Radical, like in the eighties

Gail Day, Dialectical Passions: Negation in Postwar Art Theory, Columbia University Press, New York, 2011. 320 pp., £34.50 hb., 978 0 231 14938 9.

Luke White

Dialectical Passions is a book about art and architectural theory in the wake of the New Left. It locates itself in the context of a turning tide in thinking – a movement away from the orthodoxies of what Day terms ‘the long 1980s’, which tended to an apolitical relativism (or at best to a politics of identity). The discourses surrounding contemporary art, in contrast, are becoming increasingly politicized, and the nature of this politics returning to issues such as the subject, history or totality that, for a while, tended to be dismissed as too metaphysical and even dangerously authoritarian. Taking such issues seriously again, Day proposes, places us in a Marxian–Hegelian tradition in which the dialectic is central.

In this regard, Dialectical Passions is a challenge to recent narratives of the history of postwar art theory. To problematize these, Day focuses on a thread of dialectical thought that runs back in time, through the 1980s (if in submerged form), to join with longer histories of radical discourse on culture. In particular, Day’s investigation concerns the fate of notions and practices of negation during a period when such a concept was marginalized. To reconnect with a tradition of dialectical negation, she suggests, offers a key resource for an art theory wanting to engage with the radicalizing artistic and intellectual currents of today.

However, as Day astutely presents it, the politics of negation are certainly not monolithic or unproblematic, and the book sets out to explore the different ‘valences’ that negative thought has taken on. No-saying lies at the heart of socio-political refusal, but the negative is also the root of a melancholic ‘Left-oriented nihilism’. That the book explores recent art theory as suspended between these poles seems indicative of the current state of radical thought; it also, however, marks Day’s admirable scepticism towards the false comfort of easy answers, even (or especially) when these seem to hold out hope.

To pursue this end, the first half of the book contrasts T.J. Clark and Manfredo Tafuri, two writers with sustained but very different interests in notions of the negative, and who both exemplify the rigorous scepticism which Day champions. Day argues that Clark’s conception of modernist ‘practices of negation’ is at the core of his reinterpretation of Greenberg’s narrative of the purification of medium. For her, the politics of Clark’s account of modernism thus hinge on the relation he proposes between the formal negations of art and socio-political negation. He proposes that modern art’s formal agitation does have a certain ‘seriousness’ in its recognition that it has implications for the institutions and languages in which power is lodged. However, for Clark, the refusal by a modernist artist such as Jackson Pollock of the established figurative and metaphorical modes through which an audience can determine artistic meaning is ultimately a symptom of the wider deadlock of a contradictory bourgeois society and culture, one that cannot be resolved artistically. This reading of the central stakes of Clark’s understanding of modernism explains much about the melancholic tones of his Farewell to an Idea, though Day closes the chapter noting the more militant character of the Retort book, Afflicted Powers, Clark co-authored just a year later. Doing this, she poses us the challenge of gathering our ‘afflicted powers’ to transmute Clark’s critical insights into a culture and criticism that moves beyond the impasse he seems to share with the artists he diagnoses.

It is Tafuri, then, who emerges as opening a view onto practices that might create a passage beyond the present. At its most obvious, Tafuri’s account of the avant-garde seems (famously) somewhat pessimistic, proposing that it is precisely in its rebellion that vanguardist culture most replicates the negative and chaotic energies of capital (or, in Tafuri’s term, the ‘Metropolis’). Day, however, placing Tafuri’s account back in the context of the debates of operaism, finds in it a far less nihilistic programme. She notes his counterintuitively positive evaluation of the seemingly more co-opted post-avant-garde architecture and design that began to eschew rebellion against metropolitan conditions in order to work with and through them. Such art, Tafuri proposes, looks ‘the Metropolis’ squarely in the face. It is thus van der Rohe’s active embrace of ‘empty architecture’ and ‘silence’ that constitutes a dialectical response to a ‘world without quality’. Such work constitutes a Nietzschean ‘completed nihilism’ that Day argues comes very close to the process of the negative described by Hegel, and leads to the moment where new values become possible. Taking such a stance allows one to identify the radical moment within a contemporary architect such as Rem Koolhaas, who, like Mies, can be understood as representing a critical mode of practice that continues at the heart of capitalist culture and that has a role to play in fostering the movement to a world beyond the current one. However, one might still wonder where such a position would leave a more explicitly political art, or what the results of translating Tafuri’s logic into the realm of socio-political struggle rather than culture might be.

Rather than being organized around particular writers, the third and fourth chapters revolve around two different debates in recent art theory, and the centre of gravity of this second half of the book is the journal OCTOBER, taken as a key locus in anglophone art criticism in which poststructuralist and postmodern thought was taken up. The third chapter thus focuses on the debate around allegory ignited by Craig Owens’s influential essay ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism’ (1980). Day traces the increasing flattening of the opposition between ‘modernist’ symbolism and ‘postmodern’ allegory as the terms became familiar in art discourse. To dismantle such an opposition, Day explores the ways in which allegory lies at the heart of modernist practices which are more canonically associated with the symbol, contrasting the more nuanced accounts of de Man and Benjamin with recent art theory’s crude, periodizing opposition of the two modes.

The fourth chapter makes a valuable critique of a tendency in cultural criticism to take what writers believe to be capital’s increasing dematerialization – and its subsequently enhanced powers of commodification and co-optation – as a reified obstacle to radical artistic practice. Day argues strongly that such an ontology of late capitalism draws on a misreading of the first chapter of Marx’s Capital that has dogged twentieth-century cultural theory, namely the commonly repeated narrative that today use-value has been increasingly replaced by a pure and ungrounded exchange-value. She makes instead a close reading of Marx’s dialectical articulation of use- and exchange-value that insists on the necessarily continuing place of the materiality of labour and use-value at the heart of even the most phantasmagorical forms of financialized capital. Writers such as Foster, Buchloh and Jameson, then, end up fetishizing exchange-value, and risk envisioning capital as a frictionless machine immune to contradiction and cultural challenge. In turning away from the material relations that underpin contemporary capital they deprive themselves of grounds for resistance.

In a book such as Day’s, critiquing recent intellectual trends and proposing new directions, one danger is that one’s opponents become two-dimensional representatives of a reified category of thought (the ‘postmodern’) which one is attacking. Indeed, in a few places Day does set up a rather straw-man version of poststructuralism. However, particularly in the second half of the book, Day provides an admirable example of a properly dialectical relation to the thinkers she engages with, working through particular examples of writing with an eye for their strengths as well as their weaknesses.

In this regard the book is less simply an argument against the postmodern (an argument which, in any case, has been made already), and more a Benjaminian act of recovery, through which a recent past of art theory can be rescued or redeemed for an ongoing critical project. In this regard, Day’s account of de Man in the chapter on allegory is exemplary. Day certainly comes to grips with the limits to his position. Her basic critique of deconstruction’s version of the negative is clearest in her account of how de Man’s complete refusal of closure becomes itself a kind of closure which, moreover, forecloses any moment of commitment. However, far from being the villain of the piece, de Man is introduced precisely to highlight the comparative flattening of conceptions of allegory in subsequent art-theoretical writing. Day notes that in spite of his association with deconstruction, de Man’s work (even his late writing) is in fact often highly dialectical, citing Christopher Norris to suggest that ‘deconstruction is indeed a form of negative dialectics’. At such moment, poststructuralism and its correlates seem to slip from view as the target of the work; one has the sense that Day’s enemy is more properly, and more generally, the tendency of thought to harden into orthodoxy. For Day, it is, of course, dialectics which keeps it supple and in process; but as well as discovering in the ‘long 1980s’ a rejection of the theoretical foundations from which dialectics grew, she also finds, in its unpromising milieu, an embattled but ongoing concern with dialectical practices.

Overall, the value of Dialectical Passions, then, is its excavation, critique and revivification of this tradition of negation for contemporary art theory. Through her own impressive demonstration, Day shows the power of such a project to challenge thought’s ossification, and to restore its ‘pulse of freedom’. If it suggests that ours is a moment in which the outlines of a better future (and even the road to get there) are not yet clear, Day’s critical mode of investigation, wary of both utopian mirages and melancholic attachments to the status quo, offers a way to refuse remaining stuck in anunsatisfactory present, expressing a (limited) optimismand a means for continuing at a moment in which, verypossibly, things could be looking up for radical culture.