Reviewed by Jonathan Harvey
Against a backdrop of widening climate catastrophe and incessant war, representation appeared as focus of popular outcries in the so-called era of post-truth and new media. Cured Quail is a Marxist journal of critical aesthetics, self-published in 2018, that takes seriously the appearance of a generalized crisis of representation, truth and culture afflicting contemporary capitalist societies at the edge of disaster. In a society profoundly unable to represent anything other than its fragmented self, the very universality of language becomes threatened. Far from employing a deconstructionist or relativist approach, Cured Quail levels the charge of illiteracy against this society. The notion of illiteracy utilized here is similar to Adorno’s concept of the “speechlessness” of a new type of human being: that of a people who speak concretely and without illusion, but in the voice of a radio announcer, and who are ipso facto unable to openly express how the world could be any different. In their opening statement, the editors of Cured Quail show an awareness that these solipsistic pitfalls are equally present in the academy, gallery, pamphlet and newsfeed. Cured Quail’s intervention is necessarily immanent as it does not proclaim to be external to these conditions.
Tampering with the expediency of the culture industry must invite resentment; after all, it is now fully participatory and user friendly. The cultural critic, diplomat and advertising agency all share the same 140-character limit, and their ideas are subject to the real contours of circulation and exchange. Cured Quail, however, wants to develop this resentment and aporia in their readership into a productive tension. A welcome consequence of this is that it entails revealing “the contradiction of what is said and what is meant” in artistic or intellectual phenomena (4). From the outset, then, Cured Quail’s formulation of illiteracy immediately thrusts a challenge upon the reader. The reader is actively immersed in the form, content and composition of the journal, and is caught, all the while, within the double bind of the opening material and its elaboration.
The scrupulous design of Cured Quail, left unexplained in the editorial, elicits a working through, and extends the effect of its content and style. The symptoms and requirements of subjectivity in an illiterate age are brought to light over and again as the reader attempts to navigate through the volume itself. The very medium of a collection of texts (e.g., a journal) in a society increasingly saturated by collections of texts must be addressed. The essays in Cured Quail are presented contiguously, without pagination, headings, paragraph spacing or an accessible table of contents. Upon cursory examination, there is only one long block of text; consequently, instead of jumping ahead to an article or spiraling down a click hole, the reader must somehow find a way to engage with the journal as an integrated whole. The initial problematic of the editorial is posed as a recurring focal point in the very design itself as the opening and closing material are the only articles that contain paragraph spacing and headings, leading the reader to return to them over and again to settle their gaze. Similarly, the reader’s eyes often fall to various image fragments at the bottom of the page that she eventually pieces together and matches to a complete image in the back of the book, indexed to title and author information.
The formal qualities of Cured Quail’s intervention are a significant aspect of its impact, but the text’s formal characteristics are designed in such a way as to plainly foreground the content of the essays. Although the contributions to the journal are far from homogenous, most have an expository form, and ground themselves in political economy and in a historical materialist orientation to aesthetics. While the body of the journal appears as an insurmountable wall of text, one discovers quickly that a predictable staggering of the latter’s left justification allows one’s eyes to keep pace easily. Close attention reveals that the initial letter is differentiated at the beginning of paragraphs and chapters. Ample margins exist for notation and engagement, as well as to provide a negative space to contrast with the body— and yet these assurances must be earned.
The reader begins her task of encountering the work with a contribution that only amplifies the preliminary disorientation produced by the text. A nested narrative of monologues accompanies the imbricated format of the book, misleading the reader into believing, for a moment, that the journal may be one long meandering gestural composition. The voice is initially found somewhere between introductory remarks and a fictional posthumously published screed along with its critique (in a nod to Pale Fire). The narrator describes the manifest content of an all too familiar fantasy of silence, non-differentiation and ego-death. As the reader begins to relinquish her presuppositions, she adapts to the rhythms of the journal’s formal components and slowly, there is a movement to expository prose. Zachary Dempster’s essay emerges as a brief but sweeping treatment of technical and cultural change in the history of literacy and sketches a social theory of illiteracy beyond hermeneutics. The mixed aphoristic and formal style is an exemplification of the antithesis to “hygienic writing”, which is understood to be a result of habits of thought engendered by new reproductive technologies (27).
Chris Crawford’s essay sketches the culmination of politically sterile and “sociologized” contemporary art and contrasts it with a theory of radical aesthetic experience. After the downfall of committed art’s claims of praxis over autonomous art’s purposelessness and the conclusion of an era of revolutionary élan, the project of immanence, which lay at the heart of modern art since its inception, exhausted itself. The result was a historical compromise that preserved only a semblance of critique. Social democracy replaced revolution, radical intellectuals migrated to the academy, and art became a self-inhibited field of sociological reflection. The social theory that forms art’s new condition is epitomized in the structure of Bourdieu’s subjectivization of capital, a semblance of critique that takes the naturalized features of late-capitalism as its limit. The practice of this theory ends in an activism of exposure, demonstration and reflection. For Crawford, a truly radical aesthetic experience must reclaim objectivity and “defamiliarize everyday forms of consciousness and behavior” shaped by the culture industry—a reaffirmation of art’s purposelessness (48).
Placed at the center of the volume, Paul Mattick’s contribution seeks to implicitly deflate Cured Quail’s outlines of totality with a treatment of Debord’s account of universal separation in the spectacle. According to Mattick, Debord’s spectacle had a transient Keynesian tenet at its core, that is, the “shift from production to consumption as social central” (62). However, following the end of the post-war golden age of capitalism, this conception lived on as an idea alone. The “concentrated spectacle” of Soviet regimes seems to have resulted in little more than disbelief, thrust aside with the iron curtain. Meanwhile, in liberal capitalist societies, Debord, Adorno and their progeny defended the role of being “representatives of civilized values in a darkening world,” disjointed by consumption. Yet this pessimistic vision of totality was de facto contradicted by the persistence of the social bonds that they themselves use as a self-evident standard (63). For Mattick, only Debord’s council communist critique of representational politics holds lasting relevance.
Eric-John Russell returns Mattick’s common sense claim in kind, demanding an inquiry into the persistent “unacknowledged suffering” of everyday life (75). Russell remaps Mattick’s historicization of Debord and claims that both the idea of spectacle and councilism are limited by their historical context. Following the “crisis of accumulation since the 1970s . . . the era of the old workers’ movement has ended, and class struggle is now characterized by the obstacle of class belonging itself” (86). Russell reworks Debord’s spectacular ideology towards a critique of councilism, programmatism and workers’ autonomy. The inexorable movement of value and equivalence, masked by use-value, is a logic enveloping all spheres of everyday life, a law of identity beneath outward qualitative distinctions. Pluralism and radical democracy in contemporary social movements risk being just another moment in this commensurability, while the return to national sovereignty and the state against global institutions echoes the egalitarian call to citizenry and the death of proletarian autonomy. The artists of our epoch, champions of “creative freedom and market compulsion,” falsely deny their ideological function, and instead seek to produce beacons “for the oppressed to reflect on their indeterminable length of suffering” (118).
Jeffrey Schultz traces the prohibitions on images of God through Jewish and Christian traditions in order to determine the status of the supposed collapse of objectivity, and to pursue the faith of a negativity within it. Christopher Hesse examines the quantified nature of experience regimented by the culture industry in the service of accumulation—academic neologisms, art forms indifferent to each other, and the satisfaction of needs. Veronika Zhizhchenko ends the collection with a work bordering on a satire of the journal’s own editorial aims: a presentation of Ben Morea and Martha Rosler on the NYC student movement of 2012 in the format of a surrealist play, complete with line readings and stage directions.
Cured Quail makes a ruthless case for the general condition of illiteracy. Its conceptualization is novel and urgent, and its efforts would be well matched with established currents that specifically treat literacy “as a studiable phenomenon” (3). The work of linguists, speculative psychologists and historians of oral and literate traditions, following the insights of the classicist Eric Havelock and Walter Ong in particular, are well suited to this project. This current openly observes the persistence of a period (i.e. secondary orality) akin to Cured Quail’s notion of illiteracy as a product of mass culture. Furthermore, they trace its psychodynamics and values, describing a specific “situational” thinking in direct contrast with literate social consciousness. This literature is waiting for a serious engagement with critical theory and is already posed as a type of social critique in popular sources.
A robust study of the long material history of literacy might also lead to a stronger historical understanding of technical developments. In turn, this might affect the formal interventions of Cured Quail. For example, the history of pagination and the paragraph are integral to understanding the radical changes in structure, depth and range of thinking in the expansion of literate societies. Common techniques of tracking and separating ideas and argument are absolutely indispensable for the sharing, revision and extension of ideas, and they serve as the unconscious material premise for the undertaking of particular logical investigations, as Ong and others argue. These particular standards of writing, which are functionally independent of modern typography and capitalism (they preceded the Bauhaus by over two thousand years), were the opposite of “signaling the death of a language” (28). Dempster’s initial essay took up this effort in order to examine the “studiable” technical, structural and historical dimensions of literacy and the journal should examine these aspects further.
In future volumes, further defenses would be welcome against prominent critiques of irony, détournement and immanent criticism itself, which existed in various forms throughout the late 19th and 20th century. Mallarmé is also the hero of poststructuralists and postmodernists who claimed to be contributing to subversion while only offering the death of politics to match the death of meaning. Cured Quail consistently rails against these tendencies and must continue to do so. Paul Mattick’s criticism is an excellent start for a series of productive explorations and exchanges, as Russell’s response shows. The thesis of illiteracy and the depth of the journal’s critique of late capitalist subjectivity demands a permanent engagement with the revolutionary tradition they inherit.
10 June 2018