23 December 2021

Lasch—On Ellul

Christopher Lasch
The World of Nations (1973)

Ch. XVII, "The Social Thought of Jacques Ellul"
According to The Technological Society, the last chance of revolution disappeared in the nineteenth century, when the revolutionary movement ceased to oppose technology with "spiritual forces" and adopted the materialist perspective as its own, thereby hastening the final triumph of economic man. "Proudhon and Bakunin had placed spiritual forces in rivalry with the economic order. Against them, Marx upheld the bourgeois order of the primacy of the economic. . . ." Unfortunately for this analysis, Marx never propounded any such thing as "dialectical materialism"—that was the contribution of Engels, who sought to establish the scientific credentials of Marxism according to the positivist standard of scientific truth that had come to prevail at the end of the nineteenth century. Marx was not a determinist; he did not deny the element of human will in history; he made no easy assumptions about the inevitability of progress; nor did he equate social progress with technology.

(p. 271 footnote)

[Ellul's] The Presence of the Kingdom is addressed to Christians, but it raises questions that all radical intellectuals have to confront, whether or not they approach them from a Christian perspective. The crisis of the faith is one aspect of the cultural crisis of our time, and Ellul's plea that the church speak directly and critically to social issues springs from the same concerns that have led other intellectuals, working from secular premises, to insist that culture must no longer be regarded as an activity having no relation to politics, that artists and scholars must abandon the pretense of neutrality, and that a new humanism, in short, is likely to take shape only if it makes connection with the struggles of exploited classes to change the world. In the years since The Presence of the Kingdom first appeared, pleas for culture to be "relevant" have once again become common and even fashionable; but as the level of political militancy rises, the advocates of cultural "commitment" have more and more reiterated the position they held in the United States in the thirties and which they have never ceased to hold on the European left—namely, that cultural radicalism means that intellectuals should enlist in the proletarian revolution (now seen as a global uprising of the non-white, colonized peoples). Ellul's work, taken as a whole, constitutes a sustained critique of this position...

(p. 272)

Well, is it necessarily emblematic of the pretense of neutrality to paint abstracts? What about painting abstracts in the epoch of reality tv, deep fakes, VR, and the social media echo chamber?

By reading the artistic surface for explicit political content or commentary, the meaning of the larger gesture and all that necessarily attaches to it vis-a-vis process, curation, criticism, distribution, etc., all of this is ignored. At our peril. A justice issue again, I would say...the quotidian kind of injustice that no one notices until a more total, cosmic variety has engulfed them.
Neither science nor art provide any alternative to the prevailing chaos. On the contrary, science and art contribute to it: science, by divorcing itself from philosophy and becoming
merely a higher branch of technology; art, by giving up any pretense to make statements about objective reality, thereby dissolving itself in "self-expression." Neither science nor art any longer communicate anything except, in the one case, information required to solve technical problems—and even this is conveyed in symbols accessible only to specialists—and in the other case, inner experiences incommunicable by definition. Modern art, by opposing to technological domination a cult of the irrational, "guides us in the direction of madness." Faced with rampant disorder, men take refuge in the great "explanatory myths" of our time: "the bourgeois myth of the Hand of Moscow, the socialist myth of the Two Hundred Families, the Fascist myth of the Jews, the communist myth of the anti-revolutionary saboteur." These provide the only "means of intellectual coherence" in a world made meaningless by loss of continuity, loss of memory.

(pp. 274-275)

Well, when did art ever have anything more than

to show for itself when it comes to
mak[ing] statements about objective reality
inner experiences incommunicable by definition,





And why is
the only other option?

At least the younger Lasch here seems more amenable than the elder to the notion that expression too is a mere

The turn away from these imperatives has an obvious justification if the imperative itself is shown to be merely
a cult of the irrational

What is left for art to do, then? To make its statements on the level of the artist's conduct of life rather than on the level of surface content. Surface content is too easily misinterpreted, and even more easily properly interpreted for the purpose of using or abusing its underlying intent. Sontag: "Sometimes a writer will be so uneasy before the naked power of his art that he will install within the work itself—albeit with a little shyness, a touch of the good taste of irony—the clear and explicit interpretation of it." In "life" as opposed to "art" we have other names for such "uneasy" people, names which are even less flattering than specialist or irrational.

Treating art as a form of "speech" in the First Amendment sense entails the fringe benefit of placing it more accurately in the well-worn distinction between word and deed. And therein lies the need for "art" entirely apart from its potential bearing on "politics." The need is in the deed.

If the communicative imperative can be dispensed with, the landscape of rationality and irrationality shifts. Much art may then be "pointless," but not necessarily "irrational." At this particular historical juncture I'm quite at peace wallowing in "pointlessness" rather than being railroaded into making a statement, one way or another, with any type of artwork or "cultural" activity I might undertake. On the other hand, if I do in fact use a tuba where others use an iDevice, is that distinction simply to be disregarded on the grounds that my weird tuba music says nothing explicit about "technological domination"? How much more explicit does one need to be about it?

Endnotes to Ch. XXI. "The "Counter-Culture""
Seeing in these books [of Charles Reich, Theodore Roszak, Philip Slater] symptoms of a much deeper cultural malaise and appalled by the anti-intellectualism often associated with the new left—and more generally by a flood of irrationalism in modern society as a whole—those who still believed that a radical politics without critical reason was a monstrosity attempted, in effect, to construct an ad hoc defense of liberal culture, as in the manifesto on the "cultural crisis," that would still be distinguishable from a defense of liberalism as a political ideology. [sic] What is really required, however, is a more penetrating understanding of the "counter-culture" itself and of its social and cultural antecedents. Does the "new culture" represent merely the culmination of cultural modernism, as some have claimed—a democratization of the avant-garde? Or does it portend a regression to a more primitive consciousness? Increasingly events seem to point to the conclusion that it is precisely the premises of modernism that are being rejected in, say, rock music and street theater. If art traditionally has been an interplay between tension and its resolution, the new art banishes tension and seeks to dissolve all oppositions in direct, unmediated experience, non-verbal states of being, trancelike euphoria. Performers alternately assault their audiences, whipping up moods of subdued violence, and make "love" to them, in both cases hoping to merge the performance with "life" and to put both art and life safely "beyond interpretation."
..and therefore, the countervailing "cultural" tendency would be to land dangerously short of interpretation, no?
The audience is offended or, worse, titillated; it enjoys being verbally assaulted; it imagines itself instantaneously released from "bourgeois inhibitions." Relieved of the need to perform and act of imaginative identification, it is more passive than ever, while its lingering reservations about the new art are silenced by the fear that what is new must
be necessarily significant. "Great art is always ahead of its time." The rhetoric of the avant-garde is pressed into the service of an esthetic with which it has little else in common, in order to clothe the contemporary artist in an inscrutable authority that he claims to reject but uses in many ways to intimidate his audience and critics.

(pp. 334-335)

Part of the job of criticism today would seem to be to insist on the difference between attempting to give popular themes more lasting form and surrendering to the utter formlessness of the moment.

(p. 335)

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