Essays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Walter Benjamin's Theory of Cultural Work

During the late twentieth century, it was common in Cultural Studies classes to quote – with approval – from the critical theorist Walter Benjamin, particularly his theory of "cultural work":

"Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it is transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain."
– from Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Illuminations, Ed. Hannah Arendt, Trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 256–57.

In my opinion this claim is absolute rubbish, the kind of anti-capitalist rant that passes for received wisdom in Post-Colonial Studies. It is nonsense to suggest that cultural trueasures are produced by the "anonymous" toiling masses. Any halfway competent historian who is genuinely interested in the people who created cultural treasures will be able to identify the names of most of the craftsmen and artisans who worked on such objects and aristocratic interiors. We know the names and careers of all of the plasterers who created the most beautiful rooms in eighteenth-century England, and how much they charged for their work. At the Duke of Northumberland's great mansion Syon house, the ormulu on the doorcases was by Diederich Nicolaus Anderson, and that on the doors themselves was by Nathaniel Bermingham; most of Robert Adam's clients were supplied by ormulu by Thomas Blockley of Birmingham; the staircase at Walpole's Houghton Hall was carved by James Richards, Master Carver to the Crown; the joiner and carver of many of the houses designed by William Kent was James Richards; the carvers of the doorcases in the State Drawing Room at the Duke of Devonshire's Chatsworth were Joel Lobb, Roger Davis and Samuel Watson; the marble door-cases at Blenheim Palace were carved by the master-masons William Townesend and Bartholomew Peisley Junior; the chimney piece and overmantel at Ditchley House were carved by Edwar Stanton and Christopher Horsenaile, and the figures for the over-pediments were supplied by Francesco Vassalli. The craftsmen working at Kedleston Hall were the masons Joseph Hall, John Chambers, and James Denston; the carpenters/joiners were William Johnston assisted by Richard Clark, Charles Sowter, and Thomas Dedson; the glaziers were Joseph Taylor and William Cobbett; the Slaters were Pratt and Co.; the plumber was Joseph Taylor; the leadworker was William Chapman; the painter was Thomas Smith; the coppersmith was William Kinman; the carvers were George Moneypenny and Joshua Hall; the plasterers were Abraham Denston (plain) and Joseph Rose (decorative); four chimneypieces were supplied by John Hardy; that includes just the fixtures: the source of most of the furniture is similarly documented. For several hundred more names, consult Geoffrey Beard's fascinating study Craftsmen and Interior Decoration in England 1660-1820 (1981). The work of such craftsmen has been full appreciated and remembered. None of these artisans lay prostrate beneath the trampling boots of the ruling class!

Admittedly there is an obscene gulf between the very rich and the poor of eighteenth-century Britain, but it is ludicrous to suggest that there is an exploitative link between the rich and the poor in the matter of cultural production. The fact of the matter is that the rich did not employ the poor in their cultural productions. The problem with the poor was that no one employed them for most of the year: people who could not find employment in the countryside or in Ireland migrated to London: where they also could not find employment. The people employed by the rich were artisans and tradesmen in artifacts, who were neither anonymous nor treated barbarically. Many luxury trades were heavily subsized by aristocrats and their governments because the market for such things as fine porcelain or tapestry was so limited to the rich. And middlemen such as Josiah Wedgwood, purveyor of culture to the upper classes and the nouveaux riches, provides no documents of barbarism whatsoever. He had to beat some of his staff who stole money, but even then he gave them a second or third chance, or moved them to a position where they did not handle money. The trade in Wedgewood vases can hardly be called barbaric.

But historical materialists like Benjamin aren't genuinely interested in the material facts of history: they simply want a stick with which to beat the ruling class. They are themselves the true barbarians, for whom concepts such as culture, art, civilization, beauty and cultural heritage are anathema, to be swept aside in the Maoist cultural revolution. The false assertion that there is an inevitable relationship between objects of beauty and exploitation is one of the tools used to debunk those classes who delight in the products of high art.

The quotation from Benjamin is little more than a string of Marxist cliches. You have only to put his kind of melodramatic castigation in the context of something concrete like the great treasures of Georgian England to see how absurd it is. There is no dialectic, no inherent or direct link, between beauty and exploitation. Handel's Messiah does not arise from an exploitation of the misery of the labouring poor. Richardson's novels are not written in the blood of the impoverished. The neoclassical temples strewn across English landscape gardens were not raised by legions of beaten slaves. It is true that some people achieved fabulous wealth from their sugar plantations in Jamaica, and that some people made substantial incomes from trafficking in slaves through the port of Bristol later in the century, but this does not mean that the whole of artistic culture originates in such circumstances, nor does it mean that "without exception" we must view the whole of society's cultural production "with horror". This kind of sentimental moral blackmail leaves me unmoved.

Benjamin's most famous paper, on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", has created a very interesting and useful debate in the field of art history with reference to mass culture. But, I don't think that is the subject of the passage quoted above (nor did I think that the Nazi exploitation of mass culture was the subject either; nor do I think that Nazi culture created anything that anyone would call cultural treasures, except perhaps the films of Leni Riefenstahl). The quoted passage comes from his very late works, in which, as some have pointed out, when Benjamin spoke of "history" and "culture" he was not speaking about history and culture, but about redemptive theology. I can well believe that the passage in question was inspired, as some suggest, by Brecht's "A Worker Reads History", a maudlin poem whose superficial grasp of history is about par for this kind of agitprop. The theoretical social "history" of the Frankfurt School is best summed up in the words of the practising historian Arthur Marwick: "seriously deficient". Marxist analysis does not work at all well in the context of the eighteenth century, at least not without being qualified at every turn.

Contrary to the view of Benjamin, Marx and Engels, cultural work is not contingent upon the sufferings of the anonymous working masses. For example, the wealth of eighteenth-century England was not created by exploiting the labouring classes. The wealth of eighteenth-century England was the result of a sophisticated infrastructure of turnpike roads and canals facilitating the transportation of goods and rapid communications; financial transactions made achievable through an efficient system of paper credit; the release of capital through mortgaging, providing the investment for large building projects; the rapid expansion of retailing aided by efficient advertising and distribution; an advance in scientific discoveries and technological innovations; the increasing demand for products from the increasingly prosperous mass market, leading to economies of scale; the removal of economic regulations and restrictive practices which were impeding the growth of the free market; and a growth in population caused by economic growth (e.g. people married younger because they could now afford to do so, which increased the birth rate), which in turn stimulated more economic growth. Overseas trade (which involved colonial exploitation) was of course important, but just as important was the extraction of raw materials from Britain's native soil without having to import them. The great treasure house of Holkham Hall did not arise from the exploitation of the poor, but from the maximization of land use; Thomas Coke's draining of the Norfolk waterlogged fens and the fertilization of wastelands quadrupled the income from his land and the life of his tenants was tremendously transformed – for the better.

The impoverishment of the labouring poor that did occur towards the end of the century, was often a side-effect rather than a direct cause of this wealth. There is a large and continuing debate about the effects of the enclosure Acts; poor cottagers were pushed over the edge into poor relief by enclosures, but they were not created by the enclosures: their position at the bottom rung of unskilled seasonal labour for bare subsistence wages already preexisted the enclosures. Up to about the middle of the century, the cost of living for the labouring classes was some 15 percent lower than it had been at the end of the seventeenth century, and their wages steadily increased on top of this; virtually everyone who worked had disposable income, which contributed to the growth of the consumer market. For most of the century the demand for labour exceeded the supply. Not till the mid-century did the increasing population begin to lead to an oversupply of the labouring pool, with a consequent depression of wages, but even then the demand for skilled labour continued to exceed the supply. It was not until the very end of the century, from the 1780s, that a proletariat (the toiling masses of wage-labourers) began to form, and not until the beginning of the nineteenth century does a materialist analysis based upon the dialectic of class interests make much sense.

Copyright © 2000, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments originally appeared on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List in September and October 2000.

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