In the Prison of the Open World:
Breach of Negative Dialectics
“One can only flee away from that old house.
And if we fled somewhere in fear
We will always be locked in there.”
—T.W. Adorno, Der Schatz des Indianer-Joe.
Looking upon a page generated by a search engine of worldwide use, with its saturation of relevance-ranked results, we have the illusion of seeing everything. An open world comes to be on the screen. Materially, the displayed results—the finite series of pages “found” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…, 16…), with those trailing ellipses—suggest a gateway to the exhaustive mass of phenomena. Formally, the search engine’s header and whole visual design, variable yet always the same, represent the condition of possibility for the marshalling of results—a transcendental framework, in the Kantian sense, for the series of pre-classified information supplied to the user. Google, or any other engine of comparable popularity, is the contemporary image of that open-everything. The sole remaining analogy to the traditional representation of the world as spherical and closed lies in the two O’s—the spectacles through which all things are viewed. They suffice to convey the transcendence and sum of the entities. This is open totality par excellence, a window to look through, rather than a bubble in which we are, as it were, still encompassed, or perhaps even trapped. But in this window, right where infinite openness becomes the rule, right where the baseline, indiscriminate hospitality to all content is established, everything happens as if the spectacles could never again come off. Bolted tight to our experience of the world, they are no longer a tool—i.e., an operative mediation—with known determinations, that is substitutable. They are instead the transcending of a determination and substitutability that we cannot really grasp. In 1949 Adorno spoke of the “open-air prison [freiluftgefängnis] that the world is becoming.” Last century’s typically Adornian tragedy of culture was the systematic closure of the administered world, which identified all things within the rationalized system it had designed for its self-preservation. Our digital 21st century, by contrast, now seeks to emancipate the administration of things from the delays and drags inherent to the organization of human labor. The algorithmic retrieval of information should now fall upon bodies with only paperless weight. The preferred metaphor for this seeming system-removed-from-the-real is transparency. There are no more visible walls, no more prisoners. But aesthetic criticism—criticism that gazes steadily upon transparency until its opacity is revealed—can regard those invisible walls as painted partitions. Within them, the inhabitant of the open world begins to suffocate. His endemic pathology is respiratory. Open to the four winds, yet of rarified air: such is the thick envelope of transparency fashioned by contemporary culture.
When, in his “The Anthropocene and the Destruction of the Image of the Globe,” Bruno Latour describes the Anthropocene as a “Möbius strip that creates both the disconcerting continuity and the disconcerting redistribution between what we referred to as natural, geophysical, and what we referred to as social or symbolic, cultural,” he enlarges that open totality, full of possibles and hybrids, to the scale of the history of the earth. The Anthropocene, that field of unheralded events, “is not an immoderate extension of anthropocentrism,” just as Google is something other than an immoderate extension of imperialism. Anthropos, the “new agent of geo-history,” is within this a “virtual political entity.” Rather than inhabiting a sphere-world where he has a designated place, Anthropos inhabits Gaia, which is the “name proposed for all the intermingled and unforeseeable consequences of agencies [puissance d’agir]” and, insists Latour, nothing but a universal—“it is Nature that was universal.”
With the ballast of universality and the old modernist divisions thrown off, Gaia’s open totality—the exhaustive comprehension of all entities and the tacit transcendental condition of all their trajectories—takes up the transparent constraint of liberal totality, which seeks through openness to shield itself against the dialectical objection that an outside exists. Latour himself acknowledges this: “As long as they were humans-in-nature” human beings “could ignore the limits of Gaia, who remained far in the background. Now that they have become the Anthropos of the Anthropocene—that is, something other than humans-in-nature—human beings run into these limits at every turn, crash into them with cries of surprise and incredulity. They attempt even to deny the simple existence of these limits.” We might easily find ourselves pent up once more in that playing field whose openness sacrifices the possibility, however tenuous, of an exteriority.
If Hegelian dialectic has produced the most suffocating figure of totality under the constraint of speculative reconciliation, the negativity that it has cultivated to the point of its undoing remains the last technique available for breaking out. The obsolescence of modernism’s dualisms does not disqualify the dialectic—which since Adorno has accepted the terms of its contradictions as reifications—even if it disciplines itself to work in strict negativity. By determining the limits of the fence around the open world dialectical negativity opens the way to a breach. Emptied of substance in the dualist forms of the West’s 20th-century ideologies, negative dialectics comes back into its own when the image we make of the world ceases to resemble dialectic themselves.
AGNÈS GAYRAUD is a philosopher and musician. A leading scholar on Adorno and the critique of modernity, she was a visiting lecturer at Stanford University. She is the lead singer of the band La Féline.