U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bob Dylan and the End of The Popular Front

This week, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This event is not without interest for intellectual historians of the United States.

Here, I set myself the task of reflecting upon one important dimension of Dylan’s contribution. A caveat: I will proceed without consulting any sources, and will rely on my own memories, faulty as they necessarily are.

My focus is on cultural politics, or aesthetic ideology. I would like to think about Bob Dylan as the final American artist to win the Nobel Prize who might plausibly be seen as connected to the politico-aesthetic formation called the Popular Front.

1.

What was the Popular Front?

On one level, the Popular Front was simply a policy change, announced by the Comintern in 1934, which sought to redirect the energies of international Communism from a stance of uncompromising agitation––against capitalist states and all other political formations, including socialist and social democratic parties––and toward the promotion of proletarian culture (in the United States, primarily through organizations like the foreign language leagues and the John Reed Clubs, destined, ironically, to fall victim to the Popular Front’s “Americanizing” thrust).

How long did the Popular Front last?

Opinions on this vary. Its heyday, stateside, was certainly the period of the Second New Deal, which saw the rise of the CIO, the radicalization of political and economic thought, and the emergence of a broadly populist, plebeian, demotic, and secular culture industry.

The animating spirit of the Popular Front, as Daniel Geary has argued, was that of anti-fascism. It is important to identify why this spirit of anti-fascism mattered: after all, most political movements identify some enemy that threatens freedom and autonomy. What was specific about Popular Front-era anti-fascism was the manner in which it served to dissolve––if temporarily––certain calcified attitudes regarding the ethics of politically engaged artistic and intellectual work.

For as long as anyone can remember, artists and intellectuals have worried––and often with good reason––about the dangers of mixing expression and political agitation. This dilemma was particularly acute for scholars and cultural workers (such as journalists, scientific researchers, and schoolteachers) in professions the very recent professionalization of which had demanded prostration before the god of “objectivity.” What the new spirit of anti-fascism introduced, if temporarily, was a suspension of the rules: Hitlerism abroad (and Jim Crow at home) were serious enough threats to humanity that anything but diligent engagement constituted treason.

The threats posed by continuing global depression and the imminent replay of World War I (recently having been decisively proven to have been a propaganda-driven slaughter driven by the greed of great powers) ramified this sense of emergency. We can see continuities between this Popular Front spirit and that which presided over the aesthetic ideologies of the World War II period (even if the trauma of 1939, with the signing of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact, the rapid and bizarre mutation of the “lines” to which Communists were expected to hew, and lingering bitterness over the outcome of the Spanish Civil War, meant that the turn of the decade represented a real rupture).

Whether and in what ways the Popular Front spirit survived the transition from World War II to Cold War remains a very live question. The Trotskyist intellectuals who came to dominate left-liberal thought and culture in the 1940s and 1950s had always hated the Popular Front; their newfound supremacy allowed them to disseminate piercing critiques of Red kitsch and Party-inspired groupthink. The new enemy was to become “totalitarianism.” By organizing against “totalitarianism,” left-liberals painted both fascism and Stalinism as annihilationist political theologies (their ethical evaluation, here, was correct; they overstated, however, the degree to which fascism and Stalinism were, in fact, structurally homologous; and they often ignored the very real annihilationist tendencies of the United States and the West). Ironically, this “anti-totalitarianism” came to function in very much the same manner as the organizing logic of the Popular Front: enabling forms of “commitment”––most infamously, collaboration with the American foreign policy and spy apparatus––that left-liberals ostensibly considered to constitute the greatest danger to intellectual and artistic independence and autonomy.

More broadly, the spirit of the Popular Front may be seen as the animating force in much of the popular culture of the United States through the 1960s and 1970s. The New Left, launched by young adults who had grown up in the milieu of the Communist Party and Yiddish-speaking New York, and guided by a founding statement drafted at a United Auto Workers retreat center in Port Huron, Michigan, sought in large part to recover a usable Popular Front past. Its orientation towards folk song, towards reclaiming a democratic American heritage, and towards a universalistic anti-racism––as well as its drive to take over key centers of American thought and culture, including the universities, the media, the labor unions, and the Democratic Party––were straight out of the Popular Front playbook.

(One might object to the narrative I have drafted here: what of the many Trotskyist survivals that powered important dimensions of New Leftism? I recall a professor of mine, active in the Berkeley New Left, laughing as he recalled that an interview for a socialist writing project in the early 1970s began with a question [posed with deadly seriousness]: “What do you think of the Popular Front?” [The correct answer, of course: “I hate it”]. Even in the breach, then, the New Left honored the Popular Front).

Somewhere, C.L.R. James observes that it was still impossible, in the late 1940s, to imagine a Hollywood film that asked its viewers to accept a capitalist businessman, conducting his business, as a hero. This is the reality to which George Lipsitz called attention in his exquisite study of the post-WWII moment, Rainbow at Midnight. And this has remained true, until comparatively recently. Something began to change, decisively, in the 1970s. The arrival of neoliberalism in the United States coincided with an epochal shift: away from the plebeian and towards “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” away from inner-city baseball parks to suburban arenas, away from proletarian country in the vein of Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn and towards John Denver and Urban Cowboy, away from the Fordist Hollywood studio system and towards tent-pole blockbusters, away from neighborhood movie theaters and towards cable television and the VCR.

We live, today, in a world separate from that of the Popular Front. If there is to be a new politico-aesthetic project articulating the program of the Left, it will likely not be a lineal descendant of the Popular Front. It will be something new. This, I think, explains why the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders had so powerful an impact on so many of us. Sanders is a lineal descendant of the Popular Front: raised in Popular Front Brooklyn, speaking in a cadence that is unmistakably that of the Yiddishist trade unionist, cut with a certain Debsian eloquence, and rooted in The Internationale’s ethic of universal brotherhood and sisterhood. Thus, Trump’s adumbration of the Roy Cohn tactics he planned to unleash vis-à-vis Sanders: “he says he is a Socialist, I think he might be something more…” was not untrue. The point remains: whoever the next “Bernie Sanders” is, he or she will not be a child of the Popular Front landscape that gave rise to the literary genre memorably christened by Michael Denning as the “Ghetto Pastoral.”

2.

As with Sanders, so with Bob Dylan. He is the last singer of the Popular Front period, a period in which people loved to sing. It would be relatively easy to complete this essay by situating Dylan as not only the quintessential late Popular Front artist, but also as the quintessential last or final Popular Front artist. After all, the story of Dylan’s apostasy bursts with allegorical potential: his decision to go electric in the mid-1960s, angering crowds at the Newport Folk Festival; the young folk music loyalist in Manchester, England in 1966 yelling: “Judas!” as his hero refuses to maintain fidelity to the agenda of earnest folksong protest and reportage; Dylan’s sly retort: “I don’t believe you… You’re a liar…” Benjamin Filene has expertly documented the ways in which Dylan’s turn to the electric guitar and pop song form represented a short-circuiting of an elaborate Popular Front-era apparatus organized around the value of authenticity.

What I want to argue, however, is that Dylan’s “apostasy” was not an exit from Popular Front aesthetics. On the contrary: it was entirely faithful to the values of the Popular Front. Exploring this paradoxical fidelity not only helps us to understand the scope of Dylan’s accomplishment, but also to reencounter the Popular Front itself, and perhaps to come to a deeper appreciation of its power and force.

My reading of the Popular Front is informed by French left theory, and, in particular, the writing of Alain Badiou. In response to the writing of certain popular French revisionist historians of the French Revolution, who prioritize “passion” (with negative connotations) as the connective tissue linking the evils of Jacobinism to the terrors of Stalinism, Badiou suggests that “passion” is a generic category of political life.

What matters, for political philosophy, is the particular inflection of “passions.” Turning to the twentieth century, Badiou argues that a certain passion––what he calls the Passion for the Real––serves as the common basis for virtually every aspect of politics and thought, across the ideological spectrum. The crucial point, however, is to distinguish between the communist and non-communist variants of the Passion for the Real. Fascism sought a return to origins, a Passion for that Real that could only be accomplished by restoring the true harmony that Jews, Communists, and decadent artists and intellectuals had polluted. The left-wing Passion for the Real, in contrast, believed that the Real was in fact a utopian destination to be achieved by collective efforts towards the universal emancipation of all. This was a project to be carried out, at once, on two levels: that of ideology, and that of practical politics. Each step towards the Real accomplished on one level was to inflect the  parallel movement on the other.

Let’s return to the famous scene of Dylan being called “Judas” and his response: “I don’t believe you… You’re a liar…”

What is happening here is a moment of crisis, generated by a perceived breach of contract. The left-wing singer (in the Popular Front tradition) is expected to probe beneath the surface of reality, to uncover the truth of things. That truth might be communicated as an aesthetic value (thus, the rasp of a voice, attesting to a corporeal reality covered over by the bel canto tradition) or as the revelation of facts. Dylan, early in his career, honored this contract. Of his early songs, consider the guitar playing and vocal delivery on his stunning cover of “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”

Or listen to the drive to know, the Passion for the Real, that drives “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol” and “Who Killed Davie Moore?”

The Popular Front-era Passion for the Real, however, was not merely a cult of the documentary impulse, nor was it simply a hermeneutic of suspicion in regard to conventionalized narratives (it was, of course, both of these things).

It was, additionally, at least three other things: 1) a cult of “technique”; 2) a pragmatist epistemology; and 3) an ethic of ruthless self-scrutiny. Some readers may find these premises surprising. I am not reaching here, however—if you consult the journals and conferences in which the Popular Front aesthetic agenda was worked out, you will find abundant evidence of the centrality of these themes. Working through them in order: inspired by both the power of new technologies (cinema, radio, phonography) and by the rapid industrialization of Soviet agriculture and industry, left intellectuals in the 1930s became obsessed with “technique.”

The Passion for the Real became a passion for the correct “technique.” We scoff at this at our peril. If we believe, today, that climate change is real, we are, in fact, arguing, that environmental scientists have discovered the correct techniques for measuring the effects of human activity on the earth’s ecosystems. If we believe that an MRI is better than phrenology at helping doctors discover what is going on in our brains—well, that too is a certain conjugation of the Passion for the Real and the belief that getting at the truth involves finding the correct techniques. And if we believe that fighting the new fascist threats emanating from the Far Right in rich countries is an urgent task, we must decide whether documentary films, humorous cartoons, long-form symphonies, or youtube clips are the most efficient media with which to provoke change. This, too, is a question of technique.

Within the Popular Front paradigm, “technique” did have a special connection to the media of mass reproducibility—and, here, the preeminent thinker is likely Sergei Tretyakov, theorist of Operative Writing, upon whose work Walter Benjamin drew in the latter’s famous essay “The Author as Producer.” What Tretyakov and others took as their focus was the question of how the vast array of new aesthetic effects made possible by the electrification of industry and the revolutions in technologies of memory might be marshaled to the benefit of proletarian art. Where I am leading, here, is likely inelegantly obvious: Dylan’s turn to the rock form, his adoption of the electric guitar, and his experiments with studio multi-tracking (pursued most strikingly in the hermetic session later released as “The Basement Tapes”) was entirely consistent with the Popular Front Passion for the Real. How—following the British Invasion––could musical “realness” continue to be linked to acousticity and liveness? Towards what marginality were folkies careening with their renunciation of new techniques?

This brings us to the second point: the Popular Front Passion for the Real was a pragmatist epistemology. One of the surprises of reading memoirs by Popular Front writers (my favorite is Joseph Freeman’s An American Testament) is the constant discussion of the necessity for continuous revision. Truth itself was being reshaped by the Soviet experiment, quantity changing into quality, the earth rising on new foundations. Under such circumstances, what was true yesterday was not likely to be true today. And it was the ethical responsibility of true comrades to correct one another (if we don’t know this, we are likely to overestimate the viciousness of 1930s-era critique). The premise, here, was not: “there is no truth.” Nor was it: “truth flows from the barrel of the gun.” It was, rather: truth (or the Real) is the correctness toward which human intelligence bends; and truth is dialectically intertwined with technological progress.

I think we can see Dylan as a Popular Front figure with respect to this principle, too. “You’re a liar” does not imply: “I know the truth.” It does not merely deny the charge of heresy. It affirms that the condition of truth-seeking is collective experimentation. “I Don’t Believe You” says: the foundations are not to be trusted. The truth lurks in the future. If this scene’s final utterance (“play it fucking loud!”) was not retroactively imagined (the tape is unclear), this reading would gain strength.

And this leads us, finally, to the third leg of the Popular Front/Passion for the Real stool to which we wish to draw attention: the ethic of relentless self-scrutiny.

Every scholar of Bob Dylan agrees that Dylan is obsessed with masks and personae; that a certain narcissism propels Dylan’s reinventions of self, a narcissism that we would be mistaken to read as an ethical failing (this, I believe, is the point, of Todd Haynes’s 2007 Dylan film I’m Not There). Nothing is easier than to assimilate this tendency to some ancient impulse in American literature; any talented high school senior could write an essay situating Dylan alongside Walt Whitman’s cosmic strivers, Melville’s restless men or Fitzgerald’s pretenders or Don Draper. But I think it is possible to recognize a specifically left-wing, specifically Popular Front articulation of this theme: one that derives not from desperation nor from the escape of tragic origins, but rather from the process of a new communist maieutics, a positioning of oneself within a coherent sociological imagination, in order to live an ethical life as best as one can. This, I think, provides the spine to Dylan’s long and eccentric career: it is what makes it so difficult to sum up his contribution when an event such as the awarding to him of a Nobel Prize prompts us to undertake that exercise.

Badiou is clear that the twentieth century Passion for the Real is no longer with us. It has been replaced by something else. We don’t have any choice, I think, but to accept this diagnosis and move on with things. That will mean that figures like Bob Dylan will––very quickly––begin to strike us as sages from a previous time. Dylan anticipated this, and gave us permission to move on: an act of genuine generosity: “Strap yourself to a tree with roots: you ain’t going nowhere.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7a_2Cglupw

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Kurt —

    This is so rich and of course as you would expect something I love reading you investigating!

    I have to absorb more of what you are reaching for here, which includes a rethinking of the Popular Front (drawing on Badiou) as well as a rethinking of Dylan going electric in a larger cultural framework (was he in a sense out-folking the folk revivalists in going electric?).

    But for now I do have one question: if Sanders is Popular Front, and Popular Front no longer resonates on the left, why then the great interest in Sanders among younger folk (er, bad term to use here, I mean voters, citizens)? This makes me wonder about the enduring dimensions of the Popular Front framework you are identifying and mapping out here, the parts that carry over into the neoliberal decades since the 1970s. In particular the tensions over the use of the word “revolution”; the continued relevance of antifascism as a guiding sensibility; the continued urge to get to the Real (or change what the constitutes the Real).

    Thanks for taking USIH electric in this extraordinary investigation of a very big, complex topic. Much more to consider and ponder.

    Michael

    • Michael: thanks so much for this wonderful comment.

      I particularly appreciate your question: “But for now I do have one question: if Sanders is Popular Front, and Popular Front no longer resonates on the left, why then the great interest in Sanders among younger folk (er, bad term to use here, I mean voters, citizens)?”

      I would like to open this up to others to weigh in on; we have been a little circumspect, here at the blog, on electoral matters, for honorable reasons. But Bernie is no longer a candidate, and I don’t think this sort of discussion imperils our tax status.

      My own take is perhaps predictable. I think the Sanders phenomenon–in particular its appeal to young people––is equal parts Owl of Minerva and the heightening effects of finitude.

      Only at the moment of its passage into historical memory could the Popular Front yield this miraculous voice of “socialism” and “political revolution”: at every previous moment, some combination of prudence and professionalism would have prevented that.

      And just as 19 year olds can be found as enthusiastic audience members at concerts featuring original members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music––much more excited to see Roscoe Mitchell than Bruno Mars––so millennials responded to Bernie precisely because he represents a noble tradition that is at its end, at least in its original iteration. Many of those young people are upset by the media assumption that they don’t know anything about history (as far as I can tell, the arrival of the internet means that they know much more than any comparable previous cohort) and irritated by the idea that they should love young neoliberal stars (Cory Booker, Justin Trudeau, the Milibands) who have no penetrating social-democratic vision. Part of the tragedy that the Left is still working through concerns, precisely, the question of how a Bernie-style politics can be articulated via a new politico-aesthetic formation. That will have to be battled out. (I am excited, personally, by the idea that someone like Nina Turner might be persuaded to step into the vacuum. And I am equally excited by the idea that the next avatar of Sandersism is eighteen years old right now, with roots in worlds that do not track with expectations derived from the past).

    • As far as the matter of as you put it: ” (was he in a sense out-folking the folk revivalists in going electric?), it comes down to what you believe about folk music; is it something to be trapped in the past or does it by necessity move forward? So here the question is if the folk are electrified shouldn’t’ their music be too? If we believe what that old sage David Lee Roth tells us: “Any kind of rock music is what I call high velocity folk music.” Then yes Dylan out folks the folkies.

  2. Kurt,
    A great post, as others have already said.

    Beyond the themes of pragmatist epistemology, self-scrutiny, and “technique,” I’m interested in how (or whether) the notion of “the universal emancipation of all” showed in Dylan’s music. Not to be too literal, but did he sing about issues that extended beyond the borders of the U.S.? (Presumably yes in the case of, e.g., apartheid, but even that I’m not certain about. I seem to recall he did at least one tour of South Africa, though offhand I don’t recall when.)

    • Bob has never appeared in South Africa, nor anywhere else in Africa for that matter. He did take part in “Sun City,” Little Steven’s anti-apartheid project that was similar to We Are the World.

      You may have confused him with the Byrds who toured South Africa in 1968 following he completion of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Gram Parsons left the group before the tour started, refusing to play to segregated audiences. Although the Byrds had been promised by promoters that audiences would be integrated this turned out not to be the case. In any event, the tour was a disaster.

      • Thanks for the correction. (I’m not sure how/where I got the impression that Dylan had been in S. Africa.)

  3. Part I

    But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

    – Bob Dylan/ My Back Pages

    As of this writing, the Swedish Academy has “given up” trying to reach Bob Dylan to tell him about his Nobel Prize.

    “Right now we are doing nothing,” academy secretary Sara Danius told Swedish state radio SR. “I have called and sent emails to his closest collaborator and received very friendly replies. For now, that is certainly enough.”

    What does this have to do with anything that I’m going to write about? Not a whole lot, but it does allow me to introduce our hero that old trickster extraordinaire, Robert Alan Zimmerman into our story.

    The protest songs that made Dylan were written in a brief period of some 20 months – from January 1962 to November 1963. Influenced by American radical traditions (the Wobblies, the Popular Front of the thirties and forties, the Beat anarchists of the fifties) and above all by the political ferment touched off among young people by the civil rights and ban the bomb movements, he engaged in his songs with the terror of the nuclear arms race, with poverty, racism and prison, jingoism and war.

    It is my opinion that Folk King Bob Dylan’s break with the past (represented by the folk revival) was clean and complete and what resulted was not a veiled attempt to fulfill Popular Front values or dogma. Instead it represented a new direction that he would travel with others of his age.

    Oh sure, he probably retained some things in his mind from those people of the Left with whom he associated during his early days in New York City. It’s like Ken Kesey telling Tom Wolfe: You can’t be round something for too long without getting some of it on you.”

    But those things were no longer a factor in his artistry or subjects of his songs. No more Ballad of Emmett Till, Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Masters of War, Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall. And things like voter registration rallies in Mississippi, speeches to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, Marches on Washington. Those songs had already been written and events had already taken place and been attended. There was no need or use in doing them all over again and again and again.

    The only direction for Dylan at this point was forward into the future.

    In mid-1964, he explained to critic Nat Hentoff: “Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore – you know, be a spokesman. From now on, I want to write from inside me …I’m not part of no movement… I just can’t make it with any organization…”

    Dylan enters the studio on and records the album Another Side of Bob Dylan in one night. It features songs he wrote in Greece and during his car trip. During the session he tells Hentoff: “There aren’t any finger-pointing songs in here, either. Those records I’ve already made, I’ll stand behind them, but some of that was jumping into the scene to be heard and a lot of it was because I didn’t see anybody else doing that kind of thing. Now a lot of people are doing finger-pointing songs. You know—pointing to all the things that are wrong. Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know—be a spokesman. Like I once wrote about Emmett Till in the first person, pretending I was him. From now on, I want to write from inside me, and to do that I’m going to have to get back to writing like I used to when I was ten—having everything come out naturally. The way I like to write is for it to come out the way I walk or talk.”

  4. Part II

    I think this decision to move on was the result of the coming together of several factors.

    • He and his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo broke up for good in early 1964. Rotolo had been t he one to introduce him too the world of leftist politics. You can hear the ugly end of their affair in Dylan’s “Ballad in Plain D.”

    • As Dylan told Nat Hentoff at a recording session, “there aren’t any finger-pointin’ songs” on Another Side of Bob Dylan, which was a significant step in a new direction. He added: “Those records I’ve already made, I’ll stand behind them, but some of that was jumping into the scene to be heard and a lot of it was because I didn’t see anybody else doing that kind of thing. Now a lot of people are doing finger-pointing songs. You know—pointing to all the things that are wrong. Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know—be a spokesman. Like I once wrote about Emmett Till in the first person, pretending I was him. From now on, I want to write from inside me, and to do that I’m going to have to get back to writing like I used to when I was ten—having everything come out naturally. The way I like to write is for it to come out the way I walk or talk.”

    • A general sense that there was something new in the wind.

    • Dylan stayed at Vernilya, a small village outside of Athens, Greece, with Nico. There he finished many of the songs that would appear on his fourth and upcoming album. Nine songs of these would be recorded upon his return to New York

    • He is introduced to psychedelics.

    • The Beatles arrive and to Dylan they pointed the direction the music had to go. The British Invasion reintroduces America to its musical heritage in a form transformed to meet the needs of a new generation.

    • He takes a three-week cross country automobile trip to California for some concerts with three friends and copious amounts of marijuana.

    It all seemed like a breath of fresh air to Dylan.

    From there the road led on to electric instruments on Bringing It All Back home, the writing of Like A Rolling Stone at a time when he was ready to quit, his appearances at Newport and Forest Hills, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and the world tour with the Hawks.

    W hen Dylan attended the 1965 Newport Folk Festival dressed variously in black leather jacket, op-art polka dot shirt, and Beatle boots and performed with an electric band, he spoke to a new reality. He was booed while Pete Seeger reputedly fumed backstage, voicing a wish to cut the electric cables that powered the sound system. Festival Producer George Wein recalled being asked to “stop that noise” by a number of people. “I can’t stop it,” he said, unaware that he had ironically taken on the role of a prophet in a larger sense.

    Dylan stood his ground, endured the boos and catcalls, and made sure his message was heard and that its meaning was undeniable – that message being, according to Joe Boyd, who was handling the sound for Dylan’s performance: “You guys (folk musicians) are all washed up. This is all finished. There’s something else now that we’re dealing with. . .You knew, as it was happening, that paths were parting.”

    That message was punctuated by the penultimate song of his performance, which he ironically played on an acoustic guitar because he and the band had only had time to rehearse three songs. The title of the song was “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” and in it he told those listening:

    Strike another match
    Go start anew
    And it’s all over now baby blue.

    Perhaps they had forgotten that the times were always changing.

    I would respectfully disagree with your statement that “Dylan’s “apostasy” was not an exit from Popular Front aesthetics. On the contrary: it was entirely faithful to the values of the Popular Front. Exploring this paradoxical fidelity not only helps us to understand the scope of Dylan’s accomplishment, but also to reencounter the Popular Front itself, and perhaps to come to a deeper appreciation of its power and force.”

    While authenticity might be a value of the Popular Front that is not to say the organization had a monopoly on it. It could exist elsewhere. For Dylan and others that authenticity was concerned with things that had value and meaning for them. And even though one might achieve authenticity, does that need to be automatically ascribed to the Popular Front, when the individual sought it out and achieved it for much different reasons and form. Who’s to say?

    At least for me Dylan escaped and came to be something new and different.

    (Sorry to write long but there is so much more to this)

  5. Ed: thanks so much for this expert encapsulation of the history that I left vague in my piece. (One might observe, parenthetically, that Dylan does indeed point some fingers over the course of Another Side). On the question of Popular Front continuities, we will likely have to agree to disagree. In any event, thanks so much for this.

  6. you are very welcome; thanks for the opportunity.

    running the songs from another side though my mind, i really don’t detect any finger pointing like that which bob had done in the past.

  7. Thanks for a wonderful post Kurt. I, for one, found your emphasis on technique and “ruthless self-scrutiny” with respect to the Popular Front pretty satisfying in that it articulated clearly for me some unformulated thoughts I had teaching Michael Denning’s book, among other things. This may seem out of left field, but a great example of the tendencies you describe has to be Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It connects somewhat with your reading of Dylan I think. If we believe Agee anyway, Evans’ photographs were not supposed to be illustrations of his prose, rather they were their own thing, so that the effect was something like a diptych. Agee even went so far as to contend that what he was writing wasn’t a book. It was a startling advancement of technique. I’m not sure it worked. Still, this was very different from something like Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell’s Have You Seen Their Faces, where captioned photographs were interspersed in the text, or for that matter Richard Wright and Edwin Rosskam’s stunning Twelve Million Black Voices. Agee’s part in Let Us Now Praise though, is an incredible attempt to get at “The Real” that went deeper than some simple documentary impulse or the like. While Agee did point the finger at others, he ended up pointing at himself far more often. He struggled mightily over how to represent his subjects, but went further into an inquiry about how to represent anything at all, which meant dealing with his own impulses as an artist, subjecting those impulses to a ruthless scrutiny that very nearly extinguished the artist and the artistic act itself. At the very least, he questioned the possibility that his subjects might or should be represented, wondering whether he was even worthy of representing them. It’s no surprise to me that Let Us Now Praise came along too late really to get traction at the time (it came out in 1941), but that it was much more widely read in the 1960s. In that sense it forms a bridge between the two, and maybe its turn inward is not all that dissimilar from Dylan’s. I’m not certain. Anyway, great stuff. It cleared so much up for me.

    • Peter: thank you so much for this generous comment. The examples you discuss provide such rich opportunities for thinking about and complicating the Popular Front/Cultural Front Passion for the Real! If you have a minute, I would love to know your thoughts about Badiou’s The Century, a comparatively short book where he lays out the Passion for the Real thesis. (Which, come to think of it, also resonates with your recent writing on Henry James). Thanks again.

      • Will do Kurt. I’ve not read it, so I picked up a copy today. I’ll check it out and get back to you.

  8. NB: A note from François Laruelle’s General Theory of Victims: “Obviously, it is possible to take up the ‘modern’ defense of this century against its ‘renegade’ denigrators and to celebrate its ‘passion for the real’; the only problem is that, as is customary with philosophy, we are dealing with the operation of self-defense and denial.” Food for thought?

    • This sounds like an indirect barb at Badiou’s Maoism: the denial of the horrors that the leftist passion for the Real produced across the globe. And it is a fair question, which I am not sure self-proclaimed Communist theorists–Zizek, Badiou and his followers (Bosteels), Dean–really address.

      • Absolutely. Laruelle wrote a passionate Anti-Badiou, and though both come out of the French Far Left of the 1960s, they represent opposing poles of radical Philosophy: Badiou seeks to map out a continuation of the Sartrean public intellectual; Laruelle wants a non-philosophy.

Comments are closed.