Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"the inexplicable is enthroned in bourgeois society"

Art criticism ought to be written in the knowledge that it is basically beside the point. Any valid explanation ought to be verifiable from the picture (or sculpture or whatever) itself, making the written explanation redundant. The same applies to the criticism of social institutions: shopping precincts or the social services for instance. The following paragraphs attempt to explain Alfred Jarry's poster for Ubu Roi via a historical analysis of changes in the way authority is articulated. But history is written within history. I wrote the whole thing at work with no research whatsoever.

Authority is reconfigured in bourgeois society. The system by which authority is relayed becomes entangled in the system of commodity reproduction. Social control over the greater part of the day is taken over by capitalist firms. Direct orders take on a puritan simplicity.These firms altogether constitute a diffuse network of control with no fixed centre. The weakened state apparatus floats above this. Later, the the state expands serving to underwrite the system of capitalism. The state apparatus becomes swollen with thousands of bureaucrats. Social control over the remaining part of the day hardly exists since it hardly needs to exist. The stark world of direct commands that scaffolds a society in which commodity production predominates is supplemented by a mass culture made out of commodities. Since this culture is based on the commodity form it is determined by the consonant or conflicting interests and ideas of its proprietors and audience and by the exigencies of commodity reproduction: the imperative that costs be more than covered by revenues. Authority, then, appears in a second form, contextualising its first appearance as direct command.

The task of propagating a higher culture eventually falls to a specialised clerissy. The collaborative product of this class is a vast system of structuralism: a heaven of structuralist thought floating above the secular realm of the giant bureaucracy. It hardly advances beyond an officialisation or a rendering orthodox of notions from capitalist mass culture. Its solidity is also a reflection of the clerical disavowal of initiative. Practice is reified as BestPractice. Structuralism can be recognised from the works of Renan or Taine to a modern psychotherapy that does not recall its originators.

Authority in the developed form of clerissese tends toward pure abstraction. It comes to resemble medieval thought, itself concerned with "structures", with the important distinction that the substance of medieval authority was not held to be perfectly interchangeable. The worldview of the clerissy is like a cardboard theatre with interchangeable characters and interchangeable sets.

It would be all too easy to demonstrate the ways in which the above paragraphs fail to conform to professional historiography. At best they could be a sort of parody of the compressed style of Hegel. No matter.

To return to the poster, Jarry is able to point to, criticise and lampoon this interchangeability of the substance of modern clerical authority. The improper object of veneration, Père Ubu, appears as an unexpected profanation of veneration unexpectedly rendered contentless.

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