Scott Ferguson is an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida. He is a research scholar at the Binzagr Institute for Sustainable Prosperity. His new book is in the Provocations series.
‘The Standpoint of Redemption’: Critique after Modern Monetary Theory
In Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care (July 2018), I expand both the scope and efficacy of critical theory by drawing upon the contemporary heterodox school of political economy known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Unquestioned by mainstream and critical commenters alike, the modern Liberal imagination envisions money as a finite, private, and decentralized exchange instrument and government as perpetually constrained by tax revenues and borrowing. MMT contests these impoverished suppositions. Instead, it insists that money constitutes a boundless public utility that can be mobilized to serve social and ecological needs. MMT also positions centralized government as money’s public backbone as well as the locus of its redeemability.
Emerging from the Western Marxist or Frankfurt School tradition, critical theory has customarily read cultural and aesthetic artifacts as fraught expressions of the unjust and crisis-ridden monetary instrument that dominates Liberal modernity.[i] In Declarations of Dependence, I critique Marxism’s dark inversion of the Liberal imaginary. This inversion, I argue, reifies monetary mediation as an essentially privational relationship, foreclosing a whole sphere of causality and radical possibility from the collective imagination.
Transcending such limitations, I attune critical theory’s encounters with cultural and aesthetic forms to MMT’s historically repressed conception of money as an inalienable public infrastructure. With this, my book exposes critical theory to a vast and wholly uncharted domain of sociohistorical causality. It dramatically broadens the field of what is imaginable and actionable and brings fresh urgency to critical theory’s primary undertaking: to illuminate unheeded contradictions and potentials within cultural and aesthetic artifacts with an eye toward a more just tomorrow.
The specific aim of my book is to rethink the ill-fated and distinctly modern category of the aesthetic.[ii] Irreducible to the study or practice of art as a transhistorical phenomenon, the aesthetic carves out a particular and separate domain of collective experience during Western modernity, lending meaning to a host of sensuous practices, including the arts. According to the dominant narrative, the modern aesthetic project arises as a bourgeois antidote and then revolutionary alternative to an increasingly ruinous monetary economy. Next, in the standard account, the historical promise of this project is thwarted. Sensuous production comes under the sway of ever-more voracious markets and a sensationalized logic of commercial capital that French Marxist Guy Debord christened the “society of the spectacle.”[iii]
As a result, most contemporary critical theorists conceive the aesthetic project as a tragic fall story, even as many declare the dialectical premises of that story to have been falsely construed. Knowing no alternatives to this dialectical fable, however, present critical theorists continue to position aesthetic inquiry against the money relation, striving to redeem aesthetic modernity’s dashed hopes in the face of the neoliberal onslaught.[iv] On one hand, critical theorists are right to denounce the neoliberal alienation and its subordination of aesthetics to private interests. On the other hand, their framework for such critique not only naturalizes the Liberal money form as intrinsically alienating, but also divorces aesthetic life from the financial supports it requires to flourish.
In Declarations of Dependence, I present critical theorists the following: Let us finally embrace money’s commodious fiscal bases and let go of modernity’s tired dialectical opposition between money and aesthetics. Let us unapologetically affirm the fact that money is the primary medium upon which all things—including aesthetics—necessarily depend. Going further, we might learn to appreciate that money itself acts as a kind of aesthetic medium—not a plastic art on the model of painting or sculpture but, instead, what I call a “proto-aesthetic instrument,” which plays an inescapably public role in cultivating the shared sensuous life in which specific artistic forms take shape.
“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is,” Theodor Adorno writes in Minima Moralia, “the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.”[v] Rather than seek salvation from the vantage of an unspecified utopia beyond Liberal money, critique after MMT must return to redeemability’s forgotten source: money’s boundless public center. Then critical theory can help overcome the neoliberal catastrophe and release still-unknown futures from damaged pasts.
[i] Jay, Martin. Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California, Press, 1986.
[ii] Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Hoboken, New Jersey: Blackwell Publishers: 1991.
[iii] Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Black and Red, 1967 / 2000.
[v]Adorno, T.W. Minima Moralia: Reflections from the Damaged Life,” trans. E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso Books, 2006: 247.