The expectation of happiness in life is an attitude whose costs might outweigh the benefits. We tell ourselves that we can be anything we imagine, but this could be an increasingly cruel notion. In each phenomenon, we see what something is and also what it is not. Although thought may detect glimmers beyond the immediate, the practical path to thought’s realization is blocked, and only disintegrating images of other worlds linger before fading. It is painful to hold onto those fragments, and a meager defense offers itself to the injured: disregard anything that stirs the heart so that you might avoid the accompanying sadness. Is not blindness better for this life?1 Of course this is a Romantic reaction. Perhaps downcast eyes are more merciful, but such a resignation does not absolve us; it only defers our self-imposed suffering.
1. Nietzsche explores a similar question in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.
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, as if bartenders don’t know what they’re serving. They don’t want to remember why their customers drink. We sneer at failed attempts to escape from unhappiness. We want to pretend we’re not like the drunk customer, whose stumbling spoils the image of happiness in the first drink. There is a refracted reflex against the knowledge that we find our humanity only in our animal activities, while the freedom of second nature remains out of reach.
Still from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Riding on Chicago’s “L”, among office workers and students, two teenagers use social-media applications to record videos of the sunset as it flickers between buildings. The observer’s first impulse might be to reproach them later for how they appreciated the moment, but this reaction includes within it a presupposition about sight: that the act of looking is the most certain. Sight, however, is not an untainted reception of the perceived things, but is rather a mediated form. This is also the pernicious character of photography. The social influence upon the method is more apparent when using Facebook or Snapchat, including especially the anxiety for certainty and approval.
The sunset is bittersweet because we are not sure about the day.
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.
Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (ca. 1680) [detail]
A flower is beautiful for Kant because it presents itself as having a self-determined teleology. We subjects find our Imaginations reflected back to us, transforming ourselves.
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.
[Left:] Marble Torso, Roman Imperial, ca. 1st or 2nd century AD; [Right:] Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (1964-67)
In Aesthetic Theory
, Adorno writes:
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 works, 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.