Is it an act of foolishness to call for a resurrection of radical Marxist thought in the face of the overwhelming rise of liberalism under the sign of postmodernism?
Judging by Art, Class & Cleavage, the new book by Ben Watson, Wire contributor, Trotskyist and Zappaphile, the answer is a resounding yes. While a certain amount of foolishness can be a commendable thing, it starts to grate very quickly when it becomes a badge of honour for the fanatic. Indeed, no one surpasses a religious fundamentalist in terms of sheer humourless boredom more than a Marxist fundamentalist. A basic problem with Marxist texts has always been their deadening prose; the endless plodding on the master's jargon which suffocates any idea worth saving (which is exactly why Situationism's playful hijacking of Marx was so seductive).
The author sets his aims very high. His own brand of theory, Materialist Esthetix, tries to bring politics back into the realm of aesthetics - another seemingly commendable aim, from a Marxist viewpoint, since aesthetics was always its weak spot (Walter Benjamin of course being the shining exception, because unlike Adorno, he seemed to understand the beauty to be found in popular culture). Watson likes to place himself in the tradition of Benjamin; indeed, he is so afraid of being labelled an elitist that he begins defending his choice of often obscure (theoretical and musical) influences as populist before the book is barely underway. Watson is wary of the monolithic greyness pervading academic Marxism (Althusser is a prime target) and states that Materialist Esthetix wants to inject humour and sexiness into revolutionary politics. Unfortunately he is so in awe of his hero Frank Zappa that he deludes himself into believing that acting like a sexist is a clever thing to do. But even Zappa's overrated brand of humour starts to look positively funny compared to the fatal wordplay Watson uses liberally (the worst doubtless being the renaming of Deleuze and Guattari as Delude and Gut-theory).
To make Marxism even remotely credible after the fall of the Berlin wall, Watson cleverly disavows Stalinism as a perversion of Marxist practice (merely another form of state capitalism) but is forced to defend Lenin, lest this century's one practical realization of revolution be automatically negated. A negation that would eternally condemn revolution to remaining a Marxist theory, unthinkable for someone who brands the Russian revolution the 'greatest event in history'. If one aspect of this book saves it from utter uselessness, it is the way Trotsky (presented not only as an agreeable alternative to Stalinism, but also as an antidote to postmodernism, liberalism, bad music, and bad weather) comes off as a very humane thinker who is at least able to cut through the stickiness of Marxist jargon.
Trotsky is the driving force behind the book's most lucid chapter, a critique of Deleuze and Guattari's schizoanalysis. The critique is spot on from a Marxist viewpoint, but starts to look shallow when one realizes it is based on the reading of one book (Anti-Oedipus, ignoring the arguably more successful A Thousand Plateaus). Watson's obsession with debunking Deleuze's theory tries to cut off a fashionable branch of 20th century philosophy while ignoring its roots; namely Nietzsche, who as a consequence escapes unscathed. Damning criticism if one realizes that one could summarize the whole of 20th century thought as a debate between Marx and Nietzsche. Unsurprisingly, it has been Nietzsche's thought which has gained enormous influence since intellectuals realized after 1968 that Marxism was not going to change society. All the post-Trotsky theory Watson loathes, from poststructuralism and postmodernism to cybertheory, has been sympathetic to Nietzsche's liquid worldview, so in flux that it makes Marxism look hopelessly stiff. The avoidance of Nietzsche thus becomes something of a strategic silence (if you can't beat them, ignore them), but for someone who prides himself on sparing nothing or no one from the grinding wheels of dialectic materialism, it looks messy.
Of course Nietzsche's thought, with its interests in flux, splintering of truth, and reaching beyond preconceived ideas of what it means to be Man, has proven to be more adaptable to the realities and speculations of a technological society. With this in mind, it suddenly becomes clear that Watson has a technological blind spot. Good old Marxist technophobia rears its ugly head, especially when music is discussed.
This technophobia colludes with a question that has undoubtedly fascinated philosophers since the ancient Greeks: can politics and pop music mix? It is a question that haunts not only Watson's book but two recent others as well: Simon Reynolds' techno genealogy Energy Flash and Kodwo Eshun's history of black futuristic music More Brilliant Than The Sun. Three clear-cut positions are presented here: Watson makes the preposterous claim that every vital musical form of this century has had its origin in the working class (so you can forget about Miles Davis, Can, Chic, Kraftwerk and Jeff Mills being any good). At the other extreme, Eshun makes the daring assertion that 'the streets,' as an emblem of authenticity, have had nothing to do with the making of true radical black music. In between these positions, Reynolds, the good nostalgic socialist decadent, argues that working-class musicians using the drug-technology interface have always been pushing music further out, without effecting any significant social change in the end.
The inability of all rave-related music to effect mass change means that Watson has to dismiss all techno music as middle-class dabbling in pseudo-radical aesthetics. And thus Watson becomes the latest addition to the tiresome canon of music writers who mistakenly rate punk over disco. Indeed, the so-called politics of punk have always been its most overrated feature. Its strength was never in the shallow politics of The Clash (who were nice middle class boys, after all) but in the amoral will-to-power that exploded in the music of the Stooges and Sex Pistols. Ironically, when Watson looks for Cleavage, the aesthetic rupture of social order that goes beyond reflection, representation and entertainment, he passes over the only worthy contender in contemporary popular music.
When dealing with rave-related music, Watson makes some baffling observations that may seem like nitpicking on behalf of the techno trainspotter, but which in fact alert us to the way he forces music to be worthy just by virtue of its being made by oppressed minorities, even if these observations contradict earlier statements. Original Chicago House music is celebrated as the exploited worker's seizure of machinery eventually perverted by Teutonic Techno. It is strange that house is deemed worthy by someone who shows his disdain for disco throughout the book, since house was one of disco's direct continuities; in fact, house intensified disco's pleasure principle to an ideal instant gratification, oblivious to any notion of exploitation or social utopia beyond the NOW!
It is a gross mistake to view the relationship between house and techno as one of perversion, since it has been well-documented how both musics continually fed off each other's influences. And as much as black Detroit producers worship the shrine of Kraftwerk, it is another well-documented fact how Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were the main inspiration for the creation of Acid House, a truly radical music which, incidentally, makes all free jazz look like aimless farting noises made by grown-up men (without an audience). Cyberdandy Kodwo Eshun brilliantly reverses this myth of the eternal perversion of black music by white imitators when he observes that in the case of black Techno, Düsseldorf (home of Kraftwerk) played the same historical function as did the Mississippi delta in blues.
These mistakes would even be forgivable if Watson presented a credible populist alternative to rave culture. Regrettably, in a book that claims to offer a theoretical grounding for scientific criticism of pop music, there is not enough music to make its case. If Improvisation, Saint Zappa, Iggy Pop swearing on television, an obscure opening act for Sonic Youth starting a riot (at the bar no doubt) and the Rezillos are the best that Materialist Esthetix can provide, then its prospects as a tool for social change look pretty slim. Rock and jazz gigs have become notoriously boring affairs over the years, an excuse to stand around and drink beer. There is an alarming lack of demonic rupture at rock concerts, but those few artists who actually try to captivate the audience are criticized here because their 'interrogation of the body' does not leave room for dialogue and democratic debate. So it seems I was always mistaken in thinking that the blissful submission provided by Diamanda Galas, Slayer, Swans and Butthole Surfers was the goal of a successful concert. Next time after a group has finished its songs, we'll all gather in a circle like good socialist boy scouts and, fired up by the music, proceed to discuss ways of freeing the proletariat from the clutches of global capitalism.
The way the book finally unwinds may unwillingly be a tribute to the ghost of Marxism. One expects the last and longest chapter to contain the punch line which makes sense of Materialist Esthetix. In reality, one has to wade through an aimless analysis of Soviet linguist Voloshinov's theories. And to what end? A radical reassessment of the Stooges? A sudden insight into the false consciousness of rave? It all slowly fades away into an incomprehensible and overlong analysis (with still more footnotes on Zappa's genius) of the poetry of J.H. Prynne, who apparently is so widely read in working-class circles to merit such an extensive treatment. This, then, is a book of broken promises that will sadly make you lose interest in Marxism and its bitter followers for good.
translation laura martz