Academic journal article German Quarterly

On the utility of art for politics: Musil's "armed truce of ideas"

Academic journal article German Quarterly

On the utility of art for politics: Musil's "armed truce of ideas"

Article excerpt

A phantom haunts Germany today. It is the ghost of the intellectual invested with a critical mission. In the course of the last decade established notions concerning the social and political role of intellectuals have increasingly come under scrutiny as the space of cultural production has become more than ever politically contested. In a recent analysis of this historical transformation Peter Uwe Hohendahl observed that "the critical function once attributed to the intellectual seems to have evaporated. "1 Hohendahl is careful to emphasize the specificity of the German situation in which the critical mandate of the intellectual is understood as being rooted in the sphere of the aesthetic. In this context the aesthetic sphere is conceived as the locus of a distinctive knowledge which is qualitatively different from other cognitive practices, most notably science.2 Hohendahl's diagnosis is complemented by Andreas Huyssen's assessment of the disorientation and historical shortsightedness displayed by German intellectuals after the Wende.3 What drives Hohendahl's and Huyssen's analyses is the recognition of a need to reformulate the critical function of intellectuals in light of profound historical transformations. But, as Huyssen has noted, this step demands that the assumptions underlying the intellectual's claim to authority be reexamined today, particularly as they apply to the relation between aesthetics and politics. This essay addresses this question by revisiting the modernist origins of paradigms that have currency today and by seeking alternative models among competing discourses that once challenged these categories but have since been obscured. In particular Robert Musil's reflection on art and politics, which seemed so untimely in his own day, is examined as a vision whose time may have finally come.

Much of today's vocabulary for conceptualizing the relation between art and politics remains indebted, whether knowingly or not, to the controversies that drove aesthetic debates of the 1930s within German Marxism. In spite of important differences in emphasis and argumentation, the opposing sides that emerged from these debates were aligned with respect to two mutually exclusive positions that construed the aesthetic as intimately related to or, conversely, as incompatible with politics. While the first model, paradigmatically articulated by Georg Lukacs, sought to place art's critical potential in the service of a political narrative, the opposing paradigm, embodied in its most radical form by Theodor W Adorno, embraced the dialectical negativity of an autonomous aesthetic sphere as the only critical space available in an administered world.4 Despite these differences both stances share a fundamental premise, namely, the assumption that any critical activity presupposes a privileged vantage point for assessing the real. In both models it is the intersection of aesthetic and political discourses that provides the critic with a superior standpoint from which to observe and account for history and society.5

It is this self-understanding of the intellectual as endowed with a more encompassing view of the whole that increasingly has been called into question by fundamental transformations in the fabric of postindustrial societies. "Given the high degree of complexity of advances in industrial societies," Hohendahl writes, "[...] there no longer seems to be an obvious mandate for the writer to assume leadership. 116 Hohendahl's argument is indebted to Max Weber's characterization of modern societies as shaped by an unrelenting process of rationalization and the proliferation of distinct domains of experience. The intellectual no longer enjoys a self-evident critical mandate because the multiplication of perspectives and discourses-not just those underlying the different realms of modern life, but within the field of cultural production itself-makes any argument concerning the intellectual's privileged viewpoint difficult to sustain. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.