Ernst Bloch on Expressionism, Lukács, Totality

This is not the occasion for a detailed discussion of an issue so crucial that only the most thorough analysis can do it justice: for it involves all the problems of the dialectical-materialist theory of reflection (Abbildlehre). I will make only one point. Lukács’s thought takes for granted a closed and integrated reality that does indeed exclude the subjectivity of idealism, but not the seamless ‘totality’ which has always thriven best in idealist systems, including those of classical German philosophy. Whether such a totality in fact constitutes reality, is open to question. If it does, then Expressionist experiments with disruptive and interpolative techniques are but an empty jeu d’esprit, as are the more recent experiments with montage and other devices of discontinuity. But what if Lukács’s reality—a coherent, infinitely mediated totality—is not so objective after all? What if his conception of reality has failed to liberate itself completely from Classical systems? What if authentic reality is also discontinuity? Since Lukács operates with a closed, objectivistic conception of reality, when he comes to examine Expressionism he resolutely rejects any attempt on the part of artists to shatter any image of the world, even that of capitalism. Any art which strives to exploit the real fissures in surface inter-relations and to discover the new in their crevices, appears in his eyes merely as a wilful act of destruction. He thereby equates experiment in demolition with a condition of decadence.

At this point, even his ingenuity finally flags. It is undoubtedly the case that the Expressionists utilized, and even exacerbated, the decadence of late bourgeois civilization. Lukács resents their ‘collusion in the ideological decay of the imperialist bourgeoisie, without offering either criticism or resistance, acting indeed on occasion as its vanguard’. But in the first place there is very little truth in the crude idea of ‘collusion’; Lukács himself acknowledges that Expressionism ‘was ideologically a not insignificant component of the anti-war movement’. Secondly, so far as ‘collusion’ in an active sense goes, the actual furtherance of cultural decline, one must ask: are there not dialectical links between growth and decay? Are confusion, immaturity and incomprehensibility always and in every case to be categorized as bourgeois decadence? Might they not equally—in contrast with this simplistic and surely unrevolutionary view—be part of the transition from the old world to the new? Or at least be part of the struggle leading to that transition? This is an issue which can only be resolved by concrete examination of the works themselves; it cannot be settled by omniscient parti-pris judgements. So the Expressionists were the ‘vanguard’ of decadence. Should they instead have aspired to play doctor at the sick-bed of capitalism? Should they have tried to plaster over the surface of reality, in the spirit, say, of the Neo-classicists or the representatives of Neo-objectivity, instead of persisting in their efforts of demolition?

SOURCE: Bloch, Ernst. “Discussing Expressionism,” translated by Rodney Livingstone, in Aesthetics and Politics, by Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno; afterword by Fredric Jameson; Ronald Taylor, translation editor (London: NLB, 1977), pp. 16-27. This quote: pp. 22-23. Original first published in Das Wort, 1938; later in Erbschaft dieser Zeit [Heritage of Our Times] (Frankfurt, 1962).

Heritage of Our Times (Contents) by Ernst Bloch

Ernst Bloch on reason, unreason, the ‘non-contemporaneous’ & Nazism

Adorno to Bloch on the Blockage of Utopia

Georg Lukács on Dostoevsky & the future of the novel

Stavrogin’s Confession by Georg Lukács

Theodor W. Adorno on modernism, Georg Lukács, James Joyce (1)

Theodor W. Adorno on modernism, Georg Lukács, James Joyce (2)

Siegfried Kracauer On History and Non-Simultaneity

Louis Althusser on Hegel’s Expressive Totality

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Georg Lukács’ The Destruction of Reason: Selected Bibliography

Theodor W. Adorno & Critical Theory Study Guide

Ideology Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


Nonsynchronism and the Obligation to Its Dialectics” by Ernst Bloch

Non-simultaneity - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Reclaiming Utopia: The Legacy of Ernst Bloch by Tim Dayton

Tendencies of Utopia: Reflections on Recent Work in the Modern Utopian Tradition
by Christopher Kendrick

Ernst Bloch Assoziation [in German]

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