Freedom and Polydeterminism in Cultural Criticism

Rudi Supek

Rudi Supek, professor of sociology at the Faculty of Philosophy, Zagreb, Yugoslavia, has written on such contemporary issues as Existentialism and Decadence, The Psychology of Bourgeois Poetry, Public Opinion Research, and Youth on the Road of Fraternity. He was born in Zagreb in 1913 and received a doctor's degree in psychology in Paris in 1953.

Culture is very likely one of the most sensitive areas of social criticism. Nowhere else can the inadequacy or absurdity of theoretical presuppositions or methodological procedures be uncovered so rapidly, nowhere else can human creative activity overwhelm erroneous premises and conclusions with such promptitude, and nowhere else can such harm be inflicted upon the creative potentialities of human beings as when a dogmatic theory is imposed on cultural policy by means of social compulsion. Hence, we are going to dwell for a moment on certain aspects of cultural criticism in contemporary Marxism, pointing out bow the erroneous use of certain cognitional categories has led to wholly distorted theoretical conclusions. The creative nature of man, the mode of human participation in social life, the relationship between the collective élan and individual creative potentialities, the establishment of certain social limitations on creativity, and individual ability to overcome personal and social limitations in the service of one and the same ideal, are all most prominent in the field of culture. It is precisely in the realm of culture in our times that the contradiction between society and the individual, between the collective consciousness and the individual consciousness, and between the concrete totality represented by society and the ideal totality represented by the individual, begins to sharpen in the most obvious way.

We have just encountered, in the concept of totality, the first category that is a source of certain ambiguities and onesided interpretations in social criticism.

This category is interpreted in the social sciences generally, and in sociology in particular, in terms of the concept of society as such, either in the spirit of ontological realism or in the spirit of ontological nominalism. Society in the former sense is some sort of higher, organic, and closed entity to which the individual is subordinated in every respect; society in the latter sense is no more than a chance accumulation, an aggregation of interests, or the locale in which individual wills and interests are operative (or join together, or compete, or struggle). Both concepts have deeply permeated the thought, philosophy, and sociology of bourgeois society. While classic liberalism (Smith, Hobbes, Bentham) held to nominalism, romantic philosophy interpreted society and the people in the light of ontological realism. The latter conception thus carried over from Hegel and Schelling to the theoreticians of the “folk soul” (Lazarus and Steinthal) and organic positivism (Comte, Spencer, Durkheim) and thence to the most recent totalitarian doctrines of the fascist and Stalinist varieties.

However, on this occasion we will treat only certain theories in the realm of culture, and in particular the Marxist application of the category of totality to the interpretation of culture and cultural policy. In this field, we must face up to three well‑known conceptions in the spirit of ontological realism, which involve the complete subordination of the creative individual to the social totality.

The first conception in this series falls within the range of theory of reflection. By analogy with the reflection of “objective reality” in the subject, this theory assumes that the cultural superstructure is only a reflection of the material foundation of society, with the entire “social reality” being considered as something more real and more primary in terms of value and with cultural creation being regarded as nothing but a more or less adapted reflection of reality proper. This theory falls back on the Platonist idealization of “objective reality” and affirms the inferiority of culture and the art that can only reflect (not to say imitate) this reality. Art necessarily lags behind reality. The best compliment that art can possibly receive is that it has succeeded in conveying an impression of social reality “as faithfully as possible” or “as characteristically as possible.” Cultural creation, along with the whole realm of esthetics, thus becomes in ontological terms just an epiphenomenon of material reality.

Within the hounds of historical dynamics, the material social foundation becomes something not only objective but also causative, the cultural superstructure being something subjective and consequential. Since the social and political correlative of the material foundation is in the ruling class, culture is always the spiritual expression of a single class. When the foundation changes, the superstructure also changes. When the foundation disappears, the superstructure likewise disappears. Culture thus retains the characteristic features of an epiphenomenon, even when the inverse effect of the superstructure on the foundation is mentioned out of respect for the dialectic. It is important in a methodological sense at this point to keep in mind that the foundation and the superstructure are the correlatives of the same historical entity. The cultural superstructure in this view, thus remains closed within the bounds of a given foundation and incapable of transcending this foundation in any way, i.e., incapable of shifting to another historical epoch in terms of value.

Such a grasp of the whole, or totality, of a given historical situation leads to certain consequences in the theory of culture. First, the search is on for the class correlatives or “social equivalents” of particular cultural themes and artistic styles. Second, attempts are made to explain changes in cultural creation exclusively in the light of changes in the social foundation.

The theory of the progressive and decadent development of society as an historical entity is our second example of the erroneous application of the category of totality. This theory is really just a subvariety of the first, which introduces the ideas of the progressive and decadent development of particular phases into the relationship between the foundation and the superstructure. By applying the foundation‑superstructure scheme onesidedly to the realm of culture, this theory projects the political and social decadency of a society onto cultural creativity. To be sure, this theory soon encounters certain small difficulties. It cannot explain why the most valuable cultural achievements have so often been produced in such decadent epochs as the Athenian era after Pericles, the Roman era after Caesar, and the Middle Ages after Dante, not to mention the decadence that is supposed to have set in with the appearance of impressionism in bourgeois society.

This theory has also created another difficulty by introducing a purely gnosiological criterion alongside the historical criterion of progress and decadence. Under the theory of reflection, the progressive is that which is more objective or realistic and the decadent that which provides a more subjective reflection, i.e., a reflection which is subjectivistic or expressionistic. The gnosiological criterion being lasting and unalterable, realism must necessarily be progressive and impressionism or expressionism decadent or even reactionary, the latter art forms being expressions of a subjectivistic attitude toward reality. From Lukács to Timofeev, the theoreticians of socialist realism have confused historical dynamics with the postulates of cognitional theory that are otherwise applicable only to scientific cognition. It is a genuine riddle to them why the revolutionary bourgeoisie expressed itself at one time in a pronouncedly subjectivistic art and the revolutionary proletariat during the time of the October Revolution likewise made use of a subjectivistic art in the expressionism of Mayakovsky, Piscator, Meyerhold, and so many others. The “cultural superstructure” obviously fails completely to respect certain of the fundamental principles of the theory of reflection. How else are we to explain the fact that the bourgeoisie expressed itself in a romantic and subjectivistic manner during its progressive phase, with realism making an appearance only by the time of the first serious social crisis after 1848 as a symptom of crisis and thereby of the beginning of decline?

If we assume that decadence set in immediately after the era of realism in painting and literature, i.e., with the appearance of impressionism and naturalism, then the only conclusion to be drawn is that every further cultural creation so long as this decadence lasts (a whole century thus far!) will amount to one step further into decadency. Expressionism will be more decadent than impressionism, surrealism more decadent than expressionism, and nonobjective or abstract art the extreme mode of decadence. The longer the decadence lasts, the more profound will be the decline in values, and the greater the dehumanization. For these reasons, the more recent cultural achievements of bourgeois society will always be less acceptable than the older achievements, which are then transformed into “the classics.” In this way, so far as the cultural inheritance is concerned, the theory leads to traditionalism and to the sole acceptance of old and outmoded cultural values. Such an orientation in relation to the cultural inheritance in a socialist society must necessarily “go always against the stream and against the era” and make fresh forces old before their time.

We have already pointed out that this theory leads to a variety of difficulties in the interpretation of cultural dynamics and often to absurd conclusions. And the adherents to this theory themselves frequently contradict each other. Lukács thus considers that bourgeois art was progressive only during its earliest phase, e.g., in the Flemish landscapes, and then fell into decadence with the onset of romanticism (even though the latter amounted to a “French revolution in poetic form”!) On the other hand, the idea is much more common (shared alike by Plekhanov, Hausenstein, and Hamann) that decadence set in with the appearance of impressionism, through which “the petty bourgeoisie attained its culminating position.” Plekhanov nevertheless noted the joyous aspect of this art and considered it to belong to the society of the future by virtue of its hedonist unconcern. On this basis, the Soviet theoretician Matsa has been impelled to doubt that impressionism is decadent art and to ascribe the beginning of decadence to expressionism, which “deforms the external world.” As we have already seen, the question then arises as to how the October Revolution could have been echoed in expressionism. The answer is simple. The shout, the cry, the slogan, and the directive are always going to be compact in the expressionistic mode like action itself, for narration is unfeasible in the course of the action. Yet such an uncomplicated psychological explanation is not accepted by the adherents to socialist realism. To be sure, there have been some recent attempts to consider nonobjective art alone as genuinely decadent art. This opinion has been expressed by the Soviet critic Lifshits on only one occasion but seems to be acquiring a multitude of adherents, although it has not yet become “official.”

The theory of reification is our third example of the erroneous application of the category of totality in the field of culture. Much more subtle than the others, this theory has attracted large numbers of contemporary Marxists, for it undeniably contains a fragment of the truth. The weak side of this theory is its historical relativism, conditional upon the enclosure of the cultural‑historical situation within the bounds of a specific totality.

Like the other theories, the theory of reification lays stress on the foundation, i.e., on the economic relationships or modes of production in capitalist society. We know that the idea of reification means to Lukács what Marx termed “the fetishism of commodities”—the idea that the value of a particular commodity is to be regarded as its objective characteristic, devoid of any specific social relation created by value itself. Reification occurs in such a way that concrete individual labor is transformed into an abstract amount of labor, the amount that can be considered socially necessary. The latter is no more than an abstraction from the former, and amounts to the reduction of an original qualitative unity to a quantitative continuum determined by value or price. The process of reification thus consists essentially of the transformation of qualitative relations into quantitative magnitudes. The roots of reification naturally lie in a whole conglomeration of secondary phenomena that are inseparable from a system of hired labor, e.g., the reduction of the workingmen to a bare work force, the separation of the producers from their products and from the means of production, the determination of the value or prices of goods through the haphazard effect of the capitalist market relations that amount to a force outside man and raised above man's will, and in sum the entire goods‑and‑money and technical-utilitarian superstructure of the capitalist economy (particularly in its liberalistic and prestatist form).

The process of reification amounts to the foundation of bourgeois society in so far as the creation of market values is concerned, and must inevitably be generalized or reflected in the superstructure of this society, in science, philosophy, law, morals, and art. Just as the capitalist mode of production has a tendency to expand and gradually to overwhelm all areas of social production, so also does consciousness as the reflection of this process come gradually to imbue all such fields. Since Marx, Max Weber and George Lukács, and recently Erich Fromm and Lucien Goldmann have been particularly insistent on the fact that goods‑and‑money production is not only the configuration of the economy in a bourgeois society but also the “soul” of such a society. Usefulness, profit, money, quantification, rationalism, and instrumentalism have thus saturated all realms of social life and thought. Rationalism along with science in this same circle has become the enemy of humanism, instrumentalism along with technology the chief source of human alienation. Likewise, mass production entails mass consumption and is the main source of the other‑than‑human or “artificial” needs that are generated by means of advertising and with the lure of false social prestige, as Erich Fromm has pointed out. Rather than assuming reification to be the sole or fundamental process operative in bourgeois society, to be sure, Fromm adds the dimension of the human personality.

In fact, the application of the category of totality in the social criticism of bourgeois society under the theory of reification does not go beyond the dependence of the superstructure upon the foundation, i.e., the dependence of the social totality upon a universal process termed reification, so far as the essential determinism of social phenomena is concerned. The starting point is an historically closed system, viz., bourgeois society, the analysis of which comes down to a kind of phenomenological reductionism of delusive phenomena to a fundamental and essential process of change. No determinism capable of transcending this particular historical situation has been taken into consideration, either as a preceding series or as a future series.

In what manner ought these theories to be subjected to correction?

First, it is necessary to transcend social, economic, class, cultural, and historical totalitarianism, and thus relativism in two senses, viz., in individual or personal terms, and in terms of world history. In the first instance, the category of social totality deserves to be interpreted in relation to “total social facts” (Marx, Mauss, Gurvitch). Let us recall no more than the following definition from Marx: “Hence, however much a human being should be a separate individuum, and it is precisely his separateness which makes him an individuum and an actual individual being in the community, he is likewise a totality, the ideal totality, the subjective existence of an imagined and experienced society in itself, just as he exists in actuality at the same time as the perception and genuine spirit of social existence and as the totality of the human manifestation of life.” (Karl Marx, Der historische Materialismus [Leipzig: A. Kroener Verlag], Vol. I, p. 298.)

Obviously, Marx has kept in mind the fact that both society and the personality are “total social facts”; i.e., the whole social reality can be encompassed if we proceed from the one to the other and vice versa. This reciprocity of perspective is based in any event on a dialectical relationship that imparts full independence to the personality in the sense of an ability to identify with any other personality in the society (any reduction of the art of a given artist to his class origins being thus illusory), and an ability to identify with the entire society as a whole (to transcend in consciousness narrower class or group interests), and an ability to transcend the present‑day state of society—to anticipate the future as the “totality of the human manifestation of life,” not only in the name of the negation of that which is in existence, but also in the name of the entire historical experience of mankind. Positivistic organicism is not only incapable of comprehending the role of the personality in cultural creativity, but also finds geniuses to be an enigma. No less a figure than Lukács himself naïvely explains the survival of works of genius solely in terms of selection on the part of the ruling class from whatever in the past should serve the immediate interests of this class! In point of fact, great cultural works live on despite all barriers of history and class for the sole reason that such works have been created by personalities distinguished for greatness or genius, i.e., such individualized social totalities as have encompassed a maximum of “human totality” in a personal creative act. The limitations of class and history that affect every creative personality—even those of the greatest genius—cannot affect the cultural and human values of a great work. Such a work reflects the constant endeavor of the individuum as the “ideal totality of society” to penetrate and express the essential aspects of human existence in terms of duration in space and time. The result is always limited but on a universal human scale, for man as creator is always outgrowing himself through his work, and not only himself but also the concrete mankind that he represents.

In other words, the individual represents a specific determinant of cultural creation precisely because as an individual he deserves to be a part of the analysis of the culture of a society. For example, in terms of the universal process of reification it is wholly incomprehensible why romanticism should have ignored the processes of reification while the realism that followed with Balzac did not ignore these processes. Was it only because romanticism was “more reactionary” or less progressive than realism, or was it because the romantics as human beings were less progressive than the realists (e.g., Victor Hugo as opposed to Balzac)?

The answer to the question indicates that to ask it is wrong. Romanticism had no need to reflect reification, for its aim was to express what was vital after the bourgeois revolution, viz., a new conception and a new expansion of the human personality, Promethean and autonomous. This personal and sentimental expansion of a grand sensitivity proved very soon to be illusory when confronted with social reality, but lost nothing thereby of its universal human and cultural value. Let us remember that Romain Rolland went to combat in behalf of socialism via Beethoven. Marx conducted himself in the same way with Phidias or Shakespeare, even though the social organization inhabited by these geniuses could scarcely have been pleasing to him.

In other words, we are obliged to keep track of the fate of human creation equally in the dimension of the class struggle and in the dimension of the human personality, at the level of human sociality and at the level of the artistic liberation of the personality.

Second, cultural phenomena transcend the foundation-superstructure scheme and historical relativism in the sphere of world history, by which we understand a continuous curve with all its internal contradictions throughout the historical epochs up to the present. Such a curve is assumed to be wholly natural where advances in science or technology are concerned. It is considered entirely understandable and even inevitable in these fields of endeavor for new discoveries to be linked together with the older ones and for such new discoveries to multiply increasingly, with the general curve of discoveries or cognition appearing in an exponential form, i.e., as a curve with positive acceleration. Positivistic organicism, historical relativism, and the theory of the rise and fall of cultures as worlds of their own are nevertheless incapable of encompassing such a kind of progressive alteration with constant upsurge within the bounds of their mode of thinking.

We know that estheticians are opposed to the idea of progress in art, but we also know that they have in mind in this connection solely the perfection of certain forms or the perfection of the esthetic experience itself. In this sense, we truly cannot say that esthetic expression actually advanced in terms of “the beautiful” and “the perfect” from the neolithic caves to the classical Greeks and from the classical Greeks to contemporary modernism. On the other hand, even if we have not advanced esthetically, we have not necessarily failed to improve steadily in terms of the creative act proper, in the discovery of creative potentialities, in the analysis of expressional devices, in the discovery of the various laws under which dead matter is configurated. We would not find it difficult to show that man has advanced as steadily in art as he has in technology, which some so mystically counterpose to art, forgetting that art is inseparable from craftsmanship. Like the dance, primitive art is frequently incapable of esthetic error, but is nevertheless wholly enslaved like primitive realism by a subject that has not yet become the object of critical reflection and is entirely bound up with a syncretic world of magic and mythology. Only with the Greeks did beauty begin to be discovered as a separate object of experience and thereby as a separate theme of human creativity. Only then were the laws of proportion, symmetry, and rhythm discovered. Did not the Renaissance discover the laws of perspective for the first time, just as the Baroque period was to discover light and shadow as the medium of the spiritual existence of an object devoid of sheer mass? And what of today’s discovery that “what is deserving of being depicted is not the object but rather the impression which the object makes upon us” in the form of impressionism, cubism, and abstract art? More careful analysis would show us that we are constantly witnessing genuine discoveries in relation to human modes of expression and to the way in which objects are represented throughout the entire evolution of European art, and that such discoveries have increasingly multiplied in modern times (we need only remind ourselves of contemporary “applied art”), to the extent that the kind of exponential curve found by the sociologists in the field of science and technology could easily be constructed in the artistic realm as well.

There can be no doubt that the cyclic phenomena of cultural upsurge and stagnation, of progressive élan and decadency, amount to no more than a separate rhythm within a more general and more universal process of change. For this reason, we obviously will not have exhausted the meaning of a particular phenomenon by simply placing it within the framework of a process of progress and decadence. We must instead interpret such a phenomenon within the framework of the general process of historical change, i.e., in terms of world history. For example, a phase of decadence in bourgeois art set in with symbolism and impressionism in the light of the earlier ideo-affective expansion of humaneness, yet the same phase no less surely marks the beginning of one of the most fruitful periods of cultural and artistic creativity in terms of the discovery of new potentialities and in terms of the constant enrichment of human sensitivity and imagination. And the development of human potentialities, the development of all the most diverse and many-sided of human capabilities, should be considered the fundamental law of historical evolution (cf. Marx).

Third, the historical relativism of the theories of culture under discussion is incapable of explaining an extremely significant phenomenon in the process of cultural change, viz., the many‑sided complexity of historical determinism. Specifically, certain cyclic processes of change are totally exhausted in the course of a single historical epoch, while certain other cyclic processes of change can be said to transcend a given epoch. In other words, there are cyclic processes of change within a given historical epoch (endogenous cyclic processes of change) and cyclic processes of change above a given historical epoch (exogenous or transcyclic processes of change). For example, the process of change in terms of world history can be conceived as a constant uncovering and deepening of human expressional potentialities. To illustrate this phenomenon, however, we must take up an example which is close to us and can be easily understood.

In our Psychology of the Bourgeois Lyric (Psihologiia gradjanske lirike, Zagreb, published by Matica Hrvatska, 1952), we described a cyclic process of change that began with romanticism and ended with surrealism. The ideo‑affective attitudes that led in romanticism to an expansion of sympathy toward humanity and the cosmos led in symbolism to stagnation and in surrealism to radical negation. A dead end had eventually been reached, justifying those writers who reflected deeply on this process of change and who arrived at the conclusion that the surrealists must be “the last romantics”! The attempt to depict lettrisme as an imitation of abstract art is a kind of intellectual weakness, for such an attempt mistakenly identifies technology with humaneness, whether affirmed or negated. To be sure, a new cycle of cultural change set in with the appearance of impressionism. Impressionism comprised a certain amount of “technological interest,” both in terms of thematic material (locomotives, the St.-Lazare railway station, the Eiffel Tower) and in terms of procedures (spectrum analysis, complementary colors, the granular fusion of colors, etc.), and we find something kindred in the poetry of René Ghil and Paul Valéry. A certain constructivism and instrumentalism had evolved. Since impressionism, this tendency has dominated modern art in all varieties of expression up to and including contemporary abstract or concrete art, electronic music, and lettrisme in poetry. This “technological interest,” subordinated to a greater extent in the beginning to certain humanistic preoccupations, has grown increasingly independent in the course of time, and recently even dominates some areas of endeavor. However, with reliance on concrete space in the field of architecture and in the manufacture of useful objects, this “technological interest” is going to acquire a real foundation and is going to free itself of its romanticist and metaphysical proclivities.

Abstract art, although closest in time to surrealism, is immeasurably remote from it psychologically and is incomparably far away from romanticism and in particular from the “night,” “hallucinatory,” and “grotesque” varieties of romanticism. This circumstance only serves to confirm the fact that the cycle is discontinuous and closed if we have the development of the romanticist component in mind, yet continuous and open if we have the “technological component” in mind. Is it not clear by now that a cycle in art is already ending in bourgeois society? This society is necessarily continuing with its technological and cultural potentialities, while the “technological cycle” in art that derives its inspiration from science and technology will necessarily be continuing apart from all limitations imposed by the class make‑up of society, for which reason the resistance of socialist realism in some countries to abstract art is as purposeless as it is futile and is bound to end in the same way as have kindred attitudes toward modern architecture, urban planning, and cybernetics.

We can draw the conclusion from this example that courses of development and values with a multitude of meanings and senses come to light within the bounds of a given historical epoch, like all organic creations. While one conception or stylistic form is dying out, another is already being born and is present to be able to continue along the path of its own and uniquely different fate.

Fourth, these theories are not capable of explaining the role of the unconscious in artistic creation, especially in instances of stylistic change where the influence of a kind of collective unconscious is of particular significance. Psychoanalysis has succeeded in explaining the influence of the unconscious only in relation to the content or theme of an artistic work, not in relation to stylistic changes. What is involved at this point is the fact that the unconscious in creation is not only a complex function of the intermediacy of experience in terms of the symbolization, projection, or dramatization of specific materials, but also a direct influence upon the very functional structure of the experience.

If we desire to defend the thesis that the evolution artistic sensitivity from romanticism to surrealism comprises a closed cycle that has been exhausted and resolved on the basis of its own premises, then we must take the internal dynamics of this evolution into account. These internal dynamics presuppose not only a change in specific experiential materials but also certain functional changes in the creative imagination, in which the unconscious plays a vital role as an intermediary. For example, we have already pointed out that romanticism represents a certain expansion in sympathy in human and cosmic terms, yet we also know that symbolism and impressionism mark a diminution of this affective expansion due to a general or collective state of mind which can be described as resignation. The question thus arises as to what the significance and consequences of this diminution in the affective expansion may be.

So far as functional changes are concerned, we are in a position to observe the course of two simultaneous processes in symbolism. The first is the diminution of the humanistic expansion along with the transferral of this expansiveness to the realm of the beautiful, the disinterested, and the formalized. This is why the symbolists call themselves “cultivators of form,” “stylists,” or “the dispassionate ones.” The second such process involves the sensory or sensual component of the creative imagination, which becomes stronger or more independent. The ideo‑affective expansion that had taken place during the romantic era in the realm of humanism withdrew in symbolism and impressionism to the level of sensual relations with nature and things. Friedrich Hebbel was right in remarking that this sensual expansion was based on a kind of “passive love” and on an ironic or Manichaean stance toward reality, described so dramatically and so accurately by Baudelaire and Nietzsche. The shift of the humanistic expansion to the realm of sensuality occurred unconsciously, being much more the product of the general spirit of the epoch than of any rational reflection on the part of an artistic creator. And yet this change is the key to an understanding of essential changes in artistic expression, for this diminution in the humanistic expansion gave rise to a whole series of other characteristic changes in sensitivity, e.g., a feeling of intimacy and presence, ambivalence of feeling, sensory plasticity, a tendency toward synesthesia, hyperintellectualism in the creative process, and a return to the past in its naive and childlike aspects. This metamorphosis in sensitivity has resulted in corresponding changes in artistic style in such a way that an interdependence can be said to exist between structural changes in sensibility and artistic expression. We could also show a similar metamorphosis to have taken place in the transition from symbolism to surrealism.

Fifth, if it is correct to say that some cyclic processes transcend a given historical epoch, socioeconomic arrangement, or class society, while others do not, then an important methodological principle follows, viz., some contradictions within the bounds of a given social system are resolved in the course of time, but other contradictions arise to take their places. Some contradictions become simple differences under the law of the progressive differentiation of society and culture, while other differences become new contradictions. In other words, it is a mistake to make use of such simple contradictions as those between materialism and idealism, subjectivism and objectivism, progressivism and reaction, and the like, in the interpretation of culture. We must instead follow the development of every established contradiction to see whether it is being resolved in the course of time within the bounds of a given social system or not. Marx had already noted in connection with economic development that some contradictions are resolved within the bounds of capitalism. We ought therefore to anticipate that such would be an even commoner occurrence in the realm of culture, which is more autonomous and is distinguished by a higher coefficient of individual factors. We are thus faced with a peculiar dialectic that transforms contradictions into contrarieties and contrarieties into contradictions. Let us attempt to illustrate with an example:

An extremely ferocious campaign is being waged in some socialist countries today against abstract art as the last, “most radical,” and most distorted, expression of bourgeois decadency in art. This campaign takes into account only certain of the spiritualistic speculations of the early Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian. No consideration is given in this campaign to the actual context and function of the art that is involved, particularly in connection with the appearance of the Weimar Bauhaus and with the analysis of the modern conception of space and pictorial matter. Nor do these criticisms take note of the fact that abstract art protests against misuse in the name of its concreteness. The real reason for this failure of understanding is that this campaign and these criticisms are unaware of the fact that a contradictory cultural situation, in the form of an attempt to flee the concrete world, has undergone a transformation contrary to its own original intentions by becoming involved in the concrete world and in the ecological (urban‑planning) problems of this concrete world. Abstract art has thus ceased to be a negation of any world, bourgeois, socialist, or whatever. On the basis of contemporary spatial and pictorial concepts, abstract art has become a part of the most real world possible; that is, it has become wholly neutral so far as differences of class are concerned. In this way, abstract art may equally be the concern of Catholics and Protestants, socialists and communists. Against the wishes of its initiators, abstract art has become only “one among others.” The most intelligent theoreticians of abstract art would not defend its exclusiveness in the name of “progress,” going no further than to mention abstract art as one possibility among many.

Sixth, modern cultural criticism in general has not yet acquired the habit of examining the significance or sense of cultural goods from the standpoint of the actual function of these goods in relation to man. Abstract‑esthetic, ideological‑utilitarian, or economic‑commercial criteria are commonly taken into consideration. These criteria, which have a somewhat longer tradition in our civilization, are easier to define. The problem of actual human needs and of determining the values of cultural goods in relation to human needs remains open, although contemporary social and psychological anthropology is beginning to touch on it on an increasing scale, primarily in the form of criticism of contemporary industrial and capitalist civilization in its extreme commercial and metropolitan forms.

Our objections to these theories up to this point suggest that the determinism of cultural phenomena is far more complex than it appears at first glance. In a very general way, it may be said that the existence of differences in historical rhythms points the way to the existence of three fundamental systems in the determinism of cultural phenomena: society in its structuralism; the personality as a separately individualized and universal system of functions and needs; and, finally, the cultural areas proper with their own unique laws of development (science, philosophy, technology, language, art, etc.). There is no dispute today among researchers into culture about the existence of these three specific factors in cultural development. The argument begins when we attempt a closer examination of the significance and interrelations of particular systems. Our research is only now getting underway, but it is already clear that the existence and operation of these three systems will demand a polydeterministic interpretation of cultural evolution.

Seventh, if it is correct that various cycles and rhythms of historical development exist and that these three systems require a polydeterministic interpretation, then we are faced with the problem of defining the methods of cultural research and cultural criticism more accurately. Although space does not permit us to go into this problem, let us at least point out that every onesided and simplified treatment of cultural phenomena must be excluded. The problem likewise excludes any vulgar‑materialistic limitation to the foundation‑superstructure scheme, any enclosure on the part of positivistic organicism within an exclusive course of progress and decadency, and any phenomenological reductionism to a universal basic process such as reification.

In what way ought we to approach the analysis of cultural phenomena? Above all, no doubt, a phenomenological survey of the totality of the phenomena in a given cultural‑historical situation is in order. The phenomenological application of the category of totality for purposes of distinguishing the essential from the inessential, the profound from the superficial, and the fundamental from the secondary should naturally be the first step in such research. Yet a panoramic review of this kind will cease to be adequate the moment we ask ourselves the meaning of a given phenomenon in terms of duration in time. The problem will then have arisen of the complexity of the determinism of the given phenomenon—more profound study will undoubtedly discover, behind the statics of phenomenology, an increasing number of generic forms, which can be grasped only by means of functional-structural analysis. Just as the structure of the cultural and social situation has changed in the course of time, so also has the function of particular phenomena changed, and along with it the significance of such phenomena in the life of society and of individuals. The direction in which the functions, sense, and values of particular phenomena are changing can be determined only by historical-comparative study of the development of society and culture. In other words, these are three different methodological standpoints which necessarily complement rather than exclude each other. However, the mastery of these methodological viewpoints entails a thorough acquaintance with actual social and cultural happenings. Petty criticism and methodological onesidedness are commonly the offshoots of insufficient knowledge concerning various fields of culture, concerning the dependence of such fields of culture upon concrete social situations, and concerning the place of such fields of culture in the general currents of historical change. The superficiality which we encounter so often in this area in everyday criticism, as well as in more serious discussions, results partly from inadequate study of the cultural materials, but no less from a lack of the dialectical spirit that is based equally on comprehensive intuition and the logical elaboration of methodological procedures.

Translated by William Hannaher


SOURCE: Supek, Rudi. "Freedom and Polydeterminism in Cultural Criticism," in Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium, edited by Erich Fromm (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), pp. 280-298.


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