In a bar, two women embrace, stumble, and fall down laughing. A frowning bartender removes their drinks from the table. This attitude can be found in any bar. There is a feigned air of dismay or shock, as if the bartenders don’t know what they’re serving or why it would have such an effect. They don’t want to remember the reason for their customers’ drinking. The stumbling customer spoils the buzzed image of happiness that is ghostly attainable in the euphoria after the first drink. We sneer at failed attempts to escape from suffering. We want to pretend we’re not like the drunk customer. There is a refracted reflex against the secret knowledge that we find our humanity only in our animal activities, while the freedom of second nature remains out of reach.
It is said that when an ancient Greek, and perhaps members of other ancient civilizations, would read a text, they always read it aloud, regardless of whether there were an audience there or not.
Perhaps the reader did this so that they might hear it being said. In other words—because it was the text itself that was speaking. This is mythopeic thinking, no doubt. The ancient Greeks called upon the sacred in order to inspire them. The connotation remains in the word itself [πνέω], which asks that one be the vessel through which a muse breathes. There is also the magical thinking of approaching an object as if it were a subject.
What might be grasped for us now, however, is that they would understand the act of reading as an event that requires the reader to participate in an aesthetic experience in which the text as object is both simultaneously non-identical to the reader, but also is recreated by the reader, and in this sense augments the reader himself. Every reading is a recreation of the text in a subject-object dialectic. However, the concept of his own self-creation does not occur to the ancient reader.
Today, this understanding of the thing as object has become reified, so that a text is seen as the vessel of all meaning itself. While it is true that the object retains its own essence, the interpenetration of subject and object is not understood. That act of participation in recreation on the part of the reader is lost. Now it seems that everything comes directly out of the thing itself.
Purposefulness without purpose is an achievement of freedom in that it does not arise out of set rules, but rather creates its own rules. At a different register, it is akin to the potential of the bourgeois subject to participate in any given trade. Bourgeois society puts its stamp upon the very medium through which we understand ourselves.
Recently at a gallery, a lauded music critic was asked about operating in her newly acquired position at a media conglomerate. The questioner was specifically curious if she felt an increased difficulty in covering “more authentic bands,” given her new environment.
“Ha!,” the music critic laughed, “As if only bands are authentic. That leaves out so many other musicians. Male music critics are only interested in the production qualities of music. Sorry to the men in the room, but we don’t have any white males working in our office.” The room applauded.
The grounds of the music critic’s denunciation of authenticity also betray concurrent devotion to the concept at a different register: namely that certain people appear more authentic than others. The horizon of the music critic’s judgement, shared by most, has been narrowed to a pinpoint. The death of any viable Left reduces politics to psychological struggle and moral posturing, neither of which could overcome the crisis of society. That identity politics today is neoliberal can be seen in the way that the music critic’s department now toes the party line as it covers the presidential election campaigns.
The music critic’s victory in a small fraction of the conglomerate’s hiring demographics may have anemic merit, but her acceptance of the job is a liquidation of any “punk” laurels that might have adhered to her. The cruel truth for “punk,” however, is that the music critic never was an outsider to the all-consuming industry, whose schema accounts for even the hermetic hobbyist. She is a symptom of the streamlined integration demanded by mass society.
The truth content of art, whose organon was integration, turns against art and in this turn art has its emphatic moments. Artists discover the compulsion toward disintegration in their own owrks, in the surplus of organization and regimen; it moves them to set aside the magic wand as does Shakespeare’s Prospero, who is the poet’s own voice. However, the truth of such disintegration is achieved by way of nothing less than the triumph and guilt of integration. The category of the fragmentary—which has its locus here—is not to be confused with the category of contingent particularity: the fragment is that part of the totality of the work that opposes totality.1
In the modern sense, the fragment is no longer a dissociated piece of the whole. Rather it is the particular object that tasks the totality brought about by the farreaching consequences of the crisis of the commodity form. Contingent particularity would be the healthy dialectic of particular and universal in bourgeois society that has since then become antinomical. Particularity in our time is no longer an effect of freedom in social practice, but rather the marker of damage already inflicted on all. At the register of psychology, we can look to Freud, for whom neurotics are just like everyone else, but more so. Integration today rather becomes a terrible adaptation to an irrational totality. But from the bourgeois view that expects the world to follow discernible reason, the moments of unreason are felt as ugly accidents that might have been avoided. The fragment opposes the totality only insofar as it reveals this accident to be a historical necessity.
1. Theodor Adorno, “Situation,” in Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 45.
With the development of subjectivity in society, man’s Imaginative abilities are historically formed. Consequently, so is the ability to recognize the Sublime. This is all related to the movement of enlightenment—what Kant called “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.”2 For Kant, the Sublime has a particular dialectic of form and content, in which the form is adequate to the content, but the content goes beyond the form. Kant writes, “But the other [the feeling of the Sublime] is a pleasure that arises only indirectly; viz. it is produced by the feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them, so that it seems to be regarded as emotion,—not play, but earnest in the exercise of the Imagination.”3 The force of the object is felt through the subject’s Imagination in this way. The subject is not overcome by the object, but is, rather, affirmed through its ability to not be overcome.
The danger of the regression of historical consciousness into myth constantly rears itself, and it reigns now. Inspecting regression at the register of the Sublime, Adorno writes, “In the repetitive rhythms of primitive music the menacing aspect originates in the principle of order itself. In this principle the antithesis to the archaic is implicit as the play of forces of the beautiful single whole; the qualitative leap of art is the smallest transition. By virtue of this dialectic the image of the beautiful is metamorphosed into the movement of enlightenment as a whole.”4 It necessarily appears that with self-domination under capital, the phenomena of capitalist society such as the individual, are the carriers of embedded myth. Adorno notes this especially with regard to the category of the ugly:
Archaic ugliness, the cannibalistically threatening cult masks and grimaces, was the substantive imitation of fear, which it disseminated around itself in expiation. As mythical fear diminished with the awakening of subjectivity, the traits of this fear fell subject to the taboo whose organon they were; they first became ugly vis-à-vis the idea of reconciliation, which comes into the world with the subject and his nascent freedom. But the old images of terror persist in history, which has yet to redeem the promise of freedom, and in which the subject—as the agent of unfreedom—perpetuates the mythical spell, against which he rebels and to which he is subordinate.5
1 See Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. An aside: the New Left has almost ruined the reception of this book through its misreading of it. Adorno and Horkheimer are noting how through the lens of regression in the 20th century, the entirety of history appears as the apology for domination. The New Left instead thinks the authors are rejecting Marxism in favor of a transhistorical anti-authoritarianism. No.
2 Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?,'” in Political Writings, ed. H. S. Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 54.
3 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000), 102.
4 Theodor Adorno, “On the Categories of the Ugly, the Beautiful, and Technique,” in Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 52.
5 Ibid., 47.