If the idea of objectivity remains the canon of all convincing aesthetic reflection, then its locus is the contradiction of each and every aesthetic object in itself, as well as that of philosophical ideas in their mutual relation.
—Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 353.
By Christopher Conti
It is not hard to imagine an intellectual history of modernism as a series of attempts to exorcize the spectre of psychologism; but like that other term of scholarly abuse, positivism, confusion reigns as to what it refers to. Broadly speaking, psychologism is a kind of psychological relativism that reduces the logical functions of the mind to the individual psyche. The story goes that Edmund Husserl was jolted out of his psychologist slumber by Gottlieb Frege’s review of Husserl’s 1894 work, The Foundations of Arithmetic. In the first volume of Logical Investigations some years later, Husserl duly buried the claim that empirical psychology and its inductive laws of association could provide a foundation for a pure deductive logic. Frege put it plainly when he declared, “neither logic nor mathematics has the task of investigating minds and contents of consciousness owned by individual men” (in Jay 168). Husserl went on to develop the science of phenomenology to investigate the contents of consciousness without reducing logic to those contents.
The cultural anxiety attending and in some cases motivating these debates is of greater interest to the intellectual historian than an abstract concern with the foundations of logic and mathematics. One need only think of Nietzsche, whose thought frequently draws the charge of psychologism and has, at one time or another, been blamed for the outbreak of no less than two world wars, to recall these anxieties (see Aschheim). Thinkers as diverse as Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Heidegger, Cassirer and Lukács all underwent their own conversion from psychologism (Jay 167). Indeed, anti-psychologism lies at the centre of the thought of the two great cultural thinkers of the modernist period, T.S. Eliot and Theodor Adorno. Eliot’s thesis concerning the impersonality of great art is well known; if “the progress of an artist is a continual self- sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality”, as Eliot contends in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919),
then [t]here remains to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to the sense of tradition. It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I therefore invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide. (40)
Eliot’s analogy is indeed suggestive, though more haunted by the spectre of psychologism than his coolly detached manner here pretends. Indeed, Eliot’s own pursuit of objectivity in poetry is inspired by pathos at the victory of culture’s psychologizing tendencies, a triumph so complete as to reduce art to fragments to “shore against my ruin”. Still, Eliot does not rule out subjectivity and the emotions from art; rather, he rules them in, but subordinates them to other considerations that raise emotion out of its contingency. The intensity of the emotion does not make the poet. Emotion is the material of art, not its final form. Eliot would purge art not of the personal, but the merely personal; not of the subjective, but the merely subjective.
Like Eliot, Adorno leapt to the defence of modernist art against the charge of psychologism. I refer here not to Adorno’s critique of psychoanalytic theories of art as documents of neurosis which reduce art to “little more than plenipotentiaries of sensual impulses” (1997: 11), but to his polemics with Lukács. Lukács had undergone his own Husserl-like conversion from psychologism, championing socialist realism as the model of poetic objectivity and attacking its rival, artistic modernism, as a febrile and neurotic psychologism. In The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1957; 1962), Lukács abjured Kafka and Beckett as solipsists who confused their own inner turmoil with the features of the outer world. This was a clear provocation to Adorno, whose social theory and aesthetics wagered all on a defence of artistic modernism. Consequently, Adorno could not simply reject Lukács’ charge; he had to reverse it. Kafka and Beckett, far from being mired in solipsism, were heroic documenters of the ghostly terrain of modern life, while modern (positivistic) thought, far from documenting the terrain of objective life, was mired in solipsism.
For if psychologism threatened the logical foundations of knowledge then positivism threatened its sensuous foundations, something Luckács’ objectivism had overlooked. Despite its practical application and empirical self-understanding, the exact sciences trade not in concrete particulars but in idealized entities (Husserl 1970: 41). Husserl’s concept of the life- world reveals the indebtedness of the exact sciences to the pre-scientific everyday attitude. The mathematical network of idealized entities is all too often mistaken for the inexact world we inhabit. In The Crisis of European Sciences (1939), Husserl writes: “But now we must note something of the highest importance that occurred even as early as Galileo: the surreptitious substitution of the mathematically substructed world of idealities for the only real world, the one that is actually given through perception, that is ever experienced and experienceable—our everyday life-world” (1970: 49).
The tendency to confuse the abstract entity with the actual entity represented a nominalism by no means confined to the lecture hall. The diremption or split between concepts and intuitions; universals and particulars; facts and values; etcetera, is a persistent feature of enlightenment thought and the vehicle of what Max Weber called the disenchantment of the world. Indeed for Adorno, the confusion of the “substructured [or idealized] world” for the life-world is not the blind spot of the exact sciences but the hidden agenda of modernity: the creation of norm-free action systems that morally bleach or “colonize” the life-world. In Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), Horkheimer and Adorno criticize the skeptical drive of enlightenment reason for undermining any claim whose content lies outside the space of reason or thought, for example, in tradition or myth. In order to escape the charge of projecting human values onto an inhuman universe—as traditional societies are said to project gods onto nature—thought confines itself to facts with all traces of subjectivity removed. This ghostly ideal of objective knowledge results in a kind of solipsism better known as “the view from nowhere” (see Nagel 1986). And because reason cannot provide the end of its own skeptical operations, the object is always suspected of being the fiction of the subject (Jarvis 25). Experience itself is devalued, either as the counterfeit of the senses or as the prejudices of tradition. Consequently, the path “back to the things themselves” (Husserl) in modernity is more labyrinthine than any philosophical method suggests, as Beckett’s Malone knows only too well:
Unfortunately I do not know quite what floor I am on, perhaps I am only on the mezzanine. The doors banging, the steps on the stairs, the noises in the street, have not enlightened me, on this subject. All I know is that the living are there, above me and beneath me. It follows at least that I am not in the basement. And do I not sometimes see the sky and sometimes, through my window, other windows facing it apparently? But that proves nothing, I do not wish to prove anything. Or so I say. Perhaps after all I am in a kind of vault and this space which I take to be the street in reality no more than a wide trench or ditch with other vaults opening upon it. But the noises that rise up from below, the steps that come climbing towards me? Perhaps there are other vaults even deeper than mine, why not? In which case the question arises again as to which floor I am on, there is nothing to be gained by my saying I am in a basement if there are tiers of basements one on top of another. But the noises that I say rise up from below, the steps that I say come climbing towards me, do they really do so? I have no proof that they do. To conclude from this that I am prey to hallucinations pure and simple is however a step I hesitate to take. […] There is naturally another possibility that does not escape me, though it would be a great disappointment to have it confirmed, and that is that I am dead already and that all continues more or less as when I was not. (Trilogy 201).
In the modernist gothic, the senses cannot be trusted to locate the subject in the objective world though it be buried alive in the catacombs of the real like Fortunato in Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado”.
J.M. Bernstein recently defended the key theses of Dialectic of Enlightenment, including the central thesis that abstract reason—by presenting itself as independent of its non-identical other—ends in skepticism. By dissembling its systematic reliance on the myth it demythologizes, enlightenment presents itself as self-sufficient; in this way, thought itself turns into a “context of pure immanence” and reverts to myth (1972: 16). In this dialectical fairy tale, which casts a spell over consciousness, enlightenment breaks the shackles of traditional authority only to yield up the subject to the impersonal gods of technology and progress: “Demythologization devours itself, as the mythical gods liked to devour their children. Leaving behind nothing but what merely is, demythologization recoils into the mythus; for the mythus is nothing else than the closed system of immanence, of that which is” (1973: 402). Recognizing modernity’s reversion to a mythic immanence is a key moment in Adorno’s defence of artistic modernism; for if reality is becoming more abstract or solipsistic, then Lukács’ bêtes noires—Kafka and Beckett—represent the benchmark of objectivity in art.
The suggestion that the experience of organized social life was characterised by the disconnection and isolation of the solipsist takes us to the core of Adorno’s thought. What can be variously described as “the destruction of experience” or “the withering of experience” or “experience without a subject” refers to the combined attacks on autonomy by organized capitalism and the positivism of the sciences. Art is placed in the awkward, even contradictory position of giving expression to a reality incommensurate with experience; in Aesthetic Theory Adorno writes:
New art is as abstract as social relations have in truth become. In like manner, the concepts of the realistic and the symbolic are put out of service. Because the spell of external reality over its subjects and their reactions has become absolute, the artwork can only oppose this spell by assimilating itself to it. (1997: 31)
Disenchantment immobilizes the transitive or transcending powers of the concept and the symbol. In other words, art is not immune from disenchantment; if anything, modernist artists were the willing agents of the rationalization of technique in their various domains. But if the immanent context of modernity drains objects of meaning, then the meaning of the artwork is no longer self-evident. As Adorno put it in his essay on Beckett’s Endgame: “The less events themselves can be presumed to be inherently meaningful, the more the idea of aesthetic substance as the unity of what appears and what was intended becomes an illusion” (2003: 260). To carry on as before and present pictures of reconciliation in an unreconciled world is a kind of fraud, which is the premise (or the pretence) of the culture industry. To the extent that it promotes consumer sovereignty as autonomy, the culture industry is a travesty of a free citizenry and a deception on a massive scale. Indeed for Adorno, the culture industry masks the progress of unfreedom or heteronomy, making it not just irrational and alienating but radically evil. Critical philosophy thus begins not in wonder but in horror.
If the culture industry is to Adorno what the evil demon is to Descartes—presenting the senses with simulacra that bewitch the subject—how do we know when to trust the evidence of our senses, especially when the “sensations sweet/Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” that rescued Wordsworth from torpor in “Tintern Abbey” now plunge the subject back into it? The short answer can be found in an Adorno aphorism: “Scars of damage and disruption are the modern’s seal of authenticity” (1997: 23). The long answer which follows explains why this is the case.
The intrinsic meaning of the object is tied to the fortunes of metaphysics. The sloughing off of the metaphysical heritage Kant and Hegel tried to redeem accelerates the reification of the concept; divested of the transcending impulse of metaphysics, the reified concept reduces the object to a brute “fact”. The object is protected from such reification in an enchanted outlook, for animism ensured an object like a tree was always more than just a tree. This transcendence disappears with disenchantment, and is discredited as the projection of subjective values onto the factual domain. Once again, this places the modern artist in a paradoxical position: to present an object drained of meaning means presenting it as non-identical or “scarred”; but this puts art at odds with itself, forcing it to resist its own sensuous immediacy lest it dissolve into the system of illusions of consumer capitalism. Unsheltered by metaphysical meaning, the object can only be presented as inorganic or out of joint.
In Hegel’s system, art is the sensuous presentation of the (absolute) Idea; but art’s sensuous particularity was the reason he ranked it below the Concept. The Idea had to be rescued from its entrapment in sensuous appearance. Adorno inverts this hierarchy: art has to rescue sensuous appearance from the Idea (or the reified concept). Adorno binds aesthetic and non-aesthetic discourse in a similar fashion to Kant’s binding of intuition and the concept in cognition: thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind. Reason without aesthetic experience is empty; aesthetic experience without reason is blind. “Artworks speak like elves in fairy tales: ‘If you want the absolute, you shall have it, but you will not recognize it when you see it’” (1997: 126). Art and philosophy are no longer alternative modes of presenting the Idea, but partners in intuiting or indicating an absolute that—like a withdrawn god—can no longer manifest itself.
This relation to an absolute makes modern art an art of the sublime. Adorno retains the pathos inherent in Kant’s idea of withstanding the overwhelming forces of nature in his conception of authentic art as withstanding the negativity of the modern world in the absence of metaphysical meaning. The spiritual grandeur of withstanding the crushing power of nature reverses into the recognition of the fragile and finite nature of spirit itself. In this conception of the sublime in art, spirit recognizes its subjection to death and decay without the supports of metaphysical meaning, making death an eruption of the non-identical in the midst of linguistic meaning. In an age of metaphysical indifference, sublime art becomes an enclave of metaphysical experience by “assimilating” itself to the deathly immanence of modernity, an assimilation that proceeds via the spiritualization of the artwork: “For Kant, what is sublime in nature is nothing but the autonomy of the spirit in the face of the superior power of sensuous existence, and this autonomy is achieved only in the spiritualized artwork” (1997: 92).
The idea of spiritualization in the artwork does not recover for art Hegel’s ontology of Spirit, but runs counter to Hegel’s attempt to rescue sensuous appearance as the presentation of the Idea and puts modern art at odds with both the canons of organic aesthetics and social acceptability. The drive to penetrate the socially prohibited, transgress the reigning idea of the beautiful, the true and the good, is where Adorno locates art’s negativity and thus potential for social critique. Spiritualization in art seeks out its polar opposite: the experience of the non-identical. This new emphasis on the literal or material undermines the symbolic structures of meaning. The aim is still to produce aesthetic unity or beautiful semblance, but one that incorporates disunity or dissonance in its structure. Lighting, pausing, space, scenography are the bearers of this new unity in Beckett’s Godot and Endgame, the synthetic structures of symbol and integral form replaced with a new emphasis on construction. The discarded objects that find their way onto Beckett’s stage are for Adorno “forlorn particulars, which mock the conceptual” (2003: 270).
The concept of aesthetic negativity first appears in an essay on Kafka and extends Walter Benjamin’s critique of the symbol. It describes the negative or dialectical structure of the artwork on the one hand and the negative or dialectical structure of aesthetic reception on the other hand. As distinct from the hermeneutic model of the recovery of meaning, aesthetic negativity describes the tension between the aesthetic parts of the artwork and the symbolic whole of interpretation. In Kafka’s work, says Adorno, “each sentence is literal, and each signifies. The two moments are not merged, as the symbol would have it, but yawn apart, and out of the abyss between them blinds the glaring ray of fascination” (2003: 212). By taking everything literally, as it were, Kafka’s stories are shielded from conceptual reduction. We have a better chance of understanding Kafka by dwelling on the opaque details that defy understanding than by rummaging about for signs of the Idea. However, aesthetic negativity is parasitic on the identity logic of non-aesthetic discourse: it is by trying to apprehend the fragmentary arts of Kafka and Beckett as symbolic wholes that their fragmentation emerges.
In Beckett aesthetic negativity can be viewed under two aspects: a critique of the symbol and a parody of tragedy. Beckett’s second novel Watt ends with the caveat “No symbols where none intended,” and from this point on Beckett’s work presupposes a critique of the symbol. Joyce’s critique of the Yeatsian symbol is radicalized. The suggestion in Joyce’s Portrait that symbols are not Platonic forms but emerge from the profane contingency of life could still present the artist’s work as an affirmation of life. Such an affirmation now goes in to hiding, and can only be implied or presented as something withheld. The ironic use of theatre conventions in Godot and Endgame implies a dialectical critique of neo-classical drama. The unities of time, place and action are observed with an intensity that reverses their function: time comes to a halt; the setting could be anywhere; and nothing happens. It is unclear what is even happening in both plays. There is precious little certainty in Godot—about who Godot is; if he will come; where the tramps should wait for him; and how long they have already been waiting—and no more in Endgame: “What’s happening?” says Clov; “Something is taking its course” says Hamm cryptically (48). If action is the binding essence of tragedy and the medium of the articulation of tragic fate, then inaction in Godot and Endgame loosens the dramatic fabric and obscures fate altogether. The command to remain on the spot resembles Kafka’s parable “Before the Law”, implying a concept of fate in the absence of any. No one is more conscious of this inertia than the characters themselves: “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful” says Vladimir in Godot (108). Like the narrators of the Trilogy, Hamm and Clov ponder the possibility that they are trapped in a fable and beginning to “mean something” (48).
Aesthetic experience is the experience of the subversion of our efforts at understanding the artwork as a symbolic whole. In the attempt to understand an artwork, our meaning-assigning efforts decompose back into the aesthetic elements that inspired them, restoring the artwork’s enigmatic otherness and thereby renewing its invitation to interpreters. The moment we think we have grasped the (symbolic) meaning of a Kafka or Beckett text, it decomposes back into its aesthetic elements, a negative process subversive of understanding that Wolfgang Iser has described as the essence of Beckett’s “counter-sensical comedy”. This decomposition of meaning back into its unsublateable aesthetic elements achieves a materialism that provides a model for philosophy. Beckett allows objects to appear concrete by denying them their concept, releasing them from the burden of shouldering symbolic meaning. The method of literalizing meaning (in Endgame: “life in a trashcan”) returns existentialism to the sphere of phenomena. Adorno saw Beckett’s materialism as a rebuke to the philosophers, and particularly to the existentialist ontology that pandered to the “ontological need” for meaning in a disenchanted world (1973: 61).
It is hardly surprising Beckett has become the philosopher’s poet in an age when philosophers subscribe to one form of fallibilism or another. But the recent contention that Beckett is more post-foundationalist philosopher than metaphysical poet is the last of a long line of attempts to turn the relentless aesthetic negativity of his work to positive account. To be sure, Beckett’s work faithfully documents the feeling or sensation of not- knowing; but this feeling is conveyed to us not as a thesis about knowledge but through the repeated failures of our own interpretive efforts to make the work fit one interpretive scheme or another. The emotion or sensation of not-knowing we consequently feel is produced by aesthetic negativity. The frustrated reviewer of Waiting for Godot who dismissed the play as meaning everything and nothing was more right than he knew.
1. Martin Jay more or less suggests this possibility in “Modernism and the Spectre of Psychologism”. The Positivismusstreit of the sixties failed to uncover a positivist at whom all could take aim; however, positivism, understood as the reduction of concrete particulars to universals, was for Adorno, as it was for Eliot, a tendency inherent in enlightenment thought and liberal culture.
2. Adorno reached a similar position via the winding paths of Marxist social theory: the objectivity of art consists in its account of irreducible subjectivity. The terms “subjective” and “objective” in aesthetics are the problematic inheritance of the Romanticism Eliot and Adorno sought to transcend, though in different directions. Eliot longed for the return of a religious ideology capable of unifying the community of taste; Adorno attacked the same culture of liberal individualism as had Eliot, but in the effort to capitalize on and not reverse the progressive tendencies in liberal culture. The role sensation plays in this bid to harness the emancipatory potential of art is for Adorno crucial. As sensation is not innocent of culture, the meaning or emancipatory potential of contemporary art implies cultural critique.
3. The concept of the horizonal character of experience has something of an aesthetic and neo-Kantian heritage. Wittgenstein’s notion of the “forms of life” that contextualize our language games proceeds from the realization that reason cannot totalize the context of its activities. Habermas co-opts Husserl’s notion of the lifeworld and brings it into line with his critical philosophy. The groundwork for this appropriation had been laid in Adorno’s conception of the autonomy of the artwork that resists the complete rationalization of the concept.
4. Or as Albrecht Wellmer put it: “Art opens itself toward an experience of the world which no longer understands itself through the anticipation of a totality of meaning but rather faces the presence of what is nonsense, the abyss of the meaningless within the world of sense” (164). See Wellmer for a justification of Adorno’s idea of the sublime in modern art as, finally, an intensification of the beautiful rather than its negation. Wellmer’s remarkable essay rescues Adorno for communicative action theory at the cost of jettisoning Adorno’s materialist model of cognition. Art’s presentation of non-identical experience has a cognitive moment Adorno tries to preserve beyond the merely expressive truth assigned it by Habermas’ division of discourse. Wellmer, like Habermas, plays up the emancipatory potential of disenchantment but plays down Adorno’s emphasis on the toxic effects of rationalization on ethical life. Bernstein (2002) suggests the recognition of mortal fragility characteristic of the sublime in art is the precondition for recovering the motivation for ethical action that universal morality cannot supply.
5. Beckett’s negation of symbol and parody of tragedy appear to Begam to “effectively empty out the generic expectations of the stage” (33). As symbol, tragedy and the generic expectations of the stage are the very stuff Beckett’s negations go to work on, it is more likely the evacuation Begam refers to is performed by the post-structuralist notion of the text he assumes. From here, it is a short step to elevate Beckett from artist to post-foundational philosopher: “more than any other writer in the twentieth century, perhaps in history, Beckett has patiently and persistently undermined the idea of foundations, first principles, the thing-in-itself” (33). This claim only makes sense if one accepts Derrida’s extension of aesthetic negativity to non-aesthetic discourses; even then we might wonder how foundations and first principles function in the sphere of mimetic appearances, a sphere never entirely left behind even in the experimental dramas that concern Begam. Beckett read widely in philosophy and drew inspiration from images of freedom and necessity in Descartes, Geulincx, Berkeley and Schopenhauer; Schopenhauer’s Will is indebted to Kant’s thing-in-itself, and Geulincx’s God serves a similar function in his system: as a limit on knowledge. It could be argued the influence of these metaphysicians manifests in Beckett’s work as the effort to rescue metaphysical foundations (or their transcending impulse), not scuttle them. In Negative Dialectics, Adorno prepares the way for such an interpretation by rescuing the idea of Kant’s thing in-itself as a figure of transcendence in the matrix of rationalized society. I say this not to repeat the fruitless moves of older debates over whether Beckett is Cartesian or anti- Cartesian, but to point out that only a metaphysical poet like Beckett, and not a philosopher, could accommodate directly opposing interpretations. Begam seeks to generalize the insights of aesthetic negativity and secure them—and deconstruction—on a post-foundational footing; but it is not clear how this project can succeed—nor why Beckett is any more post-foundational than Kafka, Joyce, Sterne or Wittgenstein—without dissolving the distinction between aesthetic object and propositional statement. The non-conceptual nature of aesthetic experience does not equal a body of statements about the fallibility of conceptual knowledge. Whether Derrida’s—and indeed, Adorno’s—insistence on the ongoing role of metaphysics in cognition can itself be accurately described as post-foundational is also questionable. Adorno distinguishes aesthetic negativity from non-aesthetic cognition and locates the potential for critique in their tensile relationship; unlike Derrida, he ties the possibility of critique to aesthetic experience. We can draw post-metaphysical accounts of the finite subject from Beckett without having to regard his dramas as statements of post-foundational philosophy, but to do this we would have to accept Beckett’s insistence that he was not a philosopher—that his interest in philosophy was primarily structural or artistic—instead of ironizing it.
6. “Waiting for Godot is not a real carrot; it is a patiently painted, painstakingly formed plastic job for the intellectual fruit bowl […] asking for a thousand readings [it] has none of its own to give” (Kerr, 20).
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