The general theme of the course is about production of culture and cultural goods, culture as something that is produced.
To begin with and central to many theoreticians whose work we will discuss is the specific mode of production called ‘capitalism’.
Capitalism is the monetary mode of production: money is invested to produce goods (commodities), which are sold at a profit i.e. money is invested to produce more money. Without going into the particulars of commodities and their twofold character as use value and exchange value here I will just stress this grounding significance of relations mediated by money and through money, and for money. Capitalist mode of production is not about making a profit, it is about the ”never-ending battle for profit”. Capitalism is about commodification of things, making everything and anything into a thing that has a value that makes if possible to exchange it (for money) – objects, services, people as labour power.
Therefore central concepts for capitalist mode and relations of production are “alienation” and “reification”.
Alienation refers to a more general human condition within capitalist relations of production: people are alienated from their activities and habits concerning production of things, of the world – material and symbolic culture – as the production becomes production of commodities to be sold at market.
Reification is also a direct consequence of commodification and the monetary mode: as every thing tends to be turned into a commodity, and as people are alienated, they begin to regard all things, and even their own social relations as things/ objects.
Alienation and reification were central themes to various thinkers of The Frankfurt School, an autonomous institute for critical social research founded in Germany 1931. Another famed concept of theirs is “cultural industry”, production of culture as production of cultural commodities for mass consumption. Adorno: “Together with sport and film, mass music and the new listening help to make escape from the whole infantile milieu impossible.”
On the idea of culture as produced by people and appropriated by ruling classes two theses from Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History
My wing is ready to fly
I would rather turn back
For had I stayed mortal time
I would have had little luck.
– Gerhard Scholem, “Angelic Greetings”
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.
Think of the darkness and the great cold
In this valley, which resounds with misery.
– Brecht, Threepenny Opera
Fustel de Coulanges recommended to the historian, that if he wished to reexperience an epoch, he should remove everything he knows about the later course of history from his head. There is no better way of characterizing the method with which historical materialism has broken. It is a procedure of empathy. Its origin is the heaviness at heart, the acedia, which despairs of mastering the genuine historical picture, which so fleetingly flashes by. The theologians of the Middle Ages considered it the primary cause of melancholy. Flaubert, who was acquainted with it, wrote: “Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage.” [Few people can guess how sad one has to be in order to resuscitate Carthage.] The nature of this melancholy becomes clearer, once one asks the question, with whom does the historical writer of historicism actually empathize. The answer is irrefutably with the victor. Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time. This says quite enough to the historical materialist. Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage. In the historical materialist they have to reckon with a distanced observer. For what he surveys as the cultural heritage is part and parcel of a lineage [Abkunft: descent] which he cannot contemplate without horror. It owes its existence not only to the toil of the great geniuses, who created it, but also to the nameless drudgery of its contemporaries. There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another. The historical materialist thus moves as far away from this as measurably possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.
The same sentiment can be read from Brech’t famous poem: history and culture is produced by people, not individual geniuses, and it should be the property of all, not privileged classes.
Questions From a Worker Who Reads
Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?
So many reports.
So many questions.