- Fredric Jameson years ago characterized Adorno's chief
critical device or method as the "historical trope" (Marxism
and Form 3-59), so it shouldn't strike anyone as a novel
claim that Adorno's "constellation" displays affinities with other
now-familiar devices of modernist art and literature--Eisensteinian
montage, cubist collage, the Joycean "epiphany," the Poundian
"ideogram." The young Adorno presumably first encountered the
word's relevant usages when he read Benjamin's Trauerspiel in
the late 1920s; however that may be, the word recurs in his work
throughout his career, from "The Actuality of Philosophy" (1931) to
the late pieces collected in Critical Models. Its
connotations are diverse and often conflicting, and one could make
an interesting study of such tellingly divergent uses, as well as
an interesting speculation of the rarity of Adorno's own
second-level reflections on the word.
The present study, however, attempts nothing so comprehensive. I
want in this paper to unpack some of the implications of
constellation as a critical practice and elicit their tension or
contradiction (a word not necessarily a vitiation in Adorno's usage,
and in many contexts a term of high praise) with the overall
program, derived from Hegel, that Adorno regularly calls "immanent
critique." To that end, I will consider constellation in
relation to Walter Benjamin's "dialectical image," with which it has
obvious but also qualified affinities, to the Gestalt
psychology of Wolfgang Köhler, from which Adorno would have
been anxious to distinguish it, and to the epic device of
"parataxis" as Adorno commends Hölderlin's use of it. I will
end by bringing the issues that emerge to bear on the 1944
Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-authored with Max
Horkheimer, and the curiously agitated stasis "motivating" its
thematic of Western Civilization's "progress" and "regress."
ADORNO AND BENJAMIN
- It is in his "Portrait of Walter Benjamin" that Adorno
speaks most suggestively and, for his own practice, most
revealingly, about the theory, the practice, and the effect, of
Benjamin's dialectical image:
The [Benjaminian] essay as form consists in the ability to regard
historical moments, manifestations of the objective spirit,
"culture," as though they were natural. Benjamin could do this as
no one else. The totality of this thought is characterized by what
may be called "natural history." He was drawn to the petrified,
frozen or obsolete elements of civilization, to everything in it
devoid of domestic vitality [...]. The French word for still-life,
nature morte, could be written above the portals of his
philosophical dungeons. The Hegelian concept of "second nature," as
the reification of estranged human relations, and also the Marxian
category of "commodity fetishism" occupy key positions in Benjamin's
work. He is driven not merely to awaken congealed life in petrified
objects--as in allegory--but also to scrutinize living things so
that they present themselves as ancient, "ur-historical" and
abruptly release their significance. Philosophy appropriates the
fetishism of commodities for itself: everything must metamorphose
into a thing in order to break the catastrophic spell of things.
Benjamin's thought is so saturated with culture as its natural
object that it swears loyalty to reification instead of flatly
rejecting it [...] the glance of his philosophy is Medusan.
For us, there is peril in this assimilation of culture to nature,
which we regard as the classic ruse of ideology. Our antidote, from
Lévi-Strauss and Barthes, is to dissolve the category of
nature entirely into culture--to "flatly reject," in effect, to deny
our critical practice any resort to, the category of nature at all.
But for Adorno, the ruse itself is the first thing critique must
grapple with--and it must do so "immanently," that is, from the
inside: critique must suffer the ruse of ideology, and
even in a sense reproduce it from within, in the very course of the
attempt to unmask it and undo its power. Hence the use, for Adorno
and for Benjamin, of a critical device that permits just what our
usual practice forbids, namely, a patience of, or tolerance for,
transaction between categories (for example, nature/culture) that other
styles of "external" critique would disjoin. An "external" critical
practice insistently seeks to separate culture and nature, to
fortify or sharpen or harden the putative antithesis between them,
to (as it were) dis-ambiguate the mystifying conflation by recourse
to which ideology sanctifies cultural/historical contingencies as
natural necessities. By contrast, the practice of Benjamin and
Adorno might here be thought of as a "motivated" re-ambiguation that
again allows culture and nature access to each other in ways that
can be critical of the binary from "inside," ways impossible for any
"external" construction of them as mutually exclusive. As Adorno
elsewhere puts it:
For [Benjamin] what is historically concrete becomes image--the
archetypal image of nature as of what is beyond nature--and
conversely nature becomes the figure of something historical.
(Notes 2: 226)
Hence it is a good thing, an opening to critical insight rather than
an ideological lapse, that "in Benjamin the historical itself looks
as though it were nature" (Notes 2: 226), or, even more
provocatively, that Benjamin's work "swears loyalty to reification
instead of flatly rejecting it" (Prisms 233).
- It is this subversive evocation of the ideology of
nature from within, "immanently," that makes Benjamin's
"Denkbild" or "thought image" (and, I am of course arguing,
Adorno's constellation as well) a dialectical image:
[Benjamin] was right to call the images of his philosophy
dialectical [...] the plan of his book on the Paris Arcades
envisaged a panorama of dialectical images as well as their theory.
The concept of dialectical image was intended objectively, not
psychologically: the representation of the modern as the new, the
past, and the eternally invariant in one would have become both the
central philosophical theme and the central dialectical image.
(Notes 2: 226-7)
The language here leaves room for some unclarity. The
"representation of the modern as the new, the past, and the
eternally invariant in one" would, presumably, be ideological--the
world's own self-representation--and hence a fit "object"
("philosophical theme") for ideological exposé by way of the
dialectical image. But the unclarity allows also the suggestion
that the representation is itself the theme and the
(dialectical) image. Hold this ambiguity--cognate with our
culture/nature problem--in mind; we will recur to it throughout.
For now, the passage implicates in the "dialectic" that the
dialectical image achieves or allows not only nature/culture, but
also "theory" and "image"--another categorical binary often
operative, and often less consciously, than culture/nature, in
critical practice. In Hegel, "picture-thinking" is quite
specifically a pre- or proto-philosophical kind of
consciousness--although survivals of it persist into the age, the
consciousness, the practices of philosophy itself. More
conventionally, though--by something like a Hegelian methodological
fiction--it belongs to earlier phases of the unfolding story of the
World-Spirit, in which the advent of theory or philosophy is itself
an important milestone. And this evocation of the World-story
reminds us, too, that for Hegel, the dialectic was ineluctably a
temporal process, which is to say conceptualizable only in or as
narrative. Image, by contrast, is spatial and
atemporal--and to that extent a dialectical image would seem to be
a kind of paradox. Yet what makes the "representation of the modern
as the new, the past, and the eternally invariant in one"
ideological is that it has already collapsed the narrative
implicit in the given terms (modern, new, the past) into the
non-narrative stasis of an "eternally invariant" condition. Hence
the interest, when Adorno insists,
there are good reasons why [Benjamin's] is a dialectic of images
rather than a dialectic of progress and continuity, a "dialectics at
a standstill"--a name, incidentally, he found without knowing that
Kierkegaard's melancholy had long since conjured it up.
(Notes 2: 228)
Thus can a Marxist critique recuperate, "immanently," the
arch-bourgeois Kierkegaard, as himself an immanent sufferer,
exemplar, critic and diagnostician of all the superstitions and
humors ("melancholy") that compound the bourgeois ideology and
Lebenswelt. But more to the present point is that the
critical practice of Adorno generally presents what might seem the
paradox or contradiction of an insistently historicizing program,
realized in a critical practice that is virtually never motivated by
historical argument in the form of historical narrative. Hence the
relevance of the formula "dialectics at a standstill," which has
become almost a slogan for Western Marxists and others for whom the
forward momentum of nineteenth-century progressive (liberal) and/or
revolutionary (Marxist) narratives of eventual (of course,
diversely) happy endings have stalled in the steady-state nightmare
of the twentieth century, where, as Adorno and Horkheimer starkly
put it, "mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition,
is sinking into a new kind of barbarism" (xi). For a world at such an impasse, "dialectics at a
standstill"--a non-narrative dialectic--is the only kind of
dialectic that answers to our condition.
- "Dialectics at a standstill" is, then, not only the
ideological condition to be contested, but also the contestation's method.
Indeed, the passage from Benjamin's Passagen-Werk from which the
phrase comes makes just this point: "dialectics at a standstill--this is
the quintessence of the method" (Arcades 865); elsewhere,
quite simply, "image is dialectics at a standstill"; and, "only
dialectical images are genuinely historical" (Arcades
463). Here again we observe the commutativity of the ideological ethos
and the critical method. To link all this--not only ethos and method, but
program as well--with dialectical image suggests another, related,
contradiction latent in Adorno's practice that can tell us much about his
motives and his meanings. Since Hegel, the project, or desire, of
broaching the "new" in the domain of Spirit has regularly generated
figurations of loosening or liquifying formations inherited from the past
that have "hardened" or "frozen" and thus become rigid and imprisoning.
Hegel himself spoke of philosophy's task in such terms, of "freeing
determinate thoughts from their fixity" (Hegel 20); compare this with Hegel's
frequent formula that thought "sets in motion" thought-objects, former
"certainties," that had been stalled. Adorno likewise typically figures
reification as a process of freezing, hardening, or congealing, and the
critical process, by contrast, as one of softening, reliquifying, and so
on, as we have already seen in the quotation above praising Benjamin's
attempt to "awaken congealed life in petrified objects"
(Prisms 233). The task of immanent critique, as Adorno
puts it elsewhere, is that "congealed" ideological thought "must be
reliquified, its validity traced, in repetition" (Negative
97). Above we saw what I called a motivated ambiguation
of culture and nature; here we have a cognate move, in that to "reliquify"
so as to release or engender the new must entail a "repetition" of that
which had been "congealed." Also, regarding "its validity traced":
immanent critique seeks as much to recover what is valid in ideological
congealments as to undo what is false.
- Thus conceived, immanent critique might seem,
itself, an ambiguously narrative process putting the forward motion
of renewal in tension with the cyclical or static entrapments of
repetition. But the ambiguity above, whereby narrative devolves
into standstill, into impasse, into image, has its analogous
playing-out in the reversal whereby figurations of critical,
anti-ideological reliquification are displaced by their very
opposite: by imageries of petrification, hardening, freezing,
rigidifying, even killing. In the following passage, for example,
Adorno's discussion of Benjamin's dialectical image generates, not
for the first time (we have already seen it above in the passage
from Prisms) the balefully minatory image of Medusa.
Benjamin's medusa-like gaze [...] turns its object to stone [...].
[It] froze [its object] to a kind of ontology [sc. hypostatization,
reification, fetish] from the start [...]. This [...] was the spirit
in which [Benjamin] restructured every element of culture that he
encountered, as if the form of his intellectual organization and the
melancholy with which his nature conceived the idea of something
beyond nature, of reconciliation, necessarily endowed everything he
took up with a deathly shimmer. (Notes 2: 228)
Here, it would seem, the "gaze" of the critic does to its object
just what immanent critique and other projects of "dereification"
aim to un-do: hardens it, turns it to stone, turns it into a
thing. (A resort to etymology here seems worthwhile:
"thing" in Latin is res, the root of
"re-ification; in Greek, "thing" is ontos, the
root of "onto-logy," another "thing," so to speak, that
Benjamin's "medusa-gaze" turns its object into--both the
thing, we might say, and its ideological
theorization by Heidegger; hence "ontology" as figure here for what
Adorno variously calls "reification," "hypostatization,"
"fetishization.") Indeed, the critic's gaze does something very
suggestive of killing the object, depriving it of life--besides
Medusa's own lethal power of petrification, such is the suggestion
of "endowing" it "with a deathly shimmer." In context, it is
following this passage that the "dialectics at a standstill" passage
appears--so there is a pointed connection between, or
constellation of, the theme above of non-narrative stasis and the
point here about death. In Benjamin's
micrological method [...] the historical movement halts and becomes
sedimented in the image. One understands Benjamin correctly if one
senses behind each of his sentences the conversion of extreme
animation into something static, in fact the static conception of
movement itself. (Notes 2: 228)
Here, again, the critic "immanently" repeats, even suffers, the
stasis of our modern ideological condition in a way to perform
("repeat") that very condition--the "moment" of the process captured
in the Medusa-image being that in which the critic enacts the
"repetition" of that congealed, petrified condition, not (yet) its
- In his 1959 lectures on Kant, Adorno calls for a
hermeneutic that, by entering the (objective) "force field" of a
writer's or a text's problematic, allows the interpreter to "go
beyond the immediate meaning on the page" (Kant's 80).
The Medusa image, fraught as it is with what Freud
would call "antithetical" motifs, emboldens me to give this a try.
In the myth, the Medusa's power to petrify anyone who looks at her
is defeated by Perseus, who contrives to approach her without
looking, and at the crucial face-to-face moment, holds up to her a
highly polished mirror. Medusa, seeing her own image, is herself
turned to stone, and Perseus then decapitates her. He keeps her
severed head, however, and in further adventures, he uses it as a
weapon--a fright object with which to petrify new enemies. Adorno
licenses us, I suggest, to read "Benjamin's medusa-gaze" as having
the power to do to ideology something like what Perseus's mirror
does to Medusa herself, as well as to do what Perseus uses
Medusa's severed head to do to further adversaries. This image, of Medusa's petrifying power turned against itself and then
appropriated for further use against other threats, suggests
something of the reflexiveness, the "antithetical" character,
that is, the capacity for "dialectical" reversals, as well as
something of the ordeal, "the labour and the suffering of the
negative," incumbent on the (hero-) critic, encoded in Adorno's
project of immanent critique.
- I have been arguing, in effect, that the
dialectical image de-narrativizes the implicitly temporal or
narrative course, from "repeat" to "reliquify," of immanent
critique. We might say the Medusa gaze of the dialectical image
freezes the temporality of immanent critique into a frozen,
static, petrified image. But we can also play this construction the
other way, reversing its direction, to reinsert the dialectical
image back into the story by assigning it a particular "moment" in
the narrative. If immanent critique is meant to reliquify an
antecedent hardening, then the Medusa-gaze would seem to belong to
the prequel of the story: the moment of its object's petrification
would seem to be the indispensable narrative precondition for the
repetition and reliquification to follow. But Adorno evokes the
Medusa myth in a context that suggests an even more surprising
narrative for the Medusa moment to be assigned its place in. In
the passage in question, Adorno resorts to the Medusa-image in the
context of Benjamin's treatment of some contemporary neo-Kantian
efforts to make common cause with "ontology"; whether he is talking
about Heidegger himself here I am uncertain, but the point would
seem to be that Benjamin's Medusa-gaze "froze" this nascent ideology
in advance of its own hardening: that its action, in other words,
projected or anticipated before the fact what still, at the time,
lay in the future. The petrification it operates in such a case is
prospective, not retrospective, which is to say it is petrification for the
first time, not as repetition. To adapt Ernst Bloch, there is (of
course) a "not yet" of ideology as well as of utopia--between which
could be inserted, as a mediation, the "not yet" of (immanent)
critique itself as Benjamin projects it in the very last sentence of
his book on Baudelaire: "with the upheaval of the market economy,
we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even
before they have crumbled" (Charles Baudelaire 176).
ADORNO VERSUS BENJAMIN
- I have so far expounded Adorno's sense of constellation
and critique by way of Adorno's remarks on Benjamin's dialectical
image--a way of proceeding that has obscured their differences.
Benjamin's critical practice is strongly marked, as is Adorno's, by
the work of Freud, though a Freud mediated by the Surrealists rather
than, as for Adorno, by Nietzsche. We may risk the generalization
that the Surrealist program was to inhabit the madness of the
culture, to re-enact it from within, less (directly) to critique it,
than to exhibit it--to insert themselves into the Freudian drama, we
might say, in the role not of ego, but of id, on the evident premise
that the ego, whatever its for-or-against posture toward the world,
cannot be as "naturally" or as "immediately" transgressive as the
id. The practice of the Surrealists typically embraced what Adorno
would have regarded as an irrationalist faith that the real madness
was reason, and unreason its only antidote or purge, if not quite
its salvation or its utopian alternative. Benjamin seems to regard
such a resort to madness with some ambivalence--almost as something
like a desire unhappily forbidden him by reason of that obdurately
quotidian sanity from which all his brilliance and all his bile were
powerless to deliver him. Some such longing, or nostalgia, seems to
me symptomatized in Benjamin's sense of the world as a pallid,
petrified, undead, fundamentally irrational waking dream, and the
resistless momentum by which this "phantasmagoria" passes into
"allegory" in all the diffuse senses Benjamin lent that word.
Benjamin plays with a morbid-seeming identification with the dead
and with death itself; you might say that in his work critique is
playing possum--one of his most famous quotations, indeed, avows
that critique itself long since left the land of the living.
- Adorno was moved by the pathos of all this in the
life and death of his friend, and I would bet that he had Benjamin
in mind in section V of the Anti-Semitism chapter of Dialectic
of Enlightenment, in which the modern subject's protective
"mimesis" of the reified surrounding world is imaged as a feigned
death entailing all too literally the spiritual consequences of the
real thing. Adorno's animated, even febrile critical style could
never be confused with Benjamin's passive-aggressive, mock-compliant
"melancholy." As for Freud, Adorno took him very seriously indeed,
as one who rationalized the irrational, but he never rose to what
would seem to be the irresistible bait of assimilating the
"repeat/reliquify" course of immanent critique altogether to the
Freudian "compulsion to repeat" (best known from section III of
Beyond the Pleasure Principle ), and to Freud's
ingenious technique of appropriating that compulsion, in eliciting
the patient's own transferential resistances, to the healing labor
of the analysis. Adorno was wary
of any assimilation of his own project to psychoanalysis (the
closest he comes, and it is not very close, is his late lecture
"The Meaning of Working Through the Past" [Critical
Models 89-103]); and his work holds itself much more aloof
from Freud than that of such colleagues as Max Horkheimer, Erich
Fromm, or Herbert Marcuse, let alone Benjamin, whose
methexis in Freud brings him closer to the Joyce of the
"Circe" episode than to the practice of any member of the Frankfurt
School. Adorno has his own distinctively critical "unhappy
consciousness," an "after-Auschwitz" moral askesis that, to
say it again, long pre-dated the news of Auschwitz itself--but this
is a vibrant, highly cathected affect, quite different from that of
the "saturnine" or "melancholy" Benjamin, which looks,
indeed, rather like the resigned, "stoic" ataraxia that Adorno so
frequently diagnoses as among the more desperate symptoms of the
despair engendered by our supposedly empowered, post-Enlightenment,
- These tensions between Adorno's doubts concerning Benjamin's
practice of the dialectical image--and their implications for the sort of work Adorno wants performed, what problems he
wants addressed, in his developing practice of constellation--may be
illuminated here by a consideration of Adorno's wariness of the
Gestalt psychology of Wolfgang Köhler. As we will see,
Adorno treats Gestalt theory as ideology--constellation, we might
say, in reverse. Adorno sounds caveats about Gestalt theory in
his 1931 inaugural lecture, "The Actuality of Philosophy" (Adorno
Reader 31-32); a quarter century later, he makes almost a kind of
satire of Husserlian "intentionality" fidgeting in the unwelcome embrace
of Gestalt psychology (Against Epistemology 158-62).
Pertinent here is Adorno's discussion of Kant's "unity of apperception,"
the ground on which, Adorno forcefully argues, Kant's "subjective" and
"objective" sustain each other. For Adorno compares Kant's
conception--that is, he juxtaposes it heuristically, or one might even
say, he "constellates" it--with Gestalt theory
(Kant's 100-01). Adorno is writing here in the late 1950s,
at a time when artists and poets often seized on Gestalt theory
as a validation of avant-garde practices of the quick cut, the elision of
transitions, and so on; other kinds of inquirers, too--Marshall McLuhan
comes to mind--made a sort of ideology, or shorthand, all-purpose
explanation, of "pattern recognition" (as Gestalt was frequently
anglicized) as a key to all manner of novel, putatively "modern," styles
of consciousness. In this passage, Adorno's discussion projects
Gestalt as the ideological problem rather than its critical
solution: like Kant's "unity of apperception," the functioning of
Gestalt is "unconsciously synthetic," thus effecting (false,
familiarized, familiarizing) reconciliations or integrations of
experiential fragmentariness. By these
lights, Gestalt is an instance or model, indeed an epitome, of
ideology as such: reflex and reinforcer of the habitual familiarizations,
the ideological conditionings, the false reconciliations or "imaginary
solutions to real contradictions" of the historically and culturally
- But I am eliciting these implications of Adorno's
reservations about Gestalt because what they imply is what
Adorno leaves unsaid here, namely the contrast with his ambitions
for the constellation. I should caution here that Adorno
sometimes uses the word "constellation" to designate historically
given, that is, already familiarized, ideological arrays or
Gestalts [for example, Critical Models 138, 260]; my
usage henceforth will connote "constellation" in the sense Adorno
valorizes, as a device with the potential to be turned, in somewhat
the manner of the Brechtian V-effect, against such
familiarizations (though just this dissident potential, of course,
is what mid-century avant-gardists were seizing on in
Gestalt). And as we'll see, the word's "antithetical"
reversals of meaning are themselves indices of the
"dialectical"-ness of Adorno's immanent critique. We might say
that these "antithetical" meanings--"constellation" as unconscious
ideological synthesis versus "constellation" as
consciousness-raising estrangement; "constellation" as
object of critique, or as subject of it--are
themselves a kind of constellation implying or encoding,
concealing or de-familiarizing a narrative, that of the classic
Enlightenment project summarized by Freud in the formula, "making
the unconscious conscious." Adorno may "repeat" an over-familiar
constellation and then reliquify (or, Medusa-like, petrify)
its "congelations"; or he may present an unfamiliar and even
shocking juxtaposition, whose estrangement is to provoke a new and
heightened consciousness of the ideological condition in which we
are entrapped. The historical image that results, ideological and
critical all at once, appropriates the critical force we saw Adorno
ascribing to the Benjaminian dialectical image, turning
it, immanently, to estranging or defamiliarizing, sc.
critical or (Hegel) "negative" purposes.
- Most ideologically consequential in Adorno's critique of
Gestalt--consequential, I mean, for our thinking about
constellation--is the issue of mediation. According to
Kant's "unity of apperception," Husserl's "intentionality," and
Gestalt theory alike, it is the mind that synthesizes or
integrates disjunct bits of sense-data into a coherent whole or
pattern; and as we have seen, this synthesis, under whatever name
or construct, looks to Adorno like a virtual model of the operations
of ideology. Adorno urges that such ideological
Gestalt-components, the "fragmentariness" that
Gestalt synthesizes, or, indeed, the fragments themselves,
"stand in need of mediation" (Kant's 100)--a
complexly ideological indictment, but suffice it for now to say that
in Adorno, "mediation" connotes dialectical self-consciousness,
awareness of the negative, of contradiction, of non-identity, and of
the "labor of conceptualization." Enthusiasts of Gestalt
theory counted it in the theory's favor that it seemed to propose or
promote a view of experience as "immediate," a specifically
positivist or "nominalist" naïveté or ideological
mystification--one might even say, "Gestalt"--that Adorno
consistently meant to combat. Yet versions of this (to Adorno,
naïve) quest for "immediate experience" are pervasive throughout the
early twentieth-century "modernist" arts, from the scruffiest
anarchists of Dada and Surrealism to that most stiffly proper of
reactionaries, T. S. Eliot. It would seem to be implicit in
Adorno's own frequent motif of "shock" as a way to awaken numbed
perception, and it is clearly the program enacted in such modernist
devices as montage, collage, and ideogram, devices mobilized by
their authors expressly to suppress and subvert received habits of
synthesizing, modulating, contriving transitions--in short,
mediating--between the typically incongruous or dissonant
elements they contrived to bring together. Like these modernist
devices, in short, the constellation at the very least
looks as if it is dispensing with mediation--which in the
context of the left-to-Stalinist intellectual culture of the 1930s
and 1940s was tantamount to dispensing with "dialectic" itself.
- Here we see just one among a complex of
"overdetermining" factors that motivated Adorno's modernism to stage
itself as an affront to such "dialectical" political orthodoxy. His
own practice was meant, in emulation of the great modernists he
consistently advocated against the socialist realist alarums of
Georg Lukács, to repudiate orthodox dialectical materialism
("diamat," in the neologizing party-speak Adorno so loathed) as a
reified dogmatic system. In the Lukácsean optic, Adorno's
practice of the constellation, assembling disjunct elements in
(seemingly) unmediated array, would seem as decadent as cubist
collage, Eisensteinian montage, Poundian ideogram, or Joycean
stream-of-consciousness. It would seem "idealist," "subjective,"
"decadent"--"immediate" not only in the proscribed sense of
un-mediated (philosophically impossible) but im- or de-mediating
(politically and philosophically delusional, i.e., ideological).
Most pertinently, and in terms deriving from the authority of Marx
and Lenin both, it would have seemed "un-dialectical." (See, for example,
Lukács's essays "Realism in the Balance" and "The Ideology of
Lukács's prose retains the composure of the platform debater;
Adorno more characteristically vents exasperation, rejoining that
Lukács, "the certified dialectician," himself argues "most
undialectically" in, for example, dismissing Freud and Nietzsche as
irrationalists and therefore "fascists pure and simple."
[Lukács] even managed to speak of Nietzsche's "more than
ordinary ability" in the tone of a provincial Wilhelminian
schoolmaster. Under the guise of an ostensibly radical critique of
society he smuggled back the most pitiful clichés of the
conformism to which that critique had once been directed.
(Notes 1: 217).
If Lukács denounced modernist "im-mediation" as
"undialectical" and "sick," Adorno here agitates (at age 55, and
with Stalin five years in the grave) a vehemence that revives all
the indignation of his avant-garde youth against the "provincial"
moldy-fig-ism that prefers a false unity, an "extorted
reconciliation," to an unflinching evocation of all the
contradiction and falsehood of our condition.
- In Lukács, tellingly, the adjective
"dialectical" often modifies the word "unity": dialectic thus
sustains a procedure for unifying or integrating disjunct and/or
incommensurable things. In other words, for Lukács the point
of dialectic should be to produce unity in phenomena and in
settings where, presumably, it needs producing. Adorno's sense is
virtually the opposite, that the aim of dialectic should be to
expose the contradictions that ideological appearance has falsely
reconciled: to produce or expose disunity, contradiction,
non-identity. Constellation serves this end by bringing diverse
phenomena together and forcing their consideration together. The
disjunction between the constellated items is very much the point.
To Lukács, the gaps and disjunctions would be evidence of a
failure to have done the dialectical work that is the sine qua non
of critical activity--to put it another way, a failure of
"mediation." To Adorno, mediation that fills in the gaps between
the disjuncta would be ideological, homogenizing, causing the
disjuncta to "lose their difference" (as Roland Barthes used to say
[for example, S/Z 3]). For Adorno, the point of
mediation would be to render, even "exaggerate," the disjunctions, the
contradictions that, for Lukács, they should unify. To
Lukács, Adorno's constellation would exemplify the same
spurious and "sick" immediacy on offer in Beckett, Kafka, Freud and
the other "decadent" modernists Lukács deplored: a mere
"symptom" rather than a critical "negation" of the degenerate
bourgeois cultural surround.
- Adorno's immanent critique, by contrast,
stipulates that critique cannot hold itself above (or "outside") the
predicaments on which it aspires to offer critical comment. Since
critique cannot help but participate in the culture's
"symptomatics," it had best own this liability, and make of it, to
the extent possible, a quickening instantiation of the challenge to
be met, the problem to be addressed, thereby amplifying critique's
potential for dramatizing critical effort and ambition--"the labor
and the suffering of the negative"--as such. Adorno agrees with
Lukács in reprehending false or naïve "immediacy," but his
"constellational" view of mediation gives him a very different take
on the evidence from Lukács's. I don't pretend always to
understand why Adorno approves one work or artist--or indeed,
theorist (for example, Freud, Nietzsche, Weber)--as dialectical and
mediated, and damns another as deficient in these qualities; and to
the objection that Adorno is "merely" making heavy philosophical
weather of his personal tastes, I at least would not always be able
to muster a very cogent reply. But worth mention here is the move
that we might call, borrowing one of Adorno's own most suggestive
rubrics, "Dialectic In Spite of Itself" (Against
Epistemology 49-50), by which Adorno often manages to
recuperate (or "rescue") his critical targets from his own critiques
Lukács casts these matters in terms of decadence and
disease--his "Healthy or Sick Art?" only makes explicit a
metaphorics pervasive in his work--Adorno stages the issue rather in
terms of ideological appearance, "magic," and "myth." An especially
pertinent instance for our purposes is Adorno's exchange with
Benjamin over an excerpt (on Baudelaire) of the Arcades
Project that Benjamin submitted for publication in the
Frankfurt School journal in 1938. Much to Benjamin's surprise,
Adorno reacted unfavorably: "motifs are assembled but they are not
elaborated"; Benjamin's materials, his trouvées, sit
nakedly on the page, un-"mediated" by "theory"; the ideological
result is that Benjamin's "ascetic refusal of interpretation only
serves to transport [the subject matter] into a realm quite opposed
to asceticism: a realm where history and magic oscillate [...]."
Unless I am very much mistaken [writes Adorno to Benjamin], your
dialectic is lacking in one thing: mediation. You show a
prevailing tendency to relate the pragmatic contents of Baudelaire's
work directly and immediately to adjacent features in the social
history and [...] economic features of the time. [...] you
substitute metaphorical expressions for categorical ones [...] [so
that] one of the most powerful ideas in your study seems to be
presented as a mere as-if [...]. I regard it as methodologically
inappropriate to give conspicuous individual features from the realm
of the superstructure a "materialist" turn by relating them
immediately, and perhaps even causally, to certain corresponding
features of the substructure. The materialist determination of
cultural traits is only possible if it is mediated through the
total social process [...] [such] immediate--and I would
almost say again "anthropological"--materialism harbours a
profoundly romantic element [...]. The mediation which I miss, and
find obscured by materialistic-historical evocation, is simply the
theory which your study has omitted [...] the theological motif of
calling things by their names tends to switch into the wide-eyed
presentation of mere facts. [...] one could say that your study is
located at the crossroads of magic and positivism. The spot is
bewitched. Only theory could break this spell--your own resolute
and salutarily speculative theory. It is simply the claim of this
theory that I bring against you here. (Complete
Adorno's objections here are not altogether dissimilar from the
sorts of complaints Lukács vented about modernism, which at
first may seem merely ironic, but it is more usefully taken as index
of the fineness of the line Adorno means immanent critique to walk
in its highwire ambition both to "repeat" the ideological "symptom"
and to reliquify it in a critical negation. Hence the
sting in the tail, the potential dialectical backfire, in Adorno's
homage, already quoted, to the effect that "Benjamin's thought is so
saturated with culture as its natural object that it swears loyalty
to reification instead of flatly rejecting it. [...] the glance of
his philosophy is Medusan" (Prisms 233).
- So I have risked the lengthy quotation above because its
diffuse suggestiveness implies the scope of the tension between Benjamin's
critical practice of the dialectical image, especially in the
Passagen-Werk, and Adorno's of the constellation. Benjamin
cites or quotes particular faits divers, one at a time, each
standing distinct in its surround of white space on the page--even
typographically, a dialectical image, one might say, of that "separation"
or "chorismos," the ideological entailment of "analytic"
(bourgeois) philosophical method from Plato to Kant and beyond, that the
Hegelian Adorno protests throughout his career. Constellation is of
course the vehicle of Adorno's protest, but it could also serve as a
figure for it as well; his famously boundless paragraphs constellate
diverse materials so diffusely as to ground or "theorize" or mediate them
together--albeit, again, that the ground is contradiction rather than
unity. Adorno tends, also, to "constellate" higher-brow materials than
Benjamin--Hegel and Beethoven rather than, say, century-old department
store brochures: in his 1931 inaugural lecture, "The Actuality of
Philosophy," Adorno sounds the "materialist" motif of the philosophical
worthiness of "the refuse of the physical world"; but Adorno nowhere incorporates such materials in his
writing as Benjamin did, let alone to programmatize, even to yearn, so
overtly as Benjamin for their utopian "redemption." This difference resonates with Adorno's "mandarin"
fastidiousness, as well as with his greater circumspection--almost, as he
says himself, a Bilderverbot--regarding the utopian (see
Buck-Morss, 90-95); it's arguable that the dissent from Benjamin above
helped confirm Adorno in these penchants.
- But most consequential for our theme here (the
contrast between Benjamin's critical practice and Adorno's) is the
issue I characterized above in terms of kinesis versus stasis.
Benjamin's isolated atoms of social/historical fact, cited seriatim
on the page, organized under generalizing rubrics into "Convolutes,"
we may take as dialectical image of the pall under which the
bourgeois world has, as if in the gaze of some Medusa more baleful
than Benjamin, frozen into paralysis. By contrast, Adorno's
immanent critique, though it eschews narrative, can fairly be
called kinetic: the sentences rush headlong, never faltering before
difficulties more "responsible" critics would find daunting, and
ready at every turn to embrace always heavier burdens of difficulty
and challenge. Reading Adorno, you never cease to be surprised at,
however you may grow accustomed to, the way a given sentence might
lunge off in a new direction, extending (distending) itself to
encompass further elements and all the problems they will bring in
their train. And yet, as I have said, this kinesis of Adorno's,
however entoiled in the temporality of its own process of working
through (Durcharbeit), the temporality of its own writing
and being-read, is never itself narrative: whatever else
he is, Adorno is never a storyteller. When Adorno advises Benjamin (above)
that "the materialist determination of cultural traits is only
possible if it is mediated through the total social
process," mediation itself sounds like an ineluctably kinetic
activity or process, and the movement (my resort to the word is
deliberate) between isolated particular and totality--as, at other
moments in Adorno, between particular and universal, intuition and
concept, matter and idea, content and form--suggests a universe in
perpetual and turbulent flux, however stalled or arrested the
dialectic that should be ceaselessly dislocating its apparently
fixed and static ideological impasses. Adorno suggests something of
this contradiction between kinesis and stasis in a much later
formulation: "the concept of the mediated [...] always presupposes
something immediate running through these mediations and captured by
them" (Introduction to Sociology 109). The immediate
is both "running through" and "captured by" the mediations.
- We are navigating, or "mediating," between the stasis of
image and the kinesis of narrative, and I want to adduce here a
further motif in which these preoccupations find yet another way of
overlapping: the "epic" device of parataxis, which lends its name
to the title of Adorno's late essay on Hölderlin. Parataxis is
a rhetorical device in which narrative units--narratemes?--follow
one another linked only by the conjunction "and," thus evading or
subverting more complex structures or grammars of narrative co- or
subordination (cause and effect, antecedent and consequence, main
event and subsidiary, and the like). Traditionally, parataxis was
taken to be (and poets emulated it as) an artifice, a feature of the
noble epic style; only in the twentieth century have classicists
like Eric Havelock seen it as evidence of a kind of consciousness or
mentalité preceding the advent of literacy. I am sure the
latter view, as a way to link texts and consciousness in something
like a "materialist" way, would have interested Adorno so much that
his non-consideration of it in his essay is a sign that the
suggestion hadn't reached his ears. In any case, "Parataxis:
On Hölderlin's Late Poetry" (Notes 2: 109-49)
praises parataxis, Hölderlin's anyway, for evading the usual
(sc. reified, familiarized, domesticated) ways of making sense.
Hölderlin's parataxes, Adorno writes, are "artificial
disturbances that evade the logical hierarchy of a subordinating
syntax," and in particular, "the judgment" and "the propositional
form" (Notes 2: 131-2). I don't think it an
impermissible stretch to suggest that Adorno values parataxis as
doing with narrative monads something like what constellation is
meant to do with the diverse fragments it constellates: presents
them in an ensemble undomesticated by the familiar thought-syntax,
the habituated grammars, the ideological presuppositions, that
familiarize the new, converting it, in the very process of
presenting it, into the same, the old, the already known--the, as it
were, pre-reified. Hölderlin's poetry "searches for a
linguistic form that would escape the dictates of spirit's own
synthesizing principle" (Notes 2: 131)--that is, it
strives to overcome the very liabilities of the mind's own drive to
grasp what it perceives.
- Parataxis thus might seem a solvent, a way of
de-composing what "spirit's own synthesizing principle" too
unthinkingly composes or synthesizes. The evident motive is to mobilize the particular
contents against the larger synthesizing form(s). But Adorno
insists that Hölderlin's parataxis achieves not merely an
abolition of form, an escape from it, but something like a kind of
emancipation (not to say redemption) of form itself. And of course,
to the extent that Hölderlin's parataxis is itself a form, this
is an emancipation not conferred on form from above or outside, but
form's own self-emancipation; hence what Adorno calls "the agency of
form" (Notes 2: 114). Hölderlin's parataxis "puts
explication without deduction in the place of a so-called train of
thought. This gives form its primacy over content, even the
intellectual content" (Notes 2: 131-2). Set free from
the "deductive" regimen of a "so-called train of thought," the
unfoldment ("explication") of the matter can enact itself
"immanently," according to its own imperatives rather than to those
of an external, syllogistic logic. So far from vanishing, form here
rather achieves itself in allowing, being the vehicle for, new
potentialities by which the particular contents find their
expression. Thus does form become itself a content, content itself
a kind of form, and all concretely, thus sublating the
classic antinomies (form/content, idea/matter, abstract/concrete,
universal/particular) that are the pitfalls common to philosophy and
the aesthetic under the regime of "spirit's own synthesizing
principle." Hence (and readers familiar with Adorno's
Beethoven-olatry will recognize the argument here):
It is not only the micrological forms of serial transition in a
narrow sense [...] that we must think of as parataxis. As in music,
the tendency takes over larger structures. In Hölderlin there
are forms that could as a whole be called paratactical in the
broader sense [...]. In a manner reminiscent of Hegel, mediation of
the vulgar kind, a middle element standing outside the moments it is
to connect, is eliminated as being external and inessential,
something that occurs frequently in Beethoven's late style; this not
least of all gives Hölderlin's late poetry its anticlassicistic
quality, its rebellion against harmony. What is lined up in
sequence, unconnected, is as harsh as it is flowing. The mediation
is set within what is mediated instead of bridging it.
(Notes 2: 132-33)
Note the recapitulation of our points above about mediation. But of
larger consequence here is that Hölderlin, Beethoven, and Hegel
are arrayed in constellation as practitioners of this immanent
kind of composition (a "technique of seriation" Adorno calls it
[Notes 2: 135]) in which the local, the particular
"takes over larger structures," producing forms that are
"paratactical in the broader sense."
- This issue of "larger structures," of parataxis on
the large-scale level of form, returns us to the issue of
temporality--Hölderlin, Beethoven, and Hegel (and, of course,
Adorno) are all practitioners of forms a hearer or reader must
experience in time--and thus of possibilities of kinesis within or
by way of the structures their form achieves. "The transformation
of language [in Hölderlin's parataxis] into a serial order
whose elements are linked differently than in the judgment is
musiclike" (Notes 2: 131)--so that parataxis pushes
referential language in the direction of non-referential meaning;
moreover, terms like "serial" and "musiclike" restore "temporality"
to the stasis of constellation. ("Serial" here doubtless connotes
Schoenberg-and-after, rather than Sartre's "seriality," although the
latter conjuncture, not to say "constellation," is
suggestive as well.) Adorno frequently implies that the temporality
of music, and of written texts, whether "creative" or "critical,"
amounts to a sort of quasi- or crypto-narrative trajectory in which
the hearer/reader is challenged to participate. In the "Parataxis" essay, although Adorno's focus
is on the lyric, narrative in Hölderlin appears (under the sign of
the "epic"; see the discussion of Hölderlin's relation to
Pindar [Notes 2: 132-34]) as another impulse working
against "the logical hierarchy of a subordinating syntax":
The narrative tendency in the poem strives downward into the
prelogical medium and wants to drift along with the flow of time.
The Logos had worked against the slippery quality of narrative [...]
the self-reflection of Hölderlin's late poetry, in contrast,
evokes it. Here too it converges in a most amazing way with the
texture of Hegel's prose, which, in paradoxical contradiction to his
systematic intent, in its form increasingly evades the constraints
of construction the more it surrenders without reservation to the
program of "simply looking on" outlined in the introduction to the
Phenomenology and the more logic becomes history for
it. (Notes 2: 134)
Here the animus since Plato between poetry and philosophy is
"sublated"; moreover, Adorno presents the sublation itself as event,
that is to say, as narrative. The redemptive or utopian promise is
made more explicit in a passage reprising all these themes:
The logic of tightly bounded periods [i.e., the opposite of
"parataxis"], each moving rigorously on to the next, is
characterized by precisely that compulsive and violent quality for
which poetry is to provide healing and which Hölderlin's poetry
unambiguously negates. Linguistic synthesis contradicts what
Hölderlin wants to express in language [...]. [Hölderlin]
began by attacking syntax syntactically, in the spirit of the
dialectic [...] In the same way, Hegel used the power of logic to
protest against logic. (Notes 2: 135-36)
THE "DIALECTIC" OF DIALECTIC OF ENLIGHTENMENT
- I want to end by sketching the ways that the themes we have
been agitating are evoked or enacted to peculiar effect in
Dialectic of Enlightenment. With Lutz Niethammer's
acerbic mot in mind, that moderns of Adorno's sort
exemplify a "will to powerlessness" (138-42), I will risk
adapting Adorno's formula above. If "Hegel used the power of logic
to protest against logic" (Notes 2: 135-36), the
Dialectic of Enlightenment uses a "mimesis" of the
powerlessness of Enlightenment positivism vis-à-vis the
crises of the mid-twentieth century to protest the non- or indeed
anti-dialectical cast of Enlightenment thought, that dehumanizing,
instrumentalized empiricism whose mastery of nature is gained only
at the cost of nature-ifying, reifying, reducing to thing-like
reflex, human being, human existence itself. Kinesis/stasis,
narrative/non-narrative, mediated/un-mediated, parataxis/synthesis,
dialectical/mythical--"our" particular subcultural penchant is to
see these pairs as binaries. But we won't get the hang of Adorno's
"dialectical" practice unless we cultivate the power of seeing these
pairs rather as terms demarking the coordinates of particular conflicted
problem-points, or (Adorno's own frequent figure) force-fields
within which the energies of certain contradictions pulse and clash.
In our critical practice, oppositional binaries, the two terms
separated by the crisp marker of the slash, suggest black/white
distinctions. The polemical energy of Adorno's practice can
seem to drive or be driven by such stark contrasts, but my
own experience learning to read Adorno has been that his black and
his white are best taken as exaggerations of grey--the point being
that what he advocates and what he reprehends can overlap in
unexpected ways. For one instance, we may cite the "antithetical"
tangle imposed on immanent critique (repeat/reliquify) by the
Medusa-effect (repeat/petrify). Likewise, Adorno's often surprising
generosity to, even recuperations of, figures one had assumed would
be bêtes noirs--Kierkegaard, say, or Spengler, or
even Richard Wagner. And
hence, in the exposition above, the contrast with Lukács
(which highlights the liability of Adorno's constellational critical
"negation" to appear as mere ideological "symptom"); and even closer
to the quick, Adorno's own discomfort with the extreme of Benjamin's
apparently "unmediated" practice of "motifs assembled but not
elaborated." The cut between "image" and "dialectical
image," between (to use a more Adorno-identified term) "mimesis" and
what we might, by analogy with Benjamin's coinage, call
"dialectical mimesis"--and in like manner the cut, indeed,
between all the other binaries just cited--is sufficiently fine as
not merely to allow, but actually to "motivate," some confusion
between the opposed, and supposedly clearly distinguishable, terms.
- This, I take it, can appear, even to a mere amateur
of philosophy like myself, as a major contradiction (of the bad
sort) for Adorno as a philosopher. His assault on
"identity"-thinking depends on practices of dialectic and
mediation that can seem to undo the garden-variety kinds of
non-identity or "difference" encoded in binaries like those above.
If one of Adorno's principle complaints with dialectic as
usual--as practiced by historicizing heirs of the Hegelian legacy,
whether left (Lukács) or right (Croce)--is that it can
unwittingly accede to a logic of substitution that winds up
affirming the "exchange/equivalence" habitus of Enlightenment, then
it's notable that Adorno's negative dialectic can in certain
lights appear to deliver itself to the same terminus. Perhaps the
most troublesome instance is Adorno's "deconstruction" (if the
anachronism may be permitted) of nature/history in "The Idea of
Natural History" (1931)--and I take it as some index of the trouble
that Adorno never reprinted this essay in his lifetime. But however
that may be philosophically, it is Adorno's practice as
writer that I want to illuminate here--and in that arena, the
problem is one that Adorno's immanent critique undertakes not to
solve, or to make disappear, but precisely, to display, to expose,
which must mean, to suffer, and in that special sense to
"perform," to make happen, to "repeat" and (to the extent possible)
"reliquify," in the writing itself. Critique must refuse the hubris
of supposing it can escape, or has escaped, has risen above, its
ideological condition. As knowingly as Milton's Satan in hell (and
compare Goethe's Mephistopheles), critique must always avow, "Why
this is ideology, nor am I out of it." The point of Adorno's
immanent critique is not to exempt his own critical
practice from the liabilities of the dominant ideology, but
precisely to attest ideology's ubiquity and power by enacting in the
writing itself (his own) critique's implication--even (his
own) critique's implication--in the very predicaments (his own)
critique aims to address, protest, elucidate, redeem.
- To bring the foregoing themes together will, I
hope, be to suggest their use for a better reading of Adorno. The
demonstration-text is Dialectic of Enlightenment, on
the premise that in our academic subculture this is the most read
and, because most read by novices, least understood of Adorno's
texts. But: "Adorno's text"? What of Max Horkheimer,
whose name appears first on the title page, and to whom Adorno
always ceded priority? Well, in practice, all commentary I know of
treats Dialectic of Enlightenment "as if" Adorno were
its author, and the few attempts I've seen to parse Adorno's
contributions from Horkheimer's seem perfunctory (see Noerr 219-24)
or (perhaps appropriately) shy of specifics (Wiggershaus 177-91,
314-50). Here I'll take as a methodological fiction or premise the
authors' own professions that their equal collaboration moots any
attempt to untangle their respective contributions. The 1969
"Preface" insists that the "vital principle of the
Dialectic is the tension between the two intellectual
temperaments conjoined in writing it" (ix);
and I will offer the speculation that what was crucial in
Horkheimer's input was his penchant for arguing by way of historical
narrative, which gives Dialectic of Enlightenment its
narrative shape and its quasi-narrative energy. By contrast,
Adorno's critical practice eschews narrative;
hence the "vital principle," the "intellectual tension" I've just
insinuated between the book's overtly narrative organization (a
smaller-scale rescript of Hegel's Phenomenology,
orchestrating a variant of Hegel's trajectory from Greco-Roman
antiquity to "Enlightenment" and the present day), and its
"motivatedly" static (or "regressive") "image" of Western history
(or "progress"). It is precisely this tension, precisely this
problematic or contradiction, it seems to me, that has made
Dialectic of Enlightenment, for the past generation,
the preeminent text in "critical theory" by either Adorno or
Horkheimer--a claim, I think, that should valorize Horkheimer's
large (and too-much discounted) importance in the composition of
Dialectic of Enlightenment.
- But "authorship" issues aside, my point here is
that the reflections above on constellation and mediation (and so on)
shed light on what I recall, from my own "novice" first reading(s)
of Dialectic of Enlightenment, as the most baffling of
the problems and "difficulties" it presented for me. The book's
narrative organization was readily legible as an ironic reversal of
the Hegelian narrative--the story of Geist not as triumphal
progress to an Enlightened Absolute, but as ghastly "regression" to a
nightmare of violence
("humanity, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is
sinking into a new kind of barbarism" [xi];
"The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression"
). And the fate of narrative in modernist
literature had prepared me for a story whose thematic burden of
failure and waste was enacted formally in the failure of the
narrative to achieve not only any putative thematic telos, but the
telos of narrativity itself. The thornier problem for me was the
book's organization around binary pairs that defied my every
presupposition concerning how an avowedly, and programmatically,
historicizing and dialectical presentation would or should
proceed. Odysseus/bourgeois, for example, or myth/Enlightenment:
both of these oppositions seemed to collapse large and crucial
historical differences, to homogenize them by, in effect,
de-temporalizing or dehistoricizing them--as if "bourgeois," or
"myth," or "Enlightenment" indeed, were names for "essentialized" or
"essentializing," trans-historical archetypes, permanent and
immutable. And likewise for binaries whose aligned pairs were not
from different historical periods, but contemporaneous, for example, Kant
and de Sade, or Hitler and Hollywood. To expose as "bourgeois"
classical philology's idealization of Homer's "universal" hero, as
well as to root "modern" bourgeois values in the archaic ("heroic")
violences of self-preservation; to vandalize Enlightenment's
self-constituting difference from the (mythical, archaic)
past; to elicit the unowned foundational commonalities between the
categorical imperative and de Sade's monstrous naturalism of the
boudoir, or between anti-Semitism and the culture industry: I could
read in all this a complex of protest and dissent and
exposé--even, despite the extremity of the subject matter and
the plangency of the affect, something at moments oddly like
satire--but not, within the terms of what I took "critical theory"
to be aiming at, a strategy of dialectical critique.
- To such dilemmas, Benjamin's (and Adorno's) formula
of "dialectic at a standstill" offers something of a key, as does
the ambiguous response or antidote--mimesis, or critique?
repetition, or reliquification? symptom, or negation?--of the
"dialectical image." Let me cite here a passage on "Mythical
Content" from Adorno's book on Kierkegaard that anticipates much of
the elaboration--or homogenization--in Dialectic of
Enlightenment, of the binary of "myth" versus "history" (or
"dialectic"), as well as implying the grounds of Adorno's lifelong
dissent from that "fundamental ontology" in which Kierkegaard's
"blocked ontology" (Kierkegaard 57) was so implicated.
"Blocked ontology," we might suppose, borrows some of the charge
implicated in a, so to speak, "ontology at a standstill"--and it is
part of Adorno's dissent from Kierkegaard that he would elaborate
such a blocked or arrested ontology not as Adorno or Benjamin would
a "dialectic at a standstill": that is, as a defeat, a catastrophe,
a reification, a congealment, a steady-state repetition or cycle of
the old and the same. On the contrary, in Kierkegaard's
idealization such "standstill" appears as "sublime object," a
desideratum or Tantalus-fruit at once spiritual, philosophical, and
polemical. Consider the following passage, whose crucial term for
us is "image," associated here with "myth," i.e., with eternalizing,
reifying, essentializing (mis)uses of thought--which is why special
interest attaches to the appearance here of the important modifier,
the dialectical image (emphasis added):
Dialectic comes to a stop in the image and cites the mythical; in
the historically most recent as the distant past: nature as
proto-history. For this reason the images, which [...] bring
dialectic and myth to the point of indifferentiation, are truly
"antediluvian fossils." They may be called dialectical images, to
use Benjamin's expression, whose compelling definition of "allegory"
also holds true for Kierkegaard's allegorical intention as a
configuration [sc. "constellation"] of historical dialectic and
mythical nature. According to this definition "in allegory the
observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of
history, a petrified primordial landscape"
(Kierkegaard 54; the Benjamin is quoted from
"Dialectic comes to a stop"--as in "dialectic at a standstill"
(compare the theme later in the book of "Intermittence"
[Kierkegaard 100-02], a condition in which dialectic
falters, becomes a stop-and-start affair)--"and cites the
mythical," the act of "citation" here apparently implying some
self-consciously critical deployment of the given,
ideological image, in quotation marks, as it were; or, on
the analogy of the speech-act distinction, as (self-conscious)
"mention" rather than (naïve) "use"--with the (Hegelian, and, many
will complain, idealist) implication that the difference makes for
some "critical" or "negative" consequence. Crucial here is that the
"indifferentiation" of myth/dialectic seems, in the transit between
the quoted passage's second sentence and the third, to appear first
as an ideological effect of the "image," then as a
critical effect of the "dialectical image." And,
as sign, vehicle, "motivation" of such "indifferentiation" is the
implicit Medusa motif, here appearing in something like an inverted
or (Freud) displaced form: the "facies hippocratica" is
Benjamin's image in the Trauerspiel of unhappy
consciousness, an image drawn from Hippocrates's physiognomics (see
Hullot-Kentor's note, Kierkegaard 151-2): a visage
like the anguished mask of tragedy, or perhaps better, like the face
of Medusa's victim, struck by the horror of a "petrified primordial
landscape." Here the thing seen is stone, while the face of the
viewer, seeing it, is animated to horror, whereas in the
Medusa-motif, the vitality is all Medusa's, upon seeing whom it is
the viewer who turns to stone--but the tangle of "antithetical"
motifs leaves in place the horror of petrifaction, and thus
underscores the extremities of ambivalence in Adorno's ascription of
a "Medusa-gaze" to Benjamin as critic, or indeed to critique itself.
Hence the analogously "antithetical" (or "dialectical") wobble in
Adorno's own usage as regards "dialectics at a standstill," which
sometimes figures as an ideological condition critique and art
protest, at other times as a "result" that critique and art
are praised for achieving--the latter apparently as
critical (or "dialectical") "mimesis" of the former (see, for example,
Beethoven 16; Philosophy of Modern Music
- "Dialectics at a standstill," in both these senses
(as ideological condition to be protested, and as critical "effect"
to be achieved) is a formula especially apposite to Dialectic
of Enlightenment. The
narrative (or anti-narrative) of Dialectic of
Enlightenment enacts the failure of the Enlightenment's own
"grand narrative" to achieve its announced, programmatic (narrative)
telos of change and progress; and it indicts not only bourgeois
Enlightenment positivism's refusal of dialectic, but also (and much
more daringly) the Soviet world's official Marxist-Leninist
fetishization of dialectic as an orthodoxy, as equally deluded
miscarriers or unwitting betrayers of dialectic (conceived as "the
engine of history") itself. To that end the "appearance" (in the
aesthetic sense [German Schein]) of non- or
anti-"dialectical" pairs like Odysseus/bourgeois, or
myth/Enlightenment, presents something like a dialectical image
aiming, with critical force, to "bring dialectic and myth to the
point of indifferentiation"--or an "allegory" presenting a
"configuration [sc. "constellation"] of historical dialectic and
mythical nature." This "appearance" of "indifferentiation" (sc.
"identity") of dialectic and myth enacts what Horkheimer and Adorno
regard as Enlightenment's fatal ideological false consciousness, its
sacrifice of qualitative to quantitative ("identity" or
"equivalence/exchange") thinking--and enacts it, in "appearance,"
from "inside," i.e., "immanently," taking upon itself the full
ideological burden of what it protests and would redeem. The case
I'm making here could be thought of as a version of Adorno's
"dialectical despite itself," which underlies his enthusiasm for
thinkers avowedly critical of or indifferent to "dialectic"; I mean
that Adorno's seemingly static and essentialized binaries display an
affinity with (say) Nietzsche's tragedy/Socrates and
Übermensch/priest, or Freud's Eros/Thanatos, or the antinomies
of instinct and "vicissitude" that in the late work on Moses and
elsewhere seem to force on Freud a quasi-Lamarckian view of the
heritability of acquired characteristics. Equally exemplary would
be the great works of modernist music and literature with all their
techniques of seeming "im-mediation" or "de-mediation": works that
attempt to escape outworn habits of mediation, to conjure an
atmospherics or nostalgia of immediacy, and achieve thereby a kind
of re-mediation (new mediations) that it is no mere word-play to
hope might also be remedy.
- The loosening of old mediations and the forging of
new ones in modernism involved techniques of juxtaposition, of
suppressing transitions (preeminently narrative ones), of foregoing
explanatory motives for questioning ones--and it is among these
modernist devices and motivations that Adorno's constellation
belongs. Michael Cahn, in what remains to my mind the richest and
shrewdest essay on these matters, observes that Adorno's aesthetic
theory is not merely a theory of the aesthetic, but a
theory that is aesthetic; he clinched the point by adducing
the analogy of "critical theory" (42)--which is to suggest as
well the senses in which Adorno's aesthetic is critical, and (the
premise of this essay) the extent to which Adorno's critical
practice involves issues usually referred to the aesthetic. It's in
something of that spirit that I have attempted here to explore
Adorno's constellation, not as a philosophic concept, nor even as
an element or index of a critical method, but as part of a writing
practice that I think Adorno's readers should be readier than they
have been to take as a kind of modernist poetics of critique--a
poetics realizing itself as much in performance as in "theory." In the critical practice of constellation, Adorno
enacts a critique of the extant critical (dialectical,
historicizing) practices of his own day, a critique analogous to
that performed in modernist artistic practices. Adorno's practice
is as radical a departure from that of, say, Georg Lukács as
Beckett (one of Adorno's chief exemplars of the modern) is from
Lukács's standard-bearer for realism, Balzac. Indeed,
Adorno's defense of Beckett against Lukács may be thought
especially suggestive, given Beckett's gift for narratives whose
point is the failure of anything to happen, whose meaning (as Adorno
observes in "Trying to Understand Endgame") is
meaninglessness itself--a meaninglessness, Adorno would say, whose
falsity Beckett enables us to reappropriate for truth. Some such
result, event, or effect is the gesture of the dialectic of
Dialectic of Enlightenment.
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University of Delaware
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In perhaps the most suggestive
of these, Adorno links it with Max Weber's "ideal type," a
characterization stressing its heuristic potential (Negative
There are many treatments more
systematic than mine. Still indispensable on this, as on so much else
about Adorno, is Buck-Morss; on constellation see especially 90-110.
(Buck-Morss notes Adorno's reservations about "constellation" as a term
connoting astrology [254n54]). More recently, see Jameson, Late
Marxism 54-60; Jameson also assimilates constellation to "model"
(68); and if I opened by evoking Eisenstein and Pound, Jameson observes
that the affinity of constellation with Althusser's
conjuncture makes Adorno "Althusserian avant la
lettre" (244). Nicholson treats constellation under the broader
rubric of "configurational form" (passim, but especially 103-36)--a
useful reminder that the thematics of constellation can often attach to
such cognate terms as "configuration," "complex," even "ensemble" or
"juxtaposition." Also useful on Adorno's aesthetics, though without
specific reference to constellation, are Wolin 62-79; Bernstein 188-224,
esp. 206; and Paddison 21-64, especially 35-7.
A full discussion of these issues
would need to consider Adorno's 1932 essay, "The Idea of Natural
History"--and also, perhaps, his decision against republishing it.
4. On this last, see Freud's 1914 paper
on technique, "Recollection, Repetition, and Working Through."
The motif of the fragment here
touches on Adorno's chronic theme of the false coherence of "system"
and the necessity, in critique, of allowing the unintegrated,
unintegratable loose ends of "the damaged life" to stand as reproach
or "bad conscience" to all mystifying reconciliations.
6. For example, from Kierkegaard in
Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic passim, from Kant
in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (125), and from Freud and
Weber in Introduction to Sociology (113, 123).
7. He is citing Freud's Abhub
der Erscheinungswelt (Adorno Reader 32).
8. Adorno most movingly sounds this
motif in his 1930 essay on "Mahler Today": see especially
Essays on Music 605, where Mahler's project sounds
strikingly like Benjamin's; and cf. 608, where Adorno contrasts
Mahler and Schoenberg in ways that suggest an analogy with his sense
of the differences between Benjamin and himself.
9. Here is another contention with
Lukács--see the latter's "Narrate or Describe?"--that
resumes most of what is at stake in their conflicting positions on
realism versus modernism.
10. Both "Parataxis" and
Havelock's Preface to Plato date from 1963, so
Havelock's argument cannot have affected Adorno's essay, but I find
no evidence that Adorno came across it later, either: too bad--I am
sure it would have interested him keenly.
11. Compare the formula of "the logic
of disintegration" by which Adorno at about this same time characterized
what he acknowledged as a career-long concern (Negative
144-6; see also Buck-Morss 233n3).
12. For his most extended workout on
these problems, see "Vers Une Musique Informelle," in Quasi Una
Fantasia, especially 294-301.
13. See the closing pages of In
Search of Wagner (1952) or, an even more striking example, the
1963 essay on
"Wagner's Relevance for Today" (Essays on Music 584-602).
14. Let me own here that Adorno
reprehends all rhetoric of "effect"; for him it connotes composition with
an eye on the audience rather than on "the matter in hand." I apologize
for my resort to it here, but the shifts by which I might have attempted
to do without it were more trouble than they were worth--and I am, after
all, discussing the book from the position of a reader. I can hope that
Adorno would at least countenance my usage as, again, attestation of the
ideological predicaments of critique itself as composition, i.e., as "a
kind of writing"--and also, of course, as a kind of reading.
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