CfP 2/2023 - Autonomy Now? Art, Literature, and the Commodity Form


Paweł Kaczmarski, Marta Koronkiewicz

Abstract submission deadline:


Text submission deadline: 


For the upcoming 2/2023 issue of “Praktyka Teoretyczna”, we invite researchers in literary/art history, literary theory, aesthetic/political philosophy, sociology – and other fields – to submit articles that reflect upon the autonomy of art/literature: its political potentials, dangers, and the forms it may take in a modern market society. Needless to say, the concept of aesthetic autonomy has been vividly debated within the socialist movement on multiple occasions throughout its history – with the Brecht/Lukacs/Adorno exchange (see i.e. Taylor 1980) being probably the most well-known instance of such a debate – nonetheless, we believe the idea of autonomy must be critically re-examined on a regular basis, in light of new developments in art, literature, criticism, and technology.

Given the famously broad scope of the subject, we encourage prospective authors to engage with a particular theoretical/critical perspective – one that has emerged relatively recently, but which seems to us a crucial step towards a better understanding of the relationship between the autonomy of art/literature, the commodity form, and the politics of the contemporary Left.



“[O]f course, the work of art can also have one thing that the commodity and sheer matter cannot. And that one thing— the only thing about the work of art that is not determined by its buyers, the only thing about it that belongs only to it, the only thing about it that’s not reducible to the commodity it otherwise is— is its meaning.”

This and similar observations made by Walter Benn Michaels in his 2015 book The Beauty of the Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy were, in a way, a logical conclusion to critical, philosophical, and historical work on meaning and intention previously undertaken by himself and others (see e.g. Ashton 2011, Brown 2012, Cronan 2013, Leys 2017). According to Michaels’ seminal and legendarily controversial argument (see e.g. Knapp & Michaels 1982, 1983, 1987), the meaning of the work of art/literature and the intention of its author are necessarily (or by definition) strictly identical – i.e. they are just two names for the very same thing. In The Shape of the Signifier (2004) Michaels pointed out how a theoretical commitment to the material shape of the literary text, and the experience of a reader – at the expense of meaning/intention – entails a political commitment to the primacy of identity over class. Later, in The Beauty of a Social Problem (2015), he showed how a work of art/literature may, by becoming pointedly, purposefully indifferent to the experience of its audience – and insisting instead on its own meaning, form, and autonomy – shift our attention away from the inherently liberal politics of experiences, affects, and identities, and towards the structural, i.e. class-based, inequalities that shape the very foundation of capitalist societies.

Michaels’ account of meaning/intention served as an important influence for another comprehensive account of aesthetic autonomy under late capitalism, put forward by Nicholas Brown in his 2019 book Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism. Offering a fascinating re-reading of Hegel, Adorno, Lukacs, and others, Brown shows that in a market society, in order to assert its (partial) independence from commodity form, a work of art/literature has to subsume its status as a commodity unto its own meaning, as if the former was a part of the work’s material support (“The commodity character of the work of art is indeed part of its material support”). This working through, rather than around, the commodity status of the work implies an aesthetic strategy that – being modelled after Hegel’s Aufhebung rather than a straightforward, and ultimately futile, refusal to engage with the market altogether – is a far cry from naive and elitist fantasies about a potential revival of the “true” high art. Indeed, proposals such as Brown’s and Michaels’ prove that autonomy of art and literature should be of vital interest to all self-declared socialists and communists today. This leads to a suggestion that the Left should – at least insofar as it is still today invested in art, literature, and criticism – draw more heavily from certain parts of the Modernist tradition; a thought which in itself remains an anathema to certain parts of “progressive” academia today.

Among the chief implications of Michaels’ and Brown’s approach to autonomy is that aesthetic autonomy should be seen, first and foremost, as inherent to the work of art, rather than the work of an artist. What lies beyond the domain of the market is not, as various unwitting heirs to romanticism would see it, the “creative process” –the causal, material process of which the work of art is the ultimate result – but a specific feature (i.e. meaning) that the work of art possesses by its very nature (or by definition). Thus what Michaels, Brown and others offer is a renewed focus on ontological rather than purely sociological perspective – which seems particularly refreshing in the context of various debates on the contemporary Left, where the issue of autonomy is often reduced to the relationship between an artist and a wider regime of labour.

In the upcoming issue of “Praktyka Teoretyczna”, we invite prospective authors to further investigate the difference between these two approaches, in order to shed new light on the idea of aesthetic autonomy under capitalism.



Moreover, the very blurring of the line between the autonomy of art and the autonomy of the artistic process may be seen as an ideological by-product of what Stanley Cavell famously called the “bad picture of intention” (Cavell 1976; see also Cronan 2020, Siraganian 2017). Such “bad picture” mistakes the meaning of the work for its external cause – by treating authorial intention in purely causal terms – and ultimately reduces the work to a common object. In other words, a work of art/literature is seen as nothing more than a material effect of its author’s intention. Such approach may be in turn easily combined with various misguided forms of materialism and egalitarianism to produce a politics of art that is nominally democratic, progressive or socialist, but which nonetheless denies the work of art/literature its basic means of resisting commodification. If this is indeed the case, what is urgently needed – especially among those of us on the Left – is a critique of the kind of materialist criticism that draws, perhaps unwittingly, on the “bad picture of intention”.

We welcome submissions that engage with history of criticism, sociology of art and literature, and political and aesthetic theory – as well as other fields – in order to develop polemic stances against such an approach.



While various debates surrounding Brown’s Autonomy (see e.g. Vishmidt 2020, Petrovsky 2020, Durao 2020, CLCWeb 2020) have so far focused mostly on evaluating the merits and potential flaws of the book, the upcoming issue of “Praktyka Teoretyczna” seeks to focus instead on the logical next step, i.e. a further in-depth analysis and critique of specific strategies that works of art have historically adopted in order to assert their autonomy under capitalism. While Michaels, Brown, Cronan (2021) and others provide us with plentiful examples of such works and strategies, the list remains by its very nature ever incomplete – and thus we would like to invite fellow critics and researchers to investigate other important instances of autonomy in its non-trivial form, i.e. the cases in which the works of art/literature have actively reasserted their autonomy, especially by working through, rather than around, their status as commodities.

We welcome pieces that offer in-depth analysis and interpretation of such specific instances, and the lessons we can learn from them.

While our focus is on autonomy under capitalism, interesting accounts of aesthetic autonomy – its foundations, enemies, and political potential – were of course historically developed in a variety of other contexts. We invite the researchers familiar with these contexts, especially those from the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, to compare such accounts with those developed in market societies; we particularly encourage submissions that seek to investigate the ways in which a socialist-era understanding of aesthetic autonomy had to be either abolished, transformed, or reinforced when confronted with the global market reality of the post-1989 world.

Another area that we would like to investigate is the possibility of autonomy in explicitly political art/literature. Aesthetic autonomy as understood by Michaels, Brown and others does not preclude the possibility of a work that would assert both its commitment and autonomy (in fact, such possibility seems to stem directly from the always-singular, always-arbitrary nature of meaning itself). Nonetheless any attempt to reconcile the two poses a problem: “paradoxically, art that bears immediate political messages poses a problem—unless these meanings are mediated and relativized by the form of the work as a whole, which is another way to say unless they mean something other than what they immediately say”. The explicit political use of a work is no substitute for actual meaning; and works that ultimately succeed in asserting their autonomy tend to offer “a form of contemplation rather than an exhortation to do something” (Michaels 2017). On the other hand, as shown e.g. in The Beauty of a Social Problem, works that assert and/or problematise their own autonomy are able to shift our attention away from the subjective experience of the beholder and towards what is indifferent to our feelings, experiences, or subject-positions; this in turn seems to suggest that something akin to an aesthetic of the structural, or perhaps even aesthetic of class antagonism, might be still possible today – albeit in an unexpected form.

Hence in the upcoming issue of “Praktyka Teoretyczna” we would also like to touch upon various practical forms through which the problem of reconciling autonomy and commitment is, has been, or might be resolved: what are the most telling examples of works of art/literature that succeed in asserting their autonomy while being explicitly political? How do they enrich our understanding of what autonomy is, or might be? Are such works still possible today?



These are just some of the questions we invite prospective authors to explore and investigate. Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:

- strategies of autonomy in art and literature post-1989

- autonomy and the commodity status of art/literature

- autonomy of the work vs autonomy of the artist

- enemies of autonomy – on the Left and elsewhere

- account of art/literature as social facts – progressive or reactionary?

- autonomy of art/literature in non-capitalist contexts – lessons and legacy

- autonomy of politically committed works – (how) can it be achieved?

- aesthetics of indifference – history and examples

- politics of autonomy, politics of beauty

- autonomy, ideology and the “bad picture of intention”

- contemporary Left and Modernist autonomy – shared interests, potential conflicts




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