A Marxist quandary, a Kantian path out—that’s Autonomy. If I say now that the path out is poorly blazed, and maybe even a trick, then you needn’t be disappointed, because it will also turn out that the quandary wasn’t one and that it didn’t need solving. You needn’t worry, I mean, that Brown’s account of art is unconvincing, and indeed disheartening, because the situation to which this art putatively responds is a non-problem. I’ll explain each in turn:
The non-problem: “The work of art is not like a commodity,” Brown writes. “It is one” (34). That sentence is admirably hard-headed—but is it also correct? Are music and film and such available to us only as commodities? Do we never encounter art without having bought it first? It will be enough to consult your own experience to see that you are, in fact, surrounded by non-commodified art. Works of art are the only items that governments still routinely take out of the marketplace, amassing large collections of books, movies, and symphonies that citizens can access for free. Public libraries make of the arts the only remaining occasion for the otherwise atrophied traditions of municipal socialism. But when we start surveying our contemporary reserves of non-commodified art, we are talking about rather more than some picturesque Fabian survival. There was a period around the year 2000 when the new technologies more or less destroyed the market for recorded music. Even neoliberals concede that markets are not natural or spontaneous—that they have to be created and politically sustained. For the market in recorded music to have survived the rise of digital media, the governments of the capitalist states would have had to intervene massively to counter the wave of illegal downloading—the Moment of the MP3—when in fact they were largely content to let that market stop functioning. Brown is telling a story about the ever-intensifying logic of commodification, even though he has lived through the near decommodification of an entire art form, its remaking as a free good. If we are no longer talking much about media piracy, then this is only because filesharing has since been nudged back into a drastically redesigned marketplace, in the form of streaming and subscription services, which are the Aufhebung of the commodity form and its opposite: the non-market of free goods, available for a fee: Napster + the reassurance that you won’t get sued. But then is the Spotify playlist a commodity? It might be, though it seems wrong to say that I have bought such a thing, and we still lack a proper account of the new political economy of culture and its retailoring of the commodity form: Art in the Age of the Platform and the Deep Catalog. There is, of course, one position on the Left that has become totally contemptuous of the new technologies and especially of social media. The claim here is that we are gullibly creating free content for the new monopolies; we are writers and filmmakers and photographers—and we upload our work: our labor! our creativity!—and the companies make money (via advertising and the hawking of our data), and we don’t get a cut. We are thus all in the position of the ‘90s-era pop star who has seen her royalties tank; against every expectation, Shania Twain has become the representative figure of our universal exploitation. This argument is worth hearing out, but it remains important even so to recall the situation that gives rise to this misgiving in the first place, which is that the creative Internet involves much more than people Instagramming their dinners. It produces Twitter essays, Ivy League professors anatomizing authoritarianism, lots of short movies, 15-second TikTok masterpieces, and song—everywhere song. To the anti-corporate line that calls me a chump for posting a video of myself playing Weezer’s “Hash Pipe” on the ukulele, the necessary Marxist rejoinder is that an arts communism is already in view—or at least that we have all the evidence we will ever need that people given the opportunity will gather without pay to fashion a culture together. Our snowballing insights into surveillance capitalism co-exist with the unforeclosed possibility that social media is the opening to socialist media. But then one wonders how new any of this is—wonders, indeed, whether the culture industry was ever tethered to the commodity form, since network television and pop radio in their canonical, postwar incarnations were already free goods, generating one of the great unremarked contradictions of twentieth-century arts commentary. Already in 1980, the art forms that a Left criticism excoriated under names like “corporate rock” and “consumer culture” were the ones that you could readily watch or hear without buying them. Before the advent of the full-scale Internet, it was alternative culture that existed only as a commodity, like that Sonic Youth CD I was once desperate to buy because I knew I was never going to hear it during morning drive time. (Only as a commodity? Almost only? Surely a friend might have hooked me up with a dub. Was I nowhere near a college radio station?) Indie used to be our name for music more-than-ordinarily dependent on the market, for art that one encountered mostly as commodity.
That’s one way of understanding why Autonomy is trying, in vain, to solve a non-problem: The commodification of art is by no means complete. The relation of music, image, and story to the commodity form remains inconsistent and contradictory. But there’s a second way of getting at this point, and it goes back to the book’s fundamental misunderstanding of Marx and the commodity form. Brown’s promise, again, is that even in an era when we can no longer posit a distinction between the commodity and the non-commodity, we can still learn the subtler business of telling the mere commodity from the commodity-plus. Contemporary art might be a commodity, but it isn’t just a commodity. But in Marx, there is no such thing as the mere commodity. The very first point that Marx makes in Capital Volume 1 is that commodities have a dual character; it is, in fact, this dualness that makes them commodities: Objects “are only commodities because they have a dual nature”—they are simultaneously objects of use and objects of exchange, themselves as well as their fungible selves. Brown seems to hold that this condition is the special accomplishment of the neo-modernist artwork—its ability to escape commodification by being twofold. But that simply is the structure of the commodity. A Thomas McCarthy novel has no advantages in this regard over a tube sock or a travel mug, and Brown can only believe that it does by arguing repeatedly, contra Marx, that it is usefulness, and not doubleness, that makes something a commodity: “An experience is immediately a use value, and therefore in a society such as ours immediately entails the logic of the commodity…” (49). “Since the display value of a picture is a use value, there is nothing in the picture as an object that separates it from its being as a commodity” (68). This error is baffling, since twenty minutes spent reading Capital would have been enough to correct it, but it is also the predictable outcome of trying to get Marx and Kant to speak in the same voice. Marx’s argument has two steps: 1) It is exchange that makes something a commodity, and not use; useful objects obviously predated market society and will outlive it. 2) But then equally, use is not negated by exchange; the exchangeability of the object coexists with its usability, even though these require contradictory standpoints. It is thus impossible to understand why Brown thinks that art would stop functioning as art just because it’s for sale. Brown’s way of claiming this is to say that “the structure of the commodity excludes the attribute of interpretability” (22). If a movie comes to me as a commodity, I shouldn’t be able to interpret it, and if I am against all expectation able to discern meaning in it, I can congratulate it for having slipped free of its commodity shackles. But why would that be the case? A commodified rice cooker doesn’t stop functioning as a rice cooker. Commodified soap doesn’t stop cleaning your face. Why would artworks alone lose their particular qualities when commodified, such that we would wish to solemnize those putatively rare examples that achieve the doubleness that is in fact the commodity’s universal form?
The fake solution: Brown’s argument gets itself into trouble by superimposing Kant on top of Marx, and yet its Kantianism is itself a mess. I should explain first why this matters. A critical theorist spots on the new arrivals shelf a book called Autonomy and can’t know at a glance what it is about, since its title exists in two registers at once. She might expect to find a book about the autonomy of art—a book, in other words, that belongs in the tradition of Gautier, Pater, Greenberg, and Rancière. But she might equally expect a book about the autonomy of workers, a book about autonomia, about the ability of workers to direct their own activity and set their own political goals without the superintendence of political parties and big trade unions. Anyone who notices that the book’s author is carrying a Duke-Literature PhD has got to expect this second autonomy, an Englishing of Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua; one might well be grateful for such a thing, since American Marxists still require the help of the Italians to make militant the cozily Jeffersonian program of “participatory democracy.” That Nicholas Brown holds no brief for the Italian Marxists is thus one of the book’s bigger surprises; if anything, the baldness of the book’s title seems designed to wrest the word autonomy away from the autonomists and to deliver it back to the aestheticism that historically predated Tronti and Virno. But the matter is more complicated than that. A certain workerism continues to inform Brown’s writing even so, if only because he so often makes about artworks arguments that we are used to hearing about proletarians. His biggest claim is that the artwork is wholly inserted into capitalism while also opposing it. “Art as such does not preexist capitalism and will not survive it; instead, art presents an unemphatic alterity to capitalism; art is not the before or after of capitalism but the deliberate suspension of its logic, its determinate other” (88-9). Or again: “The artwork is not an archaic holdover but the internal, unemphatic other to capitalist society (9). No Marxist should be surprised by this figure, though one might well marvel that it has taken the aesthetes so long to come round to it. It was the modernists, in this respect like the Third Worldists, who thought that the struggle against capitalism would have to come from some uncontaminated outside, from people who had wrenched free of the market or managed to avoid entering it in the first place. Brown’s project is to correct this bit of modernist doctrine by borrowing from Marxism its most basic dialectical motif, and in the process to get artworks to play the role formerly assigned to the working class. Brown’s artwork accordingly rumbles with otherwise diminished proletarian energies, and this has contradictory effects, for it is unclear in this scenario whether autonomous art comes to us as the ally of working people or as their rival. Brown is nowhere closer to a conventional Marxism than in his discussion of The Wire, where he offers some cogent remarks on the disappearance of the American working class, on casualization, the vanishing of jobs hitherto thought immune to mechanization, and the persistence of the category worker, as quasi-ethnic identity, even after work has disappeared. In this context, he has earmarked one line from the second season: “Modern robotics do much of the work” (qtd 174). But this last is a historical development that Brown’s argument emulates in the process of opposing, as his book palpably assigns to objects a set of historical tasks that were once thought proper for workers. Autonomy is accordingly stalked by automation, with the position of the working class—its superseded position? its only ever putative position?—now filled by quality television and smart novels. Robots do the work of capitalism; art does the work of “suspending” capitalism and is to that extent a second robot, the robot of negation: the nay-robot.
At the same time, however, the artwork will continue to serve as the anticipatory figure for a free and self-determining humanity. If I can’t figure out how to be autonomous, I can delegate art to be autonomous in my stead. This is the not-so-secret use of those special objects to which we do not assign uses. The autonomy that we ascribe to the artwork will therefore say a lot about the independence that we wish for ourselves, and it is for this reason that the book’s explanation of Kant’s aesthetics matters, since it is from his third Critique—and not from his moral philosophy, nor from his overtly political essays—that we are expected to extract this political criterion and aim.
The problem, then, is that Brown parses Kant’s theory of aesthetic autonomy in at least three different and incompatible ways.
1) Sometimes, though not often, Brown cites Kant’s most distinctive formulation. Some objects strike me as manifestly designed—organized, patterned, not random—even though I can’t tell what they are for or, indeed, whether they are for anything at all. This Autonomy knows to call “purposiveness without purpose,” design without function (12, 179). Anyone aspiring to this condition is aiming for a kind of idleness, or at least an un-work, a kind of busy leisure. If lack of purpose is how we recognize autonomy, then we will ourselves only gain independence once we have resolved never to achieve anything—to swear off goals and undertakings and weekend to-do lists.
2) But then Brown also praises some detective fiction for its ability to produce cognitive maps—for its “making connections” across “multiple milieux and classes,” and at that point one notices that he isn’t hostile to purpose after all (70). He has violated the Kantian stricture by assigning a purpose to Raymond Chandler and endorsing that purpose as worthy. The Big Sleep doesn’t just hum with needless pattern; it provides us with a service for which we might feel grateful (and for which we might pay Random House). What stands out at this point is that Brown has proposed a formulation of his own, which he prefers to “purposiveness without purpose”—namely, “immanent purposiveness,” a refusal, that is, of imposed or extrinsic ends (13). Sometimes he refers in this regard to “the self-legislating work”: “A work’s assertion of autonomy is the claim that its form is self-legislating. Nothing more” (182). For any Kantian, of course, autonomy is precisely something more—a rejection of all ends, and not just of “external” ones (31)—though the phrase “self-legislating” has a Kantian ring of its own, and we might soon conclude that Brown is silently correcting the third Critique by smuggling in a key concept from the second, in order to re-introduce purpose into a landscape forbiddingly devoid of it. He is putting the self-legislating subjects of Kantian moral philosophy in the place of the aimless objects of Kantian aesthetics.
3) But when is an end “immanent” to a work of art? And when is it “external”? Are we confident that we know the difference between inside and out? Early in Autonomy, Brown lists among his goals a defense of the category of “intention” (10-11): We won’t even be able to regard artworks as intelligible if we treat them as non-intentional—if, that is, we stop conceiving of them as somebody’s attempt to say something. This claim is plainly incompatible with a rigorous Kantianism, since whatever intention I ascribe to the artwork will be a purpose, and Kant’s whole point is that artworks have no such purposes. But Brown’s retrieval of intention is no less damaging to the loose Kantianism he prefers. He instructs us to think of autonomy as “self-legislating,” but he also wants us to consider the intentions that activate a work of art, and the latter generates all sorts of ambiguity around the former, simply by introducing the problems of authors and artists. Where before we had one term, the artwork, now we have two, the artwork and its intender, and now we have to wonder which of them gets to be self-legislating. If we allow the artist to give herself the law, then the artwork will presumably be secondary, the vehicle and working-out of the poet’s self-chosen code, the telegram of her intention. Sometimes, however, Brown sidelines the artist and lets the movies choose their own ends: It is the job of the viewer, he writes, “to figure out what [the artwork] is trying to do” (31). And from this second perspective, one is compelled to distrust the artist’s intention as an externality—just another imposed demand: The artwork, if it is to be autonomous, should get to do what it wants, where this desire is usually understood as an inherited formal project, requiring that all new artists solve hitherto unsolved formal problems or that they re-do old aesthetic experiments in radicalized form. But in this second scenario, the autonomy of the artwork plainly comes at the expense of my autonomy. The artwork that I had hoped would secure my independence instead ends up bossing me around. It was Adorno who observed that modernism, which we typically describe to undergraduates as an emancipated anti-traditionalism, a discarding of the old conventions, an experimental drive to make art otherwise, actually amounted to a “canon of prohibitions”: an ever-expanding list of Things You Could Not Do: paint figurally, compose with triads, end your novel with a marriage.
But then do artworks really get to choose their own ends or give themselves the law? Brown sometimes writes as though they did, but mostly confesses that they don’t, preferring the following, thrice-repeated hedge:
- “The novel presents itself as simply following a logic that is already present in the material, as though the novel were not written by an author” (99).
- In the domain of art, all legitimate politics must “appear to emerge as if unbidden from the material on which these artists work” (38).
- For an artist, one important skill is “the capacity to produce the conviction that what we are seeing belongs to the logic of the material rather than to some external, contingent compulsion” (59).
This last sentence makes Brown’s point with special force: The artwork cannot, in fact, achieve autonomy; its glory is not to negate command, but merely to mask it, to produce in us a belief that the artwork was self-generating even when it wasn’t. Autonomy begins by recommending to us art as the undiminished paradigm of self-determination and free activity, and ends up enrolling it in that list of calculated things we misapprehend as spontaneous—consumer choice, electoral democracy, Spinozist consciousness—and this it does without ever admitting how dolefully it has dickered down its offer: We search art for the possibility of our freedom and walk away persuaded only that some things expertly disguise their subservience. They step forward “as though” unbidden. Autonomy … as if.
 See for instance the writings of Cracker’s Davd Lowery, collected at The Trichordist, a collective of “artists for an ethical and sustainable Internet.” thetrichordist.com, last accessed November 12, 2019.
 Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1 (1867), translated by Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 138.
 Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970), translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 36 -37.