Tag Archives: Georg Lukács

Descending into Individuality in Adorno’s “Lyric Poetry and Society”

Henri Matisse, La Desserte rouge (1908) [detail]

Henri Matisse, La Desserte rouge (1908) [detail]

Theodor Adorno’s opening paragraph1 addresses any apprehensions his readers might have concerning the discussion of lyric poetry and society. Adorno explains that his methodology is not that of a sociologist identifying the general aspects of society arising in the particularities of the poem as if it were an identical mapping of ideology, but rather it is an approach beginning from the poem and moving outward, or, more accurately, an immanent dialectical critique. Adorno wishes to see the interpenetration of lyric poetry and society through the poetry itself—to see how the monad of the poem prismatically shines outward, illuminating society as it is and as it isn’t. The chief task of critical thought arising from poetry is “rather to discover how the entirety of a society, as a unity containing contradictions, appears in a work; in which respects the work remains true to its society, and in which it transcends that society.”2 The individual itself is most social when he acts as an individual,3 and in doing so, he attempts to participate in the bourgeois promise of what Kant calls “unsocial sociability.”4 Just as this individual’s attempt to realize himself is thwarted by contradiction, so too is the poem most revealing when it attempts to be itself, and thus when it shows a gap between its meaning and its context. By working immanently through the individual character of the lyric subject as it appears in the poem, Adorno is able to grasp the work’s critical stance.

Despite its seeming untimeliness, lyric poetry is not a remnant of feudalism nor the impossible daydreams of utopians, but rather it is particularly bourgeois in its expression of discontent and in its preconditions, both in its production and reception. Lyric poetry requires and implies the individual, which only comes about through the development of bourgeois society, where social relations are mediated through the “freely” given labor of individuals. This historically specific universalizing compulsion also implies the potential for the sharing of aesthetic experiences in a way that had not been qualitatively possible before, although, paradoxically, art in pre-bourgeois civilization has the appearance of being more immediate.5

The phenomenon of lyric poetry itself implies—or is seen as—the battle ground for dialectics that have broken into antinomies, of which the most contentious are subject/object, individual/society, private/public, particular/universal, unique/abstract, and essence/appearance. These antinomies are related to that of the commodity form, whose ongoing crisis enigmatically pushes and necessarily changes appearances for us. Lukács states plainly the need for drawing this connection, “at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure.”6 Adorno, like Lukács, is not interested in choosing one side of these antinomies over the other, but rather he is interested in seeing how the phenomenon of lyric poetry expresses and clarifies their contradiction in society. The overwhelming assumption made by society about lyric poetry is that it should be a realm of the private subject or individual, of quality, of particularity, and of essence. Society prefers and reifies the lyric subject,7 the appearance of which is defined negatively against the opposing antinomies above: “the subjective being that makes itself heard in lyric poetry is one which defines and expresses itself as something opposed to the collective and the realm of objectivity.”8 Such a one-sided expectation of art as demanded by the middle-classes ultimately does not achieve its goal: “Meaning itself became bound to the accidents of individual fortune and happiness; it acquired, or rather usurped, the dignity that it would otherwise attain only in conjunction with the happiness of the whole.”9 But even in escaping to the particular, meaning is still damaged. Only through social emancipation can these antinomies be overcome and completed in a unity that would still preserve their reciprocal non-identity.

The focus of Adorno’s essay upon a seemingly frivolous activity actually reveals the seriousness of lyric poetry’s meaning in society. The light touch with which society holds lyric poetry allows thought released by the poem to move in such a way that it is able to press against its context—a movement which “once set into motion by a poem cannot be cut off at the poem’s behest.”10 Lyric poetry is what Kracauer would call an “inconspicuous surface-level expression” of an epoch—one of the expressions, which “by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things.”11 This is why the individuality of the lyric subject is addressed by Adorno, who adds, “the descent into individuality raises the lyric poem to the realm of the general by virtue of its bringing to light things undistorted, ungrasped, things not yet subsumed—and thus the poem anticipates, in an abstract way, a condition in which no mere generalities (i.e., extreme particularities) can bind and chain that which is human.”12 The aesthetic experience of the “involuntary crystallization”13 in the poem points beyond the status quo by revealing the immanent contradictions in the non-identity of society’s practices and its ideals, and how it has thus fallen below its own threshold to become barbaric.

The style of lyric poetry is in part “a form of reaction against the reification of the world.”14 It uses the same language as society, and yet its placement is able to resist reification, if only in making the reader or listener feel the difference from the consciousness of everyday life. Reading Stefan George’s poem, Adorno points out that its use of language becomes so individuated and unique that it condemns instead of affirms the status quo, even if that were not its goal: “only by means of this extreme differentiation could the lyric Word do the bidding of language’s deepest being and oppose its enforced services in the realm of economically organized purposes and goals.”15 It is the very uselessness—as deemed by the instrumental reason (ratio) of capital—which momentarily disrupts reification. But art’s dreams cannot be fulfilled through art alone. By creating something new and different from that which already is, the poem implies the possibility of transformation of the world. The aesthetic education from the reception of such transformation could inform the judgment required to properly mediate both the Pure and Practical Reason for further transformation.

1 Theodor Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society,” in Critical Theory and Society: A Reader, eds. Bronner and Kellner (Routledge, 1989), 155.
2 Ibid., 156.
3 Karl Marx, excerpt of The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (Princeton: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 85-86.
4 Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” in Political Writings, ed. H. S. Reiss (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 44.
5 Theodor Adorno, “Society,” in Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 225.
6 Georg Lukács, “Reifcation and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1971), 83.
7 Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society,” 162.
8 Ibid., 158.
9 Ibid., 166.
10 Ibid., 156.
11 Siegfried Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament,” in The Mass Ornament (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), 75.
12 Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society,” 156.
13 Ibid., 160.
14 Ibid., 157.
15 Ibid., 169.

Horkheimer on Irrationality and 20th Century Ontology

In his essay “The Concept of Man” (1957)—found in his Critique of Instrumental Reason—Max Horkheimer writes about the implications of an irrational society:

The continuing irrationality of society is increasingly incompatible with the state of our knowledge. The helplessness of men before the opaque whole which they keep in existence is even more alarming. The “existential” anxiety of which so much is said springs from the same source as our inner emptiness: the fact that life, which at one time was regarded as a flight from hell and a journey beyond the stars to heaven, now seeps away into the apparatus of modern society, an apparatus concerning which, for all the surplus it produces, no one knows whether it serves the promotion of mankind or its downfall. Nowhere does the union of progress and irrationality show up so clearly as in the continued existence of poverty and care and the fear of distress and dismal old age, and in the condition of brutal prisons and asylums in countries with highly developed industry (29-30).

Georg Lukács finds a similar development in the history of major novelists coinciding with the growth of capitalism. I briefly mentioned this point in a previous post on Adorno’s essay “Commitment.” As the capitalist mode of production subverts subjects into slots, the world seems to dissolve into a mere backdrop to the problems of the subject. No longer does history seems graspable.

Theory and Party Solidarity in the Early 20th Century

This is an interesting bit from the introduction of Martin Jay’s history of the Frankfurt School, The Dialectical Imagination:

The split that divided the working class movement in Weimar between a bolshevized Communist Party (KPD) and a nonrevolutionary Socialist Party (SPD) was a sorry spectacle to those who still maintained the purity of Marxist theory. Some attempted a rapprochement with one faction or another. But as demonstrated by the story of Georg Lukács, who was forced to repudiate his most imaginative book, History and Class Consciousness, shortly after its appearance in 1923, this often meant sacrificing intellectual integrity on the altar of party solidarity.

When, however, personal inclinations led to a greater commitment to theory than to party, even when this meant suspending for a while the unifying of theory and praxis, the results in terms of theoretical innovation could be highly fruitful (4).

I wonder what today’s situation might be in regards to the relationship between theory and practice. For Adorno, he considered his time to be not yet ready to be political. Today, leading members of the Platypus Affiliated Society, like Chris Cutrone, also see the contemporary moment as being pre-political.

Theodor Adorno, “Commitment”

I just read Theodor Adorno’s essay, “Commitment,” in Aesthetics and Politics. I’m especially drawn to Adorno’s criticism of Bertolt Brecht’s technique when it comes to presentation. In other words, the balancing act of aesthetic and thought in a work of art, or even questioning that compositional formula itself.  About Brecht’s play Saint Joan, Adorno writes,

The play is set in a Chicago half-way between the Wild West fables of Mahagonny and economic facts. But the more preoccupied Brecht becomes with information, and the less he looks for images, the more he misses the essence of capitalism which the parable is supposed to present. Mere episodes in the sphere of circulation, in which competitors maul each other, are recounted instead of the appropriation of surplus-value in the sphere of production [. . .] (183).

Not having seen or read Saint Joan, I can’t comment on it directly. But the reason I quote this passage is for the second portion, in which Adorno calls Brecht’s scenes and images “Mere episodes.” I think this is a good example of the reification of daily life, in which events come to feel episodic. Georg Lukács points out something similar that begins to happen in literature with the rise of capitalism. The presentation of the world becomes a mere backdrop to small bourgeois conflicts.

The Tramp is berated on the assembly line in Modern Times

The Tramp is berated on the assembly line in Chaplin’s Modern Times

Adorno then goes on to speak of the failed critique of fascism through artistic creation in Brecht’s Arturo Ui and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator:

the deconstruction of leaders, as with all individuals in Brecht, is extended into a reconstruction of the social and economic nexus in which the dictator acts. Instead of a conspiracy of the wealthy and powerful, we are given a trivial gangster organization, the cabbage trust. The true horror of fascism is conjured away; it is no longer a slow end-product of the concentration of social power, but mere hazard, like an accident or a crime [. . .] That is why the buffoonery of fascism, evoked by Chaplin as well, was at the same time also its ultimate horror. If this is suppressed, and a few sorry exploiters of greengrocers are mocked, where key positions of economic power are actually at issue, the attack misfires. The Great Dictator loses all satirical force and becomes obscene when a Jewish girl can hit a line of storm-troopers on the head with a pan without being torn to pieces. For the sake of political commitment, political reality is trivialized: which then reduces the political effect (184-185).

From this passage, I’m reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times (1936). I’m fond of the film, but it’s not free of criticism. Of course, this criticism is not reduced to a rejection of the film’s comedy, but rather its scope. Just as the first passage above references the episodic quality of Brecht’s play, Modern Times also falls into the same trap. The film’s scope of capitalism sometimes reaches its limit at the angry figure of a boss. If only he were nicer, we are meant to think.

Still from Sans Soleil

Still from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil

And now, I’m reminded also of a humorous, short section in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). The narrator ponders an arcade game, the objective of which is to hit different members of your job’s hierarchy:

I saw these games born in Japan. I later met up with them again all over the world, but one detail was different. At the beginning the game was familiar: a kind of anti-ecological beating where the idea was to kill off—as soon as they showed the white of their eyes—creatures that were either prairie dogs or baby seals, I can’t be sure which. Now here’s the Japanese variation. Instead of the critters, there’s some vaguely human heads identified by a label. At the top, the chairman of the board. In front of him, the vice president and the directors. In the front row, the section heads and the personnel manager. The guy I filmed, who was smashing up the hierarchy with an enviable energy, confided in me that for him the game was not at all allegorical, that he was thinking very precisely of his superiors. No doubt that’s why the puppet representing the personnel manager has been clubbed so often and so hard, that it’s out of commission, and why it had to be replaced again by a baby seal.

My point in bringing this up is not that art should really be focused on higher members of such hierarchies, but rather that the the “game” itself represents reification by presenting to the user a set of names to be responsible for the ills of work under capitalism. A more recent example of misplaced anger might be the way in which individual bankers were thought of as the enemy during demonstrations at Occupy Wall Street. That’s for another day though.