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Art and normative individualism

In my last post I wrote about Tony Smith’s point in Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism that Marx was a normative individualist insofar as Marx believed no individual was of greater moral priority than any other. Smith talks about this in terms of what Marx said about the relationship between each and all in future societies. I sketched some notes on how I think this sensibility showed up in some of Marx’s writing about workers’ deaths by exhaustion and starvation, and how Marx took those examples as both instances that were appalling and also as images of systemically produced phenomena: these events were unconscionable, and similarly unconscionable events will recur over and over. (I’m thinking now of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history for whom supposed historical progress is really the piling up of wreckage.)

All of that was on my mind because of a series of conversations with some friends of mine about art, with two recurring themes. One theme is that workers deserve rich lives as both recievers and makers of art objects and aesthetic experiences. (Long term, a post-capitalist society would I think erode the art/non-art distinction, along with the work/non-work distinction. Ordinary social life and the making of goods and services to meet human needs would be aesthetically rich as well.) The denial of the importance art and the lack of provision for ordinary people’s access to art is bound up with the disregard for ordinary people. (I ranted about this at one point in a review of the record “Please” by Thank, which has a great song called “No Respect for the Arts.”) The other theme is art that depicts ordinary people’s lives under capitalism, emphasizing the indignity, suffering, and loss that people have to deal with because of the lives they’re consigned to in capitalist society. I’m partial to Steinbeck and Algren on this as novelists, and I like a lot of music with these themes, most recently the Dave Hause “Patty” and “Paddy” EPs.

It seems to me that this kind of art expresses a kind of normative individualism in that it’s about expressing the worth of individuals, but also insofar as it depicts those individuals as simultaneously individual and representative of larger patterns. As with Marx I think this work is about showing the discarding of specific individuals and how appalling that is while also depicting that discarding as a pattern in society such that to be a normative individualist is to reject this society due to its predictable sacrificing of people. A friend suggested that this means that kind of art is or depicts a concrete universal. I honestly don’t know if I remember what the term means in and around Marx and I plan to look it up later, I think it’s a term I may have always been foggy on but the language itself is suggestive. I like the idea that a concrete phenomenon is both itself but also has a universality, represents stuff beyond itself.

Part of my impulse in getting these notes down is that I think there may be something more complicated going on in that sort of art than some people may notice, and its quality as concrete universal gets at that, I think. Typing these up I had another thought, which is that I think normative individualism as a critical position operates against some forms of depoliticization. There’s a kind of ideological or rhetorical pressure to not represent the people who get ground to dust and to not represent that grinding up, and there’s also pressure or tendencies to minimize those losses in other ways. One is rhetoric of individual responsibility - these people are where they are due to their own choices. (I think right now addiction rhetoric and mental health rhetoric are often two variations on this. To label people addicted and mentally ill makes their social discarding less politically and morally objectionable and I think also helps short circuit empathizing.) Another comes via kinds of utilitarian and quantitative representation - ‘that’s not very many deaths’ or ‘this poverty is worth the larger good produced.’ The artistic emphasis on suffering, and outrage over it, presses against these forms of depoliticization I think.

Those ideologies can also get in our heads. We can start to see the limits of our own lives as our own fault in a way that hides that the games are rigged - we can start to blame ourselves for effects of systemic shortcomings. We can also start to blame people we know. I think art that presses against that can matter for individuals trying to deal with that internalized ideology. I know it has in my own life anyway.

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