‘History and Obstinacy’ reviewed by Adrian Wilding

History and Obstinacy

Translated by Richard Langston et al., edited by Devin Fore, Zone Books, New York, 2014. 544pp., $39.95 / £27.95 hb
ISBN 9781935408468

Reviewed by Adrian Wilding

About the reviewer

Adrian Wilding is currently a visiting scholar at the Institut für Philosophie, …


This is the first English translation of a work by two authors who, individually and collaboratively, have done much to shape post-war left-wing theory in Germany. Though less well-known in the English-speaking world, to a German readership they are familiar and key figures of critical theory. What unites them is their former affiliation to the Frankfurt Institut für Sozialforschung – both came into contact with Adorno in the 1960s.

Alexander Kluge is not only a writer but a film-maker. In the 1960s and ‘70s he was a prominent member of the Neue Deutsche Film movement alongside Fassbinder, Reitz, Wenders and Herzog. In films such as Abschied von Gestern and Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin he pioneered a version of Brechtian epic theatre for the screen with unsettling treatments of social themes. More recently Kluge has moved into the medium of television and online film, seeing in these a potential just as great as that of cinema. A renowned writer as well as director and film theorist, Kluge has won almost every major German literary prize.

Oskar Negt studied sociology and philosophy under Horkheimer and Adorno and later became research assistant to Jürgen Habermas. In 1968 a spokesperson for the extra-parliamentary opposition and prominent member (along with Kluge) of the German Sozialistischen Deutschen Studentenbund (SDS), he was a strong critic of Habermas’s condemnation of the student protesters. Since 1970 Professor of Sociology at the University of Hannover, Negt has managed to retain close links with the German unions and to engage in numerous campaigns around working conditions and workers’ education.

Both are still politically active and in interesting ways. Through his dctp.tv website and its ‘garden of information’, Kluge often appears in dialogue with Negt. Their foray into new media aims at a kind of curatorship of knowledge: an attempt to hold back the sea of facts. Kluge likens his website to Central Park or the hortensis of a medieval cloister: a place in which to momentarily leave the noise. In his books, Kluge appears as historian, cultural critic, philosophe. The short tale (Erzählung) is his favoured format. Each is a fragment on an unexpected theme, a politics more-or-less implicit between the lines. In Kluge’s 2008 movie Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike, the politics is more direct. Left-wing talking-heads explore Eisenstein’s planned filming of Das Kapital. Twelve-tone music, garish intertitles and ironically-handled agitprop abound. Eisenstein’s aim was to convey the entirety of bourgeois social relations through a day in the life of a labourer’s wife. Kluge turns the never-made Capital: The Movie into a lens through which our late capitalist world appears.

Some knowledge of these Brechtian or surrealist techniques helps when approaching History and Obstinacy, a highly unusual work, one hard to categorise or summarise. The book’s editor, Devin Fore, has done an excellent job in introducing and overseeing this first English translation. Fore sums up Negt and Kluge’s book as a ‘biopolitical’ analysis of ‘the “capitalism within us”’ (22), likening it to Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus – both books products of the soul-searching after the failed revolutions of ‘68. Written during the ‘70s and first published in 1981, History and Obstinacy has only now been translated, the text revised and updated with the excision of several chapters (the original book ran to 1,283 pages) and new material, including from Kluge’s recent books-in-fragments, added. There is certainly something to the analogy with A Thousand Plateaus: the influence of the same systems theory and cybernetics which inspired their French counterparts. Like Deleuze and Guattari, Kluge and Negt move freely between sociology, psychology and natural history. Reflections on anthropology and economics sit alongside digressions on astronomy and evolution.

The difference is that historical materialism more clearly pulls the strings here, as is clear in the axiomatic opening lines: ‘The following book is about the human ability to change matter purposefully. We call this ability “labor”. It not only consists of commodity production, but also engenders social relations and develops community. It possesses OBSTINACY. Its product is HISTORY’ (73).

It becomes clear that the book’s subject is labour in general and that what generates social relations, indeed history itself, is this general, purposive activity. As activity, labour is to be examined on both a micro-level (thus forays into biology and psychology) and a macro-scale (history, ecology, cybernetics, systems theory). This means that all human activities which go towards reproducing social existence are treated as instances of labour. Yet, there is the crucial caveat: labour also ‘possesses OBSTINACY’ (Eigensinn, 73). ‘Every act of fettering, plundering, and exploitation inflicted on a human characteristic entails, on the one hand, a loss. Every adversity elicits, on the other hand, resistance, invention, a possible way out’ (98). Obstinacy is as much a natural as a social category, it names a kind of autopoiesis or self-regulation of the human body which resists coercion, domination and – in the last instance – annihilation. It is the only reason ‘we humans have retained, against all odds, our place in the evolutionary process’ (98).

The book’s most sustained treatment of Marx comes in Chapter III, ‘Elements of a Political Economy of Labor Power’, where the notion of labour capacities (Arbeitsvermögen) is outlined. Analogous to what classical economics called ‘humankind’s essential powers’, these capacities operate ‘in every society on this planet as subjective and unconscious partisans, as conscience, as amour propre, as skill, as intelligence’ (88). History itself is said to be the work not of individuals or of struggling classes but of such labour capacities. A mode of production, for instance, is labour capacities organised in a particular configuration (including the capacity for obstinacy).

After Chapter III, Marx appears more sporadically, the book turning to specific reflections from juxtaposed disciplines, though he is present in the background to interesting discussions of ‘primitive accumulation’ (‘working class emigrants bring with them in their consciousness … the expropriation that they experienced in their native land’ (413)), ‘intelligence labour’ (‘what toils away in humans when they act intelligently’ (165)) and ‘the capitalism within us’ (internalised capitalist demands which colonise even the most intimate spheres). Finally, in a useful ‘Atlas of Concepts’ which ends the book, there is a short but intriguing discussion of the terms ‘proletariat’ and ‘proletarian’: the authors recommend abandoning the former – it has too much ‘conceptual substance’ – for the latter, still-topical, notion of a propertyless and jobless outsider (418-9).

Any evaluation of this complex and wide-ranging book in a limited space is difficult, but a few questions may be posed. Firstly, what is the reader to make of the very broad definition of labour with which the book operates? Do social relations really consist entirely of labour? In Marxist terms, doesn’t the vital distinction between labour and labour-in-general thereby disappear? Put another way, doesn’t capitalism’s specificity – as the source of abstract labour or labour-in-general – become invisible? To this a second, related question may be added. In what sense can ‘obstinacy’ be ‘capital’s polar opposite’ or ‘countercapital’ (73) if it too is an expression of labour defined in these very broad terms? Is obstinacy a historical, natural or even cosmological category? Are we dealing with a monism or a dualism here? One can certainly see the merit of theorising obstinacy – it may shift our focus from domination to resistance, with laudable political results – but it is hard to see its basis or rationale here. Can it be justified theoretically or – as seems here – only empirically described?

Whatever the answer to these questions, one would like to know what Negt and Kluge think of the debate over value – from Rubin to Backhaus and which feeds in to the work of Postone, Holloway and Cleaver – which takes Marx to be a critic of labour. Absent from History and Obstinacy is sustained discussion of labour’s dual character, an idea which Marx himself took to be his greatest insight in Capital. It is not accidental that the Grundrisse reserve the term ‘labour’ for alienated, surplus-value creating activity. A liberated social existence, by contrast, would involve some wholly different ‘self-conscious activity’ (Marx 1973, 325). Isn’t it more judicious to follow Marx here and use an alternative concept – Holloway’s ‘doing’, for example – for what resists, exceeds or runs counter to capital?

Negt and Kluge admit that they ‘seek to expand the concept of what constitutes labor’ just as they did with the concept of ‘production’ in their earlier collaboration Public Sphere and Experience (147). By doing so they aim to ‘disrupt our habitual ways of seeing’ (76). But how much light is shed on a topic such as war (Chapter VI) or love (Chapter VII) by viewing it through labour’s lens? Undeniably arresting is the description of war as a ‘LABOR of ANNIHILATION’ (418) and talk of ‘the labor of [personal] relationships’ (364), but how accurate or useful is such re-description? One intriguing though brief passage, applying Hegel’s philosophy to World War I, speculates on the countless intersecting master-slave relations involved (262). This suggests a different way of seeing social relations – not as labour but as patterns of recognition. From the viewpoint of recognition one could give obstinacy or even revolution a ground and a rationale. Why is such a line of thought not pursued? It seems a view of Marx as the anti-Hegel is the reason: ‘human self-consciousness in modern societies, in other words, the reflection of one person in another, manifests itself at its core in a person’s labor’ (88). But is this really to treat self-consciousness (and thus social relation) on its own terms? Is labour – as opposed to recognition (note the apt metaphor of ‘reflection’) – really the fundamental stuff of social relations? Does the argument from labour appeal because of an aura of materiality that may hide the real matter?

This is a demanding book. The reader must sometimes work hard to match the diverse parts to the whole. It is a work of illustrations and digressions, not only theoretical asides but tales and histories whose telling, even when rounded off with a moral, sometimes seems an end in itself. Is this a problem? Not necessarily. Kluge has spoken of his own ‘compulsion to tell’, tracing it, with great honesty, to his own childhood traumas. Today he warns – rightly – of the danger of overload and disorientation in a society steeped in information. But this makes the task of curating knowledge that much harder, especially if, say, the thesis of an encyclopaedic work is to be clear from its parts, if knowledge is to be synthetic rather than serial.

Clearly struck by the heterodox nature of the book, Andrew Bowie’s 1983 review of the German original opens: ‘It is no longer possible to consider Critical Theory as a unified project’ (cited at 443 n.4). In light of the avowedly ‘post-critical’ work being produced today under the banner of the Frankfurt School any unified critical theory certainly seems remote. Does a work like History and Obstinacy exceed the genre of critical theory or was there always a surrealist undercurrent to that movement, one which (like the figure of Walter Benjamin) retained a tangential and outsider relation to any School? Certainly traces of Benjamin’s method live on here. They make for the book’s fascination but also make it something of a gamble: the hope that the social whole will be visible in the juxtaposed parts, that particulars may become monads (cf. Benjamin 1999, 461, 475-6). At the end of the day it was not without reason that Adorno, commenting on Benjamin’s method, warned of the risks of an ‘immediate materialism’ (Adorno 1980, 129).

But even if its ways of seeing are controversial, the encyclopaedic effort of thought involved in this book is admirable. With any justice it will bring a new audience to Kluge and Negt’s fascinating online explorations and a systematic translation of their remaining works. In this connection one particular line from the middle of History and Obstinacy could stand as its motto: ‘How do societies obtain provisions of intelligence in good years that can endure for future bad years?’ (194). Here is certainly a rich storehouse of intelligence with much food for left-wing thought. 

16 February 2015


  • Adorno, T. W., et al. 1980 Aesthetics and Politics trans. Ronald Taylor (London: Verso Books).
  • Benjamin, W. 1999 The Arcades Project trans. Howard Eiland & Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge MA & London: Harvard University Press).
  • Marx, K. 1973 Grundrisse trans. Martin Nicolaus (Harmondsworth: Penguin).


  1. Good review, Adrian.

    I deeply appreciate your point vis-a-vis their treatment of labor, and in this the book feels dated.

    Still, I have been tilting at this book in chucks. You are quite right that explaining to anyone else what I am reading is nearly impossible. And yet there are flashes of insight in it that, whatever their own limits, strike me as something akin to getting a good shaking when one is falling asleep.

    Oddly, the book it most reminds me of is Gillian Rose’s The Broken Middle, a book that is also stylistically, methodologically, and theoretically obstinate, but where even if you get lost in places, there are flashes of something and it probably rewards returns.

  2. Thanks, Chris

    I agree completely about the many flashes of insight in the book. Certainly there is much that is memorable and intriguing here, despite its disparate nature. What I forgot to say is that I find it hard to think of a better living writer of German than Kluge and a better orator than Negt.

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