History knocks on my door and Karl Marx walks through (quarantine diaries 04) 穿過斗室之門:辯證歷史洪流灌滿禁閉的房子 (隔離手記 04)

History knocks on my door and Karl Marx walks through (quarantine diaries 04) 穿過斗室之門:辯證歷史洪流灌滿禁閉的房子 (隔離手記 04)

Linda Chiu-han Lai 黎肖嫻

Linda Chiu-han Lai 黎肖嫻

發表於: 05 Nov 2021

A box confines and segregates, but it also eliminates noise and allows beams of light to focus for multiplicity. Linda Lai’s quarantine diaries #4. 隔離不一定是隔絕。黎肖嫻的隔離箱子裡瀰漫著歷史的傷痕,或是眾說紛紜,箱子聚的光可化成多焦點的行動設定。「隔離手記」四。

**feature image: from Linda Lai’s image diaries

**updated noon, 6 November 2021


A room is for passing through. A box is to be filled. The 21-day quarantine room, though door locked, is a busy receiver and transmitter. A long chain of association. An exquisite corpse.

Several times, Karl Marx walked through my online classrooms. Yes, it is Karl Marx, and I trust you won’t equate me with a communist. Marxist thinking, unless turned into dogmas, is, to many of us in the humanities, a cornerstone from which we build the dialectical materialist principles to engage critically in and with society and culture.

1. The young Marx writing…

That Tuesday afternoon, we reviewed writings by Marx when he was still the young Hegelian, 23-year old, freshly graduated with his PhD in 1841. “Philosophy as Criticism and Practice” was written as notes to his dissertation Philosophy after its Completion. Explicit in his critique of how philosophy had been practiced, he cautioned against philosophy being over “enthusiastic in its drive to realize itself”:

…the world’s becoming philosophical is at the same time philosophy’s becoming worldly, that its realization is at the same time its loss, that what it combats outside is its own inner defect…” – (Marx 1972, 15-16)

Philosophy must reflect upon and grow out of concrete living. No confusion in his call. Marx was no pure thinker. Immediately after (1842-1844), as the editor of a newspaper, then founder of a short-lived journal in Paris in 1844, he found himself in conflict with many on-going ideological systems — government censorship policies, Prussian absolutism, “the limited goals of German liberalism” as well as liberal individualism, which he focused on writing since 1844. (Marx 1972, 14)

In the second of his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, through the concept of “alienation” and human beings turned “commodities,” he articulated his concern for “man wholly lost to himself,” (1972, 81) deteriorating “from human being to commodity” (title of the short piece, 81).

Marxism may have been appropriated by different schools of thoughts for their agenda — such as the Frankfurt School’s emphasis on “superstructure,” sociology’s turning marxism into a scientific method to analyze and explain the complex dynamics of society, literary theories’s use of Marx in the practice of criticism to overcome the narrow focus on form and style, the USSR’s focus on collectivization, and some socialist countries’ overt preference on class struggle as an end in itself. It is easy to forget that the rich vocabulary that Marx developed in his 40 years of writing originated from a concern for the human subject’s self-realization through genuine (unalienated) labour that leads to the fulfilment of what he called man’s “species life”:

… Just as alienated labour transforms free and self-directed activity into a means, so it transforms the species life of man into a means of physical existence.
– Karl Marx 1844 (quoted in Fromm)

In discussing the concept and method of political economy in relation to alienation, Marx had a special view on ideal production:

“The true destiny of man is one of ‘self realization’. This takes the form of a continual ‘dialogue’ or reciprocal relationship between himself, his fellow beings, and the objects of surrounding nature. In order to be alive man has to be productive; if he is receptive or passive he becomes a nonentity. Being productive means something special in Marx’s terminology; it means developing a certain relationship between the subject and the object, between man’s own faculties and the things of nature. This continual process sets in motion man’s creative struggle to reach his true potential as a ‘species-being’. In the act of production in Marx’s special sense man personalizes and humanizes the things of nature.” (p. 16, E.G. West)

John Molyneux, in his Dialectics of Art, suggests that “unalienated labor is what makes art, art” [a critic’s review of the book ]. Suspicion comes from, for example, Ciaran Freeman (artist/cultural writer), who suggests a fair argument must include also the first-hand experience of those who are artists. I recall a note of encouragement a friend wrote in response to my earlier journal entries, “It seems that many art people are in fact quite ‘productive’ during the quarantine situation as it is a kind of alternative meditation.”

Art as unalienated labor… This should be a topic for a series of collective responses. It requires the multiplicity of voice to approach a sensible discussion. My “yes” and “no” to this beautiful thought: it would not be a problem for an artist to be unalienated to herself and to her fellow artist, but considering an artist is also a social being, part of social structuration and a form of cultural construction, alienation remains.

By serendipity, my mind lingers a long time on this visual model — even though I do not believe in a fixed model. The emphasis is on education as the starting part to undo alienation.

A Visual Model of Circulating Unalienated Labor  (available via license: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International). Lyles et al — to place culturally responsive education in the context of generative justice frameworks. What mechanisms can create generative contexts “where value can possibly be returned to the community where the people generating that value live and work”? How could generative justice be created “in-school, after-school, and not-school”? (abstract)

An obvious flaw is the reliance on generative sustenance through “internal circulation” which assumes that a community and its members all mean good and support healthy values for individuality. While appreciating the good intention of the research team and contemplating on the rich concreteness the model is capable of generating, I like to see more of what’s beyond it as a closed system. Internal circulation of the charted action points must at least be given a dialectical perspective to see how synthesis could generate new theses and antitheses and roll over time with impact that could only be appreciated with a historical vision.

Marx’s expectation for philosophy to be grounded in social experiences (1841) was fully developed in his later writings in his reasoning for the method of “political economy,” which highlights interconnectedness of the various aspects of social life, and by which concrete things in the social process of production are also abstractions (concepts), and the journeys to move between the two ends is dialectical materialism.

One group of students made their first entry into what it means by “political economy.” Not only is different concrete activities of production (consumption, distribution, valuation, labor…) part of each other, but also every factual category, such as money, ownership and population, is at once a concrete thing (a practice, an object) and a concept, or a kind of abstraction. Money is concrete because it is the paper bills and coins we practically use, each with an assigned value, or the representation of value by consensus. Subsequently we can talk about the monetary system, inflation, deflation and how much we earn. But money as a concept would point us to the many forms of value in the context of daily transaction before and after the invention of the symbolic phase of money (Marx 1859): what about a tael of silver valued for a tael of silver, or the exact value of a type of metal at a point in time that equated the exchange value; or how has the concept of money evolved with the birth of bitcoin and NFT (non-fungible tokens) for art? Before the birth of credit card as a concrete thing (Diners Club 1950), in what forms did the “credit card” as an abstraction manifest itself — historical instances of pre-paid, stored-up value, or the practices of spending in advance before clearing the payment? Along this line of thought, “political economy” is not just a horizontal paradigm of synchronicity; it also has a temporal diachronic dimension, which is historical and dialectical.

It would be interesting to return to the unalienated individual from a political economy point of view. Education exists in our lifeworld as concrete arrangements, as concrete objectives and qualification for life-long planning and learning regulated by ethical principles and forms of government. What about education as an abstraction? What are the verbs, nouns and adjectives that are associated with education? Teaching? Learning? Human resources management? Manpower planning? Tempering of the selves? And why are such distinctions worth contemplating? What is education part of? What is embedded in the concept of education? What are the direct and unspoken linkages between labor, education and finance? … …


2. The Marxists were not welcome: from authoritarian dictatorship to Picasso’s Guernica 

Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 1937. Oil on canvas. 349 cm × 776 cm, exhibited at Reina Sofia (art museum) in Madrid

A group called the Marxists popped up in my learning of the social political circumstances leading to the Spanish Civil War (17 Jul 1936 – 1 Apr 1939). The marxists were hated by the Nationalists (monarchists and traditionalist) led by the military sector as they asked for freedom, equality and democracy. But the Republicans wanted the marxists on their side to augment the chance of defeating the Nationalists. Braided objectives, convictions and ambitions saw the rise of Francisco Franco who finally took over the country for 40 years in dictatorship. The hidden backdrop of a famous painting gradually gains lucidity — that of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which refers to the bombing of Guernica (Basque country) on 26 April 1937, by Nazi Germany (and Fascist Italy), at the behest of Franco.

Picasso’s Guernica was one instance of many of a generation in which artists of all types had to involved in political propaganda one way or another. Though praised for his being able to understand the Guernica bombings as a political phenomenon, Picasso’s “anti-war” proclivity was after all commissioned by the Republicans.  Guernica took inspiration from the bombing of Guernica, and was featured at the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris, alongside other important Republican masterpieces such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari.

Whereas the bombing was a sheer act of terrorization as the place found only ordinary citizens, all targeted to be killed aerially, the exact number of casualty has remained a number game. The fact that the bridge entering the town was kept intact highlights the ill intention. Guernica (11 ft by 25.6 ft) grabbed much attention and cast the horrors of the mounting Spanish civil unrest into a global spotlight. (Wikipedia)

In a documentary on the Spanish Civil War, Franco was quoted commenting on Hitler: Hitler wanted to rule the world for 1000 years; Franco thought he was too short-visioned.


Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H25224, Guernica, RuinenRuins of Guernica, Basque Country, Spain: aerial bombing, 1937. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25224 / Unknown authorUnknown author / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons


Thinking about Franco and Hitler’s co-dictatorship, a long but not so long chain of association took me to Walter Benjamin’s assumed “suicide” in Portbou, Spain, while he was on his run from France to escape the Nazis: “On September 16, 1940, Walter Benjamin, who was about to emigrate to America, took his life at the Franco-Spanish border.” (Hannah Arandt, Benjamin 1969, 17)

Hannah Arandt, in her introduction to Illuminations (English anthology to Benjamin, 1969) wrote of the intersection of the events described here. She wrote:

“The name and work of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a German-Jewish writer who was known, but not famous, as contributor to magazines and literary sections of newspapers for less than ten years prior to Hitler’s seizure of power and his own emigration. There were few who still knew his name when he chose death in those early fall days of 1940 which for many of his origin and generation marked the darkest moment of the war-the fall of France, the threat to England, the still intact Hitler-Stalin pact whose most feared consequence at that moment was the close co-operation of the two most powerful secret police forces in Europe.”

And it took 15 years after his death for the first two volumes of his writings to be published in German. While Arandt deeply felt the futility of posthumous fame, for me, a certain thought swells in my mind — all there is for people to know about us (artists) is a bulk of interpretation, and that applies generally to our existence.

What a full circle it is for me to end with Benjamin! Such a full circle was not planned, but pure serendipity, as I navigated through my teaching and the basic events (activities) in my quarantine. But there are always more connections to make of the disparate entities of our existence — if you look, look around, and pay attention.


3. Historical materialism and Benjamin’s “little history of photography”

That Thursday afternoon, a group of students presented Walter Benjamin’s 1931 essay. Benjamin’s “little history” is his attempt to trace the many factors at work that had led to the status of photography in the 1930s. The piece was meant to clarify “the fogs that surrounds the beginnings of photography” by re-aligning human endeavours and tool inventions for a revisionist narrative. Although Arandt cast explicit doubt for how Marxian Benjamin was, and on Benjamin and the Frankfurt School in general for over-emphasizing the concept of “superstructure,” I find “A little history of photography” exemplifying the use of historical materialism for a revisionist account of photography.

One merit of Benjamin’s account is his archaeological tendency, both from contemporary media archaeology’s point of view as well as in the Foucauldian sense of the term. The opening paragraph of the essay, in my view, best manifests such a perspective. A general argument cutting through the many objects and events he assembles is this: the invention of one type of tools led to another, however, not all points of technological innovation were taken up to have their potentials exhausted. The evolvement of machines could be driven by impulses/desires of a milieu; for certain scientific discoveries to have a next phase of advancement and be developed into everyday technology, that requires the complex inter-play of social-cultural, political and economic factors. … At every historical juncture lied many potential innovations that could have been. For a long time after photography’s inception, the focus was on the automation process to capture and preserve an image. The need for reproduction technology for photography, for example, was not a highlighted objective until the late 19th century when the need for mass production was also augmented by the popularization of photo IDs for disciplinary purposes. (Note, too, that one of the earliest social groups to be photographed in Shanghai was prisoners.)

I find the opening paragraph of Benjamin’s essay in question the embodiment of a critical view one may easily dismiss. In a few lines, he presented a “little” history of photography that involves (1) a machine that was invented for another artistic practice, painting (camera obscura), (2) curious individuals who thought an existing, old, method could be taken up to improve the showing of images (Niepce and Daguerre), (3) the social fact of a regulatory system of patency already in place, meant for controlling inventors and yet out of the same purpose of control facilitating an invention to be published; (4) increasing written accounts calling attention to facts and purposes of photography and makers who had been left unknown (e.g. Hill and Cameron, Hugo and Nadar); (5) the industrialization of many aspects of urban life, including photography (from an object in the daily terrain to the manufacture of the visit-card picture; (6) profit return (the first manufacturer of the visit-card picture became a millionaire); (7) what I would call a lay-person media archaeological instinct (the harking back onto the pre-industrial photographs); and (8) theoretical mastery.

Benjamin’s first paragraph is, to me, a great illustration of the historical materialism that forms his philosophical and historiographic framework. Photography is far from being a purely artistic object. Historical materialism is also the conceptual framework for Marx’s “political economy” as a method, by which, on the one hand, social facts and categories are always part of each other — e.g. production, labor, distribution and consumption cannot be viewed independent of each other — and, on the other, at once concrete things and abstraction with the capacity for expansion, conceptually and practically.

With the above said, and I appeal to Foucauldian archaeology, “camera obscura” is only one way to mark a possible beginning, one that would selectively gather its narrative. In Benjamin’s discussion, when photography takes itself out of context, severing the connections illustrated by Sander, Blossfeldt, or Germaine Krull, when it freed itself from physiognomic, political, and scientific interest, it became creative. The lens now looked for interesting juxtapositions; photography turns into a sort of arty journalism. “The spirit that overcomes mechanics translates exact findings into parables of life .” (p. 526)




Benjamin, Walter. “Little History of Photography,” (1931) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writing, volume 2, part 2, 1931-1934; trans. Rodney Livingston and Others, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass., USA) and London, 1999, p.  507-530.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections Paperback; edited by Hannah Arandt; trans. Harry Zohn (English), Schocken Books, 1969.

Fromm, Erich. Marx’s Concept of Man, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1961.

Lyles, Dan; Lachney, Michael L.; Foster, Ellen; and Zatz, Zoe H. “Generative Contexts: Generating value between community and educational settings”; December 2016. DOI:10.5209/rev_TEKN.2016.v13.n2.52845 / Project: Generative Justice Conceptual Framework

Karl Marx: Essential Writings; ed. Frederic L. Bender, Westview Press, Boulder and London, 1972.

Marx, Karl. “Appendix I: Production, Consumption, Distribution, Exchange,” A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), originally published by Progress Publishers, Moscow; trans. S.W. Ryazanskaya; on-Line Version: Marx.org 1993 (Preface, 1993), Marxists.org 1999. Pp. 11-

West, E.G. “The Political Economy of Alienation: Karl Marx and Adam Smith,”  Oxford Economic Papers New Series, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Mar., 1969), Oxford University Press, pp. 1-23.

daily bread as offering to our material world…


To read the full journal series: Linda Lai’s quarantine journal []

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