Piece of Cake


Someone nice on tumblr just asked me:

Do you think that it's fair to criticize a work of art for the failings of the culture around it? This is a question I've been mulling over the past few days and I'm sure you have an interesting response.

My answer got a bit long, so I decided - opportunistically - to post it here.


I think the terms of the question are worth investigating.

What do we mean by 'failings'?

What do we mean by 'culture around it'?

Failure is, of course, subjectively judged.  Something I think is bad may be seen as good - or neutral, or normal, or inescapable - by others.

It is perfectly possible for something that is a 'failure' with regards to general human wellbeing to be a 'success' for a social system.  (The wellbeing of the working class, in any class society, always being more universal than that of the minority loafing class.)

Indeed, I think that if you look at the vast majority of mainstream media culture as it has existed in modern capitalist society - including and perhaps even especially with reference to narrative culture - then you see that it pretty unambiguously touts and celebrates values and/or activities that are failures when it comes to promoting general human wellbeing but successes when it comes to propping up and reproducing a social order dominated by the class that owns and controls capital.

*phew* long sentence.

This is the 'culture around it'...


I think it's really important to realise that art doesn't just sit there surrounded by culture.  It is culture.

We would expect any product to bear the hallmarks of its production, or the materials from which it was produced.  It's just common sense to expect a cultural product to bear such hallmarks... and that's without looking at any of the elaborate processes by which supply, demand, distribution, advertisement, hegemony, etc winnow cultural products out of circulation, or just prevent their production in the first place.

More deeply, just as the self is not a thing that exists in the world but is rather a dialectical process that we individuate from the wider set of processes that we call the world, so is art not a thing in the world but a chosen locus of relations, inter-relations and inter-reactions.

A cultural product is, from one standpoint, an individuated unit... but that standpoint is actually a form of commodity fetishism.  The cultural product as an entity that lives in the world, that says things and thinks things.  Thinking about cultural products that way is inescapable to a large extent, because it's impossible for us to step outside of culture and look in.

The very fetishising of commodities which leads us create cultural products as things, and treat them like entities, is also what makes them very hard to perceive as anything else.

You could say that the entire project of modern criticism has been concerned with attempts to find ways through this maze.

And yet... the analysis which allows us to see the cultural product as a fetishised commodity, produced by a cultural industry which actively perpetuates and reproduces itself, is also the analysis which can provide a way to see the cultural product relatively clearly... and a big part of the method for doing so is also suggested by the same analysis, at least when properly applied.

There's a vulgar Marxist approach which sees the circumstances of production as deterministic of the 'meaning' of a cultural product.  This, ironically enough, fails because it entails a reiteration of the exact same fetishising of commodities, not to mention a fetishising of production at the expense of other sites on the circuit of capital.

This is not a true Marxist approach because true Marxism sees commodities - indeed, capital in general - as relations rather than things (albeit relations fundamentally grounded in the material, which is to say the social).  This is really what is meant by - or is at least a good demonstration of - dialectical materialism (forget about vulgarised state religions). 

Luckily, this kind of vulgar Marxism is more honoured in the breach than the observance, at least outside of phone box cults or rump Stalinist states (their big cousins).

I'd argue for a dialectical-materialist way of looking at texts.  That's the analysis which remembers that the text is a social relation, produced by social relations, and viewed by social relations.

This would involve such basics as:

i) always remembering that they are social products, produced for material reasons,

ii) always remembering that, in a system of generalised commodity production, such cultural products are going to be overwhelmingly produced as commodities, or subject to commodification, etc.

iii) always remembering that, "in any epoch, the dominant ideas will be the ideas of the ruling class" [approximate quote from Marx, from memory]


iv) always remembering that we cannot step outside the current social relations, ideological relations or dominant hierarchies in order to, as it were, see the text and its culture from the outside, from a disengaged and impartial standpoint,

v) that we must, therefore, take sides.  We must take a side simply in order to see the text anything like 'square on'.  Not from an impartial standpoint, but from a standpoint which recognises that no such asocial view is even possible.

Before we can even start judging the cultural product itself, we need to accept that it exists in and as part of a matrix of social relations which are hierarchical, self-perpetuating, fetishised, but also inescapably social.  We need to have a standpoint from which to judge what constitutes a 'failure'. 

This, I think, is an especially pronounced need when we're talking about anything with a story.  Because stories are almost always, on some fundamental level, implicitly posing issues of justice and injustice.  Even if only by negation.  That may not be trans-historically true, but it's at least largely true in the bourgeois West in the modern era (which is understandable when you consider the cultural revolution brought about by the bourgeois revolutions and the subsequent rise of 'morality' as an ideological prop of bourgeois culture - which is always double-edged because of its partly revolutionary and emancipatory origins).

I think the idea of judging a work of art aside from the values of the culture around it is just impossible in real terms.  It's like trying to judge a slice of cake aside from the taste of the rest of the cake.  The slice is something you make, by violence, not a property of the cake itself.  The work of art is like this.  We make it a slice by viewing it out of context.  But we can't then judge it alone.  To taste it and evaluate its flavour is to evaluate the flavour of the entire cake.  Try and do otherwise and you'll fail.  Having said that, rummaging around in the rest of the cake is vital.  The slice you tasted may happen to be the bit with no arsenic in it.  That doesn't put you in a very good position to judge the whole cake.  On the other hand, the slice you cut may happen to have failed to intersect with the file hidden inside the cake... the file which might just contribute (as something that was originally an innocuous commodity, but which your friend on the outside has socially repurposed) to your escape.

Remember, to you, the file is a success.  To the Warden, the file is a failure.

To say that art - or texts, or cultural products, or whatever - are an integral part of bourgeois culture is not necessarily to say that they are useless.  They may have emancipatory promise, much as Duchamp's readymades had promises beyond their origins as commodities, once he assisted them into new contexts.

They may be relations rather than things, but then so are we.

See.  Piece of cake.


1.  I don't use Marx's term 'fetishism' with reference to commodification without an awareness that the whole concept of fetishism is Eurocentric and racist.  Marx, I'd argue, utilised the concept and turned it against bourgeois culture, thus making it fight against such Eurocentrism and racism.   See David McNally for a nice little parenthetical discussion of this.

2.  Nothing above is particularly original.  I just can't be bothered to go looking for sources and quotes.  Read the usual suspects.

3.  This post shows me up, because I very often fail to bother with anything like this level of theoretical thinking when I actually tap something about some TV show/film/book I've just consumed into Facebook/twitter/tumblr/Shabgraff.

4.  I'd agree with China Mieville that sometimes there just isn't anything very much to say about a particular cultural product, precisely because its a commodity.  We get over invested in our commodities (this blog is evidence of that) and forget that they sometimes lack even a semblance of semiotic density.  Even when a text can be interpreted against the dominant culture, subjected to detournement, or mined for abuse of bourgeois values, that doesn't always make it significant enough to be worth picking on.


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