WHAT BARBARISM IS?by Robert Hullot-Kentor
An enormous nation happy in a style,
Everything as unreal as real can be.
Prometheus stole fire to distract the gods, not for our gift; what he bestowed was reason, the ability to make anything into a weapon—even this.
What interests us in the thought and writings of T. W. Adorno cannot interest us. Where it touches us most closely in the urgency of the moment, it misses the mark entirely. When it cuts to the quick, nothing is felt. This is easily demonstrated. For wherever we open Adorno’s writings, whichever volume we turn to, the topic is the barbaric and barbarism. In Aesthetic Theory, we read that the “literal is the barbaric”; we learn in the section on “Natural Beauty” that “it is barbaric to say of nature that one thing is more beautiful than another.” Adorno insists, again in Aesthetic Theory, that he will not temper his most notorious claim that it is “barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz.” Concerns we barely recognize are nonetheless barbaric: the New Objectivity is said to “reverse into the barbarically pre-aesthetic.” Inwardness is “barbaric.” Even it is barbaric, says Adorno, to name the artist “a creator.” I am positive that he would have found this fragmented rendering of phrases from his work barbaric. The relentless apostrophizing of the barbaric emerges as the single apostrophe of his labor and circumscribes the entirety of what he perceived. In Minima Moralia “the whole itself” is, in fact, said to be “barbarism.” And, if so, if the whole itself really is barbarism then nothing less than all things are barbaric. In the stream of assertion that threads through his thousands of pages, Adorno never once admits a half-tone, not a single “almost,” “semi,” or “formerly” barbaric. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, the culture industry that this country produced is “barbarism.” This American “barbarism is not the result of cultural lag,” as other European visitors to America speculated, he writes, but of progress itself. And here, in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, we arrive at the statement that shifts like a magnet under the iron filings of what has so far been a scattered catalogue of barbarism’s membra disjecta and causes them, as you’ll see in a moment, to draw together, take their place, become legible and shape the focal point of the whole of thinking. The intention of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno writes, with Horkheimer—this is the sentence—is to understand why “humanity founders in a new form of barbarism instead of entering a truly human condition.”
A New Form of Barbarism
Here, Adorno has us. In the precision of the optic he crafted—that humanity now founders in a new form of barbarism—in a second barbarism, we stand in the glare of what has been forced into focus. More than a half century after the publication of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, we know ourselves the addressee of Adorno’s work in a way that we could hardly have realized a decade ago. For the interregnum of the post-war years is over. We are experiencing a return of the great fear, as if it never ended—and perhaps it never did. We are, without a doubt, the occupants of the most catastrophic moment in the whole of human history, in all of natural history, and we cannot get our wits about ourselves. What is being decided right now for all surviving generations including our own, is the exact sum total of the irreversible remainder, the unalterable “How it might have been.” By every indication we are going ahead with the irreparable calamity. Even if the treaties soon to be negotiated in Copenhagen are ratified whole—and nothing at all will be ratified—the proposals on the table are inadequate; even if the legislation of the cap and trade of carbon emissions is eventually made binding on American industry, whatever limited good it may do, the scheme will become another futures’ market and power of delusion. In Adorno’s words, already cited from Minima Moralia, nothing less than the whole is barbaric, because nothing can possibly be excepted. Knowing this, if we could be sane for a moment—and sometimes we are—and if we intended to be sane for more than a moment, Adorno’s imperative stated in Critical Models that the “sole adequate praxis would be to put all energies toward working our way out of barbarism,” would read as the only adequate statement of what there is to do. But a nation that has succeeded at knowing and recognizing history exclusively as economic cycles, that has jettisoned all other historical differentiation in the articulation of its past, now finds itself stumped trying to name what it is we are in the midst of. This is why Adorno’s work is no less urgent to us, than, as we acknowledge it, we must dismiss it. We are those people who are unable to know what we know.
To take some account of what has occurred, two moments will establish historical reference and comparison. Senator Charles Sumner deplored life in the South in 1860 as “barbarous in origin, barbarous in law, barbarous in all its pretensions, barbarous wherever it shows itself.” Sumner’s words—among the most declamatory of the age, but hardly unprecedented in their views—were so antagonizing that he was attacked on the Senate floor by a cane-wielding Southern congressman and knocked to the ground. The beating he sustained, from which he did not recover for many years, directly contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. We could today in Congress pronounce similar words on climate, war and economy in phrases that would, likely, be shorn of Sumner’s stately periodic style. But our spoken words would undoubtedly be shorn of any comparable self-evidence of moral provocation. Let’s also consider—as a second moment of historical reference—that in nineteenth century America, elements of Adorno’s model of the dialectic of history, were by no means something that only foreigners might import to this continent. In the second decade of that century, for instance, a journalist could observe that what was happening to people in the unexampled rapidity of the spread of population over the continent, was proceeding contrary to what to date in history had otherwise been a movement from barbarism to civilization. As this commentator wrote, “Progress has [formerly] been from ignorance to knowledge, from rudeness of savage life to the refinements of polished society. But in the settlement of North America the case is reversed. The tendency is from civilization to barbarism.” “To some it seemed,” as one historian has noted of the years following the American revolution, “that the mind once enlightened could after all become darker.”
Open Secret and Barbaric Yawp
It is difficult to be brief in trying to understand what transpired that made these nineteenth century thoughts aversively of another age to us. One might spontaneously want to say, with a sense of progress achieved, that what provokes us in the judgment of barbarism is the high-handed condescension of the light of civilization to the dark lands that were pillaged in the presumption of that utter distinction of high and low. That pillage occurred; its criticism was an achievement. But the terms of the accomplishment can be queried. While the epithet of barbarism seems to transgress the achievement of equality, what we mean by equality may not be so different from that force of colonial pillage. Equality, as such, our likeness without affinity, is another technique of the same force of pillage in potentiated patterns of economic advancement, and, effectively, a camouflage in which the muscled arm of that raised higher hand of civilization was democratized as a universal potential to coerce without remark. This is the open secret. By the structure of economy, law, and government, we do not permit equality to be pursued except as a fulcrum of inequality. Another age commonly recognized this spurious form of equality—as the facade of inequality—as bourgeois equality. That age could refer to it without requiring any explanation whatsoever as what needed to be overcome. This perception of bourgeois equality, however, even on the political left, has vanished while occupying the visual panorama whole. It is part of what we know without being able to know it. While it must be discussed, it does not bear discussion; we have heard it all already, and have yet to hear it. This clarifies something of what made the critique of barbarism antipathetic to us. It must be that the dynamic of our form of equality consumed both the insight into bourgeois equality and, with it, any possible comprehension of barbarism as other than a culpable attack on equality. The critique of the epithet of barbarism serves as its own mask. It is worn all the more securely because of the element of truth, the genuine aspect of emancipation that it, like equality itself, bears. Still, a slight nudge serves to dislodge the pretense and reveal a half grin. After all, who has come home from elementary school, head on chest, complaining that the teacher “called me a barbarian again today; I hate that!” And if that event had somehow happened, it is not at all sure that it would have been such an unpleasant memory. For confirmation, we only need to think of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” to discover a soaring voice exalting in directly familiar tones that “I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable; / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
We do not need to disregard the humanity in Whitman’s work to realize how deeply his verse participates in a “barbaric yawp” that is the characteristic assertion of a nation. American nationalism is felt directly in opposition to the existence of the state; it presumes that equality means that there should be no government; that, rightly, there can be none. We are able to feel this motive national impulse without sensing anything national about it. On the contrary, in the assertion of what we know as the form of equality, we are confident that we are nature’s own allies in the spontaneous expression of equality as the literal truth itself. To a degree, this assumption is unavoidable. The literal truth, truth shorn of any remainder, is the idea of equality. Still, to arrive at something closer to what truth may be, we would need to adjoin Adorno’s reflection that “the literal is the barbaric”—if we knew what that meant and meant it, which is an aspect of what we are considering here. Part of the difficulty, however, in following through on the need for this elucidation is that by its own structure, equality is untarnishable by time, if only insofar as it cannot experience time, and so remains the always youthful revolutionary impulse of the nation, as the one untarnishable truth. Tocqueville more than touched on this when he wrote, in what I count among the darkest several sentences in that enormous volume—a considerable source of Adorno’s thinking—that the “gradual progress of equality is something fated…it is universal and permanent,” and “it is daily passing beyond human control.” Four hundred pages later, his study of the implications of the structure of American equality, of how here the dynamic of equality splits apart from its own aim of freedom, causes us to recoil and dismiss its most central conclusion, but only because Tocqueville leaves no doubt which of two “people” he means us to recognize ourselves in, when he writes that “We should not console ourselves by thinking that the barbarians are still a long way off. Some peoples may let the torch be snatched from their hands, but others stamp it out themselves.”
Esthétique du Mal
Tocqueville’s statement of the danger of an unstoppable, fated equality that is escaping what is human, directly catches us going the other direction, and not only in our spontaneous distress at the epithet of barbarism. For what Tocqueville names the danger of equality is what we know as the rightly unstoppable impulse of the American Revolution. This is why we have no choice but to suspect that the comment of Monsieur de Tocqueville is an unreformed aristocratic attempt at foreign usurpation. Either his comment amounts to that, or we would need to fear that crumbled up and sprinkled around, his words would reveal youth as an archaic and incalculably wrinkled old age, with a pitch fork in its hand. For if, as Tocqueville claimed, equality daily passes beyond human control, equality originated in what was not in our control in the first place. Equality must thus be, on one hand, the power of human emancipation—something Tocqueville never doubted any more than Adorno ever did—but it is no less a force of second nature. It is as much a capacity of wakeful consciousness, as it is a power of civilization for inflicting on its consciousness the aspect that first nature bears, of having as yet to open its eyes. Equality is a means to an end as a technique of fairness; but split off from the primacy of the object, it transforms all ends into a means. The problem is not to abrogate equality, but to achieve it veridically as other than a technique of vengeful manipulation.
This would be more comprehensible to us if we momentarily succeeded at extracting ourselves from an unconscious preoccupation with flag. Then Tocqueville’s remarks—for instance—concerning the inhumanity of equality, would make us think not of foreign usurpation, but of financial forces of exchange, themselves devices of that same power of equality, which we idealogically think of exclusively as the impulse of freedom, and realize that these forces have become—beyond anything that Tocqueville himself could ever have envisioned—primordially destructive powers. The characteristic mark of these powers, their differentia specifica, what distinguishes the assertion of equality in the form of a mask of inequality from equality as a power of freedom, is that they assert themselves literally, as in page after page of available statistics, without a remainder, in the sense of drawing in their wake no bindingly audible sound of what actually transpires. What is happening to people now by the statistical millions in hunger, lost productive life, homelessness and ruined education; and what we are far into doing to ourselves by the statistical billions, is what we sense as the inability to get our own bearings. We know it, without our being able to know it. We could, for instance, read in Wallace Stevens’s Esthétique du Mal that “Except for us / Vesuvius might consume / In solid fire the utmost earth and know / No pain,” and need to consider that we are now substantially the closer kin to Vesuvius than to the except for us of the verse, which, in spite of what it wishes for, evidently pertains only to the poem.
Censure of Censure
We are following up on an interest—and a decisive disinterest—in Adorno’s work that revolves around the question of what barbarism is. Our spontaneous censure of that censure, of the epithet of barbarism, involves our not knowing what we know. It is in these terms that Adorno casts his reflections on barbarism. In a lecture series, for instance, he memorably questioned how it can be that internal to society tremendous advances are constantly made in all areas, but society itself, as such, never advances a single step. Why is it, he keeps asking, that the portals of historical possibility objectively await a single push and may even in this moment ride wide on rusty hinges, but to us, in every direction, they appear barred and sealed with lead? Adorno by no means supposes that there are not forces to contend with on the other side of those portals, but that these forces cannot even be engaged in the name of objective possibility, that even the hopes of the past continually become less distinct to us, is the recurrent puzzle his philosophy presents. We thus find ourselves back at Adorno’s question in the Dialectic of Enlightenment with which we started: Why does “humanity founder in a new form of barbarism instead of entering a truly human condition,” while we probably remain no less bothered that he was obliged to include that awkward remark on barbarism?
Adorno sought to answer this question of the vanishment of possibility in the midst of its proliferation with a mobile group of interpretative concepts, rather than with any general theory of society. Adorno had no general theory of society; he did not intend to have one. It would not be difficult to extract such a general theory from any number of his comments, such as from the theory of sacrifice in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, but only on the condition of making his thinking as a whole meaningless. The absence of this general theory was reciprocal with the answers that Adorno could conceive to the dead end we have manufactured for ourselves. While his thinking is commonly recognized as a critique of systematic reason, Adorno develops this critique by means of the impulse of systematic reason itself, not as a post-modern “everything is in fragments,” and “here is more of the same.” He intended nothing less than to save reason from reason, as the mastery of a false mastery that is otherwise restricted to domination. Barbarism, he thought, is what befalls us when we have lost the capacity to engage what he sometimes called the world of objects. Adorno held that not just pleasure, but possibility itself only exists in reality, only in the objects themselves. As Wallace Stevens conveys the gist of Adorno’s thought with utter compactness, “reality is the only genius.” The critical-philosophical problem of Adorno’s philosophy, then, was to find a way to use reason’s own capacity for totality to make reality break in on the mind that masters it and discern possibility in what it has achieved. Gaining the world of objects would occur in acts of insight into reality, as a critique of reason’s own “spell,” of its socially necessary illusions, its “bedazzling veils”—whether the “money veil” or the “technological veil”—whether of the spurious necessity of logical construction, or of the exchange relation, or, most of all, in aesthetic experience, and not in however many chapters seeking to grasp the totality of society, whose total mediation blocks reality. Phrases about how ‘total mediation’ blocks reality could, of course, merely be phrases unless it is realized that the only reason here to introduce this thought is that our spontaneous censure of the epithet of barbarism is a demonstration of that block.
of Mental View”
We perceive Adorno’s concept of barbarism as being of another day and age, and it is. The concept is emphatically modern; it epitomizes the insight of radical modernism; it is that insight. As I’ve discussed in more detail elsewhere, (the Brooklyn Rail, November 2008) the thought that first made radical modernism radical—its sine qua non on its every level of thought and art—was the recognition of the primitive in ourselves and in the world itself. In 1911, a year in which radical modernism was still discovering its self-confidence, the reputed 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica authoritatively noted that this new idea of the primitive marked “the most radical metamorphosis of mental view that has taken place in the entire course of the historical period”—in anthropological terms, that is, since the emergence of the written word. Radical modernism is the recognition that the primitive is not what we were at an earliest moment, but what we remain. Adorno himself acknowledged in his “Concept of Philosophy” this understanding of the primitive in ourselves and in the world as the definitive step of Western thought. When Adorno apostrophizes barbarism, then, he is not—as we suppose—castigating the remnants of an original state of rudeness in nasty people who failed to mature, and are as yet unfamiliar with European formality. What he intends is not any century’s cruel reproof of the uncivilized, which is what we suspect in an oblivious loss of the insight that once made modernism decisively modern. On the contrary, as Adorno developed the concept of barbarism, he is criticizing the form of maturation itself, that is, the struggle to dominate nature as a primitiveness that destroys the primitive rather than becoming reconciled with it in its emancipation. This alliance with the primitive fundamentally distinguishes Adorno’s epithet of barbarism from the instances of nineteenth century American censure cited earlier. Adorno, who wrote at one point in Negative Dialectics that “culture is the lid on the garbage can,” and at another that “culture is trash,” could not have been more remote from Sumner’s reputed classicism and baritone stance invoking the superiority of culture to barbarism, a dictum that Adorno would have recognized as the close, if secret ally of the form of the contemporary dismissal to oblivion of the perception of barbarism. Likewise, Adorno would have perceived that Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” could hardly be reduced to the voice of unconscious nationalism.
We can document the exhaustion of modernism’s radical insight by thinking again of our spontaneous aversion to understanding what Adorno means by barbarism, or, indexically, by consulting the obituary early in November last year that marked the death of Claude Levi-Strauss at the age of 100. The notice shares in a pre-modern prejudice against the primitive by admiring Levi-Strauss as the French anthropologist who conducted research into what “was once called ‘primitive man’.” Levi-Strauss, of course, like his contemporary Adorno, and in alliance with an entire generation—including most of all Freud—wanted to understand the entwinement of reason in myth. This is what Levi-Strauss repeatedly demonstrated in his studies, for instance, of the mythology of Brazilian and American Indian tribes. This intwinement of myth and reason is no less what he saw in front of himself when he debarked in New York City harbor, expecting to find a sleekly vertical “ultra-modern metropolis.” Instead he discovered a horizontal disorder of “ancient and recent” layers of historical “magma” tossed up by the building of the sky-scrapers. The “magma”—he wrote—covered the horizon as “witnesses to different eras that followed one another at an accelerated rhythm with, at intervals, the still visible remnants of all those upheavals: vacant lots, incongruous cottages, hovels, red-brick buildings—the latter already empty shells slated for demolition.” This is a natural-historical cityscape. The forgotten, the archaic, and the detritus of history are forcibly extruded from below as the sky-scrapers jut through the earth’s crust in an accelerating entwinement of progress and barbarism.
But turn from this vision of what Levi-Strauss saw in New York City and consider again his obituary, in the phrase quoted, which in the voice of the journalist presents a disillusioned superiority over the ancient myth of the primitive, now capably dismissed. The comment that Levi-Strauss helped render outmoded the idea of “primitive man” amounts to the sacking and repression of the primitive, along with the capacity of insight into what the modern is. That obituary notice—it exactly—is what Adorno meant by barbarism. Yet it likely strikes us as the most contemporary freedom from bias. We are the modern that has consumed its earlier radical insight in the force of the asserted equality of all things as a technique of mastering them whole.
Lapsed Insight/Each Word
To elucidate Adorno’s concept of barbarism in this way, however, does not suppose that the critical impulse of the concept can be restored. Insight that has lapsed, is just that. Its moment is gone, and its impulse can not be recovered by systematic labor. In seeking to carve into the moment, Adorno’s concept of barbarism is no less futile than is the idea of reification, which no effort of clarification and expansion will revive, not any more than the stale academic banquets on five continents devoted to the culture-industry, dialectics or historical materialism will resurrect those now decisively vestigial ideas. They are defunct. One must, on one hand, regret the fragile loss of insight. But, on the other hand, “our problem is not what we have lost, but what we have failed to find.” This recognition is allied with what was once most alive in those concepts by acknowledging that they now verge on an irreversible vacancy. Citing them is legitimate only when they resonate with their imminent disuse. They remain actual exclusively as memorials to the effort to differentiate the vanishment of differentiation—the actual loss of reality—which is the preeminent sense of our own moment.
Thus the idea of barbarism now shifts our attention to where the affect of social self-evidence pools up as we most indisputably feel it. It is located, for instance, in the confidence with which the enunciated surge continues long after the event. Bush may be gone, but the surge mounts. In every next article, reading the newspapers broadly, we continue to see that “Republicans predict a 2010 surge;” “lay offs surge;” “China’s power surge ends, for now;” in New York City, involuntarily comic, even “bed bugs surge;” there is a “surge in financial products,” and, as it turns out, as if we still need to be told what we know—but have decided to do anyway—the “surge might not work in Afghanistan.” The Wall Street Journal headline, December 1, 2009 reads, “U.S. Decides for Limited Surge in Afghanistan.” At variable distances, the one syllable surge sits in ever reiterated range with the other watchwords of the day, the muscularly eager robust; the aspiration to a timeless legacy straight out of a box; the obliterating trump; the same push coming to shove in the self-identify—as in “they self-identify as home-owners”—that dismisses the life labor of identity with the punctual obligation to omit reflection on himself , herself, or themselves; the rethink whatever—climate policy, perhaps—that treats every concern as handily as any other direct object, as in, to kick a soccer ball; each rethink, at the cost of strictly limiting thought to what anyone can recognize as a guaranteed rehash, disposes of the cumbersome prepositions that efforts to think about something require in achieving a relation to an object. These contemporary self-certitudes have in common, in each repetition, a differentiation that has vanished and been sacrificed to a greater fright and power. Stevens would have heard in these words—in alliance with the perception of that entire generation, in which we can no longer share—an ancient labor of curse and spell, and written, as he did, that “We live in an intricacy of new and local mythologies.” All that the reading eye can do in this moment, however, aware of the collapse of all critical concepts, is to halt at each and every rethink, reimagine, rediscover, rewrite, reinscribe, trump, legacy, and surge, seeking the differentia specifica of regression by refusing—as if that refusal might be all that is left to possibility—to read another word before trying to figure out how it might otherwise have been said before what fell on our heads tumbled.
Plain People in Plain Towns
Barbarism, then, as a critical concept that no longer strikes flint on stone; that surrenders any intention to be stated with crescendo or even decresendo, is meaningful as a capacity for the perception of the loss of differentiation. Wallace Stevens helps in this regard by reducing the tone of what we find arch in Adorno’s epithets—such as that the literal is the barbaric—to our own vernacular. In “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” Stevens described us as “plain people in plain towns” and added that the “plainness of plain things is savagery.” The difficulty in comprehending what Stevens meant is no less than the problem of knowing what we know.
The plainness he discerned is immediately there for our own ears in every you—every English you—we speak. But it is unavoidably striking if one has needed to listen to this you while working one’s way into English, coming from another European language. Then one constantly makes the discovery that English provides no alternative to you. For unlike any other European language, English expulsed its familiar pronouns, the “thee” and “thou,” and did so in deference to the Puritan distress at the presumption of that familiarity’s intrusion on the inwardness of spirit.
The Puritan effort, however, in the literalism of its intention to defend the boundary of the inward at all costs, contributed to the effacement of the sanctum that they sought. For the prohibition on the intimate pronouns dissolved the boundary between the familiar and the formal, leaving in its wake a remaindered you that turned out to be both singular and plural. In our plain language, that is, you darling is, in the same breath, inescapably you thousands and millions and, frankly, darling, you everyone. The you we speak and have no choice but to be, is as icy in its intimacy as it is insinuating in public. In the decades and centuries following the Puritan repudiation of uninvited intimacy, commerce would seize on this anonymously intimate and intimately anonymous you as an economy of scale. Thus, the you of Melville’s 1850s Confidence Man, who goes about the ferry deck importuning every next inadvertently available you with the skeweringly invasive, “Do you have confidence, sir?” Implicit in the huckster’s “you” was already the supreme court ruling that commercial speech would enjoy every First Amendment protection; “you” fore-spoke the emails from colleagues and socially net-working friends linking directly to their websites, unable to distinguish the importuning from the intimate. We think of Hopper, of course, as having painted that you at the “All Night Diner,” as our own melancholy, “Okay, you, your turn honey; what’ll you have?” and any next “honey” who takes a seat down the row of barstools for the displaced, each feeling equally alone at the ragged mercy of an unparryable economy.
American literature has not had anything like its own Flaubert, but we can still perceive, if in a learned way, that language bears its own criterion, and that it is a criterion of reality. By the criterion of our you, we can hear in our own voices plain people in plain towns, distorted by their isolation, whom Sherwood Anderson still had the sense of scale and courage to describe as the “grotesques” of Winesburg, Ohio. Adorno speculated in a lecture that it was in the vulnerability of this isolation that the primitive impulse, as the primitive in ourselves and in reality, was first recognized as such. And, if so, the you we speak is the literal measure of the dynamic of equality that also anathematized the insight into the primitive.
This is, of course, not to say that the fact of the familiar pronouns enduring in the other European languages, the du Lieber Kind, or the c’est toi cherie, protected their people from barbarism. We know it did not. Adorno knew this. But, the residual existence of this differentiation of the familiar and the formal in the other European languages, is one aspect of historical boundaries internal to those societies and the self that has something to do with the continuingly possible comprehension in them of the meaning of the “barbaric” and why it is that, in Europe, in the wake of being overcome by its own barbarism in the 20th century, “acts of barbarism” are indictable, whereas, by contrast, our law has available to itself only the term of art, “incivility,” or, “hate crimes.” The latter constitutes a distinct category from acts of “barbarism” in that they specifically concern a crime against equality, as a culpable bias, not as a crime against humanity as an acknowledgeable transgression.
In his writings, Adorno certainly never once addresses us as du—he did not address Walter Benjamin as du. It is, however, the place of the unvoiced du in his thinking that provokes us in what we perceive as the haughty Alexandrian formality of his writing. It is part of what is inimical to us in his apostrophizing of the barbaric, and in claims such as that writing poetry after Auschwitz is itself barbaric. But it is no less the implicit du on every page that causes a style determined never once to slip, to crack with pained tenderness even where it is conceptually hardened to a glassy impenetrability. For us, the du is a more resilient puzzle than any of the intricacies of Heidegger’s being of beings. Even those of us who, for historical reasons, find it difficult to travel in Germany and may avoid speaking the language, however well we may know it, may also be aware that there is not any way in English to sign a letter to the friends in Germany of many years, Seid beide für heute herzlichst gegrüßt— the plural familiar—or, the other side of it, to provide a formal salutation that concludes with anything like, Je vous assure, Mesdames et Messieurs, de mes sentiments les plus distingues. What may feel comic and archaic to us in these expressions, whether as an excess of sincerity or of formality, is how plain people, in plain towns, sense the commercial force of a nation that Claude Levi-Strauss described in his “New York City 1941”—when Adorno was also a refugee there, sharing with him as well the perception of the mythical barbarism of the modern—as the force of a “machine capable of both going in reverse as well as advancing in time” that “has pushed us back into the one remaining dimension: one will probe it in vain for secret loopholes.”
Interrupted Gesture and How-it-is
If we bring the sound of Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” into relation with Benjamin’s much quoted thesis that “there is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism,” questions emerge that are at the heart of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and how he conceived of art as a capacity to cause reality to break in on the mind that masters it. These questions are elucidated by the two most important statements in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, which are in fact located in Walter Benjamin’s study of the baroque play of lamentation, the Trauerspiel book. The first is this: “The object of philosophical criticism is to show that the function of artistic form…is to make historical content…into a philosophical truth.” Aesthetic form translates history into truth. In Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, this becomes the thought that art as form is the unconscious transcription of the history of human suffering. Aesthetic criticism, then, must in concepts present this content. The second essential statement for Aesthetic Theory from the Trauerspiel study, which occurs several paragraphs later, is in no way as deceptively limpid as the first, but a striking pictograph drawn from the imagery of the baroque, which Benjamin frequently characterized as barbaric. The statement explains how aesthetic form functions to make historical content truth: “It may not accord with the authority of nature; but the voluptuousness with which significance rules, like a stern sultan in the harem of objects, is without equal in giving expression to nature. It is indeed characteristic of the sadist that he humiliates his object and then—or thereby—satisfies it.”
In Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory the figure of the sadist in relation to nature becomes a dialectic of construction and mimesis in which expression is achieved as an interrupted gesture. Expression is not in tossing the proverbial shoe against the wall with a shout, but is shaped in its historical impediment. The dialectic of mimesis and construction occurs as a movement at a standstill—as if the arm were moving, but the shoe not; or, the shoe, and not the arm. This is how art, unlike any other object we can make, becomes a surface that refuses to let its content remain hidden. That is no less why the unconscious transcription of human suffering is the human, as the more than human, in the achieved voice of nature in what it undergoes.
We could follow this philosophical discussion art-historically if we considered Paleolithic rock painting, which is exclusively mimetic participation in a magical object, and compared it with what happens in the sudden appearance of Neolithic geometrical artifacts. These pots mark the beginning of settled, agricultural society and with it, not only of the separation of image from object in life as organized labor, but no less of the appearance of the conflict of mimesis and construction in geometrical decoration. In the absence of an emancipated concept of form, however, which would not occur for tens of thousands of years before the Greeks, the Neolithic conflict of mimesis and construction remained at a null degree of expression. This is not the moment to follow the history from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic. It is only mentioned here to help flesh out something of what is happening in Aesthetic Theory, because neither does Adorno proceed in any way art-historically. In Aesthetic Theory he omits most all close history of art from his discussion, and hardly discusses a single art work in the volume. This makes it difficult to recognize what he is talking about, especially in the important discussions of the dialectic of construction and mimesis.
Aesthetic Theory is organized in this fashion because a philosophy devoted to the emancipation of nature that is conceived as much in alliance with the barbarically primitive as in opposition to it, required making the experience of natural beauty central to aesthetics. Aesthetic Theory thus runs self-consciously contrary to the telos of the modern development of aesthetics, which participates in the ban on the mimetic relationship in the marginalization of natural beauty from aesthetic reflection. Structurally considered, Adorno’s aesthetics is organized concentrically around the section on Natural Beauty, which may also be this almost intolerably interesting work’s most interesting section. The section itself turns most of all on the study of the experience of a movement at a standstill in nature. Adorno memorably describes this movement as what most of us know from childhood as those cloud dramas in which under our gaze the cumulus rhino in motionless motion becomes the elongated cirrus giraffe. Here the experience of natural beauty provides the model of the longing, needful, voice of nature, which elsewhere in his aesthetics Adorno shows takes shape in the form of art beauty in the dialectic of mimesis and construction as memory of what historical nature undergoes.
Adorno’s aesthetics, then, directs our attention not so much to the observation of nature, but to beauty in art as it is primordially oriented to nature’s beauty and seeks to fulfill it, though not in the sense of copying the yachts at bay down at the harbor club. In instance, we might think, rather, of Richard Serra’s work. He employs a German steel mill that once rolled out materials for battle ship hulls for the manufacture of torqued panels that never before existed. Self-alert that a humanizing touch now adds nothing in art to the human, other than the pretense that the human immediately exists, the unsurfaced, oxidized steel panels of his sculptures are as rebarbative to the touch as any compacted encompassment of cinder block. Serra’s accomplishment depends on the possibility of a mastery of mastery, as the mastery of the domination of nature. Its constructive powers must be at the level of what remains enmeshed in pragmatic labor as powers of production, and match them with their own force, with no less ability than Titian once handled a paintbrush. In art, only what impedes can emancipate because what impedes is the whole of what awaits becoming a capacity of emancipation. A work of art that fails to become its own-most enemy remains the imitation of the muteness of history. Art, as Wallace Stevens wrote in The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words (1941), must be a violence against the violence; but if this violence is to be something more than more violence, what history presents art with must be returned to it pacified in form as memory.
Serra’s legerdemain has been in figuring out how to organize his torqued panels to transform the mobile sensorium, including the splayed hips and sprung ribs of his otherwise desk bound visitors, into elements of the performing arena of the work. The perceived dynamic walking through these raw spirals is that you could confidently throw yourself with a heave against those massive walls. But given the pitched angle of the severe tonnage no one dares lay on a finger tip. The ingenuity in the sudden, built transitions between these two states is prodigious. So much weight, so tentatively poised, draws on an ancient tradition in architecture of those buildings where the most intense feelings of helplessness have historically lodged. In those precincts the devout, shielded eye is trained on domed arches and high pitched windows whose majesty is in all that reaches up to support them, as if thought alone either sustains dome and glass with belief or brings them down in deserved punishment. Serra does without dome, window, devotion, or doctrine and without architectural replication of any kind. But the knee does bend. For the work captures the primordial impulse of self-preservation where it wells up in those walls’ remnant of the sacred, “Don’t touch me.” Under the shifting weight of vectored forces of avoidance and enclosure, in the perceptually counterintuitive sweep of Serra’s steep, triggered caverns, a focal hollow of amazed sensorial concentration is compressed into existence and you begin to count your footsteps, though not to number them: “If there were anything on top of this—you think—no one would come in here.” Whichever interior vector you follow in response to the inner turning spiral’s massed Egyptian come hither, to its final center—its utter be like me—you become acutely awake to what reaches under your ribs, to what takes hold of the left shoulder blade, and, as invisibly, of the right, and of the knees, then of the ankles: every constancy of proprioception is impinged by its intensification. There is no step that does not carry forward, none that is not a restriction, and none that does not transform geometrical space into memory of nature in the subject. Time clocked becomes porous to a movement at a standstill in which you—you anyone in the spiral’s anonymously intimate confine—sense a loss of footing largo on solid ground. In Serra’s heaved walls we discover ourselves as close to public participation in news of the mortal coil stung by the weight of How-it-is as what is otherwise hardly elsewhere to be sensed in this managerial land of body bags and distant bombardments.