Robert Hullot-Kentor with Paul Chan
One early evening in February, on the occasion of his new book, Things Beyond Resemblance, the translator, critic and philosopher Robert Hullot-Kentor sat with the artist Paul Chan at the The Brooklyn Rail’s HQ in Greenpoint, where they exchanged reassessments of Adorno’s life and philosophy.
Paul Chan (Rail): You have a few new books. There’s your collected essays on Adorno, Things Beyond Resemblance, which was just published. And then there’s something called Current of Music, which I guess is a reconstruction of a book Adorno was writing when he lived in New York City in the late 1930s?
Robert Hullot-Kentor: That’s right. It’s an extensive study that Adorno was writing on how music was being transformed in the 1930s by its electronic transmission over radio; it’s electric current in current of music. The Adorno Archive in Germany asked me to finish the book that Adorno left behind in fragments during the war years. Adorno wrote thousands of pages for it, mostly in English—and it took me a long time to sort it out. The book is now part of Adorno’s Collected Works, but it will come out from Polity Press in a couple of years. And I expect it’s going to be important for understanding the electronic transformation of all things happening now.
Rail And there’s also your new translation of Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music.
Rail Don’t forget [Laughs] Advertising in Hong Kong Society, Reminiscences of a Hong Kong Gardener, and your introduction to first-year Chinese grammar!
Hullot-Kentor: [Laughs] Right. I’ve gotten a lot done lately. The phantom publications at Amazon—maybe twenty titles; there’s a volume on managing diabetes there too. How do these things happen, Paul?
Rail Can we work on that later? I wanted to ask how all these books on Adorno happened to you in the first place. How did you get interested in Adorno’s work? You’ve been at it a long time.
Hullot-Kentor: It is getting to be a long time. During the Vietnam War years, many students on the Left wanted to make sense out of the questions raised by several generations of critical theorists on the relation between Marx and Freud—actually, Marx, Freud and aesthetics. The possibility of social emancipation—words we no longer hear—seemed to depend on comprehending these matters.
Rail Those several preceding generations, they’d include people like Marcuse?
Hullot-Kentor: Right. Marcuse, especially, meant a lot back then. If you read him today, he comes across like a TV philosopher. But then he was incisive and profound. As to myself, things started after I left the Iowa Writers Workshop. I could not stand the corn fields or figure out why I was trying to write and learn about poetry in a ‘workshop’—something modeled on hammers, saws and nails—where most of the students had read next to nothing and didn’t want to read anything either. But then, finally, it made too much sense, Paul; these people in ‘workshops’ had no interest in books and not much interest in art either. Maybe Iowa was fine, but I couldn’t take it.
Rail What was next?
Hullot-Kentor: So, I found myself studying clinical psychology in Massachusetts. And pretty soon I was trying to figure out how not to end up with the click-clack language of a social scientist. But I was increasingly involved in questions of social history and psychology—and Wallace Stevens was always on the desk. That’s when I came across Adorno’s extraordinary essay “Psychology and Sociology” in New Left Review. It promised an answer to all the questions I had about Freud and Marx. The only problem was, I couldn’t understand it, just parts of it.
Rail There wasn’t much Adorno in English then, I’d guess.
Hullot-Kentor: Just that essay and a few other things.
Rail Did you know German?
Hullot-Kentor: No, well, guten tag, that’s about it. I had had a useless education. So I signed up for comparative literature, got a scholarship, locked myself in a room and a year later I knew German and French. Then I could study what I wanted, especially the thirty plus volumes of Adorno I knew were waiting. And in comparative literature—since no one really knows what that is, including the people who teach it—you’re free to get the education you need. For me that meant studying philosophy, history and the arts as a whole, a fragmented whole, for sure, especially music.
Rail Iowa wasn’t for you, but does poetry have something to do with how you write? Because, in your Things Beyond Resemblance, and in your newest essay in the next RES, “In Exactly What Sense the Culture Industry No Longer Exists,” there’s a process of writing that is unique. I don’t find it in other writers. Or, like that essay in your book, “Right Listening and a New Kind of Human Being,” which I especially like, there is a development of thought as the writing goes along, changes in rhythm, the temperature of thought, and humor. What I see in your writing is this kind of flexibility that follows a thought where it wants to go. And I think that’s actually a phrase that you used once. You weave in ideas of Adorno, and some jokes too, as well as acute observations that careen into surprising philosophical insights, like your stinging remarks about Stanford University that starts one of the essays. It all comes, not easily, but in a way that you wouldn’t expect. So I just wanted to start talking about how you write, and how you weave those things together, and what makes you think you can put those things together.
Hullot-Kentor: I’m not sure I know altogether what’s happening in how I write. One has intentions and one hopes that something results that is other than those intentions. There is no sense doing it, otherwise. If writing weren’t a kind of catapult, an instrument of the non-intentional, no one would have ever bothered with it. If we weren’t able, by writing, to make something more than we can make, we’d have been done with it a long time ago. Carrier pigeons wouldn’t even carry the notes around.
Rail Can we forget about the carrier pigeons?
Hullot-Kentor: Sure. But, I was saying, about those intentions, that’s what there is to work with; one has to find ways to lean on and heighten the tension between appearances and what is real—on what divides them. You have to load the surfaces; there isn’t anything else to aim at. Rembrandt would set a thick brush of wet paint right onto a portrait’s forehead and then some more onto the nose. Somehow you have to make the wallboard bulge; that’s when intentions can become more than intentions. And since we all live at the back of the scenery at the same time that we can’t help being part of the scenery, to ourselves and to each other, we’re in the right position to make this happen; we’re the only part of nature that can make this happen. If this sometimes occurs in what I do, if the wallboard does momentarily bulge in a couple of places—maybe from shoving behind it too—I’d be awfully pleased. Maybe that’s what you call the sense of a “process” in what I write. Following thought where it wants to go.
Rail Maybe. Things flash up in your writing that always surprise me. It’s the flow of thought as you develop an idea, whether it’s the idea of “progress as domination,” or the idea of the primitive in us and in reality—which you’ve claimed is the central insight of radical modernism. They are flashes of what I would call “real time” that come into play. All of a sudden in your essay the topic turns out to be global warming, for instance. Or I remember specifically in one of your essays, in Origin is the Goal, you talked about the behavior, the walk and the stance, of President Bush and his brother in Florida. These “real time” events crop up within an essay and weave their way from the present and connect themselves to the ideas you develop. They come in a flash. This energizes the work in a way I find rare with people who are involved in the kind of ideas that you are involved in.
Hullot-Kentor: The issue is, as you say, “real time.” You’re touching on a big topic. The whole of twentieth century philosophy, the interesting part of it anyway, was preoccupied—still is preoccupied—with the question of how to bring time into the structure of concepts. The thinking on the problem resulted in all those notoriously puzzling forms of writing in radical modern philosophy. Everything that is peculiar in Adorno’s style, the ten page long paragraphs, and so on, it all originates in reflection on the question of time, which for Adorno turns out to be the question of nature. Of course, you can get a surrogate temporality into an essay by importing doses of current events. But how to capture time in concepts? I suppose I’m working on that too, though my way of putting things together isn’t anything like Adorno’s, and couldn’t possibly be. And even when parts of stories, or particular events turn up in my essays, I’m not relying on them. I sure don’t want to write poetry in discursive essays, either.
Rail Another of the essays in Things Beyond Resemblance that I wanted to ask you about, and learned a lot from, is “Second Salvage.” It’s about Adorno’s Current of Music and how he was hired to be a researcher for a man who wanted to publish research that valorized his business, and his business was the new technology of radio.
Hullot-Kentor: It was sort of that. Paul Lazarsfeld, a Columbia University sociologist, hired Adorno to study—as I started to say before—what was happening to music in its electronic transmission. In the 1930s lots of people, especially on the Left, had great hopes that radio would democratize cultural treasures that had previously been the private domain of the wealthy. It was a terrific idea; it is easy to sympathize with. But, the problem was, radio transmission and reception were still inadequate; transmissions and recordings were full of static and background noise. And Adorno, who certainly shared the idea of a democratization of culture—he gave radio courses on new music over WNYC—could not pretend that these transmissions did what they promised. Instead of making important music available to all, they were deceiving mid-America, the farmer heartland, proudly huddled up around the Sunday evening symphony broadcast, waiting for the treasures to arrive. Anyway, Lazarsfeld didn’t like those conclusions too much, and Adorno—who was certainly never easy to get along with—got fired.
Rail Now I remember. But what especially interested me in Adorno’s conclusions was that even though he didn’t think radio delivered what it promised to mid-America, he did think that something else in those broadcasts could be cultivated. Didn’t he think the static, the distortions in the broadcasts, could itself be cultivated?
Hullot-Kentor: You always remember the best parts, Paul. Yes. Adorno shunned the normative interest in high culture in favor of the static, the distortion. The distortion seemed to him to be his ally—in the way that Picasso knew distortion was his ally—in the critique of societal appearances. Adorno speculated whether it wouldn’t be possible to compose music, new music, advanced music, out of the static itself and use the radio as the ‘instrument,’ a musical instrument, for the performance of this new music. By the way, Adorno didn’t think that this could be done; he thought it was what would need to be done to make good on radio’s false promises—a hypothetical project that illuminated the actual limitations of radio. In a sense, Cage devoted much of his life to proving Adorno right about the difference between tools and musical instruments. But I see what appeals to you in Adorno’s thinking. And it has more to do with Kafka’s “Hunger Artist” than with Cage. In your recent work, in 1st Light, for instance—which I think is the best of what anyone has done as a memorial to 9/11—you’ve been trying to emaciate reality into existence, starve it into existence. That’s your way to get the wall board to bulge. Am I right? In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds?
Rail I thought I was interviewing you.
Hullot-Kentor: Ok, onward.
Rail You’re saying that Adorno’s point in Current of Music wasn’t that radio was no good and we should shut it off and learn to play Beethoven on proper instruments?
Hullot-Kentor: He wouldn’t have minded if we could all play Beethoven, I’m sure of that. But that isn’t where his focus went. When he lived in New York City, he spent time uptown in Harlem dancing with people that I suspect not all that many Columbia professors go dancing with right now; not since the days of Bobby Kennedy, anyway, if then. Adorno wasn’t a rigorist, in the ethical sense; his thinking is exacting, but not strict; it’s not a punishment. He wasn’t for any kind of restoration, not politically and not artistically; he didn’t think the world of classical music could be, or should be, glued back together again. He was looking for the potential in the moment of his day as the source of the genuinely new. He was relentlessly preoccupied with the possibility of emphatic experience.
Rail Do you have a favorite essay in Things Beyond Resemblance?
Hullot-Kentor: I’d probably take “Apple Criticizes the Tree of Knowledge.”
Rail Why that one?
Hullot-Kentor: It’s short, it’s three pages, you can read it in five minutes. I read slowly, so I’m always in favor of what’s got fewer pages. But, also because that essay takes the side of theory in opposition to what passes for theory. “Theory,” comes from a Greek word that once meant, “to see a snake.” That could be just funny. But a snake was once a significant, a prodigious thing to see; it was for the Greeks. Their ancient idea of theory propitiously, luckily maybe, developed into the idea of thought that would achieve a true seeing—in the sense that Plato wanted us ultimately to see the ideas. “Theory” then is importantly related to that interesting Sanskrit Hindu word, darsan, a blessed seeing: the perception of what is of the greatest interest. Strangely, maybe, such a seeing would ultimately have to mean a being seen by what is most important; it’s implied.
Rail That reminds me of Adorno’s line, wherever it was in one of your essays, that “art understands us, we don’t understand it.” Was that it?
Hullot-Kentor: More or less. And that’s the point. If art—when art is art—understands us better than we can intentionally understand ourselves, then a philosophy of art would need to comprehend what understands us. Thinking would need to become critically imminent to that object; subjectivity would become the capacity of its object, not simply its manipulation. That’s the center of Adorno’s aesthetics. It’s an idea of thought that is considerably different from the sense of contemporary “theory,” where everyone feels urged to compare Derrida with Nietzsche, the two of them with Levinas, and all of them now with Badiou, Zizek and Agamben. That kind of thinking is primarily manipulation. It’s the bureaucratic mind unconsciously flexing the form of social control it has internalized and wants to turn on others. Seeing, as seeing what’s of the essence, is at best the lesser part of that thinking.
Rail But if that’s bureaucratic reason, you keep bringing in other forms of knowledge. There’s sociology, philosophy, psychology, and probably economics too.
Hullot-Kentor: Economics too. You’re right, even if there are distinctions to be made here. For reasons we don’t have time for, German philosophy ended up wanting to solve the question of the relation of the individual to society in a way that involved an organization of all knowledge from the perspective of aesthetics. That, of course, was not going to work; and it definitely did not work in Germany, which could hardly have a more tragic history. Aesthetic social philosophy did not exactly do the trick. There is much to think about in this, and critically of Adorno as well. We are touching on the strength of his thinking and in part on its Achilles’ heel, all at once. But it isn’t a bureaucratic heel; it doesn’t manipulate ideas externally.
Rail Can I ask you about your translation of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory? That’s the first work of yours I came across. I thought it had the ugliest cover I had ever seen.
Hullot-Kentor: Thank you, Paul. I remember that that attracted you to it.
Rail Well it did, but look, I understand that your translation is a second translation of the book? What happened to the first one?
Hullot-Kentor: I wrote a critical review of that first translation. It found its way back to the German owners of the copyright—Suhrkamp—and they insisted that the book be taken off the shelves. I felt an obligation to present a new translation.
Rail How long did that take you?
Hullot-Kentor: Forever. I’m not sure I like thinking about that. Probably 10 years. I must have given up on it I don’t know how many times. Friends insisted: “No, you can’t forget it on the subway;” “No, it’s too big to hide under a rock.” I did the best I could with it. Translation is something you can always improve on. There’s always reason to give it another try. I don’t think I’ll be giving it another try though.
Rail But you are doing a new translation now of Negative Dialectic?
Hullot-Kentor: Right. I am working on it. I’ll finish it up tomorrow.
Rail Do you have any thoughts on how having those two books in English might change things? Or what could change as a result of them?
Hullot-Kentor: Nothing special. The rubbish in the world’s oceans will rise to the surface and dissolve harmlessly, like fresh baking soda tablets; global warming will reverse into global mellifluousness, with an intermittent, pleasing drizzle; and the 184 million people that Hobsbawm estimates were shot, bombed, starved, gassed, and marched into mass graves and who were bulldozed over in 20th century conflicts, will send off postcards saying they feel better now.
Rail … …
Hullot-Kentor: I don’t know, Paul. There are many important ideas in those two books. Ideas make us think; we think ideas. They are what are urgent in our minds—contrary to the mindset of colleges and universities which are proudest claiming that they teach how to do it, how to think, how to write, how to read and end up leaving the students cold, in debt, stupidified and hating what they’ve done in those years in classrooms, being prepared mostly for bad jobs—and unable even to follow the news in something more than a tabloid. What is it, is it 60 or 70 percent of Americans—I forget—say they don’t have the background to follow the news in the newspaper? But where the ideas go, where Negative Dialectic might lead, that’s hard to say. One hesitates to speculate because it seems like that would slam more doors than open. If I got to choose, though, I know what I’d choose.
Rail Alright, you pull the wishbone.
Hullot-Kentor: I’d wish those books would be read and that we would resist a little more. We aren’t resisting. For all the difficulty of our lives, for how dissatisfied people are, when you think how many flounder, however angry and destructive we can be, however much we feel we’re pushing against the current, people might actually think of resisting. People aren’t resisting Movie Land. They’re not resisting what’s on the radio. We largely parade what’s being sold us, and not much more. The culture industry today, if you look at it anthropologically, is in considerable proportion made up of forms of ritual defilement. That’s what we are doing with ourselves; that’s where the energy goes. It’s a way of ruining what one has so there’s nothing left to lose. It’s worth seeing it for what it is. Maybe let the batteries peter out on the cell phone; tuck it away in a bottom drawer. It is conceivable that there is something else than business. Untangle the earphones from the ears. You can take an ear-training class and learn to pick out a minor 7th and develop an acuity of listening and a comprehension of music that will make you disconsolate with what there is to hear over the radio and the web.
Rail What you’re saying, I don’t know if radical is the right word, anachronism may not be the right word, but really the idea of this seemingly innumerable, inextricable, connection that comes from everywhere and anything, from media coming at you, from the cell phone, the e-mail, to your landline, to text messaging; it really feels like everything around you is saying you should connect.
Hullot-Kentor: That’s exactly the point; I’m glad you put it that way. Adorno gave a set of lectures on moral philosophy in 1957—it’s not the series on moral philosophy that was recently published. But, anyway, Adorno ended that seminar acknowledging the disproportion between what an individual can do and what the combined social powers are. He thought that the disproportion of forces is absolute. If a single person could locate the mythical lever that would change everything, that person could not budge that lever. This is plain fact in the US right this minute where even a considerable majority has so far been unable to budge that lever and isolate a president who represents forces that have done incalculable harm and still mean to do lots more of the same.
So what’s a person to do who has few illusions about the situation? Adorno recommended something modest, but it would be half utopian right this moment: “You,” he was talking to his students, and I’m just half remembering this ‘you don’t have to play along completely; you can do things a little differently.’ That word “difference” took a considerable beating over the last few decades. But, Paul, you indicated what would make a difference, if a modest one: instead of functioning as the point where all those connections you were talking about a second ago are made; instead of being the synaptic co-ordination for the sales brigade; instead of eagerly handing the baton along—it can be intercepted and set quietly on the ground. You can not make the connection. You can cause a Bermuda triangle to settle over the scene of industrial entertainment. It’s a pleasure listening for the engines to conk out, where the conversation folds up and pitches into the waves. You might not know what that movie was about, and are indifferent anyway; maybe you can’t recognize the punch line to that advertisement; maybe you don’t know which team plays which sport; or maybe you couldn’t escape knowing the ad lines, or the movie plot, but you do as if. It’s a possibility. One can save the capacity of familiarity for what might be genuinely familiar. I wish people would. Let the big ship leave by itself, one rider less.