The Work of Art As Theory of Work: Relationality in the Works of Weiss and Negt & Kluge
By Langston, Richard
ABSTRACT: Peter Weiss first met Alexander Kluge at a special 1962 meeting of Gruppe 47 dedicated to cinema. Weiss left records of this and other subsequent meetings in ensuing years. After an extended hiatus, Kluge (along with Oskar Negt) reappeared in Weiss’s notebooks in the guise of their newly published second book of social theory; “Geschichte u. Eigensinn,” Weiss jotted in June 1981, taking note of their book’s title. This author contends that Weiss’s Die Asthetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance) and Negt and Kluge’s Geschichte und Eigensinn, both completed the same year, are remarkable kindred spirits. Both underscore the importance of labor since the emergence of postindustrial societies after 1945. For labor to retain its capacity for protest, Weiss’s novel and Negt and Kluge’s theory identify the work of art and the theorization of work as concomitant forms of labor instilled with the same capacity for resistance that is rooted in all material forms of human labor. Keywords: Die Asthetik des Widerstands, Geschichte und Eigensinn, Alexander Kluge, labor, Oskar Negt, Peter Weiss
In response to the question of how he defines the work of the chronicler at the threshold of the new millennium, Alexander Kluge cited in an interview from 2001 the unavoidability of condensation and collaboration. “I believe that in order to describe the footprint of our experience one would need a good four-hundred authors, a Balzac Collective. [. . .] Under the increased pressure of our intensified reality, a novel like Buddenbrooks would have to be compressed into fourteen pages. They have to be condensed” (“Erzahlen” 91).1 Kluge’s point was twofold. First, the chronicler must deliver his goods quickly and economically in our accelerated and competitive age of digitized information. If the brevity of the short story has indeed become the ubiquitous form of contemporary communication, then the realist novel must be able to conform to the limited time available for reading while nevertheless preserving what Kluge calls a Flaubertian knack for uncovering the mistakes, vices, and evils at work in our lives. Second, the chronicler must resolve to work with other chroniclers. If he is to record the passing of events not objectively but subjectively-only a subjective chronicle of feeling, Kluge argued, can record the material basis of human experience-then an army of chroniclers is required to amplify and protract adequately the conflicts between objective and subjective experiences necessary for constituting a genuine public sphere.2 “I believe,” he continued, “in an ‘auteur literature’ like I do in an ‘auteur cinema’” (91). And then he listed a most unusual ragtag list of both living and deceased contributors for his Balzac collective. “It would be lovely if several poets were to join forces” (91). Alongside one of contemporary Germany’s most revered poets (Durs Grunbein), a sensational filmmaker turned artist (Christoph Schlingensief), and the Swiss novelist of Homo Faber (Max Frisch), the chronicler Kluge enlisted the author Peter Weiss as an ideal member of his imaginary collective.
Of the many authors whom Kluge openly recognizes as having been influential to his forty-year literary career, Weiss is certainly not one of them. Gottfried Benn, Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Fontane, Heiner Muller, and Heinrich Kleist, to name but a few, have held far greater sway over Kluge’s prose since his literary debut in 1962. Upon initial consideration, Weiss seems especially out of place in Kluge’s imagined collective. Above all, Weiss had much to say about the political shortcomings of Balzac’s bourgeois realism. “Balzac was reactionary,” he blurted out in a notebook entry from early 1973. Weiss’s justification was simple. Compared to Weiss’s own artistic solidarity with and socialist commitment to fighting class conflict and racism, Balzac “drew [. . .] however no political consequences. He remained loyal to his class and never took sides with the oppressed” (Weiss, Notizbucher 7752). In fact, his condemnation of Balzac’s political insufficiency was but one facet of a much larger and more complex dilemma he had with realism throughout his artistic career. Just as critical of the socialist realism produced in the Soviet bloc as he was of bourgeois realism, Weiss also wrestled with the stark divide between realism and modernism that the expressionism debates of the thirties had engendered.3 Realism, Weiss insisted over and over again, should be as much if not more a concern of dreams, surrealist hallucinations, and poetry as it is to the traditional chronicler. And yet Weiss’s animus toward Balzac does in no way disqualify him from inclusion in Kluge’s clique. Kluge himself has long championed a unique brand of realism deeply antithetical to Balzac’s commitment to meticulous mimesis. On closer inspection, Weiss’s and Kluge’s respective demands of realism are remarkably akin. Like Kluge, Weiss realized while working on The Aesthetics of Resistance, “a correct (objective) history cannot be written. Every assertion contradicts another” (Notizbucher 12057). As Weiss was, Kluge has been resolute in his conviction that “the rationale for realism is never a confirmation of reality but rather protest” (Gelegenheitsarbeit 216).
As tenuous as these connections may appear, further contemplation of the viability of Kluge’s perfunctory comment about his Balzac collective and, even more important, his implied, albeit unexplored, affiliation with Weiss promises valuable insights into a particular historical connection or, to use Kluge’s term, relationality (Zusammenhang) that prevails between both of these writers’ work. Taking Kluge’s call for collaboration as its point of departure, this article explores neither anecdotal evidence of these authors’ shared investments in realism nor the potential uniqueness of their respective contributions to Kluge’s vision of an “auteur literature.” Instead, the ensuing investigation uncovers what I believe to be the most significant point of contact between Weiss and Kluge as well as Kluge’s longtime collaborator Oskar Negt, a point of contact, it must be emphasized, that illuminates their shared preoccupation with an Arbeitskrise (crisis of work) that loomed large in and beyond central Europe after the student movements of the late sixties. Substituting Weiss’s and Kluge’s shared interest in realism with their concern for Arbeit (with all its English derivations) is not intended as a sleight of hand for introducing a seemingly unrelated concept for its own sake.4 On the contrary, the conceptual categories realism and work-the latter understood here as process, product, and preoccupation of a particular historical social class-are intimately intertwined in these writers’ rearticulation of resistance and revolt after its grandiose failure in the student revolts. Of central concern here then is how Weiss and Negt and Kluge together resituate the work in the work of art in order for it to gain traction in a post-Fordist world in which labor became increasingly flexible, dematerialized, and resolutely post-proletarian and where the reemergence of politically charged avant-garde work was exposed as aiding and abetting bourgeois interests.5 Establishing relationality between Weiss’s novel The Aesthetics of Resistance and Negt and Kluge’s as yet untranslated theoretical fragment Geschichte und Eigensinn, roughly History and Obstinacy in English, will thus show how theory regained its discarded status as an unassimilable form of labor and how this special labor flirted with the work character of art. It will also explicate how (one exceptional instance of) art realigned the use of its work character away from the conundrum of whether and, if so, how to work for or against art’s bourgeois institutionalization. Instead, the political viability of the work in the work of art-art’s potential for protest-is only rendered serviceable when it enters into critical constellation with other manifestations of labor.
ON THE PLACE OF THE PROLETARIAT IN A DIVIDED WORLD
Peter Weiss required no special lens-neither the economist’s nor the political scientist’s nor the historian’s-to discern the plight of the working class in his own time. In a Western world divided into two polarized geopolitical blocs, Weiss reflected intensely on the status of the proletariat in his notebooks. In the immediate wake of Weiss’s Marxist turn in the mid-sixties, he focused many of his private observations on the dissolution of the working class. The worker, Marx’s original revolutionary subject, was to be found neither in the self-proclaimed “workers’ state” of the GDR nor the capitalist societies in the West. In a thumbnail sketch of East and West, Weiss wrote dismissively in June 1964, “On both sides: stereotyping, waste. Hope for ‘leisure time.’ And then everything there is regulated from above: programs that program” (Notizbucher 11050). Yet the problem was not merely a case of pandemic bureaucracy from on high that robbed workers of their own voice and agency. Workers on either side of the Iron Curtain were themselves guilty of both delusion and complacency: “The worker who believes to have achieved something has in principle merely allowed himself to be won round by capitalists again” (11178). Weiss’s conviction in the total defeat of contemporary Europe’s working class-he writes of their unrevolutionary attitude-even spilled over into a deep suspicion of historical character of the worker’s revolutionary potential. In April 1965, he called into question just how opposed workers actually were toward National Socialism. “This continual glorification of the ‘worker,’ as if the working people always did the true and right thing! There were after all just as many workers who were Nazis as there had been citizens” (11171). In the end, Weiss’s assessment left fascism, capitalist and social democracies, and “real existing” socialism, all having pacified the proletariat to such a degree that revolution was an utterly impossible thing. However, at the point when the rumblings of the student movement became audible-in December 1965 West Berlin played host to the first West German consciousness-raising exhibition against the Vietnam War- Weiss reappraised his earlier pessimism, believing that students and workers promised to reenergize the revolutionary subject. “Future prospects,” he wrote in late 1965 while researching the history of colonial violence in Central America, “the coming together between students and workers” (11239). Shortly before his departure from Paris to North Vietnam on May 15, 1968, Weiss saw firsthand the exceptional coalitions between students and workers that led to the occupation of the Sorbonne and subsequent riots in the Latin Quarter. 6 He wrote of his own “participation in the solidarity events between students and workers” as fulfilling “huge expectations, something illuminating” (11432). And yet his newfound hopes were not entirely free of his earlier pessimism, and rightly so. By early 1969, he began characterizing students as privileged bourgeois children who, unlike the working class, could afford to stage their Oedipal revolts without running serious risk to their well-being.7 If actions speak louder than words, then the student revolts proved nothing more than the fact that bourgeois revolts were ultimately unconcerned with the plight of the working class. Critical of the students’ intentions, Weiss revisited in the late seventies his earlier doubts from the mid-sixties. While ready to embark on the writing of the third and final volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance, he once again questioned the actuality of the working class: “In our countries there no longer exists that specific class that once called itself proletariat” (12674). As if to put the matter to rest once and for all, Weiss mused after the completion of the novel in 1981 that labor never had a chance. Capital had long proven itself far superior in its covert ability to accrue and exert power (10510). Labor was doomed from the start.
The historical events that shaped Weiss’s waning hope and waxing disbelief did not, however, squelch his deep conviction in the existence of a proletariat and the importance of its defense. He looked beyond Europe and toward developing countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Central and South America and found proof that the proletariat did indeed continue to suffer-only now under the veil of white colonial rule in faraway lands. “The African worker in South Africa,” Weiss wrote in June 1965, “is exposed to wage conditions that approach those of slavery. He is barred from every right enjoyed by the white worker” (11189-90). It was precisely this displacement of Marx’s original proletariat from central Europe to the margins of the European geographic imagination that moved Weiss to configure his own identity as an artist and the labor he invested in art as not only proletarian in nature, but also constitutive of class struggle on an international level. As for Weiss’s sense of self, he explains in his notebooks that it was his earliest experiences as an eighteen-year-old emigre in England (and then less than two years later in Czechoslovakia) that brought him to think of himself as belonging to an “un-domiciled” and “intellectual proletariat” (12482, 11832). Far more significant than this auto-identification, Weiss’s longstanding emphasis on the physical labor of the artist ran to the core of his aesthetic politics. Artists like him practice a craft-Weiss repeatedly writes of his Handwerk- that is no less material than that of a factory worker. According to Weiss’s controversial essay “10 Arbeitspunkte eines Autors in der geteilten Welt,” published in 1965, artists process language and produce knowledge, which then enters into social circulation and eventually engenders transformative social effects: the exchange of opinions, solidarity with the other, and ultimately a political engagement on their behalf. The value of these products is, however, entirely dependent on the systems of valuation (“Bewertungssystemen”) in which these works find themselves (“10 Arbeitspunkte,” 15). Equipped with only a fundamental grasp of Marxism, Weiss wrote of the value his creative labor accumulated as it passed from his hands into those of Western capitalists and communist functionaries, and then to consumers.8 Socialist societies, he concluded, were superior in this respect, for they were far less likely to alienate the artist from the values he inscribed into his work.
FROM CLASS TO QUALITIES: RESISTANCE IN PROLETARIAT LABOR
It is arguable that Weiss’s preoccupation with diagnosing the dire state of the working class and signifying the proletarian character of his own artistic work was in part symptomatic of what some scholars have characterized as the Federal Republic of Germany’s transition into a postindustrial society. On the one hand, economic stagnation, conservative expansion, and a shift toward postmaterialism following the saturation of large segments of German society with material wealth all have been credited with throwing the country into a legitimation crisis. Seen from this perspective, the West German student movement was something, to use the words of political scientist Claus Leggewie, “intellectual killjoys had not simply invented” (284). On the other hand, the working class’s unprecedented prosperity and its concomitant depoliticization (or bourgeoisification) cleared-according to some economists, sociologists, and social philosophers-a space for another class of social actors to emerge, one whose labor predisposed it to assume the political struggles that workers had once spearheaded.9 Dubbed early on an emergent “new intellectual class,” these actors were anything but homogeneous. Because of its commitment to technical rationality and the “revolution of production,” a new managerial intelligentsia stood in direct opposition to a critical academic intelligentsia intent on resuming the emancipatory legacies of proletarian revolution.10 What both camps shared according to this history was a lingering sense that their respective labor could make a difference if only it were put to significant use. This hegemonic struggle was exactly what Weiss had in mind when he wrote in May 1969 that the unrest and revolts comprised a bourgeois revolution against itself (11527). Although Weiss did tap into this postindustrial narrative without ever calling it by name, his insistence on substituting the industrial labor power of the proletariat-what Marx defined as an aggregate of muscle, agility, and brainpower-with that of the artist was entirely anachronistic in the postindustrial context of the West German seventies.
Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge concurred. The word “proletarian has, in the Federal Republic, taken on an attenuated, indeed an anachronistic, sense” (Public Sphere xlv). Certainly a function of an emergent post-Fordist society in which their 1972 collaboration Public Sphere and Experience developed, the anachronistic character of the term proletariat in a post-proletarian world deemed it a particularly powerful heuristic. A remarkably influential piece of theoretical writing that followed on the heels of the student movement’s exhaustion from theory, Public Sphere and Experience closes with a crucial distinction: At the dusk of the twentieth century, the idea of the proletariat must not languish because of the antiquated status of its traditional empirical definition, what Negt and Kluge call its “social substance.” For it to reacquire the critical purchase that Marx originally ascribed to it, the signifier proletariat (along with bourgeoisie) must undergo a conceptual shift that both remains true to the history of lived experience of repressed and ruling classes and describes the continuous blockage and expropriation of individual “experience (Erfahrungen), needs, wishes, and hopes” that persist well into the postindustrial present (Public Sphere 672). This new understanding of proletarian and bourgeois describes qualities-they write of Eigenschaften in the German-that transcend class divisions and historical caesuras. In a nutshell, the idea of the proletarian is as much a structural fact of life for every person as is the bourgeois (“Was heisst proletarisch?” 300-03).11 The tragic history of class struggle has nevertheless had its winners and losers.
Picking up where Public Sphere and Experience left off, Negt and Kluge’s Geschichte und Eigensinn expounds on how the uneven organization, expression, and expropriation of proletarian and bourgeois qualities continually benefit history’s ruling class. The flip side of Marx’s political economy of capital that Marx himself never wrote, Geschichte und Eigensinn maps out in great detail in its first four expansive chapters how the long history of capital has intruded in the natural organization of human biology and labor power. Moving from the individual to whole societies, Negt and Kluge contend that the political economy of labor power continually shuts out the self-serving labor of the proletariat-although it is living in the Marxian sense, it is still woefully unorganized-in the name of harvesting only what it needs for the creation of a glorious illusion, namely a triumphant bourgeois totality. Throughout the whole of German history this inorganic totality, they add, is characterized by the fact that it kills (363). Anything but a celebration of defeat, Geschichte und Eigensinn ultimately asks the question whether and, if so, where the seeds of autonomy can be found within oppression (“Was heisst proletarisch?” 301). In all labor processes throughout history, the proletariat-as a social substance and a set of qualities-has always produced more work than was ever expropriated by capital. Like the expropriated dead labor power, this reserve of living work left behind is full of what Negt and Kluge call “Eigen- Sinn, eigener Sinn” (own-sense, personal sense).12 It is a property claim on one’s own labor power that “arises out of a severe emergency. It is the result of the expropriation of one’s own senses” (Geschichte 766). The political potential of this unincorporated living labor rests neither on mere claims of its existence nor on any militant insurrection that explodes forth for having lain fallow too long. On the contrary, the possibility for an emancipation of labor power lies in the concerns first raised in Public Sphere and Experience and then expounded further in Geschichte und Eigensinn: the reacquisition of that which has been splintered and appropriated by reflecting, reorienting, rearticulating and reorganizing the existing bourgeois production processes that fragment labor power into either living or dead spheres. In other words, the condition of possibility for redeeming lost living labor is the proletarian public sphere. One crucial constituent in this reclamation process is what Negt and Kluge call Theoriearbeit, or work of theory, which must not be confused with the hermetic and dead Intelligenzarbeit. The work of theory, they claim, is a form of proletarian labor intent on reestablishing the social relationships that capital fragments and obscures as well as facilitating orientation “within nature, history, and society” (Geschichte 482).13
It must not be forgotten that around 1981, the year when Geschichte und Eigensinn was first published, it was not entirely clear in the Federal Republic what theory was or what work it was supposed to accomplish. That very same year Jurgen Habermas argued that the original interdisciplinary thrust of the Frankfurt School as outlined by Max Horkheimer had proven over time to be a failed project. With Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Critical Theory cast off any and all commitment to empirical research and, in Habermas’s estimation, devolved into “speculative observations” and “pseudonormative propositions” (2: 382). Whereas Habermas criticized Adorno’s notion of Critical Theory for its “surrender of all cognitive competence to art” (1: 384), Negt and Kluge’s Geschichte und Eigensinn intensifies its poetic character more than ever.14 Well over a thousand pages long, this magnum opus-readers are confronted with an enormous collage of text boxes, photographs, captions, stories, footnotes, and diagrams-is in fact theory that verges on assuming the guise of a work of art. As for the work that montage performs, Kluge claims that “with every cut fantasy emerges” (Eder and Kluge 64).
FANTASY, THE WORK OF OBSTINACY AND THE WORK OF ART
Far from positing a hierarchy of forms, Negt and Kluge contend that what theory and art share is a mutual albeit nonidentical investment in producing fantasy. Like the work of theory, fantasy ideally articulates “libidinal structure, consciousness, and the outside world” (Public Sphere 37). The authors argue that in reality, fantasy can only inhabit an alienated space in which living labor’s products, that unaccounted work that eludes the logic of capital, come to light. It is, however, an inverted and distorted expression of Eigensinn, an “unconscious practical critique of alienation” (Public Sphere 33). If the constitution of a proletarian public sphere entails redeeming lost labor, then the rearticulation of fantasy-living labor’s forlorn product-back into the fabric of social relations must not fall prey to benign domestication, the culture industry being a foremost example. For this to succeed, fantasy requires a supplemental labor capable of translating it back into the production process, thereby making it a useful building block for the constitution of a proletarian public sphere.15 Only the work of art or the work of theory that steers clear of manufacturing knowledge (Erkenntnis) can successfully cull from fantasy a provisional map of the complex relationalities of living and dead labor that capital otherwise obfuscates (Geschichte 487). Instead of aspiring to reconstruct an original totality of labor power, fantasy translated must inhabit the fissures and discrepancies left in the wake of dominant historical processes and the obstinacy it occasions. A process, not a product, it must wrestle with fragmentary forms and foster a sensibility attuned to the otherwise abandoned, unacknowledged yet real feelings of “Eigen- Sinn.” Unsurprisingly, Negt and Kluge also set down aesthetic parameters for theory and art; both must engage in the handicraft of the monteur who “juxtaposes, ruptures, collects, pursues strewn arrangements, [and] samples” (222). As inorganic and antirealist as this prescription may seem, Negt and Kluge-and here Kluge’s vision of a Balzac collective returns to view-maintain that fantasy aspires to a realism wedded to protest (Geschichte 487, 112).16 “It must be possible,” Kluge explained elsewhere, “to represent reality also as the historical fiction that it is” (Gelegenheitsarbeit 215). This act of unveiling is precisely what the work of art, like the work of theory, seeks to espouse.
Published in its entirety the same year Geschichte und Eigensinn appeared, Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance is equally invested in advancing a proletarian politics of fantasy. “My imperative,” Weiss remarked in the spring of 1978 before the publication of volume two, “[is] to erect fantasy on the terrain of reality” (Notizbucher 12614). Yet this politics of fantasy in Weiss’s magnum opus does not stop short with just representing fantasies that arose out of the German proletariat’s reservoir of surplus labor at midcentury, an Eigensinn of yore. If Weiss’s novel does unveil the “same struggle that we are engaged in today,” as Weiss himself claimed in an interview, then it must be asked how exactly his account of living proletarian labor of yesterday transcends the confines of history and even myth (Weiss, “Pergamon” 120). Early chartable critiques of the novel were absolutely correct when they insisted that The Aesthetics of Resistance is foremost a book of and about work (Stephan 356). What remains to be seen is how the work of the novel enacts a sophisticated network of intra- and extratextual labor that actually begins much earlier than Marx’s invocation of the proletariat as a historical class of wage laborers, and ends with an anthropological notion of proletarian qualities reminiscent of Negt and Kluge’s own postindustrial conceptual shift begun in 1972 and completed in 1981. Moreover, we must also grasp how these layers of labor all translate the alienated nature of proletarian fantasy into tools for imagining collective emancipation. Querying the role of fantasy in Weiss’s novel is nothing new.17 Nevertheless, Weiss scholarship has refrained from elucidating adequately how work and fantasy operate in tandem, how work within and by the novel translates other forms of living and dead labor, and how this labor harnesses myriad fantasies for the purpose of creating not emancipation itself, but rather the orientation required for any emancipation in the present.
At the outset of book one, The Aesthetics of Resistance lays bare its understanding of the work of art as encapsulating, eliciting, and even concealing a political economy of labor power. “All around us the bodies rose out of the stone, crowded into groups, intertwined, or shattered into fragments, hinting at their shapes with a torso, a proppedup arm, a burst hip . . .” (3; 1: 7).18 Standing before the frieze, Coppi, Heilmann, and the first-person narrator struggle together to decipher the historical events encoded in the mythical guise of the resurrected ancient temple. On the most immediate level, making the bits and pieces of the frieze intelligible requires the exceptional exertion of extra material energies. The narrator writes of this Montagearbeit, for example, that their exegesis required “extra sweat and racking of the mind” (45; 1: 54). This additional labor, Coppi’s mother later adds, does not come easy for a class of working people long excluded from the ideological apparatuses that the ruling class enjoyed and that elevated art as transcendental evidence of their rightful dominion over the have-nots. Arguably a mimetic rendering of the frieze’s actual fragmented nature, the radical parataxis the narrator employs for pages on end to describe the gigantomachy is as much, if not more, a sign of this excruciating work that the work of art requires in order for the boys to piece the parts of the temple into a meaningful, coherent whole. “[W]e wanted no rations,” the narrator stresses, “no doled-out patchwork, we wanted the totality” (46; 1: 55). Yet the rendering of the Pergamon Altar into language never congeals into any final totality. A translational work unto itself, the metonymic string of fractured body parts breaks down when the boys reach the void where their now-missing hero, Heracles, had once appeared. Worse still, it culminates in an overall sense of vertigo. Far from amounting to failure, however, this labor expended is itself a function of the “fragments” and “dissonances” that characterize their own “world of work” (Arbeitsleben; 63, 5; 1: 75, 1: 8). Refracted through Negt and Kluge’s aforementioned theory of the political economy of labor power, the boys’ supplemental work exerted in the Pergamon Museum is a significant critical disclosure of the social processes of separation and expropriation that atomize the labor of their own class, thus leaving it prostrate. The aesthetic dimension of this translational work is thus both mimetic and realist, insofar as it both renders visible and protests against this fragmentation. This labor that the work of art elicits within the narrative present is, however, not the only register of work in the novel’s opening sequence. Underlying the boys’ own interpretive work is that of making and remaking the actual Altar. From the start, the boys draw attention to the dead labor that King Eumenes II and his Attalid dynasty summoned from its sculptors to celebrate “their own grandeur and immortality” (5; 1: 9). Although this labor was commissioned to serve the self-aggrandizing interests of the ruling class, the boys read into the affective aura of the Altar’s actors an obstinacy that presumably signifies the feelings of protest against this expropriation of labor-in other words, a residual of living labor-that artists and countless peons who schlepped marble once felt. “[B]ut if we now recalled the worked stone, the facial features of the gods were cold and rigid, their appearance was unreal in its standoffish grandeur, while the defeated, albeit disfigured, remained human, marked by fear and suffering” (40-41; 1: 49). Conjecture on the part of the boys, the humane depiction of the slain giants nevertheless appears like a sure sign of the Attalid artists’ solidarity with the “landless peasants, dissatisfied soldiers, and slaves” (41; 1: 49). These possibly imagined aesthetic traces of living labor’s bygone resilience are not, however, the final resting place of the boys’ maverick cultural anthropology. While this residue of labor did suggest that two millennia of slaveholding society had indeed passed through ancient, feudal, and then bourgeois stages without much change, the emancipatory flip side of this economy of labor was to be found in myth.19 Seen by the boys as the original “advocate of action,” Heracles surrendered himself to his cousin Eurystheus, King of Mycenae, as part of a “lengthy plan [. . .] to overcome the system of malevolence, assassination, and lust for power” (7, 17; 1: 11, 1: 22). Heracles’ twelve labors, impossible missions successfully carried out on behalf of Eurystheus, were not merely exceptional cases of dead labor. Instead, the narrator insists that Heracles’ feats set examples for the have-nots of how dead labor not only carries within it protest, but also serves as a force for mobilizing social protest.20
The mythical origins of Eigensinn as portrayed by the story of Heracles do not culminate, however, in a triumphant story. At the close of the boys’ first deliberations, Heilmann makes clear that Heracles failed to change the outcome of history. Heracles himself perished “in dreadful agony,” and in his absence new forms of oppression returned (20; 1: 25). Not only had the gods reserved a place for the dead Heracles on Mount Olympus (thus calling into question his proletarian allegiances), but Heracles would also later become the patron saint of bourgeois profiteers.21 On further reflection at the end of book one, Heilmann profers the thesis that Heracles’ twelve labors were actually figments of his imagination, flights of fancy, and the work of dreams. As much as Heracles contributed to class struggle, he was also “helplessly trapped in his fantasies,” which were rooted in disputes among the gods (278; 1: 317). Heilmann is thus convinced that Heracles is much “more varied, but also more questionable” than previously thought (276; 1: 314). Likewise, his actions are far more ambivalent as they are riddled with “imperfections, the roaming and seeking, the setbacks and constant new beginnings” (278; 1: 316). What Heilmann happens upon in his extended analysis of Heracles is exactly what Negt and Kluge establish as fantasy’s unavoidable damaged character in reality. Unsublated, fantasy is reduced to being only a libidinal counterweight to the unbearable feelings of expropriation that ultimately degenerates into reactionary escapism. In other words, Heracles’ labor must not be mistaken for an example of triumphant obstinacy. Rather, his reservoir of untapped labor-like the handiwork of Eumenes II’s artists and peons left in the facade of the Pergamon Altar, as well as the interpretative work by the boys inscribed in the narrative of The Aesthetics of Resistance-is just that, only a portion of the total sum of his labor power, a fragment “mixed up with other moments, transposed back and forth without regard for the fantasy harnessed to them” (Public Sphere 35). Whereas Heracles’s exposed imperfections and contradictions do square his mythology with the lived historical experience of the boys, as myth he also makes a case-much like Negt and Kluge’s essentializing anthropology of labor power as an innate quality-for the structural role fantasy plays in all human labor.22 In spite of Heracles’s human flaws, Heilmann decides, “I am not yet giving up on Heracles” (278; 1: 317). Thus, the value of Heracles for both the boys and Weiss’s novel rests in his relationship to dead labor lost and living labor retained: the labor performed constructing, excavating, reconstructing, and interpreting the Pergamon Altar. Even the anticipated labor of reading that Weiss’s novel inscribes into its densely worked prose must be considered as also belonging to this telescoping chain of dead and living labor. (Weiss himself explained that “the readers, who are confronted with those people, have to go through the same exertion at any rate, make the same efforts the second time around. Nothing is made easy for them, just as things weren’t made easy for the characters in the novel” ["Pergamon" 121].) From the land of myths to Hellenistic civilization, from the birth of the German nation in the late- nineteenth century to its explosion in the mid-twentieth century and then onward toward the end of the millennium, The Aesthetics of Resistance functions as a sextant that sights and measures the breaks and continua in the long history of proletarian labor as both a substance and a quality. Like Negt and Kluge’s idea of theory, the supplemental work performed within, by, and for this work of art makes possible a sense of relationality with respect to the otherwise unorganized legacies of labor that continue to shape the present. Only with the assistance of this relationality could a reversal-a “reversal” (Umkehrung), to borrow Heilmann’s mot juste- of the reigning economy of labor acquire the orientation it would require to succeed (44; 1: 53).
THEORIZING RELATIONALITY AESTHETICALLY
On the question of ownership of the work of theory, Negt and Kluge emphasize that it is not the exclusive preoccupation of scholars. “We are not just talking about professional theory,” they explain. “On the contrary, a portion of every person’s demeanor is that of a practicalsensuous theoretician” (Geschichte 84). Weiss concurred. Theory, he explained in his notebooks, can and must assume significance for any labor movement (12500). While Weiss himself seems to fall prey in his notebooks to what Negt and Kluge deride as a vulgar mechanical translation of theory into praxis-a predicament that bedeviled the West German student movement as well- the narrative voice of The Aesthetics of Resistance regularly engages in the “obstinate searching” characteristic of practical- sensuous theorizing without ever forcing its reification (Geschichte 482). Of all the ideas that preoccupy the narrator and that serve as the object of his theorizing, none is more overarching than that of totality. For both Marx and Western Marxists of the twentieth century, the Hegelian concept of totality remained an indispensable, yet highly contentious, centerpiece in any scientific or theoretical claim to know the whole of society or its history. For the narrator, acquiring such a holistic view was equally paramount. Sought within the realm of art during his final days in Berlin, recollected as a decisive objective for his father in the German Revolution of 1918- 19, identified as the motivating factor for joining the Popular Front in the Spanish Civil War, exceedingly elusive within the ranks of the International Brigades, fundamentally assumed in Max Hodann’s psychosomatic treatment of wounded soldiers-in all these instances from book one, totality surfaces as not merely an idea, but an urgent political concern, one with dire sensuous consequences for mind and body alike. What separates these obstructed appeals to totality from the single instance that does succeed in book one is aesthetic mediation. Sitting with his wounded friend Ayschmann, the narrator pores over reproductions of studies for Pablo Picasso’s Guernica printed in Cahiers d’Art. Instantly, the boys recognize “something utterly new, incomparable.” In the expanse of a single image composed of “few signs” they saw for the first time “what was happening in Spain,” namely a comprehensive perspective that eluded them while they were actually fighting against fascism (292; 1: 332). Undoubtedly an affront to the realist dictates of the Communist Party, Guernica captured “the painting’s antagonistic forces, bonding into a synthesis” that shaped the Spanish Civil War: “Suppression and violence, partisanship and class consciousness, deathly terror and heroic courage” (294; 1: 334-35). This exceptional instance of ambiguous fragments congealing into “a new totality” is not, however, simply a question of modernism’s aesthetic program winning out over realism (294; 1: 335). On the contrary, the value of Picasso’s painting lies in the supplemental work it generates after its completion: “The picture challenged us to use the first impression merely as an impetus to take the givens apart and examine them from different directions, then fit them back together, thereby making them our own” (295; 1: 336). This novelty in Picasso’s new totality does not readily reveal itself. A dialectical and expressive synthesis of opposites, the painting’s modernist style certainly stands in stark opposition to the authentic realism Georg Lukacs championed for the Popular Front. In the eyes of the protagonist who is anything but autonomous, the success of Guernica rests for Adorno on the fact that it is neither autonomous nor “strictly for-itself” (Aesthetic Theory 237). For him, Guernica resists totality altogether. But for the narrator and Ayschmann, its wholeness was an operative form of “resistance that was unbeatable” (294; 1: 335). In spite of this apparent conflict, the novel’s reading of Guernica actually has more in common with the deep-seated antipathy that Frankfurt School thinkers felt toward any and all totalizing gestures. Akin to Walter Benjamin’s concept of the constellation-a heterogeneous and irreducible figure of disparate thought elements, a nontotalizing methodology Adorno would later fashion into his negative dialectics-the painting’s open, multivalanced, and antagonistic fragments do actually espouse a wholeness, but only insofar as this totality is a mimetic reflection of the holistic totality that fascism sought to create through violence. As much as the painting lays bare the pure pain of this totality-” All these things,” the narrator insists, “[. . .] were contained in the huge picture of Guernica”-it also affords the narrator the means to orient himself in time and space (299; 1: 340). Insistent on taking its individual components apart and then refitting them together, the narrator claims “everything was interconnected, interrelated” (293; 1: 333-34). The massive constellation that he constructs by studying the reproductions of Picasso’s work is as far-reaching as his fantasy allows. 23 He contemplates, for example, the formal relationship between Picasso’s preliminary sketches and the final painting, the ideological relationship between modernism and realism, the pictorial relationship of this painting to historical events in Spain, the narrator’s own relationship to these tragic events, the painting’s iconic relationship to the long history of Western art and literature, art history’s relationship to the history of human suffering, art’s role vis-a-vis contemporary political and social struggles, the narrator’s relationship to the history of class struggle, and the relationship between his present moment in Spain and his childhood. From Negt and Kluge’s perspective, this spatial and temporal mapping is nothing less than a form of supplemental labor, an “Orientierungsarbeit” (Geschichte 1005). An ur-form of “Theoriearbeit,” this orientation is not to be confused with emancipatory praxis (1002). Rather, it unveils myriad fragments as well as connections between those fragments that the political economy of labor power produces. In other words, orientation is the precondition for any redemption of lost living labor.
A novel permeated by gigantic theoretical concerns, The Aesthetics of Resistance reads like the literary inversion of Geschichte und Eigensinn, a massive book of theory with aesthetic aspirations. Were they incorporated into the library of Kluge’s imaginary Balzac collective, they would together achieve what neither could alone: the illumination of a critical relationality between the work of art and theorizing labor. At a time when some thinkers have argued that new technologies and flexible capital threaten to make labor immaterial, these works make clear the resilient materiality of all work, especially those portions of every human’s total labor capacity left untouched by the needs of capital. Together they explicate the structural conditions underlying the plight of the proletariat as well as the historical character of proletarian labor that capital has expropriated for millennia. Beyond this reappraisal of the traditional class-bound character of work, both willfully inhabit the space of proletarian labor as the site of expropriation and protest. By betraying its respective genre’s formal criteria, each unmoors itself from the traditional terrain of literature and philosophy to augment its potential for generating and organizing the by-product of living labor: fantasy. By verging on one another’s idiomatic terrain, they produce more of this obstinate labor. In this respect, both shift that debate from the seventies about the expiration of avant-garde art by jettisoning the category of the work of art in favor of a concern for work that art can elicit. Similarly, they resurrect the aesthetic sensibilities of Critical Theory in ways that not only evoke the work of Benjamin and Adorno, but also affront that of wayward disciples like Habermas. Yet the fantastic work achieved by the multiple layers of supplemental labor induced by just The Aesthetics of Resistance or Geschichte und Eigensinn is not enough to make a difference in capitalism’s long oppressive history of dividing and conquering human labor power. In order for any reorganization of the fantastic products of proletarian labor-in other words, labor power’s obstinacy-to effect change, the Balzac collective would require, to name just a few more titles, “Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, Dialectic of Enlightenment, [the] collected works of Marx, Diderot’s Encyclopedia” (Eder and Kluge 65). Only when these and countless other works are networked together into a library of fantasy, relationality, and orientation, would the scales turn. Yet the relationality between Weiss’s theory-driven novel and Negt and Kluge’s cut-up theory is not an arbitrary one in this imaginary Balzac library. On the contrary, these two works together forge a unique and irresolvable tension between the hope and despair that invariably emerge in any uphill battle to liberate the power of work from capital.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
1. Translations of texts not available in English are those of the author.
2. For more on collaboration and the public sphere, see Kluge, Bestandsaufnahme 178. See also Hansen, “Cooperative Auteur Cinema” 39.
3. For more on Weiss’s realism in his preliterary cinematic career, see Langston 70-74, 85-95.
4. Hannah Arendt’s well-known typology of work, labor, and action from The Human Condition does not apply here. Arbeit for Negt and Kluge is neither a unified concept nor entirely compliant to the dictates of capital. Given the unique English-language usages of work and labor, I will use these terms interchangeably when in the German Arbeit is used.
5. On this latter point, see Burger. The only existing scholarly juxtaposition of Weiss with Kluge is Burmeister’s dissertation, which deploys Burger’s notion of the crisis of the work of art as its point of comparison.
6. Significant worker involvement materialized after these events. See Horn 353.
7. See Weiss, Notizbucher 11488, 11783, 12068. See also Rector, “Zur Kritik” 104-10.
8. For more on Weiss’s unsystematic study of Marxism, see Cohen 91.
9. For a historical overview of this so-called “‘new working class’ thesis,” see Horn 359-71. Notable scholars who have written on this new class include the social philosopher Andre Gorz, economist Eugen Lobl, and sociologists Alain Touraine and Alvin Gouldner.
10. For an extended sociohistorical reading of postwar German literature vis-a-vis post-Fordism, see Roberts 306-09. See also Horn 360.
11. See also Negt and Kluge, Public Sphere xliv-xlvi, 295.
12. Eigensinn has been translated into English in varying ways by a host of scholars. I follow here and elsewhere Miriam Hansen’s lead and use “obstinacy” (Foreword). However, a literal translation-”own sense”-captures the proprietary nature of Eigensinn much better.
13. It must be added here that Negt and Kluge are clear on theory’s nonidentical relationship to praxis. “Among other things, theory has a practical dimension,” they add, “insofar as it does that which praxis is not capable of doing from its own vantage point” (Geschichte 484).
14. On the poetic character of Geschichte und Eigensinn, see Stollmann 256-57. For more on Habermas’s critique of the poetic turn in Adorno’s later works, see Hohendahl.
15. For an overview of Negt and Kluge’s theory of fantasy, see Langston 50-53.
16. On the inorganic character of the historical avant-garde work of art, Burger writes “montage may be considered the fundamental principle of avant-gardiste art” (72).
17. A majority of Weiss scholarship on fantasy wrestles with this concept in conjunction with surrealism. For a succinct overview of this scholarship, see Kienberger 16-33.
18. Parenthetical citations refer to both the English translation of volume one by Neugroschel as well as the three-volume German original.
19. Briefly mentioned in the novel’s historical account of the cycles of labor spent on the Altar, the recycling of its marble in the nineteenth century (prior to its expropriation by German archeologist Carl Humann) is couched as a reprieve for local workers from the dominion of this perpetual slaveholding society. The incineration of the Altar for the production of mortar, with which Coppi’s mother sympathizes, strikes Heilmann as counterproductive, for only through its preservation does it become possible for the proletariat to enact a reversal (Umkehrung) of this division of labor through study (42, 44; 1: 50, 1: 53). In agreement with Heilmann, the narrator explains, “From the very outset, our studying was rebellion” (45; 1: 53).
20. It is precisely this point where Weiss and Arendt differ markedly apropos Heracles’ labor. For Arendt, the twelve labors are unrealistic, whereas for Weiss they are antirealistic and therefore resolutely realistic. See Arendt 101. 21. Negt and Kluge call into question Horkheimer and Adorno’s emphasis on Odysseus in their Dialectic of Enlightenment for the same reasons (Geschichte 741- 53).
22. On essentialism in Geschichte und Eigensinn, see Pavsek 141n11.
23. On the role of fantasy in the construction of these relationships, the narrator explains, “Characteristic of that ambiguity was its ability to get the imagination (die Phantasie) to seek links, thereby expanding the realm of receptivity” (296; 1: 336).
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Richard Langston is an associate professor of German at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Visions of Violence: German Avant-Gardes after Fascism (Northwestern UP, 2008) and recent articles on W. G. Sebald, Alexander Kluge, and Peter Weiss. He is currently writing a book on Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s Geschichte und Eigensinn.
Copyright Heldref Publications Summer 2008
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