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The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2021

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JUL-AUG 2021 Issue
Field Notes

Lifting the Ban

לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל,
וְכָל-תְּמוּנָה


Every morning, we wake up, go outside, and check to see if the burned cars are still there. Two white rental vans, half-melted into the asphalt, sit side by side in their parking spots on the street, releasing fumes of charred rubber for weeks. Shards of glass remain scattered on the ground, with steering wheels, seats, and engines all burned to a crisp. The white foam on the curb offers a clue, but there’s no real indication as to what happened. So, day after day, on the way to the kindergarten, the park, the playground, we pass by the burned cars, and marvel at their negative awe. To the child, cars are everything. And thus to see them so utterly destroyed, wrecked, and broken, just sitting there, powerless, unmoved, is a shock to the normal perception of the world. Cars don’t burn. Burned cars don’t stay. Where is the tow truck? The repairman? Who burned them? Why? The image of the burned cars is so strong that we have to talk about it all the time. But it’s not enough, so we draw them, every day, again and again, until we’ve mastered their power, their mystique. Every car is now a burned car, every vehicle is now inflamed. That is the only way to contain the barbarism of the image, not to shun it or praise it, but to repeat it, to remember it, to work through it as if it was one’s own doing, to make it one's own, to appropriate it, to own it.

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

There is a motif that runs through the critical theory of the early Frankfurt School which goes by the name of the Bilderverbot, or ban on images.1 The idea, most strongly associated with Theodor Adorno, traces its origin to Jewish law, as expressed in the second commandment of the Torah, most commonly translated as: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4–5).2 Similar statements appear in Exodus 34:17; Leviticus 19:4, 26:1; and Deuteronomy 4:16, 5:8, 27:15. Unlike other gods of the time, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does not allow itself to be presented and worshipped in sensible, material forms, like wood, stone, or clay. Any attempt to physically depict the God of the Hebrews both reduces the infinite to the finite, thus domesticating the divine, and elevates the finite to the infinite, thus exalting the earthly. To pray to an image of God is not to pray to God, but to an image. This is an absolute sin, a crime against God, a betrayal of the covenant.

This commandment does not remain theological, but leaps into philosophy when Kant mentions it in regards to the unbounded concept of the sublime in his Critique of Judgment (AA 5:274). From there, it is picked up by various modern thinkers, and the Jewish imperative not to depict the holy is reinterpreted as a secular ban on images of utopia. For Adorno, for Kant, for Hegel, for Benjamin, for Marx—the idea is simply that some things cannot and should not be represented; that for some objects, the content exceeds the form of representation itself. Whether that content can be grasped in some other, non-representational form—nature, numbers, concepts, prayer, revolution—is the key question.3

The Bilderverbot of the Frankfurt School has two temporal directions, one aimed at the past, and one at the future: first, at the past horrors, whose barbarity exceeds our paltry attempts to portray them, and, second, at the future utopia, whose power derives from its inability to be restricted by our present whims.4 While the ban on images of past horrors has long been cancelled, as the aesthetic is perhaps the only form in which suffering can truly be heard, the ban on images of future utopias still holds many under its spell.5 Yet the question should be asked: is it time to finally lift the ban? Are images of a positive utopian future, traditionally called communism, still so dangerous? What is the harm in writing a few “recipes for the cook-shops of the future,” just in case?6

There are good reasons for a ban on images of utopia, especially for those who lived through the horrors of the 20th century, in which such images were used by revolutionaries as justifications to commit cruelty in their name.7 Given such a disastrous track record of utopian images, it makes sense to shun the image, ban it from sight so that the temptation to follow it, to worship it, does not arise in the first place. For the primary task of critique is not to describe what is right, but to clarify what is wrong. It is not up to us to decide how those emancipating themselves should live. Any image of utopia will always end up missing something, leaving a remainder that cannot be integrated into the whole, and thus must be eliminated. The Bilderverbot helps avoid such pathways, and break what Hegel once called “the habit of picture-thinking.”8

And yet, I remain skeptical. Cautiously, I dare to suggest that such images are no longer the problem, if they ever really were. Even Jewish law is not so straightforward here. The second commandment is not primarily a law about images, but about idols. The sentence preceding the one on “graven images” states: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The ban on images is just an elaboration of what that means, i.e., one should not worship images or sculptures of the divine as substitutes for worshipping Adonai. There should be no other gods before me, that is, they should not have priority over this God. Making and perceiving images is one thing, worshipping them is another. The problem, in other words, is not the sculpting of images but the making of idols. As Maimonides says, “the entire Torah is oriented towards the struggle against idolatry.”9 The Hebrew word for idol, elil, אליל, is often used synonymously in the Torah with words like pesel, פסל (graven or sculpted image), tselem, צלם (image), temunah, תִּמוּנָה, (likeness), and shikuts, שקוץ (abomination). The danger with images is that they can easily become indistinguishable from real beings. “For one to whom the real world becomes real images,” Debord aptly remarks, “mere images are transformed into real beings.”10

Idolatry—whose etymology traces back to “image (eidolon) worship (latreia)” in Greek (εἰδωλολατρείᾱ), or “Godlet worship” in Hebrew, עבודת אלילים (avodat elilim)—reflects a kind of pseudo-activity, a concretism that seeks to overcome the intangible relation between the worshipper and the worshipped, or between the thinker and the thought, by mediating it through things, images, and objects.11 But the wrong of idolatry does not lie in its mediation but rather in its disloyalty, which, as one Rabbi puts it, is akin to adultery.12 What the ban on images, or better, the prohibition of idolatry in the Torah shows us is that HaShem is vulnerable to our deeds, that the divine can be harmed by our very attempts to venerate it more concretely. In more profane words, the pathway to utopia can be blocked by our unwavering dedication to a particular image of it, as opposed to the idea it represents beyond all images. “What clings to the image,” Adorno writes, “remains idolatry, mythic enthrallment.”13 This is what the Bilderverbot hopes to avoid with its absolute prohibition.

Yet here we should distinguish between two kinds of bans on images of the holy: the aniconic and the iconoclastic. The Bilderverbot is more aniconic, opposing the use of images to depict the divine as such, whereas the second commandment is more iconoclastic, opposing the use of images specifically as idols.14 All idols are images of God, and are thus worthy of destruction, but not all images of God are idols. In Judaism and Visual Art, Melissa Raphael writes that Rabbi Joseph Caro in the 16th century deemed images of God permissible on certain conditions. In Chapter 141 of his codification of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, titled “Laws about Images and Forms,” Caro puts forth an aesthetic of incompletion concerning images of the holy, in which

representations of divine, natural, and mythic entities can only be made on condition that the images are incomplete. Images of faces, where the image of God is made manifest, must be partial, defaced, or broken—given, say, only one eye or a broken nose—if they are to be a halakhically legitimate representation.15

Here, God—or in our words, utopia or communism—is representable, but only in the mode of being denied. The incompleteness of the image, the blemishes on the face of infinity, are not faults to be condemned but aspects to be accentuated. God’s broken nose acts like a fence protecting the holy from its identity with the image that seeks to represent it. Like the common Jewish practice of using the honorific Adonai instead of the proper name of God, we block ourselves from even unwittingly reproducing the structure of idolatry. In so doing, we free the image from its relation to idolatry, even allowing ourselves a glance at the holy from within. For there is only one complete image of God (Genesis 1:27), and that is humanity itself, which gazes upon the holy in gazing upon itself. Or, as Franz Rosenzweig declared, “the Star of Redemption is become countenance which glances at me and out of which I glance.”16

*

On the other hand, we have never been further from utopia. As Emil Cioran once remarked, “Whenever I happen to be in a city of any size, I marvel that riots do not break out every day.”17 For Cioran, perhaps the greatest philosophical pessimist of the 20th century, human beings are simply too weak to act on their mutual hatred, and thus resign themselves to a functional resentment. Society, that great mechanism for efficiently organizing reciprocal torment, is saved by the impotence of our desires. Yet somehow, a thought of utopia emerges, a dream of a life without conflict, struggle, or pain, a hope that tomorrow will be better, that tomorrow there’ll be sun. How is this possible? In History and Utopia, a collection of essays published in 1960, Cioran tries to answer this question. The problem with images of utopia, he claims, is not merely their naïve and delusional content about the future, but rather what they do to humans in the present. Simply put: “There is no future for those who live in the idolatry of tomorrow.”18 Utopia acts as an idol that blocks our ability to have a future at all, since having a future means being open to the possibility of change, disappointment, growth, novelty, and suffering. Like all idols, utopia too should be destroyed.

Around the same time, Max Horkheimer, in his late pessimistic Notizen, grappled with the dialectic of utopia. As for Cioran, the problem with utopian thinking for Horkheimer is its elimination of all the antagonisms, failures, and limits which are themselves essential for a meaningful life. “Without need no pleasure, without grief no happiness, without death no meaning. The less refusal, the bleaker reality. Precisely because of this, utopia is an absurdity.”19 But Horkheimer does not end there. Along with Cioran, who resigns himself to the permanent appeal that images of utopia carry in a world of suffering, Horkheimer concludes: “Despite everything, nothing remains but the attempt to realize it.”20 Like Kant, for whom reason cannot help but end up in transcendental illusions, Horkheimer accepts that we cannot help but strive toward practical illusions. Disappointment is inevitable.

Simon Critchley once said that philosophy does not begin in wonder, but disappointment: religious disappointment that God is dead, and political disappointment that there is no justice.21 The world lacks meaning, and this fundamental nihilism must be the starting point from which we begin to think our way forward. Similarly, Jay Bernstein, Critchley’s colleague at the New School for Social Research, begins his excellent book on Adorno with the claim that “the project of modernity has failed politically and ethically.”22 Both are taking up themes from Nietzsche, Weber, and Adorno, for whom disenchantment and disappointment are the key experiences of modernity to be thought through. For what else is the function of thinking but to understand failure, to grasp the moment of missed realization, to sit with the negative, remember it, and work through it until it is one’s own?

And yet, today, even our disappointment is lacking. No new demands can bridge the gap of lost meaning, no new values can patch up the moral deficit, no new party can fill the void at the center of politics, for the gap itself is now occluded by time. Who still believes in another golden age of growth, in a coming social democratic paradise, in a fully automated future? There are no utopian hopes for those raised in the end of history. How can we be disappointed in losing what we never had, what we never even dreamed of having? The condition of human existence in the third decade of the third millennium—a heating planet, a plagued civilization, a stagnant economy, a defeated left, a divided proletariat—offers nothing but images of what not to strive for, what not to want, what not to do. Where can an image of utopia fit in a world always on fire? A state of emergency tends to demand realism, necessity, finitude, maturity, compromise, and toil. Even mentioning the word “utopia” provokes accusations of puerility. As William Morris once confessed, “apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.”23 Is that really all we need?

But perhaps we are moving too fast. Wittgenstein, in one of his more Hegelian moments, notes that “in philosophy, the winner of the race is the one who can run most slowly. Or: the one who gets there last.”24 Truth always arrives late on the scene, at dusk, and maybe the truth of the ban on images can only really be understood when the world that commanded it starts to fade away, into what we still don’t know. “The dusk of capitalism,” Horkheimer reminds us, “[doesn’t] have to usher in the night of mankind, although today it certainly seems to be threatening it.”25 This last sentence was written in the 1920s, when Horkheimer was still a young revolutionary Marxist. Not so distant, yet not so close is Ernst Bloch, who, in his revolutionary chiliastic manifesto of 1918, The Spirit of Utopia, cries out: “We live without knowing what for. We die without knowing what to.”26 This ignorance of our metaphysical purpose, however, does not offer an excuse for resignation, but on the contrary, underwrites the spirit of utopia that animates our action in a time of utter confusion. When the rails of thinking and the guideposts of action start to fall away, we are left with nothing but a burning image of catastrophe to be avoided, and a spirit of utopia to be defended.

For those revolutionaries who survived the catastrophes of the 20th century and witnessed the end of the workers’ movement as an agent of history, there was still some hope that such a movement could return and take back the means of production. But for later revolutionaries who never experienced the tremendous power of that movement to begin with, there is no disappointment in its failure to reappear, only a blank spot waiting to be filled in. That is to say, to be disappointed with the failure of utopia, the death of God, or the existence of injustice presupposes an expectation of utopia, a faith in God and a belief in justice, none of which can be taken for granted anymore. Is a ban on images of utopia really necessary in a world where no one even remembers what such an image looks like?

*

To turn the question around: is there any positive content to the critique of society, any utopian ideas lodged in the negative which we can use to move beyond our impasse? For Marcuse, the answer is a resounding no: “The critical theory of society possesses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative.”27 To Adorno, the greatest thinker of the Bilderverbot, the only materialism worthy of the name is an imageless one.28 In a conversation with Ernst Bloch, perhaps the greatest thinker of utopia, Adorno remarks:

One may not cast a picture of utopia in a positive manner … What is meant there is the prohibition of casting a picture of utopia actually for the sake of utopia, and that has a deep connection to the commandment, “Thou shalt not make a graven image!”29

Yet given this imperative against picturing utopia, there still is some content to utopia:

Utopia is essentially in the determined negation, in the determined negation of that which merely is, and by concretizing itself as something false, it always points at the same time to what should be.30

Here, Adorno seems to allow access to a negative image of utopia through the relentless and determinate appraisal of what is false in this world. The ban on images is then not absolute but finds its negation in the negation of that which merely is. An image of utopia is possible, but only a false one, incomplete, broken. Cioran agrees: “The only readable utopias are the false ones”, and thus perhaps the only one worthy of our desire is “a utopia without hope.” Hope—that impossible word which Bloch spent decades trying to rehabilitate—plays no role here. But as Adorno continues his conversation with Bloch, the cost of the Bilderverbot reveals itself as perhaps too high:

Something terrible happens due to the fact that we are forbidden to cast a picture. That is to say, firstly, concerning what ought to be: the more it can only be said negatively, the less definite one can imagine it. But then—and this is probably even more frightening – the commandment against a concrete expression of utopia tends to defame the Utopian consciousness and to engulf it. What is really important, however, is the will that it is different.31

What makes More’s Utopia, Fourier’s Four Movements, Marx’s Gotha Program, Morris’s News from Nowhere, the GIK’s Fundamental Principles, Neurath’s Economy in Kind, Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, P.M.’s bolo’bolo, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future so interesting is not necessarily the details of the futures they depict, but the fact that they depict such futures at all.32 The will that it be different, even if wrong, especially when wrong, allows us to find out what it is we actually want, by forcing us to confront an image of ourselves in the future—incomplete, broken, and partial. This unfinished image can also prompt reflection on exactly what it is that is unmistakably wrong in the present, and not just accidentally wrong. Clinging to an image of utopia like an idol would thus be anti-utopian, while criticizing the utopian image in the name of what the image represents would confirm one’s utopian consciousness.

Furthermore, there are also problems with not casting a picture, with simply proclaiming, for instance, that utopia just means equality for all. For as we know, “abstract utopia is all too compatible with the most insidious tendencies of society.”33 For Adorno, that great reader of Huxley, “an emancipated society … would not be a unitary state” of abstractly equal subjects, but rather the “realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences.”34 This Hegelian turn of phrase may sound abstract, yet for Adorno, it is very simple, and even produces an image of utopia: that is, the relation which children have to animals, who, in their very form of appearance, exist “without any recognizable purpose to human beings,” with names utterly incapable of being exchanged. “I am a rhinoceros, signifies the shape of the rhinoceros.”35 In the emancipated society, such a relation would no longer be the exception but the rule.

Earlier, I wrote that idolatry was a form of pseudo-activity. I meant this literally. “Pseudo-activity,” writes Adorno in 1969,

is generally the attempt to rescue enclaves of immediacy in the midst of a thoroughly mediated and rigidified society. Such attempts are rationalized by saying that the small change is one step in the long path toward the transformation of the whole.36

As in Zeno’s paradox, the steps never reach the goal. Yet it is hard to fault people for wanting to rescue such enclaves and for believing such platitudes, for there is little else to do or believe in. On a TV broadcast in the 1960s, Adorno defined pseudo-activity as “a desperate effort, in a situation where the opportunities to change society are largely blocked, to force it, in spite of everything, with a deep understanding it won’t work.”37 On these terms, however, are we not all pseudo-activists today? What else could we be, after so many decades of defeat. Pseudo-activity is not a subjective mistake, but “a product of objective societal conditions.”38 In 1949, coming from a very different standpoint, the revolutionary Paul Mattick similarly decried the dilemma of the revolutionary faced with the impossible task of trying to act in ways that do not end up bolstering the very thing one is fighting against:

It seems that in order to do something now, one can do only the wrong thing and in order to avoid false steps, one should undertake none at all. The political mind of the radical is destined to be miserable; it is aware of its utopianism and it experiences nothing but failures.39

We are still trapped in this impossible dilemma, and yet we act, with a deep understanding it won’t work, only doing the wrong thing. “Where experience is blocked or altogether absent, praxis is damaged and therefore longed for, distorted, and desperately overvalued.”40 Adorno captures the predicament of our era too well, and yet fails to bear the burden of his thought: that in such a condition, pseudo-activity and liberating praxis are indeed indistinguishable, except retroactively. As his greatest student, Hans-Jürgen Krahl, once said, “the same theoretical tools which allowed Adorno this insight into this social totality, also prevented him from seeing the historical possibilities of a liberating praxis.”41

Writing in the 1950s, Cioran, the great anti-utopian, believed there was only one real utopian idea left, an idea that will continue to exist as long as it offers an alternative to the misery occurring in parts of the world. “To various degrees,” he writes, “we are all communists.”42 And that is the problem for him. The point is not to desire utopia, but to accept history, where brutality, conflict, and antagonism are not only part of our life but the point of it. Yet, and here is the dialectical trick, to accept history, to truly acknowledge the catastrophes that human beings have imposed on one another, especially in the name of the good, is impossible without recognizing that it could be different. It is this could be—grasped in the fleeting image of a broken god, burned cars, or wrecked police station—that licenses the lifting of the ban on images of the future.

For Bloch, it is not only the utopia of today that must be communist, but “all utopias or nearly all, despite their feudal or bourgeois commission, predict communal ownership, in brief, have socialism in mind.”43 Bloch’s “concrete utopia” emerges from both the “cold” and “warm” currents of Marxism: from the sober perspective of the materialist detective, and from the intoxicating desires of the revolutionary humanist.44 Only by swimming in both currents can a truly dialectical image of utopia be conjured, “an image that emerges suddenly, in a flash,” as Walter Benjamin describes. “What has been is to be held fast—as an image flashing up in the now of its recognizability.”45 This is not an image to be banned, but actively sought out, whenever it appears.

In 1919, a year of wild uprisings and failed revolutions in Germany, the year Benjamin finished his dissertation on Romanticism, and a year after Bloch published The Spirit of Utopia, the philosopher, scientist, and head of the Central Planning Office of the short-lived Bavarian Council Republic, Otto Neurath, wrote an essay in praise of utopias, but not how we normally think of them. For Neurath, it is not the modality of utopias that is their defining element, they are not just “impossible happenings.” Rather,

It is much more sensible to describe as utopian all orders of life which exist only in thought and image but not in reality, and not to use the word “utopias” as expressing anything about their possibility or otherwise. Utopias could thus be set alongside the constructions of engineers, and one might with full justice call them constructions of social engineers.46

For Neurath, the image quality of utopias are essential to their character, for they are precisely not real beings, not idols to be worshipped, but constructions to be used as springboards for thinking. Without such constructions, the critique of society remains bound to that which is, and not that which could be.

The wars and revolutions between 1914 and 1919 shook the basis of society, and transformed what people thought was politically and socially possible. “The bonds of family were shaken, masses of men were shifted hither and thither, industries were transformed from their foundations up, and in the shortest time.”47 Given such experiences of social transformation for the sake of death, would it not also be possible to imagine a transformation of the social order for the sake of life? In other words, “is it so incomprehensible that the people today cry out for utopias, for powerful presentations of their future fate?”48 No, it is not so incomprehensible.49

Nearly 50 years later, in the long hot summer of 1967, Marcuse gave a series of lectures on utopia and radical politics at the Free University in Berlin. In them, he proclaimed “the end of utopia,” meaning not that utopian thinking is dead, but rather that utopian ideas are now realizable, and thus, no longer utopian:

Today we have the capacity to turn the world into hell, and we are well on the way to doing so. We also have the capacity to turn it into the opposite of hell. This would mean the end of utopia, that is, the refutation of those ideas and theories that use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities.50

The utopia which is possible, and thus no longer utopian, is not a “society without conflicts,” but “a society in which conflicts evidently exist but can be resolved without oppression and cruelty.”51 While Marcuse was lecturing in Berlin, riots were happening all over the United States in an unprecedented wave of Black rebellions against “that which merely is.” The capacity to turn the world into the opposite of hell flashed up, instantly recognizable, in the image of broken gods, burning cars, and wrecked police stations, like “a sunburst which, in one flash, illuminates the features of the new world,” producing a Nachbild stuck in the eye for years to come.52 Now, 50 years later, in between the end of one world and the birth of another, images of utopia have appeared again, not where we except them to be, as if testing us to find them.


  1. For the most comprehensive treatment of this topic, see the recent book by Sebastian Truskolaski, Adorno and the Ban on Images (Bloomsbury, 2020).
  2. A more modern translation reads: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.” https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.20.4.
  3. There is also a conservative version of the Bilderverbot, from Burke to Hayek, emphasizing the sublimity of the social order and the market, which cannot be represented, controlled or planned. Against this, see Neurath, “Economic Plan and Calculation in Kind” (1925).
  4. On this point, see Martin Jay, “Adorno and Blumenberg: Nonconceptuality and the Bilderverbot”, in Splinters in Your Eye (Verso, 2020), especially pp. 88–91.
  5. “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.” Adorno, Negative Dialectics (Continuum, 1973), p. 362. Although Adorno qualified the ban concerning poetry, there still exists a strong tendency to privilege testimony over representation in regards to past suffering, particularly with regard to the Shoah. On the other hand, the question of whether past suffering can be visually represented through figuration in painting is still hotly debated, as can be seen in the modernist emphasis on abstraction over representation.
  6. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, (Penguin, 1976), p. 99.
  7. On how utopian images of communism can lead to cruelty in their name, see Bini Adamczak’s recently translated book, Yesterday’s Tomorrow (MIT Press, 2021) as well as Communism for Kids (MIT Press, 2017).
  8. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford, 1977), §58.
  9. Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, Book 3, Chapter 29, ed. and trans. Shlomo Pines, (University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 521.
  10. Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Zone Books, 1994), §18.
  11. On the inverted relation between the thinker and the thought, see my All Things are Nothing to Me: The Unique Philosophy of Max Stirner (Zero Books, 2018).
  12. See “What Is Idolatry?” (2016) by Rivon Krygier https://zeramim.org/past-issues/volume-i-issue-2/822-2/.
  13. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, (Continuum, 1973), p. 205. Additionally, Plato’s critique of images and idols in The Republic provide another line of argument against the use of images in representing the good, or rather, for why images may be necessary, but not sufficient for grasping the whole.
  14. See Milette Gaifman, “Aniconism: definitions, examples and comparative perspectives,” Religion, Vol. 47, 3 (2017). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0048721X.2017.1342987. A fuller account of the Bilderverbot would have to also look at Christian and Islamic sources, the Byzantine Iconoclastic controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries, as well as theological differences between Sunni and Shia Islam concerning the divine.
  15. Melissa Raphael, “Judaism and Visual Art,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion (2016). https://oxfordre.com/religion/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-98.
  16. Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), p. 446. Rosenzweig’s Kabbalistic approach challenges the word of God in Exodus 33:20, in which Moses asks to see the face of the Lord, and God says “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live,” showing his back instead.
  17. E.M. Cioran, History and Utopia, (Arcade Publishing, 2015), p.80.
  18. E.M. Cioran, The Fall into Time (Quadrangle Press, 1970), p. 47.
  19. Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline (Seabury Press, 1978), p. 224. Translation revised.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding (Verso, 2007), pp. 1–4.
  22. Jay Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (Cambridge, 2001), p. 4.
  23. William Morris, “How I Became a Socialist” (1894).
  24. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 34e. This excerpt is from 1938.
  25. Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline, p. 17. Translation revised.
  26. Ernst Bloch, Spirit of Utopia (Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 275.
  27. This is the penultimate sentence of Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 best seller, One-Dimensional Man, (Routledge, 1991), p. 261. From a very different context, compare Mario Tronti’s similar claim two years later: “The working-class point of view does not prefigure the future or recount the past, but only contributes to the destruction of the present. Working-class science is but a means for the organisation of this destruction … and that’s just fine.” Mario Tronti, Workers and Capital (Verso, 2019), p. 271.
  28. On a materialism without images, see Adorno, “Materialism Imageless,” Negative Dialectics, (Continuum, 1973) pp. 204-207. The crucial passage is on page 207: “It is only in the absence of images that the full object could be conceived. Such absence concurs with the theological ban on images. Materialism brought that ban into secular form by not permitting Utopia to be positively pictured; this is the substance of its negativity. At its most materialistic, materialism comes to agree with theology. Its great desire would be the resurrection of the flesh, a desire utterly foreign to idealism, the realm of the absolute spirit. The perspective vanishing point of historic materialism would be its self-sublimation, the spirit’s liberation from the primacy of material needs in their state of fulfillment. Only if the physical urge were quenched would the spirit be reconciled and would become that which it only promises while the spell of material conditions will not let it satisfy material needs.” On how to interpret this difficult paragraph, see the first chapter of Truskolaski, Adorno and the Ban on Images.
  29. Adorno, “Something's Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing” (1964) in Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays (MIT press, 1988), p. 10–11.
  30. Ibid, p. 12.
  31. Ibid. See also, Adamczak, Communism for Kids (MIT Press, 2017), epilogue, pp. 92–93.
  32. There have been several recent attempts to think through and develop a positive image of utopia without lapsing into positivism, including: Friends of the Classless Society, Contours of the World Commune, 2020; Endnotes, Error, 2020; Aaron Benanav, Automation and the Future of Work (Verso, 2020); A New Institute for Social Research, Theses on the Council Concept, 2020; Jasper Bernes, The Test of Communism, 2021. Alongside those texts, there has also been a renewal of critical research into utopian thinking, including Frederic Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (Verso, 2005) and An American Utopia (Verso, 2016); Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury (Verso, 2016); Miguel Abensour, Utopia (University of Minnesota Press, 2017); and S.D. Chrostowska and James Ingram, Political Uses of Utopia (Columbia, 2017).
  33. Adorno, Theodor, Minima Moralia, p. 102.
  34. Ibid, p. 103.
  35. Ibid, p. 228.
  36. Adorno, “Resignation” (1969), in Critical Models (Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 291.
  37. “Theodor W. Adorno—Wer denkt, ist nicht wütend (Portrait 2/2)” 43:36–43:03 https://youtu.be/-1dbBpVlKi0?t=2556.
  38. Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” (1969), in Critical Models, p. 269.
  39. Paul Mattick, Spontaneity and Organisation, 1949. On Mattick’s life, see the wonderful biography by Gary Roth, Marxism in a Lost Century (Haymarket, 2015).
  40. Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” p. 260.
  41. Hans-Jürgen Krahl, “The Political Contradictions in Adorno's Critical Theory,” Telos, Fall 1974, no. 21, p.166. A response to Krahl from Adorno’s perspective would have to go something like this: The theoretical insight into the social totality is not aimed at generating answers to the question “what should be done?”, an approach to theory that Adorno labels concretism, but rather only at helping clarify “what should not be done.” In that regard, the ban may still hold some contemporary relevance against those idol-like images of “what should be done” that populate the discourse of the left. Perhaps we can take a lesson from David Graeber here and learn to be humble, since, as he once perfectly put it: “Writers who for years have been publishing essays that sound like position papers for vast social movements that do not in fact exist seem seized with confusion or worse, dismissive contempt, now that real ones are everywhere emerging.” Graeber, “The New Anarchists”, New Left Review 13, January–February 2002, p. 61.
  42. E.M. Cioran, History and Utopia, p. 96.
  43. Ernst Bloch, On Karl Marx (Verso, 2018), p. 136.
  44. Douglas Kellner, “Utopia and Marxism in Ernst Bloch”, New German Critique, No. 9 (Autumn, 1976), p. 30.
  45. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 473, [N9, 7]. On dialectical images in Benjamin, see Max Pensky, “Method and Time”, in The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin (Cambridge, 2004), Chapter 9.
  46. Otto Neurath, “Utopia as a Social Engineer's Construction (1919),” in Empiricism and Sociology, (D. Reidel Publishing, 1973), p 151.
  47. Ibid, p.153.
  48. Ibid.
  49. “Perhaps we are now at the beginning of a scientific study of utopias. It would in any case serve our young people better than traditional economic theory and sociology, which, being restricted to the past and the accidental present, were in no way able to cope with the tremendous upheavals of war and revolution.” Neurath, p. 154.
  50. Herbert Marcuse, Five Lectures: Psychoanalysis, Politics and Utopia (Penguin, 1970), p. 62.
  51. Ibid., p. 79.
  52. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 7.
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