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Thoughts on Marx and Marshall Berman’s “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air”

27 Mar

“I leave aside the question of whether, by continually refining humanity in proportion to the new enjoyments it offers, indefinite progress might not be its most cruel and ingenious torture; whether, proceeding as it does by a negation of itself, it would not turn out to be a perpetually renewed form of suicide, and whether, shut up in the fiery circle of divine logic, it would not be like the scorpion that stings itself with its own tail-progress, that eternal desideratum that is its own eternal despair!”
–Charles Baudelaire, quoted in Berman, p. 142.

Everything that happens will happen today
And nothing has changed, but nothing’s the same
And every tomorrow could be yesterday
And everything that happens will happen today
–David Byrne and Brian Eno, Everthing That Happens Will Happen Today, 2008

One of the earliest statements of purpose in Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air reads thus: “The trouble was that pop modernism [post-modernism] never developed a critical perspective which might have clarified the point where openness to the modern world has got to stop, and the point where the modern artist needs to see and to say that some of the powers of this world have got to go.” I agree, but is this not something different to Berman’s avowed aim of recovering new ideals in modernity’s energies? (See p. 36: “To appropriate the modernities of yesterday can be at once a critique of the modernities of today and an act of faith in the modernities-and in the modern men and women-of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”) Is this sentiment not closer to the “Plato and Church Fathers” mentioned in p. 98 who “yearned for a still point at which all strife and all striving will reach an end”?

Later, Berman remarks that “The argument of this book is that, in fact, the modernisms of the past can give us back a sense of our own modern roots, roots that go back two hundred years. They can help us connect our lives with the lives of millions of people who are living through the trauma of modernization thousands of miles away, in societies radically different from our own-and with millions of people who lived through it a century or more ago” (p. 35). I did wonder here whether Berman had in mind here people in Europe or the societies they were colonising. The book does tend, when it gestures toward examples of societies outside Euro-America, to paint broad, Time magazine type pictures. Indeed, it is perhaps this humanism that allows Berman to engage in two somewhat contradictory movements: on the one hand, he claims that to reconnect with the spirit of modernity would help us see “the social and political forces that propel us into explosive conflicts with other people and other peoples, even as we develop a deeper sensitivity and empathy toward our ordained enemies and come to realize, sometimes too late, that they are not so different from us after all” (ibid.). Indeed, when he describes the desire for “[a] fusion of Marx with modernism should melt the too-solid body of Marxism-or at least warm it up and thaw it out-and, at the same time, give modernist art and thought a new solidity and invest its creations with an unsuspected resonance and depth. It would reveal modernism as the realism realism of our time” (p. 122), he seems almost to be describing the break between structuralism and historical-materialism in the humanities (I concur that there should be more synthesis of the two). But is this not what those whom Berman criticises as “private material and spiritual interest groups” were interested in doing (“The eclipse of the problem of modernity in the 1970s has meant the destruction of a vital form of public space. It has hastened the disintegration of our world into an aggregation of private material and spiritual interest groups, living in windowless monads, far more isolated than we need to be” (p. 34)? Presumably the only thing separating them from Berman is Berman’s ability, reminiscent of Marx (though I have more sympathy with the gesture in Marx’s case), to pronounce upon a global conjuncture as though he himself were not also part of it (not in the sense of not being concerned or not taking it personally, but in the sense of writing from a kind of Archimedean point apart, something that Bruce Robbins has criticised Noam Chomsky for doing, albeit in a slightly different political mode (see the chapter “Noam Chomsky’s Golden Rule” in Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2012, pp. 47-66). To extend and digress on this for a moment, I have to say I particularly like the way Slavoj Žižek for example elucidates the value of German idealist ontology by shifting its emphasis: “The point is not that there is no reality outside our mind, the point is rather that there is no mind outside reality” (S. and G. Daly, Conversations with Žižek (Cambridge and Malden: Polity, 2004), p. 97). I also like Sean Sheehan’s gloss on the above remark:

“It is because we are part of reality that we can never be in a neutral position to observe it objectively; like the embedded journalists in the Iraq war, our position is part of what is observed and if this distorting presence is removed then so too is the object of observation. This is quite different from fashionable postmodernist thought which celebrates the plurality of different subject positions and the play of difference while taking for granted the existence of an underlying, homogenous world. Žižek’s ontology entails a universe that is necessarily fissured and inconsistent, not fully realised, although not because our knowledge is mind-based, which it is, but because this is the way the world is” (Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed (London and NY: Continuum, 2012), pp. 48-9).

If I read this correctly, it seems to me like the kind of negotiated position that could satisfy both historical-materialists and structuralists to some degree; at the very least, it would have been more helpful than some of the rhetoric of pitched battle thrown over the course of the post-sixties culture wars.

When he comes to talk about Marx, Berman’s analysis is, as elsewhere in the book, especially engaging and considered. From the outset he gestures to something I came to reflect upon when writing about Taiwanese modernity in literature. Taiwan’s modernity was shaped primarily by the encounters with Han China, first as colonisers around the sixteenth century, then in the form of the Kuomintang government after Japanese colonisation. Colonisation by Japan was the other primary force in shaping Taiwan’s sense of modernity. But in writing about literature, I also had to question the notion of “modernism” as distinct from “modernity”. As Berman writes,

“It is worth noting that this sense of wholeness goes against the grain of contemporary thought. Current thinking about modernity is broken into two different compartments, hermetically sealed off from one another: ‘modernization’ in economics and politics, ‘modernism’ in art, culture and sensibility” (p. 88).

Berman’s avowed goal is to try and complicate this distinction, and over the course of the rest of the chapter (“All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: Marx, Modernism and Modernization”) he attempts to show how Marx, particularly in his depiction of Communism in The Communist Manifesto, was a kind of modernist author as much as he was a theorist of modernity.

At one point Berman quotes the climactic closing moments of the Manifesto (“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonism, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”). I have often reflected upon the way the flawed idealism of this statements seems to rest upon its thoroughgoing humanism. There is the belief here that people can move the earth, (perhaps from an Archimedean point), but no scepticism as to whether the earth cares for what people do upon it. Hence green movement rhetoric about “protecting” or “saving” the eath places man at the centre, and really means protecting the human species. There is no problem with that of course, but it’s the confusion between treating a humanist mission as though it were something markedly different from the conservative goal of utilising the earth’s resources that gives me pause. The earth has no care for what people make of it, capitalist or radical (not that this is an excuse for simply doing nothing, of course). This is really brough to the fore in the next passage Berman quotes.

“In Volume One of Capital, in the chapter on “Machinery and Modern Industry,” it is essential to communism that it transcend the capitalist division of labor:

“… the partially developed individual, who is merely the bearer of one specialized social function, must be replaced by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labors, ready to face any change in production, for whom the different social functions he performs are only so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.

“This vision of communism is unmistakably modern, first of all in its individualism, but even more in its ideal of development as the form of the good life. Here Marx is closer to some of his bourgeois and liberal enemies than he is to traditional exponents of communism, who, since Plato and the Church Fathers, have sanctified self-sacrifice, distrusted or loathed individuality and yearned for a still point at which all strife and all striving will reach an end.” (pp. 97-98)

I must confess to having little to add to this exegesis, apart from some by-the-way remarks about how the gesture toward Western thinkers who “distrusted or loathed individuality” breaks down the simplistic East/West, “Confucian capitalist” distinction between the group-oriented East and individualistic West (see for example a remark quoted by Laura Dales in her Japanese ethnography, one familiar from Japan to Korea to Singapore (who, under Lee Kuan Yew, have been especially tiresome in repeating it), where the Japanese informant remarks that “Being able to depend and being co-dependent, in one sense this is an aspect of Japanese happiness. But from, say, American or Western independent, individualistic culture, maybe it comes across as [different]”. See “Lifestyles of the Rich and Single: Reading Agency in the ‘Parasite Single’ Issue” in The Agency of Women in Asia ed. Lyn Parker, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2005), p. 137). For one thing, the “Great Chain of Being” which placed things in hierarchical relations (Inanimate Matter-Plants-worm-frog-rat-dog-lion-Animals-Man-Angels-God) was not of historical or evolutionary progression but was “inconsistent with any belief in progress, or, indeed, in any sort of significant change in the universe as a whole. The Chan of Being, in so far as its continuity and completeness were affirmed on the customary grounds, was a perfect example of ab absolutely rigid and static scheme of things” (Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1936, 242). Lovejoy traced the static nature of this hierarchy from ancient Greek philosophy to the eighteenth-century European philosophers. It was static because, if God was perfect, his ordering of the universe was believed to reflect that: everything was in its right place in a naturally static hierarchy where its role was preordained. This, of course, sounds very similar to common understandings of many feudal social hierarchies in Asian society. Even after the eighteenth century similarities were highly visible between “Eastern” and “Western” philosophy. Not only did the German idealist tradition in which Marx partly wrote always insist upon the inability to think the individual being at all without situating it first in relation to a larger community (particularly in Hegel), but even if we understand this essentialist distinction as primarily having arisen as a number of countries in Asia found themselves, by the advent of the eighties, making achievements in capitalism that rivaled the old Euro-American powers, and seeking to place themselves in relation to a “West” that was struggling through the culture wars that had taken off during the “individualistic” sixties, it would still neglect awareness of the fact that many of these countries had their own rebellious politics in the sixties, such as Japan and Taiwan. Berman seems to write to this kind of rhetorical fiction when he says,

“Now it would be stupid to deny that modernization can proceed along a number of different roads. (Indeed, the whole point of modernization theory is to chart these roads.) There is no reason that every modern city must look and think like New York or Los Angeles or Tokyo. Nevertheless, we need to scrutinize the aims and interests of those who would protect their people from modernism for their own good. If this culture were really exclusively Western, and hence as irrelevant to the Third World as most of its governments say, would these governments need to expend as much energy repressing it as they do? What they are projecting onto aliens, and prohibiting as ‘Western decadence,’ is in fact their own people’s energies and desires and critical spirit. When government spokesmen and propagandists proclaim their various countries to be free of this alien influence, what they really mean is merely that they have managed to keep a political and spiritual lid on their people so far. When the lid comes off, or is blown off, the modernist spirit is one of the first things to come out: it is the return of the repressed.” (pp. 124-5)

I am however a bit more wary of what Berman writes after this, which seems to me to evince something of that “culturalist” desire to find in “other” cultures the “true spirit” of one’s own (think for example of the frequent proclamation among Han Chinese in the mainland that Taiwan has maintained “real” Chinese culture, or even of the desire of the left in the West to find real communism in China during the sixties. As Berman remarks in the afterword to the 2010 edition, “[one] of the weirdest facets of modernity is all the cultural energy that gets poured into a hopeless quest to get out of modernity” (p. 353)):

“It is this spirit, at once lyrical and ironical, corrosive and committed, fantastic and realistic, that has made Latin American literature the most exciting in the world today-though it is also this spirit that forces Latin American writers to write from European or North American exile, on the run from their own censors and political police. It is this spirit that speaks from the dissident wall posters in Peking and Shanghai, proclaiming the rights of free individuality in a country that-so we were told only yesterday by China’s Maoist mandarins and their comrades in the West-isn’t even supposed to have a word for individuality. It is the culture of modernism that inspires the hauntingly intense electronic rock music of the Plastic People of Prague, music that is played in thou- sands of barricaded rooms on bootlegged cassettes even as the musicians languish in prison camps. It is modernist culture that keeps critical thought and free imagination alive in much of the non-Western world today.” (p. 125)

It would only take a quick look at the critiques of the consumption of “magical realism” in the West to inspire some scepticism toward Berman’s gracious humanism here (See for example the chapter “Magic, ‘Realism,’ and the ‘Post-’” in Alfred J. López, Posts and Pasts: A Theory of Postcolonialism NY: SUNY Press, 2001, pp. 205-210).

Marx’s contrast between “the different social fucntions’” and the idea of giving “free scope” to “natural and acquired powers” highlights for me the degree to which concepts of techne or human technologies/apparatus infect (not from without, but within) and cathect our ability to conceive of the free, self-conscious, rational human agent. When Berman writes, “The trouble with capitalism is that, here as elsewhere, it destroys the human possiblities it creates” (p. 96) I can only agree, with the qualification that this desctructive quality inheres generally in the technologies that humanity creates in order to extend its faculties of reasoning and questioning, and does not stand apart from it (that is, there is no such things as a technology without “destructive” potential). Marx for his part writes as though this imbrication had yet to be realised, and that a proletarian revolution were necessary to bring it about; in fact it had already happened without it. Berman notes that “Once again we find Marx more responsive to what is going on in bourgeois society than are the members and supporters of the bourgeoisie themselves. He sees in the dynamics of capitalist development-both the development of each individual and of society as a whole-a new image of the good life: not a life of definitive perfection, not the embodiment of prescribed static essences, but a process of continual, restless, open-ended, unbounded growth. Thus he hopes to heal the wounds of modernity through a fuller and deeper modernity” (p. 98). I agree, but do feel that we can only regulate this paradoxical imbiration of mechansisms for realising humanity’s potential with the potentials for circumscribing humanity and imprisoning it, because neither aspect is separable from the other. How close this is to the Foucauldian position Berman criticises at the book’s outset (“Do we act politically, overthrow tyrannies, make revolutions, create constitutions to establish and protect human rights? Mere ‘juridical regression’ from the feudal ages, because constitutions and bills of rights are merely ‘the forms that [make] an essentially normalizing power acceptable.’…Any criticism rings hollow, because the critic himself or herself is ‘in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves, since we are part of its mechanism’” p. 34), I am not sure. Yet I do feel that we cannot overturn and totally “fix” or “heal” this imbrication, because its resources are what allow us to critically regulate it in the first place. How close this may be to saying that “the critic…of its mechanism” (p. 34), I am not sure. It does potentially suffer the problem of lacking a larger goal, as Arendt said of Marxism’s emphasis on individualism in community (the free development of each as the condition for the free development of all) when she wrote that its obsession with development might become “the futuility of a life which does not fix or realise itself in any permanent subject that endures after its labour is past” (Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1958, quoted in Berman, p. 128). The regulative idea does however make me, as it has so many others, sceptical of Marx’s vision of “free development for each and all.” Marx wrote little after all of what Communism would actually look like, although he did gesture toward a world where people’s labour would be unaliented and they would have time to read and relax after they had finished work. As Berman points out, it is easier to envisage Communist movements and revoltions than it is societies, because “[i]f all new relationships become obsolete before they can ossify, how can solidarity, fraternity and mutual aid be kept alive? A communist government might try to dam the flood by imposing radical restrictions, not merely on economic activity and enterprise (every socialist government has done this, along with every capitalist welfare state), but on personal, cultural and political expression” (p. 104). Slavoj Žižek for his part has remarked in the documentary Žižek! about “the strangeness of today’s situation. Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism” (Žižek!, , Dir: Astra Taylor, 2005).