Walter Benjamin
& the Possibilities
of a 'Productive Aesthetics’


In another (virtual) place I’ve tried to demonstrate, using an online hypertext version of the text, that previous interpreters have been to an extent blinkered concerning the aesthetic and artistic design structure of Marx’s enigmatic ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844’. In this essay I want to investigate the causes of this tendency. So we are going to take for granted that the ‘1844 Notebooks’ (also known as the ‘Parisian Manuscripts’, I will use ‘EPM’ for short, the original was untitled) are, indeed, structured like a hypertext with a peculiar and unique kind of “space” all their own.

Hypertext is usually associated with computers, “cyberspace” and the Internet, but there are books that use hypertext structures where, say, it is possible to select from a range of different storylines. What characterizes a hypertext is the possibility of linking between individual words and sections of text or images in a document. As on the Web, this enables extensive cross connections to be made, usually by simply selecting links with a mouse pointer. To a certain extent all texts are to some degree hypertextual. For instance, footnotes to an academic text might be regarded as hypertextual; a more extreme academic hypertext might add footnotes to the footnotes, and so on. Marx’s EPM is hypertextual in the sense that it makes differently themed, but theoretically related, texts available in a different way than is achieved by the traditional linear narrative and chapter structure. Readers unfamiliar with this argument and who have access to a computer and the Internet might like to check this out first on the web at: At this location is also available an essay by Margaret Fay explaining in more depth the relevance of the design of the first manuscript of the EPM that was first published in the journal “Science & Society”.

There is a curious kind of blanket academic agreement over the interpretation of Marx’s EPM amongst even otherwise quite violently opposed theorists. We shall here look at two: Louis Althusser’s theoretical work is anti-humanist Marxism, and in this work he asserts that the EPM was more-or-less a humanist text, and specifically so on the question of alienation. Althusser, however, does not take into account the aesthetic design structure of the EPM. On the other hand, he does develop some ideas concerning art that have a bearing on this argument. Istvan Meszaros’ work is in the vein of humanist Marxism, and in it he develops a Marxist humanist interpretation of the concept of alienation in Marx’s EPM, but he similarly disregards their design; he also has ideas about art that are relevant in this context.

So, despite differences, both agree on this important issue: Marx’s EPM is humanist. Margaret A. Rose (1984) has described this general blinkeredness as the willful ignoring of Marx’s stress on the “productive” character of art, and as an abrogation of its similarity to other forms of production, as well as how both Marx’s concept of alienation and of “productive” art rely on the materialist emphasis on the primacy of production. Walter Benjamin’s well-defined account of “productive aesthetics” (1983) can, I suggest, help to clarify and solve this problem, and we can use his hypothesis to help us account for what we now know of Marx’s supposedly “eccentric” text.

Benjamin set his idea of productive aesthetics against positions that, at the time of his writing in the 1930’s, were dominant, as he put it, “writerly tendencies”: Activism and New Objectivism (Neue Sachlichkeit). He criticizes these tendencies for the ideas of the “sovereignty of the mind” as the rule of “men of ideas”. Activism, according to Benjamin, promoted a classless notion of “common sense” and defended the “undefinable attitude” of “men of mind”. Describing these movements as a logocracy, Benjamin thus refers to their logocentrism in placing all emphasis on a metaphysical notion of a separate and separable “content”. That is, separate from the process of language use. By taking this stance he went against the Lukacsian version of a Marxian humanistic theory of art. He opposed a dramaturgy that based its principles on a notion of tragedy that perceived the categorization of a dramatic hero as the exponent of will: the protagonist of a conflict between two mutually exclusive ethical demands. On this account he attacks those who, in Germany, he saw as undergoing in response to the pressure of economic circumstances a revolutionary development in terms of mentality alone. They did this, according to Benjamin, without at the same time being able to think through in a really revolutionary way the question of their own work, its relationship to the means of production, and its technique.

He goes on to point out that the bourgeois “left intelligentsia” were in this exact position. That its movements of Activism and New Objectivity functioned, despite its political commitment and however revolutionary it may seem, in a counter-revolutionary fashion so long as the writer experiences his solidarity with the proletariat only in the mind and not as a producer. Arguing against such notions, Benjamin remarks that, instead of asking what the position of an artwork is vis--vis the production relations of its time, does it underwrite these relations, is it reactionary, or does it aspire to overthrow them, we should rather ask the question: What is the works position within the production relations of its time?

This problem is therefore concerned with the function of a text (it is applied to other modes of art, but here he is chiefly concerned with writing) within literary production relations, and is directly concerned with literary technique. He shows that this concept makes literary products accessible to immediate social, and materialist, analysis. The concept of technique representing the dialectical starting-point from which, as he says, the sterile dichotomy of form and content can be surmounted. He specifies that the interrelation between these concepts permit an indication of a preferable way to determine the relationship between a work’s tendency and its quality. He proposes that, if a correct political tendency of a composition includes its literary quality, because it includes its literary tendency, then this literary tendency may consist in a progressive development of literary technique. Referring us straight away to Brecht’s solution to the problem, i.e. his “art of thinking inside other people’s heads”, Benjamin shows that Brecht’s procedure allows the true sensual methodology to become transparent. In order to make the sensory transactions accountable to the respondent, Brecht articulates his work within a “productive aesthetic”.

Essentially, in spite of the intervening years, the situation and predicament for Benjamin, being the conditions of production of literary work, was very similar to Marx’s in 1844. In fact Benjamin was opposing the very same Kantian philosophical ideology and justifications for contemporary artistic (and other) practice as Marx; i.e., Kant’s grand critical “synthesis”. Benjamin thus calls our attention to the emergence of Neo-Kantian philosophical aesthetics, one opposed to materialism, and he demonstrates its survival in contemporary “left-wing” literary and artistic practice. Avoiding such idealist tendencies that could be transmitted by the traditional techniques of textual design was, I suggest, also a priority for Marx. These were techniques that normally placed the Author, acting logocentrically as the Grand Subject of its narrative, as the vicarious intermediary for the word of God. Marx, in 1844, I believe, instead revolutionized his individual mode of textual production.

It might be profitably recalled here that Marx, in setting out to write his notebooks, flipped his pages “side-on”, divided them into columns, and sewed them together and wrote into them, deliberately making cross links between different pieces of text in the different columns. I ask the reader merely, for the moment, to note in passing that he did this in a room in Paris, at a period that could be described as heralding the emergence of the Impressionist and Modernist aesthetic in art, particularly perhaps in the Salon of 1844. It is not impossible that he was influenced by this cultural milieu and that it inspired him in the creative task of compiling his revolutionary manuscript in a very radical manner.

Benjamin was well aware of the two main functions of the two dominant strands of bourgeois cultural estrangement, that is, of ruling class ideology on the one hand, and ruling class aesthetics on the other, these being chiefly made up of tendencies to logocentrism and anthropomorphism respectively. The former Benjamin analyzed and understood as being the refined alienation of the critic. The latter is the tendency that I shall describe as the correspondent alienation of the artist.

I think the reader will be able to see from the following critique of Meszaros’ humanist and anthropocentric interpretation of Marx’s EPM, that an anthropomorphic perspective can derive from an incorrect and “non-productive” interpretation of its themes that ignores or otherwise conjures away its radical physical design. This will be followed by a brief examination of Althusser’s similarly mistaken assumptions about the EPM, but which stem from the other side of the debate.

An “anthropomorphic framework of evaluation” is attributed to Marx by Istvan Meszaros apparently because Marx’s aesthetic judgments are considered to be linked, directly or indirectly, with the evaluative question of ought. Meszaros claims that in order to avoid an, alleged, unbridgeable rift between is and ought Marx finds a basis for the asserted values in “man himself”. He says that for Marx every single concept belongs to an anthropocentric system and that the structure of meaning (for Marx) is closely allied to the human structure of values. The latter is, in turn, founded on the constitution of “Man” as a “self-mediating” and “self-constituting natural being”. On this interpretive basis he states that the values that human subjects assert have their ultimate foundation and natural basis in human needs. Meaning is here given by virtue of the anthropocentric constitution and self-constitution of “Man”, which explains the “emergence of values by the historical development of human needs”, and which sets out from an apparently “irrefutable fact”. This fact being: “Man’s” constitution as a natural being.

Meszaros, however, contrasts human reality with social reality, forgetting that human reality is social reality. To borrow a phrase of Althusser’s, we are always/already social subjects, born into a social structure. It is a confusion, to which Meszaros succumbs, to postulate both that there is a “past essence” of humanness that is lost through the advent of society, while at the same time using Marx to claim that human essence first exists only for social “Man”. It is also only on this basis that Meszaros is able to talk of private property, exchange, division of labour, and so on, as interposing between this “Man” and “his activity”. Thus he has it that the rationality of capitalism has gained the upper hand and suppresses “Man’s” inherent links with nature.

There is an attempt to get over some of these inconsistencies with the concept of first order and second order mediations. First order is productive activity “as such”, while the second order is alienated productive activity. However, this first order activity itself has to be social to be human, and, in his sense even, must have a set of corresponding relations and conventions which shall thus be mediated in a second order, otherwise it is not strictly human labor but, as Marx says, can only really be thought of as animal activity. Yet for Meszaros it is only because the specific natural being has activities that are displayed in a “social framework” that this true self-consciousness of being must be his “consciousness of being a social being”so he attempts to hold the concepts apart while at the same time juggling between them. If this interposition, that prevents “Man” from finding fulfillment in labor and in human appropriation, implies an imposition on non-alienated “Man” via society, transcendence of this alienation in this schema is presented as a kind of Sartrean theoretical willing to overcome this sociality.

For Marx, nevertheless, society is manifestly not an imposition on “Man”, for who could impose it? (The Absolute Subject perhaps, God maybe?) If “Man” imposes society on “Man”, in which case “Man” is substituted for God and humanism replaces strict theology, we then, I suggest, end up in the same thesis against which Benjamin fought. This being a thesis of certain characterological types of “men” imposing their ethicality on others in a battle of “wills”, some championing the first order, some the second order mediations. This, it seems, makes a strange kind of sense, because Meszaros maintains that the central thesis of Marx’s work is a concept taken over from Hegel: the “Aufehbung”, “transcendence”, or “sublation”. He says that the ideal of a human science, in contradistinction to an alienated science and philosophy, is a “concrete formulation” of this task of “transcendence” in the field of theory, while the “unity of theory and practice” is for him the most general and comprehensive “expression of the Marxian program”. The notion of Marx’s supposed usage of the concept of the negation of and superseding of labor’s self-alienation as the achievement of the unity of theory and practice is seen to be resolved in this neat, but humanist, “transcendence”.

So Meszaros concludes that the core principle that governs the whole of Marx’s EPM is the concept of the sublation of labor’s self-alienation. Furthermore this is then taken to be central to Marx’s entire oeuvre. To add to this he maintains that hitherto these ideas have been neglected (!) in Marx, as his theories were given a more “instrumental” orientation.

Meszaros has here actually inverted most of Marx’s main theses in the EPM (theses that we may now be better able to understand from analysis of its actual design), by centralizing “Aufehbung”. Put in his way, Marx’s main endeavor is perceived as an attempt to negate the negation of Hegel. That is, Marx is seen as the enterprise of one philosopher negating the other’s idea of alienation. For it subordinates the secular, worldly overcoming of alienation, through changing the material conditions of existence in production relations, to a spiritual, inward, ideal transcendence. And so not once in the section of the book on the “anthropomorphic framework of evaluation” does Meszaros refer to actual, profane, sensual practice in labor and its organization, as the formative catalyst in the socialization of the senses of human subjects; it is deified Meaning that displaces Marx’s concept of sensual practice. Meszaros’ first order relation to nature defines “natural values” and these values arbitrarily consider what human values are through the anthropologically centred logos of Meaning. Hence it is the abstract human individual who bestows cultural truth, and it anthropomorphically “projects” onto everything its own laws and principles.

The key to understanding the full extent and ramifications of this conception is when Meszaros writes of the necessity for the unity of theory and practice. What he really means is the unity of theory and practice in theory, i.e., in the spiritual-mental domain as opposed to the sphere of sensual experience. For him the designation “praxis” denotes this kind of unity. He looks for the values of morality “founded upon needs” in “dialectically” self-mediating nature, but these needs are prefigured from the standpoint of the Idea of essence. It is on this foundation, and from this perspective, that Meszaros refers to art. He says that not only the art of Realism but the whole dialectic of mimesis (as he calls it) is identified as anthropomorphically rooted in the objective constitution of “Man”.

Yet we are obliged to ask how mimesis can “get beyond” the second order mediation to the hidden first order.

Let me put it this way: if social reality is a dialectically structured totality, will not mimesis only grasp precisely the phenomenal appearances and not this dialectic? For Meszaros the answer to this problem could not be further away from our “productive aesthetic”. He derives a Realism that advocates the hypostatism of human emotion “infused” into nature, to anthropomorphize, to imperialistically imbue “Man” into everything. Here he calls on Keats to defend his position: ‘...a poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no Identity, he is continually filling some other Body, The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute, the poet has none, no Identity, he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God's creatures’... He also refers us to Van Gogh’s chair, which is seen to be of great artistic significance because of the artists “humanization” of an otherwise insignificant everyday object.

Pronouncing that since true artistic character is born from the relationship between the poet of “no identity” and a reality of “permanent attributes” (and he states, in parenthesis, permanent only in the dialectical sense of “continuity in discontinuity”, which does nothing to rectify things), Meszaros announces that the progressive weakening of this relationship makes increasingly more problematic the artistic value of modern works of art. Inevitably he asserts that artists in their “contradictory” attempts to find a formal remedy (i.e. one based in quality and technique) to their difficulties “only aggravate the situation”, further contributing to the ultimate break-up of the relationship. And the latter is a relationship which for him is the sole force that can confer value on a work of art, this being presumably its actual propensity to gain exchange value through its degree of anthropomorphic signification.

This was a prominent humanist Marxist interpretation of the EPM, now we will turn, as I suggested, to a Marxist “formalist” understanding.

Althusser, as is now recognized, was influenced at a particular stage in his work by Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytically derived logocentric theory of knowledge. Lacan’s position, schematically speaking, sees human apprehension of the world as fundamentally alienated due to the psychical formation of the rules and processes that govern natural language; these rules denoting an essential split between signifier and signified, generating an arbitrary relation that Lacan (to put it crudely) felt governed all sensory connection with realia. This view placed natural language at the center and foundation of human sense perception; it therefore understood “sense” only by the criteria of a particularly biased interpretation of Saussurean linguistics.

At the very least we might say that this does not conform to Marx’s view of ideology, which, especially in the EPM, refers to human sensual activity as the basis for the possibility of sense certainty and so a material world that is, in the end, “graspable” through the human senses. But Althusser, or perhaps we should say early Althusser, using Lacan’s epistemology rejected the “dialectics of nature”. He did not like the latter term, derived from Engels, very much, for it appeared to him to be ripe with humanist sentiment, and he develops from this rejection an understandable feeling of urgency over the question of ideology, because ideology is seen as being “instituted” in language.

So the question as to the meaning of the concept-term “alienation” finds Althusser believing that the 1844 Marx is mistaken in his thinking that the cause of alienation lies in the real relations of the social formation, which are “sensed”. For this Althusser the concept of alienated labor found in the EPM can only be validated with reference to “its” mandating conception of “Man” (which, as we have seen, Meszaros is quite fond of), and with “Man” as a unified spiritual essence, the same essence that is at the heart of humanism. (Althusser says this even while almost uncannily referring to the young Marx being like a painter making sketches; sketches that, because “new born”, can be “greater than the works they contain” and which therefore “glitter”; see Althusser, 1986).

In other places, it must be said, Althusser seems to promote a more Benjaminesque critique of the same problem. In particular in his essay (also in ‘For Marx’) ‘The “Piccolo Teatro” Bertolazzi and Brecht’, which first appeared as ‘Notes on a Materialist Theatre’ in ‘Esprit’ December 1962. In this place, however, we still find that, with regard to Brecht’s alienation effect, the artistic technique as a sensual process is still downplayed by Althusser. Although all of the “A-effects” features are recounted in a very subtle analysis, including for instance the factor of the abolition of all “impressiveness” in the acting, he feels this kind of interpretation is limited to notions that are not determinant, saying that this “very special” critique must go beyond this to an understanding that it must be constituted in the spectator’s consciousness through representation. From this point on, any question of technique existing in the form of subtle sensual strategies, as were employed by Brecht to render transparent the process of representation, is bypassed. They are made subject to the thesis of a “spontaneously lived ideology” for which the dimension of aesthetic mediation is an absence.

We need not continue with these criticisms here, it is enough to note that, by being “blinkered”, as we have earlier stated, to formal artistic virtues in their outlooks, it was more-or-less preordained that both Meszaros and Althusser would not take into account those features of the EPM which Margaret Fay (1979, 1983) first uncovered. It is notable in both theorists that “sense” is downgraded at the expense of Meaning, and while the two authors are from opposed sides within the Marxist horizon, they agree (perhaps unconsciously) to avoid countenancing the area of aesthetics as mundane human sensuous activity and avoid the full implications of a “productive aesthetics” based on this recognition.

It would be too lengthy a task here to outline and defend what a dialectical materialist aesthetic might look like due to a reinterpreted EPM. However, I suggest we can glimpse now both how and why Walter Benjamin’s “productive aesthetics” finds it very difficult to gain a foothold in this cultural debate. This is because of the fundamentally competitive and agonistic way in which the overall framework for the argument is shaped beforehand by academic cultural discourse, which has a two-pronged pincer-movement strategy when it comes to tackling the aesthetic problem. This strategy divides the debate into humanist versus formalist factions, whether on the Right or the Left, and if you fit neither faction, you are left out of the entire discourse, as is the “aesthetic” as such in the history of philosophy. Yet it is just the kind of aesthetic that Benjamin advocates that I am sure Marx actually endorses in 1844, not necessarily by an authorization within his textual narrative, but through his actual methodology, by his practice, which, in this sense is also an art practice.


Gary Tedman




Althusser, L. 1986. ‘The ‘1844 Manuscripts’ of Karl Marx’ in Althusser, L. 1986. For Marx. trans. Ben Brewster, London, NLB Verso.

Althusser, L. 1986 For Marx. trans. Ben Brewster, London, NLB Verso.

Benjamin, W. 1983. ‘The Author as Producer’ in Walter Benjamin Understanding Brecht. trans. Anna Bostock, intro. Stanley Mitchell, Verso.

Fay, M. 1979. The 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of Karl Marx: A Critical Commentary and Interpretation. Doctoral Thesis, Berkeley University, California.

Fay. M. 1983. The Influence of Adam Smith on Marx’s Theory of Alienation. ‘Science & Society’ Journal Vol. XLVII No. 2. Summer.

Meszaros, I. 1982. Marx’s Theory of Alienation. Merlin Press.

Rose, M. A. 1984. Marx’s Lost Aesthetic. Cambridge University Press.




Send comments to:
The Hypertext Manuscripts of Karl Marx, Paris 1844
Copyright Gary Tedman 2001
last modified: 10/8/01 10:52:44 PM