Presentism

Anna Kornbluh talks about presentism, the anachronistic historical practice of studying the past with contemporary frames of understanding. While some orthodoxies might consider it to be tantamount to historical heresy, presentism can be a powerful tool in building histories of anti-establishment struggles, such as women’s and workers’ rights movements. The conversation also focuses on the work of the V21 Collective, a research collective that Anna organizes, which applies presentist methods to Victorianist scholarship.

Anna Kornbluh is Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies at University of Illinois, Chicago. Her research and teaching focus on the novel, film, and critical theory, especially marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, and formalism. She is the author of The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (University of Chicago 2019),  Marxist Film Theory and Fight Club (Bloomsbury “Film Theory in Practice” series, 2019), and Realizing Capital: Financial and Psychic Economies in Victorian Form (Fordham UP 2014).  Her current research concerns impersonality, objectivity, mediation, and abstraction as residual faculties of the literary in privatized urgent times.  She is the founding facilitator of two scholarly cooperatives: V21 Collective and InterCcECT.

Image: © 2022 Saronik Bosu

Music used in promotional material: ‘Past has not Passed’ by James Blackshaw

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Monuments

Erin L. Thompson talks about monuments, and their role in American public life. Public art intervenes in directly in politics, shaping social behavior in the present. Monuments, in her account, are a bid for immortality that says “this is how things are” but often means “this is how things should be.”

In the episode she talks about The Houston Museum of African American Culture. They are engaged in a super exciting project reinterpreting the cultural memory of the US Civil War, as the first Black cultural institution that has re-housed a Confederate monument.

If you’re keen on the history and politics of monuments, check out her brand new book: Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments. It’s coming out from Norton this Tuesday (Feb 8)! You learn more about the book, and her upcoming talks on her website: artcrimeprof.com

Erin L. Thompson is an associate professor of Art Crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Her first book Possession (Yale UP, 2016) studied the history of theft at the heart of private art collections from the Ancient World to the present.

Image: Statue of a man on a horse, part of the the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial at the US Capital, described in this article from the Architect of the Capital, US government website.

Music used in promotional material: ‘Morrisson’s jig – Leslie’s march’ by Aislinn

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Drone Life

Amy Gaeta uses the relationship between humans and technology, non-military use of drones being a prime example, to rethink concepts of passivity and how it can bring about change. She makes an intervention in science and technology studies from her position in feminist and disability studies, drawing from diverse theoretical sources like the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Saidiya Hartman, Alexander Weheliye, and Mark Fisher.

Amy Gaeta is not utopian; she is a student of understanding how we survive a world that is killing us on a dying planet, a feminist disability activist and scholar, poet, punk, and PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her academic work specializes in the psychological aspects of human-technology relations under the surveillance state. In poetry, she explores mental illness, desire, and the impossibility of being human.

Image: “‘Little Planet’ style edit of a 180-degree panorama of my daughter’s little league game this summer” by Tim Bish.

Music used in promotional material: ‘Unsunny Sundays’ by Chris Herb.

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Deindustrialization

Gabriel Winant talks with Kim about the decline of the industrial working class and the rise of the health care industry.

Gabriel is an assistant professor of History at the University of Chicago. His book, The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America, is recently out from Harvard University Press. You can read his recent article on the subject in The New York Times.

The Next Shift focuses on the working class in the American context and Pittsburgh in particular. In the full version of our conversation, Gabriel recommended Aaron Benanav’s book Automation and the Future of Work (Verso 2020), for an argument about the larger global economic structures of deindustrialization. He also talks a bit about James Boggs, as someone who was well positioned to notice the effects of deindustrialization. We found this article about Boggs worth reading.

The image for this episode is a photograph of the abandoned Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, taken by Thomas Hawk on 13 June 2010. The image is posted of Flickr under a creative commons attribution non-commercial license. Lauren Berlant describes gives this photograph as a bad image of neoliberalism, which allows our social theory to derive “its urgency and its reparative imaginary from spaces of catastrophe and risk where the exemplum represents structural failure” (“The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times” Society and Space 34 no. 3 (2016) p.395). But I like it. Saronik modified the original image.

Music used in promotional material: ‘Shadow of a Coal Mine’ by Linda Draper

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Commodity Fetishism

Kim talks with Elaine Freedgood about Karl Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism.

The concept comes from:
Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, edited by Frederick Engels, 1887, available on marxists.org

Other texts mentioned:
Peter Stallybrass, “Marx’s Coat” in Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces, edited by Patricia Spyer, Routledge, 1998.
Rosalind Morris and Daniel Leonard, The Returns of Fetishism: Charles de Brosses and the Afterlives of an Idea. University of Chicago Press, 2017.
In the longer version of our conversation we talked about:
Tamara Ketabgian, The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture. University of Michigan Press, 2011.
Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844. Translated by Florence Kelley Wischnewetzky. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1852. Internet Archive.
And Elaine’s book, The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Elaine is super cool. She studies Victorian Literature and teaches in the English Department at NYU.

Image borrowed from archive.org. If this image is under copyright, please inform us and we will remove it promptly.

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Debt

Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi talks about the idea of debt, mainly with respect to the book by David Graeber on its history. This episode is dedicated to his memory.

Huzaifa is a doctoral candidate at the Department of English, Jawaharlal Nehru University, working on speculative materialism. He has written on several subjects including Graeber’s work.

The image is that of the Cone of Urukagina, which has the first recorded instance of the word ‘freedom’ (‘amargi’). In his book, Graeber talks about this record as one of several issued periodically by Sumerian kings to “declare all outstanding consumer debt null and void…, return all land to its original owners, and allow all debt-peons to return to their families”.

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Autonomous Work of Art

Kim talks with Pardis about Theodor Adorno’s concept of the autonomous work of art, as articulated in his Aesthetic Theory, and The Dialectic of Enlightenment (with help from Max Horkheimer).

Pardis Dabashi is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she specializes in 20th-Century literature and Film studies. Starbucks Christmas Blend is one of her many guilty pleasures. Adorno would be upset.

Image source: Witches dancing in forest, in the Compedium Maleficarum of Francesco Mario Guazzo, published in 1608. Available on Wikimedia Commons.

TRANSCRIPT

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

autonomous, adorno, work, art, hand, conditions, capitalist ideology, high, meditations, pollock painting, fantasy, kim, political, capital, nightmarish, podcast, theory, temporary autonomous zone, academic, rejects

Kim

This week I am talking with Pardis Dabashi about the autonomous work of art. So I’m gonna start by asking Pardis to introduce herself. 

Pardis

Hi everybody. And Kim, thanks so much for having me on your awesome podcast. My name is Pardis Dabashi. I’m an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada in Reno and I teach in the English Department. I specialize in home studies in 19th and 20th-century American, European and more recently, some Persian literature. 

Kim

Okay, what the heck is the autonomous work of art? 

Pardis

What the heck is the autonomous work of art? Before I talked about what the autonomous work of art is, I was wondering if I could just, like, make sure that everybody knows that I’m actually not high and the reason is because my experience with drugs has been nightmarish. Like I don’t enjoy it at all. And so, I’m not high, but in another sense, like, I wish I were high. So if I, like–when I inevitably make mistakes about what the autonomous work of art is I can blame it on the fact that I am, like, completely sober. Soberly making mistakes. Okay, all right. So now that I’ve gotten that out of the way.

Kim

Alright, so now you’re ready to answer the questions.

Pardis

I’m ready to answer the question. Okay. What the heck is the autonomous work of art? My suggestion is that the autonomous work of art actually does not exist, okay. But it is a concept, or a placeholder, let’s say that Adorno–Theodor Adorno–uses to try to think about the way that we could imagine an alternative reality than the one that we’re in. So for Adorno the basic condition of human beings under capitalism is that we are subject to or subject others to suffering by way of domination basically, then what the autonomous work of art does is attempt to imagine a reality outside of these relations, outside the conditions of capital. But the catch is that the very idea of generating a realm outside the conditions of capital is itself like a re-inscription of capital. Yes, on the one hand, there is something about going and dancing naked in the woods that rejects, ostensibly rejects, the power dynamics of capitalism that like force our bodies into doing certain things on a regular basis. Yes. But on the other hand, there is a kind of fantasy of transcendence going on there that Adorno is really skeptical of. The idea that we can make a work of art that transcends the condition of capital or the idea that one could transcend the conditions of capital at all–that fantasy is just as bourgeoisie as, like, the bourgeois guy sitting in his apartment, like smoking a cigar and flipping through magazines. So when I say that the autonomous work of art doesn’t exist what I mean is that I don’t actually think, like, while on the one hand, we could say yes, okay, like a Pollock painting is an autonomous work of art.

Kim

So I was thinking when you said people want to go dance naked in the woods is thinking, oh, Burning Man, Burning Man is the greatest example right?

Pardis

Perfect example where it’s like, oh, yeah, let’s go be in the desert in this temporary autonomous zone where anything goes, but let’s also pay $4,000 per ticket. Adorno would be, I mean, Adorno hated everything, Adorno hated jazz. He did. I was just joking with a friend that, like, Adorno is the most profound killjoy. Like there’s, like he doesn’t like anything. He’d be like the idea of enjoyment is, like, wrapped up in capitalist ideology. He’s not wrong, but it’s sometimes, like, it’s just, like, dude, just let me zone out for a minute. 

Kim

Yeah, so maybe this is a good point to ask the next question. Since it’s, you know, it’s such a contradictory and maybe non-existent thing, how do I use the autonomous work of art? 

Pardis

Like, how does one use the autonomous work of art? I would say, for Adorno, the question would be like, how does one use the idea of the autonomous work of art? And I think the short answer is, one tries to think the autonomous work of art and by virtue of thinking the autonomous work of art one becomes a different kind of political subject. One who is less susceptible to engaging in the objectification of the other.

Kim

Okay, so like art shifts directly into politics there, right?

Pardis

For me, as far as I’m concerned, his meditations on the autonomous work of art are meditations on a different kind of political subjectivity. Even though to my knowledge, he doesn’t come out and never really exactly says that. That’s how that’s how I read it. For sure.

Kim

Okay. So then as a political theory, how will the autonomous work of art save the world?

Pardis

The autonomous work of art can’t save the world right now. And it can’t save the world two years from now. But, what it can do is contribute to the creation of a critical community. And when I say critical I don’t I obviously don’t mean academic, what I mean is, like, contribute to the growth of a kind of, like, community of people who think critically about, like, what is in front of them.

Kim 

Can I actually ask you, I know this is kind of a crazy question. But like, what is art for Adorno?

Pardis

I thought you were, like, just going to ask what is art and I was like holy shit.

Kim

If you have an answer to that please, please give it to me! But, like, for Adorno specifically, if you’ve got that.

Pardis

For Adorno art is… can I use really deep words like “monadologically.” Okay, so the monad: the monad is like a thing of a term that Adorno borrows from Spinoza. And it’s, like, the monad is like a thing that recreates in miniature, the terms or the form of, like, the totality. So, what in the way, the reason why he uses that term to talk about the autonomous work of art is that the autonomous work of art recreates through forms. Like the autonomous work of art isn’t like a painting, like a Diego Rivera mural, for example, that shows like working bodies, Adorno will be like, this is not the autonomous work of art. It’s not about thematizing labor as content, for him that’s just as part of the bourgeois fantasy of transcending capital as like anything else. So for him, the reason why I use the Jackson Pollock example is that that’s something that is really formally fragmented, that in its form of fragmentation, sort of recreates in miniature the fragmentation and internal contradictions of capitalist modernity. So this is why he’s drawn more toward modernist aesthetics.

Kim

Okay, so what defines art as such is form and then what’s powerful and maybe like the saving grace–if we’re gonna go back to that, like, how will it save the world question–involves the viewers interaction, or the the listeners interaction with the work?

Pardis

Totally, totally and what’s interesting about Adorno is he doesn’t really talk about reception all that much, except for this relatively brief moment in the aesthetic theory where he talks about what he calls the shutter. The shutter ideally is the thing that I as a person, like, let’s say looking at a painting, let’s say at a Pollock painting, experience. When I look at the Pollock painting, I experience what Adorno calls a shutter, which is a kind of like a breaking down of my subjectivity, like a recognition of the fact that my subjectivity is wholly dependent on that which is outside of me. Ideally what the autonomous work of art would do is like, generate in me a shutter. I suppose that’s what could save the world. But again, it’s like, like, that doesn’t happen. You don’t like I don’t, you know?

Kim

It’s not what I feel when I go to art museums.

Pardis

Certainly not!

Kim

I feel very hailed as a bourgeois subject. I don’t…

Pardis

Me too, I go there, I’m like, oh, I should think that this is beautiful. Therefore I will sit…

Kim

I should be proper and observed the beauty…

Pardis

Meanwhile, to myself, I’m thinking I really want a hot dog. 

Kim

That’s a really excellent note to end on.

Pardis

I think by the way, like somewhere spoken poorly upon dogs.

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Aura

In this episode Saronik asks Kim about the aura.

The idea comes from Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Besides the central text, the episode references Benjamin’s 1940 essay, “On the Concept of History” in which the Angel of History appears. We also talk about Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” And make a passing mention of the British artist Banksy.

The image is a photograph that Kim took of a painting of peaches in an art museum in Amsterdam. She forgets artist and title of the painting, and would welcome reminders from listeners.

TRANSCRIPT

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

aura, art, mona lisa, theory, reading, text, marxists, answer, mourning, culture, circulating, camera, reproduction, diminished, foundations, podcast, fixating, high, question

Saronik  

In this episode, I, Saronik, talk to Kim about the aura. Okay, question number one: What the heck is the aura?

Kim 

The aura is what is lost when you reproduce a piece of art. 

Saronik

Right.

Kim

Like when you copy it. So, like, when you take a photograph of the Mona Lisa, the difference between your photograph on your iPhone and the Mona Lisa, the gap between those two things is the aura.

Saronik 

That is brilliantly put. My next question is, How do I use the aura in my life? Give me an example.

Kim 

So you go to the Louvre and take your iPhone, take a picture of the Mona Lisa and you’re like, that’s not nearly as good as the real one.

Saronik 

You know, what I’ve heard is, like, I’ve heard, like, people are always surprised by how small it is. Like, it’s way like, tinier than you would expect. Like because we are sort of fixating on the Mona Lisa example. 

Kim

Yeah, well, but that’s actually one of the things Benjamin says. Interestingly so, like, he’s talking about the, like, the camera as his specific example, too, as to, like, the technology in question rather than the art and one of the sort of functions of the mechanical aperture of the camera’s eye is that it, it can see things that no human eye can see. So it sees things in different proportions. So it zooms things in, it can take small pictures like little tiny corners or whatever things that you would never see. And because we’re so used to seeing the Mona Lisa in reproduction, where it is, like, expanded or made to appear larger than it is, then we think it’s larger than it is.

Saronik  

That sounds legit. And also like, I don’t know, I mean, I think did I begin the Mona Lisa example or did you? Anyway, anyway, I think we should move on. My third and final question of the day is, how will the aura save the world?

Kim 

Do you want the real serious answer to this question?

Saronik  

I want the real completely like the scarily serious shit

Kim 

The like obvious answer is, well I mean, come on fuck off Benjamin, it won’t. But the, like, real, like, theory bro answer or like at least the like the answer that Benjamin gives is that, well, so there are two possible readings of the text. I mean, there are as many possible readings of the text as there are readers. But there are two sort of mainline interpretations of the text and they’re both supported by the text. One of them, Benjamin’s kind of, like, mourning the loss of the aura. So, in “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the aura is diminished. So, because we see all these photographs of the Mona Lisa circulating all the time, the Mona Lisa‘s aura is diminished. But actually somewhat amusingly, the Mona Lisa is enlarged in our imaginations, as we have discussed. But we can think of Benjamin and–in a way Marxism–is a project that is really culturally conservative in a lot of ways, or at least Marxists are often very culturally conservative people. And there’s this pole towards the past that, like, we can feel Benjamin mourning the loss of the aura, but the, like, straight ahead, canonical, whatever revolutionary Marxist reading of the text would be that Benjamin celebrates the loss of the aura, because the loss of the aura is what’s going to democratize art.

Saronik 

Right. I was really interested in what you said about, like, Marxists being culturally conservative and you know who, like, I feel, like, people who are not out and out Marxists when they try to sort of do Marxism, they are more interesting sometimes. And, the text that I’m thinking of is “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” by Oscar Wilde. And he has like a really interesting take on, like, art in a socialist world, which is like, like in a socialist utopia, he would vary eradication of monitoring responsibility in kind of a different glory for….

Kim 

Totally, but I think we have lost Benjamin. 

Saronik

okay, let’s go back. 

Kim

So how will the aura…

Saronik  

How will the aura save the world? And you said that there are two readings, and one of them, which, if I’m guessing correctly, you think is the sort of more accurate one, is that he does mourn the death of the aura while at the same time suggesting that there is a democratization of art that’s happening.

Kim 

Yeah, like, like I think that you know, the correct reading is that both are going on. But the like, if we’re going to use the aura to save the world, it will be the aura will bring about the coming revolution by democratizing art, basically, by taking art out of the sort of palaces of the elite or the you know, museums and institutions of the bourgeoisie and bringing it into the sphere of the proletariat. So it will, like, the aura will save us by dying, basically.

Saronik 

Yeah. I think it’s sort of like the apotheosis of this idea is when Banksy paintings are sold in auction houses.

Kim 

Yeah, I don’t know I, like, but I think the weird thing is that the art system or capitalism–which are the same–have both sort of they’ve somehow managed to, like, swallow art again. Like Benjamin’s answer is not, like, his reading of the scenario is actually not quite correct, right? So he imagines that the camera the invention of photography, the widespread reproduction of images, lithography, all of that stuff, newspapers, circulation, circulating images, all of this sort of visual culture of the 19th-century and the early 20th-century is is what’s going to is going to sort of shake the foundations of culture. This would be the cultural Marxist reading in that the shaking of the foundations of the culture, sort of also simultaneously will shake the foundations of the society as a whole and about the revolution. But I think his assumption that technology, specifically the technology of the camera, generally the technology of mass production, applied this fear of culture. the idea that that will do that, that that will accomplish that aim is actually ultimately flawed. Like, it doesn’t fucking work. History doesn’t bear it out. 

Saronik 

Yes. I mean, that that’s true, but I think you know, we’ve gotten some slack because he is not a prophet. 

Kim

But he fucking thinks he is, man! all that shit about the angel and the messianic times, the weak messianic…

Saronik 

Oh I love it, it is one of my favorite things in the world because it is so high. Anyway, I think…

Kim 

This is probably the end. Thank you.

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