Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 14, 2016

Art, Literature and Culture From a Marxist Perspective

Filed under: art,literature — louisproyect @ 8:19 pm

If you look at the table of contents of Tony McKenna’s brilliant collection of articles titled “Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective”, you will be struck immediately by the seemingly eclectic combination of high and popular culture with Vincent Van Gogh sitting cheek by jowl next to Tupac Shakur. This, of course, leads to an interesting question as to the merits of such a distinction. Keep in mind that Charles Dickens was basically the Stephen King of his day. Also, keep in mind that English literature only began being taught in the British university as a substitute for religion. Until then, students read Shakespeare or Henry Fielding only for entertainment as Terry Eagleton pointed out in “Literary Theory, An Introduction”:

If one were asked to provide a single explanation for the growth of English studies in the later nineteenth century, one could do worse than reply: ‘the failure of religion’. By the mid- Victorian period, this traditionally reliable, immensely powerful ideological form was in deep trouble. It was no longer winning the hearts and minds of the masses, and under the twin impacts of scientific discovery and social change its previous unquestioned dominance was in danger of evaporating. This was particularly worrying for the Victorian ruling class, because religion is for all kinds of reasons an extremely effective form of ideological control…

Fortunately, however, another, remarkably similar discourse lay to hand: English literature. George Gordon, early Professor of English Literature at Oxford, commented in his inaugural lecture that ‘England is sick, and . . . English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State.’ Gordon’s words were spoken in our own century, but they find a resonance everywhere in Victorian England. It is a striking thought that had it not been for this dramatic crisis in mid-nineteenth- century ideology, we might not today have such a plentiful supply of Jane Austen casebooks and bluffer’s guides to Pound.

What is striking about Tony McKenna’s approach to both high and “low” culture is the rigor and subtlety—all conveyed within the context of Marxist dialectics. Although every article expresses this, probably the most sublime application is the final article on a comedian I had never given much thought to, especially now since he has begun doing commercials for Verizon: Ricky Gervais. The title of the article is “From Tragedy to Farce: The Comedy of Ricky Gervais as Capitalist Critique” and it is a pip. As is the case with a number of the articles in the collection, I became highly motivated to have a look at the works examined that were unknown to me, starting with “The Office” and “Extras”. In probing such works and giving them the respect they deserve, McKenna implicitly makes the case that they are the equal to most socially aware fiction being written today if not their superior.

In “The Office”, Gervais plays a character that will be familiar to you if you’ve ever worked in an office as I had for over 40 years until my retirement in 2012. As David Brent, Gervais is always spouting buzzwords like being proactive and performance orientated. I remember the first time I heard the phrase “grow the firm” back in 1981 when I was a consultant at Mobil Oil. Grow the firm? Since when does an object get attached to the verb ‘to grow’? I got used to it in the other offices I worked in over the years but remained jarred every time I saw a leftist talking about “growing the party”.

Brent uses his authority to make his underlings a captive audience for his amateur stand-up comedy, something that symbolizes “all the falseness and alienation of the corporate logic that they are subjected to on a day-to-day basis.” After Brent gets axed by the firm, a paper company called Wernham Hogg, he returns for a reunion at the office and once again does a comedy routine. For the first time, the workers laugh from the heart. (Season One of “The Office” can be seen on Amazon.com.)

I recall watching a few minutes of “Extras” on HBO but never got hooked. After reading McKenna’s analysis, I can’t wait to watch the first season on Amazon streaming (the complete series is available on DVD for $14.95). As the title implies, this is a comedy about the film and TV industries’ lower-tier. Gervais plays a character named Andy Millman who doesn’t care for his job and hopes to make it as a scriptwriter for a series he has been presenting to television executives without much success. In the same way that David Brent lords it over his subordinates, the A-Team actors Millman cohabits with are “surreal, bizarre, and sometimes even tyrannical”.

Referring to Karl Marx’s Capital, McKenna distinguishes between Millman trying to navigate between use values and commodities. The scripts represent use value to him even though he is marketing them to men who view them exclusively as commodities. Meanwhile, his crappy job as an extra represents the commodification of labor. As Marx wrote in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, “…the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.”

Once Millman’s script is bought by the BBC, the tensions between use and exchange value become unbearable. The production team is intent on making the story more commercially viable and “audience friendly”. (One imagines that this was the kind of metamorphosis that “The Office” went through after being adopted by NBC with Steve Carrell standing in for Gervais.)

Growing more and more frustrated with the surgery being performed on his script, Millman resorts to a desperate action. At a rehearsal buffet table, Millman runs into an actor named Williamson who had been terminated from a TV show for refusing to dumb down his character. He then decides to follow his example since he was at least able to “retain his integrity”.

Once the rehearsal is ready to start again, Millman confronts the producers and insists on the show being done his way or the highway. As he is making his demands upon them, they are all startled by the sounds of a sudden loud noise near the buffet table. The now unemployed but integrity-retaining actor has attempted to stuff his jacket with food items that have just tumbled to the ground. Starkly confronted by the fate that awaits him, Millman “makes a cringing come-down and offers to meet any of his producer’s demands”. McKenna’s shrewd commentary on this scene is one that is bred by an engagement with Marxism and having endured working class realities, including years spent working as a cashier in Tesco’s, England’s Walmart.

Now, the scene is great because it does exactly what it should: it makes you snort laughter through your nose. But at the same time, it exhibits a more general truth – the power of the imperatives of exchange at the level of the modern-day writer’s or artist’s social existence and the way in which more abstract and high-minded moral principles easily evaporate in the face of those realities.

The scene with Williamson marks a turning point in the series because it is then when Millman abandons his fight for the integrity of his script and takes solace in the comforts which are provided by the commercial success of the sitcom – the wealth and fame it cultivates. But in abandoning the script’s use value to the prerogatives of exchange, Millman has in effect lost the semblance of himself – for the script was a product of his own essential nature; the void that opens in the aftermath is one he seeks to mask with the palliative of his celebrity status. This too has profound consequences for his existence in that his celebrity is something illusory, forever threatening to vanish, and the compulsion to assure it is driven by the need to make sure that he is always moving in the highest social circles, that he is forever in the papers, that he is seen at all the right restaurants and clubs.

One cannot say whether McKenna came to insights such as these if he hadn’t experienced working-class life. Too much of cultural and artistic analysis is burdened by academic baggage of the sort that you might hear at an ALA conference and—even worse—a vulgar Marxism that uses mutually exclusive ratings such as “revolutionary” or “reactionary” in the same way that film reviewers such as myself are forced to choose between “fresh” and “rotten” at the film review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. At its worst, you end up with something like the atrocious Jacobin article on the recently deceased Merle Haggard that described him as “a hippie-hating hawk in the sixties and seventies, a dutiful Reaganite in the eighties, and a petulant chest-pounder during the first Gulf War, when he broke a mid-career spell of semi-obscurity with a song criticizing antiwar protesters.” This, of course, is the sort of thing you could have read in the Communist Party’s press in the 1930s when “Socialist Realism” reigned supreme.

As a sign of McKenna’s ability to see art and culture dialectically, he has an article on a Russian émigré author named Andrei Makine I am totally unfamiliar with. He focuses on a novel titled Brief Loves that Last Forever whose main character is obviously based on Makine himself. He is haunted by the crimes of Stalinism but has become too cynical to pin his hopes on the small and scattered Russian left that hopes to lead a new revolution that will restore the lost values of 1917. His treatment of these young people are fairly one-dimensional and the results of a rigid ideology that is widespread among an earlier generation of Soviet dissidents. While critical of the politics of the novel, McKenna embraces the psychological and dramatic qualities that are essential to all great literature just as we approach the novels of Solzhenitsyn.

Although a committed socialist, McKenna can empathize with Makine having his own bad reaction to a British leftist who told him that he was a “counter-revolutionary” at a meeting. Apparently he had run into someone who was the counterpart of the Haggard-hater at Jacobin. Ultimately, there is a relationship between the inability to understand Merle Haggard or Andrei Makine and that of failing to break out of the comfortable sect existence of most of the British and American left. It is an ability to think dialectically that not only clouds one’s vision of art and culture but to see how Syrian rebels have a just cause even if some right-winger writing for the Murdoch press praises them as well. Being able to see politics as a contradictory phenomenon in which a higher level of both theory and practice involves resolution at a higher level is a challenge that the left must meet in order to effectively fight for socialism. My strongest recommendation is to read Tony McKenna’s book as an exercise in Marxist dialectics. Not only will it help you to understand Tupac Shakur and Vincent Van Gogh better; it will arm you for the big battles we face down the road.

Like all hardcover books nowadays from commercial publishers such as Palgrave/Macmillan, Tony McKenna’s comes at a steep price. Don’t let that dissuade you. Have a visit to your local library and take out a copy. If you are in a small town where pulp fiction prevails, put in an Interlibrary Loan Request. Go ahead, if you aren’t up to that task, then you aren’t open to making a revolution which will be a lot more onerous.



  1. I don’t know whether it’s really accurate to say that Dickens was the Stephen King of his day. It’s probably truer to say that in Dickens’s day–although there was a wealth of “popular” fiction that has just fallen by the wayside (though you can find college courses in which it is taught), whereas the very popular Dickens has lasted–literature as a whole was less differentiated into various kinds than it is now.

    Even in this increasingly subliterate time, there are more genres today than there were in Dickens’s day, with correspondingly more niches for different kinds of writers. I read a lot of highly literate stuff–Steven Saylor’s novels of ancient Rome, for example–that isn’t generally considered literature with a capital “L” but isn’t exactly looked down upon by the literati either. Stephen King for that matter, while less “literary,” still benefits from this ambiguity–I feel tolerably certain that a lot of professors of literature probably read Stephen King without apology.

    The desperate situation fiction is in now—where celebrated writers of undeniable gifts, like Jonathan Franzen, who still aspires like Hemingway to compete with Tolstoy et al, seem to write stuff that just plain isn’t very interesting about people that nobody in his right mind really gives much of a damn about–is far more recent than the vein of high-holy pseudo-religious crap that started attaching itself to literary studies as these began to develop in universities around the turn of the last century. The systematic study of literature in universities has, for want of a better word, a legitimately scientific aspect that has historically contended against the priestly BS. People used to read Georg Lukacs in their theory courses as well as the great fops of postmodernism. Writers of undeniable interest like Dos Passos before he became a reactionary, or Theodore Dreiser, are preserved in amber in academic literature courses and are still read largely because of this.

    In short, I think that literature with a little “l” is in a kind of rather rapid decline just at present that is affecting writing in general–eventually including Stephen King, who isn’t getting any younger. Perhaps this reflects the stagnation and stress imposed on culture in all its forms by the current state of capitalism, which includes the business of publishing. Of course, too–despite the cheesy fulminations of the self-appointed avant-garde over the years (though this has become quite muted of late)–it may be that writing itself is legitimately on the way out. It’s hard to imagine what that might mean, but I suppose it’s possible.

    But perhaps we have to look at the extraordinary flourishing of writing of all kinds up into the 1970s and trailing off in the eighties and nineties–all kinds of poetry, all kinds of fiction, more kinds than ever before–and consider the many links of all that activity to the teaching of literature in colleges and universities before we simply condemn the literary academy out of hand. We had a terrific if contradictory and complex flowering of culture a few years back, really, if you think about it–and the universities, for all their faults, were a big part of that.

    I say this as a career victim of the literary academy–straight from the Ph.D. mill to the breadline in 1978–who is generally pretty cheesed off at the same things Louis is addressing here.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — May 16, 2016 @ 10:58 pm

  2. Pete Glosser’s comment above is perceptive and interesting. I think he is quite right to say that there is an increased level of specialisation in genre – which corresponds to a heightened specialisation of the economy more broadly – and which means that many talented writers sink without a trace in the gaps between niches etc.

    Stephen King has avoided that fate, obviously. I believe he is one of the most widely read writers (second to JK???) in the world today. This is where the parallel with Dickens holds water – Dickens used to give public readings, had a mass audience etc. So did Shakespeare, for that matter. Though Shakespeare did put on plays for the royal court, the majority of his audience were ‘groundlings’ – servants, shop-keepers, iron workers, seamen etc. In his own time Shakespeare was very ‘popular’ – and this is an interesting issue more generally I think.

    The difference between ‘high-brow’ and ‘popular’ is often one which is constituted historically – some of his contemporaries felt Shakespeare was ‘vulgar’ because he was popular, because he violated classical principles (mixing comedy with tragedy). But over time, as his linguistic power and influence set roots in culture, Shakespeare was increasingly monopolised by a more privileged, stratum and packaged as part of a more elite, esoteric cultural experience. Shakespeare, then, only became highbrow retroactively.

    I don’t ‘feel’ Shakespeare really, I don’t enjoy it very much, perhaps because he was worked into us at school in the same way sergeants work into hapless foot soldiers military drills. But I am willing to bet that a good level of Shakespeare’s literary power, its bawdy comedy, its facility for puns using fresh language, its sense of foreboding and atmosphere before great historical events – I am willing to bet that all these elements had something to do with the fact that, though he was rather aspirant in his politics, Shakespeare had an ‘ear’ for the majority of ‘ordinary’ people, was in contact with them on a regular basis, and was attuned, on the aesthetic level, to shifts in their emotional weather.

    I think the same thing is true with someone like Stephen King. King I do feel. The quality level of his work is patchy, I admit, perhaps because he writes at such a break-beck pace (2000 words a day). But when he gets it right….it is something else. People will often quote ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ which was a fantastic novella made into the famous movie, but also there is this one he wrote called ‘The Long Walk’ which is one of the greatest novellas I have ever read and I recommend it to anyone.

    One of the things which is key to King’s writings is the ear he has for the life of the rural community and the small town – his dialogue is outstanding, and it condenses within itself, the life and the character of people who work the land, or own a family run business in a small town; he is able to so masterfully exhibit the social psychology of these individuals such that they are almost instantaneously recognisable, despite all their oddities and nuances he gifts them with. This is also key to his horror – King, unlike some horror writers, is a powerful character writer – when you create characters as vivid as the ones he often does – when he comes to paint some supernatural threat gradually disrupting their community or their family life from within, as a reader it can often feel painfully believable.

    In terms of his literary ancestors, then, I would probably cite Steinbeck rather than Dickens as his most obvious precursor – I think stylistically King and Steinbeck have a lot in common, but also in terms of focus. Steinbeck too was galvanized by rural life, particularly the big historical shift which was carried in terms of the tragedy of the dust bowl migrations. One suspects that King is probably aware of his own deep rooted connection to community life. Unlike many hugely successful writers, when he made his fortune he didn’t move away from the area he grew up in. He stayed in Maine. He continued to do rather ordinary things like go jogging (where he was almost killed when he was hit by a car – no hired team of security men to accompany him then). I think probably King senses that the best of his writing, its literary power, derives from an organic and unconscious contact with broader community life, with the world he grew up in – or at least what is left of it.

    For similar reasons, I find myself disagreeing with Glosser’s thoughtful but pessimistic conclusion that ‘that literature with a little “l” is in a kind of rather rapid decline’. Although the publishing houses are increasingly capitalised, and it is ever more difficult to smuggle in new or profound fiction – because sales demand a tried and tested, safer, more commercially viable product; nevertheless I think we also have to think about the way in which people write today and how they do it.

    All over the internet you have fan fiction, people writing about their favourite literary/tv characters in imagined situations and new stories, not to mention the amount of people who are connected through various writing websites across the board. This represents a profound democratisation of writing culture – even the act of writing emails or posting Facebook updates – is actually creating a world where millions of people resort to the written word, not just a means for practical and necessary activities like filling out forms for jobs, but as a means of organic self-expression.

    From the ‘classicist’ point-of-view people often point out how corny and vapid a lot of people’s updates on these kind of fora are – and probably a good deal of them are – but the more important point is that now we live in a world where more people are resorting to writing in order to mediate the issues of their lives in a personal and creative form – than has ever been the case. I just think this cannot but have an effect on the creation of literature as a whole, and that the body of such literature will be more wonderful and more diverse than ever.

    Comment by tonecold61@yahoo.com — May 17, 2016 @ 10:32 am

  3. I find myself disagreeing with Glosser’s thoughtful but pessimistic conclusion that ‘that literature with a little “l” is in a kind of rather rapid decline’.

    I don’t mind at all, and sincerely hope you are right. But if I’m right, I suggest that the decline should be viewed in the broader context of the quite extraordinary flowering that went on after WWII and continued at least until the Reagan era and the subsequent conscious and deliberate movement in government and business to put the “special interests” (i.e. the people) into an antiworker and antidemocratic box.

    In literature as in everything else, the dead hand of unproductive late capitalism is making its damage felt.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — May 17, 2016 @ 1:57 pm

  4. Thanks for the comments on the Merle Haggard article in Jacobin. My family grew up around the corner from Haggard and my mom went to school with his kids.

    Comment by Lonnie Lopez — May 24, 2016 @ 1:52 am

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