Tuan Andrew Nguyen, production photograph for The Island 2017*

Resist, Artfully: On the Subversive but Compromised Role of Art

In a world stripped of enjoyment -- a fractured existence broken on the wheel of pointless progress, determined domination, and wasteful and wasted work -- pleasure becomes the most determinate form of rebellion and liberation.

On 30 January 1933 Adolf Hitler, Führer of the National Socialist German Workers Party, was appointed the Chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenberg. That same day witnessed the publication of Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, a revision of the Habilitationsschrift (the document that qualifies a German intellectual to obtain a professorship), by Theodor W. Adorno.

Given the fact that Hitler, Fascism, and the Nazi movement would soon figure so prominently in Adorno’s intellectual landscape, it’s surprising to note that he did not immediately see Hitler as a serious threat. He believed that no one could take such a blowhard seriously for long. Adorno was clearly mistaken; realizing that mistake and accounting for it would fuel a large portion of his scholarly output.

On his 30th birthday later that year (11 September 1933), Adorno’s venia legendi (his right to teach) was revoked. By this point, many of his friends and colleagues had fled Germany. Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Berthold Brecht, Siegfried Kracauer, Ernst Bloch had all departed by April of that year.

Adorno only left when he found he could no longer do work in Germany given the political conditions. He went to London to Merton College as an “advanced student” and returned to his thinking about the phenomenological work of Edmund Husserl. Even then, he continued to visit Frankfurt frequently (his parents and his fiancée remained in Germany) until 1938 (the year of Kristallnacht), despite his Jewish heritage and the increasingly open hostility shown to Jews by the Nazi regime.

Shortly thereafter, perhaps beginning as early as 1939, Adorno began collaborating long-distance through the post with Horkheimer on what would become the most influential text to be produced by the so-called Frankfurt School of Critical Theory: Dialectic of Enlightenment, first published in a limited edition in 1944 (that critical year) and then in a revised edition in 1947. Now Hitler loomed large in their concerns, not as a figure in his own right but as a representation of the manner in which our technological and conceptual progress seem to guarantee a reversion to violence and regressive tendencies.

In the Preface to that book, they clarified their intention: “What we had set out to do was nothing less than to explain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.” [All quotations come from the edition translated by Edmund Jephcott and edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, Stanford University Press, 2002. This quotation can be found on page xiv.]

Horkheimer and Adorno contended that rationality, the very thing that according to Aristotle was the specific difference that defined man as a rational animal, was both mankind’s blessing and curse. It was rationality that allowed us to escape the superstition of our cultic past and the shackles of our reliance upon myth. The world became “disenchanted” and disenchantment meant the “extirpation of animism” (2); in order for us to buttress our sense of individual human spirit, the world as such had to be de-spiritualized.

In another sense, however, myth becomes a first step in the progress of reason. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, enlightenment produced the very myths it would destroy. Moreover, enlightenment itself tends toward myth, becomes its own mythologizing force. Myth involves repetition and predictability; it concerns naming and explanation. These are the goals of enlightenment as well. Enlightenment cannot escape myth, even as it hopes to eradicate it. But where myth seeks to confirm, enlightenment endeavors to control.

To an extent, Dialectic of Enlightenment starts with a Hobbesian assumption: our primary goal is self-preservation; that is the one thing we share with all others. Rational control of nature — that is, instrumental reason (reason as the tool of domination) — was a pervasively powerful manner of guaranteeing our survival in what we took to be the hostile condition of our environment. Of course, one natural element that demanded the exertion of our force in order to subdue it was mankind itself.

Our power over nature entails our alienation from nature, including what is natural in ourselves. This is the dialectical twist, if you will, to Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis. In our attempts to preserve ourselves we subject ourselves to domination, enslave and brutalize our fellow man, all in the name of progress and survival. Our success at self-preservation is the very cause and register of our corruption, indeed of our demise.

There would seem to be a rather blatant issue here. Given Horkheimer and Adorno’s insistence that the blessing of rationality had inevitably soured to become the curse of instrumental reason, then how is it possible for these authors to use that very tool (reason) as a means to critique its debilitating mode of being? If rationality had become as unhealthy and as stultifying as the authors claim, then how can it be used as a normative measure for how we ought to live our lives, for how we ought to comport ourselves to escape our fractured existence?

Jurgen Habermas, for instance, felt that Dialectic of Enlightenment “suffers the embarrassment of a critique that attacks the presuppositions of its own validity.” [Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977), 111.] Habermas proposed that there are three strata of rationality: instrumental reason, moral reason, and aesthetic reason. He claimed that Horkheimer and Adorno fail in that they see instrumental reason as the only viable form (or better, the true form of rationality in its advanced and decadent state) and they assume that their valid critique of it condemns the whole of reason to the dustbin of history.

At first glance, Horkheimer and Adorno might seem to encourage such a reading. They claim that while “freedom in society is inseparable from enlightenment thinking”, “the very concept of that thinking… contains the germs of… regression” (xvi). They do, however, seem to suggest a way out: “If enlightenment does not assimilate reflection on this regressive moment, it seals its own fate” (ibid). This would imply that there must be some way to gain a critical distance from reason within the field of reason itself. After all, if it is possible that reason can “seal its own fate” while also being able to reflect, then it must be able to choose its proper path, to recognize the sources of its error and correct them.

The precise manner in which this works is not immediately clear but as the authors aver: the critique offered in Dialectic of Enlightenment is “intended to prepare a positive concept of enlightenment which liberates it from its entanglement in blind domination” (xviii). This “positive concept” is never explicitly presented and yet vestiges of its possibility elusively haunt key passages within the book. The “positive concept of enlightenment”, it would seem, is bound up in Horkheimer and Adorno’s understanding of art and its redemptive but compromised role in modern society.

Art, for Horkheimer and Adorno, has a cognitive function and yet it is not simply an extension of instrumental reason (although, at the same time, it is not entirely divorced from the latter). The reason for its relative independence derives from its original function within the cultic order. The cultic object was a source of mystery, the disclosure of the secret realms that underlie reality. Hence, the cultic object was bound up in the revelation of the enigmatic. With the disenchantment of the world, the cultic object left the realm of the magical and became art. It was desacralized in one sense and yet maintained its connection with the enigma. Indeed, art’s raison d’être became the revelation of the enigmatic through a non-conceptual purchase upon the cognitive.

This is where art differed most starkly with instrumental reason. If instrumental reason employed the concept as a means of substituting for an experience of the object, then art sought a more sensuous and involved mode of experience; instrumental reason attempted to short-circuit experience for the sake of expediency while art sought to abrogate expediency for the sake of experience.

This then puts aesthetic experience in the crosshairs of instrumental reason’s arsenal. Instrumental reason “detects myth… in any human utterance which has no place in the functional context of self-preservation” (22). Instrumental reason (the driving force of enlightenment) sees non-conceptual cognition (that is, art) as reverting to myth and therefore as more material that requires rationalization and disenchantment. And yet art only divorced itself from the cultic object (that is, only truly became art) owing to disenchantment and the efforts of enlightenment.

Hence art occupies a rather precarious situation. On the one hand, it is tied to the pre-enlightenment past. It carries with it a remainder of the cultic, the experience of the enigmatic, the non-conceptual, that which refutes our attempts to explain. It approximates the immediate. In this sense, artworks make bad neighbors. Each insists on being the only object of attention. The demands that it makes override the demands of any other artwork.

Each work requires engagement as a particular, that is to say immanently, following its own laws of understanding. This makes the artwork the ultimate form of a “thing-in-itself”, that which cannot be subsumed under some conceptual category (here, of course, the authors are appealing to Kant’s Third Critique).

Pleasure Involves Endeavor

In our attempts to preserve ourselves we subject ourselves to domination, enslave and brutalize our fellow man, all in the name of progress and survival. Our success at self-preservation is the very cause and register of our corruption, indeed of our demise. Art discerns what has gone wrong and perhaps even points the way, cryptically of course, to a resolution of our enlightenment problem.

On the other hand, art is part and parcel of the very enlightenment that would condemn it. But more to the point, Horkheimer and Adorno assign art a critical function. Art attains a purview onto our fractured existence, shot through with instrumental reason; art discerns what has gone wrong and perhaps even points the way, cryptically of course, to a resolution of our enlightenment problem.

In this sense, it is conceptual thought that presents itself as overly immediate, disavowing the mediating nature of language as such (thus, instrumental reason’s emphasis on “hard facts”, that which must be accepted as uncompromisingly and obviously true). Art, to the contrary, is bound up in an ontology of representation (the artwork is always a semblance, it is never simply a “thing-in-itself” but always presents itself with an “as-if” quality), its very mode of being depends on the fact that it is mediation through and through.

Enlightenment insists on the self and its preservation as the utilitarian measure of all things, but art offers experience of the radically other by its insistence on its particularity. Enlightenment proclaims this a reversion to “the realm of prehistory” (27), in part because such experience is grounded in pleasure, which instrumental reason holds under suspicion.

For all of their fraught concern with the seriousness of art’s redemptive mission, Horkheimer and Adorno discern the source of art’s critical function in its service to pleasure. In a world stripped of enjoyment — a fractured existence broken on the wheel of pointless progress, determined domination, and wasteful and wasted work — pleasure becomes the most determinate form of rebellion and liberation.

This is no post-modern plea for a return to fun, to an undirected loosening of libidinal restraint. As Dialectic of Enlightenment will clarify in the celebrated chapter entitled “Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, mere entertainment is not commensurate with what Horkheimer and Adorno intend by pleasure. To be entertained is to be distracted and thus to acquiesce to your social condition and conditioning. To be involved in pleasure is to be alert, to engage your critical function, to be made aware of your condition. Pleasure involves endeavor.

The subversive but compromised nature of pleasure and its relationship to enlightenment is the concern behind Dialectic of Enlightenment’s treatment of the Sirens episode from Homer’s Odyssey (25-28). In their rendering, the Sirens represent “the allurement of losing oneself in the past” (25). This is a pregnant phrase as soon becomes clear.

On the one hand, the Sirens offer a nostalgic immersion, a sense of belonging, they are echoes of a world resonant with possibility but now seemingly inexorably irrecoverable. On the other hand, the Sirens offer obliteration, the fulfillment of the desire for the dissolution of the ego that is concomitant with its development via enlightenment. Here the Sirens encourage a different (perhaps related) manner of immersion: a Dionysian loss of self, an abandonment of the prerogatives of domination and conceptual control. In both cases, what they demand is proximity. That is why their auditors plunge into the sea: to get closer and in getting closer to lose themselves (that is, their very selves).

The Sirens manifest the mythical past and thus they allow for Odysseus to inaugurate a tripartite spatialized and reified manner of thinking about time, wherein the present has priority over the past — which, “as usable knowledge” is “in the service of the present” (25) — and the future.

What concerns us here is Odysseus’s attempt to colonize the past as practical knowledge (learning from history’s lessons, for example) because Horkheimer and Adorno present a form of resistance to this mining of the past for more conceptual knowledge in the “presencing” of art: “The urge to rescue the past as something living, instead of using it as the material of progress, has been satisfied only in art” (25).

Here the cognitive aspect of art and its living presence as an incursion of a significant past (bound up in the cultic, the mythical, the unassuaged unassimilable) comes to bear as a critical force in contradistinction to instrumental reason.

And yet Horkheimer and Adorno are hardly ready to simply hand the future over to art as redemption for our fallen state. Remember that art owes its existence to the same enlightenment that gave rise to instrumental reason and is thus subject to its own dialectic of enlightenment. While this is hardly the primary concern of Dialectic of Enlightenment (thus, Habermas’s critique that the authors focus too exclusively on instrumental reason), I believe that we do get a glimpse of what the authors had in mind in the Sirens episode.

Odysseus realizes that there are only two ways of dealing with the Sirens, this problem of the persistent cultic past, without sacrificing self-preservation. One way is through work in the service of instrumental reason. He subjects his followers to this course by plugging their ears (limiting their access to the sensuous) and forcing them to “look ahead with alert concentration and ignore anything which lies to one side” (26).

The other way is to treat the Siren song as art in the Kantian sense: to take it as having no consequence, to contemplate it in a disinterested manner (meaning it has no direct bearing on your life). This keeps “the Sirens at a distance from praxis; their lure is neutralized as a mere object of contemplation, as art” (27).

This might strike us as rather disheartening. Art opens up an alternative but only insofar as it is neutered and treated as a “mere object of contemplation”, holding no practical purpose for our lives and thus holding out no real promise for change, for the improvement of our condition. But earlier, Horkheimer and Adorno claimed that “the Sirens’ song has not yet been deprived of power as art” (25). In contradistinction to this, the “way of civilization has been that of obedience and work, over which fulfillment shines everlastingly as mere illusion, as beauty deprived of power” (26).

Work and instrumental reason posit a world of progress but without fulfillment. The work never ends, progress has no telos. Redemption here is an illusion and beauty without efficacy, except perhaps as a moment of respite so that increased exertion may be put into one’s work. Art offers experience of the radical other, that which is not subsumed but faced and contemplated. Art asks that we assimilate to it rather than succumbing to instrumental reason’s demand that we assimilate the world to ourselves, our egos, our leveled-down concern for self-preservation.

To find pleasure in art is to hand yourself (your self) over to otherness. In this sense, art presents an image of fulfillment, the bliss of the encounter with the other founded not on domination but acceptance and repletion. To end there would be a utopian vision and therefore mere fantasy. Mere fantasy is illusion; it is a way of acquiescing to the status quo.

Horkheimer and Adorno, I contend, suggest that the redemptive quality of art, its commitment to fantasy as bound up in the critical function of pleasure, is grounded in its compromised status. If it merely offered visions of utopia, it would have no critical efficacy but, strikingly, it would be assimilated to mere praxis — it would be another illusion of fulfillment (a kind of false consciousness) to distract us from our alienated position in the world.

By occupying a position that seemingly involves no practical use-value, by resisting assimilation to praxis, by exemplifying the Kantian paradigm of our “disinterest” toward it, art paradoxically is able to exude a critical efficacy. Through its presencing of a cultic past, through its manifestation of the unassimilable enigma, it forces us to confront the intolerable cruelty of our insistence on the present, our overarching concern with our mere self-preservation while disavowing any interest in the preservation of virtue, value, and, yes, the power of beauty.

As one reading of Hobbes might have it: our need for self-preservation has an instrumental value: we survive in order to pursue what we perceive as goods or the good [see Corey Robin’s book Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford UP, 2006) for one version of this reading]. Mere survival is worthless.

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno suggest that art is able to speak against the twisted priorities of instrumental reason precisely because of its own compromised state. And yet, owing to its debilitation, art offers a vision not of mere survival but rather of the good that makes survival necessary. The glimmering image of its own impossibility (the impossibility of reconciliation merely through aesthetic insight) is what grants art its power.

*Tuan Andrew Nguyen, production photograph for The Island 2017 Ultra-high-definition video, color, sound; 42:05 min. | Collection of the artist; courtesy the artist.

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