Reject Despair: The Role of Critics and Art
In my recent writing on The World’s End, Wolf’s Rain, and others, one of my recurring criticisms has been that these works embrace a cathartic and nihilistic despair. Especially in the case of the former, the film argues, on the one hand, that people are free to be self-destructive–that this is the very premise of freedom–and so instigates the destruction of innumerable human lives and centuries worth of technological progress and cultural richness. While it could be argued that his intoxicated gesture is being criticized by the film, that its rosy picture of post-apocalyptic agricultural bliss is too rosy and should be read as satire, I don’t believe that this is the most likely read of the film. Similarly, I have attempted to conceive of these works, which are often admirable in other ways, as criticisms of the contemporary nihilism that pervades our society. Unfortunately, I believe that these works are sincere in their advocacy of of embracing not just human finality but annihilation. These stories focus so intently on the private struggles of a few isolated individuals that they neglect to notice the social aspect of their stories. The apolitical, often mystical or supernatural, nature of the apocalyptic narratives churned out by Hollywood, the game industry, and television, are often as much about the liberating fantasy of being the last one standing, the fear of social contact and rejoicing in Dionysian delights of the end of history.
Since I believe that criticism of art should take place on a political level and on a Marxist basis rather than only on an aesthetic level, it is important to analyze why these sorts of works have proliferated. For me, despair is the operative word. “The world revolutions failed or mutated into totalitarianism,” this sentiment goes, “so we had all better stop trying.” Revolution degrades into “resistance” or further into the stupidity of “ethical consumerism” and, in other circumstances, individual terrorism. These are hopeless protests against hopelessness, to paraphrase Ross Wolfe, ineffectual but comforting. People often shake their heads at suicide bombers and wonder how one could be persuaded to give her or his life in such a destructive fashion. But I see that the same logic is operative in the imperial centers of the West, where postmodern thought, for all its apparent sophistication, embraces a kind of suicidal logic. At one point, I even joked with a friend of mine that I was untroubled by the thought that humanity would all die out. It would be good for the planet after all. As time has worn on, I have rejected this idea: of course human extinction is a virtual certainty at some time in the future, but it is insane for any species to so easily give up on itself.
We need to understand our current position in history. The failure of the Left in the last century has left the capitalist exploiting class in a position of extreme power. Immediate prospects for revolution have dimmed to specters, and despite a growing global economy the privations of the vast majority of the population cannot be alleviated. This does not give Leftists of any stripe, including media critics, the right to give into despair. We must redouble, triple, quadruple our efforts to build a real mass movement that can seize power from the capitalists and usher in a more hopeful age in human history. Neither blind optimism nor the reigning defeatism are acceptable. Rather, we must evaluate the task before us and put all of our efforts toward ending this unbearable situation.
“Culture – as an autonomous arena of wavering meanings and self-displacing identities – is the cynical response of capitalism to the limits that class relations in a wage-labor system place on individuality: “Ideologically, we see the same contradiction in the fact that the bourgeoisie endowed the individual with an unprecedented importance, but at the same time that same individuality was annihilated by the economic conditions to which it was subjected by the reification created by commodity production.”
–Teresa Ebert, Task of Cultural Critique
As a critic, I have often been one-sidedly focused on the aesthetic rather than the political, the affect and experience of a work of art rather than the conditions under which it was created. Mass art is a contradictory beast: made by the few for the many. Every work of art we see today is the product of an industrial society where the commodity reigns. Of course, analyzing a work of art as an object of history and the creation of a bourgeois society is not enough; Anatoly Lunacharsky discusses at length the role of judgment in criticism:
Criticism presupposes an expression of judgment about a work. According to Plekhanov, it would appear that a “real” scientific critic a Marxist critic must have no opinions or judgments about a work. It is altogether apparent that this constitutes monstrous narrowness; this fallacy crept into Plekhanov’s system because Plekhanov, carried away by his polemics, presented a crude “objectivism” to counter the ridiculous theories advanced by sociologists of the subjective school.
No, a critic must express judgment. Research into the social roots of a given work of art is most important to him; it is difficult for him to appraise a work without this knowledge. (Of course this method was unknown to Pushkin; even Belinsky, who dealt with this problem brilliantly, did so very seldom). After that, in social criticism, comes the question of the function of a given work–what role it should have played according to the author, what role it actually did play during the author’s life and in the epochs which followed.
Both sublime beauty and the ability to unite people in opposition to exploitation: these are the twin poles of what I look for in any work of art. Without politics that are conducive to people’s revolution, beauty is at the service of the elites and expropriators. Without beauty, the grandest Marxist truths are disarmed. Beauty is an incredibly persuasive weapon in the hands of a true revolutionary movement. My basic message is: reject despair, reject unfounded fantasies of victory, reject postmodern defeatism. Without rigorous opposition to these corruptions, the role of a critic is shrunken down to that of a dabbler in beauty and trifles, rather than the most passionate advocate of the true and great. At times criticism can sound like cynicism, but despite having to use dark palettes to tell its stories, criticism cannot succumb to the notion that what we see around us, and who we already are, is all there can be. That is not true freedom. Freedom is freedom to change, and the first step toward such freedom is to see that one is a captive in the first place.