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Critical Aesthetics in Tahel Frosh’s Avarice: Part II

“[A]nd a machine will print out the words: move along there’s no work. And I’ll be happy”—the abolition of labor in Frosh’s Avarice

Several themes flow through Frosh’s poems; all are insightful and intriguing. In the previous Growl post, I explored the re-appropriation of desire in Avarice and the limits of art and social transformation. In this post, I pick one theme that I find cardinal: the abolition of labor.

In the poem On Labor, Frosh animates labor as if itwerea female persona. Labor is filled with life and takes the form of an S&M dominatrix. Frosh describes her as a “women in a too tight girdle,” holding in her hands a “golden whip,” [1] ready to use at any moment. The choice to render labor as a female is no coincidence. It is a means to invoke specific connotations in her readers. Labor is, on the one hand, the one with the power; on the other hand, she has suffered from years of patriarchal oppression. It is not clear who is the master and who is the slave in this Hegelian/Marxian Master/Slave dialectic. Are we the ones being dominated and oppressed or is she, labor, the one being degraded and suffering abuse from us? Frosh recognizes a somewhat a priori need to dominate in human beings, an endless master and slave interrelation. For her the inner will to dominate first appears in the form of child’s play where:

but when I was young I wanted to be a teacher

I would sit down all my children friends and make them do quizzes

and they suffered and I enjoyed it like a sadist supervisor in a supermarket [2]

But the identity crisis Frosh is talking about evolves from the twisted form that labor takes in a neoliberal and oppressive society. Labor is intertwined with suffering, with discontent—no job is respectful of its owner. Not only that, but one cannot think about labor in a playful way, as Herbert Marcuse once envisioned, and Frosh even wonders¾if she actually takes pleasure in her measly job at the museum, working for the capitalists, the satisfied rich people¾“will my argument fail?” [3]

The dialectic is not between the people who work and are underpaid, alienated from their jobs, with no fulfillment or satisfaction—although at times they do indeed takepleasure in their jobs and thus might feel guilt for this—and the capitalists, as Marxwould like us to think; but Frosh’s notion reasserts a different kind of dialectic: on the one side the workers and on the other side labor itself. The dualistic and often conflicting attitude towards labor resonates in the altered dialectics. “[L]abor is our king for thousands of years,” asserts Frosh. “I don’t think we have a good relationship,” she mourns, and accuses labor: “You were present in the first person who enslaved another person and tied her.” [4] Frosh understands we must labor, it is an a priori requirement of life and society, yet the nature of labor as something that is abstract, external to human beings, is rejected. For Frosh labor is alive, and personified, and thus can be confronted. We cannot be against labor; that would benonsensical, as Frosh demonstrates so beautifully by talking to labor, having empathy withher, as well as anger, and dissatisfaction as if she were a child that didn’t grow up as well as her motherthought she would. Therefore, she concludes, “I am pro labor. That is the beginning of a joke, but I continue it for the sake of humanity’s existence.” Frosh reminds us that we can’t hate our child, but we must educate it or at least steer her alongthe right path; and if all measures fail, scare her back on track.

Frosh’s animation of labor takes a twist in Oh, my Bank, a love–hate poem in the form of a conversation between a women and her Bank. [5] Neoliberal times are characterized by globalization, the withdrawal of the state withregards to social services, the privatization of social services and national resources, and the global control of conglomerates over the global economy. Similarly to her point about labor, Frosh humanizes corporations, particularly the bank, turning it into Bank, a financial tycoon, eating at high-end restaurants, the pillar of the economy, dressed up in top-notch clothes, only first class, a real charmer. But Frosh pictures Bank as the guy who wants to fuck her, to rape her, in the lobby of his building, in daylight, where everyone can see, without any consequences. For Frosh what Bank wants to do to her is nothing less than rape, but it is a normative rape, one that is endorsed by society. She is helpless. No one comes to her aid. But worse, she is ignored by her brothers. Again, even in the aesthetic sphere, the poems that indicate suffering are rendered mute by her brethren. Bank only wants to fuck her, the commoner; he has no desire to fuck another tycoon. The only desire that exists in current society is the desire to molest us, the desire of the corporations. We are pictured by Frosh as mere sex slaves. We are impotent in the face of the power of Bank and his fellow Banks:

Oh my Bank fuck me you want to fuck me real good and no tycoon you don’t want no tycoon no, yes yes yes, oh my Bank you want to fuck me real good and no tycoon no good, no, with the tycoon you sit for lunch at Eyal Shani [6] and you all eating shrimps in happy sauce but with me there are fireworks and urges and a lot of thanos and that as you know where lives are drawn [7]

The same theme returns in The Mountains of Spain.There she writes about the desire to obtainmoney without working:

And I’m thinking that on Wednesday at the employment office

I’ll place my finger on a square and a red

beam will scan its ridges

and a machine will print out

the words: move along

there’s no work. And I’ll be happy.” [8]

Marx and Marcuse’s formulation of the abolition of labor, as an increase in the automatization of labor that will change the composition of necessary labor and surplus labor, freeing up our time, differs from Frosh’s: “In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production.” The conclusion is that “[t]he shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.” [9] However, Frosh’s utopian horizon is not limited by existing reality, as she envisions a qualitatively transformed society where “[l]abor, there is no reason in the world for you to be connected to money. Labor, did they tie you to money against your will?” [10]

Similar to Adorno’s Free Time, Frosh identifies acontradiction in the concept of labor (and consequently freedom). We were supposed to be freer in modern times, especially under capitalism. An affluent society is in our grasp, yet still so far away, like the Benjaminian Aura—the more we try to catch it with concepts, the further it slips from our reach. Adorno was able to see that our free time is shaped according to the same logic of exchange and instrumental reason. Free time is not qualitatively different, in contrast to working time, but is organized and planned just the same. Frosh awakens us from the idea that our free time even exists. “At the moment we labor for money all day long,” she shouts from the pages. Yet her main insight is that our aesthetic sphere has crumbled and with it our imagination; thus it is not as Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis of the domination of culture industry states, namely that it results in less-than-critical thoughts about reality, but her argument goes further still: labor, the demolition of free time, abolishes our imagination, our spontaneity, and the idea that money can ensure our freedom (by buying stuff we want for instance) pale in comparison to the alternative where we are unproductive: “Instead I love resting in the sun, staring at the skies, drinking wine, meeting people, gossip and write poetry.” Labor is a constraint on freedom: “They tell me that when you are not around one can wear whatever they want, say whatever, go whenever, think about anything.” [11] But more importantly, labor’s manifestation as unfreedom demolishes our imagination.

Frosh identifies labor as the most fundamental concept. The poem gets the most pages in the book (it is six pages long). Labor is coupled with the promise of freedom and reality’s unfreedom. Frosh reiterates the idea of the elimination of the revolutionary subject, the proletariat that now has more than her social chains to lose, but as Marcuse argued, the proletariat nowadays live in an affluent society where the people who are supposed to carry out the revolution share the same needs as the people they should revolt against: “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” [12] The infatuation with the need for the some beautiful commodity occupies Frosh’s mind: “Back at home, I’m thinking that nice frames cost 1,000 shekels,” but she understands that the ‘desire to’ is crucial for us human beings, and should not be diminished for the sake of an ascetic society. She wants to be able to live like royalty, whether as a Russian princess or a modern-daycapitalist entrepreneur, although it seems she would be satisfied with being a worker that punches the clock, since her own situationmeans that her labor qualities are insufficient formodern society (she is an artist). She envisions herself as a Russian princess, but even in the poem she cannot fully immerse herself in the illusion. The work of art is a semblance of reality, but under neoliberalism even that semblance is seen by us in cynical way. Although the Russian princess, the elite, was in the past able to live the affluent life, the other 99% can’t have this. But now the Russian princess is dethroned, bankrupt, as if our dream of happiness in the form of extreme wealth is gone:

and now drinks tea from a thermos and eats dried fruit
and lies on her back half the day in her old
ragged bathrobe reading English novels about English
ladies with destiny in their favor. [13]

Frosh ends the poem situating herself in the bleak environment of her Tel Aviv apartment, thinking about money, instead of the carnality of life, the pleasures, as she literally dies¾sharing the fate of the dethroned Russian princes—there is no way out:

No, it’s impossible to listen
to that man talking about his millions and not want to die
to really die on the cover of my English novel
between chewed organic plums and a thermos of tea sitting
half empty. [14]

The contingency of labor and the organization of society in the form of unfreedom weighs on Frosh. Part of the destabilization of labor is its historization. In Zionist Gold, Frosh tackles the possibility of a different history where the Holocaust did not happen, and the Jews of Vienna were not exterminated, such that she could have stayed there in Vienna, enjoying the wealth that social democratic Europe has to offer, in contrast to the collapse of the social services in Israel incurrent times due to the neoliberal economy:

Oy Israel isn’t rent not a transport isn’t the need to earn a living

not a transport does it not kill us kill us everything that penetrates

our flesh, our dreams transport, transport, transport. [15]

But Frosh knows that while history is contingent, it did happen in a certain way, so she searches for ways to counteract existing conditions. In Ways Out, Frosh targets the elite—who only look like us, signaling that today even the commoner can buy the same clothes as the rich: it is almost impossible to recognize them; who are in charge for our current social situation¾and offers a praxis of social transformation, taking action into our own hands:

The richest woman in Israel was sitting on the side

they told me she was wearing olive bottle colored pants

but they were colored cream

the aprons of the Ethiopian cleaners were colored cream.

The richest women was sitting on the side

And I looked at her and said nothing to her:

Hi, I’m Tahel, let’s talk

about redistribution of money.

But the mouth was busy chewing

and no one wanted to sacrifice

what seemed for a moment as the possibility of a way out of poverty. [16]

This praxis is closed to us, according to Frosh. Partly this is because of the raise in the conditions of life; today we all have smart phones, and have things to lose. But it is more than that the dialectics of labor renders us susceptible to hurt. We are afraid to stand against them since we are dependent on labor for sustenance. Hence: “But the mouth was busy chewing.” No one wants to sacrifice her freedom for the sake of thepossibility of not being poor, of changing society by doing something that the elite wouldn’t like. Indeed Frosh presents us with a dire praxis. Our imagination is blocked both in reality and in the aesthetic sphere, and thus any form of praxis that will change society and improve our lives is hindered.

I would like to conclude this section with a somewhat optimistic articulation of labor in Frosh’s Avarice. Frosh ends On Labor with her vision of labor, the beautiful women unconstrained, truly free, or at least freer than in current times: “I am pro labor that doesn’t require working. I am pro labor that brings lots of money in a short time. I am pro labor that everyone except her owner respects her. I am pro labor that advances us to nowhere.” [17]

Work Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Hentor. London and New York: Continuum, 2002.

Adorno, Theodor W. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott. London and New York: Verso, 2005.

Frosh, Tahel. Avarice. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2014.

Frosh, Tahel. “Two Poems, by Tahel Frosh.” World Literature Today. 2015. Accessed May 09, 2016. http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2015/may/two-poems-tahel-frosh.

Horkheimer, Max. Eclipse of Reason. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.

Marcuse, Herbert. The Aesthetic Dimension: Towards a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. London and New York: Routlegde, 2007.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Penguin Books, 1991.

Skeat, Walter W. A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. London: Forgotten Books, 2013.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

[1] Max Weber (2005) referred to the development of social and economical forms of life in Capitalism as being pervasive in a way that each generation is born into these exact forms and their correlative ideological ideas, entailing one’s thoughts and actions. The “iron cage” is that trans-lucid boundaries erected by capitalism in capitalism, which we are oblivious to and ultimately shape our lives (123). Frosh transforms this “iron cage” into a “golden whip”—as if she were signaling us that labor is enticing us, while at the same time inflicts pain on us, even though we might enjoy that pain, in a masochistic and twisted way—indicating our unawareness of its domination over our lives. Paraphrasing Weber’s account of the modern women and men who are bound to the “iron cage,” labor has lost its spontaneity in favor of a rigid and ultimately automatic, desireless (if it has Eros in it then it is directed into the accumulation of wealth and not enjoyment of the work itself). Gold (wealth) is only apparent in the whip itself and not transferred to us, only as the whip whips our flesh.

[2] Frosh, Avarice, 49.

[3] Frosh, Avarice, 48.

[4] Frosh, Avarice, 52.

[5] I deliberately use the word Bank in capital letters since this bank is reanimated into a person-like being, thus I believe it is best translated into English as a humanized being.

[6] A famous chef in Israel who has several high class restaurants and is a symbol of success.

[7] Frosh, Avarice, 44.

[8] Frosh, “Two Poems”.

[9] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 3, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 958-59.

[10] Frosh, Avarice, 50.

[11] Frosh, Avarice, 51-2.

[12] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London and New York: Routlegde, 2007), 11.

[13] Frosh, “Two Poems”.

[14] Frosh, “Two Poems”.

[15] Frosh, Avarice, 26.

[16] Frosh, Avarice, 37-8.

[17] Frosh, Avarice, 53.