January 23, 2013

Conscience and the political

I want to draw attention to the most recent issue of Mediations, the journal of the Marxist Literary Group, not only because it features solid work by some of my friends, but because of two articles that deal, in different ways, with the problem that the conscience presents for the Left.

First, in "Conscience and the Common" Imre Szeman considers the ways in which the language of conscience and individual morality function as an ideological brace for liberal attempts to temper the destruction of global capitalism. Szeman, however, also recognizes that the conscience names a space of mediation between society and the individual, thus revealing specific dynamics of the political. He ends by affirming the conscience as "a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the common" and calls for the Left to produce "its own version of conscience--one that begins by challenging and rejecting those ideas to which [Paul] Krugman and others appeal as the ethical standard of behavior within the deeply unethical social form of contemporary liberal capitalism."

But it was another article, this time about the autonomy of art (l'art pour l'art), that presented the most surprising statement in the form of a block quote--Herbert Marcuse, from The Aesthetic Dimension:
But even in bourgeois society, insistence on the truth and right of inwardness is not really a bourgeois value. With the affirmation of the inwardness of subjectivity, the individual steps out of the network of exchange relationships and exchange values, withdraws from the reality of bourgeois society, and enters another dimension of existence. Indeed, this escape from reality led to an experience which could (and did) become a powerful force invalidating the actual prevailing bourgeois values, namely by shifting the locus of the individual’s realization from the domain of the performance principle and the profit motive to that of the inner resources of the human being: passion, imagination, conscience.
Much of my thesis work dealt with the space of the conscience--a crucial register in early modern religious verse--and its relation to changes in England's class structure and economy throughout the seventeenth century. I had a hell of time articulating this relationship and, in the end, affirmed something close to what Marcuse identifies. So this was a nice surprise, even if it appeared six months too late.

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