Tag Archives: Philosophy

Flowers and the Division of Labor

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (ca. 1680) [detail]

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.


[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.

Terror and Fear

Neolithic ancestor masks found in the Judean Hills (ca. 9,000 BC)

Neolithic ancestor masks found in the Judean Hills (ca. 9,000 BC)

Could an image be made that mimics terror? Or is the mimetic act itself a function of the transformation of terror into fear? The movement from myth in the process of enlightenment runs parallel to the movement from terror to fear. Fairy tales are an index of the subjective development out of the world of myth that has not truly faded for all time. This movement is not guaranteed to be that of constant progress: that is why it the dialectic of myth and enlightenment.1

With the development of subjectivity in society, man’s Imaginative abilities are historically formed. Consequently, so is the ability to recognize the Sublime. This is all related to the movement of enlightenment—what Kant called “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.”2 For Kant, the Sublime has a particular dialectic of form and content, in which the form is adequate to the content, but the content goes beyond the form. Kant writes, “But the other [the feeling of the Sublime] is a pleasure that arises only indirectly; viz. it is produced by the feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them, so that it seems to be regarded as emotion,—not play, but earnest in the exercise of the Imagination.”3 The force of the object is felt through the subject’s Imagination in this way. The subject is not overcome by the object, but is, rather, affirmed through its ability to not be overcome.

The danger of the regression of historical consciousness into myth constantly rears itself, and it reigns now. Inspecting regression at the register of the Sublime, Adorno writes, “In the repetitive rhythms of primitive music the menacing aspect originates in the principle of order itself. In this principle the antithesis to the archaic is implicit as the play of forces of the beautiful single whole; the qualitative leap of art is the smallest transition. By virtue of this dialectic the image of the beautiful is metamorphosed into the movement of enlightenment as a whole.”4 It necessarily appears that with self-domination under capital, the phenomena of capitalist society such as the individual, are the carriers of embedded myth. Adorno notes this especially with regard to the category of the ugly:

Archaic ugliness, the cannibalistically threatening cult masks and grimaces, was the substantive imitation of fear, which it disseminated around itself in expiation. As mythical fear diminished with the awakening of subjectivity, the traits of this fear fell subject to the taboo whose organon they were; they first became ugly vis-à-vis the idea of reconciliation, which comes into the world with the subject and his nascent freedom. But the old images of terror persist in history, which has yet to redeem the promise of freedom, and in which the subject—as the agent of unfreedom—perpetuates the mythical spell, against which he rebels and to which he is subordinate.5

1 See Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. An aside: the New Left has almost ruined the reception of this book through its misreading of it. Adorno and Horkheimer are noting how through the lens of regression in the 20th century, the entirety of history appears as the apology for domination. The New Left instead thinks the authors are rejecting Marxism in favor of a transhistorical anti-authoritarianism. No.
2 Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?,'” in Political Writings, ed. H. S. Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 54.
3 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000), 102.
4 Theodor Adorno, “On the Categories of the Ugly, the Beautiful, and Technique,” in Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 52.
5 Ibid., 47.

Maybe a New Individual

Art by Andy Goldsworthy

Art by Andy Goldsworthy

Paul Celan’s “Psalm”:

“Praised be you, noone.
Because of you we wish
to bloom.

Thought’s movement begins from the contradictions of the world,2 even from the non-identity of interior and exterior. There is something unsettling in the understanding that nothing will ensure that thought realizes itself. Any talk of the inevitability of a free society necessitates the progression of history, but history might have stopped short of its promise. The severe trauma of the 20th century attests to this. “Psalm” asks if there could be anything in an imposed nothingness so total that negation has no foothold. Maybe. Nietzsche wished to push ascetic ideals through itself: “a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life; but it is and remains a will!.”3 There seems to be a recurring motif in Celan’s poems of making unlikely things bloom. Nietzsche also uses a motif of a crown or flower when describing the culmination of ressentiment.

Consciousness would have to begin from its regressed state. It can’t afford to forget its losses. Acknowledging defeat can be a victory, and for us it is the only starting point. The fragments of the individual, which might first appear as memorials, point beyond themselves. An adequate approach would have to see them as critical.

1 Paul Celan, “Psalm,” in Selections, ed. Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 78.
2 Herbert Marcuse, “A Note on Dialectic” (1960).
3 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, in On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 163.

Pangs of a Time Traveler

Human requirements change. People who lived centuries ago would marvel at our technology, and yet we look beyond our own creations today. The accumulations of the past have entered into Nature, into what we’re now born into. My point is not to say that we’re ungrateful. If we were transported back in time, we would suffer more than peasants because we’re conscious of what is possible. As Hegel might say, we would be suffering from unrealized potential.

The status quo of capitalist society points beyond itself. Even unconsciously we’re aware of what is lacking. The progressive overcoming of our moment requires historical consciousness.

Thought Asleep

At the end of the work-day, how many scholars close their books, turn off their computers, and leave their thoughts until the next work day? Sometimes I wish I could live like that. There are professionals who turn thought itself on and off. This is a symptom of the proletarianization of intellectuals.

Nietzsche states:

The lack of personality always takes its revenge: A weakened, thin, extinguished personality that denies itself is no longer fit for anything good—least of all for philosophy. “Selflessness” has no value either in heaven or on earth. All great problems demand great love, and of that only strong, round, secure spirits who have a firm grip on themselves are capable. It makes the most telling difference whether a thinker has a personal relationship to his problems and finds in them his destiny, his distress, and his greatest happiness, or an “impersonal” one, meaning that he can do no better than to touch them or grasp them with the antennae of cold, curious thought. In the latter case nothing will come of it; that much one can promise in advance, for even if great problems should allow themselves to be grasped by them they would not permit frogs and weaklings to hold on to them; such has been their taste from time immemorial—a taste, incidentally, that they share with all redoubtable females.1

The time where philosophy should be mere intellectual work—if it ever existed—is long gone. Not only that, but philosophy itself requires its own self-overcoming. Where must it go? The world! “The inner self-contentment and completeness has been broken. What was inner light has become consuming flame turning outwards.”2

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 283 (§ 345).
2 Karl Marx, “To Make the World Philosophical” (1839-41), in The Marx-Engels Reader, second edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 10.

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.