Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"a great humanist gesture"

There's a kind of Marxist history where the principal classes in society fight over a common means of cultural production, like a rowing couple each trying to drag a disconsolate baby from the other ones grasp. Intellectual conflict is mapped onto social conflict. This wasn't the Marxism of Edward Thompson, who, in The Making of the English Working Class described the following:

"A witness before the parliamentary committee enquiring into the hand-loom weavers (1835) was asked to state the view of his fellows on the Reform Bill:

Q. Are the working classes better satisfied with the institutions of the country since the change has taken place?

A. I do not think they are. They viewed the Reform Bill as a measure calculated to join the middle and upper classes to Government, and leave them in the hands of Government as a sort of machine to work according to the pleasure of Government.

Such men met Utilitarianism in their daily lives, and they sought to throw it back, not blindly, but with intelligence and moral passion. They fought, not the machine, but the exploititive and oppressive relationships intrinsic to industrial capitalism. In these same years , the great Romantic criticism of Utilitarianism was running its parallel but altogether separate course. After William Blake, no mind was at home in both cultures, nor had the genius to interpret the two traditions to each other."

...which in one way suggests two and only two rival positions of two rival classes, but also something else. Because, on what grounds could the workers' criticism of Utilitarianism have been made, if not those underlying "the great Romantic criticism of Utilitarianism"? That political economy represented the final denial of man?

The establishment at the time believed and made use of several kinds of ideology. Thompson analyses the traditional or induced attachment to "Church and King" and religious revivalism as well as the much vilified Utilitarianism. I tried to demonstrate that the "modern conservatism" exemplified by Burke's arguments against the French Revolution, selectively and retroactively naturalistic, represented an important innovation, quite distinct from a genuine attachment to tradition or utilitarianism, even if the "spiritualising" tendency of this "modern conservatism" is employed alongside utilitarian arguments, as in most economics texts.

This is to slight the venerable historian somewhat, whose book is pretty good, but the multiplicity of conservative ideologies is a development that underlies and informs the modern political aesthetic, and as such is of some importance.

The great difference between Manet's and Gauguin's treatment of similar subjects is not just historical. The political situation is no longer that of the Second Empire. Gauguin's Anna the Javanese is a depiction of someone on the margins of society, perhaps even defiantly so. The old bourgois conception of sex work has been restored, somewhat. It would be an outrageous insult to call this woman a prostitute. The picture doesn't convince us about where and when it was painted, other than in its style and celebrity. It all looks a bit like a theatre set. It couldn't really be described as a criticism of modern life, unless blurishness is taken to be a political statement.

I used to work nights in a petrol station, and this kid came in about four in the morning to clean the forecourt and replenish the stock. The storeroom in which the stock was kept was a windowless concrete cell impregnated with motor oil. Imagine, it's full of old boxes and cobwebs. And this kid just went to sleep in there. The great Romantic criticism of Utilitarianism. It's got to have been like an Eritrean prison cell, except with bottles of Pepsi Max and old boxes of Quavers. And this kid just used to sleep in there. I understand he smoked a lot of weed, but even so.

The pre-critical ambivalence underlying Manet's Olympia is ordinarily political: the vexed relation between bourgeois culture and the sex industry, so the picture can be understood as a partial criticism of society. For Gauguin, ordinary political considerations seem of less importance than the "truth" underlying the "great Romantic criticism of Utilitarianism": the defiant assertion of man in the abstract. Even in Gauguin's pictures with "cut out" figures, the mystery of internal depth seems to have a decisive weight: the eyes of the doll rolling back in its head.

If Gauguin isn't quite, or not always asserting the idealism of Berkeley, the impression that comes across is something like Heidegger's overidealised politics: the mystery of Mankind's relation with the Cosmos. As if the frills of Javanese Pagodas, or Gothic Cathedrals, or the frills of this woman's costume, which she is momentarily without, prefigured the intermediate world of Heideggarian froth.

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