It needs to be noticed: We have New Left Review and October; we have Monthly Review and Critical Inquiry; there is Rethinking Marxism and Cultural Critique; Socialist Review and Confrontation; Critique; Radical Philosophy; the Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies and shelves and shelves of critical theory of all kinds. We have criticism of all things. Nothing is spared. A web search I tried last week of “critical studies”—leaving aside “cultural studies” and “critical theory”—turned up more than 31 million references. If we prudently discount 15 million of these references, we still easily have 15 million plus critical studies publications, programs and sundry essays: critical studies in television, of food, and culture; of science; of the arts, of media, across the disciplines; of society, of gender, in theatre and performance. And so on.
This capacious critical literature is certainly not homogeneous. Under any scrutiny, it polarizes out into the most remote extremes: On one hand, much of it amounts to fantasies of conceptual omnipotence; mental muscle magazines of self-obfuscation and academic self-advancement; administrative techniques for treating all things, all at once; a plausible way for anyone with an advantage of mental agility to get a hoist up on top of who knows what. But at the other extreme, an important part of this critical research and thinking, much for instance that can be found in volumes of Monthly Review and New Left Review, is of the greatest seriousness and responsibility, without which it is hard to imagine ever getting an education.
Yet if there was ever a moment to notice that these utter extremes not only converge but touch, it is now—in the midst of a social crisis that has culminated in the financial disaster of the past several weeks. Because, even if there has long been a critique of everything, in which nothing has been spared, at this moment of social calamity the derivative, nonsense part of “critical studies” and the most serious part of it, can be witnessed reaching fingertip to fingertip in the complete absence of any substantial criticism at all.
This criticism of all things that amounts to criticism of nothing at all is what is being discussed here; the point deserves to be emphasized and expanded. No one doubts the degree of social dissatisfaction and distress; millions are now displaced in the wreckage of homes, families and any plausible future. Over the course of the past eight years an acutely ascending line has in full public knowledge graphed the growing distress that has culminated in this moment. The cumulative opposition of this country to the administration has long amounted to an overarching majority. Most everyone has claimed to be angry with Bush and his policies. Focus just for a moment on the issue of war: in these years it has been difficult to find anyone who would not readily insist on being opposed to the invasion of Iraq. But, if so, why then over these same years could a visitor to Central Park on almost any weekend morning have found it almost impossible to get across the street because people are racing six abreast in mile long corridors, “racing for the cure,” while hardly even the stragglers on any of these same mornings could be coaxed to come walk in a line to demonstrate against a war the majority “hates?” Why has mobilization against the war been overarchingly tepid? Right now, at the moment that this discussion is being written—October 18th 2008—we are just weeks before a decisive presidential election, and meanwhile the bees have for some years been falling dead out of the bushes and out of the branches; it is several weeks before the election, and for years we have all been experiencing days—days in sequences—whose cloud patterns and temperatures are reminiscent of nothing at all, of days never before lived, because they are days and weeks out of no recognizable seasons at all. We know that one of every four mammal species now verges on extinction. It is weeks before the election, and if the research is correct, before this century is done, at least 5 billion people—that is, 5,000 millions of people—will be dead as a result of climate dependent calamity. And all the same anyone might have noticed that among New York City’s millions of cars and trucks there are not even bumper stickers to be seen. There is a premium on self-infliction, people may be tattooed to the collarbone and beyond, but there is barely a political button on a shirt collar. Bewilderingly, even when exceptionally mobilized—the anti-war demonstrations of 2003 and 2005 were numerically the largest on record—resistance has dissipated without effect. The outcry in these years has been tremendous; anyone who could write a book or an article about it, has written one, but, again, without effect. And in spite of political distress verging on despair, the political opposition to the administration—by the time this essay is published, hopefully, the nominee-elect—is staunchly centrist, draws economic advisers primarily from the arch conservative University of Chicago and only marginally represents an improvement on the existing market mentality. This situation of omnipresent criticism without any fundamental criticism was laconically presented in a single sentence recently by Will Hutton in the British Guardian: “There is, in fact no intellectual, social or political challenge to a market system…even by the Chinese Communists.” Even the communists are now capitalists. And in the long sweep of American journal and magazine racks there is not a cover to be found that promises speculation on any other alternative to the business cycle than alternative plans to “save the system,” that is, to save “the guilt totality of the living,” as Walter Benjamin described the form of the mythical social structure that is right this moment drawing the world as a whole into its own calamitous vortex.
Only the Best of Reasons
There is no difficulty finding reasons for this absence of thinking opposition; much has to do with the situation of youth. For as a group, in a sense innately, adolescents are effectively a political party without a leader1, they are the most ready part of modern society to develop and embrace this leadership where and when they can find it and define social opposition. This occurred in the 60s. The students who led the resistance to the Vietnam War and produced largely, though not exclusively, spurious elements of a counter-culture, were able to do so in part because they were not going to lose their shirts. They could live in communes, march in the streets, bring campuses nationwide to a halt and camp out in Washington D.C. for days at a time and still get through the winter on their own. Government subsidies to higher education, shaped by the struggle with the Soviet Union for the production of scientific research staffs, made college tuition cheap.2 Comparable students today, however, have been entirely absorbed into the social debt structure. It most of all organizes their lives. Students are now by majority at work, at least part time, and largely unprotected, with everything to lose. In lieu of the challenge of the Soviet Union and the corresponding US government subsides, students are paying stupendous tuitions for educations that are, in fact, bare socialization and job preparation programs, and they are themselves objectively targeted by industry sales programs beyond any of the most densely animated electronic fantasies that by measure preoccupy their waking hours.3 Between acquiring and trading off what is otherwise being sold them—springtime plans for their integration into the forced march of the travel industry included—all of it as if it were a matter of life or death, the odds are against their ever catching their breath in a life that has narrowed to not much more than buying and selling.
Fear on other levels has no less incapacitated challenging critical insight from taking significant shape. The right wing, as a broad social movement, has clubbed together over the last several decades in order to legitimate the expression of rage. That is what the right wing does together; it is the satisfaction they seek and they can find it together, and it is powerful.4 Their collective rage has mobilized forces of stigma, humiliation and persecution that have decisively contributed to the contemporary paralysis of thinking. Their characteristically aggressive lies have been—and are—impossible to contest just because they are open lies; no one doubts they are lies and as such entirely frank organizing statements to their cohorts as the intention to dominate at any price. Each lie says: “assert this and prevail.” In the midst of these tactics, the word “liberal” has been successfully suffused with palpable fright; the word “radical” itself has been appropriated exclusively by what is dead set against it. Only the likes of Bush and McCain have in recent memory been able to claim to be radicals, by which they of course are saying that they mean the opposite. Even the color red, the historical flag of radical opposition since the French Revolution, has been occupied on the political color map by conservatives. Thus, the social constellation has resulted in the conservatives being pictured as “red” while the liberal states are said to be “blue.” This is the formulaic way in which the right wing insinuates that the “blue” are in fact “reds” in a dynamic that at the same time indicates that the conservatives are, as “reds,” occupying any possible opposition to themselves. The underlying form of this attack is accusation through imitation of what is detested. What is so strange in those people with imitation faces—without our quite being able to figure out who exactly they are imitating—figures like Coulter and Palin; what makes the way they wear their sex a mystery that simultaneously fascinates is that their longing—what is most human—has vanished into spiteful imitation of their opponent.5 Throughout the twentieth century, the right wing at its most vitriolic has characteristically absorbed elements of what they most hate into their own appearance, and they pursue this labile tactic at every turn. It is among the most primordial mechanisms of attack; it can be traced through the whole of nature, right down to the facing off of certain kinds of flies and spiders. Humanly, it is a form of attack that is almost impossible to parry.
For this reason, liberals in Congress have prudently avoided any engagement with these impulses of stigma and mockery. They are the perennially attendant forces of social crisis, and as we know from the experience of the past century, they can swamp and transform a country in short order. They opportunistically make use of paranoiac mechanisms to catch hold of the slightest thread of any aspect of their opposition, any single word will do, in order to concoct delusional ideational webs that can preoccupy, consume and exhaust society altogether.
But the toll on this Congressional restraint and prudence in tempting these virulent forces has been considerable. It has been paid for by the failure to initiate impeachment proceedings against officials of the nation’s highest offices. We have been too frightened—and rightly frightened—to pursue these impeachments. Since there is no possible constructive arguing with them; since doing so only discredits and humiliates the side that in fact seeks reason, these vitriolic forces can only be met by defeating them, however little those who value reason want conflict and arm wrestling. Our hope right this minute is that we will somehow skirt these dangerous forces; that they will somehow go back to the cave they came from and fall asleep there. They are not likely to do so. But there is no overlooking that the national failure to protect the rule of legitimate government has disheartened and undermined the focus of possible opposition. Surviving these years has changed every one of us into a participant in what most of us have been opposed to; and committed us individually to collaboration in the sense that what we already have is what necessarily must be.
Every Possible Reason
These are only several reasons that contribute to explaining a situation of omnipresent social criticism that has nevertheless failed to achieve any important, convincing social challenge. But so many other reasons immediately spring to mind for the situation we have experienced, beginning with fear of the truth as such and continuing down a long list from there. What must be emphasized then is that the many apparent, virtually self-evident reasons for our situation point far beyond any ascertainable number of reasons for what has happened. The ease of finding reasons itself indicates a totality from which all the many reasons for the failure of real criticism derive. It is then, not particular reasons that explain our circumstance. On the contrary, what has occurred is that society as a whole has now become immanent to itself, it has consumed itself, it exists internally to itself; there is no longer an outside to it. If we put our instruments and telescopes up to the window to peer outside—as Clov does repeatedly in Beckett’s Endgame, an outside that Beckett in his stage directions calls the “without”—we, like Clov, at best perceive the reflection of the pupils of our own eyes and even then without recognizing them as such. We have in other words become, in every regard, system-immanent.
This is why our thinking, if it is noticed, has acquired, nationally, that peculiar quality that it seems that we can’t even know what we know: whether about the environment, the socio-political situation, or the economy. We know it, and we do not know it. Wherever we touch at the perimeter of our self-enclosure, we recoil in fear of the truth, and so completely that it seems that knowledge itself amounts to that fear. We can all recite statistics and say what we have read, but it is as if we are waiting to hear from others that what we know is actually the case. And exactly this being unable to know what we know carries the felt quality—cognitively—of being system-immanent. If the problem of contemporary philosophy is how reality can be made to break in on the mind that masters it, we are now ineluctably elements of the vulcanized internal surface of that mind that has made itself impervious to reality. We are, in the broadest social terms, an intelligence that cannot take in reality that is other to itself. This is not a critical failure to grasp otherness in the sense of a confrontation with the cosmic winds—though it is that as well; it is the mundane failure to comprehend otherness as the mundane, as what is closest, as what we ourselves are and what actually is happening.
Who We Really Are
This all-encompassing immanence of society to itself is the social transformation that Theodor Adorno saw occurring in the United States when he lived here as a refugee in New York City between 1938 and 1941. In those years, he was writing a study of the transformation of music in radio broadcast transmission. The book, Current of Music, wanted to understand how the critical content of music was being dissolved in the blurry, inadequate transmission of radio sound of those years. As part of that volume, which Adorno did not finish, he wrote a brief essay, “A New Type of Human Being,” in which he summed up the metamorphosis that he thought Americans of those years were starting to go through as amounting to the production of a population that was by any historical standard and in the most profound sense uneducable, that is, characterized by an objectless intelligence. This transformation paralyzed critical consciousness. Adorno’s brief essay on this new type of human being would be worth considering even if only for what it described in the essay’s own moment in 1941. But Adorno’s study is considerably more important than that because it soon becomes apparent in reviewing it that we are the progeny of this new type of human being. By magnitudes this is who we really are more than any glance at the heavily loaded magazine racks of journals of critical studies possibly indicate. At least in part, those many publications must themselves be marked by this transformation. And it is only with an eye to whom we really are that it is possible at all to find some indication for what critical theory must now concern itself with.6
The Primitive in Us and in Reality
But to follow Adorno’s thinking in his essay, we need to be prepared for an approach that is inimical to us. For the whole of his thinking originates in the central insight of modernism, and this is an insight that is now fundamentally lost to us. It must be that the social dynamic that once made this perception available and necessary has now extinguished it. For when it is brought back to mind, it is sensed either as a matter of indifference or as a considerable intrusion on us. Modernism cannot be deduced whole from this one insight; its reality is obviously something more than this one thought. But without this insight, there would have been no radical movement of modernism at all. For this insight indicates what there is to find as much in Cézanne and Van Gogh as in Mondrian, as it is there to be heard in the sound of radical New Music of Weber and Schoenberg; it is as much the central insight from which Freud derives as does the whole of Kafka, as does the whole of modern architecture. This insight—to repeat, now largely anathema to us—is what the redoubtable 1911 edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica in its article “Civilization” called “the most radical metamorphosis of mental view that has taken place in the entire course of the historical period”—that is, in the whole of recorded history. The Britannica’s presentation of this prodigious idea could be included here, but since it is the same thought that Adorno’s work on every page revolves around, it is more to the point to hear Adorno himself summarize it, as he did in a lecture on the “Concept of Philosophy” in which he estimated the idea in terms closely bearing on those of the Britannica’s:
The horizon of knowledge has been infinitely expanded; layers have come into our field of vision that were hidden. To understand the archaic—the primitive, the primordial—in us and in reality, this was the definitive step that Western thought made.
The perception of the primitive in ourselves and in reality was, from the turn of the twentieth century and through Adorno’s decades, a capacity for social, scientific and artistic advance. As Adorno indicated in his essay without needing to say so, this insight not only made the colored stripes on bird’s wings for the first time understandable, it made dreams for the first time interpretable. And it no less provided Adorno with the perceived model for understanding the form of social regression in a new way, which most of all came from Freud. Regression, in light of understanding “the primitive in ourselves and in reality,” would no longer mean a return to a primitive origin from which civilization could somehow claim to have at an earlier stage exited, as if the “savage” and the “barbaric” were the opposite of civilization, as stages back into which civilization under pressure might again collapse. Rather, the new concept of regression that Adorno developed was the idea of the emergence, at moments of crisis, of primitive conflicts that were never resolved in the first place—conflicts that civilization itself harbors and that it manufactures and heightens by its own logic. For instance: the Wall Street fright that the country is feeling right now is by no means a return to a fright felt in 1929. On the contrary, it is the immediate perception of the anxiety that we have all felt for a lifetime. Panicky selling on Wall Street is the obverse of the panicky purchasing that is felt in our guts any day in the buildings that surround and radiate out from any city intersection. It is a primordial fear that society has failed to resolve and that it has instead reproduced and potentiated.
In other words: Adorno developed the insight into the primitive in ourselves and in reality as a theory of a social dynamic in which what is taken for progress is itself the movement of regression. Adorno termed this dynamic the “dialectic of enlightenment”—a rubric under which he would have comprised each of the several particular causes of critical incapacity that were discussed earlier along with all those causes we didn’t have a chance to discuss. The “dialectic of enlightenment” is the phenomenon of the movement of society toward a condition of “modern barbarism,” a phrase by the way that—if I’m correct about the fate of the perception of the primitive—either leaves us indifferent to it or with a sense that somehow, something (we aren’t sure how or what) is being done a considerable injustice.
A New Type of Human Being
This is the conceptual background for understanding Adorno’s 1941 discussion of a “New Type of Human Being,” a person who in those years, he thought, was becoming immanent to the social structure by a process of regression; immanent, that is, to a progressive dynamic of primitivization. The emergence of this person amounted to the reduction of life at a highest level of technical achievement to the primordial struggle for survival in a fashion that demolishes the self. It is survival at the price of the very self that self-preservation wants to protect in the first place. It is self-assertion as self-renunciation; a structure in which the primitive effort at the manipulation of reality through external sacrifice becomes the no less primitive internal structure of the modern self in its effort at survival. Adorno put it this way in the essay we’re discussing: the individual “seems to be on the way to a situation in which it can only survive by relinquishing its individuality, by blurring the boundary between itself and its surroundings, and sacrificing most of its independence and autonomy.” By this essentially chameleon labor, the self is thus prohibited from developing in critical opposition to society.
In his essay Adorno goes on to discuss a number of aspects of the changes in society that had resulted in the regressive pattern of this new type of human being. He points out that he had no intention of being exhaustive in the enumeration of these aspects, but only wanted to indicate the large-scale transformation that was occurring at every level of society. His observations can be condensed in five points:
First of all, Adorno thought that society had come to categorically overwhelm the self with real fear and anxiety. The developing self is fragmented and disorganized and, in Adorno’s words, ultimately “suffocated” by the intensity of this anxiety. It is not possible to become a coherent, resilient person in the face of this anxiety, since the self is recurrently split and traumatized.
Secondly, Adorno thought that the world of the new type of human being was essentially “imageless.” This is initially a hard observation to make sense of. After all, we live under a bombardment of advertisements, films and photographs. But Adorno’s point about a contemporary imagelessness is that the films and photographs and ads are only nominally images, simply pictures and design. After all, the whole of modernism in art developed in opposition to the mechanical forms of art reproduction. And Adorno—like Van Gogh, or like Ad Reinhardt for that matter—did not find that a photograph, for instance, had the technical, compositional resources to be an image in the emphatic sense. These nominal images, as Adorno points out, always appear with “FAKE” written across them. Partly, and paradoxically, this is out of their illusionistic inadequacy, their own inability to cause their illusionary surface to collapse in opposition to their reportage, however urgent that may be. But it is also because we now generally want “images” to appear fake so that even in art that means to be art we can enjoy that feeling of amused superiority that industrial entertainment characteristically provides as a narcissistic gratification to its audience.7 Adorno concluded that this transformation of the emphatic image into the normative image of a thus imageless world contributed to the emaciation of the new type of human being. The deprivation of images qua image prohibits the new type of person from developing a subjective imagination that is required for thought that would be anything more than the reproduction of the status quo.
Third. Adorno was aware that humans become what we are and are transformed by what we hold; that—in spite of our fantasies—the object has primacy over the subject. The new type of human being, then, was experientially shaped by being involved most of all with technical objects that proscribe experience in that they most of all require the adaptation of the self to their use. As we—the progeny of the new type of person—all know, the function of the individual in dealing with these devices is limited to obedience in fulfilling their instructions; that is the nature of the skill, which is in fact nothing like a skill in the historical sense of the word, that they demand. In the process of mastering the rules of these cold, technical objects, a quality shared by much of what goes by the name of theory, these devices become models of the self. The self seeks to resemble them, to become as technical, embalmed and cold as they are. The now largely electronic devices substantially take the place that was once held by emphatic images and are clutched after in their clubbishly anonymous, pervasively managerial form of happiness as libidinized objects. Our libidinal capacity, Adorno thought, and as is entirely obvious now, has been absorbed by these technical objects.
Fourth. Adorno thought that the structure of the self was being undermined by the disintegration of the family as a mediating institution between society and the individual. The family, which was already becoming archaic in the nineteenth century, no longer serves an economic social function. As a result, in lieu of the family, society takes hold of the individual directly, immediately, without the individual being able to develop as such in “living and direct confrontation with his family.” The person, in other words, is now dominated directly by the social structure before the capacity for intellectual differentiation and opposition has developed. Paradoxically, from the perspective of the critique of the authoritarian family, but as psychologists have long confirmed since Adorno wrote his essay, the most fearful children are those who grow up without a father and thus without becoming individuated through a struggle against his authority. In this perspective, Warhol’s apothegm of each person’s claim to that minute of fame—his collection of waifs staring with triumphant depersonalized appetite into the cameras—presents urgencies shaped by a need for recognition that the family no longer provides within its own encompassment.
Fifth and, according to Adorno, most important for the developing inability of the “New Type of Human Being” to achieve any reality beyond the boundary of its ideational functions, is an “altered relationship with physicality, especially physical strength.” The long standing and quintessential civilizational taboo on the direct assertion of physical strength was being, and now has been, lifted. Its suspension, Adorno thought, had resulted in cultural objects being translated into what are now called “interactive” objects. Objects and the physiological competitions keyed to them had begun—and are now acknowledged as the recognized educational ideal—to increasingly displace what was once a process of individual cultivation. They are the punctual surrogates for the effectively objectless and are acceptable as such because they are restricted to the mechanical exchange relation that provides immunity to an intimacy and depth of participation—of actual self-extinguishing—in the object whose tension the self could not possibly tolerate. It is valuable to quote Adorno himself on this issue because he formulates the suspension of the taboo on physical force in terms of that process of primitivization that, I suspect, really rubs us the wrong way: “The path to barbarization,” Adorno writes, “is probably connected to this altered attitude to physicality.” The display of immediate physical strength is “by no means…a liberation from the body repressed by bourgeois culture.” But if the sport body is hardly an erotic alternative to the body’s repression, its evidently unchallengeable predominance in all things has replaced the capacity for thinking differentiation and concentration in much of the arts as throughout education with physical sensation as an actual external pressure in place of internal self-coherence.
A Threshold of Critical Theory
There we have it: the “New Type of Human Being.” And if so, if some of this rings true, we can by these lights see something of who we really are more than any glance at the heavily-packed journal racks of critical studies possibly reveals. Those publications are in large measure the professionalization of objectlessness, an institutional section of the division of labor that is a remnant of the decline most of all of literature in the vanishment of a concentrated reading public whose disappearance will soon make investigative newspapers as obsolete as the junior year course on Dickens and Balzac. It is itself another form of self-assertion as self-renunciation in which in learning to juggle, for instance, the Lacanian arcanum—whatever the actual importance of those ideas—one becomes conformingly foreign to oneself and by that measure at the same time every bit deprived of the subjective spontaneity and autonomy that objectivity—the ability to make reality break in on the mind that masters it—would require, and which is the only alternative to the sacrifice of intelligence.
This conclusion is not meant to amount to the demand that we store the journal rack of dissociated reasoning as well as the bikes in the basement and somehow now go to work at becoming cultivated people; or that schools now devote themselves to this undertaking, which they long ago discarded. That is not going to happen any more than tradition can be promoted by demanding a return to it, as by fiat. We are not susceptible to being cultured, not by Titian, and not by Beethoven either. The only way out then, Adorno was sure, is through. Any real possibility would have to be pursued, developed and heightened out of the actual potentials of what we have become. These potentials remain to be discerned, and here serious thought is needed. But certainly these potentials include the anger now felt so broadly at being deprived of the truth. It can be demanded. If the last boundaries to the family and individual privacy are being shorn away and the corporations and government insist on having access to the last remainders, this can become a rightful, no less unabashed demand to refuse their own claims to secrecy, which are legitimated on the presumption that conflicts can only be suppressed but never resolved. If regression is the tendency of the new type of human being, this not only makes us vulnerable to the slightest manipulation of the most primitive impulses; it can also become the ability to find the no less requisitely primitive impulse to stand up and say “Enough!” In some of his sculptures, Richard Serra has developed ways to transform the muscular bulk of the suspension of the taboo on physical strength into the opposite of any kind of “interactiveness,” as a mimetic power of differentiation and memory of suffering, which is the only actual source of criticism. If society is a structure of the internalization of sacrifice, most of all in the exchange relationship, insight must be won into the demands that are soon to be raised in half-sacred and righteous intonations on the urgency of belt-tightening and sacrifices in this economic disaster, as though it was somehow a failure and lapse of adequate sacrifice that first brought us to this situation. As if once again, but without any memory of the repetition, all must be sacrificed for the few if life is to continue. Historically, in terms of what we by any measure face, we have crossed a threshold, not of sleep, but of what there is no waking up from. The question is not of possibly avoiding a tipping-point eight or fifteen years from now, but a question of what might be saved in absolute emergency.8 And while there is nothing to return to, as if to safety, it is possible to struggle for insight into the process of primitivization—the reduction by its own dynamic of the capacity for the control of nature to the reproduction of the bare struggle for self-preservation—that has now engulfed the perception of the “primitive in us and in reality.”