Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Marx’s posthumously published Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 remains one of his most singular and puzzling works. In “The Humanist Controversy,” Louis Althusser argues that this text, which he lumps together with Marx’s early, pre-scientific works, is Marx’s “only Hegelian text.” But, Althusser adds, “it is a Hegelian text in Feuerbach.” Marx uses Feuerbachian Humanism to criticize the work of the political economists, but adds to Feuerbach’s system historical, dialectical movement. This Hegelian intervention, however, remains “within the theoretical field defined by Feuerbach’s basic concepts”—Man and alienation. The result is that “the Hegelian concept of history as a process of alienation (or dialectical process) is theoretically subjected to the non-Hegelian category of the Subject (Man).” Marx begins the book with a close reading of the political economists (particularly Adam Smith), whom he heavily quotes. “On the basis of political economy itself, in its own words,” Marx aims to show “that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, and thus the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form; that finally the distinction between capitalist and land-rentier, disappears and the whole of society must fall into the two classes—the property-owners and the propertyless workers.” Marx demonstrates that the political economists themselves clearly recognize these consequences of the accumulation of capital, but the political economists cannot fully understand the movements they describe because they start from unexamined assumptions about private property and avarice. Armed with Feuerbach’s theory of alienation, Marx then proceeds to reinterpret the facts presented by the political economists. He starts with a seeming paradox: “The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and range. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men.” Marx’s strategy of course is to understand this movement dialectically, as a process of alienation that the political economists ignored, misunderstood, or obscured. “This fact expresses merely the object which labor produces—labor’s product—confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been congealed in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. In the conditions dealt with by political economy this realization of labor appears as loss of reality for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and object-bondage; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.” He adds, “[T]he worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful the alien objective world becomes which he creates over-against himself, the poorer he himself—his inner world—becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. . . . Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not.” And in a passage that Sartre surely knew well: “The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him; it means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.” Moreover, the worker is estranged not only from the product of his labor, but also “in the act of production—within the producing activity itself.” Marx argues, “If then the product of labor is alienation, production itself must be active alienation, the alienation of activity, the activity of alienation.” The worker’s labor is not his own, does not belong to him; it is “forced labor” that denies the worker himself. Alienation of the product of labor and alienation in the productive activity results in man’s alienation from his “species being.” Marx claims, “estranged labor estranges the species from man. It turns for him the life of the species into a means of individual life.” For Marx, the essence of the human species (but not of animals) is “free, conscious,” productive activity. Even when freed from need, man works up the objective world, objectifies himself in reality. But when labor is alienated, man is alienated from this species being, and “Life itself appears only as a means to life.” The direct effect “is the estrangement of man from man.” “[T]hrough estranged labor man not only engenders his relationship to the object and to the act of production as to powers that are alien and hostile to him; he also engenders the relationship in which other men stand to his production and to his product, and the relationship in which he stands to these other men.” That is, “he begets the dominion of the one who does not produce over production and over the product. . . . The relationship of the worker to labor engenders the relation to it of the capitalist.” Marx concludes, “Private property thus results by analysis from the concept of alienated labor.” Marx therefore rejects utopian and/or reformist projects that seek to simply raise or equalize wages without abolishing the estrangement of labor and all of its consequences. In contrast, “Communism as the positive transcendence of private property, as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being—a return become conscious, and accomplished with the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully-developed naturalism, equals humanism.”
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Sylvia Harvey’s May’ 68 and Film Culture examines the effects of a tremendous political event on film aesthetics and practice. French cineastes were perhaps exceptionally prepared for May ’68 because of the “Langlois Affair.” In February 1968, the government suddenly removed Henri Langlois from his position as head of the Cinematheque. A crowd of 1,500 people soon began demonstrating outside the Cinematheque, and intellectuals and celebrities en masse took up the cause of supporting Langlois. Protests continued throughout March, and Cahiers du Cinema included a special insert on the controversy. In April, Langlois was given back his position, though the Cinematheque lost its funding for film conservation. According to Harvey, the Langlois Affair did much more than give many cineastes their first taste of protest. “The defense of Langlois was a liberal cause, not a radical one, but it provided a certain organizational infrastructure, a network of communication within French film culture which was to prove useful to those who, in the month of May . . . were seeking not to defend individual freedom but to place the cinema apparatus in the service of the working-class.” During the events of May, many of the same cineastes again came together to form the Estates General of the Cinema (EGC). Shortly after the mass demonstration of May 13, action committees at the Sorbonne had set up a commission that screened films in the university and factories, and it was not long before elements of the film industry also began to organize so as to commit their skills to the movement. “On Friday May 17 the Union of Film Production Technicians of the CGT . . . called together a number of technicians, directors, and members of the French actors’ union as well as students from the two main film and photography schools: the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographique (IDHEC) and the Ecole Nationale de Photographie et de Cinematographie (ENPC). Out of this meeting, and a subsequent meeting between members of the film technicians’ union and the editors of Cahiers du Cinema came the suggestion for a new institution to be called the Estates General of the French Cinema (Estats Generaux du Cinema Francais). An action committee and the film technicians’ union itself issued invitations to all those active in or interested in French film culture to attend the first meeting of the EGC that evening (May 17), at the ENPC building in the rue de Vaugirard, which had been occupied by the film and photography students for a couple of days. More than a thousand people met together for the inaugural session.” The EGC regularly met over the next three weeks, the most intense period of resistance, and then slowly fizzled out in the following months. Harvey argues that the EGC was as full of contradictions and disagreements as the rest of the left, which included anarchists, Maoists, Stalinists, and popular front socialists, students and workers, reformists and revolutionaries. Different groups in the EGC produced “a number of plans for the transformation and re-structuring of the whole of the French film industry,” plans which, ranging from reform to total revolution, investigated self-management, exhibition practices, universal film education, and non-commercial forms of financing. These plans were often visionary and theoretically enlightening, yet divisions within the EGC prevented them from being effectively implemented in any manner. Within the EGC there was widespread hostility towards the Centre National de la Cinematographie (CNC), a bureaucratic organ that regulated and funded film production in France. The CNC was perhaps just the most visible symbol of the reactionary nature of the existing film system, to which many during the month began to oppose the idea of a “cinema of today.” The Film Technicians’ Union went on strike on May 19, but the “EGC made arrangements for filming to carry on, despite the strike (though not in opposition to it), so that films could be made about the workers’ and students’ movement.” EGC sponsored a number of short, collectively-made documentaries on political subjects, including Sorbonne Repression, Le pouvoir est dans la rue, Comites d’action, and Ce n’est qu-un debut. What was referred to as a “parallel cinema” emerged as film groups experimented with new forms of distribution and exhibition, such as showing films inside factories. For many connected to the EGC, “The existing system of film production and distribution was criticized on the ground that it operated only to market film-commodities to alienated spectators and that, further, the consumption of these spectacles contributed to the maintenance of that alienation. The parallel cinema was to contribute to the destruction of that endless circuit which began with alienated production and ended with alienated consumption.” Another defining feature of the parallel cinema was a commitment to discovering more egalitarian ways of making films. “In addition to the attempt at developing new methods of distribution and exhibition, the radical film groups attempted a re-organisation of the practices of production: in particular the development of a collective mode of working which refused the hierarchisation of tasks typical of the mainstream of the industry. Thus decisions about script and treatment were taken collectively and the clear distinction between those filmed and those doing the filming (and taking the decisions about the organization of meaning in the finished film) began to be broken down as the film-makers entered into extensive consultation with those about whom they were making the film. In this way the method of organizing around the point of production developed as a genuinely co-operative endeavour, and the mental-manual distinction characteristic of the division of labour within the existing industry began to be replaced by a less alienated and less alienating mode of production.” The most famous of these film collectives of course was the Dziga Vertov group, which, as its most notable member, Jean-Luc Godard, stated, was formed in order “to make politically a political cinema.” An equally important collective was SLON (Society for the promotion of new works), which formed during the production of Loin du Vietnam. With the help of militant workers, SLON member Chris Marker made A bientot j’espere about strikes in Rhodiaceta. This collaboration led to the formation of the Medvedkin Group, which “changed its composition and internal modes of organization in order to represent more adequately the workers’ own views and priorities, and the decision-making role of the film-makers themselves was reduced or disappeared entirely.” Another collective, Dynadia, aligned itself with the French Communist Party, and made propaganda films supporting the organization’s political line. Finally, the Maoist position was put forth by Cineastes revolutionaires proletariens (Revolutionary Proletarian Film-Makers), which shot films of confrontations at strikes and exhibited its films in an underground manner in working-class communities. Like Dynadia, Cineastes revolutionaires proletariens saw film as an instrument and therefore did not question its form, only its content. The French film journals also were immediately impacted by May ’68, though these effects didn’t appear in print for a few months. Harvey focuses on Cahiers du cinema and Cinethique, the two journals that seem to have been the most affected by the political events. Cahiers first responded in its August issue, which discussed the EGC and the proposals to change the film industry. It began printing and discussing translations of Eisenstein, and made space for new theories drawing from psychoanalysis, most notably Jean-Pierre Oudart’s theory of the “suture.” “Cahiers’ most explicit statement of its post-’68 position, its clearest presentation of a programme of work, and one which precipitated a crisis in the ownership of the magazine,” was Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni’s “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” an explicitly Marxist, Althusserian theorization of the cinema as a form of ideology. They offered a useful classification of films into seven categories: films that reproduced without question the dominant ideology; films that confronted the dominant ideology through choosing a political subject and attacking traditional methods of depicting reality; films that were not explicitly political but whose form had political consequences; films that had political content but that were undermined by their reliance on traditional ideology and aesthetic forms; films that appeared to reproduce the dominant ideology but upon closer inspection revealed cracks and inconsistencies; documentary films that dealt with political subjects but did not question their own form; documentary films that dealt with political subjects and did question their own form. Less well-known in the English speaking world, Cinethique set forth a different leftist line than Cahiers, with whom it debated politics and aesthetics. Cinethique largely shunned mainstream film (unlike Cahiers) and focused on experimental and alternative forms of film. The journal sought out a materialist cinema, “a theoretical cinema capable of producing scientific knowledge.” Although Cahiers disagreed with Cinethique about whether film can be scientific, the two journals, along with Tel Quel, were united in their opposition to the anti-theoretical line of Positif and in their interest in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The rest of Harvey’s book is a solid and helpful, though not especially original, examination of the problems of political modernism. She shows how the post-May ’68 debate about film aesthetics and practice, particularly as it appeared in Cahiers and Cinethique, led “to a re-examination of some of the debates around the questions of culture and class, attitudes to the art of the past and the development of new forms of art which had been conducted in Russia in the decade or so following the Revolution of 1917, and in Europe in the thirties by writers like Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin.” In both these earlier examples and in France, there was often a split between those who pursued a culture that was formally radical, but potentially both elitist and politically ineffective, and those who accepted the use of bourgeois ideology and traditional aesthetic forms in the creation of a popular proletarian culture. Harvey concludes the book with a discussion of how the ambiguities of the theory of ideology, and particularly Althusser’s version, were ferociously worked through in the debates within and between French film journals in the first few years following May ’68.
Kant begins with the problem of metaphysics, which tends to overstep the boundaries of possible experience, producing dogmatic claims to knowledge and an unfortunate backlash in the form of skepticism and indifferentism. Kant proposes to police the proper limits of the employment of speculative reason through a “critique of pure reason,” a critique “of the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all knowledge after which it may strive independently of all experience.” Kant’s starting point is a fundamental distinction between the object as an appearance for us and the object as a thing in itself. All human knowledge has to do solely with the object as an appearance. We can have a priori knowledge about an object because, as an appearance for us, each object must conform to certain conditions in order to enter into our experience. This a priori knowledge is “independent of experience and even of all impressions of the senses,” and is to be distinguished from “empirical,” a posteriori knowledge. Kant’s transcendental philosophy aims to investigate and “determine the possibility, the principles, and the extent of all a priori knowledge.” The first section, the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” shows how time and space are “pure forms of sensible intuition” to which all possible objects of experience must conform. Kant isolates a “pure intuition” stripped of everything coming from the senses. The investigation of this pure intuition leads him to claim, “Space is a necessary a priori representation, which underlies all outer intuitions. We can never represent to ourselves the absence of space, though we can quite well think it as empty of objects.” He concludes, “space is nothing but the form of all appearances of outer sense. It is the subjective condition of sensibility under which alone outer intuition is possible for us.” But, he underscores, space is a predicate of things only as appearances for us, not in themselves. He then turns to investigate the other pure form of sensible intuition, time, and claims, “Time is a necessary representation that underlies all intuitions. We cannot, in respect of appearances in general, remove time itself, though we can quite well think time as void of appearances.” He concludes, “Time is the formal a priori condition of all appearances whatsoever.” Whereas the “Transcendental Aesthetic” is about the rules of sensibility, the next section, the “Transcendental Logic,” is about the rules of understanding, the faculty of thinking an object of sensible intuition. Kant writes, “Our knowledge springs from two fundamental sources of the mind; the first is the capacity for receiving representations (receptivity for impressions), the second is the power of knowing an object through these representations (spontaneity in the production of concepts). Through the first an object is given to us, through the second the object is thought in relation to that given representation. . . . Intuition and concepts constitute, therefore, the elements of all our knowledge, so that neither concepts without an intuition in some way corresponding to them, nor intuition without concepts, can yield knowledge.” More bluntly stated, “The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing. Only through their union can knowledge arise.” The Transcendental Logic begins with the “transcendental analytic,” which examines the pure a priori concepts of understanding. Pure intuition provides a manifold, which is synthesized by the imagination. This synthesis then yields knowledge when brought to unity under the concepts of the understanding. From four initial categories, Kant derives 12 “pure concepts of understanding, which apply a priori to objects of intuition in general.” They are: (of quantity) unity, plurality, totality; (of quality) reality, negation, limitation; (of relation) inherence and subsistence, causality and dependence, community; (of modality) possibility-impossibility, existence-nonexistence, necessity-contingency. “The objective validity of the categories as a priori concepts rests . . . on the fact that, so far as the form of thought is concerned, through them alone does experience become possible. They relate of necessity and a priori to objects of experience, for the reason that only by means of them can any object whatsoever of experience be thought.” But Kant adds that a transcendental subject is still necessary: “There can be in us no modes of knowledge, no connection of unity of one mode of knowledge with another, without that unity of consciousness which precedes all data of intuitions and by relation to which representation of objects is alone possible. This pure original unchangeable consciousness I shall name transcendental apperception.” “The abiding and unchanging ‘I’ (pure apperception) forms the correlate of all our representations in so far as it is to be at all possible that we should become conscious of them.” In the next section, the “Transcendental Dialectic,” Kant aims to point out and correct errors stemming from the “deceptive extension of pure understanding.” But first, he examines the function of reason. According to Kant, reason works to bring “the understanding into thoroughgoing accordance with itself, just as the understanding brings the manifold of intuition under concepts and thereby connects the manifold.” The concepts of pure reason are “transcendental ideas,” which must be distinguished from the pure concepts of understanding. Kant emphasizes, “no object adequate to the transcendental idea can ever be found within experience.” Transcendental ideas act as guides for understanding, setting it the task of extending its unity toward the unconditioned. “Reason . . . occupies itself solely with the employment of understanding, not indeed in so far as the latter contains the ground of possible experience (for the concept of the absolute totality of conditions is not applicable to any experience, since no experience is unconditioned), but solely in order to prescribe to the understanding its direction towards a certain unity of which it has itself no concept, and in such manner as to unite all the acts of the understanding in respect of every object, into an absolute whole.” When examined by pure reason that remains within its appropriate limits, the three transcendental ideas—psychological, cosmological, and theological—form a system and lead one to assume “the purposive unity of things,” “to regard all order in the world as if it had originated in the purpose of a supreme reason.” To conclude: “Thus all human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas. Although in respect of all three elements it possesses a priori sources of knowledge, which on first consideration seem to scorn the limits of all experience, a thoroughgoing critique convinces us that reason, in its speculative employment, can never with these elements transcend the field of possible experience, and that the proper vocation of this supreme faculty of knowledge is to use all methods, and the principles of these methods, solely for the purpose of penetrating to the innermost secrets of nature, in accordance with every possible principle of unity—that of ends being the most important—but never to soar beyond its limits, outside which there is for us nothing but empty space.”
Monday, February 7, 2011
Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals aims to isolate and examine a “pure moral philosophy completed cleansed of everything that can only be empirical and appropriate to anthropology.” Through a “critique of pure practical reason,” Kant attempts “to seek out and establish the supreme principle of morality.” He begins by asking what is unconditionally good? He rejects a number of obvious answers (such as achieving good results, conforming to moral principles) as being too qualified or restricted. Instead, he argues that a “good will” is “good in itself,” that is, good even if it has no or even negative consequences. To support this claim that a good will is unconditionally good, Kant turns to the function of reason. Starting from the assumption that everything in nature has a purpose, he asks what is the purpose of reason? The instincts are adequate for obtaining self-preservation (and often happiness), so what function does the organ of reason serve? His answer is that the purpose of reason “is to have influence on the will; its true function must be to produce a will which is good, not as a means to some further end, but in itself.” Reason produces a will that allows the individual to act morally good for “the sake of duty.” Rather than acting according to inclinations or to achieve a specific purpose, a rational being is able to act out of a “reverence” for the law. This good will is unconditioned by any specific or individual interests, and therefore its principle can be restated in more universal terms: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” At this point, Kant attacks popular philosophy, which relies too much on examples. He argues that moral concepts are not derived from contingent, empirical experience but from a priori reason. “Only a rational being has the power to act in accordance with his idea of laws—that is, in accordance with principles—and only so has he a will.” For a perfect being, such as god, reason and will would be in complete agreement, and there would be no need for the former to correct the latter. For mankind, however, reason is not always in perfect accord with the will: there can be a divergence of objective and subjective principles. Reason therefore acts upon the will through a command, an “imperative.” “All imperatives are expressed by an ‘ought.’ By this they mark the relation of an objective law of reason to a will which is not necessarily determined by this law in virtue of its subjective constitution.” There are two general categories of imperatives: “hypothetical” and “categorical” imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives state what actions are required to achieve a specific end (These take the form: If I want to achieve A, I must do B). In contrast, “A categorical imperative would be one which represented an action as objectively necessary in itself apart from its relation to a further end.” Hypothetical imperatives may be disregarded according to one’s subjective inclinations (one can always choose not to do what is best, to act imprudently or unskillfully), but a categorical imperative, being unconditioned necessity, commands obedience, even against one’s inclinations. There is one categorical imperative, “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should be a universal law.” Or in a slightly modified form, “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.” Kant proceeds to add some matter to this imperative by considering the “value” of rational beings. Whereas non-rational beings can be treated as “things,” as means to an end, “man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means for arbitrary use by this or that will.” This leads to a more practical restatement of the categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” Extending the concept of each individual who, making and subjecting himself to universal law, is an end in himself to the totality of rational beings leads to the Idea of a “kingdom of ends,” which would consist of “a systematic union of rational beings under common objective laws.” Kant argues that the concept of duty is not as oppressive as it might appear because the rational being creates the very law to which he subjects himself, and thereby gains “dignity.” Kant writes, “although in the concept of duty we think of subjection to the law, yet we also at the same time attribute to the person who fulfils all his duties a certain sublimity and dignity. For it is not in so far as he is subject to the law that he has sublimity, but rather in so far as, in regard to this very same law, he is at the same its author and is subordinated to it only on this ground.” Kant ends with a discussion of the antinomy of freedom. The will’s “autonomy” “is the property the will has of being a law to itself.” But how can this free, rational causality be reconciled with the necessity of natural laws? Kant of course defends the Idea of freedom by making the correlationist distinction between things as they appear to us and things in-themselves, a distinction between the sensible and intelligible worlds. Considered as belonging to the intelligible world, a rational being has autonomy, though, like all Ideas, this Idea of freedom can never be directly experienced in intuition. Because this freedom can never be explained, it is also impossible to explain the existence of “moral feeling,” the “interest” man takes in moral laws.
Sunday, February 6, 2011
Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is an ambitious, philosophically-informed novel about trauma, repetition, and inauthenticity. At the novel’s beginning, McCarthy’s unnamed narrator has just recovered from an enigmatic accident. He doesn’t remember the incident, which to him is “a blank: a white slate, a black hole,” though he admits it “involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits.” The narrator is unable to speak about the event, which left him severely injured and traumatized, because he didn’t actually experience it. In a clever move, McCarthy completely bans the event from being named within the narrative by adding legal motives for the narrator’s silence on the subject. In exchange for 8.5 million pounds, the narrator has signed a legal agreement not to speak publicly about “the nature and/or details of the accident.” In the period immediately following the accident, he had to relearn how to move by teaching his brain how to “reroute” the circuits that controlled his actions. He accomplished this task through a kind of Taylorization of movement: “Everything, each movement: I had to learn them all. I had to understand how they work first, break them down into each constituent part, then execute them.” As a result, he lost all immediacy in his actions. “No Doing without Understanding: the accident bequeathed me that for ever, an eternal detour.” His movements are all copies of movements, copies that are perfected through repetition. However, he soon realizes that his movements have always been artificial, “secondhand,” that his being-in-the-world has never really been authentic. Watching the film Taxi Driver, he envies how De Niro “seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between. . . . He doesn’t have to think about them because he and they are one. Perfect. Real. My movements are all fake. Second-hand.” He adds, “It’s about just being. De Niro was just being; I can never do that now.” But a friend helps convince him that, largely because of the mass media, such inauthenticity is universal today, that everyone’s actions are secondhand, often self-aware, repetitions. He states, “I’d always been inauthentic. . . . I wasn’t unusual: I was more usual than most.” But when he has an epiphany at a friend’s party, he is led to embrace repetition as a way of becoming real. In the bathroom at his friend’s home he sees a crack in the wall that elicits from him elusive memories of a building that he can’t recall ever having been in. What he does know, however, is that “in these spaces, all my movements had been fluent and unforced. Not awkward, acquired, second-hand, but natural. . . . They’d been real; I’d been real.” He immediately decides how he will use his legal settlement: “I wanted to reconstruct that space and enter it so that I could feel real again.” He buys a building (named “Madlyn Mansions,” no subtle reference to Proust’s madeleine) and hires individuals (“re-enactors”) to live there and always be on call for “re-enactments” of his memories. This re-enactment leads to others, including the re-enactment of a murder on the street where it occurred. This series of re-enactments reaches its bloody peak when he attempts to make a re-enactment of a bank heist become real. The narrator, who is selfish and demanding, bursting out in rage when those he hires don’t perfectly follow his orders, is obsessed with small objective details (McCarthy’s appreciation of Robbe-Grillet is apparent at these moments, though McCarthy pushes the latter’s style towards a kind of bland realism). The novel’s title is reference to the “surplus matter” that persistently troubles the narrator. These “remainders” include the tiny splinter left in his leg after the accident, the smelly liver fat that accumulates in the building’s vents, the black grease from a subway ticket machine that gets on his fingers, and the flesh protruding from the wounds of a corpse. The narrator would like to carry out his re-enactments so perfectly that they leave no such traces, and he even starts to invest his fortune on the stock market in “logistics,” an industry aimed precisely at realizing the dream of seamlessly carried out operations. But he eventually realizes, “Everything must leave some kind of mark.” That is, “matter’s what makes us alive—the bitty flow, the scar tissue, signature of the world’s very first disaster and promissory note guaranteeing its last. Try to iron it out at your peril.”
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Stubbornly bitter, excessively critical, and yet deeply amusing, Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters is an uninterrupted tirade against, well, everything. The book focuses on an elderly musicologist, Reger, who, contra John Barth, has lived his life according to the principle that anathematization of the world is an adequate response to the world, indeed, the only adequate response to the world. For over thirty years, Reger has gone “every other day except Monday” to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where he has made an arrangement with the museum guard Irrsigler so that he can occupy the Bordone room by himself and do his thinking while sitting in front of Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. On the day the novel recounts, Reger’s friend Atzbacher, a philosopher who refuses to publish anything, meets with and listens to Reger, who self-assuredly attacks everything that comes to his mind, including art historians, museums, the Viennese, Austrians, teachers, the state, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Heidegger, childhood, birthdays, human beings, and the sun. The book has no paragraphs or chapters, and the entire narrative action consists of no more than one character entering into a room, so Reger’s expression of disapproval continues unabated from the novel’s beginning to end. Bernhard’s sentences are long and convoluted, often twisting and turning back on themselves. They typically repeat variations on the same point, attempting to land the same blow more than once rather than develop an argument. There is perhaps a certain nihilism lurking underneath this indifference to explication. Bernhard at one point writes, “everything that is said is nonsense, but we do utter that nonsense convincingly, Reger said. Anything that is said sooner or later turns out to be nonsense, but if we utter it convincingly, with the most incredible vehemence we can muster, then it is no crime, he said.” Sentimentality and kitsch are Reger’s favored derisive labels. “Sentimentality altogether, that is the terrible thing, is now greatly in vogue, just as everything else that is kitsch is now greatly in vogue.” “The whole world today is ridiculous and at the same time profoundly embarrassing and kitschy, that is the truth.” “Anything human is kitschy, he said, there can be no doubt about that.” Spread throughout the book are snippets of the philosophy underlying Reger’s condemnation of the world. For Reger, critical negativity, as a way of life, is the only thing that allows the finite individual to survive, particularly when confronted by inhumanly perfect and complete works of art. Attacking art, finding its flaws, fragments, and failures, liberates the individual from its illusions and chains, and helps make his existence, his damaged life, bearable. “We have to listen to Bach and hear how he fails, listen to Beethoven and hear how he fails, even listen to Mozart and hear how he fails. . . . We only love philosophy and the humanities generally because they are absolutely helpless. We truly love only those books which are not a whole, which are chaotic, which are helpless.” “There is no perfect picture and there is no perfect book and there is no perfect piece of music, Reger said, that is the truth, and this truth makes it possible for a mind like mine, which all its life was nothing but a desperate mind, to go on existing. One’s mind has to be a searching mind, a mind searching for mistakes, for the mistakes of humanity, a mind searching for failure. The human mind is a human mind only when it searches for the mistakes of humanity.” When extended beyond art, this critical position makes the world universally “abhorrent” to Reger. Nonetheless, Reger obtains a kind of autonomy through this negativity, which severs any relation that binds the individual to the world. “You have the strength to turn the world into a caricature, he said, the supreme strength of the spirit which is necessary for it, this one strength of survival, he said. We only control what we ultimately find ridiculous, only if we find the world and life upon it ridiculous can we get any further, there is no other, no better, method, he said.” In true dialectical fashion, however, the critical subject still needs the objects that it negates, its existence being unthinkable without them. For example, Reger is especially hostile towards the titular “old masters” that hang on the walls of the museum, but for decades he as still chosen to visit the museum. “Everything they have painted and which is hanging here is repulsive to me, I often think, he said yesterday, and yet for decades I have been unable to avoid studying it. That is the most terrible thing, he said yesterday, that I find these old masters most profoundly repulsive and again and again I continue to study them.” Throughout the book, Reger’s voice flows through and dominates the voices of Atzbacher and Irrsigler, who, respectively, do little but report and repeat what Reger says. The effect is that the narrative feels like a monologue by Reger, but the novel’s conclusion, which leaves Reger’s negativity intact, reveals a more positive truth about his garrulousness and his need for companionship.