Letter: Our Cultural Malaise - Cosmonaut

Date: 2023-01-21T06:19:24+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

I had ample time during the holidays to contemplate the points made by comrade Noakes in reply to both myself and comrade Manos on the question of socialist realism, as well as aesthetics in general, on the U.S. Left. I’d like to respond in order to reiterate and, hopefully, clarify the points made in my original letter, as well as expand on my earlier ideas. Although Noakes pointed out in his response that his article was directed at a specific strata of the U.S. Left, for the sake of this discussion’s utility, I will continue to orient my comments toward the broader U.S. socialist movement

In my first letter, I was particularly interested in getting to the heart of why the U.S. Left has failed to form “a living culture.”1 Noakes is quite clear in his article that he believes the origin of our cultural malaise, and our resulting tendency to rely on the products of the cultural lives of socialisms past, to be our aesthetic disposition. It is to this point, in particular, that my first response was directed.

My issue with this is that Noakes confuses symptoms for causes. As I stated in my first response, the primary cause of our cultural deprivation has nothing to do with aesthetic conservatism, nor any aesthetic disposition whatsoever.2 Rather, it is the result of our “lack of centralized, programmatic, and independent organization within the context of the highly developed capitalist cultural infrastructure of the imperial core.”3 Our movement continues to re-mobilize the aesthetics of past socialisms in order to fill a void opened by our failure to build infrastructure capable of supporting a dynamic, independent cultural life. The cultural archive of the Soviet Union, as a result of its sheer volume, makes up a large plurality of the material relied upon to fill this void. The logic of this process is not one of “popularity [as] a direct function of quantity,” but one of necessity as a direct result of organizational failure.4

Although Noakes is wrong about the cause, he correctly identifies the symptom: cultural destitution. His solution is a combination of two tactics.

The first is an aesthetic reorientation toward a broader understanding of what counts as socialist art. However, if our aesthetic disposition is not the actual cause of our malaise, how will this reorientation solve the issue? It won’t. Noakes is proposing an aesthetic solution to a problem that is not actually aesthetic in origin. Indeed, aesthetics, as Brecht never tired of reminding his interlocutors, have no political quality in the abstract. They gain a purely politically tactical quality only within the concrete conditions of a movement capable of producing them.5 Reorienting ourselves aesthetically may have other positive effects,6 but it will not meaningfully move us towards the infrastructure necessary for supporting a dynamic cultural life, itself a precondition for the emergence of aesthetics as a politically tactical question.

Noakes second proposal is, in fact, less a tactic than a DIY plea, imploring contemporary U.S. socialists to make their own “bad art” in an attempt to “fail” upwards towards a more dynamic cultural life.7 I must admit that I did not give attention to Noakes’ second suggestion in my first response, but I believe that it too suffers from a failure to reckon with the basic questions of strategy, tactics, infrastructure, and capacity. It is clear that Noakes has not given much thought to the organizational infrastructure that would be needed to support even the “bad art” he envisions us all making, organizational infrastructure that has been necessary to all so-called “DIY” arts movements.

The path forward on the question of culture, then, is one which bases its strategy on a firm foundation, the setting stone of which must be an acknowledgment that organizational underdevelopment, rather than an aesthetic disposition, is the primary cause of our current cultural malaise.


Christopher Carp

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  1. Christian Noakes, “Against the Undead Cult of Socialist Realism,” Cosmonaut Magazine, Nov. 4, 2022, https://cosmonautmag.com/2022/11/against-the-undead-cult-of-socialist-realism/.
  2. It is worth pointing out that on this point I am very much in disagreement with the bulk of left-wing cultural criticism descending from the work of Adorno, which jettisons the technological determinism of its intellectual ancestor in favor of purely dispositional explanations for the cultural malaise of contemporary capitalist society. Mark Fisher’s “capitalist realism” is the most recent and well-known version of this catch-all explanation, in which every cultural ill is the result of a generalized aesthetic disposition. In other words, according to Fisher, the symptom causes itself.
  3. Christopher Carp, “Letter: An Art of Our Own,” Nov. 17, 2022, https://cosmonautmag.com/2022/11/letter-an-art-of-our-own/.
  4. Noakes, “Letter: Reply to Carp and Manos,” Dec. 1, 2022, https://cosmonautmag.com/2022/12/letter-reply-to-carp-and-manos/.
  5. Brecht articulates this repeatedly in his writings. The best examples are his exasperatedly sarcastic response to the hermeneutic mud-slinging of Bloch and Lukács, unfortunately unpublished until after his death, in which he skillfully redefined “realism” to mean any aesthetic decision which successfully carried out the pedagogical strategy of the movement, as well as his wonderful article establishing the political ambiguity of theatrical alienation outside of concrete circumstances. See: Bertolt Brecht, “Against Georg Lukács,” in Aesthetics and Politics (London, UK: Verso Book, 2007), 68-85; Brecht, “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,” in Brecht on Theatre (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1989), 91-99.
  6. That is, assuming the explicit commitment to aesthetic orthodoxy that Noakes identifies actually exists in our movement. I briefly contested this point in my first response and Manos challenged it more broadly in their letter. I will give comrade Noakes the benefit of the doubt and interpret his clarification that his article was directed at a specific strata of the Left as evidence that he does not actually believe this to be a widespread phenomenon.
  7. Noakes, “Against the Undead Cult of Socialist Realism.”