The Marxist tradition in philosophy and the arts attributes a cultural promise to the aesthetic, namely the pledge that aesthetic activity engenders a culture for and by the people. How can this promise give antagonism an adequate place? By reading Pablo Neruda’s elemental odes and retooling conceptions of promising and address central to Marxist cultural criticism, we can make a reply to this question.
The Chilean communist’s odes posit the ideal of the harmonious co-existence of people, animals, objects, and plants in an egalitarian human community. Written between 1954 and 1959, the poems envelop the reader in a cycle of material interaction, desire, and love. Thereby they embody the promise of a culture for and by the people in everyday objects and events. This is evident in the odes to the chair, to the orange and to bread. These poems translate Marx’s slogan “Workers of all countries, unite!” into the material possibility and necessity of the pledge: “aesthetic agents of the world, go to build the culture of the future!” The poems offer an allegory of the cultural promise of the aesthetic.
The “Ode to Things” illuminates the aesthetic structure that holds up this promise. Weaving the reader into relationships that connect interpreters, creators, and things, this poem holds out the promise of humans’ intersubjective co-presence in a world they share with one another and their surroundings. Acts of creation and reception sustain ties of conviviality that are to bring together individuals and individuals and things. Such acts forge the bonds that underlie the cohesion of the promised community.
However, the elemental odes skirt fractitious elements, as the “Ode to the Table” illustrates. Neruda’s vision of interpretive and interpretable relationships expunges particularities that contest the projected harmony of the coming society, and restricts the desired aesthetic bonding within a universal public. The odes’ promise of culture nonetheless stands.
This is possible for three reasons: (1) the poems mobilize the trustworthiness as well as the unreliability of promising; (2) they draw on the promise’s anticipatory dimension; (3) they engage the reader’s collaboration in realizing aesthetic promises. Orienting us without guarantee to future possibilities, the odes are able to proclaim ideals of unity and generality, without having to come to terms with the antagonisms and differences that will have to find a place in the coming community and the struggle leading up to it. This means that behind the promise lurks a threat, a pledge to aestheticize a world in which certain differences are precluded from making the difference they should make. Theories of the aesthetic, accordingly, must register, in addition to the promise, the role of another mode of address, namely, the threat.
In engagement with Adorno’s notion of art’s promise, Althusser’s implicit conception of aspects of address, Benjamin’s address to cultural marginalia, and the address of Marx’s coat to Marx, which, Peter Stallybrass suggests, was of decisive influence for Marx’s address to the commodities, I explain where this leaves the cultural promise of the aesthetic.