Saturday, September 24, 2011

Frankfurt on the Farm: Southern Agrarianism Meets Adorno & Co.

The American south really is another country, or so I’ve thought from time to time.  And I thought it again earlier today, when a guy I know who recently took a teaching position in Mississippi told me how everyone at the university with a PhD insists on being called “Doctor,” and on signing emails with their full names followed by “PhD.”  It’s been my experience at my home institution, and at other colleges and universities in the north, that only a few professors insist on doing this, and that it tends to provoke a little behind-the-back eye-rolling on the part of their colleagues.  I’ve generally filed all this under the heading “cultural differences that don’t really matter but that probably reflect the more hierarchical social background of the south, with its roots in the agrarian world of the plantations” (the only other item in this slim file, with its elephantine heading, is “they do tend to call you sir or ma’am down there, don’t they?”).

The gentility I’ve encountered in the south probably is left over from a pre-industrial social order that would strike a Chicagoan, whose heritage is industrial mayhem, and whose future is the post-industrial unknown, as entirely alien.  But what about the intellectual traditions indigenous to the south?  What, more specifically, about the Southern Agrarians, that group of poets and literary intellectuals who made the 1930 collection of essays I’ll Take My Stand their manifesto?  They’ve often seemed distant to me: New Critical, conservative, and nostalgic for a vanishing social order based on the morally indefensible slave economy of the plantation — what could they have in common with the kind of left-wing, critical theory-devouring, Europhile with whom you and I sulk around the coffee joints and bookstores of big cities and college towns?

More than one might assume, it turns out.  While they certainly trafficked in nostalgia, when one looks at their actual writings, as often as not one finds significant overlap between what they believed and what the Frankfurt school critical thinkers — darlings of my sullen people, the liberal arts professoriate—believed.  I’m not saying that the two groups would want to amalgamate, but I do think they had many of the same ideas about what was wrong with the world in which they lived.

Consider a few examples.

Against Commodification and Exchange Value

“A farm is not a place to grow wealthy,” says Andrew Nelson Lytle in his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, “it is a place to grow corn.”  He is appalled by the notion that the individual qualities of the products of life on a farm can be erased and replaced by a numerical, and easily manipulated, dollar value.  This erases the true use-value of the object, but more than that, it destroys the individuality of objects, reducing them to exchange value, and turning them into commodities.  “What industrialism counts as the goods and riches of the earth the agrarian South does not, nor ever did,” said Lytle, taking aim against industrial capitalism’s emphasis on the commodity as the means of measuring true wealth.

One hardly needs to quote Marx or Adorno for the similarities in outlook to be apparent.  But if Dr. Lytle and Drs. Marx and Adorno agree on their diagnosis (“the patient has a bad case of commodification!”) they disagree radically on the nature of the proper treatment.  No critical theory for Lytle, still less any form of labor organizing.  Rather, he calls for an economic and cultural movement, in which the people of the south “return to our looms, our hand crafts, our reproducing stock.  Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall!”  It’s more like what one would find in the writings of William Morris than in the works of Max Horkheimer, but even so, we should remember Morris wasn’t just a great wallpaper designer and furniture maker: he was a committed socialist.

The Nature of Utopia

The Agrarians were famously backward-looking, but when we look at why they yearned for the past, we see that it was generally as a way of criticizing the industrial capitalism of the present.

Robert Penn Warren, at a 1956 reunion of the Agrarians, said the past is “a better rebuke” to the present “than any dream of the future,” because “you can see what some of the costs were, what frail virtues were achieved in the past by frail men." For other Agrarians, there was an even stronger emphasis on the critique of modernity over any positive vision of what Utopia ought to be. As Lyle Lanier put it not long before the reunion at which Warren spoke, “I don’t feel overly confident now that I can have anything to say about what I stand for in these dismal times.  As in 1930, what to stand against seems much easier to identify.”  And that enemy was modern industrial capitalism. Lanier claimed to read the Wall Street Journal only “to keep up with what the enemy is up to,” and the opening statement of I’ll Take My Stand, attributed to all of the book’s contributors, says “it is strange…that a majority of men anywhere could even as with one mind become enamored of industrialism: a system that has so little regard for individual wants.”  One might attribute some of this anti-modernity to the culture around the Vanderbilt Agrarians: Nashville was undergoing a belated but rapid industrialization, establishing a mode of life very much at odds with the Agrarian ideal: it was as if the poets were surrounded by countless versions of Faulkner’s Flem Snopes on the make.

Of course any orientation to the past is fundamentally at odds with the Frankfurt school, which made much of futurity. As Simon Jarvis put it, Adorno wanted “to resist the liquidation of the possibility of really new experience,” and saw Utopia as a necessarily unachievable aspiration, a yearning for a newer, better world, beyond exploitation and oppression. But here, too, the emphasis is on Utopia as a critique of the present, rather than as an achievable reality in some particular form. Utopia, in Adorno’s view, could never be fully embodied, nor even formulated.  Irreducible to concept, let alone to political realization, it was an absolute for which to yearn. But we must walk in fear of anyone claiming to have produced it, in blueprint or in actualization.

Moreover, even in the disagreement about whether to look forward or backward in time, we can see a certain similarity: both Robert Penn Warren and Theodor Adorno approach Utopia with caution, with an eye open to the frailty of the vision and the human costs paid in attempts to embody it.  There’s caution to both visions, Agrarian/reactionary and the Marxian/radical.  This puts both on a moral footing well ahead of many ideologues of the mid-century right and left.

Obligation to the Lost Cause

A strange mournfulness hangs, mist-like, over the essays of I’ll Take My Stand: a mournfulness over the sacrifices of so many soldiers in the Civil War. A good part of the nostalgia for the past, and the sometimes hard-to-read defense of the old plantation society (John Crowe Ransom writes of slavery as “humane in practice” if not theory), is a powerfully felt sense that the sacrifices of one’s ancestors must not have been in vain.  While, with the exception of an essay by Allen Tate, there’s little in I’ll Take My Stand by way of calls for violent political action, there’s a real sense that one must remain loyal to the past, and keep the flame alive until conditions once again become propitious for one’s cause.

This sense of one’s place in history is surprisingly close to some moments in Negative Dialectics, where Adorno speaks of the revolutionary moment predicted by Marx as having come and gone, contained and defused by capitalism. In 1966, the year Negative Dialectics was published, Adorno saw capitalism more dominant than ever, and felt that critical thinking was the best way to maintain a kind of critical consciousness that will be essential for any future action on behalf of the great cause.  Both Adorno and the Agrarians looked back at lost opportunities and failed causes, and saw themselves as keepers of the flame.

The Group and the Individual

The Frankfurt school was unexceptional in Marxist thought in being deeply skeptical of the claims of individualism and individual agency, emphasizing the power of large social and economic forces, and the actions of classes rather than charismatic individuals.  On the surface, the Agrarians seem to believe in very different things.  They make much of the term “individual,” and can at times sound almost like Margaret Thatcher when she claimed “society does not exist.”  The opening statement of I’ll Take My Stand, for example, claims “the responsibility of men is for their own welfare and that of their neighbors; not for the hypothetical welfare of some fabulous creature called society.”  But even in the rejection of the notion of society, we see something other than individualism at work: there’s a notion of mutual obligation in much Agrarian thinking, albeit one based not on class solidarity but on family and region.  Lyle Lanier, for example, despised industrial capitalism for creating “personal isolation, and a fractioning of life functions.”  He feared capitalism would dissolve the bonds of extended family which formed a kind of social support network, leaving people uprooted, deracinated, and subject to the “convulsions of a predatory and decadent capitalism.”

Agrarian talk of individualism often masked an emphasis on social forms larger than the individual.  These social forms were by no means egalitarian, and they were based on a system of racial oppression, but they were far from individualistic.  As the historian Paul V. Murphy put it, the old southern social order “demanded of members, white and black, not only conformity to written and unwritten rules but also loyalty to an often informal but clearly defined social hierarchy.  In return, the white southerner gained a deep sense of community, identity, and family connection.  Black southerners,” Murphy continues, in deep understatement, “gained quite a bit less.”  Be that as it may, it wasn’t an individualist order the Agrarians promoted, despite their love of the term “individual.”  It was a form of group-consciousness they wanted to protect, against the atomizing forces of capitalism.

Art, Alienation, and Social Life

Another way the Agrarians distanced themselves from individualism was in their view of the proper social position of art.  Donald Davidson, for example, demanded art be integrated into the social world around it, growing out of and contributing to the life of a community, rather than serving some private vision or languishing in the aesthete’s private garret of l’art pour l’art.  “What is a picture for, if not to put on a wall?” asked Davidson.  A true artist, in his view, doesn’t produce work in which “the aesthetic experience is curtained off” but rather makes work that will be “mixed up with all sorts of instruments and occupations pertaining to the round of daily life.”

I suppose one could try to work out some relation to the Frankfurt school insistence on the social nature of all art, perhaps invoking Adorno’s well-known claim, in “Lyric Poetry and Society,” that even the seemingly private form of expression that is the lyric poem, a form of expression at odds with any social pressure represents a kind of shared social experience.  “The lyric work of art’s withdrawal into itself, its self-absorption, its detachment from the social surface,” says Adorno, “is socially motivated behind the author’s back.”  But that’s not where the really striking connection is.  The really striking connection is between Davidson’s Agrarian thinking and the avant-gardism of Dadaist and Surrealist thinking. 

Consider this: Davidson wants to return art from its ivory tower to the world of daily, lived experience, integrating it into daily life.  While his particular paths to this goal differ from those of Tristan Tzara or AndrĂ© Breton, his general goal is exactly that of these considerably freakier figures.  Dada and Surrealism were dedicated to breaking down the barriers set up by aestheticism, and by institutions like museums, between art and daily life.  For Breton, this was the true path of revolution.  For Davidson, it was a return to a more genteel past.  But for both, the goal was to end the alienation of the poet or artist from society.


In the end, we can think of figures as diverse as Allen Tate and Donald Davidson, on the one hand, and Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, on the other, as people working in good faith with the different traditions they inherited to fight the excesses of the global system in which they found themselves.  Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that they have not only profound differences but very real similarities.


[Note that I am having a secret argument with myself here: an article I wrote some time ago, "Aesthetics as Ethics: One and a Half Theses on the New Criticism" begins with the claim "no one would confuse the political dreams of the Fugitives with those of the Frankfurt School."  If you want to see that line of reasoning, it'll be out in 2012 in a book called Re-Reading the New Criticism, edited by Miranda Hickman and John MacIntyre (Ohio State University Press)].