Live Aronowitz: Dead Theories

Stanley Aronowitz, The Politics of Identity, New York: Routledge 1992.
Stanley Aronowitz, Roll over Beethoven, Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
Stanley 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 always agree.

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 Production Process,"1 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 process.

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 commodity.5

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)äcommodities 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 limitsä(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 End:

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 Marxian form.

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 them.12 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 Cultural Strife."14

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 workplace,"15 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 different space.17 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.


1. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1, Penguin Books; London, 1990. "The Results of the Immediate Process of Production" is printed as an appendix.

2. "Marx, Braverman and the Logic of Capital", The Politics of Identity.

3. Stanley Aronowitz, Science as Power: Discourse and Ideology in Modern Society, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1988.

4. The Politics of Identity, pg. 83. The italics are Aronowitz's.

5. Capital, p. 952. The italics are Marx's.

6. See David Cook, "Farewells to American Culture, Work and Competition", The Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, vol. 17, #1-2, Spring, 1994.

7. Capital., p. 1048.

8. 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 industrial labour.

9. Jean Baudrillard, Illusion of the End, ch. 3, translated in The Canadian Journal of Social and Political Theory, vol. 17, #1-2, Spring, 1994.

10. I use Metallica only as an example, as other contemporary performance, groups would serve as well.

11. See in particular chapter 3, "The Origins of Cultural Studies" and chapter 4, "British Cultural Studies" in Roll over Beethoven.

12. "Between Criticism and Ethnography: Raymond Williams and the Intervention of Cultural Studies", Dead artists; Live theories, ch. 7.

13. "Literature as Social Knowledge: Mikhail Bakhtin and the Reemergence of the Human Science", Dead artists; Live theories, ch. 6.

14. 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.

15. The Politics of Identity, p. 246.

16. The Politics of Identity, ch. 7.

17. 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.