Attention all socialists and left-thinking people of the Earth. And all you left-sided, critical (down to your last unpierced body part) poststructuralist radicals. Punks and drum-and-bass heads too, listen: Ben Watson has a message for you. Art, Class and Cleavage proposes a negative dialectics intoxicated with the excesses of the European avant-garde.footnote The book also contains a series of bellicose denunciations of all organized forms of post-structuralism and feminism; denunciations articulated in a most contemptuous manner. I counted at least six stars in Watson’s dialectical constellation: Trotsky, Voloshinov, Freud, Adorno, Debord and, er, Frank Zappa. And if you don’t like the sound of Watson’s book, don’t worry; he didn’t think you would and has peppered his text and footnotes with insults for just such an occasion.

‘Not the whole Trotsky-Stalin thing again!’ ‘Not another anti-post-structuralist tirade, no, not that again!’ Not just that but what’s more, Watson’s book frequently asserts rather than argues, and twists the biographical details and positions of other writers. Watson does not break new ground either but his book does touch upon important questions about the inertia of the academic Left and the place of pleasure and enjoyment in any critique of everyday life; for this he should be given a sympathetic hearing.

In his condescending review of Art, Class and Cleavage for the Independent, Terry Eagleton made fun of Watson for belonging to the surrealist wing of the Socialist Workers’ Party; a sect, claimed Eagleton, that could meet comfortably in a telephone box. A fair description perhaps but, what English milieu would Eagleton find more interesting? In Art, Class and Cleavage, Watson has tried to fuse his interest in improvised jazz, Dada, Reich, Adorno and the Situationist International with his reading of Lenin and Trotsky. This perverse marriage represents the author’s desire to ally classical Marxism—an economic tradition that Watson, one suspects, considers essential but narrow—with Western Marxism, with its philosophical orientation and critique of everyday life. His book then, is written for fellow comrades who dismiss the avant-garde as élitist, and for those Marxist-inspired academics who Watson believes have abandoned the Deed in favour of the Word and the book deal. Watson is vulgar enough to question whether building a career by expounding radical thoughts is a good thing; a problem that not only occupied past luminaries such as André Breton but that must also cross the mind of every lecturer worth his or her research rating. Early on in Art, Class and Cleavage, Watson makes clear his dislike of the trade of writing: ‘In other words, by the time anyone is equipped to distinguish self-promoting flurry from genuine struggle, you are so inside the specialist discourse that you have developed your own ideology, your own reasons for maintaining the status quo.’ (p. 14)

Watson’s answer is to valorize spontaneity, outbursts and cultural matter that, like wildcat strikes, disrupt or resist the structures of commodified and administered time. Such events inform Watson’s two key concepts: ‘Cleavage’ and ‘Materialist Esthetix’, the latter being defined as the poetry of Cleavage. The violence of the word ‘Cleavage’ corresponds to Watson’s promotion of acts that expose the antagonisms and conflicts of capitalism. Watson also draws attention to another definition of Cleavage—the division between women’s breasts (p. 53); an affirmation of Watson’s explicit enjoyment of the (female) body designed to violate liberal and feminist sensibilities. Despite warning against the ‘aesthetics’ of schizophrenia and despite, paradoxically, proclaiming that the mad are impotent agents of social change, Watson turns to schizophrenia to embellish his aesthetics of Cleavage:

the schizophrenic twist in the modernist artwork is an indication of the human malleability of the world. It emphasizes the constructed nature of human reality in order to invite a change. In toppling its codes the artwork aspires to be something more than reflection, representation or entertainment. This is the aesthetic moment that deserves the name of Cleavage. Seeking to ‘systematize’ this moment—to institutionalize it—is its recuperation, and places bureaucratic bars around its radical democracy. The point is to perpetrate the moment and unleash the reader’s psyche on the world. (p. 126)

Instances of Materialist Esthetix are numerous and include the poetry of Prynne, whose work, ‘Not You’, is interpreted by Watson as a refusal to produce a space for the subjectivity of the reader, and Iggy Pop’s off-camera antics that disturbed the smooth running of the television show, The White Room. Frank Zappa’s rejection of hippie idealism is highly valued by Watson but his most interesting example of Materialist Esthetix is improvised jazz. Watson quotes Simon Fell, a free-jazz musician, on the moment when he and fellow players reach a climax and then, instead of pausing for applause, go beyond that climax to take their playing somewhere else. For Watson, Fell’s rigorous improvisations reject a choice between totality and the particular or fragment. The significance of Fell’s approach is that by breaking with predetermined forms of musical performance, free jazz improvisation embodies ‘Cleavage’s active relation to the whole: coherence via transgression.’ (p. 32)

From this the reader can deduce that Watson prizes free improvisation and acts of transgression for throwing totality into sharp relief, emphasizing, ‘the constructed nature of human reality in order to invite a change’. It is within this (Situationist-influenced) proposition that Watson places his own book; hence his lack of reverence for hierarchies and his employment of crude puns, personal fantasies and insults that often complicate rather than illuminate Watson’s position on culture and politics.