Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Guardian on Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason

Here is a short video with Esther Leslie of Birkbeck College, London—where I visited for a conference earlier this year—in which Leslie briefly describes some of Max Horkheimer’s thoughts in his book Critique of Instrumental Reason, such as the titular concept, in which Horkheimer sees the slow twisting of reason into just another tool of domination, stripped of its emancipatory capabilities in the realm of ideology.

Although differing in much of their philosophical thought, Horkheimer shares this concern for the future of reason with Friedrich Nietzsche. This concern may be the origin of Nietzsche’s book Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben [On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life] (1874). It is not that Horkheimer and Nietzsche reject the idea of truth, but rather the way in which abstractions gain traction as a pseudo-religion. With regard to this development in the study of history, Nietzsche begins his book with the following:

“I hate everything that merely instructs me without increasing or directly quickening my activity.” These words of Goethe like a sincere ceterum censeo, may well stand at the head of my thoughts on the worth and the worthlessness of history. I will show why instruction that does not “quicken,” knowledge that slackens the rein of activity, why in fact history, in Goethe’s phrase, must be seriously “hated,” as a costly and superfluous luxury of the understanding: for we are still in want of the necessaries of life, and the superfluous is an enemy to the necessary. We do need history, but quite differently from the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge, however grandly they may look down on our rude and unpicturesque requirements. In other words, we need it for life and action, not as a convenient way to avoid life and action, or to excuse a selfish life and a cowardly or base action. We would serve history only so far as it serves life; but to value its study beyond a certain point mutilates and degrades life: and this is a fact that certain marked symptoms of our time make it as necessary as it may be painful to bring to the test of experience.

This reminds me of the steady, almost naïve gaze I appreciate and think can be required in human activity, and which I wrote about earlier with regard to narratives and music.

On the Frankfurt School’s Analysis of Nazism

I’m reading Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination right now, and I’m surprised how much work the Frankfurt School did on analyzing Nazism. I had figured they had written about it, but not to the extent and with the nuances they actually used. Within the Institut itself, there were divergent approaches to their analysis. Here’s an excerpt of Jay’s book that gives you some idea of such divergence:

Still, the major burden of Neumann’s argument was that, contrary to Pollock, Nazism was a continuation of monopoly capitalism, albeit by other means. Behemoth, however, had a secondary thesis as well, which corresponded somewhat more closely to some of the notions of the Institut’s inner circle. This argument was reflected in the book’s title, which referred to Hobbes’s study of the chaos of the English civil war of the seventeenth century. To Neumann, “National Socialism is—or [is] tending to become—a non-state, a chaos, a rule of lawlessness and anarchy.” Not only was “state capitalism” a misnomer, but the existence of a state in any traditional sense was itself questionable. Instead, a domination was becoming more nakedly unmediated without the buffer, however imperfect, provided by the liberal state.

In other words, Neumann, like Horkheimer and the others, felt that the semi-humane mediations of the past were rapidly being eroded in the authoritarian states. Where they disagreed was in their descriptions of the nature of the unmediated domination (165).

Solaris: Communication, Perception, and Imperfection

Still from Steven Soderbergh’s film adaptation, Solaris (2002)

I just finished Stanisław Lem’s novel Solaris (1961) a month or so ago. The driving force of the novel is the attempt to comprehend, and have a meaningful dialogue with an alien entity. The ambiguities of communication are also troubling among the main characters themselves as they try to make sense of the object of their study.

After the crew on the station beamed Kris Kelvin’s brainwaves as x-rays into the ocean, Kelvin experiences dreadful, incredibly lucid dreams, which may well have happened:

I have never had visions of that kind before or since, so I decided to note them down and to transcribe them approximately, in so far as my vocabulary permits, given that I can convey only fragmentary glimpses almost entirely denuded of an incommunicable horror.

A blurred region, in the heart of vastness, far from earth and heaven, with no ground underfoot, no vault of sky overhead, nothing. I am the prisoner of an alien matter and my body is clothed in a dead, formless substance—or rather I have no body, I am that alien matter. Nebulous pale pink globules surround me, suspended in a medium more opaque than air, for objects only become clear at very close range, although when they do approach they are abnormally distinct, and their presence comes home to me with a preternatural vividness. The conviction of its substantial, tangible reality is now so overwhelming that later, when I wake up, I have the impression that I have just left a state of true perception, and everything I see after opening my eyes seems hazy and unreal.

That is how the dream begins. All around me, something is awaiting my consent, my inner acquiescence, and I know, or rather the knowledge exists, that I must not give way to an unknown temptation, for the more the silence seems to promise, the more terrible the outcome will be. Yet I essentially know no such thing, because I would be afraid if I know, and I never felt the slightest fear.

I wait. Out of the enveloping pink mist, an invisible object emerges, and touches me. Inert, locked in the alien matter that encloses me, I can neither retreat nor turn away, and still I am being touched, my prison is being probed, and I feel this contact like a hand, and the hand recreates me. Until now, I thought I saw, but had no eyes: now I have eyes! Under the caress of the hesitant fingers, my lips and cheeks emerge from the void, and as the caress goes further I have a face, breath stirs in my chest—I exist. And recreated, I in my turn create: a face appears before me that I have never seen until now, at once mysterious and known. I strain to meet its gaze, but I cannot impose any direction on my own, and we discover one another mutually, beyond any effort of will, in an absorbed silence. I have become alive again, and I feel as if there is no limitation on my powers. This creature—a woman?—stays near me, and we are motionless. The beat of our hearts combines, and all at once, out of the surrounding void where nothing exists or can exist, steals a presence of indefinable, unimaginable cruelty. The caress that created us and which wrapped us in a golden cloak becomes the crawling of innumerable fingers. Our white, naked bodies dissolve into a swarm of black creeping things, and I am—we are—a mass of glutinous coiling worms, endless, and in that infinity, no, I am infinite, and I howl soundlessly, begging for death and for an end. But simultaneously I am dispersed in all directions, and my grief expands in a suffering more acute than any waking state, a pervasive, scattered pain piercing the distant blacks and reds, hard as rock and ever-increasing, a mountain of grief visible in the dazzling light of another world (178-180).

While the excerpt above reminds me vaguely of various philosophical approaches to the problem of understanding perception, e.g. those of René Descartes and G. W. F. Hegel, it also reminded me of creation myths, with ideas such as there being something that sprouts out of a void.

Of course the excerpt above expresses a sense of imperfection in the narrator’s ability to comprehend this interaction, and, in fact, it’s merely another episode of many in the novel, in which the characters are constantly confounded by their findings in their “Solaristics” research. Obviously communication is an imperfect relation of exchange of ideas, but when no meaningful (to the scientists) findings arise throughout the novel, they come to an acceptance of this frustrating imperfection as it emerges from human communication itself. Characters reflect on the narcissism of humans highlighted by their anger at Solaris’s refusal to affirm humanity in the ways they had hoped. The scientists’ visitors on the station, which are brought about by their own memories, challenge them to ask if they really can handle inhuman communication or even self-reflection via an inhuman mediation.

Slavoj Žižek has written on Solaris, and come to some interesting conclusions in his essay, “The Thing from Inner Space” (Mainview, 1999). The concept he wishes to explore in this essay is the trauma of experiencing an impossible, indiscernible materialization of the Real within a subject.

Here is a short video clip from his film The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), in which he talks about the self-reflection that goes on in Solaris, using material from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation, Солярис [Solaris] (1972).