“The ruin, still with us after six centuries of obsession, is no longer the image of a lost knowledge, nor of the inevitable return of repressed nature, nor even of a simple nostalgia for modernity. Instead, it seems almost a means of mourning the loss of the aesthetic itself. Ruins show us again—just like the kitsch object—a world in which beauty (or sublimity) is sealed off, its derangement safely framed and endlessly repeatable.”
“Unfamiliarity is much more of an experience than familiarity.”
“Blue and Brown Books”
“Don Quixote is always at my side… Don Quixote is the best book of political theory, followed by Hamlet and Macbeth… Better than any political columnist”
“The agony of the rat or the slaughter of a calf remains present in thought not through pity but as the zone of exchange between man and animal in which something of one passes into the other.”
Deleuze & Guattari
One thing I was quite struck with recently, and it is addressed in Robert Hullot-Kentor’s excellent introduction to Adorno’s later minor writings, many in English, on music and popular culture, and that is that the idea of public pedagogy and of self improvement through cultural learning, has all but disappeared. In the 1930s, the era of radio, Eugene Debs had a radio station, “The Voice of Labor”, and there were a variety of educational programs on radio, many in the humanities and arts. Now I can remember as a small boy, when television was still not common, that these pedagogical projects were being carried over from radio. There were shows on science and shows on books, on reading, and behind all of this was the same assumption about societal improvement through learning and literacy.
It is common knowledge, or should be, that radio is all but monopolized today by a small handfull of giant corporations, Clear Channel being the leader. The consolidation of media was most stark, and first, in radio. The once glorious regional stations are all but gone. One can drive across the U.S. and never notice a change in the music played from one region to another, nor to the political subtext or the advertising, and more, to the structural qualities of the presentation. It is important to note, however, and Hullot-Kentor emphasizes this, that the seeds of homogenization in content and in form were already there in the 1930s, notwithstanding the idealism of the pedagogical aspirations. The needs of entertainment, in a sense, eclipsed those of education or self improvement, and the commercial manufacture of music (and all else, really) and the very desires of those wanting to improve and democratize cultural education, were used against them.
It is worth researching the history of the Princeton Radio Research Project in the development of American sociological thinking about culture. For this was the dawn of audience research, of analysing audience information. The later development of the Nielsen Ratings system was the logical outgrowth of this early radio project.
Eugene Leach writes; “The networks’ position was pungently summarized at NACRE’s first annual convention in 1931 by Henry Adams Bellows, a CBS vice president and NAB spokesman who once sat on the FRC. Bellows told the NACRE faithful that serving the public interest simply meant “showing that the public within a station’s service area is genuinely interested in its programs.” If a broadcaster’s programs were lively enough to be popular, he was serving the public interest, Bellows admitted that much commercial broadcasting was awful, but held that the work of educational stations was worse. In any case, Bellows denied that industry performance justified either BBC-style government ownership or reserved channels for educators — the twin industry bugaboos of the early 1930s. “Our system of privately owned and commercial operated stations is a pretty solidly established tact,” said Bellows, and segregating educators “in a limbo of special wavelengths” would only “condemn them to remain unheard and disregarded.” The best option for all parties was Cooperation. Let educators take responsibility for producing programs and the broadcasters would happily give them the microphone, “provided they do not bore their hearers into open desertion.”
The forces at work were there to insure that nothing like the BBC would find expression in North America. Now, there was a good deal of pedagogical programming that went on, but most of it mediated by a sense of populism that dictated that nothing too demanding should be aired because it alienated the common man. But behind all the statistics and the detailed in-fighting between Academics and station owners and commercial interests was a political sensibility that was decidedly reactionary. This is often not noted, but the logic at work in this early era of dumbing-down content was one that would later give birth to Joe McCarthy and HUAC.
The real problem was ideological. An interesting footnote in all this, or perhaps more, was the involvement of The University of Chicago faculty headed up by Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, and Stringfellow Barr. This resulted, eventually, in the 1940s, with the Great Books program, and its establishment at St. John’s college in Annapolis. Tim Lacy writes:
.”The next major signpost in the history of the Great Books idea was Encyclopædia Britannica’s production of the Great Books of the Western World in 1952. With this set’s publication, the Great Books idea experienced its apex in twentieth-century American culture. In correspondence with the history of the idea so far, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler edited the set. Their final list of books for that set avoided an overabundance of Victorian authors, as well as any favoritism toward non-philosophical Christian works. The set did, however, per its title, maintain Erskine’s focus on the West. After a few initial dry years, sales of Britannica’s Great Books set picked up during the late 1950s and 1960s, peaking at 50,000 sets per year. Through the Great Books, the Great Books idea became a part of America’s homes, and a reference point in its larger consciousness. More people became aware of the Great Books idea, mostly with positive associations, than ever had been before or since.”
There were scathing criticisms from the anti-communist right because of the inclusion of Marx, but there equal numbers of critics that challenged the idea that the books of dead white men was the sole definition of excellence. The most radical aspect of this project, however, was the absence of introductions or commentaries. Now, digressing a moment… my father, a modestly educated man, but one for whom the *idea* of education was primary, actually bought a used set of the Great Books. I remember reading through texts, very long and dense texts, having no context for what I was reading, but being rather hypnotized and enchanted by the entire process. It was the very lack of context I found, at age 14, so compelling. It certainly seemed to me, at that age, a lot more exciting than the generalized blandness of what I was being taught in Junior High School and High School. But, the obvious Western bias was in the end the greatest problem.
…”Recent examples of Arnold’s ideals exist. Earl Shorris’s “Clemente Course,” for instance, relies on values intrinsic to the Great Books idea: excellence, uplift, perennial moral values, discussion, and critical thinking. Shorris’s program consists of providing the less fortunate, such as those in poor or rural communities, with exposure to poetry, logic, history, and moral philosophy through the Great Books. The Clemente Course began in New York City in the mid-1990s, but because of its success has since spread across the United States. The program encourages students to ask the ultimate questions of themselves: How shall we live? What is the good life? How am I to be happy? To Shorris, and to most supporters of the Great Books idea, the success of democracy depends on instilling in its citizens a culture of democracy. That culture is based on universal values – not any one ideology – that promote the common good.”
Now, to return to radio and Adorno for a moment. The Princeton Radio Research Project actually did hire Adorno, for a very brief time to head up the music department. The irony of course is that Adorno had no interest in promoting anyone’s idea of musical culture. Or of culture at all, in this context. For he had seen the capitulation of German bourgeois culture, and only just escaped the fascism overtaking his native land. As Hullot-Kentor puts it; “In the absence of a culture worthy of the name, culture for Adorno was what it was for Flaubert, namely, the power to resist it, and as such synonymous with art that is genuinely art.”
What seems important in looking at the rise of mass culture to the place where it is today, and to the ideas of pedagogy, is the role of submission to authority and the prevailing system of domination and control. It is so deeply ingrained in everyone, I think, that it is often hard to recognize even in oneself. Those subtle structural adjustments or conceptual positions that arrive naturally as if the world so dictated just this shape of things.
One of the papers Adorno wrote, in English, was Analytic Study of the NBC Music Appreciation Hour. Reading it one senses the horror Adorno felt in the face of U.S. marketing and commodity culture. But apropos of authority, he wrote: “Radio, as an economic enterprise in an ownership culture, is forced to promote, within the listener, a naively enthusiastic attitude toward any material it offers, and thus, indirectly, toward itself.”
Today, this is seen very clearly in audience’s relationships to their favorite TV show and film. There is increasingly little real criticism directed toward Hollywood material. There are bad reviews, but usually what is deemed *bad* is a failure on the product’s part to sufficiently feel fresh or new, give the appearance or impression of *newness* and to flatter the viewer. The authority that goes unstated is there in the foundational format for these reviews…usually appearing in large corporate news outlets. The reviewer works FOR the corporation, and even if unstated or even unrecognized in any substantive way, the fact is that the reviewer is complicit with the industry in which he or she is writing about. This goes back to those early radio studies in which the presumed idealistic desires of program directors (maybe real) were complicit with a system of nullifying those desires, the better to replace them with systems of *agreement*. There is no absolute erasing of dissent, nor is there total homogenization, but the resistance to authority, and to the ownership class that manufactures cultural product is often buried within material expressing its opposite. This is the slightly schizoid relationship of art and society, today.
In both artworks, and in critical writing about art, the relationship of the author of either artwork or essay or review to those who provide wide distribution of their work is obscured (intentionally, at least some of the time) to such a degree that it is hard for the viewer or the artist him or herself to orient themselves in terms of who cuts the checks, and or pays their salary, or buys in some way the product they are selling. Because near hegemony has been reached I suspect strongly that various mechanisms of projection and of denial. But when Adorno accused Stravinsky of creating music about music, he was accusing the composer of composing a sound that would be received as *great* music by the great composer Stravinsky. Hollywood does this all the time. Additionally, there is increasingly in the *independent* cinema (sic) the manufacturing of films that are to be read as *alternative-to-Hollywood* film. What is meant by this is mostly about style codes. But whatever the ratios of narcissism and compliance at work, the *alternative * film in the U.S. is one in which the same ersatz spiritual nutrients that early Radio was peddling are written under ‘ingredients’ on the label. The vast majority of *independent* film today in the U.S. is neither independent, nor is it critical of mainstream Hollywood film; because it operates off a baseline established in camera, editing, sound, lighting, and acting that is Hollywood studio film. That is the baseline, the model, the ideal.My old friend the late Terry Ork once said that Kurosawa made films to win prizes at festivals. He didn’t dislike Kurosawa, but he felt something in Kurosawa’s films of this search for an originary Kurosawa, an ur-Kurosawa, implicit in all the films he made. There is a tiny bit of a paradox at the heart of this idea, and it revolves around the idea of artists and their influences. If in some way the goal is to create artworks reflective of (per Hullot-Kentor) ’emphatic experience’, rather than creating work about one’s own work, and about work in general, then there must be *experience* out there to be had, experience that is at least somewhat connected at a primary emotional level.
Looking back now at Stravinsky, and at Kurosawa, it is clear that probably Kurosawa is more interesting. His auteur legitimacy feels deeper, somehow. The films of the 60s in particular feel free of the later encroaching pomposity. High and Low, The Bad Sleep Well, Red Beard, Drunken Angel, and Sanjuro are all still quite visceral and yet oddly contemplative. Kurosawa’s contemporary landscapes always drew me in more, and maybe that’s just personal. But the seeds of his bloatedness were already there in Sanjuro and Throne of Blood. High and Low on the other hand, is a stripped down distillation of post war Japanese pain. Stravinsky, I am not sure, ever sounds other than slightly kitsch.
This inevitably leads back to the, for lack of a better word, spiritual experience in art. In terms of Adorno’s aesthetic theory, this includes a corrective to the reactionary Habermas revisionism of the 70s. This experience is, contrary to a lot of writing on the topic, inclusive of a political aspect. For part of what mass corporate culture does today is to erase the spiritual, and not only to erase it, but to demonize it. For one cannot really look at Hollywood today without grasping the U.S. state department and the Pentagon’s fingerprints on, obviously, the content, but also, in a more insidious way, on the form. This is partly what Adorno saw when the Princeton Radio Research Project hired him. Now, Roger Foster’s excellent book Adorno, The Recovery of Experience, focuses on this idea and it is crucial, I think, to elucidate some of the method.
Adorno, contra to the many bad interpretations of his work that exist, was not a Kantian. He knew Kant, he wrote about Kant, but his method , his classification procedure was in service of what he saw as a cognitively richer experience, or a more *significant* experience than one based on a pre-given Universal. For Adorno, ‘experience’ is crucial because of the state of the world..what he saw as a *disenchanted* world, a world of withered and atrophied and mediated experience. Also, Adorno was interested in (and hence his focus on aesthetics) how the world is disclosed through an object (we are usually talking artworks) rather than a detached subjectivity, a disembodied intellectualism. For Adorno the gaze that interprets is looking to discover more than what is being *said* by the object. The ‘more’ part is linked to a political program, so I believe, that is attempting to rend the veil of mass cultural propaganda,, and of societal domination. To discover the ways, for example, the experience of the object is corrupted by those tacit nods to authority.
The short version of disenchantment is a thinking process in which rationalization, calculation, and measurement has usurped (or begun to usurp) the authority of judgement; that this purposive instrumental intellectual position begins to narrow experience down to things it, logically, deems significant. This leads to the privileging of mastery or control over Nature. If it can’t be measured, it doesn’t count. And if it doesn’t count, then it is not worth ‘seeing’.
“Something important about experience slips through the fingers of scientific cognition, Weber is suggesting.”
Roger Foster (in reference to Max Weber on disenchantment)
Today, there is clear ideological encouragement to applaud mediocrity, if said mediocrity is marketed in the pre-given approved manner. So threatening is extra-instrumental experience, that it is repressed, banned, or stigmatized. The entire mental health apparatus is in service to pathologizing certain ways of seeing the world.
Now, Foster argues, I think correctly, that Kantian idealism is itself the philosophical expression of the history, or historical evolution of disenchantment. The corruption of science, in a sense, of the scientific gaze, has resulted in a strange non-seeing unless conceptually synthesized. There is now, I suspect, a further step in this that has political class implications. So segregated are the classes, both globally, and in the U.S. that unintentional triggers are implanted in screen experience that direct the process of conceptualizing the material under observation. In fact, there are no doubt multiple over-determined triggers that fire off, at times, accidentally. In all of this, if one is speaking aesthetically, it is understandable the importance of experiences such as the uncanny.
Let me quote Roger Foster:
“There are two fundamentally important claims that Adorno makes about this model of the constituting subject. First, it is historically true. The constituting subject captures that type of cognitive engagement with the world that is pervasive in the social practices and institutions of the modern world. Second, what lies behind the constituting subject is a process of cognitive subtraction. That is to say, the subject becomes the constituting subject through that process in which it learns to eliminate from its cognitive engagement with the world all features that depend on its own role as a situated subjectivity. That is why disenchantment, for Adorno, is describable in terms of the subject’s own self mutilation in the course of its history.”
It is clear that this would extend man’s control over Nature, as a cognitive feature, but Adorno saw that it, in Foster’s terms ‘came at a fateful cognitive deficit’. This is a significant aspect of Adorno’s entire project, for making us aware, making ourselves aware of our inheritance, the history of what cannot be said, is the task of philosophy, and of art. This is also one of the intersections of Adorno and Freud. But there are other influences, from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, to what Adorno saw in composers such as Beethoven and Mahler. And later of course Shoenberg. But there is, in this mastery of nature, and in the predictability of congitive patterns, a mechanism of abstraction that mirrors the mechanisms of Capital. Experience gradually takes on the qualities of exchange value. The very expectation of the predictability of experience is anchored in a merchant vision of deployment, of display, of repetition. Freud, too, was aware of the creeping similarities of repetition and Capital and the authority of the super ego. The Oedipal drama interpreted as a Capitalist allegory or cautionary tale.
Now these mechanisms, or abstractive mental operations, are revealed in artworks that retain some autonomy. They are not in kitsch products, and perhaps not in any commodity unless under special circumstances that allow the artwork and artist to be made aware of their own complicity. One way to talk about artworks that rise to the level of autonomy is to identify those that have relinquished their desire to communicate. This becomes linked to Benjamin’s ideas on language, which in fact influenced Adorno quite a bit. But which were also taken up by Wittgenstein. (Fosters’ book includes a short chapter on Wittgenstein, in fact). I’ve always seen both Wittgenstein and Benjamin as sort of correctives to the solipsism of much post structuralist thought. The aspect that matters in Benjamin’s essay has to do with his separating of language into two branches; one that communicates (instrumental tool) and one that discloses.
“What expresses itself in language, we cannot express through it.”
It is in this human idea of talking that the great mystification of instrumental logic resides. Talking, communicating, presumes a unity of self and Nature that is pernicious. There are a great many echoes here of thinkers as diverse as Heidegger, Ricoeur, Merleau Ponty, and Norman O. Brown. And of Freud even. But additionally of Buddhist texts, and Vedic thought. What has always seemed absent in all this is the ways in which the political impinges on the spiritual and in how psychoanalytic concepts intersect. The *unsayable* is only lost, as Wittgenstein points out, when you try to say it. Now, there is a great similarity in style between Adorno and Wittgenstein, and part of the similarity is found in their incompleteness. In fact, the 20th century marked the point in philosophy where the philosophical project was viewed as incompleteable, as impossible. In this sense it is closely aligned with theatre, for theatre reached the place where it recognized itself as impossible. The truth was in the impossibility. I once said that playwrights should embrace failure. This was always quoted as if I was encouraging commercial failure. But in fact it was meant to point toward an awareness of impossibility and that within that impossibility, within that moment of satori, the artist could respond in his or her work by writing, expressing, the failure of the play. The play became about its own impossibility. It is clear Beckett was working through this, and probably in another fashion so was Pinter, and Handke, and possibly Genet. For here also can be found the anti-bourgeois energy of this work. That is not a minor point, I don’t think. But here is another intersecting point, one that takes the discussion back to the default search for origins. For the play about the impossibility of the play is startlingly close to both Greek tragedy, and to forms such as Kathakali, Noh, and classical Indian dance. The story is already told. The play is about *how* to tell it, not what is being told. And the danger in this is to do what Adorno accused Stravinsky of doing and that is to create artworks about the creating of artworks.
Adorno saw disenchantment as inextricably linked to social process. This is the political aspect.
“The bifurcation of the subject and object is not intended to be a metanarrative that explains history philosophically. Rather it registers the theoretical and experiential consequences of that form of social modernization generated by capitalism.”
Cultural practices, including art, then, are *within* the historical process. This is contra post structuralist theory in which the subject (or artwork) floats above reality and surveys experience. For Adorno, any theory not within history was a symptom of reification.
There is a large discussion to be had about *silence*, or wordlessness. And it goes back to ancient pharaonic Egypt, for the silence of the hieroglyphs was linked to this idea of the spiritual. For ancient Egypt silence was death. Benjamin had much to say about language that speaks itself. And this in turn I’ve always felt was how theatre operated as another form of thought. All artworks are another form of thought, but one more mediated, paradoxically, than theatre. The disclosure of the world is found when the object returns our gaze, rather than communicating a message. But in a hyper reified and commodity society, there are forces that fill in all blank space, and create noise for all silence. Infantile chatter and an increasing number of artists imitating child like drawings, or making images for children to be purchased by rich adults.
Benjamin saw something significant in language that was expressing non conceptual knowledge or experience. And this inches into mysticism of a sort, much as discussions of the *sublime* do, and yet this is a semantic problem in a way, because the extra-conceptual experience is very closely connected with revolutionary aspirations, and with that oceanic feeling or emotion that accompanies a unity of vision, and of cooperation and generosity. The new age kitsch notions of the sublime or all the cartoon white people and their Guru cliches are promoted, in a sense, as a way to discourage taking transcendence seriously. Much of the left falls in with this, its also part of the masculinizing of rationality; and the very great fear of being perceived as gullible or weak (feminine). There is in an aesthetics of language, in one sense, a kind of revelatory self discovery — this is transcendence. The entire post structuralist thrust in thinking has taken away ideas of such radicalism. Post structuralism is anti radical, and this accounts I believe for the curious incoherence of much of Badiou and Derrida even. For all that is penetrating and corrective in Derrida, for example, there is also something that turns back on itself rather than allow for the mystical. For the mystical is, really, revolutionary. From Sufi thinkers, to the mystical Christian projects of Meister Eckhart or Hildegard of Bingen. Benjamin was a Kabalist, and had no fear of mysticism, and neither did Adorno, really, for to him, the prime impulse in philosophizing was to get past the totality of untruth that was modern fascistic society.There is a dialectical aspect that separates the Benjamanic or Adornoesque sense of radical unity from the regressive and reactionary unity of new age cliches, but also from the regressive aspects of a certain mystical agrarian fascism associated with Heidegger, the mystifying regressive tribalist fantasies of homeleand and Volksgemeinschaft. As a side bar, one can see similar historical splits and reactions in Indian thought. The Sramannas were the anti Brahmin movements that rose up against the excesses of the elite class who were spreading Vedic ritual, if not much else, eastward along the Ganges’ plain. As the Vedic practices grew, there appeared the cynicism of Purana Kassapa, antinomianm, a sort of Indic version of Hassan Sabbah (or at least William Burroughs). But while this goes beyond the current posting, it is interesting to note that Patanjali Yoga is predicated upon the idea of washing away phenomenality, the better to arrive at right knowledge. The etymology of ‘Yoga’ comes from ‘yuj’; to unite. All mystical traditions look for that which will not allow itself to be said, and that, often the same, which ‘unites’. Only ruling class corruptions of these traditions have allowed for the removal of political meaning in such terms and concepts.
Benjamin, to simplfy a famously dense if not impenetrable essay, is focusing on both the meaning of language that exists, as it were, inside the language, and second, on the style as an independent meaning (not necessarily, but often). So if one looks at, as I said above, the recognition in the 20th century, of a quality of impossibility in both art and philosophy, expressed often as the unfinished — then that quality is a part of the unsayable, the hidden, the internal in both language, and in art and the language applied to interpretation. The ever narrowing exchange value of language, an instrumental *information* tool, a technical definition privileging of all forms of language, driven by the desire to stabilize the status quo. Language becomes dead. The officially approved writing of the MFA program graduate, or the technician, or the bureaucrat, is one in which no space exists for silence, and nothing transcendent can take place. There are tricky aspects to this, for what Benjamin is suggesting is that style is not a psychological expression of the author, but rather that style is historically sedimented in language. As Foster says; “…style is rather the form in which the nonsubjective historical experience of the epoch expresses itself –behind the author’s back, as it were.” Today, the language of Empire is one of flatlined emotional stasis. It is dried out, bloodless, and almost by reflex petulant and snide. The white ruling class cannot speak other than as martians. The faces of Sam Walton, or the Koch Brothers, or Hillary Clinton or James Petraeus, or Samantha Power and Jen Psaki reveal the loss of life and spirit. There is no sensuality, no moisture, no life. It is almost the projected or perhaps introjected coming to life of their zombie vision of the masses. You become what you behold, psychoanalytically speaking. You become what you have stigmatized others as being. But the danger is Benjamin’s theory here is that if treated undialectically, this becomes more free floating subjectivity.
One key feature that I want to explore more fully in part two of this posting next week is Benjamin’s critique of Kantian metaphysics. The germane element of which is in seeing in Kant’s thinking a particular historical expression. The discovery of what is limiting in Western thought happens only by expressing that limitation. Again, this is the ouroboros-like negative dialectics of Adorno. Embrace failure, means seeing clearly where the borders are. The subject-object duality obscures the disclosing of the world. And again, the revolutionary is the spiritual and the spiritual is revolutionary. Only in the expression of submission to the limits can the limits be breached. The transcendent is collective. It is not ownership of the experience.