RETHINKING MARXISM Volume 8, Number 1 (Spring, 1995)
In this issue the interconnections between art, social meaning, historical memory, and radical politics comprise the focal points for several of the entries. To begin, we publish Satyananda Gabriel's unsettling short story. "Paper People Burn," which reminds us of how volatile and open to conflagrations the lives of poor black and white southerners remain today after the fires of slavery and Reconstruction have supposedly long ago burned out. Gabriel's narrator, an old Louisianan, recalls the fateful night he arrived in his Rambler to visit his sister in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, where the local chicken plant seems to have replaced the cotton fields as the primary site of toil and travail. His narrative ramble—intimately familiar with the details of southern African-American life—alights along the way on the hardships that befall young black women who get promised "the moon and stars," on the dilemma of never-to-return black college students who "have all this knowledge" but are lost anyway, and on the tragedy of black men filled, perhaps, with the "American dream" of being master at home or not at all. The narrator's eventual and foreboding encounter with a white "witch," whose only act of sorcery seems to be that she lived and loved another woman (we can only guess that comfort and exclusion brought them to live in the Black Bottom of Cotton Plant), leads him to ponder her whispered plaint that "some people are no more than pieces of scrap paper," a view confirmed later that night by the tragic event in which scraps become ashes. Driven forward, as if by the Arkansas winds that swirl together leaves, dirt, and people's lives, Gabriel has written a powerful, haunting tale that finds rape, exploitation, the defilement of people and their land, air, and water, and finally trial by fire the price that blacks, poor whites, lesbians, women, and workers have to pay in Cotton Plant as elsewhere for the living legacies of servitude, violence with impunity, and domination.
Caffyn Kelley, editor and publisher of Gallerie, the Canadian feminist art journal, organizes her comments on "art and life" around the installation of Jana Sterbak's "flesh dress" (a dress sewn together from flank steak) at the National Gallery of Canada in 1991. Sterbak's piece was predictably attacked and defended, reports Kelley, from entrenched positions in the never-ending debates in consumer society between artists and their critics. Kelley, though, reflects on these debates and Sterbak's piece itself from a different angle, one that begins with two premises: First, that art is fundamentally useless outside of its ability to convey or generate meaning and, second, that art objects are enmeshed within commodity space such that they only must be bought and sold in art markets—they must have a value in exchange—to exist as "art." Kelley presents the beautiful irony in all of this. On the one hand, and in contrast to a precommodity culture, art objects need not have the ability to convey "social significance" or shared meaning. In the economy of art, any object only needs to be of significance—only needs to "mean" something—to a single buyer. This social meaninglessness—which reached its apogee with high modernism in the arts—is, however, a condition of extraordinary independence and creativity, as artists are freed from the task of making meaning f~r anyone in particular, just as buyers are freed from defending their purchase on grounds that anyone other than themselves need to "get" what their commodity signifies or even that they must, as consumers, implicitly endorse the meaning therein inscribed. But, as Kelley notes, on the other hand, this incessant production and sale of only privately meaningful, "unique" objects removes art from the realm of social struggle where meaning is publicly constituted and contested. Kelley sees another paradox as well. While modernism's selling point was the aesthetic execution and purveyance of stunningly meaningless objects, during the recent period of decline in corporate support for the arts, a new postmodern commodity aesthetic has emerged which has impelled artists to produce more socially significant work for an increasingly important customer, the state (a.k.a., "the public"). Kelley, though, is uncomfortable with the circumscription of art, whether modern or postmodern, within the commodity economy and so describes instead work (art?) produced within "an activist space." Using as an example another meat dress, this time produced for a 1985 protest against the Miss America pageant, Kelley salutes work— blurring the boundaries between art and life—that "suggests the yet-remote possibility of a different kind of economy, not necessarily hawking unique objects nor distinguishing amateur from professional" by intersecting with social struggle.
René Magritte's haunting, startling, provoking, amusing paintings have been at the center of new critical theoretical discussions not only amongst art critics and historians but also amongst social theorists intent on deconstructing hegemonic ideologies and ways of seeing. The problematizing of the epistemological and axiological norms inscribed within inherited aesthetic practices was surely given new impetus in the 1980s by the publication of Michel Foucault's fascinating This Is Not a Pipe—a brief reflection on the problem of meaning and the relation between language, thought, and representation stimulated by Magritte's now famous painting of the same name. Diverging somewhat from Foucault, Richard Wolff takes up the intersection between Magritte's epistemological cares and the radical political implications of his work. Specifically, Wolff elucidates the ways in which Magritte's aesthetic performance of a new epistemology—one not wedded to "bourgeois" habits of seeing and representing—dovetails with distinct positions within contemporary Marxism, particularly with the Marxian notion of overdetermination, first championed by Louis Althusser. Wolff draws out the similarities of Althusser's and Magritte's projects, especially their shared ambition to complicate the relations between determinants and determined in considering the forms of connection between sight, thought, objects, and subjects. Through reference to several of Magritte's better known works, Wolff draws out Magritte's various commitments to depict the close, intereffective relations between thinking and seeing; to question given pictures of "reality" by presenting supposedly "known" objects in unexpected settings; to confound the distinction between the visible and the invisible; and to rescue the unknown or unthought from their present status as roadblocks to thought and action by converting them into the vehicles of a new reality. In analogizing Magritte's nonmetaphysical reverence for the "mysterious" with Althusser's overdetermination—in each case, what is "produced" or pictured by its overdeterminants is both inside and outside the visible frame—Wolff shows how each can contribute to a Marxian way of seeing, one that illustrates the complicity of existing bourgeois epistemological protocols with forms of exploitation and oppression while moving us forward in articulating and acting on a specifically Marxist project of social change.
Game theory—strategic choice theory—has been all the rage in the social sciences, especially economics, during the past fifteen or more years. Accompanied by the usual fanfare reserved for the latest fad in formalism and weighed down by its very close association with eighteenth century conceptions of "rationality" and individualism, game theory has been suspect, to say the least, to many Marxian thinkers. ln his straightforward, sensible approach to its possible uses and limits, Bruce Coram delineates the ways in which the techniques of game theory can enlighten rather than obstruct central issues and methods of Marxian political economy. Coram is cognizant of the complaints that game theory is antithetical, in its assumptions and procedures, to a variety of traditional and new Marxian approaches. Yet, Coram patiently explains the likely force of game theoretic analyses when they are harnessed to longstanding Marxian views on how conflict, struggle, and power are central to the construction and historical development of class-based social formations such as capitalism. Seeing game theory as one technique among many available to Marxists for bringing to light the (sometimes surprising) results of strategic individual and collective action within the confines of class struggle, Coram shows, through brief examples, how game theory can add significant insights into the dynamics of capitalism, the distribution of surplus according to social democratic norms and rules (in preference to markets), and much else. Coram's modest but firm defense of the potential productivity of game theory within Marxian political economy stands, therefore, in welcome relief both to bloated claims for the unique scientificity of game theory's formalism (coming, among others, from some leaders of radical political economy) and to uninformed attacks by critics on its assumptions and techniques as being necessarily sustaining solely of non-Marxian theoretical concepts and goals.
Sheila Rowbotham's one-act play "Hindsight," which has been performed on the British stage, takes us into the editing room of a once-socialist filmmaker, a man whose middle-aged, reedy thinness seems to be matched by the drink-sodden seediness of his personal affairs and disaffected politics. Working in a haze induced by too much drink and too little control over his work (a film reviling the communist era in Russia and trumpeting the coming of market capitalism), the filmmaker is visited by the Bolshevik organizer and socialist-feminist Alexandra Kollontai, who appears to emerge from a vase of lilacs. As Kollontai visits the filmmaker to help him arrive at a more suitable "ending," Rowbotham's play becomes an extended debate, one that encompasses evaluations of the successes and failures of the Russian revolution, the virtues and vices of market capitalism, the tensions and turmoil of the filmaker's "private life," and, not least, the feats and frailties of Kollontai's own life and writings, in which socialist politics, the struggle for women's equality, and sexual desire were combined as personal history and as a theoretical/political project. Rowbotham's characters enact, to a degree, the effects of these combinations; their interactions are marked by bursts of theoretical energy, perseverance, emotion, political disagreement, personal accusation, and, of course, desire. Rowbotham's dramatic device of granting Kollontai visitation rights all these years after the revolution is directed toward a brutally frank appraisal of the revolution's outcome, but also the impossibility of turning away from the liberatory impulses it set off. Rowbotham's Kollontai is especially eloquent about the risks of inventing a socialist democracy where the resistance is so strong and the precedence so weak for the "leap into the light" that such action involves. Not so much an acquittal as a call to appreciate the alternatives that Kollontai and others strove to keep alive (with dirty hands, no doubt), at the conclusion of her play Rowbotham leaves her film director and us in the position of coming out of our stupor and either taking or leaving Kollontai's plea to "make our own ending."
As "welfare reform" has become the new, cynical watchword for increasing the misery of the poor, the different institutions of public and private assistance have seen their primary task to be "preventing the ineligible from getting assistance" rather than finding ways to lessen the burden on the poor. Sanford Schram notes that this view of the welfare system is the consequence of a discourse on poverty that takes a managerial point of view rather than one that sees hunger, homelessness, and the like from the "bottom up." Yet, while Schram is critical of much welfare policy and the research done on it because "it assumes the point of view of an imagined policymaker/manager designated with the responsibility to contain and control the problems of welfare" (a stance, by the way, he attributes to putatively left policy analysts as well as to their liberal and conservative counterparts), he also is leery of "alternative" strategies in research and policy that claim the superiority of qualitative as opposed to quantitative analysis and that privilege the "authentic" experiences of the poor "in their own voice." Schram calls for welfare research and policy to make perspective, position, and discourse explicit, thus noting that every utterance and action on behalf of or against the "interests" of the poor are partial and partisan and must be regarded (though not necessarily dismissed) as such. Through personal testimony as well as empirical research, Schram uses this view of welfare policy to call for an "inversion of political economy," an inversion designed to bring to the fore the marginalized discourses of dependence, reproduction, distribution, and poverty that are shunted aside in both left and right political economy by the emphasis on individual economic self-sufficiency through productive activities. Schram documents the centrality of welfare discourse and policy for contemporary American political economy by tracing the important and decisive shifts since the 1970s in privatizing the welfare system. Using food shelves as his case study, Schram shows how the radical attacks on the welfare system and the dramatic reduction of public assistance have forced many people to seek private assistance to feed themselves and their families. But, in Schram's view, the private food shelf agencies, despite the best intentions of many of its volunteers and employees, follow suit with the public agencies and the dominant discourses of political economy in creating subordinate and demeaning identities for those "in need" through disciplinary practices that impute to those seeking food the characteristics of "bad shoppers, poor cooks, ignorant dieticians, and thoughtless eaters." Schram believes that inverting political economy to highlight the effects of such disciplinary practices on the poor is a way of making the focus of welfare policy the real life consequences of such policy for those who must live, for now, within the increasingly privatized system of public assistance. ~
In his brief foray into the polarized postmodernism versus Marxism debates, Michael Roberts attempts a rereading of Marx and Nietzsche that finds substantial similarity and agreement on their respective epistemologies and theories of historical practice. Roberts's look at Marx and Nietzsche uncovers a deep homology in the ways in which they developed such thematic elements such as force, growth, movement, and agency. In contrast to the position advanced by leading poststructuralists, Roberts argues that Marx was a sophisticated critic of the Hegelian dialectic and that his view of the advance of history was constituted, in common with Nietzsche, "in terms of conflicts between many forces and will-powers." Such a view, Roberts states, frees Marx as well as Nietzsche from the "immanent telos" inherent in the Hegelian conception of history. Roberts also notes that a Nietzschean-style critique of the Hegelian dialectic—one that recognizes the irreducibility of difference and nonidentity—is not original to poststructuralist thought, as it was a key point of departure for such Marxists as Theodor Adorno and Henri Lefebvre. Roberts turns as well to Marxian criticisms of the necessarily entropic nihilism of the poststructuralist project following Nietzsche. While Roberts acknowledges that the celebration of inertia does occur in the writings of Jean Baudrillard and perhaps others, he shows in contrast that Nietzsche formulated his defense of nihilism—the transvaluation of values—as the basis for growth and movement in human knowledge and practice. Roberts concludes with a reexamination of the "epistemological intersection" of Marx and Nietzsche. His study finds that they were clearly united in their aversion to both metaphysics and empiricism, their questioning of the subject/object dichotomy, their uniting of theory and practice, and their emphasis on forms of agency for the progressive movement of hun an society through time.
Maurya Wickstrom looks at the image of possible gendered futures captured in Sally Potter's fantasy of one person's sex switching over time in her 1993 film Orlando. In the lead article in our Remarx section, Wickstrom contrasts Potter's open vision of permutation with Virginia Woolf's more limited portrayal of gender transformation unaccompanied by social change. In Potter's Orlando, " a woman emerges who, as a single person, a propertyless person, an artist, and a mother, can make herself a future in which her own unique voice becomes audible." Wickstrom regards Potter's Orlando as an advance over Woolf's treatment in which Orlando is ultimately unable to overcome sexual stereotypes "even as her historical overview affords her some perception into stereotypes as ideological and historical constructs." As Wickstrom perceives, Woolf depicts Orlando's gender changes as openings for critique but not for breaking the bounds of gender and class within which Orlando throughout his/her history is inscribed. Potter's work, Wickstrom claims, finds Orlando crossing gender boundaries, experiencing, in her last transformation as a mother, a new self rich with possibilities. In fact, Wickstrom notes, Potter's Orlando discovers these possibilities by walking away, at the film's end, from the privileges of class and wealth and embracing a life—simultaneously as artist/writer and mother—that is usually constituted (for the majority of women) as constraint or obligation and not as liberation. And here, then, for Wickstrom lies the sparkling strength of Potter's film: Potter's Orlando is the imaginative picture—a "what if "—of a woman's courage "to throw away the wealth, rank, privilege, and gender definitions which she has, as a man, accrued throughout history, in favor of a self developing toward increasing freedom," thus breaking free of the "culture of silencing" that, in Wickstrom's view, remains the dominant experience for most women.
The second entry in the Remarx section is Stefano Azzarà's report on the January 1994 international conference on "Lenin and the Twentieth Century," held in Urbino, Italy. The conference brought together some of the leading Western Marxists (Azzarà lists George Labica, Domenico Losurdo, and Samir Amin, among others) to ponder the historical balance of Lenin's contribution to Marxian theory and social and political movements after the Russian revolution. Azzarà reports that one particular focus of many of the papers was how Lenin "went beyond" Marx in ways that brought Marxian thought and socialist political practice into direct contact with struggles for universal rights, democracy, and liberation outside of Europe. At the conference, Lenin was credited especially with theorizing imperialism and with "widening the horizon" of revolutionary practice, as resistance to the rule of capital became not just a European thing but life and death struggle of colonized peoples as well. The universalizing of the class struggle in a world dominated by capital was conjoined by Lenin with the "vindication of human rights" on a global scale, at least in the view of some of the conference's participants. Azzarà recounts an important debate at the conference regarding the current status of Lenin's analysis of imperialism, with some (like Samir Amin) believing it to have been surpassed by the globalization of capital through transnational corporate expansion, while others claimed that Lenin's lasting and pertinent contribution on this score was to stress the class, and not the nation-state, origin of imperialism. Indeed, with the increasing attention paid by contemporary Marxists to the "globalization of capital" and with the present obligation to evaluate popular struggles throughout the globe in terms of democracy and human rights, Lenin's extensive work on imperialism, the national question, and the status and nature of the state may become increasingly significant in the Marxian corpus. Azzarà's review of the conference, above all else, tells of the solemn responsibility and commitment of today's Marxists to make as "an obligatory point of reflection for all current Marxist research" the communist project, Lenin's decisive role within it, and the dramatic failures and successes of socialist experiments from the October revolution to the present.
In our Correspondence section, Raphael Sassower offers some thoughts on Robert Albritton's article in RM, Spring 1993, and Albritton replies. Sassower detects a rush to judgment in Albritton's declamation of the "excesses" of postmodernism and especially their supposed deleterious effects on Marxian political economy. Sassower notes, first, that Albritton denies to Marxists the worthwhile tradition of political critique that proceeds as a "politics of language," exemplified best by Marx's dissection of classical political economy—long before the supposed "fad" of postmodernism. Along these lines, Sassower then raises the more pointed objection, squarely addressed to Albritton's discursive unfolding of the logic of capital as the keystone to Marxian theory, that Albritton neglects to problematize, á la Marx, the very concept of capital as it emerges as a historical object for social critique and political practice for the 1990s. In his reply to Sassower, Albritton confronts this criticism. Albritton explains that the importance of asserting and laying bare the "self-reifying" aspect of capital is meant, on the one hand, to combat the current deconstructive endeavors that dissolve capital into one among a plethora of concrete moments of society and, on the other hand, to disclose unwaveringly the extent to which the logic of capital constitutes "the most powerful single social force operating in the modern world." Albritton seeks to steer a course that avoids both the dissolving logic of difference in which capital nearly ceases to appear and the totalizing logic of capitalism's monolithic unity, in which all other social practices and movements become simply grist for the capitalist mill. Elaborating on his original article, Albritton refuses what he refers to as the "horizontal deconstruction" of postmodernists and espouses instead "vertical reconstruction," which "problematizes 'capital' not by collapsing it into the political and ideological, but by theorizing it at three different levels of analysis." In their interchange, Sassower and Albritton also reflect on the degree to which postmodernism's assault on the meaningful distinction between scientific discourse and all other forms of discourse is harmful or helpful to Marxist theoretical projects. While Sassower advises that "in order to exploit more fruitfully the ideas and intellectual struggles of postmoderns, we need to walk more slowly down their path, rather than walk toward the promised land of revolutionary solutions," Albritton counters that, because postmodernists typically reject ontological realism and correspondence theories of truth, "no effective Marxian political economy can emerge from such reflections."
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