PhD student in philosophy at Villanova University. Aside from researching…


Aesthetic Marx, edited by Samir Gandesha and Johan Hartle, constitutes a thick volume divided into three sections. The first broadly attends to the aesthetic aspects of social change, the second concerns stylistic and rhetorical strategies in Marx and his influences, and the third investigates actual artistic production in relation to Marxist theory. Gandesha’s opening essay helpfully identifies three ‘logics’ of the ‘aesthetic’ operative in Marx and subsequently unpacks the multiple and intersecting valences of this manifold concept.

Gandesha argues that the first aesthetic logic appears prominently in the writings of the young Marx, but also surfaces amid the anti-humanist analyses of Capital. Against the quotidian sense of ‘aesthetics’ understood as concerning art or ‘matters of beauty’, it here indexes the role of sensuous perception in the reconciliation of our estranged species-being under capitalism: ‘this notion of sensuous, […] properly aesthetic activity furnished Marx early on with a normative account of non-alienated labor that would finally be realized in communist society (6).’ Instituting communism demands not only an overhaul of governmental institutions, but a profound shift in the very constitutive conditions of subjectivity. The radical modification of humanity’s relation to labour power marks a transformation from a purely contemplative and alienated existence to a practical, active and thereby liberated subjectivity. Gandeseha insists that this reconciliation takes place in and through an essentially aesthetic dimension, one that exists as the critical site for a sensuous re-configuration of modes of perception, spaces of visibility and invisibility, and intersecting registers of symbolic representation. A transformation at this level, in other words, involves a reformatting the entire human sensorium. The aesthetic here resonates with its etymological root aisthesis, signifying sensation and perception along with their various permutations and distributions.

The second aesthetic logic builds off the first, insofar as the human sensorium remains a ‘key “zone of mediation,”’ (9) and relays this aesthetic dimension with wider issues in Marxist historiography. Rather than an emphasis on subjectivation, this logic pertains in toto to wider social processes of revolution and to the transition to a communist mode of production. A dialectical problem emerges from the fact that a quantitative increase in productive capacity under capitalism is supposed to give way to a qualitative transformation of society. In the Communist Manifesto, understanding Marx’s aesthetic logic thus entails a confrontation with the controversial idea of accelerationism:

This logic is a specifically aesthetic one, insofar as intensified capitalist development—what we might refer to as the shift from the formal to the real subsumption of labor, the elaboration of new form of labor rather than a capture of pre-capitalist forms of labor—is fully driven by the imperative of capital accumulation. (9-10)

Gandesha contends that accelerationism is a thoroughly aesthetic dilemma that attempts to comprehend a seemingly impossible metamorphosis of quantitative intensification into a qualitatively new form of historical existence. Gandesha notes that the 20th century experiences of the avant-garde, theorized most notably by Peter Bürger, mirror this contradiction insofar as they aim for a radical critique of the bourgeois institution of art and thus a dialectical reintegration of the spheres of ‘art’ and ‘life’. Like the accelerationist account of social change, the ultimate avant-gardist reconciliation emerges from the aporetic tension within the bourgeois institution of art itself. The accelerationist and the avant-garde artist desire to effectuate the very same impossible yet necessary transformation of historical existence.

The third aesthetic logic derives from Marx’s enterprise of rethinking the language of historiographical writing and is best exemplified in his always difficult to categorize Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Gandesha’s gloss emphasizes Marx’s desire for

the elaboration of a new form—a form that does not lag behind explosive new historical content, one that would not overwhelm it as was in the bourgeois revolution he is criticizing, a form which would be capable of superseding the compulsion to repeat the past and, in the process, would free up the future. (14-15)

This new form of writing history, constructed mainly in the imperative mode, opposes a deterministic and economistic historiography insofar as it understands the revolution as something that ‘must be actively accomplished’ (16) rather than something that merely results from a given historical sequence. A poetic language for the construction of history facilitates a radical hermeneutic gesture that ‘would break through the inherently circular nature of interpretation’ (17) and therefore compose historical material in such a way as to emancipate it from the farcical repetition of the past in view of a radical opening of the future. Gandesha rightly characterizes the aesthetic logic at work in the Brumaire as a rhetorical and performative one that highlights the importance of style and form in the formulation and execution of revolutionary praxis.

Beyond this opening essay, the volume features many important contributions. Henry W. Pickford, to take but one example, provides a close examination of the Aristotelian logic at work in Marx’s thinking of the aesthetic. Terrell Carver’s essay, in turn, examines the Brumaire in order to underscore the stylistic and performative registers that compose the rhetorical force of Marx’s intervention. Carver, himself a translator of Marx, adds many poignant observations to Gandesha’s aforementioned vision of the performative aesthetic at play in this text. Finally, Hayden White’s robust essay fleshes out Marx’s metonymical strategy of writing history and demonstrates how the same conceptual series appears operative in the ongoing development of the labour theory of value.

Johan F. Hartle clarifies the affinity between Marx and Freud via their respective concepts of ‘association,’ circumscribing the symmetries between the superstructure / base distinction and the role of the unconscious vis-à-vis psychic life. The association of elements, whether via ‘free association’ in psychoanalytic therapy or the spontaneous self-organization of workers, serves as a fecund point of comparison: ‘The structure of the concept of ‘association’ suggests a convergence between Marxism and psychoanalysis, one which goes beyond the problematic hermeneutics of the latent and also suggests a way of—somewhat therapeutically—organizing and expressing it .(75)’ Hartle concludes that both the economic base and the unconscious are a materially concrete and dynamic core on which representation (qua superstructure or psychic complex) is grounded. Both domains appear structurally hidden and, importantly, constantly mediate, as a veritable limit to the efficacy of symbolic representation, human practice and hence the very unfolding of history itself. Finally, rather than a static structure, the economic base and the unconscious constitute a relation at the heart of the social, a mobile intrication that actively constellates a multiplicity of symbolic and material elements. This latter symmetry underscores the idea that the aesthetic does not merely indicate a fixed or ossified configuration of the sensorium but instead points to an ever-shifting relational process that ceaselessly weaves and re-weaves the fabric of the social.

One minor drawback to this collection is that many prominent theorists working in the overlapping fields of politics and aesthetics do not receive pride of place. The editors allude to how Jacques Rancière constitutes a critical reference for their project (xxix-xxx), yet, aside from the occasional remarks in passing, his work is accorded no extensive treatment. As an authoritative voice in the ongoing discourse on the complex relationship between aesthetics, politics and history, a more robust engagement seems to be in order. Rancière’s concept of a distribution of the sensible, moreover, points to a historically specific configuration of modes of visibility, invisibility, and subjectivation in conjunction with corresponding ways of doing and making. Such a concept comes close to how Gandesha and others in this volume understand Marx’s aesthetic: a historically contingent configuration of the human sensorium that shapes subjectivities as well as the very structure of their social environment.

Among the other significant influences on Marx’s thinking of the aesthetic, Fredrich Schiller remains an indispensable reference. Daniel Hartley’s essay ‘Radical Schiller and the Young Marx’ attributes to the young Marx a Schillerian desire for ‘a form of collective aesthetic self-regulation: a stylistic concrete universal in which the styles through which humans articulate what Schiller called the “sequence of ideas” through which they manifest themselves arise organically through common and free association.’ (173) Schiller’s thinking, which sought to sublate the estranged domains of nature and reason, becomes for Marx the wellspring for a re-imagining of the conceptual stakes and dynamics of social change. Illuminating Schiller’s relation to the young Marx reiterates how the socialist revolution is par excellence an aesthetic revolution, an autonomous transformation as much institutional and political as sensuous, spatial and intersubjective.

Perhaps the most engaging essays are found in the last section dealing explicitly with how Marxism intersects with concrete artistic praxis. Boris Groys’ essay ‘Installing Communism’ offers a provocative reading of the artists Lissitzky and Kabakov through the prism of Malevich’s famous painting ‘The Black Square’. This painting enacts the reduction of artistic subjectivity to a null point whose negativity discloses the contextual and material conditions subtending any process of subjectivation. In this regard, Lissitzsky and Kabakov’s oeuvres represent two passages through this reflexive act of erasure:

Now, the artistic installation can be seen as a space of exploration of the dependence of the artist on the art institution, in general, and curatorial strategies in particular. But at the same time the emergence of artistic installation can be also seen as an act of self-empowerment of the artist, as an expansion of his sovereignist attitude from the artwork to the art space itself-in other words from the artwork to its context  (190).

The former possibility aligns with Kabakov whose installations critique the Soviet institution of art and its purported reification. They furthermore exhibit how artistic production is contingent upon deeper social and economic forces. The vanishing of the artist—into inky blackness of Malevich’s square—critically permits the historical and material conditions of the conjuncture to come to the fore. Lissitzsky, in contrast, affirms the supposed freedom of artistic creativity afforded under Soviet Communism. The curated spaces for showcasing the artwork no longer appear as the institutional and commodified spaces engendered by global capitalism. Instead, Malevich’s erasure of the bourgeois artistic subject gives way to a sovereign utopia fashioned for the free play of an individual artist. Deeper still, Groys interpretation of these two artists reads as a meditation on two possible ways of inheriting the aesthetic legacy of the Russian Revolution and its broader import for rethinking the relation between aesthetics and the global capitalist art market.

In sum, this volume offers many promising lines of inquiry whose practical and theoretical elaborations represent an exciting possibility for future research. Given the recent upsurge of certain ‘leftist’ political movements, galvanized primarily in response to the presidency of Donald J. Trump, a critical re-envisioning and re-deployment of Marxism appears all the more necessary for the current conjuncture. The radicality of such a re-evaluation will undoubtedly be measured by the degree to which a political line can be developed that both renders intelligible the present regression into identity politics and establishes a countervailing mode of collective praxis against the surreptitious identitarian and consumerist bulwarks of neoliberal society. This reviewer suspects that the aesthetic will be among the critical sites for cultivating this renewal of Marxism and its political imaginary. Thus, Aesthetic Marx provides a viable starting point for confronting this urgent political necessity and, more generally, for any contemporary research into the myriad intersections of aesthetics and politics.

17 May 2018

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