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Friday, January 30, 2009

Marx and vulgarity, take two

In a comment to LI’s last post, Amie pointed to Kant’s notion of the sublime in the Critique of Judgement as one way – a back way – into what is going on in the passage from Marx’s Grundrisse that presents us with a curiously familiar semiotic of the ‘leveling’ that characterizes the transition from the ancient to the modern.

Curiously familiar in that many of the canonical critics of modernity – Flaubert and Nietzsche, to name two – spoke in this same language, and were often roundly drubbed for it by twentieth century Marxists. I’m thinking in particular of Lukacs. Surely there is something to Lukacs’ thesis. There is definitely, in Marx’s texts, a certain scorn for those who take the romantic point of view about capitalism’s disenchanted world. Marx, with his curious dialectical lucidity, a lucidity that sees the double in sentimental, the sophisticate in the naïve, thus saw through that hopeless rentier nostalgia accompanying the bourgeois point of view – Don Quixote and Sancho Panza reversing roles. But dialectical lucidity is, itself, a strategy, and Marx the outlaw in his own works seems to double back just as you think, posse like, that you are on his trail at last and about to bust into his camp.

So taking Amie’s suggestion, one finds, in the inexhaustible old Kant, a passage about vulgarity – waiting there patiently for the weary hermeneut:

“The general human understanding [der gemeine Menschenverstand], which we can regard simply as healthy (and not cultivated) understanding of petty things that may be expected from those who claim to be human beings, has thus the sickly honor, to be labeled with the name of common sense (sensus communis). Really, it is that we are to understand by the word common [gemein] (not simply in our language, which contains here an ambiguity, but in many others) something like vulgare, which we meet with everywhere, and of which the possession does not imply either merit or privilege.”

Now an offstage voice might say: aren’t we playing a game with the deconstructionist’s usual pack of trick cards, taking our eyes off the serious things that Marx is saying? So I should say that, firstly, the serious call – let’s get serious! – assumes a horizon which I am questioning. Mutiply, as in whose horizon is this, who constructed it, and why should I assume it? Secondly, the vulgarity – the gemein – of the modern emerges from a self-reflective gesture that is inscribed in the text in terms of an economy – in terms used to talk about the political economy: “Sie [the classical attitude] ist Befriedigung auf einem bornierten Standpunkt; während das Moderne unbefriedigt läßt oder wo es in sich befriedigt erscheint, gemein ist.” The Modern is caught in an economic paradox between being unsatisfied, in which case it appears lesser than its predecessor, or being satisfied, in which case it appears “gemein”. This isn’t just an accident, apparently – it is the way the structure of the Modern lays itself out. Striver or vulgarian, failure or prig, this is the neurotic position of the vulgar.

Calasso tells the following story: ‘In December, 1861, the treacherous Saint Beuve advised Baudelaire to write a letter in which he would formally seek nomination to the Academie. It was to be addressed to the current Secretary Perpetual de L’Academie Francaise, Abel Villemain, who by virtue of his position was the perfect embodiment of Baudelaire’s notion of stupidity, or la Sottise (“I have a passion for la Sottise”)…When Baudelaire paid the obligatory call on Vigny, one of the Forty, the latter shook his big aristocratic head. It was a faux pas, he declared, unforgiveable. All too often he had heard his colleagues whisper, “We’ll make that fellow bow and scrape, and then we won’t appoint him.” Meanwhile, he made a mental note: ‘Baudelaire seems of no literary consequence, except as the translator of that philosophical novelist [Poe]. Has the distinguished, suffering look of a studious and diligent man.” But Baudelaire still had to see the enormous Villemain, enormis loquacitas. “The hatred of a mediocre person is always an enormous hatred.” He listened as the man lectured him, “with indescribable solemnity” about Les Paradis artificiels: “La Toxicologie, monsieur, n’est pas la Morale!”… In masterly fashion, Baudelaire transcribed the sentence inserting two harsh capital letters. Ever childish, he said to himself: “I’ll make him pay dearly for this.” They took leave of each other with the following words: “Villemain, insisting, “I have never had the slightest originality, monsieur!” Baudelaire, insinuating, “Monsieur, how would you know?”

1 comment:

Roger Gathmann said...

Pondering this quote from Marx makes me feel like finally, the jack has popped out of the box. The impossible position of modernity, between dissatisfaction and a satisfaction that is lowering, common, vulgar; in contrast to the limitedness - Borniertheit - of the older culture - the crack has finally appeared on the surface. As in one of those spirutalist photographs in which the smiling family group are, unbeknownst to themselves, standing next to the energies of the dead, here the human limit, ia cross between neurosis and commplaisance, can be seen, even as it is sacrificed to universal history.