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Ernst Bloch

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 Ernst Bloch (1885-1977)

Biography

Born in Germany of a Jewish Railway worker, Block studied philosophy and later became friends with notable Marxists, writers and playwrights Georg Lukacs, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and  Theodor W. Adorno . Bloch's work focuses on the concept of hope in the role of human affairs. A Marxist philosopher, he taught at the University of Leipzig (1918–33), and adopting Marxist thought during the 1920s. He fled the Nazis after 1933, moving first to Switzerland and then to the United States. His magnum opus, The Principle of Hope, which was published in German (3 vol., 1952–59; tr. 1960), emphasized the role of hope as a human drive. He returned to Leipzig in 1948, where he remained until conflict with Communist Party officials compelled him to defect to West Germany (1961). There, he taught at the University of Tubingen.

Work

His work is a both a documentation of, but also a contribution to the optimistic drive forward into new philosophical territories. From his early Nietzschean and expressionist work 'Geist der Utopie' (spirit of utopia), via his studies of the relationship between Religion and History ('Atheismus im Christentum') through to his analysis of human dignity and natural law ('Naturrecht und menschliche Würde' - written after his experience of living under Stalinist rule in Leipzig), he was constanty concerned with demonstrating that human beings not only exist but do so in a continual state of becoming. His influence on critical thought has been great though rarely acknowledged - perhaps because of the impenetrability of his prose but also because of the breadth, extent and complexity of his writing. . 

He placed the issue of culture firmly at the centre of the revisionist Marxist critique. For Bloch the notion of becoming is central. He sees humanity as essentially unfinished, and its project is the reclamation and possession of itself by transcending the alienation and false consciousness engendered by capitalism. He, above all of the critical theorists, promotes utopianism - not as a realisable finished state, but as a process of self realisation. Most significant, is his profound commitment to the notion of hope in this process. His concept of hope begins with imagination - the ability to visualise that which is not-yet, that which is better than what we have experienced. But imagining is not the same as fantasising - which is disconnected from our lived reality. Instead it suggests and eventually reveals a path to action for the realisation of the imagined. Bloch understood that this process took place in the social and cultural world - at the interface between the individual and the social collective. He understood that the realisation of this utopia-process must necessarily be a collective enterprise. 

In this, he firmly rejected the orthodox Marxist dogma of the primacy of the economic base over the cultural superstructure, asserting forcefully that collective cultural production remained, in Marxist orthodoxy, a degraded potential, but that it held out the possibility for true social and economic transformation. He assedrts that in  the (small) choices made by individuals lies the capacity for significant social transformation. In this sense he echoes the later writings of Existentialists such as Sartre and Laing.It is in these choices and in the role and importance of the imagination that Bloch has a special  respect for art. Art, for him, is a cultural practice that at one and the same time gives shape to the creative imagination throuugh a process of social dialogue. The artist, for Bloch, reveals in his or her work, both the reality and the potential of our humanity.

Bloch begins with Marx's notion that the architect is distinguished from the bee by building the structure first in the imagination. The imagination and the correct process of building are intertwined. The process which facilitates authenticity is that of sifting the facts and utilizing them in accord with their latent tendency of utopian content. The arts are for Bloch a kind of functionally prophetic envisioning. They involve us in a process of cognition in which the subject-object divide is transcended within the receptive subject. Music, for Bloch, is one of the art forms in which this capacity is most vividly present. He was particularly interested in the works of the Expressionists - like Schoenberg, whose project was specificaly to give expression to the dialectic of the not-yet-imagined. Unlike orthodox Marxists, he also saw that religion had an impotyant part to play int the imaginative creation and realisation of hope. In this he distinguished sharply between those organised and institutionalised religions which he saw as serving specific class interests, and the religious or spiritual impulse, which has existen as an essentially human characteristic from the beginning of time. Here, he foreshadows the later emergence of cultural studies, liberation theology and postmodern indigeneity not to say New Age spirituality. However, this is not to suggest that Blochʻs philosophy is unworldly. Rather it seeks to reconcile those elements that have been rejected or abandoned by Marxism and to reinstate them into a coherent vision of hope.

For a terrific analysis of Bloch's importance by Douglas Kellner click here

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