In the next handful of posts, I’m going to parcel out some revisions of a sixty-odd-page draft of what remains of a chapter for a book (once called Earmarked) that was never to be, maybe never meant to be. The chapter, which I called “Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales, and the Commodification of Genius” was occasioned by me finding (about ten years ago now, maybe longer) a fairly pristine LP copy of Keith Jarrett’s famous and well-circulated Köln Concert album at a yard sale in Vancouver, and also by a brief and really unremarkable exchange I had with the seller over the right price. The chapter was intended as a recuperation of a Marx-influenced formalist materialism, close to the sort practiced by Theodor Adorno about forty years earlier; as an implicit plea for the necessity, in our own time, of a kind of critical archaism, a deliberately out-of-step temporality; and as an interrogation of the figure of the postmodern genius, or of the virtuosity of the extemporaneous thinker. How does improvisation either resist or accede to becoming cultural capital? Is its cultural capital, in fact, inscribed or encoded into the work of resistance?
I’ll start with two quotations, to set the project up, the first from music critic John Corbett:
One of the things I like most about LPs is the way they absorb history. By that I don’t mean the history of the music, but also the history of each record as an object; records are repositories of music’s material culture. CDs seem less historically palpable than LPs. Collectible CDs? Maybe, but not for me.
And the other from Karl Marx, the eleventh of his theses on Feuerbach:
Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern. (Or, something like, “Philosophers have merely and variously interpreted the world; the point is to change it.”)
Despite my hopes at academic relevance, it seemed quaint to me then and its seems quaint now to begin with such a citation from the “Theses on Feuerbach,” particularly this one, the eleventh, which has been flogged like a dead horse at the crossroads of interpretation and action, of what thinkers do and what they think they ought to. To me, now, it sounds more like an excuse than an imperative, a means of translating the feint of engagement in critical and academic writing into something that really matters, that changes the world. Marxism now, however various and unruly it might be, however impossible to frame as a coherent movement, has also come to appear dated at best: notions of socialism and social reform, class consciousness, commodification and exchange, property and value, have shifted so drastically in the last century, many to the point of conceptual dissolution, especially in the rather privileged Western European sphere. With multifarious levels of access to and exclusion from investment (everything from bank accounts to mutual funds), the blurring of ethnic and national identities, the suffusion of global capital into uncertain and contingent oligarchies like multinational corporations and free-trade alliances, the diffusion of a complex body of worldly information through the mass media, the idea of an economically determinate class, for example, seems historically remote, out-of-date. All this seeming is no doubt at least in part a function of my own economic and cultural privilege; I have the luxury and the leisure to release myself from the imperatives of social transformation, a comfort zone established by my rarefied – if still tenuous – position within many networks of value. Certainly there are haves and have-nots, the well-to-do and the poverty-stricken, but the boundaries and divisions are no longer so easy to determine, if indeed they ever were. Participation in the mechanisms of consumption and exchange is neither uniform nor closed, and the forms of consciousness and solidarity on which Marx might have depended for the renovation of labour and worth have become permeable, plural and radically indeterminate. It is truly difficult, for instance, to ascertain who exactly might constitute a proletarian body. Most late and post Marxisms, from Adorno on, have winnowed away the categories of Marxist analysis (from class to ideology) to the point that they can no longer find much of a purchase in the contemporary economic and political morass. It would be fatuous to dismiss Marxism as irrelevant; indeed, given the transformation of an orthodoxy of political economy into what Michel Foucault once characterized as “divergences” in a foundational “discursivity” (Rabinow 114-5), I should note instead how Marxism has come to designate a limited but prolific body of intersections, a master canon continuously inflected and re-written by an array of theoretical and critical modes:
Annales school historians, Frankfurt School theorists, Poststructuralists, Reader Reception Theorists, New Historicists and Cultural Materialists have reformulated Marxist principles and extended them by drawing more and more widely on other ideas from other texts — texts of philosophy, ethnology, anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis and religion. They have produced a variety of transformations, inversions, displacements and reformulations, resolving some of the impasses they inherited and reinscribing others. And they have made Marxism perhaps the most imperialistic discursive formation today. (Bannet 2)
I think I tend, however, to lose sight, in the wake of this permanently self-revolutionizing theory, of what might still be said to constitute the core of a Marxist critical praxis. (Bannet appears unwilling to grant the positional solidarity of a proper name to her “Marxism,” given its decentred plurality.) Returning to canon, to the classic statements of value and revolution we might associate with Marx himself, doesn’t prove particularly satisfying, either. The demand that workers of the world unite, for example, would serve as well for a slogan for Benneton advertising as it might for union bureaucracies, and clearly re-inscribe a deeply problematic collective determinism that is deeply endemic to the hegemonic forms of western politics. (What workers do we mean? What constitutes work? How is a proletariat demarcated? What world do we mean — first, second, third or fourth? Unite on whose terms? How?) It is difficult still to hear a deeply felt call for socialist revolution. Manifestoes date themselves, locked into their own inevitable anachrony.
The flipside of such anachrony, its camera obscura inversion, has to be nostalgia. I remember when I was fourteen, or fifteen at the most, I bought from our local bookstore a blue-spined Pelican paperback version of The Communist Manifesto. It’s short, a quick enough read, but it is also so historically and materially specific in its frames of reference, with its welter of dated prefaces and that its smallish scholarly apparatus (by none other than A. J. P. Taylor), that I had a hard time feeling anything of the insistent presentism of its famous opening: “A spectre is haunting Europe . . . .” but a spectre that felt, at least as an adolescent reading experience, more archaic than disturbing. I wasn’t a particularly careful reader, sure, but I seemed to know that the book, that this particular book, could have very real transformative power as a material object. I could use that manifest spectre, I mean, to scare my parents. Which is exactly what I think I did. I remember announcing to them from the back seat of the family car, book in hand, that I had become “a communist.” I hadn’t joined any political organizations, of course, and I don’t think I even knew anyone who was especially political. I think my parents took my declaration fairly calmly, assuming I had next to no idea what I meant, which wasn’t exactly true. I knew some things. I think, looking back, that this announcement offered me a point of Oedipal differentiation, a small shock I could leverage into separating myself from the everyday security of a safe middle-class paternalism. I’m not sure why I wanted to do this; privilege will feed and clothe you. Maybe I liked the idea of risk, without any experience of it. This moment, when saying “communism” offered me the literary pretense of action, a very small-scale moment of teenaged shock-and-awe, was also the moment when politics – at its very outset, even – deteriorated almost instantly into mere style.
In Why Marx Was Right (2011), Terry Eagleton reacts to this political anesthesia, symptomatic of late-stage capitalism, by arguing for – or at least asserting, declaring – the necessity of Marxist thought in a seemingly post-Marxist world, a world that appears to have left Marx behind. Marx’s “archaic” quality, Eagleton asserts (making a point about a return to “Victorian levels of inequality”), “is what makes him still relevant today,” that Marx still offers a means to regard capitalism, critically, from a contingent but critically-viable outside (Eagleton 3). “In these dire conditions,” Eagleton writes, citing Fredric Jameson, “‘Marxism must necessarily become true again’” (8). Marx is right for our own time, for Eagleton, because of his vatic prescience, because – against the odds, perhaps – in Adorno’s formulation, he threatens to be right, because we don’t want him to be. Eagleton suggests that Marx foresees the contemporary consequences of globalization, for example, and also offers a still-viable conceptual path for the critique of the massive commodification of experience. I think Eagleton is following Friedrich Engels, in a famously deferential note in the last chapter of Engels’s late book on Ludwig Feuerbach:
Here I may be permitted to make a personal explanation. Lately repeated reference has been made to my share in this theory, and so I can hardly avoid saying a few words here to settle this point. I cannot deny that both before and during my 40 years’ collaboration with Marx I had a certain independent share in laying the foundation of the theory, and more particularly in its elaboration. But the greater part of its leading basic principles, especially in the realm of economics and history, and, above all, their final trenchant formulation, belong to Marx. What I contributed — at any rate with the exception of my work in a few special fields — Marx could very well have done without me. What Marx accomplished I would not have achieved. Marx stood higher, saw further, and took a wider and quicker view than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented. Without him the theory would not be by far what it is today. I[t] therefore rightly bears his name. [Italics mine.]
Praising the genius of Marx, for Engels, is obviously a way of acknowledging both his intellectual brilliance and his visionary acuity. The Latin etymology of the term genius – a transliteration of the Roman name for something like a guardian angel or “tutelar spirit” – is linked (my old companion W. W. Skeat suggests) to the idea of the genus, genetic kinship, creative or generative origin, maybe even to push things a bit, something like a muse, an instructive spirit. Marx’s genius, along these lines, makes him into a corrective spectre who haunts our world, and who persistently speaks against the oppressive tendencies of our times, a counter-episteme. Eagleton explicitly states that this Marx isn’t the one he wants to recover, the Marx of “moral and cultural critique” who seems to him next to impossible to dismiss as foundational to most critical projects in the humanities. And maybe this means leaving Eagleton behind now in my current trajectory; but it’s important to acknowledge how even Eagleton’s doggedly practical and political recuperation of Marx depends upon and is haunted by that genius.
The political and the cultural, that is, are difficult to disentangle, which seems like a banal enough claim to make, hardly a claim at all, except that the question of how that interdependency articulates itself, particularly across the domain of the aesthetic, becomes both crucial and vexed – bewitched, Adorno might say. Aesthetic abstraction, the rarefication of artistic material and experience, takes on the quaintly archaic appearance of privilege and withdrawal, but that rarefication can also be understood as an at least contingently foundational moment for political engagement, the fraught origin of what Fredric Jameson calls, potentially, “a radical intervention in the here-and-now and the promise of resistance to its blind fatalities” (The Cultural Turn35). I hear Adorno’s negative dialectics all over Jameson’s argument:
In the old days, abstraction was surely one of the strategic ways in which phenomena, particularly historical phenomena, could be estranged and defamiliarized; when one is immersed in the immediate – the year-by-year experience of cultural and informational messages, of successive events, of urgent priorities – the abrupt distance afforded by an abstract concept, a more global characterization of the secret affinities between those apparently autonomous and unrelated domains, and of the rhythms and hidden sequences of things we normally remember in isolation and one by one, is a unique resource, particularly since the history of the preceding few years is always what is least accessible to us. (35)
Jameson is talking about theorizing the postmodern, but – and I don’t think I’m out of synch here – he is also outlining a poetics here, at least implicitly, and even – in his gesture at rhythm – a musical aesthetic. And he’s talking, for that matter, about how Marx’s genius might materialize in contemporary language, how it might sound itself.
What’s emerging, I think, is an aesthetic of relevance, of creative urgency that matters. How is it, the question goes, that Marxism might remain, as Marxism, relevant if not contemporary, given its archaism, its ineluctable entanglements with “the old days”? Douglas Kellner argues, following both Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, that Marxism is defined by its persistent field of crisis:
Marxism still has the theoretical and political resources to provide an account of contemporary history and strategies for radical social transformation. In a sense, Marxism is always in crisis as new events emerge that require revision and development of the theory. Marx himself and subsequent Marxists were always revising and reconstructing the theory to take account of historical developments and to fill in the deficiencies in the original theory. In this sense, “crises of Marxism” are not so much signs of the obsolescence of the Marxian theory as a typical situation for a social theory facing anomalies or events that challenge its theories. (16)
For Kellner, scientific or orthodox Marxism can only be misapplied and inappropriate, but critical Marxism remains relevant (especially Frankfurt school, especially Marcuse): “Because no competing economic theory or critique of capitalism has emerged to replace Marxism, it is still an indispensable part of radical social theory” (18). But what constitutes the core of a theory, the theory, which is wholly self-renovating? For me, it’s the collision of the archaic and the nostalgic – that is, in a sense of the ideological and the utopian – in textual-materialist engagements with the historical. Historicizing Marxism itself, which asserts its relevance as a theory of historical crisis and transformation, refigures its quaintness. Responding to critiques of Adorno’s Marxist anachrony, Jameson argues that “if you reproach Marxism with its temporal dimension, which allows it to consign solutions to philosophical problems to a future order of things, . . . a vision of postponement and lag, deferral and future reconciliation,” you are in effect assuming an a-temporal critical posture he associates with the postmodern:
it may be admitted that this future-oriented philosophy — which prophecies catastrophe and proclaims salvation — is scarcely consistent with that perpetual present which is daily life under postmodern or late capitalism. (Late Marxism 231)
The radical critique proffered by Marxism has remained, for Jameson, its “genuine historicity,” the insistence upon historical renovation — even to the point of facing its own immersion in the historical, its own perpetual theoretical anachronism — to which Kellner also holds.
So, I want to use Marx as a point of departure for at least two reasons. First, my initial object of study, the yard sale, operates like a peculiar pocket of capital production and exchange both within and outside the complexes of regulation, distribution and control that constitute the wider market. Like Marxism itself, yard sales are inherently quaint. They are highly localized, interstitial formations at which nascent commodities, in the Marxian sense, are able to gestate, baldly exposed to view: yard sales offer an immediate display (an aesthetic) of capitalism in its infancy. Marxist critique, for a moment, applies. Second, the actual ideologeme that I want to isolate and interrogate – the production of “genius” – feeds back into the dialectic articulated by Marx’s eleventh thesis, tired as it may seem. How is it, I want to ask, that an acquired object – in this case, a particular record by Keith Jarrett – shifts from a thing interpreted (as valuable, as meaningful) to a political manifesto, an immediacy which no longer simply represents but enables participation in a kind of community of action, a shift, as Keith Jarrett might say, from the passivity of audience member to the activity of listener. An apparently trivial, everyday act – buying a used album in somebody’s garage – presents a potential moment to call radically into question the structures of consumption and determination that almost invisibly and nearly inaudibly govern and shape us.
More to come. (Next, theorizing yard sales, then acquiring, and listening to, Keith Jarrett.)
Works Cited to This Point
Bannet, Eve. Postcultural Theory: Critical Theory After the Marxist
Paradigm. New York: Paragon House, 1993. Print.
Corbett, John. Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage
to Dr. Funkenstein. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right. New Haven: Yale UP,
Engels, Friedrich. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German
Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the
Dialectic. London: Verso, 1990. Print.
– – -. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern,
1983-1998. London: Verso, 1998. Print.
Rabinow, Paul, ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon,