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Sunday, November 23, 2014


My ebullient remarks about Marx's manuscript on Alienated Labor provoked two requests for a mini-tutorial on Romanticism.  Alas, I am not even remotely competent to write such a tutorial, desirable though it might be.  However, I think I owe Jerry Fresia and Magpie some explanation.  Consider this post yet another warm-up for my course next semester.

Let us begin, as I so like to do, with the Good Book, specifically Genesis 3:14-19.  God is royally pissed at the disobedience of Adam and Eve, who despite clear warnings, have succumbed to the seductions of the serpent and have eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This is a moment of world-historical importance, of course, for from it flows original sin and the entire Christian story.  Note the last three verses, especially verse 19.  Man's labor is a curse laid upon him for his disobedience, and so is woman's labor, which is the name given to the bringing forth of children.  This conception of labor as a curse dominates the Judeo-Christian tradition ever afterward.  To be required to labor is to be cursed, if not for your sin then for Adam's.  Activity is not a curse, of course.  From Aristotle onward, activity, free autonomous self-directed activity, is understood to be a blessing, the condition of the aristocrat.  But the work of getting one's bread from the soil by the sweat of one's brow is the lot of the unfree, of those in bondage, of the poor who cannot command the labor of others for the satisfaction of their needs.

In the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx turns that tradition on its head, and gives us an entirely new understanding of the nature of work.  For all its youthful wordplay and its juvenile show of paradoxes and Hegelian inversions, this text is one of the richest and most remarkable of the entire corpus of nineteenth century writings.  What Marx does is to take the Romantic conception of the creative artist and transform it into a radically new idea of the human condition [hence my ill-considered allusion to Romanticism.]

Briefly [for this is a subject about which one could go on endlessly], in the medieval period, and indeed in the Baroque and Classical periods as well, artists were considered artisans, on a par with stone masons, jewelers, carpenters, and goldsmiths.  They were frequently employees of royal or aristocratic courts and were treated as such, expected to bow and scrape in  the presence of the King or Duke or Prince, called upon to produce their works for ceremonial and other occasions.  It would have struck an Elector or Margrave as comical, indeed as actionable, for one of his employees to say, "I am sorry, but I cannot produce the Mass you requested for the baptism of your son because I do not feel inspired today."  That would have been as absurd and incomprehensible as his tailor saying, "The spirit does not move me to make a cloak for you this week."

The Romantic conception of artistic creation is completely different.  On this view, the process, putting it somewhat formulaically, is as follows.  The artist first forms in his or her mind an image of the work to be created [I know, Jerry, that this is not always the way it is, but bear with me.]  It may be a conception of a work in stone, or in paint, or it may be a poem, a tragedy, a string quartet.  Then the artist labors to externalize the ideal conception in stone or on canvas or on paper.  This externalization [entäusserung] is a profoundly ambivalent act.  On the one hand, it makes the ideal conception real, and thus is the fulfillment of the artistic act.  But the entäusserung is at the same time an alienation, an entfremdung, in two senses.  First of all, what was internal and wholly a part of the artist's mind or spirit now becomes a foreign object, separate from  the artist.  It stands over against the artist [i.e., it is quite literally a gegenstand, an object.]  The artist loses control over its fate.  It will outlive the artist.  And it may be alienated in another sense: its ownership may change hands.  For "to alienate," in German as in English, means both "to become the enemy of" and also "to change ownership."  [The sale of property is routinely referred to in the law as alienation.]

The artist loses physical control of the art object, which was, in the act of creation, the externalization of the artist's innermost being. And the artist loses control over how the art object will be interpreted or experienced by the public.  The artist may believe that the sculpture should stand alone in a barren garden, but the new owner may stick it in his entry hall along with other works that the artist hates and would rather die than be associated with.  [One is reminded of poor old René Descartes, who sent copies of his newly created Meditations to all the great philosophers of Europe, with precise instructions that they were to read one Meditation per day for six days and then think about each Meditation for one week before writing back with comments, only to begin receiving comments almost the very next day!]   Thus, the act of artistic labor is deeply ambivalent in its meaning and potentiality.

Marx now takes up this Romantic notion of artistic creativity and transforms it in two ways.  He "materializes" it by applying the very same analysis to the work of transforming nature so as to provide for human needs and wants, and he "socializes" it by integrating with it Adam Smith's notion of the division of labor.  Turning his back on the entire Western tradition arising from Genesis, Marx claims that work can be, and should be, intelligent, fulfilling, communal, and deeply pleasurable, if engaged in in the right fashion.  As the artist forms a conception in mind and externalizes it in a painting, sculpture, or symphony, so the farmer forms a conception in mind of a field of wheat for the making of bread, which he or she then makes real, realizes, externalizes by laboring with others in the fields, day after day.  Once the idea has been made flesh, as the Good Book might say, those whose labor has brought about this realization can join in a communal meal at which they enjoy "the fruits of their labors."

This social productive activity ideally is carried on with full recognition of the natural tempos of the human condition and with a generous acknowledgement of the variations in the capacity for work of one man or woman or another.  Just as the artist experiences a good fatigue, a satisfying ache of the muscles while wrestling the stone into shape or crafting just the right chordal transitions from major to minor, so the blacksmith, the farmer, the cobbler -- yes, and the teacher, the doctor, the lawyer as well -- will welcome the tiredness that accompanies a good job well done.  There will be a time for working from sun up to sun down, and a time for resting, for repairing the fishing nets, for waiting out the storms.

But this human activity with its natural fulfillment and satisfaction is corrupted by capitalism.  Objectively, the products of collective human activity become alienated from those who have brought them into existence.  They stand over against the workers as Capital, which oppresses and exploits them.  The harder they work, the greater grow the accumulations of Capital and the more powerless they become to resist the oppression.  Subjectively, the work process itself is distorted and corrupted.  The needs of Capital require men and women to transform themselves into wage laborers whose pace of work, intensity of work, and duration of work are determined neither by their human needs nor by their natural physical tempi but by the incessant, insatiable need of Capital for profit.  Work truly becomes the curse that God imagined it to be.  The alienation of man from his species being is complete.

Well, that, or something like it, is what I had in mind when I referred to the essay on Alienated Labor as "a wild, Romantic effusion of Marx's youth."





Magpie said...


I am possibly the least qualified person to judge your competence on this matter. But, for what it is worth, in my opinion, it was a fascinating text: it sheds a lot of light on Nietzsche (and some other contemporary figures), particularly his The Greek State, where he manifests a profound contempt -- almost pathological in my view -- for the working people (Well, Nietzsche apparently was enormously capable of feeling contempt).

I wonder if this contempt explains Nietzsche's popularity among many modern intellectuals.

Thanks for the mini-tutorial.

Jerry Fresia said...

Yes, indeed, a fascinating mini-mini-tutorial. (Any blog that begins with God being "royally pissed" has got to be good!)

I'm wondering whether the externalization must be "profoundly ambivalent." I would draw from your account that it must, that it is unavoidable, and that the Romantic conception of creativity/expression will always be critically entangled with other Enligtenment branches that lead to all the human dualisms and disenchantment.