TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Lukács and the Crisis of Culture

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, J.F. Dorahy looks at György Márkus’s “The Soul and Life: The Young Lukács and the Problem of Culture,” from Telos 32 (Summer 1977).

Culture was the “one and only” thought of Lukács’ life. Is culture possible today? Throughout his life, Lukács’ central concern was to provide an answer to this question and at the same time contribute actively to the creation or realization of this possibility. This concept of culture includes more than is comprised in the term “high art” or philosophy; it is not just the problem of “high culture.” The question of culture was always identical for Lukács with the question of life, or as he put it, with “meaning immanent in life.” (97)

György Márkus’s essay on Lukács, “The Soul and Life,” is a seminal insight into one of the most influential philosophical oeuvres of the twentieth century. This piece, published at a time when only a handful of Márkus’s papers were available to English-language readers, reflects an intimacy with Lukács’s aesthetics that is unsurpassed in Lukács scholarship. (Márkus jointly edited, along with Frank Benesler, Lukács’s posthumously published Heidelberger Philosophie der Kunst 1916–18 and the Heidelberger Ästhetik 1916–1918, works that figure prominently in the essay under consideration.) The discussion in “The Soul and Life” centers on the problem of the possibility of culture as treated by Lukács in his pre-1918, or pre-Marxist, writings.

While many commentators have treated this period of Lukács’s work with admirable subtlety—one thinks here of the work of Andrew Arato, Paul Breines, Lee Congdon, and Lucien Goldmann, among others—Márkus’s piece is unique by virtue of the richness of its appreciation, and subsequent juxtaposition, of the methodological and ideological tensions that propel the analyses of the young Lukács. It is precisely Lukács’s continuing confrontation with these at times complementary and at other times conflicting positions that, Márkus argues, is characteristic of his treatment of the problem of culture and renders it inimitable within the culturally pessimistic discourse that emerged in Western Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century: in this regard Márkus makes reference to the thought of Dilthey, Weber, and Simmel—but the list could be easily extended.

The “methodological parallelism”—constituted by metaphysical-existential and socio-historical conceptual structures—that is ubiquitous in Lukács’s work, is grounded, according to Márkus’s reading, in a fundamental ideological dilemma. At this foundational level Lukács is characterized as vacillating between two perspectives on the crisis of culture, so profoundly felt in the early twentieth century: is the crisis of culture simply the necessary outcome of the systems of human objectification, such that one must, like Simmel, conceive of the “tragedy of culture”? Or, alternatively, is the cultural crisis a socio-historically emergent phenomena, and subsequently, resolvable?

The Lukácsian interpretation of the “tragedy of culture” is structured around the concepts of “life,” “soul,” and “form.” Like the epochal conception of reification, later developed in History and Class Consciousness, the concept of “life” is dialectical inasmuch as it denotes simultaneously a form of social objectivity and a corresponding form of subjectivity. Márkus’s masterful treatment of the concept of “life” interweaves the multivalent uses of the concept in Lukács’s works. On the one hand, “life” is conceptualized as designating the institutional, legally mediated, and conventional coordinates of life in common (it is crucial to note that under the conditions of modernity “life” has become detached from the existential needs of individuals, as a form of objectivity, “life” confronts the individual as a “second nature”). On the other hand, reflecting the emergence of “life” as “second nature,” Márkus also makes significant reference to the former as a constellation of chaotic, impersonal forces and processes, totally inimical to the “soul,” and from which no “authentic” inwardness can be realized. There are, Lukács claims, two predominant responses in the face of “life”: either a flight into the depths of “inauthentic” inwardness—that is, the inwardness of moods (Angst seems appropriate here)—or submission to the objective structures of convention. In either case, “life” as the preserve of inauthentic existence is simply perpetuated.

In contrast to the automatic, recurrent, and fragmented structures of “life,” “soul”—as authentic being—denotes both the immanent creative principle, and genetic core, of all human culture and the principle of subjective individuality: “soul” is both totalizing and individuating. In this dual sense, “soul” denotes the process whereby authentic subjectivity is formed in and through objectivity and inter-subjectivity. “Soul” emerges in, and transcends, “life”; the individual emerges from the abstract subject in its concrete determination through productive “deeds,” including works of art. To the individual, therefore, “life” becomes alien. Abandoned by “soul,” this forsaken orbit is nevertheless the ground from which all culture blossoms: it does so through the mediation of “form.” “Form” is the answer to the question of the possibility of culture. In Lukács’s usage “form” is the imposition of meaning upon the meaningless; with recourse to the “forms” the “soul” is able to compose a response to “life” befitting its own grandeur:

The work of art is only one of these “formations” of life. The artist must select some of the threads of the infinitely proliferating stuff of life. Out of the immeasurable sea of reasons and motives, the artist must pick a few such that they remain intimately tied to each other, making up a closed and perfectly homogeneous system which can be viewed from one single point. . . . The scheme governing the selection of the elements of life according to ways which vary with artistic genre, style, etc., is the aesthetic form. (105)

Through “form” the “soul” constructs a utopian reality in which the alienation of “life” is dissolved. However, this transcendence through culture is and must remain tragic:

Art transcends the alienation of ordinary life without abolishing it. While artworks spring from life, they also necessarily and quite abruptly deviate from it precisely because they have the quality of a perfect self-contained cosmos. The work of art constitutes a new life. Once created, and because of its immanent perfection-in-itself, the artwork loses all relations with the world that exists outside of it. That is why the relation between the work of art and life (the reception of art) can only be the momentary touching of two different spheres through which the inauthentic individual of ‘life’ fails to find redemption. (106)

Thus, in virtue of the fact that the aesthetic transfiguration of “life” is, in the end, illusory, the overcoming of the alienated existence necessitates its ethical transfiguration. As Márkus indicates, this project was taken up in important directions in more recent years by Agnes Heller; however, within the pre-Marxist works of Lukács the ethical ought (Sollen) is no more capable of transforming what is (Sein) than the utopian vision of the work of art. For Lukács the conclusion is clear: the crisis of culture is no more or less than the “phenomenal appearance” of the tragic nature of human existence.

As previously stated, this pessimistic, metaphysical conception of the tragedy of culture persists alongside an alternative perspective, a perspective that reveals that the formation of life through culture is possible. In place of the conceptual apparatus of “life,” “soul,” and “form” the socio-historical approach to culture is structured by the dichotomy of “closed, organic” societies (ancient Greece being the paradigm) and “mechanistic bourgeois” society (or post-traditional society)—in 1915’s The Theory of the Novel this dichotomy is expressed in terms of “integrated” and “problematic” civilizations. We have seen that Lukács explicitly considered the problem of culture to be a problem of meaning. The definitive trait of “integrated” civilizations is the total profusion of culture in the everyday life of individuals. This embeddedness of individuals within a homogeneous cultural order renders life with an abundance of meaning; integrated societies are non-alienated and are fundamentally at home in the world—”happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths.” According to Lukács, this unity in culture is sundered by the processes of bourgeois modernity:

The crisis of culture is the necessary outcome of this historical state of affairs. Culture in the true sense of the word ceases to be possible in the bourgeois world. The limits to the possibility of culture are objective: In the framework of relations constituted by the “anarchy of production” with its abstract and irrational necessities, no universal purpose or meaning can be shown to exist. The objective, inhuman laws governing these relations cannot be reduced to a uniform worldview of the subject. (113)

In this passage Márkus deftly draws attention to the connection between Lukács’s metaphysical and socio-historical levels of analysis. Simply stated, within the non-metaphysical framework Lukács effectively historicizes and socializes the core concepts of his philosophy of culture. Alienation, objectification, fragmentation, and totality are conceived of, not as existential categories, but as determinate manifestations of socio-historical reality. Most importantly, the central concept of Lukács’s philosophy of culture—form—is treated in socio-historical as opposed to “aprioristic-aesthetic” terms.

Márkus’s essay “The Soul and Form” is an illuminating discussion of a period of Lukács’s work that largely remains without English translation. For this reason it stands as a valuable resource for those who remain interested in the thought of Georg Lukács—but not for this reason alone. The philosophical examination of culture and the relation between culture and modernity remains an active field of research and debate. Within this contemporary discourse Márkus’s reading of Lukács should be seen as an essential reference point. Lukács’s commitment to a life of form and his unwavering attempt to explicate the conditions under which life is capable of form—the conditions under which culture is possible—render his works consistently and insistently compelling.

Read the full version of György Márkus’s “The Soul and Life: The Young Lukács and the Problem of Culture” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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