The Interior without Children: Adorno and the Kindertotenlieder
This text was presented on the panel ‘Adorno, The Bourgeois Interior, and the Ontology of Hell’ at Historical Materialism London, November 2013. It is very much a work in progress, and represents only part of a longer project of reading Adorno’s Marginalia on Mahler, more of which I will be publishing in the coming months.
The Interior without Children: Adorno and the Kindertotenlieder
Frankfurt, 18 November 1956: I dreamt of a catastrophic fire. In the cosmic inferno all the dead reappeared in their former shape for a few seconds, and I realised: only now are they truly dead.
– T. W. Adorno
Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe if the enemy is victorious.
– W. Benjamin
This is an essay of the extinguished. In the winter of 1833 and 1834 Luise and Ernst Rückert died of scarlet fever. Their father, Friedrich would write 421 poems on the subject of their deaths. This was the most extreme document of mourning of Biedermeier literature. Between 1901 and 1904, around the time of Adorno’s birth, Mahler, a grand bourgeois in the age of decadence, wrote orchestral settings of five of these poems. In 1936, Adorno wrote the fragments, Marginalien zu Mahler, marking the 25th anniversary of Mahler’s death. This is an essay of extinction and catastrophic cognition. The smallest transition in the dialectics of spirit and nature – the death of children – will be traced between these objects, hoping that we might approach Adorno’s text, that it might speak in great flaming arcs, if only for a few seconds.
The text I want to approach is the first of Adorno’s ‘Marginalia’:
Why Mahler, following those poems by Rückert, wrote the Kindertotenlieder, I understood the first time in my life when someone I loved died. The feeling in them, of a powerful bow bent to the breaking point, out of tenderness of the closest and loss into the greatest distance, does not find its measure in individual misfortune of the sort that consigns children to the dead. Yet the dead may well be our children. The aura of what has not become that encircles those who died young like a semblance of apparent happiness does not fade for adults either. But it is not able to enclose their distracted and abandoned life otherwise than by making it smaller. This happens to the dead through memory. It strokes the hair of the helpless, gives sustenance to the destroyed mouth, watches over the sleep of those who will never again awake. As they are defenseless, at the mercy of our memory, so our memory is the only help that is left to them. They pass away into it, and if every deceased person is like someone who was murdered by the living, so he is also like someone whose life they must save, without knowing whether the effort will succeed. The rescue of what is possible, but has not yet been – this is the aim of remembrance. It is the law that is given to Das Lied von der Erde. When the music of the fourth movement looks back on beauty with a few bars of the clarinets, it is as if through remembrance all the happiness that never was has been preserved in miniature in these measures. The dead are transfigured into children, for whom the possible would still be possible, because they have not been. In the Kindertotenlieder, this transfiguration is notated in full. “Often I think they have only gone out.” Not because they were children, but because uncomprehending love can only comprehend death as if the children who in their final exit were returning home. Only as for children can we hope for the dead.
My attempt to understand this text begins with reading one of Rückert’s poems, a poem whose bourgeois formalism is clearly inadequate to its poetic content:
Rückert’s poem addresses an absence in the familiar: the “du” spoken by the father to the space where his daughter would have been. This poem not only laments, but also registers the experience of this absence entering the home as a fracture in the possibility of expression in that bourgeois interior. This experience is expressed in the binding and interpenetration of changing figures of light with tense and mood. In the first strophe under the glimmer of the candle, an empirical light of the interior’s commodity world, a claim to permanence appears: “Mit der Kerze Schimmer / Ist es mir als immer.”Under this claim to permanence, the tense breaks into to the subjunctive, “Kämst du mit herein / Huschtest hinterdrein”. Bourgeois familial love, embodied in this permanent light became habit. This claim to permanence turns tender love into habitual expectation. Expectation, that rigidified socialisation of familial instinctual immediacy, strains to be fulfilled with the force this claim to permanence. It is fulfilled, but wrongly, by destructive nature. To admit the arbitrary deaths of children would be to abandon the security the walls of the interior had previously apparently guaranteed. Spirit naturalised within the house fulfills itself in extremis with the unthinkable: the absence of she who was loved enters. Spirit naturalised, claiming permanence, masked a natural component of the space of interiority, which under the catastrophic conditions is by spirit’s own force revealed. Here the candle’s light endures; the absence transforms into the dull shadow cast by the mother. Immer bist du, ach, noch der Mutter Schatten.
The second strophe moves similarly, again with a break into the subjunctive as the absent child appears: “Dort wo würde dein /Lieb Gesichtchen sein / Wenn du freudenhelle / Trätest mit herein.” Each of these breakages into the subjunctive is followed by the words “wie sonst”. This phrase is difficult phrase to translate into English: its meaning doubles into “how it otherwise would be” and “how it usually is.” This lamenting regret that simultaneously claims a permanence of spirit is the dynamic kernel of Rückert’s poem. Unlike the empirical light and its dull counterimage in the first strophe, the second addresses a brightness of joy – freudenhelle – about the daughter. Yet this semblance or shine of joy – Freudenschein – is too quickly extinguished. This joyful brightness appears only in the subjunctive, and is recognised too late, as it disappears. These two forms of light stand opposed. The joyful brightness of the child appears in the untimeliness of its extinguishment; it is a light of transience, refracting backwards through history, illuminating in catastrophic cognition the dullness of the light of the commodity world of the intérieur. Her brightness illuminates not expectation but hope. Her image has no fixity; reification is her enemy
The struggle for expression of this ephemeral light of joy, out of the antagonism of spirit from which it bursts, appears prosodically. The bourgeois father’s mode of thinking endures; the poet continues incessantly with his formalistic lyric. But in addressing this familiar absence immediately, the prosody fractures from its otherwise steady trimeter: “O du, der Vaterzelle / zu schnelle”. Here the father addresses the absence making a claim for the organic, natural status of the social situation in the words ‘der Vaterzelle’ [of the father-cell]. As this naturalisation of spirit is spoken expression fractures; a gap or absence enters the prosody. To claim this natural component of the family, that same nature that destroyed the child must too be admitted. The interior is ruined. Love transformed into the fracture of expression recognises, too late, its own fate in that of the child. In that instant, the smallest transition – that of the extinction of a child – is cathected as spiritual disruption.
In these two forms of light as figures of expectation and hope we find two transfigurations: In the first strophe the child is fixed into the dullness of the enduring bourgeois consciousness as the eternal shadow of her mother, locked forever inside the bourgeois interior of the father. In the second she is transfigured into an illumination of hope, but only momentarily. She shines from the already-too-late, appearing joyfully in absence, radiating catastrophically through the catastrophic actuality, illuminating for an instant the room’s broken walls.
These movements and antagonisms were recognised when Mahler set the poem to music. Mahler’s song is deceptively simple, composed of two near-identical strophes. But in its details – both in form and texture – the natural-historical dialectic of Rückert’s poem is developed.
In the texture of the opening, an absence enters. Within the ostinato of the pizzicato cellos, marked ‘Schwer, dumpf’ [Heavy, muffled] we hear footsteps. But they are interrupted and broken. Where this ostinato is the sound of expectation, muffled by the walls of that intérieur; loss is already registered in its missing footsteps. Expectation is transformed into a funereal march.
At the centre of each strophe is a musically identical climax. The second corresponds to the prosodic fracture in Rückert’s poem. In these moments Mahler breaks from his syllabic setting into melisma, straining out of the words and into expression. The second climax is marked by Mahler “Mit ausbrechendem Schmerz” [with an eruption of pain.]
In the repetition of this musical climax, the selection of the words brings the absence of the child and the interior into close connection; that same space of the room, the ‘dort’, is later addressed as ‘du’. Such a connection is emphasised by Mahler’s textual changes to the poem: whilst relatively free in amending the order of lines in the poem, and in deleting a section, Mahler’s single change to the words was to replace Rückert’s unusual agglutination referring to organic nature ‘der Vaterzelle’ [of the father-cell] with ‘des Vaters Zelle’ [of the father’s cell]. This change introduces ambiguity in the relation between organic nature and the bourgeois home, recast in illuminated dereliction as a prison. This equivocation of the organic and the bourgeois interior was important to Adorno’s early philosophical writing about music. In his 1926 article, ‘Nachtmusik’, he wrote,
We are accustomed to viewing music too impartially from within. We believe we are inside it in the same way as a safe house, whose windows signify our eyes, its corridors our bloodstream, and its door our sex; or that it actually grew out of us, the plant from the seed, and that even the finest offshoots are bound by law to imitate that inner cell. We posit ourselves as its subject, and, even if we dilute ourselves into the general transcendental subject in order to rescue it from the merely organic, it is still we who impose our rule upon it.
Within this dense complex of metaphor, Adorno gives a succinct definition of myth, and its entanglement with reason within the natural history of the interior. Myth is domination under the aspect of nature. Nature as myth, giving infernal repetitious laws, does not destroy but dominates. They are brought back within the subject’s interior as spirit, and set to work securing, deceptively, that spirit from nature. As myth, spirit appears organicised; second nature crowns the sovereignty of the subject in his home. Yet in Mahler’s song the interior stands strong. The eruption of pain does not fracture the song’s form, but instead is re-integrated. Under the final word “Freudenschein”, the music returns to the funereal march of the opening. In the smallest alteration – almost unheard – there are no longer gaps in the footsteps.
Despite Mahler’s deletion of Rückert’s lines in which the child is transfigured into the eternal shadow of the mother, this thought is performed in this gesture. The dead child is transfigured into the perfection of the mother’s body. Such an integration must be understood as archetypally mythic. The arbitrary deaths of children are carried within the perpetually mourning mother. They fix her as a naturalised spirit of the bourgeois interior, completed, deathly, and dull. This image recalls one ancient myth in particular: that of Niobe. Niobe’s children were killed by Artemis and Apollo in response to her hubris. She fled to Mount Sipylus and was petrified, weeping for eternity. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “[myth] is not actually destructive. Although it brings a cruel act of death to Niobe’s children, it stops short of the life of their mother, whom it leaves behind, more guilty than before through the death of the children, […] as an eternally mute bearer of guilt.
The remainder of this essay addresses Adorno’s fragment more directly. The text will be read alongside his Kierkegaard study, in which he first expounded a similar dialectic. The most important conclusion of that book was that the naturalisation of “mere spirit” takes the form of sacrifice. That is, precisely in securing spirit against destructive external nature, spirit must destroy internal nature. In this moment, spirit is revealed as self-defeating.
Power over natural life remains dedicated to its annihilation in spirit rather than to reconciliation. […] here it is not merely natural life that is destroyed by spirit; spirit itself is annihilated natural life bound to mythology.
For Adorno, such a mythic sacrifice “occupies the innermost cell of [Kierkegaard’s] thought.” Most importantly for our dialectic, Adorno argued that in Kierkegaard’s ‘logic of the spheres’, the semblance of hope that appeared in the aesthetic sphere was sacrificed for a despairing inwardness, in which the individual was reduced to a mere point [Punkt], from which he could leap into ethical life.
By annihilating nature, hope enters the vicious circle of nature; originating in nature itself, hope is only able to truly overcome it by maintaining a trace of nature. The twilight of Kierkegaardian hope is the sallow light of the twilight of the gods that proclaims the vain end of an age or the aimless beginning of a new one, but not salvation.
Against this sacrificial movement Adorno wrote that “the true desire of melancholy is nourished on the idea of an eternal happiness without sacrifice, which it still could never adequately indicate as its object.” Only the transient semblance could provide the basis for such an idea.
Adorno once wrote of his own texts that “instead of achieving something scientifically, or creating something artistically, the effort […] reflects a childlike freedom that catches fire, without scruple, on what others have already done.” “They desire […]not to seek and filter the eternal out of the transient, [but] rather to make the transient eternal” Adorno’s writing rebels against the mythic moment of resolution in the dialectic that has been established, in the shadows of the bourgeois home, or the sallow light of Kierkegaard’s crepuscule. It tarries in the Mahlerian melisma. Its movement is the elucidation of that transient light of joy, against the dull commodity light of the bourgeois interior. This light appears in the fragment as “The aura of what has not become [des nicht gewordenen] that encircles those who died young, like a semblance of holiness, does not fade for adults either.” This brightness blazes from the past subjunctive, that which could have been but was not. Hence, “The dead are transfigured into children for whom the possible would still be possible, because they have not been”. This attachment of the dead child to potentiality appears to reverse a position in Adorno’s critique of Kierkegaard. There Kierkegaard is criticised for such a wish for potentiality, as the utopian fulfillment induced by such an infinite and indeterminate wish is nothing but the absolute determination of the inwardness of the subject: “Such ‘potentiality’ is not so much a mirage of what has been lost as an unfulfilled, thin, prophetic, but nonetheless exact schema of what is to be.” Against this hope qua potentiality in the infinite wish, Adorno defends a finite hope “that is frustrated in the factual world” which “utopianly and concretely grasps in the name what is denied to it by the world of alienated objects.” The importance of this finite wish to Adorno is its refusal to sacrifice the semblance of hope – that joyful brightness – that appears in the aesthetic, but which itself is not a specification of utopia. The finite wish attaches to the transience of that shine, illuminating momentarily in the fissures of culture. “No truer image of hope can be imagined than that of ciphers, readable as traces, dissolving in history, disappearing in front of overflowing eyes, indeed confirmed in lamentation.” In spite of the indeterminacy of the “what could have become”, the child is marked determinately in death. Potential functions in the wish only where it concretely has not become.
Nonetheless, this “what could have become”, the unfulfilled potential of the child who dies, does gain importance for Adorno, but only where hope is conjoined with remembrance. In another iteration of this dialectic, Adorno writes,
The pronouncement, probably by Jean Paul, that memories are the only possessions, which no-one can take from us, belongs in the storehouse of impotently sentimental consolations […] In setting up his own archives, the subject seizes his own stock of experiences as property, and makes it something wholly external to himself. Past inner life is turned into furniture, just as conversely, every Biedermeier piece was memory made wood. The Intérieur where the soul accommodates its collection of memoirs and curios is derelict. Memories [Erinnerungen] cannot be conserved in draws and pigeonholes; rather, in them, the past is indissolubly woven into the present.
The home, with its dull commodity light, becomes a house of memories. In this transformation, the bourgeois-spiritual life is recast as the interior of a house in which it glorifies its own light in a permanent script of ornamental detritus. These memories rip like shards of death into the spiritual body of the house-made-human, less a promise of a hope, than damnation into permanent affliction. The introduction of memory into this critique shifts the perspective. Constant expectation – that the future will be like the past through the constant sacrifice of the present - is replaced with the movement of the permanent integration through identification of history with the life of the individual. Possession of memory, just like possession of a commodity, produces the deceptive belief that one is the master of all of one’s misfortunes. Adorno will not promote the annihilation of those commodities, following Kierkegaard into an objectless interior, in which “as mere imageless spirit, memory destroys the pictorial configuration of hope.” Instead Adorno demands a destruction of the relation of property, unleashing what is transient in those objects as semblance. Here he invokes a radical notion of individual memory that attaches to that transient semblance – which he refers to in Minima Moralia as the Proustian “mémoire involontaire” [unwillkürliches Eingedenken]. So strong is this impulse for radical individual memory transecting in through semblance the historical domination of nature that it appears even in our fragment. Adorno’s first sentence holds a secret content: the death of the one he loved refers to his aunt Agathe, who had died a year previously. Agathe, an opera singer, was the most important musical influence on Adorno’s bourgeois youth. Thus this bow, whose ends strain together, is doubled: the loss of children returns as the loss of childhood in maturity. The strain of this second bow, from tenderness into loss, is composed of the aging of a human life.
This radical memory-form appears in Adorno’s fragment as the repeated figure of ‘Verkleinerung’ [making smaller]. The light of joy “is not able to enclose their distracted and abandoned life otherwise than by making it smaller” [indem es verkleinert]. This happens to the dead through memory.” then, “it is as if through remembrance all the happiness that never was has been preserved in miniature [Verkleinert] in these measures” These descriptions echo a sentence from the Kierkegaard book: “If the expansive self in its full dimension is lost in sacrifice, it is rescued as the vanishing by making itself small [wird es als Verschwindendes gerettet durch Verkleinerung]. This Verkleinerung is the resistance of the individual to becoming a mere point, it is the aesthetic trace of extinction into the interior. It represents not a relation of property, in which the damage of the individual’s life is locked within him, but instead the possibility the catastrophic life holds for joyful illumination.
If Rückert was an urban bourgeois, glorifying his home, and Mahler a grand bourgeois in the moment of its decline, whose music bid farewell to bourgeois childhood, Adorno is a child of the Kindertotenlieder. His maturity is the modernity in which the catastrophe appears. Bourgeois childhood has not just been irrevocably lost in age, but childhood has been objectively obliterated.
Just as in Rückert and Mahler, the bourgeois home reappears at the end of Adorno’s fragment. But here a critical transformation occurs: Adorno writes, “uncomprehending love can only comprehend death as if the last farewell were that of children who will come home again.” In the inversion of both Rückert and of Mahler, This home appears in the subjunctive. This home is the redeemed world.. Through the determinate hope of semblance, the bourgeois home is granted a new utopic form, a realm of eternal happiness without sacrifice. There is no transfiguration of the dead child into the mythic petrified body of the mother; instead the entirety of those annihilated in catastrophe are to be transfigured into the dead child. In this figure, they illuminate the truth of a catastrophic world: of what could have been but was not. “We can hope for the dead only as if for children.” It is “a wish that does not accommodate itself to sacrifice and rises in the collapse of existence, becoming luminous as it passes away. […]It is the cell of a materialism whose vision is focused on “a better world “ – not to forget the dreams of the present world, but to change it by the strength of an image.”
 That this moment was important to Adorno is indicated by a sentence in his third radio-lectures on Mahler music 1960. There he wrote, “The Kindertotenlieder are the mystical cell of Mahler’s symphonies – the word ‘cell’ [Zelle] is sung once in them.”, in Gesammelte Schriften, p 618 (trans. mine.)
 Adorno, ‘Night Music’ in Night Music, p. 91. Although his essay was firs published in 1929 in the journal Anbruch, it was written in 1926, as can be seen from his letter to Alban Berg in Adorno-Berg Correspondence, trans. p. 59 etc. It was republished by Adorno in 1964 in his book of essays on music, Moments Musicaux,
 Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’, in Selected Writings Volume 1, p. 248.
 Adorno, Kierkegaard, p. 109.
 Adorno, Kierkegaard, pp. 109-110
 Adorno, Kierkegaard, p. 126
 Adorno, ‘The Essay as Form’ in Notes to Literature Volume 1, p. 152 and p. 159.
 Adorno, Kierkegaard, p. 124.
 Adorno, Kierkegaard, p. 126.
 Adorno, Kierkegaard, p. 109.
History in Darkness: Siegfried Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses
This text was prepared as a talk for the Anguish Language/Literature and Crisis seminar at Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik, Berlin, 1-4 October, 2013.
Apologia is an unusual mode of writing today today, outside of the world of politics, yet under the current conditions of global economic crisis, I have written an apologia for a text that is today rarely read, but which seems to demand it. Kracauer’sThe Salaried Masses, written in 1929 and published in 1930 is an exceptional text – and one which remains hugely exciting to read – that has fallen into obscurity. While that obscurity began with forty years of the text becoming virtually unknown after the beginning of Nazi rule, until its republication by Suhrkamp in the early-1970s, its later obscurity seems to be more of a result of its unusual form, and that it belonged to a genre of writing that had long-since died. The text was translated and published by Verso about 15 years ago, but has received little attention in the English-speaking world.
Kracauer’s little book was strangely prescient offering descriptions and arguments that precede the critiques of spectacle and the everyday made by situationists in the 1950s and 1960s as well as touching on issues that became important to Italian left-communist and workerist thought in the 1960s and 1970s regarding the questions of the labour process, immaterial labour, class composition, and crisis (although in a text written forty years earlier we are spared the language which today has rigidified into jargon.) The following seven fragments are reflections on this text – an attempt to bring it to life again in our own time of crisis, and to examine something of a mode of writing Kracauer developed, its theoretical difficulties, and the fruit that it bore.
October 1929 was the moment of the greatest economic catastrophe in the history of capitalist accumulation. It was also the month in which the text of Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses would be completed. The first stuttering of economic collapse became apparent in March that year, as the Dow Jones tumbled. A month later, Kracauer would begin three months of visits to locations of importance to a newly expanded white-collar class in the German metropolis. His investigations were not confined to offices and workplaces, but included also department stores, unemployment and benefits claims offices, and dance halls. His project could not be content with describing, in fine distinction, the latest developments of the labour process, for this process spilled out of the offices, into the street and the night. The enormous crisis of capitalism is not mentioned by name in the text, but is alluded to on a number of occasions, often haunting the book as the spectre of unemployment. In the opening chapter he writes,
The proletarianisation of employees is beyond dispute. At all events, similar social conditions prevail for broad layers of salary earners as for the proletariat. An industrial reserve-army of salaried employees has come into being. The view that this is a temporary phenomenon is countered by the alternative view that it could be dismantled only along with the system that conjured it up.
Elsewhere he will refer to “the overabundant supply of workers and the present-day shortage of openings.” Or of the fear of redundancy in middle age, with no prospect for re-employment. By the time of the publication of The Salaried Masses as a book in 1930, several months after its chapters were published in the newspaper, the Frankfurter Zeitung, the crisis would be referred to more explicitly in a preface: “No question about it, industry and commerce find themselves in a particularly difficult situation today.” Unemployment and a new fungibility of workers in his new class is the centre of Kracauer’s study, but from its object of a new salaried class, the relation of literature to crisis might be explored in a different direction. As the new conditions of labour spilled out of the workplaces, a new ‘employee culture’ began to predominate in Berlin. Kracauer consistently characterises this new culture in relation to the bourgeois culture of the nineteenth century: as that bourgeois culture declined into war and large-scale industry in which small industries were conglomerated, and capital came into the ownership and control of the state, its image became fixed in the minds of this new class, while its contents were emptied.
The position of these strata in the economic process has changed, their middle-class conception of life has remained. They nurture a false consciousness. They would like to defend differences, the acknowledgment of which obscures their situation; they devote themselves to an individualism that would be justified only if they could shape their fate as individuals. Even where they struggle as wage-earners in and with their unions for better conditions of existence, their real existence is often conditioned by the better one they once had. A vanished bourgeois way of life haunts them.
The decline of bourgeois culture into such spießig sensibilities at the end of the nineteenth century is immensely complex. But perhaps its most well-known cultural consequence was the end of the novel – at least in the form in which it had existed since the end of the eighteenth century, as the pre-eminent genre for the description of the transformation of inner psychological states of that bourgeois class. As Benjamin noted,
The Novel seems from the outset to be more evidently aimed at consumption, unproductive enjoyment than other forms of art. Elsewhere, I have explored the analogy between the novel and food in greater depth. The time when this type of food possessed any nutritional value has long since passed, and the ‘popularity\ of art, something that today is represented by popular novels, has long since ceased to have anything productive or nourishing about it – unlike the novel at the time of the incipient emancipation of the bourgeoisie. Nowadays it is rather the expression of the complete integration of this type of writing into the world of commodity circulation.
Three years later, Benjamin would write of the crisis of bourgeois culture again:
In our writing, opposites that in happier ages fertilized one another have become insoluble antinomies. Thus, science and belle lettres, criticism and literary production, culture and politics, fall apart in disorder and lose all connection with one another. The scene of this literary confusion is the newspaper.
Kracauer had been an editor of the feuilleton section of the left-leaning Frankfurter Zeitung since 1924. As a writer he produced almost 200 articles for the paper between 1921 and 1933. As an editor he was responsible for commissioning and publishing many modernist fragments in the form that came to be known as the Denkbild (literally the thought-image), by writers such as Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. If we are to understand The Salaried Masses as standing in the feuilleton tradition, it occupies the ground of the crossroads between these two crises – the crisis of bourgeois culture, and the economic crisis of 1929. If this new class were attached to a set of nineteenth century ideals, however deformed those ideals had become in the process, their fantasy was sustainable as long as their employment granted a certain existential security. In the crisis of 1929, this security would begin to break down, revealing – through that spectre of unemployment – every corruption and every emptiness of the culture that had been created. The place of expression, the form that would finally at this moment overtake the novel, was the feuilleton. In 1931, Benjamin wrote,
It is poverty that compresses the creativity of our best talents today, with an enormous atmospheric pressure. In this way, talent finds its refuge in the dark belly of the feuilleton, as if in the belly of a wooden horse, from which one day this creativity will emerge and set alight the Troy of the modern press.
But the age of radical feuilletonisme was to be short-lived. That same historical movement that saw the small-time cosmopolitan bourgeoisie shifted into the world of proletarianised salaried employement would catch up with it. In 1932, the Frankfurter Zeitung was bought by the huge German chemical conglomerate I. G. Farben. In 1933, Kracauer fled Berlin for Paris.
Wie herrlich leuchtet
Mir die Natur!
Wie glänzt die Sonne!
Wie lacht die Flur!
— J. W. Goethe
There is no sun. Benjamin wrote in a review of Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, that if we want to visualise the book’s author, we see,
A ragpicker at daybreak, lancing with his stick scraps of language and tatters of speech in order to throw them into his cart, grumblingly, stubbornly, somewhat the worse for drink, and not without now and again letting one or other of those faded calicoes – ‘humanity’, ‘inner nature’, ‘enrichment – flutter ironically in the dawn breeze. A ragpicker at daybreak – in the dawn of the day of revolution.
Thirty years later, Adorno would describe Gustav Mahler, whose music preceded Kracauer’s book by thirty years in similar terms:
Free as only one can be who has not himself been entirely swallowed by culture, in his musical vagrancy he picks up the broken glass from the roadside and holds it up to the sun so that all the colours are refracted.
Benjamin, adopting imagery from Baudelaire, does a certain violence to the relentless vitriol of Kracauer’s book. There is no sun. It is not just that this day of revolution failed to dawn, but that in the history of those decades between the bourgeois cultural pessimism and décadentisme within which Mahler was so at home, and the shuddering of financial capitals in ’29, while Kracauer surveyed the corporate officers of Berlin, those colours had been integrated, subsumed, and transformed into artifice. There was no clearing of this storm; only the darkened shockwaves through the bodies of workers. Kracauer’s object is a world of rooms flooded with light, but “the light blinds more than it illuminates – and perhaps the abundance of light pouring out over our large towns serves not least to increase the darkness.”
Elsewhere in The Salaried Masses, Kracauer would describe an amusement hall in Berlin:
The fact that nineteenth-century panoramas are coming back into such high regard in all these establishments is related to the monotony of work. The more monotony holds sway over the working day, the further away you must be transported once work ends – assuming that attention is to be diverted from the process of production in the background. The true counterstroke against the office machine, however, is the world of vibrant colour. The world not as it is, but as it appears in popular hits. A world every last corner of which is cleansed, as though with a vacuum cleaner, of the dust of everyday existence.
Where colour and light belong to the enemy, where they no longer offer any beautiful illumination, Kracauer’s dark diagnostic of technics and rationality examines, from within that darkness, how this world comes to appear under the artificial glare. There is no sun. In the final paragraphs of his book, Kracauer makes this explicit: “Nature”, he writes, “which is also embodied in capitalistic desire, is one of the system’s most powerful allies; and […] its perpetual glorification, moreover, conflicts with the planned organization of economic life.” The Salaried Masses is not only a sunless book, but also a type of writing, a mode of expression, that no dawning day could ever redeem.
This omnipresent darkness, this sunlessness, offers quite an unusual problem constellated between human expression, literature or the work of writing, and capitalist crisis. In essay called ‘Reflections on Class Theory’ written in 1942, but never published in his lifetime, Adorno wrote that “from the most recent form of injustice, a steady light reflects back on history as a whole. Only in this way can theory enable us to use the full weight of history to gain an insight into the present without succumbing in resignation to the burden of the past.” Adopting Kracauer’s gaze, one of steely realism, I would like to subject this figure from Adorno that looks like a metaphor, this ‘steady light’, to some scrutiny, that might help us not only to consider Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses as crisis literature, but also to think more generally about some of the difficulties and determinations of the nexus of literature and crisis. This steady light has a number of aliases in Adorno’s oeuvre. Perhaps most famously it is the ‘Messianic light’ at the end of Minima Moralia, or elsewhere in that text as ‘the holiness of life that shines forth’ that we receive only refracted. When Adorno writes about Mahler, this light is almost always the sun. Under these aliases it becomes clearer that this light is neither straightforwardly a metaphor, nor is this just any light. Adorno never says anything of the quality of this light, but it seems hardly possible that this light could be much like any of those described in Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, whether the “cupboard-like contraption studded with coloured light bulbs” in a paperless office, from which “the manager can at all times determine the state of work in individual departments” or “the beneficent influence exercised by the flood of light, not just upon the urge to buy but also upon the staff, [which] might at most consist of the staff being sufficiently duped to put up with their mean, poorly lit homes.” All of this is to come to a point strictly concerning the philosophy of history [Geschichtsphilosophie]. For Adorno’s steady light shines through those intransigent structures of the temporality of capitalist accumulation. Within the fixity, the permanence, of this temporality, capitalism becomes the history of accumulated injustices, of piles of bodies ground into commodities. For as long as capital continues to accumulate, this like shines steadily backwards. But is there not another history here? There is a danger of a radical oversimplification of the history of capitalism in the image projected by that steady light, such that forever critique works upon those persistent elements that define capitalism’s temporal core [Zeitkern]. What this misses is something like an inner-history of capitalism, one that registers capitalism’s own moments of weakness, and most particularly each crisis of capitalism that doesn’t emerge as its final destruction is degraded by this light into an account of those repressions and retrenchments that ensue returning capital to profit through new rationalisations and new constrictions of humanity. In that Messianic light is something like Grossmann’s old theory of the law of collapse of capitalist systems, in which each crisis is referred back, albeit distantly, to the most general tendency of the rate of profit to fall. What are passed over by this light are the specificities of capital’s own destructive tendencies. This light attaches itself to the newest technics only to forget that held within them are materially particular means of destroying old capitals, new modes of defuncting and disposal of old ways of profit and life. It misses each crisis that is not final in favour of a history whose secret intention is always that final crisis. Where capitalism becomes the perpetual ruination of human beings, all of whose life and work may one day be redeemed, the movement of capital’s inner-history lies frozen.
I want to propose, then, in dealing with the literature of crisis, and in particular Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, that we think about a history of darknesses, of a world blinded by artificial light, of the work depicted masked from dawn. Such a demand, such a philosophy of history, is likely to elicit two objections. The first is that the though is, as Adorno says, resigned. That the critic is reduced to a mere glossator of the actually existing, who ultimately, and in beautiful prose, furnishes the world of things with powerless reflections. The second charge is that such a proposition is, at its very deepest levels, nihilistic, and that under its gaze catastrophe may be met only with catastrophe. These are powerful criticisms, insofar as they suggest that we are not dealing here with a revolutionary or utopic text. Against them, The Salaried Masses might dissolve into reformism or a bitter sarcasm. But nonetheless, Kracauer’s sunless study points to an idealism smuggled in the faith that the next crisis is sure to be the last, or that the dissolution of capitalism will be as unified as the unity that capitalism itself imposes so violently upon the world. What does existence look like, and what does history look like, illuminated by the newest capitalist technology? These are the questions that Kracauer’s txt seeks to answer. And it is in this sense that Kracauer would endorse the explosive power of reality. Under that light it seems to Kracauer that always too much has been shown, that unlike the sun, these lights illuminate too indiscriminately, revealing in this writing a world of crisis.
What does it mean to imagine such a darkness stretching (or splintering) through history? It might not lend us the full weight of history to gain an insight into the present, but searching for those sunless texts might just open a space for a description of capitalism, its inner-historical shape, and the qualities of those moments of crisis before retrenchment and repression, before the return to accumulation as normal. We might find traces of this sunless history elsewhere, or begin to write it for our own time.
3. Scientific Instruments
What just was will probably soon be forgotten. Only an empty, awful memory hangs in the air. Who was defended? Foul, wretched profiteers. What was young had to fall, was forced to die for ends so alien and inimical to spirit, but the despicable ones were saved, and now they sit in their comfortable drawing rooms. Not one of them was lost, but those who waved other flags, so much bloom, so much dream, so much hope for the spirit, are dead.
Ernst Bloch’s not, composed at the end of the First World War alludes to a story about the recovery of global capitalism from the long crisis at the end of the nineteenth century. The enormous production of ever more highly technized, ever more efficacious machines for unimagined mass slaughter. Benjamin would write fifteen years later that,
A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds, and at its centre, in a forcefield of destructive torrents and explosions, a tiny fragile human body. With this tremendous development of technology, a completely new poverty has descended on mankind.
But this is only half of the story of that recovery. The other half, one of equally technized death, is that of the development of mass production, from Frederick Winslow Taylor’s 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management, to the Ford plants with their conveyor belts. As Ford wrote,
The principles of assembly are these:
(1) Place the tools and the men in the sequence of operation so that each component shall travel the least possible distance while in the process of finishing.
(2) Use work slides or some other form of carrier so that when a workman completes his operation, he drops the part always in the same place – which place must always be the most convenient place to his hand – and if possible to have gravity carry the part to the next workman for his operation.
(3) Use sliding assembly lines by which the parts to be assembled are delivered at convenient distances.
By the time of Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, he would be examining “the irruption of machine and ‘assembly-line’ methods into the clerical departments of big firms.” I want to focus for a moment, and perhaps this seems outrageous, on something in Ford’s words: that is, sliding. It might seem like an unusual claim, but part of the possibility of a return to growth after that long crisis was the result of fixed capital moving in a particular way, in the sliding of components of a commodity through a factory. This sliding is something from which political economy, and indeed the critique of political economy, has normally averted its gaze. This quality of capital seems somehow unimportant, or at least unassuming, next to the analysis of the circulation of money, the development of forms of credit, or theories of surplus value. But it is on movements like this sliding, the qualities of systems of fixed capital, that the glaring artificial light of Kracauer’s critique falls.
For a book formed out of twelve articles published in a newspaper, Kracauer offers a great deal of methodological argumentation. Reportage, the mode of this book, is as much an object to be critically studied as the labour process, class composition, and contemporary entertainment activity. The crucial term for understanding the animation of the machinery under the artificial light of Kracauer’s prose is alienation. For too long in the study of literature, the notion of alienated writing has been presumed to belong solely to a mode initiated by Brecht, under his famous concept of the Verfremdungseffekt:
A technique of taking human social incidents to be portrayed and labelling them as something striking, something that calls for explanation, is not to be taken for granted, not just natural.
Kracauer’s writing as alienated writing perhaps belongs under this general definition from Brecht, but it has a further specificity deriving from spirit. In the first chapter of The Salaried Masses Kracauer describes his work of writing as something akin to an ethnography. He is to be a foreign observer entering an ‘unknown territory’, but unlike a sojourn to some far-off land, this unknown territory is in the city in which he lives, Berlin. The figure of a territory or an alien landscape, one conditioned more by the physical movements of fixed capital than by a forcefield of destructive torrents and explosions, recurs throughout the text, reaching its highest extravagance in a passage describing this keen observer listening to the conversations of employees of a firm in which they discuss their social statuses with regard to other employees:
The unsuspecting layman observing these immense differences of importance feels as though a new cosmos full of abysses and peaks were coming into view beneath his microscope lens. A chasm of impressive depth yawns likewise between, for example, technical and commercial employees in industry. The latter, according to the report of one victim, treat the former with disdain, and like to make them wait like unimportant customers; while the former, on the other hand, nurture the prejudice that their work alone should be seen as productive.
The movement, the shifts and slides, in these few sentences requires some attention. Within this first sentence, “The unsuspecting layman observing those immense differences of importance feels as though a new cosmos full of abysses and peaks were coming into view beneath his microscope lens”, there is a faint echo of a line from the first German preface to Das Kapital. Describing his new science of the critique of political economy, Marx writes,
The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money form, is very simple and slight in content. Nevertheless, the human mind [Menschengeist] has sought in vain, for more than 2000 years to get to the bottom of it, while on the other hand there has been at least an approximation to a successful analysis of forms which are much richer in content and more complex. Why? Because the complete body is easier to study than its cells. Moreover in the analysis of economic forms, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction alone must replace both. But for bourgeois society, the commodity form of the product of labour, or the value-form of the commodity, is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy.
This passage from Marx has troubled me for a number of years. While the microscope, this instrument of scientific experimentation and discovery is said to be of no use, an analogy is maintained between a body composed of microscopic cells and capitalism composed of its own commodity-cells. Their investigation is to be undertaken with an instrument powered only by abstraction. My question has always been this: what kind of image appears under the lens of such an instrument? Readers of Das Kapital will be familiar with the myriad literary forms that it contains, often juxtaposed. It would probably be presumptuous to suggest, however, that such a contraption powered by abstraction generates montages. Nonetheless this image in Marx appears less as a unified whole than as a set of juxtapositions and layers that process through each other. Our ‘superficial observer’ in Marx, confused by the minutiae beneath the lens is echoed in Kracauer with an ‘unsuspecting layman’. But what is most explosive about this sentence is that the unsuspecting layman, surrounded by this strange and foreign landscape, discovers it “beneath his microscope lens.” There is no explanation as to why the layman, not an expert or scientist would have this technologized gaze. It is that artificial light again, revealing all too many microscopic details, but here it illuminates a set of social relations between workers, each group in competition with the others to prove their true economic worth. That such an apparatus produces a foreboding foreign landscape is not insignificant. Laying these two scientific instruments side by side, we might discover their difference: while Marx’s contraption is powered by abstraction, Kracauer’s is a microscope powered by alienation.
The gaze through this instrument fixes itself to the qualities of things that would rather go unnoticed, on the sliding motion of bits of capital, on the organicism in management ideology, on the labour exchange that resembles the railway marshalling yard with the unemployed pushed along its tracks. But this micrology, this optic of the darkness of the blinding artificial glare, does not offer any pure imagistic reproduction of reality. Just as the foreign ethnographer in writing ethnography understands, ultimately, only his foreignness from the society that he observes, Kracauer’s prose understands the world alienated not so much in still reproduction but in the dynamics that confront and involve the viewer. Those qualities of capital as means of alienation cannot, for Kracauer, be photographed. This would be the basis for the beginning of a radical and critical journalistic practice, standing in opposition to the reporters of his time.
A hundred reports from a factory do not add up to the reality of a factory, but remain for all eternity a hundred views of a factory. Reality is a construction. Certainly life must be observed for it to appear. Yet it is by no means contained in the more or less random observational results of reportage; rather, it is found solely in the mosaic that is assembled from single observations on the basis of comprehension of their meaning. Reportage photographs life; such a mosaic would be its image.
These images cannot be made real by photographs because, more than anything, they move and refuse to be frozen. They move both in physical reality and in history. Their construction into a radical reportage, into an alien image is a form of animation. Every moment of alienation to which this microscopic gaze is subject is determined by new movements of capital. A similar attention to these movements and qualities would be given a year later by Dziga Vertov in his film Enthusiasm. But there the setting remained industrial. The movements of capital in a service environment show up less well on film: this microscope would produce journalism.
It would help, in order to understand these methodological claims, to examine a slightly lengthier piece of writing from The Salaried Masses. This section is from a chapter that describes the reformist, practical, everyday work of trade unionists. Kracauer describes this as ‘repair work’, which even while practiced for humanistic ends, is fully integrated into the world of 1920s capitalism.
No matter whether the employee representatives practice moderation or not, in the consolidated economy they in any case de facto have numerous repairs to carry out – sometimes despite themselves, even where they are combating the prevailing economic order. Like Hegelian reason, this order has its ruses and for the time being is strong enough to fill with ambiguity even actions that do not accept its continued existence. This does not prevent relations between works councils and employers often breaking down. Then in certain cases repairs are made, on neutral ground in public and in the light of day. Such light disenchants physiognomies. Plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses are as bare as the hearing chamber of the Labour Court in which they assemble. No make-up brings the girls’ faces into flower, and every pimple on those of the men is visible in close-up. They are like Sunday trippers in reverse: Sunday trippers torn away from their work who, rather than wandering free, and self-consciously trapped out in their best clothes, have been robbed of their finery and are far away from the glamour of the evening. While they talk, huddle, and wait, the memory awakens of those military recruitment centres in which miserable, naked men were registered as fit for war service. Just as there it revealed not so much the nakedness as the war, so here it really reveals not wretched people but the conditions that make people wretched. In its austere glow minute details emerge with unwonted clarity, which are anything but minute details: for when taken together they characterise the economic life that spawns them. We must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is major events which most determine a person. He is much more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up, and his fate is certainly linked predominantly to the sequence of these miniature occurrences. They become apparent in the Labour Court, in front of the long raised table behind which the chairman of the court is enthroned between two assessors representing employers and employees respectively. The three judges usually reach their decision at once, after a short deliberation in the cabinet separated off from the courtroom itself. Summary jurisdiction is made possible by its wholly oral character. Use of paper is limited, only the chairman knows the documents. Thanks to the directness of the question-and-answer game to which no attorney gives a final legal polish, the chairman is more dependent on his instinct than in a regular court. The necessity of improvisation produces a kind of atmospheric tension, sometimes transmitted even to the court clerk.
The parties unpack their wares: nothing but little parcels of woe. They depict the state of affairs, reply to the chairman and his assessors, and address one another. Sometimes one party behaves as though the other were not present. As a rule the complaints are brought by people who have been sacked. For instance, dismissals without notice may be involved. That they can occur lawfully is shown by the following trifling matter. A woman buys shoes in a large store, where the plaintiff is employed – she works in the stocking department. The woman knows the plaintiff personally and would like to purchase some stockings from her to go with her shoes. The stocking sales-girl evidently subordinates commercial interest to the personal relationship, since she tells the woman that she could have bought the shoes more cheaply elsewhere. Because of her wrong-headed world-view the girl gets the sack – and her appeal is rejected. 
Despite being relatively easy to read, this is a very complex piece of text that moves in a peculiar way. I would like to suggest one way of reading it that might allow it to become at least a little more open, that might offer some explanation of the power of the critique that this text imposes on the society it examines. My claim is that the key to this passage is one of the more unassuming sentences: “No make-up brings the girls faces to flower, and every pimple on those of the men is visible in close-up.” These are the objects of a cinematic optic, of a way of seeing that had been massively popularised in the previous decade, and about which Kracauer would later write two books. This same bright light of the court projects into the senses a flashback of the military recruitment centre. But this light is just that: a projector, whose beam animates figures, not quite human. Every figure in this cinematic life is projected, made themselves of the light they so wish to escape in order that they may become human again. This is history and social actuality illuminated by the latest capitalist technology. Life, in this way, is lit up, so that the everyday appears as a series of miniature catastrophes. Every act dehumanises more, and the force of necessity demands that the “parcels of woe” that constitute a person’s existence are unpacked onto the screen. But where this critique is most radical, in the blinding light as the scenes are cut together, the viewer might just turn round and glimpse the projector and its beam, as the conditions that make people wretched. Kracauer’s text, in its own movement, encourages us to dwell on such qualities of pieces of capital.
The German word ‘Glanz’ has three meanings: foremost it is a shine or a shimmer, a brilliance reflected on an object, but it also means ‘glamour’, and finally like its cognate in English, ‘glance’, it is a fleeting contact with an object’s surface. Glanz is all about surface, and is used by Kracauer to describe a certain historical transformation of culture from its bourgeois 19th-century form.
Nothing is more characteristic of this life, which only in a restricted sense can be called a life, than its view of higher things. Not as substance, but as glamour [Glanz]. Yielded not through concentration but in distraction. ‘Why do people spend so much time in bars?’ asks one employee I know. ‘Probably because they are so miserable at home and they want to get a bit of glamour [Glanz].’ ‘Home’, by the way, should not be taken to mean just a lodging but an everyday existence outlined in advertisements in magazines for employees. These mainly concern: pens; Kohinoor pencils; haemorrhoids; hair loss; beds; crêpe soles; white teeth; rejuvenation elixirs; selling coffee to friend; dictaphones; writer’s cramp; trembling, especially when in the presence of others; quality pianos on weekly instalments; and so on.”
One of the major qualitative shifts that Kracauer identifies, one animated in this crisis optic, is a flattening of life and culture. Object whose depths were plumbed with contemplation are now glanced at distractedly, but this is all that is required since they, the objects themselves, lost their third dimension. The division presented between ‘home’ and ‘getting a bit of glamour offers no real distinction: Just as the nightlife presents nothing but gleaming surfaces, even the commodities that sustain life have been transformed. They are no longer wholesome, but appear flattened into the pages of magazines. The dreams of these masses of salaried workers were not so much cornucopias, utopias of commodities piled high, but rather the endless images of commodities, the prospective purchase that might be glanced at, over one’s shoulder on the morning commute, and approved of. This is culture, but one necessarily flattened, as the true objects and relations of bourgeois culture have decayed.
This relation to a decayed bourgeois culture, this super-decadence, infects not only the world of entertainment but the workplace. Kracauer describes a scene from a firm’s training programme:
When the middle class girls were still in a state of prosperity, many girls who now punch cards used to stumble through etudes at home on the pianoforte. Music, at least, has not entirely vanished from a process that the National Board for Economic Viability has defined as follows: “Rationalisation is the application of all means offered by technology and systematic organisation to the raising of economic viability, and therewith increasing the production of goods, reducing their costs, and improving them.” No, it has not quite gone. I know of an industrial plant that hires girls straight from high school with a salary and lets them be trained at the typewriter by a teacher of their own. The wily teacher winds up the gramophone and the pupils have to type in time with its tunes. When merry military marches ring out, they all march ahead twice as lightly. The rotation speed of the record is gradually increased, and without the girls really noticing it they tap faster and faster. In their training years they turn into speed typists – music has wrought the cheaply purchased miracle.
The history of the piano étude, or study, is an extraordinarily interesting one. These were training pieces, most commonly associated originally with names like that of Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny, leading later in the nineteenth century to the production of systems for acquiring comprehensive piano technique as in Hanon. But the étude, as a form, arose in a very particular social setting: that of the early-nineteenth century bourgeois home, with its piano placed in the parlour. The étude was a form designed to train the urban bourgeoisie in being able to reproduce music in their own homes. Later, of course, in the hands of Liszt and Chopin, the étude grew to become its own autonomous musical form, supported by a mid-nineteenth century cult of virtuoso. But where this need for musical reproduction in the home was technologized, first with player pianos, and later with the gramophone, the étude was made defunct. It is only where this music has become alienated through its own technical and technological means of reproduction that it may safely be reintroduced into the workplace. Where once the bourgeois reproduced music on her instrument, in the 1920s the music was to instrumentalise the human body for the service of profit. In 1942, Adorno wrote in an essay, ‘On the Problem of a New Type of Human Being’ – a text remarkably close to Kracauer’s,
The objects of action are changing. Their mechanisation means that people must ‘adapt’ in their use of everyday devices to an incomparably higher degree than ever before. The act of driving a car or repairing a radio requires an infinitely greater subordination to the nature of those objects than the work of a craftsman for example. Even during the entire era of 19th-century industrial capitalism, the functions of the individual – at least in his free time – were not remotely as dependent on technology as they are today. The game, itself, becomes governed by the technical structure of things.
Taken together, these two forms of rationalisation – the flattening of objects in the world, and the technical mastery of the human body – a new set of effects are developed out of capitalism. Forgetting arguments so common today, that the predominance of immaterial labour is the effect of an economic crisis in the 1970s, we discover in Kracauer a legion of examples of jobs that demand solely that employees too are flattened into attractive surfaces, and in particular surfaces that glisten with youth. We might return here to our cinematic vision of the Labour Court, in which the girls appear broken by their lack of make-up and the men’s faces exhibit pimples in close up. Humans were made cinematic, as though flattened onto a silver screen from which they had no means of escaping. The person became Glanz.
6. Used Up
In the famous ‘Fragment on Machines’ in the Grundrisse, Marx writes:
Fixed capital can enter into circulation as value, however, only to the extent that it passes away as use value in the production process. It pass, as value, into the product – i.e. as labour time worked up and stored in it – in so far as it passes away in its independent form as use value. In being used, it is used up, but in such a way that its value is carried over from its form into the form of the product. If it is not used, not consumed in the production process itself – if the machinery stands still, the iron rusts, the wood rots – then of course its value passes away together with its transitory presence as use value.
This passage might explain something about the spectre of unemployment that haunts Kracauer’s little book. Unemployment was radically changed by this great era of rationalisations of the labour process at the beginning of the twentieth century, in which workers’ bodies became more closely bonded to the specific movements of machines, while specific demands were made of the appearance or Glanz of the employees. For many, the great fear was old age, but this fear doubles through these two determinations of the rationalisation process: that of the body subordinated to the machine; and that of the image of youth. Kracauer describes this subjection of employees to machine work in clerical labour:
The big banks and other firms in which expensive investment pays have mainly gone over to proper mechanisation. The commercial advantages of machine methods can hardly be overestimated; to take just one example, they enable the current-account departments in banks to make up accounts in the shortest possible time and update them hourly. Thanks to the intellectual labour invested in the equipment, its handmaidens are spared the possession of knowledge; if attendance at a commercial college were not compulsory they would need to know nothing at all. The mysteries of the firm are a closed book to them, since they deal only with figures. Just one thing is required of them: attention. This cannot wander free, but is under the control of the apparatus it controls.
Or more sardonically he quips,
The National Board for Economic Viability’s definition [of rationalisation] has no place for the term ‘human beings’. Perhaps it has been forgotten because it no longer plays a very important role. Yet employees are continually to be found who register its elimination as a loss.
Capitalist crises are times of great destructions of capital. Whether in the financial form of the junking of debt or in the industrial form of the mothballing or demolition of factories; either way the machine stops moving. Old age in the era of rationalisation meant being used up at the same rate at which the machine you worked at was. In the crisis, those machines were not used up, but alongside the employees were junked. The iron rusted, the wood rotted. This was a new form of unemployment borne out of a new type of mechanical specialisation: both the general destructiveness of the crisis, and its specific mode of destroying life. Kracauer quotes, at one point, from responses to a survey of unemployed members of the Gewerkschaftsbund der Angestellten conducted near the beginning of 1929:
1) Former manager with approximately 400 Reichsmark salary. Obliged to sell furniture and fur coat and let out his room. I am forty years old and married. Father of two children (boy, three and a half, girl, six months). Unemployed since April 1, 1925.
2) Thirty-nine, married, three children (fourteen, twelve, nine). Three years earning nothing. Future? Work, mad-house, or turn on the gas.
3) Male, redundant, because military candidates were taken on. I sold my furniture. Before the war several businesses of my own, which I had to give up as a result of the war and call-up. When I came home my wife died. All my savings were stolen away by the great national fraud (inflation). Now I am fifty-one, so everywhere I hear, “we don’t take people of that age”. The final step for me is suicide. The German state is our murderer.
4) I am spiritually broken and sometimes entertain thoughts of suicide. Moreover I have lost confidence in all men. Thirty-eight year old, divorced, four children.
5) Future? Hopeless, if something is not done soon for employees like me, older but fully trained, and still quite capable of working. Forty-five, married.
6) Future hopeless without prospects. Early death would be best. This is written by a 32-year old, married, and father of two children.
With the technical using up and defuncting of workers’ bodies, old age came sooner, and this was compounded by a culture of glamour and image whose artificial light was drawn to young flesh, as if it were the most sublime carrier of labour power. Kracauer writes,
‘Young people are simply easier to deal with’, is an expression frequently heard. As if older people were not even easier to deal with if anyone would just employ them. The fact that they are treated more ruthlessly than is perhaps required, even in the interest of firms’ profitability, stems in the final analysis from the general abandonment of old age nowadays. Not just employers, but the whole nation has turned against it, and in a dismaying manner, glorifies youth itself. Youth is the fetish of illustrated newspapers and their public; older people court it and rejuvenating nostrums are supposed to preserve it. If growing old means going to meet death, then this idolisation of youth is a sign of flight from death.
This rationalisation of the old and defunct into powerless wandering spirits extends out of the workplace and the illustrated newspaper, and into the conditions of life in society as a whole. Kracauer describes the conditions of the older unemployed employees as they gather in the labour exchange in order to look for small jobs.
Older people, whom they want to dispose of at all costs, are treated like problem children and have to report to the labour exchange daily. In this way, at least they have some occupation. Alas, if no other turns up their existence is not full enough to be worth prolonging – and some of them do then finally turn on the gas.
The punishment of the old – those whose machinic life is now defunct, and whose appearance reflects a duller light – is identical to that announce by George Osborne for the long-term unemployed in our own crisis. For a moment something may be glimpsed: crisis austerity transforms from something austere into its full dialectical opposite of crisis elaboration or crisis baroque, in which people’s lives are to be forced down ever more fine and complex paths, until they are no longer sustainable.
7. Notes to Literature and Crisis
Crises, where they are not seen as terminal, final, apocalyptic, must be understood as the great moments of capitalist integration. They are moments of the reorganisation of society in favour of capitalist relations. They are moments of an intensification of capital’s destructive powers, under which are piled high new peaks and abysses of human waste, or wasted humans, created as social relations shift tectonically beneath our feet. To eschew apocalypticism in crisis is perhaps the most dangerous and interesting move of Kracauer’s book. But this is therefore a hopeless and integrated text, a writing that uncannily illuminates Berlin with capital’s own technics: Utopia is exchanged for a text full of texture that one can touch, a type of writing that dwells in the physical movements and illuminations of capital understanding them to be the actuality of social relations.
In the Luna Park, of an evening, a fountain is sometimes displayed illuminated by Bengal Lights. Cones of red, yellow and green light, continually recreated, flee into the darkness. When the splendour is gone, it turns out to have come from the wretched cartilaginous structure of a few little pipes. The fountain resembles the life of many employees. From its wretchedness it escapes into distraction, lets itself be illuminated with Bengal lights and, unmindful of its origin, dissolves into the nocturnal void.
 Siegfried Kracauer, The Salaried Masses, trans. by Quinitin Hoare, p. 30.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 44.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 25.
 The Salaried Masses, pp. 81-82.
 Walter Benjamin, ‘Diary from August 7, 1931, to the Day of my Death’ in Selected Writings Volume 2, p. 544.
 Benjamin, ‘The Newspaper’ in Selected Writings Volume 2, p. 741.
 See Footnote to Mülder-Bach’s introduction to The Salaried Masses, p. 21.
 Benjamin, ‘Diary from August 7, 1931, to the Day of my Death’, p. 505. (translation amended.)
 Benjamin, ‘An Outside Attracts Attention’, in The Salaried Masses, p. 114.
 Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, p. 36.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 90.
 The Salaried Masses, pp. 93-94.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 105.
 Adorno, ‘Reflections on Class Theory’, p. 94.
 Adorno, Minima Moralia, ‘Finale’ and ‘For Anatole France’.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 41.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 90.
 Henryk Grossmann, Das Akkumulations- und Zusammenbruchsgesetz des kapitalistischen Systems.
 Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia, p. 1.
 Benjamin, ‘Experience and Poverty’, in Selected Writings Volume 2, p. 732.
 Henry Ford, My Life and Work, p. 58.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 30.
 The following sentences are a development of an argument hinted at in Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s article ‘The Dual Economics of Transition’ in CSE Pamphlet Number 1: Labour Process and Class Strategies, 1976.
 Bertolt Brecht, ‘The Street Scene’, in Brecht on Theatre: 1933-1947, p. 125.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 83.
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Capital Vol. 1, p. 90. Trans altered.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 32.
 The Salaried Masses, pp. 61-62. Trans. altered.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 88.
 The Salaried Masses, pp. 42-43.
 Adorno, ‘The Problem of a New Type of Human Being’, in Current of Music, p. 463.
 Marx, Grundrisse, p. 681.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 42.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 45.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 57.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 58. Trans. altered.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 67.
 George Osborne, speech to the 2013 Conservative Party Conference, 30 September, 2013. The long-term unemployed will have to attend daily interviews at the JobCentre.
 The Salaried Masses, p. 95.
The Violence of Chuka Umunna (on squatting)
Last week, Chuka Umunna, MP for Streatham in South London signed a letter to Justice Secretary Chris Grayling asking that the criminalisation of squatting in residential buildings (brought in last year) be extended to commercial premises too. This afternoon Umunna, who has come under public attack for this letter has responded by writing a little article on his blog defending his position. I can’t offer a full critique of what he has said on squatting (it’s late at night, and I have already had too much to drink), but I did want to pick up on a couple of points.
Imagine the scenario of a jail with ten prisoners. The governor of the jail decides one day that he will organise a race that all the prisoners must compete in. At the end of the race the three who come last will be shot. The others will return to their cells. Now imagine that one of the prisoners gets a head start. What are the attitudes of the other prisoners in the race towards him? Of course they hate him, they pour scorn on him. The governor spots the prisoner getting a head start, stops the race, and shoots that prisoner immediately. He then allows the remaining nine prisoners to line up and restart the race, announcing that now only the last two will be shot. The prisoners thank him for that decision.
It’s a strange scenario because here the governor stands for “fairness”. But fairness is double-edged here: he not only guarantees that the prisoners will have an equal chance of surviving, but he guarantees absolutely that three of them will be shot. The prisoners’ hatred for the one who got the headstart is certainly misplaced: instead they should hate the governor who put them in the position of having to race for their lives. The prisoners’ thanks to the governor for being fair is certainly misplaced too. Sure, he was fair to each of them within the scenario. But for having created the scenario, for having overseen it, and carried it through, he is demonic.
Such a notion of “fairness” seems difficult to defend, but this is precisely what Umunna did when he wrote on twitter,
No doubt Umunna would question the analogy with a prison, but what we are talking about is that people who can’t afford housing – and there are hundreds of thousands in Britain who are homeless, that alongside just under 70,000 mortgages more than 6 months in arrears, of which 70% or more than 12 months in arrears. Many of these people will, in the coming years, be made homeless. Some of them will end up living on the street. In the past many of those on the street would have squatted, as it is much safer than sleeping rough. Where squatting is criminalised people who would have otherwise squatted are condemned to needlessly die. This is why the homelessness charities Crisis and Shelter made submissions to the government against the criminalisation of squatting last year.
Umunna tries to avoid mentioning this when he writes, “For those particularly vulnerable squatters, homeless through personal tragedy and deep structural forces, do I think that squats are safe places for them to live or part of a long-term solution to homelessness? No.”
What he doesn’t say is that they are considerably safer than the street. Many people each year are saved from dying by squats. They might not always be ideal – indeed I know very few squatters who wouldn’t rather live somewhere they didn’t have to worry about police raids, violence from property owners, not having heating etc. But they are certainly better than the street.
We ought to remember the scenario of the race here. This is a matter of needless and arbitrary death - mainly of the vulnerable - presided over by a government in the name of fairness. But where this fairness kills, surely it is time to start asking questions. Those who thank the government for their administration of fairness fall in line with the pointless murder of their fellow humans, rather than realising that the administration of a system that arbitrarily kills is what really needs to be removed. These people favour themselves over those who run a little slower, and are willing to take their chances. They often forget that the race will happen again tomorrow, and the day after.
Nettlefold Hall and Patmos Lodge
Among Umunna’s various statements and tweets about squatting over the last couple of days, two cases have come up that he claims have cost the local council very large amounts of money. It might be worth looking at them a little more carefully. (I have done this quick research from Germany so if I have made mistakes please correct me and I will correct the article.)
Umunna claims in his blog post that squatters have done £150,000 of damage to an old closed library called Nettlefold Hall. But this is only part of the story. Nettlefold Library has been closed for two years. It closed because someone stole the copper off the roof. In the process the thieves managed to dislodge asbestos that was in the building, and consequently the library was shut. The council have been extremely slow to move on opening the library again, because they had other plans afoot. Amidst libraries closing across the country, the council decided that it would take advantage of this misfortune of having the roof stolen in order to get a private company to redevelop the site. By the middle of 2012 the deal was done: a company called City Screen Ltd (since June this year Picturehouse Ltd) was to redevelop the site, and would build a cinema there, but would also keep the library running. So essentially, the council decided it was going to give away some publicly owned real estate to a private company in order to get their library done up for cheap. I can’t find figures on the internet for the nature of the deal (more often than not these will not be available to the public because they are “commercially sensitive”) but apparently the plans for the complex will be available at the end of the Summer. To some this may sound like a good idea, but to most the story will be well-known that this type of transfer of land involves local people losing out in the long run. The value of the land to be given away likely exceeds the £150k clean-up operation by several orders of magnitude.
But, I can imagine, some readers might have a soft-spot for the picturehouse chain. The are some of the few cinemas that show a wide range of films, and only a medium sized business (turnover of about £25m a year). Well maybe you like these small business, but last year City Screen Ltd was bought out by Cineworld Ltd (current market cap.: £623m, annual turnover 2012: £359m) in a deal that has been reported to the competition commision, with the result that the new conglomerate will probably have to sell some of its cinemas as it was creating monopolies in some cities. That’s knocked 10% off the share price in the last couple of weeks alone, so perhaps this is why the story has ended up in the media. Anyhow, that doesn’t sound to me like the sort of company anyone – regardless of your political affiliations – ought to be supporting giving public land away to, in order to save money clearing up some asbestos.
It is worth being clear here that if the building is full of asbestos and is having significant building work done on it, then there will be expensive clearing work that needs to be done. The squatters in the building just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – the council had kept the library closed for well over a year just to save a bit of money by making a deal with an enormous cinema company, much to the disdain of the local community who like the runners in our race are now backing the council against the squatters.
Patmos Lodge, another property mentioned by Umunna (this time in his Letter to Grayling), which he again claims is costing the council £150,000, is a slightly more straightforward case. Patmos Lodge is a victim of the current cuts. The page on the Lambeth website reads,
“Patmos Lodge is a vacant site in Myatts Field North, Brixton, which once provided sheltered and residential care to the general public. However, following the Sheltered Housing Review in 2008, it was decided by Cabinet that the building was not fit for this purpose and should be redeveloped. The Cabinet decision was based on a thorough options appraisal. The Council does not have the financial resources to redevelop the site, so it was agreed that redevelopment of this site could only be achieved by transferring ownership to a registered provider, other Provider or by an outright sale. The sheltered and residential care residents were decanted in June 2010, and this project supports the Cabinet objective of demolishing the site, as it is believed a cleared piece of land is deemed more attractive with regards to expressions of interest. The Patmos Lodge site consists of a void sheltered scheme, a vacant residential care home and an empty three bedroom warden’s house”
That’s right, this is an old unused council building that used to be used to care for infirm people in a community, which is not only closed down, but is due to be demolished so that Lambeth can sell the land to a private developer.
It’s interesting to me that what Mr Umunna really seems to care about are those squats that jeopardise the possibility of the transfer of large capital assets from public hands into the hands of large private companies.
Is squatting about homelessness?
Umunna uses a popular notion of “posh squatters”, or as he puts it, people who are “avoiding paying for housing when they could do so”. Without meaning to sound trite, I am yet to come across any squatters who happen to have £500 a month going spare (the current going rate for a room in London.) Indeed, the best research shows that squatting is most definitely about homelessness. As the homelessness charity Crisis summarise, “Squatting, then, typically reflects a lack of other options, a scarcity of provision, and inadequate support and assistance to single homeless people.”
But not content with ignoring good research, Umunna wants to draw a distinction between squatters and the homeless. He writes,
“Homeless people who squat tend to do so for very short periods of time, rather than the years that other squats operate.”
I genuinely don’t know what he’s on about – because people who are forced to squat for years really are among the most vulnerable of all. Maybe some squats exist for a long time, and maybe some have a changing population. And maybe some people can just about survive squatting for that long. But Umunna’s words here are intended to evoke a popular hatred for those who in many cases most need society’s support.
Even if there are a few squatters who do decide to live in squats as a true lifestyle choice - even if one believes Umunna’s attack on these few to be justified - one must wonder if when Umunna attacks them with a weapon that also hits all of the most vulnerable in society, whether it’s really worth it.
For more info on squatting, and campaigns against criminalisation
Website of last week’s Squatting Exhibition in London: http://www.madepossiblebysquatting.co.uk/
On Cheese and Culture
I have been living in Berlin for a few weeks now (doing some boring library work, visiting some archives etc.) The thing I don’t understand about Germany is how a place of such extraordinary high culture can so fundamentally misunderstand cheese. Cheese is not about jogging on a winter’s morning, or feeling spritely and fresh, it’s about getting old, it’s about reminding yourself that the damage and decomposition inside your body can happen outside as well, and then you can eat it. That said, Germans do better songs about getting old:
(that’s Thomas Quasthoff, accompanied by Daniel Barenboim singing Die Krähe from Schubert’s Winterreise.)
A Letter to Goldsmiths art students on capitalism, art and pseudo-critique
Dear Goldsmiths Art Students,
I attended your MFA show two nights ago. I apologise to an extent: with so many artworks on display it was difficult to digest any of them. That situation was exacerbated by the fact that so few of the works seemed to have it in them to behave destructively towards the others. Maybe this is where I can begin: that the type of co-operation between artworks, their intellectual co-ordination, is something I find troubling. It didn’t seem to me to be the co-operation of a school thinking together, but instead the co-ordination of the school uniform, of a discipline that had been so fully internalised that all of the artworks, under its authority, might comfortably coalesce. That made those artworks difficult to be with.
I want to write to you about a single gesture that was performed by a great majority of the artworks in the show (although there were some important exceptions). It is a gesture that claims to determine a relation between artworks and “capitalism”. It is of no surprise that under the contemporary situation of global capital, undergoing its most profound crisis in eighty years – creating conditions not only of mass destitution but also of mass resistance and protest – that the relation between art and capital would present itself more explicitly in the new works of art than has been the case in the last decades. But the expression of this relation of art and capital in the work displayed at your show was not only predictable, but questionable on both political and aesthetic grounds. The gesture that I refer to is that of artworks that attempt to parody capitalism, and in this parody hope to effect a critical irony through the apparent distance between the artwork (and its social situation) and the forms of commodity or capital that it parodies. In this gesture the artwork proclaims a radicalism, a dissatisfaction with the actually existing. It proclaims that the object of this dissatisfaction is “capitalism”. The modes of making explicit the structure of parody are plural: some take up the bathetic disjunction through a fully instrumental comparison with some hazy far-away classicism or humanism; others exaggerate the shoddiness of capital’s products; others rely on a revelatory mode whereby it is claimed something of capital’s seamy underbelly is exposed; while others are just bits of fixed capital – most often employing the high technologies of marketing – transposed into the gallery-space. But the gesture of this parody common to all of them will, I imagine, be familiar to you.
That mention of marketing is important, because the attack that each of these artworks claims to make on capital is against the semblance-character (Scheincharakter) of its products. Or to put it in a trendier way, the claim is that the artwork performs, through this ironising parody, a critique of capitalist spectacle. But maybe before we jump wholeheartedly into claiming that level of actual critique for those artworks, we might examine what is actually going on in them a little more carefully. This gesture, as I understand it, stands upon its lofty artistic plinth, high above the world of capital, labour and production, in order to come to some conclusions: “the products of capitalism are a bit rubbish or glitchy” or “the activities that capitalism make humans perform are a bit stupid and pointless.” or “capitalism makes images everywhere an there’s something a bit fake about them.” What seemed strange to me, or rather, disconcerting and upsetting, was the refusal of any of these works that made this gesture to follow it through: there was in each an absolute resistance to making the dialectical leap (or rather a dialectical pigeon-step as a friend commented to me) into identifying that all of this rubbish that capitalism makes is composed finely of human lives forced by capitalism into endless labour and misery until death. There is no recognition that all of that capitalist trash contains within it the relentless destruction of all that each of us holds closest to us and loves most dearly. There is no understanding that the violence of the abstractions that capitalism imposes on humanity are materially particular, intervening in the particularities of our lives. To refuse to engage with that particularity is, it seems to me, to stand in solidarity with the forces of capital. The question of what it would mean for the artwork to attempt such an expression of the destruction of things and people loved, the historical weight of that process, is never asked; the self-satisfaction of being dissatisfied with commodities is instead transformed itself into the internal harmony of the artwork. Without accounting for these antagonisms there is no tension, no dissonance. The gesture is a thinning out of the artwork such that they may congregate as a marquetry of veneers, but becoming a veneer and pointing to the thinness of life today shifts into the mere declamation that this is how the world is.
The pseudo-critical stance of these artworks makes a mistake in terms of the object of its critique: again and again, what is called into question is “capitalism”, which is taken to be some conceptual whole, plucked from the heaven of ideas, and imported directly into the artwork as an object of ridicule. The type of capitalism that is the object of critique is seemingly a wholly abstract thing. Capitalism exists for these artworks not as an historical process, a dynamic governing relations between people, and between people and nature, but instead merely as a critical concept, pristine from the theory tool-box. It is not the capitalism that might be known from the experience of exploitation, the submission of humans to the laws of value. It isn’t a capitalism that holds within it technical determinations, not one that leaves historical traces of the destruction it wrought, not one that weighs more heavily on us with that every life it crushed. Instead, it is a “capitalism” borrowed from the pages of the latest offerings of Semiotext(e) or ZeroBooks. Those artworks wilfully mistake the abstractions performed by capitalism – the violent processing of human activity into value – for a wholly abstract capitalism. It is a convenient slippage as it preserves the height of that plinth from which the judgment of capitalism might be made; critique, where it claims to exist in these artworks, need not sully itself in the muck of the billions of corpses, the works need not work to empathise with or express the visceral human suffering of those subjected to labour until they die because their “critique” can be made from a comfortable distance and the concept of capitalism which becomes the object of the critique never did include all of that death and suffering. It is here that these artworks find their true affinity with capitalism: all of that non-identical stuff, the suffering worthless and silenced that could never be sold, all the disjecta membra of humanity need never return. The concept of capitalism for these artworks is like a machine that doesn’t quite work: why it doesn’t work and how it came to be is not of concern. Furthermore, these artworks apparently need not be reflexive, for their elevated position guarantees that really they’re not that involved at all – that they’re just social commentary (the old doctrine of l’art pour l’art comes in handy like the final defiant cry of the old aristocrat Don Juan that he is not responsible before being sucked into hell.) These artworks refuse to recognise the labour congealed in them; work is not something to be suffered, but instead just a daft extravagance. Work is always external to them, like it is for all workers brutally alienated into compliance.
These artworks see capital with the eye of a luxury consumer. They refuse to acknowledge necessity under capitalism. “Capitalism” for them is a bad choice, not something that you’re is compelled to reproduce because you’re hungry. It complains about capitalism just as it might about a scratched DVD being delivered from Amazon, only to cling to the scratch because at least it proves the thesis, just as the consumer clings to evidence in order to validate an insurance claim. But just like all insurance, all that is secured is the continuance of the present state of things. Critique is exchanged for dissatisfaction. For these works, capitalism would be fine if it worked better. Precisely because of this feeling that capitalism might work better, each of these works shies from expressing anything of the most forceful antagonisms that drive capitalist history; none of them hold within themselves the promise of anything different or other to capitalism, but instead rest happily on the maxim of progressive improvement and expediency.
The insurance-structure of these artworks might allow us to begin to place them in a historical contour that has brought us to their situation. The history of art in the late 19th and early 20th century, from the articulations of an art that could create wholly new totalities of semblance out of the developments of industrial capitalism (one thinks, for example, of Wagner), through to the modernist rejection of semblance in artworks as a resistance to appearing as the commodity world is significant here: those strategies of the modernists – fragmentation and the refusal of completion, tension without resolution, eruptions of explicit and arbitrary violence, the regression to the childish or animalistic – all of these intended towards the abolition of the way things are. Those artworks never did abolish the world, that is, their promises never fulfilled, but that they could have is felt in complacency with which Kafka or Tzara is read today, or in the sponsorship on the next Klee exhibition. It is in the late 20th century return to an art whose subject is the semblance-character of commodities that your artworks exist. Your works claim to make that same gesture of fragmentation or brokenness that the modernists made, somehow without carrying the historical weight their work did: every broken body for you can be compared to a technical glitch, as though it weren’t inevitable, constantly reproduced under compulsion. Instead it is analogous to accidental clinamen of the machine that is grotesque not because of what it does but because it doesn’t do it well enough. Every broken thing here, every rift and crevice, indigent and distorted (as it appears every day by the illuminated on the screen of an ipad) carries no longer the potential to break everything, but instead carries the worldly insurance that one day everything will be fixed. If the modernists truly attempted to abolish the semblance-character inherent to the capitalism of their time, your artworks calculate as actuaries and hedge against the moment that this might actually happen. That modernist fragmentation has become alien to your work: you find it in the commodity world (of which your artworks claim not to be a part) in order to import it into your artworks which, in their lofty standpoints of critique take the form of truly complete, perfect, non-fragmentary commodities.
I might try to put this another way: Adorno once wrote that “the theological heritage of art is the secularisation of revelation, which defines the ideal and limit of every work. The contamination of art with revelation would amount to the unreflective repetition of its fetish character on the level of theory. The eradication of every trace of revelation from art would, however, degrade it to the undifferentiated repetition of the status quo.” Your work, or at least this gesture in your work, refuses to engage in this antagonism. Instead, your artworks perform something like a false revelation (as I have suggested earlier, the revelation not that capitalism is built on the continuation of a history of immeasurable human suffering, but just that its commodities just don’t work very well.) In this false revelation – and at times it seems like a self-consciously, cynically planted false revelation – the faulty fetish-character of the commodity is exchanged for the perfect fetish-character of the artwork; the status quo is repeated, because the claim made by the artworks that they stand outside or above that status quo in order to repeat it with a haughty sneer is entirely false. I have an image from Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia in my head (a really interesting book on many of these questions, whose title is currently being ripped off for some idiotic show at The Whitechapel Gallery) of the “dance around the golden calf, or better, just the calf-skin with nothing underneath.” Your artworks, in their avoidance of having any interiority, any formal-immanent dynamic that would be required to express anything of the antagonisms of the world in which they must reside, offer a claim to truth in the revelation that the artwork is a better commodity than the commodity itself.
These artworks therefore do not invite interpretation. Instead, they invite their audience to stand with them, for a moment, on that plinth and to share in bemoan the current state of the commodity-world. Their gesture of making themselves thin, of claiming no internal or formal dynamic, demands that we believe for a moment that this is actually what capitalism is like, and that beneath its appearance is not a set of antagonisms in which humans are engaged but instead an abyssal nothing. The success of these artworks would be the inculcation of smugness, and the moment of release when in an instant the viewer claims non-complicity with capitalism. It is not unnoticed that the claim of non-complicity is identical the manoeuvre performed by capitalists every day: they are just business people and managers who claim even in maintaining the most detestable conditions for their workers that they are doing them a favour, doing them some good by providing them with a job. But where that manoeuvre wears thin, this bourgeoisie might find solace in your art.
Perhaps you disagree with my point of view – I can understand that you might be entirely resigned to the notion that capitalism will never be overcome. Maybe you have moved beyond this resignation into a full-blown cynicism. The impression you as artists give is often that everything has already been recuperated, that all radicalism is produced broken, that all resistance is already integrated into the capitalist whole. Your works often make the claim of regretting this, but it is a false claim insofar as it is a process to which they happily contribute. Clearly, few of you are actually interested in a critique of capitalism (but a pseudo-critique that sells will have to do), but for those of us who care about art, for those of us who think that art’s critical capacities have not been exhausted and extinguished, for those of us for whom the abolition of capitalism is not a choice but a necessity, you are the enemy.
On Militant Poetics and the Physiognomy of Judges
This paper was given at the Militant Politics and Poetry event at Birkbeck College, University of London on 18/05/2013. Fourteen people – mainly poets – were invited to give ten minute papers about the current situation of poetry, theoretical problems, organisational problems, and the current state of politics, law, and violence in the UK. The paper was presented with a handout with pictures of three judges.
“On the terrestrial globe there is an uncounted, unnamed multitude, whose suffering would not be sufficiently allayed by sleep alone. For them wine composes its songs and poems.” Baudelaire’s sentiment requires recomposition today, tracing the relations of a multitude, its suffering under the cutting edge of the newest technologies, and a negative poetry emanating precisely from the objectivity of those technics. For Marx that multitude’s upkeep as paupers counted as ‘faux frais’, an incidental expense, of capitalist production and accumulation. Or rather, capital’s means of disavowal of responsibility for that suffering - the gaol and courtroom – were nothing less to capital than the oil greasing the piston or the bandage covering the stub of the severed finger. These mediations were not, in Marx’s and Baudelaire’s time, capital itself. Together with the suffering Lumpenproletariat whom they would legislate most brutally, the judges of the mid-nineteenth century occupy a liminal position of capitalism: not themselves productive of value, but rather the precondition of generalised exploitation.
Fast-forwarding 150 years, Justice Vos, a high-court judges, gave a lecture for KPMG in the wake of the August riots titled “The Role of UK Judges in the Success of UK PLC.” “I want to address a subject I feel very strongly about.” he begins “It is the question of what can be done to promote the aspects of British business and professional life that are thriving.” continuing, he marks his repression: “our legal system is widely acknowledged to be long on integrity and short on corruption.” - This, in a speech at KPMG on how judges can promote business. The contradiction achieves its highest expression under the proclamation:
We need a Unique Selling Point – the management consultants’ favourite thing. We need to offer something the world needs and cannot get elsewhere, if we are to succeed in the modern world. The USP is the quality and integrity of our professional services.
Sweet selling of integrity, like the Kantian broken promise. The victims of law, the suffering multitude understand this contradiction viscerally. Vos’s speech hints at a history of that last 150 years, in which the violent administration of that multitude has been transformed from a mere incidental cost into an industry at the heart of capitalist accumulation in the UK. It is easy to take from this a history of the reconciliation of two ideals: the administration of so-called justice, and the accumulation of capital. But the interlocking of these concepts never appears: this imageless unfractured monolith. This history of idealised forms leaves no room for poetry to breathe: juridical forms, the value form, the commodity form, poetry must fracture these, speaking the silent mechanism, the history within the machine, under whose dominion this transformation came to pass. Perhaps the poetry of that multitude resides within – or explodes out of – the objectivity of the experience of technics of this juridico-economic synthesis, in the texture of a specific piece of capital: the 21st century judge.
I have spent several months of the last years in court, and want to think through the qualitative strangeness of judges qua capital. They are indeed a strange capital; in each judge the state invests for decades nurturing the latest technological developments in class hatred. This process has natural-historical consequences – traces are left in the extremes of bodily excess and mental poverty. I notice, for example, that judges don’t have lips. I can’t tell how they were removed; more likely they are curled inwards, as the sides of their mouths strain outwards. That effort attempts to provide support for the cheeks – to maintain a semblance of plumpness through taut skin pulled over hard muscle. There is little softness – certainly no passion – only its appearance at a distance, an illusion perpetuated by strain. The foreheads seem to stretch backward while eyebrows furrow in contrary motion. Beneath, eyes are used for pointing. All this straining changes the appearance of aging: skin lacks depth, with the texture of sandpaper but more friable, as if it would disintegrate under your teeth. The skin is always stretched, with a reddish hue: a sign of unjustified, unreasonable health. It is unusual to see health in the old today, particularly amongst those attending court with the misfortune not to be judges. Even where judges are fat, the skin is taut, clinging to them – their faux frais of production are diets and personal trainers. Lips are not required for healthy eating and jogging.
Counterposing this image of health, Walter Benjamin wrote a physiognomy of the Lumpenproletariat in Marseille:
In that little harbour bar, the hashish began to exert its canonical magic […]. It made me into a physiognomist, or at least a contemplator of physiognomies […]. I positively fixed my gaze on the faces that I had around me, some of which were of remarkable coarseness or ugliness. Faces that I would normally have avoided for a twofold reason: I would neither have wished to attract their gaze nor have endured their brutality. […] I now suddenly understood how, to a painter […] ugliness could appear as the true reservoir of beauty – or better, as its treasure chest: a jagged mountain with all the inner gold of beauty gleaming from the wrinkles, glances, features.
Beauty is in the eye of the bekifft. The beauty of the multitude is no longer for them but snatched from their apparent barbarism, by a wandering observer. They, the undernourished, the coarse and broken, they without a name, the depth of those wrinkles in their faces, like mountain crevices, with beauty springing from their depths, in opposition to the tight skin of judges. “The dialectic cannot stop short before the concepts of health and sickness.” Adorno says. The dialectic transposes into the question of physiognomy with which we return to our judges, diagnosing the sickness of the healthy:
The traces of illness give them away: their skin seems covered by a rash printed in regular patterns, like a camouflage of the inorganic. These very people who burst with proofs of exuberant vitality could easily be taken for prepared corpses, […] Underlying the prevalent health is death.
Death was at stake in the autumn of 2011. In Tottenham I saw looted spirits being emptied on to the street, so that the bottles might be used – spiritually – as missiles against the police. As the judge is sucked from the edge of capitalism inwards, wine is emptied from stolen bottles, which fly into the faces of coppers. Baudelaire gives wine a “spiritual voice”, it says “Man, my beloved, I would pour out for you, in spite of my prison of glass and fetters of cork, a song full of brotherhood, a song full of joy, light and hope”. Today only the prison is left: In our miserable times we still have the bottles, shattering. After the riots one of the last remaining traces of humanity of the judges was abolished: courts, for some weeks, functioned all night; the 24-hour judge was born. No more wine and no more night, no place of passion.
One of the most beautiful passages in Adorno’s book, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy describes Mahler as a vagrant:
The power of naming is often better protected in kitsch and vulgar music than in a high music that even before the age of radical construction had sacrificed all that to the principle of stylisation. This power is mobilised by Mahler. Free as only one can be who has not himself been entirely swallowed up by culture, in his musical vagrancy he picks up the broken glass by the roadside and holds it up to the sun so that all the colours are refracted.
Within the prevailing crisis all those colours are irrelevant. Only red matters, drawn from the faces with that broken glass, so that the strained skin might at once break, relax. In the combination of the broken glass and the skin of judges’ faces, in this passionate reconciliation, might we not find peace and depth, poetry of a new humanity?
Perhaps this is all caprice. But a militant poetry of the unnamed, uncounted multitude can never be satisfied with monolithic conceptual accounts of the law and capital, but arises in the objectivity of both law and capital at precisely the moment when that objectivity becomes autonomous of its function – in the traces and spaces, natural-historical textures and refuse it leaves behind, as material, out of which this poetry will compose itself.
 Charles Baudelaire, ‘Wine and Hashish’ trans. By Maurice Stang, in Hashish, Wine, Opium: essays by Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier, p. 75.
 Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, p. 797.
 Mr Justice Geoffrey Vos, ‘On the Role of UK Judges in the Success of UK PLC’, KPMG Lecture, 18/10/2011, http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Speeches/justice-vos-speech-kpmg-lecture-2011.pdf
 Benjamin, ‘Hashish in Marseille’ trans. by Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland, in On Hashish, p. 50.
 Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 73
 Ibid. p. 59.
 Baudelaire, ‘Wine and Hashish’, pp. 70-71.
 Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, trans. by Edmund Jephcott, p. 36.
Racism alive and well in the Metropolitan Police
Over the last couple of years more and more official Metropolitan Police twitter accounts have popped up. These are part of the Met’s wider media operation, although the individual accounts are often controlled much further down the ranks - hence the ability not to spell “beggars” correctly. And yesterday, these two tweets (pictured above) were posted by a Met sergeant working in Edgware - and I should reiterate that this is part of the police force’s media operation .
14 years after the Macpherson Report (on institutional racism in the police) one could assume that no police officer would so easily get away with a tweet talking about groups of Jewish beggars, or black beggars, so why is the case with Romanians any different?
It seems clear that the sole purpose of these tweets is to stir up racist anti-Romanian sentiment, which may well result in violent racist attacks against those begging on the streets. But this also comes at a time when attitude towards Romanians is something of a political hot potato: in January next year Romanians will be allowed for the first time to work across all EU states. This has meant the Right in the UK have already spent time whipping up anti-immigrant sentiments through racist propaganda and, today, British racism against Romanians seems to be at an all-time high.
But this also comes at a time in which many many more people are being made homeless - and already it is obvious to people who live in London that there are many more people sleeping rough than there were a few years ago before the crisis. It is a strange thing that being homeless and sleeping rough is still a crime in the UK (Vagrancy Act 1824). The law was introduced at a time when there was a massive influx of working class people to urban centres - both through immigration and soldiers returning from war - but not enough paid work. The Vagrancy Act could force those sleeping rough to work for a month without a wage in a prison. So much for the idea that slavery was abolished by the Slave Trade Act (1807) and the Slavery Abolition Act (1833), the Vagrancy Act stayed on the books, allowing for the homeless to be forced to labour without wage throughout the 19th century. Although today begging is punishable by fine (up to £1000 - which apparently is to be conjured out of nowhere) or community service (more unpaid labour) it is pertinent that this week Justice Minister Chris Grayling announced that those who don’t work while in prison (current minimum wage for prison work, £4 per week) can expect not even to receive “standard” prison conditions, but will be reduced to living in “basic” conditions.
I have tweeted at the officer involved, telling him that I find such racist attitudes entirely unsurprising coming from a police officer. I would encourage others to tweet at him here and to make complaints to the police about him.
A Question for the Government on the Benefits Cap
Let us imagine two hypothetical families living in London: The first is composed of a mother, a father, and two children aged 7 and 11; the second is identical, but with four children, twins aged 3, a child aged 7, and a child aged 11. Until two years ago, the mother and the father in each family worked, and earned a wage enough to rent accommodation privately without claiming housing benefit. Two years ago, the mother in each family became ill and was unable to work, so had to give up her job. Last year, the company that the father worked for went bust, and he was made unemployed. Both families then began to rely on benefits in order to survive. That is, benefits covered everything from rent to food to heating. The mothers in these families are now well, but along with the fathers cannot find work despite looking for it. Due to the conditions of the jobs market, it seems unlikely that any of the parents will find work in the near future. The first family, with two children, receives in total £25,000 in benefits a year; the second, with four children, receives £30,000. They receive these amounts because they are what the government currently deems necessary for these families in order to pay for what they need to survive. Most of the money goes directly to the private landlord who owns the two properties in which the families live, as although the families are on the list for council housing there are no suitable properties for them in the area in which they live. The rest of the money is divided between bills, food, and clothes.
On 15 July, a new government policy will be imposed upon them, capping benefits at £26,000. Consequently, the family with four children will face a shortfall of £4,000, based on their current spending on necessities. The first family, on the other hand, will maintain its benefits at the previously given level.
The question for the government, one which I am yet to see answered, is how they can justify to the children of the second family that they should have a more impoverished and harder childhood than the children of the first.
I am willing to post up any answers I receive.
Some background to the problem
The justification given by the government for the benefits cap is that no household ought to receive more in benefits than the average family earns. What this means is that a family that is in a demographic extreme (for example, a family with many children), or families that have complex needs which have been previously aided by benefits payments, are compared to an average family, with one or two parents and 2 children, all of whom are healthy.
I would be grateful if people could share this post on facebook and twitter.