“Thus wit, like faith, by each man is applied To one small sect, and all are damned


-Alexander Pope

Pauline Johnson: Marxist Aesthetics: The Foundations Within Everyday Life for an Enlightened Con­sciousness; Routledge and Kegan Paul; London.

T. W. Adorno: Aesthetic Theory; 

Routledge and Kegan Paul; London.

Of Marx’s numerous ex cathedra pronouncements, none has pre­sented a greater hermeneutical chal­lenge to the faithful than the assertion that life is not determined by con­sciousness, but consciousness by life. It seemed to follow as a consequence that men could not, by acts of their will, create a new world. The classless society would be realized only as the final outcome of the logic of econom­ic, and hence social, development. In one sense, this was heartening news because it meant that revolutionaries would not be disappointed in their hopes. But on closer examination, their assurance was seen to have been purchased at the price of denying the historical influence of ideas. In the effort to rid itself of the last vestige of idealism, Marxism had entered the camp of positivism.

Only when, toward the end of the 19th century, positivistic social theories began to yield to a fresh interest in the relationship between conscious­ness and society, did the “automatic” Marxism that constituted orthodoxy for the Second International begin to be countered by a theory of conscious praxis, the full implications of which did not become evident until 1923, when Georg Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness and Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy first appeared. By then, Lenin had laid the historical groundwork for transforming Marx from an economic determinist into a voluntarist by seizing power in Russia, a country that lacked the structural prerequisites that the author of The Communist Manifesto had identified as necessary for successful proletarian revolution. As the revolutionary wave receded during the years follow­ing the Bolshevik coup d’etat, Marxists clung all the more to their new war­rant for hope. Revolution might not be imminent, or even inevitable, but the barricades could again be erected if the proletariat achieved a mature consciousness of its historical mission.

The doctrine that ideas could be autonomous was welcome news for intellectuals, because it meant that they were destined to play a pivotal role in the revolutionary movement. It would be their responsibility to expose false consciousness-the bourgeoisie’s blurred vision of reality-and to aid in the development of the proletariat’s privileged  consciousness. Precisely here Marxists began to assign new significance to art and the philosophy of art. No longer vaguely interesting distractions, these enterprises became potentially useful weapons in the arsenal of revolution.

Unfortunately, Marx and Engels never proposed a formal system of aesthetics, their statements concerning art being occasional and cursory. Disciples such as Franz Mehring and Ceorgi Plekhanov had had more to say on the subject, but they had joined Marxist perspectives to one or another bourgeois philosophy. Only in 1930-31 did Lukacs and his Russian friend Mikhail Lifshitz, collaborating at Moscow’s Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, set out to work out a specifically Marxist aesthetics. Concerning this important chapter in the history of Marxist theory, Pauline Johnson tells us nothing. Nor does she provide so much as a general introduction to Marx’s and Engels’s aesthetic views. Instead, she begins with a superficial and narrowly focused analysis of Lukacs’s work, one that suffers even more from her inability to read German. Barred from direct access to primary sources, she has had to rely almost entirely on Lukas’s students and friends living in emigration-Gyorgy Markus, Ferenc Feher, and, especially, Agnes Heller.

Like most contemporary radicals, Johnson, who lectures on “Feminism and Aesthetics” at the University of Sydney, is not much interested in the proletariat. She is, however, excited by the idea that works of art can have an “emancipatory impact” on conscious­ness in general. A proper Marxist aesthetics must, she insists, “establish the basis upon which the recipient is able to recognize that the artwork provides a better and a more convincing repre­sentation of reality than the perspective he/she acquired from daily life.” For Johnson, of course, it is a priori the case that every conception of West­ern reality is false that does not entail rejection. She is pleased to note that Marxist theories of aesthetics are uniformly hostile to “capitalist” society, but she regrets that not all are able to provide an account of the foundations for an “enlightened” consciousness within alienated everyday life. Follow­ing Heller, she maintains that only Lukacs, the late Lukacs of Die Eigenart des Aesthetisehen, succeeded in doing so. Yet if it is true that Lukacs believed the present, however unpromising, to be pregnant with a better future, Johnson’s emphasis on a consciousness of “radical needs” as the springboard to revolution is largely inspired, if that is the right word, by Heller’s extensive writings.

In the last two-thirds of the book, Johnson discusses briefly, and inade­quately, what translations she could locate of work by Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno, Her­bert Marcuse, Louis Althusser, and Pierre Macherey. They, along with Britain’s Terry Eagleton, are com­mended for their Marxist approach, but found wanting because, unlike Lukacs, they have been unable to discern the promise of change in contemporary existence. Along the way, she treats us to some delicious morsels of radical esoterica. I, for one, did not know that the lamentable Althusser (who not so long ago killed his wife) distinguishes between mechanisms used by the “repressive state apparatuses” (RSAs) and those used by the “ideological state apparatuses” (ISAs). Make no mistake about it, his is a finely tuned theory.

Not even sympathetic readers of this book will be able to take it seriously. As a study of Marxist aesthetics it is shallow, poorly researched (the bibli­ography contains not a single foreign language entry), and unoriginal. Moreover, it offers no recognizable argument. Like Heller, Johnson simply assumes that the “real” and “radical” needs of “the people,” whatever they may be, can legitimately be satisfied only by the socialist regime of her imagination. To make matters worse, she has couched this ideological exer­cise in prose that is clumsy and jargon­ ridden. Somehow, too, she  managed to persuade the publisher to experiment with a lunatic program of lin­guistic gender equality. This sentence – I do not jest – received editorial approval: “He/she hopes to find confirmation of his/her unique individuality by extricating him/herself from the crowded city streets.”

After such barbarisms we turn to Theodor Adamo’s notoriously opaque prose with a sense of relief. A leader of the so-called Frankfurt School of Social Research, Adorno made his reputation in radical circles as a the­ oretically dense but politically undoctrinaire Marxist critic of culture. Although Johnson had not read ­Aesthetic Theory, which has only now appeared in translation, she did not hesitate to compare Adorno unfavorably with Lukacs – his archtheoretical rival on the left – charging him with having denied “any effective enlightening capacity to art.” It is an allegation to which he would certainly have objected, for he too believed that art was “objectively practical because it forms and educates consciousness” and that “a change in consciousness . . . might ultimately lead to a change of reality.”

Jewish on his father’s side – “Adorno” was his Gentile mother’s name – Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno was born in 1903 and received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Frankfurt University before going on to Vienna, where he studied composition with Alban Berg. When Hitler came to power, he left Germany for England, and after several years there and in the United States, returned home in 1949; he died two decades later without having completed revisions of his aesthetics. As even this hurried summary of his itinerary suggests, the Hitler-Ziel was the formative experience of Adamo’s life. In order to gain some insight into the origins of his unshak­able conviction that the world was a kind of Auschwitz writ large, one has only to note the subtitle of his Minima Moralia  (1961) – “Reflections From an Injured Life” – or to recall the painful passage in Negative Dialectics ( I966), where he asked “whether after Auschwitz you can go on living . . . whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living.” In the projection of Adamo’s dark vision of the world, his memory of the National Socialist extermination camps and his profound sense of personal guilt were always more important than Marxist theory.

It is therefore not surprising that his point of departure in AestheticTheory was the “incomprehensible terror and suffering,” the “unredeemed condition of the world.” Refusing to recognize any significant distinction between, say, the Soviet Union and Western Europe, he insisted that the ghosts of Auschwitz haunted “a society” in which “rationality is an end in itself and hence passes over into irrationality and madness.” Everywhere he looked Adorno professed to see repression, slavery, alienation, and cruelty on such a scale that the murder of mice prompted little, if any, opposition. What was even worse, he argued, few of his contemporaries were aware of their servitude because the moguls of what he called the mass culture industry circulated the lie that the world was given and fundamentally unalterable. Marxist theorists who continually spoke of society as a “totality” – Adorno had Lukacs principally in mind -were little better than those who adjusted social controls, for they took no notice of those fugitive particulars and fragments that resisted integration into the whole, the totalitarian structure of the world.

Confronted by such a world, art, according to Adorno, was cal1ed upon to wage unremitting war against every aspect of empirical reality. It could not, however, conduct its campaigns by means of direct protest, the mistake of all “committed” art. However passionate engaged artists might be, they succeeded only in acknowledging and thus legitimizing empirical reality as the immutably given. What art could, and should, do was to constitute itself an “epiphany of the hidden essence of reality,” which essence was, of course, the very opposite of what it appeared to be. Avant-garde art, at its best, was just such an epiphany. Unlike Lukacs, who despised the avant-garde and lionized realists such as Balzac, Tolstoi, and Mann, Adorno championed the modernists-Schonberg, Kafka, and the expressionists in particular. He had intended to dedicate AestheticTheory to Samuel Beckett, whose revolution­ary significance supposedly derived from his apolitical instincts and his distance from “reified” empirical reality. By portraying a meaningless world, Adorno insisted, Beckett rejected ac­cepted reality-which was inextricably bound up with meaning-and placed meaning, rightly understood, on the agenda.

This is an example of the fancy footwork, or “dialectical turn,” that constitutes the strategic center of Adamo’s theory. True art had to be negative through and through in order not only to awaken human conscious­ness to the full horror of reality, but also to provide a paradoxical vision of utopia. “Nowadays,” he wrote, “dark­ness is the representation of . . . Utopia. Art’s Utopia, the counterfactual yet-to-come, is draped in black.” Utopia, in the post-Auschwitz world, was not a vision of heaven but an evocation of hell; not a dream but a scream. Indeed, reading Adorno is like nothing so much as contemplating Edvard Munch’s famous painting.

Adorno distanced himself even fur­ther from more orthodox Marxist aestheticians by focusing his attention on artistic form. “Form,” he wrote, “is the law that transfigures empirical being; hence form represents freedom where­ as empirical life represents repression.” New and dazzling experiments with form, he believed, might prompt fundamental changes in society. By breaking down order, the sense of regularity, and the pattern of instrumental rationality, such experiments worked on human consciousness, liberating it from bondage to what exists. New forms had always, however, to work with elements appropriated from alienated reality, separating them out and recomposing them in unexpected ways. Failing that, utopian reality, as the totally other, would leave empiri­ cal reality intact, undisturbed, and regnant.

What lends Adamo’s writing its peculiar fascination for contemporary radicals is, I think, its striking combi­nation of nihilism and utopianism, both of which derive, as readers of The Possessed know, from the same source – undying hatred of the world as it is. After the failure of the 1960’s “revolution,” Adorno’s despair corresponded to a growing mood on the left. At the same time, however, he maintained that the dialectical imagination might yet have it both ways-despair could become the symbol of hope, the contemporary form of utopia.

Whatever attraction such ideas undoubtedly possess for civilization’s dis­contents, they do not add up to a promising aesthetic theory. This is not only because Adamo’s work was root­ed in hate, but also because his rejection of the world was so complete that he could not understand the efforts our greatest artists have made, to reveal meaning in the complex moral universe in which we live. If, as I believe, the author of Waiting for Godot is indeed a major writer, that is not because he is a sublimated  utopian, but because he continues to wonder at the resiliency of the human spirit and, without passing over our terrible trials, to affirm and explore the only world we know. And that, I suppose, is only another way of saying that we are not indebted to Beckett and other gifted artists for raising our consciousness of utopia, but for deepening our under­ standing of human existence.