Live Aronowitz: Dead TheoriesStanley Aronowitz, The Politics of
Identity, New York: Routledge 1992.
Stanley Aronowitz, Roll over
Beethoven, Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
Aronowitz, Dead artists: Live theories, New York: Routledge, 1994.
Stanley Aronowitz is one of America's leading intellectuals, and with just
cause. His published work, spanning two decades, has provided a critical
interpretation of American culture and society. Aronowitz's reading is based on
a profound understanding of his country and a thorough grasp of the
philosophical writings of America as well as Europe. The rapid release of the
three works listed here is just one reflection of his prolific abilities to
treat ongoing movements in a manner that situates them in his impressive command
of the historical origins of class and particularly of the 'working class'.
Aronowitz's thought ranges over a considerable number of topics engaging and
continuing a public debate on class, culture and identity (to use the subtitle
of one of the works), which in turn allows him to reflect deeply on the
controversy surrounding cultural studies, political correctness, postmodernism,
literature, intellectuals and even his own life. Any reader would benefit from
Aronowitz's erudition and clear analysis even if, needless to say, one does not
For my purposes I wish to select one of the central themes, without meaning
to reduce the richness of the works. At issue for Aronowitz is the viability of
identity in the context of contemporary American culture and, in particular,
working class identity and culture. This is the part of the analysis of
political culture in the United States in which Aronowitz sees the closure of
debate in the public sphere that places democracy under threat. Aronowitz
believes this threat is reflected in the conservative right wing movements, such
as political correctness, that continue the destruction of working class culture
and of "liberal" institutions.
None of what Aronowitz has to say is without plausibility; indeed much of it
is compelling, but it is an analysis that gives this reader the distinct
impression that its subject matter is receding. The world, so aptly described by
Aronowitz, is disappearing, leaving Aronowitz as a reviver of fading concepts,
pumping energy into these concepts that have become "dark bodies" of absorption.
Each aspect of the trinity of class, culture and social movements is resurrected
by Aronowitz's skill from what appears to be its certain demise.
At the centre of Aronowitz's analysis of culture and society is his
understanding of capitalism. In a critical essay entitled "The Logic of
Capitalism," Aronowitz sets out (following a number of theorists, including
Braverman) a reading of Marx's Capital that sees postmodern society
as a continuation of class politics. In an interesting reading of the addenda to
Volume One of Capital, entitled "Results of the Immediate
Aronowitz argues that the rise of technocratic and scientific techniques of
production and their attendant cultural manifestations are prefigured in Marx's
analysis of subsumption, hence being consistent with the logic of capitalism
though not determined by them.2
This argument is in many ways an extension of Aronowitz's earlier brilliant work
on science and its logic.3
Aronowitz is following a path similar to David Harvey's Conditions of
Postmodernity which traces the post-Fordism that invades the workplace as
a sign not of the demise of a critical Marxism but as its extension. The
globalization spoken about by Harvey and Aronowitz also forms part of Fredric
Jameson's well known analysis of late capitalism, although Aronowitz avoids such
problematic concepts as the political unconscious. Each writer contributes to
the appropriate refusal to jettison political agency in the face of postmodern
critiques such as Derrida's or Lyotard's.
Aronowitz's use of a modified Marxism supports his perspective that class
continues to be a central concept in capitalism. Through an analysis of the
concept of subsumption in Marxist literature and in a reading of the
Results, Aronowitz argues that subsumption is not adequate to fully
explain technological and cultural events but should be read as a tendency that
still allows for the relative autonomy of class culture.
...I argue for the relative autonomy of labor, culture, and
consciousness within the broad framework of marxist theory of capitalist
development. That is, I take the aphorism 'all history is the history of class
struggle' seriously. If this is the case, then the doctrine of subsumption
must not be taken as an empirical description; rather it is a powerful
tendency that becomes an aspect of the mode of production, but it is
counteracted both by the historical cultures of the working class (which have
their roots in precapitalist social formations as much as the culture that
arises from the labor process itself), and by the formal and informal
organization of the working class, which restrains the subsumption process and
causes its retardation and deformation.4
However, I would like to pose the question of whether Aronowitz's analysis,
which looks to the continuation of class as a concept, captures the movement in
the social towards a recombinant culture where labour, capital and the
valorization process are challenged in their traditional forms thereby creating
doubt concerning Aronowitz's defense of the concept of class.
I begin, as Aronowitz does, by turning to Marx's discussion in the
Results. In looking to Marx's analysis it may be argued that rather
than locating working class culture as a precapitalist formation that retards
the progress of capitalism, Marx's text opens a reading that sees a
postcapitalist formation that eclipses the remnants of the class struggle as
Aronowitz understands it. This is a reading of Marx's description of the extent
and characteristics of capitalism which turns on the understanding of the
commodity and how value is 'produced' in the production process through, as Marx
calls, it an 'indissoluble' union of the labour process and the valorization
Here then the immediate process of production is always an
indissoluble union of labour process and valorization process, just as the
product is a whole composed of use-value and exchange-value, i.e. the
It is precisely this union that is progressively broken in advanced
capitalism. The commodity in the contemporary period cannot be read as being
composed of use and exchange values. The disjunction introduces a virtuality at
the core of the commodity which circulates in a space outside of that of
traditional capitalist space, especially outside of the class structure that
follows from Marxian relations of production.
The 'escape' of the commodity from traditional capitalism can be
demonstrated, in part, from Marx's analysis. Marx indicates that the production
of objects may, of course, occur in systems of production that are not
capitalistic; but enter into the capitalist 'logic' once the extraction of
surplus value occurs in the economy. Marx drew part of a line around capitalism
in the Results in two comments that sketch the boundaries of the
capitalist production relation. First, Marx notes that the production of
aesthetic commodities, such as art works, may circulate in a manner that the
capitalist market only partially captures. That is, in an economy that becomes
progressively more 'aestheticized', whether through the advertising industry or
through the continued use of symbols for their putative aesthetic or
'commercial' value, the subsumption of these products to the capitalistic social
relations becomes progressively weaker. In terms of Aronowitz's concern, he is
right to raise doubts as to whether the products of culture are subsumed fully
under capitalism, but whether the products of culture take on a 'life' of their
own in a precapitalist guise or whether this describes the nature of
postcapitalist commodities is at issue.
Second, Marx exempts the 'expert', in the Results. The example
given is that of a doctor who was not fungible with his assistant and who
continued to be paid for his services, but outside the capitalist labour
relation. Again, this type of relationship is found in a highly technical
economic environment and is characteristic of the new form of worker described
by Robert Reich and others who gain an 'independence' from the production
process even while they contribute to it.6
(1)Šcommodities which exist separately from the producer, i.e.
they can circulate in the interval between production and consumption as
commodities, e.g. books, paintings and all products of art as distinct from
artistic achievement of the practicing artist. Here capitalist production is
possible only within very narrow limitsŠ(2) The product is not separable from
the act of producing. Here too the capitalist mode of production occurs only
on a limited scale...7
In these categories, late capitalism has seen a sustained explosion of
activity; not all of which has been by any means on the basis of the artisan
model that Marx probably had in mind, and clearly not all of which would fall
outside Marx's and Aronowitz's views of capitalism. Nonetheless, very real
questions are raised by both the increased presence of symbolic systems in the
economy and by the growing role of 'experts,' as to whether they can fit
Aronowitz's concept of the tendency in capitalism tied to precapitalist
formations or whether they signal a 'postcapitalist' 'culture'.
Similar complexities occur when one considers the question of valorization
and its relation to labour. For Marx values are produced only if they are tied
to the labouring process in capitalism. The process of valorization turns on the
relation of living and dead (objectified) labour, with the extraction of
relative surplus value from living labour. Based on Marx's well known comments
in the Grundrisse,8
one could conclude that the ratio of living to dead labour would decline to the
point that living labour, if not approaching zero, becomes far less significant,
given the continual transformation of the production process by technological
and other factors that are encompassed under the concept of subsumption.
As a consequence, labour (at the core of the old relations of production)
progressively disappears when the capital/labour relation inverts in
contemporary society . As Baudrillard states in The Illusion of the
All the negative work disappears on the horizon of the media
precisely in the way that labour disappears on the horizon of capital. There
too, relations become inverted: it is no longer labour that serves the
reproduction of capital, it is capital that produces and reproduces labour. An
enormous parody of the relations of production.9
Thus, as the 'logic of capitalism' develops with the increased use of science
and technology, the 'value' creation at the core disappears. The commodity,
which Marx assumed was composed of use value and exchange value, becomes
separated from these value postulates and circulates as 'valueless'. As the
commodity enters a phase of recombinant production rather than labour
production, it escapes the logic of capitalism to circulate, or float, in a
'virtualized' space where a new cultural inertia propels it.
This new form of commodity becomes most evident in the music 'industry', not
conceived in the modernist terms associated with Beethoven or the Beatles, but
rather in contemporary forms such as the music of Metallica.10
Music, then, as a postcapitalist commodity accelerates into a realm of hyper
value with 'nothing' at its core to link it to capitalist production in its
This transformation leaves capitalist relations far from intact, with labour,
class and value having escaped from the logic of traditional capitalism, but in
a form quite different from its precapitalist formation. 'Culture', then, has
come to dominate discourse either in postmodern writings based on a symbolic
systems, or as argued here, in the eclipse of the symbolism of postmodernism in
the 'nothing' of contemporary virtual culture. In either case, the process of
subsumption fails. We are then left with the disjunction created in the
post-Nietzschean understanding of value and, as Baudrillard suggests, with a
social and with it social class that has disappeared after the orgy.
Aronowitz has confronted many of these questions. In an ironic way the title
Dead artists; Live theories is itself a transformational shift of
living and dead labour, precisely to avoid the closure of the tendency in
subsumption to remove any of the autonomy of the cultural world. Aronowitz is
undoubtedly right to wish to avoid the return to the artisan model and hence, in
part, the dead artists. There is a preservation, however, of this model (or at
least its good points) in Aronowitz's privileging of work over labour, and in
his concern for remnants of precapitalist culture coming out of artisan 'work'.
Aronowitz also wishes to avoid the aestheticization of politics, especially if
this brings back the high vs. low culture distinction now being used by the
right and many academics to reinforce traditional curricula and, for Aronowitz,
a class structure.
We are then returned to the living theories which he believes attest to the
culture of those in the capitalist system, even if this culture is linked to
precapitalist formations. Aronowitz provides a fascinating history of what might
be called the rise and fall of cultural studies, itself linked to the closure of
the academic landscape and the continued devaluation of intellectuals.11
Here Aronowitz is at his best, as a reviver of past theories. In a chapter
entitled "Literature as Social Knowledge" he brings back Raymond Williams (and
to a lesser degree cultural studies) from the abyss that has rapidly overtaken
This point is reinforced in a brilliant essay on Mikhail Bakhtin where Aronowitz
shows how a reading of 'literature' is as much an instrument of social or human
science as the positivistic theories that govern much contemporary 'research'.13
All of this is in aid of demonstrating that a reading of a culture, including
both its high and low aspects (if one wishes to retain this distinction) will
validate the identity of the individuals participating in the culture as well as
the class nature of the experiences. Aronowitz continues to hold to the belief
that cultural activity, whether in the working class or in its 'roll over
Beethoven' form, might yield a better life. He calls this "The Return of
Again, although Aronowitz is right in his approach, his subject matter keeps
on disappearing. If, as Aronowitz suggests, "labor has been severed from income,
so community and culture have been separated from the labor process and no
longer depend for their vitality on the socializing function of the
then where does that leave the working person? In fact, Aronowitz has trouble in
the essay entitled "Why Work?"16
providing an answer. For the work world and its culture have been severed in its
'old capitalist guise' to be better reunited in the post electronic age. Here
the question of valorization, to turn back to Marx, receives a series of quite
different answers. In the first instance, no one would ask 'why work' in a space
of 'who cares anyway' or in the face of the disappearance of labour. What is
work in the technological space of the computer-embedded individual? Similarly,
what is culture? For the young it might be Sega or Nintendo, where a ready slide
links them either to 'unemployment' whereupon they may continue with the game,
or the military where they may play for (hyper) real. Or, to take a more Marxian
category, the circulation of money where the working day is continuous thereby
maximizing both absolute surplus value and (with the technological overlay in
trading) relative surplus value .
As Aronowitz points out, the traders, in their film incarnation in The
Bonfire of the Vanities parasite as much as are parasited. In either
case, they are hardly remunerated as wage labourers. Or, finally, is culture
reduced to such films such as The Flintstones, which recycle the
only shared experiences of many of the population, given the cultural diversity
of a multi-racial society?
It is not that theories are alive even if artists are dead, but that artists
and theories are recombinant. As the Metallica 'box set' puts it, the question
is Live Shit; Binge and Purge, even recognizing that this is a
traditional transformational matrix of excrement to money now shifted into a
Metallica's lyrics are a clear example of the recombination of symbols, usually
taken from the religious Christian tradition, offering rather little of the old
artistic concept of creation. Metallica's music is also filled with the 'calling
forth' or 'naming' of violence in a mock evacuation of the Heidegerrian
ontology. Those who listen to Metallica (or other groups) may also engage in
cultural strife but it is hard to see in this a 'new social movement'. There can
be no doubt as to the cultural appeal of Metallica, but given the globalization
of the 'market place,' the culture at issue is not the one analyzed by Raymond
Williams. It is hard to imagine the local working club entertaining its patrons
with Metallica. The 'cultural' appeal, then, is not rooted in the identity of
the listener in a local ethnic space (though there is an argument that
Metallica's audience may be predominately white teenage boys) nor is it in the
classical audience of Beethoven. Rather, it is rooted in the space of
globalization of the inertial circulating commodity.
Listening to Metallica does not prevent you from having a 'Mcjob', though
some might argue it may be a one-to-one correspondence, nor does it alter the
extraction of what is left of the disposible 'income' (earned or not) from the
populace. Metallica becomes the empty alter-image of Aronowitz's concern for
class, not a specific economic or social grouping, but a virtualized network of
serial individuals. Aronowitz is right to point out that this 'culture,' in its
replication of violent symbols, becomes itself the site of violence against the
social. Yet this is not so much a 'reaction' but the projection of the inertial
recline of the culture. Here, culture is not that of a culture of value, but a
valueless 'metacratic' culture where identity is not that of the autonomous self
but of the automatic, vicarious aural receptor.
What is called for is not a re-theorizing when the dead (artist) awaken, or
more from Saturday Night Live theorists who stay up late listening to "Enter
Sandman", or to pursue Metallica's nostalgic "We're off to never, never land",
but a realization that valorization has left the work world, perhaps for good,
to be refashioned in the spaces of virtual capitalism. Needless to say I expect
to see Aronowitz there, but not an Aronowitz of the 'roll over Beethoven' but
rather a digitized Aronowitz, playing through an Akai S-1000 digital sampler.
Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1, Penguin Books;
London, 1990. "The Results of the Immediate Process of Production" is printed as
"Marx, Braverman and the Logic of Capital", The Politics
Stanley Aronowitz, Science as Power: Discourse and
Ideology in Modern Society, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis,
The Politics of Identity, pg. 83. The italics are
Capital, p. 952. The italics are Marx's.
See David Cook, "Farewells to American Culture,
Work and Competition", The Canadian Journal of Political and Social
Theory, vol. 17, #1-2, Spring, 1994.
Capital., p. 1048.
Karl Marx, Grundrisse, translated with a Foreword
by Martin Nicolaus, Vintage Books: N.Y., 1973, pp. 670-711. It is clear from
Nicolaus' commentary that Marx did not contemplate the disappearance of manual
Jean Baudrillard, Illusion of the End, ch. 3,
translated in The Canadian Journal of Social and Political Theory,
vol. 17, #1-2, Spring, 1994.
I use Metallica only as an example, as other contemporary
performance, groups would serve as well.
See in particular chapter 3, "The Origins of Cultural Studies"
and chapter 4, "British Cultural Studies" in Roll over
"Between Criticism and Ethnography: Raymond Williams and the
Intervention of Cultural Studies", Dead artists; Live theories, ch.
"Literature as Social Knowledge: Mikhail Bakhtin and the
Reemergence of the Human Science", Dead artists; Live theories, ch.
The distance between Aronowitz's view of cultural strife
and my own may be illustrated by Aronowitz's comment in the preface to
Roll over Beethoven that, "Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue have
managed to transform the most degraded of TV genres, daytime talk TV, into
vociferous sounding boards for discontent." p. xi. Donahue and Winfrey may very
well be the 'truth sayers' of American life but the 'strife' is still that of
the soporific soap opera with the 'public' as unpaid actors. The dynamic of
America must be found elsewhere.
The Politics of Identity, p. 246.
The Politics of Identity, ch. 7.
Metallica, Live Shit: Binge and Purge,
Electra Entertainment, 1993.
David Cook teaches at Scarborough College, University of
Toronto. He is the co-author of The Postmodern-Scene: Excremental Culture
and Hyper Aesthetics, and the author of Northrop Frye: A Vision Of
The New World.
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