“I DON’T WANT to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing,” Nicolas Cage says at the beginning of Adaptation. (2002). Cage, playing a fictionalized version of the film’s screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, has been hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. Between self-deprecating voice-overs, he tells a representative from Columbia Pictures he doesn’t want to “cram in sex, or guns, or car chases, or characters learning profound life lessons.” After all, the book isn’t like that, and neither is life. Yet, anyone familiar with Adaptation. knows this is what happens. After an hour and 15 minutes documenting Charlie’s struggle to faithfully adapt The Orchid Thief, the script makes a jarring turn when Charlie asks his twin brother Donald to help him. With the arrival of Donald, who has recently finished writing a thriller called The 3 that conjoins every cliché plot device imaginable, the script instantly abandons its commitments to realism and becomes the sort of theatrical jumble of plot devices Charlie insisted he didn’t want: spying, sex, drugs, guns, a car chase, and — as if to illustrate Donald’s pandering vision — an alligator attack.
There are two ways of reading Adaptation. The first is that the real Charlie Kaufman, struggling to adapt what the fictional Charlie describes as “that sprawling New Yorker shit,” gets to have it both ways. By writing himself into his script and inventing a fictional twin brother who represents the market’s demand for “the Hollywood thing,” he can announce his aversion to cliché and wash his hands clean when “Donald,” credited as co-author, gives the audience what it wants. But ironically distancing yourself from a problem isn’t exactly solving it, so in this account Adaptation. falls short of the authentic story Kaufman wants it to be; it’s just a smarter version of the “Hollywood thing.” The second version is that Adaptation. is a work of art that succeeds by brilliantly making the problem of the market its own solution: Donald’s contribution is more form than content, because only with his presence can the film stage its central conflict in a way that frames its embrace of the genre. Here, Adaptation. audaciously asserts its autonomy from a market it knows it must nevertheless court to exist.
The difference between these two versions is slight, and what began as a problem for Kaufman has become a problem for us, the viewer. In a society that appears as “an immense collection of commodities,” to borrow from Marx, what distinguishes a work of art from being merely a part of this collection, especially those works like novels, films, and records that circulate in mass production but make aesthetic claims? Or do we reject this distinction and accept the insight offered by what we now broadly call “postmodernism,” which among other things laid bare art’s status as a commodity no different from the pandering kitsch from which it distanced itself?
For Nicholas Brown, these two interpretations are not necessarily at odds: “We are wise enough to know that the work of art is a commodity like any other,” he wryly notes at the outset of his new book, “[w]hat is less clear is whether we know what we mean when we say it.” Like Kaufman, Brown is interested in how, given the limits of a totalizing market that demands “the Hollywood thing,” the work of art is still possible today.
In Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism, Brown (who teaches in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I am a doctoral candidate in the Program for Writers) revitalizes a modernist commitment to form and offers a compelling vision of the work of art in the age of its commodification. The conceptual heart of the project rests in an astute distinction between the commodity and the work of art that dissects how each object establishes a relationship between its maker and its consumer.
For the maker of the commodity, Brown explains, what matters is the object’s exchange-value: there is no point in making a commodity that isn’t intended to be sold, for that is functionally what it means for an object to be a commodity. The object’s use is of secondary importance — should the consumer use the object for something other than its intended use, it doesn’t matter to the maker because money has already exchanged hands and the commodity has therefore fulfilled its function. Indeed, the more uses an object could potentially have, the more marketable it might be. To put it another way, it would seem strange, even bewildering, if the maker of a shoe insisted the shoes only be worn in the way he or she intended them, or found issue with the shoe being used as a hammer or a flyswatter.
Yet there is undoubtedly one class of objects for which this sort of intentionality does matter, or once mattered and, as Brown argues, should matter again: works of art. A claim as relatively basic to interpretation as “to ask what a work of art means is to ask what its creator meant” is now met with cynicism, and for many a privileging of authorial intent reeks of elitism.
While only briefly mentioned in Autonomy, a figure like Roland Barthes functions as a good representative of the intellectual tradition that Brown’s argument takes as its interlocutor. Barthes, after all, declared the author dead in 1967, and a few years later inaugurated the “writerly text” that logically resulted: without authorial intent, there is nothing to stop a work from being a playful set of meanings actively produced by the reader. Advocates of this method often argue that “opening” the work of art is democratic, an appealing claim for anyone concerned by the unequal distribution of educational resources. Why talk about the formal concerns of dead modernists when one can discuss the many ways in which art is a meaningful part of experience now?
But in a passage worth quoting in full, Brown argues that, under our present conditions, a scenario in which art is no different from anything else is not as radical as it seems:
There is a deeply egalitarian promise in such a scenario, precisely because the formal concerns addressed by artworks are in general the province of a few. In the absence of a strong public education system, they are necessarily the province of a few. But a world where the work of art is a commodity like any other is the world the ideologists of contemporary capitalism claim we already live in and have always lived in, a world where everything is (and if it is not, should be) a market. The old vanguardist horizon of equivalence between art and life — which made sense as a progressive impulse only when “life” was understood as something other than the status quo — reverses meaning and becomes deeply conformist. Against this market conformism, the assertion of aesthetic autonomy — even as its very plausibility now seems in doubt — assumes a new vitality.
Capitalism has already offered us a class of objects we are free to “play with,” as it were, and which are produced to offer us meanings that are intensely personal: commodities. To treat the work of art the same way is to functionally reassert the logic of the market and its claim “the customer is always right.” For the customer to be “wrong,” a commodity would need to be instead an object “whose use (or purpose or meaning) is normatively inscribed in the object itself — a meaning that is universal […] and not therefore a private matter,” which is another way of describing an autonomous work of art.
For Barthes, and anyone embracing the assertion that works have multiple meanings that emerge from the experiences produced by interacting with them, such normative claims don’t make sense. Experience — or, for that matter, feeling — is not something about which we can reasonably disagree. A seminar of students reading Joyce’s Ulysses is bound to contain all sorts of experiences, from boredom and annoyance to conviction and excitement, but it would seem strange to say any of these experiences of the novel is “wrong.” How could we even establish a metric to determine this? We can’t. Maybe you enjoy the book, or maybe you think it’s stupid and overhyped; regardless, no one can argue you had the incorrect reaction.
These feelings don’t provide an analysis, however, and Brown draws from the German idealist tradition to make a distinction between a reaction to a work and an interpretation of it. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant distinguished between judgments he called agreeable and those he called aesthetic. Judgments of the agreeable are effectively matters of preference: we may find it curious someone dislikes the food we enjoy, but it isn’t possible to “prove” to them why their experience of that food is wrong; it’s just not their thing. Aesthetic judgments, on the other hand, are universal because they suggest something that is available to the perception of others: “Look,” you might say in that Joyce seminar, and point to something within the text of Ulysses as proof. Unlike with merely agreeable experiences, others can disagree about aesthetic claims. They, too, can point to the text. With this disagreement, one is implicitly positing an intention in the work that can be revealed with the sort of close attention we otherwise call “interpretation.”
In short, if works are merely commodities treated as a vehicle for experience, it makes no sense to interpret them. This is the problem Charlie has with “the Hollywood thing” in Adaptation.: like his brother Donald’s cliché serial killer script, it is pure spectacle lacking any internal coherence that would produce an interpretable meaning. Instead, all decisions about it are legislated outside of itself in the market, and their only aim is to produce an experience for the viewer that is pleasing enough to sell tickets.
What’s at stake here extends beyond a formal account of art’s possibility (although this should matter to anyone who cares about art). For Brown, it matters because it is also political. Works can never get outside of the market — this is an escapist fantasy — but what they can do is resist a market logic that demands the work be anything for anyone and everyone. They do this by asserting their autonomy, which “involves an internal suspension of the commodity form […] and a rejection of the market as the horizon of history.” Rather than “open themselves” to the marketplace of experience, they stubbornly demand the recognition of their meaning. Far from being indifferent to society, the autonomous work, in Brown’s account, knows very well that it belongs to a (market) society — and has found a way to frame its meaning in a way that is implicitly critical.
This frame is necessary, because merely making art with a political message — what Theodor Adorno might call committed art — risks having its message “turned into a consumable sign of opposition.” It is hardly uncommon for a work to make explicit claims in a way that caters to its audience (the film Green Book is a recent example) and thus encourages a kind of ethical consumption: viewers feel compelled to promote movies with good politics or boycott television with inadequate representation. But the problem with these well-intentioned gestures is that they function only at the level of content, generally disregarding formal experimentation in favor of packaged plots and recycled narrative tropes.
In Autonomy, Brown instead looks to works that announce their resistance at the level of form. Following a dense, critical introduction, his book analyzes works of popular media (film, television, music, the novel) that successfully navigate their relationship to the market through medium-specific solutions. These formal solutions fall primarily into two categories: positive historicism and genre convention.
The positive historicist approach, as Brown defines it, involves first “the selection of a particular formal or thematic problem as central” and second, the “rewriting of the history of the medium or genre or even sociocultural aesthetic field as the history of that problem.” The history of painting, for example, can and has been understood as a problem of the flatness of the canvas: how does one construct a pictorial plane with depth on a flat surface? The historical development of painting can thus be seen as attempting to work through this problem, a progression that culminates with the abstract movements of the 20th century, which made the problem explicit. But there are any number of “problems” that an artist can choose as central to a given medium, and this opens a limited but important conceptual space for innovation.
Brown’s most compelling example of this is The White Stripes, whose immensely popular sound on his account is much more than the analog nostalgia rock that exploded in the early 2000s and found a hungry market of those yearning for something that felt like pre-digital history. De Stijl, their 2000 album named after the Dutch art movement, makes central a problem specific to its genre: What are the minimum requirements for a compelling rock song? What is the “essential” form of rock, in other words, beneath its many variations that find an audience? The answer, as Brown puts it, is “three chords and an idea.” The album’s reliance on pastiche is a way of working this out in different styles, and by putting them together we can understand the music as attempting to produce an interpretable meaning. Jack White knows he needs the market to be heard; what he manages to do in the process of satisfying market demands is construct a musical project that has nothing to do with those demands.
Genre convention, on the other hand, does not need a problem like the flatness of the canvas because the constraints of genre already function as one. There are certain requirements for, say, a science fiction novel or film to be considered part of the genre. These requirements can be fashioned in a way that produces a problem: if this collection of tropes is necessary for the science fiction genre, how can I use them to “subvert” the genre or simply “do” science fiction in a new, innovative way? Creating a work that answers this question, while no doubt satisfying market demands, produces an interpretable meaning internal to the work. In an unexpected inversion, what has traditionally functioned as the definition of lowbrow, formulaic kitsch has become a site of potentiality.
The most notable example of this, for Brown, is The Wire, a show which has been frequently lauded as one of the finest shows in television history, though not for the reasons Brown finds it so compelling. The Wire, as a police procedural, is bound by a certain set of expectations inherited from the tradition of the genre that it must satisfy to get a time slot on television. But how it does this is where it becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. Its 4:3 aspect ratio — that of old cathode-ray television sets — can be understood as an intentional refusal of the contemporary 16:9 ratio, which makes the fact that The Wire “looks like television” more than mere contingency. More importantly, the show mobilizes certain tropes within the genre, like the figures of the obsessive cop and the tragic hero. But it situates them in relation to failing social institutions and thus gives them a logic that is internal to the show rather than externally imposed in a way that would come across as political pandering. The Wire, like The White Stripes, asserts its autonomy by both giving the audience what it wants — in this case, the trademarks of the police procedural — while producing a meaning that can’t be reduced to this.
“We have to realize that we all write in a genre,” Donald Kaufman tells Charlie in Adaptation., “and we must find our originality within that genre.” While not quite Brown’s argument, the overlap is compelling, all the more because it comes from Donald, the film’s representative of the market, rather than Charlie, whose commitment to formal innovation is stereotypically modernist. Of course, both are creations of the real Charlie Kaufman, who has staged the film’s problem (how to make a film that isn’t just Hollywood formula) in the process of solving it. Or has he? What Brown’s Autonomy offers is a way of thinking about this question — and about interpreting works of pop culture generally — with stakes that are at once aesthetic and political. Either Adaptation. begrudgingly accepts its status as a commodity, or it resists it and in the process of asserting its autonomy offers a glimpse of a world freed from the tyranny of the market. The former makes the film enjoyable; the latter makes the film political.
To be clear: Such resistance will not change the world, and by itself will certainly not battle the exploitation of capitalism in any material way. What autonomy does in suspending the commodity form is make a claim that is public, available for everyone to engage with and potentially disagree with — hardly revolutionary, but a politics without claims, and without a notion of the public, isn’t a politics. It’s a conflict-free market. Or, as Brown puts it: “The power of an argument is of an entirely different order from the power of a union. But you can’t have a union without an argument.”
Adam Theron-Lee Rensch is a writer and musician based in Chicago. His first book, No Home For You Here(Reaktion Books, 2020), is a political memoir that explores the intersection of class and culture.