Tag Archives: Frankfurt School


[Left:] Marble Torso of a god or Athlete, Roman Imperial, ca. 1st or 2nd century AD; [Right:] Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (1964-67)

[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.

More on Camping and Freedom

Speaking of the wish to escape to nature, I just found a passage I recently read in Adorno’s essay “Free Time” (1969) that points to the ways in which our desire for freedom is manipulated in our non-working time. In fact, Adorno refers specifically to camping:

Camping—an activity so popular amongst the old youth movements—was a protest against the tedium and convention of bourgeois life. People had to ‘get out’, in both senses of the phrase. Sleeping out beneath the stars meant that one had escaped from the house and from the family. After the youth movements had died out this need was then harnessed and institutionalized by the camping industry. The industry alone could not have forced people to purchase its tents and dormobiles, plus huge quantities of extra equipment, if there had not already been some longing in people themselves; but their own need for freedom gets functionalized, extended and reproduced by business; what they want is forced upon them once again. Hence the ease with which the free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them (190-91).

Advertising “Off-Road” Vehicles

The “off-road” vehicle is advertised as a gateway to the life you wanted, however ambiguous that might be. In fact, the more ambiguous your dream-life is, the better the situation for the marketing. As a potential buyer you are meant to think, “if only I could buy this SUV and get that kayak …” The advertisement plays on the romanticized notion of nature, in which one “gets away from it all.” There’s something humorous and sad about advertisements that sell the idea of escape. People have such dreams because they feel an inadequacy in their lives, but it’s far too opaque for them to understand it. Their dreams for improvement are mediated by the same commodity form that dictates their daily lives. The phenomenon of American off-road nostalgia is merely the appearance of discontent in society. Social relations seem to have lost their essence, and all is thrown away in a regressive eschewal. If only those who run to the woods could see past the fetish that is presented to us by every commodity. Adorno saw this potential: “Even the most stupid people have long since ceased to be fooled by the belief that everyone will win the big prize. The positive element of kitsch lies in the fact that it sets free for a moment the glimmering realization that you have wasted your life.”

The Function of the Ukelele Today

Although I like the sound of ukeleles in songs, it’s worth mentioning that I think their function today is that of a unique mediator between musician and expression. The ukelele allows the musician to make sounds, but with the protective assurance that the audience knows he doesn’t really mean it. The ukelele’s diminutive shape and range comforts any anxiety of being confronted by any onlookers.

Of course the exposition of the subject’s Inner life is not new, and goes back to Romanticism. Today, however, even that expressive gesture—the fallback of the subject in the face of the world—is under scrutiny by its very participants. Anyone who is sincere is met with smirks. “It’s all been tried by now,” they say. Self-expression as the primary function of art is itself symptomatic of regression in the moment of its birth. That even self-expression is mocked is further proof for the argument that there are no vital forces remaining that strive for human freedom. We are resigned to our lives, and feel anger for what sincerity reminds us of: the unrealized potential of our time.

In “Experience and Poverty,” Walter Benjamin writes on the exhaustion people feel after expending so much effort that still has not realized such potential:

Poverty of experience. This should not be understood to mean that people are yearning for new experience. No, they long to free themselves from experience; they long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty—their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty—that it will lead to something respectable. Nor are they ignorant or inexperienced. Often we could say the very opposite. They have ‘devoured’ everything, both ‘culture and people,’ and they have had such a surfeit that it has exhausted them. No one feels more caught out than they by Scheerbart’s words: ‘You are all so tired, just because you have failed to concentrate your thoughts on a simple but ambitious plan.’ Tiredness is followed by sleep, and then it is not uncommon for a dream to make up for the sadness and discouragement of the day—a dream that shows us in its realized form the simple but magnificent existence for which the energy is lacking in reality (734).

Implications from the Subtleties between Subject and Object

As I continue to read Adorno’s lectures on Kant, I find myself increasingly impressed by the depth of Adorno’s thought. Not only that, but at moments in his discussion of Kant’s thought that seem so disconnected from what might be superficially associated with Adorno and the Frankfurt School-or at least with whatever vague topics I imagined they engaged before I got to know their material better.

One example of finding Adorno’s brilliance in his interpretation comes about in his discussion of the relation between subject and object, specifically on the question of constituens and constitutum. Adorno introduces the problem:

I think we have now reached the point where we need to consider these criteria [for the definition of objectivity] a little more closely, particularly since, if I understand the situation rightly, this leads us to the heart of one of the central problems of the Critique of Pure Reason, one that we have not really discussed as thoroughly as it deserves. I am talking about the problem of constituens and constitutum. To give you the keywords: the criteriea Kant gives for synthetic a priori judgements and thus for genuine, valid knowledge with a substantive content, are the concepts of necessity and universality, universality and necessity (138).

In dealing with what is considered an idealist system of knowledge, Adorno first reveals one of its contradictions in a way that shows the seemingly isolated subject actually presupposes itself within a society of peers. Adorno states,

[…] if my starting-point is a multiplicity rather than the connections between what is immediately given in each specific individual consciousness—then do I not just presuppose the very thing I had set out to prove, namely, something like a subjective world? Do I not simply presuppose for the entire argument the thing that has to be constituted—society and with it an empirical reality? Kant has shown great wisdom in leaving this question unresolved (145).

After introducing society in through the cracks of Kant’s structure, Adorno explains the importance of history in the understanding of knowledge.

With these glimpses of knowledge and an implied history, Adorno extrapolates his own interpretation to become an argument against the fashionable, destructive ontology of his contemporaries, such as Martin Heidegger.

Here we see some of the inspiration for Adorno’s project of Negative Dialectics.

Reason and Flesh in Bondage

Detail of Caravaggio's Martirio di San Pietro (1601)

Detail of Caravaggio’s Martirio di San Pietro (1601)

A few times in Critique of Pure Reason, Kant points out that reason is stupid, that it needs knowledge and the Understanding to guide it. Given reason’s penchant for veering wherever it wishes, Kant mentions different ways in which it must be restrained. This might not always be a bad thing: Max Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason is an indictment of the ways in which reason can be used for the justification of awful things, for example: the reasoning behind genocides as a purification of the human race. In his lecture on knowledge in Critique of Pure Reason, Adorno points out the strangely old-fashioned way that Kant restrains reason for the sake of morality, when Kant writes, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” I’ll quote Adorno’s lecture at length here:

You perceive here a very different side of Kant. This is the side that wishes to impose restrictions on reason on the grounds that because reason is natural it can be concerned only with the natural, and must therefore detract from the dignity of everything supernatural.

This places Kant in a tradition that is of extreme importance for his practical philosophy. I am speaking here of the tradition of German Protestantism, in which, as you know, the concept of reason is narrowly circumscribed in favor of faith. The emphasis placed on faith, which puts it in sharp contrast to Catholicism, was gained by downgrading knowledge and natural reason […]. You will all have heard mention of Martin Luther’s reference to ‘that whore, reason’, and its echo can still be heard here. Incidentally, this Lutheran description of reason as a whore reminds us how frequently the language of philosophy has recourse to erotic metaphors when it wishes to set limits to reason or to rebuke reason for its arrogance. In the Critique of Pure Reason, when Kant desires to impose limits on reason and restrict it to the world of appearances, while declining to extend it to the Absolute, he uses the expression about ‘straying into intelligible worlds’. It is as if the speculative inclination of mind to go in the direction of the Absolute, to refuse to allow oneself to be cut off from the Absolute by a wall, went hand in hand with a kind of sexual curiosity from the very outset. Later psychologists homed in on this particular point by showing that there is a profound link between the impulse to know and a curiosity that is ultimately sexual in nature. […] Moreover, the same kind of metaphoric language is to be found in Hegel when he is discussing Kant’s view of this problem. He says there that if philosophy does as Hegel wishes and thinks the Absolute, it will be moving into a region where, as he puts it, there are ‘houses of ill-repute’ (71-72).

The tradition of self-denial within western culture makes its appearance even in Critique of Pure Reason-a work of philosophy which attempts to cast off theological, ascetic strictures upon metaphysics. Adorno points out that Kant holds reason itself back in such a manner because its characteristic of being natural is grounds for claiming its unreliability to think beyond nature. Reason’s proximity to natural indulgences, according to Kant, hinders its abilities. Perhaps Kant is worried that reason, in the realm of the human body, might linger indefinitely on the island of lotus-eaters. And as Adorno points out, this restriction on reason mirrors those placed on human pleasure.

Nietzsche attempts to philosophically trace the sacred ascendency of asceticism. In doing so, he writes of slave morality, which is a deification of powerlessness, a lack of the sensual, and a lack of happiness. Thus, the religious act of giving up such things is based rather in an envy for a life full of them. Is it any wonder that the institutions most known for their devout abstention are also known for their obsession with all indulgences? Human bodies have long been relegated to a position inferior to the spirit in matters of knowledge and happiness. The painting above of Saint Peter’s crucifixion points to the total self-abnegation in death that then becomes deified in the tradition of martyrdom. The New Testament demands a kind of faith that makes the flesh worthless, for example when Jesus is contemplating his impending death in the garden of Gethsemane with his disciples: “And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41).

In his essay “On Hedonism,” Herbert Marcuse ponders this divide between idealistic and materialistic happiness. As is to be expected, he finds a more dialectical than polar answer to this conundrum: since happiness has been so strictly tied within subjectivity, it is currently difficult for such personal happiness to be the grounds on which citizenship in society can rest. The future, however, Marcuse hopes, is one in which personal happiness properly coincides with a happy society. As it stands today, it is sometimes too easy for one to fall into the offered pleasures of a culture that is complicit in the status-quo: “If happiness is no more than the immediate gratification of particular interests, then eudaemonism contains an irrational principle that keeps men within whatever forms of life are given. Human happiness should be something other than personal contentment. Its own title points beyond mere subjectivity” (120). Marcuse points out how the history of philosophy has its own ascetic strain in which happiness is not to be found in the subject’s material self. He notes that hedonism’s material happiness is also shared by the interests of critical theory:

It is against this internalization of happiness, which accepts as inevitable the anarchy and unfreedom of the external conditions of existence, that the hedonistic trends of philosophy have protested. By identifying happiness with pleasure, they were demanding that man’s sensual and sensuous potentialities and needs, too, should find satisfaction—that in them, too, man should enjoy his existence without sinning against his essence, without guilt and shame. In the principle of hedonism, in an abstract and undeveloped form, the demand for the freedom of the individual is extended into the realm of the material conditions of life. Insofar as the materialistic protest of hedonism preserves an otherwise proscribed element of human liberation, it is linked with the interest of critical theory (121).

In the goal of true human happiness, critical theory shares something with hedonism. It is due to our existence in a realm of pleasures and drives that Frankfurt School thinkers became interested in what psychoanalysis might be able to offer to the struggle for a happy, human future.

Anger towards Art

One need only search out a layman’s internet forum discussing art made after the nineteenth century to find the vitriol of contemporary society for anything that does not make itself known through agreed-upon terms and functions. Just as those works of art may be considered useless, their strangeness still offers glimpses into something unknown or undocumented by meticulous categorization. Concerning this receding shelters of imaginative thought, Horkheimer & Adorno explain in Dialectic of Enlightenment the ideological causes for this philosophical witchhunt within the culture industry: “But the hiding places of mindless artistry, which represents what is human against the social mechanism, are being relentlessly ferreted out by organizational reason, which forces everything to justify itself in terms of meaning and effect. It is causing meaninglessness to disappear at the lowest level of art just as radically as meaning is disappearing at the highest” (114).

When art presents a reflection of reality that upsets the masses due to its seeming irrationality, does this not point to the irrationality of reality itself as it exists now? This is not an apology for bad art, but an apology for imagination in a world where the first thing said to an artist during an introduction is, “What kind of job can you do with art?”