Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Labor and Logic called Culture: Through Historical Materialist Lens

Rahul Vaidya


(A book review of ‘Fractured Times- Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century’ By Eric Hobsbawm; Little, Brown Great Britain, published in 2013, pp. 319)



Eric Hobsbawm was one of the most celebrated historians of the 20th century, not just in Britain but all over the world.  As a Marxist, his contribution and intervention was seminal for debates around the rise of industrial capitalism, socialism, and nationalism. ‘Fractured Times’, posthumously published in 2013, is his last work.

In this book, ‘Hobsbawm examines the conditions that both created the flowering of the ‘Belle époque’   and held the seeds of its disintegration: paternalistic capitalism, globalization and the arrival of a mass consumer society. Passionate but never sentimental, he ranges freely across his subject: records the passing of the golden age of the ‘free intellectual’ and explores the lives of forgotten greats: analyses the relationship between art and totalitarianism; and dissects phenomena as diverse as surrealism, the emancipation of women and the myth of the American cowboy. [1]

It is unnecessary to state the obvious worth and stature of Hobsbawm’s contribution to our understanding of society. His firm historical materialist vision, his erudition, scholarship is well acknowledged and celebrated. Rather than harping upon those familiar aspects, I will first put forth the larger themes which drive Hobsbawm’s work, his critical arguments and questions which remain imperative for any serious follower of culture and its politics. Then I will try to highlight and extend the categories arising from these themes and will conclude with their implications and possibilities.

                     I.                        
Over the twentieth century, culture has increasingly become the focal point of our social conditioning, cognition, theorizing, politics and economy. Definitions of culture, its social role, boundaries; who, what and why constituted culture etc. matters increasingly found an independent, autonomous space of their own- under different auspices at different times and locations: be it Dadaism, expressionism, cinema, ‘kulturcritic’, cultural studies, base-superstructure debates in Marxist circles, Western Marxism, Frankfurt school; pop culture, not to mention of post-modernism itself- all these developments are firmly rooted and related to nature and shifts of contemporary capitalism. As a Marxist historian, Hobsbawm naturally explains this co-terminal manner in which our cultural shifts have occurred. The democratization of arts and culture on one hand and radical shifts occurring in the content and form of cultural expressions, their implications is a constant theme of Hobsbawm’s endeavor, almost reminiscent of Engels and his description of transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa[2].  

Hobsbawm has rightly argued that one cannot properly understand the true nature and impact of this democratization of culture and consequently, the predicament of ‘high culture’ today without understanding what happened to the ‘European bourgeoisie civilization’ of the 19th century, which ‘created the basic canon of ‘classics’ especially in music, opera, ballet, and drama as well as in many countries the basic language of modern literature’ i.e. the ‘world of yesterday’ of Stephen Zweig, which couldn’t recover from deadly blows of first world war. As the dominant class positions underwent a sea change with shifts in capitalism; the production, circulation and consumption of arts also changed radically. With his characteristic wit, erudition and ability to invoke multiple disciplines; Hobsbawm lays out the cycles and turns in cultural world. Taking stock of fortunes of classical opera, avant-garde, architecture, sculptures, expressionism etc. he raises certain critical questions over the present and future of arts and culture which I would like to deal with more elaboration. Following are some of his arguments:
a)                  Why brilliant fashion designers, a notoriously non-analytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, is one of the most obscure questions in history, and for historian of the arts, one of the most central[3].
b)                   How much passion for a piece of music or a picture today rests on association- not on the song being beautiful, but on its being ‘our song’? We cannot say, and the role of the living arts, or even their continued existence in the twenty-first century, will remain unclear until we can do so[4].
c)                    Cultures will remain more than supermarkets where we provide for ourselves according to our personal tastes. First, the syncretic global culture of the modern consumer society and the entertainment industry is probably part of all our lives. But second, in the post-industrial age of information, the school is important than ever before, and forms, both nationally and worldwide, a unifying element, not only in technology but also in the formation of classes. (He further argues that ‘a system of education that decides who in society will attain wealth and civil power cannot be determined by postmodern jokes)[5].
d)                  Warhol and pop artists did not want to destroy or revolutionize anything, let alone any world. On the contrary, they accepted, even liked it. They simply recognized that there was no longer a place for traditional artist- produced visual art in the consumer society. A real world, flooding every waking hour with a chaos of sounds, images, symbols, presumptions of a common experience, had put art as a special activity out of business[6].
e)                  Like so many British discussions of mass culture, they (Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel in their work ‘The popular art’) rarely quite face the question whether ‘standards’ of the traditional kind really fit the subject. At one extreme, they tend to search for that crock at the end of the rainbow, good as distinct from bad mass art, sometimes with the question-begging qualification ‘good of its kind’[7].

                   II.                        
First quick impression: One is constantly reminded of Fredric Jameson[8] and his work while reading ‘Fractured Times’. Fredric Jameson has extensively elaborated upon the themes of post-modernism as a logic of late capitalism and the cultural turn taken in the late twentieth century capitalism. He emphasizes upon various phenomena of post-modern arts such as lack of depth, pastiche, loss of aura around a ‘work’ of art, and the broader dialectic of replacement of ‘sublime’ as something meaningful to be achieved which characterized the spirit of modernity with ‘beauty’ without any such ambition in post-modern times. He also elaborates upon the close link of cultural categories with finance capital and their implications in fields as varied as music and architecture.

Hobsbawm brings a different entry point and raises some key questions as a practicing Marxist historian would, in order to anticipate the future. The key concern is about content and form of artistic expressions. His questions b and c above are polemical arguments to recognize that art forms become popular which are synchronous to the sense and sensibilities of the given time period. Hence, novel as an art form became popular only with advent of industrial capitalism. Absurd theatre as an art form would be incomprehensible and remains incomprehensible even today if the context of world wars, destruction, Fordist bureaucratic capitalism, alienation, existentialism etc. is not available/ cognizable[9]. Hence historical context plays a significant, decisive role in determining the worth of an art form.

Apart from the highlighting historical context as a key determinant in ‘meaning’ and ‘goodness’ of art, Hobsbawm raises another fundamental point over realism as a determinant. Although he has not spelt the concerns about realism and its antagonism with expressionism in as much words as the famous debates between Bloch and Luckacs as well as Brecht and Luckacs[10]; certainly he treats questions over what is ‘good’ popular art as symptomatic of same moralizing ideal of the 19th century bourgeoisie which canonized the arts and classics. He points that rather, the attention should turn to reasons why a particular art/ cultural product become popular. He rightly acknowledges the greatness of artists like Warhol who recognized that subjective expressionism of modernist inspirations is no longer worth. Now, whether this turn towards complete assimilation with existing mode of production can be termed ‘realist’ or not depends on one’s politics. Be that as it may, it would be important for future enquiries to examine the possibility/ feasibility of realism as counter to post-modernism and what could be the propelling points for such development. In short, the real wager is not really good versus bad art as a bourgeoisie moral framework would require; but rather should be put as the renewed forms and ventures into realism vis-à-vis the dominant meta/ post- cultures with collage or self-referentiality as their core.

With regard to realism- it should be made clear that invocation of realism doesn’t mean going back and reviving schemes of Soviet Montage (montage was later adapted and commoditized widely in capitalist art production), Brecht (didactic art), Benjamin (enthusiasm for mechanical reproduction and possibilities of film for revolutionary politics) or Luckacs in toto. Jameson, in his conclusion of ‘Aesthetics and Politics’ makes an elaborate effort to make it clear that what we need is a new realism aware of fully blown capitalism and its exploitation of technological progress as means to ‘co-opt’ cultural forms as another extension of commodities. This new realism will have ‘to resist the power of reification in consumer society and re-invent the category of totality which, systematically undermined by existential fragmentation on all levels of life and social organization today, can alone project structural relations between classes as well as class struggles in other countries, in what has increasingly become a world system’[11].

The mention of propelling points brings us to the question of role of technology and capitalist development play.   Hobsbawm, continuing in Benjamin’s manner of explaining ‘the art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, highlights the ‘aura’ around classics and classic bourgeoisie civilization being destroyed with inherent democratization. While doing so, the ‘culture industry’ and commoditization is not ignored. However, his belief in a cosmopolitan world progressing towards a better future and his quest to delineate the contours for the same is at odds with the material reality of imperialism. One is certainly tempted to qualify this optimism, as well as not share the optimism of progress considering the role imperialism has played in collaborating with regressive, fundamentalist elements in perpetuating warfare, one cannot see Hobsbawm’s optimism drawing from football and its globalised culture as a future possibility. Nation-states and uneven relations are a stark reality and so are the cultural amalgams. The Jameson-Ahmad debate over Third world literature[12] is still instructive to make one aware about the reality of imperialism and at the same time the unevenness in the class relations within the post-colonial nation-states as well. What happens to languages, cultures of economically less-developed people today? What has the changing stance of regional bourgeoisie vis-à-vis metropolitan capital meant for the anti-imperialism and its postures through culture and language? The cultural hegemony is certainly operative only through the larger domination of finance capital and empire. It is not that Hobsbawm is completely unaware or blind to this reality. In fact, in the book itself, he has brilliantly deconstructed the ‘myth of American Cowboy’ as an international myth and reasons for it becoming so. However, his despair is that the technological advancement of the day bringing about further mutations in culture is something we can only speculate about, and with not much hope.

                 III.                        
So then, should we merely despair in hopelessness, and repeat what Hobsbawm says about ‘Heritage’? : ‘how much of the great simultaneous circus show of sound, shape, image, color, celebrity and spectacle that constitutes the contemporary cultural experience will even survive as a preservable heritage, as distinct from changing sets of generational memories occasionally revived as retro fashions? How much of it will be remembered at all? As the cultural tsunamis of the twentieth century prepare for those of the twenty-first; who can tell?[13]’  

Yes and no. Culture remains a site of politics and resistance no matter what post-modern preaching. In fact, such cultural turn openly in favor of surrender to capital, in fact deriving ‘Jouissance’ out of it- this itself is part of a political position. The attempts to organize a counter-culture need to be fully aware of larger economic set up, its modalities as well as the cultural logic prevalent that one is at war with. G.P. Deshpande has elaborated upon the dangers of praising and canonizing any work of oppressed as it easily fits into the bigger scheme of commoditization and recycling. And hence, it is here the warning of Hobsbawm against Hall- Whannel’s scheme of good-bad pop art is important. He doesn’t elaborate upon realism. He doesn’t enter the debates about hegemony and imperialism. However, what he does, and does with admirable clarity, is to present a breathtaking view of evolving cultures over past two centuries, and the causalities for the same. His method, his indicative ruminations are the best signs of his political message- if we are to counter the capitalist logic of the day, we need to fully understand it, come to terms with it, in order to locate the ‘change’ and be part of it. That really is the crux and beauty of Hobsbawm’s last magnum opus.


[1] Fractured Times, Eric Hobsbawm, from the blurb
[2] Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature
[3] Fractured Times, Eric Hobsbawm, pg. 6
[4] Ibid. pg. 19
[5] Ibid. pg. 31
[6] Ibid. pg. 254
[7] Ibid. pg. 266
[8] Jameson is an American literary critic and Marxist political theorist. He is best known for his analysis of contemporary cultural trends. Jameson's best-known books include Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, The Political Unconscious, Cultural Turn and Marxism and Form.
[9] G.P. Deshpande, in his collection of Marathi essays titled ‘Charchak Nibandh’ elaborates the criticality of historical context in popular appreciation of a given art form
[10] Refer to ‘Aesthetics and Politics’ edit. Fredric Jameson for these debates
[11] Pg. 212, Aesthetics & Politics, ed. Fredric Jameson.
[12] Refer Jameson’s essay ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’, Social Text, No. 15 (Autumn, 1986) as well Aijaz Ahmad’s response ‘Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness and the "National Allegory’, Social Text, No. 17 (Autumn, 1987)
[13] Fractured Times, pg. 155

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