In their nlr article, ‘Spectres of the Aesthetic’, Dave Beech and John Roberts critique what they call ‘the new aestheticism’, identifying my book The Fate of Art as providing the philosophical articulation of a movement which they suggest includes the writings of Andrew Bowie, Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, T. J. Clark, and Charles Harrison.footnote1 The central faults they find in the new aestheticism, with its self-conscious return to the aesthetic theory of T.W. Adorno, include the abstraction of art and the aesthetic from social theory; the consequent perpetuation of aesthetic discourse and analysis without adequate acknowledgement of social (and cultural) divisions; the mistaken reification of aesthetic value against partisan claims; the misconstrual of the autonomy of art and aesthetic discourse as simply separate or isolated from dominant social practices, and thus as non-dialectical, entailing thereby a return to a naive, Romantic faith in immediacy; and, in virtue of these abstractions and reifications, the new aestheticism’s siding against both the non-aestheticized pleasures of the body and the plural, different voices that now, truly, make up the world of culture of which art is but a part. What is puzzling about this critique is the disconcerting modesty of its conclusion: perhaps we should continue doing the social history of art as per usual; and further, we should stop searching for the value of art, but see even autonomous art as constituted through the shifting valences of the irreducibly plural, conflicting voices contributing to it.

Of course, art now is a motley, but I doubt that this fact has any deep implications for radical thought other than the dispiriting one that art is becoming increasingly less formative for culture as a whole, and culture less formative for society as a whole. This is not an argument against pluralized art practices, against art practices that are bound to identity politics, say, or that seek to promote modes of transgression that might aspire to opening up a possibility of significant social change. Rather, it points to the very question which prompted Adorno’s own turn to art, namely, with the collapse of the project and hope that the proletariat would be the bearer of revolutionary change, where might we look for socially formative practices? Adorno’s turn to art is not, however, an answer to this question; on the contrary, he took it for granted that there were no fundamental sites for social change, and that indeed the game of looking for a revolutionary subject was utterly misplaced—and, by inference, the Left’s conception of the nature and possibility of political praxis was dangerously rationalist, overly driven by theory, and under reflectively comprehended. Even for Adorno it was the case that art had already stopped being socially formative; hence, his turn to art presupposed the absence of political movements that could bear witness and respond to contemporary forms of social misery and stagnation. But if not for the purpose of identifying a source of significant social change, why turn to art at all?

Beech and Roberts half-acknowledge that The Fate of Art is not very concerned with either art or aesthetics, but is fundamentally an essay in social epistemology. And while they concede that Andrew Bowie’s historical excavation of aesthetic subjectivity might provide a more compelling account of human agency than, say, that found in deconstruction, they appear generally flummoxed as to what the turn to art and aesthetic discourse generally might mean, and signal no comprehension as to why one might turn to the tradition of post-aesthetic philosophies of art to construct a social epistemology, or what the significance of such an epistemology might be. Why art and aesthetics? And why art and aesthetics as social epistemology? And how does this presumptive social epistemology connect with the art critical practices initiated in this portion of the globe by Clement Greenberg and continued by Clark, Michael Fried, and Harrison? To even begin answering these questions a slightly indirect route—albeit one responsive to their objections to the new aestheticism—will be necessary.

Beech and Roberts contend that The Fate of Art appropriates Adorno’s aesthetic theory while disparaging, and consequently dropping, his social theory. This is a simple ruse on their part since they cannot have missed the fact that the title of Chapter 5, ‘Old Gods Ascending: Disintegration and Speculation in Aesthetic Theory,’ is derived from Max Weber or that the chapter begins by locating Adorno’s thought in the context of Weber’s social theory.

The left appropriation of Weber’s social theory occurs in two stages. Its first moment is Lukács’s complex attempt to bracket the reductionist implications of historical materialism socially and historically. In general terms, Lukács’s intuition is that social practices (relations of production) and their cultural articulation are ontologically on a par with economic practices. However, with the rise of capital and the tendential autonomy of the economy from socio-political control, the economy did become the determining social moment. This fact misled Marx into positing the primacy of the economy trans-historically. For Lukács, we cannot abstract from the instance of capital to a general historical logic—a dialectic of forces and relations of production, or of class conflict; hence historical materialism must be considered an inadequate tool for analyzing pre-capitalist and post-capitalist social formations where it is perfectly legitimate to conceive of the economy as a function of wider social beliefs and values. But if the reductionist logic of base and superstructure does not provide the resources for the analysis of pre- (or post-)capitalist societies, then equally that logic must lead to a misconception about the meaning of the relation between the economy and the rest of society under capital.footnote2 If we want to know how capital effects non-economic social practices, Lukács recommends that we turn to the Weberian account of societal rationalization. Rationalization is the way in which diverse social and cultural practices become functional for capital reproduction and expansion without, however, being reducible to it.

In Lukács this deployment of Weber still presupposes the dominant moment of class division. Hence he still believed that there was a structural logic that could bind proletarian self-consciousness to the overcoming of capital. For Lukács, Marx might have been wrong about historical materialism, but he was in general right about capital and what would be involved in the transition from capitalism to socialism. Critical Theory emerges precisely with the lapse of both this presupposition and the hope that class structure and class consciousness formed the hermeneutical key to the movement of present history; for the first generation of Critical Theory even the narrow application of historical materialism to capital assumes the existence of a macroscopic historical logic which the collapse of the revolutionary ambitions of the proletariat places in question.footnote3 While Adorno is willing to acknowledge that a version of class domination continues in the relationship between European and Third World nations (and states), he denies that this any longer forms a prelude to a radical politics. More precisely, Adorno came to believe that Marxist theory illegitimately interposed a progressive, Enlightenment philosophy of history—a macro-social logic—as the mediating instance between the current situation and the socialist future. Classical Marxism displaced politics with a philosophy of history by seeking to ground the former in the latter, a fact that only becomes visible with the development of capital into the twin instances of fascism and late, low liberalism.

The Weberian marker for the demise of class conflict as a lever for social change is the development of the culture industry thesis. Culture, as the sphere of social practice seemingly furthest removed from the functional demands of the economy, might be thought to possess the potentiality for generating critical beliefs, values and identities. If one considers the creation of critical beliefs, values and identities as what it is for a domain to be potentially formative, then the espousal of the culture industry thesis is one limb of an argument to the effect that culture is no longer formative. The other limb of the argument is the thesis that high, modernist art while being a place-holder for what is driven out by societal rationalization is rendered impotent by, exactly, its abstract, refined character. This is the meaning of Adorno’s famous quip in his letter to Walter Benjamin that high art and the productions of the culture industry are two halves of integral freedom that do not add up. Only if the two were aligned could they be formative; but, of course, if they were aligned and formative, then the issue of formativity that their diremption raises would not be a question. Adorno’s thesis about the diremption of mass and high art is an argument about what makes and disbars cultural practices from being, in praxis, socially formative. Nothing in Beech and Roberts’s critique either addresses or responds to the issue of the conditions for cultural practices to be formative or the precise content of Adorno’s diremption thesis.