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Book Review

Anarchy and Culture:
The Aesthetic Politics of Modernism

by David Weir

Reviewed by:
Neala Schleuning


This is a well-written book, with a clear and well-argued thesis: that "anarchism succeeded culturally where it failed politically" (5). Even though the nineteenth century anarchist collectivist political movements "failed," Weir argues, the individualist anarchist impulse survived in culture and continues in the modernist (and even the postmodernist) tradition as an "ahistorical, conceptual 'anarchism'" (262) and as a "state of the mind" anarchism (266). Anarchism survived, he concludes, as modernism: "As the art of satisfaction, egoism, and fragmentation, modernist art is also the aesthetic realization of anarchist politics" (169). Stylistically, this book of political and aesthetic theory and literary criticism is designed for deep theoretical waders wearing high boots and armed with some sort of general knowledge about modernism, aesthetic theory, anarchist theory and art and literary history at the turn of the 1900 millennium. Novices should not be deterred, however, for the author writes well and his arguments are straightforward. If you want to get to the meat of it, and if you have a pretty good background in anarchist history, you should skip the first couple of chapters and jump to the main argument beginning with the chapter entitled, "Affinities: Anarchism and Cultural Promotion."

All theory begins (and ends some would argue) with definition. And so it is appropriate to understand Weir's definitions -- and mine -- if the reader is to make sense of this review. Weir's argument hinges on an analysis of the art movement known as modernism and its reflection of an aesthetic expression he defines as anarchist individualism. This interesting thesis is based on particular definitions of the central concepts of "culture," as art, "anarchism," as individualist anarchism, "modernism," as the avant-garde, and "politics" as individual attitude, acts, and statements of protest against the dominant hegemony.

What is Culture?

What do we mean by "culture"? Nowhere does this book actually define culture. Nevertheless, we can draw some conclusions. In general, Weir confines his definition of "culture" to the arena of art and literature. He does not use the term in its anthropological, all-inclusive sense. He does stray from the artistic, however, into the political realm, and he is interested in developed a particular thesis about a particular kind of art and aesthetic expression. For example, he rejects "social realism," or art as representation of reality. He also rejects the collectivist anarchist ideal of the worker as artist in anarchist society. Weir turns to the poet Shelly's theory of poetry as one meaningful source of anarchist aesthetic culture. He is especially attracted to Shelly's notion of artistic self-sovereignty (91) and the embodiment of "ideology in aesthetic form" (92), and the "integration of politics and culture to the point of interchangeability" (116). The ideology that is embodied, and the politics that is to be embodied is based in part, according to Weir, on a second theory he proposes -- Margaret Anderson's view that the role of culture was to "perform an individualizing, rather than a universalizing function" (152), and it was to incorporate an egoistic theory of art-for-art's-sake that emphasized "the need for an internal, psychological transformation" (155), rather than a social revolution (156). How this happens -- how politics become cultural and how culture becomes a political statement (let alone a political movement) -- is not made very clear. However it is, Weir avers, "both radical and idealistic" (116). Weir doesn't help us much with the conflation of these ideas when he says (within the same paragraph) that they are both separate and together: "as the new century took shape the parallel concerns of politics and culture began to separate," and "in another sense, however, these concerns converged" (157).

What is Politics?

What Weir focuses on throughout the book is modernism and its aesthetic. His argument also links the modernist tradition with the variety of radical individualism first articulated by Max Stirner -- an individualism that was far more radical than that of Godwin and the English libertarian tradition. Whether this is "politics," however, is a key question, if you understand politics as the people interacting collectively with one another to organize and structure their personal and economic lives around mutually-agreed upon principles. Traditionally, political theory focused on studying the self-conscious organizing and governing activity of human societies. It was interested in how people took action, and in particular, cooperative action. The word "politics" comes from the Greek word for city -- the polis. While political theorists have argued for millennia about the nature of the ideal polis or political organization, the study of politics has continued to be shaped by the characteristics of the polis. Aristotle defined the polis as a conscious association of people, small in size, committed to helping one another, guided by ethical principles to which all members of the community subscribed. It was natural, he believed, for human beings to live in association with others.

There are as many kinds of politics and political theories as there are agreements about how people ought to live with one another -- ranging from fascism to democracy to monarchy to anarchism. The theory of politics that Weir ascribes to modernism is a different "kind" of politics, a decidedly postmodern politics that is not interested in collective activity at all. It is, in some sense, an anti-politics; an individual protest with a strong element of rebellion that at times seems not to understand what traditional politics is, and at other times, to consciously either submerge, or at best, conflate politics -- in this case with aesthetics.

When Weir says things like, "aesthetic practice became a form of political action," (162) it is necessary to carefully deconstruct his meaning/s. His definition of aesthetic politics is based on Theodor Adorno's political theory of "neutralization" which embraces a radical individualistic approach and argues that "autonomy is not simply an analogy for political autonomy, but an actual form of political practice: 'an emphasis on autonomous works is itself sociopolitical in nature'" (164), and which seems to neutralize the need for politics. Adorno concludes: "the most profoundly political work is one that is entirely silent about politics." In this postmodern definition of politics, by some convoluted reasoning, the best politics is non-politics, or maybe "me" politics. To be different, to stand "outside," is sufficient in this definition of the political.

Reading this brought to mind John Dewey's equally, and related, simplistic observation that "every experience is an aesthetic one," so that one is left with the question of whether any experience were really an aesthetic one, or were all experiences "aesthetic," and how would we know, in such an all-embracing construct, good art from bad art? Similarly, Weir flirts with the disturbing and destabilizing relativistic notion that all art could (potentially) be "political," but since the concepts of politics and art are collapsed into one another, how are we to discern the relative value of "political"/artistic statements? If every fragmented individual creates individualistic, autonomous art, how is it that something called "modernism" can even exist? Modernism is reduced to non-art, to every-art. And joins the non-politics of neutralization.

The "Politics" of Modernism

Clearly, this vague definition of politics creates some problems for Weir. At one point, his "aesthetic" modernist politics seems to be somewhat ephemeral, even to Weir himself, as he admits: "No definite proof for the argument that anarchism takes aesthetic form with modernism can be offered....The only 'evidence' for...[it] is the autonomous, heterogeneous, and fragmentary nature of modernist culture itself, which appears to manifest or realize anarchist ideology in artistic form" (165). Weir points out throughout the book that there is no way to integrate the "modernist" reality because it is so fragmented. If indeed, autonomy and fragmentation are the primary expressions of both individualist anarchism and the aesthetic anarchism of modernism, then one is left wondering how one generalizes about either as coherent theoretical phenomena. "Doing your own (autonomous) thing" might signal rejection of the old world, but it does not make a new world.

While there is no internal consistency to modernism, it does share some common characteristics: it epitomizes the revolt against rationalism; it places an emphasis on style, rather than substance; it postulates that the role of art is to be provocative; it celebrates the emotions, the power of the irrational; it has no concern for the social -- it is amoral, in fact; it embraces the rebel as the new model for heroism; and it equates art with the idea of freedom as expression.

Modernism has been variously interpreted as part of the problem of capitalism, or as a critique of capitalism. Christopher (St. John Sprigg) Caudwell, a Marxist aesthetician writing in the first quarter of the twentieth century, critiqued the modernist "art for art's sake" movement as an example of Marx's "commodity fetishism," where as Engels noted, "the product dominates the producers." He developed a thoroughgoing criticism of modernism along strictly Marxist/Communist lines, defining the modernist anarchist/artist as "the final bourgeois revolutionary . . . so disgusted with the development of bourgeois society that he asserts the bourgeois creed in the most essential way: complete 'personal' freedom, complete destruction of all social relations. The anarchist is yet revolutionary because he represents the destructive element and the complete negation of all bourgeois society,...but he cannot really pass beyond bourgeois society, because he remains caught in its toils" (127-28, Illusion and Reality). Although their descriptions of this alienated artist are similar, unlike Weir, Caudwell sees the anarchist-as-artist as a continuation of bourgeois capitalism -- as a part of the problem, not the solution. For Caudwell, the solution lies outside of bourgeois culture. Still others argue that modernism is merely an example of elitist art, not central to either culture or politics -- marginalized and alienated (often by choice). Some modernists themselves argued that modernism wasn't political because it didn't want to be "political" -- it was to remain outside of and in contradiction to politics and the life of the community.

Weir recognizes that not only does Modernism not have a clear political agenda, but it even has the potential to mask "real" political agendas: "artists with varying politics came to camouflage those politics in the same aesthetic dress" (201). He continues: "Some species of modernism are informed by radical politics, some by aristocratic elitism, some by conservative ideology, some by political ambiguity, and so on." Despite the obvious incongruities and political implication of lumping fascists and (presumably leftist) radicals together, Weir is determined to use his aesthetic brand of "anarchism" as a unifying principle: "But regardless of the underlying ideology that informs a particular modernism, many of these modernisms look the same because they are overlaid with anarchism -- not political anarchism, but anarchism in aesthetic form" (201, my emphasis). How then, in this relativistic world are we to judge the differences between fascists and "true" anarchists? And why call this fragmentation "anarchism," when it would be perhaps more appropriate to call it "fragmentationism" or simply chaos and irrationalism?

Like all debates in philosophy, this one has been going on for a long time. The contemporary ideological tensions between Marxism and postmodernism, to some extent, continue this discussion. Weir takes up a position on the side of aesthetics in the late twentieth century theoretical debate between politics and aesthetics where the postmodernists and "cultural studies" folks have staked out their territory in the aesthetic and the Marxists continue to insist on the "political" and the economic as the primary battleground.

Modernism as Anarchism?

In general, classical anarchism is built on a formal critique of power and a particular analysis of power as hierarchy and power over others, and a theory of freedom based on resisting centralized authority. Anarchism calls for a close relationship between means/ends; it is concerned with the political and the cultural both; it is about decentralization but not necessarily fragmentation; organization, not just chaos. Social anarchism calls for the creation of an environment of freedom for everyone; it advocates for social justice; it is concerned with the process and practice of living everyday life. It is built on a critique of private property; it calls for direct political action (either individual or collective).

Weir's primary goal, it seems to me, is to explain modernism -- not necessarily to understand or explain anarchism. When he does discuss anarchism, it is the more radical extremist individualistic anarchism that becomes the "definition" of anarchism that he uses throughout his argument. Weir's version of modernist anarchism does not take up the collective agenda central to classical anarchism. Aesthetic anarchism is silent on the subjects of social justice, private property, the call for collective action, and the idea of social responsibility.

Weir's individualistic anarchistic aesthetics is theoretically grounded in Max Stirner's idea of the "egoist." Even though he acknowledges that Max Stirner had little or nothing to say about aesthetics, and most of the authors he cites in support of his modernist argument never paid tribute to Stirner, Weir persists in identifying Stirner as one of the anarchist precursors of modernism. Stirner is, of course, the acknowledged seminal theorist of solipsistic individualism, but most theoreticians from both the left and the right of the political spectrum agree that while he is always precious (he's good at sound bites), he is always problematic. In Weir's argument, modernism is defined by Stirner's brand of extreme individualism and is characterized by the following principles: it is a critique of all hierarchies and all forms of psychological or ideological control over the individual; it celebrates the social order as "endlessly and actively fragmenting" (5); it is a "politics of style" (12); it reflects the "constant interplay of both Enlightenment idea and Romantic vision," (15); and it is internally contradictory (33).

Problems with conflating politics and aesthetics. If Weir is correct, ultimately, the anarchist must ask, what are the implications of anarchism as a political theory if the aesthetic is the only arena that anarchism has left to operate in or to claim as its theoretical ground? By removing the traditional concept of "politics" from the discussion and replacing it with individual acts of protest or self-expression, the "political" dialog is diverted from a broader critique of organized power structures such as the state, the organized tyranny of multinational corporations, racism, or religious fundamentalism. Further, Weir does not discuss, and his approach would seem to be indifferent to, the question of how modernism was/was not a critique of capitalism. Indeed, many theorists have argued that Modernism is just an aesthetic manifestation of capitalist consumerism, and as such is not part of the solution, but actually part of the problem. It further forces the anarchist community to ask once again whether libertarianism is really a critique of capitalism, or as Christopher Caudwell argued, just its swan song, or its truncated howl of frustration. The political realities of hierarchy, of power-over, of oppression and exploitation have not gone away; but an aesthetic/political theory that is based on a "political" principle of egoism is not the solution. A political egoism is an oxymoron. However much it may protest, it may do so only in isolation. Weir's argument should not go unchallenged; and we can thank him for making the outlines of the debate clear to us.

Weir is not sympathetic to alternative anarchist theories of political aesthetics. He notes at one point (perhaps simplistically) that "from the perspective of most political anarchists, aesthetics comes into play, it seems, only after the revolution has come about" (191). Emma Goldman's famous "if I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution," perhaps more accurately reflects the social anarchist position on the necessity for the seamless integration of politics with aesthetics -- anarchism is about living, and art is about reflecting that life. Weir also confuses the discussion with the statement: "an atomistic society was what the anarchists had in mind, if 'atomistic' is understood as a term descriptive of the political ideal of individual autonomy" (195). There are important distinctions between the concepts of autonomy, individualism, and atomism. It is capitalism that has created the powerlessness of atomism through the destruction of traditional community, and atomism is a particular kind of dysfunctional individualism. A critique of the capitalist atomism does not preclude a more healthy, and empowered, anarchist individualism-in-society.

Weir's conclusions to this book are insightful, disturbing and controversial. It is hard to tell whether Weir is being descriptive or prescriptive. But his insights are unerring, and if his theory is sound, contemporary anarchists need to go back to the drawing board. What are we to think, for example, of this statement: "Anarchism and capitalism have certain structure features in common, and the well-known commodification of culture in late capitalist society provides a perfect context for an antipolitical [!] ideology of anarchism that sets aesthetic satisfaction ahead of social reformation. This new bourgeois anarchism [!] harmonizes with capitalism because both ideologies assume a certain "stateless" condition as the basis for their highly individualistic practices." Well, draw your own conclusions here, but what I hear is that anarchism is now capitalism and can now be consumed as commodity junk food for the mind in the form of "culture." Weir says it better: "it is not surprising that anarchism itself has entered the commercial sphere."

Weir goes on to blur a few more distinctions that make me very uncomfortable: "left muticulturalism and rightist neofederalism are ideologically incompatible but theoretically reinforcing" (259); and a bit dismissively, it seems to me, he brushes over some very concrete problems with the politics of some of the modernists: "True, some modernists were drawn to the authoritarian politics of the period, but their endorsement of such politics is not necessarily reflected in their artistic practice" (262). So much for aesthetics as politics?

There are, it seems to me, some ultimate ironies in his arguments. In the afterward, Weir defends the modernist call for the separation of art and politics by agreeing with their position that "there is something inherently unaesthetic about the kind of culture encouraged by mass movements in any form." This charge, aimed primarily at the aesthetic theory of social realism, suggests that "indeed, an aversion to the masses appears to be an element in the formation of the modernist aesthetic" (261). Nevertheless, Weir and modernism are both silent on the individualistic, but certainly "mass movement" of consumer capitalism.

It is also ironic that we have a serious defense of a so-called aesthetic and political individualism in an era where personal freedoms in all aspects of life are being enclosed, repressed, controlled and/or manipulated. Perhaps the individualistic artist can only be the servant of capitalism. The author could enrich us even more with an exploration of the vast contemporary literature which criticizes postmodern culture for being nothing more than a symbol and reflection of bourgeois consumer capitalism. The consumer personality, like modernism, is characterized by the desire for "experimentation" and "innovation;" it cherishes the value of obscurity and preciousness and uniqueness (which is yet another irony in an era of mass production); it loves to be outrageous and sound revolutionary, and it sees itself as the center of the universe. Is Weir correct when he concludes: "'anarchism' has become a permanent feature of capitalist culture" (267). And if he is correct, then what?

 

Bibliography

Anarchy and Culture: the Aesthetic Politics of Modernism, by David Weir. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

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