Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Life v Capital

Stewart Martin's article 'Artistic Communism - A Sketch' in the new issue of Third Text (which yes contains yours truly as well) offers a fascinating periodisation of 'Marxist vitalism'. His argument is that this vitalism passes through a number of phases, from the 'spiritualist vitalism' of German Idealism to Marx's 'materialist vitalism' in the first instance. Marx, and I think this is the most disputable part of the periodisation, poses a situation of 'life versus capitalism' (489).

Then we have Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Englightenment, which registers the dissolution of the independence of culture, or the subsumption of culture. This leads to a disclosure of capital as 'dead labour' - their mordant images of capitalism qua dead and deadening force. In Debord, capital's colonisation of life is registered, but only the beginnings of this process. This leads to an affirmation of the unity of culture and life and the insistence that life remains uncolonisable.

Finally, we have the current situation in which the colonisation of life is played out through the medium of art and culture ('creative' / 'artistic' / 'cognitive' capital). In this situation life, and so vitalism, can no longer play the unequivocal role of point of resistance.

'Capital would no longer be opposed to life as its other. Rather than a form of non-life or death, capital becomes itself a form of life [from vampire to zombie?]. And opposition to capitalism is no longer grasped by the affirmation of life tout court, but by an affirmation of non-capitalist life or communist life, which is thereby also a negation of capitalist life.' (493)

I think what is key for me here is the possibility of formalising and historicising the passing of vitalism as point of resistance, notably in the passage from formal to real subsumption - at least as a tendency or, in Martin's phrase, 'an imminently approaching horizon' (493). There is plenty to cash out here, and I am not knowledgeable enough to truly assess the relation of Marx to German Idealism, especially in relation to art, but Martin's work, as usual, is both insightful and provocative.

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