In the Paris Manuscripts of 1844, Marx claims that ‘whereas animals produce only according to the standards and needs of the species to which they belong . . ., man also produces according to the laws of beauty’. On the basis of an interpretation of the Paris Manuscripts, my paper will develop the claim that the early Marx’s critique of capitalism is founded on an idea of aesthetic alienation. Rather than, as it is often taken to be, centered on an expressivist theory of economic production, I will argue that Marx actually undertakes the critique of work relations under capitalism from the perspective of what I will call the ‘sensuously engaged subject’. The Paris Manuscripts can then be seen as posing the problem of alienation in capitalism through the construction of a contrast between two forms of ‘value-creating activity’. One of these forms is economic activity governed by the logic of exchange value. I argue that exchange value is essentially a form of the cognitive appropriation of nature which works through the abstraction from particularity and the assertion of formal identity. The second form is what I take to be an aesthetic appropriation of nature which discloses meaning through the power of things to excite and to deepen sensuous engagement. I will argue that these two forms of value-creating activity are not conceived by Marx as independent alternatives. Rather, his reading of alienation supposes that capitalism fatally shifts the balance between these two interdependent forms of engagement with the world. The formal, narrowly cognitive and abstract operation of the understanding, which is actualized socially in the form of exchange value, takes over for itself the exclusive right to determine the significance of things, thus pushing out the aesthetic, sensuously engaged form of disclosure to the margins of the social world. As Marx puts it in the Paris Manuscripts, the Sinn des Habens begins to take precedence over the Sinn des Seins. This means, then, that the critique of capitalism in this work must be understood from an aesthetic point of view. ‘Alienation’, for the early Marx, is a process in which aesthetic forms of meaning disclosure are pushed out of everyday social practice, and survive only at the margins. I will argue that Marx’s critique of alienation points towards a re-aestheticization of social practice, understood as the promotion and development of sensuously engaged responsiveness to nature, as the crucial element in overcoming alienation. In the final part of the paper, I will briefly explore how Marx derives some of the main elements for this conception from earlier German romanticism (particularly Schiller), and I will also show how this reading is compatible with later, C20th Marxist aesthetics (I focus in my paper on Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse).
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