Event, History, and the Work of Art

Here’s material from a talk I gave at the Vanguards / Avant-Gardes: Aesthetics, Politics, History symposium that was held in early April at the University of California at Santa Cruz. These remarks expand on lines of thought that I pursue in a lengthy introduction to my translation of the first volume of György Lukács’s The Specificity of the Aesthetic, which is soon to be published as part of Brill’s Lukács Library.


Though his expansive accounts and defenses of realism have long since tended to make György Lukács either the boogeyman or the strawman of modernist literary studies, a symposium on vanguards and avant-gardes seems as good a place as any to note that the historical avant-gardes in fact provide an even more formative context for assessing the preoccupations and ambitions of Lukács’s attempts to develop a fully systematized aesthetics, both early in his life in the (never completed) Heidelberg Philosophy of Art (1912-1914) and the Heidelberg Aesthetics (1916-1918) and later in both volumes of The Specificity of the Aesthetic (published in 1963, but, again, never completed). I say “more formative” because situating Lukács’s writings on art and realism in terms of the historical avant-gardes helps us to get down to the principles informing those writings, whereas pitting Lukácsian realism against modernism often just ends up validating a pretty superficial and assumptive narrative in the periodization of art, with Lukács cast as the old fogey holding onto a way of making art (realism) that is no longer possible and needs to make way for the new (be it modernism or, later, postmodernism). What is ultimately at stake in art for Lukács, however, is far more than just a disciplinary squabble over whether or how to periodize. At issue is the possibility for works of art to exist in the first place and the roles they can play (so long as they continue to exist) in the transformation of everyday life into an area of human activity that is more receptive and hospitable to the process of radical democratization.

Early in his career Lukács focuses his attention on a critique, not of art, but of works of art: “There are works of art,” he famously writes at the beginning of both of his Heidelberg volumes, before he goes on to ask, “how are they possible?”[i] As oft-quoted as this sentence indeed is, however, what frequently gets overlooked in it (and in his two early aesthetic manuscripts more broadly) is the degree to which this guiding question is one that historical avant-gardes like Italian Futurism were making thinkable in the first place through their disparate attacks on the very institutions of art itself. As detailed influentially by Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), these attacks took aim at the autonomy ascribed to the work of art, and they did so in order to intervene more directly and effectively into everyday life, in order to become events or revolutionary caesuras (“Artocracy” is Marinetti’s word for it) in the lives of those with whom they came into contact. In Aesthetic Revolutions and Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Movements (2015), Aleš Erjavec refers to such avant-garde movements as “aesthetic avant-gardes,” which he defines by their efforts to “seek to effect aesthetic revolutions, that is, to substantially affect and transform our ways of experiencing and sensing the world, to change in important ways the manner in which we perceive and experience reality.”[ii] Accordingly, the very category of the work of art itself became ambiguous under the pressures exerted upon it by many of these aesthetic avant-gardes, for which a work of art was neither an event-like action nor an artifact left behind by that eventlike action but rather the virtual (that is to say, real but not actual) synthesis of action and artifact. This shift in conception likewise transformed the very nature of aesthetic judgment from a contemplation of beauty into a question of art is in the first place, and the result has often been that what counts as art nowadays is simply the product of a successful speech act.

I want to tarry with these three areas—the status of the work of art, the relationship of art to the everyday, and the transformation of art into the event—because they make salient the degree to which Lukács’s late aesthetics conspicuously grapples with the dilemmas posed by the historical avant-gardes. It is worth remarking at the outset, of course, that Lukács rejects the stance adopted by the historical avant-gardes in all three of these areas: whereas these historical avant-gardes called into question the very existence of the work of art, Lukács makes the autonomous work of art the foundation of his aesthetics; whereas the historical avant-gardes sought to directly intervene into and radically transform the everyday, Lukács insists that art is indeed tasked with responding to the everyday, albeit in a mediated way that suspends any direct relation; and whereas the historical avant-gardes tried to bring about the event directly, Lukács asserts that works of art are ultimately not revolutionary happenings so much as occasions for habit-forming comportments (in other words, more mundane temporalities are called for by them than those conjured forth by the sudden and radical overturnings of the event).

In no small part, this all follows from Lukács’s overriding ambition in The Specificity of the Aesthetic, which is to offer a systematic and consistent account of Marxist aesthetics that relates art, its creation, and its reception not only to all other significant areas of human life (especially to science and the everyday) but also to the behaviors that have promoted or impeded the genesis of art as such throughout the history of the human race in different parts of the world. This entails addressing many areas that otherwise might seem extraneous to aesthetics. For instance, Lukács elaborates at length the principles by and anthropological conditions under which art and science have respectively detached themselves from everyday life, labor, magic, and religion as modally differentiated ways of reflecting a shared reality over the course of millennia. The first volume of The Specificity of the Aesthetic does, however, devote a great deal of attention to the long-drawn-out development of some notable abstract components of form (in particular, rhythm, symmetry, proportion, ornamentation) that have long since been incorporated into works and performances now legible to us as art. Further developing the implicit claim that mimesis is not merely receptive behavior but rather an active form of the acquisition of reality that is not limited to art but rather extends to all higher organized forms of life, Lukács later goes on to itemize and expansively describe the mimetic qualities of art objects that inform and are shaped by the properly aesthetic comportments that ought to be adopted toward them by creators and receivers alike.

In this view the aesthetic sphere is a hard-won zone of highly mediated human activity that is characterized by pluralism in terms of the genres, works, and forms of art it encompasses, though these are all nevertheless ultimately linked together by a shared defetishizing mission that we as their users and makers can fail to live up to. The cost of such a failure—and it is a failure that Lukács would say all of the historical avant-gardes respectively court—is that in the end we do not see the art object or performance for what it truly is nor do we act upon the opportunity it provides for us to reshape our own subjectivities by means of the variety of catharsis-like experiences called forth by such objects and performances. Lukács undertakes all of this while moreover venturing a grand unified theory of social action whereby the autonomous forms of disanthropomorphizing reflection (science) and of anthropomorphizing reflection (art) each in their own way help to cultivate a deeper engagement with the vita activa of a group or people in their everyday lives. Whereas the disanthropomorphization performed by science leads to an ever-greater conscious awareness of human activity and the surrounding world that exists both in relation to and independent of that activity, the anthropomorphization commenced by art is said to eventuate in nothing less than the self-consciousness of the human race as such. This means that, when used by creator and receiver alike in the ways set forth in The Specificity of the Aesthetic, art allows us both to meaningfully experience the identity of the individual with the human (of the singular with the universal) and—just as importantly—to contest, transform, and progressively expand the very definition of what it is to be human by means of the new orientations toward action that are disclosed by such an experience.

Genuine art thus depicts bearings toward a surrounding world and toward a given universal that we believe should be kept hold of as defining features of what it is to be human. Importantly, however, Lukács insists that these features are not given in advance: “If we have determined art to be the self-consciousness of mankind’s development, then the aspect of continuity has thereby become the focal point. On the one hand, because only in this way can the static, idealist presumption of the ‘universally human’ be avoided: it is not a question of the actualization of a humanity that is given a priori (in the idea) nor is it the dialectical unfolding of such an ‘idea,’ in which, as in the Hegelian system, the end contains within itself as concrete fulfillment everything that already existed in abstract form at the beginning. The continuity intended here has no teleological character of this sort. It is—precisely in the literal sense—a real development that has actually taken place in its real ups and downs, with its real branches, attempts, regressions, etc.” Even what counts as the human in the present in its relationship to the past is subject to contestations that do not hold the promise of unimpeded further advance. The precarity of holding on to what has been gained in our humanization as a species and the possibility for further progress remain ineluctably linked and hence are subject to historical conditions that variably promote, obstruct, or otherwise confound momentous changes in what it is to be human, both as this is encountered in meaningful everyday experiences and as such experiences get reflected in art.

On the other hand, however, this emphasis on the historical nature of art’s revelation of the self-consciousness of mankind carries with it an implication that bears the occulted impress of the attacks of the historical avant-gardes on the institutions of art and on the autonomy of the work of art itself. After all, it suggests that the work of art which ceases to disclose to us aspects of human development that are worth holding on to is no longer, properly speaking, art. In order to remain art, a work or performance must thus carry with it the vivid sense that it continues to have a bearing on us: “the aesthetic evocation of the past is the lived experience of this continuity, not the lived experience of something that is supposedly ‘universally human’ for all time. We remain conscious of a temporo-historical remoteness, and yet we are immediately faced with a nostra causa agitur in fates, people, etc. that have long since vanished: this tension betokens this temporo-historical side of the aesthetic as the self-consciousness of mankind; [. . .] it is the memory of mankind at the same time. However, whereas memory performs all sorts of functions in everyday life (among other things, merely registering and keeping ready to hand facts that can perhaps be of practical importance for the person concerned), the central function that is exclusively operative here is that of bringing up to date.” Lukács does not tarry with or expound upon the implication that it is therefore possible for specific works of art to cease to make their cause our own and accordingly to be worth our efforts to make them contemporary, but it remains in play whenever he emphasizes the continuity of art and its ability to perform its role as the self-consciousness and memory of the human race.

When read between the lines, The Specificity of the Aesthetic thus implicitly offers its own qualified version of the death (or end) of art argument that the historical avant-gardes raised and that has attracted a great deal of attention—critical, revisionary, or otherwise—since Hegel’s formulation of it in his introduction to Lectures on Aesthetics. For Hegel, the death of art means simply that the highest vocation available to spirit is no longer to be found in the realm of art: “For us art counts no longer as the highest mode in which truth fashions an existence for itself. [. . .] We may well hope that art will always rise higher and come to perfection, but the form of art has ceased to be the supreme need of the spirit. No matter how excellent we find the statues the Greek gods, no matter how we see God the Father, Christ, and Mary so estimably and perfectly portrayed: it is no help, we bow the knee no longer [before these artistic portrayals].”[iii] The death of art thus does not mean that genuine works of art have ceased to be made or that they necessarily fail to improve upon the art of the past. Hegel cannot be refuted by adducing the works of Dickinson, Gauguin, Schoenberg, or Le Corbusier. Instead, his death of art thesis entails that “art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place. [. . .] The philosophy of art is therefore a greater need in our day than it was in days when art by itself as art yielded full satisfaction. Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is” (1:11). From here on out, philosophy and aesthetics lead the way, and new art either does or does not follow (if it even matters whether art does so or not).

More recently, Arthur C. Danto has returned to and revised this Hegelian view to argue instead that philosophical concerns have indeed increasingly become the focus in art (Danto’s periodization is “circa 1900,” but it stretches as far back as the Nazarene movement in the early 1800s and goes all the way to the present), which means that these concerns are being worked out in art itself by artists themselves. Works of art have become a way of philosophizing, and the root of many of their concerns has to do with “the problem of what makes something art when something phenomenally indistinguishable from it is not art.”[iv] In short, what makes Warhol’s Brillo boxes legible as works of art that are distinct from Brillo boxes for sale at a grocery store? According to Danto, the answer to this question for the time being cannot come from what we see of the two sets of boxes but rather from how well or poorly the Brillo boxes made by Warhol fit our particular understanding of what the essence of art is or might be. What Warhol makes conspicuous, however, is the necessary failure of any such understanding to “be compatible with all possible sets of manifest properties” of everything designated as art (345). That is to say, art made “circa 1900” marks the end of one way of telling the story of what art is, and ours is a period of confusion (masked by pluralism) until the next chapter of the story or a new way of telling all of the chapters up to this point presents itself: “But once art makers are freed from the task of finding the essence of art [. . .] they too have been liberated from history, and have entered the era of freedom. Art does not end with the end of art history. What happens only is that one set of imperatives has been lifted from its practice as it enters what I think of as its posthistorical phase” (344).

Lukács would accede to neither Hegel’s nor Danto’s arguments. In the case of Hegel, the death of art argument is clearly an artifact of subjective idealism, which Lukács repeatedly criticizes and contrasts with his own dialectical and historical materialism. He certainly does not understand all modes of reflecting reality to be equal, but the hierarchy structuring those modes articulated by Lukács in The Specificity of the Aesthetic does not, for instance, place art above science or science above art; instead, he sees both as significant achievements in the reflection of a shared reality, and passing judgments as to which better serves man’s highest vocation at this moment in time is not a problem we are being asked to solve, either by history or by its bearing upon our contemporary everyday needs. More specifically, as to the relationship of art to philosophy, Lukács explicitly insists that it is art, not aesthetics, which has always called the tune: “Even in the case of great figures such as Aristotle, [the philosophy of art] always only cropped up post festum, and its most significant results were, just as in the works of Aristotle, the conceptual fixing in place of a level of artistic development that had already been achieved. This is not an accident.” That is to say, Hegel’s “truth and life” still happen in genuine art, and while we may need a philosophy of art and of the human senses (in a word, an aesthetics) to conceptualize their co-occurrence, this “truth and life” cannot make self-conscious subjects or personalities of us by means of our thinking alone; instead, the happening of art’s “truth and life” can only come to pass in the total effect of works of art on their creators and receivers. Aesthetics gives us the means of theorizing the stakes of this encounter and the norms by which it has been ensured over time, but it is no substitute for the meaningful experiences that such an encounter calls forth in us—mentally, bodily, and spiritually. Aesthetics thus follows art, not the other way around.

Yet this does not mean that Danto’s end of art argument must be swallowed whole either. Lukács insists that the continuity of art and the human over thousands and thousands of years calls for philosophy to specify the customary expectations, forms, and experiences by which that continuity has been evoked, which means that genuine works of art are never free of the essence of art or of the need to relate to the history of art. Such “liberated” works may be called art by us today, but Lukács would insist that they will not survive the test of time or the demands for continuity. Or if they were to persist as art, then that would be because their liberation from essence and history was ultimately an occulted expression of a momentous transformation of that essence and history which has since been incorporated into the ongoing formation of art. That is to say, the version of the death or end of art argument tacitly expressed by The Specificity of the Aesthetic never ceases to posit that art will endure as an autonomous sphere of human activity so long as there exist people receptive to works and performance that do indeed evocatively carry out the humanizing and memorializing tasks he describes, in spite of the assaults made on art by the historical avant-gardes. While Lukács does not address a prospective coming world in which art as such will have ceased to perform these tasks, individual works of art (irrespective of their age, familiarity, or venerability) are by not guaranteed to continue to fulfill them into the future. In this view, the end of art prompting the speculations of Danto is merely the confused acknowledgment that the ludic provocations of the avant-garde and postmodernism will have always never been art.

In no small part, the inability of the historical avant-gardes to be art worthy of the name for Lukács has to do with their attempts to dissolve the work of art into everyday life, whereas The Specificity of the Aesthetic defends the autonomy of the work of art from the everyday even as it elaborates the specific ways in which the work of art flows from and back into the everyday. On the one hand, Lukács argues, we lose ourselves in the performance or work of art so as to gain a heightened sense of ourselves as personalities that we otherwise likely would not obtain. On the other, we thereby enter into a mediated relationship to the object world that appears immediate. This second immediacy achieved in art as an intensive this-worldly transcendence is in striking contrast to religion, where second immediacy is founded on an otherworldly transcendence, and to reification, where there is second immediacy but no transcendence.

The this-worldly transcendence of art’s second immediacy is the meaningful experience of the aesthetic subject’s being at one with the human race, of being what Lukács calls der Mensch ganz [the man-made-whole]. This otherwise purely intellectual sense of identification necessarily takes on an intensively lived, felt, and undergone quality in art that only happens by way of exception (if ever) in the everyday. The whole man of the everyday [der ganzen Mensch] is always an integral unity of body, mind, sensory impressions, and personal memory, but only by means of art is he made to experience himself as being in complete continuity (affectively and cognitively) with the species of which he and all other humans are a constitutive part. Our being a part of the human race is not something that subsumes us but rather is experienced as inhering within us by means of the work of art. The measuring-stick for aesthetic subjectivity is thus necessarily relational (the creator and/or receiver of art in terms of the human species), which Lukács insists prevents it from lapsing into mere subjectivism and accords to art an idiosyncratic objectivity that nevertheless possesses an essentially subjective character (the anthropomorphizing of art does not cut it off from objectivity, but it does demand that objectivity in art always be related back to man, that the intensive totality of the work of art reflect a social totality). The corollary of this claim is that aesthetics is ultimately a matter of comportment, of a way of behaving, which contrasts strikingly with the way in which most other aesthetic theories have tended to pose it in the West, where aesthetics has primarily been a matter of judgment, taste, representation, expression, or experience. Lukács does not do away with any of these facets of the aesthetic, though he does repurpose them to serve and inform that conduct which is proper to art: the creation and reception of art are first and foremost a doing, and not only is this doing socially grounded, but also it has the effect of humanizing us, of evocatively expanding, deepening, and consolidating our sense of ourselves as members of the human race with skin in the game.

For Lukács in the 1960s, art thus had a formative role to play in the process of democratization insofar as it educates us to have a lived understanding of what social action might mean in history while also habituating us to become its actors: “A person is therefore neither causally influenced nor completely determined by his ‘milieu’ as an external power; rather, his essential individual existence takes part in such a higher social order (or in several), and this taking part constitutes an essential (often absolutely decisive) aspect of the kernel (of the substance) of his personality.” Again, art does not make us subjects in the human race; it makes us subjects of the human race, and in doing so, Lukács momentously revises himself: the identical subject-object of history in The Specificity of the Aesthetic is not the vanguard formed by the proletariat, as it was in History and Class Consciousness, but rather the collectivity formed by the individual creators and receivers of works of art, for whom the adoption of the proper comportment toward art not only makes possible the meaningful experience of totality but also discloses possibilities for doing and taking part, which would make the lives of the people-made-whole by art resemble a Goethean Bildungsroman, where, as Mikhail Bakhtin has described it, human emergence “is no longer man’s own private affair. He emerges along with the world and he reflects the historical emergence of the world itself. He is no longer within an epoch, but on the border between two epochs, at the transition point from one to the other. This transition is accomplished in him and through him. He is forced to become a new, unprecedented type of human being. What is happening here is precisely the emergence of a new man. The organizing force held by the future is therefore extremely great here—and this is not, of course, the private biographical future, but the historical future.”[v]

In his final years, Lukács began to articulate a new Marxist theory of politics that would, among other things, reconceive historicity (the basis for the relationship between past, present, and future) and its bearing on everyday socialist life. In The Process of Democratization (never completed but written after the violent repression of the Prague Spring in 1968 and published posthumously in 1985), this involves, among other things, a shift in focus from the dramatic overturnings that characterize the event and revolution to the less dramatic but more enduring temporalities of habit and habituation. In that work he observes, “Concerning the relationship between past and future, we can and must state that the reconstruction of socialist production is not merely an economic endeavor. It should be looked upon as laying the basis for the transformation of man, for his habituation to a dignified human existence in everyday life and the permeation of this dignity to all his manifestations of life.”[vi] In particular, Lukács notes that this “practice of habituation can only become effective if men become accustomed to putting aside forms of behavior that fall below the dignity of species being, that often incorporate self-destructive and counter-human drives. Habituation must create a social being that discards any aggressive attitudes toward fellow human beings or their own lives (both are inherently inseparable). The creation of a being that is social in content is the end result of the gradual process of habituation. Such an inner transformation of man cannot be carried out without a restructuring of the external world of everyday life. Regardless of whether material production has developed itself to a high level, a communist society can never arise unless everyday life becomes not only an arena of political decision making but also the basis of social being” (163). Such a material restructuring of everyday life is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the emergence of the process of democratization insofar as the new measuring sticks (“dignified human existence,” “the dignity of species being,” “a social being that discards any aggressive attitudes toward fellow human beings or their own lives”) by which it is to be gauged in the everyday lives of people are what works of art are uniquely capable of disclosing to their creators and receivers in ways that are likely to become habit-forming. That is to say, it is art which acclimatizes us to be the democratic subjects of the communist-society-to-be.

This has at least two important consequences. First, the talk of habit and habituation in The Specificity of the Aesthetic is not to be reduced to the frameworks in which Lenin famously presents them in State and Revolution (1917), even though Lukács himself draws parallels between the two throughout The Specificity of the Aesthetic. Norman Levine has pithily summed up the parting of the ways between the Leninist version of habituation and the one developed, both implicitly and explicitly, by Lukács in his final works: “In State and Revolution, Lenin uses the idea of habituation as a substitute for political procedures, and as a synonym for the most extreme form of democracy. [. . .] When Lukács evaluates the idea of habituation as an extreme form of democracy, he praises it highly. One aspect of State and Revolution is its democratic plebeianism, and the actual processes of society would be vested in the people in general. When Lukács evaluates the idea of habituation as a substitute for political procedures, he only has negative comments. Lenin wants to show that learned responses, behavioralism, could perform the same tasks that social protocols do: behavioralism would ensure that people perform social functions without political compulsion. Lukács replaces behavioralism with democracy: he replaces psychology with politics. He recognizes the need of protocols to enable society to reach its collective decisions.”[vii] This directly bears on the second consequence, which is that Lukács’s late aesthetics does not present art, its creation, or its reception as a substitute for politics. When read alongside The Process of Democratization, The Specificity of the Aesthetic makes it clear that works of art and the adoption of proper comportments toward them have key roles to play in the formation of subjects with political agency, of personalities who understand themselves to be more doing than done-to. Art, in this view, is not so much a sublimation or displacement of politics as it is the incubator of political passions and commitments.

We could let things rest there and continue to see the same old Lukácsian aesthetics we have always seen, perennially opposed to the aims of the historical (or, if you prefer, the aesthetic) avant-gardes. Yet I think there is one important insight that can be disclosed by situating The Specificity of the Aesthetic in particular (and Lukács’s aesthetic writings more broadly) in this way, and that is the degree to which both Lukácsian aesthetics and the historical avant-gardes share the same horizon of the event, and they both (it must be admitted) have been failures to date. The historical and aesthetic avant-gardes have no more transformed reality in the ways they set out to do than Lukácsian aesthetics has brought about real existing socialist democracy. Yet it must be noted that this failure is a lot more damning for the avant-gardes than it is for Lukács, whose focus is not on the event itself but on the processes by which it may be brought about and through which those subjects may yet be created who, to use the terminology of Alain Badiou, decide the event and are faithful to it. That is to say, history did not end with Italian Futurism or with Surrealism or with the Situationist International or (in Lukács’s case) with realism, and that is precisely what The Specificity of the Aesthetic contends works of art exist to remind us of: that we are history’s respondents and actors, not its fratricidal gravediggers or its artocrats.

[i] György Lukács, Werke (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1974), 16:9; and György Lukács, Werke (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1975), 17:9; my translation.

[ii] Aleš Erjavec, “Introduction,” in Aesthetic Revolutions and Twentieth-century Avant-garde Movements, ed. Aleš Erjavec (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 1-18, here 3.

[iii] G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 1:103. Further references provided parenthetically.

[iv] Arthur C. Danto, “Narratives of the End of Art,” in Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 331-45, here 334. Further references provided parenthetically.

[v] M.M. Bakhtin, “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism (Toward a Historical Typology of the Novel),” in Speech Genres and Other Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 10-59, here 23.

[vi] Georg Lukács, The Process of Democratization, trans. Susanne Bernhardt and Norman Levine (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 165. Further references provided parenthetically.

[vii] Norman Levine, “On the Transcendence of State and Revolution,” in ibid., 3-62, here 53.

Lukács and the World: Rethinking Global Circuits of Cultural Production

If you find yourself in Santa Barbara this weekend, please join me on April 20th and 21st for the Lukács and the World conference being held at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I’ll be delivering a talk entitled “Lukács and the World of the Work of Art.” Other presenters include Sayan Bhattacharyya, Roy Chan, Ben Harker, Philip Rosen, James M. Robertson, Glyn Salton-Cox, and Naoki Yamamoto. Tyrus Miller will be delivering the keynote address. Come if you can! (Poster and Conference Schedule)


Naturalizing the Purges

This is a talk I gave at the Historical Materialism Conference a few years ago. It represents a first approach of sorts to some of the issues raised in my current book project, The Intellectuals Who Failed Better.

Attentive as always to the capacity of style and idiom to embody ideational content, Theodor Adorno infamously took aim at the late works of György Lukács in the 1961 essay, “Reconciliation under Duress,” by affiliating Lukács’s latter-day infelicities of compositional form and expression with his capitulation to real existing socialism.  After reviewing a number of instances of slovenly writing in Lukács’s 1958 book, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, Adorno confessed that “one may well wonder whether a man who can write like this, in such obvious ignorance of the craft of the literature which he treats in such a cavalier manner, has any right at all to an opinion on literary matters” (154).  Clearly, Lukács had taken too much “Soviet claptrap” to heart because by the 1950s the “brilliance and profundity” evoked by his remarkable early essays—specifically those collected in Soul and Form, The Theory of the Novel, and History and Class Consciousness—had become twisted, impaired, and degraded, leading Adorno to insist that “in the stylistic amalgam of pedantry and irresponsibility to be found in Lukács, who was once able to write well, one senses a certain malice aforethought, a truculent determination to write badly, evidently in the belief that this sacrifice on his part will demonstrate by some magic trick that anyone who does otherwise and who takes pains with his work is a good-for-nothing.  Indifference to style, we may remark in passing, is almost always symptomatic of the dogmatic sclerosis of content” (154).  To read Lukács after the 1920s, in other words, was to be a spectator to the crushing transformation of one of the most significant dialectical materialists of the early twentieth century into the undialectical apologist of Stalinism and, later, Cold War Communism.

Consequently, to speak in any way for Lukács today, as the title of this panel asks that we do, presupposes that, despite what Adorno once trenchantly claimed, not everything has in fact been decided about or by Lukács in advance, least of all the relationship of his style of writing to its political content.  Nor does this deferral of Adorno’s peremptory judgment require we merely take Lukács at his word instead.  After all, according to his own retrospective account of his development as a thinker and writer following the late 1920s, Lukács’s eventual reconciliation with the reality of Stalinism comprised something far more than an act of uncritical submission before inexorably totalitarian constraints.  If anything, this reconciliation was said to be predicated upon his continued expression of principled dissent with Party policy in his essays of the 1930s, thus at the height of the Great Purge and Moscow Show Trials.  As Lukács put it at the beginning of his revised 1970 Preface to Writer and Critic, “It is not hard to see today that the main direction of these essays was in opposition to the dominant literary theory of the time.  Stalin and his followers demanded that literature provide tactical support to their current political policies.  Accordingly, all art was to be subordinated both in the positive and negative sense, to these needs. [. . .] As everyone knows, no open polemics were possible during that period.  Yet I did protest consistently against such a conception of literature” (7).  Far from being the stooge of Stalinism that Adorno made him out to be, Lukács would have us know that the aesthetic theory intimated in his writing of the 1930s was in fact “rich in contradiction,” suggesting that a properly applied dialectical method was required in order to disclose the clandestine dissidence of his position with respect to the Party line.  In this view, it seems that Lukács’s compositional techniques were so subtle that no less eminent an interpreter of texts than Adorno ended up mistaking his subversions of Stalinism for tokens of complete acquiescence.  Thus, we seem to be left with a situation in which Party functionaries were better readers of Lukács than the co-author of The Dialectic of Enlightenment happened to be:  “As many documents attest,” Lukács goes on to write, “those I criticized were well aware of what I was doing” (7).

The way in which we have come to reconcile these two views of Lukács (for and against) is to concede that he did in fact make regrettable (though exigent) compromises with an omnipresent Stalinist reality while nevertheless managing to carve out a space for himself in which a legible project of protest against and critique of that same reality could be effectively mounted.  For Ferenc Fehér, Lukács’s incessant attempts “to reveal the ‘ideal type’ of the system as he opposed its empirical reality, a procedure barely tolerated by the system itself [. . .], also entailed the acceptance of the final principles of the regime.  This critical distance was necessary, and at the same time sufficient, for Lukács to elaborate his classicism, to build up his personal Weimar, an island of culture in a world of power relations that were unambiguously hostile toward the outspokenness of any democratic culture” (77).  Alternatively, in the words of Rodney Livingstone, “We may conclude that if the authoritarian features in Lukács himself were powerful enough to induce him to submit to Stalinism, they were also strong enough to enable him to stand up for his own—bourgeois-democratic—version of Stalinism” (11).  Thus, in the opinions of these two tough-minded readers of Lukács, and in spite of what Adorno’s scathing criticisms might have contended, Lukács ought not to be spit out by us precisely because he managed the singularly tricky feat of somehow being neither cold nor hot in a situation in which no one could have possibly been lukewarm.  Or, to use the simile that Adorno’s “Reconciliation under Duress” applies to the post-Stalinist Lukács, the Hungarian critic was “like a parfait or a sundae—halfway between a so-called thaw on the one hand and a renewed freeze on the other” (153).

While the interpretations of Feher, Livingstone, and Michael Löwy from more than three decades ago have done an estimable job of giving us a more nuanced (indeed, dialectical) view of Lukács, not only in Moscow during the 1930s and most of the 1940s but also in Budapest following World War II, they nevertheless tend to leave unexamined the properly Adornian component in the evisceration of Lukács carried out by “Reconciliation under Duress,” which (after all) focused a great deal on the relationship of form to content in his later essays.  The opening up of a conceptual space in which an oppositional Lukács could finally be disclosed to sight among Western readers has been all well and good, but what does that have to do with the apparent badness of his writing after he threw his lot in with the Communist Party?  Rather than dispute Adorno’s gruff assessment by insisting, counterintuitively, on the shapeliness and roundedness of Lukács’s Stalinist and postwar essays, I want to concede that point to Adorno while nevertheless arguing that he failed to discern the degree to which his own critical methodologies offered (and continue to offer) a lens through which Lukács can be viewed in a way that gets us beyond his mere arraignment and prosecution for crimes against literature and humanity.  In particular, I want to suggest that what Lukács’s essays from the period criticized by “Reconciliation under Duress” provide us with are exemplary instances of a “late style” that Adorno cussedly refuses to recognize as such.

Interestingly, Adorno’s first articulations of what “late style” means were roughly contemporaneous with the objectionable turn in Lukács’s writing and thinking that was continuing to take place while the Hungarian writer and critic was in exile in Moscow following the rise to power of German National Socialism.  In the 1937 essay, “Beethoven’s Late Style,” Adorno tries to account for the apparent absurdity of the claim that the last works of the great German composer are both subjective and objective at the same time.  That is to say, Beethoven’s final compositions are often simultaneously claimed to be instances of unrestrained free personal expression and of the meticulous working through of materially given principles of construction.  Rather than resolve these two opposing tendencies into a melodious synthesis, however, the aged Beethoven is said by Adorno to have made the proto-modernist gesture of leaving these subjective and objective qualities of his last works in a state of unsettled dissolution.  In turn, Adorno understands this fluidization and dissociation of the integrity of the formal structure of the work of art to be one of the hallmarks of “late style” itself.  Thus, all sorts of unmetabolized conventions (like polyphony, in the case of late Beethoven) return in the final works of great artists, but they do so in ways that seem “bald, undisguised, untransformed” (565).  What the crudity of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major (1821) anticipates, then, is the twentieth century’s crisis of representation and the modernist compositional solution of Bruchstück, of the fragment, of incomplete art objects that, by virtue of their broken and unfinished form itself, resist the totalizing claims of rounded works of art:  “Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective the light in which—alone—it glows into life.  [Beethoven] does not bring about their harmonious synthesis.  As the power of dissociation, he tears them apart in time, in order, perhaps, to preserve them for the eternal.  In the history of art late works are the catastrophes” (567).  Therefore, far from being the unimpeded expression of an artist’s subjectivity, the fragmentary nature of Adornian “late style” refers us to works of art in which an imminent confrontation with mortality produces objects in which creative subjectivity as such gets temporarily rendered expressionless during those fleeting moments when the concatenated fragments are allowed to speak for themselves directly.

Obviously, to apply such a notion of “late style” to Lukács’s writing from the 1930s onward is to read him very much against the grain, for it would seem to suggest that lurking beneath the surface of his essayistic works from this period were a variety of unrealized modernist impulses that were otherwise smothered in his larger-scale works, like The Historical Novel, published the same year as Adorno’s essay on “late style” in Beethoven.  Although he was careful to distinguish his career as a dialectical and historical materialist from the early sociological writings that Adorno admired so greatly, it is useful to bear in mind here Lukács’s essay on the genre of the essay itself in Soul and Form, where the occasional and fragmentary mode of essayistic composition indicates its role as precursor to a fully fleshed-out account of art.  The incompleteness of the essay as such does not speak for itself but rather calls out for the value and form only achievable in the prospective elaboration of a system, precisely of the sort embodied in The Historical Novel, for instance.  Thus, even if Lukács’s essayistic writing from the 1930s may appear to be incomplete from time to time, that need not belie the teleological relationship sketched in by Soul and Form, where essays as such are merely means to an end, are only stops alongside the road leading to a destination, to a system that will retrospectively abolish and preserve the makeshift quality of those stops, of those means, of those essays through its fulfillment of their implicit values, hierarchies, and desires for order.  Adorno’s trajectory for “late style” is thus preemptively reversed in the early Lukács:  instead of going from mastery of form to a deformation of mastery, the Lukácsian arc from essay to system would seem to indicate a far more familiar Bildung of growth and integration, whereby the probing efforts of essayism give way ultimately to the totalizing organization of an aesthetics as such.

To be sure, the actual trajectory traced by Lukács’s career does seem to approach a developmental model very much like this.  Bracketing for the moment the rather evocative fact that they were all left in various states of incompletion, his final ambitious works (the aesthetics, the ontology, and the ethics) do indeed adumbrate a system of values not yet fully satisfied by the essays produced throughout his career.  However, what reading Lukács along the grain in this way omits are two key features of his essayistic writing.  The first is the social context in and by which his literary criticism for much of the 1930s was shaped: on the one hand, by his recantation of the “Blum Theses” in 1929, which marked Lukács’s abandonment of political theory for art and culture; and on the other, by the Great Purge and the show trials, which made a confrontation with one’s own mortality due to the potential or inadvertent expression of ideological errors an impending feature of any Party intellectual’s life, especially of a dogged survivor whose essays were perhaps staging an occulted resistance to the Party line, as we have seen Lukács retrospectively claim with respect to his own work from this period.  Thus, what the richness in contradiction self-attributed to his 1930s essays suggests is that in these thoughts indirectly occasioned by the all-pervading experience of death and sacrifice in Moscow and beyond there persisted an unyielding negativity, a refusal to be co-opted or synthesized into any grand totalizing scheme.  In fact, another feature of Lukács’s early sense of the essay genre itself suggests that perhaps such an attitude of irresolution and such a refusal of reconciliation can be extended beyond the aberrations of Stalinism as such toward Lukács’s own impulses or tendencies to totalize and systematize.  For after all, the essay, “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” ends by de-instrumentalizing the role of essayistic writing itself in the gradual elaboration of an aesthetic system.  The essay, in other words, is not merely the application of a system that has yet to be found or that has yet to come into being but is instead “always a new creation, a coming alive in real experience [Erleben (34).  Thus, “The essay is a judgment [Gericht], but the essential, the value-determining thing about it is not the verdict (as is the case with the system) but the process of judging” (34).

Process, not judgment, is the specific intellectual activity performatively staged by the essay itself, which thereby calls forth from us a greater deal of attention to the forms made use of by essayistic writing than we might otherwise be accustomed to bring to bear on Lukács’s publications of the 1930s.  At the very least, it is from within the mortally threatening social context provided by Stalinism that the conceptual frameworks of early Lukács start to dovetail into those of Adorno on “late style,” and it is on such premises that I would now like to indicate what such an attentiveness to “late style” in Lukács might mean by looking more closely at one of his most notorious and totalizing polemics of the Moscow period, 1936’s “To Narrate or Describe?”.  After all, at first glance, this essay certainly seems to enact the same sort of sclerosis of dogmatic content polemicized against by Adorno in “Reconciliation under Duress.”  At the very least, the acerbic counterposing of realist compositional practices to literary naturalist ones would appear to suggest that, much like the show trials themselves, Commissar Lukács’s judgments had already been passed.  Hence the ruthlessly hierarchical nature of the essay’s oppositional structure, already contained within its title:  whereas nineteenth-century realist narratives once made a necessity of chance by dynamically developing the social relationalities to which contingencies give rise, naturalist descriptions represent chance statically through the abstract imposition of formalizations that are as arbitrary as the social content those descriptions seek to depict; whereas realist texts once provided autotelic norms and measures by which to assess the social significance of typical characters in a given text, naturalist works instead relativize such proportions, thereby eliding selective principles from their stock of compositional methods along with the possibility of perspectives able to credibly make the distinction between characters and inanimate objects in the first place; and whereas the objectivity of realism once narrated and modeled a sociability implicitly generative of a renewed vita activa, the naturalist attempt to make literature scientific succumbs to a total objectivization whereby the possibilities of just such a renewal devolve instead into passive suffering and atomized social anomie.

As we have seen, however, Adornian “late style” cues us to be on the lookout both for places where the integrity of such structural logics break down and for the return of conventions that remain unsynthesized or unintegrated within the late work itself.  Notably, then, even an essay as overtly polemical as “To Narrate or Describe?” refuses to solve the contradictions it raises about the continued distorting influence of naturalist modes of composition on contemporary Western bourgeois fiction and socialist realist writing.  Thus, rhetoricity and conceptuality do not manage to come together in a way that would resolve the incompatibility of a philosophical history of forms with an empirical history of forms, making this essay an unexpected re-inscription of the problems raised by Theory of the Novel.  In fact, with its opening words, “To Narrate or Describe?” directly evokes the epic traditions so forlornly depicted in Theory of the Novel:  “Let’s begin in medias res!” [“Gehen wir gleich in medias res!“] (197).  On the face of it, this opening seems not simply to ratify the precedence of narrative over description preemptively through its positing of epic form as a self-referential model for essayistic organization, but also to raise the question as to what the preconditions for offering a dialectical account of the genesis of narrative modes are in the first place.  If, as Lukács argues, naturalist novels can be understood to disrupt or impede the narrativity of forms as such, then from its opening sentence “To Narrate or Describe?” seems to make that disruption or impediment integral by means of epic narrative form itself.

In other words, the beginning of Lukács’s essay presents us with the meta-critical return of a convention (the epic) he once forcefully claimed was no longer available to us novel-writing moderns.  At one level, this return manifests itself in terms of characterization.  As Ferenc Feher puts it in his exegesis of Theory of the Novel, “‘Collective individuality’ offers great advantages to epic representation.  First of all, there is no danger of privatization:  Achilles’ wrath is just as much a public matter as a private one.  Secondly, as a result of the functional and ‘non-unique’ character of the epic hero, it is never a question how certain men become capable of fulfilling such and such tasks.  The question raised in the epic is always the following: is there someone to fulfill a certain function” (64).  Accordingly, in the opening section of “To Narrate or Describe?”, Lukács counterposes description and narration, naturalism and realism, Zola and Tolstoy, Zola and Balzac, Flaubert and Scott, etc. in terms of a civic function that remains unquestioned:  what art is for publicly is education, the making knowable of norms to social subjects.  Art, in other words, models the historically situated standards by which we can measure our actions against proportionate effects in the world.  However, given the gap that exists between historical processes and individual life in modernity, there does not seem to be any popular mode of writing that can fulfill this function today.  The slavish reproduction of inhumanity in naturalist writing does not afford an adequate picture or model of that inhumanity but instead reconciles itself to it because the compositional methods of naturalist description attempt to encapsulate in mortifying tableaux the actively unfolding degradations that exceed their capacities of representation altogether.  Such methods reify partial views on reality.  Literary naturalism (along with its twentieth-century subjectivizing complement and heir, modernism) therefore carries out the degeneration of the novel’s ability to play socially regenerative roles.  The model they provide instead for their readers is finally that of a submissive acceptance of (and identification with) horrors that fitfully subsist and reproduce themselves beyond any one person or perspective’s ken:  “We do not watch a man whom we have come to know and love being spiritually murdered by capitalism in the course of the [naturalist] novel, but follow a corpse in passage through still lives become increasingly aware of being dead” (146).  Consequently, the modeling that naturalist compositional methods present their readers is that of how to become a self-aware zombie.  Naturalism provides the means by which the zombie in-itself may reflexively become a cynical (or happy-go-lucky or obstinate or perverse or complacent or disaffected, etc.) zombie-for-itself.

It would seem, then, that much as is the case in epic narratives, everything has already been decided in advance for “To Narrate or Describe?”:  art has a clear civic function to fulfill, and the novel—be it bourgeois or socialist realist—ought to turn away from ambient naturalist methods and back toward legibly realist ones, a point that Lukács’s graphic evocation of epic narrative modes in his initial structuring of the essay is meant to convey self-referentially (there are still normative and active public roles to be fulfilled by creative writing, the form and content of the opening sections seem to be insisting, despite what naturalist models might suggest to present-day readers in the West and in the U.S.S.R.).  However, Lukács’s initial epic emplotment of the relationship of naturalism to realism does not work itself out consistently; the empirical history of forms does not get brusquely subsumed by the philosophical history of forms by the essay’s end, when Lukács turns his attention to the socialist realist novel.  Instead, “To Narrate or Describe?” climaxes with the corruption of Soviet novels by naturalist premises that are impeding the cultivation and reproduction of new men.  Just as the narrative content of the socialist realist novel often hinges upon the revelation of the saboteur in the factory or the collective farm, so too the form of the socialist realist novel is sabotaged by unreconstructed naturalist compositional elements.  The kulak in the woodshed, then, is the embodiment or objective correlative (if you will) of the naturalist remainders to be found in the form of the socialist realist novel itself.  Yet despite these regrettable holdovers, Lukács still manages to end the essay affirmatively:  such a naturalist remainder in Soviet writing “can and will be overcome” (242).

Yet, even as “To Narrate or Describe?” passes absolute judgments such as these, its epic structure breaks down completely.  For if we start in medias res, then we end in medias res as well, suggesting that the argument elaborated here is not in the service of exalting the prospective fulfillment of normative expectations but of leaving them pointedly in suspense.  The self-referential model provided by the epic, in other words, remains unmetabolized by Lukács’s essay—it exists there as an unredeemed convention or tradition, a naturalized, descriptive fragment that may speak for itself but certainly not for Lukács nor for the fully realized socialist realist novel.  What Lukács’s “late style” in “To Narrate or Describe?” performatively enacts, then, is the transformation of epic certainty into the disquieting ambivalence of early twentieth-century novelistic forms, which cannot be assuaged or resolved by dictatorially resurrecting the characters, forms, and functions specific to the classical epic and the harmonious community that made it possible in the first place.  At the height of the Great Purges and the beginning of the Moscow Show Trials, what Lukács’s deformation of epic mastery in this essay indicates is that, despite the apparent certainty of the judgments being passed within (and, later, on) it, the jury was in fact still out as to whether bourgeois-democratic culture could be reconciled with Stalinism without literary naturalism coming to the rescue.