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The prevailing tone of Icons of the Left: Benjamin and Eisenstein, Picasso and Kafka After the Fall of Communism is exasperation. “The predicament of leftist intellectuals working in capitalist society, like myself,” says Otto Karl Werckmeister, “has been that their principled critique of capitalism has nearly always been advanced in a hypothetical mode” (p. 5). Arguing for a solution to this problem, which—consistent with his Marxism—he believes to have been caused by the separation of theory from practice, he describes hypothesis flowering as delusion. Marx was right about how capitalism works, and his version of it, therefore, continues to be the best point from which to study capitalist culture as a social product. However, left scholarship’s predominance in the world of cultural theory is in direct proportion to its insignificance in economic and political life, but rather than responding critically to the dilemma that comes with the job, “(t)he representatives of that tradition are operating all the more high-handedly . . . cultural critique is being formulated as a self-serving alternative to the course of history, even though no connection with the Marxist claim to practice is apparent anymore. Its claims are absolute, hence hypothetical, oblivious to the political conditions that would permit their achievement” (p. 156).
One symptom of this oblivion is the impatience the left’s tenured representatives are prone to express with those who, living under tyrannical Stalinist regimes, are not always willing to reject the capitalist alternative out of hand while collectively struggling toward utopia. This is a blindness facilitated by the Icons of the Left, that “obstruct the view of history and offer aesthetic utopias as surrogates for politics” (p. 156).
Icons of the Left begins rather gloomily. While all the icons are paraded and subjected to a scrutiny other than that approved by the Church, only one—the double image of Walter Benjamin—is smashed, but it’s the one that comes first. During Werckmeister’s warm-up demolition of Benjamin, one feels that one is reading something written in the spirit of the Sinologist Kiel, the victim-hero of Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fe, who derives a kind of pleasure each morning from seeing the bookshop windows confirm his belief that culture is declining inexorably. The now familiar story of Benjamin’s narcissistic opportunism—his litererariness, as some might say—is documented through his violently different treatments of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920). This will be the standard quick reference to Benjamin’s internal contradictions to which one will want to direct students, but even here the important question is aimed not at the Icon himself, but at the left criticism which has jumped through hoops of its own making in order to reconcile Walter the Marxist with Walter the Mystic. What Werckmeister wants to ask of Lutz Niethammer, art historian, founding director of a government institute for cultural studies, and the author of just such a spirited attempt six months before the entirely unanticipated collapse of the Berlin Wall, is whether finally getting Benjamin right—whatever that might mean—would actually answer any question at all about contemporary capitalism.
Werckmeister thoughtfully supplements his chapter on Benjamin with an appendix subtitled “A Rededication of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus” in which he reprints a note about seeing an angel that Kafka wrote in 1914, years before Klee made the print or Benjamin wrote his first essay. His last chapter is about Stephen Soderbergh’s Kafka (1990), which he describes as an anarchist alternative to Marxist interpretations of Kafka. Werckmeister shows both hypotheses to be structurally indifferent to fact. Kafka’s novels are for the most part faithful transcriptions of his experiences as a leading—not lowly and alienated, as in Soderberg’s film—bureaucrat in the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, and as such he is responsible for representing workers’ interests against those of their employers. Nonetheless, it is fatally misleading to read Kafka’s fiction as the product of contradiction produced by class—for some Marxists the source of condemnation, for others the basis of a redemptive purpose—or as individualist protest literature that can be rewritten, as it has been by Soderberg, with a low-tech, politically correct if nihilistic, libertarian-socialist James Bond as anti-hero. Werckmeister’s Kafka was good at his job and wrote novels based on it, but precisely what is missing from his fiction is “Soderbergh’s key motif: the exploding bomb” (p. 150). He wrote some stories with the common theme that “mass movements” prompt nothing but tragicomic self-deceptions on the part of the affected individuals, “but didn’t publish them, while ‘in the stories’ printed in his lifetime he hardly ever touches on revolutionary themes” (p. 136). When the unpublished work was printed, left intellectuals were in such a hurry to make “generalized judgments about the presentation of social conflicts” (p. 136) that they missed the sense in which “Kafka has anticipated the political self-critique of literature, played out in Soderbergh’s ‘Kafka,’ to the point of its nonpublication” (p. 136).
Werckmeister’s treatment of Kafka’s interpretation and use by both Marxists and Soderbergh is an extreme form of his general approach. He demolishes not icons, but the critical arguments surrounding them which have become iconic themselves. Accordingly, while Walter Benjamin is ridiculed, it is the idea that Kafka is left-wing that is rendered ridiculous. Kafka himself emerges unscathed and, of those named in the book’s title, the most useful for the left.
By then, one has emerged from the gloom into a dazzling, if chilly, clarity. Along the way Eisenstein’s Potempkin, and Picasso’s Guernica, are carefully described as historical objects or texts and, that done, carefully returned to history, while the critical exegesis and application derived from them are debunked. As with Werckmeister’s discussion of Kafka, one learns a great deal about Potempkin and Guernica themselves. The gap between the events of 1907 and Eisenstein’s misrepresentation of them for political effect is laid out in detail—e.g., far from expressing solidarity, the Potempkin’s mutinous crew refused to have anything to do with the political protests on shore: they did not fire on the officers’ quarters in Odessa; they did not steam out of the harbor to accolades from ordinary sailors in the rest of the fleet, etc. Through a discussion of an installation in Cologne by Rudolf Herz about which his mind changed between the exhibition and its documentation, Werckmeister shows how an indifference to the work’s relationship to history prevents it from being used in any way that might illuminate the present.
Guernica presents a different set of questions from Potempkin. It is ambivalent about what Werckmeister sees as an ethical problem specific to those who advocate popular uprisings, and its critical history causes him to accuse the left of being disingenuous. To enlist civilian populations in guerrilla war is to invite attacks by regular forces against them. It bothers Werckmeister that the left will not admit to the double standard he perceives here, and he describes Picasso changing the soldier in Guernica “until it was aligned with the doomed civilians, all of them women, in what amounted to a collective image of doom” (p. 72). What the left has pretended was an advertisement for pacifism was in fact “a propaganda picture for a people’s war ‘(which) (u)nder the impact of the Republic’s defeat’ was sentimentalized into a meditative image of lament, of accusation” (p. 73).
Having returned more than once to his own participation in hypothesis—one gathers he inhaled—Werckmeister ends with a call for a left discourse that can address the ravages of the multinationals and the international market forces that allow them to thrive. To achieve that, the left will have to “shed the cultural and existential self-deceptions weighing on the tradition of the left” (p. 154). In his penultimate chapter, he discusses a book-length cartoon about late-Stalinist subjectivity, which he shows may also be read as “a satirical refutation of the exalted claims ‘advanced by Western Marxists’ such as Althusser’ who did not attempt to reconcile the individual’s psychological makeup up with Marxist theory [but instead] concealed and suppressed it under the abstraction of thought” (p. 120). But while agreeing that the “interrelated metaphors of neurosis and icon circumscribe Communist governance,” and are similarly characteristic of left scholarship, I would like to have seen some examples from contemporary art history. Instead, the reader is implicitly invited to apply the lesson to the obvious suspects, which seems to me to leave the book a little light on the practice side of things. For example, Werckmeister notes that Herz’s installation did not fulfill the terms of the public competition that it won, yet I should think this is important to the work’s historical meaning. That said, this splendid book exemplifies a proposition of Benjamin’s which Werckmeister interrogates: “The interest which the materialist historian takes in what has passed is always in part a burning interest in its being thoroughly dead,” its demise being a crucial aspect of its subsequent usefulness.