Nunc Stans, or The Empty Future

Francisco Mata Rosas, photography.

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm.”
Walter Benjamin (Thesis on the Philosophy of History)

“No less than any other religion, science organises and arranges its own structure through different forms and ranks. To its elaboration of a subtle and rigorous dogmatics corresponds, in praxis, a vast and intricate cultic sphere that coincides with what we call ‘technology’.”
Giorgio Agamben (Where Are We Now)

“Everything is false in the *question of the immigrants*, as is the case in all questions openly posed in current society, and for the same reasons: the economy — that is to say, the pseudo-economic illusion — has supplied it and the spectacle has treated it. One only discusses stupidities.”
Guy Debord (Notes on the Immigrant Question) 1985

After taking part in and watching all the lectures at the International Conference in Stockholm (

…there emerges a clearer picture of of intentional and blatant dishonesty from global health NGOs, and governments. But something else is emerging, too. And it’s related to a lot of the writing I have done on this blog over the last several years. And might generally be described as a profound cultural shift or change in the psyches of western humankind. When Debord wrote Society of the Spectacle (1968), and later Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) he was distilling something that had been percolating for a while. But that distillation perhaps needs be read again, in the light of fifty years of technological development.

“The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs. The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations. At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them. Our consideration proceeds from the insight that the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their “mass basis,” and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing.”
Walter Benjamin (Ibid)

Bice Lazzari

Benjamin’s essay, Thesis on the Philosophy of History, feels curiously relevant right now, too. And Agamben, of course, who himself was a close and brilliant reader of Debord.

Debord used this quote at the start of Society of the Spectacle:

“But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence… illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.”
Ludwig Feuerbach (Preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity)

Even Hegel understood the problems engendered by Capitalism. And in the sixties Debord tracked the direction of western capitalism and sketched with remarkable clarity the history and also created a sense of aesthetics that felt innately radical and subversive. Seeing the fundamental sickness of the Capitalist system was not new. Today, nothing is left of that radical quality, certainly not in the arts or academia. Increasingly there is a rote reflexive hatred of Marx, Freud, Communism, Mao, Stalin, and Fidel. The Frankfurt School is attacked, more from the left than the right, and self identifying left publications embrace the most reactionary of positions (Jacobin comes to mind, of course) on the pandemic protocols. And capitalism is viewed as if it is Nature, a god created fact.

“Ivan Illich has observed that the conventional notion of life (not “a life,” but “life” in general) is perceived as a “scientific fact,” which has no relationship with the experience of the singular living person. It is something anonymous and generic, which can designate at times a spermatozoon, a person, a bee, a cell, a bear, an embryo. It is this “scientific fact,” so generic that science has given up on defining it, that the Church has made the ultimate receptacle of the sacred and bioethics the key term of its impotent foolishness.”
Giorgio Agamben (Prologue, The Use of Bodies)

Hans Baluschek (1935)

Benjamin noted (in the essay referenced here) that nothing had corrupted the German working class so much as the idea that even factory work was a part of the great stream of progress. The idea of progress has been a insidious assault on the working class for two hundred years now.

“This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor bypasses the question of how its products might benefit the workers while still not being at their disposal. It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism.”
Walter Benjamin (Ibid)

Debord was perhaps the last intellectual to recognize clearly the delusions of vulgar Marxism (see Marx quote in previous blog post). But today, this particular delusion is accompanied by psychological deformations that are only partly a creation of this vulgarity. Benjamin points out that the Socialist utopians prior to 1848 saw Nature not as something to be exploited or conquered. One can see the influence here, too, of a western crisis in masculinity. One itself bound up with the loss of ethical and moral concepts. Morality has fused with progress. The idea of progress (and science itself) is viewed as moral. And over the last twenty five years, say, the psychic shift to a belief in Artificial Intelligence is yet another sign of conquest, and of morality. The conquest of the inner man through an abdication of his organic self.

“Progress as pictured in the minds of Social Democrats was, first of all, the progress of mankind itself (and not just advances in men’s ability and knowledge). Secondly, it was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind. Thirdly, progress was regarded as irresistible, something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course.”
Walter Benjamin (Ibid)

Victor Man

The last several paragraphs of Benjamin’s essay discuss concepts of time. And in a sense, what is posited, not in so many words, is an idea of political time. Perhaps this is what I am trying to define because it is not exactly a historical materialist time.

“If the present were always present, and would not pass into the past, it would no longer be time, but eternity. Therefore, if the present, so as to be time, must be so constituted that it passes into the past, how can we say that it is, since the cause of its being is the fact that it will cease to be? Does it not follow that we can truly say that it is time, only because it tends towards non-being?”
Augustine (Confessions, x.14)

St.Thomas differentiated between *flowing now* (nunc fluens) and *standing now* (nunc stans) He took these terms from St. Severinus Boethius, who also says that “eternity is the simultaneous total and perfect possession of interminable life” (Consolation of Philosophy). (I take this from Brother Norbert Keliher, O.P.)

Often, and I am guilty of this, too, one calls the linear notion of progressive time an invention of Christianity. But really, it is not entirely the case, but more a sort of later scientistic idea of Christian time. For the early Church philosophers had something very different in mind, something close to what Benjamin described.

Paolo Veneziano and Giovanni Veneziano (The Coronation of the Virgin, 1358,) detail.

Paolo Veneziano (Paul the Venetian) and his son, Giovanni, painted the altarpiece above a mere few years ahead of the Black Death that would utterly wipe out the city of Venice. I only mention this because knowing it lends a certain pathos to this gold embroidered masterpiece, a panel that is actually rather modest in size. But it (in the Frick collection) is, in person, a shimmering inner illuminated meditation on eternity. But I digress. Progress, then, has changed meaning over the last fifty years. Probably even over the last twenty.

“Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behavior. “
Guy Debord (Society of the Spectacle)

This is an important observation of Debord. Hypnotic behavior, the alienated rote reflexive non-thought of contemporary society. Humans comfortable with becoming machines. A few entries later Debord writes….

“The spectacle is the technical realization of the exile of human powers into a beyond; it is separation perfected within the interior of man.”

Into a beyond, into a *future*. Debord notes that unity and communication are the sole province of management. And this loss of direct personal communication, which I have written about here, before, is part of a managerial reality that enforces a proletarianization of the world. Or a *further* proletarianization of the world. Debord also observes something Adorno and Horkheimer noted, too, and that is that inactivity is never untethered from alienated toil. Leisure time increasingly resembles labour.

“From the automobile to television, all the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons for a constant reinforcement of the conditions of isolation of “lonely crowds.” The spectacle constantly rediscovers its own assumptions more concretely.”
Guy Debord (Ibid)

Ciprian Muresan
(Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, 2009)

Now think of the computer and internet. It is important to observe the progressive aspect of the internet, for I think there is one. But the progressive dimension is intentionally hidden and made ever more difficult to access. The rise of media censorship speaks to this. Today the masses drown in a tsunami of trivial click bait distractions, what Debord (above) calls *stupidities*.

And people will engage such stupidities with a deep misplaced emotion, frothing in rage at things they know nothing about. In fact they know they know nothing about most topics they form opinions on, but this knowledge only deepens the emotional attachment.

*Trust the science* is one of the more brilliant marketing slogans ever created. It reinforces subject fantasies (especially for men, I think) about a memory or dream they once had of *rationality*.

Debord wrote of *commodity fetishism* fifty years ago. Lukacs wrote of it even longer ago. And the truth of what Debord observed was already entrenched rather securely in western society. But now, fifty some years on from the publication of Society of the Spectacle, we can look at a populace that has been trained by commodity fetishism for a half century — that what was noted in 1968 is now far more deeply ingrained and is in its third or fourth generation. We have children being brought up by parents who were brought up entirely in the shadow of acute reification. The hypnotic effect will have, by virtue of its longevity now, accrued new qualities and certainly accumulated far greater power. The Spectacle now feels permanent, and these third and fourth generations are growing up knowing nothing else.

“The commodity’s domination was at first exerted over the economy in an occult manner; the economy itself, the material basis of social life, remained unperceived and not understood, like the familiar which is not necessarily known. In a society where the concrete commodity is rare or unusual, money, apparently dominant, presents itself as an emissary armed with full powers who speaks in the name of an unknown force. With the industrial revolution, the division of labor in manufactures, and mass production for the world market, the commodity appears in fact as a power which comes to occupy social life. It is then that political economy takes shape, as the dominant science and the science of domination.”
Guy Debord (Ibid)

Larry Sultan, photography.

One can see that this reality, or unreality, was well known even in the first years after the Industrial Revolution. And it provides, even now, fertile soil for Fascist symbolism and sensibility — given perfect expression in the Dutch portrait photographs of W.F. Van Heemskerck Düker during the rise of the Third Reich.

“‘We wish to be and to remain ourselves,’ but in order to do that, we ‘first have to become ourselves’ and ‘rediscover our own character and deepest core.’ This cryptogram in the periodical Hamer assumed that the modern urban subject of the Dutch state was an artificial construct that had overgrown ‘our’ real,original identity. Rid us of ‘systems and theories articially forced upon us,’pull us up from ‘a state of idle passiveness,’ and contribute to the ‘realization of the dormant powers’ lying hidden in our people. By capturing the idealized other—the people, the volk, the Volksgemeinschaft —we would rediscover our true self.”
Remco Ensel (Dutch Face-ism. Portrait Photography and Völkisch Nationalism in the Netherlands)

The legetees of this brand of volk symbolism is regurgitated still by Madison Avenue (see Greta Thundberg) and by cultural theorists reacting to the intractable hypnosis of contemporary mass culture. The marketers know well how to immediately co-opt dissent and/or dissatisfaction. There is a curious relationship between early race photography, and its later distillation in the Dutch volk images, and their attempt to capture the soul of the greater Heimat, and today’s cancel culture and woke-fetishishing. And in the reactionary knee jerk responses of *official* voices of correction (Bill Maher, or Jordan Peterson). And in the anti communist faux outsider gibberish of Zizek.

“It is probable that Marx had in mind the impression felt in the Crystal Palace when he wrote the chapter of Capitalon commodity fetishism. It is certainly not a coincidence that this chapter occupies a liminal position. The disclosure of the commodity’s “secret” was the key that revealed capital’s enchanted realm to our thought – a secret that capital always tried to hide by exposing it in full view.{ } In the 1960s, however, the Marxian analysis of the fetish character of the commodity was, in the Marxist milieu, foolishly abandoned. In 1969, in the preface to a popular reprint of Capital, Louis Althusser could still invite readers to skip the first section, with the reason that the theory of fetishism was a “flagrant” and “extremely harmful” trace of Hegelian philosophy.
It is for this reason that Debord’s gesture appears all the more remarkable, as he bases his analysis of the society of the spectacle -that is, of a capitalism that has reached its extreme figure- precisely on that “flagrant trace.” The “becoming-image” of capital is nothing more than the commodity’s last metamorphosis, in which exchange value has completely eclipsed use value and can now achieve the status of absolute and irresponsible sovereignty over life in its entirety, after having falsified the entire social production.”

Giorgio Agamben (Marginal Notes on Comments on Society of the Spectacle)

Alonso Cano (St Francis Borgia) 1624.

I know very smart people who fail to see the three card monte game played by critics such as Maher. Agamben perceptively notes that in order to neutralize the *true* one need only include it within the huge river of untruth that media manufactures daily.

” Whereas under the old regime the estrangement of the communicative essence of human beings substantiated itself as a presupposition that served as the common foundation, in the society of the spectacle it is this very communicativity, this generic essence itself (that is, language as Gattungswesen), that is being separated in an autonomous sphere. What prevents communication is communicability itself; human beings are kept separate by what unites them. Journalists and the media establishment (as well as psychoanalysts in the private sphere) constitute the new clergy of such an alienation of the linguistic nature of human beings.”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

Media has by a sort of sleight of hand appropriated language, partly by paying no attention to it. I think the removal of penmanship classes in American school curricula is therefore not insignificant. Language is code, today, it is there to perform tasks, but little else.

“…its final phase, in which language not only constitutes itself as an autonomous sphere, but also no longer reveals anything at all -or, better yet, it reveals the nothingness of all things. In language there is nothing of God, of the world, of the revealed: but, in this extreme nullifying unveiling, language (the linguistic nature of human beings) remains once again hidden and separated.”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

Agamben sees the the global uprooting of language as the most destructive aspect of the Spectacle. The new fascist ethos is one of non-meaning. And politics ‘disarticulates and empties’ traditions, beliefs, religions, and community identity. And it does this by the emptying out of language.

Brigit Jurgenssen

“Although it seems to bring national identities back to life, this global movement actually embodies a tendency toward the constitution of a kind of supranational police state, in which the norms of international law are tacitly abrogated one after the other.”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

The pandemic protocols were an experiment in a new cloaked supranational police state, but under cover of a health emergency, a war (!) against a virus, much like the war on terror. Today everything hides in plain sight. Ukraine and its puppet Zelensky are open fascists, racial genocidaires, but nobody notices.

“The struggle against the state, therefore, is all the more implacable, because this is a state that nullifies all real contents but that -all empty declarations about the sacredness of life and about human rights aside- would also declare any being radically lacking a representable identity to be simply nonexistent.”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

Point to a swastika tattoo on the neck of a Ukrainian soldier and the Western public see nothing but a neck. Among the things gone missing today are ill intentions. Perhaps motives altogether are extinct.

“To redeem words, out of the marketplace, out of the barking, into the silence; instead of commodities, symbols.”
Norman O. Brown (Love’s Body)

“…the notion of aesthetic politics will further illuminate the shady links between fascism’s belief in the leader’s omnipotence and its conception of the “masses” as object, between the artistic ideal of harmonic relations and the auratic embracement of war, between the construction of “new men” and the focus on style, between the reliance on spectacle and the attack on consumption, between claims to the spiritual functions of the state and the affirmation of totalitarianism.”
Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi ( Fascist Spectacle: the Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy)

Aditya Novali

The new Green agenda is part of the construction of new ‘new men’. Rebranded ‘new men’. The U.S. military shot down a Chinese weather (sic) balloon moving (drifting) at about two knots. A special needs 12 year old could do that with an air rifle. But such is the focus on style (per Falasca-Zamponi) and on a masculine ‘new MAN’ that comment threads about this event were awash with cheers and bravos. Hooah. Federico Caprotti notes that aesthetic politics (after Benjamin) has two ends. The first is that it becomes an end in itself. The second is war.

“…the concept of the domination of a womanly nature is crucial to an understanding of fascist aesthetic politics and some of its ideals.”
Federico Caprotti (Italian Fascism between Ideology and Spectacle)

The transgender movement (and its marketing) is the *final solution* to the woman question.

“Mussolini was often represented as a leader of masses, embodying “virile” qualities(Falasca-Zamponi 2000). It is interesting to note that in the case of fascism, the study of elite rule highlights the conceptual contrast between a male leader and the masses which were represented as embodying female characteristics.”
Federico Caprotti (Ibid)

In the NY Times today it was Democratic Party politicians wringing their hands about lack of vaccine mandates. This is 2023, February. It is Democrats who want more authoritarian control of the populace. Liberalism is now far more intune with fascist ideology than Republicans. Democrats have slowly incrementally morphed into the party of conformism. If the conservatives were conformist circa 1958, the liberals are today. The Republicans are mostly super-patriotic and drawn in by all manner of tactical style code and military drag. But it is more as individual worshipers of hyper masculine white manhood. The liberal is most in the closet about his tac/merc-wet dreams, (though he or she eschews the individuality aspect). There is an embrace of conformity and group think. There are certainly paradoxes apparent in this; the Ayn Rand man of genius as leader that resonates through classical fascism, does not really exist in today’s liberal sensibility. This remains the province of Republicans, the more moderate variety. For there are those MAGA Trump far right voices, but these remain (while loud and visible) relatively small.

Italian built colonial village, Libya 1936.

But the liberal-fascist needs those MAGA storylines promoted and things like the cartoon DC coup to be endlessly reiterated as if it were a genuine threat to the US state. The liberal needs three card monte distraction. All of these voices, from the aforementioned Maher and Peterson, to Zizek to the TV late nite comedians, Kimmel to Oliver to Colbert (and there is something in Colbert that I suspect even his colleagues find unwholesome). But all of these voices are there to erase the actual radical by performing the role of ‘critic’, ‘voice of sanity’, ‘sober realist’ etc. And where does the joke end? For even if a voice were sincere, and were asking actual questions, they would be carried along on that storm surge of untruth that is contemporary internet reality.

Mass viewership or listenership is a dangerous paradox. The more people tune in and/or read, the harder it is to hear oneself speak, literally and metaphorically. This is the allegory of success, or at least the allegory of popularity. When I was still writing plays (well, ok, I still write them but mostly in near secret) I would wonder, what if this became a hit? A broadway musical were made of it, a movie? What would the take away be? The answer is melancholic. The answer is a curse.

Pirandello said the film actor “feels as if in exile-exiled not only from the stage but also from himself.” Benjamin quoted this, of course, and while there is truth in it, it also is not quite correct. Partly this is the result of the technical evolution of film. And of digital image. But *exile* is an important idea. And today, with everyone (in the affullant West) aspiring to a kind of celebrity (which is what influencer really is) — the role of celebrity is practiced all the time. Where does the joke end? What does truth mean with ‘deep fakes’? Who cares. The rise of irony made that ‘where does the joke end’ question thee impossible question. The performer (everyone nearly) IS in exile. The sense of unreality is partly the experience of lost memory — and memories of non-experiences. We have lost the memories we never had.

If this is now third generation ‘social media raised’, then role playing is natural, and the sense of being lost in a foreign city is also natural. You are still lost, but NOW you are an influencer. There is the constant corrosive sense of ‘nothing’ being real, and the attendant media marketing that *authenticity* is passe anyway (Academia and post modernism figures in here as well).

Garry Fabian Miller

It is worth remembering, however, that the unthinking and superficial entitlement found in the western bourgeoisie today is a continuation of that found in mid century fascist culture. Even Hannah Arendt noted how Eichmann was incapable of actual thought. He simply repeated cliches and platitudes, discussed institutional hierarchy and rules.

“From such point to the adherence to an ideology, belief,conviction — which maintains its certainty through the use of mental mechanisms framed to eliminate all opposition — is just a step. Here,there is no room for doubt, uncertainty, or self-doubt: signs of weakness for those guided by ideologies. Eliminating all opposition,the ideology, certainty or belief becomes total. And, of course, themind thus constituted is not only political, it can also wear the theological and even psychoanalytic guise. The fascist mind is then simple and united by political, ideological signs. They are the signs that henceforth fill the spaces formerly occupied by the “polysemy of a symbolic order” (Bollas, 1998). The words no longer connect with any other words, expressing the authentic freedom of the unconscious in their self-representation: they ceased to be significant — in order to bring up a Lacanian expression — those signs have become a frozen symbolic order. The elimination of the symbolic, polysemy, is one of the fundamental exterminations perpetrated by this order, since the symbolic is the true subversion of ideology.(Bollas 1998). A subversion through this simplifying violence — the ideologies that explain everything — that do not tolerate opposition, the moral emptiness is born.”
Amnéris Maroni (The Fascist Mind)

I know people, directly and indirectly, over this last three years who have come to express exactly this kind of absolute and total belief. They will not read opposing viewpoints (on either Covid or NATO/Ukraine, or climate). In one sense they are incapable of an allegorical imagination. As Lacan (above) noted, theirs is a frozen symbolic order.

Bollas saw the Nazi concentration camps as the Nazi mind reproducing itself. And in some ways social media platforms are reproducing something like a concentration camp. There is always, in the political dumb show of the western electoral spectacle, an *other* to be disciplined.

Torkwase Dyson

“At this point it is imperative for the fascist mind to find a victim to hold this emptiness, and with that, the fascist mind completes its cycle of violence. The dead nuclear self of the fascist mind is projected on the victims. Identified with the dead self and with the moral void, the victims can be destroyed, for the fascist mind has conquered internal assassinations, projections, multiple denials, the alibi of the destruction of the other; the denial of the qualities of the other by the way of extinction, it generates in the fascist mind a delirious grandeur, with the idealization of the process of annihilation — an idealization of the capability to destroy the self.”
Amnéris Maroni (Ibid)

The other is necessary for the Fascist cannot be alone. And in the dark corners and recesses of the these frozen minds there is the knowledge that being alone is intolerable. And it is one of the reasons why these new liberal fascists indulge in personal housekeeping. They confess to weakness or confusion or sin (addiction, bulimia, etc), and this in order to create an *other*, even if oneself, and then to discipline them. It is a puppet show, a dumb show, maybe most exactly it is a shadow puppet play, but it appears when other more official enemies are not apparent.

“The fascist mind feels contaminated and yearns for a process of purging what contaminates it. The state of the fascist mind exalts the pure, decontaminated being. I quote Bollas: ‘We can find this phenomenon, however, in normal life, whether it is articulated by those who dare to claim the position of pure Christianity, pure objectivity, pure science, or, dare to say, pure analysis’.”
Amnéris Maroni (Ibid)

Bollas idea of ‘extractive introjection’ is hugely perceptive, and it can be seen in our contemporary culture of envy. The fascist envies the humanness of those he victimizes. The fascist parent is one who will introject his or her children, in a sense. The role of screen habituation and social media is not to be minimized in all this. The TV became a default baby-sitter for ever more put-upon parents in post war America. By the 1980s families all had both parents working full time jobs. Children were increasingly learning how to be alone (or to NOT be alone) by being with a screen.

Calvin Marcus

Debord noted in an aside almost, that contemporary society has done away with six of the seven deadly sins. And this runs parallel, I think, to my suggestion that motives no longer exist. Avarice is gone because nearly all wealth has been transferred to the top 1%. Gluttony because it’s now OK to be obese, and anyway, the processed food industry has more or less made it impossible not to be fat. Lust is long gone. In its place is the cold simulation of porn, or just celibacy. Anger, well, alright, maybe there is still anger. To some degree. Pride is gone. There is nothing to feel proud of. And that leaves ENVY.

“One easily understands the triumph of envy, the uncontrollable fusion of its radioactive heart and the dispersal of its fall-out everywhere. The deadly sins that have disappeared concern the personal traits of the individual acting on his own (or, in the case of laziness, preferring not to act). But envy is the only trait that concerns others. It is normal that it remains alone, to amuse and goad those who have been dispossessed of everything. In our century, these are the stupefying findings that one is not allowed to forget about. { } We say that the intensive and extensive repression of personality inevitably involves the disappearance of personal taste. What can actually please someone who is nothing, has nothing and knows nothing — other than lying and imbecilic hearsay? And almost nothing displeases such a person: such is exactly the goal that the owners and “deciders” of this society propose, that is, those who hold the instruments of social communication, with the aid of which they find themselves in a position to manipulate the simulacra of disappeared tastes.”
Guy Debord (Abolir, June 1987)

I want to end with a somewhat lengthy quote from a book edited by John Holloway on Adorno and Praxis (Negativity and Revolution). It is from an essay by Adrian Wilding on Adorno’s critique of what he called *praxisism*. It feels rather relevant in current climate of anti-intellectualism and a climate permeated by left gatekeepers (most of whom are highly anti-Adorno).

“Adorno, many felt, had privileged theory over practice and abandoned the revolutionary project at just the moment when a new revolution seemed possible. Not oblivious to the clamour around him, Adorno explicitly addressed the issue in his Frankfurt University lectures.
*I have found again and again that when carrying out theoretical analyses
– and theoretical analyses are essentially critical in nature – I have been
met by the question: “Yes, but what shall we do?” and this question has
been conveyed with a certain undertone of impatience, an undertone which
proclaims: “All right, what is the point of all this theory? It goes on far too
long, we do not know how we should behave in the real world, and the fact
is we have to act right away!*
Adorno finds himself having to respond explicitly to the increasingly tense situation and the political pressures placed upon him. He tells his students that the call for direct political action is problematic, because it is a desire for immediacy amidst the most mediated, amidst the complex and opaque capitalist society in which both student and teacher find themselves: “there is nowadays a great danger,” he says, “of what might be termed an illicit shortcut to practical action” (Adorno). Such shortcuts, he tells them, rest ironically on the reverse of that which philosophy is accused, a subordination of theory to practice (and an attenuation of the original meaning of both terms), and in this subordination Adorno sees an unholy alliance of radical politics with the most instrumental attitudes of the ruling ideology, a symptom of alienation rather than the solution to it. { } Adorno’s turn in these lectures to a careful and remarkably sympathetic exposition of the philosophy of Kant can be read as
his own way, within the restrictions of an academic syllabus in a philosophy department, of examining such illicit shortcuts to practical action. Kant’s moral philosophy, Adorno reminds us, always maintained an interest in action and “practical reason” as moral thinking was revealingly called. Kant in turn drew on the resources of ancient philosophy, in particular Greek philosophy’s foregrounding of praxis and “practical wisdom” (Aristotle’s Phronesis) in its examination of “the good life.” But by Kant’s time practical reason had already lost many of the nuances which the concept of praxis evoked for the Greeks. The heyday of the Enlightenment coincided with an emergent division of labour which was busy parcelling up experience into separate spheres such that philosophies like Kant’s could respond only with their own specialised critiques. By the mid twentieth century, Adorno argues, this attenuation of praxis had only worsened, becoming mere “practicality,” guided by a wholly instrumental and anti theoretical idea of action. For Adorno the rhetoric of “practicality” is symptomatic rather than illuminating of a state of unfreedom:
*The more uncertain practical action has become, the less we actually know what we should do, and the less we find the good life guaranteed to us – if it was ever guaranteed to anyone – then the greater our haste in snatching at it. This impatience can very easily become linked with a certain resentment towards thinking in general, with a tendency to denounce theory as such.*
Ironically, the denigration of theory and the intellectual by those outside the academy sits alongside its opposite within the academy: a submissive over-valuation of the intellectual, who becomes something of a superego or even “father-figure,” able to bring decisiveness to a moment of political uncertainty. This too, Adorno suggests, is to be resisted: “precisely because I am aware that very many of you have great confidence in me, I would be extremely reluctant to abuse that confidence by presuming to slip into – even if it were only through my lecturing style – the false persona of a guru, a sage” (Adorno). The over-valuation of the intellectual is, Adorno argues, a kind of transference, symptomatic of a powerlessness instilled in the individual from an early age and is reproduced in the hierarchical structure of society in much the same way as the Frankfurt School’s Studies on Authority and the Family from the 1930s had shown individuals’ susceptibility to authoritarian leaders being nurtured in the most intimate structures of the family. “

And a final additional quote from those lectures of Adorno’s:

“The irrationality of society is devolved: it appears to be not society that is mad, but the individual. However, the irrational individual in turn aligns himself with the irrational world, through a kind of perverse identification with general perversion. This sets up a catastrophic vicious circle in which human beings have an objective interest in changing the world and in which this change is quite impossible without their participation. However, these mechanisms of identification have stamped themselves on people’s characters to such a degree that they are quite incapable of the spontaneity and the conscious actions that would be required to bring about the necessary changes. This is because, by identifying with the course of the world, they do so in an unhappy, neurotically damaged way, which effectively leads them to reinforce the world as it is. And that, I would say, is the truth about the situation of human beings in history.”

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  1. Love the content but the unrelated art feels ADHD.
    I love pertinent art that portrays the point made.
    The random abstract art is gaudy or something smug.

  2. I really like John inserting abstract art works or works which don’t allow you to pin point themes, narratives or even topic. The realm of visual art or music always allows you to connect your core being to the unknown. In fact, a profound emotion in us is often aroused by this crucial tie to unrecognizable something which lies beyond our ordinary perceptions when we see a great art works or hear a great music. I don’t think it is a coincidence that this sort of experience in our lives is often truncated when our social relations are based on the interests of the ruling class. This crucial part of being human allows us to be humble as mortal beings while also allowing us to reach out to a realm which extends to our collective existence in time and space. This very experience which the establishment desperately domesticates through “support for arts” is a part of our collective social power which capitalists have been monopolizing through the capitalist mode of production. Art as a social institution provides us with this window to humanity even if it is often distorted by the oppressive forces of the authoritarian hierarchy.

  3. I really encourage you to read This Life, by Martin Hagglund. In 2019, various online publications had special issues about it, including the LARB.

  4. John Steppling says:

    its on my list. I did read an interview with him, however and was no impressed. Still….it’s on my list.

  5. I really like John inserting abstract art works or works which don’t allow you to pin point themes, narratives or even topic. The realm of visual art or music has always allowed us to connect our core beings to the unknown–the place where the capitalist framework can’t reach. We are often profoundly moved by sensing a tie to this unrecognizable something which lies beyond our ordinary perceptions when we see a great art works or hear a great music. I don’t think it is a coincidence that this sort of experience in our lives is often truncated when our social relations are based on the interests of the ruling class. This crucial part of being human allows us to be humble as mortal beings while also allowing us to reach out to a realm which extends to our collective existence in time and space. This very experience which the establishment desperately domesticates through “support for arts” is a part of our collective social power–an enormous momentum backed by history, collective wisdom, our accumulated knowledge about our world and so on, which capitalists have been monopolizing through the capitalist mode of production. Art as a social institution provides us with this window to humanity even if it is often distorted by the oppressive forces of the authoritarian hierarchy.

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