A Disaffection

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So is it the ongoing project of enlightened modernity to overcome finally the injustices and of the world or was such a project always the myth of an instrumental reason that accorded benefits to some at the same time that it also served to legitimize colonialism, slavery, the inequalities of class society and capitalism, world war and racial extermination programmes? My term, melancholy knowledge, therefore, is intended in this context to insist that there still be truths, even if the first awareness of such knowledge is that enlightened modernity has become the codeword for a barbarism conducted as reason.

Melancholy knowledge is thus a truth troubled by its own name. In so doing, A Disaffection is instructive precisely because it is critical of the Enlightenment but also wary of the notion of a pure art of Romantic redemption uncontaminated by domination.

A Disaffection by James Kelman - Penguin Books Australia

Where postmodern thinkers such as Lyotard connect reason, truth and Enlightenment to a civilized monstrosity and dismiss Marxism and other collective projects of emancipation as pandering to the same totalitarian or repressive rationality it is, supposedly, only in art that some form of transcendence is possible, that some space might be found that is not bound by systemic power and social degradation. According to such a position, in a world where mechanised domination masquerades benignly in narratives of ethical improvement or scientific progress, where freedom is despoiled by the false choices of consumer capitalism, art offers itself as a experience of arresting, transcendent singularity.

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Anyone such as Adorno, who can look down their nose at jazz music of all the things to pick upon in the context of commodification! Indeed art and its promises are troubled by the very inequalities of the world that they would resolve. There have been numerous attempts to rehabilitate Heidegger, to engage in his de-Nazification if you like. Most problematical for those who would defend or absolve Heidegger are his notorious Rectoral address at the University of Freiburg in and his An Introduction to Metaphysics which reflects the sentiments of that address.

Notoriously of course, while waiting for the advent of the gods Heidegger decided that in the meantime a Fuhrer would suffice. More widely, then, it is worth remaining circumspect about any form of aestheticism which claims that its version of aesthetics finds an art beyond the political or indeed that it is in itself as a form a criticism beyond politics. So if Heidegger is an extreme case, there is a more general effort in the New Aestheticism or postmodern Sublime to assert that art not only offers our means of escape from the deprivations of the world but also that art is reduced by the crudity of politics.


According to Docherty, literature is a means by which the self becomes other rather than a space of self-ratification. It is an experience of alterity or otherness so that identity is disrupted or made better and more generous by the sublime singularity of aesthetics. Any literature or reading of literature undertaken in terms of a politics of identity, Docherty claims, are gross reductions of aesthetic potentiality that ultimately fail to win the status of culture proper. Hence, for Docherty, the whole idea of a working-class culture lacks this capacity for and hospitality to otherness which demarcates the transformations of aesthetics.

So Kelman becomes a target as an example of a literature that degrades this absolute hospitality. Docherty states his case as follows:. In these readings, there is no hospitality, and as a consequence, no culture at all. I do not say, of course, that we do not read such writers.

A hospitable reading attends to singularity, on the grounds that anything else is both egocentric and inimical to culture, growth, Bildung. Docherty relates that he is sick of people reading as a particular identity: as a working-class Glaswegian, as a black lesbian, as an Irish nationalist, etc. However, again like liberal humanism, this aesthetic democracy fails to take into account the vast revolutionary transformations that would be necessary for its platitudes to be freely available to all.

Surely any democracy worthy of its own name cannot emanate from privilege. But art is not so pure.

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While Adorno advocated the formal autonomy of art he also insisted that it remained a part of the world to which it nonetheless resides negatively or critically. That is, the freedom and autonomy promised by art are not freely available to all but bought at the price of unfreedom and inequality. It ekes out its existence only by virtue of injustice already perpetrated in the sphere of production. So too, then, culture as Docherty and the New Aestheticism would define it exists precisely because freedom does not.

In a world of inequality art is always complicit in what it would criticise, given the inequalities embedded in the making of both culture and society. So rather than moving us towards a universal freedom, such a privileged aesthetic democracy only serves to preserve a freedom chained to its own opposite. Adorno and Horkheimer comment:. Serious art has been withheld from those for whom the hardship and oppression of life make a mockery of seriousness, and who must be glad if they can use time not spent at the production line just to keep going. Light art has been the shadow of autonomous art.

It is the social bad conscience of serious art. The truth which the latter necessarily lacked because of its social premises gives the other the semblance of legitimacy. The division itself is the truth: it does at least express the negativity of the culture which the different spheres constitute. Culture can only promise a democracy in whose forestalling culture is already mournfully implicated.

At the same time, Doyle has no settled, homogeneous or resolved self which coheres in the form of character and narrative consciousness. What actually is the proletariat? Or for that matter the bourgeoisie? How do you recognise a class of folk? Or a race of people? You recognise them by general characteristics. When we perceive a member of a class we are not perceiving an individual human being, we are perceiving an idea, an abstract entity, a generality; it is a way of looking that by and large is the very opposite of art. Art, therefore, is proposed as a distillation of particularity, of concrete, embedded truths which eschew generality and catchalls.

However, Kelman also has to concede that people are oppressed in collective or communal forms and that they are misrepresented or underrepresented both politically and artistically:. They are marginalised, confined below stairs, kept out of reach in a housing scheme, stuck in a closet, on a reservation, a homeland, a ghetto, an inner or outer city slum, whatever.

This inability to implement the promise of individual freedom itself divulges that individualism is not such an individual matter after all. Instead, the individual is just as socially mediated as the proletariat or the bourgeoisie in the above passage from Kelman.

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Hence, it is important to ascertain how the governing concept of the individual actually helps structure the class inequalities of society rather than it standing defiantly outside such determinations. The liberty which capitalism offers as its ultimate outcome is rather the overlay of an ongoing unfreedom through which the freedom of the few continues to the cost of the many. As such, this failure in Kelman to make the individual absolutely individual returns us to its social basis in a capitalist society.

Such a proposition passes off inequality as heterogeneity. James Kelman lives in Glasgow. Gradually he had become sickened by it. Then a very odd thing happened or was made to happen. He had been visiting the local arts centre and having a couple of drinks, found himself round the back of the premises for a pish, and discovered a pair of old pipes.

They were longish and reminded him of english saxophones from a bygone era, the kind that reach to the floor and are normally performed on by seated musicians. Now by no means whatsoever would Patrick have considered himself a musician — if anything his secret hankering was to be a painter, doing fairly large murals. The pipes were strange kind of objects in the response Patrick had for them.

It was immediate to begin with.

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As soon as he saw them it was, christ! And he shook his head, still just standing there, staring at the two of them. He picked the thinner one up and glanced about but nobody was watching. It was still winter yet. It was dark and it was cold. People seldom wandered round to here.

Patrick scratched his head; then, without smiling, proceeded to blast out a long deep sound. He stopped. And now the glimmer of a smile did appear on his face.

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Again he glanced about: still nobody.