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Fantasy and Judgement: Adorno, Tolkien, Burroughs


Out To Lunch's contribution to China Mieville's 'Fantasy' issue of Historical Materialism (10.4)



Fantasy in Marx and Adorno


Writing in 1951, expanding on the Frankfurt School's critique of both US positivism and USSR Marxism, Theodor Adorno had nothing but good to say of fantasy:


Fantasy alone, today consigned to the realm of the unconscious and proscribed from knowledge as a childish, injudicious rudiment, can establish that relation between objects which is the irrevocable source of all judgment: should fantasy be driven out, judgment too, the real act of knowledge, is exorcised. (Adorno, Minima Moralia, pp. 122-3)

Compared to the positivist triumphalism of super- powers who believed hydrogen bombs could settle their ideological differences, Adorno's humanistic epistemology - knowledge as inseparable from the judging subject - may look like liberal hand-wringing. However, unlike Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, whose resistance to dominant powers was voluntarist and ethical, the Frankfurt School based its criticism on science. Adorno's choice of fantasy as the remedy for modern ills was characteristically provocative, but it was nevertheless based on a historical-materialist understanding of philosophy and society. To the prismatic materialist, intent on the rays of possible meaning which shine forth from any word, the fact that 'fantasy' has since been applied to a genre of popular fiction is unavoidable. What would Adorno have to say about Lord of the Rings? The roots of fantasy need to be unearthed.


'Fantasy' derives from the Greek for 'make visible', from the root verb 'to show'. Loyal to the word's etymology, the Oxford English Dictionary begins with the word's meaning for the mediaeval scholastics - 'mental apprehension of an object of perception' (1382) - even though an example of fantasy meaning 'a spectral apparition, phantom, an illusory appearance' predates it (1325). However, it would be wrong to conclude that the word was always an accusation hurled at the imagination by empirical common sense. In a religious era, the material world itself was deemed 'fantasy'. When the author of 'Song Of Yesterday' wrote 'This  worldly blis/Is but a fykel fantasy' in 1325, empirical perception and everyday pleasures were being denied in favour of eternal truth - divine and revealed.


Adorno's assertion that fantasy has a part to play in knowledge  revives historical residues in the word. 'Fancy' and 'phantasy' are variants of 'fantasy': the former was a vulgar contraction whose meaning became trivialised to mean 'caprice', 'whim' or 'embellishment', the latter was a product of the revival of Greek learning in the seventeenth century, applied to a grander idea of making visible, comparable to 'imagination' or 'vision'. When William Wollaston wrote in 1738, 'we know matters of fact by the help of impressions made upon phancy' (The Religion of Nature Delineated) he was using yet another (and short-lived) variant, but he was on strong technical grounds. The eye is not merely a window on the outside world: the mind needs to do work in order to 'make visible'  what it sees.


The bourgeois revolution and the victory of the experimental method in science brought fantasy and fancy into disrepute. In 1698, John Locke wrote that using similes to describe things reveals that we 'rather fancie than know' (Of the Conduct of the Understanding). Fantasy gradually acquired its modern meaning of wish-fulfilling evasion and egregious subjectivism. When Q. D. Leavis wrote in 1931 that 'a habit of fantasying will lead to maladjustment in actual life' (Fiction and the Reading Public) she was criticising romance fiction, but it was no accident that her formula echoed nineteenth-century edicts regarding masturbation. Bourgeois insistence on hard facts went along with hard bargains and hard beds.


What are the nuances of 'fantasy' today? Reactions to news that Historical Materialism was planning a 'fantasy issue' have been instructive. First, it was assumed the volume would never appear: to unreflective thinking, a fantasy is by definition illusory (especially in the vicinity of things so seemingly closed to speculative readjustment as past history and brute material). There are an array of situationist and punk slogans to challenge such assumptions ('prenez vos rêves pour la réalité', etc.), but perhaps the most precise refutation of reactionary matter-of-factness came from Leon Trotsky in 1938, when defending the revolutionary idea versus liberal realism. Surely, argued someone in Chicago, responding to a recent issue of Partisan Review, international revolution was a hopeless cause: unlike Stalin's Communism, it had no 'mass base'. Trotsky replied, 'Not a single progressive idea has begun with a “mass base,” otherwise it would not be a progressive idea. It is only in the last stage that the idea finds its masses.' ('Art & Politics in Our Epoch')

Having got over the shock that any conscious action begins with a 'mere idea' or 'fantasy', today's respondents came up with two predictions: a 'fantasy issue' would be a volume of sexual fantasies, or an issue modelled on fantasy football, the pub game brought to British TV by comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, in which fans dream up teams recruited without regard for limits of generation or nationality (the various lists of 'great antecedents' claimed by Marxist organisations mean that 'fantasy Marxism'  of this type needs no help, as for the prospect of an issue full of sexual fantasies, one could only hope). Adorno's insistence on the necessity of fantasy for science was a rebuke to this belittling notion of fantasy as distraction. For him, as for Wilhelm Reich, sexual fantasy is not distraction but biological and cosmic reality. Likewise, Adorno rejected the middle-class view of fantasy and rebellion as a 'passing phase': for him, fantasy is crucial, a sine qua non of mature judgement. Positivists who deny the part fantasy plays in picturing the world are repressing their own thought processes, seeking to conceal partial interests beneath a veneer of objectivity. For Adorno, Arnold Schoenberg, Finnegans Wake and Betty Boop unleash rebel unconscious forces which are incompatible with religious, political and commercial manipulation: they tell truths about the psyche. This left-Freudian aspect of Adorno's thought is widely recognised. Overshadowed as we are by the grim version of Marxism installed in Stalin's Russia, it is less easy to see that Adorno's insistence on fantasy was also founded on Marx's dialectical epistemology. Citations in the OED from Meunier 's Essays on Oresme (1342), Richard Baxter's Catholick Theologie (1675), Thomas Stanley's History of Philosophy (1655) and Alexander Browne's Ars Pictoria, or an Academy Treating Drawing, Painting, Limning and Etching (1669) show 'fantasy' being used in its scholastic sense to describe the mind's work in imaging an external object. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, William of Orange's Glorious Revolution and John Locke's new empirical philosophy dealt death blows to mediaeval scholasticism. In the 1720s, Isaac Newton's publications on optics gave an 'objectivist' account of light and colour backed up by empirical experiment and mathematical accuracy. In such a climate, recognition of the active role played by the imagination in perception could look like madness (employed as an engraver, aware that the discoveries made by Raphael and Michelangelo about the proportions of the human body could be used to fashion subversive icons, William Blake was a case in point). Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's critique of Newton's Opticks concentrated on complementary colours, after-images and optical illusions, freak effects which Newton ignored. Goethe was deemed 'unscientific'. In 1959, however, Goethe's Colour Theory helped Edwin Land, the founder of the Polaroid Corporation, think through how colour photography might be perfected (see Esther's Hollywood Flatlands pp. 252-3).


British prejudice against the subjective component in perception was so strong that it took a refugee from Vienna with ideas derived from W. Kohler's Gestalt philosophy - E. H. Gombrich - to explain to British readers that the illusionism of single-point perspective in fact depends on assumptions about straight lines and parallels and 90° angles, and is hence far from 'objective' (Art and Illusion, 1956). Hence, linear perspective's supersession by Cubism was not simply a case of bohemian irrationalism, but a rigorous investigation into the act of looking and reproducing the seen on a flat surface. This dialectical approach to perception was so alien to liberal thought in Britain that John Berger equated it with revolutionary Marxism in his 1969 essay 'The Moment of Cubism' [to the scandal of the art world, David Hockney revived the criticism of linear perspective as a mechanical trick in his wonderful Secret Knowledge OTL 2021].


In his 'Theses on Feuerbach', Marx famously pointed out that, given the contemplative, objectivist nature of 'hitherto existing materialism', the 'active' side - work on nature (or 'labour') as basic to man's self-definition - was developed by German idealism. Without Hegel's dialectical logic, and its assault on the metaphysical subject/object antinomy, the humanist polemic of Capital becomes inaccessible (a point made by Lenin in his 'Conspectus of Hegel's Science of Logic' and banged on about by Raya Dunayevskaya and the IMHOs all the time).


Significantly, far from asserting objective fact versus subjective fantasy (or 'ideology'), Capital begins with acknowledgement of the driving role fantasy plays in economics:


A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach ('Magen') or from fancy ('Phantasie'), makes no difference.

In order to back up this assertion, Marx cites from Nicholas Barbon's 'A Discourse on Coining the New Money Lighter, In Answer to Mr Locke's Considerations from 1696'. This was in line with Marx's intent to produce a critique of political economy rather than a work of speculative philosophy. Hegel's dialectical method was to be applied to the logical and pragmatic investigations of the writers of the wealthiest bourgeois nation, it was not a matter of importing axioms and values from elsewhere (the fact that the quality of political economy decayed over time, descending from science to apology - William Petty, John Locke, Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus are treated with diminishing respect - was part of Marx's polemic).


Marx quotes Barbon as saying:


Desire implies want; it is the appetite of the mind, and as natural as hunger to the body … The great number (of things) have their value from supplying the wants of the mind.

Saying that the mind, too, has 'wants' crosses the wires of soul/body dualism. Marx's citation of anglo-bourgeois materialism was a calculated affront to Christian residues in German idealism. Rather than something from which the philosophical mind should remain aloof, the nascent bourgeois economy and its stimulation of artificial needs ('Phantasie') were praised.


Barbon gave examples of the 'wants of the mind':


Such as all sorts of fine draperies, gold, silver, pearl, diamonds and all sorts of precious stones. They are used to adorn and deck the body. They are badges of riches, and serve to make distinctions of preference amongst men.

Adorno's argument that fantasy has a part to play in achieving genuine knowledge was fundamental to his epistemology; in Capital, Marx does not appear to go quite so far. He uses 'Phantasie' to point out that for commodity production there are no 'false' needs: fantasy is just as much grist to the economic mill as bodily needs. But does fantasy have a part to play in economic analysis itself?

There are interpretations of Capital which would set Marx-the-analyst above society, and so define his method as positive-scientific and objective. This underestimates the radical self-reflection of his thought, for which method cannot be separated from the society analysed (with all its possibilities and contradictions), precisely because the analyst acknowledges himself as a product of the society.

As Marx put it in his first draft of Capital, Grundrisse:


In the theoretical method, too, the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition.

Marx also says in Grundrisse that the sequence of economic categories can only be explained by their logical order within modern bourgeois society, not by the order in which they were historically decisive (Penguin, p. 107). History is not a parade which can be observed from outside (this explains why, even with the best intentions, 'histories of the world' written as sequences of events from an undeclared, transcendent point of view lack the conceptual excitement of Marx's analyses). Contrary to such Olympian overviews, the writer is inside history, a product of history, and needs to recognise that fact in order to achieve something scientific, something more than a précis of other people's texts. Writing history is like being at the front end of a demonstration and wanting to know what is happening at the back: one must proceed by interrogating reports and rumours within the crowd, there is no place of vantage, no spot 'outside history' from which to view it, no leaving the demo to gaze at it from a footbridge. In Capital, Marx wanted to present a rigorous (if nightmarish) extension of political economy. He therefore left the most extreme statements of this fantastic relativism behind in Grundrisse. Nevertheless, he carried out his plan: a history of capitalism written by analysing in detail its inmost and most advanced 'cell' (Lenin), the commodity. There is no transcendent viewpoint, the society analysed is the presupposition of everything, including the author - and his 'Phantasie'.


In The Holy Family, Marx and Engels described how, with Bacon and Hobbes:


knowledge based upon the senses loses its poetic blossom, it passes  into  the abstract experience of the geometrician. Physical motion is sacrificed to mechanical or mathematical motion; geometry is proclaimed as the queen of sciences. Materialism takes to misanthropy.

By including the observer's own conceptual self-consciousness and development in an account of the observed, Marx restored to scientific investigation the sense of the 'mental apprehension of an object of perception' which was the meaning of 'fantasy' to the scholastics, but which the new empiricists decried as subjective and illusory. Although such an observation will not be popular with those who think they can abscond with the positive 'facts' established by Capital and ignore its method, it is essential if Marxism is not to become doctrinaire and authoritarian. Capital was a polemic against the commonsense idea that appearances are self-explanatory. As Hegel argued, simple empirical 'sense-certainty' is a lie. In Capital, discussion of the adulteration of goods becomes a satire on the inhuman conditions created by laissez-faire economics. According to Marx, a House of Commons Committee:


naturally shows the tenderest consideration for every free-trader who determines by the buying and selling of adulterated commodities 'to turn an honest penny'. The Committee itself formulated more or less naively its conviction that free-trade meant essentially trade with adulterated, or as the English ingeniously put it, 'sophisticated' goods. In fact this kind of sophistry knows better than Protagoras how to make white black and black white, and better than the Eleatics how to demonstrate  ad oculos that everything is only appearance.

Hegel criticised the Eleatics (Parmenides and Zeno) in the shorter Logic. He points out that an undialectical insistence on perceivable being fails to explain change and motion. The laissez-faire trust in the self-regulating beneficence of the market - the 'perceivable being' of capitalism - ends up in similar absurdities. Bread production is a case in point:


Englishmen, always well up on the Bible, knew well enough that man, unless by elective grace a capitalist, or landlord, or sinecurist, is commanded to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow, but they did not know that he had to eat daily in his bread a certain quantity of human perspiration mixed with the discharge of abscesses, cobwebs, dead black-beetles, and putrid German yeast, without counting alum, sand, and other agreeable mineral ingredients.

The working class needed legislation to protect itself from the adulterated food and long hours that were the result of market economics. Marx points out that the factory acts of 1833, 1844, 1847 and 1848 were not products of parliamentary fantasy (literally translated, 'brain-weaving - 'Hirnweberei'), but the result of 'a long struggle of classes'. Marx recognised human appetite and fantasy as motors of economic development, but that did not mean dissolving all things into ideology. Class analysis reveals antagonistic concept of society, allowing Marx to acknowledge the new needs created by capital ('Phantasie'), while deriding the illusions of the ruling class ('Hirnweberei').


In his youth, Marx was an enthusiastic reader of Laurence Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy was a sustained mockery of the repressive aspects of new bourgeois science, an outburst of Rabelaisian ribaldry. It mobilises readers' awareness of their own bodies to mock the misanthropy of the new rationalism. Tristram Shandy dramatises the material actuality of reading - ellipses, page-turning, confronting the reader with a black page - as a corrective to both ideological bunkum and the social oppression known as boredom. Sterne provided lessons which, as a writer, Marx never forgot. Shandy's 'autobiography' begins with the narrator's own conception, which is interrupted when his mother asks his father if he has remembered to wind up the clock, a pointed satire on the irrelevance of mechanical time to certain essential human activities. The young Marx wrote an emulation, named Scorpion & Felix. Francis Wheen's racy biography of Karl Marx didn't make many ripples in academic Marxism, but it made some refreshing points about Marx as a literary stylist, finding an anticipation of the famous opening lines of the Eighteenth Brumaire in his Tristram-style juvenalia.

Marx had a fine-tuned idea of satire which his more earnest interpreters - academics and activists allergic to the idea of science with a smile - fail to appreciate. In To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson compared some of the prose in Capital to Swift. It is not an illegitimate observation. In criticising the 'relay-system' which allowed employers to bend the rules of the Factory Acts as regards the length of the working day, Marx called it 'an offspring of capitalistic fantasy ('Kapitalphantasie') such as Fourier, in his humorous sketches of Courtes Séances, has never surpassed'. However, Marx then points out that Fourier's concept, the 'attraction of labour', has here been replaced by the 'attraction of capital'. Marx uses class struggle to orient his position in questions of ideology, refusing both positivism (which insists on 'facts' versus 'fantasy') and romanticism (which insists on 'fantasy' versus 'facts'). The scholastic doctrine that active fantasy must be involved in any meaningful perception was developed in Hegel's doctrine that concepts ('Begriffe') are not a priori paradigms required for thought (as Kant argued0, nor the passive reflection of sense-immediate entities, but the mind actively grasping genuine distinctions and autonomous processes in the world (passim, but try Phenomenology of Spirit §242).  In Capital, this dialectical epistemology was fused to the anti-idealist, egalitarian politics of proletarian communism. The defenders of capitalism assure us that a cash economy's appearance of fair exchange is all there is to it; Marx shows how its riches produce misery, and that our indignation with such conditions only makes sense if we commit ourselves to the victory of a particular class. As anticapitalism is discovering today, the bridge between the ideal and the real is class struggle. But this turn to the political is not won at the expense of literary values: Capital transcends the distinction. Describing bread adulterated with 'cobwebs, dead black beetles, and putrid German yeast' is hardly 'poetic blossom', yet in the midst of the abstractions of political economy, Marx's citation of such details have the specific weight and anti-conceptual black humour which James Joyce and William Burroughs (no strangers to Sterne and Swift) made central to advanced twentieth-century literature.


Marxism and modernism


When Adorno said that fantasy - unconscious, childish, unjudgmental - is a crucial component of knowledge, he was not only criticising Stalinised Marxism and its reduction of social phenomena to instances of positive historical law. He was also criticising the liberal notion of fantasy as a zone of irresponsibility quarantined from both lived desire and organised knowledge. According to this critique, both J.R.R. Tolkien's tales of hobbits and the sexual antics promised on postcards in the central London phone booth are kitsch because - in different ways - they target the private existence of the solvent individual in a repressive environment. Adorno's idea of fantasy is the opposite of such dependable, niche-marketed product. He senses something fascistic in the commodification of wish-fulfillment: the idea of a specialised 'fantasy' section in a bookshop would strike him as obscene, as if fantasy had been contained and therefore denied its role in mature judgement. The manner in which 'fantasy art' presses motifs from the history of art - Altdorfer, Bosch, Russian fairytale illustrations, Disney, Chinese landscape water-colours, surrealism - into twee congruence works in the reverse direction to Dada, which drew attention to how representation and artistic value are constructed. (In his edicts on jazz, Adorno was notoriously inattentive to the detail of his subject. In order to dispel accusations of similar mandarin myopia, the rest of this article could devote itself to the virtues of the 'Slaine' strip in 2000 AD, John Norman's Gor series, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, Interzone magazine, William Kotzwinkle, Pat Cadigan, China Miéville etc etc and sundry  other wonders on sale at Forbidden Planet. However, Adorno's polemic versus a jazz defined by Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller eventually proved more useful in explaining the social-sonic antagonism of Cecil Taylor and Last Exit when they arrived than any number of more reasonable, Ellingon-aware surveys. Here's to the Cecil Taylors and Shannon Jacksons in the  fantasy marketplace … [and to AMM All-Stars!!! OTL 2021]) Adorno's fantasy is manifest in the play and accident of Modern Art - Cage, Jorn, Dubuffet, Beckett, Free Improvisation - not the meticulously-constructed alternative worlds of the fantasy genre. The use of a transparent medium for the depiction of 'wonders' and 'ideals' - Dali's academic technique, Nazi neo-classicism, socialist realism, the flat efficiency of the prose of run-of-the-mill romance, horror, porn and fantasy fiction - betrays the fantastic subject-matter. Deploying readymade techniques of representation hypnotises the consumer, providing windows of phoney depth and blinding the consumer to the banality of commercial production and purchase. Adorno's emphasis on fantasy was not a defence of industries geared to exploiting people's need for distraction after mindnumbing labour, but a defence of critical thought.


Fantasy is not an individual consumer 'choice', but a universal necessity, crucial because it dramatises the difference between thought and reality. Adorno:


As soon as thought repudiates its inviolable distance and tries with a thousand subtle arguments to prove its literal correctness, it founders. If it leaves behind the medium of virtuality, of anticipation that cannot be wholly fulfilled by any single piece of actuality; in short, if instead of interpretation it seeks to become mere statement, everything it states becomes, in fact, untrue. (Minima Moralia, p. 127)

In the current climate, with poststructuralism dominating the humanities, such a position will immediately be compared to deconstruction, and interpreted in terms of Jacques Derrida's campaign against materialism's 'metaphysics of presence'. However, although Adorno's negative dialectics was a parallel reaction to the hidebound dogma of Communism, unlike poststructuralism, it is not a species of neo-Kantianism. It remains materialist. For the development of radical cultural criticism, this difference really matters.

Adornian criticism of fantasy as a commodity genre is telling because it does not deny fantasy and wish-fulfillment, so much as protest at their trivialisation and niching. Commercial fantasy betrays fantasy, and so requires merciless critique, sabotage: immanent subversion. Adorno's materialism is fantastic because it does not mean abandoning imagination for the facts, but of imagining every fact in relation to the totality. Fantasy needs to work even harder to understand the real world than in fabricating substitutes.


Lenin and fantasy


In 1899, having, like Marx, been involved in a successful campaign over the length of the working day (legislation was enacted in Russia in 1897), Lenin published a book named The Development of Capitalism in Russia. The fruit of three years work and 640 pages long, it is a formidable book, a unique example of a politician proving in print his interest and knowledge of his country. It is a polemical and persuasive application of the categories of Marx's Capital to the statistics issued by the Zemstvos, or rural government bodies - collected predominantly by Narodnik statisticians - and papers and reports published by the tsarist government. Among liberals, anarchists and postmodernists, Lenin has a reputation for intellectual rigour - adherence to the 'facts' - leading to charges that his style of thinking led directly to the Stalinist tyranny. So is his book an example of 'mere statement', the kind of undialectical exposition which Adorno said 'becomes, in fact, untrue'?

Lenin was critical of economic analyses that permit 'historical problems to be obscured by abstract schemas', (p. 639) and his involvement with factual detail  is so enthusiastic as to be almost comical - flax growers, hat shapers, box makers and milk separators all receive meticulous attention. Nevertheless, he stresses that facts only signify when caught in the twin headlights of relevant abstractions. Although he does not cite the passage, his approach was outlined by Marx in Capital: 'The numberless shades, that it at first sight presents, correspond to the intermediate stages lying between … two extremes.' (Capital, 1906, p. 834)


Marx is describing how the different types of private property in nascent British capitalism resolve to the tension between labour and capital: his conceptual distinction works like a pixelation which can discern shapes in undifferentiated grey. The Development of Capitalism in Russia likewise refuses to accept the Zemstvo agglomeration of statistics. According to Lenin, their 'averages' hid the fact that capital was creating a few rich peasants while turning the rest into landless labourers. Much of the book consists of tables which realign the statistics according to households owning zero, one, several or many horses: a way of seeing precisely who is propertyless and who is wealthy within a regional average.


Adorno said dialectics 'cannot be wholly fulfilled by any single piece of actuality' (Minima Moralia, p. 127). Lenin's definition of dialectics is similar. He defends himself against the charge that his vision of capitalism as undermining village community is 'running ahead' by saying: 'Whoever wants to depict some living phenomenon in its development is inevitably and necessarily confronted with the dilemma of either running ahead or lagging behind. There is no middle course.' (p. 329, n. *)


Marxism presupposes the society which produces the thinker (a society in contradiction, which is where Stalin's 'stageist' dialectical materialism, which divided different modes of production into discrete chronological periods, went wrong). Its 'fantasy' is one of imagining human beings in real situations, and so understanding why social rules and conventions are bent and broken. It neither upholds legality, nor automatically prefers its opposite (à la deconstruction, essentially a theory for capitalist anarchism), but tries to understand social pressures on laws, so they may be judged. Like Laurence Sterne, Marxists appeal to the reader's knowledge of people and their appetites, mocking oppressive schemas of rationalism and morality.

Narodnik class prejudice meant defining peasants by their allotments of land, ignoring their relationship to the new wage relations introduced by capitalism. Land tenure 'by force of law … bears an equalitarian character … the purchase and sale of allotment land is hindered in the extreme. The whole process of the differentiation of the agricultural peasantry is one of real life evading these legal bounds.' (p. 104). Once peasants become wage-labourers, Lenin declares, 'the juridical basis of his right to his plot of land is absolutely immaterial' (p. 181). Lenin fiercely opposed the Narodnik policy of tying the peasant to his allotted land in order to 'prevent' capitalist relations: it simply meant that poor peasants, unable to sell up, were forced to rent out their land at a loss. Gilles Deleuze is celebrated for his concept of 'nomadic' thought, along with his anarchist accusation that Marxism is 'authenticist' and 'grounded'. Lenin, on the other hand, actively campaigned to set people free of place. This was because he was optimistic about the prospects for working-class consciousness: he was aware that education does not come solely from books:

Unless the population becomes mobile, it cannot develop. It would be naive to imagine that a village school can teach people what they can learn from an independent acquaintance with the different relations and orders of things in the South and North, in agriculture and in industry, in the capital and in the backwoods. (p. 254)

Early on in The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin points out that political economy does not simply deal with 'production', but with the 'social relations of men in production' (p. 63). This humanist imagination informs his treatment of every statistic, a persistent checking of facts and figures against likely human motivations. When he reports that the 'polished' workers who live in St Petersburg find it easier to find wives than the country bumpkins they have left behind, you understand where Russian society is headed (you have also been granted an insight into current immigration issues) (p. 583).


Lenin summarises his differences with the Narodniks by condemning their moralism, which to him is as abstract and superficial as legal definitions:


The Narodnik usually draws conclusions that point to some moral; he does not regard the diverse groups of person taking part in production as creators of various forms of life; he does not set out to present the sum-total of social and economic relationships as the result of the mutual relations between these groups which have different interests and different historical roles. (p. 607)

Lenin rejects moral conclusions because they apply to the transcendental subject, elevated above history and class, choosing between virtue and sin: they fail to address social actualities.

Adorno likewise attacks the notion of transcendental morality. Real decisions which have a social effect must be made by human beings in real time, not eternity, hence his emphasis on 'judgement': knowledge as a result of decision, an action. Adorno's recommendation of fantasy as an 'injudicious remnant' might seem contradictory in someone who calls judgement 'the real act of knowledge'. What he means is that to make a genuine judgement - one that includes reader and writer in a synthetic decision, one that can be collectively acted upon - objective relationships must first be considered unprejudiced by judgement. Adorno's disdain for conventional morals is equal parts Marx and Freud. In political and cultural criticism today, the too-early application of moral judgement - usually concerning 'familial duty', but also the 'sins' of sexism and racism - often prevents proper understanding of actual situations, failing to discern the material causes of oppression. No less than Adorno, Lenin wants scientific judgements (non-private, public, open, shared between writer and reader) of the causes of poverty and oppression, which means beginning with a non-judgemental imagining - or 'fantasy' - of the actual social relations.


In a highly technical discussion of the latest innovations in milk production ('improvements are being made in the instruments of production (permanent boilers, screw presses, improved cellars), and production is being assisted by bacteriology, which is providing pure cultures of the type of lactic-acid bacilli needed for fermenting cream'), Lenin suddenly jumps to the material effects of exploitation:


Thus, in the two areas of commercial farming we have described, the technical improvements called into being by the requirements of the market were effected primarily in those operations that were easiest to change and are particularly important for the market: reaping, threshing  and winnowing in commercial grain farming, and the technical processing of animal produce in the area of commercial stock farming. As to the keeping of cattle, capital finds it more profitable for the time being to leave that to the small producer: let him 'diligently' and 'industriously' tend 'his' cattle (and charm Mr. V.V. with his diligence - see Progressive Trends, p. 73), let him bear the brunt of the hardest and roughest work of tending the milk-yielding machine. Capital possesses the latest improvements and methods not only of separating the cream from the milk, but also of separating the 'cream' from this 'diligence,' of separating the milk from the children of the peasant poor. (p. 271).

Later on, Lenin shows how butter-making widens the gap between rich and poor (pp. 285-6, note **). In The Development of Capitalism in Russia, actual facts appear shocking and fantastic because Lenin stages them to appear as ideology critique: morality ('diligence' and 'industriousness') is exposed as a means of disguising the bourgeoisie's dependence on exploitation. In this, Lenin's relationship to morality parallels Dada's relationship to art: reality as more shocking and devastating than any concept.


Dreams have a presence and reality - the looming of objects and situations recalled from the previous day's residues - which the homogenised high tone of middle-class 'culture' fail to capture. Dada and Surrealism exploited this. Lenin's observation that market relations will cause cow-owners to sell their cream rather than give it to their children bursts into his technical discussion of bacilli and milk-separators like a greasy lace-doily in a Kurt Schwitters collage, or a sudden personal confession in a novel by Philip K. Dick. The actual is posed as a challenge to contemplative reason - as both its logical result and its destruction as social stance.


Adorno's aesthetic theory demands that we compare Lenin to Dada. The effect is salutory. It crosses the wires of art/politics dualism, offending both the realism of socialist political organisation and the illusionism of contemporary art. One needs to steer past Lenin's tastes in culture (which were mildly conservative, but emphatically personal and not a basis for policy) to the social and philosophical implications of his break with Second International Marxism after 1914: the nexus of debates and discussions which galvanised Lukács, Brecht, Mayakovsky, Adorno and Benjamin - and the Dadaist Hans Richter. Today, Adorno is being increasingly read by a Left waking up to the surge of utopian thinking made possible by anticapitalist agitation. His virtue is that he developed a revolutionary critique capable of tackling separate departments in the parcelled-up institutions of bourgeois knowledge. Let us take one example: psychoanalysis.


Adorno's use of Freud is sometimes taken to be evidence of his 'eclecticism'. This was a term of abuse, used by Lenin at the conclusion of The Development of Capitalism in Russia, for those who attempted to mix neo-Kantian idealism with Marxism (pp. 638-41). This was an error Adorno cannot be accused of: not only was his materialism impeccable, his interest in Freud reflected progressive developments in working-class pedagogy. It was not just a matter of Wilhelm Reich's famous Sex-Pol clinics in Weimar Germany. Recent research on the history of psychoanalysis in post-revolutionary Russia shows that psychoanalysis flourished in Lenin's time (the first state-sponsored schools along Freudian lines in any country), though it fell victim to Stalin's restoration of family values (see Martin Miller's Freud and the Bolsheviks: Psychoanalysis in Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union). Another front for Stalin's onslaught against revolutionary ideas was reinstating the prestige of fine art - i.e. modelling new production on artistic properties inherited from the past, a practice which was rejected by every worthwhile artist during the revolutionary period. Leninists who reject Dada as irrelevant are in danger of taking their definition of Leninism from the Stalinist personality cult - the corpse embalmed in the Soviet mausoleum - rather than from the actuality of revolutionary Russia. Over the course of the twentieth century, the art market successfully disassociated Dadaist freedoms from social revolution, so that anti-art and non-representational experiment are today perceived by many socialists as wilful and nihilist. If 'neo-Dada' can describe the Saatchi-friendly antics of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, then the wedge driven between Dada and socialism does indeed seem immoveable. However, the fundamental problem here is not the Dada games and shocks adopted by art celebrities, but an institution of art which depends for its glamour on capital investment and inflated sales figures. When the Dadaists organised an anti-militarist parade through the working-class districts of Berlin in 1918 and their Jedermann sein eigener Fussball became a popular catchphrase (an episode recounted by Walter Mehring in Hans Richter's Dada: Art and Anti-Art, pp. 110-12) they initiated an alternative practice which has anticipated successive outbreaks of joy and disobedience throughout the twentieth century. Central to this aesthetic is smashing through the impermeable bulkhead which neo-Kantian (or 'structuralist') theory erects between semiotic systems like art and the 'real' world. So it is far from frivolous to note that the entry of scandalous deprivation into Lenin's text on milk production has a similar charge to the moments when subversive artists demonstrate that that holy of holies, 'art', is simply the manipulation of materials in social contexts, a practice anyone can engage in. Moralism is a powerful motivating force, so it is not surprising that socialist propaganda and criticism frequently stoop to it: the community created by a particular publication asserts its core values, and ejects the barbarians who do not agree. This is the opposite of Marxist analysis, which proceeds from a materialist register of the effects of capitalist social relations. Early on in The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin quotes Capital on how easily the medieval peasant could gauge the lord's expropriation of his surplus-value.


This 'very good knowledge' of one's relation to production has disappeared in capitalist society owing to the latter's inherent fetishism, which presents the social relations of men as relations of products - produced for an unknown consumer and to be realised in an unknown market. (p. 56)

Finding out about the real relations of capitalism is the task of Marxism, which is why strikes are valued by the Left: only by interrupting the regular commodification of labour can genuine human relationships - acts carried out with awareness of their global consequences - be initiated. Under a capitalist system, 'culture' does not necessarily have the communitarian effect credited to it by liberal humanism. Commodity production niche-targets markets defined by particular mores: the consumption of congruous world views can become confused with 'progressive art'. Flattery of limited concepts of the world cauterises the desire for real experience. The socialist who prefers icons of morality available as product to commodity-critical art has not understood Marx.

Perhaps my argument has strayed too far from conventional usage of the word 'fantasy'. Lenin's defence of the need for intellectual abstraction hardly constitutes an enthusiasm for Dada and Free Improvisation. However, the device of imploding moralistic strictures by making the reader respond to material facts is essential to Marxist rhetoric. Lenin derived it from Capital, and Marx derived it from Tristram Shandy. Without a criticism of the 'misanthropy' of bourgeois rationalism, Marxism loses its humanist core, and loses its possible relationship to the ructures and ruptions of Modern Art. The specialists of revolution suspect the radical artists will not stay the course. This underrates the radicalism of Marx's theory, a genuine attempt to think beyond the bourgeois epoch and its equation of accountancy with reason and materialism with misanthropy. Modern Art is militant. It sees no point in revolution that fails to restore the poetic blossom Hobbes and Locke took from our lives: this is the polemic of Adorno's Negative Dialectics. As Chris harman once pointed out, revolution is like a swelling river in a delta which unites separated creeks. Not just political sects, but different modes of apprehending and altering the world too. A genuine Marxism will restore the 'active' side of materialism and, unintimidated by comparisons to post-modernist whimsy, will emphasise the imaginative component in the formation of concepts, restoring 'fantasy' as a component of holistic perception. Dead Marxism - the repetition of the results of Marx's thought as if they were facts purged of fantasy - will wither away, and a new social programme will be born.


A note on William Burroughs


The key writer to consider when reviewing the issue of fantasy as a subgenre is William Burroughs. His novels, marketed as pulp shockers in the 1970s, provide a reply to Q.D. Leavis's accusation that the habit of 'fantasying' will lead to 'maladjustment': by allowing free reign to his own fantasies, he exposed the homosexual basis of Boy's Own Annual adventure stories, and posed a series of questions that only revolutionary politics - anti-family and pro-sex and anti-imperialist - can answer. In Burroughs, fantasy certainly leads to 'maladjustment', but maladjustment to a straight America which is violent, hypocritical and repressed.


It is significant that Burroughs used 'cut-up', a method of collaging different texts together and reading off the results. The liberties Burroughs took with prose and plot are dangerous for current genre writers, who either write to formulae supplied by the publisher, or internally censor linguistic extremes that could alienate prospective reviewers. The 'cut-up' technique connects Burroughs to Cubism and Dada. His lurid emphasis on sex and violence, raiding the thrills of pulp and porn, avoids the blandness of the post-Cagean formalism dominant in the poetry and music of American academia (where 'cut-up' and the destruction of significance have been reduced to signifiers of cultural refinement). Like V. N. Voloshinov,  Burroughs views language as a social construct (or, in an alienated world, a 'virus') which colonises the biological individual. Inner speech - the discourse which the Surrealists accessed via the technique of automatic writing - is society arguing inside the head, not the authentic voice of the individual. The utterly subjective can flip round to be virulent social critique. Burroughs is not morally responsible for the results of his writing, and he has been variously accused of misogyny, racism and fascism. However, when reading some of the more politically-correct novelists he has influenced - Pat Califia, William Gibson, Kathy Acker - one registers notes of inauthenticity, as if the authors are living out by proxy ultra-hip scenarios they wish they had lived through: a Terrible Ten chumminess vitiates their attempts to be unblinking and raw. China Miéville bluntly expressed the left-modernist critique of such literature by saying: 'the idea  of consolatory fantasy makes me want to puke' ('Messing with Fantasy', interview, Locus, 494). Burroughs had a detached attitude towards the practice of writing, and expected his readers to be as aware of the social tensions in the results as he was. He can be compared to Beckett and Kafka because he managed to evict the liberal author behind the pen, to kill the belief in a transcendent moral system and its just rewards (a belief which is so regularly suffocating in Booker Prize novelists, and which has been historically so useless in preventing holocaust and war). Near the end of his life, Burroughs painted red whorls over a shiny piece of cardboard, evidently hallucinating fire and flames in his poster-paint strokes. He named it 'Bombs Over Baghdad'. These are the kind of fantasies - fantasies of reality - which liberal readers lack the politics to handle.

Fantasy and authority


Adorno criticised Erich Fromm, a populariser of Freud in the United States, for the manner in which he set up 'authority' as the enemy:


The article is sentimental and wrong to begin with, being a mixture of social democracy and anarchism, and above all shows a severe lack of dialectics. He takes the easy way out with the concept of authority, without which, after all, neither Lenin's avantgarde nor dictatorship can be conceived of. I would strongly advise him to read Lenin. Things like the silly argumen about 'lack of kindness' should not be permitted. This is exactly the trick used by bourgeois individualists against Marx. (Letter from Adorno to Max Horkheimer, 21 March 1936; quoted in Rolf Wiggershaus's The Frankfurt School, p. 266)

Thought is a process which requires both fantasy and judgement, freedom and authority. If either of these moments is missed, thinking becomes a way of evading reality. Lenin points out that Marx solved the problem of the 'gross income' in political economy by taking it to be profit + rent + wages, though this point of view is a fantasy - an 'abstraction' - because 'the entire society, on the basis of capitalist production, bases itself on the capitalist standpoint', and only counts profit + rent.48 Instead of looking at the problem from the point of view of the individual entrepreneur, Marxists seek to understand the global effect of competition: 'one must take the picture as a whole'. In a society where bourgeois concepts hold sway, such a point of view looks like sheer fantasy, yet it can explain facts which bourgeois economics cannot, and it provides left politics with an intellectual authority which the pragmatism of bourgeois politicians never inspires. In his Biographia Literaria, S. T. Coleridge coined the term 'esemplastic' ('shaping into one' in Greek) to describe the poetic imagination. Marxism and poetics unite in refusing the academic doctrine that only specialised and separate disciplines can deliver truth.


For Lenin, dialectics is 'the splitting of a single whole' ('On the Question of Dialectics'). It separates grey into black and white, dissolving the fog of averages which comforted the Narodnik statisticians. But his dialectic is not simply an alternative logic, it voices a tension between two epochs. When Lenin points out that defining the peasantry by their allotment holdings obscures their real social relationships by amalgamating completely different occupations (from flour-mill owning to day-labouring), he is using abstractions from one mode of production (capital and labour) to criticise those derived from another (serfdom). (p. 96) The Narodniks' statistics develop a completely different meaning when interpreted via the categories of the new epoch. Narodnik polemics against 'usury' cast capitalism as a foreign evil brought in from outside: in fact, the growth of industrial capitalism (farm improvements, manufacture of implements, hiring of labour) after the abolition of serfdom in 1861 reduced the power of merchant and money-lending capital in the countryside. The differentiation of the peasantry between rich and poor was an immanent development which rewarded peasants already blessed with wealth, status and connections to the metropolis, and created a new class. (pp. 188-9)


The historical irony is that these insights, reached through alertness to the different uses of fantasy and fact, abstraction and society, became a dogma which was forced upon writers and painters under the rubric of 'socialist realism'. There was even the absurd idea that there could be something called 'realism' in music: when Dmitry Shostakovich strayed too far from nineteenth- century models, he was chastised. In reaction to socialist realism, the ex-Trotskyist Clement Greenberg polemicised for abstract expressionism, a movement in painting embraced by certain parts of the American establishment. Just as Judge Woolsey's decision to legalise the publication of Ulysses in December 1933 proved that the US opposed Nazi book-burning (soon after his decision, Judge Woolsey spoke at the inauguration of a Manhattan exhibit of titles destroyed in Nazi book-burnings), Jackson Pollock's spattered canvases proved the US promoted freedoms persecuted in totalitarian states. Meanwhile, the situationists - not only better painters than the New York School, but brighter thinkers too - declared that abstract expressionist canvases hung in banks were propaganda for capitalism, and took painting out to the streets in the form of grafitti.


If both fantasy and judgement are necessary for a real description of the world, then these ironies of history need not land one in the shoulder-shrugging despair of the postmodern liberal, who would disconnect art from politics, fantasy from judgement, self from world. What distinguishes Marxist analysis from other philosophies that seek integral world views is its socialism - not only commitment to the emancipation of humanity, but understanding that concepts presuppose a particular society. The fact that this society evinces contradictory tendencies - most graphically illustrated in France today by the contrasting figures of José Bové and Jean-Marie Le Pen - means that the 'society' presupposed is not a fixed entity, but a conflict demanding decision and partisanship. What art might be next is a completely political question. In talking about the bruising conflict between particular statements and concepts which describe genuine, self-defining entities in the world - a conflict which explains why neither Marx nor Lenin ever used a fixed formula to describe capitalism - Hegel compared philosophy to music.


This conflict between the general form of a proposition and the unity of the concept which destroys it is similar to the conflict between metre and accent. Rhythm results from the floating centre of the unification of the two. (Phenomenonology of Spirit, p. 38)

It is notorious that Lenin had little time for music, saying to Anatoly Lunacharsky 'of course, listening to music is very pleasant but, imagine, it upsets me. I take it very hard, somehow.' Yet the dialectic he adhered to - as described by Hegel - is perfectly illustrated by the critical concept of 'swing' in jazz, where vocalised, individualised motifs create a collective rhythm. A time-based form like music has a closer affinity to dialectics than the revolutionary abstract art and anti-art whose reception in the counter-revolutionary course of the twentieth-century has been so problematic. Dada, Bauhaus and the Constructivists wanted their art to be a contribution to everyday life for the masses, a hope dashed by world war, totalitarianism, the Marshall Plan and today's privatised car/fast-food economy. Adorno's musical Marxism can provide a unifying theory for left politics and art increasingly attentive to the singleton event, performances which assault the global commodity system. Adorno's yoking of fantasy and judgement works for genre fiction too: the co-existence of Tolkien and Burroughs - and everything they imply - shows how fantasy, however far-fetched, immediately begs the question of judgement.


A postscript for socialist fantasists


The marketing of fantasy has a tendency to reduce language to a transparent window on visions which save the viewer imaginative labour, and therefore deny the uniqueness of each reading experience. Fantasy which resists such generalisation - dismissed as 'avantgarde élitism' by the enemies of poetry and revolution - puts marks on this window, thus creating unique perspectives, and provoking active thoughts and relations. As J.H. Prynne wrote in a recent pamphlet:


Make a dot
difference, make an offer; these feeling spray-on
skin products are uninhabitable, by field and stream. (Unanswering Rational Shore)

In these lines, the conflict between statements of moral and commercial and exhortation ('make a dot difference!', 'make an offer!') and the concept of human existence as artificial achieves a dialectic which recalls Hegel's definition of philosophy as music. Discomfort with the duplicity of commercialised language becomes the demiurge of a vital indignation, but shorn of any romantic, Sismondian nostalgia for an unsoiled, precapitalist past ('by field and stream' itself looms like a phrase in an advertisement). Without engaging with the fantastic fact of poetry like this - the current locus in advanced linguistic technique of surrealist rupture with the mundane (or 'byt', the sworn enemy of Zaum) - any 'socialist' usage of the fantasy genre will be manipulative, patronising and kitsch. Tolkien or Burroughs, the choice is ours.

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