Author Ross Wolfe

Hypocrite lecteur: Reading Cured Quail, Volume I

Cured Quail is a curious compendium, a self-published journal of Marxian aesthetic criticism from 2018. Seven total contributions made it into the print edition, not counting the introduction, but other pieces can be found online. Just going off the physical volume, though, the offerings are fairly diverse: a set of fragments is followed by three tightly argued original articles, succeeded by a treatise and a translation; last, but not least, a play in three acts.

More than anything else, Cured Quail dares its would-be readership to actually read the damn thing. From the very outset, obstacles prevent any casual perusal of the volume. There are no page numbers, paragraph breaks, or even marks of separation between individual articles. A table of contents appears somewhere around the middle, with the titles and their authors placed across from engravings by the nineteenth-century French draughtsman Rodolphe Bresdin. Underneath the unbroken text preceding it, the corresponding lithograph is portioned out in horizontal strips to give some sense of which piece is being read. Quotations are italicized, while new paragraphs are signaled by an em dash and a changed typeface on the first letter of the next.

Without question this flouting of writerly convention is deliberate, meant to interrupt the mindless manner in which so much text is nowadays consumed. Indeed, one of Cured Quail’s principal concerns is with “illiteracy as a studiable phenomenon”—i.e., examining the ways that experience of the written word has been impoverished by the culture industry in recent years. “Let us presume for a moment…that illiteracy does not represent a line dividing those who can read from those who cannot, but refers instead to the habit of hanging private thoughts onto the framework of grammar,” the editors propose in their “Prolegomena to Any Future Editorial.” “Have you read [insert a name that identifies a milieu]?” is absent-mindedly asked of everybody.

Zachary Dempster’s fragmentary reflection “Like Sand Through the Hourglass: These are the Days of Our Lives” thematizes illiteracy further. Oscillating between the anecdotal (“I used to share a studio with an artist who collected books but never read them”) and the categorical (“Parallel the uncovering of meaning in language is the ever-present potential for illiteracy”), he demonstrates the contemporary conundrum. Never has there been such an abundance of available writing, alongside such little capacity for comprehension. This highlights the apparent paradox mentioned at the beginning, wherein “a book can be both a bestseller and at the same time the most widely unread.” Dempster recounts an incident in which a friend helps him box up his library, and is embarrassed to have read so few works, regretting he did not add “they are for inspiration.”

Sadly, then, the broader history of literacy, which Dempster traces from the printing press through the heroic age of mass periodicals, terminates sometime in the last few decades with the shift to digital platforms and social media feeds. Eric-John Russell explains in passing that such self-selecting algorithms are “measured only via the metrics of widespread publicity and popularity, that is, via illiteracy.” Authors are rendered abstractly equivalent and interchangeable, their names standing in for cultural knowledge. Russell reproduces an advertisement from a prominent leftwing publishing house to illustrate his point: “What do Jean-Paul Sartre, Fredric Jameson, and Étienne Balibar have in common? They’re all 60 percent off in this special flash-sale for our e-mail subscribers, with free shipping worldwide (and bundled e-books in some spots)!” Get ’em while you can.

Of course, the full range of Cured Quail is hardly exhausted by this theme. Chris Crawford’s article, “Taking Comfort in Society: The Sociologization of Art and Its Contents,” is one of the best pieces on art published anywhere during the past ten years. Using an excellent 1951 essay by Adorno, Crawford diagnoses a crude tendency to integrate social theory into both the production and circulation of new artworks. He takes particular aim at the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose landmark study of taste is still the pinnacle of the genre (though his epigones are much worse). Aesthetic categories give way to sociological ones, which can be seen in catalogs and exhibits that tell viewers all there is to know about the “subject-position” of the artist or in museum blurbs laden with dense theoretical jargon. For as he points out:

Whereas art once allied itself to the liberation of the proletariat, it has since shifted allegiance to identity liberalism, canonized professors, and positivist sociology… Sociologized art lost [the] utopian dimension by taking bourgeois society as its only horizon. It reflects the way commodity society informs everything but does not see through any of it.

Russell revisits this toward the end of “Agree to Disagree,” the most wide-ranging piece in Cured Quail. “Alongside the proletariat’s last great offensive, in which its prize remains the muzzle of representation, Dada and Surrealism whimper in finitude as modern man gulps down Schwarze Milch [black milk],” he writes. Nearly a hundred years later, art’s autonomy has turned into a bitter lie as “the life of the artist becomes increasingly more important than her work…which is overshadowed by the branded name, cultivated as an ‘advertised personality.’ ”

Guy Debord long ago gave up on high art “as a realm of resistance to commodity culture,” as Paul Mattick reminds us in an article which anchors the volume. “Do We Live in a Society of the Spectacle?” he wonders aloud. Mattick is skeptical, though he acknowledges the real strengths of Debord’s analysis. Society of the Spectacle provided a timely snapshot of postwar capitalism, with its shift from production to consumption as the locus of group and individual identities, even if the critical concepts it elaborated were soon assimilated to the spectacular edifice Debord sought to tear down. Very few of those who later drew upon these concepts applied them to the state, however, besides perhaps the San Francisco situationist collective Retort—albeit far less convincingly. Paul Mattick the Younger does for this book what Paul Mattick the Elder did for Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man 45 years ago: giving it a lucid, succinct, workmanlike appraisal.

The part Mattick most appreciated about Debord was his advocacy of workers’ councils, forgotten by subsequent commentators. But this appreciation is itself somewhat ahistorical, according to Russell, who responds to Mattick’s contribution rather elliptically. Historicizing the labor movement as well as the Situationist International, “Agree to Disagree” marshals the resources of communization theory in order to discuss capitalist restructuration during the 1970s. Russell writes in a masterful Adornian key, with long, meandering sentences suddenly yielding to gut-punch aphorisms. Just to give readers a taste, some examples:

At best, any future social democracy can only promise a better standard of nonliving… Society shouldn’t be judged just by what it says about itself; after all, it cannot smell its own breath… Perhaps the biggest question posed by the statue of Lenin turned into Darth Vader in Odessa is the strength of the installed WiFi signal that emits from his helmet… The poor man isn’t the one who can’t afford the price of the symphony ticket; it is the one who goes, but cannot hear the music.

Especially valuable are Russell’s ruminations on ideology, and the polarity between truth and falsehood under capitalist society, with clear shades of Lukács. “Communism cannot be the liberation of the true as against the false, but is rather the dissolution of their mutually constitutive relation,” he provocatively asserts. Moreover, Russell is not uncritical of the communisateurs; he takes issue with “[the] economism that currently characterizes various ultraleft tendencies.” In such tendencies, description almost entirely replaces prescription, since for them “[the] role of communist theory is not to legislate what must be done but make possible to name that which has been done.” Yet Russell’s article is almost too rich to be summarized in a review of Cured Quail.

Jefrey Schultz’s “Iconoclastic Idolatry” is maybe the strangest single piece in the volume apart from the play at the end. Glancing at the subtitle—“Speculations Towards an Image of God, the Meaningful Process-Marks of Labor, and Purposefulness without Purpose”—one gets an idea of what it is about. Schultz starts from the Jewish prohibition on graven imagery, through the incarnation of God in Christ, up to the secular aftermath. Obviously the Christian epoch is divided into both Catholic and Protestant phases, with the latter’s visual austerity bleeding into Enlightenment rationalism via disenchantment (à la Weber):

When Keats wrote “truth is beauty, beauty truth,” the first waves of industrialization had already forced those qualities out of imagination’s immediate, material experience into the frozen fiction of his Grecian urn’s mythic ever-presentness… Keats’ world was already, as Hopkins would write a half century later, “seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil.” This toil, which for Hopkins “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell,” is nothing other than the universally instrumentalized labor pervading all of modern experience under the rule of global capital.

Hence Schultz’s mordant remark: “Beauty and truth have been stripped of their dignity so that a price-tag could be attached to them.” Nevertheless, despite some dazzling insights, the connections he posits between between the collapse of theology and the Kantian schema of purposiveness without purpose are obscure, as Schultz himself seems to recognize in his apologetic closing lines. Furthermore, he fails to so much as mention the iconography of the Eastern Church, which played a part in the subsequent development of modern art. Russian innovators like Vasilii Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich dabbled in icon painting before their turn to abstraction.

“Virtual Experience” by Christoph Hesse, translated from German, rounds out Cured Quail, volume one. It is a superlative selection, touching on numerous motifs explored in the other essays. Experience [Erfahrung] is today increasingly simulated, projected onto screens that displace direct interaction, flood viewers with stimuli, and distract them from the ambient unfreedom of a society governed by abstract economic processes. Knowledge is no less commodified or prepackaged than anything else. “To be in the know [flinkes Bescheidwissen] jostles itself in place of the traditional illiteracy,” Hesse perspicaciously observes, “accomplished not by universal compulsory schooling, but rather by a culture industry which extends across classes and boundaries, now with far more powerful channels at its disposal than film, radio, and magazines.” With the whole world at one’s fingertips, superficiality takes over from the raw “ignorance” that formerly gripped the masses.

Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli [According to the capabilities of the reader, books have their destiny]—so goes the old Latin adage cryptically inscribed onto the last page of the issue. Cured Quail is all too aware of its own possible irrelevance, as “a journal that in all likelihood will not be read.” Given the highly experimental nature of the text, together with the sheer difficulty of finding a copy, at times it runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Right now it has a cult following, but it would be a real shame were this to stay the case. Its message is sorely needed today, and its quality is such that it merits a wider hearing. Or a reading, rather.