Towards A Gothic Marxism III: First Sketches

It’s easy enough to talk about the political nature of horror. At this point, the challenge is ignoring the political semiotics of horror, especially in film, thanks to a whole host of work that has emerged in the past decade or so. A more complicated problem, and maybe a more interesting one, is working out the direct relationship between a radical political project and a cultural form, or, to put this in more Marxist terms, the relationship of economic forces to non-economic superstructural ones. A further problem to this is the proliferation of determinedly non-material cultural forms – the kind of thing that Christopher Partridge would call ‘occulture,’ that a traditional Marxist view of the relationship between economic modes of production and culture finds difficult to explain, except in the terms of an aberration or superstition which will be soon swept away in the wake of historical materialism. This deterministic and mechanistic view of history and culture is usually seen as being rather unsatisfying so here it starts to become clearer what contributions a more Gothic inflected Marxism might make to an understanding of the relationship between base and superstructure and the ways in which culture, subjectivity and politics intersect.

Firstly, it’s necessary to establish the essentially traumatic nature of capitalism. The era of bourgeois, industrial capitalism was marked by ‘uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation,’ according to Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. Demanding as it did the never-ending churn of revolution, it did not just result in colossal violence (as documented in the work of people such as Ellen Mieksins Wood and Sylvia Frederici) but also constant transformation. What this means then, is that capitalism does not just instantiate a new kind of economic and material relationship but also a new cultural arrangement. To finish the famous quote from the Manifesto, ‘all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’ As Adam Turl puts it, in a well known piece on the Gothic dialectic within capitalism, these shared cultural ‘tectonics echo the movement and impact of capital’ itself. (You can read the whole piece here). 

So, from a technical point of view, the issue is how to explain or mediate between the economic forces of production that contort the world to a new way of living and the shared cultural unconscious which seeks a continuity of thought and experience that the necessary condition of capitalism seeks to undo. The initial (and false) choice is between a materialist and deterministic view of economic development which has little say about human subjectivity (this is what Margaret Cohen in her book calls ‘vulgar Marxism) or a subjective and perhaps irrational view of how economic forces have shaped society. As the French surrealist and communist Andre Breton put it, there is an urgent need for a myth ‘opposed to that of Odin,’ or, in other words, a Gothic Marxism which would be opposed to fascism. Fascism, after all, could explain the historical development of economics with reference to a general social unconscious and if Marxism was only concerned with an arid economism then this would leave space for fascism to come and “explain” society to itself. (Parenthetically, this is something of a generalisation – there were plenty of Marxists aware of this, though it is worth pointing that Breton’s analysis proceeds from his experiences with actual real-life fascists). The source of this analysis was the detritus of bourgeois society, predicated on the understanding that even in the most irrational and seemingly random cultural objects was information that could inform our understanding of the current moment. One of the thinkers who went furthest in this way of working was Walter Benjamin, who wrote ‘that the overcoming of religious illumination’ required a ‘profane illumination, a materialist, anthropological inspiration.’ The examination of the past — in Benjamin’s case this took the form of his monumental study of nineteenth-century France — we can see something of important about the present that ordinary (‘vulgar’) Marxism would not be able to articulate. As Benjamin put it in his Passagen-Werk, we ‘believe the charm they exert on us reveals that they still contain materials of vital importance to us—not, of course, for our architecture, the way iron truss-work anticipates our design; but they are vital for our perception, if you will, for the illumination of the situation.’ In the Gothic flotsam and jetsam of capitalist history we can see the anxieties and fears of a given cultural moment. Furthermore, this reading of cultural history means that we can see the Gothic as articulating the collective unconscious fears of what it means to live under capitalism at that time. This is where through Gothic Marxism we can start to construct a Marxist Gothic — a way of reading culture that does not just see the Gothic metaphors in Marx or in other cultural objects as just aesthetic decoration but as a way of diagnosing the psychic toll of capitalism at a particular historical juncture.

Both Breton and Benjamin sought to deepen and refine Marxist analysis with psychoanalytic ideas borrowed from Freud. Their interest in the dream, the unconscious and the irrational are attempts to correct a lacunae in Marxist theory that failed to account for how economic forces and the more intangible superstructures such as art. Benjamin saw this interaction as a mediation, or a series of meditations that a good critic could decode and bring into public consciousness. In a great line Benjamin criticizes Marxist theory as being ‘now swaggering, now scholastic,’ and instead calls for a Marxism that was alert to the impact of the past upon the present. Rather than try to come up with a comprehensive theory of base/superstructure interaction (something that demands far more space and time than I have here and I wouldn’t wish to reject any existing theories out of hand) it is perhaps better to focus instead on that idea of mediation. Whilst Benjamin’s work places a huge amount of emphasis on the role and centrality of the critic, or the person who can awaken the world to the dream of itself, the role of mediation as essential to consciousness is well established. The great Ernst Fischer in his landmark book The Necessity of Art built off the work of Engels’s Marxist anthropology by arguing that art is almost as old as man and that by making, by creating, we can mediate our relationship between the self and the world – it was, Fischer would claim, a form of magic, making a symbolic register that would become eventual become commodified into art. This historical sense of mediation is the ground from which we can construct the notion of a cultural unconscious (and was the reasoning that thinkers such as Breton would use, expressed through his art and literary work).

So the question that might be next is the one of what Gothic Marxism offers to political thinking and practice that is distinctive? Firstly, an attention to history that does not reduce historical process into a static totality but accepts its contingency, flux and instability. Lukacs was famously skeptical of experimental or modern art precisely because it lacked an idea of historical totality, preferring instead, mimetic and realist art (particularly novels) in contrast to Benjamin and the French Surrealists who favoured the visual, the particular and fragmentary (which reflected the fragmentary and contingent nature of modernity itself). Secondly, it offers the possibility of understanding history as something which can change – rupture even., which requires a dialectical relationship to history and historical processes itself. Like Gramsci, Benjamin was both deeply pessimistic about history but also retained that revolutionary optimism of the will. Once more, given the historical context, this it not a surprise – with the rise of fascism it seemed that whatever hope there was had to be thought of in generational terms as the Reich was planning for a thousand year reign. Think of the horrifying Gothic apocalypticism of Brecht, eerily prophetic of the yet to arrive nuclear age: They’re planning for thirty thousand years ahead …. They’re out to destroy everything. Every living cell contracts under their blows …. They cripple the baby in the mother’s womb.’ At the same time, Benjamin was writing his lauded theses on history: ‘the only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.’ As Stanley Mitchell puts it, the battles of the past have to be re-fought for if they are not they may be lost once more. In terms of cultural forms, the Gothic which focuses on the return of the violence of the past into the present is an incredible expression of what Benjamin was writing about, so the Gothic horror is not just something which is designed to express the fears and anxieties of a capitalist present, focused through the collective social unconscious but also raises the spectre of possibility – of a better world, that can confront the violence, ghosts and monsters of its violent past.

This is just a provisional sketch of what Gothic Marxism may consist, but I hope this short outline provides some promising lines of flight for considering the ways in which Gothic cultural analysis is a reflection of some broader trends in Marxist theory, and establishes the possibility of a nuanced, dialectical materialism which is not reducible to either dry, psychically barren materialism or personal subjectivity. It’s this which I aim to develop into a longer, book length study.

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