Tag Archives: Marxism


[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.

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.

A Retrospective Form of Appearance

[Left:] Cover of Stanisław Lem's His Master's Voice, trans. Michael Kandel (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999); [Right:] Portrait of G. W. F. Hegel (1831) by Jakob Schlesinger

[Left:] Cover of Stanisław Lem’s His Master’s Voice; [Right:] Portrait of G. W. F. Hegel (1831) by Jakob Schlesinger

The narrator of Lem’s His Master’s Voice (1968), reflecting on the publishing of his thesis, speaks of a former rival in mathematics. I chuckled at his comparison of the rival to philosopher G. W. F. Hegel:

And yet, when I received from the publisher the fresh, stiff copies of my articles, bright as if bathed in new glory, I would have lucid moments; before me would appear Dill, dry, thin as a beanpole, inflexible, his face like a portrait of Hegel—and I hated Hegel, I could not read him, because he was so sure of himself, as if the Absolute Itself spoke through his lips for the greater glory of the Prussian state. Hegel, I realize now, had nothing to do with it; I had put him in the place of another person.1

I know this is a work of fiction, but it expresses (lucidly) a symptom of the 20th century’s thinkers’ difficulty in understanding Hegel. This incomprehension at Hegel’s confidence isn’t just restricted to fictional characters. It can be seen in many thinkers of today. This incomprehension is a necessary form of appearance which comes about due to the qualitative divide between the 20th century and the time of Hegel. As can be seen even in the decade after Hegel’s death, the split into Left- and Right-Hegelian philosophy almost immediately began to show signs of trouble in grappling with the world. Was Hegel simply wrong, “too idealistic,” too “teleological”? No. What if bourgeois society had entered into a crisis that subsequently sent tremors through an architecture set up to comprehend a different world?

In “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), Karl Korsch points out the trouble that bourgeois historians of philosophy have with this period of the 1830s-60s.2 Marx and Engels understood that the appearance of the false certainty of Hegel is not due to a thought-error by Hegel, but rather by a fundamental change in society, namely the crisis of bourgeois society that is expressed in the Industrial Revolution. Marxism picks up the Hegelian dialectic, rather than rejecting it, which was seen in the rise of neo-Kantianism in the 1860s.

1 Stanisław Lem, His Master’s Voice, trans. Michael Kandel (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999).
2 Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), in Marxism and Philosophy, trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Verso, 2012), 37-38.

Horkheimer and Sandburg on the Family

In his essay “The Future of Marriage” (1966), Max Horkheimer considers the institution under the weight of contemporary society:

However long the bourgeois forms of marriage may last, the awareness of a union that is unique in each case, the high significance of the family name, and the will of the partners to create a life peculiarly their own and, if possible, to give that life a permanence through their children, are now passing away. The older, individualistic categories of thought are losing their meaning because of the new awareness of dependence on society and the realization that the service of social goals is more important than the achievement of personal goals; in short, because of the adaptation to society as it is now (97).

The sadness of confronting the social pressures put on the family reminded me of a poem I read a few years ago. Carl Sandburg’s “Mag” (1916) is both a love story and a tragedy under the weight of capitalism. Given how short it is, I’ll quote it in its entirety:

I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.
I wish we never bought a license and a white dress
For you to get married in the day we ran off to a minister
And told him we would love each other and take care of each other
Always and always long as the sun and the rain lasts anywhere.
Yes, I'm wishing you now lived somewhere away from here
And I was a bum on the bumpers a thousand miles away dead broke.
    I wish the kids had never come
    And rent and coal and clothes to pay for
    And a grocery man calling for cash,
    Every day cash for beans and prunes.
    I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
    I wish to God the kids had never come.

The speaker’s implication is that I wish we hadn’t created this family in this society. A couple that was once imagining their future born out of love, youth, and hope are crushed under the conditions of the proletariat. The speaker wrongly feels guilt for being a part of a situation in which they experience such hardships, but as we know, it is not the speaker’s fault, which makes it all the more tragic. Here a worker has defined his life and the lives of his family members by the worth of his own labor in the market.

Dealing with Illusions

In Gunzelin Schmid Noerr’s afterword to Horkheimer & Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Noerr gives us some insight into the influence psychoanalysis had on the development of Critical Theory: “On the other hand, however, the psychoanalytic concepts spring from an Enlightenment tradition of asserting truth against illusions and taboos, on which the authors wished to draw” (230). We could call ideology the amalgamation of these illusions and taboos. Horkheimer & Adorno, among others including Marx, saw that social structures run deep down to the very core of human subjectivity. The changing political economic sphere of their time revealed that theory had to adapt to a world that so obfuscated itself.

The Frankfurt School and Right-Wing Conspiracy Theorists

Last year I stumbled upon some Youtube videos made by right-wing conspiracy theorists about the work of the Frankfurt School. This sort of thing isn’t necessarily new, but I was surprised that the kind of people who would know nothing about intellectual history in the United States somehow knew about thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. On Youtube, the video makers use the term “cultural Marxism” as the catch-all for what they see as the campaign for “political correctness” and the decline of U.S. culture, which is obviously incorrectly attributed to Marxist thought. One hilarious moment in a video includes a voiceover of a quote of Marcuse, in which the narrator does his best to sound like an “evil”, scheming German as he yells out the statement.

Around the same time last year, I was in an airport, waiting for a flight to Vancouver—coincidentally for the Marxist Literary Group’s Summer Institute on Culture and Society—when I saw a book by the U.S.’s quintessential right-wing conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck. I think the book I picked up was Beck’s Cowards (2012). I remember being amazed to find an entire chapter or at least sub-section of a chapter devoted to the Frankfurt School, admittedly with great inaccuracies.

The common accusation raised by these right-wing critics is that Horkheimer, et al. had devised a scheme, whose sole purpose was to destroy the United States for the sake of evil. This is of course a stretch of the praxis of their theoretical goal of human emancipation. This philosophical endeavor, however, is ignored by people like Beck.

At the MLG’s Vancouver institute, I mentioned this curious discover to one of my colleagues, who said that this strain of right-wing thought might stem from Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind (1987). I haven’t read the book, but find it funny that Bloom taught at the University of Chicago, where I went to a Masters program recently. I’m guessing Bloom’s book is nowhere near as ignorant and twisted concerning the Frankfurt School as the examples cited above, but it’s fascinating how ideas can be distorted for the sake of American anti-intellectualism.

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.