Cultural Marxism

A central concept in the contemporary genre of right-wing manifestos, Cultural Marxism is a term of art used to disparage the canon of Western Marxist thought as propagating a conspiracy to undermine presumably traditional Western values. Initially coined by political commentators in the US in the early 1990s, the concept was popularized by the American paleo-conservative figure Pat Buchanan – famous for having promoted the notion of a “culture war” for “the soul of America” at the Republican National Convention in 1992 – and has experienced a resurgence in popularity in the late-2010s with the emergence of the so-called “alt-right” around the election of Donald Trump. The concept of Cultural Marxism seeks to introduce readers unfamiliar with – and presumably completely uninterested in – Western Marxist thought to its key thinkers, as well as some of their ideas, as part of an insidious story of secret operations of mind-control whose nuances may differ but whose basic premise is remarkably similar whether told by Anders Breivik (2011) or Andrew Breitbart (2011).

The story, repeated again and again, tells of how a bunch of Jewish intellectuals infiltrated America through the minds of its youth, culminating in the sixties counterculture, which is framed as a low point in the culture war for preserving traditional American values. (In its traditionalism, and preoccupation with contamination, the concept can be seen to have a certain structural similarity to the charge of “cultural Bolshevism” which Weimar-era conservatives directed towards aesthetic modernists of their day.) This conspiratorial and often anti-Semitic concept imagines the corrupting and feminizing influences of European decadence as having spread octopus-like throughout the American body politic in particular via its infiltration of the academy (Walsh 2015).

In the words of Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Breitbart News, a new right-wing media outlet that supported Donald Trump and exploded in popularity coincident with his insurgent candidacy: “When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the battle took a different form. Instead of missiles the new weapon was language and education, and the international Left had successfully constructed a global infrastructure to get its message out. Schools. Newspapers. Network news. Art. Music. Film. Television” (2011, 3). Breitbart is referring here, without accreditation, to Buchanan’s idea (2002) – which was in turn inspired by an obscure retired American naval officer by the name of Gerald Atkinson (1999) – that while the West was busy winning the Cold War abroad it had in fact unknowingly ceded ground to Cultural Marxism at home, particularly through higher education. Based on this template then, the typical account sees Marxism as responsible for having seeded all the important social movements that came out of the 1960s, from environmentalism to equal rights, as well as for a variety of schools of critical thought such as postmodernism and deconstructionism (see Peterson 2018, 285-334) – even if the latter may have little truck with Marxist economism.

The Cultural Marxist narrative attributes incredible influence to the power of the ideas of the Frankfurt School to the extent that it may even be read as a kind of “perverse tribute” to the latter (Jay 2011). In one account, for example (Estulin 2005), Theodor Adorno is thought to have helped pioneer new and insidious techniques for mind control that are now used by the “mainstream media” to promote its “liberal agenda” – this as part of Adorno’s work, upon first emigrating to the United States, with Paul Lazarsfeld on the famous Princeton Radio Research Project, which helped popularize the contagion theory of media effects with its study of Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. In an ironical sense this literature can perhaps be understood as popularizing simplified or otherwise distorted versions of certain concepts initially developed by the Frankfurt School, as well as those of Western Marxism more generally. One such example might be the concept of “the Cathedral” (Yarvin 2008), developed by figures in the so-called neo-reactionary movement on the far right as a kind of critique of the hegemonic, unconscious consensus between powerful figures within academia and the media who use the concept of “political correctness” as a tool of oppression developed by those who (falsely) imagine themselves as being oppressed. Although the narrative of Cultural Marxism’s ineluctable triumph, which one encounters in all of these texts, seems patently false, defenders argue that seemingly unbiased research supports the claim that academics have moved markedly to left of the rest of Americans in recent decades (Abrams 2016). The polarization of these contested findings have in turn helped to breathe new life into the Cultural Marxist conspiracy theory, turning university campuses into sites of far-right activism in recent years.

While the critique of Cultural Marxism may have initially developed out of the culture wars of the American new right, in recent years it has also been taken up by the European new right who often cite Gramsci as inspiration in championing a counter-hegemonic movement of “identitarianism” (de Benoist 2015), which stands in opposition to the sanctimonious cant of liberalism, thought to be destroying Europe from within. And though the analysis of Marxism proffered by this literature would certainly not stand up to scrutiny by any serious historian of the subject, we can nevertheless understand Cultural Marxism as a prime example of how the ideas of conservatism grow above all in reaction to those of the left (Robin 2011).


Fake News

There is a feeling that the world changed in the past couple of years, and that it has something to do with the Internet. With “😂”, “post truth” and “fake news” as the UK Oxford Dictionary’s “words of the year” for the last three years, one has the sense of some sort of epistemological rupture — although history will ultimately be the judge of this. It seems that the logic and temporality of social media has penetrated deeply into culture and politics, reframing the legitimacy of issues and demanding new assessment criteria in order for one to stay abreast of the increasing pace of cultural change. Illustrative of this, are the vernacular interpretations of political events, as developed by fringe Internet communities, which seem to have acquired an enormous influence in the past several years. As demonstrated by Brexit and the election of Trump, within the new social media ecosystem it is the way in which emotional narratives confirm people’s pre-existing biases that seems to accounts for the viral spread of misinformation, disinformation and “alternative facts”. This phenomenon corresponds with the rise of automated personalization — as currently exemplified by the Facebook News Feed — and the concomitant argument that market segmentation decreases public argument and thereby diminishes the public sphere (Sunstein 2001, Pariser 2011). While these discussions are generally framed in terms of a declension narrative, as a provocation we can turn to dialectical materialism to speculate on the inversion of this fragmentary condition. Against the pervasive pessimism over the supposed death of liberalism, the Marxist wager here is that the seeds of a new class consciousness might lie dormant in this very fragmentary and neo-tribalistic condition.

The rise of fake news can be tied to systemic transformations in the news business. While Marx was a newsman himself during the years of the mid-nineteenth century German revolutions, it is hard to know what – if anything – he might have made about the twenty-first century problem of fake news. For while it can certainly be said that disinformation has roots that extend back into Marx’s time, it is arguably the case that what today we call fake news is the specific product of a quite particular constellation of factors, of which two are at central issue here. On the one hand there is an extreme concentration of media ownership such that, in the US for example, most people tend get their news from one single source: Facebook. On the other hand there is a greater variety of news content being generated by a plurality of sources with often dubious credentials. As such, the news media are no longer in a position to “manufacture consent” (Lippman 1922, Herman & Chomsky 1988). From this media ecological perspective, the concept of “the truth” thus appears increasingly as though it were a relic of an earlier paradigm wherein the news media collaborated with political power-brokers in order to maintain hegemony of what has been referred to as “embedded liberalism” (Harvey 2005, 11). With official accounts of the truth appearing more open to interpretation as well as to contestation, aspects of social constructivism can thus be said to have “gone mainstream,” as it were, to the extent that reality today seems far more malleable to many more people.

Once the relatively exclusive purview of academics on the post-Marxist left, since Brexit and Trump of late it has become increasingly common to hear right-wing populists embrace a paranoid form of epistemological relativism: “How does anybody decide? That’s an epistemological question… You reach your own truth, find the truth. It’s not that hard” (Cernovich 2017). As such, actors find themselves in possession of distribution networks that can rival long-established news organizations and which are moving beyond mere contestation to circulate their own vernacular interpretations of events. This “democratization” of media production often feels empowering and revelatory, both for these niche producers and their audiences. The universalist correspondence theory of truth — long out of fashion amongst postmodernists — thus yields to a newly ascendant conspiratorial notion of truth that is revealed through a process of unveiling. The journalistic belief in “cold hard facts” gives way to a search for a notion of revealed truth that is always somehow “out there” (as the X-Files tv-series had already presciently observed at the close of the millennium), almost within reach in spite of being actively obscured by the powers that be.

If one of the normative criteria for a democratic society — at least in the Rawlsian tradition of liberalism — is that citizens share some common “epistemic principles”, then it is arguable that the Internet actually works to undermine this epistemic consensus by providing each and every one of us with sources to validate our existing opinions, thereby allowing us to fit the facts to our antecedent systems of belief (Lynch 2016). As had already been noted nearly two decades ago, the cognitive bias towards group-think can make the Internet a breeding ground for radicalization, in which, “[r]epeated exposure to an extreme position, with the suggestion that many people hold that position, will predictably move those exposed, and likely predisposed, to believe in it.” (Sunstein 2001, 71). Indeed, findings from recent experimental research in evolutionary psychology confirm this echo-chamber theory, showing subjects to consistently, although unconsciously, favor intuitive as opposed to rational explanations when making moral value-judgments. Humans, we are told, tend to construct post-hoc rationalizations for what they believe to be true in conformity with the values of their own tribes (Haidt 2012, Sloman and Fernbach 2017). Thus empowered, our supposedly tribal natures are busy shattering the edifice of liberal-consensus reality into a million little pieces, with no hope of any universal project on the horizon that might be capable of reassembling its fragments.

While fake news is currently recognized within policy circles as one of the most pressing problems of technocratic governance, dialectical materialism might be seen to offer a quite different interpretation of the mainstreaming of epistemological relativism and of social constructivism. In History and Class Consciousness (1971), originally published in 1923, Georg Lukács combined aspects of Hegelian metaphysics and Weberian anti-positivist sociology in order to develop the concepts of reification and of totality. Taken from the German word for objectification [Verdinglichung], reification was Lukács’s term for the process of subsumption through which objects are transformed into subjects and subjects are turned into objects, while he defined totality as “the system of production at a given moment in history and the resulting divisions of society into classes” (ibid, 50). Following Engels’s assertion that the proletariat was “prescribed, irrevocably and obviously, in its own situation in life as well as in the entire organization of contemporary civil society” (1956, 134–5), Lukács claimed that totality in fact lay dormant in those commodities that Marx had theorized as “external to man, and therefore alienable” (1992, 182).

For Lukács, reification contained within it the roots of its own overcoming since it produced an epistemological standpoint from which the totality could be grasped. It was through the material encounter between the objectified subject (laborer) and the subjectified object (the commodity) that a truly universal class consciousness would emerge. As Marx and Engels had themselves alluded to, it was paradoxically only through the total subjugation to (and repurposing of) the commodity form that “man” would “face with sober senses, his real conditions of life” (1948, 12). So, while the liberal critique posits that fake news threatens to undermine the shared epistemic principles which underpin democracy, dialectical materialism might ironically invert this critique by identifying fake news as the initial by-product of a new kind of epistemology, one perhaps closer to the machine.

To conclude this provocation, we might look towards Stiegler’s (2010) proposal for a “new critique of political economy” that reorients the Marxist problematic over the ownership of the means of production to focus on the exteriorization of memory into corporately-owned inscription devices. While recognizing the threat that it poses to established liberal traditions, might we also see fake news in terms of Stiegler’s dialectic of pharmakon, in which the poison and remedy are of a piece? Might this new plasticity of reality actually provide some kind of real challenge to the hegemony of liberal consensus, as the partizans of post-truth populism like to claim? While its initial effect has been to empower the sock-puppets of established interests, arguably the scandal of fake news is also making us face our near total subjugation to a capitalist mode of production wherein the greatest problem is how to conceptualize a collective relationship to the labor that it extracts from us. It might thus be through the realization of what Stiegler refers to as the “generalized proletarianization” of consciousness that we could then come to recognize, with sober senses, the therapeutic value of technology for overcoming this same condition.



Dialectics of Secular Revelation: Jameson’s Cognitive Mapping Aesthetic, Thirty Years On

Review of Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle (2015) Cartographies of the Absolute. Alresford: Zero Books, 311 pp.

How do we, as the increasingly atomized individuals of capitalist societies, formulate a collective relationship to capital when conditions seem constantly to mitigate against such an effort? This is, perhaps, the central question of Western Marxism, a once vibrant tradition of critical thought, for which it has been claimed that the American literary critic Fredric Jameson today stands as the foremost living exemplar (Anderson 1998, 74). In Cartographies of the Absolute, Alberto Toscano & Jeff Kinkle take Jameson’s conceptual framework to be axiomatic, along with most of the political and philosophical foundation of Western Marxism; and while their intention is not to comment directly on Jameson’s hermeneutics, the book could nevertheless be understood as the single most sustained response, within the entire field of cultural analysis, to Jameson’s challenge, made at the conclusion of his famous essay on postmodernism, that “[t]he political form of postmodernism, if there ever is any, will have as its vocation the invention and projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well as a spatial scale” (1984, 92). In addition, then, to touching on a few of the book’s own unique contributions, in what follows I will be sketching an outline of a particular discursive tradition with which, I will argue, this book finds itself deeply enmeshed.

Referred to as both his most influential concept (Tally 1996, 399) and his least defined concept (Jameson 1992, viv), Jameson initially formulated the notion of cognitive mapping as a kind of metaphorical remedy to his metaphysical diagnosis of subjective disorientation under conditions of late capitalism — as an imperative to represent the hidden totality of class relations through the development of a new aesthetic form. Formulated, in part, as a kind of dialectical response to the epistemological relativism characteristic of intellectual trends in American academia at the time of writing in the mid-‘80’s, Jameson was also responding to formal preoccupations in the field of architecture, thus orienting much of his analysis to a study of the built environment, which he saw as the “privileged aesthetic language” of late capitalism, due to its “virtually unmediated relationship” to capital (1984, 79 and 56). In essence, Jameson’s project could be understood as a continuation of the basic problematic of Western Marxism, as inaugurated by Georg Lukács (1971), concerning the dialectical relationship between, on the one hand, the divisive symptoms of capitalism that result in social class divisions and, on the other, attempts to represent the a priori totality underlying those same processes.

If Toscano & Kinkle’s approach can be identified with Jameson, then it can also be counter-posed to the work of Bruno Latour, another highly influential yet very different type of thinker who likewise tends often to be preoccupied with metaphors drawn from cartography. Indeed, the opening chapter of their book puts forward a rather in-depth critique of Latour’s incapacity to comprehend the larger dynamics of capitalism from within the bounds of a methodology (derived in part from ethnography) that refuses to accept the a priori existence of any so-called “social explanations” (2005, 1) including, most notoriously, the existence of capitalism itself (1993, 173). Whereas Jameson’s cartographic epistemology is an attempt “to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system” (1984, 80), for Latour “[t]otality does not present itself as a fixed frame, as a constantly present context; it is obtained through a process of summing up, itself localized and perpetually restarted” (2006, NP). While it is perhaps understandable why Toscano & Kinkle would find Latour’s methodological commitment to the small-scale ill-suited given the scale of ambition in Cartographies of the Absolute, at the outset of the book their polemical stance against Latour seems to preempt the possibility of exploring more productive tensions in the dialectical relationship between different cartographic modes of thought. Whilst this opening polemic is not necessarily representative of the book as a whole, it does however demonstrate their scholasticist fealty to a particular type of hermeneutics. In conclusion, then, whilst their book is original — even, at times, idiosyncratic — in the way that they have selected their objects of study, I will argue that in terms of their methodology Toscano & Kinkle are, in fact, quite traditional.

Jameson first expanded upon his initial call to develop “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping” (1984, 89) at a famous conference on the topic of “Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture” (Nelson & Grossberg 1988), and then in a book-length version of the postmodernism article in which he described the challenge of cognitive mapping in quasi-gnostic terms as a revelation of “the true economic and social form that governs experience” (Jameson 1991, 411). Jameson was, in effect, writing a kind of artistic manifesto avant la lèttre, calling for: the development of “a whole new technology, which is itself a figure for a whole new economic world system” (1984, 58); the development of a pedagogical art-form, whose objective would be “[t]o teach, to move, to delight” (Nelson & Grossberg 1990, 347); but also, calling for experimentation at the formal level, instructing his readers to forget “all figures of maps and mapping” in order to “try to imagine something else” (Jameson 1991, 409). Thirty years later, then, Toscano & Kinkle have set out to assess the extent to which Jameson’s call has been answered, producing what amounts to a taxonomy of the “cartographic turn” in the arts of cinema, television, photography, and installation. Matching Jameson in terms of scope, interdisciplinarity and theoretical ambition, Toscano & Kinkle read these cultural artifacts “symptomatically” as material traces of a late capitalist world system in crisis. In separate chapters centered around the critically lauded cable series The Wire (’02-’08) as well as the now forgotten genre film Wolfen (’81), for example, Toscano & Kinkle read depictions of the decaying inner-city landscapes of Baltimore and New York City — both, respectively, around the period of a major financial crisis — as commentaries on what Marx called the “vampire-like” quality of capital.

Whilst Jameson was evocatively vague in his initial discussion of the cognitive mapping concept, he would go on to apply the term to describe his own method of cultural analysis, when, in an analysis of 1970s Hollywood ‘conspiracy films’, he stated that “in the intent to hypothesize, in the desire called cognitive mapping — therein lies the beginning of wisdom” (1992, 3). Jameson’s approach here was itself indebted to Louis Althusser’s technique of symptomatic reading — an exegetical approach to cultural analysis concerned with the “necessary invisible connection between the field of the visible and the field of the invisible” and the “psychological weakness of ‘vision’” (1970, 19) that was also influential in the field of film criticism in the 1970s. Believing capitalism, then, to be the ultimate referent and true ground of being, a kind of actually-existing metaphysics whose fundamental laws could be mapped, Jameson’s cognitive mapping method — the fundamental framework for Toscano & Kinkle’s whole approach — was therefore to render visible the noumenal economic base hidden in the cultural artifacts of the superstructure.

Referencing a 1928 letter to Henry Ford in which the Colombian poet José Eustasio Rivera claimed that, if rubber could speak “it would exhale the most accusing wail” (193), Toscano & Kinkle discuss, for instance, an approach that they refer to as “materialist prosopopoeia” (43) as a name for a cognitive mapping aesthetic that attempts to show “that the causes of ‘our’ social life [lie] elsewhere, in the processes of extraction, dispossession and subjugation that constitute imperialism and colonialism” (16), discussing, as exemplary, a piece by the British contemporary artist Steve McQueen entitled Gravesend, that uses the medium of video installation to portray the commodity chain of rare earth minerals in electronics manufacturing. While attempts at debunking the seeming ‘bargains’ of globalized capitalism has, as of recent times, become a kind of cause célèbre of liberal virtue — with campaigns for ethical consumerism attempting to bring a measure of transparency to the working conditions in Chinese smart-phone factories, and regulatory schemes for corporate social governance seeking, on paper at least, to redress the problem of conflict minerals — Toscano & Kinkle view the former as weak and ineffective symbolic actions that, in attempting to render commodity chains transparent, paradoxically represent “a new kind of opacity” (201). They are thus fascinated by attempts to render multinational global capitalism visible whilst at the same time being fundamentally suspicious of the contemporary discourses of ethical transparency.

In the same manner that Jameson performed symptomatic readings of 1970s Hollywood conspiracy films as another example of a cognitive mapping aesthetics, Toscano & Kinkle also survey a selection of Hollywood films from the 2010s addressing the global economic crash of 2008 in which they are much less interested in the quality of their narratives than they are concerned with decoding how, for example, in the filmic diegesis, “the inanity of built space (alternating between the triumphant banality of the glass skyscraper and the tawdry iteration of ‘luxury apartments’ and sundry cubbyholes) are ‘realistically’ depicted in these films” (169). According to Georg Lukács — the former theologian, who, as we have seen, may be thought of as a cornerstone in the Western Marxist hermeneutical framework — it is precisely at these moments of transition and crisis that the fundamental gap between the false appearance of things and their underlying reality becomes apparent. While Toscano & Kinkle draw from this framework when they speak of “crisis [as] a… synthetic rupture, potentially rendering visible the unity between seemingly disparate domains” (79), they are also critical of what we might call the post-industrial sublime, as for example represented in the photography of Lewis Baltz or Edward Burtynsky, which depict the effects late capitalism has on the built environment and on landscapes. Here, by contrast, they celebrate the works of Allan Sekula, to whom the book is dedicated, as well as those of Harun Faroki, visual artists, both of whom frame and narrativize their own work in critical essays that Toscano & Kinkle celebrate as attempts to rethink visual imagery as indexes of the machinic operations of global-spanning logistical processes — as opposed to naïvely realist modalities of representation.

While Toscano & Kinkle do speak of an idealized “realism shorn of didacticism” (193), as with Jameson’s original concept, their approach to aesthetics seems to value the pedagogical above all else. In so doing they might be said to re-stage the same relationship of inequality between those who know and those who passively absorb an image, a notion of passive spectatorship that Jacques Rancière (2009) associates with Guy Debord — another Western Marxist figure who stands behind Jameson and Toscano & Kinkle, with Kinkle having, in fact, written his PhD on Debord. Against the ideal of critical art that he identifies with Debord — to “turn the spectator into a conscious agent of world transformation” through “build[ing] awareness of the mechanisms of domination” (2009[2004], 45) — Rancière advocates an approach that appreciates the capacity of art to open up a world of phenomenological experience that reveals the fundamental contingency of how the sensible world is distributed, a political promise that he argues may be contained with even the most self-secluding, and seemingly apolitical, of artworks. Embracing polemics over ambivalence, Toscano & Kinkle’s emphasis on the role of theory in producing univocal symptomatic readings — as well as in their preference for ‘critical’ artists— seems to lead to the conclusion that the aesthetic of cognitive mapping that Jameson had called for some thirty years previously, today finds its realization not in the field of aesthetics so much as in the interpretation of aesthetics in line with the same old framework that had called for the development of a new form of aesthetics in the first place. Within that framework, Jameson had initially conceptualized cognitive mapping as a kind of antidote to his famous postmodern diagnosis of subjective dislocation, in which he announced “a mutation in the object, unaccompanied as yet by an equivalent mutation in the subject” (Jameson 1984, 80). Perhaps then, when, in their conclusion — in spite of the many postmodern equivocations that they, like Jameson, have made regarding the fundamental partiality of perspective —Toscano & Kinkle speak wistfully of a future “politics with a totalising impetus” (241), the ultimate forebear of this call to critical awareness in face of unimaginable complexity might be understood less in terms of Western Marxism than of Kant’s third critique, according to which it is in the ultimate inadequacy of representation, in cartography’s very failure to systematically divide the boundlessness of the absolute, that reason becomes intuitively palpable and, through this critical act, that the individual comes to make sense of her true location in the world.