Saturday, February 10, 2007

Adorno in a condom

A few years ago an industrious agent provocateur put a statuette of the Virgin Mary inside a condom and exhibited it at Te Papa National Gallery in Wellington. Predictably, a bunch of right-wing Catholics were soon protesting outside the gallery, demanding that the exhibit be withdrawn, or better still publically destroyed. These sensitive souls hadn't seen the artwork, let alone objected to it on aesthetic grounds - they were simply repelled by the idea of dear old Mary being juxtaposed with something as loathsomely modern and secular as a condom. The purity of the idol had to be preserved.

It's not only Catholics who resent the mistreatment of their idols. Back at Drury Primary School I nearly got beaten up by the standard two bully when I refused to recant certain solemn truths I had learned from Return of the Jedi. When the bully saw the film a couple of weeks later he had to concede that, yes, Darth Vader really was Luke Skywalker's father, and find another excuse to pick on me. It's tough being a witness to The Truth.

Now two sensitive flowers over at The Rotten Elements blog have taken umbrage at my clumsy attempts to suggest that Theodor Adorno might have ended up being a little, you know, right-wing. Neither Vivian Bolus * nor Zak Bickerstaff mentions the Adorno essay I discussed to make my case; their interest is not in discussing the ebb and flow of the great man's political opinions, but in constructing a cordon sanitaire around his Masterpieces. The very notion that the sonorous abstractions of Minima Moralia and The Dialectic of Enlightenment might be juxtaposed with anything as coarse as the elderly Adorno's support for Israel during the Six Day War or his use of the cops to deal with student indiscipline strikes Viv and Zak as unforgivably 'Stalinoid'. Putting Teddy next to politics is as sacreligious as suffocating dear old Mary in that nasty condom. The purity of the idol must be preserved.

I went back and had a look at a bit of Adorno's late writing yesterday: I hadn't read 'On Resignation' for years, and it reminded me of nothing so much as the posts which regularly grace the blogs of Norm Geras and certain other ex-Marxists who have passed through apathy and resignation to an occasionally grumpy acceptance of the status quo of capitalism and pax Americana. A comparison can also be made to the 'MacSpaunday' generation of disillusioned lefty poets whom EP Thompson brilliantly diagnosed in his essay 'Outside the Whale'. If you give up entirely on trying to connect your revolutionary theory to an unfriendly reality, and postpone the advent of socialism until some distant future, then you face a choice between a) apathy and b) support for the status quo as the best show currently in town. Like the MacSpaundays and today's breed of Eustonite keyboard warriors, Adorno seems to have passed with a minimum of fuss from a) to b).

Teddy Adorno never went as far as his old mate Max Horkheimer, who hailed the US war in Vietnam as a necessary exercise in the containment of Eastern barbarism, but he did labour under a very favourable opinion of American and Israeli foreign policy in his final years. He thought that Germans ought to support NATO out of gratitude for what the US had done in World War Two, and he supported Israel in the war of 1967 using arguments that would do the Henry Jackson Society proud today. Vivian Bolus got all cranky when I mentioned the name Harry Cleaver in my original post on Adorno, but Cleaver was right to think that it's a strange sort of revolutionary theorist who calls the cops to drag away his students when they do something he disagrees with. The unpleasant turn in Adorno's politics doesn't automatically invalidate his thinking - it may even be irrelevant to his best ideas - but it does at least have to be taken seriously.

But Zak and Viv don't really want to discuss anything as prosaic as Adorno's politics; they want to put an anathema on attempts to link politics to the ineffable worlds of Theory and the Arts. Those who ignore this anathema are simply Stalinists who want to reduce all writing to the statement of facts. Haven't we heard this argument before? Alas, comrades, I still have the same vulgarly Stalinist views I expressed then:

Many of the commenters on this blog have a tendency to try to wall 'art' off from 'life', by insisting that an artist's political opinions and behaviour, and the political context in which their work is received and used, should not interfere with judgements of their work. I can understand that this desire to wall off art and politics might be prompted by a distaste for the conception of art as propaganda, and for simplistic political readings of complex works of art like, say, Eliot's poems.

The trouble is that if we treat art as basically autonomous from politics we actually accept the schema of the reductionists who want all art to be propaganda. Whether they are Stalinists or right-wing philistines and moralists, they typically divide art into 'self-indulgent' stuff, ie 'weird' or 'difficult' or 'irrelevant' stuff they can't easily reduce to a simple political message, and 'good' or 'conscious' or 'wholesome' stuff, ie simplistic propaganda. They dismiss the supposedly self-indulgent stuff as basically a bourgeois/decadent bohemian luxury with little relevance to the lives of ordinary people in the real world. If we celebrate, say, the poems of Eliot as autonomous works of art unaffected by the life and politics of their author then we are in danger of accepting that Eliot has nothing to say about anything but poetry - we are in danger of saying that reading him is an escape from things like politics into a different world, the world of Literature.

I think that the extremes of art as propaganda and art as escape are both dead ends. What we need to do is relate art to the real world it springs from, without reducing it to a simple reflection of or commentary upon that world.And I don't think my comments here have been too reductionist - if I were only interested in judging people's art by the standards of their politics, then I'd be lumping Eliot in with Tolkien as a bad writer, not defending him as a genius.

*As an aside, Vivian, what makes you to think Adorno would dig The Rotten Elements, let alone Velimir Khlebnikov and Arthur Cravan? He would detest you, in the same way he detested that freewheeling, pop culture referencing chaotic 'Negro' jazz. Trotsky in his Mexico period would be a better bet, if you want a famous dead Marxist patron.


Blogger Dave Brown said...

That's more like it, bury the dead mind fuckers. Unlike Adorno, Trotsky is still alive in the hearts and minds of revolutionaries.
"The Art of Revolution" (Trotsky)
-they aint separated.

12:30 pm  
Blogger Rob said...

I find Adorno in on resignation to be quite a lot more subtle than Geras, and a lot more useful. In the light of some of the things that the student movement threw up I wouldn't necessarily say that all of Adorno's critiques were misplaced.

4:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

least geras hasn't had his students chucked in gaol by ex-nazis...

"A series of protests, involving the boycott of lessons, had been underway since early December 1968. Activists in the SDSwere challenging an attempt to reduce the period of study and other university reforms. Sociology students, mainly SDS, formed the core of the protests. On 31 January 1969, Krahl and a group of students headed for the sociology department, intending to occupy. Finding it locked, the students transferred to the Institute for Social Research to co-ordinate their strike activities. Adorno and Friedeburg called the police and 76 students were arrested. As Krahl was forced through a cordon of police, he screamed at Adorno and Friedeburg ‘Scheißkritische Theoretiker’.

On 25 March 1969, Adorno informed Marcuse that the charges against seventy-five of the occupiers had been dropped. Only Krahl was to face trial. Adorno reported intense pressure to drop the charges, and, while Habermas felt inclined to do so, Adorno and Friedeburg, though still undecided, thought that they would not. Adorno admitted that he dreaded the recommencement of his teaching duties ‘given some people reckon with bombs and shoot-outs’.8Propaganda and attacks on the Institute and its members continued. On 22 April 1969, Adorno had just begun his lecture ‘Introduction to Dialectical Thought’ when a student interrupted him from the back of the auditorium, and another wrote a rhyme on the blackboard: ‘Wer nur den lieben Adorno läßt walten, der wird den Kapitalismus sein Leben lang bewalten’ [Whoever gives dear Adorno control will preserve capitalism for the rest of his life].

Adorno and Friedeburg were called as witnesses to a room packed full of spectators and Krahl supporters. Krahl was the first to describe the events of the day. It was not an occupation, he insisted, but a legitimate meeting of sociology students, using an Institute room, as was their right. Adorno’s testimony tried to hold fast simply to a description of events, avoiding value judgements, and he defended calling the police in order to prevent damage. Krahl cross-examined his supervisor, attempting to unpick his account of what was said and when. Outraged mutterings were heard when Adorno insisted that he could not give further evidence as he had to set off on holiday. Adorno left and, backed by roaring applause, Krahl denounced the University’s joint-plaintiff lawyer Erich Schmidt-Leichner as a defender of war criminals and Nazis who was now taking to court revolutionaries whose parents had been murdered in the camps.

4:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Engels liked Balzac's literature, as did Lukács. Balzac was a reactionary monarchist. Presumably there is some separation going on here. Or are we really saying that Engels is giving positive approval to Balzac's politics by liking the literature? I suspect he was more subtle.

Dave quotes Trotsky to say they are not seperated (art and revo). Presumably this is not the Trotsky who talked of artistic forms evolving partly due to internal pressures. Maybe try reading Trotsky next time, eh Dave?

If Maps is really going to promote some sort of aesthetic line out of denial of autonomy then you merely end up with a polite version of Stalinism. Ironically, these denials can be unpicked rather well with Adorno's work.

If we cannot discriminate between elements of an artwork (politics and form, say), that's not really very flattering to people's mental capabilities. In fact, I think people are too discriminate (in ideological terms) about what they receive, depth is usually sacrificed to surface. But in Maps 'take it or fucking leave it' world of the art form where the receiver cannot discriminate between its elements, this effectively means we can't advance. Like a bit of Balzac, well bugger that. You must become a reactionary monarchist as well. Come on Maps, this is silly.

Lastly, this hogwash about Adorno calling the police. Yes, bad, stupid boy for doing so. I don't think it's a good thing.

But just say that Trotsky had done a deal with Stalin in 1939, gone back to USSR, scabbed on his comrades in the FI and become a bureaucrat. Would this be any reason for not reading his works before that point? The only people to say yes are people with something to hide or lose. Personally, I think Trotsky was a crap political strategist but as a writer on aesthetics or as a historian he was wonderful. There are levels that don't fold together. There are certain autonomies. The world doesn't add up like a set of concentric circles.

Same with Adorno. He called the pigs on kids. Should we read him then? A lot of the left say 'no'. Precisely because they have something to lose. Ingrained oppressive thought patterns mostly. Party regimes in some cases. Calling the cops to "avoid damage" most certainly does not 'fit' with Adorno's theory. That could be the point.

10:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You completely misunderstand me anon.

Of course I'm not saying we can judge a writer or philosopher by his or her political opinions. I made it clear this wasn't my view with the example of Eliot, whom I consider a great poet. I've written appreciatively about loads of writers with reactionary politics, and one of my favourite philosophers, Imre Lakatos, was as reactionary as they come.

I'm saying that a writer's life and opinions have to enter into an appreciation of his or her work. They can't just be ignored behind a Chinese Wall called the autonomy of theory or art.

This is even more true when we're dealing with a theorist of revolution. The ultimate test of theory is practice, and the ultimate test of revolutionbary theory is what Trotsky called 'the laboratory of revolution'.

It's quite right, then, that Adorno's political behaviour should enter into a discussion of his revolutionary theory. To say this is not to say that calling the cops automatically invalidates 'The Dialectic of Enlightenment', or even 'On Resignation' for that matter.

I'd like to see someone get over these bumps and make a positive case for the relevance of Adorno's ideas to the revolutionary project today. Such a case would have to address, even if only briefly, the question of why Adorno himself got things so horribly wrong in the late '60s.

How about it?

4:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, now I look someone has made the case for Adorno under the first post on him. I'll put this up as a separate post and reply when I've chewed it over.

4:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay Maps, some of that's clear.

Complete autonomy is an illusion. The very practice or foundation of autonomy is founded upon the 'other' that autonomy is pitched against. I don't actually like the term autonomy, I prefer 'specific'. Trotsky said art had its own specific laws. That is my critique of you. No, your judgements don't seem Stalinist, that is hidebound by an author's class origins or views on society, but I don't get a clear idea of art's specific (not isolated or autonomous) intent or reception. Thus I think you have a door left open that could let it all sort of reductions.

To that end, I'm not sure that relating a piece of art to the real world that it springs from is going to say that much. Not much that isn't idealist I should say. Macherey once said that the author is the first reader of their work. In other words, literary production intervenes on authorial intention and produces 'the book', which fixes and estranges its ideological backdrop. This is the advantage of having a notion of 'specifics'.

I had a dash against the calling the cops stuff. That wasn't really meant for you. Only others.

'The ultimate test of theory is practice, and the ultimate test of revolutionary theory is what Trotsky called 'the laboratory of revolution.'

Well okay. But I'd rather have 'the test of theory is practice; the test of practice is theory'. Otherwise you can slide into that IBT-type thing, well we our theory from Trotsky, that's all okay, so let's get on with it. At the moment the left has enough activists (it has a century behind of activism that didn't achieve much). It needs ideas. Annoying people to sit at the back of meetings upsetting the received wisdom. Telling bloody Jack Conrad that he writes dross… That sort of thing.

2:59 am  
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