The universal premises of culture and politics have been subject to criticism from the moment that Enlightenment theories emerged. In postmodern theory, radical skepticism replaces judgement and makes universal speculation seem like either an absurd game or a violent imposition. In contemporary fields of practice like intersectionality, decoloniality, and privilege theory, one is presumably disabused of the limits of liberal idealism and of the materialist overcoming of contradictions. To take one example of the new anti-Enlightenment and anti-Marxist rhetoric, playwrights who are inspired by Afropessimist ideas are now giving “black out” performances, “free from the white gaze,” to black only audiences in state-funded art centers. In the realm of politics, activists on the radical left now champion “destituent” practices that are defined as the refusal of politics—the effort to dismantle existing political institutions without proposing what should replace These days it seems that any universally conceived aesthetics or politics is experienced as something intrusive. What is to be done and what is good in culture is demotically replaced with diversity and demographics, now instituted through DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) mandates.
These are some of the problems one encounters when universality and Marxist materialism have been abandoned and, to paraphrase Walter Benn Michaels, the ontology of what you are has superseded the significance of what you believe. That conundrum may not be so liberally defined insofar as countercultural and identitarian trends have also challenged the institutionality of disciplinary knowledges. Since the yuppie 1980s, the confused strivings of the professional-managerial class in the cultural and activist sectors absorbed so much antihumanist and post-Enlightenment theory that the goal of praxis became the development of ever more sophisticated rationales for why class struggle and cultural revolution are things of the past. Radical politics—and the universal aesthetic theories with which it was associated throughout the twentieth century—was repudiated in favor new subjectivities, new class compositions, and new technologies. One strand of this agenda is the post-political politics associated with Italian autonomist theory, as represented by first wave operaist figures like Mario Tronti and Raniero Panzieri, and later with post-operaist thinkers like Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno, Silvia Federici, Maurizio Lazzarato, Christian Marazzi, and Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. With a basis in Foucauldian discourse theory as well as the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the second wave of autonomists made inroads into the art world through academic theory as well as horizontalist and antirepresentational new social movement activism.
Whatever its historical significance as an extremist tendency in the 1970s and then a theoretical mainstay of the alter-globalization movement, the impact of autonomia on aesthetic theory has been relatively minor. One of the reasons for this is the fact that activist practices tend to neglect cultural theory as one of the trappings of the chattering class in the institutionalized and commodified art world. In Cultural Revolution: Aesthetic Practice after Autonomy (2017) and Art and Autonomy: A Critical Reader (2022), the Dutch art historian and cultural critic Sven Lütticken seeks to change this state of affairs with his historical, political, and theoretical framework for what one could consider a “post-aesthetics” that is compatible with autonomist post-politics and related cultural practices. The charm of his endeavor is the combination of an autonomist agenda with an understanding of competing forms of radicalism, from the Enlightenment through to the Marxist theories of the Frankfurt School and practices associated with institutional critique. The problem with his approach, in relation to critical theory, is that it reproduces the tendency among autonomists to make selective use of theoretical antecedents.
As a kind of post-operaist activism, Lütticken’s Art and Autonomy keeps with discourse theory and poststructuralism more generally to produce the neobohemian argument that bourgeois subjectivity is the measure of all things wrong with the world. This hefty tome, which consists of some four hundred pages of progressively and retrogressively contradictory cogitations, argues in its concluding Lukácsian coda on “transcendental homelessness” that the autonomy that defines the subject of Enlightenment reason, whose autoteleological development also accounts for modern definitions of aesthetic autonomy, can be used to explain everything from tax-free storage facilities for art to neoliberal anti-immigration policies. It takes a certain amount of anarchist outrance to argue that the notion of Bildung is just so much dung. In Lütticken’s hands, all of that baggage is a nonlethal weapon that he lobs like a concentrated David at the global capitalist Goliath—certainly, a worthy endeavor.
In Lütticken’s course in autonomist art activism, the sovereign individual is always already guilty in advance. No due process is recommended since no amount of education can help him/her/them realize his/her/their limitations. Art practice, then, according to him, no longer functions to enlighten, since, quoting Groucho Marx, today’s activism (in the manner of France’s Invisible Committee or the fugitive tactics of the undercommons) does not care to belong to any club that would have it as a member (422). The reason for this is simple enough: the avant garde’s ambition to overcome the division between art and life—which is only a red herring, after all—never fails to be recuperated by the creative and culture industries. Pity the artist who, in a Heideggerian house of their own devise, be it a cottage or a white cube, seeks peace of mind. As Lütticken puts it:
The [COVID-19] self-isolation economy has proved an unexpected literalisation of an essential lesson of institutional critique: autonomy begins at home, with putting one’s house in order. However, this house is a glass one, equipped with gizmos made in China with materials imported from Africa, and it is mortgaged to the hilt (423).
Rather than knowing thyself or one’s medium, one must criticize thyself and thy practice perpetually and become mindful of one’s place within (capitalized, first world, sexist, racist, toxic, etc.) institutional structures so that one can then discover what one has in common with other people who are seeking but never achieving autonomy. Heteronomy thus makes its demands, least of all through commodification. But things get worse still, since not only is there no alternative (TINA), but there is also no outside (TINO).
If Lütticken’s infinitely demanding theory of cultural revolution sounds like poststructuralist anti-Enlightenment moral blackmail, don’t let that fool you, it is poststructuralist anti-Enlightenment moral blackmail. The reason why we should take it seriously, however, is because what he offers us with this reader is a glimpse into the thinking of some of the most advanced sectors of contemporary art, that is, the most self-reflexive and critical practices of art world activists, especially in universities and in the European cultural circuits that continue to benefit from state funding for the arts. At the outset, it should be said that Art and Autonomy is neither an anthology nor a reader, if by this one presumes a volume with a selection of readings that would give someone access to an established field of discourse. Rather, the book reads as a monograph or polemic, with multipage sidebars that contain lengthy excerpts from source material that is commented upon all the way through and not simply with short introductory paragraphs. This does not discredit the undertaking but makes it an innovative proposition, wherein the editor acts more like an instructor, guiding the reader through a curriculum and often enough interrupting the source material to let the reader in on what it is that he thinks is important to understand. Divided into six parts, the book develops “intersecting and sometimes conflicting” themes that have a chronological sequence, each of which, individually and altogether, is conceived in “genealogical” (Foucauldian) terms and therefore premised on very specific lines of theoretical and political engagement (103). The book is thus designed as a comprehensive, intellectual, cultural and political rationale for contemporary autonomist art practices. Before getting to the specifics of this reader, it is worth mentioning a previous and much shorter book by Lütticken, Cultural Revolution: Aesthetic Practice after Autonomy, which provides a more succinct presentation of the argument that is fleshed out in Art and Autonomy.
In Cultural Revolution, Lütticken elaborates a program that begins with poststructuralism on the academic and activist left, then tracks back to canonical left sources in the Frankfurt School and in postwar activist radicalism. The process is the same in Art and Autonomy, with the difference that in Cultural Revolution he does not track back all the way to Enlightenment aesthetics. In other words, the program for Art and Autonomy was already established in Cultural Revolution, but the effort in the former is to deepen the latter’s claims. In both books, Lütticken glosses over most of the postmodern French theory that brought us to where we are today and that has become the hobbyhorse of alt-right critics of so-called cultural Marxism. Another way to think of this, without bringing the likes of Jordan Peterson or James Lindsay into the conversation, is what happens to materialism after it has been divested of dialectics and the Enlightenment break with metaphysics. This trajectory makes Lütticken’s materialism less compatible with “orthodox” Marxism and more comfortable with today’s new social movement anarchism, with Foucauldian effects and Deleuzian becomings as points of contact with assemblage theory and posthuman new materialisms. However, the “Benjaminian fireworks” he also appreciates are not entirely neglected (35), and so theory is subject to a certain amount of eclecticism.
One thing that is clear in Lütticken’s argument is that capitalism threatens whatever political and cultural autonomy the radical left has been able to muster. This confirms the metatheorical principle that social form is immanent to aesthetic content. The critique of the false autonomy of culture in bourgeois society is thus accepted as the premise of radical possibilities for art. However, for Lütticken, the standard references to Theodor Adorno, Raymond Williams, Perry Anderson, and Fredric Jameson have grown a bit stale. Citing Bruno Latour and Hal Foster, who say the same kinds of things that feminists and anticolonialists have been saying for decades, Enlightenment criticism has run its course (8). Worse still, according to him, presumably external and Archimedean denunciations by artists and critics in their efforts to demystify material reality are the kinds of projections that got us in today’s mess. Every effort at criticality eventually becomes academic and museological, such that practices that are situational, relational and post-everything—pluralist, conceptual, minimalist, performative, postmodern, postcolonial, poststructuralist, postcritical, post-Internet, posthuman, postapocalyptic or simply post-autonomy—relegate what they deconstruct to the past. The problem with such transgression and presumed transcendence is the fetishistic fixation on immanence. While Lütticken justifies this in terms of Marxist notions of praxis and more contemporary theories like Jacques Rancière’s politics of the sensible, he tends to confuse the concept and theory of autonomy with the potential reality of autonomy, which he argues is always already denied by exchange relations. In the words of Kerstin Stakemeier, the notion of autonomy in the era of creative industries is nothing but a “representational leftover” (14). The most that one can say about the new critical practices that people like Stakemeier champion, whatever form they may take, as project art or as file sharing, is that they are invested in difference, which, unlike socialist utopias, exists already in the manifest heteronomy that Alain Badiou, who is not mentioned in either of Lütticken’s books—though this is difficult to verify, since neither one has an index—refers to as the infinite multiplicity of democratic materialism.
The only art that is worthy of discussion and support in an age of postrepresentation is therefore art that negates autonomy. The obvious difficulty with this now commonplace postmodern critique of Enlightenment discourse is that it is shared by the neoliberal, conservative and fascist right. Lütticken deals with this problem as it presented itself to 60s radicals, in particular in left critiques of actionist transgression (65—70). Informative and exciting descriptions of the ideas and exchanges between Guy Debord, Black Mask, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Rudi Dutschke, Subversive Aktion, Provos, Theodor Adorno, and Jürgen Habermas not only suggest that the concept of cultural revolution can and must be repurposed, but that its persistence allows us to assess the contradictions of such efforts. Lütticken’s retelling, however, gives greater importance to Italian autonomist theory and practice than it has previously received. This is no doubt due to its success since the early 2000s on the new social movement left. We are informed that figures like Hans-Jürgen Krohl were among the first to give importance to Karl Marx’s notion of the general intellect, which is a mainstay of Italian post-operaism. That which allows for a shift in radical theory away from the working class and towards the analysis of new class compositions based in student, lumpen, academic, or artistic and countercultural constituencies also describes the growth of the tertiary sector in post-Fordist societies, making class conflict more rather than less of an issue as the superstructures of art and politics are integrated into the productive engines of capitalism. Now that artistic labor has become the model of culturalized production and culturalized politics, the only difference that art makes (31) is registered in the realms of micropolitics that agitate outside the frameworks of traditional studios and museums, and with respect to politics, beyond the programs of labor unions and socialist parties.
What does the dissident culture of the 1970s have to offer us today in the situations we are now confronted with, where fascist militias are fostered by the neoliberal deep state? Lütticken’s hankering for “whatever assemblage[s] of micropolitical groups” (39) is not only apropos, organizationally speaking, but oblivious to the ways that capitalism has instrumentalized identity politics in such a way as to make even people like Barack Obama, Rishi Sunak, or Georgia Meloni seem oppressed. If 1980s groups like ACT UP, Guerrilla Girls, and Group Material were the vanguard of art in the expanded field of culture wars, conservatives learned to never let a disaster go to waste. This causes thinkers like Berardi to make TINO complicity the source of theoretical opiates, with phrases like “biomolecular (pharmaco) and semiotic-technical (pornographic) government” (43) becoming so many ways to peddle anticommunism to the alienated, which, like the activist creative class more generally, and to put this in Lütticken’s words, have devolved to “an unconscious class consciousness articulated in eco-trendy, urban, bohemian lifestyles and liberal media that focus on Twitter-inspired clickbait articles about who made which sexist, racist, or transphobic comment” (46). The only remaining task is to assemble the creative class compositions into montages of transnational and transcontinental resistance to the different forms of exploitation. Such transversal concatenations that are beyond the Enlightenment and even the Marxist gesture have of course weaknesses and strengths that today’s networked societies of surveillance, control, and disinfotainment never cease to reveal. The only thing that is certain in all of this, it would seem, is that the Western subject, the bourgeois humanist rights holder and property owner, has to go if an automomist politics of collaboration, co-individuation, and co-creation—like that produced in the context and in the wake of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street—is to get underway.
The main problem with the immanentist logic that is used in autonomist theory to describe the new post-Enlightenment cultural and political practices is that it reduces subjectivity to ever-more exciting (because desperate) sociological descriptions: the subject of neoliberal governance, the subject of posthistory, the hashtag subject, and so on. With a simple Hardt and Negri twist, this then becomes the radicalized subject of new contestatory assemblages, with care work, laziness, racial justice, or anti-extractivism as the next wave. This politics of power-resistance within the empire of biopolitics has been by and large rejected by the newly revived socialist movement. For example, in “The Autumn and Fall of Italian Workerism,” David Broder associates the antiwork politics of Italian post-operaismo with the collapse of the labor movement and dreams of liberation from bureaucratic control. With the shift from strikes to riots, as celebrated in the United States by Joshua Clover, the precarious occupations and lifestyles that are common among students and artist collectives are presumed to be adequate bases on which to mount offensives against the managers and the communist parties. What Lütticken’s cultural history leaves out of his analysis is an account of the state repression of the international socialist movement in the postwar era. Also left out of view are the successes of organized labor in the interwar era through to the war against fascism, which did not end in 1945. Throughout the 1960s, the shift away from workerist shop floor struggles, which comprised millions of members, resulted in the development of new, subjectivity-focused class compositions, with militant autonomists constituting only a few hundred. Like their bohemian progenitors, they loathed parliamentary institutions as well as mass organizations, and worked to advance sexual liberation and entrepreneurialism along with terrorist adventurism. While this voluntaristic youthful revolt did produce some theoretical innovations, collective experiments in media and an expanded repertoire of subaltern insubordination, it also contributed to the degeneration of proletarian politics into performative histrionics, activist self-promotion, and horizontalist structurelessness. According to Broder, the only vanguards that autonomists recognize are anonymous processes like climate change and inflation. This rejection of representation is not only elitist, as Broder says, but the premium placed on identity, even by people like Hardt and Negri in the era of Black Lives Matter, I would argue, has taken on board conservative ideological handicaps. Institutional protections and guaranteed rights are for autonomists just so many traps and infringements on petty-bourgeois subjectivism and ingroup stridency. Where autonomous politics have had an influence on the parliamentary left, as with Podemos and La France Insoumise, the results have been no better than was the case with official socialist parties. In addition, the currently trendy condemnation of Eurocentrism, Broder argues, is only a rhetorical means to ignore these problems.
This brings us back to Art and Autonomy. With autonomist post-politics as the starting point of Lütticken’s reader, the history of aesthetic autonomy is interpreted as a Foucauldian effective history that does not recover historical texts as they were arguably meant to be understood. The genealogical method also allows the author-editor to shorten the historical range of each of the book’s six sections as he moves forward, with the first section (on the autonomy versus heteronomy issue) starting with Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller through to Jacques Rancière; the second section (on the uses of art) starting one century later with John Ruskin and Karl Marx through to Jean Baudrillard; the third (on the contexts and sociology of art) with Georg Simmel and Daniel Buren through to Andrea Fraser; the fourth (on autonomist concepts) staring in the early 2000s with Stewart Matin and Peter Osborne up to Maurizio Lazzarato and Kerstin Stakemeier; and the fifth (on art media and media practices), starting with Clement Greenberg over to Brian Holmes, Donna Haraway, and Natasha Sadr Haghighian. This last author is only one of several inclusions that makes this less of an anthology of texts that are known to have shaped the field than an idiosyncratic, if competent, polemic. It also prepares the reader for the last section (on postcolonial theory), which begins with Aimé Césaire and ends with Dilar Dirik and Jazael Olguín Zapata.
By the end of Art and Autonomy, the concern with squats, communes, and occupations has shifted completely from aesthetic autonomy to political autonomy, presumably leaving behind everything connected to European Enlightenment and the Marxist critique of political economy. The book is thus introduced as a “critical re-reading of the (Western) discourse on autonomy” (5). Taking theory beyond Eurocentric confines, I would argue, not only challenges the right-wing government that came to power in the Netherlands in 2010 but shares some presuppositions with both the conservative anti-Enlightenment tradition as well as neoliberal post-representation that are not addressed in this book. A thinker with a deeper grasp of history than Lütticken might object, at the outset, that slavery was a worldwide phenomenon that was not limited to Europe and the Enlightenment era, and that slavery existed also among African and Indigenous cultures that today are represented in decolonial rhetoric as noble victims. One could also mention that feudalism and colonialism are distinct from capitalism, despite the historical interactions that allow some decolonialists to map Nazi fascism directly onto nineteenth-century colonial practices. That such issues were not only addressed by Marx and Engels but by the radical movement since their time is irrelevant to today’s post-Marxist scholarship. All of that is just splitting hairs according to amnesiac activists who give intellectual justification to the removal of statues of even Voltaire and Abraham Lincoln.
When it comes to Marxism, some inattentive writing by Lütticken suggests that Marx’s Capital developed an in-depth analysis of wage labor that demystified the illusion that the value of commodities is “autonomous” rather than dependent of human labor (12). The word autonomy here does all of the work—or rather none of it—and distracts from the reality that it was bourgeois economics, not Marx, that established the labour theory of value. This neglect of detail resurfaces elsewhere: when Lütticken deals with the Marxist critique of Ludwig Feuerbach, when he discusses Marx’s theory of exchange value, and when he addresses non-Marxist theories of fetishism and the Baudrillardian theory of consumption as the mirror of production. In the short term, this allows him to focus on “sensuous activity” as shorthand for the Marxist critique German idealism, and in the long run, as a prelude to “a post-idealist politicization of the aesthetic” (12). Lütticken thereby advocates a shift from the work of art to art as work, with much appreciation for Western Marxism and media theory along the way. The non-Hegelian and nondialectical tack that is taken, however, fails to get at what much of this other material was concerned with. A thinker like Henri Lefebvre, whose theory of moments might have resolved some of Lütticken’s theoretical snags, is never mentioned—not even in the sections dealing with the Situationists and May 1968. John Roberts’s Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde, which is overlooked in this book, has much to offer the kind of reader who would be interested in the issues discussed. Nor is any recent work on the petty-bourgeois professional-managerial class, whether by Richard Barbrook, myself, or the editors at Nonsite, taken up as an issue with which to question post-institutional practices. None of these, however, which are premised on Hegelian and sociological ideas, would do him much good in his efforts to dispense with “old-school conceptions of class struggle” (16). If there was never such a thing as autonomy or emancipatory universalism, then the aim of Art and Autonomy is to demonstrate why that is and why we need to move on.
While activist attitude can make for exciting speculation, it cannot replace disciplinary knowledge. The first part of Art and Autonomy, on “Art and Life,” begins with what I consider to be a playfully inadequate discussion of Kant’s 1796 Critique of Judgement. The student of philosophy is alerted to this when Kant’s mediation of pure and practical reason is presented as a philosophy of the senses, and therefore as a theory of artworks, rather than a study of the philosophical and universal foundations for the possibility of judgements of taste. With Rancière and decolonial criticism in view, the autonomy and heteronomy problem—which should here be defined instead as phenomena and noumena—is miscast in the terms of the European self and colonial Other dilemma. While for Kant, judgements of taste are neither dependent on the senses nor on concepts, the willful rejection of the theory finds Lütticken strongarming his antagonist with this excerpt from Kant’s third critique:
If someone asks me whether I find the palace that I see before me beautiful, I may say that I don’t like that sort of thing, which is made merely to be gaped at, or, like the Iroquois sachem, that nothing in Paris pleased him better than the cook-shops; in true Rousseauesque style I might even vilify the vanity of the great who waste the sweat of the people on such superfluous things; finally I could even easily convince myself that if I were to find myself on an uninhabited island, without any hope of even coming upon human beings again, and could conjure up such a magnificent structure through my mere wish, I would not even take the trouble of doing so if I already had a hut that was comfortable enough for me (35).
Lütticken doubts that the satisfaction that comes from a judgement of taste can be disinterested. If only a practical judgement can be the basis of freedom, as he argues, then the abstract universality that allows for the experiences of an Indian sachem to be equated and dealt with on the same grounds as those of European aristocrats and Kant himself is also rejected. Lütticken seems to think that this is a dilemma only for the Indigenous. What this actually means, however, is not that the subject of reason has no control over his circumstances—or, alternatively, as propertied European males, have too much control over the circumstances of others—but that no judgements can be made because, according to discourse theory, and in an antihumanist fashion, there is no subject that is not fully determined from without. For this reason, Art and Autonomy is introduced as a “user’s manual” (5).
It is unfortunate that a thinker who is as congenial as Terry Eagleton should be enlisted to legitimize such a program, with an excerpt from Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic used to help transform a philosophy of aesthetics into a rationale for pragmatism. Eagleton is said to define the aesthetic as an ideology that purports to resolve the contradictions of bourgeois society, reinforcing capitalist interests while at the same time challenging possessive individualism. But Eagleton says more than this. With the focus on material processes of production, according to him, Marxist art theory demonstrated not only how art became autonomous through the commodity form, but also how autonomy became a resource for the anti-instrumental and revolutionary opposition to bourgeois society. The aesthetic, for Eagleton, is both sensuously concrete and speciously universal. Unfortunately, for Lütticken, the introduction to The Ideology of the Aesthetic does not have as its purpose a “materialist” appraisal of how it is that bourgeois autonomy lost its virginity, so to speak—a favorite theme of postmodernists, captioned by Lütticken with Hubert Robert’s imaginary view of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre in ruins, with later inclusions of photographs by Louise Lawler that became popular through Douglas Crimp’s 1993 book On the Museum’s Ruins. The truths of politics and ethics that are of common concern are sublimated in modern art as an intellectual discipline and, Eagleton adds, a paradigm of nonalienated cognition. Likewise, it is theory’s noninstrumentality that causes it to remain relevant. Art’s autonomy can neither be celebrated nor unequivocally denounced. Eagleton also mentions that the theory of art should not be reduced to the topics of race and gender, which he argues is an American trend that demonstrates a “pervasive failure of political nerve” that accompanies capitalism because non-class politics are better able, under the circumstances, to “yield more immediate gains.” The internationalist socialist movement, he argues, should not fear being sectarian and should not succumb to the modishness of the corporeal politics and “decentred subjectivities” that are demanded by postmodern studies, with its “ersatz” ethics of a political left “for whom the aesthetic is simply ‘bourgeois ideology,’ to be worsted and ousted by alternative forms of cultural politics.”
If Nietzschean moralism is not historical materialism, as Eagleton contends, we could add that the complete rejection of dialectical thought does not make for a more serious challenge to contemporary neocolonialism. The previous passage from Kant returns in part six, “Another Autonomy Is Possible,” which discusses contemporary decolonial critiques of European Enlightenment. The section begins on a bad footing, citing Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776 to claim that the American Revolution was designed to save slavery. Only slightly more scholarly than the thoroughly discredited 1619 Project, Horne’s 2014 book has been criticized for its racialist framing of everything and its hackneyed mishandling of sources. Lütticken thus finds himself treading similar paths as those taken by Julia Kristeva, Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Sylvia Wynter, and Walter Mignolo, intellectuals whose poststructuralist deconstructions of constitutional history are more prejudicial than democratic. Is Kant’s sachem truly unworthy of subjecthood, as Lütticken suggests in this section (359), or is he simply not into neoclassical architecture? On the other hand, forcing the issue does raise the deeply conservative and illiberal aspects of the antihumanist tendency that has taken root within postmodern social studies. Lütticken neither rejects nor endorses these, but instead plunges his readers into back-and-forth cascades of argument and counter-argument that lead, in my view, intelligently and interestingly—but not altogether convincingly—to the kinds of practices that seem, to him, to be going in the right direction, like in the sixth section those of Tania Bruguera, the Zapatistas, Chto Delat, Hito Steyerl, Jonas Staal, and the Kurdish Women’s Movement in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
One does not wish to slight the rich panoply of Lütticken’s assembled materials, nor the questions that they raise. Both exciting and frustrating to read, this smartly illustrated anti-anthology plots the dissipation of autonomy in the era of creative industries and digital humanities, much as Walter Benjamin did the aura of the cult object, but without any negative dialectical dispensation. Some of the problems that are addressed remain unsolved: Is relative autonomy really only a sham that disavows the forces of production (52)? Does the bohemian conflation of art with negation solve this problem (56)? Is Marx an advocate of Kantian autonomy? Should the Bolshevik Revolution and Leon Trotsky be blamed for Stalinism (58)? Do the historical avant gardes really seek to dissolve art into life, or to defend the autonomous free space of art (72—80)? One overall problem is that the postmodern attack against the bourgeoisie and the commodity form functions as a prelude for the poststructuralist attack on Marxism and the left. Can the nomadic adaptations of the flexible subject to the demands of the market really serve the needs of the commons? This conundrum goes all the way down to the details. One passage by Marx is listed in the table of contents as belonging to part two of the chapter on “The Commodity” in Capital, but in actuality is found in part one of that chapter (113—14). Such mistakes, as may have been made on purpose, are later folded into the discussion about John Ruskin, who argued that the “flaws, mistakes and problems embodied in Burne-Jones’s work evidence a moral and ethical labour of art that runs counter to the precise and machine-driven accuracy of everyday mass-produced objects” (120). Perhaps, but this only raises the stakes of what and what does not count as art. Some handholding of the reader finds Lütticken anxiously interrupting a three-page passage from Fredric Jameson on no fewer than six occasions (195—97). The reason for this is the competing validity of Jameson’s Marxist line of thinking, with the critique of aesthetic and political ideology leaving both of these intact as frames of analysis and modes of praxis. No mention is made of mine and others’ arguments that Bourdieusian “classicism” is not outdated, but rather transformed by the rise to hegemonic status of the petty-bourgeois habitus (211). Or is it that activist infrastructures can fly, like UFOs? Is that what it means when people like Marina Vishmidt say that there is no longer any significant difference between inside and outside?
Despite the elaboration of autonomist concepts like the escape from institutions, new class compositions, immaterial labor, affective labor, the cognitariat, and social autonomy, those critiques of autonomia that are included avoid the insights of Hegelianism. The shift from the primacy of labor to the primacy of resistance has not only left behind the betrayal of workers by trade union bureaucracies but junked the organizational model of syndicalism as such along with anything remotely conceivable as Marxism. A salutary contribution by Pier Vittorio Aureli acknowledges the propensity in such milieux for mystification and the elevation of semantics to the status of theory. “Autonomy,” Aureli argues, “became a way neither to master nor to resist capitalism but instead to transform it by means of a very sophisticated hermeneutics of its cultural effects” (228). The thing to remember here is that Aureli is talking about post-operaism and not aesthetic autonomy, a slide that Lütticken obviates by focusing on the fact that one of its early proponents, Mario Tronti, returned to the fold of the Italian Communist Party. The reason for this is that it is easier to tinker with words like autonomy and sovereignty, which can be found across the political spectrum, than with concepts like the proletariat, dialectics or totality. The establishment of a welfare state in Western nations, the cultural and consumerist impact of the postwar boom economy, the spread of globalized labor relations, and the dismantling of Soviet communism are ignored in this section as preconditions for phenomena like the refusal of work on the part of the new subjects of flexibilized labor. One presumption in part five is that the proletarian public spheres theorized by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge are no longer possible. News sources like the World Socialist Web Site and programs like BreakThrough News, The Electronic Intifada, Peoples Dispatch, and Status Coup News are evidence to the contrary, even if most of the latter are carried on private Internet platforms. Like Russia Today, they can be censored at a moment’s notice.
The last section on decoloniality counterposes Afrofuturism to the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and leads to the assumption that non-Western regimes cannot fail on their own terms, which, despite real obstacles to development, is patronizing in the extreme. The race reductionist strategy that comes along with the privileging of all things sensuous, which queer Marxists like Holly Lewis critique as “matterism,” underestimates what was accomplished since the Enlightenment. The point of this for Lütticken is to reject the nation-state in favor of multitudes, an idea that at this moment is being challenged by the focus on national economies and multipolarity. The best bet against the latter, for Lütticken, is not socialism but the Indigenous critique of settler colonialism. Can the framework of Indigenous sovereignty be used as justification for a metapolitics based on the rejection of individual self-determination, with whites deemed autonomous and people of color deemed heteronomous (372)? Why is it that disadvantaged racial groups get a pass when it comes to capitalist imbrications? Although there are competing theories on offer that would allow leftists to avoid this kind of thinking, conspicuously lengthy texts by Elizabeth Povinelli and Achille Mbembe would seem to indicate that politics and culture should be based on the indetermination of identity beyond Western ideologies as well as anti-imperialist imaginaries of authenticity, which, according to Mbembe, only lead back to Marxism. Since the Western working class has “lost its revolutionary steam,” Third World projects like the Cuban Revolution cannot be considered much worse (399). Autonomous zones in Chiapas and Rojava are here championed as rejections of “cookie-cutter universalism” (402). But were the six hundred or so attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro really to defend the universality of the bourgeois subject, or simply a different version of the effort to deny and destroy it? A messier reality demonstrates that when events like the mentioned 2017 protests against the G20 take place, there is typically more than one leftist class formation that shows up. For all of the concern with inclusivity on the anarchist left, affinity rarely extends to those political tendencies that are associated with the critique of voluntaristic infantilism.
Because he deals with aesthetics, philosophy, history, critical theory, politics, and popular culture in the same breath as many of the most challenging contemporary artists, activists, and theorists, Lütticken counts among the most rigorous and exciting scholars of engaged art theory, alongside people like Claire Bishop, Brian Holmes, Grant Kester, Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen, Gerald Raunig, Gene Ray, John Roberts, and Gregory Sholette. His books stake out a position of his own in this contemporary art and politics field of analysis. Some thinkers who are adjacent to this discussion could have made for some interesting counterpoints; for example, Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt on cultural policy in Cuba; Vivek Chibber on the problems with postcolonial theory and the cultural turn; Slavoj Žižek on the problems with discursive historicism; BAVO on the problems with engaged NGO art, Dave Beech on the limits of economic approaches to art; Adolph and Touré Reed on the Cold War construction of racialist ideology; or Daniel Zamora and Michael Behrent on Foucault’s neoliberalism. Badiou gets a weak nudge when we are told that autonomist theory consists of a “surplus” rather than a “subtraction” from the mesh of life (255). For all of the hard-nosed affection for all things concrete and sensuous, materialist analysis does not necessarily benefit from a shift from absolutes to relatives, in one case, from male geniuses like Pablo Picasso to unknown Pablita Picassos. Between the two is the question of progressive cultural policy, which is difficult enough to implement when the zones of autonomy are exclusive. What you get in the actually existing world of autonomy is not free art classes for Pablitas but record auction prices for Basquiats. Populist ploys that abandon the organizational means of the socialist left are not only reckless but dangerous. Tellingly, Lütticken gives no consideration to whether, or how it is that postmodern excess has armed the far right by giving reason to the masses to either stick with the neoliberals or opt out of politics completely. It is not surprising in this regard that with a few exceptions Art and Autonomy bypasses much of the identity politics, postmodern theory, and radical democratic agonism that separates autonomist politics from the radical politics of the past and from the socialist movement as it currently exists. From a Marxist perspective, the depoliticizing aspects of postmodern antifoundationalism and ideological immanentism only increase when activists and scholars try to convince people that everything matters because nothing matters.
- ↩ Guy Quenneville, “National Arts Centre’s 1st ‘Black Out’ night sparks debate—and backlash,” CBC, February 6, 2023.
- ↩ Kieran Aarons and Idris Robinson, “Introduction: Three Registers of Destitution,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 122, no. 1 (January 2023): 2.
- ↩ Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 and the End of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
- ↩ On this subject, see Sven Lütticken, “Cultural Marxists Like Us,” Afterall no. 46 (July 2018): 66—75.
- ↩ See Imre Szeman, “Marxist Literary Criticism, Then and Now,” Mediations 24, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 37—47.
- ↩ For more on this, see Deserting from the Culture Wars, eds. Maria Hlavajova and Sven Lütticken (Utrecht/Cambridge: Bak/The MIT Press, 2020).
- ↩ David Broder, “The Autumn and Fall of Italian Workerism,” Catalyst 3, no. 4 (Winter 2020): 7—46.
- ↩ Joshua Clover, Riot.Strike.Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (London: Verso, 2019).
- ↩ Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Empire, Twenty Years On,” New Left Review 120 (November/December 2019): 67—92.
- ↩ Marc James Léger, “Henri Lefebvre and the Moment of the Aesthetic,” in Marxism and Art History: From William Morris to the New Left, ed. Andrew Hemingway (London: Pluto Press, 2006), 143—60.
- ↩ John Roberts, Revolutionary Time and the Avant Garde (London: Verso, 2015).
- ↩ See Richard Barbrook, The Class of the New (London: Mute, 2006); Marc James Léger, “Welcome to the Cultural Goodwill Revolution,” in Brave New Avant Garde: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics (Winchester: Zero Books, 2012), 82—99. See also the two issues of the journal Nonsite on “Contemporary Art and the PMC,” December 8, 2021.
- ↩ See Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993).
- ↩ Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 2.
- ↩ Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, 6. One wonders if this much is true. See my section on the “wages of wokeness” in Léger, Bernie Bros Gone Woke: Class, Identity, Neoliberalism (Leiden: Brill, 2022).
- ↩ Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, 7—8.
- ↩ See Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York: New York University Press, 2014).
- ↩ Fred Schleger, “Gerald Horne’s counter-revolution against 1776,” World Socialist Web Site, March 17, 2021.
- ↩ Again, Eagleton makes a better guide to these contradictions and paradoxes, with more helpful suggestions for contemporary cultural practice. See Eagleton, Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
- ↩ See Holly Lewis, The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Marxism at the Intersection (London: Zed Books, 2016).
- ↩ For an example of intellectual resistance to the renewed critique of the professional-managerial class, see Blake Stimson, “Infantile ‘Left-wing’ Disorder: An Update,” Nonsite, December 8, 2021.