The Political Aesthetic in the Works of Adorno and Benjamin

 Yasser Shams Khan

This paper deals with the dilemma concerning the relationship between politics and aesthetics. The following analysis will consider the concept of the political aesthetic and its expression in the works of art by interrogating the related but contrasting theoretical frameworks offered by Adorno and Benjamin: while Benjamin conceptualises the revolutionary potential of technically advanced popular forms of art, Adorno is in favour of the artistically advanced but elitist avant-garde literature. The polarities of these two perspectives, as Adorno puts it, are but “torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up” (Adorno and Benjamin, 2007: 123). It is this concept of freedom and the struggle for freedom that will raise the question of the relationship between revolutionary praxis and aesthetic contemplation, within which is embedded the question of how the ‘political’ is represented in the aesthetic domain, and conversely, whether the concept of aesthetics itself is an expression within the socio-economic and political domain.

The ‘political’ and the ‘aesthetic’ are two antithetical concepts conflated together in the expression of the ‘political aesthetic’. The ‘political’ is commonly associated with the immediate, socio-economic i.e. historical reality (1): not just what we see and observe from a phenomenological perspective, but the dynamic distribution of space and time (2) within which individuals associate into collectives engaging in praxis, commitment and transformation of existing forces of production and their concomitant relations of production. The ‘aesthetic’ is understood in the Kantian sense as a “system of a priori forms of determining what presents itself in sense experience” (Ranciere, 2006: 13). In other words, ‘aesthetics’ is the realm of forms, the spiritual realm of ideas, of a priori categories which help us in understanding (verstehen) the sense perceptions of reality as it is. Within this framework ‘politics’ and ‘aesthetics’ can be seen as antithetical concepts: where one is the realm of commitment and praxis, the other is the realm of contemplation, as well as distraction. How then do we explain what is the ‘political aesthetic’? Is it the reconciliation (versöhnung) of contradictory concepts? Or, is it the reflection of the political (understood as the social structures and relations of society) as content within the work of art? I will attempt to deal with these two questions in detail below taking the latter as my initiating point of interrogation of the works of Adorno and Benjamin.

If we consider art as a reflection of society we come across certain theoretical dilemmas. Firstly how do we explain the form of mediation between society and its aesthetic representation in the work of art? To use the socio-economic background instrumentally as an apparatus of explanation of aesthetic content is to take too reductive a view of the aesthetic object, completely removing any subjective element (subjectivity which is objectively determined(3) which forms the basis of the emancipatory potential of the speculative and autonomous domain of the aesthetic. The first thing to recognise here is the autonomous nature of aesthetics and politics as “two incommensurable realities, two independent codes or systems of signs, two heterogeneous or asymmetrical terms” (Jameson, 1974: 6).

The second thing to bring up is the purpose this autonomy of aesthetics is put to serve, which interestingly enough also functions as its premise: freedom of mankind from historical determinism and, more importantly, necessity. The purpose of the political aesthetic in the present, for Adorno, serves as a critique of what is: the contemporary state of society, or more precisely, late capitalism. But a critique of what is, implicitly or explicitly, presupposes the possibility of the expression of the new, the Other or negative of present society, the utopia against which the present is judged and criticised. But the conceptualisation of the new poses a philosophical paradox: how do we imagine the ‘new’ when we are caught within ‘identity’, which does not offer us the possibility to go beyond that identity; or how do we conceptualise the ‘new’, the other of what is, by using the concepts and theoretical tools which are themselves a product of the epistemology of the present?

As an answer to the above question Adorno proposes Negative Dialectics as a method in which the concept (a product of the contemporary epistemology) is retained, but through a process of dereification and constellative critique, the non-identity of the concept is brought into play with its identity, which is then reinserted into totality or the master narrative of capitalism. Thus within this mode of thinking, the external reference, the socio-economic background (late capitalism) is “less to interpret… than to rebuke interpretation as such and to include within the thought the reminder that it is itself inevitably the result of a system that escapes it and which it perpetuates” (Jameson, 2007: 30). However, Adorno posits the experience of the ‘new’ not as a temporal category which implicitly debunks all that is prior to it as obsolete or negated as traditional, reactionary and conventional; the “[new] is at one with aesthetic experience, it is itself in some deeper way the work’s ‘truth content'” (Jameson, 2007: 163). I will briefly return to what Adorno means by the work’s truth content, but what needs to be emphasised here in order to grasp the concept of the ‘new’ is the doctrine of nominalism inherent in Adorno’s negative dialectics and his theory of aesthetics.

Nominalism is a philosophical tendency that denies the existence of abstract universals in favour of particulars. Universal concepts exist subsequent to particular things and not as generalities which subsume particular works. Negative dialectics then is not an objective, general method in the traditional sense but an approach which considers the particularity of each object. Similarly Adorno considers the individual work of art as the ‘windowless monad’ which in itself contains the truth-content, which, paradoxically, is unavailable in the general concept of Art as such. The universal tends to subsume the particulars within it as mere manifestations of the same identity, thus when the very concept of the ‘universal’ is debunked, then every particular becomes unique and unlike any other and so can be said to be ‘new’ in this fundamental sense.

What becomes evident from the above discussion is the incommensurability between the universal and the particular. The relationship between the universal and the particular is contradictory yet indispensable and related, retaining the Hegelian dialectical framework of the identity of identity and non-identity. ‘Contradiction’ itself becomes the very framework of Adorno’s aesthetics. What we need to emphasise then is not only the contradiction between concepts (say between aesthetics and politics) but also within those concepts themselves.

‘Politics’ being the realm of the everyday, commitment and praxis is in this sense the realm of freedom, where one acts according to one’s whims; but our actions, our thoughts, and the very form of praxis is itself socially and historically determined. The antithesis between freedom and historical determinism is best expressed by Kant’s third antinomy. Praxis, the will to act, becomes circumscribed by the objective conditions of historical determinism. What we posited as contradictory to ‘politics’ is ‘aesthetics’, which itself has contradiction as its principle of construction: the contradiction between form and content, between subject and object as well as between the particular (individual work of art) and the universal (Art in general). Adorno considers ‘form’ as ‘determinate negation’ i.e. the consciousness of contradiction which enables us to think about art as aesthetic and anti-aesthetic simultaneously. Art is autonomous (aesthetic) yet it is also social (anti-aesthetic):

Art becomes something through its in-itself [autonomy], and it becomes in-itself by means of the social force of production effective in it. The dialectic of the social and of the in-itself of the artwork is the dialectic of its own constitution to the extent that it tolerates nothing interior that does not externalise itself, nothing external that is not the bearer of the inward, the truth content. (Adorno, 1997: 248)

The nature of this contradiction between art as autonomous and art as social necessarily brings us to the dichotomy in modern society between contemplation and manual labour/work which obviously introduces the class relations existing within society in the form of division of labour. The producers and consumers of art are people from a privileged class, whereas the workers are either disinterested, or if interested at all, then only in the products of the culture industry (which Adorno does not consider as genuine art but an industry) which provides gratification and recuperation between work hours.

This dichotomy between contemplation and work can also be reformulated as one between aesthetics and praxis in which the profound guilt of art can be identified. The pessimism of Adorno’s aesthetics is owing to its “commitment to a social perspective in which the inconsequentiality of the aesthetic is an inescapable fact of life” (Jameson, 2007: 132). The guilt of art (its inconsequentiality) is an expression of its ultimate failure, the ultimate dissatisfaction of the promise of happiness that it offers and it is this dissatisfaction that is the truth-content of the individual work of art. The most authentic works reveal the incommensurability of contradictory terms: the projected harmony in the symbolic realm of the aesthetic is historically unrealizable in a time when there are actual existing contradictions inherent within the capitalist mode of production. Utopia is then the projected harmony of contradictions: the freedom from the instinct of self-preservation, from the necessity of dominating nature for the purpose of survival. Adorno stresses this point in his study of the dialectic of enlightenment. Enlightenment is identified as a tendency to construct the new in terms of a projected past stigmatized as archaic, traditional and obsolete. Adorno and Horkheimer identify this tendency as the always-already in myth as well. Myth and magic were means to dominate nature for the sake of self-preservation; myth thus forms the ur-history of rationalism which is the contemporary means to dominate nature for the same purpose. Utopia then is the absence for the need of self-preservation, the need for sociality and concomitant repression of inner nature. Work in late capitalism becomes the means of self-preservation and its privilege over contemplation is the ideology of the system to reproduce itself. Adorno’s aesthetics then repudiates the work and fallen praxis of the business community of the present age and turns towards the higher form of praxis, not in the effect of the work of art but in its truth-content:

Contrary to the Kantian and Freudian interpretation of art, art-works imply in themselves a relation between interest and its renunciation. Even the contemplative attitude to artworks, wrested from objects of action, is felt as the announcement of an immediate praxis and … as a refusal to play along … Art is not only the plenipotentiary of a better praxis than that which has to date predominated, but is equally the critique of praxis as the rule of brutal self-preservation at the heart of the status quo and in its service. (Adorno, 1997: 12)

If we consider the political aesthetic in terms of the affirmation of the present and one which valorises the function of work/praxis of art in situations of immediacy and in the realm of day to day struggle, then for Adorno, this is merely a dogmatic attempt to subsume individual works of art for political motifs. The truth content of the work of art is better grasped within individual works of art exposing the contradictions within the aesthetic form as determinate negation rather than the expression of content and bluntly stated polemical politics. The autonomy of the work of art which separates it from the social but also endows it “with its capacity to be profoundly historical and social as history and society itself” (Jameson, 2007: 187) through negation also limits its political potential within the field of commitment and praxis in the hope of revolutionary transformation of the social order. Praxis is not a part of the aesthetic and that is the ultimate failure of art, which results in the guilt of art.(4)

If for Adorno the political aesthetic is not a possibility of praxis in the world but a form of higher praxis through ‘second reflection’ and negation, then for Benjamin, the aesthetic holds the political potential to form a link of class solidarity between the modernist artist and the industrial proletariat. We will now explore the other side of the coin, the political aesthetic in the technically advanced popular forms of art.

In the epilogue of his 1936 ‘Work of Art’ essay, Benjamin elaborates the way the practice of politics has been aestheticised; he ends enigmatically by stating that “Communism responds by politicising art”. I will return to the question of the relationship between technology and art which becomes the vehicle for the expression of the political aesthetic, but after circumscribing briefly the theoretical framework which Benjamin occupies.

We will take the statement about the “politicising of the aesthetic” as our point of initiation. Benjamin claims that aesthetics, despite being autonomous, needs grounding in one form of praxis or another(5). He begins the first section of the “Work of Art” essay by stating that “[in] principle a work of art has always been reproducible” (Benjamin, 1969: 218). Earlier the work of art was grounded in ritual and so it was reproduced for ritualistic purposes; but with the subsequent decline of the aura, the work of art shifts its position entirely, especially in the age of technical reproducibility:

At the very moment in which the criterion of genuineness fails to apply to the production of art, the entire social function of art rolls over. Into the place of its founding in ritual, its founding in another praxis has to step [hat zu tritt]: namely, its founding in politics.” (GS 7.1:357, quoted in Fenves, 2006: 67)

When the “criterion of genuineness fails to apply to the production of art” means that in the age of technical reproducibility authenticity and uniqueness are no longer qualities of the artwork. Benjamin’s central preoccupation, despite his varied interests has been the decline of the aura and of authentic experience. Whether it’s his work on Leskov in The Storyteller, or on Baudelaire (Some Motifs in Baudelaire, Paris-Capital of the Nineteenth Century), his ‘Work of Art’ essay or his essays on language (The Task of the Translator, On Language as Such and on the Language of Man) and history (Theses on the Philosophy of History, Theologico-Politico Fragment), Benjamin’s main concern has been the loss of experience of man in the modern urban city. When politics has been aestheticised, that is, when man has become so alienated from himself that he no longer experiences his own destruction with dread, rather, caught in the phantasmagoria of aesthetics, he willingly pursues his own end; that is when aesthetics, through its autonomy and alternate mode of praxis offered by its politicization, is proposed as a solution. Benjamin mourns the decline of the aura(6) in art but it is a necessity for the politicization of technically advanced, mechanically reproduced art which has the revolutionary potential for the arousal of critical class consciousness in the masses. Jameson (1974: 82) writes about the dialectic of nostalgia at work in Benjamin, where “nostalgia as a political motivation is most frequently associated with Fascism”, but it also expresses a deep dissatisfaction with the present “on the grounds of some remembered plenitude” and can be used as a weapon to furnish an adequate revolutionary stimulus.

We will refer to Benjamin’s writings on Baudelaire to explicate what we have said above, but before doing so it is crucial that we understand the significance of the concept of ‘allegory’ as an interpretative tool of analysis. Allegory can be considered a legacy of the medieval exegesis of the Old Testament in the light of the fulfilled prophecies in the New Testament (Jameson, 1981). Within the medieval system four levels of interpretation are identified which allow for a comprehensive approach to the text: the literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical. The allegorical provides not only a deeper meaning, but an opening of the literal historical meaning of the text to multiple meanings and symbolic references. The moral refers to the personal while the anagogical returns us full circle to a collective, historical dimension; the relationship between the moral and anagogical is mediated by the allegorical. Allegory becomes significant especially in Benjamin for whom the relationship to the past becomes a potent weapon in relation to the present. We return to the dilemma concerning the thinking of the ‘new’ in the present. For Benjamin, the present is subject to the ruin of time, and the future, or the ‘new’ is inconceivable with concepts and tools derived from the present epistemology. The past then offers potent critical tools because of its disjunction with the present. As Hannah Arendt notes in her ‘Introduction’ to Illuminations, “[W]hat guides [Benjamin’s] thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization”, from which what was once living suffers a sea-change which can be brought to the surface of the present as “thought fragments”. Allegory thus becomes a kind of experience and an apprehension of the world in decay after the fall; a recognition not of its overflowing fullness but its lack (Cowan, 1981). When something is allegorical, then it means that its true meaning is elsewhere distinct from its supposed ‘proper meaning’. The first precondition of allegory is the existence of truth, and the second is its absence. Truth in modern society, for Benjamin, exists only in absence. In fact Benjamin draws the distinction between factual knowledge (Erkenntnis) and truth (Wahirheit) stating that the former is possessable and available for presentation, whereas the latter can only be re-presented (Darstellung); thus the significance of constellation as an allegorical mode of representation of truth, truth which is present but inaccessible directly.

For Benjamin, Baudelaire was the last allegorist, the last poet in whom one could find remnants of baroque allegory. He was a lyricist in an age when the writing of lyrics was becoming all the more difficult and impossible because of the decay in experience. For him, living in contemporary Paris was nothing less than an alienating experience best expressed in his poem Le Cynge (The Swan):

Paris changes… But in sadness like mine
Nothing stirs – new buildings, old
Neighbourhoods turn to allegory,
And memories weigh more than stone. (Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal: 91)

Here allegory as intuition in the form of the poet’s nostalgic persona searches for a Paris no longer present, except in allegorical fashion in the image of the swan, or in the relics of an age long past. Allegory transforms things (new buildings, old neighbourhoods) into signs directing us towards the truth beyond itself. Paris becomes the allegory for hell from which it is necessary for mankind to be salvaged and the means for salvation lies in the messianic moment.

The idea of the political aesthetic in Benjamin’s work can best be described in terms of his concept of Messianism (Hamacher, 2005). According to Benjamin historical time is directed towards the attainment of happiness, but the pursuit of happiness is always a non-actualised possibility, a possibility missed in the past which then becomes a possibility for the future: “The further the mind goes back into the past, the more the mass of that increases which has not yet become history at all” (quoted in Hamacher, 2005). The Messianic power offers redemption of the non-actualised possibilities in the hope of realising them. The ‘new’ then refers to the missed possibilities in the past, which precisely by virtue of being missed never became a part of the past and so remain an open possibility of the present:

“To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger… In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” (Benjamin, 1969: 255)

In the above passage, Hamacher (2005: 46) notes, Benjamin combines “historical cognition and historical action because… they both point towards the same goal, namely the seizure in the present of the missed possibilities of happiness of the past”. Here we recapitulate Adorno’s assertion of the impossibility of the reconciliation of contemplation and action in the modern state because of the internal contradictions of capitalism. But in Benjamin’s notion of Messianism, the Messianic is precisely that which “consummates all history” (Benjamin, 1978: 312). The now-time (jetszeit) of the messianic fulfilment of happiness is an arresting of the moment of history, “where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions” (Benjamin, 1969: 262). What this configuration refers to is the constellation, formed in stasis, in the now-time. The uniqueness of the possibility of actualisation of every missed possibility of happiness forms a monadic image, more popularly described as the dialectical image:

“The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again… For every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” (Benjamin, 1969: 255)

The dialectical image offers this possible correspondence between the “the image of the past” and the moment of its recognisability: “between a time that offers itself to cognition and a time in which this time becomes accessible” (Hamacher, 2005: 56), or in other words, the possible reconciliation of contemplation and praxis in the Messianic monad.

What then is the relation between technology and art, which for Benjamin, holds the potential for a truly revolutionary aesthetics? I surmise from the above discussion that technology holds the potential to not only revolutionise techniques in artistic production but also in artistic perception. The mass appeal and reception of popular forms of art like films which deploy advance technology to shock the viewer holds the potential to develop in them the appreciative sensorium which would enable them to recognise in past images what earlier went unnoticed. The revolutionary techniques of zooming in, slow motion and montage offer the shock of the unfamiliar in the familiar, the estrangement from what was recognisable, similar to the shocks one experienced in the modern city as ‘a man of the crowd’ (7) or the nostalgia and sense of alienation experienced in Baudelaire’s lyrics, including the effects of surrealism on realism itself.

What then can we conclude about the ‘political aesthetic’? From the above discussion it becomes clear that there are certain assumptions which both Adorno and Benjamin take for granted despite their varying positions. Firstly their approach to the Marxian contradictions in capitalist society is based on the traditional interpretation of Marxian categories.(8) The dialectic of forces of production and relations of production gave rise to the possibility of a new social order (by the development of technology, instrumental reason and bureaucracy) based on a centrally planned economy which was not necessarily socialist. Even according to Benjamin, it is private property that binds technology due to which the proletariat revolution becomes difficult and war becomes the pretext for the exploitation of these productive forces.(9) It is, after all, the idle, distracted proletariat, that will rise in revolution. The origin of the discourse of revolutionary potential in Adorno and Benjamin also can be located within the romantic tradition (10) which “invests aesthetic experience with emanicipatory potential” (McBride, 1998: 465). Where for Benjamin, the film created mass subjectivity thus allowing for the possibility of critical judgment grounded in social subjectivity; Adorno’s autonomous artworks would provoke reactionary responses from subjectively alienated viewers. What remains unclear is that why the critical faculty of the collective subject is inherently progressive (ibid, 469).

For me, the problem of the ‘political aesthetic’ remains a conundrum as neither possibility (that of technically advanced mass art or abstrusely difficult and convoluted avant-garde art) has shown itself potent enough to follow through what both Adorno and Benjamin theorised as the culmination of the authentic aesthetic experience. Where for Adorno the consciousness of the contradictions in form was the representation of the work’s truth-content, for Benjamin, truth itself was never within the work but was present in absence, to which we could only approach through allegory in the constellation generated by dynamic allegorical meaning of the work. I think both theorists offered us the insights from which to recognise the third element which would mediate the relationship between aesthetics and politics: and that third element is interpretation. It is the political and critically conscious interpretation that could mediate, not necessarily reconcile, the two contradictory concepts. Interpretation, as Benjamin identifies philosophical writing to be, is a form of representation (Darstellung) itself, motivated by its own historical contingency and nominalistic approach, but distinguished from poststructuralist pluralism as it is determined by a periodisation of history. This interpretive allegory allows us to relate the aesthetic-political dilemma in the present age to the dichotomy between private and public and the psychological and the social. Without this interpretive allegory, praxis is reduced to work for the system and not against it, and so, maybe for a genuine praxis, one that is collectively mobilised (but not one in which the individual succumbs to the collective losing his qualitative, authentic sense of being and experience) we need to go through the experience of the aesthetic, to come out of it through the other side, equipped with a critical consciousness and gestalt view of totality within which our collective praxis would be circumscribed.


(1)  According to Aristotle, “Man is by nature a political animal” where politics, related to the polis, refers to all aspects of a citizen’s life, and not just the institutions of government, and other related ideological programmes.

(2) Look at the idea of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ in Jacques Rancière (2006).

(3) “Only the subject is an adequate instrument of expression however much, though it imagines itself unmediated, it is itself mediated. However much the expressed resembles the subject, however much the impulses are those of the subject, they are at the same time apersonal, participating in the integrative power of the ego without ever becoming identical with it” (Adorno, 1997: 113). Also see Jameson, “This is a defense of the objectivity of the subjective which clearly holds fully as much for artistic production as for its reception… the ideological vested interests of a group [the personal] also… expressed the objective tendencies of the social system itself.” (Jameson, 2007: 126)

(4) Adorno’s position is strictly in opposition to the Brechtian as well as the Marcusean sense of the political potential of the aesthetic where it is “commodification, and the consumption desires awakened by late capitalism, that are themselves paradoxically identified as the motive power for some deeper dissatisfaction capable of undermining the system itself.” (Jameson, 2007: 142)

(5) This position has been taken by Peter Fenves (2006).

(6) Particularly in ‘The Storyteller’ (in Benjamin, 1969).

(7) See, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ (Benjamin, 1969: 155-200)

(8) For a very insightful critique of Critical Theory, see Postone (2003).

(9) “If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for the unnatural utilization, and this is found in war.” (Benjamin, 1969: 242)

(10) See, McBride (1998), who locates, both, Adorno’s view of autonomous art and Benjamin’s views on mass art, within the romantic tradition and its reflection on the role of subjectivity in politics and art.


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Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. Trans. Dennis Redmond. 2001.

Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Ed. J. M. Bernstein. Trans. J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 2001.

Adorno, Theodor. Lectures on Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a Lecture Course. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008.

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Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Cultural Memory in the Present. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Baudelaire, Charles. Les Fleurs du Mal. Trans. Richard Howard. Boston: David R. Godine Publishers, 1983.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

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Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Verso, 1999.

Cowan, Bainard. “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory.” New German Critique 22 (1981): 109-122.

Fenves, Peter. “Is there an Answer to the Aestheticising of Politics?.” Walter Benjamin and Art. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. Continuum, 2006. 60-72.

Hamacher, Werner. “‘Now’: Walter Benjamin on Historical Time.” Walter Benjamin and History. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. New York: Continuum, 2005. 38-68.

Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 1981.

Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno or The Persistence of the Dialectic. London: Verso, 2007.

McBride, Douglas Brent. “Romantic Phantasms: Benjamin and Adorno on the Subject of Critique.” Monatshefte 90.4 (1998): 465-487.

Postone, Moishe. Time, labour and Social Domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Ranciere, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum, 2006.

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