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    Constellation and Critique: Adorno's Constellation, Benjamin's Dialectical Image

    Steven Helmling
    University of Delaware

    © 2003 Steven Helmling.
    All rights reserved.

  1. 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.[1] The present study, however, attempts nothing so comprehensive.[2] 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."

  3. 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. (Prisms 233)

    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).[3]

  4. 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.

  5. "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.
  6. 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 reliquification.

  7. 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.
  8. 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).

  10. 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.
  11. 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 [1920]), 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.[4] 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, "administered world."

  13. 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.[5] 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 given.
  14. 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.

  16. 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.
  17. 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 Modernism.") 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.

  18. 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.
  19. 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 of them.[6] But whereas 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 Correspondence 281-3)

    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).

  20. 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";[7] 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."[8] 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.
  21. 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.[9] 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.

  23. 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.[10] 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.
  24. Parataxis thus might seem a solvent, a way of de-composing what "spirit's own synthesizing principle" too unthinkingly composes or synthesizes.[11] The evident motive is to mobilize the particular fragmentary 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."

  25. 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.[12] 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)

  27. 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.[13] 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.
  28. 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.
  29. 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.
  30. 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" [36]). 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.
  31. 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 Origin 166).

    "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 124).

  32. "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.[14] 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.
  33. 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.
  34. Department of English
    University of Delaware

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    1. In perhaps the most suggestive of these, Adorno links it with Max Weber's "ideal type," a characterization stressing its heuristic potential (Negative Dialectics 164-66).

    2. 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.

    3. 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."

    5. 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.

    Works Cited

    Adorno, Theodor W. The Adorno Reader. Ed. Brian O'Connor. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

    ---. Against Epistemology: A Metacritique. Trans. Willis Domingo. Oxford: Blackwell, 1982.

    ---. Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.

    ---. Critical Models. Trans. Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

    ---. Essays on Music. Ed. Richard Leppert. Berkeley: U of California P, 2002.

    ---. "The Idea of Natural History." Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Telos 60 (1984): 97-124.

    ---. In Search of Wagner. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. London: NLB, 1981.

    ---. Introduction to Sociology. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.

    ---. Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

    ---. Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason'. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001.

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    ---. Notes on Literature. 2 vols. Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.

    ---. Philosophy of Modern Music. Trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster. New York: Continuum, 1973.

    ---. Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1981.

    ---. Quasi Una Fantasia. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. New York: Verso, 1998.

    Adorno, Theodor, and Walter Benjamin. The Complete Correspondence, 1928-1940. Ed. Henri Lonitz. Trans. Nicholas Walker. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999.

    Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. Farrar: New York, 1974.

    Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard UP, 1999.

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    ---. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. New York: Verso, 1998.

    Bernstein, J. M. The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno. Oxford: Polity, 1992.

    Buck-Morss, Susan. The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute. Sussex: Harvester, 1977.

    Cahn, Michael. "Subversive Mimesis: Theodor W. Adorno and the Modern Impasse of Critique." Mimesis in Contemporary Theory: Volume I: The Literary and Philosophical Debate. Ed. Spariosu, Mihai. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1984. 27-64.

    Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

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    Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic. New York: Verso, 1990.

    ---. Marxism and Form. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.

    Kahn, Arthur D. Writer and Critic And Other Essays. New York: Grosset, 1971. Lukács, Georg, "Healthy or Sick Art?" Kahn 103-09.

    ---. "The Ideology of Modernism." Marxism and Human Liberation. Ed. E. San Juan, Jr. New York: Delta, 1973. 277-307.

    ---. "Narrate or Describe?" Kahn 110-48.

    -----. "Realism in the Balance." Aesthetics and Politics. Ed. Ronald Taylor. New York: Verso, 1980. 28-59.

    Nicholson, Shierry Weber. Exact Imagination, Late Work: On Adorno's Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1997.

    Niethammer, Lutz. Posthistoire. Trans. Patrick Camiller. New York: Verso, 1992.

    Noerr, Gunzelin Schmid. "Editorial Afterword." Dialectic of Enlightenment. Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. 217-47.

    Paddison, Max. Adorno's Aesthetics of Music. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

    Wiggershaus, Rolf. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories and Political Significance. Trans Michael Robertson. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1994.

    Wolin, Richard. The Terms of Cultural Criticism: The Frankfurt School, Existentialism, Poststructuralism. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.

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