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Critical Aesthetics in Tahel Frosh's Avarice: Part III

The Aesthetic Sphere: “the vital bones of the imagination”

In this growl post, I examine the connection between poetry, particularly Frosh’s poem ‘Accountant,’ and social transformation through the ideas of Marcuse’s aesthetic theory¾focusing on the notion of imagination, the aesthetic sphere as a contradiction to existing rationality, and Adorno’s technique, devised in Minima Moralia, of reverting to individual experience as a form of criticism, since our access to the ‘good life’ is denied in theory and in life.

Marcuse once questioned whether art can be considered a ‘radical praxis,’ and whether we are justified in “the retreat into a world of fiction where existing conditions are changed and overcome only in the realm of imagination.” [1] In other words, Marcuse is asking: is poetry escapism in the face of society’s atrocities? Is it ok to enjoy ourselves while reading Frosh’s Avarice? Are we doing anything subversive in order to challenge society while consuming artworks? Marcuse certainly thinks that in the aesthetic sphere there is a space where “a change of consciousness” can take place, one that is a perquisite for any “political struggle” [2] to happen and a necessary step towards a qualitatively changed society. The aesthetic sphere is crucial for establishing a liberated consciousness opposed to instrumental reason. Instrumental reason, or “subjective reason,” as Max Horkheimer calls it, has several connected characteristics: it is concerned with the “self preservation” of individuals or groups and is limited in scope: it is only interested in attaining the sustainability of the organism at all costs, even though it annihilates life while doing so; instrumental reason is equated with the mechanism of thinking: “the faculty of classification, inference, and deduction, no matter what the specific content”; [3] now for an action to be labeled rational it must confer to “the abstract functioning of the thinking mechanism,” [4] in essence it must be the useful matching of means to ends. The shortcomings of this logic arise in the lack of self-reflection on the nature of the ends at stake: “with the adequacy of procedures for purposes more or less taken for granted and supposedly self-explanatory,” without ever considering whether the ends are worthwhile in themselves. [5] This logic defines our thoughts and actions and thus serves as the rationality that structures society. If we wish to break this cycle we must find a way to transcend that logic. Therefore, Marcuse identifies the aesthetic sphere as the locus for a change in consciousness, since “the truth of art lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality (i.e. of those who established it) to define what is real.” [6] However, the question of whether art, certain artworks in our times, and those who he terms authentic, can provide a radical praxis that can transform society for the better is still problematic.

Marcuse’s aesthetic theory identifies the dual character of art that a true authentic artwork is able to sustain in harmony. The rebellious aspect of art, he argues, can only appear in its “estranged form,” as a contradiction to reality and not as reality itself, [7] which means that artworks are entities that create a world that is not the world itself, and the visions depicted in them cannot give us comfort; the affirmative aspect of art that offers us catharsis, a release of our Eros in the realm of fantasy, gives the appearance of granting freedom while we enter the aesthetic sphere and create worlds with our imagination¾but we are in fact still stuck in the world where societal evil remains persistent (freedom in unfreedom).

Although art is not a radical praxis itself, its role is fundamental for a radical praxis to emerge: “Art cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world.” [8] Only authentic artworks can usher in the transformed consciousness. The authentic artwork is able, according to Marcuse, to resist any reconciliation with reality and resonate with an “indictment” of the way society is irrationally organized. [9] In this way art does not relinquish its potential for reconciliation, and at the same time hope for a different society remains within it as it resists any true reconciliation with existing conditions¾as is evident in authentic artworks. Further, art’s revolutionary aspect lies in its universality and not with its alignment with any political agenda; thus an authentic artwork speaks about the whole of society and not a particular group.

Is Frosh’s Avarice an authentic artwork? First, Frosh isn’t talking to the proletariat but to “the people.” She does so by reverting to her own experiences, and in this way she exposes the universality of her experiences. She lets us into her world, into her personal tragedies, her own particular suffering and happiness, and through this reveals how universal they are. When she laments her dire state as she learns that her father suffers from a fatal disease, she connects it to the social totality. Her personal tragedy is a universal one, the predicament of all people who work for their living. In the poem ‘Accountant,’ she writes: “Dad, I think your job killed you,” [10] blaming labor as the demand made by society that forces people to toil for a living, work long and stressful hours, away from their family, without even considering the impact it has on the people who work and their families and friends. Frosh allows us to relate to this experience of feeling a loved one suffer and the impotence we feel when we cannot help them, and the feeling of helplessness and abandonment that encompass us as our family leaves us to go to work: “when I was little you’d leave the house every morning at an ungodly hour and I would lie in bed with my heart pounding wanting to kill everyone even myself because you had to get up so early and drive and drive.” [11]

Frosh accentuates two main characteristics of the way labor demolishes our lives, and exposes how capitalism advocates the idea that labor is advancing freedom, while reality shows the contrary: labor is needed for us to sustain ourselves, but the cost is the betrayal of the people we love while labor, or the economy, betrays us. Frosh’s dad appears to her to be more loyal to the companies he worked for in those years than he was to his daughter (although she recognizes he did it for them, or more accurately: he didn’t have a choice, since this is the form labor takes in neoliberal societies, as coercive labor): “and still you would drive like a faithful dog to that place, you were always loyal to your job, wherever it was.” [12] Frosh felt like her dad had another life, other relationships that were more important than her and their family: “but you lived in a world apart and I had no part in it and it was your only world and you gave yourself to strangers.” [13] Labor not only makes us abandon our family but it betrays us: due to the process of privatization which led to cuts, her father, who was loyal to the company, nevertheless found himself fired. Further, labor breaks the image of our parents as superhuman: “and you had a nervous breakdown because of the Larium they prescribed to immunize from those African diseases, you’d call us crying, sounding lost and weak and small.” [14]

Frosh’s personal experiences allow us to move to the problems of society as a whole. Her poetry runs parallel to the strategy Adorno elaborates in his Minima Moralia : that of exploring the universal truths that in modern capitalistic times are shut off from us by reverting to the way the universal manifests in the particular. Thinkers no longer have access to the “good life,” the general rules/values by which we arrange our life; thus we are left, according to Adorno, with the private sphere. In the opening pages of Minima Moralia Adorno writes: “What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence. […] He who wishes to know the truth about life in its immediacy must scrutinize its estranged form, the objective powers that determine individual existence even in its most hidden recesses.” [15] In this sense, Frosh’s relationship with her father is an ideal type of relationship, with one’s family and with oneself under neoliberalism, as we labor and alienate ourselves from our families. Exposing her suffering allows us to recognize how we also alienate and are alienated in labor—which can lead to a transformation in consciousness. It relates to our deepest emotions of abandonment and situates them in the social totality that creates them.

Frosh’s artwork adheres to the ideas of authentic art advanced by Marcuse. In ‘Accountant,’ she does not offer us a much-needed release from the aches and pains of life and labor, yet she retains the utopian element of art¾but in a tragic way. For Frosh labor seems to be an endless process, like a Sisyphean task in which we are forced to toil endlessly without ever fulfilling the task to completion. Her father, who is taken from her by his own will (which she perceives as betrayal of his family and labor, manifested as corporations betray him by eventually turning him to a shadow of a person), suffers from illness caused by labor. Frosh portrays him as a slave to work, such that in a way he can be seen as a ‘workaholic,’ although she allows us to see that we are all suffering from this enslavement. For Marcuse the aesthetic form makes even death and suffering an aesthetic enjoyment, but authentic artworks are not satisfied with this and sustain a “need for hope.” [16] Marcuse argues that “[t]he work of art speaks the liberating language, invokes the liberating images of the subordination of death and destruction to the will to live.” [17] In ‘Accountant,’ the subordination of Frosh’s father to labor is only solved by his demise. Only in death is he freed from t he clutches of labor. However, they lose him and he loses his life. It is a tragic victory. Salvation from death can only be attained by death. Frosh ends the poem with the miracle of death, the only cure for labor:

and this would have gone on and on I thought that it would keep on going until we died but suddenly you got sick and it wasn’t trivial, it was a terminal illness, and that was the end for you, the end of the work, the end of that profile, the beginning of your whole face, the beginning of your love. That’s how this final miracle came to us.

Living in a one-dimensional society entrenched in the identity thinking that subsumes all that is other than the concept, the aesthetic sphere seems to be shut down, locked behind bars. The importance of the aesthetic sphere lies in the ability to envision another kind of reality, to believe that things can be different—a religious act that comes from interpretation of artworks. Frosh’s Avarice attempts exactly that: on the one hand, to describe and illustrate the crumbling of the aesthetic sphere and with it the praxis of social transformation; on the other hand, to expose, informed by Adorno’s contradiction in the object, the contradictory moments in neoliberal society. Labor as freedom to work and buy is exposed as unfreedom. Frosh reveals how deep the chasmis between the aesthetic and reality when she tries but fails to illustrate a changed concept of labor—the aesthetic realm forbids us from even imagining a different society. Frosh’s reanimation of labor and the banks is an aesthetic maneuver to humanize, to personify these institutions, these abstract concepts, and in a way to charge them with an ad hominem protest, since attacks on them have objectively proven to fall short. And here lies her greatest negative achievement: the other dimension ofsociety—that which could potentially make it a two-dimensional society—is grounded in our ability to imagineimpossibility. When labor demolishes the barrier between work and free time, and we are left with none of the latter, then our imagination withers. With it any praxis calling for social transformation dies, and we—as species being—are likely to wither away.

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] Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, 1.

[2] Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, 36.

[3] Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), 3.

[4] Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, 9.

[7] Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, 10.

[8] Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, 32-33.

[9] Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, 10.

[10] Frosh, “Two Poems”.

[11] Frosh, “Two Poems”.

[12] Frosh, “Two Poems”.

[13] Frosh, “Two Poems”.

[14] Frosh, “Two Poems”.

[15] Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 15.

[16] Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, 7.

[17] Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, 62-63.